The origins of the many Roman foundation myths are lost to antiquity. There are numerous variations, some of which have little to do with others, and nothing to do with the classic Romulus and Remus myth we know today, and which was known to ancient writers. This essay will examine the foundation myths of Rome as recorded by the historian, Livy, in the very late first century BCE and very early first century CE, with consideration of the Greek myths which certainly influenced the Roman mythology.
Livy’s History of Rome recounts one of the most familiar versions of the myth of the twins, Romulus and Remus and also ties them to the older story of Aeneas, son of Aphrodite, an heroic survivor of the Trojan war who wandered far and wide and eventually settled in the kingdom of the Latins, founding the city of Lavinium. Livy’s History defines precisely how Romulus and Remus, through their mother, were the descendants of this hero.
Several generations after Aeneas’ day, according to Livy, the king called Numitor, who was a descendent of Aeneas, was overthrown by his brother, Amulius, who then murdered all of Numitor’s sons, and forced Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal virgin, that is, a celibate priestess of the goddess Vesta, in order to prevent Numitor from having any heirs or grandchildren.
Rhea Silvia, nevertheless, became pregnant, claiming to have been raped by the god Mars. When Rhea Silvia gave birth to twin sons, she was thrown into prison by her uncle, and the babies were to be abandoned in the river Tiber to drown. However, due to divine fate, the babies, left in a cradle in shallower waters along the banks, were washed ashore, where they were saved by a lupa (a she-wolf) who suckled them and cared tenderly for them until they were rescued by Faustulus, the royal chief shepherd. The shepherd brought the babies home to his wife, Larentia, and the couple raised the children as their own. There the twins, Romulus and Remus, grew into young men, living a rual life of tending flocks, developing strength and courage through roaming the wilderness hunting.
Upon reaching adulthood, the twins, during the festival of Lupercalia, were put in a position to encounter their grandfather, Numitor, who recognised them as his grandsons. With his assistance, Romulus and Remus, together with bands of the rustic youths with whom they associated, overtook and killed Amulius, restored Numitor to his throne, and were inspired to found a city on the location along the Tiber at which they were exposed and left to drown.
The new settlement was populated by the shepherds and rural youths who had helped to overthrow Amulius, plus superfluous population from towns in the immediate area. There is, too, the suggestion that Romulus created an asylum in Rome, possibly for those of questionable character. However, the growing city was soon marred by fraternal strife over precedence, and over who would rule the new city and after whom it would be named, an argument they agreed to settle by augury. Remus saw the first omen with the sighting of six vultures. Soon after, Romulus sighted twice as many. Each claimed himself the winner, and was backed by his particular party of supporters. An angry altercation led to bloodshed; Remus was killed by Romulus. Although Livy notes that there are various stories as to why, he seems to favour the explanation that Romulus had built walls, over which Remus jumped. Thus did Romulus, having murdered his twin brother and former cohort, become the ruler of the city, naming it Rome in his own honour.
Some interesting observations on Livy’s telling of the story may be made. Livy acknowledges the tradition that the Vestal Rhea Silvia claimed to have been impregnated by the god Mars, but seems dubious as to the veracity of that claim. He also takes some exception to the story of the she-wolf suckling the twins, and explains that Larentia, the wife of Faustulus, was, herself, the lupa who cared for the twins, lupa being the colloquial term for a prostitute. Throughout his narrative, Livy seems determined to offer alternative views to anything too mystical or supernatural, emphasising human endeavour over divine intervention.
Some elements of the story have clear parallels in Greek myth. For example, Romulus and Remus are illegitimate, their mother is a princess and a virgin, their father a god or unknown, the children are exposed (left to die) and survive by being suckled by a wild animal, they are reared by shepherds, arrogant in their youth, found a city, and experience an extraordinary death and, in the case of Romulus, subsequent deification. Some or all of these characteristics align with the patterns and archetypes in a great many myths, including the myths of Perseus, Paris of Troy, Oedipus, and others.
However, the story, while strongly influenced by Greek myth, is distinctively Roman, particularly when one includes the further foundation story of the rape of the Sabine women. Livy wrote that Rome, while growing and thriving, lacked women, so Romulus sent out envoys to the neighbouring countryside to seek permission to seek brides among them. As none of Rome’s neighbours were interested in allowing their womenfolk to marry the Romans, the Romans decided to resort to force. They invited the neighbouring populations to a celebration, and, eager to see the new city, all the neighbours came, including the entire Sabine population. Filled with drink and food and invited to view entertainments, the guests settled down to watch, and it was then that the Romans dashed in and carried off all the young women, resulting in chaos and confusion and causing much indignation and distress for the women and for their parents.
Romulus personally convinced the girls that they were getting a splendid opportunity to be properly and respectfully married, while also putting the blame on the girls’ families for refusing the Romans’ initial requests to seek brides amongst them. The abducted women were placated by their abductors charmingly pleading “the irresistable force of their passion” which was “effective beyond all others in appealing to a woman’s nature”.
The girls were appeased, but the parents who had lost their daughters to the Romans were not so easily placated, and they petitioned their king and other neighbours for help, but the Romans simply gathered an army and “taught them that anger is futile without strength.”
Many have found this story troubling. First, and most obviously to the modern mind, is the demeaning way in which the young women are treated, and the ridiculous ease with which they are brought to heel through cajoling, blame, and flattery. To the objection of the parents who have lost their daughters, the response is typically Roman: mount an army and teach them a lesson. Might makes right. Later in Livy’s narrative, he goes so far as to blame the women for causing further war between the Sabines and the Romans, and the women, themselves, accept the blame.
Greek culture was also patriarchal, putting great restrictions on women. The Greek myth of the first woman, Pandora, maintains that woman was created by the gods as punishment on mankind, bringing with her an entire host of ills, curses, and problems. However, while rape features prominently in a number of Greek myths, it is not celebrated as it seems to be in the Roman foundation myth of the Sabine women. When centaurs rampage the Lapith wedding and attempt to commit mass rape, Theseus, the Greek hero, comes to the aid of the victims and fights the centaurs. In this Greek story, the would-be rapists are villains, the potential victims, despite being women, are protected, and the hero defeats the villains and saves the women from disgrace.
The Romans, however, seem to have regarded mass abduction, rape, and forced marriage as a sign of strength and a point of pride, which says much about Roman attitudes, especially when paired with the Roman self-identification with the wolf, a powerful and cunning predator. While the Roman foundation myths certainly have parallels with and were influenced by Greek myth, the underlying message is very different. The Roman hero, at least insofar as Livy was concerned, while perhaps aided by destiny, is a self-made man, strong, unyielding, self-justified, arrogant, and even predatory, being rewarded for his cunning. Any wrongdoing (murder, treachery, rape, warmongering, immorality, insurgence) is acceptable if the hero is victorious, and even laudable if Rome is victorious through his actions. The ends justify the means.
Rome was founded at least in part by the disaffected and the scurrilous, and built upon treachery, violence, and the subjugation of women and neighbouring cities and states, and this is reflected in the Roman foundation myths, which, while influenced by Greek myth, are uniquely and unmistakably Roman.