Rome. The Eternal City. But how eternal is it? It was an ancient city in ancient times. There are conflicting myths as to how Rome was founded and these grew as Rome grew in size and power. Let’s take a look at these myths and see if we can get to the bottom of where these are from and if there is any truth to them.
The most common myth is that of Romulus and Remus. These were twin brothers born to Rhea Silvia in the Italian town of Alba Longa, just south of the site of Rome. Rhea Silvia was the daughter of the king of Alba Longa, Numitor. Numitor had been ousted from power by his brother, Amulius, and forced Numitor’s daughter to take a post as a virgin priestess. This neatly solved the problem of his brother having any male heirs to usurp his power. Unfortunately, Rhea Silvia did not stay a virgin and turned up pregnant. She claimed she had been raped by the god Mars, however, many Roman historians including Livy, seemed doubtful on this point. Livy goes so far as to imply Rhea Silvia was raped by an unknown mortal man. In any case, Rhea Silvia gave birth to twin boys, who Amulius ordered to have thrown in the river TIber to drown. The servants took pity on the two infants and did not throw them in the river. Instead, they left the babies in a basket next to the river in flood. They were sure the flood waters would get them and left. However, a female wolf nursed the babies until they were found by a herdsman, who raised them as his own.
They crossed paths with their Uncle Amulius and caused his death, and the citizens of Alba Longa brought back Numitor as king. They first offered the crown to the brothers, but they refused choosing instead to found their own city. They went to the area of the seven hills and argued over which one should be the first settlement- the Palatine or the Aventine. Casting an augury, the gods choose Romulus’ choice of the Palatine. Remus was angry about this, and began jumping over the defences Romulus was constructing around the Palatine. Liva said Romulus replied by saying “So perish anyone else who shall leap over my walls.” and killed Remus dead. Later St. Jerome claimed Romulus’ followers killed Remus. However, most ancient sources say Romulus killed Remus.
Romulus then opened Rome up as a place of asylum for the dregs of society. Soon Rome was teeming with runaway slaves, convicted criminals, exiles and refugees- mostly men. This was a problem. To solve their lack of women, they invited the neighboring people, the Sabines and the Latins, to come to Rome and enjoy a religious festival. Once the men were all relaxed, the Romans abducted their women. This does not look good for our noble Romans. Livy defends them saying they only took the unmarried women and stressed they were taken at random. So there was rape, but no adultery. Gee…I feel better. Ovid states the Roman men picked out the girls they liked best and went for her with “lustful hands” once the signal was given. So it was a date rape not a violent rape. Again. Not better.
Whatever the details, the Sabines and Latins were not down for this and went to war for the return of their women. The Latins were a cakewalk, but the Sabines didn’t roll over so easily. The Romans were under heavy attack in the city from the Sabines, and Romulus had to call on Jupiter Stator to keep his men from running. Ultimately the women themselves were supposed to have stopped the fight saying they did not want to be widows or orphans.
That is all well and good, but if you are like me you are thinking what about Aeneas? According Virgil’s epic work The Aeneid, which I had to plow through in high school, Rome was founded by refugees from the Trojan War who came there by way of Carthage, after driving the queen to suicide. Roman scholars puzzled over this and tried desperately to reconcile them. In the 1st century BCE and elaborate family tree was created linking Romulus and Aeneas. Aeneas was relegated to founding Lavinium, and his son Ascanius founded Alba Longa. From there, Romulus and Remus were descended. This came complete with a fictional dynasty of Alban kings to fill the gap between Aeneas and Romulus until the date Livy attributes to Romulus’ founding of Rome- 753 BCE.
The physical “evidence” of Romulus was all over Rome. There was the Temple of Jupiter Stator where the Romans had held off the Sabines. Tourists could enter the cave where the wolf cared for the infant twins as well as see the tree under which the boys had been left by the river. This fig tree had been replanted in the Forum. There was also the small wood and thatch hut where Romulus was supposed to have lived on the Palatine Hill. But was it real? Roman historians certainly thought so. Even though the questioned the details of the stories, there was never any question that someone named Romulus had lived. An interesting point was that in Rome, prostitutes were called “lupa”, which was also the word for wolf. A “lupanare” was a standard term for a brothel. Could the “lupa” who nursed the boys have been a prostitute instead of the literal translation of “wolf”? It could have possibly been the wife or companion of the herdsman who took them in. It is a tantalizing possibility.
The other part of the Romulus myth that concerned the Romans was the fratricide aspect. Some writers tried to wash this away by saying henchmen killed Remus and Romulus was inconsolable. One even goes so far as to say Remus lived and outlived his more famous twin. However, this was a lot of white wash. Most writers believed the fratricidal element was hardwired into the Roman psyche, and the periods of civil conflict that plagued Rome were somehow predestined. Horace said, “Bitter fate pursues the Romans, and the crime of a brother’s murder, ever since the blood of blameless Remus was spilt onto the ground to be a curse on his descendants.’ The Aeneas myth is better on the family aspect. Aeneas escapes from the burning of Troy carrying his aged father on his back. This goes a lot more with the Roman values of pater familias.
The common thread to both the Romulus and Aeneas myth is that it depicts Romans as “foreign” or “other”. This is at odds with the foundation stories of many other cities, including ancient Athens. The origins always show Rome as different and other than than the inhabitants of the land. Perhaps this was meant to show they were better? Possibly. In the end, Rome rose to become the center of one of the greatest empires in the world.
Sources available on request