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Memories of the King: Political Power, Placehood, and Performativity in Early Rome and Etruria

Hilary W. Becker and Jeffery A. Becker

Binghamton University

The scholarly and popular memory of the archaic kings of central Italy largely focuses on personality and traditional narratives that may be linked to the constructs of founding heroes. These men and their legendary exploits, famously narrated by later first millennium B.C. authors, hover around the line that divides myth from history, an endlessly complex dialectic that we debate even today. The institutional memory of these individuals is often secondary. In the Roman case, Latin authors are keen to parcel out various foundational responsibilities to early kings so that the key elements of society can each be seen to have a founding figure. Numerous studies, full of claims and counterclaims, have addressed the historical aspects of archaic kingship in central Italy to such an extent that this has become its own scholarly tract (Smith 2011). The present aim is to examine the politics, places, and performances of archaic central Italy from the archaeological vantage point in order to offer perspective on the ranking social elites referred to as kings.

As social actors, archaic kings are involved in complex systems of ritual performance that require both a place in which to occur as well as a number of prescriptive formulae that dictate the trajectory of the ritual business itself. The archaic loci of gathering can be elusive and sometimes at odds with the evidence from later phases of urban centers. In archaic Etruria domestic spaces may well be the site of regal performativity. At Populonia, approximately 100 cups have been interpreted as cups used to toast the death of an eminent person (perhaps a king?), at his house. At Veii, the ritual site of the burial of another leader coincided with the location of his house and continued to receive votive deposits over the course of a half millennium. This ritual continuity even caused the seventh-century B.C. urban plan to respect this site. This story is familiar in Roman environs wherein various topoi of the Forum Romanum are assigned value based on the fact that they are thought to be connected to the activities of early kings.

One result of urbanism in Etruria and Latium is that central spaces became not only the venues of power display and ritual activity but also of commercial activity. The evidence of calendar systems at Rome preserves mentions of the appearance and activities of the king, an issue that may be connected to the continuation of the archaic kings’ ritual roles by the republican office of the rex sacrorum. Epigraphic evidence from Rome and Etruria suggests that the king’s kalator (herald) may have a role in convoking assemblies to participate in the transactions led by the king. Ritual calendars such as the Etruscan brontoscopic calendar (Turfa 2012) and ritual events in Rome (e.g. the regifugium) argue for the continued cultivation of the memories of kings, in many cases long after the office itself had ended. 

While the archaeological assemblages pertaining to archaic monarchy in central Italy are fragmentary, it nonetheless preserves key elements of earlier institutions. This evidence challenges us to reexamine the places in both Latin and Etruscan cities that are traditionally associated with early kings not so much in light of their historiographical value but rather in order to exploit their archaeological potential. The central role of ancestral tradition for Etruscans and Latins reminds us that the force of traditional institutions is durable if not indelible and that for this reason the figure and the memory of the king abounds, to such an extent that in latter days great effort would be made to connect with it. An explication of material evidence for kingship in central Italy in the archaic period provides an opportunity to focus the conversation about social elites and archaic urbanism not so much on the personality of the individual but rather the centrality of the office he held.

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Between Myth and Materiality: The Origins of Rome 800-500 BCE

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