In the annals of human history, there has never been a civilization without a founding mythology. From the Vikings of Northern Europe, to the Manchus of Northeast China, it is a matter of anthropological certainty that once a people settle, gather together, and begin to build a civilization, the deed cannot be done without mythos.
In ancient Rome, the founding mythology after Romulus and Remus, was that of the Roman kings. This mythos was a unique one in that it was propagated into the future not as myth, but as history. And this type of mythologized history was used as a tool to justify the founding of the state and the state’s founding values (namely liberty and democracy.)
This is different from the modern conception of history as the recording of events as factual matters. America has a mythos surrounding its founding fathers as well, but it has always remained separate from accurate historical accounts of events. Roman history was mixed directly with mythos, yet if a Roman were to refer to said history as merely myth, they would be looked at as blasphemous. That is the unique difference. The Romans recognized no meaningful distinction between their founding mythos and their history.
Within the context of ancient Rome, this mythologizing of history was instrumental in the toppling of the emperor and the subsequent founding of the Republic in 510 BC. This very act of mythologizing historical events works in two simple steps:
- The new mythologized history vilifies the old established order
- Through this vilification, the new ruling order is justified and seen as liberators
The mythos that resulted in the overthrow of the Roman Kings culminated in one story: The Rape of Lucretia. The Rape of Lucretia highlighted the ruin of Roman virtue at the hands of an unfeeling and detatched monarchy.
Today, the old American order, that of European settlers, is being overthrown. The new mythologized history? It is not The Rape of Lucretia these new revolutionaries decry, but The Death of George Floyd.
The Death of George Floyd paints a picture of African-Americans as an innocent underclass being crushed by something called institutional racism. The facts, however, do not bear this out. This, I would argue, is the reason why a form of dishonestly mythologized history is being employed to do what mythologizing history does:
1.The new mythologized history vilifies the old established order
2.Through this vilification, the new ruling order is justified.
Ancient Rome was founded upon a bevy of myths. Romulus and Remus are likely to come to mind. They were the twin brothers abandoned by their mother and raised by a wolf. There are a number of relics existing from ancient Rome depicting the two abandoned sons succling at the teat of a mother wolf. Romulus would eventually murder his brother Reumus and go onto found Rome-or so the story goes. Within the Roman canon there exist countless myths. One lesser known myth, but a myth all too crucial if one is to understand Roman history, is the mythology of the Roman kings.
What is of interest in the scope of this project on the functionality of story isn’t necessarily the stories themselves. What should be of interest to those hoping to understand how civilizations and stories work are how these myths of the first Roman Kings came about, persisted into time, and functioned in later centuries.
Interestingly, the myths were not shared as stories, but as a legitimate line of history. The people of 600 BCe Rome, for example, truly believed that Romulus was the son of Mars, the God of war. This seemed to be how all of Roman history, at the time the society still existed, functioned. Politicians and generals were often believed to be descendants of Gods. Brutus, the assassin who killed Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 BC, proclaimed to have direct lineage to a Brutus who helped topple the first line of Roman Monarchs six hundred years prior. Lineage was everything in Rome; and what is more impressive than lineage from Gods of War and ancient assassins?
This is vastly different from how modern people see the function of myth and story. Us moderns are almost entirely removed from the world in which these stories took place. The Romans were not. They still inhabited an enchanted world, the world in which these myths took place. To use Christianity as an example: modern people doubt that Jesus even existed at all, let alone inhabited this world as the son of God. For the ancients, such a worldview would have been impossible to come to. To disbelieve in the pantheon of Gods was to invite terror and doom onto one’s house. Jupiter, Saturn, Apollo, Mars could all be walking amongst the mortals at any time (They were even known to impregnate beautiful mortal women from time to time.) If a modern person claimed to be progeny of the God of War, one may ask where they bought their weed.
