Ancient History & Civilisation


Legends about the foundation of Rome, and variants of them, abound in Greek and Roman writers. A brief account of what became the standard story, as given for instance by Livy at the beginning of the Roman Empire, runs something like this: when King Latinus ruled over the aborigines in Laurentum, some Trojans arrived under the leadership of Aeneas after the fall of their city. Aeneas married Lavinia, the daughter of Latinus, and after the King’s death he ruled over the Trojans and aborigines, now called Latins. After founding a city, Lavinium, in honour of his wife, Aeneas died and was succeeded by his son Ascanius, known to the Romans as Iulus, who founded Alba Longa. After him twelve kings reigned in Alba, until a prince Amulius wrongfully seized the throne in place of his elder brother Numitor, whose daughter, Rhea Silvia, he forced to become a Vestal Virgin. But she bore to Mars the twins Romulus and Remus, who were miraculously saved from the death by drowning which Amulius had planned; they were washed up under a fig-tree, Ruminalis, near the Palatine where they were suckled by a wolf and nurtured by the shepherd Faustulus. Later they slew Amulius and set Numitor in his place and set forth to found a city on the spot where they had been saved. But while Romulus wished to build on the Palatine, Remus preferred the Aventine. The omens favoured the choice of Romulus, but Remus in scorn leapt over his brother’s rising wall and was slain by him. Thus on 21 April, 753 BC, tradition records, Rome was founded even if it was not built in a day.

Such a story resulted from the intermingling of two traditions which in some respects were mutually exclusive: Roman accounts which attributed the founding of Rome to Romulus, and Greek accounts which made Aeneas the chief character.6 Greek writers frequently invented stories about the adventures of various heroes, not least Odysseus, who after the fall of Troy sailed off to the west and founded cities, and as early as the fifth century at least two historians, Hellanicus and Damastes of Sigeum, had attributed the founding of Rome to Aeneas. Further, the story of Aeneas’ flight from Troy reached Etruria by the sixth century: at least seventeen vase paintings (525–470 BC) found there depict the scene, and nearly as many show Aeneas in battle.7 The possible early popularity of Aeneas in Etruria is reinforced by votive statuettes of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises in flight from Troy found at Veii: they have usually been dated to the sixth century, although some scholars now argue that they are not earlier than the fall of Veii at the beginning of the fourth century. Complications, however, would arise when Greek writers who regarded Aeneas as Rome’s founder came across the Roman tradition of Romulus and Remus: one way out was to make them sons or grandsons of Aeneas. But a further difficulty arose when soon after 300 BC the historian Timaeus brought the date of the foundation of Rome down to 814 BC (in order to synchronize it with that of Carthage), i.e. 370 years later than the reported date of the fall of Troy, which was fixed at 1184 BC by the scholar Eratosthenes in the second half of the third century. Further, Latin tradition knew only seven kings at Rome before the establishment of the Republic in 510 BC. Thus if a reasonable reign was allowed to each king, the foundation of Rome could not have been earlier than the middle of the eighth century. So an ingenious solution was found: to fill the gap the Romans invented thirteen kings at Alba Longa, interpolating them between Aeneas and Romulus. Thus this line of Alban kings made possible a reconciliation between Romulus and a Latin origin, and Aeneas and a Trojan origin of Rome.

Variations of the chief legends proliferated: between twenty-five and thirty distinct versions can be derived from Greek writers, all differing from the later official Roman account as given, for instance, by the annalist Fabius Pictor. These ramifications cannot be pursued here in any detail, yet some consideration must be given to the stories of Romulus and Remus, and of Aeneas, since both had a profound effect on later Roman sentiment. The legend of Romulus and Remus, which seems an essential part of Rome’s story, has been assessed in varied ways: to some it appears to be a very old native myth, while others regard it as a comparatively late literary invention, partly because it is not mentioned by Greek writers before the third century. It had, however, clearly developed by the end of the fourth century; in 296 BC two aediles, the Ogulnii, set up a statue of the she-wolf and the two children at Rome, and some thirty years later the wolf and twins were depicted on early Roman coins (p. 319). It is, however, improbable that the much earlier statue of the Capitoline wolf (c. 500 BC) was connected with Romulus and Remus; the figures of the twins were added in Renaissance times. Neither has an Etruscan stele in the Bologna museum which depicts a wolf suckling a child anything to do with Rome (though it does testify to the spread of such legends).

