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Synopsis of Georges Dumézil, ‘Horace, Une lecture de Tite-Live’, suivi de ‘Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens’ et ‘Les Transformations du troisième du triple’

[‘Horace: A Reading of Livy’, followed by ‘Aspects of the Warrior Function among the Indo-Europeans’ and ‘The Transformations of the Third of the Triple’]

CpA 7.1:5–42

This set of three texts by Georges Dumézil is placed at the beginning of the seventh volume of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, given over to the theme ‘Du myth au roman’ [‘From Myth to the Novel’]. The first text, ‘Horace: Lecture de Tite-Live’ [‘Horace: A Reading of Livy’], reprints the entirety of chapter four of Dumézil’s Horace et les Curiaces [Horace and the Curiatii] (1942), the first part of Dumézil’s sequence Les Mythes des romains [The Myths of the Romans].1 The second text is an extract from ‘Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens’ [‘Aspects of the Warrior Function amongst the Indo-Europeans’] (1956). The final text, ‘Les Transformations du Troisième du triple’ [‘Transformations of the Third of the Triple’], dated March 1967, was written specifically for the Cahiers, and is presented ‘in the guise of a postface’ (CpA 7.1:39). The extracts present examples of Dumézil’s structuralist approach to myth and history.

Dumézil’s guiding contention in his Myths of the Romans is that the relatively minor role played by myth and religion amongst the Romans is due to their historicisation of mythology. Dumézil claims that the main literary sources for early Roman history, Livy’s History of Rome and Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s Roman Antiquities, have no basis in fact, but instead reflect the founding myths of the Roman republic. For the Romans, ‘mythology […] prospered under the form of history’.2 In the chapter of Horace et les curiaces reprinted in the Cahiers, Dumézil examines the structure and function of the legend of the Horatii and Curiatii as told by Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. He examines the function of the legend within Roman society, proceeding to relate this narrative, along with others from early Roman history, to the structure of the mythology and ideology of Indo-European societies.

The second text presented in the Cahiers, ‘Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens’ illustrates Dumézil’s structuralist approach to mythology, identifying formal correspondences between Roman and Indian mythology. The same ‘function’, a battle of a warrior with a ‘triple’ enemy, can be identified in both mythologies. In his general theory Dumézil contends that Indo-European society was originally split into three separate social functions. The first function involved a ‘dual sovereignty’ of king and priest; the second was the warrior function and the third that of agriculture. The three different social functions were expressed in corresponding ideologies and ritual complexes.3 In these pieces, he focuses on the structures proper to the warrior [guerrière] function.

Dumézil’s importance to the development of structuralism was noted by Michel Foucault and Claude Lévi-Strauss. In an interview shortly after the publication of History of Madness in 1961, Foucault said that he had been influenced by Dumézil ‘through his idea of structure. Just as Dumézil does with myths, I attempted to discover the structured forms of experience whose pattern can be found, again and again, with modifications, at different levels’.4 In 1978, Lévi-Strauss recognised that Dumézil was ‘the pioneer of the structural method’.5 Dumézil’s early contribution to structuralist methodology goes some way towards explaining the presence of Dumézil in this volume of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

In their introduction to the extracts, Jacques-Alain Miller and François Regnault note the persistence of the structures and scenarios of mythology in literature. What appears as a ‘cause without reason’ in mythology is subjected to a ‘rationalisation’ in the novel, where it is displaced into ‘psychological and juridical calculuses of interest, motivation and judgement’. To attempt to put this psychology at a distance, they say, is ‘to return to myth’ (CpA 7.Introduction:4).

