The Romans

THE ORIGIN OF ROME

 

In those days the countryside there was wild and empty. The story goes that when the waters receded, the basket in which the twins had been abandoned was left on dry land. A she-wolf, on her way from the hills round about to drink, came across the howling infants. She gave them her teats to suck, and was so gentle with them that the king’s shepherd found her licking them with her tongue” (Livy, History of Rome, 1. 4).

 

The bronze sculpture of the Capitoline wolf and twins is one of the most famous symbols of early Rome. The wolf (85 cm high) was believed until very recently to be Etruscan work from the end of the sixth or early fifth century BC. It was officially announced in July 2008 that carbon dating and other tests now gave an indication of a thirteenth-century AD date for the sculpture, with the suggestion that it was cast somewhere in the valley of the river Tiber. The figures of the boys were added in the fifteenth century. (VRoma: Conservatori Museum, Rome: Barbara McManus)

The Romans themselves were in no doubt when Rome was founded: 21 April 753 BC. On that day of the year, too, they celebrated the traditional festival of the Parilia, in honour of Pales, the god (or goddess - the Romans were notoriously vague about the gender of some of their deities) of shepherds and sheep. In 1948 traces were found on the Palatine Hill, the central and most easily fortified of the hills of the ultimate city, of the huts of a settlement of shepherd folk dating from about 750 BC. Recent excavations uncovered the remains of a ritual boundary wall of about the same period.

 

THE FOUNDING LEGENDS: ROMULUS & AENEAS

The legend of the founding of Rome by Romulus tells how a local king, Numitor of Alba Longa, was ejected by his younger brother, Amulius. To secure his position, Amulius murdered Numitor’s sons and forced Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a vestal virgin, thus, he thought, preventing her from having any children, at least for the moment. Vestal virgins normally served as priestesses in the temple of Vesta for thirty years from the age of between 6 and 10 years. The penalty for those who broke the vow of virginity was death. Rhea Silvia, however, caught the eye of the god Mars, who had his way with her while she slept. The outcome was the birth of twin sons, Romulus and Remus.

Handle of a silver bowl of the second century AD. Mars and two cupids descend from mount Olympus on a sleeping Rhea Silvia. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

There was a fine rumpus. Amulius had Rhea Silvia thrown into the river Tiber, where she sank conveniently into the arms of the god of the river, who married her. The twins were also consigned to the Tiber, in a reed basket, which floated away until it came to rest on the shore. They were suckled by a she-wolf (appropriately, for wolves were sacred to Mars) until found by the royal shepherd. In another version of the story they were breast-fed by his wife, a former prostitute, who had just lost her baby - the Latin word for she-wolf also means prostitute. The couple cared for the twins and in due course revealed to them the circumstances of their birth. Amulius was killed in battle and their grandfather Numitor was restored to his throne. As a contribution to the ensuing celebrations the brothers resolved to establish a new city near the spot where they had been washed ashore. They took omens by watching the flight of birds, which indicated that the city should be built on the Palatine Hill, on which Romulus was standing, and that he should be its king. Romulus then set about marking the boundaries with a plough drawn by a white cow and a white bull. Remus, either in fun or as a gesture of derision, committed the impropriety of jumping over the furrow. Romulus lost his temper and killed his brother.

The embryo city, still no more than a settlement, was short of women. Romulus invited the neighbouring Sabine tribe to a programme of games he was organising to mark the harvest festival. When the guests were comfortably seated. the Romans, as they were now known, abducted at swordpoint six hundred Sabine daughters.

(VRoma: “The Rape of the Sabine Women”, sixteenth-century fresco by Cavalier d’Arpino. Capitoline Museum, Rome: Susan Bonvallet)

A further tradition, well known by at least 240 BC, traces the origins of Rome to the earlier time of the legendary Trojan hero, Aeneas, son of a mortal father and of the goddess Venus. Aeneas fought against the Greeks in the Trojan War, escaped from the sack of the city, and, after many wanderings, vicissitudes, and divine interventions, landed in Italy and founded the dynasty from which Romulus eventually came.

Aeneas on his voyaging. (Detail from the Low Ham fourth-century AD mosaic pavement. VRoma: Somerset County Museums: Barbara McManus)

This was the version of the story much favoured by the emperors of Rome, who liked to think of themselves as being nominally descended from the ancient heroes, and by the Romans themselves, who could thus see the early history of their city, which was one of continual struggle for survival, reflected in heroic legend. It was written up in verse by Virgil (70-19 BC) in the Aeneid, which was published posthumously. It is the national epic of the Roman empire, and the most famous poem of the Roman era.

The Emperor Augustus (Suzanne Cross)

The Aeneid was composed largely in response to the encouragement of the emperor Augustus. According to the legend, and to Virgil, Aeneas cast anchor at the mouth of the Tiber, which flowed through Latium. Latinus, king of Latium, had had divine intimation that he should hand over his daughter in marriage to a stranger. So he offers her to Aeneas, much to the discomfort of another local king, Turnus of the Rutuli, who fancies her for himself. Reluctantly drawn into war, Aeneas obtains the support of Tarchon, king of the Etruscans, and finally triumphs. The historical sack of Troy was in about 1220 BC. To cover the period between the presumed arrival of Aeneas and the founding of Rome, the Romans invented a string of monarchs from Ascanius, son of his first (Trojan) wife, to Numitor.

Aeneas, carrying his aged father on his back, leads Ascanius from the devastation of Troy. Bronze coin issued by the emperor Antoninus in AD 147 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the founding of Rome. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

So much for the legend. Historically, Latium and Etruria (land of the Etruscans) were crucial in the development of Rome into an autonomous and then an independent city state, though it is not known for certain where the original Latins and Etruscans came from. The Latins who first settled on the Palatine Hill, however, had been in the region since about 1000 BC. They herded sheep, goats, and cattle, and kept pigs.

Overview of this page [Ref 1.1]

 

The two foundation stories: Romulus and Remus (they founded the city of Rome) and Aeneas, the refugee from Troy (who was the ancestor of the people who became Romans).

The legend of Aeneas - Augustus liked to trace his ancestry back to Iulus, son of Aeneas and supposed ancestor of the Iulii - the Julian family.

Virgil's Aeneid - sponsored by Augustus - Aeneas establishes his family in Italy.



Notes

Foundation date

753 BC was set in stone as the date of Rome's foundation (this was their Year Zero) - dates were reckoned "ab urbe condita" (from the foundation of the city: usually abbreviated to AUC). Caesar visited Britain for the first time in AUC 699 (55 BC). But the Fall of Troy - when Aeneas escaped was traditionally dated to about 1220 BC - a chronological problem which Virgil tackles in the Aeneid!

 

Founding legends

Source: Livy 1.4; Plutarch's Life of Romulus.

For a more detailed summary of the Aeneid, and translations of books 1,2,4 and 6 go here.

 

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Believe it or not:


The epigram “Rome was not built in a day”, meaning that some things cannot be done at once, but require time and patience, first appears in John Heywood’s A Dialogue Containing the Number in Effect of All the Proverbes in the English Tongue (1546). It is also used in Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes.