Ancient Rome’s creation myth and the legends about its earliest kings are more often than not totally unreliable as historical sources except for as an insight into the Roman sense of self and national identity. T. J. Cornell, a leading authority on the history of ancient Rome, bluntly wrote “In general the narrative accounts of the origins of Rome, from Aeneas to Romulus, cannot be considered historical” and of the early legendary kings such as Numa Pompilius and Tullus Hostilius, he similarly claimed that “the traditional chronology is historically impossible” (The Beginnings of Rome, 1995, pg 80 and 121). Yet, there is one particular concept where traditional folklore and ancient reality seemed to have lined up intriguingly well—in names.
The myths and tales of ancient Rome begin with a long list of people with single-word names. Aeneas sails to Italy. Ascanius succeeded Aeneas and was, in turn, succeeded by Silvius. With the exception of a few anomalies, the folkloric ancestors of Rome’s founders were usually described with one name. A supposed distant ancestor of Silvius was Proca, who fathered two kings: Amulius and Numitor—and Numitor was traditionally the grandfather of the famous twins, Romulus and Remus.
According to tradition, Romulus’ mythical reign as the first king of Rome was dated to around 753-717 BCE. In terms of archaeologically-grounded history, the supposed reign of Romulus does correspond with a time of urbanization in the Roman region, as there are tangible signs that a powerful and wealthy Roman aristocracy had formed by the late 8th century BCE and especially in the 7th century BCE.
Around the same time that Rome and its Italian neighbors were undergoing urbanization, there was also a name revolution spreading in the region. Around the early 7th century BCE, the Etruscans of Etruria had begun labeling themselves with more complex names that had family and clan identifiers. The Romans were not far behind, adopting the practice of using longer, more complex, names by the end of the 7th century BCE. Interestingly, the names of the legendary kings after Romulus (whose mythical reign ended in 717 BCE), correlate to that name revolution. Romulus had a co-king named Titus Tatius. Romulus’ successor was Numa Pompilius (traditionally dated r. 716-674 BCE) and after him came Tullus Hostilius (r. 673-642 BCE), then Ancus Marcius (641-617 BCE). With the rise of the Tarquin family, the names became even more complex. First there was Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (r. 616-578 BCE), then Servius Tullius (r. 578-534 BCE), and finally Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (r. 534-509 BCE), who, according to tradition, was overthrown by Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus in 509 BCE. Although much of the ancient accounts of pre-Republic Rome cannot be reconciled with historical evidence, tradition and archaeology do align surprisingly well on the advent of more complex names in Italy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of the legendary Roman dictator, Cincinnatus, painted by Juan Antonio de Ribera (1779–1860), [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.