Brief Book Review: A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War by Gary Forsythe

forsythe In A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War , Gary Forsythe examines the early history of Rome from the viewpoint of extreme skepticism. Aside from brief mentions by Greek historians in the 4th century, the first Romans to write about their own history did so only at the time of the Second Punic War. Thus, a few hundred years had passed between the origins of Rome, the regal period, and the origins and development of the republic before any of its history was written down. The survival of ancient written records was scanty due to the use of perishable materials and destruction during the Gallic sack. So Roman historians were not working with a wealth of primary documents.

The later annalistic historians writing at the time of the end of the republic and the early empire had inherited a wealth of folk tales regarding much of Roman history before the First Punic War. Some of this material came from traditions of prominent families passed down the generations. Much of this material is unreliable as folk tales were explicitly patriotic, thus Roman military defeats were immediately followed by fictitious victories, and families falsely accredited consulships, triumphs, etc. to ancestors.

Additionally, it must be remembered that the line between history and myth, fact and fiction, was quite blurry in the classical world. All sorts of word games were used to invent eponymous ancestors of cities, rivers, mountains, etc. along with accompanying colorful stories. Likewise for lawgivers, religious figures, and poets.

In light of this, Forsythe claims that even with the aid of archeology, it is sometimes impossible to piece together much of Roman history before the Third Samnite War. The traditional stories of Rome’s origins and early history found in the first ten books of Livy, the work of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and fragments of earlier historians found in the epitomators, must be examined very carefully and one should err on the side of disbelief. Thus, Forsythe rejects far more of the early history of Rome as inauthentic than such writers as Scullard and Cornell.

Although I am certainly no expert on Roman history, I have read enough about the ancient and classical world over the years to agree with Forsythe’s approach and overall conclusions. All to many historians want to paint a complete picture of the ancient and classical world and are too prone to take ancient writers at face value and some are not above adding their own embellishments.

My only quibbles with the book are that sometimes Forsythe makes unwarranted speculations based on very scanty evidence. To his credit, he does state this, but a simple “we don’t know” would have been preferable. Also, Forsythe sometimes does not make summaries or conclusions when discussing a subject that has caused controversy among modern historians.

Otherwise, this was an excellent book and all students of Roman history would profit from reading it.

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