Romulus and Remus – History and Mythology

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In the ancient world, it was a tradition to explain the origins of places through legends and myths. Raised in the wild by a she-wolf, Romulus and Remus were the mythological twin brothers who founded the city of Rome. Many authors claimed that their birth and adventures were destined for the city to be founded. Let’s find out more about them and their significance in Rome’s foundational story.

Romulus and Remus

The Myth of Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus were descendants of Aeneas, the mythical hero of Troy and Rome in Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid. Aeneas founded Lavinium, the parent town of Alba Longa, and started a dynasty that would lead to the birth of the two brothers several centuries later.

Before the birth of the twins, Numitor was the king of Alba Longa but was later dethroned by his younger brother Amulius. Princess Rhea Silvia, the daughter of Numitor, was forced by Amulius to become a priestess so that she wouldn’t be able to give birth to a male heir that would retake the throne.

Birth of Romulus and Remus

Despite being forced by Amulius into a life of chastity, Rhea gave birth to twins Romulus and Remus. There are several versions of the story of who the twins’ father was.

Some say that the Roman god Mars appeared to Rhea Silvia and lay with her. Others claim that the demi-god Hercules fathered her children. Another author says that the priestess was raped by an unknown attacker, but that Rhea Silvia claimed that divine conception had occurred.   Whoever their father was, King Amulius regarded the boys as a threat to his throne and he ordered the infants to be drowned in the river.

King Amulius didn’t want to stain his hands with blood, as he feared the wrath of the paternal god – whether it was Mars or Hercules. He reasoned that if Romulus and Remus died by natural causes, not by the sword, he and his city would be spared from the punishment of the god.

Romulus and Remus were placed in a basket and floated on the Tiber River. The river god Tiberinus kept the two boys safe by calming the water and caused their basket to be washed ashore at the Palatine Hill, near a fig tree.

Bringing_Romulus_and_Remus
The Shepherd Faustulus Bringing Romulus and Remus to His Wife – Nicolas Mignard (1654)

Romulus and Remus and the She-Wolf

At the base of the Palatine Hill, Romulus and Remus were found by a she-wolf who fed and protected them. The stories also tell of a woodpecker who helped to find them food. Eventually, the boys were found by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife Acca Larentia, who raised them as their own children.

Even though Romulus and Remus grew up to be shepherds like their foster father, they were natural leaders who fought boldly against robbers and wild beasts. In one version of the story, a quarrel arose between them and the herdsmen of Numitor. Remus was taken to Numitor who realized that the boy was his grandson.

Later, the twins led a revolt against their wicked uncle, King Amulius, and killed him. Even though the citizens of Alba Longa offered the crown to the brothers, they decided to give back the throne to their grandfather Numitor.

Romulus and Remus Establish a New City                                  

Romulus and Remus decided to establish their own city, but they ended up quarreling as both wanted to build the city in a different location. The former wanted it to be on top of the Palatine Hill, while the latter preferred Aventine Hill.

The Death of Remus

To settle their dispute, Romulus and Remus agreed to watch the sky for a sign from the gods, called an augury. However, both claimed to have seen the better sign, with Remus seeing six birds first, and Romulus seeing twelve birds later. When his brother started building a wall around Palatine Hill, Remus was jealous and jumped over the wall to make it fall. Unfortunately, Romulus became furious and killed his brother.

Rome Is Founded

Romulus became the ruler of this new city –Rome – which he named after himself. On April 21, 753 BCE, the city of Rome was founded. Romulus was crowned its king and he appointed several senators to help him govern the city. To increase the population of Rome, he offered asylum to exiles, fugitives, runaway slaves, and criminals.

The Abduction of Sabine Women

The Rape of the Sabine Women
The Rape of the Sabine Women – Peter Paul Rubens. PD.

Rome lacked women, so Romulus made a plan. He invited the neighboring Sabine people to a festival. While the men were distracted, their women were abducted by the Romans. These women married their captors and even intervened in a war to prevent Sabine men from seizing the city. According to a peace treaty, Romulus and the Sabine king, Titus Tatius, became co-rulers.

The Death of Romulus

After the death of Titus Tatius, Romulus became the sole king again. After a long and successful rule, he mysteriously died.

Some said that he disappeared in a whirlwind or storm, while others believed that he ascended to the heavens and became the god Quirinus. After Romulus, Rome had six more kings and eventually became a republic in 509 BCE.

Importance of Romulus and Remus

The myth of Romulus and Remus greatly influenced Roman culture and was immortalized in works of art and literature. The earliest mention of the Roman she-wolf comes from the 3rd century BCE, implying that the Romans believed in the myth of the twin brothers and their upbringing by the wild beast.

The Regal Period of Rome

The myth of romulus remus

According to tradition, Romulus was the first king of Rome and he established the city’s early political, military, and social institutions. However, he is believed to be an invention of ancient historians, as nothing was known about him in later centuries. After the death of Romulus, there were six more Roman kings until about 509 BCE when Rome became a republic.

Half a millennium later, the Roman historian Livy wrote stories about the seven legendary Roman kings. It was a tradition of the ruling families of Rome to fabricate their family history so that they could claim a relationship with the old rulers, which would give them social legitimacy. Some of the ancient historians were often hired by these families so it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Archeology confirms that the earliest settlement on the Palatine Hill can be traced back to the 10th or 9th century BCE, which implies that Rome cannot have been ruled by a succession of only seven kings till the end of the 6th century BCE. Ancient Romans celebrated April 21 as the date of the founding of their city, but no one can know its exact year.

Romulus as Roman God Quirinus

In the later years of the republic, Romulus became identified with Roman god Quirinus who bore a great resemblance to Mars. The ancient Romans celebrated his festival, the Quirinalia, which fell on the same date that Romulus was believed to have ascended to the heavens, perhaps then assuming the persona of Quirinus. The people built a temple to Romulus/Quirinus on the Quirinal, which was one of the oldest in Rome.

In Roman Art and Literature

roman she wolf

Romulus and Remus were depicted on Roman coins around 300 BCE. In the Capitoline Museum in Rome, there’s a famous bronze statue of a she-wolf that can be traced back to the late 6th to early 5th century BCE. However, the figures of the suckling twins were only added in the 16th century CE.

Later, Romulus and Remus became the inspiration of many Renaissance and Baroque artists. Peter Paul Rubens depicted the twins being discovered by Faustulus in his painting The Finding of Romulus and Remus. The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David shows Romulus with Sabine Tatius and the woman, Hersilia.

In Roman Political Culture

In the legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of Mars, the Roman god of war. Some historians suggest that the belief inspired the Romans to build a huge empire with the most developed military force in the world at the time.

The cultural transformation of Romulus from a mortal to a god later inspired the glorification of its leaders, such as Julius Caesar and Augustus, who were officially recognized as gods after their deaths.

FAQs About Romulus and Remus

Is Romulus and Remus a true story?

The story of the twins who founded Rome is largely mythical.

What was the name of the wolf who raised the twins?

The she-wolf is known as the Capitoline Wolf (Lupa Capitolina).

Who was the first king of Rome?

Romulus became the first king of Rome after founding the city.

Why is the story of Romulus and Remus important?

This story gave the ancient citizens of Rome a sense of divine ancestry.

In Brief

In Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus were twin brothers who were raised by a wolf and later founded the city of Rome.

Even if modern historians believe that much of their story is a myth, it gave the ancient citizens of Rome a sense of divine ancestry and the belief that their city was favored by the gods.

The legendary twins remain significant to Roman culture today, conveying a sense of heroism and inspiration.