Regulus and Classical Reception in Robin Hobb’s “The Triumph”

“Classical Reception” encompasses all work concerned with postclassical material, including history of scholarship; history of the book, film and media studies; performance history; translation studies;  response and personal voice criticism; postcolonial studies; medieval and Neo-Latin; and much else besides.  Therefore, reception has helped to challenge the traditional idea of what “classics” is.  It is not merely a matter of looking at what happened to classics after what we like to now call “late antiquity,” but of contesting the idea that classics is something fixed, with predefined boundaries, and whose nature we can understand on its own terms.  Reception allows for classics to evolve, involving the active participation of readers in a two way process, in which the past and present are in dialogue with one another.

Robin Hobb’s “The Triumph”, enables us to transcend time to visit the ancient city of Carthage in the year 251 BC.  Hobb’s story gives us a perspective of Marcus Atilius Regulus’ final dying days, and the events that led to his gruesome death.  Regulus appears in many sources because of his extraordinary story, and the use of his life story as an example of Roman virtue and honor. Regulus, consul 267 and 256 BC., invaded Africa during the First Punic War, and after winning an initial battle on Carthaginian soil, he entered into negotiations for peace with the city leaders. However, deemed too harsh by the Punic leaders, talks broke down, and the war was continued. In the ensuing battle, his forces were routed, and he was held captive by the Carthaginians. Released to Rome ca. 250 BC. to negotiate a peace, or at least a trade of prisoners of war, Regulus, however, goaded the Roman Senate to continue the war, and returned to Carthage, as he had promised, to be tortured. While Rome later did negotiate a trade of prisoners with the Carthaginians around 247 BC., the exemplum of Regulus was used throughout the remainder of Roman history, and later in the western world.  While Robin Hobb strays from the classical sources a few times throughout her depiction of Regulus, the true debate should lie in her ability to engage the reader into the classical world, and her ability to imitate the the past versus seeking the construction of the-past-as-it-really-was-in-itself.

wl114 Hobb details several accounts of Regulus, but the true importance to her writing is her focus on accounts that many modern historians have attempted to deem as myths and falsifications of the true historical account by ancient historians.  Those specific accounts being Regulus’ battle against a serpent while in Africa, his return to Rome to negotiate a peace, and his torture upon returning to Carthage.  For each of these specific events, I will detail Robin Hobbs portrayal of Regulus, countered against the historical tradition of the account, while attempting to display the importance of Regulus’ story as it can be applied to the evolution of reception studies.

Livy, Zonaras, Ionnes Damascenes, Silius Italicus, and Aulus Gellius each give an account of a fascinated story on how Regulus defeated a 120-foot serpent that attacked his troops, defeated it with catapults, and sent the skin to Rome for display.  Therefore, it is not out of line for Robin Hobb to recount this event through the eyes of her characters, Regulus and Flavius.  In her story, Regulus disbelieves his scouts of such a lengthy creature, yet diverts his river crossing to avoid the beast.  The serpent still finds his forces, and injures his Italian neighbor, Flavius, when his own life is threatened.  Hobb, by giving her characters the ability to speculate and appear in awe of the beast, places us in the battle, and gives the reader a practical imitation of how a traumatizing event could be embellished by those involved.  W. W. Fowler, who wrote “Roman Essays and Interpretations” in 1920, thought that the serpent that Regulus fought had been a member of a nearly extinct species, whose length is nearly sixty feet, and that merely its length and the number of victims was embellished, but more so, he supposed an attack with equipment was plausible.  The account is the first such where a foreign beast is sent back to Rome, being the first Roman war fought outside of Italy, and this fact should hold some significance, even though many modern historians have attempted to discount the historical accounts of the battle.

The Triumph’s next account of a historically controversial topic is the portrayal of Regulus’ return to Rome. Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus, consul in 129 BCE, is reported by Aulus Gellius, as well as Dio Cassius, Appian, Cicero, Livy, and Zonaras, to have returned to Rome while a prisoner to engage in peace negotiations around the year 250 BCE.  He swore an oath to the Carthaginian senate that he would return from his parole if he could not sway the Roman senate to peace, or at least a trade of prisoners.  Once in Rome, he, instead, told his fellow senators to continue to wage war against Carthage.  Historians have discounted the accounts as fabrications, based in part because of the silence of Polybius.  John Toland, in his dissertation “The Fabulous Death of Atilius Regulus” of 1722, was the first to assert that Polybius’ silence proved the fiction of the account of his returning to Rome.  Later, he was supported by Louis De Beaufort in his “Dissertation sur l’incertitude des cinq premiers sicles de l’histoire romaine.”  Meanwhile, Tenney Frank found no reason to reject the accounts of the mission because of Polybius’ silence, despite Polybius’ relationship to Fabius Pictor and other Romans, and Polybius implies at one point his histories that more could be said on the subject.

