understanding historical context: Romulus and Remus

Posted by on Aug 12, 2009 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | No Comments

The story of Romulus and Remus is a simple one: Twin sons of the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia, the victim of rape by the God of Mars, they founded the city of Rome. They were raised at the breast of a wolf and lived along side the great Palatine Hill. Of course, as there birth was the product of violence, so would the City’s founding. Romulus killed his brother, as they fought over who would be King of the new city.  Romulus went on to create the foundational elements of Rome: he led the raid on Sabine, and the rape of its women, and he created the Roman Senate.

This foundational story was central to the histories of Livy and Plutarch. The former holds an important part in my life; Livy’s Early History of Rome was the central text in my Senior Thesis at Kalamazoo College, which examined the way Rape was used as a literary marker for major social, political, and religious changes in Roman history. So, when I opened up the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning, and read the debate over facts in Nancy K.D. Lemon’s pioneering textbook, Domestic Violence Law, I was flabbergasted by the gross misrepresentation and misunderstanding about how to interpret the history’s of Classical Rome by bothLemon and her critic, Christina Hoff Sommers.

The debate is over the foundational premise of legalized domestic violence. As the legend goes, Romulus made the beating of wives legal. The argument states that this led to a precedent that was only rebuffed within the last 200 years. Obviously, when discussing Domestic Violence Law, its history is important.

Lemon uses Livy and Plutarch as factual sources. She argues that because these sources describe Romulus and Remus as the founders, it must be factual. Clearly, there is a great leap of faith required to make this claim; few, if any, Classicists would agree with this statement. I, for one, do not. It seems very unlikely that it is the case (child of a mythical God of War? suckled at the breast of a wolf?). Sommers, however, takes the strong opinion that Romulus and Remus is myth and nothing less, and therefore a discussion of this mythical legislation should not be included in the textbook. I would disagree with this statement, as well.

Like most foundational stories, the tale of Romulus and Remus is void of much factual support. There is much in Livy’s entire history that lacks fact. My entire thesis, in fact, relies on the understanding of his work as a work of literature, not history. What is critical to understanding this piece, and how best to make it relevant to a discussion of domestic violence law, has nothing to do with fact or fiction, but everything to do with Livy, the context of the story, and the influence it had upon those who read it.

Livy lived during a period of great transition. Most importantly, his work fit within a larger group of public works in history, art, and architecture commissioned by Augustus in the second half of the 1st century bce. Rome was recovering from the tumultuous Civil War of Julius Caesar, and Augustus had been charged with the responsibility of restoring the Republic. To do so, he commissioned works to reestablish the glory of Roman mores, the traditions which had made Rome great. Livy’s history was the culmination of these values: a history of Rome that positioned these values in a historical context, which them power and validity.

Livy’s history was incredibly well received both in his time and throughout history. It is mentioned in Dante’s work; it influenced Machiavelli. Whether or not it is fact or fiction makes no difference. His work chronicled the emergence of Roman values, which have served as the primary model for virtue and honor ever since. The American governmental system relied heavily on its influence. Livy’s history gives that system historical precedent.

So this is the importance of this work to the discussion about Domestic Violence Law. It is not whether or not Romulus and Remus are factual beings, but an understanding about how power, precedent, and hegemony can have such great influences on our legal system, and our cultural values regarding issues of power, the institution of marriage, and an understanding about violence. Unfortunately, this message is lost among the squabbling and poor understanding of the construction of history by Sommers and Lemon. By not reading between the lines, a valuable piece of evidence in understanding the construction of our history is being lost to the sometimes meaningless debate about fact or fiction.