LEGENDS OF THE EARLY HISTORY OF ROME
Romulus and Remus. The last king of ALBA LONGA [al'ba lon'ga] (founded by Iulus) was Amulius,
who had driven out the rightful king, his brother Numitor. Numitor's daughter RHEA SILVIA [re'a sil'vi-a]
(or Ilia), although she had been a Vestal Virgin, conceived twin boys by Mars, whom the servants of
Amulis exposed on the bank of the Tiber. A she-wolf suckled them near the cave of the Lupercal, below
the Palatine Hill. They were found by a shepherd, Faustulus, who, with his wife, Acca Larentia, brought
them up, naming them ROMULUS [rom'you-lus] and REMUS [ree'mus]. When they were grown up, the
young men were recognized by their grandfather, whom they restored to his throne at Alba.
The Founding of Rome. Romulus and Remus left Alba and founded their own city at the site of their
miraculous rescue from the river. The omens seen by Romulus through augury (divination by means of
the flight of birds) were more favorable than those seen by Remus, and the city was called Roma after
Romulus. During its building, Remus offended Romulus by jumping over his walls while they were
being built and Romulus killed him.
Romulus established his city and gave it laws. He enlarged the number of citizens by declaring the area
between the two parts of the Capitoline Hill to be an asylum, that is, a sanctuary where anyone could
come without fear of violence or prosecution. To provide women, Romulus and his men seized the
women of the Sabine tribes, who were spectators at the festival of the Consualia (see Saturn). This act
led to war with the SABINES [say'beyenz], which was ended by the Sabine women themselves (now
the wives and mothers of Romans). The Sabines and Romans agreed to live together under the joint
rule of the Sabine king Titus Tatius, and Romulus. The Romans were called by the Sabine title Quirites.
During the war with the Sabines, Romulus killed a Sabine leader and dedicated the spolia opima (i.e.,
spoils taken from an enemy commander killed by the Roman commander in person) to Jupiter Feretrius.
After a second battle, the wife of Romulus, Hersilia, persuaded him to accept the Sabines as Roman
citizens. Later TARPEIA [tar-pay'a] betrayed the Capitoline Hill to the Sabines, who crushed her to
death under their shields, and the Tarpeian Rock (from which criminals were thrown to their death) was
called after her. The god Janus saved the Forum from capture by causing jets of boiling water to burst
forth, and Romulus eventually won the battle there by vowing a temple to Jupiter Stator (―the stayer‖).
During this battle also, a Sabine warrior, METTUS CURTIUS [met'tus kur'shi-us or kur'ti-us], rode his
horse through a marshy depression in the Forum, thereafter called the Lacus Curtius. The Romans
later said that it took its name from a Roman, Marcus Curtius, who sacrificed himself in 362 B.C. by
riding his horse into a chasm, since the soothsayers had advised that it would be closed only when
―that which was most valuable to Rome‖ was put into it.
Romulus disappeared from the earth miraculously and was deified as Quirinus, a Sabine god
associated with Mars. Hersilia became Hora Quirini (―the power‖ or ―the will‖ of Quirinus).
The Successors of Romulus. Under the third king, TULLUS
HOSTILIUS [tul'lus hos-til'i-us], a war between Rome and Alba
Longa was settled by combat between three brothers on each
side: the Alban champions were the CURIATII [kur-i-a'shi-eye or
kur-i-at'i-ee], and the Romans were the HORATII [ho-ra'shi-eye or ho-ra'ti-ee]. The victor (and only
survivor) was HORATIUS [ho-ra'shi-us or ho-rat'i-us], who killed his sister because she mourned the
death of the CURIATIUS [ku-ri-a'shi-us or ku-ri-at'i-us] to whom she was betrothed. As part of the ritual
of purification for his crime, he passed under a kind of crossbar, the tigillum sororium, beside which
were altars dedicated to Janus Curiatius and Juno Sororia.
The sixth king, SERVIUS TULLIUS [ser'vi-us tul'li-us], was said to be a grandson of Vulcan, who
showed his favor by various portents. Servius carried out many political reforms and introduced the
worship of Diana. He was murdered by the plotting of his daughter TULLIA [tul'li-a] and her husband,
TARQUINIUS SUPERBUS [tar-kwin'i-us su-per'bus], ―the proud.‖ Tullia drove her coach over the body
of her father, which lay in the street, thereafter called Vicus Sceleratus (―Wicked Street‖).
Tarquinius Superbus was the last king of Rome. His son, SEXTUS [sex'tus] Tarquinius, raped
LUCRETIA [lou-kree'she-a], the wife of Tarquinius COLLATINUS [col-la-teye'nus], who had been found
to be the most virtuous of all the Roman wives while their husbands were away on military service. She
told her husband and her father of the crime and then stabbed herself. Tarquinius Superbus and his
sons went into exile, and the Roman monarchy came to an end.
