by Marc Hyden
Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2020. Pp. x, 284.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1526783177
Who was “Romulus”?
The mythic origins of Rome are among the great curiosities of history. Centering on the twins Romulus and Remus, rather than a tale of noble warriors and heroic deeds, we get infanticide, rape, fratricide, kidnapping, murder, and other abominations, about which the Romans seem to have been rather embarrassed. In his newest book, Marc Hyden, author of Gaius Marius: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Saviour, delves deeply into the available evidence on the origins of Rome and its founder, from the 60-some contradictory ancient accounts, many fragmentary, and the archaeological record, added a bit of comparative history, and produced a “biography”—or perhaps better – a “life and times” of Romulus.
While Hyden notes that Romulus may have been an invented figure – the name can mean “the Roman” or even “the Little Roman” – he may well have been a real person about whom fabulous tales accumulated (Washington, his “little axe”, and the cherry tree come to mind), which he tends to favor, as does this reviewer.
Hyden’s treatment is chronological. He begins with Aeneas fleeing dying Troy, a link almost certainly fabricated to give Rome a tie to the Greek epic. There follows the birth of the twins Romulus and Remus to the Vestal Rhea Sylvia, the founding of the city, the murder of Remus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, and more. He covers Romulus as ruler and warrior, his supposed institution of many of Rome’s often unique religious and social institutions. Nor does he stop with Romulus’ the “apotheosis” – or more likely murder – but goes on to consider the influence of the tale of Romulus on the later history of Rome.
By being critical of the available evidence, Hyden rather effectively sorts among the “fact, fiction, or somewhat in between” of Rome’s founder to give us an interesting, entertaining, and often thought provoking look at Rome’s origins, suggesting ways to interpret similar myths from other cultures. Romulus is useful reading for those interested in Roman history or in the value of myths and legends to the historian.
Note: Romulus is also available in e-editions.
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