Roman Conquest of Italy

Roman Pre-History

Alba Longa

Monte Cavo and the Alban Lake

Mythical Foundation of the Mother-City of Rome

Rome and Latium

Adapted from the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

As Stephen Oakley (referenced below, 1997, at p. 332) pointed out, in its earliest incarnation:

  1. “... Rome was just one of numerous small settlements on the Latin plain and, in common with the others, her inhabitants spoke Latin.”

In Roman tradition, these early Latin settlements were under the hegemony of a very ancient ‘city’ called Alba Longa, which became the ‘mother-city’ of Rome.  Thus, for example, when Livy (ca. 27 BC) began his account of the destruction of Alba Longa by the the third king of Rome, Tullus Hostilius (traditionally 672-642 BC), he observed that the war that was about to begin was:

  1. “... a civil war ... , for both [Alba Longa and Rome] were of Trojan descent: Lavinium had  been founded by Trojans, Alba from Lavinium, and Rome [by Romulus, who belonged to] the line of the Alban kings”, (‘History of Rome’, 1: 23: 1). 

This foundation myth was recorded in the now-lost work of Fabius Pictor (late 3rd century BC):

  1. Diodorus Siculus (ca. 45-30 BC) quoted the relevant passage in the now-lost Book 7 of his Library of History’; and

  2. Eusebius (3rd century AD) included it in Book 1 of his ‘Chronicle’, which still survives survives (at least in an Armenian translation). 

It seems that, according to Diodorus, Fabius had written that, when Aeneas and his Trojan followers arrived in central Italy in the 12th century BC and settled near Lavinium:

  1. “An oracle was sent to [him], stating that a four-footed animal would lead him to the place where he should found a city.  When, [soon after], he was sacrificing a white sow, it escaped from his hands and was pursued to a certain hill, where it dropped a farrow of 30 piglets.  Aeneas, ... recalling the oracle, made preparations to found a city on the spot but, [when an apparition directed him not] to do so until 30 years had passed (corresponding to the number of piglets) he abandoned his plan.  When he died, his son Ascanius ascended the throne [of Lavinium] and, after 30 years, he founded a settlement on the hill [on which the sow had given birth].  He gave it the name of Alba, after the colour of the sow ... [and] added another name, Longa,  ... since the city was narrow in width and of great length.  And he (Diodorus) goes on to say, that Ascanius made Alba the capital of his kingdom and subdued no small number of the settlements round about: and he became a famous man and died after a reign of 38 years", (Eusebius, ‘Chronicle’, 1: 107 = Diodorus, ‘Library of History’, 7: 5: 6-7).

Although other versions of this myth survive, they all attribute the foundation of Alba Longa to Ascanius, who became the first king of Alba.  

Traditional Location of Alba Longa

On Mons Albanus

Fabius Pictor placed Alba Longa on ‘a certain hill’, which Cato (ca. 150 BC) apparently named in his now-lost ‘Origines’:

  1. Virgil (ca. 19 BC) named the hill in his epic poem: as Aeneas prepared for a battle for the hand of Lavinia, the daughter of king Latinus:

  2. “... Juno, peering from that proud summit [of the hill that is now called] Alban (although, at that time, it knew neither name nor fame), surveyed the [Latin] plain below ...”, (‘Aeneid’ 12: 134); and

  3. Servius (4th century AD), in his commentary on this passage, explained that Virgil:

  4. “... follows Cato, who believed that the mons Albanus took its name from Alba Longa”, (‘ad Aen.’ 12: 134, (my translation).

These and other fragments from Fabius Pictor and Cato were the earliest of 67 surviving records of the location of Alba Longa, by 25 authors, that Alexandre Grandazzi (referenced below at VIII: 9-70) reproduced and translated into French.   He noted (at VIII: 72) that most, although not all, of these authors followed Fabius Pictor and Cato by placing it on the mons Albanus (modern Monte Cavo), some 20 km southeast of the future site of Rome. 