To better illustrate the relevant phenomenon, one can look at how the delegitimization of the mythos of the Roman Kings manifested through one story in particular. The Rape of Lucretia is the story that is almost single handedly credited with the destruction of the first Roman kingship. This is relevant because this marks the birth of Roman freedom and liberty. Romans were known throughout the world for this liberty, and it served as perhaps their most important value. Liberty is what made the Romans who they were.
Livy, the author of a one hundred and forty two book history of Rome, illustrated The Rape of Lucretia this way:
LVII. One day when the young men were drinking at the house of Sextus Tarquinius, after a supper where they had dined with the son of Egerius, Tarquinius Conlatinus, they fell to talking about their wives, and each man fell to praising his wife to excess. Finally Tarquinius Conlatinus declared that there was no need to argue; they might all be sure that no one was more worthy than his Lucretia. “Young and vigorous as we are, why don’t we go get out horses and go and see for ourselves what our wives are doing? And we will base our judgement on whatever we see them doing when their husbands arrive unannounced.” Encouraged by the wine, “Yes, let’s go!” they all cried, and they went on horseback to the city. Darkness was beginning to fall when they arrived and they went to the house of Conlatinus. There, they found Lucretia behaving quite differently from the daughters-in-law of the King, whom they had found with their friends before a grand feast, preparing to have a night of fun. Lucretia, even though it was night, was still working on her spinning, with her servants, in the middle of her house. They were all impressed by Lucretia’s chaste honor. When her husband and the Tarquins arrived, she received them, and her husband, the winner, was obliged to invite the king’s sons in. It was then that Sextus Tarquinius was seized by the desire to violate Lucretia’s chastity, seduced both by her beauty and by her exemplary virtue. Finally, after a night of youthful games, they returned to the camp.
LVIII. Several days passed. Sextus Tarquinius returned to the house of Conlatinus, with one of his companions. He was well received and given the hospitality of the house, and maddened with love, he waited until he was sure everyone else was asleep. Then he took up his sword and went to Lucretia’s bedroom, and placing his sword against her left breast, he said, “Quiet, Lucretia; I am Sextus Tarquinius, and I have a sword in my hand. If you speak, you will die.” Awakening from sleep, the poor woman realized that she was without help and very close to death. Sextus Tarquinius declared his love for her, begging and threatening her alternately, and attacked her soul in every way. Finally, before her steadfastness, which was not affected by the fear of death even after his intimidation, he added another menace. “When I have killed you, I will put next to you the body of a nude servant, and everyone will say that you were killed during a dishonorable act of adultery.” With this menace, Sextus Tarquinius triumphed over her virtue, and when he had raped her he left, having taken away her honor. Lucretia, overcome with sorrow and shame, sent messengers both to her husband at Ardea and her father at Rome, asking them each to come “at once, with a good friend, because a very terrible thing had happened.” Spurius Lucretius, her father, came with Publius Valerius, the son of Volesus, and Conlatinus came with Lucius Junius Brutus; they had just returned to Rome when they met Lucretia’s messenger. They found Lucretia in her chamber, overpowered by grief. When she saw them she began to cry. “How are you?” her husband asked. “Very bad,” she replied, “how can anything go well for a woman who has lost her honor? There are the marks of another man in your bed, Conlatinus. My body is greatly soiled, though my heart is still pure, as my death will prove. But give me your right hand in faith that you will not allow the guilty to escape. It was Sextus Tarquinius who returned our hospitality with enmity last night. With his sword in his hand, he came to take his pleasure for my unhappiness, but it will also be his sorrow if you are real men.” They promised her that they would pursue him, and they tried to appease her sorrow, saying that it was the soul that did wrong, and not the body, and because she had had no bad intention, she did no wrong. “It is your responsibility to see that he gets what he deserves,” she said, “I will absolve myself of blame, and I will not free myself from punishment. No woman shall use Lucretia as her example in dishonor.” Then she took up a knife which she had hidden beneath her robe, and plunged it into her heart, collapsing from her wound; she died there amid the cries of her husband and father.
