Rome's beginning - Romulus or Aeneas?
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Well it’s a new year – and what a year it has been (and not in a good way). The pandemic unfortunately meant a complete wipe of our events calendar. I can only say sorry if you were hoping to come see us at one of these events. We are hoping for some shows this year and I can assure you, your support will be all the more needed this year; with no shows last year but with no pause in expenses, this year will prove financially challenging for us as it will I know for far too many. I would also like to add a short apology for an absence in blogs and I can only put this down to the events of last year, mixed with personal challenges and situation that arose, but even so I hope now to try and keep up a monthly blog on all things Roman related. But it is a new year, and hopefully it will mean a return to more normal and better things! In the spirit of the new year and new things and new beginnings, it had me wondering about new beginnings of Rome, and how Rome celebrated these new beginnings: often tracing a narrative back to a source of their current prosperity. This made me think immediately of the original Roman, Romulus, but also made me think of someone older and who began processes and lineages leading to Romulus – Aeneas – and was Aeneas in a way more popular or important than Romulus?
Like anything to do with ancient history (and history in general), there is no simple answer and such a consideration must take into account which periods in Rome’s history is being considered, the ethnicity and social standing of people, their geography, any personal agendas – the list can continue. With these consideration in mind, let us first review Romulus and his celebrated standing in Roman history.
I am sure the tale of Romulus and Remus is well known to all or most of you, but allow me to give a brief recount of the narrative as, like many stories of the ancient world, one story can have numerous narratives.
Romulus, along with his brother Remus, were the offspring of Rhea Silvia and Mars, the God of War. Rhea Silvia was a vestal virgin but who conceived the twins in a sacred grove dedicated to Mars after the war god visited her there himself. She was also the daughter of Numitor, the then king of Alba Longa (a neighbouring town to Rome and who would be one of the first Italian towns to suffer from Roman aggression). Numitor, however, was usurped by his brother Amulius, who, learning of the birth of Numitor’s grandchildren, saw them both as a threat to his new rule and condemned them to death. The twins were taken to the shore of the river Tiber and abandoned and to be presumed dead. In the most common telling of the legend, the twins were abandoned by the river in the area that would become Rome itself, and saved by a she-wolf, who suckled the babies in a cave along the riverbank. This cave would be a site of reverence in Rome and be known as the Lupercalia, along with an annual festival in the Roman calendar that was also taken up during the 18th and 19th centuries. The twins were eventually discovered by Faustulus, a shepherd, and adopted by him and his wife. They would both grow up to become strong, brave, and natural leaders. During their years as young adults and following their involvement in a dispute between followers of Numitor and those of Amulius, Remus was captured and taken to Amulius; Romulus gathered his own supporters in an attempt to free Remus and learnt of his own divine heritage during this. Amulius, meanwhile, grew suspicious that Remus was one of the twins presumed dead, but before he could act, Romulus and his followers attacked the town, dethroned Amulius, and reinstated Numitor as the rightful ruler. The twins then set out to build a settlement of their own.
Different narratives also diverge on the details of the actual founding of Rome, though the outcome is the same. A popular interpretation continues as such. After arguing over which hill to build their settlement on, they decided to allow the gods to decide through an augury. Remus lay on the Aventine hill and saw six birds fly overhead, while Romulus lay on the Palatine hill and saw twelve birds. The brothers were still at odds and again there is some variance in narratives but the ending is the same: Remus is killed by the actions of Romulus, Rome is founded on the Palatine, an the city named after Romulus, its first King. The details of Remus’ death invited different retellings. One such account stated that Romulus began work on the Promerium (Rome’s first wall that remained sacred throughout its history). Remus began to mock Romulus and jumped over the wall and, after ignoring Romulus’ warnings, was killed by Romulus who claimed that never again would an enemy of Rome cross this wall; this also provides the origin for the sacred law that no Roman may carry weapons of lead armies through this wall except when celebrating a triumph. Another account has Remus’ death enacted through followers of Romulus after the twins and their followers began fighting as a result of the augury dispute.
