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Aleksandr Koptev

fter the unsuccessful battle of Allia in 390 BC, realizing the hopelessness
of any attempt to defend the city, the Romans decided that all men of
military age and able-bodied senators should, with their wives and
children, withdraw into the Citadel and the Capitol, and defend themselves from
that fortified position.
By contrast, the aged men (seneces) decided to await the arrival of the Gauls
and suffer death in order to save the Senate and the men of military age (militares
iuuentus). Livy explains this decision as follows: If the Citadel and the Capitol,
where the gods dwelt; if the senate, the source of public wisdom; if the young men
capable of bearing arms survived the impending destruction of the city, they could
easily bear the loss of the crowd of old men they left behind, who were bound to
die in any case.1
These old people were men of standing among the Romans who had been
consuls and enjoyed triumphs in their day. But at the time of the invasion they
were too old and sick to fight the enemy; unable to take part in the defence of
their country, they declared themselves ready to die with their city. After all the
arrangements had been made for the defence of the Capitol, the old men returned
to their homes and, fully prepared to die, awaited the arrival of the enemy. Those
who had filled curule offices resolved to meet their fate wearing the insignia of

T. Livy, (Ab urbe condita): bks V , VI, and VII with an English translation by B. O. Foster,
Loeb Classical Library, 114, 133, 172, 191, 233, 295, 301, 313, 332, 355, 367, 396, 404, 14 vols
(London: Heinemann, 196067), III (1960), 135 (Livy 5. 39. 940. 1); cf. Plutarch Camill. 21.
154 Aleksandr Koptev

their former rank and honour and distinctions. They put on the splendid dress
which they had worn when driving the chariots of the gods or riding in triumph
through the city and, thus arrayed, they seated themselves in their ivory chairs in
front of their houses. Plutarch (Camill. 21) reported that they were sitting in a
forum, which obviously resembled the Forum Romanum. Some writers record
that, led by Marcus Fabius, the Pontifex Maximus, they recited a solemn chant by
which they devoted themselves to death for their country and the fellow citizens.2
Seated either in the porticos of their mansions or around the Forum, these old
men were gazed upon with veneration by the Gauls once they had forced their way
into the city. Their apparel and their whole bearing and demeanour gave an
impression of superhuman magnificence, the majestic expressions on their faces
conveying the very aspect of gods. So the Gauls stood, staring at them as if they
were statues, until one of the patricians, Marcus Papirius, roused the passion of a
Gaul who began to stroke his beard, smiting him on the head with his ivory staff.
He was the first to be killed by the angry Gaul, after which the others also were
butchered in their chairs. After this slaughter, Livy reports, houses were set on fire
and a general massacre ensued, in which no living being was spared. In this article,
I intend to look at the social background and thought process that lay behind the
story of the massacre.

A Senicide or a Voluntary Self-Devotion?

The death of the older men of Rome in the Gallic Sack has often been considered
a throwback to an ancient custom, senicide, in which old people were killed or
allowed themselves to die because of their physical weakness, sickness, and
uselessness to society, practiced by many ancient societies. In his recent book,
Tim Parkin gives lots of examples of similar senicide from many parts of the
ancient world which show how widespread the custom was.3 In certain societies
the practice became normal, so that the polity consisted only of men sound in
body and robust in years, since none of them lived beyond sixty years. Some

Livy 5. 41. 13: Sunt qui M. Folio pontifice maximo praefante carmen deuouisse eos se pro
patria Quiritibusque Romanis tradant (Some historians record that Marcus Folius, the pontifex
maximus, led in the recitation of a solemn vow, by which they devoted themselves to death, on
behalf of their country and the Roman Quirites).
Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), pp. 25964.

scholars assume a similar custom had existed in archaic Rome.4 Varro refers to
the annual custom of throwing straw dolls into the Tiber from the Wooden
Bridge on 15 May at the time of the Argean sacrifice.5 According to Dionysius
of Halicarnassus, the Romans, from the late Republic at any rate, believed that
the puppets represented old men, and the custom had replaced real human
sacrifices performed by Roman priests in the distant past:
It is said also that the ancients sacrificed human victims to Saturn, as was done at
Carthage while that city stood and as is still done to this day among the Gauls and certain
other western nations, and that Hercules, desiring to abolish the custom of this sacrifice,
erected the altar upon the Saturnian hill and performed the initial rites of sacrifice with
unblemished victims burning on a pure fire. And lest the people should feel any scruple
at having neglected their traditional sacrifices, he taught them to appease the anger of the
god by making effigies resembling the men they had been wont to bind hand and foot and
throw into the stream of the Tiber, and dressing these in the same manner, to throw them
into the river instead of the men, his purpose being that any superstitious dread remaining
in the minds of all might be removed, since the semblance of the ancient rite would still
be preserved. This the Romans continued to do every year even down to my day a little
after the vernal equinox, in the month of May, on what they call the Ides (the day they
mean to be the middle of the month); on this day, after offering the preliminary sacrifices
according to the laws, the pontifices, as the most important of the priests are called, and
with them the virgins who guard the perpetual fire, the praetors, and such of the other
citizens as may lawfully be present at the rites, throw from the sacred bridge into the
stream of the Tiber thirty effigies made in the likeness of men, which they call Argei.6

Giacomo Devoto, Luccisione dei vecchi e il lessico indoeuropeo, in MNHMHG XAPIN:
Gedenkschrift fr Paul Kretschmer, ed. by Heinz Kronasser, 2 vols (Wien: Verlag der Wiener
Sprachgesellschaft, 195657), I, 9399 = I vecchi e luccisione dei vecchi, in Scritti minori, 3 vols
(Florence: Le Monnier, 195872), I, 11925; Gennaro Franciosi, Clan gentilizio e strutture
monogamiche contributo alla storia della famiglia romana, 2 vols (Napoli: Jovene, 197880), I,
30001. Another view, see U. Lugli, La depontazione dei sessagenari, Studi Nonniani, 11
(1986), 5968 (pp. 6566).
M. Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, English trans. by Roland G. Kent, Loeb
Classical Library, 333, 2 vols (Cambridge, M A : Harvard University Press, 1951), I, 30810
(Varro Ling. Lat. 7. 44): Argei ab Argis; Argei fiunt e scirpeis, simulacra hominum XXVII; ea
quotannis de Ponte Sublicio a sacerdotibus publice deici solent in Tiberim (Argei from the city
Argos: the Argei are made of rushes, human figures twenty-seven in number; these are each year
thrown into the Tiber from the Bridge-on-Piles, by the priests, acting on behalf of the state).
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities, English trans. by Earnest Cary on the
basis of the version of Edward Spelman, Loeb Classical Library, 319, 437, 357, 364, 372, 378, 388,
7 vols (Cambridge, M A: Harvard University Press, 193953), I, 12223 (Dionysius 1. 38. 23).
156 Aleksandr Koptev

Indeed, many authors repeatedly mention the Roman tradition of throwing men
older than sixty into the Tiber.7 However, there is some ambiguity about the
evidence for this presumed custom, because human sacrifices are said to have been
forbidden in Rome from very early times and evidence of them in the republican
period relates only to the sacrifice of foreigners.8 Two Gauls and two Greeks were
sacrificed at dangerous moments for the Roman Republic in 228, 216, and
114/113 BC.9 The murder of fellow-citizens was regarded as a crime and the
murder of relatives an even more serious crime, parricidium.10 Republican writers
attributed the story of the Horatian triplets, one of whom was condemned for
the killing of his own sister, to the reign of Tullus Hostilius in order to show
indubitably that such cases had been punished by death from the very begin-
ning of the Roman kingdom. In Roman historical tradition it was persistently
reiterated that human sacrifices were forbidden by Hercules or Numa Pompilius
at the earliest stage of Roman history. Livy (22. 57. 6) maintained that human
sacrifice was alien to the Roman way of life (minime Romano sacro), and Pliny the
Elder (Nat. Hist. 30. 4. 13) argued that one of Romes great contributions to
civilization was the abolition of such monstra.11 At the same time the Etruscans,
Romes neighbours, may have practiced human sacrifice to honour their dead.12
Livy (7. 15. 910) refers to the slaughter of some three hundred captive Roman
soldiers by the men of Tarquinia in 356 BC, during the fierce struggle between the
Etruscan cities and Rome; in the following year the Romans retaliated, killing
three hundred and fifty-eight noble Tarquinian prisoners. Both cities carried out

For a catalogue of references on the mysterious proverb that sixty year olds should be thrown
from the bridge, see Parkin, pp. 26570.
See Franoise Van Haeperen, Sacrifices humains et mises mort rituelles Rome: Quelques
observations, Folia Electronica Classica, 8 (2004), 125.
Augusto Fraschetti, Le sepolture rituali del foro Boario, in Le Dlit religieux dans la cit
antique: Table Ronde, Rome, 67 avril 1978, ed. by M. Torelli and others (Rome: cole franaise
de Rome, 1981), pp. 51115; Arthur M. Eckstein, Human Sacrifice and Fear of Military Disaster
in Republican Rome, American Journal of Ancient History, 7 (1982), 69 95; Saliou Ndiaye,
Minime Romano sacro, propos des sacrifices humains Rome l'poque rpublicaine, Dialogues
dhistoire ancienne, 26 (2000), 11928.
See J. D. Cloud, Parricidum: From the lex Numae to the lex Pompeia de parricidiis,
Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung fr Rechtsgeschichte: Romanistische Abteilung, 88 (1971), 166.
See Ndiaye, pp. 11928; Cf. Parkin, pp. 265 and 433, n. 127 with quotations.
See Larissa Bonfante, Historical Art: Etruscan and Early Roman, American Journal of
Ancient History, 3 (1978), 13662; Bonfante, Human Sacrifice on an Urn in New York,
American Journal of Archaeology, 88 (1984), 53139.

