The Wolf and the Eagle
Kernels of truth from the mythologized origins of Rome and its empire
The story of Rome begins with a wolf. Rome’s founders, the twins Romulus and Remus, were born in the line of Aeneas — a hero of the Trojan War, and the forefather of their mother Rhea Silvia. Rhea Silvia was the daughter of a King named Numitor of the Latin city Alba Longa. Her consort, their father, was Mars, the god of war.
Shortly before their birth, Numitor had been deposed by his brother Amulius, who usurped the throne and forced Rhea Silvia to become a priestess of the goddess Vesta. For her, this meant a vow of lifelong maidenhood, precluding the possibility of bearing an heir in the line of Numitor who might depose her uncle in turn.
But the god Mars had other plans for Alba Longa and for the Latin peoples. He visited Rhea Silvia in secret and impregnated her. She bore him the twins Romulus and Remus.
As soon as he learned of the birth of his grand-nephews, Amulius condemned them to death, fearing the threat to his ill-gotten power that they represented. A servant was ordered to kill them. But instead, taking pity on the helpless infants, he set them adrift on the river Tiber.
The Tiber bore the babes Romulus and Remus far away from Alba Longa before depositing them safely upon a riverbank, where they were found a lupa (she-wolf). She suckled them as though her own cubs and her milk saved them from starvation; that is why the lupa is now one of the most enduring symbols of Rome.
It was within her cave, the lupercal, which was at the foot of the Palatine Hill — later to become one of the seven hills of Rome — that they were found by a shepherd named Faustulus. He brought the babes home with him and raised them as one of his own.
When they grew into manhood, Romulus and Remus eventually learned of their true identity. They avenged their grandfather Numitor and honored their father Mars by overthrowing Amulius and killing him, reinstating their grandfather and thereby restoring the throne of Alba Longa to its rightful ruler.
However, the twins were not content to be mere princes of Alba Longa. They had a hunger to start something new of their own, and they decided to do it at the site on the Tiber where they had been suckled by the she-wolf as infants. This is how Rome got its start.
If you take the story of Romulus and Remus literally, it may seem like nothing but the fanciful tale of a primitive people. But while skepticism and realism about mythology are often warranted, I think the pendulum has swung too far in that direction and we are missing the fact that such stories often contain kernels of truth. They rarely endure for thousands of years without reason, particularly if they have laid the foundation of a city, empire, and civilization with the significance of Rome.
When I look at the story of the lupa, instead of some kind of naive fairy tale made up by a bunch of Bronze Age farmers, I see an archetypal pattern of continuing relevance — one which typified the spirit of Rome at its founding, the organizing animus that would forever define Roman culture, and just maybe, a blueprint for future cities and nations.
I see, in other words, a narrative symbol — one that reveals something true, not only about how great cities were founded in the past but also about what the emergence of a new civilization might look like in the future.
The accuracy of the Romulus and Remus story, and of the broader Aeneid of which it forms a part, is difficult to ascertain — but I believe it to have been an accurate portrait of the early spirit of the Roman People. This arc of abandonment, of birth as an outcast, of perennial lack of belonging or status, is parallel to the early history of Rome, which started as a community of outcasts and was continually seen as an upstart power — first by the other Latins, then by the Etruscans, then by the Greeks, and finally by their greatest adversary, the Carthaginians.
The sons and daughters of Rome who embodied this animus over many generations experienced the world as a hostile place. They were, at first, strangers to the love and care of a family, since Rome was at first populated exclusively by unwed young men (until they famously took their wives from the Sabines).
They also lacked the sense of belonging to a community, because the early Romans were the outcasts of the other Latin cities. They were furthermore strangers to safety since they lacked any natural barrier between them and the Samnites, Gauls, and other marauding tribes who were constantly threatening to overwhelm their new city.
And just like Romulus and Remus, early Rome was a stranger to the comfort or care of a traditional nourishing mother. Unlike many new cities in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean world at the time, Rome was not the direct offspring of an older and more powerful Etruscan or Greek mother-city who could be relied on for help in times of crisis.
Instead, the Romans’ maternal surrogate was the ferocious beast of unending war, represented by the lupa. Their paternal figure was Mars himself, the very deity of armed conflict. While the war god was scorned, hated, and feared by the Greeks, the Romans embraced him as a father figure, compelled by grim necessity, and knowing that only by learning his brutal lessons could they ever hope to survive.
The story of Rome’s founders was therefore a clarion call for the early Romans. It told those who sought to join the new community that they did not have to be the abject slaves of circumstance; that they could rise above their mean origins by building a new place together; but also that the price of this dream was an enduring struggle.
This wolf-spirit is one reason why the early Republic was so invincible in war despite being surrounded by stronger enemies. It is why, no matter how often or devastatingly the Romans suffered military defeats — such as the one dealt to them by the Senones, a Gallic tribe, under the chieftain Brennus in the early 4th century BC, or by the Carthaginians under Hannibal in the late 2nd — the Republic managed to persevere and ascend to new heights.
