N.B I have gone with the original title for ease of access, but I note that various online retailers go for different titles. On Amazon Prime currently the film is listed as “Romulus V. Remus: The First King”.

Il Primo Re is not so much a tale about the founding of Rome as it is about a chance missed by an evidently talented director: It could have been a Roman Apocalypto (and at its best, is close). Though it suffers from a lack of understanding of its sources (philological and historical), it is certainly a good popcorn flick, [1] at the very least. I enjoyed it immensely.

Let me map out the review. I’m not in the habit of confusing nitpicking with philological elan. I don’t like it. Nor do I think criticism ever overwrites the sheer balls it takes to do some creative, especially a local independent film like this. I hate the well akctuallly guys.

Well Actually GIFs | Tenor
So did you know that v was pronounced like w????

Instead, the review is tripartite. Section one details the philological aspects, section two the archaeological/cultural in precis and section three the film itself. I have put that last just in case anyone is really worried about spoilers here. If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll come back and hyperlink the sections and add a sensible further reading section.

The Sound of the Film: Language and Philology.

I feel no real need to go over this in detail. Art is not an academic article, yet it is obvious that the use of “authentic” language was a major point in the film’s marketing abroad. Some of the Italian sources I found writing about it were praising its contribution to the overall realism of the film. According to the director they accomplished this by hiring a “team of semioticians from La Sapienza”.

Look, I try my hardest not to be the typical Classical Philologist when surrounded by other, er, types of linguist but I can’t help but wonder: how that is possible? The language, whilst evocative, was full of the kind of mistakes I would kick a first-year student for making.

Let’s go through things.

First, the pronunciation was (perhaps expected) Italian. So anachronistic for Classical Latin, let alone Proto-Italic. I distinctly recall hearing e.g spiritus in pace te reliquint in the same way one would now in a sermon. But this is uneven across the actors and some are better at speaking (like the unnamed Vestal) than others (Romulus).

Vowel length, likewise, is random. At one-point Romulus attempts to get a despondent Remus to eat. Ede he commands, all quite classical actually, except it sort of comes out like /e:de/ as if a misapplication of Lachman’s law. But as noted the Romulus actor is often incomprehensible.

There are some seriously discordant solecisms that, again, one would not expect someone with access to a good grammar (or internet connection) making. E.g rex meus used as a vocative rather than rex mi; I cannot be certain, but I am sure I hear nemo sciunt more than once.

nuncque? Is that a thing? It sounds wrong to my ear. I’m not going to check, but my memory is good, and I have been through the vast majority of the canon. Idiomatically I would have gone with at nunc. Or, even better, etiamne or nunc etiam? (genuinely old-fashioned e.g nunc etiam quom est, non estur, nisi soli lubet). Maybe they’re trying to keep to etymological force of -que? (< PIE *-kʷe)

Yes, yes, you might say, the latinitas is bad but what about the attempts at Proto-Italic? Setting aside the issues with phonology and enunciation, I’ll make a few quick points.

I am quite happy to accept potiesimos for possumus in the subjunctive and I believe I hear a good few ablatives singular in –od. *h₁n̥gʷnis comes out as engis or egnis. I think this is fair unless we insist on conserving the labiovelar. At one point a character refers to tersa sakra.[2] This is both thematically apropos given the situation and a correct pre-classical rendering of terra from Proto-Italic Proto-Italic *terza. At one point someone attempts to use a jussive subjunctive and, I think (hedging here), we hear a siet/d for sit.

The lack of basic knowledge really reveals itself in a complete lack of awareness of how sound changes work. We are persistently given bhre:ter for Classical frater. Correct, the Latin f does descend from an early bh but then why is the goddess frugiferens and not something closer to *bʰruHgibʰerents?  Why must we cross the flumen? Leaving aside how we date the bh > f. Romulus existing is much more likely than Romulus saying bh instead of f at this point. The entire word is just a mess. I am no expert on laryngeals, but I can’t see how *bʰréh₂tēr would ever render anything akin to bhre:ter: é + h₂ really should get us /a:/ as indeed we get with Latin frater.[3]

I have said too much here, but similar issues abound throughout when it comes to sound changes.

