Where Did the Lacus Curtius Come From?

Varro, On the Latin Language, 148

“In the forum one finds the Lacus Curtius (“Pool of Curtius”), which opinion holds was named for Curtius. But the story about why has three forms: Procilus does not report the same thing which Piso does and Cornelius doesn’t follow it either. Proclius reports that in this place the earth opened wide and this fact was referred by senatorial decree to the haruspices: they responded that the gods of the dead asked for completion of a vow that had been forgotten: a promise to send down the bravest citizen. At that time, a certain Curtius, a brave man, armed, climbed atop his horse, and, after he turned from the temple of Concord, threw himself into the hole with his horse. When that deed was done, the place close and entombed his body divinely: it created a monument to his family.

In his Annales, Piso writes that during the Sabine war that occurred between Romulus and Tatius, a most stout Sabine named Mettius Curtius, at the moment when Romuus brought his men on a charge from higher ground, escaped into a marshy spot which was then what the Forum was because the sewers were built and then retreated to his own men on the Capitoline. Well, Piso records this is how the place got its name.

Cornelius and Lutatius write instead that the place was struck by lightning and as a result was fenced in by a senatorial decree. This was done under the leadership of a Consul named Curtius who was a colleague of Marcus Genucius. For this reason, it was named Lacus Curtius.”

Cornelius et Lutatius scribunt eum locum esse fulguritum et ex S. C. septum esse: id quod factum esset a Curtio consule, cui M. Genucius fuit collega, Curtium appellatum.

In Foro Lacum Curtium a Curtio dictum constat, et de eo triceps historia: nam et Procilius non idem prodidit quod Piso, nec quod is Cornelius secutus. A Procilio relatum in eo loco dehisse terram et id ex S.C. ad haruspices relatum esse; responsum deum Manium postilionem postulare, id est civem fortissimum eo demitti. Tum quendam Curtium virum fortem armatum ascendisse in equum et a Concordia versum cum eo praecipitatum; eo facto locum coisse atque eius corpus divinitus humasse ac reliquisse genti suae monumentum.

Piso in Annalibus scribit Sabino bello, quod fuit Romulo et Tatio, virum fortissimum Mettium Curtium Sabinum, cum Romulus cum suis ex superiore parte impressionem fecisset, in locum palustrem, qui tum fuit in Foro antequam cloacae sunt factae, secessisse atque ad suos in Capitolium recepisse; ab eo lacum Curtium invenisse nomen.

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (Palazzo Pubblico, Siena) and Achilles’ Shield

In the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy there are a series of Frescoes referred to as “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” painted from 1338 to 1339 by Abrogio Lorenzetti. One panel shows a good government, and to the right the effects of a city governed well where the people seem free of the threat of war and their lives are full with good things–children, marriages, dancing.

Good government

The other city facing it is ruled by a tyrant; soldiers wander the streets and the law of might seems to be in effect.

Bad government

Here’s a short video giving you an idea of the whole composition. The City of Bad Government is more fragmentary, but the state of all three Frescoes communicates well the oppositions between Good Rule and Bad Rule, what ancient Greeks might call eunomia and dusnomia.

The allegorizing and the strict dichotomy are both rather typical of late Medieval thought, but what struck me about the city of Good Government is the collocation of images in the lower left hand corner:


The image of the marriage so close to the festive dancing in the context of two contrasted cities made me think of the decoration Hephaestus puts on Homer’s shield in the IliadThe first city’s description starts in the following way (18.489-495):

“On the shield he made two cities of mortal men,
Beautifully. In one there were marriages and feasts
Under the lights of burning torches as they led brides
Through the city from their bedrooms—a great marriage hymn rose up.
And the young men whirled about dancing as among them
The pipes and lyres cried out. Women stood there,
Each at her own doorway, staring in amazement.”

᾿Εν δὲ δύω ποίησε πόλεις μερόπων ἀνθρώπων
καλάς. ἐν τῇ μέν ῥα γάμοι τ’ ἔσαν εἰλαπίναι τε,
νύμφας δ’ ἐκ θαλάμων δαΐδων ὕπο λαμπομενάων
ἠγίνεον ἀνὰ ἄστυ, πολὺς δ’ ὑμέναιος ὀρώρει·
κοῦροι δ’ ὀρχηστῆρες ἐδίνεον, ἐν δ’ ἄρα τοῖσιν
αὐλοὶ φόρμιγγές τε βοὴν ἔχον· αἳ δὲ γυναῖκες
ἱστάμεναι θαύμαζον ἐπὶ προθύροισιν ἑκάστη.

This city is not without challenges–the next scene describes a trial over over a man who has been killed. But this trial takes place in an institution and is not fought in the streets or in war. The other city (18.509-540) is beset by two armies at war; there are ambushes, skirmishes and corpses. Women and children look on from the walls.

The two sets of images (the Shield and the Frescoes) obviously convey different specific values and draw on separate moralizing traditions, but the attendant imagery and the distinction between a city governed-well and one beset by strife is striking. I do not mean to imply in any way that I think there is a direct relationship between the two, but rather that they are both the natural outcome of cultures steeped in dichotomous representations.

But that corner image of the weddings and dances when coupled with the opening of the peaceful city in the Iliad really started me wondering…

Arriving in Italy, But Not at the Journey’s End: Aeneid 6.1-12

I am currently in Siena, Italy (leading a summer study-abroad program for the month). My travels took about 20 hours followed by a mad search through Florence for a lost student who had neither phone nor money. (And today I travel south to retrieve more students from Rome!). I arrived in Siena tired and worn. But once I opened the Aeneid to consider Aeneas’ arrival on the Italian peninsula, I realized my complaints were quite unbecoming:

“He spoke this crying and then gave rein to the fleet
And they finally reached the Eubaean shores of Cumae.
They turn the prows toward the sea and then fasten the ships
safe by anchor where the curved boats make a shelter
on the shore. An eager band of youths leap down
on the Italian strand; one part seeks the seeds of flame
contained in a flint’s vein; another seizes trees
used as beasts’ thick roofs; and another traces along the river’s path.
But dutiful Aeneas climbs the hills where Apollo rules
On high and seeks the hollow cave of the horrid Sibyl,
the prophet whose mind and great soul the Delian inspires
as he lays open for her the secrets yet to come.”

Sic fatur lacrimans, classique immittit habenas,
et tandem Euboïcis Cumarum adlabitur oris.
Obvertunt pelago proras; tum dente tenaci
ancora fundabat naves, et litora curvae
praetexunt puppes. Iuvenum manus emicat ardens
litus in Hesperium; quaerit pars semina flammae
abstrusa in venis silicis, pars densa ferarum
tecta rapit silvas, inventaque flumina monstrat.
At pius Aeneas arces, quibus altus Apollo
praesidet, horrendaeque procul secreta Sibyllae
antrum immane petit, magnum cui mentem animumque
Delius inspirat vates, aperitque futura.