In Our Time: The Augustan Age

The Augustan Age is the period between 27BCE and 14CE when the Emperor Augustus ruled the Roman Empire. It was discussed on In Our Time (in 2009) by Catharine Edwards (Birkbeck College, University of London), Duncan Kennedy (University of Bristol) and Mary Beard (Cambridge University). They were primarily considering the politics and arts of the Emperor Augustus’s reign and how these were linked. Politically speaking it’s the beginning of the Roman Empire and a period of peace after the instability of the civil war that marked the end of the Roman Republic. And in terms of the arts this period includes some of the names that one thinks of when one thinks of Roman literature: Virgil, Ovid, Horace.

The Emperor Augustus was called Octavian before he became Emperor and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (so is sometimes referred to as Caesar). He was named heir in Julius Caesar’s will, but when Julius Caesar was murdered Mark Anthony tried to grab power and civil war broke out. When the dust settled Octavian didn’t restore the Republic, instead he became the Emperor Augustus and inaugurated the Roman Empire. He managed to leave the Senate a sense of dignity and respect (thus heading off the likelihood of an end like Julius Caesar’s) whilst actually retaining sole control himself. For instance he chose a role from the standard Roman Republic’s kit to hold in perpetuity (Tribune) that was actually one of the more junior roles but it was also the one that spoke first in the Senate allowing him to direct the proceedings. He also made a point of knowing all of the Senators, and Beard said that he’s supposed to’ve greeted them all by name at the beginning of each session – which, as she pointed out, must’ve come across as rather fake & tedious to the Senators who weren’t whole-heartedly buying into the cult of Augustus.

His propaganda characterised his reign as a return to the good old fashioned Roman virtues – a bit like the Tory Party narrative of “family values” in modern politics, looking back to an idealised 1950s that never was. Augustus cast the civil war and turmoil as being the result of Rome and the Roman citizens’ fall from virtue over the preceding decades. The bedrock of Roman virtue is the mythos of the farmer-general who leaves his plough to lead the armies of Rome to glory. It’s rooted in rural and agricultural life, and military values; and this is juxtaposed with the sins of decadent urban life where citizens live in luxury. Which I found quite amusing as the way we remember the Roman Empire includes quite a lot of salacious scandal about “my goodness what those Emperors and their families got up to!”. And it seems that Augustus would be horrified by this image of his Empire. He envisaged his family’s role as playing the part of “Good Old Fashioned Roman Family” as an example for everyone else to live up to. For instance his wife spun the cloth that made his clothes, just as a good Roman housewife should. He was not entirely successful in achieving the family image he intended (see below), but he did succeed in successfully re-inventing himself. Which was quite an achievement, as during the civil war Octavian had been somewhat of a young thug. There are multiple stories of his ruthlessness and cruelty, including one tale of him ripping out someone’s eyes with his bare hands! Not quite the good and virtuous first-amongst-equals farmer-general of his later propaganda.

One of the things Augustus does to return virtue to Rome is to pass new laws enforcing proper moral behaviour. Notably these included laws against adultery. This was the area in which his family fell short of the image he was hoping they’d convey. Augustus’s daughter Julia had been married off “advantageously” but clearly not to her tastes – she committed adultery in a particularly noticeable and notorious fashion. Augustus was forced to take action using his own laws, and she was exiled and some of her lovers executed. Then a decade later Julia’s daughter (also called Julia) went on to do much the same thing as her mother – with much the same consequences. So much for the Good & Virtuous first family!

Augustus poured money into the city of Rome – he is said to’ve come to Rome as a city of brick and left it a city of marble. His building projects were wide-ranging and numerous, and many of the buildings we think of as Ancient Rome come from his infrastructure overhaul. This is notably not a return to the “Good Old Days” – we listened to an In Our Time episode about the Roman Republic about three weeks after we listened to this one, and it made the point that the ephemerality of power was a key concept in the Republic. So building infrastructure out of ostentatious and permanent marble was a change of paradigm, reflecting the difference between Republic and Empire as governmental systems.

