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HBO series: “Romulus” – review and analysis from perspective of ancient sources

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Romulus and Gnaeus
Romulus and Gnaeus

Recently, on the HBO GO platform, you can watch the latest Italian production – the historical series “Romulus”, which takes the viewer to the middle of the 8th century BCE and tells the story of the creation of the most powerful city of antiquity – Rome. I do not hide that the first announcements and information about the title from Sky Italia did not convince me too much. How do I finally receive the series, consisting of 10 episodes? How does the plot relate to the accounts of ancient writers?

Note: The text includes a spoiler and plot details.

Plot

The series begins with the expulsion of boys from one of the Italian tribes – Velia – to the forests for a 6-month trial and hardening time amid the dangers of far from home. Among the boys, there is Viros, who turns out to be a slave and is treated the same way by his companions in the camp. The group is led by a strong and authoritative, yet manifested tyrannical aspirations Gnaeus. He is the one who decides about camp life, and at the same time is able to ensure the survival of the group in a forest full of wild animals and the evil goddess Rumia.

In the meantime, we are transferred to the ancient city of Alba Longa, the most powerful in Latium, where the king of kings – Numitor – the leader of 30 tribes inhabiting the region, resides. His rule so far is just and in accordance with the will of the gods, and the confederation lives in peace. However, for a long time, the lands of the Latins have been affected by crop failures resulting from drought and lack of rainfall. At the request of the king’s council, the augur carries out an assessment of the gods’ will of the behaviour of the released birds (the so-called auspices). The gods are inexorable. Numitor has lost their support and must give up power. On top of everything according to tradition, his eyes were burned out and driven out of the city. His grandsons are to take his place; the sons of his daughter-widow Sylvia: Jemos and Enitos. The latter is loved by the vestal virgin – Ilia, daughter of Amulius – Numitor’s brother; they both plan to spend their lives together after she ends her service in the holy tabernacle.

Then the aforementioned – Amulius – appears on the stage, planning to take power after expelling his brother. For this purpose, he is prompted by his spouse, who maintains that the gods are favourable to him and that power is due. To this end, he takes the brothers far outside the city and plans their murder. In the end, only Enitos is killed by his hand; Jemos happily escapes and disappears into the wild forest. Amulius returns to town, accuses Jemos of his brother’s murder, and is proclaimed the new king. It rains in Latium, which is considered as the favour of the gods.

Upon hearing of the death of her lover, Ilia leaves the service of the goddess of Vesta, for what she is buried alive as a punishment. However, “thanks to the god Mars” she avoids death and dedicates her life to the god of war to bring justice and kill Jemos.

Jemos is left on his own. He knows that a death sentence was passed on him and that if he could return home, he would be executed. Injured, he travels through the forest, eventually waking up in the camp of Gnaeus and the young members of the Velia tribe. There he becomes a slave; however, over time, successful hunting gains the respect of the camp leader. Jemos repeatedly rescues from the quagmire Viros. One day, the assaulted Viros murders one of his companions, explaining later to the leader that it was the powerful demons and the goddess Rumia who torn him apart. An expedition of boys sets out to bury the man. Finally, Jemos saves again Viros and both must rely on each other.

Their joint journey through the forest and bypassing the patrols of Alba’s soldiers end up being captured by the wild and uncouth followers of Rumia – the goddess of wolves – and the mother of their tribe. As it turns out, Viros, who did not know his origin, has a sign on his back that suggests his belonging to the community. Viros becomes one of the tribe members; Jemos is also spared because the leader sees him as strength and respect for Viros. Close ties are established between Jemos and Viros and the people of the forest who, they claim, come from the Osci family and were once driven from their homes. Everyone can find a place in their community, everyone is equal and there is no slavery.

A rebellion breaks out in the boys’ camp from Velia, and Gnaeus is driven out. The lack of a leader will cause a large part of the group to die and only a few will survive. One of the surviving Velians sees with his own eyes how Gnaeus is taken captive by the warriors of Rumia. He decides to return to his tribe and says about the dramatic murders committed by Rumia. Spurius, the king of the tribe, sets out at the head of the army to defeat and capture the children of the “she-wolf”.