1. ‘Horace, Lecture de Tite-Live’ [‘Horace: A Reading of Livy’]

An unsigned ‘Note liminaire’ (CpA 7.1:7-8) gives an outline of the first three chapters of the Horace et les curiaces, so as to provide some relevant background information for the chapter published here. Although the whole book is entitled Horace et les curiaces, the legend of Horace is itself only recounted in the final chapter. The first chapter concerns the theme of furor. According to Dumézil, Indo-European warfare is marked by a controlled use of ‘transfiguring fury’ [fureur transfigurante], or ‘frenzy’ [frénésie] ((8) Roman military success was based on the incorporation of this ‘virtue’, with a ritual liquidation of furor for all returning warriors. The second chapter is on the Irish myth of Cuchùlainn’s battle with the three sons of Nechta, which Dumézil suggests contains structural correspondences with the Roman legend of Horace, both of which he relates back to Indo-European mythology. In the third chapter, Dumézil turns to the early history of Rome and contends that Livy’s account of the third king, Tullus Hostilius, should be put into structural relation with his narratives of the reigns of the first two kings, Romulus and Numa. Dumézil suggests that the reign of Tullus represents the dominance of the warrior function, following the kingships of Romulus (‘the magician’) and Numa (‘the jurist’).6

The story of Horace takes place during the reign of Tullus. It is first recounted in Livy’s History of Rome (I, 1.23-27) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus gives a lengthier account in Roman Antiquities (III, 13-22). In the legend, two sets of triplets, the Horatii and the Curiatii, help to resolve antagonisms between Rome and its neighbour, Alba. The Alban ruler had suggested that rather than continue a war of attrition, three representatives of the two sides should fight. The Roman king Tullus chooses the three Horatii and the Albans choose the three Curiatii. According to various statements in Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the two trios are brothers or brothers-in-law. In the battle, two of the Horatii are killed. The lone survivor, the third of the Horatii, then manages to summon up a state of furor and kill the Curiatii triplets, thus earning Tullus the empire. Horace emerges as the heroic victor, but in his victory procession through Rome, still in a state of furor, he encounters his sister, who is betrothed to one of the Curiatii. She cries and yells out her dead lover’s name. Then angered that ‘his sister should dare to grieve at the very moment of his own triumph’, he kills her with a sword. Horace is then arrested and brought before the king. He is tried and then acquitted on account of a statement from the father, who says his daughter deserved her death in the circumstances. But in order nevertheless to ‘mitigate the stain’ of Horace’s deed, Horace’s father is required to perform ‘certain ceremonies which would expiate the crime’ and purify Horace (Livy 1.27). The latter is made to pass beneath a piece of timber placed across a roadway, as if under the ‘yoke’ of submission. Livy remarks that this timber, which is renewed periodically at the state’s expense, is known as ‘The Sister’s Beam’ (Tigillum Sororium).

Dumézil argues that the multiple references in Roman legend to figures named ‘Horace’ (for instance, the story of Horatius Cocles in Livy 2.10) ‘have a signifying trait in common’ [un trait significatif] (CpA 7.1:9). All the narratives concern single combatants performing feats of extraordinary military prowess. The recurrence of these narratives, suggests Dumézil, indicate the remnants of a ritual ‘function’ (19, 23). The legend of Horace refers back to the use of furor in battle by the first Roman armies.7 With the increased regimentation of the Roman military, the function of furor had to be repressed (13). Dumézil argues that this shift was made possible by a ritual sub-structure, first through an initiatory ritual that granted the power of furor to the initiate, and then in a ‘liquidation of furor through immersion’ consequent on using it. The rite of Tigillum sororium, repeated annually in October, suggests a ritual of purification performed by the Roman armies returning to the city from their summer campaigning (19, 40).8

Dumézil notes the existence of structurally analogous narratives in equivalent Indo-European myths (the Irish Cuchùlainn, the Scythian Batradz). He takes the myth of Cuchùlainn as the ‘key’ to the significance of the ‘central episode’ with Horace’s sister (16). In the Irish myth, in order to defuse Cuchùlainn’s furor (ferg in Gaelic), the wife of the king takes her daughters naked to meet him. In ‘shame’ he averts his eyes, and is then grabbed and immersed in water by his kinsmen. In Livy’s version of the Horace myth, the sister is betrothed to one of the slain Curiatii (Livy 1.26), which appears to rule out ‘direct sexual temptation’ (17). Nevertheless Dumézil detects the traces of a ‘conflict of femininity and virility’ at the heart of the mythology of furor. A shameless woman [femme impudique], on the one hand, confronts a ‘vir’, or ‘man of the maximum’ [homme au maximum], on the other, in a ‘scene of acute sexual antagonism’ (18).

