Brutus as an Earthborn Founder of Rome (Livy 1.56)

Stephen C. Smith

University of Minnesota

Given the esteem in which the Romans held Brutus, it is somewhat surprising that his first appearance in Livy's narrative has not received more attention in the recent spate of work on Livy, his historiographical goals, and his techniques. In this paper, I will argue that the historian has appropriated from Greek literature the imagery associated with autochthony in order to depict Brutus not just as a divinely sanctioned leader of Rome but also as a second founder of the city at a crucial moment in its history. The unexpected appearance of a snake provides the first connection between Brutus' initial appearance and the concept of earthborn status, which in Greek mythology is closely linked to snakes (cf. the stories of Cecrops, Erichthonius, Cadmus, Jason, and the Gigantomachy). When a snake suddenly comes out of a column in Tarquin's palace, the king sends two of his sons and Brutus to Delphi in order to learn the meaning of the prodigy. Once there, the young Tarquins also ask which of them will succeed his father. Ultimately, however, it will be Brutus who displaces Tarquin as the head of the Roman state. The snake coming out of the column, we realize, signifies Brutus' ingenium, earlier hidden behind a facade of dullness as the snake was hidden within the wood.

The connection to earthborn heroes is reinforced at the end of the episode: Brutus' response to the Pythica uox is to fall and kiss the earth (communis mater omnium mortalium), in a sense acknowledging his own identity as one of the earthborn. Moreover, the oracle which prompts Brutus' action is delivered ex infimo specu, suggesting not only the lowest but also the oldest parts of the cave and that this is the command of Earth herself. Brutus' success is that of the autochthonous founder (such as Erichthonius or the Theban Spartoi) to whom he is implicitly likened. There are, however, no nationalistic aspects to Brutus' earthborn status. For the Athenians especially, their autochthonous status marked them as politai as opposed to xenoi; Brutus, however, acknowledges the earth as communis mater omnium mortalium and does not kiss the soil of Rome, Latium, or even Italy, but that of Delphi.

I would suggest that Livy has made Brutus an "earthborn" hero at least in part to underscore the connections between Brutus and Romulus, who in Livy's account also has limited autochthonous associations. Whereas most authors prefer the name Ilia for Romulus' mother, emphasizing the connection to Troy, Livy records only the name Rea Silvia. This continues the Alban cognomen which went back to Silvius the son (according to Livy) of Ascanius, but it also makes the princess 'woodland Rhea'; 'R(h)ea' may of course point to the Titaness herself, often connected with the earth. The babies are found, not in the vessel in which they were set adrift (as were Sargon and Moses), but on the earth, being nursed by a wild animal. These associations with the earth, however, are necessarily limited: it is crucial to Romulus' later achievements that he is the grandson of the rightful king of Alba.

Brutus' institution of the dual consulship may be viewed as a new, limited form of the dual kingship with which Rome began, and his career mirrors the vicissitudes of those early partnerships; his achievement thus parallels and extends that of Romulus. Livy has taken the suggestions of autochthony already present in Brutus' story (the snake, earth as mother) and shaped other elements of that story to recast Brutus symbolically as a fully earthborn figure taking his place beside the partially autochthonous Romulus. The historian thus foreshadows the re-establishment of Rome as a republic and the recasting of the dual kingship in the more lasting form of the dual consulship.

Back to the Meeting Program

[Home] [ About] [Awards and Scholarships] [Classical Journal] [Committees & Officers]
[Contacts & Email Directory
] [Links] [Meetings] [Membership] [News]