The Coup in Alba Longa – How Romulus and Remus were Born

The ancient historians left us a detailed story about the foundation of Rome. I am sure you are familiar with the twins, Romulus and Remus, suckled by a wolf. Their legendary life started in a city of Alba Longa, supposedly founded by Aeneas’s son Anchises.  The throne of Alba Long had been passed from father to the eldest son for centuries until Amulius, the younger son of the late king Proca (or Procas) broke the tradition.

Amulius had an elder brother, called Numitor, who was the rightful heir. However, Amulius’ ambition exceeded the love and respect for his brother. Very soon, he violently overthrew Numitor and started to rule himself. Now if you have ever overthrown a king, you surely know what needs to be done in such a situation. The new king must secure his position. Amulius, being well aware of this necessity, didn’t hesitate to act. For some unknown reason (maybe some brotherly love and respect after all) he didn’t kill Numitor but kept him away from power.

He might not have seen a huge threat in his deposed brother, but he certainly did in Numitor’s children. We know of two – a son called Aegestus and a daughter Rhea Silvia. He primarily must have taken care of Aegestus. This young man would certainly grow to be a real contender for the throne. Amulius observed Aegetus’ behaviour and routine for some time. With the information he gathered, it wasn’t that hard to prepare an ambush. His men took Aegestus by surprise once, when he was on his way back from a hunt and slain him. The king was quick to accuse some random thieves but fooled no one.

Rhea Silvia (a.k.a. Ilia) had marginally more luck. Being a woman, she could not hope to take the throne herself (it is kind of hard to reign when the society sees you as the property of your father or husband). Therefore, her life was spared. However, Amulius needed to ensure she would never have children (especially male children) who could make some unwanted claims. He achieved this in a very elegant way. She was made a priestess of Vesta. This position comes with reasonable fame and respect (which was just great for keeping up appearances), but also with a tiny little caveat – priestesses of Vesta have to be virgins and remain virgins for a nice couple of years.

Amulius’ plan, as brilliant as it was, didn’t work. Four years after becoming a Vestal virgin, Rhea Silvia got pregnant. To add insult to injury, the pregnancy was not a result of some secret love, but that of rape. Who dared to break the sacred laws and disgrace a Vestal virgin? The historians have a list of suspects:

  1. Some anonymous suitor who was overwhelmed by the nobility and sexiness of the young priestess.
  2. Amulius himself (in disguise), in an effort to make Numitor’s life even less pleasant than it already was.
  3. Mars, the god of war to fulfill the fate/will of the gods… basically to ensure the proper lineage for the future founders of Rome. After the deed was done, Mars even appeared and prophesized the birth of male twins that would “excel all man in valour and warlike achievements” (as Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote)

Needless to say, number three was the official story for most of the Romans in the centuries to come, even though it brings an interesting twist to the family relation of the ancient gods. After all, Rhea Silvia was a descendant of Venus (the divine mother of Aeneas) and even Jupiter (7 generations before Aeneas) and Mars was a son of Jupiter, brother of Venus and also her occasional lover.

Rhea Silvia reacted in an understandable way – she faked an illness and removed herself from the public eye. She hoped to handle the situation in secrecy, but that soon became impossible. Amulius noticed her absence and finally learned about her condition. Without hesitation, he made the affair public and accused the girl of breaking her sacred vow – a crime punishable by death. Numitor objected, but it did little good for him.  

Rhea Silvia gave birth to two healthy boys, but the accounts differ on what happened to the poor girl after that. While some historians apparently wrote that her death sentence was carried out soon, others claim that she was kept in a secret prison for years. Why would Amulius show mercy and spare her life? Presumably, he had a daughter of his own who had a great relationship with her cousin and softened his heart.

The accounts agree on the fact that the boys were left to die on the bank of the Tiber where a she-wolf discovered and saved them. Despite all Amulius’ efforts, these twins managed to overthrow him and restore Numitor on the throne of Alba Longa. However, that is a story of another time.  


Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities

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