Eventually, part of the community of wolves is killed in a fire in the forest, some of them with Jemos and she-wolf are captured, and the rest with Viros run away. Jemos was the only one to survive the capture, as Spurius discovered his true identity. In front of Jemos, members of his new family, including their leader, “the she-wolf”, are dying. Spurius sends Jemos to Amulius, but during transport, he saves himself and kills the king of Velia.

Jemos, having experienced a spiritual rebirth, leads the Gabi and other tribes and followers of Rumia – supporting his rights to the throne, and then he approaches Alba Longa. There, Ilia learns that her father murdered her lover, and in rage decides to “kill” him. Then he turns over the city and gives power to Jemos to spare the fight. After a temporary rule, Jemos, knowing that the other cities would not accept the “wolf children” in the confederation and would not accept their wild goddess, decides to leave Alba. He returns power to Numitor, and he himself, together with Rumia’s children, goes beyond the walls to found the promised new city – Ruma.

Boys driven to the forest; in front Viros

General observations

The first thing that comes to lips after watching the series is: “an extremely brutal and bloody world”. The filmmakers tried at all costs to show us Italy in antiquity when there was no powerful Roman civilization yet, and Latium was divided into numerous cities and tribes. The lives of people in those days were absolutely dominated by all kinds of deities whose will was understood from the flight of birds and the entrails of sacrificed animals. Incorrectly chosen direction of flight, strange behaviour of birds or even grazing at the door – all these symbolic scenes were to prove whether the gods supported given persons or their decisions. For today’s people, such behaviour may be surprising, but in those days, a huge number of threats awaited people, and everything that was incomprehensible was explained by the will of the gods.

For the people of that time, blood, dirt, submission to God’s will and struggle were inseparable elements of life. Parents full of pride gave their daughters to the service of Vesta. The girl wasted her best time in life caring for the eternal fire of the goddess for 30 years of her life. During this time, she could not lose her virginity, and any hostile behaviour towards the goddess or improperly performed service was punished by death from hunger and thirst in the dark. The most important thing was to live in harmony with the gods, and everyday functioning was based on making sacrifices or brutal ceremonies.

In my opinion, the world, scenery and clothes are presented very well. The creators set themselves the task of showing the world of Italy as credibly as possible in the 8th century BCE. Latium at that time was dominated by forests, which were perceived as a lair of evil and dangers. It may seem strange to modern people that the land in the Mediterranean climate was covered with forests; deforestation in Italy took place during the existence of the Roman state, which massively obtained wood for construction or fuel.

Homes and settlements are also worth noting. The series does not show massive stone walls and outstanding structures. Instead, we see roundhouses, made of simple materials, the acquisition of which did not require a greater civilization development. Among the cities, the most powerful city is Alba, which is distinguished by a wooden and simple wall. It looks very good.

In addition, it should be mentioned that the actors speak Latin, what adds to the realism to the series.

Group of boys led by Gnaeus

Story Analysis

At the outset, I would like to point out that the origins of Rome are extremely enigmatic, and the multitude of sources makes it difficult to understand in which direction the creators went when constructing the plot. Ancient writers themselves undermined the claims of other authors, what created a multitude of accounts.

Perhaps some of my observations are incorrect, and the creators based on some information that I do not have or know. Hence, I apologize in advance for any factual errors. I tried to approach the plot as objectively as possible and use the sources I know. Rather, I was sticking to the main thread of the legends of Romulus and Remus and trying to find references to the characters in the series.

Source and knowledge-based Analysis

The first thing that comes to my mind and it didn’t make much sense is fact of using the names Jemos and Enitos, which – based on the sources – should be replaced by Romulus and Remus. I do not quite understand why the creators gave up such names when – in my opinion – it was necessary, especially when the film tells about the beginnings of Rome. While writing the review, I corrected Romulus on Jemos several times, because I considered the hero to be the first legendary king of Rome. While watching the series, I have never heard the word “Romulus”, so I do not know where the name of the series comes from.

Indeed, Numitor and Amulius were the sons of King Procas, which is mentioned several times in the series. Amulius, in fact, seized power after the expulsion of brother Numitor (but without appealing to auspices); the sources also mention the murder of Numitor’s son and heir. It was not entirely clear to me why Numitor’s eyes were burnt as punishment for losing the support of the gods – perhaps it was a pure invention of the creators.