Below Mons Albanus

Front and back of the inscribed altar from Bovillae (CIL XIV 2387)

From the estate of Vincenzo Colonna at Frattocchie, now in the garden of Palazzo Colonna, Rome

Adapted from S. Weinstock (referenced below, at p. 8) 

The earliest of the surviving records of a location other than the mountain itself is from a now lost work by Caius Julius Caesar (the dictator of 49-4 BC) entitled ‘De Analogia’ (ca. 54 BC): the grammarian Pompeius (ca. 500 AD) quoted the relevant passage in his commentary on Donatus’ ‘ars maior’: 

  1. “'Duae sunt Albae, alia ista quam novimus in Aricia, et alia hic in ltalia” (‘Grammatici Latini’, ed. H. Keil, 5: 145).

  2. “There are two [towns called] Alba: the one that we know in [the territory of] Aricia, and the other here in Italy [i.e. Alba Fucens]”, (my translation).

Furthermore, Livy recorded that Asconius:

  1. “... founded a new city below the Alban Mount (sub Albano monte), which he named Alba Longa because it extended  along the ridge (dorso)”, (‘History of Rome’, 1: 3: 3). 

Alexandre Grandazzi (referenced below at VIII: 73) suggested that, in the light of the evidence of Caesar’s passage above:

  1. “... Livy, in [this passage], as famous as it is brief, ... may well have located Alba near Castel Gandolfo [marked on the map above], as argued by [Thomas Ashby, referenced below, at pp. 47-50].”

Grandazzi (as above) pointed out that Caesar is unlikely to have invented this location for Alba Longa, since there is evidence that the gens Julia had maintained a private shrine in this locality before his time.  This evidence is in the form of an altar (illustrated above) that was found in 1826 on the site of ancient Bovillae.  The inscription (CIL XIV 2387) reads:

Vediovei Patrei/ genteiles Iuliei/ Ved〚- - -〛 aara (front): leege Albana dicata (back)

Mary Beard and her colleagues (referenced below, at p. 17) translated this as:

  1. ‘Members of the Julian clan to Father Vediovis/ Altar for Vediovis: Dedicated by Alban Law’;

and observed that, in the inscription:

  1. “... the Julii, acting as a clan, record a dedication or sacrifice to the god Vediovis.” 

We know from Macrobius that a number of patrician families, including the Julii, had their own domestic cults:

  1. “There are ...  religious festivals that belong to specific clans, like Claudian or Aemilian or Julian or Cornelian festivals and any others that a given clan keeps as a consequence of its own domestic observances”, (‘Saturnalia’, 1: 16: 7, translated by Robert Kaster, referenced below).

Thus, the likelihood is that the private Julian festival recorded by Macrobius was dedicated to Vediovis and celebrated at this altar.  The dating of the inscription is not straightforward: as Stephen Smith (referenced below, at p. 147) observed:

  1. “By naming the gens or clan, rather than an individual, [the inscription] suggests timeless continuity, [and this] prevents it from being dated precisely.  Its script pretends to be old by following the pseudo-archaic spelling conventions proposed by the grammarian Lucius Accius, which were popular from around 132 to 74 BC.  [The] lettering [is] of approximately the same period, and so the altar is usually dated to around 100 BC .”

According to the EAGLE database (see the CIL link above), it was found in an external corner of the scena of the Roman theatre, where it had clearly been reused.  However, we might reasonably assume that its original location was nearby.   Thus, the gens Julia probably established a private festival dedicated to Vediovis at Bovillae in ca. 100 BC, where they  wished to establish the impression of a longstanding association.

We might now address the reason why the Julii might have wished to choose Vediovis as the subject of their private festival.  It seems to me that a clue is to be found in a record in the ‘Origo Gentis Romanae’ (‘OGR’, late 4th century AD):

  1. “... the Latins ... believed that, because of his outstanding courage, Ascanius [must have been] descended from Jupiter ... [Therefore], by slightly changing his name to form a diminutive [of Jove, they], first called him Iolus and afterward Iulus.  From him, the Julian family originated, as write Caesar in Book II and Cato in the ‘Origines’”, (‘OGR’, 15: 5).

Timothy Cornell (in T. Cornell, referenced below, II: p. 167) translated this as F11 of the fragments of Cato’s ‘Origines’.  He deduced (at I: p. 641) that ‘Caesar’ here was L. Julius Caesar, the consul of 64 BC and a cousin of the dictator of 49-4 BC: if so, then this citation would probably have come from Book II of his ‘libri pontificales’.  Cornell observed (at III; p. 71) that:

  1. “The difficulty here, as in all cases where two authors are cited [in the ‘OGR’], is to decide which elements of the text comes from [which author]”, and which from both.”

