Early Rome. I.

Lecture 2, Tuesday 23rd January 2018

Founding and Refounding Rome

Cicero, On the Republic (2.2): “Cato the Elder [234–149 BCE] used to say that the Roman constitution was superior to those of other states because almost every one of those others had been established by one man, an author of laws and institutions….Rome was based not on the genius of one man, but of many; it was founded, not in one generation, but in a long period of several centuries and many ages of men.”

Fall of Troy

Storage Jar with Aeneas and Anchises

Storage Jar with Aeneas and Anchises; Attributed to Leagros Group (Greek (Attic), active 525 – 500 B.C.); Athens, Greece; about 510 B.C.; Terracotta; 41 × 26.5 cm (16 1/8 × 10 7/16 in.); 86.AE.82

Attic 6th century BCE black-figure amphora depicting Aeneas, carrying his father, Anchises, with his son ahead of him. Escape from Troy. Aphrodite, Aeneas’ mother, stands behind him. Image: Getty villa.

  • according to Eratosthenes (scholar of 3rd c. BCE) fall of Troy 1184 BCE
  • Aeneas appears in Homeric epic (e.g. Iliad 2.819-8235.180, 6.77-7911.58) where he is already described as a son of Venus
    •  in the Iliad, Poseidon says that Aeneas and his descendants are destined to rule over the Trojans (20.307-308):
      “Aeneas will rule the men of Troy in power —
      his sons’ sons and the sons born in future years.” (Fagles)
  • Aeneas leads the Trojans to Italy (Vergil, Aeneid)

Stories, myths, legends from Early Rome 

Close up From the tomb of the Statilii on the Esquiline Romulus and Remus abandoned in the wilderness.jpegRomulus and Remus are abandoned on the banks of the River Tiber. Tomb of the Statilii on the Esquiline, north wall. 1st century BCE. Image: The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database.

Mars and Ilia/Rhea Silvia

  • Ilia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa, descended from Aeneas
    • in Ennius’ Annales (2nd c. BCE) Ilia is the daughter of Aeneas, but later Roman writers added in more generations to account for chronology
  • Numitor’s bro Amulius took the throne, killed Numitor’s son, Ilia ~ Vestal Virgin
  • Ilia + Mars = twin boys, Romulus + Remus
  • Amulius imprisoned Ilia + ordered a death to twins
  • mercy of servant: set adrift on the River Tiber; overflowing, left twins on bank
  • she-wolf (lupa) suckled them
  • shepherd, Faustulus, found twins, raised by his wife Acca Larentia
  • a river god married Ilia (River Tiber = Horace C. 1.2.18; or River Anio = Ovid Am. 3.6)
  • twins grow up, reinstate Numitor; go on to found Rome

Ilia = ‘of Troy/Ilium’
Rhea = Greek rheō (ῥέω) ‘to flow’
Silvia = ‘of the forest’

Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.77): Ilia, going to a grove consecrated to Mars to fetch pure water for use in the sacrifices, was ravished by somebody or other in the sacred precinct…Most writers relate a fabulous story to the effect that it was a spectre of the divinity to whom the place was consecrated [=Mars]; and they add that the event was attended by many supernatural signs, including a sudden disappearance of the sun and a darkness that spread over the sky, and that the appearance of the spectre was far more marvellous than that of a man both in stature and in beauty. And they say that the ravisher, to comfort the maiden (by which it became clear that it was a god), commanded her not to grieve at all at what had happened, since she had been united in marriage to the divinity of the place and as a result of her violation should bear two sons who would far excel all men in valour and warlike achievements. And having said this, he was wrapped in a cloud and, being lifted from the earth, was borne upwards through the air. This is not a proper place to consider what opinion we ought to entertain of such tales…

“Controversy centred around such matters as the parentage of the twins [=Romulus + Remus]. In most accounts their father was the god Mars; but other versions had been circulated, the most interesting of which asserted that their mother had been impregnated by a spark from the hearth — a motif which has many parallels in Italic myth.” (Cornell 1995: 58) [cf. Plutarch, Life of Romulus 2]

Mars Seducing Rhea Silvia 1st c - 3rd c CE Vatican CityMars and Ilia/Rhea Silvia. 1st-3rd c. CE. Vatican Museum.
Image: Warburg Institute Iconographical Database.

