Kings and Consuls

Eight Essays on Roman History, Historiography, and Political Thought

by James Richardson (Author)
Monographs X, 238 Pages


From the beginning, kings ruled Rome; Lucius Brutus established freedom and the consulship. So wrote the Roman historian Tacitus in the second century AD, but the view was orthodox. It is still widely accepted today.
But how could the Romans of later times have possibly known anything about the origins of Rome, the rule and subsequent expulsion of their kings or the creation of the Republic when all those events took place centuries before anyone wrote any account of them? And just how useful are those later accounts, those few that happen to survive, when the Romans not only viewed the past in light of the present but also retold stories of past events in ways designed to meet contemporary needs?
This book attempts to assess what the Romans wrote about the early development of their state. While it may not, in the end, be possible to say very much about archaic Rome, it is certainly possible to draw conclusions about later political ideas and their influence on what the Romans said about their past, about the writing of history at Rome and about the role that stories of past events could play even centuries later.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 The People and the State in Early Rome
  • Chapter 2 The King and the Constitution: Elections and Hereditary Succession in Regal Rome
  • Chapter 3 The Oath per Iovem lapidem and the Community in Archaic Rome
  • Chapter 4 Rome’s Treaties with Carthage: Jigsaw or Variant Traditions?
  • Chapter 5 Ancient Historical Thought and the Development of the Consulship
  • Chapter 6 The Roman Nobility, the Early Consular Fasti and the Consular Tribunate
  • Chapter 7 ‘Firsts’ and the Historians of Rome
  • Chapter 8 L. Iunius Brutus the Patrician and the Political Allegiance of Q. Aelius Tubero
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The dedication of this book to him hardly suffices to express my gratitude to Peter Wiseman, not only for his teaching and supervision, but also for years of advice and encouragement. The book owes its existence to Peter in more ways than one; indeed, it was even he who first suggested, after kindly reading a draft of the essay that forms Chapter 2, that I should try to publish a collection of my papers on early Rome. It is an additional pleasure and privilege to be able to offer it to him in the year, if not quite on the occasion, of his eightieth birthday.

Thanks are also due to Philip Dunshea, the commissioning editor at Peter Lang, for his help with organising the project and for his supportive approach from the very start, Lucy Melville, for seeing the book through the various stages of production and the press’ anonymous referees for all their useful feedback. With such excellent advice from so many different sources, it goes without saying that all the problems and errors that remain are entirely my own. The research and writing of Chapters 1, 2 and 6 were greatly helped by a Marsden grant and I am extremely grateful to the Royal Society of New Zealand for its financial support. Finally, special thanks are also due to my wife Catherine and my son Aiden, for their support and for everything else.

It was Joachim Fugmann’s incredibly useful and excellently produced commentary on the De viris illustribus that first prompted me to think of Peter Lang. It seemed altogether not without a certain appropriateness.

With one exception, all of the following essays have been published before: ‘The People and the State in Early Rome’, in Andrew Brown and John Griffiths, eds, The Citizen: Past and Present (Auckland: Massey University Press, 2017), 63–91; ‘The Oath per Iovem lapidem and the Community in Archaic Rome’, Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 153 (2010), 25–42 (Bad Orb: J. D. Sauerländers Verlag); ‘Rome’s Treaties with Carthage: Jigsaw or Variant Traditions?’, in Carl Deroux, ed., Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History XIV, Collection Latomus 315 (Brussels: Éditions ←ix | x→Latomus, 2008), 84–94 (Leuven: Peeters); ‘Ancient Historical Thought and the Development of the Consulship’, Latomus 67 (2008), 328–41 (Leuven: Peeters); ‘The Roman Nobility, the Early Consular Fasti, and the Consular Tribunate’, in Jeremy Armstrong and James H. Richardson, eds, Politics and Power in Early Rome (509264 bc), Antichthon 51 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 77–100; ‘“Firsts” and the Historians of Rome’, Historia: Zeitschrift für alte Geschichte 63 (2014), 17–37 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag); ‘L. Iunius Brutus the Patrician and the Political Allegiance of Q. Aelius Tubero’, Classical Philology 106 (2011), 155–61 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

