Why did Romulus kill Remus

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The Romulus and Remus legend is perhaps one of the most famous myths in all Roman mythology. Indeed, it is 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.

Romulus and Remus and the She-Wolf

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 passed on historical personages 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 have found a shrine to the two brothers in the heart of what was Ancient Rome. Moreover, at the festival of the Lupercalia, the myth of the two brothers was celebrated every year for over a millennium by the Romans. [1]. Throughout their history, the Romans were fascinated by the myth and it was recorded in annals and poetry. It is most likely that the myth of the two boys who grew up to become the founders of Rome was not based on one single event. It is probably based on more than one figure and a whole series of historical events. Most likely the Romans developed the story of the two boys from some prehistoric cult. They were used to explain the foundation of Rome. 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 Roman God of War

The early history of Romulus and Remus

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 and 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. 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 children to death, as 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 saved 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. This later 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].

Romulus murders of Remus

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 led to a bitter dispute and the two brothers had a violent confrontation. They decided to let the Gods decided and they consulted augury. This was the practice of predicting the will of the deities, concerning an issue. It was based on the flight of birds and this was believed to indicate 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 brother who saw the most birds was believed to have secured the support for their plans, from the Gods. Remus reported that he saw 6 birds and Romulus claimed 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 who in the myths is always shown to be the more enterprising of the brothers 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.

Romulus and Remus from a stone relief

How did Remus die

There are several version of the death of Remus. In the popular account of Livy, he was killed by the Gods. Because he failed to observe the auguries and respect the signs from the divine, he was struck dead by them [6]. This was also a sign according to the Roman historian of the future divinely favored status of Rome. However, this version of the myth may have been an attempt to exonerate Romulus who was esteemed as the first ruler of Rome. There are a number of other versions that relate that Romulus murdered his brother. In most of the versions that have been handed down including that of the Greek historian Dionysus; Romulus kills his brother. The weapon used to kill Remus was either a spade or a spear in most accounts. There is one account from the great Christian theologian St Jerome that Remus was murdered by one of the supporters of Romulus. What is clear that almost all attribute the death of Remus to his brother. 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

Fratricide was one of the most heinous crimes in Roman law. However, Romulus went on not only to found the city of Rome but become its effective king for many years. He was critical to the growth and development of the early city and made it a 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 great 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]. It seems that the Romans were not concerned that he most likely murdered his brother.

The meaning of the death of Remus

The killing of Remus was a key event not only in mythology but also in Roman history. It was the event that set the city on its journey to becoming the greatest power in the Classical World and one of the most influential civilizations in world history. The death of Remus was accepted by the Romans as they believed that it was essential to their rise to greatness. Therefore they believed that the death of Remus was part of the 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. This would have been necessary for the success of the city of Rome. 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 important 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 strong and even ruthless 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 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. On the face of it, he was killed by his brother because he was acting provocatively and was hindering the foundation of the city, that was destined for greatness. Romulus murdered his brother because it was necessary for the future of the city and its rise to greatness. It was fated and Romulus was therefore not guilty. However, the death of Remus was full of deeper meanings for the Romans. It demonstrated to them that brutal measures were 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