Archaeologists have discovered a sarcophagus on the site of a temple near the Roman Forum, which some historians believe to be the tomb of Romulus, legendary founder of Rome in 753 BCE. The problem with attributing this 6th century BCE grave with Romulus is, of course, that there is no evidence that he ever existed. Could this grave be purely symbolic, given stories of the ‘presence of the tomb of Romulus in this area of the Roman Forum’, according to archaeologist Patrizia Fortini? Whatever the truth of the matter, the legend of Romulus continues to stir modern imaginations: son of the god Mars, along with his twin brother Remus; suckled by a she-wolf, as depicted above in a 1552 print by Antonio Lafreri; murderer of Remus; and founder of Rome. Indeed, he is a crucial figure in the work of the greatest political thinker of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli. Let us turn to some of Machiavelli’s considerations on Romulus.
In Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, the successful ruler is a man (or in exceptional cases, a woman) of great virtù: manly attributes of cleverness, prowess, and ruthlessness, and an ability to deal with the vicissitudes of Fortuna–good and bad luck. In chapter 6 of The Prince, Machiavelli writes that the greatest princes in history, who should be imitated by all aspiring rulers, came to power by their virtù and relied on Fortuna only for the opportunity to display their abilities. He lists as examples Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus. All of these men were founders of mighty kingdoms and republics: establishing a new state is an act of the greatest virtù because of its difficulty. Their acts of political creation are the most glorious deeds, such that the memory of these princes lives on long after their death through their masterpieces, and men like Romulus are remembered even after their creations are gone: e.g., the Romulans on Star Trek. For Machiavelli, then, the Roman Empire had Romulus’ ‘prince’ all over it.
Machiavelli’s treatment of Romulus is more complex in his much longer political treatise, Discourses on Livy. In this text, he considers the legendary founder of Rome (depicted by the Roman historian Titus Livius, whose work is commented on in the Discourses) in relation to ancient and Renaissance republican politics. The example of Romulus shows one way in which the reader might put The Prince (a manual for monarchs) and the Discourses (a work on republics) together: it is necessary for one man to order a republic or reform it, as demonstrated by the deeds of Rome’s sole founder. But it is also often necessary to resort to extraordinary violence, as with Romulus’s fratricide just prior to the foundation of Rome. Machiavelli shockingly concludes that Romulus deserves to be excused for the death of his brother, since it was for the common good: the ends justify the means, but only when those ends are for a greater public good. Given the glorious and laudable act of founding Rome, Romulus’s murder of his twin brother was merely an unfortunate fratri-side effect.
Later in the Discourses, however, Machiavelli writes that while Romulus should be credited for being the founding father of Rome, an even greater honour is owed to his successor Numa Pompilius. For Numa was the legendary founder of the Roman religion. Any act of political creation and the establishment of laws always have recourse to god, as exemplified by early Rome: appeal to the divine bestowed ultimate authority, bound the Roman people together, and kept the citizens of Rome virtuous and free from corruption for a long time. We might say that the ritualistic aspects of the Roman religion were a Numa-tic drill; or in Kantian terms, while phenomena are changing and unstable, the Numa-nal realm is eternal and immutable.
Despite this seemingly greater approbation for Numa, eight chapters later Machiavelli describes Numa as a weaker prince than Romulus. That Numa was able to rule Rome in peace was due to having followed Romulus: a weak prince can only maintain government after a strong predecessor. Thus, Numa unlike Romulus depended on good fortune: if Numa hadn’t been succeeded by a strong prince like Tullus Hostilius, Rome would never have survived. In other words, the Romans felt that their kingdom was weakened after Numa’s reign; and after his death, they said to themselves, ‘we need a stronger ruler to “Tullus” what to do.’
Here endeth the Romu-lesson.
’til next time,
Director, Early Modern Romulanachronism Studies Program