Day 1 of 7 Days of Roman Founders. By the end of the Roman Republic and dawn of Augustus’ Empire, various accounts of national origins were approaching uniformity: the twin descendants of the Trojan hero and refugee Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, founded the city of Rome in (give or take a year) 753 BCE. While some authors like Livy offered some skeptical rationalizations, the prevalent account had all the trappings of a Greek-style heroic myth, but a myth that most Romans took as real history.
Aeneas’ son Ascanius founded the Italian city of Alba Longa, and the twelfth generation of its kings produced royal brothers, Numitor and Amulius. Though Numitor was entitled to the throne by seniority, Amulius overthrew him, and to prevent his brother’s descendants from taking revenge, forced Numitor’s daughter Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal virgin. Yet this sacrosanctification of her chastity meant little to the lustful gods, especially the war god Mars, who raped the helpless priestess. She gave brith to twins, whom Amulius cast into the River Tiber in a basket. Should Amulius have learned from his Greek counterparts and killed the babies with his own hands? Well, infanticide of one’s kin might bring pollution and the wrath of the Furies. Infant exposure was a loophole that technically placed the babies in the gods’ hands, not one’s own. Fate indeed rescued the boys, as they washed up on the bank of the river and were nursed by a she-wolf. Discovered and raised by a shepherd, they grew up and after being recognized by their grandfather Numitor, took revenge on Amulius.
Rather than await succession to the throne of Alba, the twins decided to found a new city. Yet they were twins: who had the right to be king? They let the gods decided, and Romulus won a contest of augury after sighting a larger flock of vultures. Yet like Numitor and Amulius (and Eteocles and Polyneices in Greek myth), fraternal strife was an inherited curse. Remus resented the result, and as Romulus was marking out the boundaries of the new city (called Rome after his name) with a plough, Remus leapt over the new boundary. Tracing a city boundary in such a way was a sacred act, and leaping over it was a grave sacrilege. In supposed righteous anger Romulus slew his brother on the spot, Remus’ blood baptizing the new boundaries so as to make them impregnable.
Romulus, his kingship now undisputed, gathered a population to his new city, but only men rallied to his banner: shepherds, highwaymen, escaped slaves. They needed wives to have a real community that would endure. When the neighboring cities rejected intermarriage with these lowborn nobodies, Romulus devised a scheme whereby these communities were invited to a religious festival, and at a given signal, the Romans abducted the unmarried women of these nations. After a series of wars with these cities who took revenge, in the last of which against the Sabines, the abducted Sabine women intervened in the battle and begged their fathers and husbands to stop killing each other, and instead to unite as one people.
Over the society formed by Romans and Sabines, seven kings would rule until the last, a tyrant whose son raped a noblewoman named Lucretia, was overthrown. Rome’s era of monarchy thus began and ended with sexual violence. Himself conceived by rape, Romulus’ acts of fratricide and rape, though some would justify them as being of necessity, complicate the reputation of Rome’s founding hero. As such he is a fitting symbol for Rome’s role in history, whose admirable achievements go hand-in-hand with the atrocities of imperial conquest and slavery.
Manilla Road‘s 2005 album Gates of Fire is a trilogy of trilogies based on Greek, then Roman, then Robert E. Howard’s mythology. The first song of the Roman trilogy, “The Fall of Iliam”, relates the fall of Troy and Aeneas’ escape and journey to become the ancestor of the destined Roman race. “Imperious Rise” jumps down the chronology to Romulus and Remus, who create the conditions whereby the Trojan people can rise again to new glory, as the fates had promised to Aeneas long ago. Mark Shelton’s lyrics offer an impressionistic rundown of Romulus’ career, including the shedding of his brother’s blood, rape of the Sabine women, and the seven kings of which he was the first. The song ends by acknowledging that Rome still stands as a new Troy, exalted not so merely by the endurance of its physical remains, but by the memory of its founding heroes. In song, their immortality is secured.
Romulus and Remus
Ancestors to the forefather Aeneas
Son of mortal man and the goddess Venus
Raised the Roman clan chosen one to lead us
To the promised land
Come before the altar
Give your praise to the gods and the two brothers
Through their blood carries the founding father
Through the archaic songs of death and honor
The Trojan race lives on
The winds doth blow
Romulus ploughs the furrow
Out of control
For jest blood of Remus flows
T’is harvest time
For festival tribes unite
The Sabine plight
The women raped the men die
Led by the fates
Seven kings raise the gates
The Trojan race
Lives on in Rome today
The city wall
To this day still stands tall
The trumpets call
In memory Rome’s heroes live on