The Romans clung to the conviction that Romulus, the founder of Rome, was the son of a virgin by a god, that his life was marvelously preserved, that he was saved from the floods of the river and was reared by a she-wolf.
Continuing The Foundation of Rome,
our selection from Roman History by Barthold Georg Niebuhr published in 1848. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in nine easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Foundation of Rome.
Time: 753 BC
This Roma is described as a Pelasgian place in which Evander, the introducer of scientific culture, resided. According to tradition, the first foundation of civilization was laid by Saturn, in the golden age of mankind. The tradition in Vergil, who was extremely learned in matters of antiquity, that the first men were created out of trees, must be taken quite literally; for as in Greece the [Greek: myrmêches] were metamorphosed into the Myrmidons, and the stones thrown by Deucalion and Pyrrha into men and women, so in Italy trees, by some divine power, were changed into human beings. These beings, at first only half human, gradually acquired a civilization which they owed to Saturn; but the real intellectual culture was traced to Evander, who must not be regarded as a person who had come from Arcadia, but as the good man, as the teacher of the alphabet and of mental culture, which man gradually works out for himself.
The Romans clung to the conviction that Romulus, the founder of Rome, was the son of a virgin by a god, that his life was marvelously preserved, that he was saved from the floods of the river and was reared by a she-wolf. That this poetry is very ancient cannot be doubted; but did the legend at all times describe Romulus as the son of Rea Silvia or Ilia? Perizonius was the first who remarked against Ryccius that Rea Ilia never occurs together, and that Rea Silvia was a daughter of Numitor, while Ilia is called a daughter of Æneas. He is perfectly right: Nævius and Ennius called Romulus a son of Ilia, the daughter of Æneas, as is attested by Servius on Vergil and Porphyrio on Horace; but it cannot be hence inferred that this was the national opinion of the Romans themselves, for the poets who were familiar with the Greeks might accommodate their stories to Greek poems. The ancient Romans, on the other hand, could not possibly look upon the mother of the founder of their city as a daughter of Æneas, who was believed to have lived three hundred and thirty-three or three hundred and sixty years earlier. Dionysius says that his account, which is that of Fabius, occurred in the sacred songs, and it is in itself perfectly consistent. Fabius cannot have taken it, as Plutarch asserts, from Diocles, a miserable unknown Greek author; the statue of the she-wolf was erected in the year A.U. 457, long before Diocles wrote, and at least a hundred years before Fabius. This tradition therefore is certainly the more ancient Roman one; and it puts Rome in connection with Alba. A monument has lately been discovered at Bovillæ: it is an altar which the Gentiles Julii erected lege Albana, and therefore expresses a religious relation of a Roman gens to Alba. The connection of the two towns continues down to the founder of Rome; and the well-known tradition, with its ancient poetical details, many of which Livy and Dionysius omitted from their histories lest they should seem to deal too much in the marvelous, runs as follows:
Numitor and Amulius were contending for the throne of Alba. Amulius took possession of the throne, and made Rea Silvia, the daughter of Numitor, a vestal virgin, in order that the Silvian house might become extinct. This part of the story was composed without any insight into political laws, for a daughter could not have transmitted any gentilician rights. The name Rea Silvia is ancient, but Rea is only a surname: rea femmina often occurs in Boccaccio, and is used to this day in Tuscany to designate a woman whose reputation is blighted; a priestess Rea is described by Vergil as having been overpowered by Hercules. While Rea was fetching water in a grove for a sacrifice the sun became eclipsed, and she took refuge from a wolf in a cave, where she was overpowered by Mars. When she was delivered, the sun was again eclipsed and the statue of Vesta covered its eyes. Livy has here abandoned the marvelous. The tyrant threw Rea with her infants into the river Anio: she lost her life in the waves, but the god of the river took her soul and changed it into an immortal goddess, whom he married. This story has been softened down into the tale of her imprisonment, which is unpoetical enough to be a later invention. The river Anio carried the cradle, like a boat, into the Tiber, and the latter conveyed it to the foot of the Palatine, the water having overflowed the country, and the cradle was upset at the root of a fig-tree. A she-wolf carried the babies away and suckled them; Mars sent a woodpecker which provided the children with food, and the bird parra which protected them from insects. These statements are gathered from various quarters; for the historians got rid of the marvellous as much as possible. Faustulus, the legend continues, found the boys feeding on the milk of the huge wild beast; he brought them up with his twelve sons, and they became the staunchest of all. Being at the head of the shepherds on Mount Palatine, they became involved in a quarrel with the shepherds of Numitor on the Aventine — the Palatine and the Aventine are always hostile to each other. Remus being taken prisoner was led to Alba, but Romulus rescued him, and their descent from Numitor being discovered, the latter was restored to the throne, and the two young men obtained permission to form a settlement at the foot of Mount Palatine where they had been saved.
Out of this beautiful poem the falsifiers endeavored to make some credible story: even the unprejudiced and poetical Livy tried to avoid the most marvelous points as much as he could, but the falsifiers went a step farther.
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