He suggested, however, that, in this case, the author of the ‘OGR’:

  1. “... implies that Caesar and Cato said the same things, not different things.”

The ‘things’ in question are that:

  1. the reason for Ascanius’ new name, Iulus, and the related claim that it was derived from a diminutive of Jove; and

  2. he was the founder of the Julian clan.

Howard Scullard (referenced below, at pp. 56-7) discussed the various explanations found in our surviving sources for the identity of Vediovis, and pointed out (at p. 57) that some of them:

  1. “... see Vediovis as a little Jupiter', accepting the diminutive force of [the prefix] ‘ve-’ and thus following:

  2. [Paul the Deacon in his summary of an entry in the now-lost lexicon of M. Verrius Flaccus], who saysthat the syllable ve- often refers to small things, as in “Unde Vediovem parvum lovem”; [and]

  3. Ovid, [who] says” lupiter est iuvenis' and records that farmers wives called stunted corn vesca.

Mary Beard and her colleagues (referenced below, at p. 17) observed that:

  1. “It seems likely that Vediovis represented, at least for the Julii, the divine form of their [alleged] founder, [Ascanius]/ Iulus, for it was a Latin tradition that founders took on a new name when they were deified: so [for example]: Romulus became the god Quirinus; Aeneas (at least at Lavinium) became Indiges; and Latinus (the founder of the Latins) became Jupiter Latiaris” (my slight change of word order).

Stefan Weinstock (referenced below, pp, 8-10) presented the evidence for his assertion (at p.10) that Vediovis was a young Jupiter (rather than a form of Apollo, as other scholars suggest). He also pointed out (at p. 10) that:

  1. “Vediovis was a youthful Jupiter [and] Iulus was assumed to be [a diminutive of Jove]: the conclusion seems unavoidable: the Julii created the gentilician cult of Vediovis precisely because they believed him to be identical with [the deified] Iulus.”

Bringing all this together, we might reasonably assume that L. Julius Caesar, who was last recorded in 40 BC, when he was still active as an augur [reference needed], recorded (probably in his ‘libri pontificales’ that Ascanius had been award the name of Iulus because he was thought to be descended from Jupiter, and that this explained the name of his descendants, the gens Julia.

Ernst Badian (referenced below, at p. 15) argued that:

  1. “... there is no [known] conjunction between the Julii and Vediovis outside this text ... [and] there is no [surviving] record of any contact between the Julii and Bovillae before this inscription ...  [The dedication of this altar in ca. 100 BC was probably] due to the attempt of the Julii to find their way back into the political mainstream [after a long period of apparent obscurity] ... The sudden emphasis on the family legend tracing their descent to Alba Longa and ultimately, [via Aeneas and Ascanius], to Venus, serves as a political manifesto.  Vediovis presumably had no structure dedicated to him at Bovillae ... , but there was probably an area sacred to him [there] that gave the Julii their opportunity.  An altar could be used as the vehicle for a suitable inscription: it was much cheaper than a temple and seems not to have needed public authorisation.”

It seems to me that Badian’s basic premise is borne out by the fact that it was Lucius Furius Purpurio who had introduced the cult of Vediovis to Rome at the start of the 2nd century BC, and there is no reason to think that the Julii were ever associated with it there.  Furthermore, the ‘sudden emphasis’ of the Julii on their descent from Venus is also manifest in two coins that depicted Venus on the reverse that were issued (respectively) by

  1. Sextus Julius Caesar (praetor of 123 BC) in 129 BC (RRC 258/1):

  2. Lucius Julius Caesar (consul of 90 BC) in 103 BC (RRC 320/1).

  This is significant because:

according to the now-unknown author of the ‘Origo Gentis Romanae’:

“While ... Latinus Silvius was ruling [Alba Longa, the ancient capital of Latium], the colonies of Praeneste, Tiber, Gabii, Tusculum, Cora, Pometia, Labici, Crustumium, Cameria, Bovillae, and other cities on every side were sent forth”, (‘OGR’, 17: 6); and

there is epigraphic evidence that, from at least the 1st century AD (see, for example, CIL VI 1851), the people of Bovillae referred to themselves as Albani Longani Bovillenses, thereby implying that they had replaced Alba Longa after its destruction (according to tradition) in 658 BC.

