Romulus was the legendary founder and first king of Rome. Various
traditions attribute the establishment of many of Rome's oldest legal,
political, religious, and social institutions to Romulus and his contemporaries.
Although many of these traditions incorporate elements of folklore, and
it is unclear to what extent a historical figure underlies the mythical
Romulus, the events and institutions ascribed to him were central to the
narrative of Rome's origins and cultural traditions.
The myths concerning Romulus involve several distinct episodes and figures:
the miraculous birth and youth of Romulus and his twin brother, Remus;
Remus' murder and the founding of Rome; the Rape of the Sabine Women; the
war with the Sabines; Titus Tatius; the establishment of Roman institutions;
and the death or apotheosis of Romulus, and succession of Numa Pompilius.
Romulus and Remus:
Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, were the sons of Rhea Silvia, herself
the daughter of Numitor, the former king of Alba Longa. Through them,
the twins are descended from the Trojan hero Aeneas and Latinus, the mythical
founder of the kingdom of Latium.
Before the twins' birth, Numitor had been usurped by his brother, Amulius.
After seizing the throne, Amulius murdered Numitor's son, and condemned
Rhea to perpetual virginity by consecrating her a Vestal. Rhea, however,
became pregnant, ostensibly by the god Mars. Amulius had her imprisoned,
and upon the twins' birth, ordered that they be thrown into the rain-swollen
Tiber. Instead of carrying out the king's orders, his servants left
the twins along the riverbank at the foot of Palatine Hill.
In the traditional telling of the legend, a she-wolf happened upon the
twins, who were at the foot of a fig tree. She suckled and tended
them by a cave until they were found by the herdsman Faustulus and his
wife, Acca Larentia. The brothers grew to manhood among the shepherds
After becoming involved in a conflict between the followers of Amulius
and those of their grandfather Numitor, they learned the truth of their
origin. They overthrew and killed Amulius and restored Numitor to
the throne. The princes set out to establish a city of their own.
They returned to the hills overlooking the Tiber, the site where they had
been exposed as infants. They could not agree on which hill should
house the new city. When an omen to resolve the controversy failed
to provide a clear indication, the conflict escalated and Remus was killed
by his brother or by his brother's follower. In a variant of the
legend, the augurs favoured Romulus, who proceeded to plough a square furrow
around the Palatine Hill to demarcate the walls of the future city.
When Remus derisively leapt over the "walls" to show how inadequate they
were against invaders, he was struck down by Romulus. In another
variant, Remus died during a melée along with Faustulus.
Establishment of the city:
The founding of the city by Romulus was commemorated annually on April
21, with the festival of the Parilia. His first act was to fortify
the Palatine, in the course of which he made a sacrifice to the gods.
He then laid out the city's boundaries with a furrow that he ploughed,
performed another sacrifice, and with his followers set to work building
the city itself. Romulus then sought the assent of the people to
become their king. With Numitor's help, he addressed them and received
their approval. Romulus accepted the crown after he sacrificed and
prayed to Jupiter, and after receiving favourable omens.
Romulus then divided the populace into three tribes, known as the Ramnes,
Titienses, and Luceres, for taxation and military purposes. Each
tribe was presided over by an official known as a tribune, and was further
divided into ten curiae, or wards, each presided over by an official known
as a curio. Romulus also allotted a portion of land to each ward, for the
benefit of the people. Nothing is known of the manner in which the
tribes and curiae were taxed, but for the military levy, each curia was
responsible for providing one hundred foot soldiers, a unit known as a
century, and ten cavalry. Each Romulean tribe thus provided about
one thousand infantry, and one century of cavalry; the three hundred cavalry
became known as the Celeres, "the swift", and formed the royal bodyguard.
Choosing one hundred men from the leading families, Romulus established
the Roman senate. These men he called patres, the city fathers; their
descendants came to be known as "patricians", forming one of the two major
social classes at Rome. The other class, known as the "plebs" or
"plebeians", consisted of the servants, freedmen, fugitives who sought
asylum at Rome, those captured in war, and others who were granted Roman
citizenship over time.
To encourage the growth of the city, Romulus outlawed infanticide, and
established an asylum for fugitives on the Capitoline Hill, where freemen
and slaves alike could claim protection and seek Roman citizenship.
Rape of the Sabine Women:
The new city was filled with colonists, most of whom were young, unmarried
men; and while fugitives seeking asylum helped the population grow, single
men greatly outnumbered women. With no intermarriage between Rome
and neighboring communities, the new city would eventually fail.
