Roman mythology is packed with interesting stories that help explain the many beliefs of the Romans, and how they thought their city was born and their civilization developed. Rome myths also help us shed light into the many changes in the religion followed by the Romans – from the time Romans followed the main beliefs of the Etruscan religion; to the times in which they were more substantially influenced by the Greek gods.
Romans believed in the supernatural – an element that repeatedly appears in the most famous Rome myths and legends. Just as well, they needed to have heroes, which regularly appear in many stories.
This post summarizes the best known Rome myths and legends.
15 Most Famous Rome Myths And Legends
Romulus and Remus
Of all the Rome myths, this is probably the best known. Romulus and Remus are the famous twin brothers who make up a very important story in Roman mythology. In fact, it’s their story that eventually leads to the founding of Rome and the Roman Kingdom.
Their story has been depicted in numerous ways over the ages, but the basics are always the same.
The brothers are said to have been born in Alba Longa, an ancient Latin City (southeast of where Rome would eventually be founded) and head of the old Latin League.
Their mother was the daughter of the Numitor, the former king of Alba Longa who was deposed by his brother, Amulius. King Amulius saw the twin boys Romulus and Remus as a threat to his rule and decided that they should be killed.
They were left abandoned on the banks of the River Tiber for this reason.
But the boys did not die. In fact, they were rescued by the god of the river himself, Tiberinus. Most famously, they were cared for by a she-wolf who fed the twins her milk in her cave home, the Lupercal. This cave was located at the foot of Rome’s Palatine Hill.
Romulus and Remus were then taken in by a shepherd called Faustulus. They grew up tending to flocks of sheep, unaware of their royal birthright.
During adult life, they got involved in an argument between opposing sides of Numitor and Amulius. This resulted in Remus being taken prisoner, during which time his uncle and grandfather (Numitor) suspected his true identity.
Romulus decided to break Remus out of prison. The two joined up with Numitor and helped reinstate him as the king of Alba.
If that wasn’t enough, the twins then went off to set up their own city. Unfortunately, they disagreed over which one of Rome’s seven hills to start building on, so naturally they asked the gods for help. Even after divine intervention, they couldn’t agree on where the city should be.
The disagreement ultimately led to Remus being killed (either by Romulus or one of his supporters, no one knows). Romulus, as a result, became the first king of Rome, and that’s why the city is called that and not “Reme”!
The founding date of Rome – April 21, 753 BC – became the year zero for the future Romans. 1 AD, for example, was therefore in the Roman calendar 754 AUC – Ab Urbe Condita, or “from the founding of the city.”
Aeneas is at the heart of a huge epic poem called the Aeneid, by Roman poet Virgil. Like the Odyssey, this is another ancient work that deals with the iconic Trojan Wars.
Aeneas himself was a Trojan, the son of Anchises, a prince of Troy, and the goddess Aphrodite. He was one of the few Trojans who was not enslaved or killed during the Greek invasion, and who actually, according to Virgil and others, escaped.
On his flight from the city, Aeneas formed his own band of companions called the Aeneids, who eventually made their way to the Italian peninsula, where they became the ancestors of the Romans.
But that’s not all. The Aeneids travelled for a long time (six years, to be exact), and carried with them various treasures of Troy. They stopped off in many different places, including Sicily – where his father, Anchises, died – and Carthage, in modern day Tunisia. Here he had an affair with the Carthiginian queen Dido.
Dido offered up her realm as a settlement for the wandering Trojans. But after the messenger god Mercury told Aeneas not to accept, the Aeneids left secretly. This understandably angered Dido who killed herself – but not before cursing the Trojans’ future homeland, i.e. Rome. This apparently led to the Punic wars between Carthage and Rome, starting in 246 BC.
After a brief stop in Sicily, they travelled up the western coast of Italy. Here, Aeneas went to the Underworld where he met Dido and Anchises, who showed him his future – as the ancestor of Rome itself. The mother of Romulus and Remus, Rhea Silvia, is said to have been a descendent of Aeneas.
The Rape of the Sabine Women
This is one of the most famous Rome myths, typically taught in schools in Italy!
After Romulus had founded Rome (allegedly sometime around the 8th century BC), there was a bit of an issue. The population of the new city was pretty much all male, apparently made up mostly of bandits from various tribes in the region.
With a small female population, Romulus was concerned that the population of Rome was not sustainable, and that the city wouldn’t last any longer than one generation. The senate suggested that the city appeal to nearby settlements for women that might become wives of the Roman population.
None were interested. Not least the Sabines, who lived in the neighbouring areas of Rome, who feared the upstart city and actually forbade Sabine women from marrying Roman men.
Romulus then hatched a plan – put on a festival of games dedicated to the god Neptune. This attracted a whole lot of people from the surrounding area, including the Sabines. At Romulus’ signal, Roman men suddenly began abducting Sabine women from the crowd, while fighting off Sabine men.
