Early Rome to 290 BC

A review of a book by Guy Bradley

As part of a new series from Edinburgh University Press aiming to tell a complete history of Rome, Guy Bradley offers a new survey of the methodologically challenging early years of the city.

Parrish Elizabeth Wright

Fragmentary (or non-existent) source material, both literary and archaeological, is a constant challenge for the historian of early Rome; the ideal solution is a place where these disparate types of data can elucidate one another, without overreaching on the interpretation of either.

By stepping outside of the binary of optimists and pessimists in his approach to the literary evidence, and by judiciously interpreting the ever-increasing body of archaeological material, Guy Bradley offers an evenhanded and insightful narrative of the development of Rome in his Early Rome to 290 BC: The Beginnings of the City and the Rise of the Republic (2020, Edinburgh University Press) over the course of eleven chapters (six thematic chapters bringing us to the sixth century BCE followed by five more advancing to 290 BCE).

The first chapter provides a traditional account of the source material available to the modern historian of early Rome. At times Bradley seems to be expressly taking an approach from Livy (our best source for this period), one “more concerned with the coherency of the broader picture than with establishing the historicity of each individual piece of evidence” (p. 33).

This allows Bradley to move beyond the idea that our sources are either reliable (the optimistic approach) or not (the pessimistic), and instead apply methodologies from both. The chapter ultimately shows that, having peeled off some of the accretions in the narrative, there is a tremendous amount of “hard” evidence from the archaic period.

Throughout the book, these types of arguments are reinforced by excellent tables and charts, such as list of known documents from the period until the XII tables (pp. 8-9), or the chart laying out the trends in the literary record (p. 28).

Chapter two tackles the earliest archaeological material for Rome and its neighbors in central Italy. A benefit of this study compared to its predecessors is that it begins in the Bronze Age, incorporating in particular Emma Blake’s work on artefact networks.

This deeper beginning gives more context to the Iron Age and proto-urban developments of the critical eighth and seventh centuries BCE and helps provide more nuance to the endo/exogenous debate on urbanization. This chapter sets the stage for a major theme of the study – that, as far back as our evidence exists, Rome is just one part of the larger Mediterranean network in which both objects and humans are incredibly mobile.

With the broadest geographical scope as well as the most diverse types of evidence (funerary, civic, epigraphic, data from survey and shipwrecks, etc.), the second chapter engages with some of the thornier debates in studies of Early Rome, namely what the archaeological material can tell us about how early states formed in Italy, when they become “urban,” who is in charge and how they maintain power.

In general, Bradley is cautious about using many of our typical terms (states, urbanism, elites) for the Iron Age, arguing that they impose a modern construction which has no place in our understanding of development of the ancient world.

For example, instead of “state formation,” Bradley suggests we consider “an ongoing process of ‘state organization’” (p. 46), where the physical urbanity is less important than how and why groups of people embarked on a communal enterprise (though, ultimately, we have still not escaped the idea of a “state”).

The chapter discusses the evidence for interaction between the various peoples (Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans) who were also present in Italy at this time. The prevalence of foreign prestige goods (especially in burials) indicates the mobility of humans, art, and technology (including the alphabet), but also ideas about power and social structure.

Burials from the Orientalizing period show a clear social hierarchy, but Bradley argues that the development of monumental architecture is our best evidence for a more complex society since (at Rome at least) the scale of architecture required resources and manpower connected with a monarchical system of government.

These changes in elite behavior from individual (or family) aggrandizement through burial to using resources for communal projects such as temples or walls appears to be a central Italian phenomenon, even if some of the artisans and craftspeople are coming from the Greek world.

Bradley emphasizes that this influence was not unidirectional; both Greek and Italian city-states were in the process of state formation simultaneously and “interaction between the two was probably vital to both parties” (p. 78).

Chapter three shifts the focus to the literary evidence and is an excellent contribution to not only the way we think about the myths of early Rome but ancient myth in general.

Bradley challenges us to move beyond the label of myth as a Greek phenomenon transposed onto the Italian landscape by considering it instead as a Mediterranean-wide method of storytelling.

While many stories have their roots in the Near East, they quickly cease being “Greek” after they are “reworked locally, melding with indigenous stories” (p. 81). This is especially clear throughout myths about early Rome; myth is simply another piece of the exchange networks, just like changing technologies or ceramics.

Chapters four and five analyze, respectively, the literary and archaeological evidence for the monarchical period. Bradley shows how the traditions and institutions associated with the monarchy at Rome (especially for the Tarquin period) are likely rooted in some sort of historical reality.

One refreshing approach in this section is a hesitant acceptance of some aspects of the Servian reforms, usually rejected by modern scholars as being too complex for an archaic society. Of course, these institutions, such as the curiae, property classes, etc. must have evolved over time, but there is no reason to adhere to the “primitivising assumptions” (p. 128) that the Romans were incapable of such a system despite the fact that the sources nearly universally ascribe the origin of these structures to the archaic period (and as Bradley states, we have no trouble accepting the Athenian reforms of Solon with six property classes).

