Have you read the heading of this article and wondered, what the hell is that supposed to mean? Everyone knows the heroes of the founding myth of Rome. They have a world-famous statue of little twins, Romulus and Remus, with a she-wolf in the Capitoline Museums. That story works quite well without any trace of Odysseus.
There is also another well-known story, retold by Virgin in his epic, about a hero coming home from the Trojan war whose actions were crucial for the founding of Rome. But the name of that epic poem is Aeneid, not Odyssey and its hero is Aeneas and not the resourceful Odysseus known from Homer’s work.
And yet there is one ancient source attributing the founding of Rome (partially) to Odysseus, a man of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes – the chronically lying, Cyclops-blinding murderer of his wife’s suitors, we all know and love. The work is known as The Roman Antiquities of Dionysios of Halicarnassus. Its author quotes his source Hellanicus:
“But the author of the history of the priestesses at Argos and of what happened in the days of each of them says that Aeneas came into Italy from the land of the Molossians with Odysseus and became the founder of the city, which he named after Romê, one of the Trojan women. He says that this woman, growing weary with wandering, stirred up the other Trojan women and together with them set fire to the ships.”
While we can recognize Hellanicus as the primary source, allegedly, also Damastes of Sigeum agrees with this explanation.
How and when could Odysseus get to Italy?
The story of the Odyssey gained huge popularity in both ancient times and modern ones. Many authors tried to place its adventures in specific places in the Mediterranean area. The traditional view of ancient commentators identified many of the venues with regions on or near the Italian peninsula. Sicily is often considered to be the island of the Cyclops (e.g. by Strabo). While it is highly unlikely that he would have the time to come together with Aeneas and found this new city until he successfully returned to Ithaca after 20 years, he might have done so in the aftermath of Odyssey. In that case, any previous knowledge of the region would definitely help.
There are two elements in the Odyssey itself that open the doors to such journeys.
- The prophecy of Tiresias. The ghost of this blind seer very clearly foretold that Odysseus would have to travel a lot in the future. In fact, he was supposed to travel so far from the see that the natives would not use salt for their meals, not know anything about ships and not recognize an oar (mistaking it for a “winnowing-fan”). In such a long journey there surely can be some time left to visit Italy and found Rome with an old friend.
- The revenge of the suitors’ families. This issue has been addressed in the Oddysey, on its very end when the relatives of the murdered suitors attack Odysseus. Their leader (father of one of the leading Suitors) is killed and the rest make peace with Odysseus and his family after the goddess Athene makes a strong suggestion that this would indeed be the best solution of the conflict. However, there are some ancient sources (e.g. the Constitution of Ithaca, attributed to Aristotle) that propose a slightly different story, where this is not the final resolution of the issue. Here the families of the deceased suitors are very unhappy with Odysseus’ “justice” and force the hero to leave the island and settle in Italy.
Another strong argument for the further voyages of Odysseus lies in the lost poem Telegony. It describes the fate of Telegonos, son of Odysseus and Circe, the wich known from the Odyssey (the one that turned his friends to pigs). The first part of this poem described the journeys Odysseus makes after he killed the suitors.
Could he have founded Rome?
It certainly seems plausible that Odysseus could be capable to make the necessary journey and take part in founding Rome, but let’s not forget that the historicity of this man is unlikely at best. There is no point in arguing whether this part of his life could happen this way or some other. However, we can have a look at the background of the story itself.
The historians can recognize various stages of development of this myth. There are early founding myths of cities in southern Italy and stories connecting Odysseus to those regions. In the Theogony we can find Odysseus’ son Latinos, who ruled over the Etruscans. There are even some myths about Romos, son of Odysseus and Circe, who founded Rome. From that point on, it doesn’t require much fantasy to attribute the act not to the son, but to the father instead.
The narrative of women burning ships to prevent further sailing of the heroes was a popular one. Even Virgil himself used it in his Aeneid. The point of the saboteurs (traditionally women) was to force the men to settle down and not let them continue their journey. In one such tale, the women were Trojan slaves, preventing their new Greek masters to take them to Greece after the Trojan war.
The extra step that Hellanicus takes is not in inventing the story, but in naming the arsonist “Rome”. The name of this lady was ever present in the different versions of Rome’s founding myth. It provides the most natural answer to the question, how the city got its name. Making her the protagonist of the old story about burning ships enabled to join otherwise separated narratives.
Why would anybody name a new city to honour a saboteur though, remains questionable.
Homer – Odyssey
Virgin – Aeneid
Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities
Friedrich Solmsen – “Aeneas Founded Rome with Odysseus”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 90 (1986)