Romulus and Remus: Legendary Founders of Rome

Romulus and Remus

Legendary founders of Rome, the twins Romulus and Remus, being suckled by the she-wolf, Lupa.  Image: The Capitoline Wolf

Great cities have great historical backgrounds. For an important geographical region such as Rome, the pride of its establishment couldn’t have been left to rot away. The determination of ancient Rome’s leaders to have a powerful and time-tested history led to the legend of Romulus and Remus – the twin brothers who founded Rome.

The Birth of Romulus and Remus

The legend proposes that Rome’s foundation dates back to around 753 BCE. According to the account of the legend of Rome’s foundation, two twin brothers namely Romulus and Remus founded the Roman city. They were believed to have descended from the ancestral Prince Aeneas, the Trojan war hero.

The twin’s mother was a vestal virgin known as Rhea Silvia, daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa. Allegedly, the war god Mars (Ares in Greek mythology)  was the better half of Princess Rhea. Another account states that it was rather the demi-god Hercules that fathered the twins. In any case, Rhea Silvia is believed to have gotten pregnant by either one of those two gods. She gave birth to twins – Romulus and Remus – around 771 BCE.

Discoveries and Upbringing of the Twins

Romulus and Remus

Twin babies Romulus and Remus arrive at the shepherd Faustulus’ home | Portrait by Nicolas Mignard (1654)

Rhea’s birth of the twins was met with enmity from King Amulius of Alba Longa. Amulius had successfully overthrown his brother Numitor (Rhea’s father). Fearing that the boys would grow up to be powerful and probably exact revenge, the king hacked plans to kill the twins.

Right from the day the twins were born, their mother Rhea could perceive of the looming danger.  Rhea knew that the survival of her sons solely rested on her shoulders. So she kept the children inside a woven basket and placed the basket near the banks of the Tiber River. As the river water levels increased, the basket drifted away until it rested under a fig tree.

Firstly, legend has it that the river god Tibernus discovered the babies and took them to the Palatine hilltop. The twins were later re-discovered by Lupa, the she-wolf. With assistance from a bird –  a woodpecker called Picus –  Lupa breastfed and nursed the twins for a while.

After playing her part in helping the twins to grow, the she-wolf knew it was time to let them go. She placed the boys at a vantage spot where herd boys and shepherds could easily find them. The wolf’s plan worked perfectly; a shepherd known as Faustulus found the boys and took them home to raise them with his wife, Acca Larentia.

The Foundation of Rome – Romulus kills Remus

When the twins matured into adulthood, they took it upon themselves to establish an elaborate city. Their intention was to build it and co-rule as kings. A bloody competition is immanent here – how can two kings rule over one territory? Since they were twins, it wasn’t easy to pick out the senior one. The twin brothers would often quarrel over who was supposed to be king.

As Ola Rotimi writes in the “Gods Are Not to Blame”,  “two rams cannot drink from the same bucket; they will lock horns”. Competition for power ensued between the once tight-knit twins. A contest was held to decide who would be crowned king. The results of the contest saw Remus emerge as the rightful ruler.

When things went contrary to Romulus’ expectations, he became full of resentment and ill feelings. Without kingship, life was meaningless to him. There was only one solution that could make him realize his self-centered dream of kingship – he had to commit an unthinkable act of fratricide.

By all means, Remus had to be eliminated. Romulus used a heavy rock, and with hard-heartedness, he smashed Remus’ head with a deadly blow. Other versions of the legend say that Remus fell into a trench dug out by Romulus; others say that he was murdered by Romulus sympathizers.

Be it as it may, Romulus took over the city as the first ruler.  This marked the birth of Rome. The story goes on to say that Romulus named the city “Roma”, probably derived from Romulus’ name.

According to ancient Roman historian Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE), the death of Remus and the founding of Rome coincided. Livy stated that both incidents occurred on April 21, 753 BCE.

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Rome’s Foundation on Hills

Before murdering his brother, Romulus had disagreed with Remus concerning the location of the city. While Remus preferred that the city be built on Aventine hilltop, Romulus desired the Palatine hilltop. Over time, Rome’s foundation covered seven hills.

The hilltop foundation of Rome is a symbol of its destined greatness. The seven Roman hills stretch from the north to the east. They are Aventine, Quirinal, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Viminal, and Caelian. The Palatine hill rests close to central Rome.

In the past, many ancient world cities built on hilltops were typically considered as the ones that would burgeon to become a great and powerful city. In 1503 CE, Roman Catholics started construction work of St. Peter’s Basilica right on top of the Vatican hill located on the west side of the River Tiber. Comparatively, most seven-hilled cities have always had immense religious influence and significance. Notable mention can be made of seven-hilled cities such as Mecca, Jerusalem, and Moscow. These cities all have and portray inherent greatness by virtue of the fact that they posed a herculean task for would-be attackers who had to trudge up the hill. And Rome’s origin story was no different.

Rome Under King Romulus

After rising to power, Romulus led his people to win major wars. To expand his territory, he warred with the Sabines, conquered them and absorbed them into his empire. He also set up Rome’s senate and legion.

In the early reign of Romulus, Rome prospered and grew stronger than many of the surrounding regions. However, the passage of time brought the dark side of Romulus. Romulus ended up becoming an autocratic leader. The legend says that, as a result of his wicked leadership style, Romulus vanished mysteriously in 717 BCE. Perhaps he made his way into heaven. This would explain why he was deified by Roman mythologists as the god Quirinus.

Relating the Legend to Rome

Now, the logic behind this likely conjured myth is this: the story has successfully attributed Rome’s foundation to the sons of a god named Mars. By associating colossal Roman gods and deities such as Mars and his great father – supreme god Jupiter – to the city’s founders, Rome was able to nudge itself into a divine position and reputation.

This rich legend has lived up to its expectations. To visualize Rome’s greatness, take a look at this: the Roman Catholic Church originated from Rome – it’s the pillar of Christianity today. And Vatican City is now a country on its own in Rome, Italy. It contains the residence of the Holy Father, the Pope. Roman Catholic Christians now count in over a billion.

In summary, we could say that the legend has rightly portrayed the strength of the Roman Empire as one of born conquerors and rulers. And rightly so, their influence over the past millennium cuts across art, history, science, architecture, and many more areas. These have been in part due to the legend of Romulus and Remus – the founders of Rome.

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Interesting Facts about Romulus and Remus’ Story

  1. The city of Alba Longa was founded by Aeneas – son of Venus and Anchises – the Trojan prince who fled Troy after it had fallen at the hands of the Achaeans  (Greeks). It is believed that Anchises went ahead to set up his own city, a city that would one day metamorphose and become Rome.
  2. Some accounts of the myths state that Amulius forcefully committed Rhea Silvia to the shrine of Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home.  Vestal priestesses were confined to living a chaste life and could not procreate. This was an attempt by King Amulius to keep her from producing any offspring that would one day come to challenge him for the throne. As fate had it, the god Mars descended down and impregnated Rhea. She would later give birth to the twins.
  3. The reason why the babies Romulus and Remus survived their granduncle’s attempt to kill them was because King Amulius’ men took pity on the children. Some say that his men gently placed the children in a basket and allowed the heavens decide their fate.
  4. While growing up, Romulus and Remus were strong and expertly skilled sword fighters. They were known for protecting their village from bandits.
  5. Legend has it that the woodpecker that jointly raised Romulus and Remus was sent by the god Mars. This makes a whole lot of sense considering the fact that Mars’ totem animal is the woodpecker. In many ancient mythologies,  it was not uncommon for deities and gods to have totem animals that symbolized them. For example, Zeus’ totem was an eagle; Ares‘ was a poisonous snake; and in ancient Egypt, Anubis’ and Horus’ totem animals were the jackals and the hawk respectively.

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