CJ-ONLINE Archives

October 2009


Options: Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Reply To:
Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 6 Oct 2009 10:02:06 -0500
text/plain (218 lines)
Unwritten Rome. By T.P. WISEMAN. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008. 
Pp. X + 366. Paper, $37.95. ISBN 978–0–85989–823–2.

Order this text for $30.48 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal:


Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2009.10.03

In his prolific career, T.P. Wiseman (W.) has produced erudite and original 
studies on an impressive variety of topics literary, historical and 
archaeological. Now comes this work, composed in the belief that with 
enough ingenuity, the right argumentation and a creative combination of all 
relevant evidence, one can recover reliable information about unwritten 
Rome. The title admits of two interpretations. It may refer either to the 
Rome that existed before written records (particularly a written history, 
ca. 200 BCE at Rome) or to those events and beliefs of Roman society for 
which we simply lack contemporaneous written accounts. W. claims (p. 23) to 
deal with the former, but in fact gives the latter abundant attention. The 
book thus shares much ideologically with his recent investigations into the 
less well-evidenced beliefs (The Myths of Rome (Exeter, 2004)) and culture 
(Remembering the Roman People (Oxford, 2009)) of the Roman people.

Of the volume’s eighteen papers, four and part of a fifth are new; the 
rest have appeared (mostly) in edited volumes since 2002 and are given only 
a very few addenda. Why these articles? The principle of selection is not 
stated, and one wonders why some relevant works have been omitted (e.g., 
the review of T. Cornell’s The Beginnings of Rome (Routledge, 1995) in 
JRA 9 (1996) 310–15). Moreover, the advantage of having these works 
inside one cover is, given the inadequate index locorum, only partially 
realized. None of the coins and only three of the numerous inscriptions 
discussed are recorded in the index (ILLRP 309 and 310, and the Fasti 
Praenestini, under the unusual entries “the epitaphs of the Scipios” 
and “Verrius Flaccus,” respectively), and many important and oft-cited 
passages go unlisted. This is unfortunate, for a proper and complete index 
would have greatly facilitated scholarly use of the volume.

The first essay (pp. 1–23, a new work) establishes the book’s 
methodology and sounds several discouraging notes: the Romans themselves 
knew little about early Rome; no oral tradition transmitted reliable 
information about that world; and because rituals change over time, the 
belief that archaic ones preserve evidence about earliest Rome is mistaken. 
How to recover unwritten Rome then? Not through comparative anthropology 
(which receives a strong rebuke), but by traditional “close reading of 
the sources” and “careful consideration of what they may or may not 
presuppose” (p. 22). The remaining seventeen chapters employ this 
approach, ambitiously and often adventurously, to Roman cult, ludi, 
theater, historiography and regal Rome. If the topics of the contributions 
vary, so do their aims, with several attempting to solve clearly defined 
problems and correct recently advanced misconceptions, while others provide 
somewhat impressionistic accounts of their subject. But all are worth 
reading and pondering. Considerations of space preclude discussion of every 
paper; what follows are selective comments.

W. treats cultus and religio with a keen eye on their change and 
development. [[1]] On the Lupercalia (pp. 52–83) and its deity (or 
deities) he is fundamental; yet one must still consult the original article 
(JRS 85 (1995) 1–22), since its appendix of testimonia for the festival 
is omitted here. [[2]] The attempt (pp. 140–54) to connect sacred 
prostitution (instituted in the 7th or 6th century) with the cults of Venus 
Verticordia and Fortuna Virilis will strike some as far-fetched. [[3]] The 
inspiring reconstruction of the worship of Liber (pp. 84–139) during the 
Republic charts the god’s role in the struggle between plebeians and 
Senate and in the civil wars, and demonstrates the presence in 4th-century 
Rome of a world of theater in which Liber presided over performances of 
mythological burlesque that appealed to the people, but which Varro and 
others suppressed in their accounts of Roman drama. W. detects (pp. 
155–66, a new contribution) a similar suppression in the seemingly 
discordant reports about Numa and the cult of Jupiter Elicius. Valerius 
Antias (at Arnob. Adv. Nat. 5.1) and Ovid (Fast. 3.320–8) have Numa 
summon (elicere) Jupiter from heaven. Yet in the early 2nd century this 
action already carried negative connotations of magic, hence the story’s 
absence or modification in Livy (1.20.7; cf. 1.31.8), Varro (at Aug. CD 
3.9; 7.34–5) and Plutarch (Numa 4.3). How, then, to explain the account 
in Ovid and Antias? “It is inconceivable that this story is a late 
invention” (p. 165); it dates to the archaic age. But how did it survive 
the centuries and the change in religious sensibilities? “Certainly the 
story as we have it is a comedy, perhaps first created for the stage” (p. 
165), which then became “so firmly fixed in the popular mind” that 
“it survived to be preserved in literature” (p. 166). This is an 
imaginative reconstruction, and though I remain unconvinced, I found many 
of W.’s remarks on magic, religion and Numa useful and illuminating.

