The founding of Rome


The one legend every Italian kid knows is the story of “Romolo e Remo”, or Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Part of the reason is the mythical quality of an “origin story” of not only a capital town, but of the heart of an empire whose echoes are still heard today and visible everywhere in its archeological remains. Part of it is also how the greatest storytellers of all times worked together to  perfect a tale that continued to be embellished through the ages, from the III century b.C. onward. There are countless variants to the main story, and the following represents the gist of it.

Romulus and Remus are the twin brothers of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of Numitor. He was the legitimate king of Alba Longa, a city-state founded by no less than the son of Aeneas, the son of Venus whose adventures were told in the Aeneid. Numitor had been exhiled by his evil brother Amulius, who forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal, a virgin priestess, in order to prevent her from having a son who could claim the throne. The girl was however so pretty that the god Mars wanted her so bad that he raped her in a sacred grove. The result of this encounter were Romulus and Remus, so Amulius ordered Silvia to be drowned (but she was resurrected by the piety of the waters themselves), and the kids to disappear by a rather convoluted plan. They were to be put in a wicker basket, then taken by a slave to the Aniene river and just left floating away. Surprisingly, the children survived and the basket got beached beside the Palatine hill, close to a grotto called Lupercal, where the wolf-god Lupercus was worshipped. 

A female wolf found the starving children and, instead of eating them, was inspired by Lupercus to feed them by letting them suckle on her teats. The infants were subsequently found by a shepherd and his wife (Faustulus and Acca Larentia), who adopted them and taught like upper-class kids. Romulus was the smart and wise one, while Remus was the brawnier one. One day the brothers were surprised by a band of brigands who worked for the ousted Numitor. Remus was taken prisoner and almost discovered as the lost son of Rhea Silvia, but he managed to reunite with Romulus. Together, the boys assembled a small army with which they attacked the evil Amulius, defeating him and giving Alba Longa back to its righteous king, Numitor.

Now under the protection of Numitor and recognized as noblemen, Romulus and Remus moved out of Alba Longa to found their own city on the shores of the Tiber river. Problem was, since they were twins it was not possible to choose the older brother as the one founder, as it was customary in those times. To decide who the founder and namer of the new town was to be, each young man went up one hill (Romulus on the Palatine, Remus on the Aventin) and waited for a sign of the gods. Remus saw six vultures first, but Romulus saw twelve a little later: as push came to shove, Remus got killed by his brother. Thus Romulus got the naming rights, and Rome was founded.