Wednesday 12 August 2020

Who founded Rome?

The ‘Capitoline wolf’, Musei Capitolini, Rome.

Pop quiz. Who, according to legend, founded the city of Rome? Was it:

  1. Aeneas
  2. Evander
  3. Latinus
  4. Romulus
  5. Romulus and Remus

Make sure to choose your answer before going on!

While you keep your answer in your mind, let’s look at a related modern myth. The ‘Capitoline wolf’, pictured at top, with baby Romulus and Remus suckling at her teats, is the most famous representation of Romulus and Remus and Rome’s foundation legend.

The Capitoline wolf

You may know about this already, if you remember reading about it in the news back in 2012. The statue supposedly evokes the following story. Romulus and Remus are the babies of Rhea Silvia, princess of Alba Longa, raped by the god Mars. Their evil great-uncle, the usurper Amulius, wants the twins dead and orders the babies to be exposed. But they are miraculously rescued and suckled by a wolf — the scene shown in the statue. Later, when they grow up, they decide to go and found their own city.

The statue itself is a major piece of cultural heritage. It was given to the city of Rome in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV, and it grew into an emblem of the city. It appears on countless books and postcards. It represents Roman-ness and nationalism, in both good ways and bad ways (Mussolini really liked it), to Italians and italophiles, tourists and scholars alike. Dozens of copies of it exist all round the world.

Rugged and uncouth though it is, this statue moved my spirit more than all the beautiful images that surround it.
Theodor Mommsen, writing in 1845 (tr. Wiseman)

It’s been known for centuries that the babies, representing Romulus and Remus suckling at the wolf’s teats, weren’t originally part of the statue. They were added in the 1400s.

The wolf herself was usually thought to be genuinely ancient, though. You may still see people identifying her as Etruscan, dating to the 6th–5th centuries BCE, the last days of Rome’s monarchy or the very early republic.

But nowadays, if you still see people claiming that ... well, it’s just denial. It turns out the wolf isn’t ancient either. Its origins were hotly debated between sceptics and traditionalists in the 2000s. But in 2012 the results of radiocarbon testing confirmed sceptics’ suspicions, and since then there’s been no wiggle-room. It’s definitely mediaeval.

Left to right: Michael von Albrecht, A history of Roman literature vol. 1 (Brill, 1997); Livy, The early history of Rome (Penguin, 2002); Gary Forsythe, A critical history of early Rome (U. of California, 2006); Jennifer Rea, Legendary Rome (Bloomsbury, 2013); Paul Zoch, Ancient Rome. An introductory history, 2nd ed. (U. of Oklahoma, 2020; the 2000 edition had something genuinely ancient, but they seem to have made a point of swapping in the mediaeval statue for the 2020 edition!)

The debate arose mainly because of the casting technique used to make the wolf (Carruba 2006; Radnoti-Alföldi et al. 2011). It’s a distinctively mediaeval technique. That wasn’t conclusive enough for traditionalists, so cue the radiocarbon testing. A group at the Università del Salento tested organic residue in the remains of the original clay casting core. They announced their results at a conference in 2012 (von Hase Salto 2012) and published them a few years later (Calcagnile et al. 2019).

The date range for the 95% confidence interval is 1021 CE to 1153 CE.

To be sure, it does look like an older style — it’s deliberately archaising! But it isn’t even faux Etruscan. It’s faux Carolingian.

Loosely similar scenes appear on ancient coins as well, but the ancient scenes have a different posture. The Capitoline wolf turns her head off to the side; the ancient one turns her head backwards to look at the babies. It’s doubtful whether the Capitoline wolf was intended to represent Romulus’ and Remus’ wolf at all.

It’s possible the wolf was copied from another earlier statue in front of the Lateran Palace, mentioned in a 10th century source. Maybe the older wolf (which was genuinely Carolingian) was damaged, and this one was made to replace it? We’ll probably never know.

Answer to the pop quiz

All right, and now for the question I posed at the start. Who’s the legendary founder of Rome?

But hang on! Let’s stir things up a bit more. Here are some more options for you to choose from.

