Bruce R. Magee
Latin 4003: Livy
Dr. Robert Edgeworth
Spring 1990


sic est: acerba fata Romanos agunt
        scelusque fraternae necis,
ut immerentis fluxit in terram Remi
        sacer nepotibus cruor. 

'Tis so: a bitter fate pursues the Romans
        and the crime of a brother's murder,
ever since blameless Remus' blood was spilt upon the ground,
        to be a curse upon posterity.  (Horace, Epodes 7. 17-20)

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

In The Godfather, Part III, one of the emotional climaxes occurs when Don Corleone meets in the Vatican with Albino Cardinal Luciani, who will soon become Pope John Paul I. In the scene, Don Corleone makes a cathartic confession that he is guilty of the death of his brother. Thus one of the most powerful films of 1990 continues to portray the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy:

sic est: acerba fata Romanos agunt
        scelusque fraternae necis,
ut immerentis fluxit in terram Remi
        sacer nepotibus cruor.

'Tis so: a bitter fate pursues the Romans
        and the crime of a brother's murder,
ever since blameless Remus' blood was spilt upon the ground,
        to be a curse upon posterity.  (Horace, Epodes 7. 17-20)

Sibling rivalries lie at the root of the foundation stories of Rome and of Israel. In one version of Rome's foundation story, Romulus killed his brother Remus for mocking the walls that Romulus was building. Jacob did not kill Esau, but he did take his brother's birthright and blessing. The strife between the latter two brothers gives an etiological explanation for the relations between Israel and Edom, their eponymous descendents. This paper is an examination of some of the effects of these stories on later generations. Its focus is on the Biblical materials dealing with Esau and Edom, on Livy's and Horace's treatment of the Romulus and Remus story, and on Augustine, who almost brought the two stories together.

According to James Aho, when the "good" guys who are credited with founding nations commit sin, their sin generally serves as a "psychic wound . . which shocks them into recognizing both their own tainted state and the essential goodness of the foe" (152). Such a self-awareness limits the way that one conducts war against the enemy with whom one thus identifies. The fratricide of Romulus certainly served such a function in the Rome of Horace and Livy, who in their youths saw their society rocked by the mass fratricide of civil war. The first part of Livy's History was published rather soon after the Battle of Actium, probably in 27-25 B.C.1 Although most scholars date Epode 7 in the period of 41-36 B. C., I follow Campbell, who dates it in 32 B.C. because the lines, "Has too little Roman blood been shed on field and flood?" (parumne campis atque Neptuno super / fusum est Latini sanguinis?) seem to refer to the expedition against Sextus Pompey in 36 B.C. (143-144). The occasion in 32 B.C. would have been the final conflict that was developing between Antony and Octavian. Horace invokes the crime of Romulus against Remus in an attempt to shame the Romans and deter them from engaging in a further fratricide (Campbell 144). Horace further points out that war is a human failing; not even ferocious animals engage in war.

neque hic lupis mos nec fuit leonibus,
        numquam nisi in dispar feris.

Such habit ne'er belonged to wolves or lions, whose fierceness is turned only against beasts of other knids.  (7. 11-12)

Horace does not make the leap to see all men as brothers and all war as fratricide; he wants Rome to direct its aggression against its historic enemies, who rejoice over its self-destruction (7. 5-10). For Horace, Rome is under the blight of hereditary blood-guilt. Wagenvoort argues that such a mood could only arise after a series of civil wars, when the theory that Rome labored under a curse made sense (174-176). This theory, when it arose, "must have struck like a barbed hook into the minds of the leading circles of Rome, which were pessimistic enough anyway" (175).

Livy wrote during the peace that followed Antony's defeat, and the parallel between Romulus and his own day is less clear in his history than in Horace's Epode 7. Livy's interpretation of Roman history includes the contention that it exhibits inversely-related trends: ever-increasing power and wealth that lead to declining morals.

Labente deinde paulatim disciplina velut desidentis primo mores sequatur animo, deinde ut magis magisque lapsi sint, tum ire coeperint praecipites, donec ad haec tempora quibus nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus perventum est.

 Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.  (Preface. 9)

He longs for the time when Rome was poor but honorable.
Ceterum aut me amor negotii suscepti fallit, aut nulla umquam res publica nec maior nec sanctior nec bonis exemplis ditior fuit, nec in quam civitatem tam serae avaritia luxuriaque inmigraverint, nec ubi tantus ac tam diu paupertati ac parsimoniae honos fuerit. Adeo quanto rerum minus, tanto minus cupiditatis erat; nuper divitiae avaritiam et abundantes voluptates desiderium per luxum atque libidinem pereundi perdendique omnia invexere.

Unless, however, I am misled by affection for my undertaking, there has never existed any commonwealth greater in power, with a purer morality, or more fertile in good examples; or any state in which avarice and luxury have been so late in making their inroads, or poverty and frugality so highly and continuously honoured, showing so clearly that the less wealth men possessed the less they coveted. In these latter years wealth has brought avarice in its train, and the unlimited command of pleasure has created in men a passion for ruining themselves and everything else through self-indulgence and licentiousness. (Preface. 11-12).

Romulus occupies an ambiguous position in Livy's schema. Romulus shows the city at its low ebb of power and wealth, but he certainly does not exhibit the zenith of morality and fidelity. Livy wants to find in Romulus an etiological explanation for civil war and the Roman tendency toward fratricide without placing Rome under the permanent blood guilt that Horace envisioned. Nor did he want to criticize Romulus too much or too openly; since Octavius compared himself to Romulus, (Wagenvoort 179), Romulus's fratricide could easily become his own. Wagenvoort notes that early Christian writers seized on the crimes of Romulus in their attack on pagan morality. Minucius Felix was a Christian lawyer who practiced law either in Rome or North Africa. He wrote his apologia of Christianity, the Octavius, sometime between 197 and 248 A.D. (Clarke 5-9). He accused Rome of being founded on injustice and impiety; he rested this accusation on three arguments:
  1. Romulus made Rome an asylum for thieves (latrones);
  2. he led in the rape of the Sabines; and
  3. he killed his brother (Minucius, Octavius. 25. 2).
Nonne in ortu suo et scelere collecti et muniti immanitatis suae terrore creverunt? Nam asylo prima plebs congregata est. Confluxerant perditi, facinerosi, incesti, sicarii, proditores. Et ut ipse Romulus imperator et rector populum suum facinore praecelleret, paricidium fecit. Haec prima sunt auspicia religiosae civitatis. Mox alienas virgines jam desponsatas, jam destinatas, et nonnullas de matrimonio mulierculas sine more rapuit, violavit, illusit: et cum earum parentibus, id est, cum soceris suis, bellum miscuit, propinquum sanguinem fudit. Quid irreligiosius, quid audacius, quid ipsa sceleris confidentia tutius?

Yet were they not in origin a collection of criminals? did they not grow by the iron terror of their own savagery? The plebs first congregated in a city of refuge; thither had flocked ruffions, criminals, profligates, assassins and traitors; and Romulus himself, to secure criminal pre-eminence in office and rule, murdered his own brother.  Such were the initial auspices of our religious commonwealth! Next, without leave or law, he carried off other men's maidens, some betrouthed, some promised, some already married wives, outraged and mocked them, and then went to war with their parents, that is with their own fathers-in-law, and shed kinsmen's blood. (Minucius, Octavius. 25. 2).

Livy includes these incidents in his history, and tries in varying degrees to mitigate them (1. 6-13). He does not completely dismiss the Romulus traditions as myths largely imported from Greece as a modern historian might (Ogilvie 54); instead, he mitigates the accounts in various ways. He presents the asylum in a fairly negative light by calling the new crowd "an abscure and humble multitude" (obscuram atque humilem . . . multitudinem) and mocking myths of autochthony in general (1. 8. 5-6). Livy saw such myths as the understandable attempt to make the founding of cities "more august" (augustiora, Preface. 7). He also sniffs that the crowd was "without distinction of bond or free" (sine discrimine liber an servus, 1. 8. 6). However, he refuses to call the new arrivals latrones, displacing that accusation to an earlier event when real latrones unjustly accused the twins and their shepherds of being bandits (1. 4-5). He thus allows room for one person's haven for criminals to be another person's asylum for refugees.

Livy does little to mitigate the rape of the Sabines. He freely admits that Romulus plotted the event in advance (1. 9. 7) and that the Romans received their guests hospitably (hospitaliter), placing themselves under the obligation of hospitality (xenia, xenia, 1. 9. 9). The abduction itself repeats the breach of the Trojan predecessor Paris by breaking the hospitality. Livy does not draw out the link with Paris, but his representation of the event would, for the most part, fit quite well into the writing of a later Christian polemicist. Livy does leave implicit the charge that Minucius would later make explicit, that of the blood-guilt of the Romans in fighting their wives' parents, "that is, with their kinsmen" (id est, cum soceris suis, Minucius Octavius. 25. 3). Livy's Romulus does try to justify himself by blaming his action on the fathers of the abducted women.

Sed ipse Romulus circumibat docebatque patrum id superbia factum, qui conubium finitimis negassent; illas tamen in matrimonio, in societate fortunarum omnium civitatisque, et quo nihil carius homano generi sit, liberum fore; mollirent modo iras et, quibus fors corpora dedisset, darent animos.

Romulus, however, went round in person, and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and- dearest of all to human nature-would be the mothers of freemen. He begged them to lay aside their feelings of resentment and give their affections to those whom fortune had made masters of their persons.  (1. 9. 14-15)

Nevertheless, Romulus' attempt at self-justification is an obvious attempt at "spin control" and does not negate the basic crime against the maidens' parents and against Neptune, the god in whose honor the games had been announced. The Romans were clearly impious and unfaithful in Livy's account. Plutarch would later go to much greater lengths to mitigate the rape of the Sabines (Romulus 14-19; Theseus and Romulus 6. 1-3).

Regarding the death of Remus, Livy goes to much greater lengths to place Romulus in a favorable light than he did in his treatment of the other two controversial events. In the account that Livy submits as the accurate one, Remus was killed in a dispute over who would be the king of the new city. This dispute arose because the gods sent ambiguous auguries about who should rule: Remus saw six vultures first, but Romulus saw twelve. The two factions argued over whether the kingship should be decided temporally or numerically. In the ensuing "disturbance" (turba), Remus lost his life, with the implication that he died accidentally and not by the hand of his brother (1. 7. 1-3). Only then does Livy recount the version in which Romulus killed Remus for mocking the walls of Romulus' city, calling it the "more common" vulgatior (and therefore less likely) "report" fama (1. 7. 2-3). He then follows the example of generations of politicians and rhetors and changes the subject.

Livy's purpose in exculpating Romulus from the blame for his brother's death seems to be to avoid the "psychic wound" that Aho describes (152). Livy was melancholy enough about the state of Roman politics and morals in his own time, but a close reading of his preface reveals an optimistic purpose for his history.

Hoc illud est praecipue in cognitione rerum salubre ac frugiferum, omnis te exempli documenta in inlustri posita monumento intueri; inde tibi tuaeque rei publicae quod imitere capias, inde foedum inceptu, foedum exitu, quod vites.

There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past, that you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid. (Preface. 10)

History provided contemporary Rome with salubrious and cautionary examples that could set Rome back on the right path if the citizens would take the examples to heart. Livy could even admit that Romulus engaged in some activities that were "shameful in conception, shameful in result" (foedum inceptu, foedum exitu) that the readers should avoid. However, if he granted that the very founding of Rome was an event foedum inceptu, then it would also be an event foedum exitu, and there would be no hope at all for Rome; it would always under the "ancestral evil" (avitum malum). Romans could not have returned to the higher moral plane of yore because there would have never been a higher moral plane. The current degeneracy of Rome would have been part of the Roman nature, not an accident of history. Insofar as possible, Livy wanted to avoid uncovering an inherently impious and unfaithful streak in the Roman nature. Ironically, it is the very consciousness of one's own evil that makes a culture try harder to live up to its virtues.

But other things being equal, those awakened to their own insidious capacity to commit evil are more just, merciful, and temperate in the treatment of the enemy than those deluding themselves in their absolute innocence. Indeed, one of the fundamental differences between cosmological and historical symbolisms of warfare is precisely this: The Hebraic, Muslim, and Reformation Protestant soldier, in identifying his cause with the perfect righteousness of God, uses the very ferocity of his violence as a confirmation of his own purity. The Mexican, Hindu, Confucian, medieval Christian, and Buddhist warrior, on the other hand, in being asked to recognize himself in the enemy and the enemy within himself, is thus bound to deal with him within the limits of ritual propriety, using only a restricted inventory of relatively harmless weapons and strategies. (Aho 33)

Romulus' offer of amnesty and citizenship to his former enemies (Livy 1. 11. 2; 1. 13. 1-5) fits into Aho's description; the Romans were aware that their own impiety and infidelity were the cause of the conflict. Rome would later defend its own excesses toward some of its enemies on the basis of its own righteousness.

The Jacob-Esau story had an impact on Israel somewhat similar to the impact of the Romulus-Remus myth on Rome. The Jacob-Esau story was the oldest stratum of the Jacob tradition and originally symbolized the shepherd who overcomes the hunter (Hicks 783). The story came to have added significance when Jacob was seen as a patriarch of Israel and Esau as the founder of Edom, for the nations recapitulated the conflict of the twins. The histories of the two nations were intertwined, with Israel (and then Judah) trying to dominate Edom and with Edom forming alliances with bigger powers in its attempt to gain independence from Israel. Saul was the first to conquer Edom (1 Sam. 14:47). Joab, David's holy warrior who usually gave no quarter, committed genocide against the Edomite males (1 Kings 11:14-22). After the split between Israel and Judah, Edom alternately won and lost its freedom from Judah (2 Kings 8:20-22; 14:7-22; 16:6). Edom's siding with Nebuchadnezzar against Judah brought down the wrath of Judah and her God (Psalm 137:7; Lam. 4:21-22; Obadiah 10-16). The Babylonians rewarded Edom with parts of South Judah, and its expanded territory become known as Idumea. Its history is unknown until the Maccabean Revolt, when John Hyrcanus conquered and forcibly converted the Idumeans. The Idumeans got their revenge by producing Herod, whose part-Idumean background and Hellenistic lifestyle led some Jews to refuse to recognize his authority. Ironically, in the final conflict with Rome, the now-Jewish Idumeans were the most fanatical rebels, and the last stronghold to fall to Rome was Masada, Herod's Idumean fortress (Cohen 26).

This last twist of fate did not work its way into Judeo-Christian historiography, wherein the schism between Jacob and Esau and their descendants was permanent and Jacob always ultimately triumphed. Some biblical traditions do recognize the obligation that being related to Edom places on Israel. This is especially notable in Deuteronomy, a book that otherwise introduces the world to a concept of holy war whose violence knows no bounds. Deuteronomy cautions Israel to avoid conflict with Edom because of its own inheritance from God.

"Give the people these orders: 'You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own.'" . . . So we went on past our brothers the descendants of Esau who live in Seir. (Deut. 2:4-5, 8, NIV)
Other Old Testament books do not reflect Deuteronomy's leniency toward Edom. Isaiah specifically places Edom under the herem () ban that Deuteronomy, Joshuah, and Judges avoid placing on it. "My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; see, it descends in judgment on Edom, the people I have totally destroyed" (Isaiah 34:5). erem was the ban of total destruction that Israel and its God placed on some tribes and cities, such as Jericho. Israel was to destroy the cities and artifacts in them and kill all the people and animals. Only certain plants were to be spared from such a ban. The Roman destruction of Carthage, Corinth, Jerusalem, and other cities was similar to herem in effect if not in its self-consciously political rather than religious motivations. The conscious motivations of herem were religious, although Israel did accept the political benefits as well (Joshua 9). Since God's providence had given Judah a divine right to dominate Edom (Gen. 25:23), Edom's resistance was evil, not Judah's expansionism.

Even the Deuteronomic exception regarding Edom is based only on the kinship between Israel and Edom, not on the guilt of Jacob in his dealing with Esau. Jacob had taken advantage of Esau's hunger by bargaining for Esau's birthright.

Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau cam in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob "Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I'm famished!" (That is why he was also called Edom.)

Jacob replied, "First sell me your birthright."

"Look, I am about to die," Esau said. "What good is the birthright to me?"

But Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Easu some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. (Gen. 25:29-34, NIV)

Jacob and his mother later committed outright fraud against his father and Esau in the stealing of Isaac's blessing. While Esau was hunting wild game to give his father before receiving the blessing, Rebekah prepared Isaac's favorite food, dressed Jacob in Esau's clothes, and put goatskins on his neck and hands to make him seem like Esau to his blind father. After Esau learns of the deception, he requests his own blessing.
When Esau heard his father's words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, "Bless me--me too, my father!"

But he said, "Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing."

Esau said, "Isn't he rightly named Jacob {he deceives`? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and new he's taken my blessing!" Then he asked, "Haven't you reserved any blessing for me?" (Gen. 27:34-36, NIV)

Although Jacob had received the blessing that he would be dominant, Isaac gave Esau the promise that "when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck" (Gen. 27:40, NIV).

Jews, Christians, and Moslems generally do not interpret the Jacob's sin as demonstrating the tainted nature of God's work in the world; instead, they see it as God's work overcomes the taint of sin in the humans that he chooses to use. God's work itself remains untainted. Joseph makes this doctrine explicit in his forgiveness of his brothers. "But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good" (Gen. 50:20). Thus Israel had the ability to distinguish the work of God, the real founder of Israel, from any of his agents, despite the fact that God preordained the strife between Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:23). The doctrines of God's transcendence, justice, and action in history overwhelm any second thoughts the Jew, Christian, or Moslem may have about dispatching their brothers to eternal perdition (Aho 151-153). It was God's providence that selected Jacob over Esau to be a patriarch. "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated" (Malachi 1:2-3, quoted by Paul in Rom. 9:13). While such a divine cause of strife tends to exculpate Romulus from blame regarding the founding of Rome, it tends to have the opposite impact when dealing with the city of God, which is founded on the doctrine of divine justice.

Augustine overcame any residual danger of a psychic wound from the Jacob story by ignoring it. Analogy is a human method of making sense of the world. The analogies we make reveal and reinforce our presuppositions. Augustine selected Cain and Abel to compare to Romulus and Remus because Cain killed his brother and founded a city, like Romulus. However, he also selected Cain and Abel because that would make the fratricides part of the "earthly city" (civitas terrena) rather than the "eternal city" (civitas aeterna).

Primus itaque fuit terrenae civitatis conditor fratricida; nam suum fratrem, civem civitatis aeternae in hac terra pergrinantem, invidentia victus occidit.

The first founder of the earthly city was consequently a fratricide; for, overcome by envy, he slew his own brother, who was a citizen of the eternal city sojourning upon this earth. (City of God 15. 5)

Had Augustine wished to focus on a conflict between twins who were successful founders (unlike Cain, whose line perished in the flood), he could have chosen Jacob and Esau. In fact, the logical progression that Augustine followed in book 15 calls for him to deal with Jacob and Esau in paragraph 5, for he moved from Cain and Abel to Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac in paragraphs 1-4. However, when he reached Isaac, he returned to Cain and Abel rather than progressing to Jacob and Esau. The fact that Jacob's was a story of the crimes of a citizen of the eternal city against a citizen of the earthly city would have made Augustine uneasy, but he was big enough to admit that an imperfect good man can strive with his brother.
Boni vero et boni, si perfecti sunt, inter se pugnare non possunt. Proficientes autem nondumque perfecti ita possunt ut bonus quisque ex ea parte pugnet contra alterum qua etiam contra semet ipsum.

But the good, if they have achieved perfection, cannot fight among themselves.  If, however, they are advancing toward perfection but have not yet attained it, fighting among them is possible to the extent that each good man may fight against another though that part of him with which he is also fighting against himself.  (City of God 15. 5)

Augustine did not address the problem of whether the city of God itself was tainted by God's seemingly arbitrary (and therefore unjust by normal human standards) selection of Jacob over Esau. Just as a tainted founding of Rome would have left no hope for Livy, so a tainted founding of the city of God would have left no hope for Augustine. Therefore both men described the founding of their respective cities in such a way as to ameliorate the crimes of the founders against their brothers.
1It is after 27 B.C., since 1. 19. 3. and 4. 20. 7 mention the title of Augustus, which Octavian received in that year. It is probably before 25 B.C., when the gates of the temple of Janus were closed. Livy did not list this with the other closings of the gates in 1. 19. 3. (Foster xi).