Gregorio Lazzarini (1655—1730). Oil on canvas. Early 1700s. Saint-Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum.
Romulus and Remus were born to the vestal virgin Rhea Silva after she’d been seduced, some say raped, by Mars.
At their birth they were immediately sentenced to death by their great-uncle Amulius, who had previously stolen the throne of Alba Longa from his brother, and Rhea Silva’s father, Numitor.
Fortunately, though, the sentence was never carried out.
A royal servant took pity on the twins and instead of killing them abandoned them in a basket on the banks of the River Tiber. In the floods that followed, the basket ended up under a fig tree on the northwestern summit of the Palatino.
Here the babies were found and suckled by a she-wolf (in some versions of the story the wolf was sent by Mars to save them) until discovered by a shepherd, Faustulus.
Faustulus took the brothers in and, with his wife Acca Larentia, brought them up.
Faustulus the Shepherd
The twins grew up to be a high-spirited, if somewhat unruly, pair and it wasn’t long before they were in trouble.
Remus was arrested for attacking some shepherds on the Aventino and carted off to face the king. Hearing the news, Faustulus told Romulus about the circumstances surrounding his birth and asked him to save Remus.
Romulus immediately set off for the Alban palace, where he not only freed his brother but also killed Amulius and reinstated his grandfather Numitor to the throne.
To celebrate, the twins decided to found a city on the site where they’d originally been saved. But as they didn’t know where this was they consulted the omens. Remus, on the Aventino, saw six vultures; his brother over on the Palatino saw 12.
The meaning was clear and Romulus began building his new city walls. In a fit of anger Remus is said to have jumped over the unfinished walls, shouting that if they couldn’t keep him out how were they going to keep invaders out.
Romulus, by now in a rage himself, killed his brother.
Romulus continued building and soon had a city, albeit one with no citizens.
To populate it he created a refuge on the Campidoglio, Aventino, Celio and Quirinale hills, to which a ragtag population of criminals, ex-slaves and outlaws soon decamped. However, Romulus still needed women.
His solution was as audacious as it was devious. In one of history’s first recorded sting operations, he invited everyone in the surrounding country to celebrate the Festival of Consus (21 August).
As the spectators watched the games he’d organised, he and his men pounced and abducted all the women.
Known as the Rape of the Sabine Women, the attack understandably angered the Sabine king Titus Tatius, who promptly marched on Rome. Fate, however, was against him, and after warnings from Juno and Jupiter,
Romulus repulsed the attack.
But Sabine feelings soon calmed – thanks, it’s said, to their women begging for an end to the fighting. Peace was made, and Romulus and Titus ruled jointly until Titus died shortly afterwards.
Romulus himself lived to 717 BC when he died aged 54.