In Livy’s account, Horace’s status as a criminal is quite clear. Horace must be purified for committing a crime against his own kin. Dumézil again suggests the ritual complex behind the myth here: ‘the initiatory exploit often carries an element of “crime” in that the initiate emerges as guilty, and must not only be calmed down, but also expiated through a magical and juridical procedure’ (23). In Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s account, the relation of Horace to his father is rendered in more detail. He is shown to obey his father before the battle, to transgress his family upon return. Since ‘the type of military initiation we are assuming here is accompanied by a formal or moral emancipation, and by an attenuation of paternal power’ (22), Dumézil’s suggests that Dionysius’s account may contain a vestige of truth lacking from Livy’s.

In further sections, Dumézil explores the structural correspondences between accounts of a battle against a ‘triple adversary’ in Roman, Indo-European, Indo-Iranian and Native Canadian mythology (26-27). The triple adversary is often represented as three brothers, but also as a tricephalous monster in Indian and Iranian mythology. Dumézil concludes that all the elements of an ancient military myth of initiation are present in the accounts of Livy and Dionysius, but that the Roman historicisation of myth is also linked to an operation of ‘humanisation’. ‘The degradation of the fury of the warrior into human anger has brought with it a displacement of the centre of gravity, which has provoked a disarticulation and rearticulation of the episodes’ (29). The primary military significance of furor is displaced into the encounter with the sister.

2. ‘Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens’ [‘Aspects of the Warrior Function’]

In this extract, Dumézil gives a structuralist account of the ‘parallel lives’ of Tullus and Indra in Roman and Indian mythology respectively. A table lists the correspondences between Roman and Indian myths of warriors, showing how they conserve the same ‘ideological material’ (36). Dumézil finds structural correspondences between the Roman legend of Horace and the Indian Trita (the ‘Third’, derived from a common Indo-European linguistic root). In the Indian myth, the gods are threatened by the Tricephal (represented as first cousin of the gods and a Brahman). Urged on by Indra (the Indian warrior-god), Trita, the third of the three Āptya brothers, kills the Tricephal. This murder, since it is the murder of a kinsman or of a Brahman, involves a stain. Indra discharges it from himself onto Trita and the Āptya, who are obliged to ritually liquidate the stain entailed by sacrifices. Each episode can be related to the myth of Horace. A further set of correspondences is noted between the legend of the betrayal of Tullus by Mettius (Livy, 1.27-28) and the betrayal of Indra by Namuci in Indian mythology.

3. ‘Les Transformations du Troisième du triple’

‘Transformations of the Third of the Triple’ is presented as an update on the same material. Dumézil notes that ‘the formula “the third kills the triple (or the three)”’ can be found in Irish, Roman, Iranian and Indian mythologies (40). He elaborates on the evolution of furor and its relation to crime and culpability. In the legend of Cuchùlainn, furor is considered dangerous for society, but remains treated as a ‘psychophysiological’ state. But ‘with Horace, sin appears’. Horace’s furor no longer coincides with his military exploit, but with the murder of his sister. He is endowed with ‘the minimum of freedom necessary for choice’, and could have abandoned or resisted the execution of the ferocious attack. With Horace, furor becomes properly criminal.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • Jacques-Alain Miller and François Regnault, ‘L’Orientation du roman’ [‘The Orientation of the Novel’], CpA 7.Introduction.

English translation:

  • Dumézil, Georges. Parts of ‘Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens’ translated in ‘Aspects of the Warrior Function amongst the Indo-Europeans’. The Destiny of the Warrior, trans. Alf Hiltebeitel. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970.

Primary bibliography:

  • Dumézil, Georges. Horace et les Curiaces. Les mythes romains, vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard, 1942. Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities, Books III-IV, trans. Earnest Cary. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1939.
  • Livy. The Early History of Rome, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt. London: Penguin, 1971.