The papers on ludi publici are some of the book’s best. W. (pp. 167–74) 
rightly disputes the recent attempt [[4]] to date the institution of the 
ludi Plebei and ludi Ceriales to the late 3rd century, forcefully restating 
Lily Ross Taylor’s brilliant demonstration that the ludi Plebei were 
originally called ludi Romani and hence established much earlier than the 
traditional date of 220 BCE. [[5]] In another, he investigates the 
1st-century vicissitudes of ludi for Hercules (pp. 187–93), attested on 
two fragmentary inscriptions, and connects these games with the fortunes of 
Sulla and his followers. The famous denarius of M. Volteius thus refers, in 
W.’s view, to these ludi and not, as traditionally believed, to the ludi 
Plebei. [[6]]

Similarly informative are the chapters on historiography. A useful overview 
of the genre’s prehistory (pp. 231–42) stakes a prominent place for 
Naevius’ carmen belli Punici in the transition from an oral to a 
literature culture and in the formation of Rome’s historical 
consciousness. Already for Ennius, Naevius’ poetry was distinctive, 
written vorsibus quos olim Faunei vatesque canebant (Ann. 206–7 Sk). 
W.’s exploration (pp. 39–51) of the archaic literary tradition hinted 
at in this quote is engaging, though the argument is sometimes difficult to 
follow, and most of the conclusion as best I can disengage it—that 
Naevius’ poetry was cast in a meter common to (and perhaps preferred for) 
oral prophecy, and that such prophecy was current and still given much 
credence by the Romans of the late Republic and early Empire—is one I 
think few would argue against. The topic of genre occurs also in the 
instructive essay (pp. 243–70) on the ways Cicero, Livy, Varro, Dionysius 
and Plutarch distinguished history from poetry. [[7]]

Two papers tackle Regal Rome. W. treats with verve and insight the fictions 
and possible facts (pp. 293–305) surrounding Lucius Junius Brutus. But he 
too quickly dismisses the vultures in Tarquinius’ dream (D.H. 4.63.1–2; 
Zon. 7.11) as “uncomplimentary” symbols, “scavengers and 
carrion-eaters” (p. 296; cf. p. 304); in nature, yes, but in omen and 
prophecy the bird could be powerfully positive. Most famous are the 
vultures that appeared to Romulus and Remus (Liv. 1.7.1); but an epigram of 
Posidippus discloses the vulture’s preeminence as an omen for the birth 
of a child. [[8]] Those who like polemic will delight in W.’s preemptive 
strike (pp. 271–92) against Carandini’s forthcoming identification of 
the remains of a 6th-century house in the forum as the house of the 
Tarquins. After W.’s treatment, less remains standing of Carandini’s 
hypothesis than there does of the actual structure in the forum.

