Romulus and Remus: the legendary founders of Rome and the tragic sibling struggle

Explore the legendary story of Romulus and Remus, Rome's mythical founders, and their tragic sibling rivalry. From their divine origins to the dramatic founding of Rome, delve into the myths and historical debates surrounding these iconic figures.

Romulus and Remus: the legendary founders of Rome and the tragic sibling struggle
Romulus and Remus are found by a shepherd. Illustration: DALL-E

In Roman mythology, the iconic tale of Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, is heralded as the genesis of Rome's foundation. Their parentage is ascribed to either Rhea Silvia or Ilia, with Mars (or in some renditions, Hercules) identified as their divine progenitor. Numerous writers, including the renowned Virgil, have meticulously chronicled their narrative, underscoring its profound ties to Rome's birth and postulating that their birth and subsequent exploits played a pivotal role in shaping the city's destiny.

Romulus and Remus, whose lineage is traced back to King Numitor of Alba Longa, were the grandsons of this esteemed monarch. Numitor, rightful ruler of Alba Longa, was ousted from his throne by his conniving brother, Amulius, who usurped power by gaining control of the city's coffers. Numitor's lineage was systematically targeted, with Amulius ensuring the elimination of any potential male heirs. Furthermore, Amulius compelled Numitor's daughter, Rhea Silvia, to embrace the life of a Vestal Virgin. This sacred priesthood, dedicated to the goddess Vesta, mandated the perpetuation of a holy flame and the solemn vow of chastity.

Within the realm of Roman mythology, ambiguity shrouds the identity of Romulus and Remus' true father. Some narratives attribute their lineage to Mars or Hercules, with Rhea Silvia as their mother. Livy, on the other hand, advances the notion that Rhea Silvia claimed divine conception after experiencing a mysterious assault by an unknown man. Given the Vestal Virgins' unyielding commitment to celibacy, Rhea's pregnancy posed a perilous predicament, fraught with the looming specter of severe retribution. King Amulius, fraught with apprehension over impending divine wrath, decreed the imprisonment of Rhea and devised a scheme to expose the infant twins to the unforgiving elements. However, an empathetic servant intervened, sparing the infants' lives by setting them adrift on the tranquil waters of the Tiber River, cradled within a humble basket—a fateful act that would ensure their survival.

Tiberinus, the guardian deity of the river, embraced his role as protector of the infant Romulus and Remus. He skillfully guided their makeshift vessel to a secure haven near the base of Palatine Hill, where a venerable fig tree stood sentinel. There, the twins found refuge within a cave, nurtured by a vigilant she-wolf and a watchful woodpecker. Their clandestine existence was ultimately unveiled by the benevolent shepherd Faustulus, who, together with his wife, embraced the responsibility of raising them as their own.

As the twins matured, a harrowing encounter with King Amulius' shepherds unfolded, resulting in the capture of Remus. Fortunately, Remus remained unrecognized by Amulius, allowing Romulus to rally a band of shepherds, liberate his brother, and orchestrate the overthrow and demise of the tyrannical Amulius.

Having vanquished Amulius, Romulus and Remus faced a crucial decision—to accept the offer to rule Alba Longa or embark on the audacious endeavor of establishing their own city. Discord reared its head as they grappled over the city's designated location: Romulus ardently favored the Palatine Hill, while Remus adamantly championed the Aventine Hill. To resolve this impasse, they turned to the ancient practice of augury—a method of seeking divine guidance through the observation of avian omens. Each brother laid claim to the favorable interpretation of the signs, further fueling the flames of their discord. Consequently, Romulus initiated the construction of fortifications around the Palatine Hill, heightening the tension of their rivalry."

Remus' Tragic Fate and the Birth of Rome

The narrative of Rome's inception is marked by the untimely demise of Remus, a pivotal episode in the city's founding myth. Remus, in a mocking jest, dared to leap over the wall that his twin brother, Romulus, had diligently constructed as part of his city-building endeavor. This audacious act ultimately sealed Remus' tragic fate, although the accounts of how his death transpired vary. According to one version, it was Romulus himself who, in a moment of heated response, struck down Remus. In contrast, other renditions attribute Remus' demise to one of Romulus' steadfast supporters. Despite the disparities in these narratives, they converge on one crucial point—Romulus played a central role in his brother's demise. This momentous event, historically dated by Livy to April 21, 753 BC, stands as the symbolic birth of Rome.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). Oil on canvas, 385 × 522 cm (152 in × 206 in). Louvre, Paris. Source: Wikipedia

In the wake of this significant event, Romulus bestowed the city with his own name and laid the groundwork for a structured governance system, introducing senators and patricians. Rome's early population burgeoned rapidly, culminating in a noticeable gender imbalance. To address this demographic disparity, Roman men, during a festival, embarked on a controversial course of action by taking women from neighboring cities. This audacious act ignited a war with the Sabines and the Latins, a conflict that would ultimately yield Rome's first monumental victory.

Following an initial setback, Rome faced an assault on its acropolis led by the Sabine King, Titus Tatius. A near-betrayal from within the city nearly handed victory to the Sabines, but Roman forces ultimately prevailed, aided, it was believed, by divine intervention. Subsequently, Romulus and Tatius reached a historic agreement, choosing to co-rule Rome. Over the course of five years, they undertook the intricate task of blending their distinct cultures, traditions, and military strategies, marking a momentous chapter in Rome's nascent history.

