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How Was Rome Founded?
The world’s first superpower, the Roman Empire, has a beginning that is shrouded in myth and legend. The more mundane reality of the founding of the city, according to archaeologists, is that Rome started as a group of small villages situated along the Tiber River in central Italy in about the eighth century BC. However, the legend of Romulus and Remus gives us a much more fascinating picture of these early days.
Eight centuries before the birth of Christ, the Mediterranean kingdoms of Persia and Egypt were the centers of civilization. Additionally, Greece was also an important kingdom, centered around the city-state of Carthage on the North African shore. During this ancient time, life was challenging for the average person, agriculture was just above the subsistence level, communication was slow, effective medical treatments were nearly non-existent, and all forms of technology were in their infancy. Yet out of this simple beginning came the Roman Empire that stretched from Britain to the Dead Sea in its ascendancy.
To explain the founding of the city of Rome, the mythical story of Romulus and Remus was created and handed down from one generation to the next. As the story goes, though they were of royal birth, the twins were cast off and left for dead along the Tiber River, and just in time, they were rescued by a kindly she-wolf. Romulus, after possibly killing his brother, would go on to become the first king of Rome.
Over the millennia, this story has been told and retold by countless historians and storytellers. One of the three canonical versions of the story was recorded by the Roman historian Livy in the first century BC. Livy’s version of the story is full of all the great plot elements that make a good story: love, lust, greed, murder, and revenge.
Who Was Titus Livius “Livy”?
Titus Livius is considered one of the great historians of the Republic period of Rome. He was born in Patavium (modern Padua, Padova), a wealthy city in northern Italy in 64 or 59 BC. Though he was born and died in Patavium, from his writings it is believed that he spent considerable time in Rome. His intimate familiarity with Roman topography, people, legends, and monuments leaves little doubt he spent considerable time in the city.
Few facts are known of his life and what we do know is gathered from his writings that have survived to modern times. Livy spent forty years writing a history of Rome from the earliest times to his own day. Of the 142 books he was known to have written, 107 of them have been lost. His extant works deal with legendary events, with the stories being a blend of history, archaeology, folk-tale, and myth.
His most famous work has the Latin title Ab urbe condita, which translates as “From the Foundation of the City,” but the work is commonly known as the “History of Rome.” It is from the first book of his “History” that we get his version of the mythical story of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome.
The Story of the Founding of Rome According to Livy
Livy provides the reader with the origin of the city of Rome starting with the royal ancestry of the twin brothers Romulus and Remus. Livy wrote seven centuries after the supposed date of the founding of Rome, which is set at 753 BC by tradition. Livy’s version is a synthesis of myths and legends handed down through centuries by oral tradition. Many other versions of the mythical founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus exist, but Livy’s version is considered one of three “canonical” versions.
The Tyrant King Amulius Rules Alba Longa
The mythical story opens with a chronology of rulers of the city of Alba Longa who trace their roots back to ancient Troy (c. 1200 BC). Alba Longa was an ancient Latin city in Central Italy about 12 miles southeast of the present site of Rome. The city was destroyed by the Roman Kingdom around the middle of the 7th century BC, and its citizens were forced to settle in Rome.
The story of the birth of Romulus and Remus takes up with a ruler of Alba Longa named Proca, who has two sons, Numitor and Amulius. Proca bequeaths his kingdom to his eldest son Numitor. The younger Amulius takes the kingdom by force, driving his brother out. To maintain control, Amulius had Numitor’s sons killed and forced his daughter Rhea Silvia to become a priestess of Vesta. Normally it would be a great honor for Rhea to become a Vestal Virgin, rather Amulius used the requirement of virginity of the priestess of Vesta to limit the competitors to the kingdom from his brother’s offspring.
The Birth of Romulus and Remus
Rhea Silvia claimed she was raped by the god Mars and gave birth to twin sons, Romulus and Remus. King Amulius had her imprisoned and ordered her two young sons to be “thrown into the current of the river [Tiber].” The servants who were given the task of drowning the boys left them on the edge of the flooded Tiber River in an eddy pool away from the main current. There the two boys were rescued by a she-wolf, feeding them with her own milk. The king’s herdsman, Faustulus, found the two boys and took them to his hut where his wife Larentia nursed the twins.
Livy presents an alternate story to possibly rationalize the improbable tale of the she-wolf nursing the infants, “There are some who think that this miraculous story originates because Larentia was called ‘she-wolf’ among the shepherd community, since she had been a prostitute.” In Italian and Latin, the word “lupa” can either mean a prostitute or a she-wolf, and lupanare was a term for “brothel.” Could it have been that a local prostitute rather than a local she-wolf first tended the young twins?
As the boys grew, they became strong, working as shepherds for Faustulus, and “achieved strength of body and mind.” Along with their friends, they attacked robbers and divided their stolen goods with their shepherd friends.
