Why did Romulus kill Remus

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Romulus and Remus and the She-Wolf

The Romulus and Remus legend is perhaps one of the most famous myths in all Roman mythology and one of the best-known myths of all time. The story of the twins is the foundation-myth of Ancient Rome and it was central to Roman identity. The full story of the myth of Romulus and Remus is not well-known despite its popularity. In particular, very few people realize that Romulus murdered his brother. In this article, we are going to try and understand why Romulus killed his twin. Even though he committed fratricide, Romulus was acclaimed and revered by the Romans, and he embodied what they regarded as their national virtues. This was because the murder of Remus by his brother was fated by the divine and it was essential for Rome’s rise to greatness.

Historical Background

The myth dates back to the early history of Rome. There is no evidence concerning the historicity of the Romulus and Remus legend. Many myths are often based on historical persons, and this may also be the case with the famous twins. The twins were revered as the fathers of Rome and were awarded almost divine status.

Archaeologists believe that they found a shrine to the two brothers in the heart of what was Ancient Rome. The myth of the two brothers was celebrated every year for over a millennium by the Romans during the festival of the Lupercalia. [1]

Throughout their history, the Romans were fascinated by the myth, and it was recorded in annals and poetry. Likely, the tale of the two boys who grew up to become the founders of Rome was not based on one single event or twin brothers. The story is most likely based on a series of historical events. The Romans may also have developed the story of the two boys from a prehistoric cult.

The myths of the two brothers were used to explain the early history of Rome, which was not known by the Romans themselves. Like many other myths, the story of the twins encapsulated many important values and social norms.[2]

The early history of Romulus and Remus

The Roman God of War

Romulus and Remus were born in Alba Longa; this was a Latin city and one of the strongest in Italy at the time. According to Roman legend, they were born sometime in the 8th century BC, but this was probably only conjecture. The twins' grandfather was the King of Alba Longa, but he had been driven from power by his brother, Amulius. Their mother was Rhea Silvia, a princess, and a vestal virgin. That is, she was sworn to a life of celibacy in the service of the goddess Vesta. She was forced to become a vestal as Amulius, feared that if she bore sons, that they would assassinate him and take his crown.

There is no agreement among the sources on this issue. In several works, Rhea was impregnated by the God of War, Mars. In this story, Romulus and Remus were conceived when she was making an offering at a grove, sacred to this deity. King Amulius, who had usurped the throne of her father, condemned Rhea Silva's children to death. He regarded the infants as a threat to his rule. The monarch ordered them to be killed by abandoning them on the banks of the River Tiber.[3]

King Amulius believed that they would die of exposure, and in this way, he would not suffer bloodguilt. However, they were saved by the god of the river, Tiberinus, who had others care for them. Where they were protected and cared for- was the site of the future city of Rome. In one well-known story, Tibernius, had the twins suckled by a she-wolf in a cave. The cave where they were allegedly taken care of eventually became an important religious site.

The boys were later found and adopted by a shepherd and they grew up tending goats. Romulus and Remus did not know they were the son of a God or that they were related to Royalty. The duo were natural leaders, and charismatic and a small band of followers gathered around them. They became involved in the politics of Alba Longa, still not knowing that their grandfather had once been its king. During a battle, Remus was captured and taken to Alba Longa.

Around this time, some in the city guessed his real identity. Romulus and Remus soon learned their true identity. Romulus joined up with his grandfather, and he killed King Amulius. He also rescued his brother and restored their grandfather to his throne. In some accounts, Romulus refused the throne because he believed that he was destined to found a great city. The twins then sought to establish their city, which they would rule jointly.[4]

What caused the conflict between Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus from a stone relief

The two brothers set out to find a good place to build a city. They separated, and each looked for the best site. They eventually found sites that they considered to be the best one. These were two adjacent hills. Romulus wanted to build the new city on the Palatine Hill, while Remus wanted to construct it on the Aventine Hill. This split led to a bitter dispute, and the two brothers had a violent confrontation. They decided to let the Gods decide, and they consulted augury. An augury's job was to predict the will of the deities. Augury's attempted to interpret the flight of birds to determine if a particular action was good or bad.

According to the story, recorded by Livy, each brother prepared a sacred area on their hills and began to study the birds in the sky.[5] The augury determined that the brother who saw the most birds had secured the support for their plans from the Gods. Remus reported that he witnessed six birds, and Romulus countered that he saw a dozen. The latter claimed that his proposed site was the best. His brother disagreed and he claimed that he saw the birds first and that he had received the approval from the Gods.

There was a standoff and the two brothers began to quarrel as did their respective followers. Romulus began to build walls and dig trenches around his site, on the Palatine Hill. Remus was amused by this and began to mock his brother. On one, occasion Remus would jump over the walls, making fun of Romulus' work and efforts.

