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Acorn Eaters to Melting Pot

Where did the people of ancient Rome originate? How do we connect the varied myths of Rome's founding from Virgil's Aeneid to the she-wolf, Romulus and Remus? These are the questions we take on in today's notes, inspired by some relatively recent analysis of ancient DNA.

This coin, with the pastoral image of Roma sitting on arms with birds, she-wolf and twins, is one of my favorites of the Roman Republic. It illustrates one of the founding myths of Rome: the story of Romulus and Remus.

Anonymous, 115-114 BC, AR Denarius, Rome mint

Obv: Helmeted head of Roma right wearing a winged Corinthian helmet, with curls on her left shoulder; X (mark of value) behind, border of dots

Rev: Roma, wearing Corinthian helmet, seated right on pile of shields and a helmet beside, holding spear in left hand, birds in flight to upper left and right; to lower right, she-wolf standing right, head left, suckling the twins Romulus and Remus.

Size: 3.8g, 18.5 mm

Ref: Crawford 287/1

Fruit of the Vallonea or Aegilops oak (Quercus aegilops). Photo by Stef64, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are quite a few references in ancient Greek sources to βαλανηφdγοι or "acorn eaters": often used as a derogatory term to mean "primitive" or "barbarous"... not having yet discovered grain. The phrase is most often linked to the people of Arcadia.

Roman origins in Arcadia

Ancient Pelopennese, map by Jkan997, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Strabo, in Geography 5.3.3, shares a myth of Rome's founding by Evander from Arcadia:

However, there also exists another more ancient and mythical account, to the effect that Rome was an Arcadian colony planted by Evander. He entertained Hercules when driving the oxen of Geryon, and being informed by his mother Nicostrata, (who was skilled in the art of prophecy,) that when Hercules should have completed his labours it was fore-ordained that he should be enrolled amongst the gods; he informed him of the matter, consecrated to him a grove, and offered sacrifice to him after the Grecian mode; a sacrifice which is continued in honour of Hercules to this day. The Roman historian Cœlius is of opinion that this is a proof that Rome is a Grecian colony, the sacrifice to Hercules after the Grecian mode having been brought over from their fatherland. The Romans also worship the mother of Evander under the name of Carmentis,considering her one of the nymphs.

In the Aeneid, Evander (Ευανδρος) leaves his home in Arcadia and founds a colony in Latium called Pallantium. He names the colony after his ancestor Pallas (Πάλλας) or his home town of Pallantion. Evander and Aeneas shared common ancestry. Aeneas arrives from Troy 60 years later, after the Trojan War, and Evander helps him defeat the Rutilians and King Turnus, his rival for marriage to Lavinia, daughter of Latinus, King of the Latins. Pallantion sits at the base of the sacred mountain Lycaion (Λυκαιον), or Wolf Mountain where Zeus was born and Pan/Faunus lived. Wolves an important element in the founding story of Rome.

This coin was minted in Pallantion, Greece in the 1st century BC.

Achaean League, Pallantium, AR Hemidrachm, 88-30BC

Obv: Laureate head of Zeus right

Rev: League monogram; A above, trident and ANI monogram below, Pi to left and Lambda to right ; all within laurel wreath

Ref: Benner-3, BCD-1593

Romulus and Remus

The Trojan war is estimated at some time 12th or 11th century BC and the founding of Rome is traditionally April 21, 753 BC (8th century BC). For many generations the descendants of Aeneas ruled as Kings of Alba down to two brothers, Numitor and Amulius (~400 years later). This is where the story of Romulus and Remus begins. .

The twins are descendants of Aeneas according to tradition. Rhea Silvia, mother of the twins and daughter of Numitor was a descendant of Aeneas’ son Ascanius who founded Alba Longa. She was committed as a Vestal virgin by her uncle to prevent issues of succession, and she was seduced by the god Mars, I won't retell the story here, but for those who don't know the story Plutarch covers it in the Life of Romulus, an also shares many other origin story variations.

Wolves and February

The month "February" is linked with februa == Latin for "cleanse". The Roman's celebrated a festival of purification called "Lupercalia" on February 15 which Plutarch and Livy connect with Evander and the Arcadians.

"As for the Lupercalia, judging by the time of its celebration, it would seem to be a feast of purification, for it is observed on the inauspicious days​ of the month of February, which name can be interpreted to mean purification, and the very day of the feast was anciently called Febrata. But the name of the festival has the meaning of the Greek "Lycaea," or feast of wolves, which makes it seem of great antiquity and derived from the Arcadians in the following of Evander.​ Indeed, this meaning of the name is commonly accepted; for it can be connected with the she-wolf of story. And besides, we see that Luperci​ begin their course around the city at that point where Romulus is said to have been exposed."
-Plutarch, Life of Romulus, 21.3

In his "Moralia" Plutarch explains Luperci and the word, februare, used to describe the striking with a strip of leather:

"The Luperci are men who race through the city on the Lupercalia, lightly clad in loin-cloths, striking those whom they meet with a strip of leather."
-Plutarch, Moralia

Acorns & Acorn Eaters

Acorns appear on some early coins in Rome e.g. this semiuncia from a Numismatica Ars Classica 2007 auction listing (not my coin)

Plutarch puts a noble spin on "acorn eaters":

"This is the civic crown which the law bestows upon one who has saved the life of a fellow-citizen in battle, either because the oak was held in special honour for the sake of the Arcadians, who were called acorn-eaters in an oracle of Apollo; or because they could speedily find an abundance of oak wherever they fought; or because it was thought that the garland of oak leaves, being sacred to Jupiter, the city’s guardian, was fittingly bestowed upon one who saved the life of a citizen."
-Plutarch, Life of Caius Marcius Coriolanus 3.3

Ovid celebrates the feast of the oaks.

