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Roman Contemplations

Vestal Virgins and the Romulus-Remus myth | Acquired gods and religious authority | Myth of Narcissus and Echo | New gods for the Romans | Beliefs of the Druids | Concrete, fresh water and trash | Epicureans, Lucretius, and Cicero | Plutach the Biographer | Cynics versus Lucian | Marcus Aurelius | Galen the Physician and Philosopher | Plotinus, Rome's famous theologian

Vestal Virgins and the Romulus-Remus Myth

Fire awed the early Romans, as it did the Greeks and others. The Romans believed in a goddess of fire called Vesta, and they had a sacred temple of fire tended by four females – the Vestal Virgins – who were selected while they were children and were expected to serve thirty years. During their service they were expected to remain virgins, for the Romans believed that to please the gods, women who were unmarried and not trying to bear children should remain chaste.

A Vestal Virgin was part of the greatest legend among the Romans – the legend about Rome's origins. The legend begins with a Vestal Virgin giving birth to twin boys and claiming that the boys had been fathered miraculously by the god Mars – a god of fertility and later also of war. The Vestal Virgin was the sister of a king. The king believed his sister was lying and that she had violated a sacred law. To put things right with the gods the king had his sister imprisoned, and he had her twins put afloat in a basket on the Tiber River. The two boys, called Romulus and Remus, were expected to drown, but the river receded and the basket carrying the boys came to rest on the river's bank, where a shepherd found them. (Legends often involve royalty – as with a princess finding the child Moses while she was washing clothes on the Nile, as if an Egyptian princes would be there among other women doing their washing and of all the women it would be she who found the Moses child.)

The legend of Romulus and Remus dated the founding of Rome at 753 BCE, but from modern archaeology comes evidence that around the year 1000 Rome was already a collection of villages. The earliest version of the Romulus-Remus legend found by the Roman historian Livy described the wife of a shepherd who rescued Romulus and Remus as a she-wolf, or bitch, because of her alleged loose morals. Legends evolve, and by Livy's time, in the first century BCE, the legend held that the boys had been rescued by a real female wolf – a notion that was put into the famous Roman sculpture of a wolf nursing the two boys.

The Romulus-Remus legend involved the two boys growing into manhood and killing their uncle, the king, in revenge for his having imprisoned their mother and for his having unjustly usurped power from their grandfather. The boys restored their grandfather to the throne, and they founded Rome where they had emerged from the river. Then Romulus and Remus quarreled. Romulus killed Remus and became Rome's first king.

To populate his city, Romulus gathered people from other countries. And, to give his subjects wives, he abducted young unmarried women from a nearby tribe called the Sabines – an incident to be known as "The Abduction of the Sabine Women." The fathers of the women were outraged, and the Sabines retaliated by attacking the Romans. The abducted Sabine women, now apparently contented wives, intervened in the fighting and brought peace between their husbands and their fathers. The legend ends with Romulus, after a long reign, vanishing into a thunderstorm. He became a god. Then he reappeared, descending from the sky and declaring to those listening that it is the will of heaven that Rome be the capital of the world, that Romans cherish the art of war and that others realize that they cannot resist the strength of Roman arms.


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