(Written in Rome, August, 2009)
Having a vague grasp of the story of Romulus and Remus, those twins raised by a benevolent wolf, I have been pleasantly surprised to hear of the alternative interpretation of who truly nurtured those boys into early adulthood. Gaetano, our guide in Pompeii, first clued us into this version of the myth of Rome’s founders. The less known and touted portion of this myth is that it was not a wolf at all that raised the boys, but a harlot, for “she wolf” or “lupa” was shorthand for courtesan in ancient Rome. They received their names for howling at men in their bidding for customers. It also may have been that the shepherd Faustulus, who myth tells us found the boys in the wolf’s den, lived in a dual income relationship with his wife, Acca Larentia, and it could be that income came from her notorious activities. As with all myths, the retelling by various ancients and various factions of ancients blends and sifts the tales to their particular likings. In any case, myths often have tiny seeds of truth, and any kernel of truth of twins being raised by a wolf seems farther fetched than twins being raised by a woman who turned tricks. And certainly, an “Eternal City” would attribute its roots probably morequickly to wolf milk and teat than to a lactating strumpet.
But women standing just behind the curtain of male myth in Rome’s origins doesn’t stop at saving the baby asses of these two brothers. To begin with, the boys’ mother, Plutarch and Livy told us, was none other than Rhea Silvia, a priestess. She received a forced honor as a Vestal Virgin from her uncle Amulius, who had a shitload of gold, but not the rightful inheritance as King. No, that right was her father’s, papa Numitor. Uncle Amulius living before the medieval chastity belt, placed Rhea Silvia in the position of forced celibacy, for he wanted no rightful heirs that could challenge his poached throne. Vestal Virgins found to be deflowered were buried alive. If they kept their knees together for thirty years, they could live their lives in luxury, be certain that their blood would never be spilt, and even marry once their thirty years were up. Not a bad deal, really.
Enter Mars, literally. Mars. Some say it was seduction. Some say rape. I wasn’t there mind you, and we all know that law disallows the past activities of the defendant to be introduced during trial, but let’s just say that Mars, being the God of War, had a proclivity for mindless violence, dominance, and mayhem. So the possibility that he charmed and seduced this woman who had family pressures and the possibility of live burial on her seems less likely than rape. Circumstantial evidence—“he said, she said”–to be sure, but let’s look at the statistics. Anyway, the outcome was pregnancy, a tough situation for a Vestal Virgin.
Rhea Silvia bore twin boys, Romulus and Remus, and they were spectacular male specimens. This pissed off Amulius tremendously, and he imprisoned the recovering mom and ordered the twin boys to be put to death. Of course, kings never do their own dirty work (can you say Dick Cheney?) and Amulius outsourced the nasty task to a servant. Luckily for Romulus and Remus (and the history of Rome) that the servant had a soft spot for babies. He placed the little ones in a basket and laid it on the banks of the flooding Tiber River. The rising waters picked up the hapless cargo and delivered the brothers gently downstream where the “she wolf” discovered the two.
Of course the two brothers grew up, their youthful years as myth and history pinpoint at around 771-753 BC. When around 18 and full of testosterone, the young men eventually encountered their real grandfather, Numitor and their evil great uncle Amulius again after a kerfuffle over some sheep. Their grandfather discovered the true identity of Remus, and when Romulus returned to assist his brother, he incited a revolt in the city and in the melee, old ornery Amulius, was killed. The brothers then released their imprisoned mother.
You’d think the two would have figured the Gods had favored them and that familial harmony would be better than a usual goat sacrifice as thanks. But no. These two could not agree on which hill to establish the new city. Would it be Palatine Hill or Aventine Hill? Romulus preferred Palatine; Remus Aventine. They consulted flocks of birds as omens. Even that did not solve it, for they both saw flocks that gave them the answers they wanted. (Again, I’m thinking of the Bush Administration looking for WMDs here.) Remus saw six vultures; brother Romulus saw twelve. Compromise was not something they evidently learned along the way. Romulus, convinced twelve vultures trumped six started a trench on Palatine. Remus having none of this leaped the trench, a bad omen I guess for starting cities in 753 BC. It was enough to enrage Romulus to the point that he slay Remus for his brother’s broad jumping antics. Romulus then declared himself King, named the city after himself, and completed the city.
Rome grew, filling up with males from all varieties of life’s harder edges. Of course, just like an early western mining town, something essential was missing, for even though Romans were flexible in their sexual tastes, women still filled that civilizing niche. Without women, Romulus and Rome had a demographic problem on their hands.
Romulus hatched a plan. He’d go to a neighboring tribal area, throw a hell of a party, invite the locals, the Sabines, known for their lovely women, ply their men with plenty of wine, and then when the signal dropped, capture the women. This is what is later known as The Rape of the Sabines. They captured daughters and the younger women in the crowd and whisked 700 women back to the all-too male Rome.
The Sabine men, once sobered and sufficiently armed and organized under a guy named Titus Tatius, retaliated, marching on Rome, wanting their women back. They got help from a young girl named Tarpeia who opened a gate for the Sabines on the deal that she’d receive some cool arm jewelry in exchange. She got the jewelry. That and Sabine shields from the men as well, dying under the weight of it all. (Myths always have to teach women not to want too much.)
The ferocious battle continued until the Sabine women rushed onto the battle grounds with babies in their arms, pleading with both sides to stop the madness. They cried to their new Roman husbands as well as their Sabine fathers and brothers, “live in peace as one people.” Suddenly, all the adrenaline and testosterone drained from the scene. Big, burley Roman warriors and outraged Sabine men looking for vengeance stopped and sang “Kumbaya.” Romulus and Titus Tatius decided to rule jointly, doubling the size of Rome. Birds chirped, bees buzzed, and small little furry animals procreated. Why? Because women, yes women, talked some sense into the men.