In ancient sources, one can find several theories on the death of Rome’s founder and first king Romulus. He is said to have died at the age of 55 after reigning 37 years (five of them with Titus Tatius as his peer), on the 7th of July. The authors agree that he did not die of natural causes, but disagree on actual events. Let me introduce the possibilities:
1. Ascend to heaven
The poet Ovid, in his Metamorphoses left us the most artistic account on the most fantastic version of Romulus’ end mentioned by the historians. According to this story, Romulus didn’t die a natural death but was brought to heaven by his divine father Mars, where he became a god named Quirinus. His wife Hersilia followed him soon after and also became a goddess – Hora.
When the ascend happened, Romulus was just on Campus Martius (a plain before the Roman walls) overseeing a military parade. Suddenly a storm broke out and brought terrible darkness and lightning. A dark cloud covered the king and when it was finally gone, Romulus was nowhere to be found.
The people of Rome were sceptical towards this supernatural phenomenon and started to speculate that Romulus must have been a victim of an assassination attempt by the patricians. To settle the matter, a man named Proculus Julius, an old friend of the missing king, stood before the people and claimed he witness Romulus stepping down from heaven for a while and share a prophecy about the future greatness of Rome. This witness obviously did the job and instead of a civil war, a peaceful period of interregnum followed.
2. Revenge of the neglected “new” Romans
Romulus waged wars against several neighbouring cities and many of those wars ended by part of the defeated tribes joining the Romans and increasing the city’s population. The largest group moving to Rome were the Sabines, after a war provoked by the “Rape of the Sabine women”. The Sabine leaders were even nominated to the Roman Senate and their king Titus Tatius became a king of Rome alongside Romulus. One could naturally presume that while Romulus kept the higher authority in the eyes of the “original” Romans, Tatius could become the favourite for the new citizens. After a successful assassination attempt on Tatius, Romulus allegedly lacked any passion for just punishment of the criminals and let them go freely. This might be one of the behaviours that contributed to the degradation of newcomers to some kind of second rate citizens, out of favour of the king. Unsurprisingly, the level of discontent rose until it reached an extreme and motivated some of the newcomers to assassinate the king, which they eventually did.
3. Coup d’état of the patricians
The Roman patricians also had reasons to hate Romulus. Incidents occurred when the king’s behaviour and decisions potentially endangered the security of Rome and the lives of her citizens. Romulus had reached a clear military victory over Veii a powerful Etruscan city and, just as it was customary, took 50 hostages from the defeated city. But then, contrary to the custom, Romulus decided to let those hostages return to their mother city, weakening Rome’s diplomatic position.
To add insult to injury, after the death of Romulus’ grandfather Numitor, the Roman king also inherited the throne of Alba Longa. He didn’t become a king there but decided to give the power to the Alban people and select a different ruling magistrate each year. This was strikingly different than his own almost tyrannical rule in Rome.
Moreover, in his duties as a judge, Romulus tended to be extremely strict and borderline cruel. Dionysius describes one trial when he sentenced a whole group accused of brigandage to death by being hurled down the precipice. This was definitely not an honourable death and was considered improper for men of noble birth as those certainly were.
The patritians decided to take justice into their own hands and assassinate the more and more tyrannical king. They committed the deed in the Temple of Vulcan, where the Senate gathered, and after it was done, chopped the dead king’s body to pieces. Carrying the body out of the building piece by piece, they ensured the chaos was minimal and soon agreed on the next form of government to rule the city.
Deified or betrayed, Romulus became one of the most popular heroes of the Roman myths and his fame and respect peaked in the age of Augustus who stylized himself as the second founder of the city.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities
Ovid – Metamorphoses
Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Life of Romulus
Livy – Ad Urbe Condita