Not Built in a Day

Since the date of our New Year dates back to the Romans, what better to write about today than the myths surrounding the founding of Rome? Of course, the year didn’t start on the first of January at that point. The official beginning of the Roman calendar was 21 April 753 BC, the traditional date for the beginning of the city. Its founding is associated with the mythical figures Romulus and Remus, twin sons of the god Mars.

You see, a prince named Amulius usurped the throne to the Italian city of Alba Longa from his brother Numitor. Amulius had all of Numitor’s sons killed, but since Numitor’s daughter Rhea Silvia had no claim on the throne herself, Amulius merely forced her to become a Vestal Virgin so she wouldn’t have any sons who could challenge his rule. By now, you should know what happened: a god (in this case Mars) showed up to impregnate Rhea Silvia, and she gave birth to the legendary twins. Amulius ordered the boys killed, but a servant set them adrift in a basket on the Tiber River, and they were adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. No, wait, I mean the water-gatherer Akki. Actually, this time it was a she-wolf called Lupa, who suckled the babies and kept them alive.

They were then adopted by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife Acca Larentia.

Eventually, they learned who they were, restored their exiled grandfather to the throne (maybe you should try ear poison next time, Amulius), and went off to found their own city. The twins got into an argument over the location of the city, or possibly Remus jumping over a wall, depending on which version of the myth you read. Anyway, Romulus killed Remus, and this fratricidal maniac went on to rule the city for almost forty years. He then disappeared in a storm, and Rome had six more kings before beginning the consul system in 503 BC. Legend has it that Romulus himself established the Senate, but later attempted to become an autocratic ruler, probably as a reflection of later struggles between the monarchy and Senate for power over the city.

The twins actually weren’t the only mythical figures associated with the founding of Rome. There was also Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan War, son of the goddess Aphrodite and Prince Anchises of Dardania, and husband to Princess Creusa of Troy. He featured in the Iliad as one of the more noble Trojans, and apparently there was no report in Homer of his having died. I’m not sure when he was first associated with Rome (sources on the Web seem to indicate that this connection actually existed BEFORE the Romulus and Remus story), but the poet Virgil took on the task of telling Aeneas’ entire story in his first century BC work known as the Aeneid. I’ve never read this all the way through (or the works of Homer, for that matter; they’re on my list of things to read), but the epic poem is basically Homeric fan-fiction mixed with Roman propaganda.

According to the legend and the poem, Aeneas fled Troy before its destruction, and visited a lot of the same places Odysseus did before finally coming to what we now know as Italy. There, he married Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus of the Latin tribe.

The two of them were the ancestors of King Numitor, hence cleverly tying the two founding legends together. The British later sought to tie this story in with their own history, so they decided their legendary founder was Brutus, grandson of Aeneas and his first wife.

This stone, supposedly placed by Brutus, is located in Totnes, Devon.

Julius Caesar also claimed descent from Aeneas through his son Ascanius, generally regarded as a son of Creusa, but sometimes seen as the son of Lavinia instead.

Virgil played up this connection by claiming that Ascanius was also called Iulius, the name of Caesar’s clan. See how everyone rushes to jump on the myths of earlier cultures?

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9 Responses to Not Built in a Day

  1. vilajunkie says:

    OK, I have some thoughts about all of this that may seem like I’m trying to be a jerk for the fun of it, but really it’s just things I’ve thought about after reading this post and wondering why no one in academia is being practical about the Rome stuff:

    “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day”: Whenever I hear this phrase used, it doesn’t seem like it makes any sense. I mean, yes, I get that the sentiment is goals take hard work to accomplish, but usually when people bring up the phrase, they’re trying to apply it to intangible, psychological goals when building a city is something you can delegate with a committee of specialists in order to make a physical thing. Making a resolution to a “better” friend, for example, doesn’t get done like city-building–it’s pretty much all things you have to accomplish on your own by manipulating your mind/personality, not physical objects, and even if the steps to being a better friend involve tangible actions like baking people cookies, your reasoning for doing them is emotional, not Darwinian survival skills (i.e., the whole process of getting food depending on environmental factors in order not to starve to death).

    Determining When a Rome Was Founded: What exactly are the requirements or rules governing what makes a city instead of an established village used by nomads for certain seasons of the year? What is a “city” really? And if we’re talking about the founding of Rome, is the exact moment of the city being founded as a social or political entity or just as an industrial entity created for basic survival skills the deciding factor? That is, are historians talking about the persona of Roman culture or the physical buildings labeled Rome on a map?

    • Nathan says:

      It’s true that you really have to stretch the metaphor to get “Rome wasn’t built in a day” to apply to…well, anything. For that matter, why Rome, and not any other city? I doubt Wichita, Kansas was built in a day either.

      I guess now a city is largely defined by population, but back in the day it was probably more a case of being a large collection of dwellings that weren’t farmhouses. I’m not entirely sure where you would draw the line, though. Founding myths usually seem to have someone just deciding to build a city in a previously unoccupied area, but that’s not all that realistic. Most traditional cities probably developed over many years, and can’t be said to have founders as such. Then again, there are SOME planned cities, like Washington, DC and the Emerald City.

      • vilajunkie says:

        Another planned city (and I’m not joking either): Celebration, Florida…founded by the Walt Disney Company about ten years ago as the real-world equivalent of Pleasantville/Mayberry/Stepford/Hometown, USA, etc. Naturally, it has everything you’d expect from a town modeled off of Stepford even when the planners didn’t even realize how eerily similar it was. Even down to the only electrical company allowed in town is one established specifically for the town and that’s it, and if other nationwide/statewide companies want to put in their own wiring, there’s an insane amount of red tape the official company doesn’t have to go through. :P

      • Nathan says:

        I remember hearing recently that there was a murder in Celebration. Maybe the victim was an unauthorized electrical contractor.

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