The flowering of literature and poetry during the Augustan Age is tied into Augustus’s propaganda machinery. It’s a part of the return to the old virtues and of the idea of making Rome great again. Augustus was definitely a patron of the arts – it’s not known how much he paid the writers, but there’s evidence that he did pay them, and pay them well. He also writes some of his own poetry, but there’s no evidence one way or the other about whether or not he also “collaborated” on the others’ poetry. Some of the well known works that survive to the present also have Augustan propaganda as part of their subject matter. For instance Virgil’s Aeneid has a section early on where Jupiter prophesies the future of the city Aeneas has founded (which is Rome). This details the future of Rome through to Augustus as the necessary, pivotal and inevitable Emperor, after whom Rome will rule the world forever. It situates everything Augustus did to gain power and how he is now ruling as the things that are necessary for the future glory of Rome (rather than self-serving). Augustus also traces his ancestry to Aeneas (just like medieval English kings will later link themselves to Brutus and/or King Arthur).

Horace’s poetry is also a part of the propaganda machinery (on the family values side of it) but Ovid is less obviously a part of this. His work is lighter and more comedic than the other two poets, and much more about sex than the new morality of the Augustan Age is really comfortable with. There’s also evidence that Ovid himself didn’t sit comfortably in this new morality – he was perhaps a part of the Younger Julia’s disgrace, and was exiled from Rome. He missed Rome while in exile, considering it the only place worth living – even if his work was more light-hearted than the tone of the age, he was still very emotionally invested in the new Rome that Augustus had built.

Near the beginning of the programme they mentioned the Elizabethan Age (of Elizabeth I of England) as a way of explaining the term “Augustan Age”, and once one’s mind has been drawn to it there are some coincidences in more than the terminology we use for the era. Both are periods of calm after a period of chaos and disunity, the leadership of each country is presented as benign yet is actually pretty tyrannical, both have a flowering of literature which is state-controlled propaganda as well as art. And Elizabeth I was crowned on nearly the same day as Augustus took power (only 1585 years and 1 day later…).

In Our Time: Spartacus

Spartacus was not just the subject of a famous film, but also a real life gladiator in the 1st Century BC who successfully escaped and orchestrated a slave rebellion in Italy. He had some success for a couple of years before being killed by Crassus, and his rebellion was put down. Talking about it on In Our Time were Mary Beard (University of Cambridge), Maria Wyke (University College, London) and Theresa Urbainczyk (University College, Dublin).

The programme began by putting the era in context. The 1st Century BC is a time when Rome has conquered large swathes of the the land around the Mediterranean, but has not yet become an Empire. It is still running this territory using the political mechanisms and infrastructure of the city state it used to be. The line between politicians and generals is blurry, and both roles are filled by the same people – to be a general you need to be elected to public office. The republic runs on slavery, there are large numbers of slaves throughout Roman ruled Italy. This segment of the programme overturned an idea I’d acquired (I don’t know where from) that the more recent slavery in the US was somehow qualitatively different from slavery in the classical world. That slavery in the classical world was more along the lines of being unable to leave your job, rather than being penned in at night and treated as if you weren’t really human. But Beard explained that whilst house slaves might not have such a bad life, the majority of the slaves were agricultural slaves. And Italy was covered with plantations – large farms each owned by a family who kept a large number of slaves to work the land, and treated them poorly and kept them penned in under guard when they weren’t working.

So it’s not that surprising that slave revolts were a thing that happened in this time period. Spartacus may’ve lead the most famous one but it was neither the first nor the most successful. There had been a couple of large scale revolts during the century preceding Spartacus’s revolt. Both of these lasted for 5-10 years before being put down, and in one of them the former slaves took over Sicily and set up their own independent country (state? community? I’m not sure of the right word here). It wasn’t always just slaves that got involved, either – disaffected free people from the various Italian city states that had been subsumed into the Roman Republic also rallied to these rebellions.

