Ordo Inferus – “Rhea Ilia”

Day 3 of 7 Days of Roman Founders. Today we showcase Ordo Inferus, an American/Swedish death metal syndicate featuring members of such major-league acts as Necrophobic, Funebrarum, and Disma. In 2014 they released their debut Invictus et Aeternus (unconquered and everlasting) devoted entirely to themes of Roman myth, history, and culture.

“Rhea Ilia” is their take on Rome’s foundation myth. While the spotlight is usually on Romulus and his brother Remus, an essential actor in the myth is the twins’ mother, named Rhea Silvia or Rhea Ilia depending on which source you consult. Rhea is the name of Zeus/Jupiter’s mother, fitting for one who bore so fundamental a figure. Silvia is related to the word for ‘forest’ and traces back to Aeneas Silvius, a grandson of Aeneas “born in the forests” of untamed, pre-Roman Italy. Ilia, finally, can refer to Ilium, another name for Troy (hence “The Iliad”), the ancestral homeland of the Romans through Aeneas.

Like so many of her counterparts in Greek myth, Rhea’s conception of these heroic demigods was not in any version of the story consensual. She is yet another victim of the lawless lust of the patriarchal gods. Mars was her particular divine rapist, according to the “traditional” account. But despite this tale being adopted by iconography and ideology, many Roman writers offered some historical revisioning. Livy is ambivalent about whether Mars was really the rapist, saying that Rhea either truly “believed” that it was Mars, or claimed that he was in order to save face. In Roman culture, suffering rape brought disgrace to the victim, if not full blame and punishment. Dionysius of Halicarnassus even gives a version that her rapist was really her uncle Amulius, the tyrant who condemned her to perpetual, Vestal virginity in the first place to prevent his overthrown brother Numitor’s descendants from taking revenge! Amulius, the story goes, dressed in full armor and told Rhea that he was Mars when he approached her. In this version, Amulius really reaps what was sows!

Whatever version you or anyone believed, Rhea was punished with imprisonment for involuntarily violating her Vestal chastity, while the offspring of the rape were cast into the Tiber River to be subsequently rescued by the she-wolf. In some versions Rhea dies in captivity, while in others she is liberated by her sons when they grow up as avengers. After that point, she disappears from the narrative. Like many women in classical myth, she is portrayed as a means to an end for the birth of heroes, and her personal suffering is often ignored.

Ordo Inferus, rather than delivering yet another song on the twins, reminds us of the humanity of the mother of the first Romans, whose dignity should fit one of so august a name as that of Jupiter’s mother.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s