The story of Romulus and Remus is meant to tell how Rome came into being. The myth says more about the rise of Rome than long thought. And it illuminates the character of the city.
Rome’s history is full of violence. And it begins – perhaps not coincidentally – with a murder. According to legend, in 753 BC, the twins Remus and Romulus decided to found a city. On the banks of the Tiber, where a she-wolf fed the two abandoned brothers with her milk. But Remus and Romulus argue about which of the seven hills on the Tiber is suitable for the city. Romulus begins to plow a furrow across the Palatine Hill. He piles stones on top of each other, builds a small wall at this sacred furrow (pomerium). His brother scoffs at the fortification and jumps over it.
Romulus feels humiliated and beats Remus until he can’t get up. Then he calls out: “So shall it be with anyone who jumps over my walls in the future!” From now on, the settlement on the hill will bear his name and not that of his dead brother. But its fate remains present in the collective memory of the later city. In Roman mythology, Romulus laid the foundation stone of Rome in that year 753 BC. A settlement on the Tiber surrounded by swamps that is growing into the most powerful empire in antiquity. But how was it really?
Researchers now know that the history of Rome begins much earlier. Yet the myth of Remus and Romulus reveals much about how the Romans understood their rise and why they felt they had a right to rule an empire. The first people settled permanently on the Tiber probably in the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC, as archaeological excavations have shown. This is probably actually due to the famous hills of Rome. The hilltops are easily defended, with swamps at the foot of the hills providing additional protection.
It is probable that three small, independent settlements were built on the hilltops during this period. The people live in huts made of mud and wood with thatched roofs. They keep goats and cattle, grow grain and beans. Family clans rule over the settlements. They use the local tuff – a soft volcanic rock that makes it possible to build the first stone walls. To do this, they dig for clay on the Palatine Hill and extract salt from a depression on the neighboring Capitol Hill.
This article first appeared in G/History magazine.
Today’s Roman Forum serves as a cemetery for the early Romans. They cremate their dead and pour the ashes into clay urns. The urns look like little huts. You probably want to symbolically bury people in their homes. In addition, they are given pieces of gold, knives or brooches in the graves, sometimes also food such as mutton or porridge.
The Tiber flows at the foot of the hills. It connects the settlement with the adjacent areas and the Mediterranean Sea. Rome lies between two powerful neighbors. In the north around present-day Bologna, the Villanova culture existed around 900 BC. Their settlements offer space for thousands of people, the ashes of their dead rest in elaborate urns. Otherwise little is known about them. From the 8th century BC, the Greeks landed on the coast of southern central Italy and founded colonies such as Naples. The knowledge that the Greeks bring with them will radically transform Italy.
Compared to its neighbors, the Lazio region around Rome is probably less wealthy and politically insignificant. But the ships sailing up the Tiber from the Mediterranean bring the young settlement into contact with the rest of the world. Graves from this period contain not only ceramic vases from Athens and Corinth, but also amber from the Baltic Sea and bracelets made from African ivory.
In the 9th and 8th centuries BC people began to forge iron plows and tools. The population grew throughout Italy during the Iron Age, including in the settlement on the Tiber. The cottage villages on the hills are slowly connecting to form a larger settlement. Walls are built and separate plots of land from each other. Rome is becoming a city.
It is unclear exactly when the residents first saw themselves as part of a common settlement. Also whether the early settlement already has a name. The only thing that is certain is that Rome was created between the Bronze and Iron Ages over a period of more than 500 years. It is unlikely that a single person, such as Romulus, founded the city. But the story of Remus and Romulus shouldn’t be ignored for that reason. The myth can say little about early Rome, but much about the time when the Romans rose to become a world power.
Myths about divine twins or animals raising children are common in the ancient world. Not only in the mythology of the Greeks, but also among the Germans, in the Middle East and India. Fratricide like that between Remus and Romulus appears with Cain and Abel in the Old Testament.
Today, no one can understand where the stories originated. Something else is crucial: Almost all major cities in the ancient Mediterranean region claim that Trojan heroes such as Odysseus or demigods such as Heracles founded their cities. A famous city founder brings prestige. The Romans also need such a founder. Preferably one that matches your ambitions. Because the young republic in the 3rd century BC is becoming more and more warlike, it is in the process of subjugating all of Italy.
So it is hardly surprising that the Romans erected the first statue of a she-wolf in the city at this time, nursing two children. Silver coins from 269 BC also show the motif. According to legend, Mars, the god of war, fathered the twins when he raped Rhea Silvia, the daughter of a Latin king. The descent of the Romans from an Italian princess and the god of war himself should make it clear to the Italian peoples and also to the Romans themselves that Rome was chosen to rule.
At that time, people in Rome probably told each other more than sixty different versions of the founding myth. The Romans held festivals in honor of Romulus and built a shrine on Palatine Hill. But Romulus as a city founder has competition. Another popular tale claims that the Trojan hero Aeneas founded Rome after fleeing Troy.
Roman scholars once pondered over this. They come to the conclusion that Aeneas founded a neighboring settlement of Rome. They create a family tree to show Romulus and Aeneas being related. This list was created less out of scientific ambition than out of political motives. Because the Roman Republic is about to conquer Greece and the eastern Mediterranean in the 1st century BC. A connection to the famous Trojans seems useful to legitimize rule over the Greeks.
The myths of Aeneas and Romulus show how the Romans evolved their founding legend over time and interpreted it to suit the political situation. Also in domestic politics. At that time, continuations of the Romulus myth were also circulating: According to this, Romulus is said to have lived in Rome with a few companions after the death of his brother. In order to fill his city, he offers asylum to the displaced, outcasts and dispossessed and makes them citizens. So mainly men live in the city. Romulus therefore invites the neighboring Sabines to a festival and kidnaps the women at night.
When the men go to war against Rome because of this, Romulus finds a compromise and integrates the entire Sabine people into the city. The Romans also make politics with this myth of the abduction of the Sabine women. Roman senators refer to Romulus when they demand that Gauls or other peoples be granted Roman citizenship: they argue that Rome was already under Romulus a power that integrated foreigners and outsiders.
Like ancient scholars, some scholars today are still attempting to bring together the myth and history of Rome’s founding. In 1998, Roman archaeologist Andrea Carandini excavated ancient palaces on Palatine Hill, right in the center of modern-day Rome. At a depth of 14 meters he finds the remains of a city wall. He dates it to 750 BC. The wall is low, at the bottom of the hill, so it’s of little use for defence. That triggers speculation.
Could it have been the original wall that Romulus built that Remus jumped over? Archaeologist Carandini thinks it’s possible that there was a founder like Romulus who drew a symbolic border around the settlement. Many scientists disagree. The historian Mary Beard, in her book on Rome’s early history, calls the theory an “archaeological fantasy”. The discovery of the old wall is significant, but it is unclear what role it played in the hut settlement on the Palatine. They are far from proving the existence of Romulus.
April 21, 753 BC is still considered the founding date of the city, and the Romans celebrate it with parades and disguised gladiators. The image of the she-wolf suckling Remus and Romulus can be seen all over Rome – as a statue, on the AS Roma football club crest or on fridge magnets in souvenir shops. The myths about Rome’s founding may be fantasy. But their fame proves that the Romans still proudly spread the myth of how their city became an empire.
by Frederik Seeler
Originally Posted by G/History, What the Brutal Founding Myth Really Reveals About the Rise of Rome