What’s known of Spartacus’s early life is pretty slim, he was originally from Thrace in what is now the Balkans. He was captured, along with his wife, and sold into slavery. There is some speculation that he may’ve been in the Roman army for a while (before capture? after capture? I’m not sure) due to his later success as a general. He definitely ends up as a gladiator in a training school in Capua by 73BC, and whilst being a gladiator was often a punishment there’s no evidence it was for any particular reason perhaps increasing his sense of injustice. Spartacus along with 70 or so of his fellow trainees successfully escaped from this gladiatorial school. As Beard said, escaping was the easy bit – keeping highly trained fighting men locked in once they decided to get out was almost certain to be beyond the resources of the school. There is one source that says the men escaped using kitchen implements as weapons, before finding a cache of gladiatorial weapons after they’d got out.

Once out the gladiators made for the slopes of Vesuvius (which was not actively volcanic at the time) trying to evade the Roman soldiers who were now hunting them. The sources say that the gladiators and others led by Spartacus set up camp in an area surrounded by steep cliffs, with only one narrow path out – and so the Romans set up camp at the end of the path and planned to starve them out. But Spartacus displayed the military ability he was to become famous for, and organised the men to make ropes from the abundant vines in the region they were camping. They then abseiled down, snuck round to the Roman camp and took them by surprise. After this they were armed with army grade weapons, made for practicality, rather than gladiatorial weapons (made as much for show as use).

After this quite a lot is known about what the force did and where they did it, but nothing about motivation. So it’s known that many people joined this revolt over the two years it lasted, both slaves and free people as I mentioned above, and by the end there were about 10,000 people involved. It’s also known that early on the group split more than once with a Spartacus led force going one way and a force led by someone else going the other way. Generally what happened there was that Spartacus won his battles, the other leaders weren’t so successful. But what we don’t know is why this happened – arguments over leadership? disagreements about where to go? attempts to spread themselves out to make better use of available resources?

Spartacus led his force up to the north of Italy to the alps, but once there didn’t cross and instead led his army back down through Italy to the south of the country. Some people speculate that this was because he changed his mind – initially they say he intended just to go home, but then he decided to try and take down Rome (whether to replace it, or to abolish slavery or some other reason). But the experts on this programme seemed to think it was much more likely that if his original intent had been to go home he’d’ve gone across to the east coast of Italy and got on a boat for Thrace as quickly as possible. Instead they speculate that the movement up and down the length of Italy was partly to keep the army fed – they were basically scavengers and keeping a large force fed off the land (even with help from sympathetic locals) would mean they would need to keep moving. And also by marching throughout Italy they could gather support from the non-Roman city states – ending up in the south of Italy perhaps with an eye to getting to Sicily where a previous revolt had been successful for a while.

But Spartacus was to be defeated in 71BC by an army lead by Crassus. Crassus was a wealthy Roman citizen who was a general and politician. Bragg referred to him as a statesman, but Beard corrected this to “thug”. It’s important to remember that as officials were elected every year then it would be very useful to someone like Crassus to have a victory under his belt to show off about to the electorate. So Crassus took a considerable fighting force to hunt down Spartacus, and was in the end successful. Opinion was divided between the three experts as to whether or not the average Roman would actually have been much bothered about this slave revolt. One point of view was that if you were living in Rome it would all seem to be happening “over there, somewhere else”. But the other was that being surrounded oneself by slaves all of the time would make it a frightening time.

Spartacus’s legend grew after his death. This is down, in large part, to the needs of Crassus’s PR campaign. By building up the rebellion lead by Spartacus to be a big deal he made his own victory look that much more impressive. In actual fact it wasn’t, as I said earlier, the most successful slave revolt. Much later, in the 18th Century AD the legend that had grown up around Spartacus was taken up by the movement for the abolition of slavery. And since then it has been used by many different groups of people as a rallying point for their cause – ranging from the left wing (ie Karl Marx) to the right (ie Ronald Reagan).

