AmblesideOnline: Plutarch's Life of Romulus

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Study Notes prepared for the AmblesideOnline Curriculum by Anne White
July 2009

Lesson 1
Lesson 2
Lesson 3
Lesson 4
Lesson 5
Lesson 6
Lesson 7
Lesson 8
Lesson 9
Lesson 10
Lesson 11
Lesson 12


Thus had a name with meaning, given in death,
Made a girl's marriage, and ruled in her life.
No matter that the meaning was not clear.
A name with meaning could bring up a child,
Taking the child out of the parents' hands.
Better a meaningless name, I should say,
As leaving more to nature and happy chance.
Name children some names and see what you do.
--from "Maple," by Robert Frost


Who were the Sabine women?

From Wikipedia: "Legend says that Romans abducted Sabine women to populate the newly built Rome, the first recorded example of bride kidnapping. The resultant conflict ended [years later] only by the women throwing themselves and their children between the armies of their fathers and their husbands."

You may have heard of paintings or sculptures called "The Rape of the Sabine Women." The story has inspired artists including Rubens, David, and Picasso. The film "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" was also (indirectly) taken from this event.

What you, as a teaching parent, need to know is that the meaning of the word "rape" has changed since it was first used. In this context, it means a kidnapping or taking away, in the same sense as Christians use the word "rapture"; although it described men stealing women to be their wives, it did not specifically refer to sexual assault.

You can get through the entire Boys' and Girls' version of Romulus (the recommended version for this term, which you can find divided for this term here) without encountering the word "rape". John S. White, who adapted Dryden's translation, prefers the term "stealing the women." He also leaves out many of the more questionable details.

However, if you are looking up the story online, or looking, as I mentioned, for relevant artwork, the term will almost certainly come up. Please use your discretion.

Was Romulus real?

Maybe. Sort of. Could be.

Here's a New York Times article discussing it.

Here's what someone said at Yahoo Answers.

Were Romulus and Remus nursed by wolves?

Well, that's pre-supposing that they were real in the first place -- but one of Plutarch's details that John S. White omits that there may have been a confusion of words around that. The term for "she-wolf" was also used for an immoral woman; so, Plutarch reasons, it may make more sense to think that the twins were taken care of by a human "she-wolf" than by one with fur. You could bring this up as a possibility, if your student wants to discuss the problem of how children "raised by wolves" could grow up and found a city.

Things and themes to watch for in this study

The story of Romulus and Remus--real, partly real, or wholly imagined--is the story of the founding of Rome. For that reason, there are many "historic" details given that would be meaningful to the later Romans--why certain places were important, or took on particular names; how certain phrases came into being; how traditions, celebrations and festivals began. Plutarch, as usual, doesn't confine himself to only one explanation for most of these, but presents many possibilities.

There are parallels to these kinds of stories within our own and other cultures. What does it matter that (or if) Moses was put in a basket by the Nile? Why do Americans celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks and red, white and blue decorations? Why do English people have bonfires on the fifth of November? Why is one speech that one American president made at a place called Gettysburg significant to so many people?

Here's one from popular American culture: the Rankin-Bass Christmas special "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town." It's full of "Oh, that's why--" details about Santa Claus: he goes down chimneys, flies with reindeer, comes on Christmas Eve and so on. And Christmas legends go back much further than that, of course. Many people explain the custom of Christmas gift giving by referring to the story of the Wise Men or Magi or Three Kings visiting Jesus. The details of the story may differ: some people give the visitors names or assign them different countries; other writers have gone into detail about the significance of the gifts and the astrological questions of the star; but that's'how we explain our custom.

You might look for other types of similar historical legends or semi-legends as you work through the study.

LESSON 1: Superheroes should have super beginnings


How many famous or legendary people can you think of that had unusual births, or strange events happen to them during their early childhood? Why do you think this is?

This study goes back to the 700 B.C.'s (we think). Historians have never been sure if Romulus and his brother Remus really existed, or if they did, how closely their real lives lined up with the many legends passed on about them. In his biography of Romulus, written more than 700 years later, Plutarch collects those stories from many sources, tries to sift the facts from the legends, and offers his own opinions on which versions are the most logical.


Aeneas -- A legendary Trojan hero, the son of prince Anchises and the goddess Venus. The journey of Aeneas from Troy, (led by Venus, his mother) which led to the founding of Rome, is recounted in Virgil's Aeneid. (Source: Wikipedia)
Troy -- site of the Trojan War
Latins -- a tribe living in ancient Italy


reigned in lineal descent from Aeneas -- traced their family trees back to Aeneas
the succession devolved at length upon two brothers -- at one point there were two brothers who were both "next in line" for the throne
supplant -- overthrow
vestal virgins -- unmarried women devoted to religious duties, similar to nuns
dug -- refers to nursing children
sagacity -- wisdom
menaces -- threats


(Choose one or more of these to discuss)

If you could have chosen the treasure or the kingdom, which would you have taken?

Describe the unusual events of the twins' birth and early life.

How did Romulus in particular show that he was something out of the ordinary?

Discuss this: "To their comrades and inferiors they were therefore dear; but the king's servants, his bailiffs and overseers, as being in nothing better men than themselves, they despised and slighted, nor were the least concerned at their commands and menaces." Why did the twins have trouble getting along with those in authority? Should they have tried to lose their "attitude" towards those above them?

"They used honest pastimes and liberal studies, not esteeming sloth and idleness honest and liberal, but rather such exercises as hunting and running, repelling robbers, taking of thieves, and delivering the wronged and oppressed from injury. For doing such things, they became famous." This sounds a bit like superheroes-in-training, doesn't it? Do you think that engaging in such brave activities would create a hero of any young person, or is it necessary to be (like Romulus and Remus) accompanied by supernatural events and omens?