Conflict between Romulus and Remus over the founding of Rome

Founders of Rome

As adults, the brothers resolved to found a city on the site where they met the wolf. Image: Romulus and his twin brother Remus from a 15th-century frieze, Certosa di Pavia

Romulus and Remus, fabled twin sons of the war god Mars and a Vestal Virgin, were abandoned at birth but miraculously saved by a she-wolf. Their story intertwines sibling rivalry, power struggles, and the founding of Rome, with Romulus becoming its inaugural king after a fatal conflict with Remus.

According to the myths, just before the city of Rome was founded, the brothers engaged in a very bitter argument. What was the conflict about? And how did it lead to the death of Remus?

Below, World History Edu provides an in-depth look at the conflict.

READ MORE: Timeline of Ancient Rome

Origin story of the brothers

Romulus and Remus were said to be the sons of Rhea Silvia, a vestal virgin, and Mars, the Roman god of war (Ares in Greek mythology).

Rhea Silvia was the daughter of Numitor, the king of Alba Longa, who was deposed by his power-hungry and ruthless brother Amulius.

To prevent any potential threats to his rule, Amulius ordered Rhea Silvia to remain celibate as a Vestal Virgin.

However, after the divine conception, she birthed twins – Romulus and Remus. In fear of her brother-in-law’s wrath, the infants were placed in a basket and abandoned on the banks of the Tiber River, to be left to fate.

READ MORE: Roman Deities and their Greek Equivalents

Raised by a She-Wolf

Remus and Remulus

The Capitoline Wolf

The Tiber River carried the twins downstream to a place where the future city of Rome would stand. They were discovered by a she-wolf (or “lupa” in Latin), who nursed and cared for them.

Later, a shepherd named Faustulus discovered the boys and raised them as his own, alongside his wife, Acca Larentia.

Romulus and Remus

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

Discovery of True Heritage

As the twins grew, they became natural leaders and oozed a lot of confidence and altruism. They clashed with shepherds of King Amulius, and during one of these altercations, Remus was captured and taken to Alba Longa. Romulus then organized a band of their friends to join him in rescuing his brother.

In the process, they learned of their true lineage and decided to overthrow King Amulius, reinstating their grandfather, Numitor, to the throne.

Founding a New City

After restoring Numitor, the twins sought to establish a city of their own near the banks of the Tiber, where they were once left abandoned.

However, a disagreement arose between them regarding the exact location. Romulus preferred the Palatine Hill, while Remus favored the Aventine Hill.

The Omen

To resolve their dispute, they agreed to observe signs from the gods. After seeing certain omens in the form of birds (vultures or eagles), they interpreted them differently.

Romulus saw 12 birds, symbolizing approval from the gods for his chosen site, while Remus, having spotted the birds first, believed the gods favored his location.

The conflict between Romulus and Remus

Romulus began marking the boundaries of his proposed city by digging a trench around Palatine Hill.

In a show of defiance or perhaps mockery, Remus leaped over the newly dug boundary. In a fit of rage, Romulus or one of his supporters struck Remus dead.

What happened after the death of Remus?

Romulus went on to found the city, naming it Rome after himself. He became its first king, establishing its institutions and military traditions.

Despite his achievements, the dark episode of fratricide lingered over his reign. Remus’s death symbolized the sacrifices made for the foundation of Rome and the challenges the city would face in its tumultuous future.

The story, while mythological, reflects themes of ambition, betrayal, and the challenges of establishing and leading a great city. It served to provide a divine and auspicious origin for the ancient city of Rome.

What contributions did Romulus make as the first king of Rome?

After founding the city of Rome on the Palatine Hill in 753 BC, it’s believed that Romulus proceeded to establish the Roman Senate, which was a group of 100 advisers. These men, called “patres” (fathers), were the heads of the leading families and the ancestors of the patrician class in Rome.

Also, Romulus is credited with organizing Rome’s inhabitants into military units, thus laying the foundation for the famed Roman legions. This military organization played a critical role in Rome’s subsequent expansion and domination.

To populate his new city, Romulus declared Rome an asylum for fugitives, exiles, and criminals. This policy allowed the fledgling city to grow rapidly in its early days.

Also, he instituted some of Rome’s early religious rites, ceremonies, and festivals. He also established basic legal practices and customs.

During his reign, Romulus embarked on various military campaigns, expanding the territory of Rome and incorporating neighboring tribes and lands.

He was involved in the construction of various sanctuaries, including the supposed foundation of the temple of Jupiter Feretrius.

Besides the patricians (from the Senate), Romulus is credited with establishing the broader populace’s division into the “curiae,” which were tribal divisions. Each curia had its religious rites and was a basic political unit in early Rome.

Romulus and the Sabine Women

Faced with a shortage of women in the newly founded city and the refusal of neighboring tribes to intermarry, Romulus invited the Sabines to a festival and then orchestrated the abduction of the Sabine women. This act eventually led to the merging of the Romans and the Sabines after initial conflict.

Ancient Rome’s invocation of Romulus and Remus

During various periods, especially in times of crisis, the Romans invoked the legacy of the twins in several ways.

Leaders and emperors, especially during shaky successions or challenges to their authority, would link themselves to the legend of Romulus.

By doing so, they not only associated with the divine origins of Rome but also emphasized the idea that Rome required strong leadership, even if it sometimes meant making tough decisions, as Romulus did with Remus.

The story of Romulus and Remus, especially the tragic death of Remus, served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of internal discord. During times of civil unrest or civil wars, the story would be invoked as a reminder of the importance of unity and the tragic consequences of fraternal strife.

During periods when Rome faced decline or was recovering from disasters, the tale of its legendary founding provided hope and a blueprint for resilience.

The idea was that if Rome could rise from humble beginnings, nurtured only by a she-wolf, it could certainly rise again from its contemporary challenges.

Finally, during festivals like Lupercalia, the tale of Romulus and Remus was remembered and celebrated. These festivals provided both a direct link to Rome’s past and a means to seek divine favor for its future, especially in challenging times.

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Divine Altar to Mars and Venus

The twins quarreled about the site of the city. While Romulus wanted to found the new city on the Palatine Hill, Remus preferred the Aventine Hill. In the end, Romulus murdered Remus. He subsequently founded Rome, lending it his name.

Altar to Mars (divine father of Romulus and Remus) and Venus (their divine ancestress) basically covers the story of the twins’ legend. The artwork shows the god Tiberinus (“Father Tiber”) alongside the infant twins, who are being suckled by a she-wolf in the Lupercal. A vulture from the contest of augury and Palatine hill are to the left. As of 2023, the artwork is located at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (i.e. National Roman Museum) in Rome, Italy.

Questions & Answers

Romulus and Remus. Silver didrachm (6.44 g), c. 269–266 BC

Are there other myths surrounding the death of Remus?

Yes. There are multiple versions of how Remus died, and the exact circumstances of his death differ according to various ancient sources.

For example, in one version, it wasn’t Romulus who killed Remus but rather one of his followers. For instance, Roman author and historian Livy (59 BC – AD 17) mentions that Remus was killed by one of Romulus’ supporters, possibly named Celer, after he mockingly leaped over Romulus’ wall.

There are other, less common versions of the story in which Remus dies. Some attribute his death to other causes or circumstances, but the central theme remains that his death was a direct result of the conflict between the two brothers over the foundation of the city.

Regardless of the specific details, Remus’ death is typically portrayed as a tragic consequence of the brothers’ rivalry, and it paved the way for Romulus to become the sole founder and the first king of Rome, from which the city takes its name.

How has the legend of Romulus and Remus been used or interpreted in modern times?

The legend of Romulus and Remus, foundational to the story of ancient Rome, has continued to influence modern culture, thought, and art in various ways.

The symbol of the she-wolf suckling the twins has become emblematic of Rome and, by extension, the entire Italian nation. This image appears on coins, emblems, and other official insignias, representing Rome’s ancient roots and legacy. Famous among them is the logo of top-flight Italian soccer club AS Roma.

In modern Italian politics, especially during moments of significant national change or challenge, the story might be invoked as a symbol of resilience, unity, and the spirit of overcoming adversity.

Were there any festivals, rituals, or monuments in ancient Rome that commemorated the story of Romulus and Remus?

The Lupercalia was the primary festival associated with the legend of Romulus and Remus. Celebrated on February 15th, Lupercalia was an ancient pastoral festival that sought to promote fertility and ward off evil spirits. During the festivities, young men called Luperci would dress in goatskins and run around the city, striking any women they encountered with thongs of goat skin, which was believed to bestow fertility. The festival has roots in the Romulus and Remus legend, particularly the she-wolf that nurtured them. The Lupercal, the cave where the she-wolf reportedly nursed the twins, was a central location for the celebration.

Located at the foot of the Palatine Hill, the Lupercal Cave was believed to be the place where the she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus. It was a site of veneration in ancient Rome.

The image of the she-wolf suckling the twins is one of the most iconic symbols of Rome. Numerous statues, coins, and reliefs featured this image, with the most famous bronze statue being the Capitoline Wolf. Although the original statue is ancient, the figures of Romulus and Remus were added during the Renaissance.

How is the murder of Remus interpreted?

There are ancient reliefs and depictions that focus on the tragic aspect of the twins’ story, primarily the dispute leading to Romulus killing Remus. This serves as a somber reminder of the costs associated with founding the great city.

What is the significance of the Tiber River in the legend?

The Tiber River is the third-longest river in Italy and the longest in Central Italy

The Tiber’s proximity is essential to the story because, after reaching adulthood and discovering their true origins, Romulus and Remus decided to establish a city of their own. They chose a location near the Tiber, specifically on one of its seven hills. This choice wasn’t just for the sake of the narrative; the Tiber was crucial for trade, transportation, and strategic military reasons.

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