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; Caligula with Mary Beard; Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

The last episode of She Wolves: England’s Early Queens covered the three Tudor Queens. Castor started by giving us a bit of context – when Henry VIII died his son Edward succeeded him, at the age of 9. Edward took ill & died at the age of only 15, before he’d had a chance to produce an heir. Which was a problem, as that meant there were no legitimate male heirs and England would have to be ruled by a Queen. Castor didn’t dwell on it, but I thought it was interesting that no man tried to seize power at this point – perhaps it wouldn’t be legitimate, but it’s not like Henry VII had a terribly good claim to the throne. Times had changed a bit from the more “might makes right” of previous centuries.

Henry VIII’s will had provided instruction for who was to succeed Edward VI if he died without heirs – first Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter, then Elizabeth. But for the staunchly Protestant Edward & his equally Protestant regency council this was a problem – Mary was very much a Catholic, and they felt that this Would Not Do. So even before he became ill Edward set about drafting a new order of succession if he was to die without heirs. He used the fact that Henry had declared both Mary & Elizabeth illegitimate to say that the next legitimate claimants were the descendants of Henry’s sister Mary. He skipped over his cousin Frances in favour of her three daughters, and his initial draft excluded women from ruling directly and was to leave the throne to the heirs male of the Grey sisters (in order, by age). However when it became clear he was dying the Grey girls were still too young to’ve had children (although Jane was married by this stage), so he altered this to leave the throne to “Jane Grey and her heirs male”. Castor pointed out that Edward’s council were also probably heavily involved in this – Jane’s father-in-law (the Duke of Northumberland) just happened to be the head of the council.

So Edward dies & Jane is summoned to meet her father-in-law & the rest of the council … much to her surprise she’s offered the throne. Castor said Jane tried to refuse it, because she believed Mary was the rightful heir, but she was “persuaded” to accept. After that Edward’s death & Jane’s ascension to the throne was announced to the country – met, Castor said, by somewhat confused silence by the general population who thought Mary was next in line. Jane moved to the tower to prepare for her coronation, but alas that was not to be – only 9 days later Mary had succeeded in rallying her allies and installing herself on the throne as the rightful Queen. Northumberland died a traitor’s death, but Jane was spared at first and remained in the tower as a prisoner. Even if Northumberland had succeeded in keeping Mary from the throne it seems unlikely that Jane would’ve been the obedient & docile pawn he’d’ve hoped for. Even in the 9 days she was Queen she’d started to show her Tudor heritage of strength of will & intelligence. Northumberland had assumed that his son would be crowned King when Jane was crowned Queen, but Jane was quite clear that she would make her husband a Duke but he would not be King.

Mary’s most pressing concern after actually taking the throne was to have an heir – a proper Catholic one. So she needed to marry, and soon, because she was in her late 30s by this stage. She too had the problem that if she was Queen then was any husband of hers to be King, and she too was adamant that this would not be the case. Her solution (a bit to the dismay of her council) was to marry Philip of Spain – he was the son of her biggest ally (the Holy Roman Emperor) and was already ruler of Spain. She drew a distinction between herself as a woman (who was subordinate to her husband) and herself as a Queen (who ruled England) and marrying a foreigner of the same status as herself meant that she wasn’t subordinating herself to someone she also ruled. And there was a lot of diplomacy involved in making sure she did rule England, rather than Philip doing so, and to ensure that in the event of her death Philip had no claim on the throne.

Castor next ran through the sad story of Mary’s two phantom pregnancies, and the increasing crackdown on Protestants in the country. Castor presented the two things as sort of linked, in that as Mary became more convinced she wouldn’t have a Catholic heir she also became more keen to stamp out Protestantism so that Elizabeth couldn’t bring it back. It’s for her fanaticism that Mary is most remembered (as Bloody Mary), but Castor tried to spin that as being hyped up because Mary was a woman and this was unwomanly behaviour. It wasn’t an entirely convincing take on the reputation, although I do agree that Mary probably got worse things said about her than a King might’ve done for the same behaviour – just that condemnation for burning people at the stake seems perfectly fair to me.

