The Roman Kings: A Study in Power

Over six wonderful weeks in the University of Otago, as De Carle Distinguished Lecturer, I have been able to develop a first draft of my thoughts on Roman kingship.  I am deeply grateful to the university, the deparment of classics, and everyone who came and asked wonderful questions. Videos of the lectures are online at the University of Otago Division of Humanities here.  To accompany the lectures, here is a summary.

This is still very much a work in progress – and there is much still to rethink, revise and correct!  Comments very welcome…

1. Thinking about Kings

In this lecture, I set out the reasons for reconsidering the stories of the Roman kings, and at the same time the methodological toolkit necessary to explore the period of the eighth to sixth centuries BC.  The narrative of the kings has been fascinating in itself across many centuries.  It was repeatedly reworked in antiquity, and was important in the Renaissance, as a political model.  Roman kings, alongside medieval monarchs and Biblical patriarchs were critical examples repeatedly used and discussed in accounts of monarchy.

This was based on a view of the regal narrative as sufficiently reliable for the purpose, but other aspects of the story prompted scepticism from the eighteenth century on, alongside other enquiries as to the validity of supernatural stories.  This led to developments in the nature of historiography.

If that development finds a valid endpoint in Niebuhr, the institutional narrative of kingship can be associated with Mommsen.  The legal story of the derivation of power from the kings was an important mechanism by which the historical existence of the office of the rex was justified.

However, the nature of the rex remained debatable, and for those who wished to see this as symbolic rather than or as well as actual, comparative mythology offered a valuable set of opportunities, exploited substantially by Georges Dumézil.  This offered numerous explanations for the stranger aspects of the narrative, by locating them in deep symbolic structures and Indo-European patterns, but sceptics have been quick to point to internal inconsistencies.  As structuralism itself has waned, attention has turned rather to interpreting the narrative as a discourse in its own time, or at a different kind of symbolic level.

But the symbolic may be recovered another way, through comparative anthropology.  Roman kings were where Frazer started the Golden Bough; the idea that the Roman world is comparable has been accepted by many scholars.  So where is kingship now in modern anthropological thought?  Marshall Sahlins and David Graeber have encouraged us to look again at kingship, and have identified motifs such as the dying king and stranger king, which turn out to be remarkably appropriate to the Roman context.

Sahlins and Graeber On Kings

Explaining why these ideas are so appropriate requires further thought.

Ultimately, the narrative is, I would argue, sufficiently problematic to imply that the only way to get a real sense of what early Rome was like is through the archaeology of the eighth and sixth centuries.  Recovering the material base of archaic Roman society at least allows us to think of kinds of ideological superstructures which may have existed.  That language is deliberately Marxian, and it is notable that Engels in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State used a sort of archaeology of early Rome as one of the pillars of his wider thesis.

This toolkit, political analysis, narrative and institutional history, comparative mythology, anthropology, and archaeology, is the basis for my further enquiries.  But it is striking that in each one of these disciplines or approaches, the study of early Rome and its kings has been to some extent foundational.  Thus we are not only looking at a period which is interesting for us, but also at one which has inspired research across a wide range of other disciplines

2.  The archaeology of archaic Rome

Having indicated the importance of archaeology for the understanding of the archaic period, in this lecture, I try to lay out some of the key features of the period as we currently understand it.  There have been many very exciting discoveries, from Boni’s work under the Lapis Niger,

lapis niger inscription
The Lapis Niger inscription, which refers to a king and an assembly

to the topographical researches of Coarelli, the wider understanding we have developed of the area surrounding Rome, the many important excavations of Andrea Carandini and his team, and the recent work at S. Omobono and Gabii by Nicola Terrenato and colleagues.

What needs to be emphasised is that regardless of any uncertainties over method, conclusions drawn or interpretations offered on over a century of archaeological research, the quantity of material now available for early Rome is striking.  This permits a story to be told of a large and complex society, with population estimates in the tens of thousands.  That itself then has consequences for the mix of hierarchic and heterarchic elements in managing such a society, the relationship of segments to the whole, the balance of so-operation and coercion and so forth.  This has been much discussed of course in the context of state formation, but that argument has moved on largely without reference to the central Italian examples, and it is surely time both for us to develop our own models and then to insist on the relevance to the wider debate.