Instead of a priori rejecting the reforms, Bradley asks what purpose they would have in archaic Rome and convincingly shows how the centuriate system integrated newcomers into the state, both politically and militarily – a much better system than one based on hereditary power for a society characterized by openness and mobility.

In chapter five, Bradley often sidesteps the controversial nature of the archaeological evidence by presenting the interpretation of the excavators and leaving it to his readers to judge the reliability of both the data and the conclusions.

The chapter usually presents the both the evidence and interpretations of an entire debate, for example, the date of the Forum fill, Rome’s earliest walls, or the foundations of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, rather than making a judgement either way.

While evenhanded, it does critique various methodologies and theories, such the search for direct connections between the literary and material evidence, or the overemphasis on finding a definitive moment of the foundation of the Roman state.

Chapter six, focusing on the large topics of economy and society, begins with a scholarly “paradox” – that we portray archaic Rome as simultaneously an urban powerhouse and an agrarian society. This is part of the “Roman mirage” – an idealized version of Rome as a “self-sufficient, uncommercialised state, with little experience of the sea; or the image of a self-regulating, austere, scarcely wealthy elite which was mainly concerned with duty to the state” (p. 32).

Bradley instead highlights the complexity of the early Roman economy and the ramifications for Roman society and social structures; even in the agrarian sector Rome was not simply a community of subsistence farmers, and Bradley argues it had “market characteristics” by the sixth century BCE.

Evidence for this includes the intensification of agriculture in general through metal tools, the cultivation of grapes and olives, the raising of livestock, and then the mercantile aspect of selling surplus, which Bradley uses to undermine the anachronistic notion that the Romans did not engage in maritime trade or seafaring in general until later in their history. Rome, while technically inland, was navigable for trading vessels via the Tiber, and simultaneously the inland location also makes Rome a key node for trade further into Italy, especially for groups without direct connections to the larger Mediterranean maritime network.

Bradley then turns to the society of archaic Rome and our (very limited) evidence for how it was structured. He critiques the idea that some aspects culture which are central to politics in the Republican period, such as the gens or the patron-client relationship, can be traced back to before the origin of the city, since these institutions are “associated strongly with urban societies” (p. 214).

According to Bradley, the later Roman attitude of conservativism has infiltrated scholarly approaches, causing us to take a static rather than dynamic view of power structures in archaic Rome. Despite these cautions, he notes the highly stratified nature of early Rome, especially in the archaeological record of the Orientalizing period.

In terms of this hierarchy, Bradley flips the script – rather than first considering what makes someone a patrician and how that group emerged, he begins with the origin of the plebs. He argues that the “emergence of the plebs must be linked to openness and mobility in the seventh and sixth century, which allowed a massive enlargement of the population” (p. 216), who were integrated into Rome through the flexible systems described in chapter four.

One criticism I have of the volume focuses on a section on women in early Rome and central Italy. In general, Bradley argues that their position in society is “topic that ought to have more of mainstream role in Roman history” (p. 221), though he relegates them to a separate section of ten pages.

Instead, considering the impact of women in the larger discussions of these categories throughout the book would have presented a fuller (and more accurate!) understanding of the workings of Roman society. For example, including the analysis of female graves from Etruria and Latium when the other (presumably male) burials of this Orientalizing period were discussed in on p.53-62 would have complicated our view of how women fit into the emerging social hierarchy.

While our literary evidence describes a highly patriarchal society, the evidence from these tombs indicates that many elite women were likely literate and seem to have their own (or at the very least shared in male) banqueting culture. In a similar vein, considering the royal women Tanaquil and Tullia (who Bradley considers at least quasi-historical), as real powerbrokers in “controlling aspects such as the wealth and lineage of the family” (p. 230) in the context of chapter three (“Kingship”) would have provided a much deeper understanding of that institution.

A final section of this wide-ranging chapter explores the evidence for various ethnicities in early Italy. While pushing back on the idea that lines between groups such as the Sabines, Latins, or Etruscans were clear in the Iron Age, there is evidence that they “had deep roots.” (p. 232). This final (short) section presents fascinating ideas I wish were unpacked more. How does mobility and exchange of prestige objects “undoubtedly accelerate the manifestation of ethnic identity”? Can we paint a perfect parallel between the consolidation of Greek identities vis-à-vis the “other” and the emergence of ethnic identity in Italy?

Chapter Seven begins to move the narrative forward chronologically, and “Rome in the Early Republic” focuses more on the political structures of Rome and how they developed. Mainly with literary evidence, Bradley lays out the broad extremes in the debate about the origins of the Roman aristocracy and how much power they wielded in the formation and ruling of Rome.

