Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
There is truly a ton of information to discuss and share concerning Rome and its place in history. From the Founding of Rome to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, Rome has impacted and influenced the known world.
Whether it is through archaeology and tangible objects, or it is by legend and mythology, Rome is more than just a city. Rome has become an ideal, a concept, which is still very much at the forefront of today’s intellectuals.
With this is mind, today we are exploring the foundation of Rome!
Although the founding of Rome can be investigated through archaeology, the traditional stories have been handed down by the Ancient Romans themselves. These stories explain the earliest history of their city in terms of legend and myth.
The most familiar of these myths, and perhaps the most famous of all Roman myths, is the story of Romulus and Remus, the twins who were suckled by a She-Wolf. This story had to be reconciled with a dual tradition, set earlier in time, the one that had the Trojan refugee Aeneas escape to Italy and found the line of Romans through his son Iulus, the namesake of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
According to Roman tradition, of which Livy‘s account is now the earliest to survive in full, Romulus and Remus were the twin brothers that founded Rome. The story of their birth could be considered that of legend.
The mother of the twins was Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa. Before the conception of the twins, Numitor’s brother Amulius seized power, killed Numitor’s male heirs and forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, sworn to chastity.
Legend has it that Rhea Silvia conceived the twins by the god Mars. Once the twins were born, Amulius had them abandoned to die in the Tiber River.
The twins were saved by a series of miraculous interventions: the Tiber carried them to safety, a She-Wolf found and suckled them, and a woodpecker fed them. A shepherd and his wife, Faustulus and Acca Larentia respectively, found them and fostered the twins into manhood as simple shepherds.
The twins, still ignorant of their true origins, proved to be natural leaders, each acquiring many followers. When they discovered the truth of their birth, they killed Amulius and restored Numitor to his throne.
Rather than wait to inherit Alba Longa, they chose to found a new city. While Romulus wanted to found the new city on the Palatine Hill, Remus preferred the Aventine Hill.
The brothers agreed to determine the site through augury but when each claimed the results in his own favor, they quarreled and Remus was killed. Romulus founded Roma, his new city named after himself, and created its first Legions and Senate.
Rome grew rapidly, swelled by landless refugees. Since most of Rome’s inhabitants were unmarried males, Romulus arranged the abduction of women from the neighboring Sabines.
The ensuing war ended with the joining of Sabines and Romans as one Roman people. Thanks to divine favor and Romulus’s inspired leadership, Rome became a dominant force.
Romulus himself, however, became increasingly autocratic. He disappeared or died in mysterious circumstances.
In later forms of the myth, he ascended to heaven and was identified with Quirinus, the divine personification of the Roman people. The legend as a whole encapsulates Rome’s ideas of itself, its origins and moral values.
For modern scholarship, it remains one of the most complex and problematic of all foundation myths, particularly Remus’s death. Ancient historians had no doubt that Romulus gave his name to the city.
Most modern historians believe his name a back-formation from the name Rome, while the basis for Remus’s name and role remain subjects of ancient and modern speculation. The myth was fully developed into something like an “official”, chronological version in the Late Republican and early Imperial Era.
Roman historians dated the city’s foundation to between 758 and 728 BC, and Plutarch reckoned the twins’ birth year as circa 27/28 March 771 BC. An earlier tradition that gave Romulus a distant ancestor in the semi-divine Trojan prince Aeneas was further embellished, and Romulus was made the direct ancestor of Rome’s first Imperial Dynasty.
Possible historical bases for the broad mythological narrative remain unclear and disputed. The image of the She-Wolf suckling the divinely fathered twins became an iconic representation of the city and its founding legend, making Romulus and Remus preeminent among the feral children of ancient mythography.
Modern scholarship approaches the various known stories of Romulus and Remus as cumulative elaborations and later interpretations of Roman foundation-myth. Particular versions and collations were presented by Roman historians as authoritative, an official history trimmed of contradictions and untidy variants to justify contemporary developments, genealogies and actions in relation to Roman morality.
Other narratives appear to represent popular or folkloric tradition. Some of these narratives remain inscrutable in purpose and meaning.
One historian sums the whole story up as the mythography of an unusually problematic foundation and early history. Nevertheless, by the 4th Century BC, the fundamentals of the Romulus and Remus story were standard Roman fare, and by 269 BC the She-Wolf and suckling twins appeared on one of the earliest, if not the earliest issues of Roman silver coinage.