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The Capture of Remus
At the annual Lupercal festival, held on the Palantine Hill, the “young men run about naked, sporting and frolicking as they honor Lycaean Pan…” At the festival, the gang of thieves wanted to put an end to Romulus and Remus for their loss of plunder to the brothers. The gang attacked the twins, a fight ensued, and Romulus escaped but Remus was caught and taken to the tyrant King Amulius. The thieves told the king that the youths had been leading raids into the lands of the king’s brother, Numitor. Amulius handed Remus over to Numitor for punishment.
To save Remus’s life, the shepherd Faustulus who had raised the boys let out the truth about their royal origin. The shepherd had long suspected that the twins were the grandsons of Numitor but kept the information to himself until the time was right. According to Livy, “By chance Numitor was also reminded of his grandsons. For he had heard of the twin brothers with Remus was in his custody…And so, after making further enquiries, he had all but acknowledged Remus. From all sides, a net of guile was being woven against King Amulius.”
Learning the truth of his birth, Romulus and a group of men murdered King Amulius. After the death of his brother, “He [Numitor] immediately summoned a council and revealed his brother’s crimes against him, his grandson’s parentage—how they had been born, reared, and recognized—and lastly the killing of the tyrant, for which he was responsible.”
The Brothers Decide to Build a New City
With Alba Longa safely under control of Numitor, the twins planned to establish a new settlement near Alba Longa at the place where they had been left to drown as babies. Both the boys were headstrong and ambitious and began to quarrel over the name of the new settlement and which one of them would be the new king. To resolve the questions, they decided to let the gods provide an answer by augury. Romulus sat on the Palatine Hill and Remus sat on a nearby hill called Aventine to observe the auspices. Remus was the first to receive a sign from the gods—six vultures; however, Romulus received twice the number but later.
The Two Stories of the Death of Remus
The followers of the two young men claimed that their campion had received the message from the gods and proclaimed each as their king; one side basing their claim upon priority, and the other upon the number of birds. Angry words ensued between the brothers, which led to a fight in which Remus was killed. Some versions of the story claim that Romulus killed his brother while others say it was one of his followers.
Livy gives us a more common version of the story, where Remus antagonizes his brother by jumping over the half-built walls of the new settlement. “…Remus leaped over the new walls, jeering at his brother. He was killed by the enraged Romulus, who added the threat, ‘So perish whoever else shall leap over my walls.’ Thus, Romulus became the sole ruler and the city, so founded, was given its founder’s name.”
Romulus Establishes Rome
Romulus’s first act as king was to fortify the Palatine. He then offered sacrifices to the gods and gave his followers laws. Livy tells us that Romulus elevated himself: “He thought the rustic population more likely to be bound by these laws if he made himself venerable by adopting symbols of office. Not only did he make himself more impressive in his way of dressing, but he also assumed a retinue of twelve lictors [minor state officials].” To add to the population of his new city, Romulus made it a sanctuary for fugitives on the slopes of the Capitoline Hill. Men came from all ranks to the new city, slaves and freeborn, eager for a fresh start.
To govern the city, Romulus appointed a hundred senators or “fathers” (patres), whose descendants would be called “patricians.” This was the beginning of a class struggle that would last for centuries between the upper-class patricians and the common people or “plebeians.”
Abduction of the Sabine Women
Though the city of Rome was as great as any of the neighboring cities, it suffered from a shortage of women. To bring women into the city, Romulus and the senate concocted a plan to send envoys to nearby cities to propose marriage alliances. Due to the poor reputation of the Romans, as many were bandits and dangerous men, no one wanted their young women married to the Romans. Undaunted, the king set in motion a new plan to take women by force at the upcoming annual festival in honor of the god Neptune.
The Romans promised the people of the neighboring towns and villages a lavish festival. Crowds interested in seeing the new city and seeking a little entertainment flocked to the city from the neighboring towns. People, including wives and daughters, from Latin and Sabine townships came to Rome for the festivities. “With all the pageantry within the knowledge and resources of those times, the Romans prepared to celebrate this festival, publicizing it to create expectations. Many people came in their eagerness to see the new city…All the Sabines came too, together with their children and wives.”
During the festival a signal was given, and the men of Rome rushed through the crowd and abducted the unmarried women who were among the visitors. Most of the girls were taken by the first man to grab them, but a group of leading Roman senators had arranged for gangs of men to capture for them the most beautiful of the young women. The festival immediately broke into pandemonium as the parents of the girls began shouting curses at the Romans.
Romulus’s Attempt to Calm the Women
The abducted women were frightened and furious at their captors. Romulus went to each one of them and attempted to calm their nerves by promising them that they would enjoy all the privileges of Romans. “They should calm their anger and give their hearts to those whom chance had given their bodies. For, he [Romulus] said, often affection has eventually come from a sense of injustice.” He told them that the children, when they came, would bond the marriage to their new husbands. He promised their new husbands would treat them very kindly if they would only fulfill their end of the bargain.
