The People of Romulus: The Latin Chiefdom, 750-625 BCE

Romulus and Remus with the Capitoline Wolf / Photo by CellarDoor85, Wikimedia Commons

A meager beginning of four hilltop villages.

By William Faulkner
Archaeologist and Fellow
Society of Antiquaries, London

Not a city, but three or four hilltop villages were all that existed on the site of Rome around 750 BC. One of these – better known to us from excavation than the others – was on the Palatine Hill. In attempting to describe this place, in imagining it filled with people – living, working, trading, resting, playing, breeding, dying – much, inevitably, remains speculative. But from what we know – from excavation on the Palatine, from other excavations nearby, from myth, fragments of history, and the case-studies of anthropologists – we can perhaps visualize it as follows.

The Palatine must always have been a good place for Iron Age farmers and shepherds to settle. The ground rose steeply from the surrounding marsh to a wide plateau, an ideal refuge for men and beasts, where they were protected from both floods and raiders. Plough-land and pasture were in high demand at the time. Territory was often disputed in border clashes, and brigand-chiefs made a living rustling sheep and cattle. The village on the Palatine, girded by cliffs and a palisade, offered relative security, and a small Latin-speaking community had long been settled there. The people lived in small rectangular or oval huts, the floors cut into the bedrock, the frameworks formed of timber posts and rafters, the walls of wattle and daub, the roofs of thatch. We know the form of these not just from the postholes and slots excavated on the Palatine, but also from the ceramic containers modelled on the houses of the living in which the first villagers had laid to rest the cremated bones of their dead. For, near the bottom of the hill, just clear of the marsh, was an old cemetery, in use since the earliest days of the village in the 10th century BC, where at first the rite had been cremation, but afterwards, certainly by 750 BC, the villagers interred the intact bodies of the dead in trenches, along with ceramic jars containing food and drink. The spirits of the ancestors thus hallowed the ground, making good the claims of the living to possess it, guarding the approaches to the village above – though by now the settlement was beginning to spill down on to the low ground near the cemetery.

West of the Palatine lay the River Tiber, with trackways through the marsh leading to a crossing place and, on the far bank, the slopes of the Janiculan Hill. On the near bank were other hills besides the Palatine: the Aventine to the south-west; the Caelian to the south-east; the projecting spurs of the Esquiline, Viminal and Quirinal to the north-east; and an abrupt knoll, the Capitoline, immediately north-west (though these names may have been given later). Some of these other hills were also inhabited; they, too, made good refuges. And this spot next to the Tiber was one to which fugitives often came, for it lay in a marginal, frontier zone – a frontier between nature and agriculture, where much of the land was still a wilderness of swamp and forest; and a frontier between peoples, with Latins to the south, Etruscans to the north, and Sabines to the east. Humanity’s flotsam and jetsam drifted here – the misfits and outcasts of more ordered societies elsewhere. Getting a living was tough, and you had to be ready to fight for what was yours. People clung together for safety, living on the high ground behind timber walls. These were raw new communities, with a rough-and-ready pioneering culture.

A mid-18th century etching of the Palazzo del Quirinale by Giovanni Battista Piranesi / Wikimedia Commons

So mixed up were people here that not even on the site of Rome was everyone a Latin: there were Sabine settlers on the Quirinal. They were descendants of highlanders from the interior, who spoke a dialect of the Oscan-Umbrian language of the Apennine mountains. Relations between villages were often tense, but especially so when one was Latin and the other Sabine. The Latins were people of the plains, mostly farmers who combined the cultivation of wheat, barley, peas and beans with the raising of cattle, sheep and pigs. The animals provided meat, milk, hides and wool, as well as manure to keep the arable in good heart. The Sabines, though they cultivated small fields in upland valleys, were mainly pastoralists – and, if the hostile testimony of Latin historians can be trusted, also sheep-stealers and cattle-rustlers. The exigencies of transhumant pastoralism – involving the movement of animals between upland summer pastures and lowland winter ones – complicated relations between the two peoples. Droveways criss-crossed the landscape, and access was often contested, for good grazing was precious. Old folk-tales memorialized the ethnic strife. The Rape of the Sabine Women told the story of a Latin chieftain who tricked his Sabine neighbours and abducted their women, and The Legend of Tarpeia that of a Latin traitor who met a grisly end during a war against the Sabines.