these executions as public rituals in their forums.13 In the light of such evidence,
assertions by writers of the late Republic and the empire that human sacrifice was
absent from early Rome may be regarded as concealing the real situation from the
sixth to fourth century, when Etruscan influence on Rome was much stronger
than that of Greece, where cruelty to prisoners was casual rather than ritual.14
Greek influence from the third to the first century BC must have reinforced
the desire of Roman historians to deny the possibility that human sacrifices may
have been widespread in early Rome. Thus, from the point of view of the late
republican authors, the death of older men, described as a tradition in 390 BC,
could be considered neither a customary murder of people because of their old age
and physical weakness nor a customary human sacrifice to save the Republic from
Livy relates that, before dying, the old men followed the lead of the Pontifex
Maximus and recited the solemn chant in which they devoted themselves
(carmen deuouisse eos) to death for their country. The special carmen of devotion
leads Robert Ogilvie to surmise that the elders performed the self-sacrifice
before the representatives of all the gods, with the help of the Pontifex Maximus
who recited the carmen, rather than merely let themselves be killed.15 His
observation that the elders had all held consular magistracies reinforces his
conclusion that they were deliberately offering their lives by deuotio, since those
who devoted themselves had to be cum imperio.
In Livys writings we can find other similar situations of self-devotion in which
a hero declaims a speech in order to offer himself to the gods.16 For instance, of the
case of Decius Muss self-sacrifice for the legions during the Latin War, Livy (8.
9. 48) says the following:

On the picture with mythological sacrifice of the captured Trojans in the Franois Tomb
and its Roman-Etruscan parallel, see Peter J. Holliday, Narrative Structures in the Francois
Tomb, in Narrative and Event in Ancient Art, ed. by Peter J. Holliday (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993), pp. 17597; Holliday, The Origins of Roman Historical Commemoration
in the Visual Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 6376.
Larissa Bonfante, Daily Life and Afterlife, in Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of
Etruscan Studies, ed. by Larissa Bonfante (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986), pp.
23278 (p. 262).
Robert M. Ogilvie, A Commentary on Livy: Books I V (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965),
pp. 72526.
See Andrew Feldherr, Spectacle and Society in Livys History (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1998), chap. 3, Duels and Devotions, pp. 82111.
158 Aleksandr Koptev

The pontiff bade him don the purple bordered toga, and with veiled head and one hand
thrust out from the toga and touching his chin, stand upon a spear that was laid under his
feet, and say as follows: Janus, Jupiter, Father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, Lares, divine
Novensilles, divine Indigetes, ye gods in whose power are both we and our enemies, and
you, divine Manes I invoke and worship you, I beseech and crave your favour, that you
prosper the might and the victory of the Roman People of the Quirites, and visit the foes
of the Roman People of the Quirites with fear, shuddering, and death. As I have
pronounced the words, even so in behalf of the republic of the Roman People of the
Quirites, and of the army, the legions, the auxiliaries of the Roman People of the Quirites,
do I devote the legions and auxiliaries of the enemy, together with myself, to the divine
Manes and to Earth.

Later, in another fictive story, the son of Decius Mus followed his fathers
example. He also ordered the Pontifex to recite the prescribed formula, which
emphasizes that he was to devote himself and the legions of the enemy on behalf
of the army of the Roman people. After the accustomed prayers had been recited,
he uttered the following awful curse: He was driving before him fear and panic,
blood and carnage, and the wrath of gods celestial and gods infernal, and should
blight with a curse the standards, weapons and armour of the enemy, and that one
and the same place should witness his own destruction and that of the Gauls and
Contrary to the deeds of individual heroes, the Decii Muses, who sacrificed
themselves to protect their fellow soldiers, the devotion of the aged men during
the Gallic Sack had a collective character. Nevertheless, they also seemed to make
a kind of self-sacrifice, which had been planned in advance, to save their native
country and fellow citizens. Cases such as Decii Muses devotion make it obvious
that the Romans accepted human sacrifices as the last resort when their Republic
stood in great danger. The legendary story of Marcus Curtiuss self-sacrifice in
362 BC demonstrates that something of great value had to be offered in order to
receive a favour from the gods. Livy (7. 6. 14) refers to this act in this way:
That same year, whether owing to an earthquake or to some other violent force, it is said
that the ground gave way, at about the middle of the Forum, and, sinking to an
immeasurable depth, left a prodigious chasm. This gulf could not be filled with the earth
which everyone brought and cast into it, until admonished by the gods, they began to
inquire what it was that constituted the chief strength of the Roman People; for this the
soothsayers declared that they must offer up, as a sacrifice to that spot, if they wished the
Roman Republic to endure. Thereupon Marcus Curtius, a young soldier of great prowess,
rebuked them, so the story runs, for questioning whether any blessing were more Roman
than arms and valour. A hash ensued, as he turned to the temples of the immortal gods

Livy 10. 28. 1617.

which rise above the Forum, and to the Capitol, and stretching forth his hands, now to
heaven, and now to the yawning chasm and to the gods below, devoted himself to death.
After which, mounted on a horse caparisoned with all possible splendour, he plunged
fully armed into the gulf; and crowds of men and women threw offerings and fruits in
after him.

The story of Curtius, an adapted version of a Phrygian legend,18 shows that the
Romans saw supreme value in young warriors, in their youth, strength, and
fortitude. What was the value of the feeble elders? They seem to have devoted
themselves to death because they were unable to help their follow-citizens in any
other way. Later authors carefully described their former merits, the luxury of
their clothing, and their curule chairs.19 Perhaps this reflects their inability to
define the real value of old men. If they had real value, it was linked to the main
characteristic which united the participants in this self-sacrifice their old age.

Senectus and senioritas: Old Age in Republican Rome

What age were these old men? The question is not as pointless as it seems. In the
story of the Gallic massacre, Livy separates the most aged men from the senate
and the men of military age, marking out three age groups militaris iuuentus,
senatus, and turba seniorum. Plutarch (Camill. 25) states that the senate and the
warriors stationed themselves on the Capitol at the time of the Gallic invasion.
This means that the older men, who devoted themselves to death, and the sena-
tors, who were on the Capitolean Hill, belonged to two different age groups.
Tim Parkin follows the commonly accepted opinion that the seneces were
much older than the other able-bodied senators without emphasizing the fact that
they belonged to separate age groups. I agree that the Romans during the later
Republic and Principate had the same approach and saw in the seneces those older
men who had insufficient physical strength to carry out public charges and
therefore were unable to defend their own country against its enemies by contrast
with the senators, among whom there were also a lot of old but physically stronger

See pseudo-Plutarch Minor Parallels 5, and comments by Gary Forsythe, The Historian L.
Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition (Lanham: University Press of America,
1994), p. 165.
The description of the doomed elders arrayed in their finery is reminiscent of the custom
of burying magistrates in their full robes of office (toga picta); in donning this clothing again, it
is as though the elders were preparing themselves for a similar public spectacle their own
160 Aleksandr Koptev

men. The problem seems to be different when we are dealing with an archaic
society, rather than with a civil one which had developed on rules and canons
different from those that formed the basis of both later republican and modern
society. An individual in civil society, being a citizen, is equal to other citizens
in his declared public and legal rights. It generates the idea, well known since the
era of Enlightenment, of natural man who has the same patterns in all cultures
and all times. The inheritance of this view is apparent in the widespread
assumption that a persons biological age is the same as his social age, but this
coincidence holds true only in a civil society. In archaic society, when the civil
structure was still under construction, age was one of several possible criteria of
status or condition.
The Romans of the classical Republic reckoned their socially active age to be
sixty or lower, after which official old age (senectus) started.20 There was no
obvious rite of passage that marked this transition, rather it was the case that
social expectations changed: the role and obligations of older men as citizens
reverted to those of a child.21 Once they reached the age of sixty (legitima aetas)
they were no longer eligible for military service and public duties.22 Therefore,

