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Early Roman Oral Traditions

February 16, 2014

I heartily wish those venerable odes were still extant, which Cato informs us in his Origins, used to be sung by every guest in his turn at the homely feasts of our ancestors, many ages before, to commemorate the feats of their heroes.

(Cicero Brutus 75)

I have recently been studying the literary sources for Roman history. One of the concepts I found particularly interesting was the possible oral transmission of ancient Roman history. Cicero (Brutus 75, Tusculan Disputations 1.3 and On The Orator 3.197) provides the majority of evidence for the oral tradition. I certainly appreciate how this evidence might support an argument for the transmission of ancient Roman history. However, I would suggest that Cicero’s reliance on one source, Cato’s Origines, limits its usefulness. There are other references to the oral tradition such as Valerius Maximus’ Memorable Doings and Sayings (2.1.10) but these are few in number. The oral tradition is criticised by Wiseman (1994:11) who observes that the accurate transmission of a story can only occur over one generation. Instead, Wiseman (1994:12) considers that dramatic performances with historical themes transmitted Roman history, these developed into a written form by the third century. Wiseman’s observations are criticised by Flower (1995:173) who considers that there is a ‘lack of ancient evidence to support [his] wide-ranging and speculative theories’. Flower then notes that information, such as the exploits of famous people, were shared between generations in a number of ways; including funeral eulogies, monuments and inscriptions. Wiseman (1994:21), however, makes a strong case to support his argument that ‘historiography grew out of…celebratory performances’, concluding that drama was a source of information and that the historian’s material was dramatic in origin. The complex nature of the debate makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions. I would suggest that the evidence of Cicero and the other authors does not sufficiently demonstrate that history was transmitted through the oral tradition. However, I note that some form of history must, at some point, have been transmitted orally. Wiseman (1989:133) considers that, for example, the history of the house of Tarquin like Troy was passed through story telling for centuries before it became literature.



Cicero Brutus Translated by Jones, E. (1776) Attalus [Accessed: 15 February 2014]

Cicero On The Orator Translated by Sutton, E. Loeb Classical Library Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Cicero Tusculan Disputations Translated by King, J. Loeb Classical Library London : Heinemann, 1927.

Valerius Maximus Memorable Doings and Sayings Translated by Shackleton Bailey, D. Loeb classical library Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.


Flower, H. Fabulae Praetextae in Context: When Were Plays on Contemporary Subjects Performed in Republican Rome? The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 45, No. 1, 1995, pp. 170-190 Available from: [Accessed: 10 February 2014]

Wiseman, T. Historiography and Imagination Exeter: University of Exter Press, 1994.

Wiseman, T. Roman Legend and Oral Tradition,  The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 79, 1989, pp. 129-137. Available from: [Accessed: 10 February 2014]

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