The founders of Rome are said to be twin brothers named Romulus and Remus. Born in 771 B.C.E., they were the sons of Mars, the god of war, and the priestess daughter of another god-king, Numitor.
Mars, God of War
Numitor was ruler of the city of Alba Longa, about 20 miles south of present-day Rome.
The Alban Hills, outside Rome
Their mother, Rhea Silvia, had been forced to become a Vestal Virgin by her uncle, Amulius (Numitor’s brother, who overthrew Numitor), because Amulius had been warned that Rhea Silvia would produce sons who might overthrow him. Rhea Silvia, however, became pregnant when she was raped by Mars.
Enraged, Amulius ordered that Rhea Silvia be buried alive – the standard execution for a Vestal Virgin who broke her vow of celibacy. He also ordered that the twins be executed. However, the slave who was to perform the execution placed the boys in a basket upon the Tiber River, and sent them floating away to safety downstream.
The river god Tiberinus rescued the twins, and took them to the Palatine Hill, along the banks of the river, to be nursed by a she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker.
Romulus and Remus feeding
The twins grew up as shepherds, but their strength, stature, and regal bearing soon set them apart from their peers.
In time, Amulius discovered that the twins were still alive, and set out to kill them. However, the twins by now commanded a citizen army, and they defeated and killed Amulius. The citizens offered the dual crown of the Alba Longa to the twins, but they refused to take it, since their grandfather (Numitor) was still alive. Instead, they restored the crown to Numitor, and set out to found their own city on the slopes of the Palatine Hill, where they had been raised.
However, they began to argue once they set out to build their city. They disagreed about where its actual location should be. They decided to have a contest to see who had the true will of the gods on his side. Using augury (which was an ancient form of reading the will of the gods through signs in nature), they each counted the number of vultures they saw in the sky. Romulus saw the most and thus won the contest. Remus was outraged and the two brothers fought. Romulus won the fight by killing his brother.
Thus, he built his city in the location of his choosing, along the Palatine Hill, and named it after himself.
Rome was born. The year was 753 B.C.E.
Romulus became the first king of the city, and the population grew to large numbers under his rule. He created a city council of 100 men, which would eventually become the Senate, and he also created the first Roman legions. He warred with a neighboring tribe called the Sabines, and after defeating them, they were added to the population of Rome, nearly doubling its size.
In the 38th year after the founding of the city, 717 B.C.E., Romulus and a number of local citizens went to the Campus Martius (the Field of Mars), which was a wide, grassy plain to the west of the city, where games, elections, and other municipal events were held.
The Field of Mars as it would have looked centuries later, at the height of the ancient Roman Empire
While they were there, a great storm arose, which darkened the entire city. While this was happening, Romulus sneaked away and went to the Quirinal Hill, where he ascended into heaven to live with the gods. A temple was built on the spot to his honor, and he was worshipped thereafter as a god himself.
As anyone familiar with the bible will note, there are a number of similarities between the mythology of Romulus and Remus, and the stories in the bible. Moses, it was said, was placed inside a basket and set afloat on a river, in order to escape a vengeful king. Jesus is said to have been conceived by the union of God and a virgin. Upon his death, a great storm is said to have overtaken the land, covering it in darkness. Later, Jesus is said to have ascended into heaven to live with God, and to be part of God himself (the Trinity).
The story of Romulus and Remus, of course, predates the events in the New Testament. And while Moses is believed to have lived several hundred years before Romulus and Remus, his story – including his origins in a basket on a river – was not recorded until after the inception of the mythology surrounding the founding of Rome.
We could argue all day about whether there is any theological significance in these similarities. Skeptics would say that this (as well as many other examples) proves that the stories in the bible are simply a retelling of pre-existing mythological themes. Believers would either reject the dating of the various stories, or would take the route of C.S. Lewis and argue that these earlier stories were simply examples of ancient mythology paralleling what was to come – all part of God’s grand plan for humanity (one must wonder, if this Lewis argument is true, if the events described in, for example, the Star Wars saga, will eventually play out in reality, many centuries in the future).
But my purpose with this essay is not to argue these points. Instead, I want to illustrate a parallel between how we interpret secular history as opposed to Christian history.
When traditional Christians read the story of Romulus and Remus, they no doubt read it as a mythological tale (despite the fact that archaeological evidence suggests that Romulus was a real person, and, as illustrated above, the dates of the supposed lives of Romulus and Remus are recorded by ancient historians). At the very least, traditionalists will assume that while Romulus, and possibly his brother Remus, were real people, the events attributed to their lives – such as virgin births, being the sons of a god, raised by wolves and woodpeckers, ascended into heaven without dying – these events would be regarded as mere mythology painted against the lives of otherwise real people. Maybe Romulus really founded Rome after killing his brother, but his mother wasn’t really a virgin, and he didn’t really ascend into heaven without dying. Additionally, he probably was never set upon a river in a basket, and he certainly wasn’t rescued by the River god and raised by suckling a she-wolf.
Perhaps you already see where I’m going with this.
Can we not – indeed, should we not – apply the same rational analysis to the life of Jesus? Why do we reject the mythology surrounding Romulus, but accept as theological truth an identical mythology surrounding Jesus? Why is it absurd, to our 21st century, post-Newtonian mindset, to consider that Romulus was really born of a union between Mars, the god of war, and a virgin, but it’s not absurd to our 21st century, post-Newtonian mindset to consider that Jesus was born of a union between Yaweh (also a warrior god, incidentally) and a virgin? Why do we suspend disbelief for one, but not the other? And more importantly, why don’t we apply the same rational analysis to the biblical story that we apply to all other ancient mythologies?
Of course, in the end, there is no unified answer. As I said above, skeptics will largely agree with me, and traditionalists will simply shrug these questions off, or offer (what I believe to be) those all-too-convenient Sunday School answers.
But for the traditionalists among us, let me at least encourage you to give these ideas some thought. What is your core motivation? Why do you reject one, but not the other? Why do you use reason and logic with one, but not the other?
I suppose what I am arguing is not unlike the old atheist adage that says something like, “Think of all the reasons why you reject Zeus, Odin, Thor, Mars, and Osiris. I reject the Christian god for the same reasons.”
Of course, I don’t personally reject the Christian God. What I reject is the traditional Christian notion of God. I believe that God is far too great, and far too transcendent, to be limited by Christian (or any other religion’s) theology.
So, for the traditionalist reader, please consider the story of Romulus and Remus. I think there is a lesson in there somewhere, for anyone who wants to hear it.