Sancti Aurelii Augustini, De diversis quaestionibus octoginta tribus, De octo dulcitii
quaestionibus, ed. by Almut Mutzenbecher, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, 44 A
(Turnhout: Brepols, 1975), p. 107 (Augustine De div. quest. LXXXIII, qu. 58. 2): nam cum a
sexagesimo anno senectus dicatur incipere (after all, old age is said to begin from the sixtieth year);
Censorinus, The Birthday Book [De die natali liber], trans. by Holt N. Parker (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 27 28 (Censorin de die nat. 14. 2): In quarto autem
adusque sexagensimum annum seniores vocitatos, quod tunc primum senescere corpus inciperet.
Inde usque finem vitae uniuscuiusque quintum gradum factum, in quo qui essent, senes
appellatos, quod ea aetate corpus iam senio laboraret (Varro thinks that our life span is divided
into five eqal stages [] In the fourth, up to age sixty, they are called seniors, because then the
body first begins to grow old [senescere]. From that point to the end of each ones life forms the
fifth period. Those in it are called old men [sense] because the body at this age already labours
under senility [senium]).
Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence, Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Rome: A Life
Course Approach (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 118.
Nonii Marcelli, De conpendiosa doctrina libros XX, ed. by Wallace M. Lindsay, 3 vols
(Lipsiae: Teubner, 1903), III, 842: cum in quintum gradum pervenerant, atque habebant
sexaginta annos, tum denique erant a publicis negotiis liberi atque otiose (when they proceeded
to the fifth period and were sixty years of age, they finally became free from public affairs and idle);
Sancti Aurelii Augustini, Quaestiones evangeliorum cum appendice, Questionum XVI in Mattheum,
ed. by Almut Mutzenbecher, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, 44 B (Turnhout: Brepols,
1980), p. 13 (Augustine Quest. Ev. 1. 9): solet enim otium concedi sexaginariis post militiam, vel

most scholars believe that in Antiquity, old age began after the age of sixty.23 As
they were no longer participants in the army, a characteristic feature of adult life
in republican Rome, they ceased to be able to vote in the assembly of centuries
(comitia centuriata). The Roman saying sixty year olds over the bridge is
considered by many scholars to refer to the fact that men over sixty were no
longer allowed to vote the pontes being the narrow gangways into the
voting.24 Under the Principate, men over sixty were also excused attendance at
the senate, although judges and members of local councils could retain their titles
when they retired.25 According to the Augustan marriage laws, such an old man
was not expected to be married or to produce further children for the state. Only
later did attempts to prolong the social meaning of old age over sixty arise.26 From
the third century AD onwards, the age at which a man was excused from the public
duties of providing munera was raised to seventy.27
The famous slogan sexagenarii de ponte concerned sixty-year-old men, not fifty
year olds or seventy year olds. The ancients believed the saying to be a memory of
an archaic custom which involved the killing of older men by throwing them from
the bridge over the Tiber, while modern scholars prefer to interpret the evidence
as depriving the older men of the right to vote in the peoples assembly,
symbolically casting them down from the voting gangway. James Frazer saw in the
latter interpretation a pious antiquarys attempt to save the credit of his barbarous
forefathers.28 The idea of the bridge and its connection with people aged sixty

post actiones publicas (after all, after military service or after public activity the sixty-year-old men
received earned rest).
Tim Parkin, however, assumes that the Greeks and the Romans never used an exact
definition of old age, and the sixty-year boundary was more or less Varros philosophical
speculation. See Parkin, pp. 16 and 26, cf. 312, n. 4.
For instance, see Francois X. Ryan, Sexagenarians, the Bridge, and the Centuria
Praerogativa, Rheinische Museum fr Philologie, 138 (1995), 18890.
L. Annaeus Seneca, minor, Moral Essays, English trans. by John W. Basore, Loeb Classical
Library, 254, 3 vols (London: Heinemanm; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1965), II, 353
(Seneca De brev. vitae 20. 4): Lex a quinquagesimo anno militem non legit, a sexagesimo
senatorem non citat: difficilius homines a se otium impetrant quam a lege (The law does not
draft a soldier after his fiftieth year, it does not call a senator after his sixtieth; it is more difficult
for men to obtain leisure from themselves than from the law).
See D. McAlindon, The Senators Retiring Age: 65 or 60?, Classical Review, 7 (1957), 108.
See Digest 50. 4. 3. 6 and 12 (Ulpian opinionum libro secundo). Cf. Harlow and Laurence,
p. 118.
See Parkin, pp. 270, 43536, n. 142.
162 Aleksandr Koptev

most likely existed before the late second century BC, when the voting gangway
was introduced and could be associated with the bridge.29 Parkin stresses that
there is no suggestion that anything in the Argean rite necessitated the killing
of old men, or that the number of puppets had any association with sixty year
olds.30 If it was a custom of prehistoric Romans to kill their sixty-year-old elders,
it has often been asked, why choose the unusual method of throwing them into
the Tiber? 31 It seems that the original idea of sexagenarii de ponte was already
forgotten under the Republic, and republican writers, following the established
association between the age of sixty years and death, created their own
interpretation by analogy with the senicide known among other nations.
It is significant that the old men who devoted themselves to death in 390 BC
were older than sixty years and therefore no longer participated in public affairs.
They were also unable to continue as senators. Their younger compatriots, whom
they wished to save through their own deaths, belonged to the age groups of
iuniores and seniores.32 The iuniores were men of military age from seventeen to
forty-six; the seniores were older men aged forty-six to sixty, absolved already
from active military service. Men like the seniores obviously had to play the
main role in the archaic government, and some sources imply that they were

On the invention of the bridges for voting in the late second century B C , see Jean-Pierre
Nraudau, Sexagenarii de ponte, Revue des tudes Latines, 56 (1978), 15974 (p. 170).
Cf. Parkin, pp. 272, 436, n. 151.
There is a resemblance between the throwing of puppets and the story of Horatius Cocles,
who fought alone on the Wooden Bridge against an Etruscan army and, after the bridge was
destroyed, devoted himself to the god Tiberinus and, fully armed, leaped into the Tiber (Livy 1.
9. 7; Dionys. 2. 31; Plutarch Rom. 14). The River Tiber, like the chasm into which the horseman
Marcus Curtius dove after devoting himself to the gods, was considered the symbolic boundary
with another world in mythology. The one-eyed characteristic of Horatius Cocles, which links
him with Caeculus and Cacus, the sons of the fire god Vulcan, betrays the mythological origin of
the story. See Grard Capdeville, Volcanus: Recherches comparatistes sur les origines du culte de
Vulcain (Paris: cole franaise de Rome, 1995), pp. 14446.
The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, English trans. by John C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library,
200, 3 vols (London: Heinemann, 1960), II, 292 (Gellius 10. 28. 1): Tubero in historiarum primo
scripsit Servium Tullium regem, [] ab anno septimo decimo, quo idoneos iam esse reipublicae
arbitraretur, milites scripsisse, eosque ad annum quadragesimum sextum iuniores supraque eum
annum seniors appellasse (Tubero, in the first book of his History, has written that King
Servius Tullius, [] from the seventeenth year, when they were thought to be fit for service, he
enrolled them as soldiers, calling them up to the age of forty-six iuniores or younger men, and
beyond that age, seniores, or elders).

senators.33 The official title of the senators, patres conscripti, means that they
were regarded as collective fathers to the iuniores.34
The difference between the older men (seneces) and the senators (seniores)
shows that the elders, who were not senators, could not contend for the title of
the collective patres. At the same time, it is clear that the old men who devoted
themselves to be killed by the Gauls were noble patres familiarum. As the oldest
men in their own families, from a certain viewpoint they could be considered the
social backbone of Roman society. Firstly, they were the only owners in their
familia, and, as personae sui iuris, represented their family members in the civil
community.35 Secondly, their patria potestas gave them the position of masters of
their younger relatives.36
From the point of view of their public status, however, the elders were of no
value because their participation in public life had already finished. Once they had
crossed the sixty-year boundary, they ceded their public title of senators (patres
conscripti) to the next generation whilst preserving the status of patres famili-
arum. This contradiction reveals a conflict between the social importance of age-
groups and individual kinship, and the famous Roman inclination to the mos
maiorum may have arisen as an instrument for maintaining the balance between
the outstanding position of pater familias in private law and the high position of
many filii familiarum in public life and law.
One piece of evidence for the Roman use of this instrument is the story told
by Festus (p. 452 L.) of a young man who saved his old fathers life some time after
the Gallic invasion. According to this, men of sixty were first thrown into the

Servius ad Aen. 8. 105; Justin 43. 3; Festus p. 454 L.: senatores.
mile Benveniste (Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-europennes, I: conomie, parent,
socit (Paris: Minuit, 1969), pp. 18486) argues that the archaic concept of *patrios was applied
rather to a group of men in classificatory meaning, than to a father as a physical person. Gary
Forsythe (A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2005), p. 168) supposes that the collective term patres could have
derived from the Roman habit of using the honorific title pater in reference to a male divinity (e.g.,
Liber Pater, Dis Pater, Mars Pater, Janus Pater, and Jupiter): for the same honorific term is likely
to have been applied as well to the priestly officials who mediated between the gods and the
Roman state.
On the term pater familias, see Richard P. Saller, Pater Familias, Mater Familias, on the
Gendered Semantics of the Roman Household, Classical Philology, 94 (1999), 18297.
On patria potestas, see discussion and bibliography in Richard P. Saller, Patriarchy, Property
and Death in the Roman Family (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 10253,
esp. pp. 11430.
164 Aleksandr Koptev

Tiber because of the shortage of food. One of them, hidden through the piety of
his son in a place called Arcaea, had often served his country well with his advice
through the medium of his son. When this was found out, the young man was
forgiven and the sixty year olds were given the right to live. The tale is in fact a
variation on the theme of the Gallic massacre, in which allusions to the same
motifs are used the death of old men, the Argean rite of throwing straw
puppets from the bridge, and the Gallic invasion. However, the ultimate aim of
the Festus tale is to glorify filial respect.
The same idea is also found in Livys story (7. 5) of Lucius Manlius Imperi-
osus, who was accused of cruelty towards his young son in 362 BC, having sent him
away from their urban house and consigned him to servile work in the country-
side. When Manlius was sent to prison, his son was indignant that his situation
had provided the grounds for the charges against his father. Arming himself with
a knife, he proceeded straight to the accuser, grasped his knife and, pointing the
weapon towards him, threatened to plunge it into him at once unless he took an
oath that he would never hold an assembly for the prosecution of his father. The
people were pleased at the daring way in which the son had defended his father,
all the more meritorious because it showed that his fathers brutality had not in
any way weakened his natural affection and sense of duty. Not only was the
prosecution of the father dropped, but the incident provided the means of
distinction for the son, who was elected to the post of military tribune.
Both stories, placed by Livy and Verrius Flaccus just after the Gallic Sack,
demonstrate that the society of the reborn Republic (reformed by Camillus, as
well as by Augustus) was built on the respect of sons for their fathers services to
it; they provide a contrast with other stories of fathers who accused and executed
their own sons.37 At the same time, it seems quite symbolic that the stories are
associated with the throwing of old men from the bridge and the Gallic invasion
in 390 BC. All these cases involve a colourful and allegoric killing of old people.
The murder of the elder men symbolizes the downfall of the former social order,
which was based on the collective authority of patres.38 The early fourth century
BC was the time to which the Romans themselves probably traced the beginning

See Livy 2I. 45 (Brutus); 2. 41. 10 (Cassius); 8. 7 (Manlius Torquatus).
On the ancient patres as the holders of religious authority and control of priestly offices, see
Richard E. Mitchell, The Definition of patres and plebs: An End to the Struggle of the Orders,
in Social Struggles in Archaic Rome: New Perspectives on the Conflict of the Orders, ed. by Kurt A.
Raaflaub (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 13074; Mitchell, Patricians and
Plebeans: The Origin of the Roman State (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), pp. 64130.

of their republican order. An interest in their earlier history, before the Gallic
invasion, was stimulated by Greek influence not earlier than the third century BC.
Even under the late Republic the early period continued to be obscure, and the
Gallic Fire is known to have marked the starting point of Claudius Quadrigariuss
Roman History.39 Livy (6. 1. 1) also stresses that the history of the Romans from
the foundation of the city to its capture by the Gauls is enveloped in obscurity;
partly because of its great Antiquity, partly owing to the fact that nearly all
written records perished in the conflagration.40
Despite the colourful historical tradition that arose under the later Republic,
Roman institutions before the fourth century BC are still little known. Given that
the Servian centuriate reform is now attributed to the late fifth century BC and
the majority of Roman tribes cannot have existed earlier than the fourth century
BC, the main structural unit of Roman society must have been the curia (co-uiria),
a union of men (uiri).41 In the early stages each curia, which incorporated one-
thirtieth of the Roman citizens, seems to have been an association of men like
a Mnnerbund rather than an alliance of gentes and familiae.42 When in due
time the noble familiae of patricians increased in number, this natural process
provoked rivalry among the curia for the leadership and formation of gentes,
which provoked the decline of the curiate system.
The Latin term uiri was applied to all men, while younger and elder men were
defined as iuniores and seniores. In Roman terminology there were two pairs of

On the problem, see Bruce W. Frier, Libri Annales Pontificum Maximorum: The Origins
of the Annalistic Tradition, Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome, 27 (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979), pp. 12225, 153, 276; Christina Kraus, No Second
Troy: Topoi and Refoundation in Livy, Book V , Transactions and Proceedings of the American
Philological Association, 124 (1994), 269, 28384; Denis Feeney, Caesars Calendar: Ancient Time
and the Beginnings of History, Sather Classical Lectures, 65 (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2007), pp. 10203, 257, nn. 201 and 204.
Archaeological evidence for the Gallic Fire is lacing. See Filippo Coarelli, La stratigrafia del
comizio e lincendio gallico, in I galli e lItalia: catalogo, ed. by Paola Santoro (Roma:
Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma: De Luca Editore, 1979), pp. 22930.
Paul Kretschmer, Lateinische quirites und quiritare, Glotta, 10 (1920), 14557.
In scholarship, after Barthold Niebuhr had assumed that the curiae contained fixed
numbers of gentes (tribus = ten curiae = a hundred gentes), they have frequently been thought to
be the gentilician organization par excellence, i.e. the curiae were subdivisions of the three
gentilician tribes and gentes were subdivisions of curia. Lately Christopher Smith (The Roman
Clan: The Gens from Ancient Ideology to Modern Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006), pp. 184234) has rightly objected to this approach.
166 Aleksandr Koptev

opposites that distinguished stages in masculine development: 1) iuuenes

seneces, and 2) iuniores uiri seniores uiri. Iuuenes were aged from seventeen to
forty-six, whereas older mature men were seneces: in other words, the senectus
was a man aged over forty-six. There are two pieces of evidence that verify this
theory. In Ciceros De senectute (17. 60) Cato stated that in the old days, age was
said to begin after forty-six.43 In addition Aulus Gellius (10. 28. 12) preserved
the text of Aelius Tubero, which tells us that a man who became a senior at
forty-six after King Servius Tulliuss reform was a senex before this.44 Following
this, since iunores uiri were seventeen to forty-six years old and seniores uiri were
forty-six to sixty, the beginning of old age (senectus) must have shifted from
forty-six to sixty years old. Roman historical tradition links this shift with the
so-called Servian reform, traditionally dated to the mid-sixth-century date, but
regarded by modern scholarship as having taken place at the end of the fifth
century BC.
The above leads us to conclude that the Latin word senes, seneces had been
used to define the senate at the time when only the opposition iuuenes seneces
existed, so that men older than forty-five could be considered senators. After
the Servian reform, men between forty-six and sixty ceased to be seneces, but
retained their former role as senators. A new prolongation of the social age
over the boundary of sixty years was apparently reflected in the association
between the sixty-year-old elders (sexagenarii) and bridge (pons).45 The above-
mentioned second-century analogy of the bridge with the voting gangway does
not seem to be accidental; the Romans had in mind a connection between sixty
year olds and a bridge when they labelled the passageway with the term pons. This

Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Old Age: On Friendship. On Divination, English trans. by W.
A. Falconer, Loeb Classical Library, 154 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp.
7273: M. quidem Valerium Corvinum accepimus ad centesimum annum perduxise, cum esset
acta iam aetate in agris eosque coleret; cuius inter primum et sextum consulatum sex et
quadraginta anni interfuerunt. Ita, quantum spatium aetatis maiores ad senectutis initium esse
voluerunt, tantus illi cursus honorum fuit (There is a tradition that Valerius Corvinus, after
passing the ordinary span of life, lived on his farm and cultivated it, and continued his pursuit of
agriculture to his hundredth year. Forty-six years intervened between his first and sixth
consulships. Thus, so much space of time as by our forefathers reckoning marked the beginning
of old age just that space was the course of his public honours).
For Gelliuss text see n. 32 with the comments by Parkin, pp. 16, 312, n. 3; and 22, 317, n. 36.
Sexti Pompei Festi De verborum significatu quae supersunt cum Pauli Epitome, ed. by
Wallace M. Lindsay (Lipsiae: Teubner, 1913), p. 66: Depontati senes appellabantur, qui
sexagenarii de ponte deiciebantur (Depontati were called old men, who in the age of sixty were
thrown down from a bridge).

association could be so ancient that it appeared natural to the Romans, but distant
from the later rational explanations. Supposedly, the image of the bridge traced
its roots back to the pre-Roman mythological conception of the world. The bridge
in the saying sexagenarii de ponte signifies a symbolic link between two worlds,
the human and the divine, which were thought to be divided by water. This
explanation is offered by Roland Kent, who, with the help of the Vedic panthah,
path to the gods or a path to the world of the dead, detected Indo-European
roots in the Latin term pons.46 The root pon- appears in the word pontifex, the title
of the priests whose ritual relation to the bridge over the Tiber provoked both
the association with the dropping of sixty year olds from the bridge and that
with the voting bridges.47
We can thus posit the existence of a very ancient belief, according to which
the people went to another world across the bridge after their death. Having
completed their social life, the sixty-year-old men were regarded as stepping
onto this symbolic bridge between life and death, and they remained on it until
their physical death. In the saying of sexagenarii de ponte, the idea of leaving the
bridge means literally saving of life, because the passing over the bridge had the
meaning of sending to another world, or to death. Metaphorically, the leaving
of the bridge meant that the sixty year olds did not have to pass across this magic
bridge, and they could continue their social life. Reaching the age of sixty was of
course a great turning point in their life, but now they were no longer shut off
from the social sphere.

