Romulus and Remus are central characters in the foundation myth of Rome. Their story has been recounted in various forms, but the most recognized version is found in the work of the Roman historian Livy and the poet Virgil’s “Aeneid”. The tale is not only an origin story for the city of Rome, but it also provides insight into the values and ideologies of the ancient Roman civilization.
The Birth of Romulus and Remus
According to legend, Romulus and Remus were the twin sons of Rhea Silvia, a vestal virgin, and the god Mars. Rhea Silvia was the daughter of Numitor, the king of Alba Longa, an ancient city in central Italy. Numitor’s brother, Amulius, seized the throne and, fearing any potential claim to his power, forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, ensuring she would remain childless. However, Mars visited Rhea Silvia in a sacred grove and she became pregnant with twins.
Abandonment and Discovery
When Amulius discovered Rhea Silvia’s children, he saw them as threats to his power. He ordered a servant to abandon the infants by the River Tiber. The servant placed the twins in a basket on the river, which then carried the twins downstream.
The basket eventually came to rest at the foot of the Palatine Hill. Here, according to legend, a she-wolf discovered the twins and suckled them, while a woodpecker provided them with food. This scene – Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf – is one of the most iconic symbols of Rome’s founding myth.
The twins were eventually found by a shepherd named Faustulus, who brought them home and raised them with his wife, Acca Larentia.
Youth and Revelation
As they grew up, Romulus and Remus became natural leaders. According to Livy, the twins often got into fights with local herdsmen and took part in raiding parties for fun. During one such raid, Remus was captured and taken to Alba Longa as a prisoner.
While Remus was in captivity, his identity came to light. At the same time, Faustulus revealed to Romulus the truth about his and Remus’ royal birth. In response, Romulus rallied the shepherds to rescue his brother. Together, the twins overthrew Amulius, reinstated their grandfather Numitor as king, and decided to found their own city.
The Founding of Rome and Fratricide
The twins returned to the area near the River Tiber where they were found and agreed to establish their city there. However, they disagreed about the location of the new settlement. Romulus preferred the Palatine Hill, while Remus favored the Aventine Hill.
To settle the dispute, they agreed to observe omens in the form of bird flights, a common practice in ancient Roman religion. Remus first saw six vultures, but shortly after, Romulus saw twelve. Each claimed to have the divine approval based on these signs – Remus because he saw birds first, Romulus because he saw more birds.
The dispute escalated and resulted in a violent clash. In the confrontation, Romulus killed his brother Remus. Afterward, Romulus continued with his plan to build the city on the Palatine Hill, which he named Rome, after himself.
Romulus became the first king of Rome, laying down laws and organizing its citizen body. According to legend, he ruled for many years until his mysterious disappearance in a storm. The Romans believed he was taken up to the gods and began to worship him under the name Quirinus.
Thus, the story of Romulus and Remus has had a profound influence on Roman identity and culture. After his brother’s death, Romulus finished the construction of the city on the Palatine Hill. He defined its boundaries using a plow to mark the sacred limits of the city, known as the “pomerium”. This ritual act was deeply significant for the Romans, and any breach of these boundaries was considered a grave offense.
Romulus’s reign was significant for the establishment of political and societal institutions in Rome. He organized the citizens into tribes and created the Roman Senate, a governing and advisory council made up of leading citizens. It was during Romulus’s reign that the basic units of Roman society and government, including the concept of “patricians” (the aristocracy) and “plebeians” (the common people), were established.
Romulus also aimed to increase the population of his new city. To do this, he created an asylum for fugitives and exiles, offering them citizenship in Rome. However, this led to a problem: there were not enough women for all these men. In a bold move, Romulus devised a plan to abduct women from the neighboring Sabine tribe. This event, known as the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women,’ led to a war with the Sabines.
According to the legend, the conflict ended when the Sabine women, many of whom had now married their Roman abductors and borne them children, intervened in a battle to reconcile the two sides. A treaty was formed, merging the Romans and the Sabines into one people, under the joint rule of Romulus and the Sabine king, Titus Tatius.
After the death of Tatius, Romulus ruled alone for several years until one day, while he was reviewing his troops, a storm with violent thunder arose, and Romulus disappeared in a cloud or whirlwind. His body was never found, and he was believed to have been taken up to the heavens. After his death, he was deified and worshipped as the god Quirinus.
This intricate tale of Romulus and Remus showcases a story of ambition, fratricide, and the establishment of a city that would eventually grow into the Roman Empire, one of the most powerful and influential civilizations in human history. Through this myth, the Romans explained their origins, highlighted their divine sanction, and outlined the values and institutions that would define Roman identity.