  1. Romulus (son of Aeneas, rather than son of Mars and Rhea Silvia)
  2. Romulus (grandson of Telemachus and Circe)
  3. Aeneas and Odysseus
  4. Romus (son of Aeneas)
  5. Romus (grandson of Aeneas)
  6. Romus (son of Odysseus and Circe)
  7. Romus, Romulus, and Telegonus (sons of Latinus)
  8. Romanus (son of Odysseus and Circe)
  9. Latinus (son of Odysseus)
  10. Latinus (son of Telemachus and Circe)
  11. Latinus (a Trojan)
  12. Greeks returning from Troy and stranded in Latium

Feel like changing your mind? Take a moment to think about it, then go on.

The true answer is in fact ... (drum roll)

  1. All of the above.

The classic story, the one about Romulus and Remus the sons of Rhea Silvia, is just one version among many. It happens to be the one that Livy and Plutarch spend most time on. Thanks to them, it has a certain prestige.

A full account of all the variants can be found in T. P. Wiseman’s book Remus. A Roman myth (1995). There are ... well, lots of them.

Note. Yes, the same Wiseman who was once rumoured to be the inspiration for Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books. Wiseman has denied it, pointing out that his beard was black in the 80s when J. K. Rowling was in his class.

Wiseman discusses the variants, their purposes, and a host of other related matters, and in an appendix to the book he gathers together some primary sources. Between them, they offer up sixty-one further foundation legends alongside the best-known story. Some examples:

  • Hellanicus of Lesbos, BNJ 4 F 84
    But the author (Hellanicus of Lesbos) of the history of the priestesses at Argos, and the events that happened in the time of each of them, says that Aeneas came from the land of the Molossians into Italy, and along with Odysseus became the founder of the city.
  • Sallust, War of Catiline 6.1
    The city of Rome, as I understand it, was originally founded and occupied by Trojans who were wandering as refugees with no fixed abode under the leadership of Aeneas, together with the Aborigines (‘autochthonous people’). a wild race without law or authority, free and uncontrolled.
  • Plutarch, Life of Romulus 2.2
    Some say he (Romulus) was a son of Aeneas and Dexithea the daughter of Phorbas, and that he was brought to Italy as a baby along with his brother Rhomos; all the other ships were wrecked in the overflowing river, but the one with the children in was tipped gently on to a soft bank; they were unexpectedly saved, and the place was called Rome.
  • Servius, commentary on Aeneid 7.678
    ... others say it was founded by Evander, and Virgil follows them when he writes ‘The king Evander, founder of the Roman citadel ...’
  • John Lydus, De mensibus 4.4
    They say that Latinus was Telegonus’ brother, Circe’s son, and Aeneas’ father-in-law, and that in the course of founding the citadel of Rome, before the arrival of Aeneas, he discovered a laurel tree by chance on the site, and so he allowed it to remain there. That is the reason why they call the Palatine ‘Daphne’.

Where do the different versions come from?

Historians of early Rome sometimes take great pains to dismiss sources about early Rome, especially when they come from Greek writers. The main reason is that almost no documentation survives from early Rome: most surviving sources are writing centuries afterwards, without the aid of any documentation. And the earlier sources — all in Greek — are problematic because they’re writing from an outside perspective, supposedly ‘imposing’ their own translations and categories.

At first glance it would seem that the story of the twins [Romulus and Remus] ... was an ancient and indigenous legend, while that of Aeneas, with its patently Greek origin, was a subsequent literary accretion imposed on the Roman tradition from outside.
Cornell 1975: 2 (emphasis added)

(In some contexts I’ve seen a different objection: when Greek writers seem to be writing about Rome, there’s something wrong with the text, because they couldn’t have written about Rome or Roman military power before the 2nd century BCE: Rome wasn’t powerful enough until then. This is a silly objection. The better historians of early Rome don’t fall into that trap, and I trust we don’t have to deal with it here.)

Now, most of the objections to alternate traditions come from historians who focus narrowly on Rome. The main point I want to make in response to that is that Rome isn’t unique. Lots of places in early Italy have links to Greek legendary figures. Greek legends are everywhere, in Etruria and Latium as well as in southern Italy.