Elders as Fathers: patres familiarum

The high status of older men seems to be connected with the role of familia in
Roman society, which increased in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. The Roman
familia included the oldest mans male descendants, married adult sons and
grandsons, with their individual families (Ulpian ad edictum libro 46 in Justinians

Roland J. Kent, The Vedic Paths of the Gods and the Roman Pontifex, Classical Philology,
8 (1913), 31726. Also see Judith D. Hallett, Over Troubled Waters: Meaning of the Title
Pontifex, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 101 (1970),
21927; Franois Van Haeperen, Le Collge pontifical (3me s.a.C.4me s.p.C.) (Turnhout:
Brepols, 2002), pp. 2745.
Bernard J. Kavanagh, Pontifices, Bridge-Making and Ribezzo Revisited, Glotta, 76
(2000), 5965, renews the handling of the term pontifex as a member of a college of five men who
performed [sacred rites], but I prefer Varros bridge-makers.
168 Aleksandr Koptev

Digest 50. 16. 195. 2).48 In the early period they probably belonged to one
household, so that the familia was a group unified by agnatic kinship, the
purpose of which was to accumulate ownership. How widely was the familia
represented in early Roman society? The evidence for early familiae is quite
scanty, and before the Twelve Tables we have only one fairly reliable example of
a Sabine noble man, Attius Clausus, who, having moved to Rome and gained a
prominent position there, changed his name to Appius Claudius and was elected
to the Senate. His arrival in Rome with a large body of friends and clients is dated
in 504 BC, although it could just as well be attributed to the time of Romulus or
to the early fourth century BC.49 Since they had been admitted to the citizenship,
the immigrants received a grant of land; each of them was allotted two acres and
Clausus himself twenty-five acres. The larger grant given to the senator (pater)
probably reflects his more prestigious domestic position compared to the common
people in his entourage. If the story has a grain of truth in it, it indicates that the
nobleman had sufficient land to provide sustenance for his familia, whereas the
two acres owned by the ordinary people were enough to support only a small
family. The social superiority of the early Roman nobility over the common
people must have been emphasized by this economic pre-eminence, and the
institution of familia initially developed in the upper class. Because we have no
evidence of gentilic names or the double-name until c. 700 BC,50 it can be taken
that the institution of familia developed after that date. Romans of the early
epoch may have had similar customs to those in the Greek cities described by
Dionysius (2. 26. 2): sons were under the rule of their fathers until the expiration
of the third year after they reached manhood, or as long as they remained

For definitions of the familia, see Suzanne Dixon, The Roman Family (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1992), pp. 111; Keith R . Bradley, Discovering the Roman Family:
Studies in Roman Social History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 311; Richard
P. Saller, Roman Kinship: Structure and Sentiment, in The Roman Family in Italy: Status,
Sentiment, Space, ed. by Beryl Rawson and Paul Weaver (Canberra: Humanities Research Centre;
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 734; Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death, pp. 74101.
504 B C Dionysius 5. 40. 3; Livy 2. 16. 45; the time of Romulus Suetonius Tib. 1.
1. For the Claudian legend, see Timothy P. Wiseman, Clios Cosmetics: Three Studies in Graeco-
Roman Literature (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1979), pp. 5776.
See Helmut Rix, Das etruskische Cognomen: Untersuchungen zu System, Morphologie und
Verwendung der Personennamen auf den jungeren Inschriften Nordetruriens (Wiesbaden:
Harrassowitz, 1963), pp. 142, 26567; Rix, Zum Ursprung des rmisch-mittelitalischen
Gentilnamensystems, in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Rmischen Welt, ed. by Hildegard
Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, 37 vols (Berlin: de Gruyter, 197298), I , pt II, 70058.

unmarried, or until their names were entered in the public registers. A relic of
this era was retained in Roman law as manus and patria potestas, representing
the difference between two notions of private male power. The manus of the
historical epoch applied only to the husbands power over his wife, but the
survival of a similar element to manus in such legal terms as mancipium, manci-
patio, emancipatio, manumissio led Alan Watson to the conclusion that the notion
was once used much more widely to signify power over things, descendants, and
slaves.51 The patria potestas, therefore, developed later; of this Gaius said that there
were hardly any other men who had such authority over their children as the
Romans did.52 Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2. 26. 4) writes that it was Romulus
who gave the father almost total power over his son, extending throughout his
entire life; he could imprison his son, scourge him, put him in chains, force him
to work in the fields, or put him to death, and this even if the son were already
engaged in public affairs, numbered among the highest magistrates, or celebrated
for his zeal in serving the commonwealth. Although Dionysius says Romulus
was the lawgiver, it is likely that this peculiarity developed gradually during the
formation of Roman civil society.53
In the fourth century BC, familia became the fashionable social unit of
Roman society, so that patres familiarum appeared among the plebeians as well
as among the patricians. The Licinian-Sextian law of 367 BC, which did not
differentiate between patrician and plebeian families as far as occupation of land
was concerned, replaced the ancient principle of allotting land to a man
(uiritim) by giving to a pater familias. This means that the oldest persons, those
who were patres familiarum, became the main actors in Roman economic and
thus social life. At the same time, the curiate assemblies based on male unions and
age groups were replaced by the centuriate and tribute assemblies. As a result, the

Alan Watson, Rome of the XII Tables: Persons and Property (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1975), p. 50; on the comparison of potestas and manus, see pp. 4751, cf. 919, 4046.
The Institutes of Gaius, translated with an Introduction by W. M. Gordon and O. F.
Robinson (London: Duckworth, 1988), p. 47 (Gaius Instit. 1. 55): enim nulli alii sunt homines,
qui talem in filios suos habent potestatem, qualem nos habemus (there are virtually no other
people who have such power over their sons as we have over ours).
The multiple examples of the Roman paternal power of life and death of his children in
the historical tradition have rather the task to enforce the position of pater familias in Roman
society, than describe real events. Cf. William V. Harris, The Roman Fathers Power of Life and
Death, in Studies in Roman Law in Memory of Arthur Schiller, ed. by Roger S. Bagnall and
William V. Harris (Leiden: Brill, 1986), pp. 8195; Maria A. Mancuso, Il rapporto padri e figli
nella prima deca di Tito Livio, Latomus, 58 (1999), 10920.
170 Aleksandr Koptev

former senate, which supposedly consisted of forty-five- to sixty-year-old men

who represented the curiae, fell into a social vacuum. A new principle for
supplementing the senate seems to have been introduced through an undated
law of Ovinius. Festus, the only source for this law, refers to it thus:
passed-over senators in former times were not in disgrace, because, just as kings used to
choose those whom they would have in public council in their own interest and to replace
them (as they wanted), so, after the kings were expelled, consuls, and military tribunes
with consular power continued in such a manner to choose all their closest friends from
the patricians and then from the plebeians; until the tribunician Ovinian law intervened,
by which it was laid down that the censors should [variant: be bound by oath to] enrol
in the senate all the best men from the whole ordo and by curia. Thus it came about that
those who were passed over and removed from their seats were considered dishonoured.54

According to Festus, in earlier times the king or magistrates used to choose all
their closest friends (coniunctissimos sibi), whereas later the censors enrolled in the
senate all the best men ex omni ordine. The author of this text, Festus or Verrius
Flaccus, probably based his statement on the traditional stories of Romulus,
Tarquinius, and the first consuls Brutus and Valerius, preserved by Livy,
Dionysius, Cicero, and other writers, who wrote that these people had included
large groups of their supporters in the senate. The author emphasizes that the
early Roman officers, like the kings, consuls, and consular tribunes, were guided
by their own personal preferences in the composition of the senate (actually,
an informal consilium), whereas the choosing of senators became subject to
certain rules after the Ovinian law came into force.55 The textual opposition of
coniunctissimos sibi and ex omni ordine optimum quemque seems to be a later idea
which reflected the imperial authors view of the contrast between the corruption
of former days and the order of his own day. This alleged corruption, the selection

Festus, p. 290 L.: praeteriti senatores quondam in opprobrio non erant, quod ut reges sibi
legebant, sublegebantque, quos in consilio publico haberent, ita post exactos eos consules quoque
et tribuni militum consulari potestate coniunctissimos sibi quosque patriciorum, et deinde
plebeiorum legebant; donec Ovinia (rogatio) tribunicia intervenit, qua sanctum est, ut censores
ex omni ordine optimum quemque curiati<m> (var.: iurari) in senatum legerent. Quo factum est,
ut qui praeteriti essent et loco moti, haberentur ignominiosi.
Cf. Francois X . Ryan, R ank and Participation in the Republican Senate (Stuttgart: Steiner,
1998), pp. 14449; Timothy J. Cornell, The Lex O vinia and the Emancipation of the Senate,
in Roman Middle Republic: Politics, Religion, and Historiography c. 400133 BC , ed. by Christer
Bruun (Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2000), pp. 6975;Michel Humm, Appius
Claudius Caecus: La rpublique accomplie, Bibliothque des coles franaises dAthnes et de
Rome, 322 (Collana: cole franaise de Rome, 2005), pp. 18890.

