The Capitoline Wolf and the Twins: A look at the mythological roots of Roma

The Lupa Capitolina, otherwise known as the Capitoline Wolf, is one of the ancient symbols of Rome associated with its mythology and founding. It is a symbol which can still be seen all throughout Italy and the city of Rome, and continues to be associated with the Italian people (similar to the acronym S.P.Q.R- Senatus Populusque Romanus).

When one visits Rome today, they can expect to see this famous image on storm drains, paintings, sculptures, signs, emblems, and flags. It is interwoven into the Roman psyche so much that it has maintained a fusion with the people who still look back on it as the legendary foundation of their roots. But, what exactly is the legend, who told it and where did it come from?

The origins of the Capitoline Wolf are wrapped up in the tale of the two young twins, Romulus and Remus and their foster-mother, the Wolf. The legend also descends into shame and treachery when Remus is murdered by his brother followed later by the rape of the Sabine women which are the two most discreditable features of the ancient lore. In T.J. Cornell’s exhaustive history on the early and ancient roots of Rome, entitled “The Beginnings of Rome“, he thoroughly outlines the depth of this legend by adding that, “all of them (aspects of the legend) were at various times exploited by Rome’s enemies and by Christian critics of her pagan traditions.” (Cornell, pg. 60) The early tales of Rome surely did speak of pagan mythology, as well as the violence that was credited to its beginning, but the fable nonetheless has persevered over two millenniums and continues to be the favoured interpretation of Rome’s foundation due to its drama to explain its existence and founding.

The story of Romulus and Remus is short but dramatic to appease the appetite of the scholar or individual interested in mythologies of the ancient world. It has the similar colour to the story that other tales, legends and myths have from the ancient world, and also ties in the world of the gods to that of what occurs on earth as a connection to the supernatural. It would always give an individual or people more clout if one could associate their existence as being deemed and blessed by the gods. The legend echoes the common tales circulating the ancient world. It is about persons who grow up to become kings, founders, conquerors, explorers, heroes and religious leaders. “Well known examples include Cyrus of Persia, Semiramis the founder of Babylon, Sargon the founder of the Akkadian dynasty, Ion the ancestor of the Ionians, the Trojan princes Paris and Aeneas, the Greek heroes Perseus and Oedipus, the usurper Aegisthus (the murderer of Agamemnon), Cypselus the tyrant of Corinth, the Sassanian king Shapur, and Pope Gregory the Great.” (Cornell, pg. 61-62)

As the legend goes, the maternal grandfather of the twins was a man named Numitor, who was the rightful king and leader of the kingdom of Alba Longa. It was Numitor, who the Romans believed to be the descendent of the Trojan prince Aeneas who had escaped the destruction of the city, Troy. Numitor was also known as the father to Rhea Silvia who was also widely known by the name of Illia. As the legend went, Numitor’s brother, Amulius deposed him and killed his sons forcing Rhea to flee and become one of the sacred Vestal Virgins. It was the purpose of Amulius to seize power and thus deprive his brother of a rightful heir so he could reign supreme. However, Rhea gave birth to twins, Romulus and Remus through the supernatural procreation with either Mars (later Roman god of war and blood) or Hercules (Greek association with Heracles). Amulius, who knew about the pregnancy, took the twins once they were born and abandoned them to die. This, by all means should have been the end of the twins through the old practice of infanticide, but they were discovered by a she-wolf (lupa) who then suckled them recognizing them to be half-immortal and from the bloodline of gods. Later, a shepherd and his wife found the twins and raised them until they were men who became shepherds themselves. When the twins discovered the treachery of their past, they killed Amulius, restored Numitor to the throne and decided to found a city of their own.

The two twins ventured until they came to the River Tiber where they decided that this should be the location of their new city. The legend is really divided into two possible tales, with one of them simply resulting in the death of Remus without murder being implied. However, the more dramatic one of course, as told by the Roman historian Livy, who tells of the twins competing for a location and name, chasing each other around, attempting to build the foundational walls and then fighting bitterly until Romulus kills his brother. It is said that Remus had leapt over Romulus’ wall to discredit him and thus was killed in turn with his brother Romulus stating, “So perish everyone that shall hereafter leap over my wall.” Thus, the city is founded and named Roma in what Roman historians dated it at 758 B.C.

