Romulus: The Savior-God of Rome.

By Pat Lowinger

altar_mars_venus_massimo

Relief sculpture depicting the early lives of Romulus and Remus upon the Altar of Mars and Venus, dated to the early 2nd century AD. Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome.

Despite assertions to the contrary, there were in fact many religions which included beliefs and practices centered around dying and rising deities.  One such god was Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, whose worshipers could be found throughout the Roman sphere of influence.

By the time Augustus had wrestled supreme control of the Roman state in 27 BCE, the number and diversity of religious traditions to be found within the Roman sphere was astounding.  One fascinating aspect of some of these religions, was the existence of ‘Mystery Cults’ oftentimes associated with dying and rising deities. These Mystery Cults offered ‘secret knowledge’ that granted unto an inner circle (initiates and above) some type of advantage in the afterlife.  In some cases Mystery Cults were local or regional.  Others, such as the Mystery Cults of Isis and Dionysus (Bacchus) were well-known throughout the Roman Empire.  While it is unknown if Romulus had a Mystery Cult associated with his worship, his mythology followed a general theme which was often repeated (with various permutations) throughout the Mediterranean and Near East; that of a dying and rising savior-deity.

A Short Discussion Regarding Sources:

Several ancient sources record the mythology of Romulus.  Some of these sources, such as Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Quintus Aelius TuberoDiocles of Peparethus and Fabius Pictor, were well-known in the 1st century BCE and referenced to in several surviving accounts but have been otherwise lost.  Those that have survived from ancient times include, but are not limited to: Livy’s The History of Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities, Ovid’s epic poem Fasti, Cassius Dio’s History of the Romans, and Plutarch’s Life of Romulus.

In the case of Diocles of Peparethus and Fabius Pictor, these works appear to have been written during the 3rd century BCE and were heavily utilized by Plutarch in the Life of Romulus.  Since Plutarch’s account of Romulus’ mythology generally agrees with those of other surviving sources, this discussion will limit itself to the use of it, as this discussion is likely not aided by the superfluous inclusion of other sources.  Those who wish to make a more detailed examination of available source materials are encouraged to do so.

Romulus’ Basic Mythology: 

romulusremusmaarat

2nd century AD mosaic depicting Romulus and Remus suckling from a she-wolf.  Ma’arat al-Nu’man Museum, Syria.

One of the most extensive ‘histories’ regarding the life of Romulus comes to us from the ancient historian Plutarch (c. 45-120 AD).  In his Life of Romulus, Plutarch cobbled together several older sources and developed a narrative he believed to be the most authoritative.[1] Without recounting every facet of Romulus’ divine origin and story, these are the major foci of Romulus’ mythology:

  1. Romulus was the son of Rhea, the daughter of Numitor, who had been miraculously impregnated by the god Mars.
  2. Rhea, a Vestal Virgin, would have been cruelly punished (persecuted) by her uncle (the King Amulius), but for the protests of Antho (Amulius’ daughter and Rhea’s cousin).
  3. At birth, Romulus (and his brother Remus) were larger and more beautiful than normal (mortal) babes- alerting those who viewed them of their divine origins.
  4. Fearing the (divine) children, Amulius ordered Romulus and Remus to be taken and cast away (into a river).  Instead of being immediately drowned as the king had ordered, Romulus and Remus were placed along the riverbank and swept away (floated away) by the rising river (inside a trough).[2]
  5. Famously, as the boys wandered in the wilderness they were suckled by a she-wolf in order to help sustain them.  Then are later found (and raised) by a humble shepherd and his wife.[3]
  6. mars

    Marble bust (relief) of Mars, the divine father of Romulus. Getty Museum.

    Romulus grew to adulthood not knowing of his divine origin nor his status as a demigod.

  7. After Remus is discovered and captured (imprisoned) by King Amulius, Romulus becomes aware of his true parentage and leads a revolt against the wicked king who is subsequently killed.  Romulus then returns rightful kingship to his grandfather (Numitor).
  8. Romulus (and prior to his death, Remus) founded the city of Rome.  The founding was believed to have been on the 21st of April.[4a]
  9. On that same day, there was an eclipse of the sun.[4b]
  10. Romulus (as king) established the fundamentals of Roman Law and the order of patricians- of which he was the wealthiest and most noble. [5]
  11. Romulus was a great general (hero) that led the Romans to great victories over their rivals- displaying superhuman strength and martial abilities (a la the heroes of the Trojan War).
  12. Romulus’ death (disappearance) was shrouded in mystery.  Of which Plutarch offers three explanations:
    1. That on the Nones of July (July 7th), Romulus disappeared with neither his body nor his cloths to be found- a metaphor for ascending to godhood.
    2. So that some fancied the Senators, having fallen upon him in the temple of Vulcan, cut his body into pieces and took each part away his [their] bosom. –Life of Romulus.

    3. But that it came to pass that, as he was haranguing [lecturing, preaching] the people without [throughout] the city, near a place called the Goat’s Marsh, on a sudden strange and unaccountable disorders and altercations took place in the air; the face of the sun was darkened, with terrible thunderings, and boisterous winds from all quarters; during which the common people fled, but the senators kept close together [Romulus vanishes]. –Life of Romulus.