A broad brush paints a debate between mafia-style gentes solely seeking “dominance over the masses” and one (which Bradley seems to favor) where the elites are only one part of a government which “requires the consent of its population” (p. 241). The best example of this, which is a unique contribution to a survey of early Rome, is Bradley’s view of the many Secessions of the Plebs.

As mentioned above, Bradley envisages the “plebs” as a mix of descendants of seventh and sixth century migrants and “an alliance of the oppressed poor and the richer non-patricians” (p. 245). He later also stresses the military aspect of this group. The argument that the early secessions (dates) are historical and represent a real threat to leave Rome (what Bradley calls a “paused migration”) in a period marked by mobility is convincing.

The rest of the chapter follows the Struggle of the Orders, including the creation of the XII Tables. Here he generally trusts our sources, portraying the struggle as one originally about debt, and then largely about political and religious power. The end result is a sense of a Roman community, which, despite centuries of social struggles, coalesces into a “patrician-plebeian” nobility.

The next two chapters deal with Roman expansion and its relationship with its neighbors before and after the critical year of 338 BCE. This is another area where modern scholars have tended to absorb the biases and Romancentricity of our ancient sources – portraying Rome as an imperial power as early as the monarchy and treating its expansion as inevitable.

Bradley discusses this, but the difficulty of breaking out of this mentality is clear as we move from battles with the Latins, to the Etruscans, then Samnites, Umbrians, and finally the Adriatic coast.

When Rome was originally confronted its neighbors, the Etruscans and Latins, they often encountered not individual cities but complex and dynamic systems of alliances and leagues; part of Rome’s success was the ability to take over these networks and then create systems of alliances with itself at the center.

A controversial part of this system is the role of Roman colonies. Bradley takes a typically evenhanded approach, showing how they sometimes function as garrisons, sometimes simply as a method of “land-grabbing”, (p. 287) but a more interesting idea contextualizes them as a way that the state took control of migration.

Chapter nine moves into a new phase Roman expansion, both in terms of the questions Bradley asks and the more reliable information available. More evidence can also mean more pitfalls, and the result is a mix of traditional arguments with some new approaches.

Rather than asking why the Romans expanded, Bradley focuses on why the Romans were so effective militarily and how they consolidated and controlled these newly won territories, emphasizing the spread of Roman citizenship and rights, the confiscation of land, the creation of colonies, and finally the system of alliances.

At the end of the chapter a short critique of this “Realist” theory, generally espoused by Eckstein, allows the possibility to break out of the paradigm of the Roman war-machine and look briefly towards the role of diplomacy and elite interrelations.

Chapter ten brings the thematic threads together (political, social, military and economic) to give a sense of Rome from 338 to 290 BCE. The enrollment of the Senate had stabilized and therefore the idea of the nobilitas as members of the senatorial class solidified as a mix of patricians and wealthy plebeians. This led to a set of ideological attitudes centered on military glory, self-promotion, and the sharing of offices and political power.

Results of this ideology include a preponderance of manubial temples, public building projects, commemorative statuary, and elaborate funerary rituals – the “traditional” trappings of the Roman Republic. The consolidation of political practices went hand in hand with religious structures and positions, such as priesthoods and the festival calendar.

A short conclusion ends the volume, highlighting major themes such as the interconnectedness of the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age forward, Rome’s place in this larger network as well as within central Italy, and finally the development of the institutions and the political culture which come to define “being Roman.”

By the archaic period, Rome was no longer a fledgling community but (probably) a walled complex which surpassed any other in the area in physical size and demography. Rome came to control most of the Italian peninsula through typical inter-state conflict and the “opportunistic nature of its alliance building” (p. 363) and developed a republican form of government controlled by a highly competitive elite with a clear sense of a civic culture and identity.

In context with recent work on the archaic Mediterranean, Bradley stresses the role of human mobility and the impact these exchanges had on the growing cities of central Italy. A unique aspect of his approach is an understanding of how this mobility was not simply an elite phenomenon and a clear consideration of how the integration of new people was embedded into the Roman political system at its inception.

This book has much to offer to a wide audience – an updated survey of the archaeological material for archaic Italy and an especially insightful analysis of the political development of the early city. Advanced students and scholars will recognize the novelty of many of the arguments and appreciate the balanced approach to even the fiercest debates.

The sparse footnoting, while making the book very readable, sometimes obscures exactly which ideas and authors Bradley is discussing. At times, the balanced approach lends credence to ideas that should have been refuted, and this reviewer was often left disappointed when Bradley hesitated to make a judgement, if only because I often agree with his conclusions.

The average reader might get lost with casual mentions of Thiessen polygons, but the writing itself is accessible for someone looking for how the latest archaeological data and new ways of thinking about the Mediterranean have impacted the big questions about the foundation of Rome.