This can and in my opinion should be done as independently as possible of the literary record.  These is a heated debate about the combination of literary and archaeological material in the context of early Rome (and it should be said that it also exists in Pacific anthropology, which has traditionally offered us some of our best comparanda).   In this lecture therefore I looked at models of heterarchy, watcher mechanisms, theories of co-operation (as developed for instance by Richard Blanton) and systems of value and power.  These offer very different kinds of models of kingship from those we find in the literary sources.  Nevertheless, this is the reality from which those stories ultimately derived, and this encourages us to see them less as descriptive than as interpretative response

3.  Romulus and the early kings

Yet the difficulty remains as to when precisely these stories did develop.  It has been customary to divide the kings into two, the early and less plausible kings, followed by the potentially more credible Tarquins.  Leaving to one side for one moment the validity of that distinction, in this lecture I lay out some of the clear evidence of the importance of late Republican and Augustan narratives for Romulus in particular.  This has been abundantly studied, and is simply undeniable.

However, these stories did not come from nowhere, and there is evidence of earlier versions in the fragmentary Roman historians.  Increasingly, attention is focusing on the importance of the fourth century as a critical moment for the development of the Roman historical consciousness and for versions of the stories of the kings.  An obvious and well-known example is Peter Wiseman’s account of the evolution of the story of Remus.

Capitoline Wolf
The Capitoline Wolf, now thought to be medieval, with the Renaissace addition of the twins, in front of the reconstituted Augustan lists of magistrates, in the Capitoline Museum

In this lecture I looked in particular at Ancus Marcius, who by the time of Ennius has acquired the epithet bonus.

Ancus Marcius, on a denarius of 56 BC

I then started to explore some of the consequences of the fourth century moment.  I have my sights in part on resisting the assumption that this equates the origins of Roman historiography to familial histories.  Insofar as we can see the twin challenges of an expansion of the Roman political class to include the plebeians, and of the Roman state to encompass in a different way Latium and the Sabina, these are wider challenges than simple family stories.  They represent a story about the nature of Rome, and one which is potentially equivocal, offering justifications for and explanations of the need for expansion, growth and inclusion.

Calling these stories ‘mythical’ seems to me to run the risk of underplaying what is at stake here.  I have used Marshall Sahlins’ wonderful phrase ‘not what happened but what it is that happened’ to insist on the significance of the early mythopoiesis as itself a moment in the political history of Rome, but I would argue for a more complex process than the simple invention of a story.  We see, however dimly, the conscious reflection on myth as part of historical process to conduce to action – something described by Joseph Mali as mythistory.

4.  The Tarquins

Now if this approach can bear fruit for the earlier kings, are we obliged to abandon it for a more historical approach when we arrive at the last three kings?  In this lecture, I argue that the differentiation is less well founded than some would argue.  The stories of the last three kings are vivid and exciting but that does not make them historical.  Moreover they are contradictory and contested, and even scholars who tend to regard these as nearly historical figures note that they diverge in important ways from the allegedly standard model of the rex.

This should I would argue encourage us to look here too for mythistory, for the working out of broader ideological themes through narrative, iconography and ideological construction.

There is however one significant difference between the sixth century and the previous period and that is the richness of iconographical material, and this then requires us to develop new frameworks of interpretation.  Robin Osborne’s recent work on 6th and 5th century art has focused our attention on the way art reflects changes in the way the world is perceived.  This seems directly relevant to our period, and whilst – in fact because – we cannot see the democratic moment which is central to that account, our attention is repeatedly focused on elite behaviour, but increasingly in communal contexts.  Ultimately the continuum of political interpretation from Arendt to Habermas, with its emphasis on the public and on communication, will I hope allow me to recontextualise archaic narratives of leadership.

What remains to be argued is the methodological framework which allows us to move from iconongraphy to politics, and I have been especially influenced by the work of Cornelius Castoriadis in developing what he calls the imaginary institution of society, and a notion of the capacity to imagine oneself as different.

