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The Earliest Romans

A Character Sketch

Ramsay MacMullen

Publication Year: 2011

"A vibrant account that puts flesh on the bare bones of early Roman history." ---Celia Schultz, University of Michigan The ancient Romans' story down to 264 B.C. can be made credible by stripping away their later myths and inventions to show how their national character shaped their destiny. After many generations of scholarly study, consensus is clear: the account in writers like Livy is not to be trusted because their aims were different from ours in history-writing. They wanted their work to be both improving and diverting. It should grow out of the real past, yes, but if that reality couldn't be recovered, or was uncertain, their art did not forbid invention. It more than tolerated dramatic incidents, passions, heroes, heroines, and villains. If, however, all this resulting ancient fiction and adornment are pruned away, a national character can be seen in the remaining bits and pieces of credible information, to explain the familiar story at least in its outlines. To doubt the written sources has long been acceptable, but this or that detail or narrative section must always be left for salvage by special pleading. To press home the logic of doubt is new. To reach beyond the written sources for a better support in excavated evidence is no novelty; but it is a novelty, to find in archeology the principal substance of the narrative---which is the choice in this book. To use this in turn for the discovery of an ethnic personality, a Roman national character, is key and also novel. What is repeatedly illustrated and emphasized here is the distance traveled by the art or craft of understanding the past---"history" in that sense---over the course of the last couple of centuries. The art cannot be learned, because it cannot be found, through studying Livy and Company. Readers who care about either of the two disciplines contrasted, Classics and History, may find this argument of interest. "Like Thucydides of the hyperactive Athenians and de Tocqueville of the nation-building Americans, MacMullen here draws a character sketch of the early Romans---the men who built Rome, conquered Italy, and created an empire. Based on profound familiarity with history, evidence, and their better-known descendants, attention to what they did and failed to do, remarkable insight, empathy, constructive imagination, and not without humor, he reconstructs the homo Romanus and thus helps us imagine what he was like, and understand why he achieved what he did. This little book is informative, full of important ideas, and delightful to read." ---Kurt Raaflaub, Brown University Jacket image: Marcus Fabius and Quintus Tannius. Fresco. Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy. Courtesy of Scala / Art Resource, NY..

Published by: University of Michigan Press

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pp. vi-xi

How should we tell the story of the earliest Romans—scattered first over their seven hills and then in time spreading across the whole center of the Italian peninsula, until their state was grown great enough, and their destiny sufficiently grim, to engage them in their endless wars with Carthage?...

Part 1: To 509 BC

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1. Conservative

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pp. 3-16

The Romans were a people distrustful of novelties, slow to adopt a change, grudging in their surrender to it. They liked the old ways. This trait appears, for example, in the fact of their being only twenty miles from the sea and yet never for a half-millennium bothering with it: building no fishshing feet that’s ever mentioned...

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2. Tolerant

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pp. 17-28

The significance of the Romans in history derives, as I see it, from their empire; their empire, from their conquests; their conquests, from their total manpower; and the size of their draft-age population, from their ability to absorb and win over the conquered to usefulness. This picture of the past stated in the plainest of plain words is, I hope, the familiar and generally accepted one...

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3. Aggressive

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pp. 29-42

The cradle of the child” is the place to look for the grown man, so said Alexis de Tocqueville (quoted above in my preface). If his advice was good, to discover Rome’s destiny already taking shape we should look to the fairyland of Romulus and the city’s foundation. Tocqueville I quote again: at the end of his visit to America...

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4. Practical

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pp. 43-53

Apractical person sees life as an unfolding set of real problems to be solved, not of intriguing possibilities to be explored; and solutions should be the simplest to hand, so as not to present still another set of problems. There is no need to show off, only to get the job done, and the choice of jobs in their sequence should re›ect the concerns of the largest number of people possible in matters seen as the most pressing...

Part 2: From 509 to 264

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pp. 54-56

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5. Conservative (continued)

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pp. 57-75

Transition to a republic with elected magistrates was handled by the Romans through their clans. These were prominent and established from the earliest times, as evidence makes clear.1 All the rest of the Romans’ history is to be explained by the role of gentes down to the moment when the monarchy was restored in the person of Augustu...

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6. Tolerant (continued)

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pp. 76-99

There is no reason to think that Romans in a republic were any less open to foreign ways than they had been under their kings. The welcome offered to Tarquin the Elder was also offered to a Sabine immigrant and his dependents on a grand scale in the late 500s: to Attius Clausus remade as citizen Appius Claudius...

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7. Aggressive (continued)

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pp. 87-97

The acting out of an aggressive nature on the stage of Roman history was a matter of wars and foreign relations, but also of internal affairs and politics. In the latter, nobles vied with each other for office, century after century, until in the end the power at stake overwhelmed traditional institutions and a monarchy emerged once more...

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8. Practical (continued)

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pp. 98-113

The trait of practicality defined at the beginning of chapter 4 continued to shape the collective behavior of the Romans in the opening centuries of the Republic. National character like individual character is (to repeat once more) best known from what people do, not from what they say about themselves, and there is in any case no one of those days to tell us...

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9. Wrap-up

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pp. 114-122

This essay originated in my difficulties with the prevailing historical reconstruction of a certain part of Classical Antiquity: nothing less than the first five hundred years of Roman history. In my dissatisfaction with the consensus and its reliance on the literary sources I am certainly not alone. Classicists including the very best have rejected such evidence as just not believable...


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pp. 123-164


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pp. 165-186


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pp. 187-193

E-ISBN-13: 9780472027798
E-ISBN-10: 0472027794
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472117987
Print-ISBN-10: 047211798X

Page Count: 200
Illustrations: 11 images
Publication Year: 2011