I am grateful to the several publishers for their permission to reprint these works. I have made some modifications to each, to try to take into account more recent work, where it may be useful or may have affected the argument, to address various other matters and also to reduce some of the repetition of material between the different chapters. It should be noted, however, that a certain amount of repetition could not be avoided: although this is a book, designed to be read like most other books, from start to finish, I wanted to ensure that each individual essay nonetheless remained intelligible in and by itself. I have also added translations of the Greek and Latin.


For early Rome, historiographic study must precede historical.1

It is now twenty-five years since the publication of T. J. Cornell’s magisterial history of early Rome, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000264 bc). And it is some measure of Cornell’s achievement that, even after a quarter of a century and even though recent archaeological discoveries have made sections of it obsolete, his book remains the standard work of its kind on the subject in the English language. At the time of its publication, reviewers were full of praise. The book was welcomed as ‘a truly magnificent achievement’, and rightly so.2

As any good book should, The Beginnings of Rome also prompted disagreement and debate. There was one issue in particular about which many expressed reservations, and that was Cornell’s handling of the literary evidence, in the historicity of which he had placed considerable confidence. For a number of reviewers, that confidence was misplaced.3

The problem is simple: while the Romans generally came to date the foundation of Rome to sometime in the mid-eighth century bc, no one at Rome wrote history until the end of the third century, and it is not clear that Rome’s first historians had access to anything much in the way of genuine or reliable evidence from more than a century or so before their own day. Recent archaeological discoveries, which have pushed Rome’s origins further back in time, have only (or ought only to have) made the ←1 | 2→situation worse. Since historians of antiquity are so used to dealing with lengthy periods of time, on account of the paucity of the evidence, it is all too easy to overlook the sheer length of time involved and all that that means. How could Fabius Pictor, Rome’s first historian, have possibly known anything much, or even anything at all, about what had happened several hundred years before his own day?

Further complicating matters is the fact that Fabius Pictor’s work has not survived, while the literary evidence for early Rome that has comes from some century and a half later, and often even later still. Much had happened during that time, and not all of it was beneficial to the preservation or reconstruction of an accurate account of the events of Rome’s past. A lot of it may have been detrimental. There are all manner of issues that need to be taken into account, from questions of evidence, research, methods and purpose, to conceptions of truth and plausibility, standards of honesty, the influence of later events on the traditions of the past, and even the simple understanding of historical change and development. It cannot just be taken for granted (although it often is) that people living more than 2,000 years ago consistently worked with methods and to standards that are recognised today and that the only difference is one of degree.

It is really very easy to see why Cornell’s reviewers did not share his optimistic assessment of what the Romans had to say about Rome’s distant past. And yet, despite the nature and scale of the problem, the seriousness of the criticism and, it must be said, the overwhelming persuasiveness of many of the objections to Cornell’s position and approach, it is fair to say that Cornell’s general assessment of the literary evidence has nonetheless been influential and can readily be detected in the work of a number of British scholars in particular. Even more significant, however, is a recent assessment of Cornell’s book as ‘more skeptical’ in its handling of that evidence.4 That claim was made in comparison with the work of A. Carandini and should be understood in that context, but it nonetheless stands in striking contrast to the views of a quarter of a century ago. So what has happened to move scholarship so far in the direction of the very position, and indeed even beyond it, that had earlier invited so much stern and valid criticism?

←2 | 3→

The specific circumstance behind Carandini’s optimism – that optimism that makes Cornell’s position one of scepticism by comparison – is, of course, the discovery of traces of what may be a wall at the foot of part of the Palatine hill, a discovery that has prompted Carandini to claim that the foundation myth of Rome is actually historical.5 And it may well seem to follow that, if the stories the Romans told about the very origins of Rome are somehow historical, then what they said about later times ought to be historical too.

