Romulus and Remus: The Beginnings of Roman Civilization

Every civilization has its legends about its own foundation. These legends are usually based upon facts. Clearly, this was easier to accomplish for modern Americans than for ancient Romans. At the same time, fanciful elements always creep into the legend, even when the true events were comparatively recent. These, too, can teach us much about the people who preserved the legend, because they show us how those people understood themselves, even when the facts were wrong. The tale of Romulus and Remus is a fine example of the principle.

It is a story rich in drama and choked with blood. It is also, however, very specifically the story of how the city of Rome was founded. The Latin people were believed to have inhabited the area for four centuries before the twins, ever since the Trojan prince Aeneas settled the area. From the time of Aeneas’ son, the people of Latium were ruled from the city of Alba Longa. Its kings, therefore, took their lineage from the proud race of the Trojans, and its people were not mere pastoralists, but by right the equal of the Greeks.

In the eighth century B.C., this royal family was wracked by a dynastic struggle. The lawful king, Numitor, fled in the face of his brother’s armed uprising. The usurper, Amulius, killed his nephews and ordered his niece Rhea Silva to become a Vestal Virgin, so that no descendent of Numitor might arise some day to press his claim to the throne.

Somehow, Rhea Silva became pregnant anyway. She claimed that the father was none other than Mars, the god of war; the story spared her own life, which would normally have been forfeit, but extended no protection to her twin sons when they were born. Divine or not, they were also grandsons of Numitor, and so they were thrown into the river Tiber.

By some miracle, they survived drowning, and were found by a she-wolf. She took them back to her cave and nursed them, keeping them alive long enough to be found by a shepherd. They grew up in these humble conditions, unaware of their own lineage, until by chance Remus was caught under suspicion of cattle thieving, and taken to a respected elder for judgment. This elder was, in fact, the exiled king Numitor, and he discerned the young man’s kinship with him. He also saw that the time had come when he might regain his throne.

With the aid of young Romulus and Remus, Numitor succeeded in reclaiming the seat of Alba Longa. For their part, his grandsons wished to build a city of their own and chose the place where they had been cast out into the wilderness as the site. Already, discord grew between the brothers, and Romulus selected the Palatine hill as the ideal place for a settlement, while Remus built up the Aventine hill. The patterns of sibling rivalry are readily apparent: Romulus began the construction of a wall around his settlement, and when Remus crossed over the line, Romulus killed him.

It was Romulus’ settlement on the Palatine that became the heart of Rome, but at its beginnings (supposedly 753 B.C.), it was far too large for the population it housed. Ever ambitious, Romulus set about expanding his population and was not particularly scrupulous about how to fill his town. He opened it up to vagabonds and outlaws; when that gave him plenty of strong and resourceful men, but too few women, he used a ruse to kidnap women from the nearby Sabine community.

Unsurprisingly, the result was war. Rather shockingly, the women themselves mediated when the fighting reached the streets of Rome itself. Almost as surprisingly, the Sabines (who had managed to fight their way into the capital of their enemy) not only agreed to join their kingdom to Rome, but also let Rome be the capital of this joint state. Any technical equality between the kings ended with the death of the Sabine king, Tatius, several years afterward.

Romulus expanded his domains aggressively until his disappearance at the age of 54. A terrible storm broke out while he was performing sacrifices beside the river; some believed that he had been reclaimed by the gods, while others claimed that he had been murdered by jealous or fearful senators, who dismembered Romulus and carried away his body in pieces.

Even a casual reading of the story reveals much about how the Romans saw themselves. They were a people descended from the greatest of warriors from the Heroic Age, but also from herdsmen and bandits. They were a people destined for greatness, but also perpetually drawn to conflict. Their founders were sons of the god of war, and throughout their lives made war upon their kin, from their usurping uncle, to the brothers themselves and, then, the survivor made war upon the other people of Latium until he had claimed a mighty kingdom for the city of Rome. Even the death of Romulus is eerily suggestive of Rome’s future destiny, if the more prosaic interpretation is considered: the great man who carved out an Empire of sorts was murdered by his advisers and nobles, perhaps anachronistically identified as senators. Julius Caesar would meet a similar fate, but the end result would not be a step back into collegial rule, but would only serve to reinforce the trends toward Empire.

The question remains, however, of how much truth resides in the tale. It would be unfair to assume that oral historians deliberately fabricated the story; while they surely embellished, they may well have tried to pass on the tales they received in a conscientious fashion. It is probably impossible to prove, or disprove, the existence of a figure like Romulus, by whatever name he might have had. Ongoing archaeological work has, however, substantiated some of the more general facets of the story.

The middle of the eighth century B.C. appears to be a surprisingly accurate estimate for the foundations of the city of Rome; while settlements of some sort have been going on in that area for some time (a fact which is not inconsistent with the myth), these settlements took on an increasingly urban character at this period. Moreover, the earliest settlements focused on two of the famous seven hills, one of which was indeed the Palatine. The other has proven to be the Esquiline, rather than the Aventine.

The motivations of its early leaders may have been more prosaic than in the heroic version of the story. The Tiber river valley was certainly fertile, but this particular stretch of the Tiber offered a valuable opportunity: the existence of an island in the midst of the mighty river. Shallower depth made this the best place to ford the river for many miles, and moreover, this crossing was placed in the midst of a solid defensive position formed by the hills. As strong a place as it was, however, it was not ideal. Much of the nearby land was swamp, and malaria was a problem.

Still, the Romans persevered, and grew into a power unlike any before them. They never forgot their origins, however. The Palatine hill remained at the heart of their traditions. Not only did the early Emperors build their palaces on this hill; there was also a cave in the Palatine Hill considered by tradition to be the cave of the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus. Regardless of the accuracy of this identification, the cave was venerated as the Lupercale. In 2007, this cave was discovered in the shadow of the Palace of Augustus. Once again, the tale of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf looms large in the reconstruction of Roman history.


© 2009, 2013.  All rights reserved.