After Mary’s death Elizabeth was next in line for the throne, and this transition went relatively smoothly. There was again the assumption that Elizabeth would marry promptly, and that her choice of husband would indicate the direction her rule would take the kingdom. But Elizabeth had other ideas – her solution to the “who is in charge” problem for a married Queen was not to marry. Castor pointed out that Elizabeth’s method of dealing with this – with prevarication & putting off decisions to a later time – was the method she used throughout her life to keep from being railroaded into decisions by her councillors. She also “failed” to choose either fanatical Protestantism or fanatical Catholicism, famously saying that she would “not make windows into men’s souls” – as far as she was concerned if you had the outward appearance of conformity to the Church of England then that was sufficient. (And she returned the Church of England to a not quite Protestant, not quite Catholic state after the pendulum swings of the previous two reigns).

Elizabeth was the last of the Queens that Castor was discussing so the end of the programme was wrapping up – a combination of “look how far we’ve come” and “look how little has changed”. While I’d agree with Castor that the political power in our country is still disproportionately held by men, I think I’m more optimistic about how far we’ve come than she is. I was also surprised that she drew a distinction between these Queens she talked about & later ones as the earlier ones ruled, and the later ones just reigned. And she postulated that’s why our current Queen, for instance, was accepted as Queen without any worries about her gender. My surprise was because I thought the myth of Good Queen Bess was also instrumental in changing attitudes – finally a precedent of the country not falling to pieces when a woman ruled.

Overall an interesting series, particularly as it told us about the history of some key players in England’s past that aren’t often given a lot of screen time. However, I’m not sure the evidence Castor presented always supported her thesis (that these women have bad reputations because of misogyny & they’d be better remembered if they’d been men doing the same things). But that could partly be due to streamlining the story for television, I should read the book and see what I think of that.

Caligula is one of the most notorious Roman Emperors – remembered for levels of debauchery & tyranny that were shocking even by the standards of the Romans. Mary Beard presented this programme about what we actually know about the man behind the myth. The answer is “surprisingly little” when it comes to his actions once he was Emperor.

Caligula was born Gaius Caesar Germanicus (sometimes he was refered to as Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus & I wasn’t entirely sure if that was him adding to his name once he was Emperor or if it was just a variant version of his name). He was the son of Germanicus, a popular Roman General who was the nephew of the Emperor Tiberius, and was thought likely to become Emperor. Caligula’s mother was Agrippina, the granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus. So on both sides he’s descended from the rulers of Rome. He was brought up mostly in army camps in the north of the Empire, in modern Germany. He was a sort of military mascot – his mother dressed him up in a miniature legionary’s uniform. This is where he got his nickname from – “Caligula” is a diminutive which refers to the caligae, the boots, that a legionary wore. Beard said it was a bit like calling the boy “Bootikins”. Unsurprisingly the adult Caligula became did not like being called that – and would’ve been furious if he’d known that was how he would be remembered in the future.

When Caligula is still relatively young his father dies – probably poisoned, certainly that’s what Germanicus said with his dying breath. There was a trial in Rome, but the accused man conveniently committed suicide early on in the proceedings so the trial became more of a public inquiry. Beard showed us one of the proclamations that were put up in all major cities afterwards – which basically say “the accused was acting on his own, nothing to do with Tiberius, no sir not at all”. After his father’s death Caligula lived with the Emperor Tiberius, Beard said it isn’t clear quite why – was he a hostage? did Tiberius like him? did Tiberius see him as heir & so want to make sure he was kept an eye on? However while he was living there most of his other relatives died – bumped off by Tiberius’s agents.

Succession to the position of Emperor wasn’t well defined – Beard laid this partly at the door of the Emperor Augustus. While Augustus had children, and Augustus’s wife Livia also had a children, they didn’t have any children with each other and so there wasn’t an obvious “legitimate” heir. So the succession tended to involve the removal either before or afterward of other potential candidates. And assassination of the ruling Emperor by the next-in-line was also common. It’s thought that Caligula smothered Tiberius, or instructed someone to smother Tiberius.

When Caligula became Emperor he was only 24, and in many ways he was trading on his boyhood status as military mascot to keep the army onside. He only reigned for a little under 4 years, and in the end he was to be assassinated by the army – Beard pointed out that’s a problem a lot of tyrants & despots face even today. If you use the army to gain power, the army can tear you back down again – the army has the real power.