Romulus sent envoys to neighboring towns, appealing to them to allow intermarriage
with Roman citizens, but his overtures were rebuffed. Romulus then
formulated a plan to acquire women from other settlements. He announced
a momentous festival and games, and invited the people of the neighboring
cities to attend. Many did, in particular the Sabines, who came in
droves. At a prearranged signal, the Romans began to snatch and carry
off the marriageable women among their guests.
The aggrieved cities prepared for war with Rome, and might have defeated
Romulus had they been fully united. But impatient with the preparations
of the Sabines, the Latin towns of Caenina, Crustumerium, and Antemnae
took action without their allies. Caenina was the first to attack;
its army was swiftly put to flight, and the town taken. After personally
defeating and slaying the prince of Caenina in single combat, Romulus stripped
him of his armour, becoming the first to claim the spolia opima, and vowed
a temple to Jupiter Feretrius. Antemnae and Crustumerium were conquered
in turn, and some of their people, chiefly the families of the abducted
women, allowed to settle at Rome.
Following the defeat of the Latin towns, the Sabines, under the leadership
of Titus Tatius, marshaled their forces and advanced upon Rome. They
gained control of the citadel by bribing Tarpeia, the daughter of the Roman
commander charged with its defense. Without the advantage of the citadel,
the Romans were obliged to meet the Sabines on the battlefield. The
Sabines advanced from the citadel, and fierce fighting ensued. The
nearby Lacus Curtius is said to be named after Mettius Curtius, a sabine
warrior who plunged his horse into its muck to stymie his Roman pursuers
as he retreated. At a critical juncture in the fighting, the Romans
began to waver in the face of the Sabine advance. Romulus vowed a
temple to Jupiter Stator, to keep his line from breaking. The bloodshed
finally ended when the Sabine women interposed themselves between the two
armies, pleading on the one hand with their fathers and brothers, and on
the other with their husbands, to set aside their arms and come to terms.
The leaders of each side met and made peace. They form one community,
to be jointly ruled by Romulus and Tatius.
The two kings presided over a growing city for a number of years, before
Tatius was slain in a riot at Lavinium, where he had gone to make a sacrifice.
Shortly before, a group of envoys from Laurentum had complained of their
treatment by Tatius' kinsmen, and he had decided the matter against the
ambassadors. Romulus resisted calls to avenge the Sabine king's death,
instead reaffirming the Roman alliance with Lavinium, and perhaps preventing
his city from splintering along ethnic lines.
In the years following the death of Tatius, Romulus is said to have conquered
the city of Fidenae, which, alarmed by the rising power of Rome, had begun
raiding Roman territory. The Romans lured the Fidenates into an ambush,
and routed their army; as they retreated into their city, the Romans followed
before the gates could be shut, and captured the town. The Etruscan
city of Veii, nine miles up the Tiber from Rome, also raided Roman territory,
foreshadowing that city's role as the chief rival to Roman power over the
next three centuries. Romulus defeated Veii's army, but found the
city too well defended to besiege, and instead ravaged the countryside.
Death and succession:
After a reign of thirty-seven years, Romulus is said to have disappeared
in a whirlwind during a sudden and violent storm, as he was reviewing his
troops on the Campus Martius. There were rumours that he had been
murdered by the nobles, and that his body had been secretly dismembered
and buried by them on their estates. However, a certain Proculus
Julius claimed to have seen him ascending to the heavens as a god.
Romulus acquired a cult following, which later became assimilated with
the cult of Quirinus, perhaps originally the indigenous god of the Sabine
population. As the Sabines had not had a king of their own since
the death of Titus Tatius, the next king, Numa Pompilius, was chosen from
among the Sabines.
Quintus Fabius Pictor is relied upon as a source for Livy, Dionysius, and
Plutarch. Other significant sources include Ovid's Fasti, and the
Aeneid of Virgil. Greek historians had traditionally claimed that
Rome was founded by Greeks. This account can be dated to the 5th-century
BC logographer Hellanicus of Lesbos, who named Aeneas as its founder.
To Roman historians, however, Romulus is the founder of Rome and the first
"Roman". They connect Romulus to Aeneas by blood and they mention
a prior settlement on Palatine Hill, sometimes attributing it to Evander
and his Greek colonists. To the Romans, Rome was the institutions
and traditions they credit to their legendary founder.