Finally, there are the papers on Roman theater and its place in Roman 
society, subjects on which W. is an undisputed authority. [[9]] Most 
enlightening are the chapters arguing that the Octavia was written during 
the reign of Galba and for performance (pp. 200–9), and that the 
traditional division between fabulae praetextae and togatae is an 
overschematization of Varro’s that ignores the variety of dramatic forms 
at Rome, each capable of presenting material humorous, edifying, historical 
or erotic (pp. 194–9). More daring are claims that certain passages in 
literature originated on or were influenced by the Roman stage. I have 
already mentioned the “comedy” of Numa and Jupiter Elicius; elsewhere 
W. asserts (pp. 210–30) that the theater provided Ovid with the source 
for several tales in the Metamorphoses and Fasti, and tries to find Roman 
legends (pp. 175–86) that could have provided plots for the dramas 
performed by the disrobing mimae of the ludi Florales (see Val. Max. 
2.10.8, inter alios). [[10]] In a new contribution (pp. 24–38), W. asks 
how the pre-3rd-century extemporaneous and unwritten songs that Livy eight 
times mentions “survived into the much later literary tradition of 
historiography” (p. 37) and suggests that these carmina incondita were 
known to him and his predecessors from “patriotic performances at the 
theatre games” (p. 37).

W. admirably notes those of his claims that are hypothetical. But the ideas 
of hypothesis, proof and disproof are perhaps almost out of place in 
discussions of pre-literary Rome. The meager and fragmentary evidence can 
be pieced together in numerous ways, and the various resulting pictures 
will all carry nearly the same degree of plausibility. W.’s great skill, 
fully on display here, is his ability to use both literary and material 
evidence to create, with enviable erudition and imagination, a plausible 
and engaging portrait. For the journey to unwritten Rome, this book is an 
inspiring and informative guide.

Vanderbilt University

[[1]] Inexplicably absent from the book’s bibliography, however, is G. 
Wissowa’s fundamental Religion und Kultus der Römer2 (Munich, 1912).

[[2]] The bibliography on the Lupercalia is enormous; see the recent 
articles of J.A. North and N. McLynn, JRS 98 (2008) 144–81.

[[3]] For doubt as to the very existence of sacred prostitution, see S. 
Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2008). One 
might also refer to the discussion of M.A. Pagnotta, “Il culto di Fortuna 
Virile e Venere Verticordia nei rite delle calende di Aprile a Roma.” 
AFLPer 16–18 no. 1 (1978–80) 144–56.

[[4]] F. Bernstein, Ludi publici: Untersuchungen zur Entstehung und 
Entwicklung der öffentlichen Spiele im republikanischen Rom (Stuttgart, 

[[5]] L.R. Taylor, “Cicero’s Aedileship,” AJP 60 (1930) 194–202.

[[6]] Crawford no. 385.2. The latest discussion of this coin (H. Cancik in 
Festrituale in der römischen Kaiserzeit, edited by J. Rüpke (Tübingen, 
2008) 10–11) follows the traditional interpretation.

[[7]] See now D. Feeney’s response to this paper in Literatur und 
Religion 2: Wege zu einer mythisch-rituellen Poetik bei den Griechen, 
edited by A. Bierl, R. Lämmle and K. Wesselmann, (Berlin and New York, 
2007) 173–202.

[[8]] As first pointed out by J. Linderski, Roman Questions II (Stuttgart, 
2007) 19 n. 56. Epigram 27 in Posidippi Pellaei quae supersunt omnia, 
edited by C. Austin and G. Bastianini (Milan, 2002) 48–9. The fact that 
eagles also appear in both the epigram and Tarquin’s dream suggests that 
this poem may be even more important for interpreting the dream of Tarquin 
and the legend of Brutus.

[[9]] See especially his Roman Drama and Roman History (Exeter, 1998) and 
Historiography and Imagination (Exeter, 1994).

[[10]] But note that some now date the coin (Crawford no. 423) discussed on 
pp. 174 and 176 to 54–52 BCE, and that the most recent investigation 
proposes the expansion FLORAL(IBUS) for the first word of its notorious 
legend. See F.X. Ryan “Der Denar des C. Servilius C. f. mit Florakopf und 
Krummstab,” NAC 37 (2008) 193–9 (n. 1 for the dating).

If you have been forwarded this review, you may subscribe to the listserv 
by sending an email to: [log in to unmask]
Leave the subject line blank, and in the first line of the message write: 

You may remove yourself from the CJ-Online listserv by sending an email to: 
[log in to unmask]
Leave the subject line blank, and in the first line of the message write: