One of the best literary sources we have regarding Romulus, Remus and the origins of Rome is the historian Strabo (Geography book 5 (Italy) chapter 3). Romulus was the mythical founder of Rome and hence the city’s first king, according to mythology he founded the city in the year 753BC. It is difficult to say whether he really existed although numerous pieces of evidence would support the myth; the ancient Romans themselves were evidently convinced of his existence and the chance discovery in 2008 of a deep grotto in the Palatine hill under the villa of Augustus points to the existence of the Lupercale: the supposed site where the she wolf nursed Romulus and his twin brother Remus.
According to myth Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, a vestal virgin at the city of Alba Longa in the Alban Hills – yes, she was a priestess vowed to chastity but a visitation by the god Mars saw to it that she bear the two children. Fearing for her own life and that of her children (her evil uncle ruled the city by force) she decided to do away with them by sending them down the river Tiber in a basket – actually, if she was in the Alban hills it is likely that the basket would have been cast in a Tiber river tributary. The current took them downstream where they were found by a wolf which is said to have adopted them and brought them up with her own cubs. The Romans themselves admitted that the word wolf was also an expression to mean a prostitute.
The recently found cave is said to have been that in which the twins lived with the wolf.
More details of the myth may be found in the page about Romulus and Remus, whilst within this page we propose to dig a little further into the figure of Romulus himself:
Romulus and the Sabines
According to legend the early period of Rome was pretty chaotic, good thing that Romulus was by nature a warrior. Romulus gave a home to all and anyone who wanted a home or safe refuge, making little distinction between freemen or slaves, or whether they were Latins, Sabines, Etruscans or other. In fact Romulus’ monarchy was drawn very much along the lines of the cities of the neighbouring Etruscans, adopting customs such as the curule chair (the throne of power), the toga with a purple border for high ranking officials and rulers and other such symbols. Perhaps most importantly he set up (it seems) the concept of Senate – a congregation of elders who act very much like an upper house in modern democracies.
As can be imagined there was also a lack of women – essential if the new city was to have a population and last through time. This was clearly not an easy issue to solve and none of the neighbouring populations would gladly intermingle with the rowdy bunch on the Palatine and so we have the (in)famous rape of the Sabine women: Romulus organised games in honour of the god Neptune, invited the neighbouring villages and took the opportunity to take their women. The Sabines were particularly hit. The Sabine king Titus Tatius took revenge by attacking the Palatine but the women drew the two neighbours to peace and Titus Tatius co-ruled (for a time) with Romulus.
Again this is a evidently a mixture of myth and history: the myth probably alludes to Rome’s appropriation of the highly important routes for salt commerce (the via Salaria) which went from the forum Boarium,. Another interpretation is that it relates to the custom of marriage, perhaps the earliest marriages were indeed a forceful taking of women which may have turned into a ceremonial “taking”. Either way it is evident that the Sabines and Romans united forces. Sabine kings succeeded Romulus.
Romulus, the Tribes and Senate
From the account above regarding the relationship with the Etruscans and Sabines it will come as little surprise that Romulus is also linked with the subdivision of the population into 30 assemblies (curiae) and introduction of three cavalry regiments, from whence we have the word “Tribe” which is so common to modern language: The word stems from the number “3” (tri!) The reason for this is that Romulus’ Rome was built around 3 peoples united into a single entity. Presumably each of these funded a cavalry regiment.
According to Livy the “Ramni” were those who were under Romulus (Latins), the “Tities” were the Sabines who moved to Rome, the “Luceres” were possibly the Etruscan component. Each component of the “tribe” lived on one of the hills of early Rome and they took it in turn to rule the city, giving her the early kings of Rome.
As mentioned above Romulus was probably responsible for the institution of the Senate: a council of the elders, managed by whoever happened to be ruler at the time. Study of the names of successive kings of Rome suggests that in fact the right to rule or become ruler wasn’t necessarily driven by nobility of birth and that even a “plebeian” could aspire to the title.
So we can see that the early Rome built by Romulus was essentially a city open to all ethnicities and peoples. It is logical to conclude that Romulus was himself not only a good charismatic warrior but also sufficiently enlightened to welcome and learn from different cultures: a trait which (to a degree) stuck with the ancient Romans throughout their long history.
Having succeeded in founding the city, defining it’s territory, beating its enemies, uniting the tribes and setting up the major institutions it seems Romulus simply “disappeared”. It happened during a parade in the Campus Martius just outside the city where the military did their training. A sudden tempest came upon the Romans and Romulus disappeared.
Some were clearly suspicious that the worst may have happened, perhaps the senators or someone else wanting to take power. Others believed it to be a miracle, especially when one of Romulus’ militia publicly announced a vision he had had whereby Romulus had appeared to him justifying his disappearance as a will of the gods and in particular the god “Quirinus” and that the city would have a great future.
Approximately 800 years later Emperor Augustus, clearly anxious to revive the ancient mores built the Pantheon on the very same location that tradition pointed to as the site of Romulus’ ascent to the heavens.
It is likely that “Romulus”, whilst a real person is also a heading under which a broad spectrum of facts and events, spanning over a long period of time, longer than that of a single lifetime were summarised into a historical account: typical of the oral tradition which would have been predominant in the region at the time. Nevertheless, the story of Romulus gives us some insight into the salient features of the history of archaic Rome.
The story of Romulus is also a prime example of that very special blend of fact and fiction which characterised the greatness of Rome, other examples include:
Virgil’s poem the Iliad: of the founding of Rome and Aeneas as ancestor of Caesar’s and Augustus’ lineage.