Remus : A Roman Myth by T. P. Wiseman

Book Review by Ursus

Romulus, meaning "little Rome" is the eponymous ancestor of the Roman people. But who or what was his twin Remus? How did he come about and fit in the picture?

The general gist of the story is that a female descendant of Aeneas copulates with the god Mars and twins are born as a result. Due to unfavorable political situations, the twins are sent away from home on a box that floats down the Tiber. The twins are rescued and nursed by a she-wolf, an animal sacred to Mars. The twins are then raised by a pastoral demi-god. When they mature they return home and reclaim their birthright by overthrowing a corrupt king.

Then comes the time to found their own city. The Twins have a disagreement on which of the Seven Hills of the Tiber to found their first settlement. Remus and his followers, headquartered on the Aventine Hill, see six vultures and take it as an omen. However, Romulus and his followers take camp on the Palatine Hill and claim to see twelve vultures. Incensed, Remus crosses into palatine territory where either Romulus or one of his followers has him killed. Romulus goes on to be king and unites various tribes to form the nascent core of the Roman people.

T. P. Wiseman claims a serious study of the myth has never been attempted before and seeks to correct the oversight in his latest book. Wiseman sets out to answer three basic questions:

1) Why must Romulus have a twin?
2) Why call him Remus, which is similar to a Latin word meaning "to delay" or "to be slow"?
3) Why have the twin killed off?

Wiseman looks at the historical data and claims to find no evidence of a primordial Foundation Myth of divine twins. Archaic Rome, which had been subjected to the influences of Greek culture and Greek mythology from the beginning, produced a variety of colorful and contradictory folk epics in the Greek style regarding its origin. Unfortunately, so Wiseman claims, none of them can be connected to the infamous Romulus and Remus.

Wiseman places the real origin of the myths around fourth century Before the Common Era. This would mean the "foundation myth" occurred not in Rome's Archaic monarchial past, as is usually assumed, but in the semi-historical early Republic. Indeed, according to Wiseman, the myth is a very product of Republican politics.

According to the scholar, Romulus, or Little Rome, represents the Patrician party headquartered on the Palatine Hill. Remus, or the Slow One, represents the Plebians with their interest historically tethered to the Aventine Hill. Remus is the Slow One because the Plebians were impeded for centuries to share in the full powers of the Roman constitution.

In one stroke Wiseman answers two of his three questions: who was Remus and how did he get his name? To Wiseman, Remus is the embodiment of the hopes and the angst of the Plebian half of the Roman people. Regarding the third question (why was Remus killed?) Wiseman descends into wild conjecture. It seems in the Good Old Days of paganism, human sacrifice was often conducted to consecrate important building projects such as the founding of a city's walls. Remus, to Wiseman, is a guilty memory of a savage past where some innocent Plebian would have been sacrificed to appease Rome's gods and secure the foundations of the new state.

Wiseman claims the myth of the twins was developed and refined in the popular games and theatre of Republican Rome. He claims in the span of about twenty years, the two classes consciously invented their eponymous ancestors and the foundation myth took root. Wiseman reduces myth as the mere and deliberate fiction of class conflict.

The above has been an extremely condensed summary of Wiseman's views. To better understand the logic of his theories, one would have to read all the minute details as the author tries to lead you from point A to points B and C. Unfortunately, many readers may find the sojourn difficult as Wiseman is rather wordy and writes with a grating, condescending style. Wiseman seems to see himself as the Great Prophet, come to annihilate all our False Ideas regarding the true origins of Rome.

If Wiseman's writing style does not do much to sell his theories, his theories can also be questioned simply on their own merits. The reduction of myth as a product of competing socio-economic interests is an atavism, something that should have died with the fall of the Soviet Union. It is, in a word, Marxist drivel, an antiquated belief that the "superstructure" of society is but a projection of class exploitation. When reading Wiseman's treaties, I could almost hear "The International" playing in the background.

The vast majority of Wiseman's theories are based on pure conjecture and cannot really be proven one way or another. A far better basis to studying Roman myth would be to place it in the comparative fold of various Indo-European cultures. where "Remus" has a linguistic history completely outside the scope of Wiseman's class struggle.

Wiseman does mention this approach early in his book, but quickly and curiously dismisses it. I give the author high marks for imagination, but not much else.

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