of the candidates to the senate by kings and early consuls, is therefore likely to be
a product of the late republican imagination. How had the procedure of choosing
the senators really been changed?
The Ovinian law perhaps firstly entrusted the task of appointing new members
of the senate (lectio senatus) to censors. According to Festus, the law ordered the
censors to choose senators from the best men of the whole ordo (ex omni ordine
optimum quemque). The precise meaning of this formulation is uncertain. The
phrase optimus quisque is commonly used in Latin to mean the best people, or
the nobility, whereas ex omni ordine means from the whole ordo, that is from
people of noble bearing without making a distinction between their patrician
and plebeian origin, rather than from every rank of magistrates.56 Francois Ryan
argues that the word ordo in the Ovinian law could mean the membership of a
centuria in the political sense.57 In the early fourth century BC, it would be
understood as belonging to the circle of military men between seventeen and
sixty years of age, in accordance with the Servian system. The best (optimus
quisque) of this ordo were clearly not the seventeen- to twenty-five-year-old
youths, but men who already held an official position in the state; according to
Polybius (6. 19. 4), the age at which one was eligible to become a senator was
recognized as twenty-seven by the second century, although it may have been
higher in the fourth century.58
If age was one basis for the formation of the senate, this would explain why
passed-over senators were not in disgrace in earlier times. If they were chosen for
the senate after they reached forty-six and automatically left the senate when they
turned sixty, their departure did not relate to their personal qualities and did not
involve any feeling of shame as a result. In the early era the choice of the king
was limited by the age range, between forty-six and sixty. In the sixth and fifth
centuries BC, the kings, and later the high magistrates, may have had more
freedom to choose their own protgs from the patres familiarum, whose
number was on the increase. But until the advent of the Ovinian law, it appears
that they were still constrained by the old age limits of forty-six and sixty, and
perhaps also by a requirement that the next candidate belonged to the same curia
and tribe as his predecessor.59 For the fourth century BC when the word ordo still

For more details, see Cornell, pp. 8081, 83; Humm, pp. 20814.
Ryan, R ank and Participation, pp. 14748.
See Cornell, p. 72.
On the problem of curiatim in the text of the Ovinian law, also see Humm, pp. 199203.
172 Aleksandr Koptev

was multivalent, it is possible that the omni ordine was an artless definition either
for the patres familiarum, which included the men under forty-six, or for the adult
nobles, without any distinction between patres familiarum and their sons. We are
not able to ascertain whether the criteria used by censors for optimus quisque had
an exact meaning or not,60 but in the context of our assumption it is difficult to
believe that after the Ovinian law those who were chosen became senators for
life.61 The number of candidates to the senate increased noticeably, competition
for the places was increased, the criteria for choosing were not predetermined, and
the censors had to carry out lectio senatus every five (or possibly eight) years in
this context removal from the optimus quisque could be taken for disgrace.
Thus the Roman institution of patria potestas was conceived in the period
when the patres familiarum, or at least the majority of them, were also senators
(patres conscripti). Their senatorial authority reinforced their power in the family.
After the second half of the fourth century BC, when it was no longer only aged
men who were admitted to the senate but representatives of nobility (ex omni
ordine) by the censors choice, the whole old social order began to change. Instead
of merely being an attribute of nobility the familia became a social form among
ordinary people too. The former means of supporting the authority of fathers,
based on social prestige, needed to be replaced by a new method. More equality
in public rights between the patres familiarum and their sons had to have a
negative impact upon older men. When a man over the age of sixty was freed
from public duties, he was simultaneously deprived of many of the essential
signifiers of citizenship, namely his usefulness to the state and value to his fellow
citizens. Old age represented a loss of all forms of empowerment and authority
in the public arena, accompanied by an increasing dependence on others and a
general sense of vulnerability.62 While the potential for social marginalization
was great, in the Roman patria potestas there existed an institution that protected
old men from the demands of unscrupulous sons.63 Old men retained legal control
over their familiae unless they could be declared incapable in law, and however
physically decrepit they might become, they maintained some control over the
younger generation through the threat of disinheritance.

For discussion of the phrase optimus quisque, see Humm, pp. 21419.
See Cornell, pp. 7475. For the contrary view, see Humm, p. 218, n. 128.
Harlow and Laurence, pp. 11819.
See Saller, Patriarchy, Property and Death, pp. 10232.

The Performance and its Mythological Background

Almost the whole historical tradition of the Gallic Sack is an annalistic con-
struction. Robert Ogilvie notes that the description of the entry of the Gauls
into Rome is inspired partly by memories of the aftermath of Cannae and partly
by literary models such as Herodotuss accounts of the Persian assault on Delphi
(8. 3539) and their sack of Athens.64 There is a noticeable resemblance between
the massacre of the senators and the liquidation of those Athenians who had
taken refuge in the Acropolis, as well as between the abortive assault on the
Capitol and the successful ascent of the Acropolis. In some sources the
anniversary of the battle of Allia (dies Alliensis) coincides with the anniversary of
the Cremera (dies Cremerensis) on 18 July.65 The dies Cremerensis was also
thought to have been 13 February, which was believed to have been the day on
which the Gauls left Rome.66 In Gary Forsythes opinion, this occurred because
the day of the Allia was well established, whereas that of the Cremera was not.67
In addition, the departure of the Gauls from Rome after the seven-month
occupation (Polybius 2. 22. 3) was associated with the festival of Parentalia on
13 February. This was the first day of the dies parentales, concerned with the
veneration of ancestors, and two days later on 15 February the luperci Fabiani
performed the rites of the Lupercalia together with the luperci Quinctiales. The
veneration of parents in the Parentalia in a general sense is clearly associated with
the Lupercalia, the festival of young men in which the rites were performed by
especially young priests.
In Livys description of the Gallic massacre of the older men we can also see a
colourful ritual of their self-devotion. The aged men, who played out the role of
victims, were wearing splendid dress and sitting in their ivory chairs, as if they
were waiting to depart on a long journey. The Pontifex Maximus had appealed
to gods with an appropriate prayer and the gods were ready to accept the
offering. It only remains to perform the sacrifice. Who would perform the
ritual? Here it seems that the role of the immolating priest was entrusted to the

A Commentary on Livy, p. 720.
Fasti Antiates ministrorum domus Augustae = Degrassi 13. 2. 208; Livy 6. 1. 11; Tacitus
Hist. 2. 91; Plutarch Camill. 19. 1.
Ovid Fasti 2. 19596; Plutarch Camill. 28. 2; 30. 1; Fasti Potemii Silvii = Degrassi 13.
2. 265.
Forsythe, The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso, p. 320.
174 Aleksandr Koptev

Gauls.68 But they were not aware of it. The stroke of Papiriuss stick, directed at
a Gaul, was the signal to start the sacrifice. The swords of the Gauls were not only
instruments of death, but ritual instruments. Cut down in a furious flurry of
strokes, the old men lay in pools of their own blood. Their souls had departed to
another world, just the place they had aspired to go to.
One can guess the aim of the narrative by analogy with the traditional account
of the capture of the Etruscan city Veii in 396 BC. According to an oracle, the
victory in the war between Veii and Rome would go to whoever was able to
complete the sacrifice offered by the king of the Veientines. As Livy (5. 21. 8)
informs us, Roman warriors were able to provide their general, Dictator Marcus
Furius Camillus, with a chance to finish the sacrifice and by so doing won the
favour of gods and the victory over Veii.69 The same pattern also appears in the
story of the Gauls. In order to save Rome, the Romans decided to perform a great
sacrifice and accordingly a group of aged men with a petition to the gods was
chosen for the purpose. They were unable to commit suicide because of their
physical infirmity, nor were Romans able to murder their own parents. Therefore
the task of ritual killing was given to the Gauls. By killing the aged Roman men,
the Gauls ensured that victory would go to their enemies, although they knew
nothing of this. In this way the physical weakness of the old men became their
strength, which allowed them to save their compatriots. The whole story, the idea
of which was obviously borrowed from a Greek tragedy, seems intended to glorify
older men and thereby to lift their prestige in Roman society.
Why was such a peculiar performance necessary, better suited as it was for a
theatrical tragedy than as a representation of real history? One can imagine the
performance taking place below the slopes of the Capitoline Hill, the drama
watched from the walls of the Citadel by relatives of the old men.70 The Forum
was the very place where the Romans used to immolate Gauls or Greeks as a

In the case of the Decii Muses self-devotion they also were slain by the missiles of the
enemy, when the father in full armour leapt onto his horse and dashed into the middle of the
enemy and the son spurred his horse forward against that part of the Gaulish line where they
were most densely massed and leapt into it.
Cf. Jean Hubaux, Rome et Vies: Recherches sur la chronologie lgendaire du Moyen ge
romain (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1958), pp. 22185.
At the bottom of the Capitoline Hill was situated the Busta Gallica, which was connected
with the Gallic siege by Varro (Ling. Lat. 5. 157) and Livy (22. 14). Cf. Jrgen von Ungern-
Sternberg, Eine Katastrofe wird verarbeitet: Die Gallier in Rome, in The Roman Middle
Republic: Politics, Religion, and Historiography c. 400133 BC , ed. by Christer Bruun (Rome:
Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2000), p. 217.

