Whether the first Romans were Greek, Trojan or Etruscan, legend holds it that Aeneas who founded a city which he named Lavinium after his second wife. His son Ascanius went on from there to found another city, Alba Longa, situated somewhere in the Alban Hills not far from modern Rome. Descendants of Aeneas ruled in their turn, until it came to the brothers Numitor and Amulius. They divided their inheritance, with Amulius taking the treasure which had been brought by Aeneas from Troy, and Numitor ruling Alba. Amulius then used his wealth to wrest the throne from Numitor; to ensure that Numitor’s daughter couldn’t produce any male heirs, Amulius made her a priestess of Vesta, so she was sworn to remain a virgin.
Soon after that, Numitor’s daughter was discovered to be pregnant. Although this traditionally would have led to the death of any Vestal Virgin, Amulius’ daughter interceded, and she was merely kept in solitary confinement. She gave birth to twin boys, who were superhuman in their size and beauty. Amulius ordered one of his servants to take the twins away and drown them in the river, but they were put first into a trough which functioned as a boat. As a result they were washed ashore downstream still alive.
A she-wolf then fed the babies, and a woodpecker watched over them; both were later considered to be sacred to the god Mars.
One of the frescoes in the Palazzo Magnani, probably painted by Ludovico Carracci and/or Annibale Carracci, shows the She-Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus (1589-92). The twins are still inside the trough in which they had survived their trip down the river, and on the opposite bank a woodpecker is keeping a close watch.
At the far right, a now rather diaphanous figure may be Faustulus, one of Amulius’ swineherds who discovered the twins, and took them to his wife.
Peter Paul Rubens shows Romulus and Remus being discovered by Faustulus in his painting of 1615-16. Not only is the she-wolf taking care of the twins, but a family of woodpeckers are bringing worms and grubs to feed them, and there are empty shells and a little crab on the small beach as additional tasty tidbits. Rubens also provides a river god and water nymph as guardians.
Nicolas Mignard shows The Shepherd Faustulus Bringing Romulus and Remus to His Wife (1654), in which Faustulus has become a keeper of sheep rather than swine, and his extended family appears most welcoming.
Romulus and Remus, as they were now named, were brought up without Amulius’ knowledge. Although both remained large and fine specimens of humans, Plutarch tells us that it was Romulus who appeared to have the better judgement, and behaved in a more commanding way. As they grew older, the brothers became renowned for their hard work and good deeds.
Their early life was not without further incident, though. When Romulus was busy with a sacrifice, Numitor’s herdsmen captured Remus and handed him over to Numitor. The latter recognised that Remus was special, and Remus in turn was open with Numitor over his mysterious origins. As a result, Numitor decided to talk to his daughter in secret, to try to determine whether the twins might have been hers.
Faustulus, their adoptive father, tipped Romulus off, and he went to Numitor with the trough in which the two had been carried downriver as infants. One of Numitor’s guards recognised the trough, and it became more widely suspected that Romulus and Remus were the grandsons of Numitor. Amulius raised a small force to try to deal with the developing crisis, but Remus incited revolt in the city, and Romulus attacked at the same time. Amulius was seized and killed.
Numitor was restored to the throne, Alba returned to order, and the twins’ mother was released and paid the respect she had been due.
Romulus and Remus then set out to found their own city, which they intended to populate with the slaves and other outcasts from Alba. The brothers couldn’t agree on its site, though, so decided to settle the matter by ‘the flight of birds of omen’: Remus said that he saw six vultures, but Romulus won with a claim of twelve, which was a lie.
When Remus discovered his brother’s deceit, Romulus was busy digging a trench for the city’s walls. Remus ridiculed his brother’s work, got in his way, and finally leapt across the trench, which triggered a battle between them, involving their supporters. Remus, their adoptive father Faustulus, and others were killed, and some claim that it was Romulus who killed his own brother.
After burying his brother, Romulus got on with building the city of Rome.
He yoked a plough with a bronze ploughshare to a bull and a cow, and drove a deep furrow around the city’s boundary. This is shown in Annibale Carracci’s fresco in the Palazzo Magnani of Romulus Traces the Boundaries of Rome (1589-92). The bronze ploughshare is at the left, being fixed to a wheeled plough, with Romulus at the right, ready to lead the bull and cow around the boundary.
When the city was complete, Romulus took charge and formed legions from its male population, set up a senate consisting of one hundred patrician councillors, and brought order. There was only one problem, though: its inhabitants were almost entirely male, and were in desperate need of wives.
Plutarch’s account of the solution, the abduction (or rape) of a group of Sabine women, makes it clear that this was a planned and calculated act by Romulus. First, rumours were spread that an altar had been discovered hidden underground. Romulus then decreed that this would be celebrated with games and festivities, as well as sacrifices, which were attended by many from a neighbouring and friendly tribe, the Sabines.
