Romulus: History & Facts of the Founder of Rome

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The legend of Romulus, the first king of Rome

Romulus ( Alba Longa, March 24, 771 B.C.E. – Rome, July 5 or 716 B.C.E.) twin of Remus, is a legendary figure to whom the annalistic tradition attributed the founding of Rome and its main political institutions, as well as the role of the city’s first king and the origin of the place name. His historicity has been debated by scholars since the early 19th century. Romulus, who was of Latin-Sabine ancestry and was the son of the deity Mars and Rea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, ruler of Alba Longa, is said to have built Rome on April 21, 753 B.C., by tracing the holy border known as the pomerium

Related articles: The Seven Kings of Rome

The legend of Romulus and Remus birth

According to legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of Mars and Rhea Silvia, a vestal priestess and daughter of the king of Alba LongaNumitor, a direct descendant of Aeneas. Before the twins were born, Numitor’s brother Amulius took the throne. Amulius killed Numitor’s son or boys and rendered Rhea Silvia a Vestal, making her a forever virgin. Rhea said that the god Mars had visited her when she got pregnant. After locking her up, Amulius gave the order to dump the newborn twins into the Tiber. The servants entrusted with disposing of the children, however, were unable to reach the river’s banks due to the overflowing river caused by rain, so they left the twins exposed under a fig tree at the base of the Palatine Hill.

Romulus and Remus, Rubens, 1614, oil on canvas
Romulus and Remus, Rubens, 1614, oil on canvas

The legend of Romulus and Remus suckled by the she-wolf

the She-wolf with Romulus and Remus
The She-wolf with Romulus and Remus (Etruscan bronze in the Capitoline Museum)

According to the myth, a she-wolf came upon the twins and nursed them until the king’s herdsman Faustulus and his wife Acca Larentia discovered them. The shepherds and hill people helped the brothers mature into men. Faustulus revealed their ancestry to them after being caught up in a dispute between Amulius’ supporters and those of their grandfather Numitor. They lured Amulius into an ambush with the aid of their allies, murdered him, and put their grandfather back on the throne. The princes then started building their own city.

The killing of Remus

Romulus and Remus, not wanting to live in Alba Longa without being able to reign there at least as long as their maternal grandfather was alive, obtained permission to go and found a new city where they had grown up. According to the Roman historian Livy, Romulus wanted to call it Rome and build it on the Palatine, while Remus wanted to call it Remoria and found it on the Aventine. 

They went back to the hills that overlooked the Tiber, where they had first been exposed. On which hill to build the new city, they could not come to an agreement. The disagreement grew more heated after an omen meant to settle it failed to give a clear hint, and Romulus or one of his adherents killed Remus. According to a different version of the story, Romulus was chosen by the oracles, and he then plowed a square furrow around Palatine Hill to mark the location of the future city’s fortifications. Romulus became enraged when Remus mockingly jumped over the “walls” to demonstrate how ineffective they were against intruders. In a different version, Remus and Faustulus were both slain during a melée.

Founding of Rome (April 21, 753 B.C.)

The Parilia event, which takes place on April 21 every year, honors the foundation of Rome.  Plutarch recounts that once he buried his brother Remus, who died in the clash that preceded the founding of the city, Romulus had experts in laws and sacred texts come from Etruria to explain every aspect of the ritual to be implemented. A circular pit was dug around the Comitium and votive offerings laid to gain the favor of the gods. Romulus, however, needed more inhabitants to populate the new city, and so he welcomed Latin and Etruscan shepherds, some even from across the sea, Phrygians who had flocked under the leadership of his ancestor Aeneas, as well as Arcadians who had arrived under that of Evander of Pallantium.

Each inhabitant brought a small clod of soil and threw it, mixed with the others, into the pit called mundus, which formed the very center of the city. The primigenius furrow was then drawn all around the city, the boundaries of which represented its pomerium, enclosed within the “sacred” walls. Then Romulus asked the people what form of government they wanted for the newly founded city, and they replied that they would accept Romulus as their king. But Romulus accepted the appointment only after taking the favorable auspices of the will of the gods, which was manifested by a flash of lightning that flashed from left to right.

Organization of the State

For taxes and military purposes, Romulus split the people into three tribes: the RamnesTitienses, and Luceres. Each tribe was further split into ten curia, or wards, each of which was headed over by an officer called as a curio. Each tribe was led by a tribune. In addition, Romulus gave each ward a part of land for the benefit of the populace. Each curia was tasked with providing ten cavalries, a century (a unit of 100 foot troops), and the military levy. Romulus created the Roman senate by selecting 100 members from the elite households.

He referred to these individuals as patres, the city fathers; their offspring were known as “patricians,” creating one of Rome’s two main social groups. The second group, called the “plebs” or “plebeians,” included slaves, freedmen, fugitives who sought refuge in Rome, combat prisoners, and other individuals who eventually received Roman citizenship. Romulus forbade infanticide and set up a fugitive refuge on the Capitoline Hill to promote the development of the city. Here, both free people and slaves might ask for protection and Roman citizenship.

