One of the things that makes origin stories so interesting is that they provide us with an insight into what the people thought of themselves and how they wished to be viewed. This is because the origin stories often contained certain characteristics that the people come to proudly associate with themselves. Civilisations felt, and still feel the need for their origin story to represent the best in their society. Think of the U.S.A, they believe the U.S to be ‘the land of the free and home of the brave’, with the origins of this saying being the fight for their independence. The fact that bravery and freedom did not originate, nor is it exclusive to the U.S is conveniently ignored. For classical examples we can look to the foundation of Athens. In Greek mythology the city of Athens is founded on a competition between the Greek gods Athena and Poseidon with both of them giving gifts so one of them could be the patron of the city. Athena gave an olive tree, a symbol of peace and prosperity while Poseidon struck the ocean nearby with his trident thus symbolising naval power. Athena’s gift was chosen and thus the city was known as Athens.
The origins of this story cannot be certain but it certainly represents a picture of Athens at the height of its power in its golden age from 480-404BC. Certainly, this is how Athens wished themselves to be seen by the world. So while we explore the origins of ancient Rome it is important to bear in mind what image they are trying to portray of themselves.
Our primary source of information of the foundations of Rome will be the Roman historian Livy (59BC – 17AD) who lived through the tumultuous era of Julius Ceasar, a civil war and the rise of the first Emperor Augustus (who the 8th month was named after). Rome during this period truly came to dominate the European world in unprecedented fashion. Therefore, writing at this time Livy is doubtless influenced by Rome’s success. Livy himself acknowledges this fact:
“I hope my passion for Rome’s past has not inpaired my judgement; for I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours or richr in good citizens and noble deeds”
From Heracles and Aeneas to Romulus and Remus
For most people, the origins of Rome begin with the brothers Romulus and Remus, while there is no doubt that they are central to any story of origin related to Rome. However, our story does not begin with them. We start our journey with the greatest hero of all, Heracles.
During Heracles’ 10th labour of capturing all of the cattle of Geryon Heracles travelled all over Europe as far as the straits of Gibraltar, thus giving them the name ‘the pillars of Heracles’. The fact that Heracles travelled this far gives various cities the chance for a ‘Heracles was here’ type of story. Heracles chased the cattle into Italy and over the Tiber river on the eventual site where Rome was founded. One afternoon he lay down by the river for a rest and one of the cattle was stolen by a giant Cacus who lived in a cave close by. Heracles being Heracles killed the giant and retrieved the stolen cattle the people in the local area were so happy that they built a shrine to Heracles on the site where Rome was supposedly later built.
The next famous hero to visit Rome was Aeneas, Aeneas was a Trojan warrior who played a minor role in Homer’s epic poem the Illiad. After the sack of Troy Aeneas and a few survivors are said to have fled with the aim of founding a new city. His travels are commented on in Virgil’s continuation of the Homeric works the Aeneid. Aeneas is then said to land on the Italian peninsula and colonise the area around the Tiber and therefore the eventual site of Rome. Virgil’s Aeneid is regarded as a work of propaganda designed to glorify Rome and its relatively new leader Augustus by promoting their role as world leaders and superior to the Greeks. The fact that the Romans presented themselves as direct descendants of the Trojans, not the Greeks illustrates the point that they were trying to distance themselves from Greek influence.
The transition from Heracles and Aenead to Romulus and Remus represents a step in the more plausible direction when examining the origins of Rome. The story of Romulus and Remus begins with a virgin priestess Rhea Silvia becoming pregnant claiming that she was raped by Mars (god of war). There is a possibility that she believed it as this was reasonably common in the ancient world or she was merely defending herself against any wrongdoing. Either way, the mother was thrown in a jail and twin boys condemned to be drowned in the river Tiber. As luck would have it the Tiber was flooded so they were left in shallow water as the men tasked with drowning them didn’t want to get unnecessarily wet. Before they were swept away a she-wolf found them and suckled them until they were found by a local shepherd by whom they were raised.
Livy was as sceptical about this tale as we are today, he suggests that instead of a she-wolf it was a prostitute who looked after the twin boys. Classical historian and professor Mary Beard tells us that the Latin word for ‘wolf’ was ‘Lupa’ and a common term for a prostitute and or brothel was ‘lupanare’. So therefore perhaps it was a prostitute, not a she-wolf who prevented the twins from being washed into the river. This would at least represent a more rationale narrative.
When the two boys came of age they decided to build a new settlement on the site where they were abandoned. When the brothers were trying to decide what to name the city, where to start building and who would be the leader they did what most brothers do, they argued. They asked the gods to decide by a vote and Romulus was chosen by a margin of 12 to 6. While Romulus was building the city walls Remus jumped over the half build city walls and started to taut his brother. The brothers fought and Romulus killed Remus and issued a statement that this would be the fate of anyone else who penetrated his city.
“his brother (Remus), jumped over the half built walls, whereupon Romulus killed him and in a fit of rage, adding the threat ‘so perish whoever else shall leap over my walls’.
