Ancient Rome

Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf, founded Rome; Romulus ultimately killed Remus in a dispute over its location.

By Gemini
story of remulus and remus

Romulus and Remus, twin brothers in Roman mythology, are famed as the founders of Rome. Sons of Rhea Silvia and either Mars or Hercules, their birth and heroic adventures, pivotal for Rome’s founding, are chronicled by several authors, including Virgil, who highlights their destiny in Rome’s creation.

Myth on their births

Romulus and Remus have a story that sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood movie. Picture this: two brothers, destined for greatness, but their journey starts in the most dramatic way possible. Their great-great-granddad, Aeneas, was this legendary hero who had all these wild adventures finding Italy, which you might have read about in Virgil’s epic, “The Aeneid.”

Now, these twins had a grandfather, Numitor, who was the big boss of this ancient Italian city, Alba Longa. But here’s where the drama kicks in: Numitor’s brother, Amulius, gets greedy. He grabs the throne for himself, takes over the city’s riches, and to make sure he stays in power, he gets rid of Numitor’s sons and forces Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia (that’s Romulus and Remus’ mom), to become a Vestal Virgin. These were like the superstar priestesses of their time, dedicated to Vesta, the goddess of home and hearth. Their main job? Keep this sacred fire burning and stay single.

The plot thickens when Rhea Silvia gets pregnant. Now, who the dad was, that’s a bit of a mystery. Some say it was Mars, the war god. Others reckon it was Hercules. A few, like the historian Livy, think it was someone else entirely, and Rhea Silvia just said it was a god to avoid scandal. Anyway, when Amulius finds out she’s expecting, he’s furious because Vestal Virgins aren’t supposed to have kids.

So, he locks up Rhea Silvia and orders a hit on the newborns – by burying them alive, leaving them out in the elements, or chucking them into the Tiber River. Pretty harsh, right? But Amulius doesn’t want to anger the gods, so he thinks by not using a sword, he’ll avoid divine retribution.

Here’s where fate steps in. The servant ordered to do the dirty deed just can’t go through with it. Instead, he puts Romulus and Remus in a basket and sets them afloat on the Tiber River. And wouldn’t you know it, the river carries them to safety. So, there you have it, the incredible beginning of Romulus and Remus’ story, where they go from being marked for death to being on the path to founding one of the most famous cities in history: Rome.

The twin found

In Roman mythology, the river god Tibernus played a crucial role in the survival of Romulus and Remus. He calmed the waters of the river, guiding their basket to safety, where it became entangled in the roots of a fig tree at the base of the Palatine Hill, near the Velabrum swamp. It was here that a she-wolf, or “lupa,” discovered and nurtured them, with a woodpecker, or “picus,” also providing them with food.

The twins were later found by a shepherd named Faustulus and his wife, Acca Larentia, who raised them as their own. As they grew, Romulus and Remus became shepherds like Faustulus. During a confrontation with shepherds loyal to King Amulius, Remus was captured and taken to the king. Unaware of their true identity, Amulius did not recognize them as the sons of Rhea Silvia he had once sought to kill.

Romulus, determined to save his brother, rallied a group of local shepherds to his cause. In a daring rescue, they freed Remus and overthrew King Amulius, a pivotal moment that led to the establishment of ancinet Rome.


Following the demise of King Amulius, Romulus and Remus were offered the crown of Alba Longa. However, they declined and instead restored Numitor, their grandfather, to the throne. Seeking to establish their own legacy, the brothers set out to found a new city. But their views differed on where this city should be: Romulus favored the Palatine Hill, while Remus preferred the Aventine Hill.

To resolve this dispute, they turned to augury, an ancient practice where the flight and behavior of birds are interpreted as divine signs. Each brother prepared a sacred area on their chosen hill to observe the birds. Remus reported seeing six birds, but Romulus claimed to have seen twelve. The interpretation of these sightings led to a further disagreement: Romulus argued his greater number of birds indicated divine favor, while Remus countered that since he saw his birds first, he was the chosen one.

