Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 80 – Romulus and Hersilia become gods

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), oil on canvas, 385 x 522 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

As Ovid reaches the end of Book 14 of his Metamorphoses, he has to sweep quickly through the early history of Rome. With King Proca dead, the storyline moves on to Romulus.

The Story

Ovid tells us that the walls of the city of Rome were founded on the feast day of Pales, 21 April, then mentions war with the Sabines led by Tatius, and the Vestal Virgin Tarpeia’s infamous betrayal of the citadel itself. The intruders entered through a gate unlocked by Juno, which Venus could not secure because gods are not allowed to undo what other gods have done.

Naiads living next to the shrine of Janus tried to block the intrusion by flooding their spring, but the torrent of water sent down to the open gate didn’t help. So they put sulphur under the spring, and turned it into a river of smoking, molten tar, which held the intruders back until Romulus was able to attack them. After a bloody battle, Romans and Sabines agreed peace, but their king Tatius died (in a riot at Lavinium) and Romulus therefore came to rule over both peoples.

The time came for Romulus to hand on the new Roman state to his successor; Mars therefore called a council of the gods, and proposed that the founder of Rome should be transformed into a god, which Jupiter approved:
The god all-powerful nodded his assent,
and he obscured the air with heavy clouds
and on a trembling world he sent below
harsh thunder and bright lightning. Mars at once
perceived it was a signal plainly given
for promised change — so, leaning on a spear,
he mounted boldly into his chariot,
and over bloodstained yoke and eager steeds
he swung and cracked the loud-resounding lash.
Descending through steep air, he halted on
the wooded summit of the Palatine
and there, while Ilia’s son was giving laws —
needing no pomp and circumstance of kings,
Mars caught him up. His mortal flesh dissolved
into thin air, as when a ball of lead
shot up from a broad sling melts all away
and soon is lost in heaven. A nobler shape
was given him, one more fitted to adorn
rich couches in high heaven, the shape divine
of Quirinus clad in the trabea.

(The trabea being the robe of state.)

With Romulus now the Roman god Quirinus, Hersilia, his queen, mourned his loss. Juno therefore instructed Iris to descend and invite Hersilia to join Romulus/Quirinus on Olympus:
Iris obeyed her will, and, gliding down
to earth along her tinted bow, conveyed
the message to Hersilia; who replied,
with modest look and hardly lifted eye,
“Goddess (although it is not in my power
to say your name, I am quite certain you
must be a goddess), lead me, O lead me
until you show to me the hallowed form
of my beloved husband. If the Fates
will but permit me once again to see
his features, I will say I have won heaven.”
At once Hersilia and the virgin child
of Thaumas, went together up the hill
of Romulus. Descending through thin air
there came a star, and then Hersilia
her tresses glowing fiery in the light,
rose with that star, as it returned through air.
And her the founder of the Roman state
received with dear, familiar hands. He changed
her old time form and with the form her name.
He called her Hora and let her become
a goddess, now the mate of Quirinus.

Ovid has now set the stage for the opening of the last book of his Metamorphoses, which concludes the history of Rome the city, state, and empire.

The Paintings

The most popular subjects from this phase of the legendary history of Rome are the early years of Romulus and his brother Remus, and the rape of the Sabine women – subjects which were controversial even in Ovid’s time, and carefully avoided. Fortunately the apotheoses of Romulus and the role of Hersilia have not been completely ignored in European painting.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), oil on canvas, 385 x 522 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799) is unusual among depictions of the episode of the Sabine women in showing its resolution, rather than the seizure of the women which brought the conflict about.

After the overwhelmingly male population of the nascent city of Rome had seized the wives and daughters of their neighbours the Sabines, the two groups of men proceeded to fight. David shows Roman and Sabine men joined in battle in front of the great walls of Rome, with the Sabine women and their children mixed in, trying to restore peace.

Looming over the city is the rugged Tarpeian Rock, from which traitors and other enemies of Rome were thrown. Named in dishonour of the treacherous Tarpeia, she wasn’t its first victim: she was crushed to death by the shields of the Sabines she had let into the citadel, and is reputed to have been buried in the rock.

Highlighted in her brilliant white robes in the foreground, and separating two of the warriors, is the daughter of the Sabine king Tatius, Hersilia, whom Romulus married. The warriors are, of course, her father and her husband, and the infants strategically placed by a nurse between the men are the children of Romulus.

David started this painting when he was imprisoned following his involvement in the French Revolution. He intended it to honour his estranged wife, who had continued to visit him during his incarceration, and to make the case for reconciliation as the resolution of conflict.

Guercino (1591–1666), Hersilia Separating Romulus and Tatius (1645), oil on canvas, 253 x 267 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Guercino’s Hersilia Separating Romulus and Tatius (1645) concentrates on the three figures of Tatius, Hersilia, and Romulus, and tucks the rest of the battle away in the distance behind them.

Jean-Baptiste Nattier (1678–1726), Romulus being taken up to Olympus by Mars (c 1700), oil on canvas, 99 × 96.5 cm, Muzeum Kolekcji im. Jana Pawła II, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Only Jean-Baptiste Nattier painted the apotheosis of the founder of Rome, in his Romulus being taken up to Olympus by Mars from about 1700. Mars is embracing Romulus, with the standard of Rome being borne at the lower left, and the divine chariot ready to take Romulus up to the upper right corner, where the rest of the gods await him.

So we move on to the fifteenth and final book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which completes the history of Rome up to the time of Augustus.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.