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Were the Founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, Actually Greek?

Depiction of Romulus and Remus at the Cathedral of Maria Saal in Rome.
Depiction of Romulus and Remus at the Cathedral of Maria Saal in Rome. Were Romulus and Remus Greek? Credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Romulus and Remus are important legendary figures in Roman mythology. According to the most famous version of the legend, they founded the city of Rome together. However, after a disagreement between the two brothers, Romulus killed his brother Remus and continued to establish the city alone, naming it after himself. Interestingly, there is obscure but definitive evidence that they were originally imagined to have been Greek.

The legend of Romulus and Remus

The most famous version of the story of Romulus and Remus is found in the writings of Livy. He was a Roman historian who lived in the first century BCE. According to Livy, Romulus and Remus descended from the dynasty of the city of Alba Longa.

This line of kings was the descendants of Aeneas. He was a prince of Troy who survived the Trojan War and migrated to Italy with a group of followers. One of Aeneas’ distant descendants, King Numitor of Alba Longa, had a daughter named Rhea Silva. Rhea was the mother of Romulus and Remus.

Amulius, the younger brother of Numitor, took over the thrown and attempted to kill Rhea’s two infants by having them drowned in the River Tiber. However, the infants were rescued and raised by a she-wolf. Eventually, Romulus and Remus grew up, killed their great-uncle Amulius, and restored their grandfather Numitor to the throne of Alba Longa.

After this, they decided to establish a city on the Tiber, where the she-wolf had saved them. However, during the development of the city, they had a disagreement. This led to Romulus killing his brother and naming the new city, Rome, after himself.

Earlier versions of the legend

Despite the fact that this is the most famous version of the legend, it bears almost no resemblance to the earliest version that we find in the available records. One particularly early version (possibly the earliest, in fact) comes from Hellanicus of Lesbos. He was a Greek writer of the fifth century BCE.

According to Hellanicus of Lesbos, Aeneas himself was the founder of Rome. We also see this same claim in the writings of Damastes of Siguem of the fifth century BCE. However, plenty of other early writers do mention Romulus, though they identify him as a direct son of Aeneas.

In fact, between those earliest records and the time of Livy, by far the most popular understanding was that the founder of Rome (Romulus) lived just one, two, or maybe three generations after Aeneas. Plutarch, for example, records one tradition that makes Romulus the son of Aeneas and his wife named Dexithea. Plutarch also notes a tradition that identifies Romulus as the son of Aeneas’ daughter, a woman named Aemilia.

Many modern researchers claim a Greek legend had it that the Trojans founded Rome, while the Romans had their own distinct legend. According to that one, Romulus and Remus founded the city. Making Romulus and Remus distant descendants of Aeneas was a late attempt to harmonize the two legends. As we can see, this idea is completely unfounded.

Aeneas' Flight from Troy, by Federico Barocci
Aeneas’ Flight From Troy, by Federico Barocci. Credit: Public domain

The origin of Remus

The truth is that the Greeks and Romans both had legends speaking of Romulus, and the majority of the earliest versions of these legends consistently made Romulus a son, grandson, or great-grandson of Aeneas.

However, there is still the issue of Remus. Where does he fit into all of this? The solution appears to be that some ancient writers used a different name for the founder of Rome. Rather than calling Aeneas’ son ‘Romulus,’ some of them used the form ‘Rhomus.’

It is obvious that Rhomus and Romulus were originally just different names for the same figure. However, it appears that some writers eventually came to mistakenly view them as different people. We see this in the work of the Greek writer Alcimus, for example. He refers to Rhomus as the grandson of Romulus, son of Aeneas.

Another way that some ancient writers harmonized the records of Rhomus and Romulus was to make them brothers. For instance, notice what Plutarch wrote concerning Romulus:

“For some say that he was a son of Aeneas and Dexithea the daughter of Phorbas, and was brought to Italy in his infancy, along with his brother Romus.”

From this, we can see that Romulus and Romus (simply another spelling of ‘Rhomus’) were simply presented as two different sons of Aeneas, rather than being correctly identified as the same person. Evidently then, Romulus’ legendary brother Remus came from Romus, meaning that he is actually nothing more than a duplicate of Romulus. Presumably, the name was changed from ‘Romus’ to ‘Remus’ to avoid awkwardly having two brothers who both seem to be the origin of the name of Rome.

The Greek origin of Romulus and Remus

With these facts in mind, we can see that Romulus and Remus were originally just one figure, whose name appears variously as ‘Romulus’ or ‘Rhomus.’ This figure was originally the supposed son of Aeneas, or possibly his grandson or even great-grandson. However, his being the direct son of Aeneas appears to have the most weight in literary sources.

This being the case, it would clearly make Romulus a Trojan prince. The Trojans, for their part, were Greeks according to ancient sources. Their founder was Dardanus from Arcadia, along with Teucer from the Greek island of Crete.

This is consistent with how Homer presents them in the Iliad, portraying them as speaking the Greek language, worshipping the Greek gods, and observing Greek customs. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus of the first century BCE directly stated that Troy was as Greek a city as any other.

Interestingly, archaeology confirms that Greeks had indeed settled Troy in the era preceding the traditional date of the founding of Rome, 753 BCE. Therefore, based on this evidence and especially on ancient literary records, we can see that Romulus (and Remus, inasmuch as he was a duplicate of Romulus) were in fact of Greek descent.

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