Mythistory — History and/or Tradition

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by Neil Godfrey

I found the following take on Livy‘s history of early Rome of interest. I reproduce a translation of his own words and conclude with the words of another Roman historian, Arrian (born in the last decade of the first century CE), who likewise found reason to maintain without critical comment myths and divine agents in a history.

Livy’s introduction to his work addresses overlaps of myth and history:

Such traditions as belong to the time before the city was founded, or rather was presently to be founded, and are rather adorned with poetic legends than based on trustworthy historical proofs, I propose neither to affirm nor to refute.

It is the privilege of antiquity to mingle divine things with human, and so to add dignity to the beginnings of cities . . . .

(B.O. Foster translation)

Events before Rome was born or thought of have come to us in old tales with more of the charm of poetry than of a sound historical record, and such traditions I propose neither to affirm nor refute. There is no reason, I feel, to object when antiquity draws no hard line between the human and the supernatural: it adds dignity to the past, and, if any nation deserves the privilege of claiming a divine ancestry, that nation is our own; and so great is the glory won by the Roman people in their wars that, when they declare that Mars himself was their first parent and father of the man who founded their city, all the nations of the world might well allow the claim as readily as they accept Rome’s imperial dominion.

(Livy Book 1.1. De Sélincourt translation)

Let the myths be myths; let them add their grandeur to the story of Rome’s origins. Whether Mars was literally the father of the Romans matters not; that people believe he was is right and proper. The stories are myths? What is your point? Such myths have enabled and maintain Rome’s rightful dominion. That’s what Livy appears to be saying.

What is important are the moral lessons we can all learn. The past is our textbook to teach us the lessons of right and wrong.

These, however, are comparatively trivial matters and I set little store by them. I invite the reader’s attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men, and what the means both in politics and war by which Rome’s power was first acquired and subsequently expanded; I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them. The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.

(Livy 1.1)

Myths, therefore, embody a value that far exceeds the magic of the supernatural:

Livy knew and explained to the reader that in Roman life and history, such exempla, especially those that pertained to the most crucial period of the foundation of the city, were inevitably historical myths, fabulae rather than monumenta, and thus, by his own account, untrustworthy (corrupta) for historical reconstruction. And yet, the fact that he went on to recount these myths indicates that he found them in some way “trustworthy” – if not for historical reconstruction, then at least for historical interpretation of “what life and morals were like in ancient times. 

(Mali, 37)

Mali’s ensuing discussion of the death of Romulus is most interesting. First, Livy’s account

One day while [Romulus] was reviewing his troops on the Campus Martius near the marsh of Capra, a storm burst, with violent thunder. A cloud enveloped him, so thick that it hid him from the eyes of everyone present; and from that moment he was never seen again upon earth.

The troops, who had been alarmed by the sudden storm, soon recovered when it passed over and the sun came out again. Then they saw that the throne was empty, and, ready though they were to believe the senators, who had been standing at the king’s side and now declared that he had been carried up on high by a whirlwind, they none the less felt like children bereft of a father and for a long time stood in sorrowful silence. Then a few voices began to proclaim Romulus’s divinity; the cry was taken up, and at last every man present hailed him as a god and son of a god, and prayed to him to be for ever gracious and to protect his children. However, even on this great occasion there were, I believe, a few dissentients who secretly maintained that the king had been torn to pieces by the senators. At all events the story got about, though in veiled terms; but it was not important, as awe, and admiration for Romulus’s greatness, set the seal upon the other version of his end . . . . 

