The Greek origin of the Romans – Part 1: Aborigines & Pelasgians

Here we present selected excerpts from Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ book ‘The Roman Antiquities‘ (The Loeb Classical Library). Apparently, there had been hardly any doubt for Dionysius and the majority of ancient Greek and Roman historians up to his time (1st century B.C.) that the Romans were a nation of mostly Greek origin/genealogy.

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“For to this day almost all the Greeks are ignorant of the early history of Rome and the great majority of them have been imposed upon by sundry false opinions grounded upon stories which chance has brought to their ears and led to believe that, having
come upon various vagabonds without house or home and barbarians, and even those not free men, as her founders, she in the course of time arrived at world domination, and this not through reverence for the gods and justice and every other virtue, but
through some chance and the injustice of Fortune, which inconsiderately showers her greatest favours upon the most undeserving. And indeed the more malicious are wont to rail openly at Fortune for freely bestowing on the basest of barbarians the blessings of the Greeks.”

“In order, therefore, to remove these erroneous impressions, as I have called them, from the minds of the many and to substitue true ones in their room, I shall in this Book show who the founders of the city were, at what periods the various groups came together, and through what turns of fortune they left their native countries. By this means I engage to prove that they were Greeks and came together from nations not the smallest nor the least considerable.”

“The first historian, so far as I am aware, to touch upon the early period of the Romans was Hieronymus of Cardia, in his work on the Epigoni. After him Timaeus of Sicily related the beginnings of their history in his general history and treated in a separate work the wars with Pyrrhus of Epirus. Besides these, Antigonus, Polybius, Silenus and innumerable other authors devoted themselves to the same themes, though in different ways, each of them recording some few things compiled without accurate investigation on his own part but from reports which chance had brought to his ears. Like to these in all respects are the histories of those Romans, also, who related in Greek the early achievements of the city ; the oldest of these writers are Quintus Fabius  and Lucius Cincius, who both flourished during the Punic wars. Each of these men related the events at which he himself had been present with great exactness, as being well acquainted with them, but touched only in a summary way upon the early events that followed the founding of the city.”

“…it is best that I should state in advance what narratives and records I have used as sources. I arrived in Italy at the very time that Augustus Caesar put an end to the civil war, in the middle of the one hundred and eighty-seventh Olympiad, and having from that time to this present day, a period of twenty-two years, lived at Rome, learned the language of the Romans and acquainted myself with their writings, I have devoted
myself during all that time to matters bearing upon my subject. Some information I received orally from men of the greatest learning, with whom I associated; and the rest I gathered from histories, written by the approved Roman authors — Porcius Cato, Fabius- Maximus, Valerius Antias, Licinius Macer, the Aelii, Gellii and Calpurnii, and many others of note; with these works, which are like the Greek annalistic accounts, as a basis, I set about the writing of my history.”

“This city, mistress of the whole earth and sea, which the Romans now inhabit, is said to have had as its earhest known occupants the barbarian Sicels, a native race. As to the condition of the place before their time, whether it was occupied by others or uninhabited, none can certainly say. But some time later the Aborigines gained possession of it, having taken it from the occupants after a long war. These people had previously lived on the mountains in unwalled villages and scattered groups; but when the Pelasgians, with whom some other Greeks* had united, assisted them in the war against their neighbours, they drove the Sicels out of this place, walled in many towns, and contrived to subjugate all the country that lies between the two rivers, the Liris and the Tiber. These rivers spring from the foot of the Apennine mountains, the range by which all Italy is divided into two parts throughout its length, and at points about eight hundred stades from one another discharge themselves into the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Tiber to the north, near the city of Ostia, and the Liris to the south, as it flows by Minturnae, both these cities being Roman colonies. And these people remained in this same place of abode, being never afterwards driven out by any others; but, although they continued to be one and the same people, their name was twice changed. Till the time of the Trojan war they preserved their ancient name of Aborigines; but under Latinus, their king, who reigned at the time of that war, they began to be called Latins, and when Romulus founded the city named after himself sixteen generations after the taking of Troy, they took the name which they now bear.”