In total, 30 women were taken – Romulus asked them all to marry Roman men. Families of those who were abducted eventually moved to Rome as well. But while the city’s population problem seemed to have been solved, it resulted in wars between Rome and other cities in the region.
After Romulus came Numa Pompilius, the second (legendary) king of Rome. He is said to have reigned from 715 to 673 BC. Interestingly enough, he was Sabine, which shows that by this point, Rome had considerable influence over the region.
He was particularly important, because it is thought that he was behind many of Rome’s early advancements. This includes the Roman calendar; the system of the Vestal Virgins; the cult of Romulus, Jupiter and Mars; and the new job position of Pontifex Maximus, which went on to become the most important role in Roman religion.
Numa’s addition of January and February to the Roman calendar was particularly significant – previously, these 51 days had been unnamed “hollow months”. He also split the year into 355 days, based on the phases of the moon.
According to Roman philosopher and historian Plutarch, Numa was born on the day that Rome was founded and lived a life of strict rules without any luxuries.
Numa was the second of the seven kings of Rome before the kingdom became the more illustrious Roman Republic. He was offered the role of king, but first refused – he believed Rome was a nation of war, and didn’t need such a pious leader.
But Numa was persuaded to accept the role – after consulting with the boss of the gods, Jupiter, of course – and was enthusiastically received by the people of Rome. The endorsement by Jupiter greatly increased his estimation by the Roman people.
This religious link also gave him a more superstitious aura, which in turn led to Romans honouring their deities more than they previously had. It was his “conversations” with Jupiter that led Numa to establish certain ways of honouring the gods, such as sacrifice and other methods of worship.
Plutarch states that one of his first acts as King of Rome was to abolish the 300 bodyguards that had been assigned to protect Romulus at all times. This actually showed Numa to be a ruler dedicated to peace, contrary to what he’d previously said about Rome being a nation of war.
Following this, he secured peace with Rome’s neighbours and encouraged the nation to be more focused on agriculture. He actually ordered the doors to the Temple of Janus to be shut, which were usually only closed in times of peace. Numa apparently died aged 80.
Scaevola is the better-known name of Gaius Mucius Scaevola, a youthful hero of Ancient Rome. But he’s more like an antihero, as his profession was actually assassin. In 508 BC he volunteered to assassinate the Etruscan king, Lars Porsena. Rome at the time was at war with the Etruscans.
With the approval of the Roman Senate, he went off to the Etruscan camp in order to carry out the assassination. Unfortunately, he got the wrong guy. Porsena’s scribe happened to be dressed in a similar garb to the king, and Scaevola mistook him and killed him instead.
When he was captured, he uttered the famous words:
“I am Gaius Mucius, a citizen of Rome. I came here as an enemy to kill my enemy, and I am as ready to die as I am to kill. We Romans act bravely and, when adversity strikes, we suffer bravely.”
Scaevola then declared that there were 300 other brave youths such as him who were willing to do the same job.
He then stuck his right hand into a brazier, which had been lit for a sacrifice, but showed no indication of distress at doing so. It was because of this he got his name Scaevola, which means “left-handed”.
The king was wowed by his show of bravery, and dismissed him to return freely to Rome, saying “Go back, since you do more harm to yourself than me”. Porsena followed this up by sending ambassadors to Rome to bargain for peace.
Coriolanus (immortalized in William Shakespeare’s play of the same name) was a Roman general alleged to have lived during the 5th century BC. His full name was Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, and he was of patrician (i.e. noble) birth.
He was given the title “Coriolanus” after showing bravery during a siege of a town called Corioli in 493 BC during a continuing war against the Volscians. The Volscians were ancient Rome’s enemy number one before Carthage came on the scene.
Two years after the victory (491 BC), Rome was suffering from a famine due to a grain shortage. The good news was that Rome received a grain shipment from Sicily. The bad news was that they couldn’t decide how to distribute it to the common people.
Wanting to reverse a reform that shifted power away from the patrician class, Coriolanus suggested that the common people should only receive grain once they agreed to the reversal of the reform. This was not a good move. The senate were not keen, and neither were the people, and Coriolanus was put on trial and exiled.
During his exile, he joined up with Volscians who were surprisingly happy to have him on board. With them, he led an army against various Roman towns and colonies, eventually arriving at Rome itself. He only turned back after his mother and wife begged him not to lay siege to the city.
He’s generally considered to have actually existed – with a few disputes with regards to accuracy, of course (these are Roman legends, after all).
Also known as Magna Mater, or “Great Mother”, Rome adopted Cybele during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) against the Carthaginians.
The Roman Republic had, by this time, undergone a series of events that seemed to forewarn of Rome’s demise. These included a meteor shower, a failed harvest and a famine. The Roman senate, on hearing these predictions, consulted with religious advisors.