(Livy 1.15-16)

Joseph Mali’s comment makes explicit what you might be half-consciously wondering about Livy’s words:

Wikipedia: Carracci, Romolo appare a Proculo, (16c.) Palazzo Magnani, Bologna

. . . . but it was not important, as awe, and admiration for Romulus’s greatness, set the seal upon the other version of his end, which was, moreover, given further credit by the timely action of a certain Julius Proculus, a man, we are told, honoured for his wise counsel on weighty matters. The loss of the king had left the people in an uneasy mood and suspicious of the senators, and Proculus, aware of the prevalent temper, conceived the shrewd idea of addressing the Assembly. ‘Romulus,’ he declared, ‘the father of our City, descended from heaven at dawn this morning and appeared to me. In awe and reverence I stood before him, praying for permission to look upon his face without sin. “Go,” he said, “and tell the Romans that by heaven’s will my Rome shall be capital of the world. Let them learn to be soldiers. Let them know, and teach their children, that no power on earth can stand against Roman arms.” Having spoken these words, he was taken up again into the sky.’

Proculus’s story had a most remarkable effect; the army and commons, cruelly distressed at the loss of their king, were much comforted once they were assured of his immortality.

(De Sélincourt trans.)

Livy is obviously skeptical of the official story of Romulus’s disappearance. But, whereas a modem historian would seek to refute this story, Livy chooses to repeat it. Moreover, as we read further in the account we realize that Livy is not really concerned with a historical reconstruction of the event as much as with a historical reconstruction of the story. Leaving aside, and unresolved, the question of what really happened to Romulus then and there, whether he vanished by the storm or by the hands of the senators, Livy concentrates on what happened to him ever after: his deification “as a god and god’s son, the King and Father of the Roman City.” Livy duly notes that this common, semiofficial “version” of Roman tradition prevailed over the “rumor” of assassination by the senators, not because it is more credible but rather because it is more credulous: “owing to men’s admiration for the hero and the intensity of their panic.” And these experiential and memorial impressions surrounding the event were, for him, more significant than the actual circumstances in which it occurred, because they initiated a tradition of deification down to his own time. His seemingly innocuous comment that the rumor of Romulus’s assassination was rife “even then” tacitly refers to the more recent case of Julius Caesar, in which, in a similar fashion, a ruler who “had been rent in pieces by the hands of the senators” was transfigured into a god. He goes on to describe how this story “gained new credit” through the “shrewd device [consilio]” of Proculus Julius [see inserted box], whose testimony before the assembly on Romulus’s godlike reappearance (apotheosis) from heaven with this message to the Romans — “let them cherish the art of war, and let them know and teach their children that no human strength can resist Roman arms” — proved decisive for the moment and for a whole new movement in Roman history. Livy concludes: “It is wonderful what credence the people placed in that man’s tale, and how the grief for the loss of Romulus, which the plebeians and the army felt, was quieted by the assurance of his immortality.” 

Such comments imply that Livy was well aware of what is now called “the invention of tradition,” in this instance that the deification of Romulus was initially a political manipulation of the masses, a fabrication perpetrated by the ruling authorities to masquerade their own deed (the assassination of the king) through symbolic rites of unity and continuity. But Livy was equally, and more acutely, aware of the historicity of tradition, of the fact that traditional beliefs and stories like those concerning Romulus’s apotheosis had long passed into and made up Roman history.

(Mali, 38f)

The historical events, or at least what is written up as a historical event, is, Livy infers, poetic tradition, mere fable, but it matters not, since

the alleged consequences of these events — their memories — were historical facts. 

(Mali, 39)

Later in his tome (Book 43) Livy explained once more why he included the tales of myths in his history:

Thus, when explaining his reason for recounting improbable stories about gods and heroes that were recorded by Roman priests, Livy writes:

“I am well aware that, because of the religious indifference [neglegentia] today inspiring the general belief that the gods foretell nothing, no prodigies are publicly reported or listed in historical works. But as I write of ancient days my mind somehow becomes old-fashioned [antiquus], and a kind of religious awe prevents me from regarding as unworthy of my history the events which those famous and far-sighted men decreed should be dealt with by the state.” 