Robin Hobb’s true topic in her story “The Triumph,” is the torture of Marcus Atilius Regulus, which opens and closes her feature in the book, Warriors.  She depicts Regulus as having his eyelids removed, and being hung in a spiked chamber over the gated entrance to the city of Carthage.  In the historical accounts, he died upon his return from Rome; however the way he died is debated among ancient historians.  Tubero, in an extract in Gellius, along with Dio and Zonaras, say the Carthaginians tortured Regulus by sewing his eyelids open, turning his face upward towards the sun.  One extract from Diodorus, preserved by Tzertes, indicates Regulus was tortured by having his eyelids cut off with a knife, and was then crushed to death by a maddened elephant.  While none of the extant fragments of Diodorus mention the peace mission to Rome, but only that Regulus’ wife was under the impression that he died from lack of care.  Tuditanus and Appian agreed that Regulus did in fact die from being kept awake for a long time.  Furthermore, Cicero accounted that Regulus died from cruel torture.  Diodorus Siculus, Tuditanus, Zonaras, Dio Cassius, and Polybius account that the Roman senate turned over two highborn Carthaginian captives that the family of Regulus tortured in retribution for the Marcus Atilius Regulus’ death.  The inability of the ancient historians to agree has made for deathofregulusthe topic to be a subject of debate among modern historians for its veracity as well.  In 1668, Palmerius published his “Exercitationes in Optimos fere Autures Graecos” endeavored to prove that the accounts of Regulus’ torture and death were fictional.  Palmerius claimed that Diodorus Siculus, being a Sicilian, would have better knowledge of Carthaginian interactions than a Roman, and thus his account was the correct one.  In addition, Palmerius interpreted Polybius’ silence on the story as an inability to trust the sincerity of both Philinus and Fabius’ accounts of Regulus’ death.  He then suggested that Polybius did not want to surpass the limits of historical certainty by recounting a popular Roman tale as truth, nor did he wish to incur Roman hatred by merely dismissing it as rumor.  Toland also attested that the torture of Regulus was a legend that was created by Regulus’ wife and children to keep themselves out of jail for such inhumane tortures of their Carthaginian prisoners.  He assesses his belief that the women of Rome fostered the myth to keep his wife within her rights.  Louis De Beaufort supported Palmerius’ opinion on the death of Marcus Atilius Regulus, attested that the contrasting accounts of Tuditanus, Tubero, Cicero, and Florus, coupled with the agreement of Appian and Silius about what proved the illegitimacy of the account.  A number of modern historians, however, have treated his story more favorably.  W. W. Fowler found the alleged savagery of the widow incredible and suggested that if the story of Regulus’ oath, his mission to Rome, and his heroic death was an invention, then it had as its purpose the illustration of Roman belief in the sanctity of oaths, and not the concealment of a barbaric crime.  Pais attempted to defend the validity of the accounts of Regulus’ torture, in his “I tormenti inflitti ad Attilio Regolo e l’autenticita della tradizione Romana.”  He found it difficult to reject an account of an event purported to have occurred in a period when roman historiography had seriously begun.  He also asserted that Diodorus’ statement that Regulus died of neglect was only proof to his wife that Regulus needed more attention, but not that he died of disease.  If Diodorus’ account that the government intervened to rescue Hasdrubal, it was only a sign that Roman society had begun to condemn excessive application of personal vendettas.  Moreover, by joining Diodorus account to Polybius’ selectivity, it gave credibility to the tradition.  Finally, Pias remarked that modern attitudes make it difficult to understand the character of Regulus, who would sacrifice his life for the greatness of Rome.

Robin Hobb’s “The Triumph” displays a strong knowledge of the ancient sources throughout her contribution to Warriors.  Her depiction of Regulus enables us to bear witness to a tragic account of a Roman consul as documented by ancient historians.  Her attempt to “imitate” the true historical accounts shows the reader how embellishments and judgments can leak into ancient historical accounts of Regulus’ life.  Modern historians discount the tale of Regulus because the character of Regulus is a display of a selfless stoicism that is lost in an anti-honor society, as documented in James Bowman’s Honor: A History.  Elizabethan playwrights were in awe of the ability to sacrifice oneself for their country, which served as the impetus of their portrayals of him to spawn a nationalistic movement among the youth of their societies.  Meanwhile, it opens Regulus to continued debate about his historiography, and serves as an example of T.S. Eliot’s argument that, “the past [is] altered by the by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”  As long as we can look back on the past and attempt to deconstruct it, we will also be open to the rewriting and altering of history.  The story of Regulus is now treated as a myth in most history books, and modern literature, which displays his stoic death, is treated as an example of the motives that ancient historians encountered when they decided to embellish his accomplishments in order to serve as a example of Roman virtues.  “The Triumph” allows us to continue debate on the topic  and to continue to study how we receive classics today.




For more, see my speech on the Historiography of Marcus Atilius Regulus from 2009’s 8th Annual Undergraduate Classics Conference at Miami University’s Marcum Conference Center, as well as my full Chronological Table of Sources.