Sunday 17 August 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: regnum romanum

The podcast is dead; long live the podcast. Searching for something to make the long commutes home pass a little quicker—and without the distraction of giving lip-service to learning a new language with those audio-lessons, I rediscovered a cache of podcasts, easy too download and enjoy on the drive on some really engrossing subjects. There are hundreds of episodes (possibly discontinued) available at no cost, which are far from dry lectures, which cover the entire history, from legendary beginnings, the monarchy, the new republic, the imperium and downfall—with lots of exciting cliffhangers and interesting asides. Just at the start of this adventure, I was really impressed with the stories of the early, semi-legendary kings and the highly moralising and indemnifying way the fables had been crafted over the millennia to make a myth of civic-pride and belonging. I really did not know what stories the Romans made for themselves to mark the transition from the sack of Troy to recorded history, but the tale picks up with Prince Aeneas and the other refugees from Troy received as guests by the kingdom of Alba Longa in central Italy, and the king of the Latins weds his daughter to the exiled prince, whose ancestors rule the land for generations.
Familial strife came around when the brother of the rightful king took control of the treasury, including the gold brought from Troy and installed himself as ruler. In order to prevent any heirs from reclaiming the thrown, the uncle had the king's daughter locked away and sworn to celibacy. The gods had other plans, however (and this is really one of the few times that there is divine intervention in the human affairs of Rome), and the god Mars—or according to some sources, the demi-god Hercules—sired twins by the king's daughter. Outraged, the uncle ordered the children drowned in the Tiber by a huntsman—although the river was low at the time and the huntsman was loath to slog through the mud and so just left the twins in a basket. The babies were found by a She-Wolf and a Woodpecker (possibly an ancestor of the twins transformed into a bird for rebuffing the amorous advances of the witch Circe) who took care of them, until a shepherd and his wife found them and raised them as their own. Eventually word of these wonder-twins got back to the wicked uncle and he decided to investigate. Cued into the truth about their birthright, Romulus and Remus, as they were called, defeated the wicked uncle and restored their grandfather to his rightful place. While the could have inherited Alba, the twins wanted to found a new settlement, Romulus opting for the Palatine Hill and Remus for the Aventine. Having learnt the art of augury from Pictus the Woodpecker, they proposed to settle the matter that way.

When Remus refuses to relent to his brother's interpretation, however, much like his wicked uncle, Romulus kills him and goes on to found the City of Rome and establish its first political and military institutions—the Senate of Patricians, descendants of the Trojan refugees, and the Legions, a militia where rank is bestowed by what kind of horses, weapons and armour each can afford to bring to defence (and offence) of the city. Having gotten off to this start, Rome's neighbouring tribes did not want anything to do with the new city, including Alba Longa, fearful that Romulus would to try usurp more power. In order to grow in size and strength, increasing the population which only consisted of bureaucrats and soldiers at that point, Romulus began inviting in any and all of the dispossessed—and pirates, thieves, highwaymen, mercenaries and other unsavoury exiles came to the new city to start over. It was a good ploy to grow the new city but as the immigrant population was exclusively male, Romulus realised that the city would soon wither away. As bringing in more personae non grata made the Romans even less desirable, Romulus concocted a plan to abduct wives for his people. A bit of trickery similar to Odysseus' Trojan Horse, Roman announced a huge feast to celebrate the god Neptune and invited all the local tribes as a gesture of good-will. Many came, including the Sabines, who were strictly against inter-marriage. At the height of the party, the Romans advanced on the Sabine women and tried to steal them away. Their husbands, fathers and brothers quickly came to the rescue and intense fighting followed. The women then through themselves into the fray, standing in between fighting Roman and Sabine, imploring them to stop the fighting and offering themselves to their Roman abductors, proclaiming that they would rather die themselves than live as orphans or widow-makers.
This did not, of course, go over so well either but the Kingdom of Rome saw its founding. I wondered why Rome would choose (if it had a choice in the matter) to have such unscrupulous beginnings with expatriates, fratricide, a citizenry of brigands and rape, when they could have limned a more flattering and authoritative origin. Maybe this license becomes clearer in episodes. It is also pretty remarkable how Rome was built in a day—in terms of its signature and guiding organisations at least, but I suppose that that is pretty common for the semi-mythical. If it is not already the case, I suspect that people—five-hundred years from now, will have forgotten about the pantheon of America's Founding Fathers and be satisfied knowing only this George Washington, who was born of a Cherry Tree—with the wooden teeth to prove it—and single-handedly defeated the British and wrote the US constitution and the Republic emerged whole, like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus, fully-formed. Romulus' reign lasted about forty-years and was assumed into the realm of the gods—deified as Quirinius, the embodiment of Rome—while making a public sacrifice.