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Romulus and Remus were part of the royal family of the city of Alba Longa, southeast of Rome, a family whose ancestors had fled from Troy in present day Turkey. Brothers Numitor and Amulius had assumed the throne after their father’s death. Numitor had a daughter Rhea Silvia, but he feared she might have children who would eventually overthrow him. He forced her to become a vestal virgin priestess which meant she had to swear to abstinence.

But Mars, the god of war, seduced her and she had twin boys Romulus and Remus. Modern day historians believe that Amulius may have been the father. The story has several variations, but it seems that a servant was ordered to kill the illegitimate twins. Unable to bring himself to commit such an act, he cast them adrift in the Tiber where they were looked after by river god Tiberius before they were nursed in a cave by a she-wolf. The twins were found by Amulius’ shepherd Faustulus who, with his wife, raised the boys.

When they reached adulthood, Romulus and Remus killed their great uncle Amulius, who had overthrown their grandfather Numitor. This meant Numitor was restored to the throne. After this, the twins decided to found their own town and chose the spot, Palatine Hill, where the wolf had nursed them. This is the center of the Seven Hills of Rome. Each brother supposedly stood on a hill, and when a flock of birds flew past Romulus, this signified that he should become king of the new city. He started building the walls but Remus complained they were too low and demonstrated this by jumping over them. In a fit of rage, Romulus killed him. In another version, Remus was killed after the twins argued about who had the support of the local gods and thus have the city named after him.

Romulus kept building the new city and named it Roma (Rome) after himself. The first citizens, who were fugitives and outlaws, settled on Capitoline Hill. A shortage of wives for these men prompted Romulus to abduct some women from the Sabine tribe to the north. The Sabine king Titus Tatius and his men were furious and went to war against Romulus and his settlers. But the Sabine women were happy with their new husbands and urged a ceasefire between the warring parties. They joined forces and Romulus and Titus Tatius were joint rulers of their combined groups for five years until Tatius was assassinated by outsiders.

As sole king, Romulus legislated against murder and adultery. There were three tribes under his rule: the Latins from the area around Rome itself, the Sabines, and the Etruscans further north. Together they became the Romans. Romulus divided each tribe into 10 curiae or subdivisions for administrative purposes. A tribune or elected official represented each tribe in civil, military, and religious matters. Romulus fought many wars and expanded the Roman territory for more than 20 years, gaining control over much of today’s central and northern Italy. When Numitor died, Romulus took over as ruler of Alba Longa too, appointing a governor to manage the city’s affairs.

Legend has it that Romulus disappeared supernaturally in a storm after leading the Romans for 37 years. A senator announced to the people that their leader had gone to live with the gods. A temple was built to him on Quirinal Hill. Numa Pompilius, Tatius’ son in law, became Rome’s second king. Modern day analysis suggests that little if any of the story is true. It may have been taken from a Greek tale a few centuries after the founding of Rome in order to explain the origin of the name and some of its early customs.