So while the Capitoline Triad — Rome’s three chief deities — are traditionally given as Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, I would argue that Mars, father of Romulus, was the real patron god of early Rome, from the time of the Kings to the end of the Punic Wars. And the lupa was the real symbol of the kingdom and early Republic.
After the Punic Wars in the 3rd century BC, the Romans completed their transformation from a community of outcasts fighting for their lives to a dominant superpower with no true geopolitical threats left on the map.
This accomplishment meant that they successfully ate the pain thrust upon them by a hostile universe and shaped that universe, by sheer force of will, into a shining beacon of civilization. They built enduring monuments to their triumph, the great temples and theaters, arenas and hippodromes, and civilizing instruments, the bathhouses and highways and aqueducts which endure today.
The aquila (Latin for eagle) was the symbol of Rome’s greatest deity — Jupiter Capitolinus, the king of the gods — and also the symbol of her legions. Aquila was therefore the spirit of Rome at her zenith, when the pain of Rome’s childhood and adolescence gave way to the majesty, pride, and finally arrogance of her adulthood.
The eagle-spirit represented Rome’s confidence in her manifest destiny to become the mistress of the Mediterranean world and beyond. This was the spirit that animated the poet Virgil, who living at the high water mark of Roman power under Caesar Augustus, was moved to write in the Aeneid that the Romans had been given empire without limit or boundary by the favor of Jupiter himself.
This faith in her destiny to rule was Rome’s Will to Power. The eagle-spirit is what drove Rome to pursue a vision of civilizing the world and creating a stable, universal peace in a world that was frequently the victim of barbarism and war. Aquila was Rome’s Imperial Dream, and in its best form it did not simply represent the lust for power, but rather what Romans would have perceived to be a sacred mission to bring Roman civilization and Roman peace to the whole world.
This spirit is somewhat overshadowed today by the fallout from the Ides of March: the death of the Republic and the autocracy of the imperial period, during which everything that made Roman civilization what it was — from its political system to its religious underpinnings — were gradually eroded away.
It’s a pity that Rome’s ascendance to a superpower was so shortly followed by the fall of the Republic, because the eagle-spirit of the Augustan age, with all its peace and triumphalism, was adulterated by the trauma of the preceding generation — civil war, proscriptions (i.e. politically-motivated murders), mob violence, and the ultimate breakdown of the mos maiorum (“Way of the Ancestors”), which is what the Romans called their traditional patterns of life.
Perhaps there is a lesson there — something about the incompatibility, or at least the difficulty, of maintaining a triumphant, majestic culture without also suffering from infighting, erosion of norms, and weakness of character. Nevertheless, Roman power managed to endure quite a long time after the Republic fell, and Roman legionary eagles were recognized as an emblem of majesty and power for centuries, from the misty forests and fields of Britannia to the sands of Parthia.
If any imperial people can have claimed to come close to solving the difficult formula of how to preserve their power and majesty through time, it was the Romans with their aquila.
Defiance and pride
Looking at the Roman animus from modern eyes, defiance and pride stick out.
This is partly because our own cultures, especially in the West, tend to see national pride as dangerous due to its perceived role in motivating the first and second World Wars; whereas defiance former has not been necessary for a long time.
Defiance is an attitude appropriate when one perceives oneself to be the underdog. It is an emotion that arises when one’s own perceptions of self-worth (even pride) are at odds with the perceptions of the outside world.
Because perceptions often lag behind reality, defiance is often to be found in rising peoples and civilizations, who are slow to lose the memory of their underdog days. The wolf-spirit is tenacious, not only as an ally against adversity, but as an instrument of maintaining momentum in the face of complacency and stagnation.
But civilizations which are in decline have long exhausted their defiance, and often see themselves as superior to their upstart rivals long after they have lost their power in reality. Arrogance can be seen as the inversion of defiance — where one’s perceived self-worth is at odds with reality, even if the external world has not yet caught up to that reality in their perceptions of you.
So cultural symbols of defiance or pride are mostly missing in the West today, except perhaps in the nationalist-separatist movements of secessionist peoples like the Basque, Quebecois, or Scots.
To me, there are two consequences of this.
First, it is likely that if a new group of societies arise in the cultural lineage of the West, they will have to either look to the distant past — to a time before Europe became mistress of most of the globe — for inspiration, or construct entirely new symbols and myths.
Second, for a future society to recreate the success of Rome, pride will have to become acceptable again, not seen as an inherent character flaw. If arrogance is the unearned self-perception of superiority, a people’s pride is the accurate perception of greatness that both the external world and the nation themselves agree upon.
This type of pride is necessary because it allows a people to see their own potential and strive to achieve it; not to become complacent in mere subsistence or even in modest success, but to always remain focused on the gap between what has already been accomplished and what there is yet to achieve.
Whatever future cities and civilizations emerge from the downfall of the West in its current form, I think that Rome’s example will be an inspiration for the most promising, just as it has been time and again for the societies that have arisen since its fall, from Charlemagne’s Germanic empire to the American Republic to the French Republic/Empire of Napoleon.