The legend as a whole encapsulates Rome's ideas of itself, its origins
and moral values. For modern scholarship, it remains one of the most
complex and problematic of all foundation myths. Ancient historians
had no doubt that Romulus gave his name to the city. Most modern
historians believe his name is a back-formation from the name of the city.
Roman historians dated the city's foundation to between 758 and 728 BC,
and Plutarch reckoned 771 BC as the birth year of Romulus and his twin.
A tradition that gave Romulus a distant ancestor in the semi-divine Trojan
prince Aeneas was further embellished, and Romulus was made the direct
ancestor of Rome's first Imperial dynasty. It's unclear whether or
not the tale of Romulus or that of the twins are original elements of the
foundation myth or whether both or either were added.
Ennius (fl. 180s BC) refers to Romulus as a divinity in his own right,
without reference to Quirinus. Roman mythographers identified the
latter as an originally Sabine war-deity, and thus to be identified with
Roman Mars. Lucilius lists Quirinus and Romulus as separate deities,
and Varro accords them different temples. Images of Quirinus showed
him as a bearded warrior wielding a spear as a god of war, the embodiment
of Roman strength and a deified likeness of the city of Rome. He
had a Flamen Maior called the Flamen Quirinalis, who oversaw his worship
and rituals in the ordainment of Roman religion attributed to Romulus's
royal successor, Numa Pompilius. There is however no evidence for
the conflated Romulus-Quirinus before the 1st century BC.
Ovid in Book 14, lines 812-828, of the Metamorphoses gives a description
of the deification of Romulus and his wife Hersilia, who are given the
new names of Quirinus and Hora respectively. Mars, the father of
Romulus, is given permission by Jupiter to bring his son up to Olympus
to live with the Olympians.
One theory of this tradition concerns the emergence of two mythical figures
from a single, earlier legend. Romulus is a founding hero, Quirinus
may have been a god of the harvest, and the Fornacalia was a festival celebrating
a staple crop (spelt). Through the traditional dates from the tales
and the festivals, they are each associated with one another. A legend
of the murder of such a founding hero, the burying of the hero's body in
the fields (found in some accounts), and a festival associated with that
hero, a god of the harvest, and a food staple is a pattern recognized by
anthropologists. Called a "dema archetype", this pattern suggests
that in a prior tradition, the god and the hero were in fact the same figure
and later evolved into two.
Possible historical bases for the broad mythological narrative remain unclear
Modern scholarship approaches the various known stories of the myth as
cumulative elaborations and later interpretations of Roman foundation-myth.
Particular versions and collations were presented by Roman historians as
authoritative, an official history trimmed of contradictions and untidy
variants to justify contemporary developments, genealogies and actions
in relation to Roman morality. Other narratives appear to represent
popular or folkloric tradition; some of these remain inscrutable in purpose
and meaning. Wiseman sums the whole as the mythography of an unusually
problematic foundation and early history.
The unsavoury elements of many of the myths concerning Romulus have led
some scholars to describe them as "shameful" or "disreputable". In
antiquity such stories became part of anti-Roman and anti-pagan propaganda.
More recently, the historian Hermann Strasburger postulated that these
were never part of authentic Roman tradition, but were invented and popularized
by Rome's enemies, probably in Magna Graecia, during the latter part of
the fourth century BC. This hypothesis is rejected by other scholars,
such as Tim Cornell, who notes that by this period, the story of Romulus
and Remus had already assumed its standard form, and was widely accepted
at Rome. Other elements of the Romulus mythos clearly resemble common
elements of folk tale and legend, and thus strong evidence that the stories
were both old and indigenous. Likewise, Momigliano finds Strasburger's
argument well-developed, but entirely implausible; if the Romulus myths
were an exercise in mockery, they were a signal failure.
Depictions in art:
The episodes which make up the legend, most significantly that of the rape
of the Sabine women, the tale of Tarpeia, and the death of Tatius have
been a significant part of ancient Roman scholarship and the frequent subject
of art, literature and philosophy since ancient times.
In the late 16th century, the wealthy Magnani family from Bologna commissioned
a series of artworks based on the Roman foundation myth. The artists
contributing works included a sculpture of Hercules with the infant twins
by Gabriele Fiorini, featuring the patron's own face. The most important
works were an elaborate series of frescoes collectively known as Histories
of the Foundation of Rome by the Brothers Carracci: Ludovico, Annibale,
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