How did Remus die?

There are several versions of Remus' death. Livy claimed that the Gods killed him because he failed to observe the auguries and respect the signs from the divine. The Gods struck him dead for his hubris.[6] Livy believed that Remus' death was that the Gods favored Rome. However, Livy may have sought to exonerate Romulus with his account of the myth because Romulus was believed to be the first ruler of Rome.

Several versions relate that Romulus murdered his brother. In most of the texts, including that of the Greek historian Dionysus, Romulus killed his brother with either a spade or a spear. There is even one account from the great Christian theologian St Jerome that Remus was murdered by one of the supporters of Romulus. Regardless of the circumstances of Remus' death, almost all of the accounts attribute his death in one way or another to Romulus.

Interestingly all the sources indicate that Romulus was at least partly responsible for the death of his twin but that it was fated by the divine. [7] The day of the act of fratricide is widely considered to be the date of the foundation of Rome, the 21st of April, 753 BC.

After the death of Remus

There is no evidence that Romulus existed, but Romans believed that he was the central figure who founded and put Rome on its path to the Mediterranean. Therefore while fratricide was one of the most heinous crimes in Roman law, Romulus essentially got a free pass because he went on not only to found the city of Rome but became its king for many years. He was seen as critical to its early growth and development of the city. He helped transform Rome into power in central Italy.

Romulus later went on to conquer Alba Longa and the Sabines and their allies. Many credit him with the foundation of the tremendous political institutions of the Roman state. It is believed that he established the first Senate. There are some accounts that when he died, he ascended into the skies. Romulus was ‘regarded as god the son of a god, the king and the father of Rome.’[8]

The meaning of the death of Remus

The Romans accepted the death of Remus because they believed that it was essential to their rise to greatness and part of a divine plan. [9] It was something that had been fated, and many would have regarded the death of Remus as some kind of blood offering to the Gods. Romulus was an instrument of fate, and he was not condemned but was rather revered for his actions. By killing his brother, whom he had earlier rescued, he showed that he was committed to the future glory of Rome.

Moreover, it was also crucial for the values of the Romans. The murder of Remus was even acceptable to them. Livy seems to suggest that his death was somehow beneficial as it allowed the able Romulus to control the early years of the city. To put it simply, the Romans believed that Remus was expendable, and Romulus was not. They lived in brutal times when war was normal and peace rare. Moreover, it was justified in that it was necessary to unite the population of Rome.

If Remus had lived, the city may have been divided and therefore weakened. The killing of Remus demonstrated that unity had to be maintained even if it led to the death of an individual, no matter his status and rank. Remus death at the hands of his brother was also seen as justifying a ruthless and robust government.[10]

The Romans, like other ancient societies, used myths to establish social norms and instruct the population, how to behave. The murder of Remus was justified because he was a reckless and disrespectful person. Remus's death was a warning that those who did not have the Roman virtue of 'Dignitas' or self-possession were unworthy of the city. The myth of the killing of Remus was central to the development of the Roman worldview and also its sense of national identity.


The Romulus and Remus myth is central to Roman history and culture. The story is very similar to other origin myths and fables of feral twins. However, what makes the Roman foundation myth unique is the death of Remus. While Romulus murdered Remus over a petty squabble, Romans believed that Remus hindered the foundation of Rome and deserved to die.

Ultimately, Romans believed Remus' death was necessary for the future of the city and its rise to greatness. It was fated and Romulus was therefore not guilty. However, the murder of Remus was full of deeper meanings for the Romans. It demonstrated to them that brutal measures were often necessary, and order was essential. The lessons inherent in the fable and the murder of Romulus was crucial to the Roman worldview.

Further Reading

  • Shaw, Brent D. "Raising and killing children: two Roman myths." Mnemosyne 54, no. Fasc. 1 (2001): 31-77.
  • Grimal, Pierre, and A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. The dictionary of classical mythology. New York: Blackwell, 1986.
  • Matyszak, Philip. The Greek and Roman myths: a guide to the classical stories. Thames & Hudson, 2010.


  1. Tennant, P. M. W. "The Lupercalia and the Romulus and Remus legend." Acta Classica 31 (1988): 81-93
  2. Verbrugghe, Gerald P. "Fabius Pictor's" Romulus and Remus." Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte H. 2 (1981): 236-238
  3. Livy, 1, 12
  4. Bremmer, J. N., & Horsfall, N. Roman Myth and Mythography (University of Groningen, 1987), p. 4-8
  5. Livy, 1, 17
  6. Livy, 1, 18
  7. Wiseman, Timothy Peter. Remus: a Roman myth. (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 112
  8. Livy, 1.16
  9. Wiseman, p. 114
  10. Wiseman, p. 34