His solution to this predicament was to preserve the historical myths and yet expose them as such. Following Cicero, he judged the myths by stoic, rather than skeptic, categories, seeking to counter any supernatural narration by a very rational explanation. Thus, right at the beginning of the well-known tale of Romulus and Remus, he recounts how their mother, a vestal girl, was raped and then, “having given birth to twin sons, named Mars as the father of her doubtful offspring, whether actually so believing, or because it seemed less wrong if a god were the author of her fault.” The consequent episode of the she-wolf and the twins receives the same skeptic treatment. Livy remarks that this “marvelous story” arose because the woman who actually fed the boys, Larentia, “having been free with her favors,” was nicknamed “she-wolf [lupa],” which was then the common vulgar term for women of her kind.

. . . . Livy was more concerned with “Roman tradition” than with “Roman history,” believing that this tradition was the true history of the Romans, having formed their identity through the ages. . . . Livy was primarily interested in the historical formation of the “Roman national character” . . . .

(Mali, 39f)

Justifying Myth in “Historical” Narratives

But Livy makes clear that the tales that ought to be excluded from history for generic reasons possess value and gain acceptance on different grounds. . . . . [T]he right to claim divine ancestry depends not on the literal truth of such stories but on military success, just as it is military success that allows [one] to establish a monument recording divine favor at [a battle] by dedicating the captured spolia. . . . Legends that the gods are the Romans’ auctores make the origins of the city augustiora. Both the noun auctor, here used to mean parent, and the adjective augustus derive from the verb augeo, to increase. . . . . The tales about divine parentage may be pure fictions, from a historian’s point of view, but even fictional gods can be auctores in the sense that they contribute to the city’s cumulative auctoritas. The word auctor acquires an additional level of meaning in this context: since auctor is also the term Livy uses to describe his historical “source,” its use here underlines the connections between the transmissions of authority and of historical data implicit in the rest of the sentence. Paradoxically, even made-up gods can affirm their own existence.

(Feldherr, 76)

Capture of Veii: agefotostock

There is an old story that while the king of Veii was offering sacrifice, a priest declared that he who carved up the victim’s entrails would be victorious in the war; the priest’s words were overheard by some of the Roman soldiers in the tunnel, who thereupon opened it, snatched the entrails, and took them to Camillus. Personally I am content, as a historian, if in things which happened so many centuries ago probabilities are accepted as truth; this tale, which is too much like a romantic stage-play to be taken seriously, I feel is hardly worth attention either for affirmation or denial.

(Livy, 5.21)

(Note once again the critical distancing with the introductory “there is an old story that…” See The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors for earlier discussion of this rhetorical technique.)

Spectacular and inspiring, hence worthwhile

It is for this reason that Livy, in his turn, strives to sustain these myths within his narrative history, precisely because it is a narrative history, namely a history that recognizes and records the dialectical process whereby action and fiction work up the process of tradition. . . . History in this version remains useful not because it represents accurate reconstructions of past events that can serve as analogies in the present but rather because it perpetuates and interprets the collective memory on which the identity and character of the Roman people depend.” 18