Romulus, now as sole ruler made his new settlement made it an asylum which encouraged men of all different backgrounds to come to Rome, criminals, thieves, bastards, anyone who wanted a fresh start in a new city. However this did pose an issue, the city barely had any women. Romulus unsuccessfully cast out among other local settlements to see try and arrange marriages as to increase the female population and to secure the population of his new city. Livy writes ‘ Romulus proposals were not favourably received and it was clear that everyone despised the new community. No doubt that this rejection of Rome was due to its inhabitants, these people were not valued or desired in their own communities which would explain why the surrounding people didn’t want anything to do with the new Romans, least of all give them their daughters.
A more practical explanation was that the ancient world was a rough place and a new rival community of people only represented competition for the current inhabitants of the area. Livy writes that they ‘feared for themselves and for their prosperity, the growth of this new power’. The fact that for roughly the first 500 years of Romes existence the first time it sent an army overseas was during the first Punic war in 264BC thus indicating that there was a lot of conflict with the local peoples of Italy. The proceeding centuries would show that they were indeed right to fear the Romans.
The rape of the Sabine women
Rome was in a tough situation as simply put, it didn’t have anywhere near enough women to ensure that the settlement would continue. With no one offering their daughters Romulus and the Romans resorted to a Game of Thrones type plan. What happened next was a testament to the lengths that the Romans were willing to go ensure their survival.
Romulus invited all of the local clans and tribes of Italy to Rome in to celebrate a religious festival, the Sabines brought all of their wives and daughters to the event. Livy describes during the height of the festival the Romans sprung their plan. Livy describes the subsequent events:
“at a given signal all able bodies men broke through the crowd and siezed all the young women”
All of the Sabine women were taken prisoner and the rest were driven out of Rome. What the Romans did with the Sabine women is fully open to interpretation. Livy claims that Romulus went to all the Sabine women and reassured them that they would not be mistreated and they would get all of the benefits of being the wife of a Roman citizen. Livy being a Roman himself would naturally try and paint a pro-Roman picture of events framing them as not as being as brutal and cruel than they inevitably were. What is clear in the sources is that the Sabine Women were not given a choice to leave and while mass rape may not have occurred to it plausible to assume that this was common at least at first. After these events, Livy says that the women were treated well and eventually their resentment eroded and they became content with their situation. Again this is hard to believe this was the only reaction given the events of their capture.
The first Roman-Sabine war
The Sabines were not prepared to let this action by the Romans to go unpunished and planned their attack on the city. The plan of attack was not based on force but on cunning and relied on treachery from within Rome. A daughter of a Roman governor, Tarpeia went to the Sabines and promised to let them into the city she was given ‘what they had on their left arms’, traditionally the Sabines wore their jewellery on their left arms. This is what Tarpiea thought she would get as a reward for betraying the Romans.
When she opened the gates for the Sabines the soldiers crushed her to death, with the shields they wore on their left arms. Her body was thrown off a 25m cliff in Rome. From then on it was known as the ‘Tarpeian rock’ and to be thrown off it was a type of execution for traitors. The Sabines had kept their word. A battle ensued as the Romans fought for their survival. At one point the Sabines were defeating the Romans and things looked very bleak until Romulus prayed to Jupiter in a last-gasp attempt to save them from the Sabines, the Romans rallied and started to drive the Sabines back. This is when the Sabine women, who had been forcibly taken by the Romans played their extraordinary part in the battle. Livy states that they forced themselves between the Roman and the Sabine soldiers and begged them to stop fighting, appealing to both the fathers and the grandfathers of their sons. They claimed that they would rather lie dead than themselves be widowed or orphaned. This succeeded in bringing the conflict to an end, the two kings Romulus and Tatius ruled as joint kings for a short time until the death of Tatius and Romulus was once again sile ruler of Rome.
Romulus was the first of seven kings of Rome until the 7th was driven out of Rome and a Republic was created. It was under the republic that Rome would spread its wings and turn into the dominant world power that we recognise today. It is important to remember that the Rome I have eluded to in this writing would have been made up of small mud and stone houses and rudimentary walls, not the magnificent jewel of the ancient world we see today.
At the beginning of this post, I wrote that the stories people tell about themselves reveal how they would like to be seen. The story of the foundation of Rome is unique because they portray themselves as a city of immigrants who will do anything to ensure their own survival and will fight to the bitter end without thought of surrender. It has also been commented on that the initial strive between Romulus and Remus went on to represent the continued power struggle within Roman society which can be seen in multiple civil wars during its existence.
The narratives that I presented in this post were supposed to briefly explain the origins of a city that would one day dominate the known world. After reading this you very well may ask yourself how did a town built by two brothers go on to be so successful? While the reasons for this are far too complex to explain here and have been the subject of many literary works I believe that the key characteristics that the early Romans displayed suggest that they were capable of great things.
If you did manage to make it to the end of this first of all thank you. I hope you enjoyed it, found it interesting and at least know a little more than you did before about the origins of Rome.
Oliver J. Hallett
Beard, M. 2016. SPQR: A history of Ancient Rome. Profile Books. First edition. London, England.
Selincourt, AD. 2002. Livy: The early history of Rome. Penguin Classics. Third edition. London, England.
Miles, R. 2011. Carthage must be destroyed. Penguin Books. Second edition. London, England.
Miles, R. 2011. Ancient Worlds: The search for the Origins of Western Civilisation. Second edition. London, England.