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

 

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PETER J. FAST

I invite you to explore the dark corridors of ancient history and see it come to life.

The study of ancient history has always fascinated me for as long as I can remember. Whether it be the image of Greek hoplites crammed together in a phalanx, or legions marching stoically across the battlefield I believe it has the power to ignite the imagination of the unknown. The ancient world, particularly around the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, which is what I focus on, was a world very different then what we know today and has stirred poets, politicians, researchers, archaeologists, geologists, and many others to document their findings, write about history seen through their eyes, and try to grasp an understanding of how the ancients thought, behaved, and interacted with one another. This is the beginning of what it means to look into history.

We, in the 21st century, can only look through a key hole back through thousands of years of history and unearth what we believe happened based on evidence, be it archaeological and primary written sources. I believe that the study of history is tantamount to understanding how we have ended up where we are. It involves the exploration into our political society, how we function in society, make war, live our lives, and much more which is mostly based on Greco-Roman ideals. To understand the past can open up that key hole further in how we should and should not live our lives and what choices we should or should not take. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I seek not only to remember and study the past, but to bring it to life through my writing and hopefully, God willing, give people a glimpse into ancient history of how the people of those times may have worshiped, thought, loved, ruled, fought, suffered, succeeded, died, and lived. We even see the fascination in culture and history taking place in the ancient world with figures such as Alexander the Great or Roman Emperor Hadrian (to just name a few).

“It is the echoes of the past that turn our ear to what may have taken place, and this curiosity, intrenched in so many people, is something we cannot run from.”

Peter J. Fast

Documenting ancient history, why bother?

Battles, sieges, generals, suffering, and victory has always been the price tag of ancient civilizations as they struggled together in a changing world as empires and kingdoms marched on leaving many in the dust. Whether it was Spartans and Athenians, Macedonians and Persians, Carthaginians and Romans, or Seleucid’s and Ptolemies, all shook the earth, all changed history, and all were documented and recorded. To understand the ancients, we must turn to the witnesses and people living at the time and what they wrote. Often, we must understand that much of the ancient records of those days were intertwined with their mythological stances, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or The Epic of Gilgamesh, there is still much to learn outside of these boundaries however, once we explore the ancient writing or what is known as primary sources. I personally have focused my time and studies on ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel.

However, there is also a greater picture of the people’s and nations living before and after these times which also have piqued my interest over the years which has deepened a desire to broaden my knowledge and appreciation for the complex and diverse world in the B.C.E. years. The timeline is long and the list even longer but the ample amount of rich stories, history, battles, governments, and search for power has never escaped the essence of mankind. I have enjoyed studying such people as the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Carthaginians, Hittites, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Etruscan’s, and many more. The fascinating thing regarding the wealth of knowledge that has been compiled in libraries and universities throughout the world is that even if you had a dozen lifetimes it would not be enough to fully grasp and master the ancient world. Thus, the primary sources are priceless as they offer one of our best ways to glimpse back through time at what life was like and how it happened.

For me, over the years I have amassed a collection of such sources in which I have studied to better aid my own writing and research as I work towards publishing and establishing myself as an author. Sources that were indispensable for my study were: Polybius, Livy, Caesar, Appian, Cicero, Xenophon, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Homer, Virgil, Herodotus, Thucydides, Flavius Josephus, Plato, Socrates, Philo of Alexandria, and of course all other ancient texts (i.e. Dead Sea Scrolls, Book of the Dead), be they on papyrus, or chiseled into stone.

To grasp an understanding of Jewish history (whether it be pre-temple period or later) the Bible is by far my favorite source. Not only does the Bible shed light on the history of ancient Israel, it also builds an excellent picture for the nations surrounding it as this picture also corresponds with extra-biblical sources, archaeology, and geography. The Bible is vital in understanding the journey for the Jewish people, from Mount Sinai right up into the Second Temple period (with the Christian scriptures/New Testament). It shows their struggle against paganism, worldly pursuits, and how God called them to be a separate people and a light to the world. This is essential in understanding how the Jews would have thus perceived the Greeks and Romans (in later years) and why they reacted the way they did or rebelled, such as in the age of the Maccabees (167-160 B.C.E), or with the two Jewish revolts against the Romans in 66-73 C.E. and 132-135 C.E. The Babylonian Talmud and other Jewish texts such as the stories of the Midrash can also bring to light much of how the Jews thought, practiced their faith, and resisted the pressures from the outside world, mainly Hellenism, which is Greek lifestyle and hedonism in a nutshell. Also, 1st and 2nd Maccabees of the Apocryphal writings can assist in gathering together a picture of what transgressed and how things played out.

I hope I have been able to touch on a few interesting subjects, and I invite you to join me as I move towards publishing my first historical-fiction novel based on the events surrounding the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and the destruction of the Jewish Temple at the hands of Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the son of the Emperor and commander of the legions of Judea. For a synopsis of the novel, character list, and further information, just select the tab, “70 A.D.” and journey back in time. Also, join the group “70 A.D. A Novel about the Jewish War with Rome” on Facebook and stay connected as I move towards the completion and publication of the book.

Cheers,

Peter J. Fast