Alas, for all his insightful appropriation of Roman myths for his History, Livy did not elaborate on the more general philosophical meanings and political implications of historical myth. Commentators on his work have often noted that Livy was primarily a patriotic historian, who not merely composed but actually believed in “Roman History” as a divinely ordained and providentially guided mission; he was thus much too immersed in its myths to analyze them in critical philosophical or historical terms. His devotion to Roman tradition prevented him from more radical reflections on its formation and narration. And yet, his critical comments on such venerable stories as the ones about the she-wolf and the twins and Romulus’s apotheosis demonstrate that in his treatment of historical myths, Livy was a patriotic but not a dogmatic historian. He was indeed a traditionalist, but one who was fully aware and proud of this fact and therefore exposed himself and his historiography to further, more critical, reflections on the use and abuse of myth in history. His candid admission in the preface that “to such legends as these, however they shall be regarded and judged, I shall, for my own part, attach no great importance” was not a sign of indecision and historiographical confusion. Rather, it signaled his recognition, as a historian with his own limitations, of tradition’s predicament with regard to myth and history. This predicament was particularly problematic for Livy because he lived at a time when historical myths became extremely intensive and authoritative in Roman society. As Paul Zanker has shown, during that period the Augustan regime consciously sought to build up the imperial identity of Rome by a massive production of popular images and spectacles that celebrated its heroic achievements. 19 Feldherr shows that, much like the imperial authorities, who were intent on public and dramatic exhibitions of their messages, Livy sought to impress his readers by a very theatrical description of historical events and actions. His moving depictions of Lucretia’s fate is full of melodramatic gestures and speeches that turn his readers into spectators in a classic tragedy and thereby, as Aristotle taught, make it possible for them to identify with the patriotic emotions and actions of its protagonists.20 This reader response is especially pronounced when they encounter historical stories that defy commonsensical reception, like that of the capture of Veii, which Livy finds hard to accept and yet retains with the admission that “in matters of so great antiquity, I should be content if things probable . . . were to be received as true,” even if they are not, because this is how they were actually received in Roman history — as exhibitions of Roman virtuosity in warfare. The duty of the historian in the implausible yet “probable” case in the cave near Veii is akin to that of the dramatist — to cause the readers or hearers to suspend disbelief in order to enhance their comprehension of human affairs beyond its common logical and historical boundaries. Livy thus reiterates his fundamental premise that “this story, more fit to be displayed on the stage, that delights in wonders, than to be believed, it is worth while neither to affirm nor to refute. ” 21

To sum up: Livy may not have believed the ancient Roman myths, but he still believed in them, knowing that these stories had animated the ethical and political beliefs of the ancient Romans and were therefore both fabulae and monumenta, equally mythical and historical, or, as I would call them, mythistorical.

(Mali, 41f)

For stories that strike a listener as incredible because they violate our sense of what is probable begin to seem credible when an element of the divine is added.*

* The train of thought here is that since a mythic element is often added by story-tellers to enhance the plausibility of otherwise incredible stories, a historian cannot apply the normal tools of investigation to such tales.

(Mensch translation and note, p. 197)

Arrian, a comparison

In the country on Alexander’s route between the river Cophen and the Indus lay the city of Nysa, supposed to have been founded by Dionysus, at the time of his conquest of the Indians. Nobody knows, however, who this Dionysus was, nor the date of his invasion of India, nor where he started from, and I myself should hardly care to say if this Theban deity marched with his army against the Indians from Thebes or from Tmolus in Lydia, or how it was that after passing through the territories of so many warlike peoples unknown to the Greeks of that date, he fought and conquered only the Indians. However, one should not inquire too closely where ancient legends about the gods are concerned; many things which reason rejects acquire some colour of probability once you bring a god into the story.

(Arrian Book 5.1, De Sélincourt translation)

Feldherr, Andrew. 1998. Spectacle and Society in Livy’s History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mali, Joseph. 2003. Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography. First edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arrian. 1976. The Campaigns of Alexander. Edited by J. R. Hamilton. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. Revised edition. Harmondsworth, Eng., Baltimore: Penguin Classics.

Arrian. 2012. The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander ; Anabasis Alexandrou: A New Translation. Translated by Pamela Mensch. New York: Anchor Books.

Livy. 1919. History of Rome, Vol. I, Books 1-2. Translated by B. O. Foster. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Livy. 1960. The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of the History of Rome from Its Foundations. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. Penguin.


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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on “Mythistory — History and/or Tradition”

  1. In the prolegomena to his famous work from 1744, The New Science, Giambattista Vico wrote that “all the histories of the gentile nations have had fabulous beginnings.” . . . . “. . . the gentile nations were everywhere founded by fables on religion.” Thus, Vico takes mythos as the basis of poetic wisdom, and as the foundation for knowledge/wisdom/learning. Interestingly, he is writing just before the great advances of the Enlightenment. I would argue that only after the Enlightenment do we begin to think in terms of scientific, verifiable “facts.” We have to keep this in mind whenever we encounter arguments about the nature of facts and the practice of “history” in the ancient world.

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