The deadlock persisted, with neither brother yielding. In the midst of this stalemate, Romulus began constructing trenches and walls around the Palatine Hill, marking the beginning of what would eventually become the city of Rome.

Founding of Rome

The founding of Rome is marked by a tragic event involving the brothers Romulus and Remus. As Romulus began constructing his city on the Palatine Hill, Remus openly mocked his efforts. In a bold act of derision, Remus jumped over the partially built wall of Romulus’ fledgling city. This act, seen as both a mockery and a challenge to Romulus’ authority, led to a fatal outcome for Remus.

The accounts of Remus’ death vary among ancient sources. According to the historian Livy, Remus’ death occurred soon after jumping over the wall, interpreted as a divine sign, emphasizing Rome’s destined power and fate. In contrast, St. Jerome provides a different perspective, attributing Remus’ death to either Fabius or Celer, supporters of Romulus. In this version, Remus is killed by a spade hurled at his head, a direct consequence of his mockery.

Despite the differing accounts, it is most commonly accepted that Romulus was responsible for the death of his brother. Following the incident, Romulus is said to have buried Remus with full funeral honors, a sign of his deep mourning and respect for his brother.

This pivotal event in the Roman foundation myth is dated by Livy to April 21st, 753 BCE, a date traditionally celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of Rome.

Rome at its starting line

After founding his city, Romulus named it Roma, in his own honor. He then established a governance system that included senators and patricians, which attracted a growing population to Rome. Initially, Rome’s population consisted mainly of fugitives, exiles, runaway slaves, criminals, and other social outcasts. This led to a skewed gender ratio, with significantly more men than women, hindering the city’s ability to grow naturally through childbirth.

To address the shortage of women, the Romans devised a plan. They organized a festival in honor of Cronus at the Circus Maximus, inviting neighboring communities like the Sabines and Latins. During the festivities, Roman men seized the opportunity to abduct women from these communities, leading to forced marriages. This act, often referred to as the Rape of the Sabine Women, sparked a war between Rome and the neighboring communities.

Romulus emerged victorious from this conflict, marking Rome’s first major triumph. However, the city soon faced another challenge. Titus Tatius, the Sabine king, attempted to take revenge by attacking Rome. He was initially deceived by the commander’s daughter, who promised to open the city gates in exchange for what the soldiers “bore on their left hands.” Expecting jewelry, she was tragically killed by the weight of their shields.

The subsequent siege by the Sabines brought Rome to the brink of defeat. However, Romulus prayed to Jupiter for assistance, and the Romans ultimately achieved victory. This led to a truce and a joint reign between Romulus and Tatius, lasting five years. During this period, they integrated various aspects of their respective cultures, including calendars, gods, and military tactics, fostering peace and collaboration within Rome.

However, this harmony was short-lived. Tatius sheltered allies who committed crimes against the Lavinians, leading to his assassination in Lavinium. With Titus Tatius gone, Romulus resumed sole kingship and embarked on a campaign to expand Rome’s territory. He conquered Alba Longa, incorporating it into Rome’s domain.

Throughout his reign, Romulus became increasingly autocratic, causing tension with the Senate. His leadership, marked by expansion and consolidation, played a pivotal role in shaping the early history and character of Rome.

Death of Romulus

The end of Romulus’ life is shrouded in mystery and varies significantly across different myths and historical sources. One of the most intriguing aspects of his story is his mysterious disappearance, which has been the subject of much speculation and differing accounts.

In one version of the myth, Romulus vanishes during a storm or whirlwind, an event that left many puzzled. Some claimed that he ascended to the heavens to become a god, a belief supported by accounts of eyewitnesses. This divine ascension narrative portrays Romulus not just as a mere mortal king but elevates him to a god-like status, a fitting end for the founder of Rome in the eyes of many ancient Romans.

However, there was also suspicion and speculation that the Senate, growing resentful of Romulus’ autocratic rule, plotted his demise. This theory suggests that his disappearance was a politically motivated assassination designed to restore power to the Senate. Livy, the Roman historian, alludes to these events in his writings.