The solution was to import a foreign god, the Magna Mater, in order to defeat the Carthagianians. Because she belonged to the kingdom of Pergamum (around where Troy was said to have been located, modern-day Turkey), the Romans sent a delegation to ask permission to “adopt” the goddess.
On the way, the ambassadors stopped by the Oracle at Delphi in Greece, who confirmed that, yes, the goddess should be brought to Rome. Eventually, she arrived in Rome in the form of a black meteoric stone from Pessinus, the principal centre of the Great Mother cult.
Firstly, she was taken to the Temple of Victoria, before being enshrined in her own temple on the Palatine Hill. The stone was then used, uncarved, as the face of the goddess statue. Following this, the famine ended and Hannibal, the Carthiginian leader, was defeated. From then on, she was regarded as Rome’s protector.
The Roman Myth of Jupiter and the Bee
One of the most famous Rome myths which teaches you to be careful what you wish for!
According to the story, Jupiter was visited by the queen of the hive, who had enough of people stealing her honey. Once she made it to Mount Olympus, she offered some fresh honey to Jupiter, who promised he’d fulfill just one of her wishes. She asked for a sting, so to kill any mortal who got near her honey.
Jupiter gave her the sting, but also added that if she used it, she’d die from the loss of it.
Jupiter and Io
Another of the many Rome myths involving Jupiter. Io was a priestess and one of the many lovers of Jupiter, who in order to be closer to her and at the same time hide from his wife Juno turned himself into a black cloud. However, Juno recognized the cloud – so Jupiter turned Io into a white cow, but was still unable to conceal her from his wife, who put the cow under the surveillance of Argus, who with his 100 eyes would keep watch on her.
Jupiter thus sent his son Mercury to tell stories to Argus so he’d fall asleep and he could free Io – and Mercury succeeded. But angered Juno sent a gadfly to sting Io and get rid of her once and for all. Eventually Jupiter promised not to chase Io ever again, and Juno let her go. She fled to Egypt to become the first Egyptian goddess.
Apollo and Cassandra Myth
Apollo is present in both the Greek and the Roman pantheon and mythology. In love with Cassandra, the most beautiful daughter of King Priam, Apollo promised her the power of prophecy, as long as she complied with his wishes. She agreed, but once she got her wish she refused to unite with Apollo, who burst into flames out of anger. He thus cursed her so that nobody would believe her prophecies – she was considered a liar and a crazy person. Not even her father believed her, and imprisoned her in a citadel.
Her most famous prophecy was the attack of the Greeks against Troy: nobody believed her, and the city was destroyed.
The Legend of Lucretia
One of the most famous heroines of Roman mythology – though historians argue the facts have actually occurred – Lucretia committed suicide after having been raped by the son of an Etruscan king. Following the event, a rebellion against the Roman monarchy – at the time led by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus – occurred, and the most prominent families formed a republic. Lucretia’s husband was the first consul of the Roman Republic.
This is one of the earliest Roman myths. Cloelia was one of the Roman girls who was taken hostage by Lars Porsena, the Etruscan king, after the end of the war between Clusium and Rome in 508 BC. Cloelia managed to flee the hostage camp, leading a group of other Roman virgins across the River Tiber.
King Lars Porsena was so impressed by her courage that granted her the wish to keep half the hostages. She thus picked the best Roman soldiers, so that the was could continue.
You can admire a statue of Cloelia in Via Sacra, in the Roman Forum.
Many of the Roman legends are linked to the Roman gods, and this is one of them. Janus is the Roman god of beginnings, and to represent the fact that he can see the past and the future he’s portrayed as having. Janus was known for having saved the Sabine woman kidnapped by Romulus. To stop Romulus from reaching her, he flooded the way with a volcanic hot spring so that the kidnappers were buried under ashes and boiling water.
Pluto and the River Styx
Pluto was the Roman god of death and according to Roman mythology, anyone who dies has to travel to the Underworld, crossing the River of the Dead – aka River Styx. That’s why the dead would be buried with a coin in his mouth, so as to pay Charon, the ferrymen, to take his soul across the river.
Not even gods were immune from the water of the river – anyone who touched it would lose their voice for 9 years.
The Roman Myths of Hercules
Hercules was a character also present in Greek mythology, typically represented as half human and half god to symbolize his incredible power. Many Rome myths are attached to Hercules – the most famous one being that of the Twelve Labors, among which it’s worth remembering the Hercules and Hydra myth; the Hercules and Cerberus myth; the Hercules and the Ceryneian Hind myth; the Hercules and the Cretan Bull myth; and the Hercules and the Mares of Diomedes myth.
Make sure to read my other posts:
- The Roman Gods And Goddesses
- The Best Quotes About Rome
- The Best Rome Virtual Tour
- Where To See The Lovely Cats Of Rome
- The Best Areas Where To Stay In Rome
- The Best Tips For Visiting Rome
- The Most Famous Landmarks In Rome
- The Most Interesting Facts About Rome