Romulus Kills the King of Caenina
The parents of the stollen girls sought the help of the powerful king of the Sabines, Titus Tatius. Emissaries from the towns of Caenina, Crustumerium, and Antemnae met with Tatius to seek their revenge on Romulus and the Romans. The Sabines were slow to act, so the peoples of Caenina decided to invade Roman territory on their own. Romulus went on the attack and ended the battle in a quick fight. He pursued them and killed their king and stripped the armor from his corpse.
Romulus then returned to Rome with his victorious army, parading through the city the spoils of the slain enemy commander on a frame made to fit the purpose. He placed the spoils by an oak tree sacred to the shepherds and marked the boundary of a temple to Jupiter. He gave the god an additional title, declaring: “To you, Jupiter Feretrius, I, Romulus, victor and king, bring spoils taken from the king. On this site that I have just marked out in my mind, I dedicate a precinct to be a place for the spoils of honor that men of the future, following my example, will bring to this place when they have slain kings and enemy commanders.” This is the origin story of the first temple that was consecrated in Rome.
Romulus Defeats the Antemnae and Crustumerium People
Seeking justice for their stolen girls, the Antemnates marched on Rome. Roman legions were quickly marshaled against them, overwhelming the Antemnates. As Romulus was exalting in his double victory his wife Hersilia, who had also been abducted, begged him to grant amnesty to the girls’ parents and offer them Roman citizenship, telling him, “…By this means the state would grow in strength and harmony.” Romulus granted her request.
Romulus then fought the people of Crustumerium who were marching against Rome. The Roman soldiers quickly vanquished their foes with even less of a struggle required to defeat the Antemnates. Over time, some of the parents and relatives of the abducted women migrated to Rome and made it their home.
Revenge of the Sabines
The Sabines realized the military strength of the Romans and used a ruse to spring a surprise attack. To gain entrance into the walled city of Rome, the Sabine king Tatius bribed the daughter of the commander of the Roman citadel to allow a small group of his men to enter the city unannounced. Once inside the walled city, the Sabines turned on the young girl who had helped them and crushed her to death with their shields. Livy presents three different versions of the girl’s death.
The Sabines surreptitiously entered the city and gained control of the citadel. The next day the Romans realized the citadel had been lost and gathered their troops for battle. A fierce battle ensued on the land between the Palatine and the Capitoline hills. The Romans were losing the battle, forcing Romulus to seek the god Jupiter for divine intervention; in a desperate state he cried out,
Jupiter, it was at the bidding of your augural birds that I laid the city’s first foundations here on the Palatine. The citadel has been brought by a crime and is in the hands of the Sabines. They have conquered the valley between the two hills and are now upon us, sword in hand. But, father of gods and men, keep them back, at least from here. Rid the Romans of their terror and stay their shameful flight! I hereby vow a temple to you as Jupiter the Stayer, to be memorial for posterity that the city was saved by your presence and help.
Inspired by his faith in Jupiter, Romulus worked his way to the heated front on the battle line.
Romulus and Remus, Ancient Rome Documentary
Intervention of the Sabine Women
During the heat of the battle, some of the Sabine women intervened between the two warring groups to stop the fighting. Levy tells us: “With loosened hair and torn garments, they rushed in from the side, parting the battle lines and checking the battle rage.” The women pleaded to the two groups: “We are the cause of war; we are the cause of wounds and death to our husbands and our fathers. Better that we die than live as widows or orphans, without either of you.” The women’s appeal worked; the Sabines and the Romans stopped fighting. Their plea moved both leaders and soldiers, bringing a silence and a sudden hush to the battlefield.
As a result of the intervention of the women, the leaders came forward and formed a treaty. In addition to establishing peace, they shared a kinship, transferring all power to Rome. The addition of the Sabines doubled the size of the city. According to Livy, “From this time the two kings ruled not only jointly, but also harmoniously.”
From this point forward, the rule of Rome was shared by Romulus and the Sabine King Titus Tatius. A few years later, Tatius was murdered in a nearby town during a riot that was partially of his own making. Romulus became once again the sole ruler of Rome, with a reign that lasted more than 30 years.
Romulus and Remus: Men or Myths?
For centuries scholars have debated whether Romulus and Remus were real men or purely mythological inventions or possibly a mixture of both. Though the adventures of the twins may appear far-fetched as portrayed by Livy and other writers, some historians attest that their story has some historical foundation. Though we will never know for sure if they were fact or fiction, one thing for certain is that the story of Romulus and Remus and the founding Rome is an enduring legend that will be told and retold for generations to come.
Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015.
Grant, Michael. Myths of the Greeks and Romans. Revised and Updated Bibliography. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1986.
Livy and Valeri M. Warrior (translator). The History of Rome Books 1-5. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006.
Matyszak, Philip. Chronicle of the Roman Republic: The Rulers of Ancient Rome from Romulus to Augustus. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2003.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Doug West