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Romulus and Remus: The Founding Myth of the City of Rome

Updated on March 26, 2017
Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf. Bronze in the Museo Capilolino.
Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf. Bronze in the Museo Capilolino. | Source

Coming up with a good story

The first Roman historians had very little to go on when delving back into the earliest times to come up with a credible account of how Rome began. There were no written records, and even folk memories, passed down through the generations, did not go back far enough. Instead, a myth had to be invented that would ally Rome’s origins with the Gods. A great city had to have a miraculous birth.

Various legends grew up over time, but the story that was later accepted as the “true” myth is along these lines:

The story of Romulus and Remus

Numitor and Amulius were the sons of the king of Alba Longa, in central Italy, who traced their lineage from Aeneas of Troy. Amulius usurped the throne from his elder brother, killed Numitor’s son and made his daughter, Silvia, a vestal virgin. However, Silvia was violated by the god Mars and gave birth to twin sons, whom Amulius caused to be set adrift in a cradle on the River Tiber. This part of the legend therefore bears a distinct resemblance to that of Moses in the Hebrew story.

As with Moses, the baby twins did not drown but were rescued, not by a king’s daughter but a she-wolf who carried the boys back to her den and suckled them. They were found by a shepherd who took them to his home on the Palatine Hill, where they grew up to be strong young men, named Romulus and Remus.

The shepherds quarrelled with the cattle herdsmen who belonged to Numitor, whose herds grazed the nearby Aventine Hill. Remus was captured, and when Romulus went to rescue him they discovered that Numitor was their grandfather. They killed Amulius and put Numitor on the throne of Alba Longa.

Romulus and Remus decided to found a new city in the area where they had grown up, but they quarrelled as to where it should be, Romulus wanting it to be on the Palatine Hill and Remus on the Aventine. The decision was to be made by augury, in other words according to signs from the gods. As is often the case in these matters, they disagreed as to what the signs meant, and the shepherds made the decision on their behalf, giving the preference to Romulus.

Romulus started to build his city wall, but Remus, who still resented the fact that the new city would be “Roma” instead of, presumably, “Rema”, jumped over the wall before it was finished and was killed by his brother.

Romulus Gives Laws to the Roman People. 15th century image by Bernard van Orley.
Romulus Gives Laws to the Roman People. 15th century image by Bernard van Orley.

The myth of the Sabine women

Romulus’s new city needed more people, so he built a sanctuary on the nearby Capitoline Hill for criminals and runaway slaves, who promptly flocked there. The problem now was that there were plenty of men but hardly any women. Romulus tried peaceful means at first to persuade neighbouring cities to allow some of their women to join the new Rome, but to no avail. He therefore invited the local Latins and Sabines to a festival and, when they arrived, the Romans seized all the young women and carried them off.

Not surprisingly, this led to war, with the Romans defeating the forces of the three Latin towns, but the Sabines proved to be a sterner test. As the battle reached stalemate, thirty Sabine women rushed between the two armies and urged them to stop fighting. The two peoples agreed to form one nation, with Romulus continuing to rule on the Palatine Hill and the Sabine king on the Capitoline and Quirinal Hills. The two kings and their senates met on the plain in-between to discuss matters as they arose.

However, when the Sabine king was killed in a quarrel that did not involve Romulus, the latter took over as sole ruler, being undisputed king for the next 37 years, after which he was carried off by Mars in a fiery chariot. Or so the story goes!

The Intervention of the Sabine Women, by Jacques-Louis David
The Intervention of the Sabine Women, by Jacques-Louis David

So there we have it!

Legends are very good at explaining how things started, and later Roman storytellers used the myth of Romulus to give ancient justification to, for example, the organisation of the Roman army into legions. Romulus is said to have divided the people into three tribes, each divided into ten curiae. These thirty divisions were named after the thirty Sabine women who brought peace to the community. Each curia contained ten gentes, each of 100 men who fought on foot. This all added up to 3000 soldiers, or one legion.

Likewise, the institution of the Senate was attributed to Romulus’s choice of 100 elders to help him in governing the city, this number being raised to 200 when the Sabines were incorporated.

There is of course absolutely no proof that Romulus and Remus ever existed, with the first mentions in writing dating from hundreds of years after they were supposed to have lived. The traditional foundation date of 753 BC is also pure invention. There were other foundation stories at various times, such as one involving a character called Romus who was the son of Aeneas. There is archaeological evidence that suggests that Rome was first settled by the Etruscans rather than as a colony from Alba Longa.

It is therefore difficult to ascribe the beginnings of Roman civilization to Romulus and Remus. However, the legend, such as it is, and with elements that have distinct resemblances to myths from other civilizations, particularly ancient Greece, is romantic enough to stand the test of time. The image of the she-wolf suckling the twins has proved to be a lasting one, being reproduced in many works of art down the centuries.

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