Titus Tatius, however, found himself embroiled in controversy due to his association with allies who committed transgressions against neighboring Lavinium. Sent to Lavinium in an attempt at reconciliation, Tatius met a tragic end, falling victim to assassination. This left Romulus as the sole ruler of Rome, paving the way for his two-decade-long reign characterized by ambitious expansionism. During this period, Romulus achieved military conquests, bringing neighboring Latin and Etruscan cities under Rome's dominion, thereby consolidating the city's influence in the region.

Romulus as the sole ruler of Rome. Illustration: DALL-E

In the wake of King Numitor's passing, Romulus undertook the integration of Alba Longa into the burgeoning Roman realm. However, his rule became increasingly authoritarian, straining relations with the Senate. It is worth noting that Romulus' wife, Hersilia, a Sabine woman who had been taken in the earlier abduction, later ascended to a position of reverence as a goddess. Hersilia was celebrated for her role as a peacemaker in the Roman-Sabine conflict. Tragically, her divine status was confirmed after a fatal lightning strike, leading to her veneration as Ora, the goddess of courage. Some interpretations even associate Hersilia with Hostus Hostilius, a close ally of Romulus, and perceive her as an ancient deity symbolizing love and marital harmony.

The Enigma of Romulus's Demise

The conclusion of Romulus's life remains a topic of diverse interpretations, shrouded in mystery and subject to multiple accounts. Some narratives propose that he inexplicably vanished during a sudden and enigmatic storm, fueling speculation that he ascended to the heavens, potentially attaining divine status. In contrast, alternative theories suggest that his death was orchestrated by the Senate, prompting intrigue and debate among historians. Historical records by Livy and Cassius Dion depict his mysterious disappearance amid a Senate conflict, reminiscent of the celestial phenomena surrounding his birth. Plutarch notes Romulus's disappearance at the age of 53 in 717 BC, while Dionysius of Halicarnassus asserts that he met his end at the age of 55. In later years, Romulus came to be venerated as the war deity Quirinus.

The Existence of Romulus and Remus: Myth or Reality?

The historical existence of Romulus and Remus continues to be a subject of scholarly contention. While many regard them as figures of myth, potentially inspired by the narrative of Aeneas in Virgil's "Aeneid," certain researchers propose that their story may have its origins in actual events. The fusion of myth and reality is a recurring theme in foundational legends. Although the factual existence of Romulus and Remus remains unverified, their tale has endured as a prominent and widely discussed narrative since antiquity, underscoring its profound cultural significance.

The Persistent Debate Among Scholars

The ongoing scholarly debate revolves around the origins of distinct elements within Rome's foundational myth. These components may trace their roots to either indirect Roman traditions or the assimilation of Greek influences at a later stage. Precisely pinpointing the genesis of these foundational elements has proven to be a formidable challenge for researchers. While conventional Roman historians traditionally ascribe the founding of Rome to approximately 753 BC, the earliest documented reference to this myth only emerges in the late 3rd century BC.

Certain facets of the narrative are corroborated earlier than others, and both the storytelling style and underlying themes have been influenced by diverse sources, as well as the contemporary political climate and prevailing notions of propriety. The question of whether the tale of the twins formed an intrinsic part of Roman mythology from its inception or underwent subsequent evolution remains a subject of ongoing discourse. Sources often present conflicting accounts, as exemplified in the writings of Livy, Plutarch, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Tacitus, as well as the literary works of Virgil and Ovid. Notably, Coelius Fabius Pictor's work laid the foundation for Livy's "From the Founding of the City," Dionysius of Halicarnassus' "Roman Antiquities," and Plutarch's "Life of Romulus."

These three literary works stand out as some of the most prevalent versions of the myth, relegating the tales of the cave (Luperca) and fratricide to a secondary role. Instead, they emphasize the twins' familial lineage, their connections to Aeneas, and the downfall of their uncle, Amulius. This latter aspect dominates historical accounts, with Plutarch, in particular, dedicating nearly half of his analysis to the overthrow of their malevolent uncle.

Iconic Depictions of Romulus and Remus

La Lupa Capitolina "the Capitoline Wolf". Traditional scholarship says the wolf-figure is Etruscan, 5th century BC. The figures of Romulus and Remus were added in the 15th century AD by Antonio del Pollaiuolo. Some modern research suggests that the she-wolf may be a Romanesque sculpture dating from the 13th century AD. Source: Wikipedia

Romulus and Remus are commonly depicted as infants nursing from a she-wolf, a motif frequently portrayed on coins and various artworks. This emblematic representation can be witnessed in the statue of Romulus and Remus located in Siena, Italy, a city whose legend attributes its foundation to Remus's son, Senius. Additionally, they are featured in a mosaic discovered in Yorkshire, dating back to around 300 BC, known as the Wolf Mosaic. However, the most renowned portrayal is the Capitoline Wolf, composed of an Etruscan bronze wolf from the 5th century BC, enhanced by the addition of two miniature figures of Romulus and Remus in the 15th century AD. The enduring saga of Romulus and Remus has served as a wellspring of inspiration for numerous Renaissance artists, including Berrettini, La Fosse, Cesari, and Rubens.

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