Ilia’s Dream — Ennius’ Annales(2nd century BCE)

…when roused terrified from sleep the old woman brought the lamp with trembling limbs, and in tears Ilia told this story. “Daughter of Eurydica, whom our father loved, the force of life is now leaving my whole body. For a handsome man appeared to me and snatched me away through pleasant willows, river banks, and places unknown. So alone, my sister, afterwards I seemed to wander and slowly to track you and to search for you and to be unable to grasp you in my heart. No path kept my feet steady. Then I dreamt my father [=Aeneas] spoke to me with these words: “Daughter, you must first endure miseries, then your fortune will rise from the river.” Once father had said this, my sister, he suddenly disappeared and did not offer himself to view, although I desired it in my heart, although I often stretched my hands to the blue expanses of heaven, tearful, and with pleading voice called to him. Then sleep left me sick at heart.

“Aeneas’ ‘comforting speech’ provokes only tears and a deeper longing and sense of abandonment. The passage thus demonstrates the uselessness of the male and imperialistic perspective to Ilia. Reflecting this, Ilia’s corporeality in the passage contrasts strikingly with the ellipse of Mars and with Aeneas’ elusiveness.” (Jackie Elliott 2007: 49)

Capitoline she wolf wikipedia .jpgThe Capitoline she-wolf. Earliest large-scale bronze hollow-cast statue from central Italy. Perhaps early 5th c. BCE. Craftsman Etruscan? Greek? Twins added between 1471 and 1509. Capitoline Museum. Image: wikimedia.

“In this work of supreme skill there is a marked contrast between the realism and close observation of the defiant stance and the stylized treatment of the fur, which is left completely smooth on the flanks but rendered in delicate symmetrical curls elsewhere.” (Rasmussen in Henig 1983: 18)

A she-wolf statue is struck by lightning at Rome and destroyed

Cicero Consulatus Suus

The Roman twins in artistic representations:


Drawing of the Bolsena Mirror, an Etruscan mirror from Porsena, c. 340 BCE. Seems to show Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf, suggesting that the legend of the twins was well established by at least the 4th century BCE. Some modern historians, e.g. T. P. Wiseman, think that picture only looks like the Roman twins, but depicts separate Etruscan myth. Image: wikimedia.

Aldborough she-wolf Romulus Remus 300-400 CEMosaic depicting the She-wolf with Romulus and Remus.
Aldborough (UK), c. 300-400 CE (Leeds City Museum). Image: Carole Raddato

Romulus, Remus, and the she-wolf

Livy (1.4): But neither gods nor men protected the mother herself or her babes from the king’s cruelty; the priestess [= Ilia] he ordered to be manacled and cast into prison, the children to be committed to the river. It happened by singular good fortune that the Tiber having spread beyond its banks into stagnant pools afforded nowhere any access to the regular channel of the river, and the men who brought the twins were led to hope that being infants they might be drowned, no matter how sluggish the stream….In those days this was a wild and uninhabited region. The story persists that when the floating basket in which the children had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf (lupa), coming down out of the surrounding hills to slake her thirst, turned her steps towards the cry of the infants, and with her teats gave them suck so gently, that the keeper of the royal flock found her licking them with her tongue. Tradition assigns to this man the name of Faustulus, and adds that he carried the twins to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to rear. Some think that Larentia, having been free with her favours, had got the name of “she-wolf” [lupa = “prostitute”, lupanar = “brothel”] among the shepherds, and that this gave rise to this marvellous story.

Which twin will rule the city? 

Livy (1.67): Romulus and Remus were seized with the desire to found a city in the region where they had been exposed and brought up. And in fact the population of Albans and Latins was too large; besides, there were the shepherds. All together, their numbers might easily lead men to hope that Alba would be small, and Lavinium small, compared with the city which they should build. These considerations were interrupted by the curse of their grandsires, the greed of kingly power, and by a shameful quarrel which grew out of it, upon an occasion innocent enough. Since the brothers were twins, and respect for their age could not determine between them, it was agreed that the gods who had those places in their protection should choose by augury who should give the new city its name, who should govern it when built. Romulus took the Palatine for his augural quarter, Remus the Aventine. Remus is said to have been the first to receive an augury, from the flight of six vultures. The omen had been already reported when twice that number appeared to Romulus. Thereupon each was saluted king by his own followers, the one party laying claim to the honour from priority, the other from the number of the birds. They then engaged in a battle of words and, angry taunts leading to bloodshed, Remus was struck down in the affray. The commoner story is that Remus leaped over the new walls in mockery of his brother, whereupon Romulus in great anger slew him, and in menacing wise added these words withal, “So perish whoever else shall leap over my walls!” Thus Romulus acquired sole power, and the city, thus founded, was called by its founder’s name.

