Nationality: U.S. American, Italian and Irish Heritage
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/18/15
Primary Language: English
The informant and I were having a conversation in my apartment, and the topic of our families was brought up. I asked him if his parents or relatives had shared any interesting stories or sayings with him. The informant is of Italian heritage, and he said that when he grew up, his father told him the story of Rome’s founding.
Informant: There’s a place called… Alba Longa, no longer known anywhere in Italy. But a place that was ruled by a king named Numitor. Numitor had a brother, um, Amulius, and… he was jealous of Numitor. So he actually seized the throne for him, and he kicked Numitor out and killed all the sons of Numitor. Numitor had one daughter though. Amulius decided to make the daughter, um, Rhea Silvia, a, uh… virgin priestess. She had to remain celibate, but of course, as often is true, the gods can intervene. And so they did. Mars, the god of war, impregnated Rhea Silvia, quote common in Greek mythology and Roman mythology, this idea, and she conceived twins. She birthed them, and Amulius saw and of course was not happy with this because he wanted to ensure that he would have no one to challenge him in his rule. Though he had the twins put in a basket and thrown in the Tiber river. Um… Well, since these children were born of a god, and were semi-divine, they were actually spared by the river, by the spirit of the river, I believe it’s um… Tiberinus, the god of the river Tiber, actually floated them to safety, to the shore. But they were still abandoned, so um… what would they do? They’d starve. Well a, uh, she-wolf found them, um, it’s uh, lupa, very iconic, that the she-wolf found them, and um, quenched their thirst, gave them nutrients. In some tellings of the story, she spent some time protecting the two young. Now, they were fed also by a woodpecker, the story goes. The woodpecker fed them, but the she-wolf protected them, uh… gave them sustenance. But eventually, after a little bit of time, they were found by a shepherd and his wife. They raised the, uh, two boys to become shepherds as well, and they had the names Romulus and Remus. Uh, just as a side note, I’m not sure if you can think of this connection, but if you’re aware of Remus from Harry Potter, um, he can turn into a werewolf. Well… Romulus, Remus are quite related to wolves. Oftentimes when we see depictions of Romulus and Remus in this myth, we see the two twin babes sucking from the she-wolf. That’s a very famous, very, uh, dear icon. Now, they were raised and they became natural leaders. They had no idea though, that they were actually divine. They ended up becoming leaders amongst other shepherds, and Amulius found out about this and had the idea that they were actually the twins, that they must be. So he captured Remus. Romulus ended up gathering a band of shepherds to save him. And they ended up overthrowing Amulius and restoring Numitor to the thrown. They were actually offered, um, to be the kings together of Alba Longa, but they just had Numitor take the thrown again. But they decided to go off though, and with their band of followers and find a city. Now, Romulus wanted to find a city in the, I believe it’s the… Palatine hill. And Remus the Aventine. They weren’t sure which one they wanted to be the place of the city, so they decided to use augury, which is seeing from the birds some divine sign of what they should do. What would be the most auspicious place. Well… Romulus saw, um, twelve birds. Remus only six. So Romulus concluded he had the more auspicious sign that it was his location that they would build the city. But Remus thought to himself, “Well… I saw the six first though, so it is a more auspicious sign.” Well, Romulus already decided to start working on the city, but Remus was upset, criticizing, thinking it was really his right and that Romulus was wrong, so criticizing him. He held this grudge up. Romulus soon came up with a wall. Remus, in challenging this, actually decided to jump over the wall. Well… but when he did though, Romulus, so angered by this… defiance, killed him. This is, uh, probably the most problematic part of the founding myth of Rome, that, um, Romulus killed his twin brother, and uh… built the city upon that bloodshed, and named it Rome. The city actually had… not too many women. Of some of the shepherds, some of them had wives, but a lot of them did not, so it was a problem. Well, they ended up inviting some of the Sabine people, uh, that were around the area to come to the developing city for a festival, and they ended up distracting the men and taking captive the women. And this led to some conflicts, eventually to a standoff between Rome and the Sabines. Now… the women though, ended up, uh… wanting a, resolution between the two, seeing that it would be quite bloody. So they ended up actually having two kings becoming one entity. But the leader of the Sabines ended up getting into some scandal, some kind of situation, and he actually was killed. So Romulus, he ended up acquiring the territory, being leader of the territory, for the rest of his life acquiring more and more land. Uh… being such a great leader, a very strong person. But he died, eventually, and it’s said he rose up actually, into the sky into heaven, and announced, or expressed, that he would be, then, Quirinus, a certain god that actually, that god really is the form of Romulus. So that god now is often on coins, and people associate that god with Romulus. But then of course, Romulus, Remus, with the she-wolf, that statue, that icon, being very famous too. I often heard that, known about them, heard of their names, understanding their importance. But now, of course, it’s interesting to consider how the founding was of these… these boys that, you know, were human but also divine, but then were raised, in some sense, by a wolf. The idea of the… feral child. That is coming into play here, they had to experience with a wolf, with the wild, and then with the kind of… simple origins as shepherds. It’s interesting also with shepherds, those, you know, guiding sheep, maybe protecting sheep from wolves, but they were, in some sense, raised by a wolf. So, that’s it. That’s it for the legend.
Me: How did you learn about this story?
Informant: From my dad.
Me: In what context would he usually tell it to you?
Informant: Hmm… Um, I’m not sure if I exactly remember. Just when I was little, I remember, I remember it coming up, but I don’t exactly remember what context.
Me: So, um, what significance does this story have to you?
Informant: To me? Um… I’d that say, the personal significance is that it was something my father shared with me, and something that I thought was really interesting. The first time I heard it, this was… something that has been kind of passed down for a long time and has been important to Rome, to Italy. It’s something that people are aware… that people care about. Um, as far as how it’s interesting besides having heard it, and thinking of it as important that way, I’d say it’s always been interesting to me that the story starts with, the story of Rome starts with, like, twins that, were raised in part by a wolf. That seems, like… Who would think that? It’s very interesting to me. It almost seems like Rome, like it’s kind of like those who have come from the wilderness and then they bring something to begin civilization. You know… it’s like, you know, Socrates descending to the people from high. I don’t know… The hermits in the mountains coming down, giving them wisdom. That they kind of came from this situation and grew up from nothing, seemingly, to then… to then being the founders of Rome. And also, maybe more interesting recently, has been, um, has been the killing of Remus, what that means. That’s something to think about.
This narrative is an example of a story which has been performed for many years. While it once held mythologic significance for the citizens of Rome, it is now shared through families and during coverage of ancient Rome in history classes. The informant identified the story’s significance to him as the fact his father shared it with him. Even though the religion the story references has largely fallen out of practice, the story is still entertaining to tell and connects modern people with Italian heritage to their past.