They’re definitely not accretions ‘imposed from outside’. The question isn’t whether the Italians adopted Greek legendary figures, or whether they did it at an early date. The answer to both is: ‘Yes, they did.’ The real question is which Italians were choosing to adopt Greek legends, and why.

According to some sources, Clusium was founded by Telemachus; Caere, Tusculum, and Praeneste by Telegonus; Rome by Aeneas and Odysseus; Lavinium by Aeneas; Circeii (named after Circe) by the Romans themselves. Clusium, Caere, Rome, and Praeneste have competing foundation legends; Tusculum, Lavinium, and Circeii do not.

First, here’s a selection of testimony we have of native Italian use of Greek legendary figures at an early date, as well as native Italian figures popping up in Greek traditions where there’s an overlap with Italian traditions:

  • Early Etruscan art gives intense prominence to Greek mythological themes from the 7th century BCE onwards.
  • The Romans named a colony after Circe, with a cult site linked to Circe, around the late 6th century BCE.
  • Circeii’s link to Circe was known as far afield as Athens (Aeschylus fr. eleg. 2 ed. West, ‘the Tyrrhenian race, a pharmakon-making people’).
  • Latinus and Faunus, Italian mythological figures, appear in an early Greek source, a passage added to the end of the Hesiodic Theogony (1013, 1015–1016; Faunus hellenised as ‘Agrios’).
  • Aeneas, Hercules, and the Dioscuri appear in art and sources relating to 5th century BCE Rome and Latium.
  • Italian families claim descent from various Greek legendary figures, such as the Mamilii of Tusculum (from Telegonus, son of Odysseus and Circe), the Julii (from Iulus, son of Aeneas), the Fabii (from Hercules and Evander), the Geganii (from Aeneas’ companion Gyas), etc.
  • Timaeus (4th-3rd cent. BCE) reports that his information about a ‘Trojan’ artefact at Lavinium came from questioning local inhabitants (BNJ 566 F 60).

Next, consider that there’s copious evidence of Odysseus and his family, in particular, being involved in legends and folktales set in Italy. These links are founded ultimately on the idea that Circe’s home was imagined as being at Monte Circeo, as it’s now called, 85 km to the southeast of Rome.

Monte Circeo, Lazio, seen from the north by a drone. The early Roman colony was originally on the east side of the peak (to the left), later on the inland side; Terracina is 15 km to the east. (Source: video by Mauro Cassandra, 2015.)

E. D. Phillips (1953) gives extensive documentation of Odysseus’ role in legends and folktales set in Italy, ranging from the south to Latium and Etruria. Much of his wanderings on his way home were regarded as being set in Italy: so the Cyclops and Laestrygonians were in Sicily, Aeolus in the Isole Eolie, the Sirens on the Galli islands south of the Sorrento peninsula, Circe at Monte Circeo, and the summoning of the spirits of the dead at Averno (Lake Avernus) near Naples. There was a temple of Athena on the Sorrento peninsula which Odysseus supposedly founded. According to one memorable folktale, he came to a sticky end in an encounter with an apprentice of Circe’s in Latium: she turned him into a horse, and he spent the rest of his life in that form. A couple of sources identify Cortona, in northern Etruria, as the site of Odysseus’ grave.

We can add material relating to Odysseus’ various children. Tusculum, 20 km outside Rome, was always regarded as founded by Telegonus, Odysseus’ and Circe’s son. For some cities, the sources disagree on whether their founders were Greeks, native Italians, or someone else. So the founder of Praeneste (Palestrina) is usually the Italian hero Caeculus; but in Aristocles it’s Telegonus; in Zenodotus it’s Praenestis or Praenestus, son of Latinus and grandson of Odysseus. Etruscan cities usually have Lydian or Pelasgian founders, but for Caere and Clusium, alongside the concocted names Tyrrhenus, Pelasgus, and Clusius, Servius also mentions Telegonus and Telemachus.

