Thoughty2 Presents: Bread and Circuses

By Arran Lomas

What Did The Romans Ever Do For Us?

An extract from Chapter 1. Romulus and Remus

Like most great civilizations Rome begins with a bunch of mythical bullshit and a virgin. Legend tells of two demi-gods, Romulus and Remus, born around 770 BC to a virgin Rhea Silvia after the god Mars visited her in a sacred grove. But Silvia wasn’t any run-of-the-mill virgin, she was a vestal virgin. These were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, a Roman tradition that can be traced back to Alba Longa, the birthplace of Silvia.

The king of Alba Longa, Amulius shunned the newborn twins, since they were the offspring of a mighty war god and a noble virgin of Greek and Latin heritage, hence they threatened his reign. Amulius responded by consigning them to death in that most Hollywood-approved manner: they were bundled into a basket and cast off along the river Tiber. Mercifully they were saved by the god of the river, Tiberinus, who dispatched a she-wolf to grasp the estranged infants from their watery abyss and suckle them back to health. This scene is depicted in Rome’s bronze statue, the ‘Capitoline Wolf’ – an image that appears incessantly in Roman art with the two semi-divine babes dangling from her many tits.

In 753 BC, when Romulus and Remus matured into young men they left behind their magic foster-wolf and turned their attentions to an aspiration worthy of their divine birthright. They decided to build a city. But there was a problem, the twins couldn’t agree on a precise location for their new metropolis. Remus fought his corner for the Aventine hill, but Romulus was convinced that the light fell slightly better on the nearby Palatine hill. Unable to reach a peaceful concord they took to settling the matter using Augury, an ancient technique for reading the auspices of the gods by looking at some birds. Seriously. It worked like this: the more birds you could spot in the sky that day the greater your favour with the gods.

Each brother set up camp on his favoured hill and awaited the appearance of his respective avian auspice. Remus soon noticed six vultures circling above him. He was elated, the gods had chosen the Aventine hill as the city’s base. But not a moment later twelve vultures appear in the sky above Romulus. A ferocious quarrel ensued. Technically Remus had spotted birds before his brother, but Romulus had seen twice as many – who held top trumps? The gods had idiotically forgotten to write a rulebook for bird-based divination. But Romulus had a marvellous solution to bring the squabble to a swift and amicable conclusion – he killed his brother. It worked. Romulus was free to build the city on the Palatine hill, and he named it after himself, Rome.

It’s a lovely story, featuring wolves and plenty of murder. Archaeological evidence, however, doesn’t quite agree, as it shows signs of all of Rome’s seven hills hosting permanent settlements as early as 1,000 BC. Most likely these were small, disparate villages and over the centuries they began to organically coalesce to form a contiguous city. Like much that happened in Rome, we cannot confirm nor deny the existence of Romulus and Remus, but that matters little. For, whether there is any truth to the legend, it is a story that perfectly embodies the spirit of the Roman wolf. Is it not fitting that a great civilization, known for its pedigree of constant war and violence, was born from an act of violent fratricide?

It is natural to think of Rome as a republic, one of the first and greatest examples of a balanced system of governance. But just like their tribal neighbours and just like most of medieval Europe over a millennium later, Rome started out its long existence as a monarchy. From its founding in 753 BC until 509 BC it was the Roman Kingdom. The senate did exist, Romulus established it along with the city, but in an entirely different format to the senate of the later Roman Republic period. And so Romulus was appointed as the first King of Rome.

During Rome’s early years the senate was an oligarchy, a gathering of one-hundred men of distinguished birth, wealth or education. It was essentially a gentleman’s lunch club, with no women and no inappropriate groping – well, maybe a little. Women were never and would never be allowed in the Ancient Roman senate, not once during its one-thousand-year existence. Ancient Rome was a strictly patriarchal society. During Rome’s kingly years the senate was mostly bureaucratic, it created and modified laws. The king or to use the Latin ‘Rex’, had absolute power over the Roman people and he could convene or disband the senate at his will.

Interestingly, it was the senate that actually chose who would be the King of Rome, as it recognised the need for a unified leadership. Between kings, an interrex was appointed, from the Latin ‘inter reges’, literally meaning ‘between rulers’. An interrex was merely a sandwich filling, chosen by the Senate to serve as ruler until a suitable baguette – I mean king – was elected. How was said starchy king elected? The senate chose a candidate, who could come from any source – they need not be, and often weren't, Roman. Once a nominee was settled on the people of Rome formed a temporary forum called the Curiate Assembly and would vote on whether or not to elect the candidate as king.

The whole 250-year period of the Kingdom of Rome (753 to 509 BC) is riddled with uncertainty. For a start, the numbers don’t quite add up. The most comprehensive primary source we have on Ancient Rome comes from Titus Livius, known simply as Livy, who was born in 64 BC and spent the majority of his life being wealthy, mysterious and writing a monumental History of Rome. According to Livy, during the Kingdom of Rome, there were seven kings, meaning each ruled for an average of thirty-five years, which just seems wrong. That is a longer average reign than any other dynasty in history, even than the atypically stable and longed-lived English monarchy. An average reign of thirty-five years simply stretches the boundaries of credulity.

Nevertheless, we will briefly look at the gripping and treacherous reigns of all seven kings, for two reasons. Firstly, even if the accounts of this period are little more than legend, it’s still interesting to learn what the Romans themselves knew as their history and origins. Secondly, it’s not like we have a choice. Sources from the classical period aren’t exactly launching themselves from bookshelves into historian’s gout-ridden faces. In one hundred years from now, historians will be able to check the archives of Insta-Twitter-Tok to discover precisely what hour, minute and on which day Kim Kardashian devoured a watermelon. Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy that luxury when examining antiquity. And that’s probably a good thing because when we start cataloguing every time a famous person takes a shit you know the world has gone to, well, shit. So the history of early Rome, according to the Romans own make-believe version, must become our history too, whether it be fact or fiction.



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