This carving, found on the side of an altar (which was later repurposed as a pedestal), depicts in the bottom left corner Romulus and Remus, who were pivotal characters in the origin legend of ancient Rome. This artifact is thought to have originally been constructed as an altar to Mars and Venus during the reign of Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), but it ultimately became a stand for a statue of the god Silvanus, a readjustment which likely occurred in the reign of Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138).
The artwork from the altar shown above re-creates a scene of myth and legend where the twins, Romulus and Remus, are found by their adopted father, Faustulus, after having been left in the wilderness to die by their great-uncle, King Amulius. Romulus and Remus were no ordinary babies—they were reportedly the children of Mars, and therefore nature and the gods ensured that the twins were kept safe until help arrived. Most famously, a wolf was said to have fed and protected the infants for as long as it took for Faustulus to finally find the lost children. The tale, which inspired the artwork on the altar above, was recorded by the Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE):
“In those days the country thereabouts was all wild and uncultivated, and the story goes that when the basket in which the infants had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down from the neighboring hills to quench her thirst, heard the children crying and made her way to where they were. She offered them her teats to suck and treated them with such gentleness that Faustulus, the king’s herdsmen, found her licking them with her tongue. Faustulus took them home to his wife Larentia to nurse” (History of Rome, 1.5).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.