by Roderick Conway Morris

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Capitoline Museums, Rome
La Lupa Capitolina (Capitoline She-Wolf), 480-470 BC with 15th-century additions

Romulus, Remus and the Capitoline She-Wolf

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 5 August 2000


The story of Romulus and Remus - their wicked uncle's attempt to bump off the infants by casting them adrift on the Tiber, their miraculous escape and suckling by a she-wolf, their later rivalry and Romulus's slaying of Remus for daring to jump over the half-built walls of the city he came to believe it was his destiny to found - is in many ways weird and wonderful, and suitably bloodthirsty for a culture that was later to turn the spectacle of men killing each other into a form of mass entertainment.

The deeper meanings of the legend have been extensively debated by a host of scholars, from historians, archaeologists and anthropologists, to etymologists, psychologists and semiologists. Few had proposed that the myth contains any factual elements - until recent excavations at the Palatine Hill, the scene of the final showdown between the competing siblings.

The results of this archaelogical work, led by Andrea Carandini, have yet to be published in full. But, meanwhile, 'Rome: Romulus, Remus and the Foundation of the City,' curated by Carandini and Rosanna Cappelli, at the newly reopened section of the National Roman Museum at Diocletian's Baths until Oct. 29, reviews the various ancient myths as to how Rome came into existence, and reexamines the Romulus and Remus story in the light of the new discoveries.

Ancient writers traditionally traced the founding of Rome back to the eighth century B.C., a date that modern scholars have regarded as exaggeratedly early - although there is evidence of some kind of prehistoric presence here even before this. In later Roman times the only surviving building from the eighth-century settlement, Romulus's humble wooden hut - or, as was almost certainly the case, a phonus-bolonus mock-up of it - was lovingly conserved on the Palatine Hill. Augustus raised his imperial palace next to it -- picture a log cabin on the White House lawn - and this sacred shack was still in position in the fourth century A.D.

By the time Rome had become a great city, Romulus's putative first walls had long disappeared, but it is these very walls, dating back to the eighth century B.C., that Carandini and his team now believe they have unearthed, along with the remains of a gateway with small stretches of wall on either side of it. Like Romulus's cabin, these remains were apparently left in place for centuries as a historic monument long after the rest of original walls had been razed to their foundations. A reconstruction of the gateway forms the centerpiece of the exhibition.

These finds not only support the date given by ancient sources for Rome's foundation, but also give credence to the claim that some kind of Romulus - whose Latin name means simply 'Roman' - deliberately demarcated and fortified the boundaries of the settlement, casting doubt on the generally held opinion of more recent times that the Romulan foundation story was pure fiction and invented much later.

Equally intriguing is the presence of the skeleton of a young girl beneath the threshold of the gate and other human remains under the walls. Carandini sees this as an indication that their construction was accompanied by human sacrifice - suggesting that Rome's founding may have been marked by the ritual spilling of blood, even if Remus himself never really existed. (Curiously enough, before becoming Rome's first emperor, Augustus toyed with the idea of calling himself Romulus, but seems to have been deterred by the fratricidal associations that still clung to the name.)

Legends of abandoned and exposed infants being succored by benevolent wild animals are common in many cultures, but in Rome the animal in question became an unusually potent emblem. The most celebrated of all the images of the she-wolf without whose timely intervention Rome would never have been, is the subject of another exhibition, 'La Lupa Capitolina,' in Palazzo Caffarelli at the Capitoline Museums until Oct. 15.

This exceptional bronze, thought to have been cast in about 480-470 B.C. by an Etruscan artist, is in some respects stylized but also reveals sharp anatomical observation. The piece, which was treasured as a rare antiquity by the ancient Romans themselves, has been through a program of study and conservation and is here temporarily displayed separately from the statues of the twins, which were added in the late 15th century. (It is unknown if the she-wolf originally stood alone or not.)

Other pieces in the show chart how the image of the she-wolf in general and this statue in particular was spread throughout the Roman Empire and was again revived in later times.

When in about 494 Pope Gelasio succeeded in suppressing the Lupercalia, the annual festival held at the cave at the foot of the Palatine where the she-wolf had supposedly nursed the twins, the Capitoline She-Wolf was transferred to the Lateran Palace. Yet this magnificent beast never seems to have lost its grip on the popular Roman imagination. And the revival of interest in the ancient world that fueled the Renaissance, and the rehabilitation of forms of art previously condemned as pagan, brought about the return of the She-Wolf to the Capitoline Hill in 1471, when the statue was given pride of place on the façade over the main door of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. It was around this time that an unknown artist was commissioned to model and cast the 'missing' twins.

About 60 years later, the ensemble received the ultimate modern accolade of being judged too valuable to be left in the open air and was moved into the more secure environment of the Capitoline Museums, where it has remained since, the oldest and most enduring single symbol still of the Eternal City.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023