One of the best, and most current evidence to suggest that the legend of the She-Wolf and the Twins was part of Rome’s archaic age exists in the famous bronze statue which now stands in the Palazzo dei Conservatori (Capitoline Museum). This has been dated to the 6th century B.C. and originates from the Etruscan people of northern Italy who were later conquered by the Roman kings, later to be absorbed into the Roman Empire with unified Italy as the source of political and judicial power. Historians and archaeologists alike have ample evidence to believe that the story of the Twins was added to the existence of the She-Wolf by around 300 B.C.  which had become the standard story in Rome. “It was officially proclaimed to the world in 269 B.C. when a representation of the she-wolf and twins appeared on one of the first issues of Roman silver coins.” (Cornell, pg. 61)

“The story was accepted in Rome precisely because it was an old and indigenous legend, and because its main features, uncongenial though they may have appeared to later apologists, were too well established in the tradition to be ignored or suppressed.” (Cornell, pg. 61) The people and society had accepted the story of Romulus and Remus to be a truthful account of the founding of their city and an explanation of its existence. It did not matter if the common belief was that the gods had dabbled and had a part in the founding, for it was customary, at the time in pagan society, to believe that the gods interacted with mankind, could procreate with them, and sometimes appeared to them. Like the Greeks who used the myths of the gods and goddesses to explain their existence and purpose in the world, so would the Romans adopt such beliefs to shape and understand their life and later manifest destiny to control the known world.

Whatever elements of truth may or may not lay in the ancient legend, it is sure that the tale of Romulus and Remus would in ways foreshadow the centuries of Roman influence and dictatorship upon the world to come. These similarities from the history of Rome compared with the founding mythology would follow an evolution of: survival, intervention, humbleness, glory, greed, power, self-deification and treachery. Rome would struggle in countless wars, oppress nations of people, take slaves from every country under the sun, fight civil war after civil war, and hunger for wealth, power and glory. Nearly a quarter of the world would live under the rule of the Caesars and the dreams and nightmares that would follow would all point back to the two helpless twins being suckled by the she-wolf.

By Peter J. Fast

Photos taken by author



Part Two: “Let us worship the creation instead of the Creator!”: The clash between the pagans and the radical idea of monotheism

The Ancient Canaanites 2500 – 411 B.C.E. Date is based on period known as Late Bronze Age to the last recorded Canaanite king, Abdemon.

Although, as a people, the Canaanites cease to exist, they remain prevalent today through both Biblical and archaeological records. Located mainly in the region (Mesopotamia) , which today is the State of Israel, Syria, Jordan, and parts of Lebanon, the Canaanite people will be our second study on the link between the early roots of paganism in ancient times (and the deification of nature) compared with the modern expression of these commonalities.

Canaanite culture, as we know it today through archaeology and the Bible, took enormous leaps and bounds with its Mesopotamian flare from the influence of nations surrounding it and the kings that ruled them. The Canaanites were a Semitic, tribal people, divided into clans that governed sections of lands in an agrarian caste. They were warlike,  built cities, developed intricate pottery, worshiped many gods fervently, wrote in a cuneiform type script (with connections to Accadian) and were the major players during the time of the early Hebrews when they entered the land. We read in the Bible of such Canaanite cities as Hazor, Beit She’an, Jericho, and Ai (that have been excavated) to just name a few and they lived among and were surrounded by non-Semitic neighbors such as the Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, etc. Yet, the Canaanites had one main thing in common that we see among all the people’s of the lands and that was their belief that their gods directly impacted nature and existed within nature as a controlling, malevolent, factor.

In William Foxwell Albright’s masterpiece entitled, “YAHWEH AND THE GODS OF CANAAN” he writes that the pantheon of Canaanite gods and their religious practice has better come to light through the study and excavations of ancient Ugarit, which shared common culture and language with the Canaanites. Also, the myths, prose, songs, ballads, and legends are almost exactly the same between that of Canaan and Ugarit, so much as it is possible the two blended together, although there are sources that explicitly verbalize a difference between the two. Yet, similar to Ugarit, the Canaanites connected their gods and goddess to what they saw in nature, whether through the weather, seasons, and animals. They worshiped upon the high places (mountains) where they built temples, they tied in the natural changes of nature into an agrarian type calendar (for instance at the time of planting or harvest certain ceremonies would take place related to the deity that was in charge, i.e. Baal over wheat crops) and they worshiped the celestial heavens (sun, moon, stars, planets). Their religious expression was interwoven into the fabric of daily life in every facet. Let’s look at three such gods, El who was the head of the pantheon, Asherah the goddess of holiness and fertility, and Baal the god of harvest and crops.

Three is a Crowd: A Study of El, Baal, and Asherah

El: (El-‘elyon, El-‘olamknown as Baniyu binawati “Begetter of Creatures”) : El was the chief god of the Canaanites and has been identified with gods such as Kronos (Greece) and Re (Egyptian) and is translated as, “strong one”, or “the leader/master”. El  was also called by another name, “Bull El,”. According to Albright, El is pictured as the father of mankind and the creator of everything that man interacts with, the earth and the heavens. An image of a bull was associated with “El, or the Bull El,” for the significance of wild cattle and horses contained strength and majesty which was what the Canaanites wanted to emulate in the persona of such a chief god as, El. For in this image of the bull or stallion, Albright says, El would be viewed as “strong enough to vanquish all rivals.” The Canaanites, as did any other pagan group of people, wanted to view El as unstoppable and a god who commanded respect and was the highest authority among the pantheon.

For one to visit, meet with, and worship El, they had to come to a place known as, “the source of the two rivers, the fountain of the two deeps.” Albright lays out a geographical grid on where to find such a place. He states that this place referred to the region of Canaan itself (like a Mount Olympus), and that most likely this region was in the heartland called Aphaca (fountain), which later would house the sanctuary of a god Adonis. We see the common pattern throughout the pagan world in the visitations by men to the temples of their gods, built upon the peaks of mountains which were literally believed to be the celestial homes of the gods on earth. For El, within his temple or abode, it was believed that El would not communicate with gods or men, except through visions and visits.

Baal: Baal, the storm-god and king of heaven and earth, is by far the most active of the Canaanite pantheon. Known as the, “Son of Dagan” (Hebrew: Dagon) Baal took upon himself similar traits of fertility from his father who was worshiped around the Euphrates Valley in early times and later adopted by the Philistines. Baal’s personal name, Hadad (pronounced: Hudade) later took on the appellation of meaning “lord” (Ba’al). When this addition was applied to Hadad is not known. In the seventeen and sixteen centuries B.C.E. Hadad (like in most mythology) was identified to other gods in the regions around it, like ancient Egypt‘s storm-god, Seth, Greece’s god Zeus, or Babylon’s Marduk. Favorite terms to describe Baal would be, ‘Triumphant Baal’, ‘Cloud-Rider’, and ‘Majesty, Lord of the Earth.’  Baal struggled with gods, had power in the underworld, and effected the vegetation on earth. He had such great influence that often times human sacrifices would be offered to appease Baal or from an act of desperation (i.e. famine, death, sickness, drought, etc). The worship of Baal meant the worshiper would give everything and be kept in a state of fear and question. Baal left its adherents in the dark and sometimes demanded their very blood.

The expression of worship to Baal was something which we see in many different ways. One such example we will look at is in the account of the prophet Elijah and the 400 prophets of Baal upon Mount Carmel. Here we see an extreme and charismatic sadism in how the prophets of Baal react to calling on their god, Baal. The account in 1 Kings 18:28-29 reads, “So they (prophets of Baal) cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out of them. And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention.” In this showdown of who is real, Baal or the God of Israel, Elijah watches as the prophets of Baal cry out to him (the son of Dagon).  However, Baal says nothing and ultimately the true God, the God of Israel, shows Himself through fire from heaven which consumes Elijah’s altar covered in water. Thus, showing to all who the real God is. The interesting thing in this account are a number of items I will touch on before I continue.

Elijah and the Prophets of Baal: Quick points to note!