Fasti IV Pr. Id. 12th: "The bread of the first mortals consisted of the green herbs which the earth yielded without solicitation; and now they plucked the living grass from the turf, and now the tender leaves of tree-tops furnished a feast. Afterwards the acorn became known; it was well when they had found the acorn, and the sturdy oak afforded a splendid affluence."

Claudian write of the acorn, replaced by grain:

"through many lands Ceres, sore troubled, pursued her anxious search (for Proserpina); whence corn was given to man whereby he laid aside his acorn food, and the newfound ear made useless Dodona’s oaks."
-Claudian, The Rape of Proserpine p295 (I.27)

The ancient theater of Dodona, Epirus, Greece. Panorama by Onno Zweers, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lucretius, De Rerum Naturae V, writes of the hardy men, hunter-gatherers, before the time of the plow when men had to live on what the earth herself procured:

"They were content with what the sun and showers of rain had sent and what the earth produced. Primarily they feasted from the acorn-laden tree; and arbute-cherries, which, when winter’s due, we now see ripen with a crimson hue, were even more abundant than we see in present times."

Sidonius links the oak to Zeus, Letters VI.XII: footnote 1.

“Natives of Dodona” in Epirus at Dramisos where an oracle of Zeus was centered in an old sacred oak of the kind called Valonia oak (Querus aegilops) bearing edible acorns.

An Oracle, from Pythia, at Delphi (Herodotus I.66) given to the Spartans:

"She replied in hexameter: “You ask me for Arcadia? You ask too much; I grant it not. There are many men in Arcadia, eaters of acorns,
Who will hinder you. But I grudge you not.
I will give you Tegea to beat with your feet in dancing,
And its fair plain to measure with a rope."

Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis, references medicinal properties of the acorn:

"For the trunk of the tree is wild, but its fruit is the domesticated acorn, which was given to man as food earlier than wheat; and for this reason they ascribed life to it (as) its principle, considering the oak to be the temple and altar of the only God. For, like the laurel of the sun, it comes to the aid of health."

Genetics of Ancient Romans

Getting back to the origins of the people of Rome, a study of genetics of 127 individuals, known from human remains from 29 archeological sites gives a little insight into the question. The paper identifies several migration waves to Italy and Rome which overall yield a population that reflects gene flow across the Mediterranean, Europe and North Africa.

  • Rome at its earliest was a population of western hunter gatherers

  • The Roman populations changes around 7000-6000 BCE with and influx of people from western Anatolia. This coincides with the the transition to farming of wheat, barley, pulses, sheep, and cattle in Italy. Iron age individuals are from varied origins.

  • By 900 BC at the latest, the inhabitants of central Italy have genetics similar to modern Mediterranean populations with a significant influx of genetics associated with the nomadic populations from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe.

  • During the Imperial period, Rome’s population saw significant immigration from the Near East e.g. Greece, Malta, Cyprus, and Syria. This influx doesn't seem too surprising with growing Roman dominance & trade-across the Mediterranean and the large populations and major cities east of Rome.

How do we connect the varied myths of Rome's origin? The traditional solution has Aeneas as ancestor of Romulus, from Arcadian roots, and related to Evander, founder of the city on the Palatine Hill. Here's a coin featuring a wolf from the Pelopennese. Similar coins date back to the 5th century BC (See: ACSearch for examples).

Argolis, Argos, circa 90-50 BC, AR Triobol (14mm 2.43g), Hieron (IEPΩNOΣ), magistrate

Obv: Forepart of wolf at bay left

Rev: Large A; I-E/P-Ω/NO-Σ in three lines around; below crossbar, eagle standing right on thunderbolt; all within incuse square

Ref: BCD Peloponnesos 1177-8

What is the origin story of the ancient Rome people? We can propose a story of Rome that reflects many migrations, starting with western hunter gatherers. These "acorn eaters" would have enjoyed the bounty of the oak trees and settled in the region, becoming farmers.

From these farmers, the population evolved with immigrants from all directions. Immigration would have come as Greek colonies were formed across the Mediterranean and the integration of these immigrants and local peoples. The wars with Carthage brought many North Africans to Italy and sent many Romans to North Africa. The expansion of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, came with trade and cultural exchange across Europe, North Africa and Near East. Jonathan Pritchard, head of the lab at Stanford that produced the paper, sums it up this way:

“It was surprising to us how rapidly the population ancestry shifted, over timescales of just a few centuries, reflecting Rome’s shifting political alliances over time,” Pritchard said. “Another striking aspect was how cosmopolitan the population of Rome was, starting more than 2,000 years ago and continuing through the rise and dissolution of the empire. Even in antiquity, Rome was a melting pot of different cultures.”
-Stanford News November 7, 2019


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