Selected secondary literature:

  • Arnold, Paul. ‘Magie guerrière dans la Rome antique’. Cahiers du Sud 25 (1946).
  • ---. ‘La Notion de souveraineté chez les Indo-Européens: en marge de l’œuvre de Georges Dumézil’. Cahiers du Sud 36 (1952).
  • De Vries, Jan. ‘Note sur la valeur religieuse du nombre trois’. Ogam 11 (1959).
  • Dosse, François. History of Structuralism [1991], vol. 1, trans. Deborah Glassman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  • Dumézil, Georges. Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus: Essai sur la conception indo-européennes de la souveraineté. Paris: Gallimard, 1941.
  • ---. Servius et la Fortune: Essai sur la fonction sociale de louange et de blâme et sur les éléments indo-européens du cens romain. Les mythes romains, vol. 2. Paris: Gallimard, 1943.
  • ---. ‘Les débuts de la religion romaine’. In Mémorial des études latines. Paris: PUF, 1943.
  • ---. Naissance de Rome (Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, II). Paris: Gallimard, 1945.
  • ---. Naissance d’archanges: Essai sur la formation de la théologie zoroastrienne (Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, III). Paris: Gallimard, 1945.
  • ---. ‘Tripertita: fonctionnels chez divers peuples indo-européens’. Revue de l’histoire des religions, 131 (1946), 53-72.
  • ---. Mitra-Varuna: Essai sur deux représentations indo-européens de la souveraineté. Paris: Gallimard, 1947. Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty, trans. Derek Coltman. New York: Zone, 1988.
  • ---. ‘La Tripartition indo-européenne’, Psyché, 2 (1947), 1348-1356.
  • ---. Tarpeia: Cinq essais de philologie comparative indo-européenne. Les mythes romains, vol. 3. Paris: Gallimard, 1947.
  • ---. Explication de textes indiens et latins (Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, IV). Paris: PUF, 1948.
  • ---. ‘Aspects de la fonction guerrière chez les Indo-Européens’, Bibliothèque de l’École des Haute Études, section religieuse, vol. 68 (1956). ‘Aspects of the Warrior Function amongst the Indo-Europeans’. In The Destiny of the Warrior, trans. Alf Hiltebeitel. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970.
  • Eliade, Mircea. Rites of Initiation, trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper Collins, 1958.
  • Foucault, Michel. ‘Madness Only Exists in Society’ (interview with Jean-Paul Weber, Le Monde, 22 July 1961), trans. Lysa Hochroth. In Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984. New York: Semiotext(e), 1996.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. ‘Dumézil et les sciences humaines’. France-Culture, 2 October 1978.
  • Littleton, C. Scott. The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumézil. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966; 3rd edition 1982.
  • Parain, Brice, ‘Les Dieux des Indo-Européens’, La Nouvelle Revue Française 4/3, 694-702 (1956).
  • Rose, H.J. Review of Dumézil, Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus and Servius et la Fortune, Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947).


1. The full Myths of the Romans sequence includes: Horace et les Curiaces (vol. I: 1942); Servius et la Fortune: Essai sur la fonction sociale de louange et de blâme et sur les éléments indo-européens du cens romain (vol. II: 1943); Tarpeia: Cinq essais de philologie comparative indo-européenne (vol. III: 1947).

2. ‘Aspects of the Warrior Function amongst the Indo-Europeans’, in The Destiny of the Warrior, 4.

3. For a synoptical account of Dumézil’s conception of the ‘tripartition’ of Indo-European societies, see C. Scott Littleton, The New Comparative Mythology, 7-9.

4. Foucault, ‘Madness only exists in society’ (1961), 8.

5. Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘Dumézil et les sciences humaines’, cited in François Dosse, The History of Structuralism, I, 33.

6. For Dumézil’s account of dual sovereignty in Rome and Indo-European societies, see Mitra-Varuna, chapter 3, ‘Romulus and Numa’.

7. For an account of Dumézil’s notion of ‘furor’, see Mircea Eliade, Rites of Initiation, 81-89.

8. Cf. ‘Aspects of the Warrior Function amongst the Indo-Europeans’, in The Destiny of the Warrior, 28.