Ancient Roman antiquarians reportedly found around twenty-five separate stories about the foundation of Rome while delving through the folklore and myth of their past. The creation myth put forward by Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), however, became the official version of Rome’s foundation. For his telling of Rome’s early history, Livy began with the myth of Aeneas migrating to Italy after the Trojan War and then transitioned into the more homegrown myth of Romulus and Remus.
The mythical twins were said to have been demigods scandalously born from a union between the war-god, Mars, and a Vestal Virgin. As happened to numerous other ancient heroes, the powerful infants were condemned to death by a tyrannical king. They were left to die by the edge of the Tiber, but a she-wolf protected and fed the twins until they were discovered by a shepherd named Faustulus. The kind shepherd brought the twins home and raised them on his farm. Even before they reached adulthood, Romulus and Remus began to show the common signs of heroic nature—an instinctive ability to lead, great physical strength, limitless ambition and a knack for warfare. The twins’ military career started when they began hunting bandits, but they eventually shifted their focus to the tyrannical king who had attempted to kill them while they were babies. Romulus and Remus deposed the king and soon after left the region to found a new city. The brothers disagreed on the site of the planned settlement and Remus was ultimately killed. Romulus gained sole power and his city, named after him, was called Rome. Romulus then became the quintessential conquering demigod, laying down the foundations of Roman government and spreading Rome’s influence through warfare.
With godly vigor, Romulus was said to have remained lithe and physically active in Rome up until the day he passed away. In fact, according to Livy, Romulus spent his final moments on the Campus Martius, giving his troops a thorough inspection. As may be expected in a story about a demigod, Romulus’ ending was quite supernatural. The official version of Romulus’ departure from earth was: “One day while he [Romulus] was reviewing his troops on the Campus Martius near the marsh of Capra, a storm burst, with violent thunder. A cloud enveloped him, so thick that it hid him from the eyes of everyone present; and from that moment he was never seen again upon earth” (Livy, History of Rome, 1.16). The event understandably left the army shocked. Yet, Roman senators, who were reportedly standing beside Romulus at the time, quickly cheered up the troops by proclaiming that the cloud had carried off Romulus to the realm of the gods.
There was, however, a second prominent interpretation of what occurred in the storm cloud. Livy recorded the theory, albeit in a subdued fashion, by stating, “even on this great occasion there were, I believe, a few dissentients who secretly maintained that the king had been torn to pieces by the senators” (Livy, History of Rome, 1.16). In Livy’s scenario, where senators were beside the king when the storm arrived, it would have been quite the impressive feat for the statesmen to dismember and hide the body of their king before the clouds dissipated. Yet, in other accounts of myth, the senators put much more time into their plot. One particularly gruesome telling of the tale had the Senate lure Romulus into a meeting where the senators cut the king apart and disposed of the body in piecemeal fashion, with each statesman smuggling a part of Romulus’ remains away from the scene of the crime. While this second interpretation of Romulus’ disappearance was not very pious, it was definitely Roman.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Sketch of the immortalization of Romulus by Antonio Tempesta (1555–1630), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.