Close neighbours, though, usually tried to get along, else life’s insecurities became insupportable. Sometimes, indeed, it was essential to combine against a common threat. This was probably easier in the frontier zone, where social bonds were looser, ethnic antagonisms less entrenched, and, if there were occasional fracas between Latin and Sabine – or even Latin and Latin – there was also much co-operation. Men from neighbouring villages entertained one another, exchanged gifts, became ‘guest-friends’. They joined forces to deal with brigands and raiders. They made alliances, contracted marriages, sired mongrel children. In The Legend of Titus Tatius, the Sabine wives of Latin men intervened to stop a war between their fathers and husbands: another traditional story with perhaps a core of truth. Making a living and defending what was yours often meant peace with near-neighbours and a united front against more distant enemies. So the people of the hills by the Tiber got together. They meshed into a single community, and as they proliferated and grew strong, others came to join them from outlying farms, hamlets, and the wilderness beyond. Some, no doubt, were brigands and vagabonds, but, in troubled times, men uprooted in one place might, if they were tough, hard-working and handy in a fight, find a ready enough welcome in another.

The picture was the same across Old Latium. This was the land of the people who spoke Latin. As well as language, they shared history, religion and customs. But at this time, they can have numbered only a few thousands, for Latium was fairly small. It comprised in the main a coastal plain of irregular shape, 80 km in length, 50 km wide in the north where the Tiber valley formed a broad expanse, and narrower further south, where it eventually turned into an uninhabitable swamp. East of the plain, the Latins had also settled some of the high ground. Volcanoes and rivers had formed this landscape in geological time. The Alban Hills south of Rome were mounds of lava; 50 craters lay within a day’s walk of the Palatine; and much of Latium was strewn with a layer of volcanic debris rich in phosphates and potash. The Tiber, its tributaries, and the smaller rivers that flowed directly to the sea further south had turned this debris into alluvial silt and spread it across the land, making it, with adequate drainage, into first-class soil for farming. The result was a mixed landscape of hill, plain and marsh, of arable, pasture and wilderness. Wherever the land could yield a living, it had, by the 8th century, filled up with Latin-speaking settlers.

To later generations, Latium seemed blessed by the gods. When dawn rose over the sea and Virgil’s Aeneas saw from his ship ‘a mighty forest through which the Tiber pleasantly flowed’(1), he knew that his travels were over, that he had reached the Promised Land. Horace, another of the Augustan poets, thought his Sabine farm at Tibur, in the hill-country 30 km inland from Rome, the finest place on earth: ‘neither the sturdy Spartan hills nor the low lush fields of Larissa can knock at the heart as Tibur does, with Sibyl’s booming grotto, Anio’s fine cascade, Tiburnus’ grove, the orchards whose rivulets weave a dance of irrigation, the winds blowing clear from the south, sweeping clouds out of a dark sky, and never breeding long rains.’(2) Poets are not peasants and they construct a rural idyll. But the point stands: Latium was good land, and for that reason from early times heavily settled.

Entrance to the Cave of the Sibyl / Photo by Bobbylamouche, Wikimedia Commons

The Latins first lived in numerous scattered villages, each of a few dozen families. Latterly, however, the smaller, more vulnerable settlements had been abandoned, and people had been brought together – perhaps not always willingly – into the larger, more defensible ones. During the 8th century, what had once been an open, usually peaceful landscape of farmers became more enclosed and defensive: the land, in fact, had come to bear the mark of a new class of chieftains and warriors who had emerged to rule in troubled times.

Men had lived in rough equality during the 9th century. Each family (familia) at that time comprised a small group of kin and dependants under the authority of a leading male (paterfamilias, head of household). This unit was largely self-sufficient, living off the produce of its own fields and flocks, which were tended by family members. There was no money for regular trade; essential transactions were done by barter or with ingots of bronze; and wealth was measured in head of cattle. In life, each family shared a complex of huts and enclosures within the village; and in death, a common plot in the village cemetery. The head of household’s power was in theory absolute – including power over life and death within the family – and he was the acknowledged owner of the family’s estate. In practice, family life must have involved negotiation, and patriarchy been moderated by custom, popular censure, and the need to find ways of living and working together.

