There were once two brothers called Numitor and Amulius. Numitor was a king, ruling wisely and kindly over the great city of Alba Longa in northern Italy. Amulius, his younger brother, grew jealous of him, however, and one day led an armed attack on the throne, which he seized for his own. King Numitor was forced into exile while Amulius kept all his possessions -- including his daughter, Rhea Silvia, whom he forced to become a Vestal Virgin. This meant that she was forbidden to marry or have children, which was just what Amulius wanted, fearing that any children might one day revenge themselves on him.
Unfortunately for Amulius, the great god Mars had his eye on Rhea Silvia, who was young and very pretty. Mars was the most revered of all the Roman gods. He was the god of agriculture, of the spring and also the god of war. If you visit Rome today, you will see the remains of beautiful temples dedicated to him.
Anyway, one night he slipped down to earth and surprised Rhea Silvia as she lay sleeping. The result of this -- nine months later -- was the birth of twins. They were called Romulus and Remus.
Amulius was furious when he discovered what had happened. He had the wretched Rhea Silvia thrown into the River Tiber, with the twins, locked up in a box, hurled in after her. But whereas the mother drowned, the two boys were carried away by a freak current and deposited on the shore just underneath the Palatine Hill. Here they were discovered by a passing she-wolf who decided to bring them up as her own “cubs,” suckling them from her breasts and curling around them to keep them warm at night. They were fed by woodpeckers, which brought them nuts and fruit and even hunks of meat, and thus they grew safe and healthy. Since that time, the wolf and the woodpecker have always been the sacred animals of the god Mars.
One day the twins were discovered, living wild in the forest, by a shepherd called Faustulus who took them back to his house. For the first time they wore clothes and ate hot food. Faustulus taught them how to talk, and then his wife taught them how to read and write. For ten years they lived there, treating Faustulus as if he were their father.
In those days, shepherds had a hard life, for the country was full of bandits who preyed on them, stealing their livestock or carrying off their food and wine. But Romulus and Remus had reached their teens. They were strong and bold and skilled in swordsmanship. And suddenly it was the bandits who found themselves under attack.
Romulus and Remus became so skillful in robbing the robbers that soon they were feared throughout the whole country. One day, however, they found themselves taken by surprise by about thirty bandits, led by a fat, bearded villain called Josephus. They fought valiantly, killing at least twenty bandits before their swords broke. Romulus managed to get away, but Remus was captured and brought before the bandit king, Josephus.
“Shall we kill him, Captain?” the bandits cried.
“No,” Josephus snarled, squeezing gravy out of his beard. “Let’s carry him off to the local landowner. That way he’ll get the blame for all our crimes and we’ll be in the clear.”
“Good thinking, Captain!” exclaimed the bandits, and proceeded to tie Remus up with so many knots that he looked like a giant ball of string. They brought him before the local landowner and tried to make out that it was he who had been responsible for all the crimes in the area. But despite all he heard, the landowner refused to believe them. Maybe it was something about the boy’s bearing. Or perhaps it was his face. He asked Remus to tell him about himself, and as Remus told his story, he was surprised to see tears spring from the old man’s eyes. For the landowner was none other than Numitor, his grandfather. Immediately, Josephus and the surviving bandits were arrested and that night Numitor, Romulus and Remus dined together, at last reunited as a family.
After that, it wasn’t long before Numitor, helped by his two grandsons, was able to turn the tables on King Amulius who ended up more punctured than a pincushion. With Numitor once again restored to the throne of Alba Longa, you might have thought that all would have ended happily for Romulus and Remus, but this, alas, was not the case.
First they decided that they wanted a city all of their own and, taking their of Numitor, they returned to the Palatine where they had been washed up all those years ago. But now, the jealousy that began the story and which had always run in the family’s blood, began to surface.
“We shall build a great city,” Remus said. “And I shall be king.”
“Forgive me, dear brother,” Romulus countered, “but surely I will be king of our new city.”
“Why should you be king?” Remus asked.
“Well, it was my idea to build the city in the first place.”
“Hold on a minute, my dear brother,” Remus said, going a little red. “If I hadn’t been carried off by Josephus, none of this would ever have happened.”
“It was my idea,” Romulus repeated, growing red himself. “I shall be king of the new city and it will be called Rome, after me.”
“I shall be king,” Remus cried. “And it shall be called Reme, after me.”
There seemed to be no way to resolve the argument. For, being twins, there wasn’t even an older or a younger between them, which might have decided the matter. So in the end they decided to let the gods sort it out with an omen. Romulus climbed the Palatine Hill, while Remus climbed the nearby Aventine. (And even to this day there is rivalry between those two sections of the city.)
They did not have to wait long for the omen. Almost at once the clouds folded back and six great vultures flew down to the Aventine and began to circle around Remus.
“There you are!” Remus shouted, triumphantly. “The city will be Reme and I will be king. The gods have decided it.”
“No!” Romulus shouted back. “The gods are on my side. The city will be Rome and I will rule. Look!”
Remus looked up, the color draining out of his face as twelve more vultures soared out of the sky to encircle his brother. Romulus had twice as many birds as him. He had lost.
He took his defeat with bad grace, and never more was there any love between him and his brother. In fact he took every opportunity to taunt Romulus about the new city, now saying that the streets would be too narrow, now sneering at the height of the walls. When Romulus dug a long trench to mark out the city’s boundaries, Remus jumped over it laughing, as if to say that Rome could be captured just as easily. For Romulus, this was the last straw. He drew his sword. It flashed through the air. And before he knew what he had done, his brother lay at his feet in a spreading pool of blood.
In this way was the city of Rome founded -- in blood. And perhaps for that reason did so much blood flow through its streets in its turbulent history.