Tradition held that the kingdom of Rome was founded in the mid-8th century BCE. In fact, archaeologists believe permanent settlement in the region of Rome began as early as 1000 BCE. Yet, the 8th century was indeed a time when the primitive Roman town was becoming a wealthy city with growing power and influence. By the 7th century BCE, Rome had also become fairly literate and the city urbanized enough to officially be labeled as a city-state around 625 BCE. The combination of pride in the growing city, and the rise of literacy, undoubtedly led some Romans to start preserving stories of past events and people through spoken language (such as poetry, plays and eulogies) and these sorts of remembrances were later recorded in writing. During the 5th century BCE, after Rome had become a republic, even more useful documents about Roman events and people were being produced, such as the Fasti (Rome’s list of governing consuls) and the Annales maximi, a reported 80-book chronicle of Roman leaders and miscellaneous events. Yet, despite such vocal and tangible sources being available, it took a remarkably long time for Rome to produce a native historian who was willing to pull together the various sources into a narrative.
Greek scholarly pioneers of the 5th century BCE, such as Herodotus and Thucydides, ushered in the field of history. Neither Herodotus nor Thucydides specifically mentioned Rome, but they did, however, sometimes digress into commenting on events in Italy and they both mentioned the Etruscans. Yet, other less known 5th-century Greek writers did mention Rome—Hellanicus of Lesbos and Damastes of Sigeum interestingly wrote that Rome was where Aeneas built a new life after the Trojan War, a myth that Romans would full-heartedly endorse. Other than the link to Aeneas, however, Greeks of the 5th century BCE seemed uninterested in the history of Rome.
Things began to change in the 4th century BCE. The Gallic sack of Rome around 390 BCE and the subsequent Roman wars to regain power in the region caught the attention of Greek observers. The Gallic sack of Rome, alone, was mentioned by at least three 4th-century Greek scholars: Theopompus, Heraclides Ponticus, and the famous Aristotle. Yet, it was Rome’s actions in the 3rd century—featuring the Third Samnite War, the Pyrrhic War, and the beginning of the Punic Wars—when Greeks truly began craving information on those curious Romans in Italy. Greek historians such as Hieronymus of Cardia, Timaeus of Tauromenium, and (decades later) Polybius, answered that new historical demand.
Interestingly, even though Greek historians of the 3rd century BCE were beginning to delve into Roman topics, the city of Rome, itself, still had not reportedly produced a single historian. Nevertheless, a Roman senator living in the second half of the 3rd century was about to lead the way in making the topic of the past become a new scholarly passion in Rome. His name was Quintus Fabius Pictor and he reportedly published the first native Roman History around 200 BCE, just before or after Rome achieved victory in the Second Punic War.
Unfortunately, little is known about Pictor and his text, which is now lost to us. We do know that he was a senator and that he considered himself a statesman first and a historian second. As he was a member of Rome’s governing body, it is unsurprising to learn that his text was largely designed to inspire patriotism and nationalistic fervor in his Roman readers. Yet, his work was not all bad. He reportedly formatted his history like the works of historians from Greece, and Pictor even chose Greek as the language for his book. Even though Pictor’s history was by no means a masterpiece, it was the icebreaker that got Romans writing about their past. Not long after Pictor, Quintus Ennius (c. 239-169 BCE) published a curious Latin poem, called the Annales, which traced Roman history down to the Punic Wars in verse. After Ennius, came Cato the Elder (c. 234-148 BCE), whose 7-book Origines was the first Roman history in Latin prose.
Unfortunately, by the age of Pictor, Ennius and Cato, the Roman Republic was already centuries old, not to mention the pre-Republic period of kings in Rome. Although oral history, monuments, and old records from government archives and temples could provide information such as leader names, military conquests, natural disasters and diplomatic agreements, the late-arriving Roman historians had little historical context with which to weave the bullet points of miscellaneous information together. Yet, weave it together they did, narrating the story of the birth of Rome and the founding of the Republic through an intriguing patchwork of history, folklore and myth.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (King Numa and the Nymph Egeria, painted by Felice Giani (1758–1823), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.