The August Augury — Ennius’ Annales(2nd century BCE)

Taking great care and desiring to rule, they devoted themselves to both auspices and augury. On the Murcus, Remus took his seat for the auspication and watched alone for the bird of good omen. But fair Romulus looked on the high Aventine and watched for the tribe of those who fly on high. They fought whether to call the city Rome or Remora. Everyone awaited anxiously to see who of the two would be the ruler. They waited just as when the consul is ready to give the signal, all eagerly look to the starting-gates, from the painted mouths of which the chariots soon rush, in the same way the people, their faces showing their apprehension of the future, were expectant — which would be given the victory and a great kingdom? Meanwhile, the blazing sun retreated to the darkness of night. Then a bright light revealed itself struck by rays and at that very moment, on high, flew by far the most beautiful bird, of good omen, on the left; at the very moment the golden sun arose, twelve sacred bodies of birds fell from heaven and positioned themselves in fair stations of good omen. From this Romulus saw that he had been given preference and that a royal throne and kingdom had been secured for him by auspice.

7 hills of Rome and Servian wall wikimedia Orangeowl.png
Map of the traditional seven hills of Rome (Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Capitoline, Palatine, Caelian, Aventine). Servian Wall is later than the story of Romulus + Remus. Image: By Renata3 [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

  • “Remus’ post of observation was the Remuria, the saxum [‘rock’] on the south-eastern spur of the Aventine [Hill], originally a separate hill known as Murcus; Romulus was stationed on the Aventine proper.” (Skutsch 1985: 222); “The reason why Romulus was transferred to the Palatine [by Livy] is plain: when in the course of the 2nd century BCE the Murcus and Aventine were merged and Murcus lost its name, the rivals no longer faced each other on opposite hills, and the archetypal picture was restored by shifting Romulus to the Palatine, the place where he founded the city.” (Skutsch 1985: 226)
    • the name of “Aventine” hill, related to avis (=Latin word for ‘bird’) according to the poet Naevius (3rd c. BCE, via Varro LL 5.43)
  • Roman augury = interpreting the will of the gods through observation and interpretation of the flight of birds, important part of Roman religion
    • the Latin word for augury (augurium) is derived from augeo, “to enlarge, to authorize, to augment”; the Latin word for portent (auspicium, gives us “auspice“) is derived from avis, “bird” + spec-, “to look at”

The Seizure of the Sabine Women

  • Romulus only has men in his new city
  • Romulus tries to have the surrounding Italian cities intermarry with him, but they refuse
  • Romulus invites them to Rome to celebrate games; during games, the Sabine girls are abducted
  • war breaks out between Romans and Sabines
  • resolved when Sabine women run between the fighting sides
  • reconciliation makes Sabines and Romans into one city

