Saturday, April 21, 2012

Remembering Romulus

According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded on this date, April 21, in the year 753 BC, by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, whose father was Mars, the god of war. According to one version of the legend, the twins were abandoned in a basket on the banks of the Tiber whereupon Tiberinus, the river god, made the basket catch in the roots of a fig tree that grew in the Velabrum swamp at the base of the Palatine Hill. The twins were found and nursed by a she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker, until a shepherd named Faustulus discovered them and took them home, where he and his wife Acca Larentia raised them as their own children. (The ancient Velabrum district is now the site of a venerable Roman church dedicated to the martyr St. George, S. Giorgio in Velabro, the station church for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday).

As adults, the two are supposed to have argued about which hill to build on – Romulus preferring the Palatine and Remus the Aventine. When Romulus began building his city wall on his hill, Remus ridiculed his brother’s work and then ominously jumped over the wall, belittling his brother’s accomplishment. I had always been taught that this was an act of brotherly spite, suggesting the weakness and perhaps the indefensibility of Romulus' Palatine city, and that Romulus accordingly killed his brother out of injured pride. In my Causes of Saints class in Rome this past winter, however, I learned that Remus' action also constituted a sacrilege, in that the walls delimited the sacred space of the new city, separating the sacred from the profane. The two interpretations reinforce rather than contradict each other, but the second one amplifies the event's significance in the context of a pre-modern sacral society. In any case, Romulus responded by killing his brother - thus determining the new city’s name! In time, of course, Rome would become the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever yet known.

According to legend, Romulus ascended to heaven in a storm and became a god. Soon after, according to the Roman historian Livy, he supposedly appeared to a prominent roman and said: "Go, and tell the Romans that by heaven's will my Rome shall be the capital of the world. Let them learn to be soldiers. Let them know and teach their children that no power on earth can stand against Roman arms." (Even ib ancient times, it was widely believed that Rome's first king had actually been murdered by the aristocratic Senate, and that his divinization was a clever cover-up to appease the common people).

To that same city, some 8 centuries later, came two men, Peter and Paul, brothers not by blood, but by their common faith in Jesus Christ, who had called them to be apostles. The Christian community they found in Rome was small, socially and politically insignificant - an easy target when the Emperor Nero needed scapegoats to blame for a destructive fire in the year A.D. 64. Among those who gave their lives as witnesses to the Christian faith in that initial Roman persecution of the Church were the apostles Peter and Paul.

The old Rome, founded on this date – powerful pagan Rome, founded on the murder of one brother by another - was, for all its grandeur and admittedly great accomplishments, still just a human city like any other, a warring conqueror city to be conquered in turn by other warring conquerors. The new Christian Rome of Peter and Paul ultimately conquered the old Rome, but in a new way. The powerful pagan Rome, founded on the murder of one brother by another, was itself conquered by the faith that empowered the brothers-in-Christ to die together as witnesses to a new and better way of life.

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