Romulus would be Rome’s first king, and would begin many practises and institutions that would be become landmarks in Roman politics, society and religion. Examples include: establishing the senate, temples to the Capitoline Gods, rituals of waging war and leaving on campaign, as well as the celebratory triumph and incorporating neighbouring states as Rome’s allies and integrating populations – a feature that would become all the more common as Rome expanded throughout Italy and then the Mediterranean. Of course, it very unlikely all these customs and institutions were put in place by one man during one period of time – particularly as that man was most likely fictional. Take for example, the Vestal Virgins. These ladies of celibacy are iconic in Roman religious institutions and whose importance is highlighted by their responsibility of the eternal flame, their seating allocation at celebrations and games, and the severity of their punishment should they fall to temptation and lust. However, they were already established before the time of Romulus due to the belief that Rhea Silvia was on such priestess. Romulus is also recorded as the first to open and close the doors of Juna - interacting with the temples as if it was the writer’s contemporary Rome transported back in time. However, real or not, these origins make Romulus the father of Rome, through establishing what made Rome unique and special, as well as providing a foundation story linked with divine lineage, so that Rome was not simply the product of a mortal man’s design, but of divine intention and the will of the gods themselves – a theme that Roman orators would make great use of in explaining and celebrating the Rome’s expanding borders. Romulus was worshipped in Rome as a god with a temple dedicated to him in the Forum Romanum. In the popular myth, Romulus does not appear to die – as a mortal man would – but was said to have disappeared suddenly with the strike of lightening – a sign that he had joined the pantheon of the divines. This again was Romulus beginning another tradition – the tradition of deification that while was an accepted religious practise during the Republic, is most notable during the emperors, with numerous emperors deified by decrees of the Senate.
Romulus was a notable character throughout all of Roman history, and indeed throughout all of History. The image of him and Remus suckling from the she-wolf becoming iconic and represented in numerous artworks. The famous statue group of these three characters (figure 1) is of global renown and even features as the symbol for the Rome football team. During the Republic, this scene also found popularity amongst the population, featuring on coinage and the wolf becoming a creature particularly idealised by Roman society and featured as one of the animals representing the Roman legions before the standardised adoption of the Eagle. The wolf could have both positive and negative connotation, as while it is a creature worth of respect, to be called Lupa was to be referred to as a prostitute; another interpretation of the myth is that the twins were not in fact saved and sustained by the milk of a she-wolf, but a prostitute who had come across them. Likewise, any association with being an actual canine was a grave insult and implied a submissive character – a characteristic abhorred within Roman society and law. Nevertheless, the image of the wolf would be one of instant recognition and context identification for Rome and throughout Italy. This was particularly the case during the Republic, when the majority of numismatic evidence portrays the she-wolf – either alone or with the twins. During the Imperial period, however, even from the very beginning of the new Principate regime, a new figure and statue group were to take precedence. Augustus, the first emperor, has established a new Roman order, and as such needed a fresh origin story for the new Rome. Aeneas was now to come to the fore in Rome’s early History.
Like Romulus, Aeneas also was a figure of differing interpretations and stories but whose lineage was also divine and led to the birth of the founder of a new Rome, and a new golden age – Augustus. Aeneas’s story begins in Troy, and already has him linked with the Epics of the Trojan war; Aeneas is also a character that appears (although briefly) in Homer’s own Iliad. While several ancient authors refer to Aeneas, it is the work of Virgil that truly brings him into the spotlight. Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid, follows the story of Aeneas from the fall of Troy, through an Odyssey not unsimilar to Homer’s Odysseus, and culminating in Aeneas and the Trojans reaching Latium and establishing a new colony while precariously interacting with the local Latin tribes already established. It is a story that is designed to explain and justify the new system Augustus had established, as well as emphasise that Rome was destined for greatness.