Rea Sylvia was the daughter of Numitor, but according to the sources, after Amulius took power, she was handed over to the service of the Vesta, so that she would not give the rightful heirs to the throne. During the ministry, however, Mars appeared, and Romulus and Remus were born from their union. Upon hearing of this, Amulius ordered the infants to be killed, and the children were thrown into the Tiber. The boys were happily saved, and the she-wolf – the symbol of Rome – took care of their feeding and care. The series, on the other hand, shows the brothers as children of Sylwia and their father, unknown by name, who was a brave warrior. The boys lived to manhood and were regarded as heirs to the throne after Numitor.

According to legend, when they grew up, the brothers learned the truth, killed Amulius, and handed over power to their grandfather. It is worth noting that the last scene of the series clearly shows that Ilia did not kill her father, despite her enormous anger. Moving on to Ilia – her name also appears in ancient sources; interestingly, she is also given as a possible mother of Romulus and Remus, due to the relation with Mars. I also found information that Amulius raped Ilia, while she was a Vestal virgin.

Remus, according to ancient accounts, was killed by his brother once he later crossed the border of his city; not from the hand of Amulius, as the show shows.

In the sources, I have not found a information of a tribe living in forests and worshipping the goddess Rumia. There is information in Plutarch that people believed in the goddess Rumilia and that her followers poured milk on themselves (similar to the movie). The teat itself was called “ruma” by the Romans. In my opinion, the tribe is a pure invention of the creators, which allowed the authors to combine an interesting thread and the need for Jemos/Romulus to establish a new city. The goddess, whose name comes from suckling and is related to the upbringing of children, helped create a reference to the legendary she-wolf feeding twins.

In addition, I was able to read that there was an ancient city like Gabi, and Velia is one of the hills of Rome. Alba Longa was indeed a prominent city in the region and led the confederation of Latin cities.

The wife of Amulius is not mentioned in sources, but he certainly had one. Also, the idea of ​​Latin boys leaving the city and living in the forest is not very clear to me. I suspect that it may also be an invention of the creators, as I have not encountered such a way of upbringing.

What was exaggerated?

In my opinion, most of the actors were selected for the roles appropriately. However, I have some reservations about, for example, the actor playing Jemos, who did not convince me at all. Maybe I had too much expectation for the main character. I also do not see that a slave could so easily suddenly become the leader of an entire organized group. Viros, from a terrified boy, turns into a man and a warrior of the goddess Rumia – this is naturally to prove to us that everyone can achieve something, regardless of their situation or origin. However, it seems to me to be too simple and sometimes becomes comical – for example when Viros yells at other people, including one of the warriors of his new tribe or Jemos. The situation is perhaps funny because the actor playing the role looks young and, in my opinion, does not fit into this world.

Actor playing Romulus

The plot makes sense, but I believe that the wildness and brutality of the people of the forest have been over-exaggerated. Devouring the hearts of victims, pouring the blood on an albino prophetess, mass orgies, clothes and appearance of warriors, just like in the movie “The 13th Warrior”. The creators wanted to show the children of the forest as a pack at all costs – referring to the symbol of Rome, the wolf. This image, however, has nothing to do with what we see in Alba Longa and other cities of Latium.

Finally, let me just mention that the introductory music for every episode doesn’t fit at all. For example, it is worth comparing it to the music opening the series “Rome”, which in my opinion is already an icon.

Summary

In summary, despite a few flaws, the series surprised me very pleasantly. I was afraid of a historically distorted plot, but it turned out that historians were involved in the creation of the work. The names appear in the sources; what’s more, the presented world seems to be very credible and reflects such distant and dangerous times.

I would love to know more about how the series was created and what was the motivation behind the choice on the plot. Also, why was the name of the series chosen exactly this way? After all, I recommend the series and I think many people will like it, especially history enthusiasts.

Sources
  • Cassius Dio, Roman history
  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities
  • Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita
  • Fabius Pictor
  • Plutarch, Romulus
  • Gaius Julius Solinus, Polyhistor
  • Photos: naekranie.pl

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