Few Roman mythological narratives are independent of Greek mythology: the names change and the
narrative may have a different purpose (for example, political or moral allegory). Roman uses of Greek
gods and their myths and Roman adaptations of epic and mythological themes are generally the most
original aspects of Roman mythology, which find their most complex and influential expression in
Vergil’sAeneid. Few Roman or Italian myths are independent of the Greek tradition (for example,
Vertumnus and Pomona), while some of the best-known Roman myths concern the early history of
Rome. The most important narrator, Livy, recognized that the ―historical‖ narratives in his first book
were more like poetry and myth than history, and that their purpose was more moral than historical.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses By far the most important source for the Roman narrative of Greek myths is
Ovid’s epic poemMetamorphoses (completed probably in A.D. 8), which begins with the myth of
creation and ends with the deification of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. The last two books of the poem (14–
15) make the transition from the Trojan war to early Roman history, and they include some myths (for
example, Picus, Vertumnus) that are not part of the Roman historical tradition. Ovid’s poem is by far the
richest source for mythological narrative paintings and other works of art (especially in the eighteenth
Vergil’s Aeneid. Ovid’s poem in its way emulated Vergil’sAeneid (left incomplete at the poet’s death in
19 B.C.), the greatest of all Roman literary works. Vergil adapted Homeric conventions and the Homeric
gods to his purposes, which were to show how the deeds of Aeneas led in time to the destined
founding of Rome and the growth of the Roman Empire. Thus the gods play the conventional Homeric
roles of favoring a particular cause or hero, but they never descend to the theomachies of the Iliad or
the lusts of Ares and Aphrodite in Book 8 of the Odyssey. Jupiter, above all, is the embodiment of Fate,
who prophesies what is destined to happen in Book 1 and definitively announces his purposes in the
Council of the Gods at the beginning of Book 10.
Vergil’s Underworld is more complex than Homer's and embodies philosophical and religious doctrines
that are linked to the historical destiny of Rome. The hero, Aeneas, incorporates the characteristics of
the Homeric bronze-age warrior (ferocity in single combat, for example), but he also has moral
attributes quite unlike those of any Homeric hero. Above all, he is driven by a sense of duty (in
The Oath of the Horatii by J.-L.
David (1748–1825). The scene here
is based on Corneille’s
tragedy Horace and Noverre’s ballet.
Latin, pietas) to achieve a goal that he does not even begin to understand until his katabasis in Book 6,
that is, the founding of a new people (eventually to be the Romans) in Italy. The mythological figure of
Elissa (known before Vergil in early Latin epic) became in the Aeneid the founding queen of Carthage,
Dido. Dido’s passion and destruction outweigh for modern readers her importance as the symbol of
Carthage, Rome’s historical enemy, which was Vergil’s primary purpose in combining her saga with
Roman history. St. Augustine, indeed, confessed that he shed tears for Dido before he did for Christ.
Roman religion and mythology had their roots among pre-Roman Italian peoples, for example, the
Sabines and Etruscans.
Italian gods were not originally anthropomorphic like Greek gods, with whom they became identified:
DIS PATER (HADES or PLUTO)
Non-Italian gods whose names changed from the Greek included the following:
CASTOR and POLLUX (CASTOR and POLYDEUCES)
APOLLO kept the same name at Rome.
Janus. The god JANUS [jay'nus] was the god of beginnings, associated originally with water and
bridges. The doors of his temple were closed only in time of peace. He was also the god of doors,
entrances, and archways, and was identified with Portunus, god of harbors. He was portrayed with two
faces, one looking forward and one looking backward.
Mars. Originally an agricultural god, MARS [marz] gave his name to March, the first month of the year
in the pre-Julian calendar. His consort was Nerio, a Sabine fertility goddess. He became the Roman
god of war, sometimes with the title ofGradivus (―the marcher‖), and sometimes associated with the
Sabine war god QUIRINUS [kweye-reye'nus or kweye-ree'nus]. Among other Roman deities of war was
Bellona. Animals associated with Mars were the wolf and the woodpecker (picus in Latin). The
woodpecker was said to have been a Latin king, Picus, who was turned into a bird by Circe, while his
wife, Canens (―singer‖), wasted away into a voice.
Jupiter. The Italian sky-god was JUPITER [joo'pi-ter], whose principal temple was dedicated on the
Capitoline Hill at Rome in 509 B.C. There he was worshiped as Jupiter Optimus Maximus, ―Best and
Greatest,‖ and shared his temple with Minerva and Juno. The triumphus (triumph), the procession
celebrating a Roman general’s victories, had this temple as its terminus. Like Zeus, Jupiter had the
thunderbolt as his special weapon, and the place where lightning had struck had to be purified by an