The position of Carandini and his followers is not new. A comparable reaction can be found in scholarship – work that has long since been abandoned – from about a century ago, following the archaeological discoveries of G. Boni, in this case in the Roman Forum. At that time, as more recently, the archaeological evidence was used to justify the almost complete rehabilitation of the literary evidence; the existence of Rome’s mythical founder was announced as a matter of fact; and the optimists, now fully vindicated (or so some of them claimed), could openly declare their faith to the world.6

It is difficult not to draw a very different conclusion. Instead of proving the existence of Romulus, which the archaeological evidence does not do and has never done, these different discoveries appear instead simply to have been used as justification for those who already wanted to believe that the literary evidence for early Rome was reliable to go ahead with their beliefs. The issue is not the archaeological evidence (which ought to be important in its own right) and the sorts of questions that such evidence can and cannot answer, but instead the preconceived views of a group of scholars and their appropriation of that evidence to validate those views.7

←3 | 4→

Even when the archaeological evidence is not misused in this way, there is still plenty of evidence for the influence of the will to believe in the reliability of the literary evidence.8 Indeed, for some, it seems that it is simply inconceivable that ancient accounts of Rome’s early history are altogether unreliable, so much so in fact that it has even been asserted that the burden of proof lies with those who doubt the historicity of those accounts.9 The problem is, the proof exists, but those who believe in the reliability of the evidence simply dismiss it or otherwise seek to explain it away.

Since his work has been lost, no one today knows for sure where Fabius Pictor got his material or even what material he used. But for those who maintain that ancient accounts of Rome’s early history are broadly reliable, it simply follows that Pictor must have had access to good evidence. It is possible, moreover, to identify some of his potential sources: he could, it seems, have consulted family records, state documents and archives made ←4 | 5→by priestly colleges, the pontifical in particular.10 The very nature of the material sounds reassuring: official, serious and safe (but no doubt for that reason, anachronistic, although the early existence of such material is regularly taken for granted). And since Pictor was an historian, it apparently follows that he must have been consistently engaged in an activity that – while admittedly different in many respects – was fundamentally the same as that of a modern historian, at least one concerned primarily with the military and political history of Rome. That assumption is implicit in the very question of his sources.

One serious difficulty with this view is the fact that the Romans themselves were aware that extremely few documents – some laws and a few treaties only – had survived from early times. They explained these circumstances with the story that Rome had been sacked by the Gauls in the early fourth century bc.11 For many years, this was a problem with which modern historians also had to contend. After all, if ancient accounts of Rome’s early history are reliable, then Rome must have been thoroughly burnt by the Gauls.12 And if the city and the documents in it had been destroyed, how could anyone at Rome have known anything about Rome’s early history?

The Roman account of the destruction of Rome was long seen as necessitating a deeply sceptical reaction to the literary evidence for early Rome, although those who wanted to have faith in the evidence certainly sought ways to get around what was for them an inconvenient problem.13 It has, however, since been discovered that there is no archaeological evidence ←5 | 6→for widespread destruction and so the story of the sack of Rome has been happily dismissed, along with all the implications of it for the historical record.14 Documentary evidence could have survived after all and so Roman accounts of Rome’s early history can, it seems, be taken as broadly reliable. That position is already a stretch, and not only because it involves a non sequitur. It is also based on the assumption (one made by the Romans themselves but clearly anachronistically) that documents had been made in archaic times in the first place. It is likely that the story of the loss of records was invented to explain the absence of records; after all, if such documents had actually existed, their absence would not have required an explanation. But that general absence is probably just what should be expected in an essentially oral society, as archaic Rome was. As for the production of anything along the lines of ‘state’ or ‘public’ records, since that requires not only the existence of a state, but also of a state able and concerned to produce such material, the very absence of documents is potentially significant evidence in its own right. It should not be argued away, and especially not on the basis of some belief (whether ancient or modern) that such material simply must have existed.