Cassius Dio offers a more graphic account. He narrates that hostile senators, filled with resentment, attacked Romulus and tore him limb from limb inside the senate-house. This violent act, according to Dio, was followed by an eclipse and a sudden storm, phenomena he claims mirrored the circumstances of Romulus’ birth.

The exact year of Romulus’ disappearance also varies in historical accounts. Plutarch reports that Romulus disappeared in 717 BCE at the age of 53. On the other hand, Dionysius of Halicarnassus claims that Romulus died at 55. These discrepancies in age and the circumstances of his disappearance add to the enigmatic and legendary nature of Romulus’ story.

Each version of Romulus’ end reflects the blend of history and myth that characterizes much of Rome’s early narrative, painting a picture of a figure larger than life, whose legacy and mythos would shape the identity and culture of ancient Rome for centuries.

Myth and Fact

The historical reality of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, remains a topic of debate among scholars. The line between myth and history in their story is blurred, making it challenging to definitively classify them as either purely mythical figures or historical individuals.

The narrative of Aeneas, considered the progenitor of Romulus and Remus, is itself a blend of folklore and mythological embellishment. While Aeneas might have roots in ancient tales, his story as known today largely stems from Roman mythology, particularly shaped by Virgil’s “The Aeneid.” This epic was commissioned by Emperor Augustus, suggesting a political motive in its creation – to provide Rome with a noble, divine lineage.

The tales of Romulus and Remus, involving miraculous events and incredible feats, often stretch the bounds of credulity. Their story is typical of many foundation myths, which frequently mix elements of fact and fiction. This blend serves various purposes, such as explaining the origins of a people, justifying current social or political structures, or providing moral or cultural lessons.

Some scholars propose that Romulus and Remus, or at least the essence of their story, might have a basis in historical events or figures. Foundation myths, after all, often evolve from real occurrences or cultural memories, even if they are later embellished with fantastical elements.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding their historical existence, the story of Romulus and Remus held significant cultural and historical importance for the ancient Romans. It was treated with respect and was a subject of extensive discussion and interpretation. Their tale, whether based in reality or not, played a crucial role in shaping Roman identity and values, and continues to be a powerful symbol of the founding of one of history’s most influential civilizations.

Expression in Art

Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, are indeed iconic figures in art and numismatics, with their imagery deeply ingrained in cultural and historical contexts. Their most emblematic representation is as infants, being nurtured by the she-wolf, an image that symbolizes the myth of their survival and upbringing.

In Siena, Italy, this motif is prominently featured in a statue commemorating the city’s mythological connection to the twins. According to local legend, Siena was founded by Senius, the son of Remus, thereby linking the city’s origins to the Roman foundation myth.

Another notable instance of this imagery is the Wolf Mosaic found in Yorkshire, dating back to 300 CE. This mosaic is a testament to the widespread influence of Roman culture and mythology, extending even to the far reaches of the Roman Empire.

However, the most renowned artistic representation of Romulus and Remus is undoubtedly the Capitoline She-Wolf. This sculpture is remarkable not only for its artistic merit but also for its historical layers. The Etruscan bronze wolf, believed to date back to the 5th century BCE, was later supplemented with the figures of Romulus and Remus in the 15th century CE, bridging a gap of nearly two millennia and blending Etruscan and Renaissance artistic traditions.

The story of Romulus and Remus has also been a rich source of inspiration in Renaissance art. Artists like Pietro Berrettini, Charles de La Fosse, Giuseppe Cesari, and Peter Paul Rubens found in their story a wealth of themes and motifs – from divine intervention and human struggle to the grandeur of founding a city. Through their works, these artists contributed to the perpetuation and evolution of the myth of Romulus and Remus, embedding it further into the cultural consciousness of Europe and beyond.

The enduring appeal of Romulus and Remus in art highlights not just the captivating nature of their story but also its significance as a foundational myth that has shaped and been shaped by centuries of artistic and cultural expression.

gemini a writer on ancient rome
Gemini is a young writer with a fresh perspective on ancient history. Her studies in international relations fuel her passion for exploring Western civilizations like Greece and Rome, bringing a depth and insight to her writing. A graduate of the University of Lisbon in Portugal, her love for history shines through in every word.

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