Umberto Eco was a semiotician (and, judging from his engagement with the Latin fathers, a damned fine Latinist to boot); these guys are grifters. Mr Rovere, if you ever make a sequel (please do!), walk past the semioticians and straight into the the Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità at La Sapienza. Avail yourself of the eager, talented, young Italian Classicists!

But, seriously, lest the negative outweigh the positives: I enjoyed the attempt, and whilst clumsy, I could follow the film without looking at the subtitles whenever I was doing something else. We must give a round of applause to some of the actors, especially Remus and the Vestal, who did so much with so little in terms of dialogue.

The Look of the film: Archaeology and Culture.

Did the archaeologists do better than the semioticians? Probably. I find myself wondering at the kinds of clothing worn. Not necessarily from an accuracy p.o.v but in terms of colour. Across the world early man seems to have loved and delighted in colour, why is everything so drab and grey and brown?

The culture of Latium around the alleged time of Romulus and Remus coincides with what we call the Latial Culture, specifically periods LCIII and LCIV. This goes beyond the fluidity of archaeological strata, the Roman tradition itself gave some variance to the tradition date before it settled on 753 BC.[4]

How the Latial Culture interacted with the more famous Villanovan culture (Etruscans) is honestly beyond me right now. I am surprised I can remember any of this from my time as a student. But my understanding is that the general material level ought to be slightly higher? Tufa houses of oval or apsidal shape with heavy thatch roofing. This is around the time we begin to see monumental architecture in the forms of temples take root, with important buildings (like a palace?) having stone foundations.

The putative time of Romulus and Remus is one where the Greeks have already started their post-Mycenaean westward colonisation (Ischia served as a trading post, other settlements to follow) and we have good reason to suspect the Phoenicians were active and using Sardinia as a source for metal and mineral. Do not misunderstand me, most of humanity lived in conditions little better than on display, but the material culture feels a little inconsistent (how are there swords??) and maybe could have had a slight upgrade.

When we pay attention to ancient (perhaps even modern) cultures one of the first things we look at it how they treat childbirth, marriage, and death. Given the context of the film we can ignore the first two, but death is treated weirdly here. There’s a sort of 1970’s pseudo-pagan piety on display. At one point a man (a slave?) is killed and left there in the settlement (an act of great impiety), where villagers sort of…put stones around him? Whilst wailing as if in an Enya song?

The Latial culture is characterised, oddly, with two contrasting funeral practices. Cremation and then internment in an urn that resembles said apsidal/ovular houses (Etruscan influence?) or internment with grave goods.[5] Why make things up? What should be one of the great rituals of life seems plastic and inauthentic.

Funeral hut-urn. Cemeteries, such as at Gabii, are our major source for domestic architecture of the period.

A quick note on the cult as it is shown throughout. I do not think it controversial to say that whilst Roman Religion was quite conservative it was inherently tied up to its urban, civic, context and so that reconstructing earlier, more archaic, versions of rites can be more difficult than things first appear.[6] None the less, we can (especially thanks to philology) say a good deal.

I like the emphasis on the sacred fire as a deity. Jumping back to the parent language for a second, it seems as if Indo-European had an animate/inanimate distinction which was as conceptual as it was grammatical (hi Anatolian!). Fire comes in two forms. On the one hand we have the root *péh₂wr̥ which gives our word fire in English.[7] This is in the inanimate form. Contrast this with the root word *h₁n̥gʷnis which gives us the Latin ignis (the egnis-god of the film), which was animate and worshipped as divine.[8]

There is little room for other gods and characters simply speak of the deiwos, which is fine and mirrors cult speech. There is an attempt at an ablative absolute at one point, divos volentibus, which is…less fine.