From one family to another, there was little difference in rank and status, and each head of household played an equal part in village life, speaking in public assembly, making sacrifice to the gods, guarding the border with spear and shield. What bound him to other men, in his own village and beyond, were ties of extended kinship: his membership of a clan (gens). Once, in a golden age beyond remembering – or so it was believed – when it had always been summer, the earth had given of its bounty freely, and men had known neither toil nor war, the clans had held all things in common. Now, though, was the Age of Iron, when the price of life was sweat and aching limbs, and men claimed land as private property and would shed blood to defend it. Now, also, Hunger waited. It waited for the work-shy, the weak, and those who angered the gods. It was insecurity and fear that gave the clans their strength: they meant an insurance against hardship, a defence against enemies, and a pooling of prayers to placate the gods. Each father, family and farm, each atom of economy and society, was fixed in its place within village and clan by its dependence on the support of others.

During the 8th century, this simple society became more complex. As well as ties of family and clan, there were new obligations to men of power who claimed authority as priests, judges and war-chiefs. As communities coalesced and populations grew, as villages of a few dozen became large settlements of several hundred, concentrations of wealth acquired a certain critical mass. Reserves of grain and meat now sufficed to free some men from labour in the fields. Small villages cannot support full-time blacksmiths and potters; large ones can. Small communities cannot feed retinues of warriors that do no work; large ones might be made to. The chieftains who now raised themselves to power did so as collectors and distributors of the surplus, some of which they used as offerings to the gods, some to recruit and train soldiers, and some to reward loyalists who upheld chiefly authority. They were priests, war-lords and politicians combined. In the simple, small-scale, egalitarian societies of the 9th century, heads of household had met in assembly, performed holy rites, and arrayed themselves for war as co-equals in village and clan. In the more complex, larger-scale, stratified societies that had formed by the 7th century, authority in politics, religion and war had become the prerogative of a new ruling class of chiefs. Archaeology encounters them in the cemeteries of this time. If they were as richly caparisoned in life as in death, then they rode into battle in decorated chariots, wearing helmets and breastplates of bronze, equipped with shield, spear and sword. They must have feasted with household and retinue amid a clutter of drinking gear – folding metal tripods, griffin-headed cauldrons, and, shipped over from Corinth and Athens, a range of ceramic wine-containers, mixing-bowls and pitchers painted with scenes from myth.

Numa Pompilius, as imagined on a Roman coin minted by Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Piso himself claimed descent from the king. / Anton Nyström, Allmän kulturhistoria eller det mänskliga lifvet i dess utveckling, bd 2 (1901), Wikimedia Commons

Fighting and feasting welded the followers of chieftains into a warrior elite. Insecurity and a need for protection had forged this new class of men, but, once formed, the rivalries among them fed the clamour for war. Chiefs built up their war-bands to compete with other chiefs for territory, resources and followers; or they were overwhelmed, their lands annexed, their line extinguished. By the 7th century BC, Latin society was divided into chiefs, nobles and commoners, and war and preparations for war were endemic.

Among the new chiefdoms was that on the hills by the Tiber, where, by c. 700 BC, the separate villages had coalesced, other settlements nearby had been absorbed, and a succession of chiefs who styled themselves ‘kings’ – Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius and Ancus Marcius – had established their rule. (The Latin word rex is commonly translated ‘king’. The Romans certainly used the word later to describe those we would recognize as kings. But the ‘kingdom’ ruled by Ancus Marcius was not much larger than an English parish.) The nobles – the leading men of the more powerful clans – formed a ‘royal’ council. Here was the embryo of the class of patricians and of their later assembly, the Senate. All the clans were grouped in one or another of three tribes (tribus) – called Luceres, Ramnes and Tities – and each of these was divided into ten cantons (curia). Though many people forgot this in time and came to imagine that the tribes and cantons had always existed, they were in fact devices of the king-chief, imposed for the efficient organization of political and military affairs. For the chiefdom was – as, in the circumstances, it had to be – first and foremost an armed body of men, a tribal militia for waging war against its neighbours.

