Rhea Silvia

Symbolic representation of the Rhea Silvia myth on a sarcophagus in the Palazzo Mattei. Most of the elements of the story can be found in the scene. The central figure, Mars, strides over Rhea Silvia being put to sleep by Somnus pouring the juice of sleep on her from a horn. The wolf, the personification of the river, the temple of Vesta, are all present.

Rhea Silvia /ˈrə ˈsɪlviə/ (also written as Rea Silvia), and also known as Ilia /ˈɪliə/, was the mythical mother of the twins Romulus and Remus, who founded the city of Rome. Her story is told in the first book of Ab Urbe Condita of Livy and in fragments from Ennius, Annales[1] and Fabius Pictor.[2]

The legend

Rhea Silvia, torso from the amphitheatre at Cartagena in Spain that was rediscovered in 1988.

According to Livy's account of the legend she was the daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa, and descended from Aeneas. Numitor's younger brother Amulius seized the throne and killed Numitor's son, then forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, a priestess of the goddess Vesta. As Vestal Virgins were sworn to celibacy for a period of thirty years, this would ensure the line of Numitor had no heirs.

However, Rhea Silvia conceived and gave birth to the twins Romulus and Remus. She claimed that the god Mars was the father of the children. Livy says that she was raped by an unknown man, but "declared Mars to be the father of her illegitimate offspring, either because she really imagined it to be the case, or because it was less discreditable to have committed such an offence with a god."[3]

When Amulius learned of the birth he imprisoned Rhea Silvia and ordered a servant to kill the twins. But the servant showed mercy and set them adrift on the river Tiber, which, overflowing, left the infants in a pool by the bank. There a she-wolf (lupa), who had just lost her own cubs, suckled them.[4] Subsequently Faustulus rescued the boys, to be raised by his wife Larentia.[5] The god of the Tiber, Tiberinus, rescued Rhea Silvia and took her to be his bride.

Romulus and Remus went on to found Rome, overthrow Amulius, and reinstate Numitor as King of Alba Longa.

In Roman art and literature

Despite Livy's euhemerist and realist deflation of this myth, it is clear that the story of her seduction by Mars continued to be widely accepted. This is demonstrated by the recurring theme of Mars discovering Rhea Silvia in Roman arts: in bas-relief on the Casali Altar (Vatican Museums), in engraved couched glass on the Portland Vase (British Museum), or on a sarcophagus in the Palazzo Mattei. Mars' discovery of Rhea Silvia is a prototype of the "invention scene", or "discovery scene" familiar in Roman art; Greek examples are furnished by Dionysus and Ariadne or Selene and Endymion. The Portland Vase features a scene that has been interpreted as a depiction of the "invention", or coming-upon, of Rhea Sylvia by Mars.[6]

In a version presented by Ovid,[7] it is the river Anio who takes pity on her and invites her to rule in his realm.


The name Rhea Silvia suggests a minor deity, a demi-goddess of forests. Silva means woods or forest, and Rea may be related to res and regnum; Rea may also be related to Greek rheô, "flow," and thus relate to her association with the spirit of the river Tiber or Greek goddess Rhea. Carsten Niebuhr proposed that the name Rhea Silvia came from Rea, meaning guilty, and Silvia meaning of the forest and so assumed that Rhea Silvia was a generic name for the guilty woman of the forest, i.e. the woman who had been seduced there.

In literature

In popular culture

See also


  1. Ennius, Annales, I, fr. 19, as well as Cicero, Divinatio in Caecilium 1.30,
  2. In Fragmente der griechischen Historiker 809 f4a.
  3. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.
  4. The she-wolf is memorialised in the Medieval bronze Capitoline Wolf, a symbol of Rome.
  5. Some are of the opinion that Larentia was called Lupa among the shepherds from her being a common prostitute, and hence an opening was afforded for the marvellous story (Livy).
  6. Noted by D. E. L. Haynes, "The Portland Vase again" The Journal of Hellenic Studies 88 (1968:58-72) p. 67
  7. Ovid: Amores, book III, elegy IV: 'The Flooded River'.

External links

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