Roman tradition has the cult of Vesta instituted by Numa, rather than Romulus. But the film’s version makes more sense – the fire cult was incredibly ancient – and they do steal the vestal from Alba Longa so all is good.

Less good is the weird treatment of haruspicy. This is a late cult, of Etruscan origin. Which is fine, but I wonder at a vestal performing it. The filmmakers seem to believe it was the equivalent of a high fidelity Zoom call. Also, note to self, haruspicy etc were actually rational from an evolutionary perspective. Remember to write blog.

But the use of religion is quite well-done bar some of the caveats above (seriously, very 1970s, very Enya). It’s evocative, respectful, builds the atmosphere and has a sense of internal consistency.

The story of the film: Putting it all together

Mary had a little lamb that was white as snow and…it’s gone. Father Tiber took her. The opening scenes of the film serve as an initiation of sorts: get used to the casual brutality and difficult of life, get used to the pre-eminence of nature. I am not well versed in film, less skilled in criticism, but I often found myself admiring the sense of natural beauty throughout even as it contrasted with human brutality. But nature too, as we see from scene one, can be brutal and so the human urge to propriate/tame natural forces like fire make sense throughout.

The ancient tradition – and unlike a few I do believe the tradition genuinely ancient – may seem sparse on detail but there are two or three fecund elements across most of our versions, and Rovere seems to have fixated on the apparent impiety of Remus. I like this. It’s a good narrative decision. His behaviour could easily degenerate into some modern atheist self-insert or cardboard Nietzschean will power attitude, but it doesn’t. We see and share his sense of the injustice of the gods.

It’s a violent film but then it is a violent story. Alba Longa looms threatening in the background and I recall John Ma’s throwaway tweet that Apocalypto inadvertently shows the expropriating power cities held over peripheral settlements. The violence is well done in most places. We see early just how deadly a dagger (which are not knives!) can be and most carry nothing more than a dagger, club, spear or adze/axe. There are a handful of swords, which seem discordant given the technology displayed in the film. Historically, yes, we spoke earlier about Greek/Phoenician trade and both Etruria and Calabria were metal producing/working at the time to a decent level. But in terms of internal consistency…[9]

The sword fights are kind of terrible and the inevitable final big battle, farcical and tragicomic. Yet when the final duel comes, as we have always known it must, there is an element of pathos. Very well done.

It would have been easy for the writers to resort to a kind of boring, cynical, euhemerism. They do not, instead (perhaps accidentally?) bits and pieces of the source tradition and culture do shine through at times. Remus’ forming of a comitatus/männerbund, his becoming the etymological archetype of a princeps following a hunt,[10] is well done.

Someone, I think Mary Beard, described Romulus as a “shadowy Mr. Rome”. Whilst I disagree as to what the sources can tell us, I love the narrative decision here to focus on Remus.

Much of the acting is incredible throughout. It really shines when the fugitives are just hanging around campfires. Sharpening, cleaning, preparing. You see the furtive, frightened, energy in their movements. The movements remind of those documentaries of early humans, actually, using their teeth as tools and so on and forth. The screen glistened with a flickering blue archaic energy and there were times where, solecisms aside, you felt as if you were at the campfire.

[1] Am I using that phrase right, Americans?

[2] For the avoidance of doubt, because some of you shits will come at me: I am aware that *sākris was originally an i-stem and that in Proto-Italic, as PIE, these were likely adjectives of one termination. However, comparison with Sabellic suggest that how these declensional classes converged is quite complex. I barely care. I doubt the film guys who can’t differentiate meus from mi. Stop being such a nerd.

[3] I thought at once of e.g status from *steh₂- but then recalled datus from *deh₃- and trembled a little. Reader, I fear no man but *h₃, it scares me.

[4] Obviously, settlement at the future site of Rome predates this (to about 1000 BC) and the Romans themselves seemed to have been aware of – and not at all troubled by – the confluence of two accounts of their founding. A single act of founding, a ktisis in Greek terms by Romulus, and a synoikisis of various settlements as celebrated by the septimontia festival.

