Italy's first moggy
If you are interested in my progress (struggles) in writing my next book -- that's the big history of Rome -- I can report that I am about to open the keyboard on chapter 2. This goes back to the very beginning of Rome, after a kick-off in Chapter 1 with Cicero against Catiline (and you will have to wait till it comes out to see how seamless that particular join manages to be, but I am happy enough enough).
I keep putting off writing the first words of this next chapter, but the truth is that what I am reading now is not adding anything anymore -- especially given that I have only 10,000 words or so for the whole "Romulus, Remus, Aeneas, Evander and why it matters" story. All the same, there is a principle of "ripe time" here, and there comes a moment when you know you can (metaphorically, as it must be now) put pen to paper, and honestly there isn't much point trying to hurry it.
For me the fun in all this has actually been catching up with the most recent bits of archaeological thinking on the whole issue of when Roman began.
Taking the long view, there has been an extraordinary shift in scholarly approaches to early Rome, and not in the way you might expect. There is a standard view that historians tend to get more sceptical as time goes by. But in the case of Romulus and Remus and co. the reverse is true. Whereas in the nineteenth century, most self-respecting critics would have said that the legends of early Rome were just that -- legends -- now there are a good number who are prepared to give some credence to stories, as reflecting some aspects of the real historical narrative.
Not many go so far as the Italian archaeologist Andrea Carandini, who appears to be convinced that he has found the city limits of the first settlement of Romulus himself (it's a wall and ditch surviving in a short stretch at the bottom of the Palatine hill -- and could only have been, if anything, a symbolic boundary, as it is far too flimsy for a real defensive boundary, not to mention being in a damn stupid place for one). But there is now a general "no smoke without fire" attitude, reclaiming all kinds of bits of the literary, legendary tradition.
In truth my heart is with the nineteenth-century sceptics (though I find myself thinking that the stories of early Rome, debated and redebated by the Romans as they were, tell us more about later Rome than at first appears). And I find the archaeology frustrating in telling anything more than the most self-evident narrative (you would be amazed how many scholar hours get used up in showing that burial patterns suggest a primitive Italic society in which familial relations were important and gender roles differentiated).
But archaeology does give some wonderfully vivid glimpses of pre and early Roman society. My favourite so far is the Iron Age hut excavated at Fidene (just outside the modern city of Rome) and reconstructed as you can see above. The exact "real" date would depend on how far you accept the recent attempts via dendrochronology and radio-carbon to push all the dates back a bit, maybe by up to a century (meaning that what we thought was c 900BC is really c1000BC). It's a pretty sturdy structure, with a nice enough verandah, and it seems to have come to a sudden end in a big fire. We can hope that the human inhabitants got away, but one definite casualty was the family moggy, whose skeleton was found at one corner of the hut -- the first domestic cat ever discovered in Italy.