On a recent visit to the Museo Capitoline in Rome we came face to face with the famous statue of Romulus and Remus nursing from the she-wolf, the iconic image of Rome's foundation.
|Romulus and Remus|
The statue is a masterwork, but the cherub-like children, have a baroque quality, too fluid and animated to fit in with other Roman works. After a little research, I found out that the children probably were added to the piece in the late medieval or early renaissance periods. That was disappointing, but the good thing was that it sparked my interest in Rome’s foundation myth which turns out to be a most intriguing and enigmatic tale. Sure, I had skimmed over the tale many times before, but this time the bizarre nature of the myth caught my attention.The story was factual to the Romans, 753 BCE being the date accepted for Rome's inception on our calendar, but for a Roman this would be year one. The story was taught to their children, even though it is story of adultery, rape, and murder, content that would never be accepted in our schools today.
The story goes that Romulus and Remus were bastard twins mothered by the goddess Juno. Her husband, Jupiter, was so angry he ordered the children to be put to death, but lacking the heart to carry out his wishes, Juno placed them into a reed basket and sent them down the Tiber River. The basket came to shore and the children were rescued by a she-wolf who suckled them. The twins managed to survive and when they became young men they decided to found a city. Romulus wanted to name it after himself and his brother Remus wanted to name it after himself. As you might expect from boys raised by a wolves, they fought savagely over the issue. Romulus murdered his brother, established his village on Palatine Hill and named it Roma, after himself.
It is perplexing that the the greatest empire to rise in the ancient world with a foundation based on consistent law, perpetuated this grotesque story of adultery, murder, and rape. Ironically, aside from the transgressions of a few extreme emperors, most Roman patricians thought of themselves as highly moral and upright, loving and loyal to their spouses and children. For me, this is where the grain of truth in this story might lie. A flawed hero rings truer than an idealized hero, like our images of gentle pilgrims befriending the local natives or the noble Sir Walter Raleigh.
Alone on Palatine hill with no citizens, Romulus finds that it is a hollow victory and recruits
other homeless men to join him. Men like himself; outcasts, miscreants and thieves. It helps, but then he realizes that they
need wives to multiply and prosper. His solution was simple; attack the
neighboring tribe of Sabines, and steal all of their women. It sounds ruthless, but Romans justified the deed because he made his men marry the captives and give them full wifely status. After all, what women couldn't get over having her husband and children murdered or sold into slavery as long as your new, forced marriage is made legitimate?
|Rape of Sabine Women|