A lot of the information we have about Caligula’s time as Emperor comes from Suetonius, and he wrote later and his biographies of the Emperors are full of salacious gossip. Tho even he couldn’t quite bring himself to say that Caligula did have an incestuous relationship with his favourite sister, just that “some men say that …”. There is some contemporary evidence for Caligula’s personality & actions as Emperor, though – Beard told us about an eye-witness account of a delegation from the Jews of Alexandria who went to meet Caligula. Instead of getting to business at their appointment, instead they had to trail round after Caligula as he decided how he was going to renovate a part of his palace. And then when he deigned to notice them he was more interested in why they didn’t eat pork rather than the business they wanted to discuss with him. As Beard pointed out this was a power display – they weren’t worth his time or attention, and he could humiliate them on a whim.

Beard also made the point that many of the tales of debauchery may also be tales about Caligula showing his power – stories of Caligula eyeing up the wives of important Romans at dinners, and then choosing one to take off & have sex with, only to return and make some remark about her not being much good in bed. That’s a display of power, and a humiliation for his target. Beard also talked about the story of Caligula making his horse a Consul, which is a later story she thought was likely to’ve derived from some petty humiliation by Caligula. That he was saying something like “you lot are all useless, my horse could do a better job than you, I should make him a Consul”. (She also said, imagine it as if the Queen has called one of her corgis “Prime Minister” – we’d all know what that would mean about the Queen’s opinion of her government.) And later writers turned that into a done deed, not a petty remark.

Caligula lived in a paranoid world where assassination could be just around any corner, and in the end it was. He only ruled for a little under 4 years, which surprised me to learn – I’d assumed he was in power for longer to’ve built up quite such a reputation. After his assassination there was some brief attempt to return to the Republic as a mode of government, but Claudius (Caligula’s uncle) was soon Emperor.

An interesting programme 🙂

The second lecture of the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures was called “Who’s In Charge Anyway?”. It felt a little more disjointed than the first one, with a bit less information & a bit more entertainment. It covered memory, learning & how the sum total of your memories shapes who you are. And also the frontal lobes & their role in personality & decision making. Again, not a lot I didn’t already know but still fun to watch. Things that particularly stuck in my mind were the demonstration of how poor eyewitness testimony can be (they had someone run off with a cuddly toy, then a later line-up of possible people & the audience mostly got it wrong). And also the “did you see that gorilla?” thing, which demonstrates how you can just not notice even quite strange things when you’re concentrating on something else.

In Our Time: Romulus and Remus

The primary founding myth of Rome is the story of Romulus and Remus, which we know from written sources from the 1st Century BC. It’s clear that the story is older than that, but opinions differ as to how old it is. The three experts who talked about the myth & it’s origins on In Our Time were Mary Beard (University of Cambridge), Peter Wiseman (University of Exeter) and Tim Cornell (University of Manchester).

They opened the programme by giving us a recap of the basic form of the myth, which opens with Numitor and Amulius. Numitor is the true King of Alba Longa, but his brother Amulius usurps his throne and tries to ensure there are no true heirs left. He installs Numitor’s daughter as a virgin priestess to prevent her from bearing more heirs to Numitor’s crown, but despite this precaution she still gets pregnant. One version of the story is that the father of the children is the god Mars who appears in the holy fire as a phallus and impregnates her (which must’ve been a trifle disconcerting for the lass!). The children, Romulus and Remus, are exposed on the banks of the Tiber but instead of dying they are suckled by a she-wolf for long enough to be rescued by a shepherd & brought up. Skipping forward to when they become adults they return to the city of their birth, and once they realise who they are they overthrow Amulius and reinstate Numitor as King. Wanting a city of their own to rule (as Numitor doesn’t look like to die any time soon) they set out to found one. Because they’re twins there’s no obvious answer to which one’s in charge, so they ask the gods to give them a sign. Both see a sign that they think makes them ruler, and in most versions of the myth the arguments continue until Remus is killed (most often by Romulus himself, or by his orders).