Rome’s foundation story was evidently a matter of national pride. It featured in the earliest known History of Rome, which was attributed to Diocles of Peparethus.
The Patrician Senator Quintus Fabius Pictor used Diocles’ as a source for his own history of Rome, now lost but written around the time of the Second Punic War. Its creation was probably intended for circulation among Rome’s Greek-speaking allies.
Fabius’ history provided a basis for the early books of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, which he wrote in Latin. Several Greek-language histories of Rome, including Dionysius of Halicarnassus‘s Roman Antiquities (late 1st Century BC) and Plutarch‘s Life of Romulus (early 2nd Century) were also based from Fabius.
These 3 accounts provide the broad literary basis for studies of Rome’s founding mythography. They have much in common, but each is selective to its purpose.
Livy’s is a dignified handbook, justifying the purpose and morality of Roman traditions observed in his own times. Dionysius and Plutarch approach the same subjects as interested outsiders, and include founder-traditions not mentioned by Livy, untraceable to a common source and probably specific to particular regions, social classes or oral traditions.
A Roman text of the Late Imperial Era, Origo gentis Romanae (The origin of the Roman people) is dedicated to the many “more or less bizarre”, often contradictory variants of Rome’s foundation myth. Some versions include Remus founding a city named Remuria, 5 miles from Rome, and outlives his brother Romulus.
Plutarch presents Romulus’s and Remus’s ancient descent from prince Aeneas, fugitive from Troy after its destruction by the Achaeans. Their maternal grandfather is his descendant Numitor, who inherits the kingship of Alba Longa.
Numitor’s brother Amulius inherits its treasury, including the gold brought by Aeneas from Troy. Amulius uses his control of the treasury to dethrone Numitor, but fears that Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, will bear children who could overthrow him.
Amulius forces Rhea Silvia into perpetual virginity as a Vestal priestess, but she bears children anyway. In one variation of the story, Mars, god of war, seduces and impregnates her, while another version has Amulius himself seduce her, and in yet another, Hercules fathers the twins.
The king sees his niece’s pregnancy and confines her. She gives birth to twin boys of remarkable beauty.
The death of Rhea Silvia and her twins is immediately ordered by her uncle. There are 2 variations of the death sentence, but both means would avoid his direct blood-guilt.
The first account holds that Amulius has Rhea buried alive – the standard punishment for Vestal Virgins who violated their vow of celibacy – and orders the death of the twins by exposure. In another, he has Rhea and her twins thrown into the River Tiber.
In every version a servant is charged with the deed of killing the twins, but cannot bring harm them. The twins are placed in a basket and left on the banks of the Tiber, only to have the river rise and carries them downstream, unharmed.
The river deity Tiberinus makes the basket catch in the roots of a fig tree that grows in the Velabrum swamp at the base of the Palatine Hill. The twins are found and suckled by the She-Wolf (Lupa), fed by a woodpecker (Picus), and then raised as their own children by Faustulus and Acca Larentia.
In another variant, Hercules impregnates Acca Larentia and marries her off to the shepherd Faustulus. Upon the death of another of Acca Larentia’s sons, Romulus takes his place to found the priestly college of Arval brothers Fratres Arvales.
Acca Larentia is therefore identified with the Arval goddess Dea Dia, who is served by the Arvals. In later Republican religious tradition, a Quirinal priest (Flamen) impersonated Romulus (by then deified as Quirinus) to perform funerary rites for his foster mother (identified as Dia).
Another and probably late tradition has Acca Larentia as a sacred prostitute. One of many Roman slangs for prostitute was Lupa (She-Wolf).
Yet another tradition relates that Romulus and Remus are nursed by the Wolf-Goddess Lupa or Luperca in her cave-lair (Lupercal). Luperca was given a cult in exchange for her protection of sheep from wolves and her spouse was the Wolf-and-Shepherd-God Lupercus, who brought fertility to the flocks.
In all versions of the founding myth, the twins grew up as shepherds. While tending their flocks, they came into conflict with the shepherds of Amulius.
Remus was captured and brought before Amulius, who eventually discovered his identity. Romulus raised a band of shepherds to liberate his brother and Amulius was killed.
Romulus and Remus were conjointly offered the crown but they refused it and restored Numitor to the throne. They left to found their own city, but could not agree on its location.
They agreed to seek the will of the gods in this matter, through augury. Each took position on his respective hill and prepared a sacred space there.
