On the Etymologies of Romulus, Remus, and Rome

For as long as I can remember, I heard Rome was named after Romulus and that the naming was done by Romulus himself after he killed his brother Remus. This made sense to me as even in today’s English you can see the connection between the words Romulus and Rome. I did think Rome was named after Romulus, mostly because that’s what I had been told for years, but I’ve recently changed my mind on this after reviewing the information below.

The Brothers, Disputing Over the Founding of Rome, Consult the Augurs, pl.7 from the series The Story of Romulus and Remus (1575, Fontana)

It turns out that the leading theory on the etymology of Romulus is that his name means “of Rome”. This etymology struck me as odd, given that for Romulus to acquire his name, this city of which he is named after would already have to have a name. Given this etymology, the idea that Romulus named the city or that the city was named after Romulus cannot be true, as he is named after the city. But from where does the name of the city originate?

Enrique Cabrejas is of the opinion that Rome (Roma/RO-ma) can be translated as “by Force” or “God’s Hand”. He says that Romulus and Remus are nicknames given to the characters due to their stories and personalities. Romulus can be translated as “Lionforce” or “The strong lion” and Remus can be translated as “Backsliding” on “guilt”, “blame”, or “misfortune”.[1]

The idea of Roma meaning “of Force” or “God’s Hand” is backed up by the writings of Plutarch. “This great name of Rome, with much glory has spread among all men, (…) and -the force- the weapons given this name to the city, that means Rome.” Parallel Lives: Romulus. Plutarch. The story of the “Rape of the Sabines” also may add to the idea that Rome means “by Force”, as the women were abducted and taken to Rome to help populate the city. I think the translation from Cabrejas is warranted, but I wanted to dig deeper into the theories abou which words Rome might descend from (and so I did).

Roma, Romulus, and Remus are Latin names. The Latin words in this case are based upon Greek words. In Greek, “Rome” [Ρώμη] means “power,” “force,” “fighting army” and “speed tactics”. H. G. Liddell and R. Scot argue that the Latin Roma stems from a Greek verb, roomai, which among other things means “to rush/rush on”.[2] I note here that the English word “rush” shares a similar sound to the word Rasna (or Rasenna), which is what the Etruscans called themselves. Rasenna currently has an unknown etymology. It is also close to the word Rus, which is where the word Russia finds its root. The similarity in sound and spelling is not highly significant in and of itself, but given more variables, the idea of a deeper connectedness appears to me to gain more gravity. I explore this more below. Keep in mind that in the legend, when Romulus and Remus were babies, they were abandoned and thrown into the River Tiber.

Ievlev Boris Alexandrovich. ‘View on the Volga River’

Out of all the rivers in Europe, of which there are many, the Volga is the longest one. It has a length of about 2,193 miles (3529 kilometers). It starts in the Valdai Hills, northwest of Moscow, Russia, and it ends in the Caspian Sea (which is the world’s largest inland body of water). The Volga is also popularly considered the National River of Russia.

F. Knauer (Moscow, 1901) traced the etymology of Rus to the Persian name for the Volga, which is ولگا. Prof. George Vernadsky suggested that it stems from the Aryan word for water/moisture. Both etymologies are associated with water, thus, Rus is associated with water, same as the origin of Romulus and Remus. Another idea is that it can be traced to Rosh from the Biblical book of Ezekial. Additionally, there are claims that the word Rus stems from an Old Norse term for “men who row”.[3] Altogether, these ideas lead me to conclude that the original word that inspired Rus was used to refer to people who navigated the rivers. I also now think that Rus and Rome may share a similar root word. Another possibility might be that this is explained by both of their origin stories involving the existence of a mighty river.

Personally, I couldn’t help but notice that the Persian name for Volga looks somewhat similar to a reverse writing of the Greek name for Rome. Note the way Romulus and Remus’ names are written on the mosaic in the header image. The PW is somewhat separated from the rest of their names. Whether this is coincidence or something more is for someone else to decide, I just wanted to point it out in light of drawing connections between all these words with obscure origins.

Original photo by Jake Lorefice.

Reportedly, the name Remus descends from a word meaning “twin”. The Latin Remus could also descend from the Ancient Greek words eretmós (oar) or erétēs, (rower).[4], [5] I think these are both reasonable ancestor words for Remus, as Romulus and him were twins and both survived the river. Another note to make is that while rowing with one oar can help you navigate the waters, rowing with two oars is where the magic happens.

The word rower (which Remus is arguably based on) can be defined as “a person who rows”. This is the singular version of the definition for the word from which Rus stems. I think the idea of seafaring or traveling on rivers is inseparable from the creation of the Latin word Roma, and that this also provides insight into the history of the word Rus, and potentially Rasenna as well.

The other “founder” of Rome, Aeneas, may also play a role here, given his legendary voyages prior to founding the city. The etymology for his name is obscure and mysterious. Possibly it means “”praise-worthy,” from ainos “tale, story, saying, praise” (related to enigma); or perhaps related to ainos “horrible, terrible.””[6] Whatever the case may be, both foundation stories (that of Aeneas and that of the twins) both feature an important part involving navigating the waters.

The Voyage of Aeneas

I think a more exhaustive study on the origins of the words Rome, Romulus, and Remus (as well as Rus and Rasenna) will need to be conducted before generating any serious convictions on the topic. Right now, I think the best explanation as to how the characters obtained their names is that the name were assigned to them later on as nicknames to be remembered by. The words from which these nicknames descend is still debatable. This article sums up my preliminary observations.

Click here to see how Romulus and Remus have been depicted in art throughout the centuries.

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References:

[1] – http://ispcjournal.org/journals/2016-16/Cabrejas_16.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1-u55Xx56g3sCuSORChhXvCAKArSIGE6ygjAH94jcXMnT_JBRtj_DVUDg. Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

[2] – https://ewonago.blogspot.com/2009/04/etymology-of-rome.html. Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

[3] – https://theculturetrip.com/europe/russia/articles/heres-why-russia-is-called-russia/. Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

[4] – https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Remus. Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

[5] – https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/remus. Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.

[6] – https://www.etymonline.com/word/aeneas. Accessed 9 Sept. 2020.

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3 Comments on “On the Etymologies of Romulus, Remus, and Rome

  1. Can you imagine that Rome had a previous name that was changed via Romulus being it’s hero? Perhaps it wasn’t a city before just a smaller location. Anyway the legend says the two brothers were discovered by a female wolf that fed them and after they founded the city. Of course two persons alone do not found a full city. It’s a mythological legend. Nice endeavour on the blog though. Keep it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love etymology. And I’ve only recently been enriching my studies with Roman history and legend. So I thoroughly liked reading this. I’m simultaneously surprised and unsurprised. At any rate, thanks for posting this. The Greek angle makes sense, given Roman obsession with Greek culture. But the Etruscan angle is logical too. In the event other folks have come about this fine page searching for stories about Romulus, there is this prose based on several accounts.

    https://spergbox.wordpress.com/2019/06/15/romulus/

    Like

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