The Greek origin of the Romans – Part 2: Arcadians & Hercules’ expedition to the West

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.


“Soon after, another Greek expedition landed in this part of Italy, having migrated from Pallantium, a town of Arcadia, about the sixtieth year before the Trojan war, as the Romans themselves say. This colony had for its leader Evander, who is said to have been the son of Hermes and a local nymph of the Arcadians. The Greeks call her Themis and say that she was inspired, but the writers of the early history of Rome call her, in the native language, Carmenta. The nymph’s name would be in Greek Thespiodos or ‘prophetic singer’; for the Romans call songs carmina and they agree that this woman, possessed by divine inspiration, fore-told to the people in song the things that would come to pass. This expedition was not sent out by the common consent ot the nation, but, a sedition having arisen among the people, the faction which was defeated left the country of their own accord. It chanced that the kingdom of the Aborigines had been inherited at that time by Faunus, a descendant of Mars, it is said, a man of prudence as well as energy, whom the Romans in their sacrifices and songs honour as one of the gods of their country. This man received the Arcadians, who were but few in number, with great friendship and gave them as much of his own land as they desired. And the Arcadians, as Themis by inspiration kept advising them, chose a hill, not far from the Tiber, which is now near the middle of the city of Rome, and by this hill built a small village sufficient for the complement of the two ships in which they had come from Greece. Yet this village was ordained by fate to excel in the course of time all other cities, whether Greek or barbarian, not only in its size, but also in the majesty of its empire and in every other form of prosperity, and to be celebrated above them all as long as mortality shall endure. They named the town Pallantium after their mothercity in Arcadia ; now, however, the Romans call it Palatium, time having obscured the correct form, and this name has given occasion to many to suggest absurd etymologies.”

“But some writers, among them Polybius of Megalopolis, relate that the town was named after Pallas, a lad who died there; they say that he was the son of Hercules and Lavinia, the daughter of Evander, and that his maternal grandfather raised a tomb to him on the hill and called the place Pallantium, after the lad. But I have never seen any tomb of Pallas at Rome nor have I heard of any drink-offerings being made in his honour nor been able to discover anything else of that nature, although this family has not been left unremembered or without those honours with which divine beings arc worshipped by men. For I have learned that public sacrifices are performed yearly by the Romans to Evander and to Carmenta in the same manner as to the other heroes and minor deities; and I have seen two altars that were erected, one to Carmenta under the Capitoline hill near the Porta Carmentalis, and the other to Evander by another hill, called the Aventine, not far from the Porta Trigemina; but I know of nothing of this kind that is done in honour of Pallas. As for the Arcadians, when they had joined in a single settlement at the foot of the hill, they proceeded to adorn their town with all the buildings to which they had been accustomed at home and to erect temples. And first they built a temple to the Lycaean Pan by the direction of Themis (for to the Arcadians Pan is the most ancient and the most honoured of all the gods), when they had found a suitable site for the purpose. This place the Romans call the Lupercal. but we should call it Lykaion or ‘Lycaeum.’ Now, it is true, since the district about the sacred precinct has been united with the city, it has become difficult to make out by conjecture the ancient nature of the place.”

“The Arcadians have a legend that this goddess was the daughter of Pallas, the son of Lycaon, and that she received those honours from mankind which she now enjoys at the desire of Athena, with whom she had been reared. For they say that Athena, as soon as she was born, was handed over to Pallas by Zeus and that she was reared by him till she grew up. They built also a temple to Ceres, to whom by the ministry of women they offered sacrifices without wine, according to the custom of the Greeks, none of which rites our time has changed. Moreover, they assigned a precinct to the Equestrian Neptune and instituted the festival called by the Arcadians Hippocrateia and by the Romans Consualia, during which it is customary among the latter for the horses and mules to rest from work and to have their heads crowned with flowers. They also consecrated many other precincts, altars and images of the gods and instituted purifications and sacrifices according to the customs of their own country, which continued to be performed down to my day in the same manner. Yet I should not be surprised if some of the ceremonies by reason of their great antiquity have been forgotten by their posterity and neglected; however, those that are still practised are sufficient proofs that they are derived from the customs formerly in use among the Arcadians (…) The Arcadians are said also to have been the first to introduce into Italy the use of Greek letters, which had lately appeared among them, and also music performed on such instruments as lyres, trigons and flutes; for their predecessors had used no musical invention except shepherd’s pipes. They are said also to have established laws, to have transformed men’s mode of life from the prevailing bestiality to a state of civilization, and likewise to have introduced arts and professions and many other things conducive to the public good, and for these reasons to have been
treated with great consideration by those who had received them. This was the next Greek nation after the Pelasgians to come into Italy and to take up a common residence with the Aborigines, establishing itself in the best part of Rome.”

A few years after the Arcadians another Greek expedition came into Italy under the command of Hercules, who had just returned from the conquest of Spain and of all the region that extends to the setting of the sun*. It was some of his followers who, begging Hercules to dismiss them from the expedition, remained in this region and built a town on a suitable hill, which they found at a distance of about three stades from Pallantium. This is now called the Capitoline hill, but by the men of that time the Saturnian hill, or, in Greek, the hill of Cronus. The greater part of those who stayed behind were Peloponnesians — people of Pheneus and Epeans of Elis, who no longer had any desire to return home, since their country had been laid waste in the war against Hercules. There was also a small Trojan element mingled with these, consisting of prisoners taken from Ilium in the reign of Laomedon, at the time when Hercules conquered the city. And I am of the opinion that all the rest of the army, also, who were either wearied by their labours or irked by their wanderings, obtained their dismissal from the expedition and remained there.”