Livy (1.9): Rome was now strong enough to hold her own in war with any of the adjacent states; but owing to the lack of women a single generation was likely to see the end of her size, since she had neither prospect of posterity at home nor the right of intermarriage with her neighbours. So, on the advice of the senate, Romulus sent envoys round among all the neighbouring nations to solicit for the new people an alliance and the privilege of intermarrying. Cities, they argued, as well as all other things, take their rise from the lowliest beginnings. As time goes on, those which are aided by their own manliness [virtus] by the favour of the gods achieve great power and renown. They said they were well assured that Rome’s origin had been blessed with the favour of the gods, and that their manliness [virtus] would not be lacking; their neighbours should not be reluctant to mingle their stock and their blood with the Romans, who were as truly men as they were. Nowhere did the embassy obtain a friendly hearing… This was a bitter insult to the young Romans, and the matter seemed certain to end in violence. Expressly to afford a fitting time and place for this, Romulus, concealing his resentment, made ready solemn games in honour of the equestrian Neptune, which he called Consualia. He then ordered that the spectacle be announced to the surrounding peoples, and his subjects prepared to celebrate it with all the resources within their knowledge and power, that they might cause the occasion to be noised abroad and eagerly expected. Many people — for they were also eager to see the new city — gathered for the festival, especially those who lived nearest… The Sabines, too, came with all their people, including their children and wives. They were hospitably entertained in every house, and when they had looked at the site of the city, its walls, and its numerous buildings, they marvelled that Rome had so rapidly grown. When the time came for the show, and people’s thoughts and eyes were busy with it, the preconcerted attack began. At a given signal the young Romans darted this way and that, to seize and carry off the unmarried women [virgines]. In most cases these were taken by the men in whose path they chanced to be. Some, of exceptional beauty, had been marked out for the chief senators, and were carried off to their houses by plebeians to whom the office had been entrusted… The games broke up in a panic, and the parents of the young women fled sorrowing. They charged the Romans with the crime of violating hospitality, and invoked the gods to whose solemn games they had come, deceived in violation of religion and honour. The stolen girls were no more hopeful of their plight, nor less indignant. But Romulus himself went amongst them and explained that the pride of their parents had caused this deed, when they had refused their neighbours the right to intermarry; nevertheless the daughters should be wedded and become co-partners in all the possessions of the Romans, in their citizenship and, dearest privilege of all to the human race, in their children; only let them moderate their anger, and give their hearts to those to whom fortune had given their persons. A sense of injury had often given place to affection, and they would find their husbands the kinder for this reason, that every man would earnestly endeavour not only to be a good husband, but also to console his wife for the home and parents she had lost. His arguments were seconded by the wooing of the men, who excused their act on the score of passion and love, the most moving of all pleas to a woman’s heart…[1.13 — after war between the Romans + the Sabines] Then the Sabine women, whose wrong had given rise to the war, with loosened hair and torn garments, their woman’s timidity lost in a sense of their misfortune, dared to go amongst the flying missiles, and rushing in from the side, to part the hostile forces and disarm them of their anger, beseeching their fathers on this side, on that their husbands, that fathers-in-law and sons-in-law should not stain themselves with impious bloodshed, nor pollute with parricide the suppliants’ children, grandsons to one party and sons to the other. “If you regret,” they continued, “the relationship that unites you, if you regret the marriage-tie, turn your anger against us; we are the cause of war, the cause of wounds, and even death to both our husbands and our parents. It will be better for us to perish than to live, lacking either of you, as widows or as orphans.” It was a touching plea, not only to the rank and file, but to their leaders as well. A stillness fell on them, and a sudden hush. Then the leaders came forward to make a truce, and not only did they agree on peace, but they made one people out of the two. They shared the sovereignty, but all authority was transferred to Rome. In this way the population was doubled, and that some concession might after all be granted the Sabines, the citizens were named Quirites.

VIRTUS = gives us “virtue” but literally meant “manliness”
Latin vir = “man”
VIRtus = MANliness

Compare Cicero’s condensed, match-making account:

Cicero, On the Republic (2.12): For when Sabine women of honourable lineage had come to Rome for the Consualia to witness the games whose annual celebration in the circus Romulus had just instituted, he ordered their seizure and married them to young men of the most prominent families. When the Sabines, thus provoked, made war on the Romans,…Romulus made a treaty with Titus Tatius, the Sabine king, the stolen women themselves petitioning this to be done. By this treaty he not only added the Sabines to the body of Roman citizens, giving them participation in the religious rites of the state, but also made their king a partner in his royal power.

A modern retelling…

Pablo Picasso, “Rape of the Sabine Women” 1963, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Image: MFA.

Further reading:

  • Mary Beard, “Who wanted Remus dead?” Confronting the Classics, 2013, pp65-72
  • Mary Beard, SPQR, 2016 pp 57-60

1. Ennius’ Annales 1.34-50 Skutsch (=Cic. Div. 1.40); trans. David Wardle 2006, with adaptations. For parallel Latin and English trans. see Warmington pp 14-16.
2. Ennius’ Annales 1.72-91 Skutsch; (=Cic. Div. 1.107); trans. David Wardle 2006, with adaptations. For parallel Latin and English trans. see Warmington pp 28-31.