Aeneas was a Trojan prince who, along with other refugees, fled Troy during her destruction and searched for a new home – prophesised to be in Italy. In the Aeneid, Aeneas was not planning on fleeing but willing to stay and fight for his city and die if necessary (already establishing a loyal civic character that Romans can relate and aspire to). However, he receives a vision from Venus, his mother (note also the presence of a Roman goddess in a pre-Roman context) – also immediately highlighting Aeneas’ divine parentage and the divine heritage of all who would follow this line. Venus warns Aeneas not to stay, but instead lead the refugees out of Troy for their destiny is elsewhere. Aeneas listens to Venus and along with the refugees, he reluctantly sneaks out of Troy and sets sail for new lands. Among those he leads are his father, Anchises, and his son, Ascanius. Anchises is old and too weak to move fast enough himself, so Aeneas carries him on his shoulder, while leading Ascanius by the hand. The image, much like the she-wolf and the twins, becomes an iconic scene and one that is replicated and made famous throughout the Roman world. The journey of Aeneas and his followers will take them across the Mediterranean, visiting various islands such as Crete, Sicily and eventually Italy. Virgil particularly significant the time Aeneas spend with the Carthaginian Queen, Dido. Virgil more so emphasises this by recounting the sack of Troy and succeeding travels before meeting Dido as actually conveyed through Aeneas describing them to the queen. Dido falls in love with Aeneas and Aeneas seems to feel the same, but, after being reminded by Jupiter of his destiny of founding a city in Italy, Aeneas leaves in secrecy one night to continue his destined journey. Virgil makes particular note of this encounter as Dido, in her grief, commits suicide, but before she does, she possibly foretells of the eternal strife between Rome and Carthage – an ill feeling that would eventually lead to Punic wars and Hannibal acting as a possible “avenging spirit”.
After this, Aeneas would travel through the underworld and final arrive in Latium, resulting in the alliance with King Latinus, and the ensuring rivalry with Turnis escalating into two battles and Virgil ending the epic with Aeneas killing Turnis in their second and final duel. Livy also features Aeneas as the beginning of his Roman History, and continues where Virgil finished, recounting Aeneas’ descendants, they connection with Romulus and Remus, and thus, like Virgil, concreting their position in Rome’s Foundation tale. It’s interesting to note that Livy, while writing at the same tie as Virgil, takes a more critical approach to Aeneas; claiming that he did not leave Troy out of any prophecy or duty to the gods, but simply gaining favour with the Greeks and being allowed to leave – a somewhat less epic beginning of Rome, and Augustus’ lineage.
Romulus’ Republic, and Aeneas’ Augustus
So, not that I’ve produced a brief backstory to both Romulus and Aeneas, I will go back to my original question – was one valued or revered more than the other? Like I said, there is no set answer or a generic yes/no because Rome’s history was so vast and prone to change and revolutions at any point, that it needs to be split into separate periods – the most notable being the division between Republic and Imperial.
In the Republic, the hegemonic ruling of one man did not exist (unless is dire situations when a dictator would be appointed, but even this was only temporary). Even during the civil wars, of the early 1st Century BC, while the victor would appoint themselves dictator, the Republic returned to its general state of abiding by the Cursus Honorum. Moreover, even when becoming dictator through violence, like Sulla, by referring to himself as dictator, he was still abiding by the generic constraints of the Republic as, indeed, did the Principate. Thus, the absence of having a hegemonic family considered to be more revered than others, there was not a need for a divine backstory to be so well known. The Line of Augustus and Caesar always claimed to be from Venus, but it was not until Octavian came to sole power was this actively reinforced and referred to (as I will come onto). Prominent Republican families exemplified past family members of historical note, and to be from a lineage of a renowned Roman such as Scipio Africanus (Defeater of Hannibal), or Flamininus (liberator of Greece), was as great an honour as being from a family with divine lineage; it’s possible this was more respectable as these people actively contributed to Rome’s fame and dominance. During the Republic, the ideology was all actions were for the benefit of the state. Even victorious generals – especially those declared imperator and awarded triumphs – were expected to donate a significant portion of their war spoils to the state. Rome’s militaristic ideology meant that most of the time, Rome’s grater good involved military victories and actions of some form. Because the state still took centre stage (even if this was just a blanket over the individual gains and overall inequality exploited by the upper orders), it meant that a foundation tale featuring the direct founder of the city took the main spotlight. As already mentioned, a temple to Romulus was present in the forum, as well as the Lupercal being a sacred site, as the she-wolf iconography being universal meant that all Romans, and those visiting the eternal city, not only knew of the tale, but would likely have been reminded daily, that their current place in the world was because of the actions of one man. However, after Actium, a shift in dominant power occurred, and one family rose to the top of the political, religious, and societal spectrum – the imperial family – which became the new face of Rome, and, as such, needed it’s own ancestral propaganda to explain and justify its new found position.
