Notes on the Traditional Roman Account of Roman History

The traditional account of Roman history to the third century B.C. exhibits different standards of historiography than does our own, and carries different historical importance. In what follows I will discuss three major factors which informed and shaped the traditional Roman historical account.

First, by the time the Romans became seriously interested in writing history, they had a dearth of primary materials. Roman historiography began five hundred years after the city’s founding. During this time wars, internal unrest, at least one occasion on which the city was sacked, and a general lack of historical sense created severe areas of uncertainty for which historians lacked abundant, high-quality source material. Early Roman history was thus based on legends, oral traditions, and documents such as consular fasti and family records.

Legends and oral traditions inspired patriotic ardor for the dignitas and auctoritas of the patria. Stories of the Trojan Aeneas settling in Latium gave the Romans a sense of pride in “historical” connections to much older societies, as well as a stake in preserving their legacies.:”(Livy, History of Rome I.i-vii.)”: Stories about Romulus’ words and deeds gave the aura of age to structures and customs (such as the distinction between patricians and plebeians and the sacrosanctity of the pomerium) which might otherwise have lacked stable foundations. Uninterested in what we might call “demythologization,” early Roman historians happily took legends and oral traditions “at face value” and built their “true” self-image upon them. Later historians such as Livy:”(History of Rome VIII.xl.3-5.)”: and Plutarch:”(“Numa Pompilius,” in Plutarch’s Lives: Volume I, trans. John Dryden [New York: Barnes and Noble, 2006], pg. 89.)”: would exhibit critical evaluation of these old tales, but the early Romans gave great credence to the mos maiorum—the traditions of the ancestors. “True” and “false” meant different things to them than they do to us.

Similarly, “facts” preserved in family records easily became the tools of hereditary quests for personal and familial honor. Cicero notes that family records were “trophies of honour” used “to recall the memory of past glories” or “to support [family] claims to noble origins.” While these were laudable goals of pietas, Cicero tells us that by reliance upon family records “our history has become quite distorted; for much has been set down in them which never occurred.”:”(Brutus xv.62, in The Loeb Classical Library, Cicero: Brutus, Orator, pg. 61)”: Cicero here seems to be using the definition of “history” which he propounded elsewhere: the discipline in which “everything is measured by the standard of truth.”:”(The Laws I.ii.5. Cited from Cicero: The Republic, The Laws, trans. Niall Rudd [Oxford University Press, 1998], pg. 98.)”: But for Cicero, unlike for Ranke, truth is compatible even with the “countless yarns” one finds in Herodotus, the very “father of history.”:”(Ibid.)”:

Moving to documents, the consular fasti kept by the pontifices maximi (high priests) provided some objective factual data. Consular successions, unusual natural events, religious events, and wars recorded in these records enabled a factual superstructure to be built. More like summary annals, the fasti could serve only limited purposes for constructing narratives, but they did allow such important procedures as reliably establishing the city’s founding date, 753 B.C.

A second factor in early Roman historiography is that of national honor. The Romans always thought that their causes in the world were just; they needed to portray their expansion in self-aggrandizing terms. Appian, for instance, attributes the greatness of the Romans as being due to beneficence, the “exercise of prudence,” and “the reward of good counsel.”:”(Appian’s Roman History, in The Loeb Classical Library [Harvard University Press, 1963], pp. 17-18.)”: Later, Polybius provided an echo of this self-importance when he called Rome’s triumph “the finest and most beneficent of the performances of Fortune.”:”(The Histories I.iv.4, in The Loeb Classical Library [Harvard University Press, 1954], pg. 11.)”:

For early Roman historians, it seems, the Romans could do no wrong. The Samnites launched “unprovoked” attacks.:”(Livy, History of Rome VII.xxix.)”: Pyrrhus merely wanted to take away Roman liberty.:”(Appian, III, Fragment 10.)”: The Roman presence on Sardinia was a countermove to an obvious Carthaginian plot to launch a preemptive strike.:”(Polybius, Histories I.lxxxviii.8-12, cited above, pg. 237.)”: The Second Punic War came about because of “the wrath of the house of Barca” and “the revenge of Hannibal,” not any Roman wrongdoing.:”(Livy, History XXI.i.4-5.)”: These examples reveal a fact about historical writing that would only surprise Modernists operating with a gratuitous sense of their own “objectivity”: no one really is objective. As Thucydides wrote in a different context, “fear, honor, and interest” often play a much higher role in human self-justifications than we might like.

A third factor in early Roman historiography was that as the Romans increasingly adopted models of culture from their Greek neighbors, Roman historiography took on qualities of rhetorical composition. Rhetorical history became particularly important as the Romans began to encounter negative appraisals of their culture and activities, such as those by Timaeus of Taurominium and Hannibal’s paid historian, Silenus. Accounts jazzed up with Greek rhetoric had to be answered in kind so that truth would be upheld.

But what is truth in historical writing? Cicero says of history that “this kind of writing is so closely akin to oratory.”:”(Cicero, The Laws I.ii.5, pg. 98.)”: Elsewhere he taught that history provides examples which rhetoricians can use to give their speeches more authority and to delight the ears of their audiences.:”(Cicero, Orator xxxiv.120, cited above.)”: For the Romans history was primarily a teacher of traditional morality and an upholder of the order and peace of the State.:”(For instance, Polybius writes that “men have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past.” The Histories of Polybius I.1, in The Loeb Classical Library [Harvard University Press, 1954], pg. 3.)”: Truth-telling on this account is very different from what we think it “should be.” Though it seems paradoxical to us, rhetoric does not need to tell the truth in order to tell the truth.

These three major factors shaped the traditional Roman historical account of their own domestic institutional development in ways which significantly impacted the canonical account of Rome’s early development.

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