Roman Foundation According to Online Perceptions of Myth

Posted on: 31 January 2024 by Kristen Raymond in 2024 blogs

Remus and Lupin and an animal

Is it important to consider modern entertainment media when discussing contemporary receptions of ancient myth? Kristen Raymond discusses in this month's ACE & Creativity blog post!

According to the Romans, Romulus killed Remus over the foundation of the city of Rome, thus inaugurating what many believe to be the great beginning of Rome’s legendary myth. This narrative was fluid in antiquity, and clearly remains fluid today based on the narratives that we have observed on YouTube. I’m so interested in perceptions of this myth today because studying it tends to play like a game of telephone: from debated city names to deviations of the father figure, our studies show that student receptions of the Roman foundation myth involving Romulus and Remus have varied greatly. Such aspects have also imposed a great deal of comparison between myths, incorporating those such as Cain and Abel, Moses, and Hercules, among a handful of other global myths.

It can be difficult without extensive or tertiary Greco-Roman education to differentiate between student-made and professional educational videos that study the myth of Romulus and Remus. Students, particularly in high school, who have not studied the works of Ovid, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and other ancient historians who have explored this particular myth are less likely to notice such frequent mistakes in amateur YouTube videos. One of the most common among the variations we have seen are video creators suggesting that, had Remus survived to found the city, Rome today would instead be Reme (Ennius, quoted by Cicero, suggested in antiquity that it actually would have been called Remora). Another direction is a general uncertainty as to the twins’ father; most believe it to be Mars - as is the scholarly consensus - but some swear it is Hercules or Zeus who impregnated Rhea Silvia.

Another theme that viewers take interest in is the notorious fratricide, and particularly why one brother (Remus) died over the other (Romulus). Some commenters consider this myth an “obvious” parallel to the biblical story of twins Cain and Abel and argue it is a pure copy, while others refute that the latter myth emerged after the myth of Romulus and Remus. Interestingly, commenters never consider the Mycenaean Greek House of Atreus, which imperial-age Romans sometimes compared to Roman history. We notice that commenters tend to compare only the more popular myths (usually due to pop culture renditions, like DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt) while neglecting to regard the fact that fratricide shows up in traditional stories of two completely separate cultures; what does this say about comparing myths, and ideas of originality? Cultural myths should not be regarded as copies of others; instead, as argued by Mary Beard, we need to take steps towards understanding and accentuating the different values and historical backgrounds that went into such myth formations, and perhaps consider along the way why they may be similar. This brings me to the most frequently debated comparison in our comments.

The order of the twins’ names in all relevant comments implies an uncontested distinction between the two: that Romulus comes first, and Remus always follows; but, in traditional Latin texts the names appear in the reverse order - Remus first, and then Romulus. To once again rope in Cain and Abel, each “first brother” kills the second, but these often are depicted through different frames: Romulus is considered to have killed Remus over the city, while Cain is believed to have killed Abel in sacrifice. In the Islamic tradition, the Cain and Abel myth is an advisory tale, while Christianity views the act as misdirected faith – or perhaps “a lesson for Christianity.” But viewing Romulus and Remus as a copy of Cain and Abel may lead to a possible misunderstanding: namely, that the “underdog” sibling (i.e., Remus, Abel) may sometimes (or often, in antiquity) be considered with higher respect than their counterpart. This is true of Abel, but not always of Remus.

The sources of many YouTube videos are unclear. Videos depicting certain details such as what kinds of animals nursed the twins may show greater reliance on ancient sources, but other elements, like those surrounding Rhea Silvia’s status (i.e., priestess, or princess?), further indicate a presence of disunity from antiquity to today. This demonstrates that many students likely are approaching the same (modern) sources, thus forming a common consensus among younger generations that may or may not contain accurate (i.e., scholarly) representations.

Bruce Lincoln and Mary Beard each explore ideas related to fratricide and the continuity of myth, respectively. Our studies demonstrate that it may also be important to consider modern entertainment media when discussing contemporary receptions of ancient myth. As Beard implies, myths often become reshaped over time, thus becoming diluted, and less violent, with age, especially as concerns over the content of children’s media amplify. Romulus and Remus have not appeared in many mainstream media productions, but they are thriving as video projects, and in comments section discussions, on YouTube.