Thus, during Augustan and the early Imperial period, the tale of Aeneas came to the fore. Virgil’s epic was a direct commission from the Augustan family, and clearly presents the tale as a prelude to Rome’s new ‘golden age’ under Augustus; not only is there a prophecy of Aeneas settling in Italy, but another prophecy envisioned the golden age under Augustus. Much like the she-wolf becoming the most famous depiction of the Romulan tale, the “Aeneas group” of Aeneas, Ascanius, and Anchises, as referred to above, became the most famous depiction of Aeneas’ tale. Such a portrait group even appeared in the Augustan forum and formed the beginning of summi viri – a portrait collection of notable Augustan family member throughout history, with a mirror collection of notable Roman historical figures, all leading up to, and looking at, a central golden statue of Augustus in a four horse chariot (quadriga). The statue group would also be recreated across the empire, particularly in new Augustan colonies, and often located in the forum of such settlements. Aeneas would also now became a staple in Roman History, with not only Livy dedicated time to his exit of Troy and settling in Italy, but authors of later periods would continue this; Dio Cassius, for example, also begins his Roman History from the time of Aeneas – although much less account is dedicated to Aeneas compared to his days of Augustan propaganda.
Aeneas was also important for another reason to Augustus and his propaganda campaign. Not only did Aeneas provide a divine lineage for Augustus, as well as showing displaying such Roman virtues of piety and family values, but Aeneas could be used as symbol of unity. This unity was not only for those within Rome, but for the entirety of Italy. Rome already had a founder, but Romulus did not apply to Italians. The Italian states had become ‘Roman’ themselves through citizenship and could be regarded as one people. Aeneas provided a new founder that did not replace Romulus, but superseded him and functioned for an entity greater than Rome, especially as ‘Roman’ was becoming a national identity. Aeneas had also become so symbolic of Augustan identity and policy, and the statue group so famous, that it could be kidnapped and used for direct protestation to either Augusts directly or his politics. Discovered in a villa near Stabiae, a wall relief shows iconic depiction of Aeneas, Ascanius, and Anchises, but their heads have been replaced with dog heads, and each have large phalluses depicted. As mentioned above, to be referred to as a dog as a grave insult. The intentional addition of dog heads presents a huge insult to the statue group, and very possible acted as an insult directed to Augustus. It’s possible that this relief, was the visual expression of the owner’s dislike of Augustus and/or protest Augustan culture and politics. While it may be unwise to openly protest in this form in public, it was easier (and safer) to express personal views and opinions within more private settings. Nevertheless, if the depiction was to aim at Augusts directly, it indicates just how representative and imbedded Aeneas had become of Augustus.
However, while Aeneas was an individual linked to Augustus through lineage, and who acted as a role model for Romans through his actions and devotion to family and the gods, he was in a sense only a transmitter of the greater truth that Augustus was descended not only from Aeneas but from Venus. Aeneas was proof that Augustus was of divine lineage. This truth overshadows Aeneas and is what Augustus intended to be known; him and his family rising above all others was not a fluke, but of divine intention, and was as advertised as Aeneas himself. The Aeneas group, while focusing on Aeneas and his family members, subtly refers to Venus as the instigator of the three fleeing Troy and that even an iconic figure and moment in Roman history was still at the behest of a divine. Venus was also present in the temple of Mars Ultor, in the Augustan Forum, and a cupid is present on the famous Prima Porta. Aeneas, while idealised and praised in Roman literature and art, was originally only a propaganda tool in Augustus reinforcing the ‘fact’ that he was of divine ancestry, and destined to rule – a belief and reality that the juvenal Principate needed so as to safely establish itself as the head of the Roman state. Romulus, on the other hand, was not the symbol of a greater truth, but rather revered for his own accomplishments. While this did allow Rome to trace its own lineage to that of a divine – Mars – Romulus was the father of Rome itself and thus Rome celebrate Romulus and his ancestry after him, rather than before him.
And so, as I said above, there is no yes or no answer, but rather, as I would argue, they were important for different reasons and within different periods. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this blog. I know it’s quite a long one so if you’re reading this now, then thank you for sticking with it and hope it was interesting and, more importantly, has formed questions of your own. I hope you have a great year ahead of you, and another blog should be with you next month. Until then – Valete!