That’s the bit I knew already of the myth, but the story continues. Once the city was founded Romulus (and Remus if he’s still alive) wanted to attract new citizens, so that they had people to rule over. And so they allowed refugees and asylum seekers to join their population – regardless of the reasons they were unwelcome at their place of origin. So not just political refugees, but also criminals or runaway slaves were welcome. Most of these people were male, which presented a problem for the proto-city and its ability to sustain its population. So Romulus tried to negotiate marriage agreements with surrounding settlements – but these were turned down on the basis that the citizens of Rome were the dregs of society. So Romulus held a festival and invited all these other settlements to it – they came, with their daughters as well. And then Romulus and the citizens of Rome abducted the women – this is the rape of the Sabine women (which is a phrase I’d heard, but I didn’t remember the story if I’d ever heard it). The other settlements were obviously rather annoyed, and went to war with Rome – most were easily defeated but the Sabines were not. At the height of battle in Rome itself the women (who had now had children with their abductors) appealed to both sides to stop fighting – on the basis that their fathers were killing their sons-in-law, and this was senseless. The two communities made peace, and merged with Romulus now ruling jointly with the Sabine King. The Sabine King later dies, under suspicious circumstances which some versions of the myth pin on Romulus. Romulus lives to a ripe old age, then rather than dying he vanishes – in some versions ascending directly to heaven.

So that’s the story, and then the programme moved on to talking about how old it was and what the Romans themselves thought about it. There are no texts before the 1st Century BC, so what evidence there is for the story being older is more tenuous and based on art. Beard presented a couple of different things – a generally agreed upon one, that there was a statue of Romulus and Remus erected in Rome in the early 3rd Century BC. So there must’ve been a version of this myth then. The other piece of evidence is a mirror from the 4th Century BC which has a design on it that is a pair of infants and a wolf. Beard said that she thought this was pretty good evidence for the existence of the myth at that time. Wiseman disagreed – saying that the design also includes the god Mercury who has no place in this myth but does in a different with with twins in (but no wolf). He also thought that the myth cannot be older than 300BC because that’s when Rome & Sabine merged as a historical event so thus the story must have been invented to explain that.

And then the three experts had a very robust (yet utterly courteous) disagreement about myth, story and the origins of stories. This was clearly a debate these three had had before, they were all aware of each other’s positions on the matter before they started. I’ll attempt to summarise – Wiseman holds the opinion that a story has a single point of creation and that this is a conscious act by a specific person, who is inventing the story in order to explain some event. Beard and Cornell on the other hand think that the stories grow out of older stories and change with time and with telling. That you can compare the writing down of the Romulus and Remus myth in the 1st Century BC to the Grimm brothers collecting old folk tales by going and listening to people telling them and then writing down a “definitive” version of a fairytale which is not necessarily the only or the original version. I’m with Beard & Cornell, personally – I don’t see why there can’t’ve been a Romulus and Remus myth dating back a long time into Rome’s history (perhaps growing out of something earlier), that later incorporated bits & pieces of other stories and events as they seemed relevant to the people at the time*. Yes, Wiseman is right that by definition there must be a first time a particular story is told – but how do you decide when it counts as this story and stops being that other story that’s got a lot of similar features.

*Worth noting that the lack of evidence is lack of evidence for both theories – pre-1st Century BC it’s an oral tradition and we have no way of knowing what exactly that was.

At the end of the programme they also talked about how the Romans thought about the myth, and about what it said about what the Romans thought about themselves. Cornell (I think) pointed out that the Romans often seem embarrassed about this myth – it involves a fratricide, and the earliest Romans are “riff raff”. So some Roman authors try and explain away these elements to sanitise it and make it more “suitable” for their great civilisation. And Beard talked about how it’s interesting that this myth makes Romans foreigners in their own city – and even the other founding myth (Aeneas fleeing Troy and founding Rome) is still a tale of refugees. And I think it was Wiseman who talked about how during the civil wars around the 1st Century BC there was a feeling that of course Rome was turning on itself because didn’t their city start with a fratricide and weren’t they doomed because of this.