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Did the Ancient Romans Descend from a Trojan Refugee?

Una faccia, una razza.

You will hear this expression — which means “One face, one race” — uttered today by both Italians and Greeks. Although its origins are uncertain, the saying reflects not only shared physical attributes of the two peoples but also symmetrical principles, values, and cultural richness.

But when did all this sharedness between Italians and Greeks begin? There are basically two versions of this story: the romanticized tale incorporating mythology and lore by the Ancient Roman poet Virgil, and the chronicle based on archeological evidence.

Mythology, Lore, and the Origins of Roman Civilization

Let’s start with mythology and lore (because that’s always more fun).

As told by Virgil, the bloodline of Rome’s founders was connected to a hero of the Trojan War — Aeneas.

Virgil wrote his epic poem the Aeneidmore of a political instrument than a poem in the modern sense — during the 1st Century BCE. These were turbulent and pivotal times in Ancient Rome, during which the Roman Republic became the Empire that would change the course of world history. The poets of that era had the vital task of constructing a national narrative that would shape the collective sentiments of Rome’s citizens.

Patriotic writers such as Virgil, Ovid, and Tibullus (who gave Rome its moniker of The Eternal City, as we discovered in last week’s article) were seeking to elevate Rome’s pedigree to mythological proportions without any connection to the Greeks. Aeneas was perfect for the part. He was of royal Trojan blood, and the Trojans were enemies of the Greeks.

Aeneas: Rome’s Ideal Symbolic Forefather

Besides being part of the royal line of Troy, Aeneas was also one of the most brilliant warriors in the Trojan War, and one of its few survivors. To top it all, Aeneas had already been immortalized in Homer’s Iliad. Written some seven hundred or so years before Virgil started work on his story of Aeneas, the Iliad recounts the legendary ten-year battle between the Greeks and Trojans that, according to lore, had taken place in the 12th Century BCE.

The battle and the city of Troy, once thought to be pure legend, have become the subject of much debate in modern times. As a result of archeological excavations in the 19th Century, many scholars and historians now believe that the site of the city of Hisarlik in Turkey (at the opening of the channel that leads from the Aegean to the Black Sea) was where Troy stood until it was razed to the ground by the Greeks. So perhaps our mythical hero was not so mythical after all.

In the Aeneid, Virgil managed to weave together the strands of mythology for a political and cultural purpose, presenting Aeneas as the son of the goddess Venus, commanded in a vision to found a great city across the sea. After escaping from Troy as it was burning — in the aftermath of that little Trojan Horse gimmick — Aeneas settled in Latium; in Alba Longa to be precise. There his bloodline and the prophecy would eventually come to fruition in the form of Remus and Romulus, also offspring of a deity, who founded Rome in 753 BCE. Well, until Romulus killed his brother and named the city after himself.

From the moment the Aeneid was published, Virgil’s spin on our Trojan refugee as the forefather of Roman citizens has been a cultural mainstay. The poem is a great, romantic yarn spun by an expert storyteller about the origins of the Ancient Romans. There is, however, no evidence of Trojans (or Greeks, for that matter) settling in Latium in the 12th Century BCE.

Magna Grecia: The Facts about Ancient Greeks in Italy

We know conclusively that the south of Italy was colonized as Magna Grecia starting in the 8th Century BCE.

Sicily was the epicentre
of this Greek expansion, which also included Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata, and parts of Campania, most notably Naples. In these areas of Italy, extant remains of Ancient Greek civilization can be found in abundance. Interestingly enough, these archeological sites in Italy are some of the most impressive Greek ruins in the world.

The Greeks of Magna Grecia were eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire but they continued to transmit their culture and influence, which can be seen and felt even now in the places they inhabited. There are some places in Sicily and Calabria where a form of Grecanico (a form of Greek from ancient times) is yet spoken.

Perhaps the fathers of Rome didn’t descend from gods or the royal bloodline of Troy, but the commingling of Greek and Italian cultures in the south of Italy is an enduring epic tale that you can still experience with your own senses.

Una faccia, una razza.

DriverInRome would be pleased to chauffeur you around Rome or Sicily (or anywhere in Italy, for that matter) with a private car and driver, or arrange a licensed guide just for your group.  Please contact us regarding popular or custom itineraries.

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