Everyone who knows the first thing about Rome is familiar with the story of Romulus and Remus, the twins suckled by a wolf, who founded Rome. In this story, Romulus ends up ruling the city and becoming a god. What about his brother? How did he live his legendary life? What would be the name of Rome, had Remus been the more fortunate one?
The Birth of Remus (and Romulus)
While now the scholars reached a general consensus, that the characters of Romulus and Remus are fictional/mythical, ancient authors (writing centuries after the described events took place) often described their lives on a striking level of detail. For example, the exact date of their conception has been set on the 23rd day of the Egyptian month Choiac (in June) in the first year of 2nd Olympiad (772 BCE), “at the third hour” when a solar eclipse occurred. The twins were born on the 21st of month Thoth (late March) next year (771 BCE) around sunrise. The calculations to determine these times and dates were conducted by a man called Taroutius (as described by Plutarch).
Remus and his brother were born in a city of Alba Loga in times of a difficult political situation. Their mother, Rhea Silvia, was a priestess of Vesta at the time and she was supposed to be a virgin (and remain a virgin). However, Mars, the god of war, had a very different opinion on that matter. He raped poor Rhea Silvia and left her pregnant with twins. Amulius, the king of Alba Longa at the time, didn’t take the news well. Rhea Silvia was a daughter of his elder brother Numitor, who had been overthrown by Amulius. The possibility of rightful heirs could have brought him some sleepless nights. The king made a tough decision – the children couldn’t be left alive.
One is surprised, how high is the survival rate of children in situations such as this one. Just like Paris of Troy, or Snowhite in the classic fairy tale, the twins didn’t die. The party sent by the king to drown them did a really awful job and the kids survived. A she-wolf found them on the bank of the Tiber, suckled them and kept them warm. A woodpecker fetched food for them. These good-hearted animals nurtured the children long enough for a group of herdsmen to find them alive. When they did, the wolf didn’t even try to fight them and just let them go and follow their fate. This wolf later became a superstar of Roman myths and remains arguably the best-known symbol of Rome from antiquity till today. You can still find her statue in the Capitoline museums or her image in the logo of A.S. Roma.
Remus in Alba Longa
The twins changed guardians – a royal swineherd called Faustulus took care of them with his wife (and according to some his friend Pleistinus). This wife is worth mentioning because of an alternative version of the whole she-wolf story mentioned by Livy. This respected historian admits that in fact, she might have been the real she-wolf. Don’t think about some werewolf mechanics now, his explanation is much more realistic. The word “lupa” (she-wolf) in Latin had a second meaning and sometimes it meant “prostitute”. While this may just be a coincidence, the mental image of a museum statue of a prostitute breastfeeding the twins is quite amusing.
Nevertheless, Faustulus named the kids Romulus and Remus – presumably derived from the world “ruma” which means “breast”. Hopefully, to emphasize the wolf-sucking circumstances. The two grew up to be strong young men. Residing on the Palatine hill, the boys spent their time herding cattle and making the life of other herdsmen a little bit more difficult. Very frequently, they found themselves in disputes with the herdsmen of Numitor. They ignored the boundaries of each other’s territories to an extent when Numitor’s men just had enough and came up with a plan to get rid of the two brats. They openly attacked Faustulus’ bunch and after some fighting faked a retreat, only to lure them into a trap. Romulus wasn’t there at the time, but Remus fought bravery, pursued the fleeing enemy and then suddenly realized that he was outwitted and encircled. Remus, outnumbered and without any hope of turning the fortune of the battle, laid down his arms.
Remus was soon led to Alba Longa, where the king himself was to judge his crimes. Amulius indeed presided the court and declared the young man guilty. He left it to Numitor, as the harmed party, to set punishment. Numitor, however, gradually changed his mind about the young criminal. Remus impressed him in every way – his noble looks, his strong body, his fearlessness in court… let’s say that he exceeded the expectations one would have about a simple swineherd’s son. Numitor not only spared Remus from a tough punishment but asked him for help in his own misfortune – to help restore Numitor on the Alban throne.
He immediately sent for Romulus and upon his arrival, the three of them had a nice chat about their possible family ties. Both parts of the story seemed to fit, but solid proof was nowhere to be found. Faustulus was eager to help out. He still kept the ark that had once carried the boys, at home. Unfortunately, as he tried to deliver it to Numitor, he was exposed and brought before the king. Amulius could apparently be very convincing and he had no problem with making Faustulus talk. The swineherd admitted the boys were alive and well, but at least devised a plan to delay their downfall by not admitting they are in the city.
Amulius decided to summon Numitor, as a precaution, and keep him under surveillance. His surprise must have been great when the old man didn’t come alone but in the company of his two grandsons and an armed group of their friends. They easily defeated the guards, killed Amulius on the spot and proclaimed Numitor king once again.
Remus and the Founding of Rome
Numitor, now the ruler of Alba Longa, reestablished order in the city. He came up with a cunning plan to get rid of the not necessarily loyal citizens. The time had come to build a colony. A new city was to be built soon, ruled by Romulus and Remus, and inhabited by their friends as well as many Alban citizens. The twins gladly agreed and left Alba Longa in search of a suitable location for the new city.
Up to this moment, Remus and his brother acted like best friends, always pursuing the same goals. This dynamic changed quickly. They soon divided their followers into two groups, each supporting one of the twins, and disagreed on almost every matter regarding the new city.
The most obvious apple of discord between them was the location of the future city. While Romulus insisting on staying on the Palatine hill, where they grew up, and naming the city “Rome”, Remus preferred to move it a couple of miles further and call it “Remoria”. With little hope for agreement, they asked their grandfather in Alba Longa for advice. The old man knew better than to alienate one of them by judging in favour of the other and suggested to leave the gods to decide. No one could think of a better means to do this than the ancient art of augury – reading the ill of gods from the movement of birds. Both twins positioned themselves on their preferred hills – Romulus on the Palatine and Remus on the Aventine and started their bird-watching.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a historian form 1st century BCE, tells a surprising version of what happened next. Allegedly, Romulus, way before any birds appeared, tried to cheat. He sent emissaries to Remus, with a false claim that he had already seen birds and therefore demanded the recognition of his victory. Remus, meanwhile, actually saw 6 vultures and was ready to argue. He confronted Romulus with an unexpected question: “What kind of birds did you see, brother?”, and Romulus failed to provide an answer. But just before the argument came to its end, Romulus saw 12 vultures and happy as never before, just pointed to them. Suddenly, both felt like the god-favored victors.
When the gods failed to make a decision, armed men took over. A fight burst out between the two groups of supporters. Romulus came up on top, but not without heavy losses. Remus lost his life, but so did the old Faustulus, who in despair entered the struggle. Remus was buried in the place where he wanted to establish the new city. Finally, Romulus started building the new city he called Rome on the Palatine.
Some authors tell a different story about the end of Remus. In a popular version, Remus survived the quarrel and yielded. But when Romulus started to build the fortifications of his new city, Remus tried to humiliate his work and stepped over the foundations of the future wall. He was slain just seconds after, either by a man called Celer or by Romulus himself. Livy even quotes Romulus’ last words towards his brother “Sic deinde, quicumque alius transiliet moenia mea!” (“So shall it be henceforth with everyone who leaps over my walls.”). This story would put Remus’ death very close to the mythical date of Rome’s foundation April 21st (celebrated annually in Rome during the Parilia festival).
Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities
Plutarch – Parallel Lives