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Archive for December 23rd, 2011

The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable.  The founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source.  –  Henry David Thoreau

As I mentioned in “Whore Goddesses” (my column of one year ago today), “In ancient Rome today was Larentalia, the festival of an apotheosized courtesan named Acca Larentia; she was referred to as the ‘most noble whore’ and was sometimes associated with Lupa, the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.”  Acca Larentia was an Etruscan who lived in the early days of Rome and, because she was childless, left her entire fortune to the Roman people.  But ancient mythology is often unstable, with varying traditions, and the story of Acca Larentia is no exception; some writers claimed that her fortune was acquired through marriage at the end of her career.  And still others state that she was the wife of the shepherd Faustulus, who discovered Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf and adopted them.  But though these accounts may seem contradictory, it is possible that they are all partial reflections of a larger truth which contains clues to the real story of the founding of Rome.

Yes, I said the real story; just because the early history of Rome and the lives of Romulus and Remus are wrapped in legend and myth does not mean they did not exist.  Radical atheists make the same argument in order to deny that there was an historical Jesus, and  neofeminists to deny the well-substantiated existence of sacred prostitution; 19th-century archaeologists used such reasoning to argue that Troy was only a myth until Schliemann discovered its ruins.  And though fantastic tales are told about the lives of Alexander the Great, Harun al-Rashid and George Washington, nobody doubts the historicity of these leaders.  So it’s entirely specious to argue that the twins’ reality is disproven by stories of divine parentage or other mythic elements, especially since most of their story is highly credible and even mundane.

Romulus and Remus were exposed by their granduncle Amulius, who had usurped the throne of Alba Longa from his brother (the boys’ grandfather) Numitor.  But they were found in the wilderness by a she-wolf and nursed until Faustulus discovered them.  That seems a rather straightforward myth; feral children suckled by animals have been a staple of fantastic lore from Enkidu to Tarzan.  But in this case, the story may be less myth than symbol, code or misunderstanding.  Though I’ve never uncovered an adequate explanation for the association, lupa was also a common Roman slang term for “whore”; some Roman streetwalkers even made a sort of pun on this by making wolf-cries to attract customers.  The Roman word for “brothel” was lupanar, the fertility festival which later evolved into Valentine’s Day was Lupercalia, and Valeria Messalina’s stage name was Lycisca (“wolf-girl”).  Even in modern Italian, the word puttana can be translated as either “bitch” or “whore”.  Consider also the incredible tolerance for and multiplicity of prostitutes in ancient Rome, the number of her goddesses (including Bona Dea, Flora and Fortuna Virilis) who were worshipped by acts of prostitution, and the fact that Aeneas, the legendary progenitor of Rome from whom both Romulus and the Caesars were descended, was the son of the great whore-goddess Venus.  Yet, in most ways the early Romans were a very straight-laced, disciplined, moral people…the sort who generally don’t think much of hookers.

Put all this together with the varying traditions about Acca Larentia, and I think we have the basis for a hypothesis:  What if the abandoned princes weren’t nursed by a literal she-wolf at all, but by a prostitute?  If that’s the case, all the traditions might be true:  Acca Larentia, a wealthy courtesan, married Faustulus, an equally-wealthy gentleman farmer (a “shepherd” in the sense that he owned lots of sheep, not in the sense that he herded them for someone else).  He discovered the exposed children and brought them home to his ex-prostitute wife, who had lost her own child and had milk to spare; they raised the boys as their own and financially backed them when they set out to found a city.  Faustulus then predeceased Acca Larentia and she left the entire estate to Romulus – and therefore Rome –  upon her death, after which the grieving king declared his beloved foster-mother a goddess and established traditions honoring her former profession.  Over time, the story became either garbled or purposefully disguised by prudish historians and/or priests, and though all the elements were still present they were mythologized until nigh-unrecognizable.  Obviously, we’ll never know if any of this is true, but it certainly explains the confusing and apparently-contradictory traditions about Acca Larentia, sheds a bit of light on a linguistic mystery and proposes a credible explanation for ancient Roman society’s love affair with harlots.

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