Monday, March 16, 2009

Plutarch's Lives: Romulus

While Theseus was the founding father of Athens, Romulus is the founding father of Rome. Like Theseus, Romulus appears to be a historic figure, but the facts of his life have been buried in myth and legend. However, his life is not nearly as embroidered as that of Theseus. Plutarch is able to trace even the most fantastical elements of Romulus' legend to their original source. In telling the story of Romulus also gives us a glimpse into Rome's culture and self image.

Plutarch traces Romulus' ancestry to Aeneas, of course. Aeneas' descendants had ruled the kingdom of Alba until the regency developed upon two brothers, Numitor and Amulius. Although the two brothers were to share the kingdom, Amulius outmaneuvered Numitor, took full control, and became a tyrant. Numitor had an affair with a vestal virgin, which resulted in the birth of twins: Romulus and Remus. The newborns were in mortal danger from Amulus, so - like Moses - they were hidden away from hostile royal eyes and raised by a shepherd. 

The most famous part of the Romulus & Remus story is that they were suckled by a wolf. Plutarch treats this as being semi-factual. He also offers the plausible theory that "wolf" actually referred to an old Latin word for "loose woman," which could also refer to a woman known to have raised the two babies and whom the Romans regarded well enough to build temples in her honor. As with Theseus, Plutarch is excellent in his ability to separate myth from fact. 

When the two boys are grown, they are eventually discovered by the hostile Amulius. The brothers lead a rebellion against the tyrant, killing him and gathering a mob of followers around them. They leave Alba and travel to the future site of Rome where they begin building the city of Rome. While laying out the street grid, the two brothers begin arguing and Remus is killed. Plutarch suggests that it is unclear whether Romulus was the killer, but it is left ambiguous. Romulus, or someone close to him, also kills Romulus' foster father at this time, as well. This is remarkable behavior for the founding father of Rome. 

Romulus' followers were mostly men, which meant that Romulus needed to find some wives. This leads to the second legendary event associated with Romulus, and one of the oddest tales from the ancient world: the Rape of the Sabine Women. Romulus decided that the best way to procure wives for his men, and create an alliance with his neighbors the Sabines, would be to steal all of the Sabines unmarried women, rape them, and then marry them. Plutarch writes that the legend held only 30 Sabine women were taken, but Plutarch says that historic reality was that nearly 800 were taken. Not only that, Plutarch makes clear that they actually were raped by their "husbands" prior to being taken into their homes. Incredibly, the Sabine men - after an initial burst of anger - decide that being allied with Rome in such a manner is in their best interest!

This atrocity is not just a central part of the Romulus story; it was also part of the foundation myth of Rome itself. According to Plutarch, many of the elements of the Roman wedding ceremony (including the practice of carrying the wife over the threshold!) were intended to memorialize the Rape. The Sabine women, after initially pining for their lost homeland, become good wives and homemakers; so much so that, when the Sabines attack Rome several years later, the women intervene and announce that they will not return because they are now part of Rome. 

I think the strange story of the Rape of the Sabine Women says something profound about Roman values and the way Rome saw its place in the world. Rome was, from its earliest days, an aggressive power, but it viewed its aggression as being a necessary pre-condition to peace. Unlike barbarian tribes, Rome did not simply kill its enemies and destroy their cities. Rather, Rome would defeat them in battle and then bring them into Rome's orbit by incorporating the defeated power's most valuable attributes into Roman culture. The Rape of the Sabine Women is a thus symbolic of Rome's self-image as the conquering aggressor that was also a peacemaker. 

The remainder of Romulus' rule is a series of wars on one hand, and feats of statecraft on the other. Romulus is credited with founding the Roman Senate, among other achievements. Many Roman rituals and temples originated to memorialize events in Romulus' life. The Rome that started as a gaggle of shepherds escaping the rule of Amulius is, by Romulus' 50th birthday, a sizable city capable of fielding a large army and sending thousands out to colonize outlying areas. It is an impressive achievement. 

Eventually, however, Romulus becomes more tyrannical with age. Although the founding father of Rome, his tyranny is such that the Romans developed the Republic, so that no man would be able to oppress them in the manner that Romulus came to oppress them. That is a mixed legacy for a founding father. Romulus' end reflects this ambiguous legacy. Romans taught themselves that Romulus simply "disappeared" one day, meaning he was taken into the heavens by the gods. Plutarch, however, suggests that the more likely story was that Romulus was killed by rebellious Romans. One story even hinted that he was killed in secret by the Senate. 

Whatever the reason, it is clear that the Romans preferred to remember the Romulus who founded their city and civilization, rather than the Romulus who came to treat them as little more than his vassals. It is fascinating that the Romans seem to have willingly made up legends about Romulus, rather than confront the truth of his character. In many ways, Romulus was the quintessential Roman: strong, rationale, agrarian, warlike on the one hand; an aggressive, cruel, and tyrranical ruler on the other. That the Romans preferred to emphasize the former over the latter in their foundation myth suggests that they were equally unwilling to see the negative side of themselves as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment