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The Romans Couldn’t Decide on Their Origins

800px-Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Romulus_and_Remus,_after_Giulio_RomanoWe are often told how “civilised” and how much better the Romans were than the surrounding barbarians (the word barbarian comes from the Roman era, the Romans couldn’t understand these languages and thought they were just saying “bar, bar” all the time so barbarian means some who says bar all the time). However the Romans weren’t always as smart as we are led to believe. Take for example the foundation of Rome, the tale of Romulus and Remus is related to all school kids. These two brothers raised by wolves become the founding fathers of Rome. However this myth itself is slightly contradictory and there is another completely different foundation legend too.

The tale of Romulus and Remus is more blood soaked and more political than you may recall. Indeed the idea of the two boys being raised by a wolf implies a kind of origin of man rising from nature, however that’s only the middle part of the myth.  The two boys were actually princes of an ancient kingdom, their mother, Rhea Silvia, had been a queen but she had been forced into being a Vestal Virgin by the usurper Amulius.  Rhea Silvia then has a miraculous conception either by the god Mars or by Hercules (again there are variations on the myth which doesn’t seem to bother anyone). When Amulius hears of this he orders the twin boy’s deaths, but servants took pity and brought them to the Tiber river. It’s only then the she wolf enters the story, raising the two boys for a time.

Then they were taken in by a shepherd and a family where they hear the story of the treachery of Amulius and so they confront kill the tyrant. Then they found a city, however Romulus wants to found the new city on the Palatine Hill, while Remus prefers the Aventine Hill. They agree the best plan of action is to go see a soothsayer (the Romans were very superstitious) but each brother claims the results in his own favour. This leads to a disagreement, the disagreement turns into a fight and Remus is killed by Romulus. This is not a happy story of two kids being looked after a nice she wolf almost like a Roman Disney story, instead this is a tale of attempted infanticide and later fratricide.

It’s a strange tale that hardly makes out their founders as god like and noble

What’s stranger is that there is a much later, and completely different founding story. Homer’s Iliad is the tale of the Trojan Wars, it was written down in the 8th century BC and tells the tale of a war that is much earlier, roughly 1,200 BC. There is a second telling of this story by another giant of ancient literature, Virgil, in his book the Aeneid. It is however worth pointing out that this version was written more than 700 years later than Homer’s, at the time of the Emperor Augustus so this also postdates the tale of Romulus and Remus. It is important because according to Virgil, Troy’s population wasn’t completely destroyed and cowed. Instead there was a prince called Aeneas and he escaped with a small group of Trojans and sailed the Mediterranean until he found an area he liked the look of. So this ancient and noble civilisation transplanted itself in Italy and founded Rome. This of course completely contradicts the other foundation legend. There is also no evidence of this, Rome was founded more than half a millennia after the events described in the Aeneid. Also there’s the minor point that until Virgil writes down this version of events no other earlier Roman writer makes reference to it.

The tales do tell us something though. The first story shows us that the Romans are explaining where their predatory and argumentative attitudes come from, they are all children of wolves. The second story is created at the time of emperors. So there is a demand for respectability and heritage. The Trojan Wars are as famous now as they were then and one of the oldest stories from Europe, why not connect this new empire with this very old and familiar tale? The fact that Roman children in the 1st-5th centuries AD were given two conflicting accounts of their heritage probably didn’t worry the youngsters. Certainly the empire was only going to grow stronger for a few centuries after Virgil’s Aenied.

About Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu
Jem Duducu is an historian and the founder of the hugely popular @HistoryGems . He is soon to publish his next history book.

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