Rome is known as the Eternal City but, like any other city, it had a finite beginning and a modest one at that. Archaeologists have found traces of human habitation in the area for at least 5,000 years. Dig a little deeper anywhere in the city and you’ll find layers and layers of evidence of Romans living and dying throughout the ages.
In its earliest incarnation, Rome was a rather primitive settlement on the banks of the Tiber River, where early inhabitants engaged in trade — bringing goods to the village and exporting goods elsewhere by boat.
Nearby Etruscans to the north had already been thriving in the area since the 8th century BCE. Wealthy and sophisticated, they had a strong influence on their much younger neighbors. More influential still were the Greeks, whose empire was extensive. Colonies south of the village that became Rome brought the newcomers into direct contact with Greek culture, which became the model for a budding settlement that would eventually flourish and become a vast and powerful empire.
Proud Romans consider their somewhat modest beginnings only a small part of their story. Instead, a variety of founding myths revise history quite creatively. By popular agreement, the city of Rome was founded precisely on April 21, 753 BCE by Remus and Romulus, not only twin brothers, but demi-gods (half god, half mortal).
Another less familiar story describes a woman named Roma who escaped the destruction of ancient Troy along with the hero Aeneas, the son of a Trojan prince and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In this famous tale, Aeneas is the ancestor of Remus and Romulus and Rome’s origins are thus linked to the once-great civilization of Troy.
It is the story of Romulus and Remus that has not only persisted as the central founding myth of Rome, but has also shaped the city’s (and empire’s) self image in numerous ways. The story is wildly implausible but who is complaining? Certainly not the countless artists and writers who it has inspired.
The mother of the legendary twins was Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin, priestess of the goddess Vesta, goddess of the home and hearth. Vestal Virgins tended to Vesta’s temple, of which there are remnants in the Roman Forum. If a Vestal Virgin violated her vow of chastity, she risked being buried alive.
Rhea became pregnant following a tryst with Mars, the Roman god of war (and, more benignly, the guardian of agriculture). Another version of the story insists it was the demi-god Hercules who impregnated her. Because Rhea had influential family members, her life was spared, though she was still imprisoned.
When Rhea’s baby boys were born, they were taken away and thrown into the river to drown. Mercifully, the river god Tibernus protected the infants by calming the waters and preventing them from being swept away to certain death. The squalling newborns were discovered by a she-wolf or lupa, who suckled them while a woodpecker protected and fed them.
Eventually, a shepherd (or swineherd depending upon the source of the story) named Faustulus found the little fellows and took them home to be raised by him and his wife, Acca Larentia. In a twist in the story, Faustulus’ wife Larentia was referred to as “Lupa” by other shepherds as she was a prostitute. Thus, the idea of the nurturing she-wolf was born, at least according to the Roman writer, Livy.
Skipping ahead a bit, the grown-up and handsome twin brothers rebelled against their powerful grandfather, Numitor, who ruled Alba Longa where the boys had been born. Remus and Romulus dreamed of ruling their own kingdom but they were in disagreement about where it should be located. Each set out on his own and began building his respective walls in the area that is now Rome. Remus chose the Aventine hill and Romulus the Palatine hill.
Each brother then began to watch for omens — birds that would indicate which twin was chosen by god and therefore the winner. Remus claimed he’d seen six birds, while Romulus insisted he’d seen 12 and was therefore the clear winner. Because he’d seen his birds first, Remus felt he was the victor. When his brother refused to concede, Remus leapt over Romulus’ wall and subsequently died.
No longer in competition with his twin, Romulus declared himself ruler of the new city and named it Roma after himself. Not surprisingly, there are differing accounts of the death of Romulus. In one story, he was swept away by a whirlwind or a storm never to be seen again. In another, he ascended to the heavens and became a god. In yet another, he was assassinated by members of the Roman Senate who were jealous of his power. According to the historian Plutarch, Romulus died or disappeared in 717 BCE. Regardless of how he met his end, the imprint Romulus made on the city that was to become a far-reaching empire was immeasurable.
The most famous artwork relating to the founding legend of Remus and Romulus is a sculpture depicting the infant twins with their surrogate mother, the she-wolf. It is known as the Capitoline She-Wolf and can be seen at the Capitoline Museum, one of Rome’s finest museums. The bronze sculpture is actually an amalgam: The she-wolf was made by an Etruscan artist in the 5th century BCE and the suckling twins were added by the Renaissance sculptor Antonio del Pollaiolo in the 15th century.
Through the ages, countless artists from the master of the illuminated manuscript, Jean de Berry, to Peter-Paul Rubens, have been inspired by the tale of the feuding brothers. Another version of the she-wolf rests atop a stately column at the corner of the Palazzo Senatorio, striking a powerful silhouette over the Roman Forum at sunset.
In 2007, archaeologists discovered a decorated cave in the Palatine. Some experts think it may have been the site where the twins were nourished by the she-wolf. Later Romans created a place of worship there called the Lupercal. Unfortunately, the cave is beneath another ancient site and is not open for visits.
Now that you’re familiar with the tale, a visit to Rome will no doubt inspire images of its origin story, starring the world’s most famous twins.