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Quintus Fabius Pictor, first Roman historian (c. 254 - c. 201 BC)


From the great Roman patrician family of Fabii, Quintus is considered one of the early Roman historians and qualified by Polybius as "scriptorum antiquissimus" (the oldest of the authors). An aristocrat in love with his homeland, Quintus Fabius Pictor was a actor of the punic wars and an 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 disappeared from consular splendor (chronological list of consuls) from the beginnings of the Empire, in AD 34, not without having offered to Rome 6 dictators, 46 consuls, 6 censors, 6 masters of the cavalry, 14 consular tribunes and 2 decemvirats.

Following the tragic and famous battle of Crémère (477 BC), the whole family was devastated in battle. The only and last representative of the line is the young Quintus Fabii who, due to his young age, did not participate in the entry. It is from him that the Fabii lineage is reconstituted for five centuries.

Among the illustrious descendants of Quintus is Gaius Fabius Pictor. The latter gets this nickname (called cognomen) of “Pictor” 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 borrows a lot from Greek and Etruscan art. The status of artist has no particular aura, it is closer to that of the craftsman, and it is possible that this qualifier "Pictor" had a devaluing connotation for a member of an illustrious family who would be degraded to less noble tasks. His two sons, Caius and Numerius, obtained the consulate, 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, Eutrope, Livy, Plutarch and Pliny the Elder. Quintus would have participated in the war against the Gauls in 225 BC. AD, but it was especially during the Second Punic War that the Fabii imposed themselves. June 21, 217 BC. AD he participated in the battle of Lake Trasimeno where the Roman armies were crushed by the troops of Hannibal. Another man of the family, from another branch of the Fabii, then becomes the strong man of the moment: Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. Critics of Fabius Maximus 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 imposes an avoidance strategy aimed at dodging frontal contact with the Punics to bet on a war of attrition. His strategy being very frowned upon at first, he only managed to impose it after the new military disaster suffered by the Roman legions at Cannes. At the same time, two Vestals are convinced of having broken 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, a couple of Gauls and a couple of Greeks are buried alive after having officiated a few 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. 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, 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 take again the sea without putting down his laurel wreath before arriving in Rome. Back from the most important sanctuary in the Greek world, Quintus will place 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 better as you please, and in this fight between Hannibal and you the victory will remain with the Roman people. When the republic is out of danger, and in a prosperous state, send Apollo Pythian a well-deserved offering; pay him a tribute from the booty, the spoils, the proceeds of sale, and beware of pride."

The Senate then decreed that everything would be done that way.

Quintus, "scriptorum antiquissimus"

Quintus Fabius Pictor's literary career is marked by the writing of his Annals, certainly around 216/210 BC. Unfortunately, this work has only reached us 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. In the opinion of historians, the first four kings would be legendary, while the last three would have indeed reigned.

However, the Annals de Quintus are cited and used by many ancient historians such as Livy (who notably evokes his account of the battle of Trasimeno), Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch ... If it was read and used as much by these illustrious scholars, this is because Quintus was one of the first Roman historians, as Livy himself underlines by qualifying him as “scriptorum antiquissimus” (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, in particular for certain elements relating to the founding of Rome, by a somewhat older author: Diocles of Peparethos. However, Quintus apparently goes beyond the work of Diocles since he tells the story of Rome from its origins to its time. He writes of course in Greek, then considered the language of scholarship.


Quintus Fabius Pictor was sometimes considered the inventor of what one might call the "national Roman novel", that is to say that he was accused (notably Polybius) of having a very relative objectivity when he It was a question of dealing with the policy of Rome, which he sought to justify. Polybius, who takes the opportunity to teach a lesson on the historian's relationship to Truth, mirrors it with the Greek historian Philinos d'Agrigente who, on the contrary, had pro-Carthaginian tendencies: " I don't think they wanted to lie. Their manners and the sect they professed shield them from this suspicion, but it seems to me that what usually happens to lovers with regard to their mistresses has happened to them. [Philinos], following the inclination he had for the Carthaginians, does them honor with a wisdom, a prudence and a courage which is never contradicted, and represents the Romans as 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 provision would perhaps be nothing but estimable. It is of 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 obliged to praise one's enemies when their actions are truly commendable, and to blame one's greatest friends bluntly, when their faults deserve blame. ».


So Quintus: an ancient Michelet? ... In any case, a historian in love with his country, a contemporary aristocrat and actor in the Punic wars, who became a primary source for all the ancient historians who succeeded him.

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 great Roman patrician family , (doctoral thesis of 3 ° cycle, La Sorbonne - Paris IV, 1986, dir. Jean Beaujeu).


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


- Marie-Pierre Arnaud-Lindet, History and politics in Rome, Roman historians 3rd century BC. J.-C./ 5th century AD J.-C., Ed. POCKET Agora, 2001.

Ancient sources:


- Pliny the Elder: Natural stories
- Plutarch: Life of illustrious men
- Polybius: General history
- Livy: Roman history


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