This is an account of the foundation legend of Rome, how the twins Remus and Romulus were miraculously suckled by a she-wolf, and how Romulus founded Rome and Remus was killed at the moment of the foundation. What does the story mean? Why have a twin, if he has to be killed off? This is the first historical analysis of the origins and development of the myth, and it offers important insights into the nature of pre-imperial Rome and the ways in which myths could be created and elaborated in a nonliterate society.
I don't know enough about Roman history to rate this book, but I did enjoy it! (There's something fun about watching scholars get into it with other scholars--Wiseman is always quoting other classicists, sometimes agreeing with them, sometimes denouncing their arguments as vague or unhelpful or downright bad. And it's kind of hilarious. But also delightful. Just...it's nice to know people can have good rousing arguments about stuff like whether Romulus or Remus is the elder twin.)
I certainly agree that the Remus story needs close examination, which is why I picked up this book in the first place. I do not agree with all of Wiseman's conclusions - and I am often irritated by his tone. Granted, laying into others' theories is a time-honoured academic discipline; but ridiculing earlier theories and methods and then basically ending up with a "hey, we know so little about this period that my theory may as well be true" seems weak.
In the beginning of Remus: A Roman Myth, Professor Wiseman poses an interesting question: Why did the Romans have a foundation myth involving twins? And why should one twin kill the other? He's right, it's an interesting-- even unique-- type of foundation myth. On that level, Wiseman had my complete attention.
On the other hand, this book was a laborious read. I like to read about antiquity, and I am open to new interpretations and speculations (always matched with a dose of criticism, but let's be honest, that's half the fun). Sometimes, this book supported Wiseman's speculations with some foggy details; I don't know enough about archaic Rome and the archaeological evidence to gainsay his claims. For example, the bronze mirror depicting the she-wolf and others seems radically reinterpreted where I was unfamiliar with the original interpretation; this was a difficult argument to follow.
By then end, this book made some interesting conclusions, but it felt like wading through quicksand to get there. I thought that the big-picture development could have been done differently, but that Wiseman was not going to leave scholars room to quibble about his argument. I will summarize by saying that this book has an interesting premise, is meticulously researched with copious end notes for the more-than-casual scholar, and summarizes with interesting albeit speculative conclusions. My hang-up was the density of the supporting details, as well as extended digressions. I appreciated this book, but cannot claim to have enjoyed it.
I picked up this book as part of a research assignment on the Roman worldview, and it wound up transforming my center of focus from the generalities of Roman ritual and religion to illustrating this controversy regarding Remus and Romulus, their completely out-of-place myth, and what that says about Roman society in the era that birthed the story as well as the way Romans build their mythology. Wiseman did a fantastic job addressing the myriad angles from which this oddity is being examined and addressed, and absolutely did better research than other books on the subject of this myth. Many of them reference the 4th century Etruscan mirror as a representation of the Remus/Romulus myth; Wiseman's analysis of the most up-to-date archaeological and historical research disprove this theory and completely re-frame both the motivations and dates of the creation of the Remus/Romulus myth. It provides an incredible new insight into not only Roman mythology, but into the way societies in general create their myths and worldviews.
I found this book very interesting, even if the academic language was a bit dense now and then.
Briefly, Wiseman sets out to discover when and why the Romulus and Remus legend was born, and why the shadowy Remus was seemingly introduced just to quickly be killed off. Along the way, we learn things about the shifting meaning of cults and festivals, how goats turn into wolves, and how the twins legend fits within the geography of the city of Republican Rome.
I didn't agree with every claim, but overall Wiseman's examination made sense both as Rome trying to invent a strong face against the hostile world, and as symbols of power struggles between patricians and plebeians.
(If that makes little sense, well -- it's late here, OK?)
I found much of this book laborious to read. In many parts, it seemed to me that Wiseman was digressing from his main theme - indeed, the last chapter was much devoted to Rome-themed popular culture in the last century or so (Hollywood, and novels, Ben-Hur, that sort of thing). I was often lost in the smog of scholarly-talk (though I guess if you were an expert in Roman and Greek mythology it wouldn't seem such a foreign language to you). All in all, I did gather something from the read, and what I understood (and found relevant) I did enjoy.