Cornelius Castoriadis

Castoriadis’ emphasis on drawing on the whole imaginative resource of society allows us to position extraordinary images such as the Pyrgi frieze within a political context, and while the details may be beyond recovery, the density of reference to the iconography of power in the later sixth and early fifth centuries is telling.  What is different about the later regal period therefore, on my reading, is not that a historical narrative is more attainable, but that we may be closer to seeing the material and ideological context from which notions of governance emerged which were then the subject of subsequent elaboration.

Pyrgi frieze
The Pyrgi Frieze

My final point here is that it is actually helpful to return to some of the arguments from comparative mythology and anthropology, not because they represent some deep primordial features of Indo-European culture but because the Romans were alert and attentive to the narrative tropes and conceptual moves which we have identified as primordial, but should perhaps be seen as constitutive of the archaic world-view.  Stranger kings and dying kings are ways of describing the limitations on power which were essential to the dialogue between people and leader, and to the co-operative models which we discussed earlier.

5.  Roman attitudes to Kings

This then leads us directly to the challenge of what the Romans thought about kings.  The basic assertion that the Romans were always deeply allergic to the idea has now been substantially weakened, but there is no doubt that their attitudes changed over time.

There is also no doubt that the narrative of kingship remained pertinent for centuries after the supposed expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus.  To illustrate this, in this lecture I look at King Numa, and I tried the experiment of reading backwards over time, starting from his surprising appearance as a sun worshipper in Julian the Apostate’s Hymn to Helios, moving back through Marcus Aurelius’ membership of the Salian priesthood to Plutarch’s astonishing life and especially his cutting critique of Numa in the comparison with Lycurgus.  This remains one of the most striking attacks on Roman imperialism which has survived to us.

Numa’s role as a religious leader was highly salient in the Augustan period.  Whether or not he is figured on the Ara Pacis, he clearly was part of an Augustan story, and a look at St Augustine shows how sanitised the Augustan account is in comparison to the Varronian account of a hydromancer.  And further back, Numa could be regarded as positively dangerous, as shown when his books are discovered and burnt in the early second century, a story perhaps influenced by the growing nervousness of Hellenistic monarchy.

But what made Numa especially open to this may have been the hints of Greekness through his association with Pythagoras, which was chronologically impossible but remained a key characteristic of his personality, and may date back to the moment where Rome and Tarentum, a key centre of Pythagoreanism, became significantly aware of each other.  And that is – again – the fourth century BC.

This exercise shows how extraordinarily malleable and valuable the narrative of the kings was – certainly in the Augustan period, but also long before and long after.  My contention is that this is not simply because of a fascination with origins, but because this is also, fundamentally, a story about power, how it should work, and what happens when it goes wrong.  Archaic kingship is a laboratory for models of good and bad governance and one that remains pertinent long into the Byzantine period….

6.  Theories of sovereignty

… And beyond.  The Roman king is one model for how sovereignty works, and there have been few more significant concepts in political thought, and few that are more relevant today.

The narrative of Roman kingship is, I think, a hidden subtext behind many post-Machiavellian accounts of sovereignty.  As we begin to find different sorts of prehistories for the model which Bodin and Hobbes introduce, the notion of the king and of maiestas which had been passed on from the Roman period appear more rather than less relevant.

However it is the narrative which was followed, one which led to the undivided rule of the emperor, and not the more nuanced and complicated picture which has emerged from our enquiries.   Indivisible sovereignty has little if no place in the world of the stranger and dying king.  As we locate the notions of sovereignty in their time and place, and trace their antecedents, we realise that as an argument it is contingent and period-specific, not an immutable principle.

Coming closer to our own day, as I have argued elsewhere in this blog, our notions of sovereignty are dangerously static, dangerously focused on the nation-state, and by proposing that they emerge once and for all between the wars of religion and the treaty of Westphalia, neglect the other possibilities of more negotiated and open models of power and discourse which could flow from re-readings of at least one part of our common past: the archaic Roman kings.




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