When summoned, all free men attended the Assembly of the Cantons (Comitia Curiata), where, under the authority of clan-chiefs, canton by canton, they voted by acclamation for or against war. If they decided for war, they marched off in cantonal and tribal units, 100 men forming the ‘century’ (centuria) required of each canton, 1,000 men the tribal contingent, and 3,000 the army or ‘legion’ as a whole (legio meaning ‘levy’). Only the king-chief, the nobles and the knights of their retinues wore any armour – perhaps a helmet and a small breastplate – or carried swords. The commoners were equipped simply with spears, some for throwing, some for close-quarters fighting, and with large round shields. Battle tactics were crude. Men fought defensively in dense but loosely structured masses, presenting to the enemy a wall of shields bristling with spear-points. Attacks were wild charges led by the armoured elite. Pitched battles were the exception, however, and most wars entailed little more than border raids and skirmishes.

New ideas were needed to make sense of life under the chieftains: ideas able to bind together disparate fragments of population, to make a unity of them, and to invest people with a shared sense of history and identity. Myths, ancestors and gods; holy rites and sacred places; customs in common and a collective destiny: these were the stuff of a tribal people’s grit and solidarity.

Aeneas and the Penates, from a 4th-century manuscript – Vergil MS Vat. lat. 3225, folio 28 recto / Wikimedia Commons

Old cults and traditions remained, those of ploughmen and shepherds inherited from a simpler past. Religion mattered too much, was too deeply ingrained, for one set of gods simply to be swapped for another. Rather, new gods joined the old in an enlarged pantheon. People continued, as they had always done, to imagine the natural world around them animated by myriad spirits. The simplest act required its petty rite of propitiation. Fear of the gods – of divine disfavour – engendered an obsessive avoidance of taboo and endless repetition of ritual. The year was divided between days that were ‘profane’ (dies fasti), when work was permitted, and those that were ‘sacred’ (dies nefasti), when normal activity was suspended and a religious festival celebrated. Some land was available for men to plough, but other land was left wild because it belonged to the god of a sacred grove, with perhaps a wooden idol, a tree-stump for an altar, and branches hung with offerings. Every household had divine protection – a lar, the family’s guardian spirit; the penates, who looked after the food-stores; and the Manes, the spirits of the ancestors, who received regular grave-side offerings. Groups of households met to honour the nymph of a local spring or the guardian of a crossroads. Then there were the great gods worshipped in public pageants on festival days by the whole people – the Earth Mother, source of fertility and fruitfulness; Vesta, goddess of the hearth, a luminous presence in every home; Faunus, protector of flocks, whose priests danced half-naked in goatskin skirts at the festival of the Lupercalia; and Saturn, whose winter festival held out the promise of returning spring and preserved the memory of a golden age before toil and war. All these were old gods – gods of families, fields and flocks such as farmers worshipped. To them, though, were now added, in the age of chieftains, new gods of war and power.

Most important was the triad of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, to each of whom a specialist priest (flamen) was allocated, chosen by the king from his patricians. Jupiter was the supreme sky-god, ruler over heaven and earth, protector of boundaries, laws and social rank. Mars was god of war. In March each year, the brotherhood of Salian priests led the rituals of Mars which opened the new campaigning season: the display of shields, the dedication of horses, the blessing of arms and trumpets. And in October, when the season ended, they led the sacrifices that gave thanks to Mars, and the ceremonies that purified the blood-polluted weapons. Then there was Quirinus, the spirit of deified Romulus, mythic founder of Rome, who ensured the peace, prosperity and well-being of his people.

These people were the descendants of shepherds, ploughmen and outlaws who had sought safety in the hills by the Tiber. They had been forged into a tribal state by a nobility of kings, clan-chiefs and warrior-knights. They now possessed a small territory extending some seven kilometres in each direction, around 150 sq km in all. They had come to believe in an imagined past and invented traditions, and these had helped them think of themselves as a single people. They had, in short, become the Quirites, the people of Romulus, the wolf-men of Mars. They had become the Romans.

From Rome: Empire of the Eagles, 753 BC – AD 476, by Neil Faulkner (Routledge, 11.07.2009), published by Erenow, public open access.