*The Pelasgians were considered a Greek nation by all ancient Greek Historians/Poets/Mythographers; the same stands for Dionysius.

“But the most learned of the Roman historians, among whom is Porcius Cato, who compiled with the greatest care the ‘origins’ of the Italian cities, Gaius Sempronius and a great many others, say that they were Greeks, part of those who once dwelt in Achaia, and that they migrated many generations before the Trojan war. But they do not go on to indicate either the Greek tribe to which they belonged or the city from which they removed, or the date or the leader of the colony, or as the result of what turns of fortune they left their mother country; and although they are following a Greek legend, they have cited no Greek historian as their authority. It is uncertain, therefore, what the truth of the matter is. But if what they say is true, the Aborigines can be a colony of no other people but of those who are now called Arcadians; for these were the first of all the Greeks to cross the Ionian Gulf, under the leadership of Oenotrus. the son of Lycaon, and to settle in Italy. This Oenocrus was the fifth from Aezeius and Phoroneus, who were the first kings in the Peloponnesus. For Niobe was the daughter of Phoroneus, and Pelasgus was the son of Niobe and Zeus, it is said; Lycaon was the son of Aezeius. and Deianira was the daughter of Lycaon; Deianira and Pelasgus were the parents of another Lycaon, whose son Oenotrus was born seventeen generations before the Trojan expedition. This, then, was the time when the Greeks sent the colony into Italy. Oenotrus left Greece because he was dissatisfied with his portion of his father’s land; for, as Lycaon had twenty-two sons, it was necessary to divide Arcadia into as many shares. For this reason Oenotrus left the Peloponnesus, prepared a fleet, and crossed the Ionian Gulf with Peucetius, one of his brothers. They were accompanied by many of their own people—for this nation is said to have been very populous in early times— and by as many other Greeks as had less land than was sufficient for them. Peucetius landed his people above the Iapygian Promontory, which was the first part of Italy they made, and settled there: and from him the inhabitants of this region were called Peucetians. But Oenotrus with the greater part of the expedition came into the other sea that washes the western regions along the coast of Italy; it was then called the Ausonian Sea, from the Ausonians who dwelt beside it, but after the Tyrrhenians became masters at sea its name was changed to that which it now bears.”

“And Antiochus oJ Syracuse, a very early historian, in his account of the settlement of Italy, when enumerating the most ancient inhabitants in the order in which each of them held possession of any part of it, says that the first who are reported to have inhabited that country are the Oenotrians.

(…) Then he relates in what manner they were governed and says that in the course of time Italus came to be their king, after whom they were named Italians; that this man was succeeded by Merges, after whom they were called Morgetes, and that Sicelus, being received as a guest by Morges and setting up a kingdom for himself, divided the nation.”

“I assume that if the Aborigines were in reality a Greek nation, according to the opinion of Cato, Sempronius and many others, they were descendants of these Oenotrians. For I find that the Pelasgians and Cretans and the other nations that lived in Italy came thither afterwards; nor can I discover that any other expedition more ancient than this came from Greece to the western parts of Europe. I am of the opinion that the Oenotrians, besides making themselves masters of many other regions in Italy, some of which they found unoccupied and others but thinly inhabited, also seized a portion of the country of the Umbrians, and that they were called Aborigines from their dwelling on the mountains (for it is characteristic of the Arcadians to be fond of the mountains)”

“Afterwards some of the Pelasgians who inhabited Thessaly, as it is now called, being obliged to leave their country, settled among the Aborigines and jointly with them made war upon the Sicels. It is possible that the Aborigines received them partly in the hope of gaining their assistance, but I believe it was chiefly on account of their kinship; for the Pelasgians, too, were a Greek nation originally from the Peloponnesus. They were unfortunate in many ways but particularly in wandering much and in having no fixed abode. For they first lived in the neighbourhood of the Achaean Argos, as it is now called, being natives of the country, according to most accounts. They received their name originally from Pelasgus, their king. Pelasgus was the son of Zeus, it is said, and of Niobe, the daughter of Phoroneus, who, as the legend goes, was the first mortal woman Zeus had knowledge of.”

(End of Part 1)


Research-Selection: Isidoros Aggelos







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