  • Praeneste. Caeculus: see e.g. Verg. Aen. 7.678, Solinus 2.9. Telegonus: Aristocles BNJ 831 F 2 (the garlands in Aristocles’ story also appear in Strabo 5.3.11, Pliny NH 3.64). Praenestis: BNJ 821 F1a (= Solinus; NB: Horster’s BNJ edition treats ablative ‘Praeneste’ as nominative). Praenestus: BNJ 821 F1b (= Steph. Byz.).
  • Caere. Lydian/Pelasgian founders: see e.g. Hdt. 1.94; Dion. Hal. 1.25-30. Pelasgus, Telegonus, or Tyrrhenus: Servius auctus on Aen. 8.479.
  • Clusium. Clusius or Telemachus: Servius auctus on Aen. 10.167.

If lots of Italian places are laying claim to Greek legendary figures, then there’s a good case for treating similar stories in Rome as potentially having a similar standing.

It’s not as though Rome was cut off from the rest of the world in the 6th-5th centuries. Nicola Terrenato (2019: 51–72) has much to say about interactions between city-states of the time — both short-range and long-distance — and geographical mobility in the sixth century BCE, including some people who migrated between Greece, Etruria, and Rome.

Besides, look at where the most popular story of Rome’s founding comes from. When Plutarch tells us the story of Romulus and Remus, he blandly informs us

The story that carries the most trustworthiness, in its main points, and which is the one most widely repeated, is one that was first told to the Greeks by Diocles of Peparethos. Fabius Pictor followed him in most respects.
Plutarch, Romulus 3.1

That is, the story originally appeared in a Greek source — just like Hellanicus’ story of Aeneas and Odysseus, and Cephalon’s story of Romus the son of Aeneas. The earliest Roman source, Fabius Pictor, simply repeated it.

Is there debate over the relationship between Diocles and Fabius Pictor? Oh hell you bet there is. We can’t allow Romulus and Remus to originate in a Greek source! (See Beck 2016 for bibliography.) The problem with that debate isn’t to do with Diocles himself, the problem is its underlying assumptions: ‘If the story appears in a Greek source, it must originate in a Greek source.’

Be that as it may, whoever’s in the right, there’s no disentangling this material into a story that doesn’t involve Greek writers.

So, who’s imposing what from outside? I think it’s far more economical to treat the Greek accounts of Roman legendary origins as more-or-less authentic reports of what the Romans themselves were saying. They may well be selective. But that doesn’t mean Greek writers were somehow compelling the Etruscans to use Greek legendary figures in their art, or forcing elite Italian families to claim Greeks in their ancestry.


  • Beck, H. 2016. ‘Diokles of Proparethos (820).’ Brill’s new Jacoby 820. [Brill]
  • Calcagnile, Lucio; D’Elia, Marisa; Maruccio, Lucio; Braione, Eugenia; Celant, Alessandra; Quarta, Gianluca 2019. ‘Solving an historical puzzle: radiocarbon dating the Capitoline she wolf.’ Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms 455: 209–212. [Elsevier]
  • Carruba, A. M. 2006. La lupa capitolina. Un bronzo medievale. De Luca.
  • Cornell, T. J. 1975. ‘Aeneas and the twins.’ Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 21: 1–32. [JSTOR]
  • Phillips, E. D. 1953. ‘Odysseus in Italy.’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 73: 53–67. [JSTOR]
  • Radnoti-Alföldi, M.; Formigli, E.; Fried, J. 2011. Die römische Wölfin. Ein antikes Monument stürzt von seinem Sockel / The Lupa Romana. An antique monument falls from her pedestal. Franz Steiner.
  • Terrenato, N. 2019. The early Roman expansion into Italy. Elite negotiation and family agendas. Cambridge.
  • Von Hase Salto, M. A. 2012. ‘Ein Werk des Mittelalters. Neue Erkenntnisse über die Kapitolinische Wölfin.’ Antike Welt 2012.5: 53–56. [JSTOR]

1 comment:

  1. Am I the only one who believes that Tacitus' account (wolf was a slang for prostitute and Romulos and Remos were raised by one) is actually the most reasonable explanation? It really does seem to make sense especially considering that Romans used to call brothels lupanar (hence our word lupanar in Portuguese)