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The Ancient Roman Mythology of Romulus and Remus

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  • Category: Rome

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             While it is both tempting and convenient to ascribe a specific date for the “founding” of Rome, such speculations, like those which regard identifying a specific date for the “collapse” of the Roman Empire, seem more indicative of the historian (and student’s) longing for certainty and specificity than in demonstrable evidence. “The traditional date for the founding of the greatest city of the Western world was the product of guesswork by Roman writers of the late centuries BC, working backwards from their own time.”(Cavendish)

            Even for Roman writers, the subject of the city’s founding was shrouded in speculation and myth. “After ranging shots by various writers, the author Varro, greatly respected for his learning in the first century BC, settled on the year 753, which became the accepted, official date. All subsequent dates were expressed ab urbe condita, `from the city’s founding’.” Just as the matter of a specific date for the city’s produced long-lived and contentious debates, the story of the city’s founding evolved though the centuries, beginning with a traditional myth-symbolism that played an ongoing role in the development of Roman culture and history. (Cavendish)

            Many variations of the Roman founding-myth can be researched and described; in general terms, Roman tradition attributed the founding of Rome to “Romulus, whose name means simply `man of Rome’, but Greek writers from at least the fifth century BC attributed it to the Trojan exile Aeneas. By the first century BC the two versions had coalesced.”(Cavendish)

            The resulting merging of myths became a more or less accepted historical record for many centuries, deeply complex and symbolically dynamic. “After the fall of Troy […] Aeneas went to Central Italy and married Lavinia, the daughter of the local king, Latinus. From them sprang a line of kings who ruled Alba Longa (twelve miles southeast of Rome) down to Numitor, whose throne was usurped by Amulius, his younger brother.” (Cavendish)

                                                                                                              Romulus and Remus -2-

            After Amulius forces Numitor’s daughter Rhea Silvia into chastity, she is raped by Mars, the Roman War God, and from this action she becomes pregnant and bears twin boys. Then, in symbolism which recalls the Biblical story of Moses, Amulius sets the babies adrift on a river— the river Tiber. They washed up under a fig tree near a hill called Palatine.

A she-wolf that had lost her cubs, attracted by the cry of the children, and impelled by the pain of her distended udder, gave them suck; and presently a shepherd named Faustulus, who had watched the wolf often going and coming to the place, found the boys, and took them to his wife Laurentia, who brought them up and called them Romulus and Remus.

            (Shuckburgh 22)

            The myth recounts how, as grown men, Remus and Romulus avneged themselves by murdering Amulius and regaining the throne for Numiotr. They then decided to found a city of their own but disagreed over the site for the new city. “Romulus chose the Palatine Hill and Remus the Aventine. Romulus began building a wall, but Remus contemptuously jumped over it, at which the furious Romulus killed him.” (Cavendish).

            Romulus then founded Rome and to populate the new city, “organised the rape of the Sabine women.” (Cavendish) The setting for the city: Palatine Hill later played a profound role in the city’s history and heritage and religious practices, particularly in the festival of the “Lupercalia (15th February) on the Palatine, which was a pastoral ceremony of purification or “beating the bounds” of the old city;”which drew its symbolism and impetus from the myth of Romulus and Remus.  (Shuckburgh 24)

            Whether or not the traditional story of Rome’s founding was based on evidence or fact is immaterial; this myth became for all intents and purposes the accepted “truth” for the Romans for centuries, even if the origin of the myth was: “among the pastoral folk who once fed their flocks                                                                                                           Romulus and Remus -3-

about the seven hills, or deliberately invented, as some think, by late Greek sophists, there seems to be this truth at the bottom of it, that on the Palatine was the first township or fortress, established originally by a shepherd-folk, which gradually grew to be Rome.” (Shuckburgh 24)

            Romulus, according to the traditional myth, founded Rome on Palatine Hill and from there sprang an Empire. The association with wolf symbolism, and particularly the War God Mars, in the founding-myth is crucial symbolic motif for the entire History of Rome, including its holidays, wars, art, social structure and its eventual collapse. According to the myth, when Romulus founded Rome, the Romans were “a simple shepherd folk with no thought of a fortified citadel or a shining temple to Jupiter on the Capitol. Archaeology bears out the tradition that here were the oldest habitations of the Eternal City.” (Scherer 49)

            However marginal, a degree of historical evidence does correspond to the Romulus and Remus myth. The earliest Roman settlements on the hills being dated “by archaeologists to the tenth century BC, well before the traditional date, but the story is revealing about Roman attitudes under the Republic and the Empire. They considered Mars an appropriate patron and they liked to see destiny and a divine intelligence at work in their origins […] the nearby Lupercal cave was pointed out as the she-wolf’s lair.” (Cavendish)

            Romulus, according to Roman myth, reigned for forty-odd years before he was snatched by lightning during a violent thunderstorm to join the gods. Thereafter, “Romulus was considered to be a god. A religious festival called the Quirinalia was established in his honor.” (Norton, and Rushton 325) The Roman calender and holidays remained deeply impacted by the myth of the founding and the symbolism of the Romulus and Remus myth.

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            The impact and endurance of the Romulus and Remus myth, demonstrated most overtly by the festival of Lupercalia may be partially attributed to the Roman tendency to indulge in omens and symbolism, particularly with regard to animal forms and motifs.  “The focal point of this festival was a site on the Palatine hill: the Lupercal, the cave in which, according to legend, the wolf suckled Romulus and Remus,” (Notae).

            No doubt, an enduring faith in pantheism and the sacredness of antiquity allowed the Romans to cling to the essential symbolism of the Romulus and Remus founding-myth by way of the festival of Lupercalia: “The Lupercalia was so popular that it survived the onset of Christianity, but in a different form. In 494 AD, the Pope made February 15 the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.” (Notae)

            So it may be that the mythologically generated story of Rome’s founding appeared less as myth than as demonstrable fact, when taken in to account the Roman predilection for imbuing the physical world with symbolic portent and vice-versa. “Omens could be observed by “specialists” under specific circumstances or could come “unbidden” to anyone […] the art of interpreting omens, was practiced throughout the ancient world.” (Mayor 253)

            Even through the decline of the Roman Empire and its cultural supremacy, the nation of shepards-become-warriors continued to flourish wolf-symbolism and identification with its legendary beginnings. “This dangerous predator was associated with the war-god Mars and had long served as a protective civic symbol for Rome […] By the late empire, however, the barbarians were being likened to ravening wolves” and the circle completed tragically in the symbolism of war-suckled and vengeful twin brothers became for Roman historians and writers, “the traditional wolf-guardian who now seemed to turn on Rome. ( Krauss 1930 :107-9). (Mayor 260)

Works Cited

Cavendish, Richard. “The Foundation of Rome: April 21st, 753 BC.” History Today Apr. 2003: 54+.

Mayor, Adrienne. “Ambiguous Guardians: the “Omen of the Wolves” (A.D. 402) and the “Choking Doberman” (1980s).” Journal of Folklore Research 29.3 (1992): 253-268.

Norton, Dan S., and Peters Rushton. Classical Myths in English Literature. New York: Rinehart V, 1952.

Pais, Ettore. Ancient Legends of Roman History. Trans. Mario E. Cosenza. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1906.

Shuckburgh, Evelyn Shirley. A History of Rome to the Battle of Actium. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

Notae: “Lupercalia” Essays on the History and Culture of Rome Jan. 2007.            http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/lupercalia.html 

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