Baal among Israel: We see in 1 Kings 16:31-33 that Baal was brought into the land of Israel by way of the marriage between King Ahab of Israel and the Sidonian daughter, Jezebel, (notice the end of her name) of King Ethbaal (notice the name again!!!). We see Ahab build a temple to Baal in Samaria and erect within it a wooden image of the god. This no doubt provokes the anger of the Lord God of Israel and Elijah the Tishbite is sent to confront both Ahab and the paganism.  Season: Baal is considered to be the god over the crops and natural forces. He is seen as a god of fertility that helps fields grow and gives life. However, in the account by the hand of Elijah, God has allowed it not to rain on the land for over three years, thus bringing famine. This shows Baal to be powerless and incapable of changing anything in a climate he is assumed to be in control over. God or god?: The worship of Baal was rampant throughout the Canaanite world. We see many cultures apart from the Canaanites adopting the worship of Baal, chiefly among those were the ancient Israelite’s.  Elijah’s challenge is that Israel has strayed away from the real God and traded Him for a lie, to worship that of which is untruth. Elijah therefore proclaims that God will show Himself to be master over everyone and everything, including El, Baal, and all the other gods of Canaan. The end of the account proves this to be true with the God of Israel sending fire from heaven, consuming the altar of bull parts, wood, and water, which ultimately results in the prophets of Baal being put to death.

Asherah: (The Lady who traverses the Sea- known as Qaniyatu ‘elima “She who gives birth”):Asherah is seen as the goddess of holiness. She possesses a mystical approach as a goddess who has been seen (through myth) to consort and have relations throughout the Canaanite pantheon. She was usually depicted as a nude goddess atop of a lion, and was seen often, in Canaanite literature, as a sworn enemy of Baal and his sister Anath. Her holiness is seen as a designation of her very divinity, and she is equaled to El as his consort. Often times it is Asherah, who deals with the misbehaving of other gods as El instructs her and gives her advice.

The mention of Asherah in the Bible is frequent during the time of the Philistines and Canaanites when Israel was establishing herself. In the Book of Judges 3:7 it states that Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served both Baal and Asherah. In 1st Kings 15:13 it gives the account of King Asa of the Kingdom Judah, dealing with the evil of the queen mother who set up an image of Asherah which is described as being, “obscene.” We see Asa cut this object down and burn it by the Brook Kidron. However, none of the accounts of the Israelite syncretism of Canaanite gods/goddess into their religious system are as sacrilegious as the passage in 2nd Kings 21:7 where we see the wicked king of Judah, Manasseh, profane the temple in Jerusalem by setting up a carved image of Asherah. Further ahead in chapter 23:4, we see the next king of Judah, King Josiah, cleanse the House of the Lord (temple) of, “all the articles that were made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven,”. This is interesting because it shows that Manasseh in the previous passage which I mentioned, did not just stop with Asherah, but had filled the Jewish Temple with articles of Baal and the other gods and goddess, a despicable act! These are just three examples of the syncretism in which the Hebrews fall guilty to, as the enormous pressure to take part in the local norm of idolatry pressed in around them.

Conclusion of the Canaanites:

The Canaanites were a people developed and advanced like the nations surrounding it, but a people controlled by the whims of their deities in which they sought to understand the world in which they lived in. They explained natural patterns (such as storms, rain, and sunshine) as being guided by their deities, and things found in nature (rivers, lakes, animals, fields, trees, and mountains) as emulating the very existence of the gods and goddesses. For example, the common belief concerning pools of water, underground rivers and springs was that they were inhabited by mystical spirits like nymphs which gave the water power. They also went further in the belief that the spirits themselves which dwelt in the water would directly affect the growth of their crops and the prosperity of their families. When the harvest failed or was stunted, people naturally interpreted that as the wrath and anger of the gods, thus they would offer sacrifices or often perform extreme measures of worship, such as what is found in the Biblical account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

However, in all of their worship and practices, it was the exact opposite of what the God of the Bible had intended for man after his creation, in the book of Genesis 1:28 where it states, “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” In the lives of the Canaanites, it was creation that had dominion over them as they (along with all the other pagan nations) became slaves to it. The Canaanite pantheon was a cruel task master, and inevitably it led to their demise as the one true God, would judge them because of their idolatry and having sacrificed, even their own children, to quench the glutinous appetite of false deities such as El, Baal, and Asherah.

By: Peter J. Fast

Soon to come: Part Three: Ancient Israel: The Radical Monotheists 2400 – 516 B.C.E. Date is based on the Biblical account of Abram’s calling from God to the rebuilding of the second temple after the destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.