  13. Following his disappearance (or murder at the hands of the senators) Romulus appeared to Julius Proculus who spoke to the now exalted Romulus saying: “Why, O King, or for what purpose have you abandoned us to unjust and wicked surmises, and the whole city to bereavement and endless sorrow?” and that he [Romulus] answered, “It pleased the gods, O Proculus, that we [half-gods], who come from them, should remain so long a time amongst men as we did; and having built a city to be the greatest in the world for empire and glory, should return again to heaven.  But farewell, and tell the Romans that by the exercise of temperance and fortitude they shall attain the height of human power; we [I will be henceforth] to you the propitious god Quirinus.”- Life of Romulus. [6]

  14. The date of July 7th (the Nones of July) was established as a date of worship in celebration of Romulus’ formal accent to godhood.  This celebration included a religious procession, which possibly began at the temple dedicated in his honor, proceeded through the streets of Rome, and which ended at the legendary site of Goat’s Marsh where ritual sacrifices were made.

The Mortal And Transcended Romulus:

A key facet of Romulus’ mythology is the manifestation of both a human and divine nature (dual-aspect).  While Plutarch goes through great lengths to show the superior and divine nature of Romulus’ life, he also offers proof of Romulus’ mortal frailties and supplication to Jupiter, the supreme god of the Roman state.  The following narrative, that described a great battle against Rome’s historical enemy the Sabines, provides direct evidence of the previous two points:

There were many other brief conflicts, we may suppose, but the most memorable was the last, in which Romulus having received a wound on his head by a stone, and being almost felled by to the ground by it, and disabled, the Romans gave way, and, being driven out of the level ground, fled towards the Palatium.  Romulus, by this time recovering from his wound a little, turned about to renew the battle, and, facing the fliers [retreating soldiers], with a loud voice encouraged them to stand and fight.  But being overborne with numbers, and nobody daring to face about, stretching out his hands to heaven, he prayed to Jupiter to stop the army, and not to neglect, but maintain the Roman cause, now in extreme danger.- Life of Romulus.

According to Plutarch, Jupiter answered Romulus’ prayer and the outnumbered Romans stopped fleeing and returned to battle.  Through Jupiter’s divine intervention, the Roman rout had turned into a decisive victory. This is in stark contrast to the description provided of a transcended and now fully divine (a god without mortal frailties) Romulus who’s seen on the road by Julius Proculus:

…he had seen Romulus coming to meet him, looking taller and comelier than ever, dressed in shining and flaming armour; and he [Proculus], being affrighted [frightened] at the apparition…- Life of Romulus.

Conclusion:

While the precise details of Romulus’ mythology was unique unto itself, the general theme was not.  The lives of demigods, often placed within a historical narrative, were repeated in numerous mythologies throughout the ancient world.  Few historians, and I would venture to say none that are alive today, would assert that Romulus was in fact a historical personage.  This is despite Plutarch’s and others sincere belief to the contrary.  As was common for their time, the story of Romulus was placed within the backdrop of history and whose myth was supported by the insertion of known people, places and dates in  an attempt to validate it.  This isn’t to imply that historians such as Plutarch were being dubious.  On the contrary, when relaying prehistoric events, the insertion of mythical  origins was common.   Again, Romulus’ story follows a very common format, in which we see the offspring of an immortal god and earthly mother, a miraculous birth, harrowing survival into adulthood, discovery of divine ancestry, great and miraculous works, disappearance or death, followed by assent to godhood.

These similarities should not be surprising and should instead be expected given the high degree of interaction and exchange between the numerous and diverse cultures found throughout the Roman world. Nor should historians or anyone else neglect to fully analyze the prevailing religious and cultural trends present in the Mediterranean and Near East during the 1st century BCE (and afterwards).  To do so creates a false assumption of widespread cultural isolation and conservatism throughout the Hellenistic and Roman world.

Citations & References:

[1] Plutarch identifies both the works of Diocles of Peparethus and Fabius Pictor as his primary sources, he fails to distinguish on which points the two works reportedly vary.

[2] In one variation, Faustulus is the same person who charged with taking Romulus and Remus to the river to be cast in (and drown).

[3] Faustulus’ wife, Larentia, may have been referred to as lupae (wolf) which was also a term used by ancient Romans to refer to loose or sexually available women.  Thus, the young Romulus and Remus may have been nursed by Larentia rather than a she-wolf.

[4a & 4b] In regards to the eclipse, Plutarch does admit that the Greek and Roman calendars do not comply (support) with each other.  The traditional date of Rome’s foundation is 753 BCE.

[5] Romulus’ right of earthly kingship passed from his grandfather (Numitor) through his earthly mother, Rhea.  Numitor himself was a descendant of Aeneas the Trojan, thus granting Romulus an ancestral connection to Troy.

[6] In the testimony of Proculus, Plutarch goes to some length to demonstrate the witness’ noble and thus truthful nature as well as Proculus’ invocation of sacred oaths to ensure his credibility- given the extraordinary nature of Proculus’ claims.

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About Patrick Lowinger

Patrick Lowinger holds a M.A. in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University (AMU) and B.S. in Microbiology (1993) from California State University, Long Beach.
This entry was posted in Ancient History, The Roman Empire and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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