The names of the twins have caused difficulty: whereas the Romans called them Romulus and Remus, Greek writers gave Romulus and Romus. One line of argument is to believe that the Greeks invented Romus as the eponymous founder of Rome and that when the Romans, who called their founder Romulus, heard of Romus, they combined the two as twins, changing the name Romus to Remus. A more complicated explanation suggests that Romulus was only the Latin form of the Greek Romus and that the later Greeks, not realizing this, thought that they had to deal with two men and so invented the twins; when this version reached Rome, the Romans accepted it, only changing Romus to Remus. Other theories, such as that Remus was a later invention designed to account for the collegiate magistracy, need not be pursued here. On the contrary, it is not unreasonable to accept an old Roman origin, since both words are authentic Roman names: in historical times both a gens Romilia and a gens Remmia existed. And since the archaeological evidence suggests the merging of two communities at an early stage in Rome’s development (p. 40), the tradition might well have derived from the existence of two early village chiefs. This would then be developed by later writers in the light of the numerous folk legends about twins and their miraculous upbringings.

Aeneas was regarded as the founder of Rome only by some Greek authors, and by no Roman writers except Sallust. The Romans, therefore, may have based the idea of their Trojan descent on Aeneas as the ancestor of the Latins rather than as the founder of their city. His story may have reached Rome from southern Etruria and Veii where he was popular at least in the fourth if not the sixth century, as shown by the statuettes, but this need not have involved the belief that he was the founder of Rome. He was, in fact, more closely linked with Lavinium which he had founded. Here the historian Timaeus learned from the inhabitants that among holy objects kept in the city was a Trojan earthenware jar which presumably contained the Penates which Aeneas had brought from Troy; these were the gods of the store cupboard (penes), which later were identified with Castor and Pollux. The tradition that the Trojan Penates came to Rome from Lavinium is strengthened by the discovery there of the inscription to the Dioscuri (p. 36). Further, there is said to have been a cult of Aeneas Indiges, i.e. Aeneas the divine ancestor, near Lavinium. If LARE AINEIA D(ONUM) is the correct reading of a fourth-century inscription found nearby, this would be additional confirmation, but unfortunately both AINEIA and therefore a connexion with Aeneas are uncertain. But in contrast to Lavinium there was no public cult of Aeneas at Rome itself. Further, Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that the Latins erected a hero-shrine (Heroon) to Aeneas. Again a recent archaeological discovery may or may not provide direct confirmation. A small fourth-century shrine at Lavinium had been built within the circle of an earlier seventh-century tomb, suggesting that a famous person was venerated there, but slight caution is required since it does not correspond completely with Dionysius’ description of Aeneas’ shrine. However that may be, close links existed between Rome and Lavinium from very early days and continued into historical times; after 338 BC all Rome’s major magistrates had to go to Lavinium each year tosacrifice to the Penates and Vesta at the beginning and end of their periods of office.8

Varied views were also held about the precise date of the foundation of the city. The poet Ennius appears to have gone back beyond Timaeus’ date of 814 BC to about 900, while at the end of the third century the annalists Fabius Pictor and Cincius Alimentus advanced it respectively to 748 and 728. Cato and Polybius followed Fabius, but a century later 753 BC, proposed by the scholar Varro, became the official date. Soon afterwards under Augustus the legends received their greatest literary enshrinement in Livy’s History and Virgil’s Aeneid. Although Timaeus and Naevius mentioned Aeneas’ visit to Carthage en route for Italy, the story of Aeneas and Dido was Virgil’s great contribution.

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