Murder Most Mythic

W.V. Harris

  • Remus: A Roman Myth by T.P. Wiseman
    Cambridge, 243 pp, £35.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 521 41981 6
  • The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c.1000-246 BC) by T.J. Cornell
    Routledge, 507 pp, £50.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 415 01595 2

How do myths evolve? The question has received less attention than one might think, there being a tendency among myth-scholars to treat the stories they deal with as given and fixed, even though everyone knows in theory that stories told in pre-literate and semi-literate societies are, to say the least, liable to change. What one needs are cases in which successive stages of a myth can be documented, and that – if T.P. Wiseman’s enthralling new book is right – is exactly what the foundation myth of Rome has to offer.

The myth of the founding twins Romulus and Remus, as it was written down by Rome’s first historian Fabius Pictor about 200 BC (when Rome was already becoming a Mediterranean power), was quite elaborate. It told how Amulius, brother of King Numitor of Alba Longa, usurped the throne and made Numitor’s daughter Ilia (known in most later versions as Rhea Silvia) become a virgin priestess of Vesta to prevent her from having children. But Ilia was raped by Mars and subsequently gave birth to twin sons. Amulius attempted to eliminate the infants by committing them to the flood waters of the Tiber, but the box which was carrying them ran aground, and the twins were then suckled by the famous she-wolf. Faustulus, the king’s swineherd who witnessed this scene, rescued Romulus and Remus and, together with his wife Larentia, brought them up to be herdsmen too. In the next part of the tale the twins, now young men, are reconciled with their grandfather Numitor, whom they succeed in restoring to his rightful position as King of Alba Longa. In the climactic scene the twins found the city of Rome on the site of their miraculous rescue, but Remus is killed by Romulus or one of his supporters. Exactly how Fabius Pictor narrated this final episode we do not know, and there was never a canonical version of the whole story. Wiseman in fact catalogues no fewer than 61 Greek and Roman versions of the foundation of the city, though many of them are only minor variants.

Much of this story conforms to a pattern of foundation stories well-known from other cultures (and not only Indo-European ones), but twins as the central figures seem to be unique. Remus: A Roman Myth argues, as some have suggested before, that the twin element of the story is no older than the mid-fourth century BC, when the co-founder Remus was invented by the Romans for political reasons, only to be almost written out of the story (by being turned into a murder victim) a generation or two later, again for political reasons.

Wiseman casts himself as an exponent of ‘old-fashioned classical scholarship’, and after heartily smiting comparative religion, in the shape of the American philologist Jaan Puhvel, he steers clear of all Modernist, not to mention Post-Modernist, approaches. There is not a shadow of psychoanalysis to be found. Some may think that this is all to the good, but whether a political approach can do justice to such a complex and powerful story – in particular to its first segment, with its emotive abandonment and salvation of the infant twins – seems dubious.

This is a persuasive book: it leads one to entertain possibilities which only a very skilled writer could make acceptable. One of Wiseman’s main contributions to ancient history has been to show how deeply coloured the work of Roman historical writers was by the rhetorical practices in which they were educated; and Remus: A Roman Myth is itself a rhetorical tour de force. One thing it makes clear is how easy it is to lull objections by admitting that one’s theory is ‘provisional’ (a most welcome change from the dogmatism common in myth-studying circles), and the book is so artfully organised and carefully paced that by the time we are presented with its central assertions we have been most effectively softened up.

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