In the Beginning, There Was Murder

This week, we begin our discussion of foundational aspects of Roman civilization during the period of the Kings of Rome. We begin on Tuesday with a consideration of Romulus, the Founding Father of Rome whose manly virtue created a city out of a ragtag group of desperadoes and runaways. We will want to examine his foundational acts in the context of ancient culture’s understanding of crime and necessity: why does he kill his brother Remus? What are the implications of this act? Does he appear to suffer any consequences for it? Why does he direct his followers to abduct women from the neighboring Sabines? Lastly, what do the stories of his birth and death have to do with the nature of his actions as a founder? she-wolf_suckles_romulus_and_remus

Remember that kingship can be understood in different ways, and the way the kings of Rome are presented in Livy’s text is filtered through centuries of Republican (i.e., anti-monarchical) culture and values. On Thursday we will continue our discussion with a look at the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius, a very different character from the vigorous and ruthless Romulus. What does it say about the Roman self-understanding of legality and social institutions that their two first founders are men of such utterly different character?

In legal terms, I want to focus especially on homicide and, more specifically, fratricide as a motif in the Romulus-Remus story as well as in the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4.  Why in both cases is fratricide at the origins of these cultures? How was homicide generally dealt with in the ancient world—a topic we will revisit on several occasions throughout the term. I also want to focus on marriage, since this is another institution that originates in the time of Romulus according to tradition. How is marriage foundational to public order, and what is its relationship to citizenship, property, and social stability?

Assignments in Detail

Wednesday 1/16

  1. Read pp. 29-55 in Livy’s The Early History of Rome, with especial focus on the reign of Romulus. We will be reading Livy for the next couple of weeks, so you might just read the whole of book 1 (book = chapter in an ancient work), to familiarize yourself with this kind of an ancient text.
  2. To see another version of the Romulus story, read these excerpts from the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was a Greek contemporary of Livy. Notice how the story is different, and what the implications are for the differences.
  3. Read Genesis 4 and the other texts on the handout on Biblical homicide laws. We will refer back to the Israelite way of dealing with homicide from time to time, as it remains an influence in the way people frame the laws and punishments for homicide.
  4. Lastly, you might be interested in Machiavelli’s reading of Romulus’ killing of Remus. You may have heard the maxim, “the ends justify the means”; this is perhaps Machiavelli’s clearest statement of that idea, based on this moment in Livy’s text.

Group Assignments:

REMUS: read the excerpt from Machiavelli and be ready to tell us about it. What principle of Machiavelli’s thinking is illustrated by Romulus’ killing Remus? Give us 5 minutes or so of discussion on this. It’s one of Machiavelli’s most famous—notorious—ideas.

ROMULUS: Take a look at Dionysius’ version of the founding of Rome. How does his version of the story differ from Livy’s?  How might it reflect Greek, instead of Roman, concerns about foundation? How does it account for Remus’ death? Again, give us about 5 minutes of discussion about this matter.

NUMA: Read Dionysius’ discussion of the laws of Romulus. What foundational elements do you see discussed here? How do they related to the family and the state? How does this account differ from the image of Romulus you get in Livy? See if you can talk about these differences for 5 minutes and lead a discussion.

SERVIUS:  Review the provisions on homicide, capital offenses, and sanctuary cities from the Torah (the Law in the Hebrew Bible). What kind of society does this reflect? What principles are in place that seem very different from modern law? Are they similar or different from what you are learning about Roman law?



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