*This is a very interesting piece of information we receive here.

“But in the course of time the land came to be called Italy, after a ruler named Italus. This man, according to Antiochus of Syracuse, was both a wise and good prince, and persuading some of his neighbours by arguments and subduing the rest by force, he made himself master of all the land which lies between the Napetine and Scylacian bays, which was the first land, he says, to be called Italy, after Italus. And when he had possessed himself of this district and had many subjects, he immediately coveted the neighbouring peoples and brought many cities under his rule. He says further that Italus was an Oenotrian by birth.


“But the story which comes nearer to the truth and which has been adopted by many who have narrated his deeds in the form of history is as follows: Hercules, who was the greatest commander of his age, marched at the head of a large force through all the country that lies on this side of the Ocean, destroying any despotisms that were grievous and oppressive to their subjects, or commonwealths that outraged and injured the neighbouring states, or organized bands of men who lived in the manner of savages and lawlessly put strangers to death, and in their room establishing lawful monarchies, well-ordered governments and humane and sociable modes of life. Furthermore, he mingled barbarians with Greeks, and inhabitants of the inland with dwellers on the sea coast, groups which hitherto had been distrustful and unsocial in their dealings with each other; he also built cities in desert places, turned the course of rivers that overflowed the fields, cut roads through inaccessible mountains, and contrived other means by which every land and sea might lie open to the use of all mankind*. And he came into Italy not alone nor yet bringing a herd of cattle (for neither does this country lie on the road of those returning from Spain to Argos nor would he have been deemed worthy of so great honour merely for passing through it), but at the head of a great army, after he had already conquered Spain, in order to subjugate and rule the people in this region; and he was obliged to tarry there a considerable time both because of the absence of his fleet, due to stormy weather that detained it, and because not all the nations of Italy willingly submitted to him. For, besides the other barbarians, the Ligurians. a numerous and warlike people seated in the passes of the Alps, endeavoured to prevent his entrance into Italy by force of arms, and in that place so great a battle was fought by the Greeks that all their missiles gave out in the course of the fighting. This war is mentioned by Aeschylus, among the ancient poets, in his Prometheus Unbound (…) After Hercules had defeated this people and gained the passes, some delivered up their cities to him of their own accord, particularly those who were of Greek extraction or who had no considerable forces; but the greatest part of them were reduced by war and siege. Among those who were conquered in battle, they say, was Cacus, who is celebrated in the Roman legend, an exceedingly barbarous chieftain reigning over a savage people, who had set himself to oppose Hercules; he was established in the fastnesses and on that account was a pest to his neighbours. He, when he heard that Hercules lay encamped in the plain hard by, equipped his followers like brigands and making a sudden raid while the array lay sleeping, he surrounded and drove otf as much of their booty as he found unguarded. Afterwards, being besieged by the Greeks, he not only saw his forts taken by storm, but was himself slain amid his fastnesses. And when his forts had been demolished, those who had accompanied Hercules on the expedition (these were some Arcadians with Evander, and Faunus, king of the Aborigines) took over the districts round about, each group for itself. And it may be conjectured that those of the Greeks who remained there, that is, the Epeans and the Arcadians from Pheneus, as well as the Trojans+, were left to guard the country. For among the various measures of Hercules that bespoke the true general none was more worthy of admiration than his practice of carrying along with him for a time on his expeditions the prisoners taken from the captured cities, and then, after they had cheerfully assisted him in his wars, settling them in the conquered regions and bestowing on them the riches he had gained from others*. It was because of these deeds that Hercules gained the greatest name and renown in Italy, and not because of his passage through it, which was attended by nothing worthy of veneration (…) Some say that he also left sons by two women in the region now inhabited by the Romans. One of these sons was Pallas, whom he had by the daughter of Evander, whose name, they say, was Lavinia; the other, Latiuus, whose mother was a certain Hyperborean girl whom he brought with him as a hostage given to him by her father and preserved for some time untouched; but while he was on his voyage to Italy, he fell in love with her and got her with child. And when he was preparing to leave for Argos, he married her to Faunus, king of the Aborigines; for which reason Latinus is generally looked upon as the son of Faunus, not of Hercules. Pallas, they say, died before he arrived at puberty; but Latinus, upon reaching man’s estate, succeeded to the kingdom of the Aborigines, and when he was killed in the battle against the neighbouring Rutulians, without leaving any male issue, the kingdom devolved on Aeneas, the son of Anchises, his son-in-law. But these things happened at other times.”

*These are incredible pieces of information to say the least.

+Clearly, the Trojans are counted here among the Greek nations.

“After Hercules had settled everything in Italy according to his desire and his naval force had arrived in safety from Spain, he sacrificed to the gods the tithes of his booty and built a small town named after himself in the place where his fleet lay at anchor (it is now occupied by the Romans, and lying as it does between Neapolis and Pompeii, has at all times secure havens); and having gained fame and glory and received divine honours from all the inhabitants of Italy*, he set sail for Sicily. Those who were left behind by him as a garrison to dwell in Italy and were settled around the Saturnian hill lived for some time under an independent government: but not long afterwards they adapted their manner of life, their laws and their religious ceremonies to those of the Aborigines, even as the Arcadians and, still earlier, the Pelasgians had done, and they shared in the same government with them, so that in time they came to be looked upon as of the same nation with them. But let this suffice concerning the expedition of Hercules and concerning the Peloponnesians who remained behind in Italy.”

*Here we have one more example from Mythology (i.e. very ancient History, as the Greeks considered it) of ‘deification’ of a human being for his great deeds.

(End of Part 2)


Research-Selection: Isidoros Aggelos

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