Thus, evidence of an apparently ancient Julian cult here would support the claim of the Julii to descent from Ascanius, son of Aeneas, the founder and first king of Alba Longa.

Alexandre Grandazzi (referenced below at IX: 496) analysed the surviving sources for the Feriae Latinae, which contained more than 30 references to its celebration on the mons Albanus.  He reasonably concluded that:

  1. “... even in the classical period, the link between the festival and the place of its celebration remains very strong,  to the extent that any formulation that lacked topographical precision would have been seen as incomplete”, (my translation).

The earliest of these was by Varro (ca. 45 BC), who recorded that:

  1. “... the Latinae Feriae is an appointed day, named from the peoples of Latium, who had equal right with the Romans to share the meat at the sacrifices on the Alban Mount (ex Albano Monte): this Latin festival took its name from these Latin people”, (‘On the Latin Language’, 6: 26, translated by Roland Kent, referenced below, at p. 199).

By the time that Fabius was writing, nobody knew the precise location of Alba Longa (probably because it had never existed, at least as an urbanised community).  However, the archaic feriae Latinae still took place on the summit of the extinct volcano that is now known as Monte Corvo. 

As Timothy Cornell (referenced below, at p. 325) observed in his review of the important book by Alexandre Grandazzi (also referenced below):

  1. “... the archeological evidence [at this cult site] serves to confirm a broader historical truth implicit in the literary tradition, namely that the region of the Alban hills was the cradle of Latinity, expressed in a material sense in ... the so-called Cultura Laziale, the Latin language, and the ethnic consciousness of the Latin peoples.  Literary sources such as that of Varro [above] make it abundantly clear that participation in the annual festival of Jupiter Latiaris [on the Alban Mount] was the mark of Latin identity ... It was [the continuing existence of the ancient festival and cult site] that gave birth to the legend of Alba Longa.”

Christopher Smith (referenced below, at pp. 22-3) pointed out that there must have been other factors at work in the development of the tradition history of Alba Longa, not least because the feriae Latinae were traditionally established only in the reign of the last king of Rome, L. Tarquinius Superbus.  Furthermore, the relevant archeological evidence from Monte Cavo is actually quite poor and adds relatively little to the debate.  nevertheless, as Rianne Hermans (referenced below, at P. 145) summarised:

  1. “Ancient authors describe these rites as a direct relic from the past, connecting them both with the foundation legends of Rome and with the battles and alliances that characterised Rome’s early relations with the Latins.”

Read more:

Hermans A., (Rianne), “Latin Cults through Roman Eyes: Myth, Memory and Cult Practice in the Alban Hills: Chapter  III: Juno Sospita: Guardian of Lanuvium and Rome”, (2017), thesis from the University of Amsterdam

Smith S., “Sacred by Design: Expressing Latin Identity through Architectural Mouldings”, (2015)  thesis from Royal Holloway, University of London

Smith C., “The Latins: Historical Perspective”, in:

  1. Aberson M. et al., editors), “Entre Archeologie Et Histoire: Dialogues Sur Divers Peuples de l'Italie Préromaine”, (2014) Bern, at pp. 21-30

Cornell T., “Review: Alba Longa, Histoire d'une Légende: Recherches sur l'Archéologie, la Religion, les Traditions de l'Ancien Latium” (see below), American Journal of Philology, 132 (2011) 323-6

Kaster R., “Macrobius: Saturnalia: Volume II, Books 3-5”, (2011) Cambridge (MA)

Badian E., “From the Julii to Caesar”, in

  1. M. Griffin (ed.), “A Companion to Julius Caesar”, (2009) Malden, MA, at pp. 11-22

Grandazzi A., “Alba Longa: Histoire d'une Légende: Recherches l'Archéologie, la Religion, les Traditions de l'Ancien Latium”, (2008) Rome

Beard M. et al, “Religions of Rome II,: A Sourcebook”, (1998) Cambridge

Oakley S., “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume I: Book VI”, (1997) Oxford

Scullard H., “Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic”, (1981) London

Weinstock S., “Divus Julius”, (1971) Oxford

Kent R. (translator), “Varro: On the Latin Language, Volume I (Books 1-7) and Volume II (Books 8-10 and  Fragments”, (1938) Cambridge, MA

Ashby T., "Alba Longa", Journal of Philology, 27 (1899) 37–50.

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