←6 | 7→

There is a certain irony in the fact that the solution to what was undoubtedly the single biggest problem for the study of early Rome was the discovery that the Gauls had not destroyed the city after all. The historicity of what the Romans had to say about early Rome had been saved, apparently, because the archaeological evidence had disproved the historicity of one of the things the Romans had to say about early Rome. With the unwanted story safely out of the way, all the rest of what the Romans said suddenly had the potential to be useful evidence for what had actually happened. The objection is obvious: if one story – and one story long considered to be sound – should have been invented, then why not others or even, for that matter, the rest? (Part of the answer to that question, no doubt, is that the rest is not quite so inconvenient.)

The Roman historian Livy certainly drew attention to problems in his sources. Some of these problems are very serious indeed. Livy complained about inconsistencies in the lists of magistrates;15 he lamented that funeral speeches and the like contained mendacious material, material that had found its way into other accounts of the events of the past;16 he complained ←7 | 8→about the distortions, exaggerations and lies of the historian Valerius Antias (whose work he nonetheless used);17 and he also observed that the historian Licinius Macer was unreliable when he wrote about his own family.18

For those who believe that the literary evidence for early Rome is generally reliable, what Livy has to say is a problem that clearly needs to be got rid of. The names of magistrates that can be extracted from Livy’s work and from Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ are broadly consistent and so, it supposedly follows, must be historical;19 funeral speeches and other such family records can only have been a source of minor corruption, apparently;20 Valerius Antias was, it seems, actually a serious historian who carried out extensive research in the archives of the Senate and, if there were problems in his work, that was the fault of his sources (the Senate’s archives excluded, of course);21 as for Licinius Macer, his work was not really all that unreliable either.22 Besides, no one at Rome could possibly have distorted or misrepresented the events of the past and hoped to get away with it. Everyone knew what had happened, so any lie would have been so quickly rooted out that no one would have even attempted to tell it in the first place.23

The fact that Livy had actually read the works of Antias and Macer, which no one today can do, is often ignored. So too is the fact that no ←8 | 9→Roman funeral speech survives; moreover, the evidence for them that does exist is frequently played down or just passed over.24 Also played down is the fact that the extant evidence for the names of magistrates comes mostly from works from the first century bc, and that the nature and content (and even the existence) of lists of such names in the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries bc are unknown. As if that were not enough, Livy’s assessment of Macer’s work has been rejected on the basis of what Livy himself had to say about it, as if Livy were incapable of assessing the work properly and also so incompetent as to reveal that fact.25 As for Antias, if he had indeed done all that research, why should he have also used sources that were patently unreliable? Why does Livy criticise specifically him and not those sources or his use of them? And does it ultimately make any difference, whether Antias or his sources were to blame for the problems that Livy encountered? But there is simply no evidence to support the claim that Antias conducted research in the Senate’s archives anyway.26

As for the idea that distortion and fabrication were impossible, because everyone knew what had really happened, not only is that evidence of a certain determination to believe in the historicity of the literary evidence no matter what, but it is also evidence of wilful blindness to a substantial body of evidence to the contrary (ancient Rome would need to be somehow unique in human history).27 Besides, arguments of this kind potentially result in a paradox: if Rome’s historians could not distort, misrepresent ←9 | 10→or lie about what everyone knew to be true, then Livy’s comments about the works of Antias and Macer would have to be untrue; but Livy was an historian too and his comments can hardly be dismissed as mistakes or accidents, or as unimportant. The position of the optimists often seems, in the end, ultimately to be based not only on a refusal to see the wood for the trees, but also on the belief that each individual tree should be chopped down, using one means or another as required in each instance, so that the wood does not even exist.

Biographical notes

James Richardson (Author)

James H. Richardson is Associate Professor of Classics at Massey University. He is the author of The Fabii and the Gauls: Studies in Historical Thought and Historiography in Republican Rome and the co-editor of a number of volumes, including Priests and State in the Roman World and The Roman Historical Tradition: Regal and Republican Rome.


Title: Kings and Consuls