In Our Time: Romulus and Remus

The primary founding myth of Rome is the story of Romulus and Remus, which we know from written sources from the 1st Century BC. It’s clear that the story is older than that, but opinions differ as to how old it is. The three experts who talked about the myth & it’s origins on In Our Time were Mary Beard (University of Cambridge), Peter Wiseman (University of Exeter) and Tim Cornell (University of Manchester).

They opened the programme by giving us a recap of the basic form of the myth, which opens with Numitor and Amulius. Numitor is the true King of Alba Longa, but his brother Amulius usurps his throne and tries to ensure there are no true heirs left. He installs Numitor’s daughter as a virgin priestess to prevent her from bearing more heirs to Numitor’s crown, but despite this precaution she still gets pregnant. One version of the story is that the father of the children is the god Mars who appears in the holy fire as a phallus and impregnates her (which must’ve been a trifle disconcerting for the lass!). The children, Romulus and Remus, are exposed on the banks of the Tiber but instead of dying they are suckled by a she-wolf for long enough to be rescued by a shepherd & brought up. Skipping forward to when they become adults they return to the city of their birth, and once they realise who they are they overthrow Amulius and reinstate Numitor as King. Wanting a city of their own to rule (as Numitor doesn’t look like to die any time soon) they set out to found one. Because they’re twins there’s no obvious answer to which one’s in charge, so they ask the gods to give them a sign. Both see a sign that they think makes them ruler, and in most versions of the myth the arguments continue until Remus is killed (most often by Romulus himself, or by his orders).

That’s the bit I knew already of the myth, but the story continues. Once the city was founded Romulus (and Remus if he’s still alive) wanted to attract new citizens, so that they had people to rule over. And so they allowed refugees and asylum seekers to join their population – regardless of the reasons they were unwelcome at their place of origin. So not just political refugees, but also criminals or runaway slaves were welcome. Most of these people were male, which presented a problem for the proto-city and its ability to sustain its population. So Romulus tried to negotiate marriage agreements with surrounding settlements – but these were turned down on the basis that the citizens of Rome were the dregs of society. So Romulus held a festival and invited all these other settlements to it – they came, with their daughters as well. And then Romulus and the citizens of Rome abducted the women – this is the rape of the Sabine women (which is a phrase I’d heard, but I didn’t remember the story if I’d ever heard it). The other settlements were obviously rather annoyed, and went to war with Rome – most were easily defeated but the Sabines were not. At the height of battle in Rome itself the women (who had now had children with their abductors) appealed to both sides to stop fighting – on the basis that their fathers were killing their sons-in-law, and this was senseless. The two communities made peace, and merged with Romulus now ruling jointly with the Sabine King. The Sabine King later dies, under suspicious circumstances which some versions of the myth pin on Romulus. Romulus lives to a ripe old age, then rather than dying he vanishes – in some versions ascending directly to heaven.

So that’s the story, and then the programme moved on to talking about how old it was and what the Romans themselves thought about it. There are no texts before the 1st Century BC, so what evidence there is for the story being older is more tenuous and based on art. Beard presented a couple of different things – a generally agreed upon one, that there was a statue of Romulus and Remus erected in Rome in the early 3rd Century BC. So there must’ve been a version of this myth then. The other piece of evidence is a mirror from the 4th Century BC which has a design on it that is a pair of infants and a wolf. Beard said that she thought this was pretty good evidence for the existence of the myth at that time. Wiseman disagreed – saying that the design also includes the god Mercury who has no place in this myth but does in a different with with twins in (but no wolf). He also thought that the myth cannot be older than 300BC because that’s when Rome & Sabine merged as a historical event so thus the story must have been invented to explain that.

And then the three experts had a very robust (yet utterly courteous) disagreement about myth, story and the origins of stories. This was clearly a debate these three had had before, they were all aware of each other’s positions on the matter before they started. I’ll attempt to summarise – Wiseman holds the opinion that a story has a single point of creation and that this is a conscious act by a specific person, who is inventing the story in order to explain some event. Beard and Cornell on the other hand think that the stories grow out of older stories and change with time and with telling. That you can compare the writing down of the Romulus and Remus myth in the 1st Century BC to the Grimm brothers collecting old folk tales by going and listening to people telling them and then writing down a “definitive” version of a fairytale which is not necessarily the only or the original version. I’m with Beard & Cornell, personally – I don’t see why there can’t’ve been a Romulus and Remus myth dating back a long time into Rome’s history (perhaps growing out of something earlier), that later incorporated bits & pieces of other stories and events as they seemed relevant to the people at the time*. Yes, Wiseman is right that by definition there must be a first time a particular story is told – but how do you decide when it counts as this story and stops being that other story that’s got a lot of similar features.

*Worth noting that the lack of evidence is lack of evidence for both theories – pre-1st Century BC it’s an oral tradition and we have no way of knowing what exactly that was.

At the end of the programme they also talked about how the Romans thought about the myth, and about what it said about what the Romans thought about themselves. Cornell (I think) pointed out that the Romans often seem embarrassed about this myth – it involves a fratricide, and the earliest Romans are “riff raff”. So some Roman authors try and explain away these elements to sanitise it and make it more “suitable” for their great civilisation. And Beard talked about how it’s interesting that this myth makes Romans foreigners in their own city – and even the other founding myth (Aeneas fleeing Troy and founding Rome) is still a tale of refugees. And I think it was Wiseman who talked about how during the civil wars around the 1st Century BC there was a feeling that of course Rome was turning on itself because didn’t their city start with a fratricide and weren’t they doomed because of this.