Early forms of Roman private law

Romulus is traditionally traced back to the introduction of private land ownership in Rome, with the act, linked to the founding of the city, of giving each gens a heredium of land, which would then pass to their heirs. Romulus also established a law that a wife could not leave her husband. Conversely, the woman could be repudiated if she attempted to poison her children, replace the keys of the house, or in cases of adultery. In case she was repudiated for other reasons, the husband was required to pay her a share of his estate and offer a second share to the temple of Demeter. Those who repudiated their wives were, finally, required to sacrifice to the Underworld gods.

The Rape of the Sabine Women 

Numerous colonists, the most of whom were young, single males, flocked to the new city. The population grew as a result of fugitives seeking shelter, although males were still mostly single. The new city would eventually perish if there was no intermarriage between Rome and the surrounding villages. Romulus attempted to persuade other cities to permit marriages between Roman residents and non-Roman citizens by sending envoys to each, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Romulus devised a strategy to attract women from neighboring towns. The residents of the nearby cities were invited to a historic celebration and games that he had planned. A large number did, especially the many Sabines. The Romans started snatching and carrying off the marryable ladies among their guests at a predetermined signal.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women (source), Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)
The Intervention of the Sabine Women, Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), (source)

If the offended cities had been totally unified, they could have been able to overcome Romulus as they prepared for war with Rome. However, the Latin cities of Caenina, Crustumerium, and Antemnae acted independently of their allies out of impatience with the Sabines’ preparations. The first to assault was Caenina, whose army was quickly routed and the town captured. Romulus pledged to build a temple to Jupiter Feretrius after personally fighting and killing the prince of Caenina in single battle, making him the first to claim the spolia opima (The armor, weapons, and other items that an ancient Roman general stole off the corpse of an enemy leader killed in single battle). In turn, Antemnae and Crustumerium were taken over. A portion of their population, primarily the relatives of the kidnapped women, was permitted to reside in Rome.

Romulus, the victor of Acrone, brings the spolia opima remains to the temple of Jupiter
Romulus, the victor of Acronis, brings the spolia opima remains to the temple of Jupiter, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1812, (source)

The Sabines, headed by Titus Tatius, gathered their troops after the destruction of the Latin cities and moved on Rome. By bribing Tarpeia, the Roman commander’s daughter who was in charge of the citadel’s defense, they were able to take possession of it. The Romans had no choice but to engage the Sabines on the battlefield without the benefit of the fortress. A furious battle then broke out when the Sabines emerged from the stronghold. According to legend, Mettius Curtius, a Sabine warrior, gave the adjacent Lacus Curtius his name when he reportedly threw his horse into the mud to stall his Roman pursuers as he fled.

Tarpeia's punishment, Pentelic marble fragment from the Frieze of the Basilica Aemilia (100 BC-100 AD)
Tarpeia’s punishment, Pentelic marble fragment from the Frieze of the Basilica Aemilia (100 BC-100 AD) (source)

The Romans started to falter in the face of the Sabine attack at a crucial turning point in the battle. Romulus swore to build a shrine to Jupiter Stator in order to prevent the rupture in his dynasty. When the Sabine women intervened between the two armies, appealing with their husbands and fathers on the one hand and with their brothers on the other, the violence eventually came to a stop. Each side’s leaders met and reached an agreement. They established a single town that Tatius and Romulus would jointly govern.

The death of Tatius

For a period of years, the two kings ruled the expanding city of Rome before Tatius was killed in a riot at Lavinium, where he had gone to offer a sacrifice. A few days prior, Tatius had ruled against a party of Laurentum envoys who had complained about the way his relatives had treated them. Romulus declined requests to exact revenge on the Sabine king in favor of reiterating the Roman alliance with Lavinium and maybe avoiding the ethnic division of his city.

Death of Tatius, Version by Girodet, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Angers
Death of Tatius, Version by Girodet, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Angers (source)

It is stated that in the years after Tatius’s passing, Romulus subdued the city of Fidenae, which had started robbing Roman land because it was concerned by Rome’s growing might. The Fidenates’ army was destroyed by the Romans when they tricked them into an ambush. As the Fidenates withdrew inside their city, the Romans pursued them before the gates could be closed and took control of the settlement. Nine miles up the Tiber from Rome, at the Etruscan city of Veii, there were raids on Roman land as well, indicating that city’s future position as the main challenger to Roman dominance for the following three centuries. Veii’s army was routed by Romulus, but he was unable to besiege the city because to its strong defenses and instead torched the surrounding area.

Death of Romulus

Romulus is claimed to have vanished in a whirlwind during a sudden and intense storm while reviewing his troops on the Campus Martius after ruling for 37 years. Romulus, according to Livy, was either killed by the senators, ripped apart out of resentment, or elevated to heaven by Mars, the god of battle. Since it gives the Romans reason to think that the gods are on their side and enables them to continue their expansion under Romulus’ name, Livy accepts the last version of the demise of the legendary monarch. Romulus gained a cult following that subsequently merged with the worship of Quirinus, who may have been the Sabine people’s original native god. Since Titus Tatius’s passing, the Sabines had been without a monarch, therefore Numa Pompilius was selected to be the next king of Rome.

Featured image: Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf on a riverbank, after Justus van Egmont, Anonymous, print 

Last Updated on 2022/10/22


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