This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
When it comes to early Italy, the differences between myth and history are difficult to discern. Much of what we know comes from Greek and Latin authors writing many years, if not centuries, after the events they describe. In some cases, we are lucky enough to have some type of artistic evidence which gives us a small window to look in on the stories of pre-Roman Italy from a non-literary view.
But when this evidence disagrees with the literary evidence, or suggests a different interpretation, we must think hard about what it means to us as modern historians of a very ancient past. This is the situation that we find ourselves in when we discuss the Vibenna brothers, semi-mythical Etruscan heroes dating back beyond the birth of the Republic.
The Vibenna brothers
Caelius and Aulus Vibenna, or Caile and Avile Vipina as their names are rendered in Etruscan, are two of the most enigmatic figures from Central Italy in the period before Roman domination. They are generally regarded as having come from Vulci, one of the important Etruscan city-states of the Iron Age. It was here that in 1857 a remarkable tomb was discovered which visually narrates a part of their story, to which we shall later return. Most of what we know of them comes from depictions on Etruscan mirrors and urns, their early exploits being very popular in Chiusi, ancient Clusium, as well as snippets within the Greco-Roman literary tradition. We lack a full narrative of their lives and deeds, which is an utter shame.
In the Etruscan tradition, the Vibenna brothers are closely associated with the legend of a prophet named Cacu. (For an overview of the story and evidence, see Grummond 2006, pp. 27-29.) He is typically depicted playing, or simply holding, a lyre with his attendant, Artile, sitting at his feet, sometimes appearing to be writing down what his master is saying: this is depicted on a late-fourth century mirror held by the British Museum (1873,0820.105). Caelius and Aulus, far from listening intently to the great religious figure, are always shown as armed, typically with their swords drawn, and seem to be advancing menacingly towards Cacu (as, for instance, in a second-century urn from Sarteano, now held in the Museo Archeologico of Siena).
Their true objective, certainly, was to exploit the religious power that figures such as the prophet could provide. (I continually refer to him as a “prophet” out of convenience. Other possible descriptions are bard or soothsayer. The fact that we do not know his true role in Etruscan mythology is reflective of our incomplete sources.) This was not out of place in elite practice in archaic Central Italy, where temples, rites, and even access to certain deities could be controlled and manipulated by the powerful families (see Hall 2016). As Jean-René Jannot put it, “to control a soothsayer or a prophet, to possess the sacred books, to have access to the etrusca disciplina: this is to exercise the greatest and the only real power” (Jannot 2005, p. 6).
Whatever the details of this legend, it seems fairly straightforward. Two heroes become more powerful by kidnapping an eminent prophet. The Vibenna brothers’ association with Rome, however, is more complicated. One of the earliest surviving Roman sources on the brothers claims that the Caelian Hill (one of the “seven hills of Rome”) was named after Caelius Vibenna, who brought his army to Latium to help Romulus against Titus Tatius (Varro LL 5.46; Serv. ad Aen. 5.56; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 2.36.2; Tim Cornell believed that this story “was probably ancient and indigenous”, see: Cornell 2011, pp. 175-204, at 178. This paper is still the best introduction to what we know of the Etruscan historical tradition, even though it was originally published in 1976). From an excerpt of a nearly contemporary text, we hear that another part of Rome, the Tuscus Vicus or Tuscan Quarter, was named so because it was occupied by Caelius and Aulus Vibenna, but in a completely different chronological setting. (This stands opposed to a version which attributed the name of this neighbourhood to the Etruscans who remained in Rome in the wake of Lars Porsenna’s siege.) Verrius Flaccus knew a story in which they came to Rome with a companion named Maxtarna in a conflict against Roman king Tarquinius Priscus (Festus 486L).
These two stories, then, are two hundred years apart, but both provide an explanation for why parts of Rome were named as they were, both related to the legends surrounding the Vibenna brothers. Another passage of Verrius Flaccus provides a bit of clarity, by claiming that the name of the hill was derived from “a certain Caeles” who had come from Etruria during the time of Romulus to assist in a war against the Sabines (Festus 38L). We see, then, that Flaccus accepts the aetiological explanation for the name of the Caelian, but that it was named after a different man than one half of the more famous duo. If this is correct, it helps to explain why Aulus is absent from Varro’s version of events, even though the brothers are consistently shown together in artwork, and in Flaccus’ statement about the Tuscus Vicus. A seperate aeitology, explaining the name of the Capitoline Hill, ties it to the severed head of an Olus (Aulus) of Vulci, perhaps placing the second Vibenna brother in Rome (Arnobius 6.7).
The most noted historical reference to the adventurers comes from a speech delivered in AD 48 by the emperor Claudius in which he was arguing for Gallic men to be admitted to the Senate. Amongst a list of examples of foreigners who came to power in Rome (all during the Regal Period), he reminds his audience of king Servius Tullius, who “if we follow our Roman sources, he was the son of Ocresia, a prisoner of war; if we follow Etruscan sources, he was once the most faithful companion of Caelius Vivenna and took part in all his adventures. Subsequently, driven out by a change of fortune, he left Etruria with all the remnants of Caelius’ army and occupied the Caelian hill, naming it thus after his former leader” (ILS 212.I.22-27; transl. Cornell 1995, pp. 133-134).
The story that Claudius knew, then, does not quite line up with any of the others. He attributes the naming of the Caelian Hill to Maxstarna/Servius Tullius as an act of reverence for his former leader. This is a similar aetiology as provided by Varro and the second passage from Flaccus, noted above. The chronologies of the emperor’s story and the other two, however, do not align. We are also faced again with the problem of Aulus’ absence from Claudius’ version of the story as we were by the passage from Varro.
That Aulus was present in the actual Etruscan version of this episode may be supported by the paintings found in the François Tomb in Vulci, as is usually suggested. One of the most striking paintings is the “battle scene” which shows a number of named figures killing or being killed, as well as Macstarna freeing his companion, Caile Vipinas, from bondage (see this image on Wikipedia). The presence of a figure in the tomb called Gneve Tarchunies Rumach, or Gnaeus Tarquinius the Roman, being killed has led to the identification of the battle scene with the overthrow of the Tarquin government as described in Flaccus’ and Claudius’ stories (see Alföldi 1965, pp. 212-231).
The problem with this, however, is that this image is separate from the larger battle scene. As well, the figure of Marce Camitlnas is killing the Roman, a name that is completely absent from the traditions we have seen above. Indeed, the main scene does not much resemble a battle. The victorious heroes are nude (except for Larth Ulthes) and appear to be in the act of escaping (see Alföldi 1965, pp. 222-228).
Read by itself, the “battle scene” is an episode from the lives of the Vibenna brothers which has nothing to do with Rome. It is only when we include the image of Marce Camitlnas that this becomes a story related to the ascension of Macstarna/Servius Tullius in Rome. This painting, as well, cannot be read without acknowledging what mirrors it on the other side of the tomb, which is a painting depicting the duel between Etiocles and Polynices, the brothers who killed each other in an attempt to gain control of Thebes. The latter was a popular scene in Etruscan art.
Thus, it seems likely to me that rather than being part of the Vibenna brothers’ history, the Marce Camitlnas scene is one from another Vulcentane legend. I am unconvinced that the nakedness of Camitlnas necessarily ties him to the larger scene (e.g. Alföldi 1965, pp. 223-224). The paintings of the François Tomb, then, are less helpful for us than typically thought.
So what then do we know of the Vibenna brothers? It is certain that they were legendary figures in Etruria. Their ties to Cacu seem to have been the most popular scene of their adventures. The other instance of their tale that we can be sure of was their escape from a coalition of their enemies, as shown in the François Tomb.
Their association to Rome is less clear cut. The aetiologies related to the Caelian Hill are the most problematic, its origin either in Romulean or Tarquinian Rome the centrepiece of the controversy. Although I am reticent to tie the name of the hill to the era of Romulus, as his existence is uncertain, an early date suits the circumstances. This is supported by the absence of Aulus from either version that we have seen of this explanation. The second story told by Verrius Flaccus, that “a certain Caeles” came to aid Rome against the Sabines is to be preferred. This figure was later identified with Caelius Vibenna by Romans who had recently rediscovered the great legends of Etruria, including the exploits of the brother. Authors could have been looking to add a bit of flair to the origin of one of the most notable geographical landmarks of Rome by tying these together.
As for the origin of Servius Tullius as Macstarna, companion of the Vibenna brothers, this is more likely historical. The Roman explanation of Servius Tullius is full of obviously mythical elements (such as his head catching fire as a child) and the Etruscan version reads more believably. Thus, the basic outline of the Vibenna legend that we can be sure of is that they captured the prophet Cacu and led an army of followers which, after the deaths of the brothers, was used by Macstarna to capture Rome. Sometime during their lives, they and a number of their comrades were captured by a combined force of their enemies, only to escape when Larth Ulthes brought weapons into the camp where they were being held. What we know is obviously limited, but more than we can say about most other heroes and historical figures from Etruria.