sacrifice when there was some extraordinary danger to their country, but in this
case the Gauls performed the sacrifice. Such a theatrical performance could only
have been thought up during the time when Greek-influenced performance and
literature became a kind of evidence for some historians. Perhaps the historian(s)
were influenced by an actual public ritual performance on the Forum Romanum.
The author almost certainly was a Roman, as suggested by the avoidance of any
suggestion that older men were sacrificed by their fellow citizens or, even more
abhorrent, by their own relatives, even if such rituals may have taken place in the
distant past.
We are inclined to see the source of this legend in a ritualistic performance,
because, besides the glorifying of older men, there was also another idea that
inspired the story. The aged Roman men in this tale were no ordinary victims:
according to the libretto, their duty was clearly to journey to another world and
to receive a benediction from the gods in order that their own community should
be reborn after the Gallic Fire. The year 390 BC (on Varros calculation) was not
chosen for the date of the Gallic Fire by chance, as it was the end of the Great Year
(annus annorum), which started from the foundation of Rome.71 According to an
ancient mythological concept, the Great Year was the cycle (360, 364, or 365
years) at the end of which the universe also ceased to exist and was reborn in
Mondial Fire.72 Livy used the Varronian chronology with the year 754/3 BC for
the foundation of Rome and 390 BC for the Gallic Sack, so that there were 365
years between these dates.73 In the story of the aged mens self-devotion, their
death coincides with the symbolic death of the universe (at the end of the annus
annorum) and that of the Roman community (as a result of the Gallic
invasion).74 The city perished either in the flame of the Mondial Fire or in the

On the annus annorum or Great Year, counting 365 annual cycles, see Hubaux, pp. 6088,
10207. Cf. Gary B. Miles, Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1995), pp. 75109.
Cf. Olivier De Casanove, La Dtermination chronographique de la dure de la priode
royale Rome: Critique des hypothses des Modernes, in La Rome des premiers sicles: Lgende
et histoire. Actes de la Table ronde en lhonneur de Massimo Pallottino (Paris, 34 mai 1990)
(Firenze: Olschki, 1992), pp. 7475.
Polybius (1. 6. 1) states the Gallic Sack occurred in the same year as the Peace of Antalcidas
and the siege of Rhegium by Dionysius I of Syracuse, that is in 387/6 B C , or in the 365th year after
751/0 B C in which he places the date for Romes foundation.
In his account of the Gallic massacre, Livy emphasizes that, before this catastrophe
happened in 390 B C , Rome for 360 years had been victorious in all its wars, i.e. enjoyed success
during the whole annus annorum.
176 Aleksandr Koptev

Gallic Fire in either case it had to be revived again. The Romans considered
the Gallic invasion a pivotal historical moment, which was associated with the
myth of a second foundation. The sacrifice symbolizes the death of the former
city, the elder generation, and a world gone by at one and the same time. After
the Gallic Sack, Roman history enters a new epoch with a new social order.
It is conceivable, given that the end of the Great Year probably had great
significance to the Roman community, that almost all the Roman priests were
also among the doomed old men. In the traditional story, only the Flamen of
Quirinus and the Vestal Virgins survived, being invited to Caere by the kind
people of the city.75 They were needed to perform the ritual of the rebirth of the
universe and the new reinvigorated Roman community. The Vestal Virgins were
responsible for the lighting of a new fire, and the Flamen Quirinalis performed the
role of a new founder in his capacity as supervisor of the cult of Quirinus, the
divine incarnation of Romulus, who presided over organized Roman social life.76
In the first part of this ritual, the main role belonged to the Pontifex Maximus,
whose prayer was intended to connect the people with the gods, the community
with another world. According to Cicero, the pontiffs were a special kind of
priest who celebrated all the gods as a whole.77 The etymology of their name
pontifices may derive from the phrase pons facere (to make a bridge), so that the
word pontifex has the meaning of bridge-maker.78 The name is said to relate to

On the problem of the saved Vestals, see von Ungern-Sternberg, Eine Katastrofe wird
verarbeitet, pp. 21112.
M. Furius Camillus is often regarded as a new founder of Rome, a second Romulus. See
Erich Burck, Die Gestalt des Camillus, in Wege zu Livius, ed. by Erich Burck, Wege der
Forschung, 132 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1967), pp. 31028 (p. 323, cf.
p. 316); Miles, pp. 75109; von Ungern-Sternberg, Eine Katastrofe wird verarbeitet, pp. 21821;
ibid., M. Furius Camillus Ein zweiter Romulus?, in LInvention des grands hommes de la Rome
antique: Die Konstruktion der grossen Mnner Altroms, ed. by Marianne Coudry and Thomas
Spth, Actes du colloque du Collegium Beatus Rhenanus, 16 aot18 septembre 1999 (Paris: De
Boccard, 2001), pp. 28997; Randall S. Howarth, The Origins of Roman Citizenship (Lewiston,
NY: Mellen, 2006), pp. 11950. Camillus was also absent from the city at the moment of the
Gallic invasion; after the city was burned and destroyed, he reappeared and took an active part in
its rebuilding.
Cicero De leg. 2. 20; 4753, cf. Nat. D. 1. 122. See Van Haeperen, Le Collge pontifical, pp. 6777.
Varro Ling. Lat. 5. 83: Pontifices, ut Scaevola Quintus pontifex maximus dicebat, a posse
et facere, ut potentifices. Ego a ponte arbitror: nam ab his Sublicius est factus primum ut restitutus
saepe, cum ideo sacra et uls et cis Tiberim non mediocri ritu fiant (The pontifices [high-priests],
Quintus Scaevola the Pontifex Maximus said, were named from posse [to be able] and facere [to

the place of the pontifical assemblies in the immediate proximity of the ancient
Wooden Bridge (pons sublicius) over the Tiber, and the pontiffs were responsible
for maintaining it.79 The Wooden Bridge, made without the use of any iron, was
a category of holy item, and it seems fair to assume that the Romans saw in it an
embodiment of another bridge which led to the other world. The wooden bridge
provided a link between Rome and alien Etruscan territory, which was often
dangerous enemy territory in the old days and, therefore, associated with another
world. The pontiffs were, or considered themselves under the Republic, the only
priests who maintained the passage to that world over this mysterious viaduct.
Their name of bridge makers allowed them to portray themselves as priests or
intermediaries between the Roman community and the realm of the gods. Thus
their participation in the scene of the Gallic massacre meant that it was the
Pontifex Maximus who guided the devoted old men to another world over the
bridge known only to him. As we have seen above, the original idea of sexagenarii
de ponte concerned death, not killing, and the pontiffs may be considered the
performers of funeral rituals. Since the moment of the Great Years end was seen
as especially important for the Roman community, they evidently seized the
opportunity to take the central role among the savers of the Republic. The
pontiffs had to take upon themselves the role of guides to another world, because
the whole future existence of the community depended on the ritual, and since
they had no opportunity to repeat it, they could make no mistake.
In this story the participation of the priests was necessary to give a sacred
aspect to the idea of a social order in which aged men played a very important role.
It is possible that this concept was quite new and not yet fully accepted when the
writer created his performance, or, conversely, that it was outdated or
disappearing and he was attempting to reinvigorate it. The main heroes the
older men or patres familiarum were represented in the story as the saviours of
the city, who sacrificed themselves so that younger generations would survive.
Thanks to them, the Roman citizenry continued to exist. Having been sacrificed,
they were consigned to a bygone epoch and were therefore associated with the

do], as through potentifices. For my part I think that the name comes from pons (bridge); for by
them the Bridge-on-Piles was made in the first place, and in that connexion rites are performed
on both sides of the Tiber with no small ceremony). Cf. Van Haeperen, Le Collge pontifical, pp.
See Varro Ling. Lat. 5. 83; cf. Dionysius 2. 73. 1; Plutarch Numa 9. 2; Servius ad Aen. 2.
166; Zosimus 4. 36.
178 Aleksandr Koptev

enigmatic ancestors, possessing their supreme values (mos maiorum). The

description of the way in which the old men volunteered to endure death at the
hands of the savage barbarian Gauls was designed to raise the feelings of the
audience and to imbue them with respect for their forefathers.
The myth of the self-sacrificing old men appears to have been designed to
support the social prestige of the oldest men, who were the forefathers of noble
familiae, perhaps used in public discussion of their social role. This role consisted
largely of management of the family property and control over their younger
relatives and family clientele. Ownership became an alternative to social prestige
from the fourth (perhaps fifth) century BC onwards. This allowed the noble
familia to become the model social unit for the new civil order, unifying the
ancient patricians and plebeians. The bravest warriors, military commanders, and
new senators, many of whom were sons within their existing families (filius
familiae), acted the role of opponents of the family fathers in the field of public
life. Their public status allowed them, during the age of great conquests that began
in the fourth century BC, to have a large political clientele. The authority of the
ancient patres shifted to the sphere of private life and became transformed into the
paternal power of paterfamilias.
According to a theory most recently espoused successfully by T. P. Wiseman,
the Roman understanding of their own history was first formed in a collective
creative work on the Scenic Games (ludi scaenici), the first of which is thought to
have occurred in 364 BC.80 Shaping examples of desirable behaviour and placing
them in ancestral times was an important method of educating people. As John
Hanson has shown, the religious context of the Scenic Games was emphasized by
the proximity of the temple of the god in whose honour the festival was held.81
One of the most exciting celebrations of the Games was the secular festival,
organized as a ritual changing moment to rebuild Romes future, which doubtless
made a great impression on the Romans perception of history. The festival of the
Secular Games took place in summer and lasted for three days and three nights.
In the second book of his New History Zosimus left us a description of it. On the
morning of the first day, people went to the Capitol to offer solemn sacrifices to
Jupiter. Before the Games, heralds went around the city and invited the people to

