Historical Figures

Quintus Fabius Pictor, first Roman historian

From the great Roman patrician family of Fabii , Quintus is considered one of the first Roman historians and described by Polybius as "scriptorum antiquisimus" (the oldest of the authors). An aristocrat in love with his homeland, Quintus Fabius Pictor was a actor in the Punic Wars and a primordial source for the generations of historians who succeeded him!

The Fabii Pictores

As its name suggests, Fabius Pictor is part of the Fabia gens, and more precisely of the Pictores branch. The Fabii are one of the most illustrious Roman aristocratic families, but also one of the most ephemeral since they disappear from the consular records (chronological list of consuls) from the beginning of the Empire, in the year 34, not without having offered Rome 6 dictators, 46 consuls, 6 censors, 6 masters of the cavalry, 14 consular tribunes and 2 decemvirates.

Following the tragic and famous battle of Crémère (477 BC), the whole family was destroyed in battle. The only and last representative of the line is the young Quintus Fabii who because of his young age had not participated in the engagement. It is from him that the lineage of the Fabii is reconstituted for five centuries.

Among the illustrious descendants of Quintus is Gaius Fabius Pictor. The latter obtains this nickname (called cognomen) of "Pitor" because he is a painter. He decorates in particular, surely with a scene of victory over the Samnites, the temple of Salus on the Quirinal hill in Rome. At that time Roman painting was not the most famous, it borrowed a lot from Greek and Etruscan art. The status of artist does not have a particular aura, it is closer to that of the craftsman, and it is possible that this qualifier "Pictor" had a demeaning connotation for a member of an illustrious family who would be downgraded to less noble tasks. His two sons Caius and Numerius obtained the consulship, respectively in 269 and 266 BC. J-C.

Quintus, the emissary of the gods

Born around 254 BC. AD, Quintus Fabius Pictor is the grandson of Caius. His life is partially known to us thanks to Polybius, Eutropius, Livy, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder. Quintus would have participated in the war against the Gauls in 225 BC. J.-C., but it is especially during the Second Punic War that the Fabii are essential. June 21, 217 BC. J. - C. it takes part in the battle of the Trasimène lake where the Roman armies are crushed by the troops of Hannibal. Another man in the family, from another branch of the Fabii, then becomes the strong man of the moment:Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. Fabius Maximus' detractors nicknamed him Ovicula ("the sheep"), while those who understood the merits of his strategy nicknamed him Cunctator ("the timer").

Aware of Roman military inferiority, Fabius Maximus once appointed dictator imposed a strategy of avoidance aimed at dodging frontal contact with the Punics to bet on a war of attrition . His strategy being very badly seen at first, he only manages to impose it after the new military disaster suffered by the Roman legions in Cannes. At the same time, two Vestals are convinced of having breached their vow of chastity and are condemned to death:one commits suicide and the other is buried alive. In Rome, we are worried about these scandals and these defeats, we must appease the gods:after reading the Books of Destiny, we bury alive a couple of Gauls and a couple of Greeks after having officiated some human sacrifices.

In the same desire to appease the gods, Quintus Fabius Pictor, who was then praetor, was sent on a mission to Delphi to consult the oracle there. Arrived at the sanctuary, he covered his head with a laurel wreath and went to consult the priestess who explained to him what prayers and what rites were expected by the gods. Then he came out again, and (according to Livy) made libations of wine and incense for all the gods. The priestess of Apollo would then have joined him and would have asked him to go back to sea without laying down his laurel wreath before arriving in Rome. Back from the most important sanctuary in the Greek world, Quintus will lay the crown on the altar of Apollo and explain what the oracle is waiting for. He adds:

"If you submit to these orders, Romans, your position will become better and easier; business will go more to your liking, and , in this combat between Hannibal and you, the victory will remain with the Roman people. When the republic is out of all danger, and in a prosperous state, send to Apollo Pythien a well-deserved offering; pay him tribute from the spoils, on the spoils, on the proceeds of the sale, and beware of pride. "

The senate then decreed that everything would be done this way.

Quintus, “scriptorum antiquisimus”

The literary career of Quintus Fabius Pictor is marked by the writing of his Annals , certainly around 216/210 BC. This work has unfortunately reached us only in a very incomplete way since we only have the List of the Seven Kings, taken up by all the historians of the following centuries and which constitutes the traditional list of the kings of Rome:Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquin the Elder, Servius Tullius and Tarquin the Superb. According to historians, the first four kings are legendary, while the last three have reigned.

However, the Annals of Quintus are cited and used by many ancient historians such as Livy (who notably evokes his account of the battle of Trasimene), Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch... If it was read and used as much by these illustrious scholars, it is that Quintus was one of the first Roman historians, as Livy himself underlines by qualifying it as “scriptorum antiquisimus” (the oldest of the authors). Being from one of the most influential families in Rome, it is possible that he had access to the family archives of Roman senators.

Plutarch remarks that he was also inspired, especially for certain elements relating to the founding of Rome, by a slightly older author:Diocles of Peparethos. However, Quintus seems to go beyond the work of Diocles since he tells the story of Rome from its origins to its time. Of course, he wrote in Greek, then considered the language of scholarship.

Quintus Fabius Pictor was sometimes considered the inventor of what could be called the "Roman national novel", that is to say, he was accused (especially Polybius) to have a quite relative objectivity when it came to dealing with the policy of Rome, which he sought to justify. Polybius, who takes the opportunity to give a lesson on the historian's relationship to the Truth, mirrors it with the Greek historian Philinos of Agrigento who, conversely, had pro-Carthaginian tendencies:"I don't think they meant to lie. Their morals and the sect they professed shielded them from this suspicion, but it seems to me that what usually happens to lovers has happened to them with regard to their mistresses. [Philinos], following the inclination he had for the Carthaginians, honors them with a wisdom, a prudence and a courage which never fail, and represents the Romans as of a completely opposite conduct . Fabius, on the contrary, gives all these virtues to the Romans and refuses them all to the Carthaginians. In any other circumstance, such a disposition would perhaps be nothing but estimable. It is for an honest man to love his friends and his country, to hate those whom his friends hate, and to love those whom they love. But this character is incompatible with the role of historian. One is then compelled to praise one's enemies when their deeds are truly commendable, and to blame unceremoniously one's greatest friends when their faults merit blame .

To go further, modern sources:

- Françoise Wycke-Lecocq, The Fabia people in the Republican era:from legend to history. Research on the literary representation of a large Roman patrician family , (Ph.D. thesis, La Sorbonne - Paris IV, 1986, dir. Jean Beaujeu).

- Arnaldo Momigliano, “Fabius Pictor and the Origins of National History”, in The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography , Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990.

- Marie-Pierre Arnaud-Lindet, History and Politics in Rome, Roman Historians 3rd Century BC. AD ./ 5th century AD AD ., Ed. POCKET Agora, 2001.

Ancient sources:

- Pliny the Elder:Natural Histories
- Plutarch:Lives of Illustrious Men
- Polybius:General History
- Livy:Roman history