The Murder of Romulus

I’ve been reading Livy, as I mentioned before, and he seems to think that Romulus, the eponymous founder and first king of Rome, was murdered.

And since Livy had access to sources no one else will ever see, there’s a very good chance he’s correct. And even if he’s not, the aristocracy of Rome also believed it — Livy’s work was considered definitive — and they all had a good laugh about it.

You may well ask, “Romulus is a semi-mythical figure with no more grounding in historical fact than, say, King Arthur. How can you say he was murdered?”

To answer fully would take more than a single blog entry, so if you want the full argument email me, but here’s the nub: Livy states that Romulus was popular with the people, because he won great victories, but not so popular with the Senate [the rich], because he stood up for the poor. He apparently had the misfortune of being honorable.

Livy, always and forever a partisan of the Senate, has already let us know what he thinks of Romulus (and Remus, the murdered brother) by saying that “some say” that instead of being suckled by a she-wolf, as the legend goes, the two brothers were actually born to a prostitute known as “The Wolf.”

I should explain that in Livy, as in many ancient writers, there is always a subtext. It begins with Homer, whose works were the equivalent of the Bible in the ancient world. Here’s how it works: there’s a supernatural explanation for the gullible and an alternative explanation for the discerning reader/listener.

Two classic examples are: Telemachos, the son of Odysseus, is visited by Athena [Goddess of Wisdom] in the form of an old friend of his father’s, or: when Odysseus was approaching the realm of Circe, who had turned his men into pigs, he was approached by Mercury [God of Commerce and lots of other stuff] in the form of a guy who had just come from there.

The simple people take the supernatural explanation, and the discerning reader/listeners take the one that is pretty obvious to them and us too.

At one point Homer even lets the simple people in on this systematic double-entendre: Paris, the Trojan who took off with Helen (and a lot of dough) and started the whole ten-year war, is fighting Menelaus, Helen’s husband (also the previous owner of the dough), mano a mano on the field of battle, and although he dearly wants to fight it out to the end, he is swept up by his mother, Aphrodite [Goddess of Love] and ends up in his bedroom in the palace. Everybody has a good laught about that because the subtext is obvious.

Little known fact about Paris: he killed Achilles by shooting (from the safety of the fabled walls of Troy) the arrow that caught him in the heel. It didn’t save his home town, which got sacked anyway; it’s just a footnote.

So when Livy talks about the death of Romulus he describes the scene where Romulus and the senators are shrouded in mist and Romulus disappears, and the people think he was torn apart by the senators, and one of the senators has the “shrewd” idea to say that he saw Romulus ascending into heaven — something that happened to a lot of guys in the ancient world.

I suggest that if the idea was “shrewd,” the guy didn’t actually see the supposed ascension. Isn’t that pretty obvious? If he was just relating what he actually saw, that couldn’t possibly be described as “shrewd.”

So whether Romulus ever existed or not, Livy, at least, thought he was murdered; and Livy is in a better position to judge than anyone else will ever be.

And if Remus had killed Romulus instead of the other way around, would we be seeing “true remance” novels in the supermarket?