For instance, see Timothy P. Wiseman, Remus: A Roman Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1995), pp. 13238.
See John A. Hanson, Roman Theater-Temples (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1959), pp. 1326.

a spectacle, such as they had never witnessed and never would again. The defence
of the Capitol, that is the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which would be
the centre of the citys rebirth, was the main highlight in the performance of the
older mens sacrifice. The whole atmosphere of the Games resembles the story
of the Gallic Sack. The Quindecemviri (quindecemuiri sacris faciundis) sat on
the Capitol upon a tribunal and in the temple of Apollo on the Palatine,
performing the purifying rite for all participating citizens by burning
inflammable things. The significant role of priests in the story suggests that the
performance was written by order of the pontifical board. Pontiffs played the
main role in organizing the games devoted to the underground gods, Dis Pater
and Proserpine, perhaps because past generations went down to the underground
world. By sacrificing black cattle every hundred years, according to the Sybilline
books, the Romans buried the previous saeculum. The rituals were meant to
renew Rome after the death of a past generation and to prepare the Roman
community for a new generation. The idea of renewal links the Secular Games to
the concept of the Great Year as the anniversary of Romes foundation. Both were
significant during the Principate of Augustus, who restored the Republic in 27 BC
and revived the Secular Games in 17 BC.82


Modern scholars consider that the first Secular Games are more or less attested as
having taken place in 249 BC.83 Forsythes hypothesis that the ludi scaenici were
organized for Dis Pater and Proserpina at the Terentum in the Campus Martius
in order to protect Rome from an epidemic in 362/358 BC is attractive but cannot

On the similarity between Romulus, Camillus, and Augustus, and the 365-year cycle
between 754 B C and 390 B C , and between 390 B C and 27 B C , see Miles, pp. 75109; Howarth,
pp. 11950. Marta Sordi, Lidea di crisi e di rinnovamento nella concezione romano-etrusca della
storia, in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Rmischen Welt, ed. by Hildegard Temporini and
Wolfgang Haase, 37 vols (Berlin: de Gruyter, 197298), I , pt II, 78193 (p. 790 and n. 33)
associates the Veientine victory in 396 B C with the battle of Accium in 31 B C .
See Martin P. Nilsson, Saeculares ludi, Pauly-Wissowa Real Encycklopoedie I A (1920), Sp.
16961720; Hendrik Wagenvoort, Studies in Roman Literature, Culture, and Religion (Leiden: Brill,
1956), chap. 11, The Origin of the Ludi Saeculares, pp. 193232; Peter Weiss, Die Skularspiele der
Republik eine annalistische Fiktion?, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archologischen Instituts, Rmische
Abteilung, 80 (1973), 20518; Forsythe, The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso, pp. 16668.
180 Aleksandr Koptev

be proved.84 The third century BC was the time when new political forces came to
the fore in Rome; an especially significant figure being the first plebeian Pontifex
Maximus, Tiberius Coruncanius, who held the office from 254 to 243 BC. The
idea of renewal, supported by a certain plebeian faction, was at the forefront of
political life for the next generation, until the defeats of 21816 BC. The Secular
Games of 249 BC must have been the perfect stage for the propagation and
updating of old values and the strengthening of the position of the plebeians in
the Roman nobility. This was the moment when the Romans were given an exact
date for the Gallic Sack, which was connected with the Antalcidean Peace of 387
BC by Timaeus of Tauromenium (wrote c. 264 BC). Timaeus was also the author
who used the concepts of annus annorum and saeculum in his chronological
calculations, and the first who shaped a developed history of Rome from its
beginnings. Roman intellectuals such as Coruncanius could not disregard
Timaeuss treatise and were probably inspired by his ideas.85
Although an argument ex silentio does not demonstrate proof that something
did not happen, it is notable that Polybius says nothing of the Gallic massacre of
the older men, nor does Plautus refer to the saying about sexagenarii where he
could well have done so.86 Jean-Pierre Nraudau therefore argues that it was
Afranius, in 120s100s BC, who first invented the saying as part of a comic
representation, his idea subsequently being developed by Varro, who made the
saying well known.87 But Cicero (Pro Roscio 35. 100) called the custom of
throwing sixty year olds into the river a mos maiorum in 80 BC, before Varro;
either it was an ancient custom or it was considered an ancient custom. One
possibility is that it originated in the mid-second century BC when preparations
were made for the Secular Games of 149 BC. Festus delivers, among other things,
the next version of the origins of the proverb:

Forsythe, The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso, pp. 166, 40203.
Sordi, pp. 78284, emphasizes the Etruscan origins of the idea of saeculum.
Polybius (2. 18) does not even know the name of the king of the Gauls who supposedly
captured Rome as Brennus (2. 22. 2: he calls the Gaulish kings who made war on Rome
Concolitanus and Anerostus), but he is the earliest known author to mention a certain Brennus
as the Gaulish chieftain who sacked Delphi in 279 B C (4. 46).
Nraudau, p. 170. Nraudau (pp. 16567) also argues that it was a senator of the 90s B C ,
Manilius, who connected Afraniuss idea of throwing sixty year olds from the bridge to the
description of the Argean festival.

In the past they used to throw sixty-years-olds from the bridge. Manilius gives the
following explanation for this: the first natives who lived at Rome were accustomed to
make a yearly sacrifice of a man over sixty years of age to Dis Pater. They stopped doing
this on the arrival of Hercules; instead, a sacred observation of the old rite was established,
bulrush effigies of men were thrown from the bridge into the Tiber, in the ancient

The name of Manilius can be used to give a date for the linking of sexagenarii with
the Argean rite. Although the name has frequently been associated with the
senator Manilius of the 90s BC, as suggested by Parkin, the Manilius in question
might also be Manius Manilius, the consul of 149 BC, who was a famous orator
and jurist.89 Maniliuss source is not known, but the role of Hercules in the
cancellation of human killing betrays Greek influence. Around the same time,
Lucius Cassius Hemina is known to have been interested in antiquarian matters,
and it may very well have been he who incorporated the colourful episode of the
Gallic massacre of the older men into Roman history.90
Another Roman who might have placed the story of the Gallic Sack into a
historical context was the famous annalist Lucius Calpurnius Piso. Garry Forsythe
argues that Pisos account of early Roman chronology and his dating of the
foundation of Rome are derived from his chronology of the Secular Games.91
Perhaps the secular festival of 149 (146) BC awakened powerful feelings in him
(Piso held the office of tribune in 149 BC) and this emotional reaction was
reflected in his description of the events of the early fourth century BC. Following
this line of enquiry, it may be that the dramatic episode of King Brenns arrival in
Rome and the massacre of the older men was borrowed by Piso from the scenic
performance of the Secular Games, in which he was a participant.
In 133 BC Calpurnius Piso held the consulship alongside Publius Mucius
Scaevola, then the Pontifex Maximus, who is known to have codified or edited the
Annales maximi. This was also the period when the bridges for voting were

For the adapted text of Festus, p. 450 L. = 334 M. s.v. Sexagenarios with a translation, see
Parkin, pp. 26768.
Cf. Parkin, p. 271.
One can surmise that the idea of the Gauls as offering-makers appeared as a literary
analogy to Galli, the priests of Cybele, whose worship was introduced to Rome from Phrygia
in 204 B C (Livy 29. 10. 14; 36. 36). The castrated Galli (famuli Idaeae matris), who resembled the
Corybantes in their wild, enthusiastic, and boisterous rites, would be seen as strangers, an alien
contrast to the noble elders, who personified and defended mores maiorum.
Forsythe, The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso, pp. 399403.
182 Aleksandr Koptev

introduced into the public assemblies. During the same period, Afranius was
writing his comic tales, which became the source of sexagenarii for Varro. Each of
these authors had, or could have had, a connection with the story of the killing of
the Roman elders. It can be assumed that the plot devised for the performance in
the Secular Games was much discussed and included in the historical tradition of
early Rome in the second half of the second century. A producer of the secular
performance of 149 BC, with the idea of honouring previous generations already
in mind, was doubtless under the influence of Cato the Majors program of the
restoration of mos maiorum, and he may have been one of the friends of Scipio
The ideas behind the story of the elders martyrdom, in one or another form,
were familiar in Roman society from the fourth century BC to the Augustan
epoch, with its maxim res publica restituta. It is highly unlikely that the second-
century annalists who included the story into the context of Roman history knew
anything certain of fourth-century social problems concerning the origin of the
Roman household (familia), with its extraordinary paternal power. It is more
likely that the institution of patria potestas needed continual public support to
sustain it, of which the most well-known form was the worship of mos maiorum.
Roman society kept producing stories like that of the Gallic Sack of Rome to
provide its citizens with examples of necessary moral behaviour.