Origins of Rome: The Myth of Romulus and Remus | History Hit

Origins of Rome: The Myth of Romulus and Remus

Alex Browne

26 Jul 2018
The Shepherd Faustulus Bringing Romulus and Remus to His Wife, Nicolas Mignard (1654)
Image Credit: Nicolas Mignard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The citizens and scholars of Ancient Rome prided themselves on belonging to the greatest city in the world. Rome required a great foundation story, and the legend of Romulus and Remus effectively filled that void. Its longevity is testament to the quality of the story as well as to its importance to a great civilisation.

The myth

Romulus and Remus were twin brothers. Their mother, Rhea Silvia was the daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa, an ancient city of Latium. Before the twins are conceived, Rhea Silvia’s uncle Amulius takes power, kills Numitor’s male heirs and forces Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin. Vestal Virgins were charged with keeping a sacred fire that was never to be extinguished and were sworn to chastity.

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However, Rhea Silvia conceives the twins. Most accounts claim their father was either the god Mars, or the demigod Hercules. However, Livy claimed that Rhea Silvia was raped by an unknown man.

Once the twins are born. Amulius is furious and has his servants place the twins in a basket by the flooded river Tiber, which sweeps them away.

Downstream they are discovered by a she wolf. The lupa suckles and nurses them, and they are fed by a woodpecker until they are found and taken away by a shepherd. They are raised by the shepherd and his wife, and both soon prove to be natural leaders.

As adults, the brothers resolved to found a city on the site where they met the wolf. However they soon quarrelled about the site of the city, and Romulus murdered Remus.

While Romulus wanted to found the new city on the Palatine Hill, Remus preferred the Aventine Hill. He subsequently founded Rome, lending it his name.

A Roman relief from the Cathedral of Maria Saal showing Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He led Rome in a number of military victories, supervising its expansion. As Rome swelled with numbers of disaffected male refugees, Romulus led a war against the Sabine people, which was won and in doing so absorbed the Sabines into Rome.

Under his leadership Rome became the dominant force in the region, but as Romulus grew older his rule became more autocratic, and he eventually disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

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In later versions of the myths, Romulus ascended to heaven, and is associated with the divine incarnation of the Roman people.

Truth vs. fiction

It seems little of this tale has any historical basis. The legend as a whole encapsulates Rome’s ideas of itself, its origins and moral values. For modern scholarship, it remains one of the most complex and problematic of all foundation myths, particularly Remus’s death. Ancient historians had no doubt that Romulus gave his name to the city.

Most modern historians believe his name a back-formation from the name Rome. The basis for Remus’s name and role remain the subject of ancient and modern speculation.

Of course, the story is legend. In fact Rome arose when several settlements on the Plains of Latium joined in order to better defend against attack.

Alex Browne