LIX. Brutus, leaving them in their grief, took the knife from Lucretia’s wound, and holding it all covered with blood up in the aid, cried, “By this blood, which was so pure before the crime of the prince, I swear before you, O gods, to chase the King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, with his criminal wife and all their offspring, by fire, iron, and all the methods I have at my disposal, and never to tolerate Kings in Rome evermore, whether of that family or any other.”
Of this myth, all that is known is this: A woman named Lucretia did exist, and there does seem to have been an event that led to the toppling of the Kings of Rome. However, the story serves as more of a legend than a raw historical account. The important thing to know is that the story served as a history for the later generations of the Roman Republic. The fact that it may not have actually happened as it is portrayed through the historical writings did not make a pragmatic difference to the Roman citizenry. What mattered was the fact that, myth or not, the story served as a history the people believed in, as a history that fueled their love for their nation. The rape of Lucretia served as a stark and violent reminder of the horrors of tyranny.
In a way, the legend justified the Roman’s insistence that a king was not for them. They would, at all costs, fend off the tyranny of monarchy, lest they allow a pure love like Lucretia’s to be sullied once more. Legitimate history or not, the story served the highly pragmatic purpose of emotional fuel for the Roman’s love of country and of democracy. They believed it was as real as we believe our history is real, and in this sense it served the most pragmatic of purposes.
In fact, within the immediate aftermath of the rape, the story served as a reason to overthrow an otherwise up to then legitimate monarchical system of governance. The Rape of Lucretia replaced the mythos of the Roman Kings. One story was necessary to replace the other. A new story helped pave the way for a new system of rule and a new way of life under which Romans would commune.
Surely, there can be no doubt that America is experiencing this in real time as I type these words. The Rape of Lucretia has become The Death of George Floyd. They utter the phrase like a solemn hymn.
One may ask themselves a line of questions that looks something like this:
Did George Floyd actually die? Yes. (So did Lucretia.)
Did he die the way everyone is saying he died? No, the toxicology report says otherwise. (Lucretia may or may not have been raped and committed suicide.)
Is the story being used to usurp the old ruling order? Yes. (So was The Rape of Lucretia.)
Are claims of institutional rot and corruption being buttressed by this new mythos? Yes, look at the calls of “institutional racism”. (So was The Rape of Lucretia.)
Do the facts at all support the narrative being shared? At any level of analysis? No. (The facts on The Rape of Lucritia are assumed eternally lost, but from what evidence we have, modern historians remain skeptical.)
This is the function of shared mythos – especially a mythologized history. It is the history of a people. It makes them who they are. To deem it illegitimate is to deem their very identity illegitimate. What is happening in America now is the toppling of the Kings of Rome.
An event that most certainly happened is being repackaged in a way that the facts and statistics do not support. Yet the story carries such significance, those looking to overthrow the old established order cannot afford to recognize the factual inaccuracy, if not outright illegetimacy, of this new mythos.
Just look at the facts. This man was a career criminal who once robbed a pregnant woman at gunpoint, threatening to kill her and her baby. If he were a changed man, that would be one thing. But he was arrested using counterfeit money at a local mom and pop shop high on a lethal dose of fentanyl. Hardly the paragon of loving virtue Lucretia embodied.
And they took this man to his grave like they took Cinderella to the ball: in a horse drawn carriage. Did I mention they buried him in a golden casket and his family is now as wealthy as royalty. For anyone keeping fair score at home, the entire mosaic of events is pretty clear. This new mythos, coupled with the destruction of European colonial history it is meant to replace, illustrates a brazen attempt at the destruction of one ruling order so as to make way for another. Those of us sitting at home watching this all unfold cannot help but think: this is madness.
But upon further review of the historical precedent, to proclaim current events as madness would be a gross misstatement. This is not madness, this is mythos.