Remus saw 6 auspicious birds; but Romulus saw 12. Romulus claimed superior augury as the divine basis of his right to decide.
Remus made a counterclaim that he saw his 6 vultures first. Romulus set to work with his supporters, digging a trench (or building a wall, according to Dionysius) around the Palatine to define his city boundary.
Livy gave 2 versions of Remus’s death. In the one “more generally received”, Remus criticized and belittled the new wall, and in a final insult to the new city and its founder alike, he leaped over it.
Romulus killed him, saying “So perish every one that shall hereafter leap over my wall”. In the other version Remus was simply stated as dead, no murder was alleged.
Two other, lesser known, accounts have Remus killed by a blow to the head with a spade, wielded either by Romulus’s commander Fabius (according to St. Jerome’s version) or by a man named Celer. Romulus buried Remus with honor and regret.
The Roman Ab Urbe Condita began from the founding of the city, and places that date as 21 April 753 BC. Plutarch says that Romulus was 53 when he “vanished” in 717 BC, which then gives the twins a birth-date in the year 771 BC, and Romulus’s founding of Rome at the age of 18.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that Romulus began his reign at 18, ruled for 37 years and died at 55 years old.
Ancient pictures of the Roman twins usually follow certain symbolic traditions, depending on the legend they follow. They either show a shepherd, the She-Wolf, the twins under a fig tree, and 1 or 2 birds; or they depict 2 shepherds, the She-Wolf, the twins in a cave, seldom a fig tree, and never any birds.
The use of Romulus and Remus in modern culture is quite extensive. They are featured in Romolo e Remo, a 1961 film starring Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott as the twins, along with The Rape of the Sabine Women, a 1962 film starring Wolf Ruvinskis as Romulus.
In the Star Trek universe, Romulus and Remus are neighboring planets with Remus being tidally locked to the star. Romulus is the capital of the Romulan Star Empire, which is loosely based on the Roman Empire.
The novel Founding Fathers by Alfred Duggan describes the founding and first decades of Rome from the points of view of Marcus (one of Romulus’s Latin followers), Publius (a Sabine who settles in Rome as part of the peace agreement with Tatius), Perperna (an Etruscan fugitive who is accepted into the tribe of Luceres after his own city is destroyed), and Macro (a Greek seeking purification from blood-guilt who comes to the city in the last years of Romulus’s reign).
Romulus is portrayed as a gifted leader though a remarkably unpleasant person, chiefly distinguished by his luck. The story of his surreptitious murder by the Senators is adopted, but although the story of his deification is fabricated, his murderers themselves think he may indeed have become a god.
In the game Undead Knights, the main characters are brothers named Romulus and Remus. In the game Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Romulus is worshipped as a god by the Followers of Romulus cult.
In Harry Potter, one of the characters is named after Remus (Professor Remus John Lupin). The Professor uses the code name Romulus and is a werewolf, thus reflecting the Remus of Roman mythology of being raised by a wolf.
In the Death Grips song, “Black Quarterback” Romulus and Remus are mentioned. In characteristic Death Grips style, their lyric isn’t contextualized in any typical linear sense.
Ex Deo released an album in 2009 titled Romulus. Its title track concerns the myth of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome.
We hope you enjoyed today’s journey to the past to explore the legendary creation of a place that has become synonymous for greatness. Come back soon to see who, what, or where we’ll be exploring.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Albertoni, Margherita, et al. The Capitoline Museums: Guide. Milan: Electa, 2006.
Beard, M.; North, J.; and Price, S. Religions of Rome, vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-521-31682-0.
Carandini, Andrea. Rome: Day One. Princeton University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-691-13922-7.
Cornell, T. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000–264 BC). Routledge, 1995. ISBN 978-0-415-01596-7.
Feldherr, Andrew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Forsythe, Gary. A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-520-22651-7.
Livy. The Early History of Rome. Translated by A. de Selincourt.
Momigliano, Arnoldo. The classical foundations of modern historiography. University Presses of California, Columbia and Princeton, 1990.
Plutarch. Romulus. Classics, trans. by John Dryden. MIT.
Raaflaub, Kurt A. Social struggles in archaic Rome: new perspectives on the conflict of the orders. Blackwell Publishing, 2005. ISBN 978-1-4051-0060-1.
Wiseman, T. P. Remus: a Roman myth. Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-521-48366-7.