When Romulus gave the signal at the celebrations, armed Romans rushed in, put the Sabine men to flight with their swords, and abducted their women. Plutarch reports the number of women taken by the Romans was between thirty and 683, all of whom were maidens, with the notable exception of one married woman, Hersilia, who was apparently captured by mistake (really?!).
The ‘rape of the Sabine women’ has become one of the great motifs in painting, a set piece on a grand scale with many figures and rapid action in a classical setting. Nicolas Poussin painted two versions which survive, the earlier of which is his Abduction of the Sabine Women from about 1634-35, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A bearded Romulus stands, other dignitaries behind him, at the left, watching the scene below. Assorted Romans are there carrying off young Sabine women, whose arms are raised in protest. In the foreground is a woman with her two young babies and an old nurse, who is most probably Hersilia, although her abduction appears quite deliberate. Swords are raised in the air behind, as the Romans chase Sabine men away from their daughters.
The Sabines demanded that Romulus returned their women, disavowed the shameful act, and made peace. He refused, making a counter-demand that the Sabines should allow their marriage to Romans. The two sides prepared for war.
Before they could join in battle, though, Acron king of the Caeninenses led his army against Rome. Acron and Romulus met outside the city, and agreed to settle the matter between themselves, rather than with their forces.
Before the fight, Romulus made a vow that, if he should conquer and overthrow Acron, he would carry home the king’s armour and dedicate it in person to Jupiter. Ingres’ painting of Romulus’ Victory over Acron (1812) shows him doing just that, as he carries Acron’s golden suit of armour in the first Roman-style ‘triumph’. In the background, Acron’s city is in flames, and his army annihilated in the battle that ensued.
Romulus invited the defeated Caeninenses to join the Romans in their new city, which many did. Later, other neighbouring tribes challenged Romulus, and each was defeated, their lands and people being absorbed into Rome.
Eventually, the Sabines were ready for war under their king and general Tatius, who led them in their march against Rome. Their task wasn’t easy, as in those days its citadel was on the Capitol hill, a strongpoint for defence. The captain of the guard there had a daughter named Tarpeia. In return for the golden armlets which Sabine warriors wore on the left arm, Tarpeia betrayed the city of Rome by leaving its gates open at night, allowing the Sabines to enter.
As the Sabines swarmed in, Tatius told them to leave what they carried on their left arm with Tarpeia. As they also carried their shields, many misunderstood the command, and Tarpeia was buried under so many shields and golden armlets that she was crushed to death. She was buried where she fell, and that became known as the Tarpeian Rock. It was the place from which traitors and other enemies of Rome were thrown to their death.
With the Sabines in possession of the Capitol, Romulus challenged them to fight. There followed a series of indecisive battles, until Romulus was struck on the head by a rock, and his troops started to retreat to the Palatine hill. He had just regained order and commanded his forces to stand and fight, when the abducted Sabine women invaded the battlefield.
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. 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, where the body of Tarpeia was reputed to have been left buried.
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’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.
Plutarch summarises the Sabine women’s words as beginning “with argument and reproach”, and ending “with supplication and entreaty”. These forced a truce, allowing the women to bring food and water to those who needed them, and to tend the wounded.
When negotiations were completed, the women were allowed to continue to live with their husbands if they wished, and they were freed from all work other than spinning. Rome became a joint city of the Romans and Sabines, with Romulus and Tatius its joint sovereigns.
One hundred Sabines were added to the patricians, and a code of conduct with women was introduced. The latter included men giving women the right of way when walking, and not uttering indecent words in the presence of a woman. The new Roman forces adopted Sabine armour, including their rectangular shields, in place of the earlier circular ones.
Tatius was later killed by the relatives of some ambassadors who had been murdered by robbers, leaving Romulus as the sole king of Rome. When a plague bringing sudden death was affecting the Romans, they were attacked by the people of Cameria. Romulus defeated them, and once again they were used to augment the population of Rome, and to increase its territory. This was repeated with the Fidenae, but in their case Romulus was unable to achieve a victory over them, and arranged peace instead.
When the grandfather of Romulus, King Numitor of Alba, finally died, Romulus inherited his throne. He tried appointing an annual ruler for that city, and encouraged Rome to adopt a similar system. This brought suspicion and opposition, in the midst of which Romulus, then aged fifty-four, suddenly disappeared.
Plutarch gives various accounts as to how Romulus could have vanished, including claims that he was murdered and his body dismembered and dispersed.
The story which remains strongest in the myths about Romulus is that of his apotheosis, painted here by Jean-Baptiste Nattier 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.