[5] The possibility of Etruscan influence is not small. Leaving aside the literary tradition and the (much later) Francois tomb, the Etruscans had a similar burial practice during this era. The major difference is the Latins preferred to inter their ashes in mini houses with mini grave goods. This is how we know so much about their housing structures btw.

[6] You have two, and only two, good introductory volumes to Roman Religion: Georg Wissowa’s Religion und Kultus der Römer (1902) or George Dumezil’s La Religion romaine archaïque, avec un appendice sur la religion des Étrusques (1966).

[7] Actually, the situation here is quite complex. Whilst the original animate/inanimate distinction remains valid, the inanimate version did also have some ritual importance (funeral pyres, wedding fires). It simply wasn’t divine.

[8] Cf Sanskrit agníḥ where the animate fire is worshipped first as animate force and then as a deity.

[9] Swords are an important development in archaeological and cultural terms. See my brief note, here.

[10] I wish they had tried to get in words like *prisemokaps.

5 thoughts on “Il Primo Re (Review)

  1. Fantastic read! Really enjoyable, I need to watch it again. Was it in Proto-Italic though or was it in Old Latin? And if it is Proto-Italic is it roughly consistent with the timeline? As someone who has a good level of Latin, as you obviously do, is Proto-Italic easy to follow?


    1. Thanks Martin, that’s very kind!

      These are good questions and the kind I was asking myself as I watched. The director, from what I have read (my Italian might have been faulty!), seemed pretty determined that the language was meant to be Proto-Italic. Obviously, what we got was a bit of a frankenstein of some genuine archaic forms (but not that old), modern ecclesiastical Latin, and… nonsense.

      In terms of chronology, it depends on where you set the myth (it took Romans a while to settle on 753 BC). The archaeology, of course, tells us that settlements on the future site of Rome had been there for a long while…Proto-Italic would be probably be a bit too early. Divergences on one hand with Latin (and its close sister, Faliscan) and Sabellic (Oscan-Umbrian) had almost certainly happened by Romulus’ time. I am not sure how different Latin would be from Faliscan at this period, probably extremely similar dialects.

      But, to throw a spanner in the works, how firm were these boundaries anyway? The Latin word for wolf, as we have it, is /lupus/. This is from the PIE *wĺ̥kʷos. Except Latin doesn’t turn /kw/ into /p/…but Sabellic languages do! So clearly these populations were mixing back and forth, especially on the fringes (shepherds and what not).

      To answer your other question, whilst the academic debates and details/subtleties of any hypothetical language can sometimes be maddening to follow, I don’t find Proto-Italic maddeningly different. The Romans gave us a huge amount of material and we are lucky to have some damn good scholarly work on the other Italic dialects now too e.g K McDonald’s Oscan in Southern Italy and Sicily.

      Hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Here is an interesting paper by Luca Alfieri, the person responsible for the film’s language. He *is* an actual historical linguist – the “semiotician” part was probably a journalist’s misunderstanding – and he explains that the anachronisms and inaccuracies were deliberate. Apparently the director insisted that philologically accurate Old Latin didn’t sound “barbaric” enough (Reality is Unrealistic), so Alfieri went for a kind of fantasy language, mixing in elements from different chronological stages.

    That said, my enjoyment of the movie was similar to yours – not at all bad. I think it nailed the overall esthetics.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, thank you very much! I am reading this now, and it seems an amazing chance to peak behind the curtain. Lot’s of really interesting stuff:

    “No, cosi pare a messa da’a nonna!” Di fronte al miostupore, il regista mi spieg˜ che per il suo spettatore-tipo, la lingua latina non era tanto lalingua di Orazio, Catullo e Virgilio, ma era soprattutto la lingua della Chiesa pre-1965″

    Rovere certainly has an interesting way of speaking, ha; it seems the intended audience has shaped the film in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I sense a twitter-thread coming up…


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