Christopher Burden-Strevens on Cassius Dio’s Forgotten History of Early Rome

Cassius Dio, a third-century historian who wrote a massive history of Rome from its foundation up until the third century AD, is one of our most important sources for over a millennium of the history of the Roman Empire. His 80-book history, researched and written over a period of 22 years, represents the most ambitious project in Roman history since Tacitus.

A new study, Cassius Dio’s Forgotten History of Early Rome, undertaken by Dr Christopher Burden-Strevens, investigates the least researched and least understood parts of this massive undertaking: the first 20 books, which span over half a millennium of history and constitute a quarter of Dio’s work.

Dr Burden-Strevens is Lecturer in Ancient History in the Department of Classical & Archaeological Studies and co-director of MA programmes in Ancient History and Archaeology at the University’s Rome School of Classical & Renaissance Studies. His new research combines literary and historiographical perspectives with source-criticism and textual analysis for the first time in the study of Dio’s early books; this collection of chapters demonstrates the integral place of ‘early Rome’ within the text as a whole and Dio’s distinctive approach to this semi-mythical period. By focussing on these hitherto neglected portions of the text, his volume seeks to further the ongoing reappraisal of one of Rome’s most significant but traditionally under-appreciated historians.

Dr Burden-Strevens said: for us today, the earliest centuries of Rome’s history are fascinating and yet untouchable. Early Rome is where myth and history meet one another: the Romans of the seventh to the fourth centuries BCE simply don’t seem to have been writing down their own story yet, and we’re therefore reliant on much later sources for reconstructing that story. We have archaeological evidence, of course; and much of this too is shrouded in legend.

When I take the students on our Master’s programmes in Roman History and Archaeology out to the Forum, there are, all around us, monuments which link back to the earliest days of the city’s past: the so-called ‘Lacus Curtius’, where a young hero threw himself into a chasm to save the state from a divine disaster through his sacrifice; the Umbilicus Urbis, the symbolic and ancient heart of the city of Rome; and the so-called ‘Black Stone’, an inscription which scholars have used to ‘confirm’ the myth that Rome was once ruled by kings. In engaging with this tradition, both the literary and archaeological evidence are essential, and Cassius Dio’s ambitious work on Early Rome is a critical part of that both for myself and our Master’s students in Rome’.

Over the coming months, Christopher will be continuing his work on Cassius Dio with a research residency at the Fondation Hardt in Geneva, having recently been awarded one of its scholarships for young researchers. It is anticipated that this will allow the completion of his new monograph on the fall of the Roman Republic for publication in Brill’s Historiography of Rome and Its Empire series in 2020.

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