"Let us first consider the relation of children to their brothers and sisters. I do not know
why we presuppose that that relation must be a loving one; for instances of hostility
between adult brothers and sisters force themselves upon everyone's experience and we
can often establish the fact that the disunity originated in childhood or has always existed."
- Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900.

"I sometimes wonder if Christian teachers have not slightly misunderstood Christ's order
to love each other as brothers and sisters: perhaps He really intended us to think
of brotherly love not as an all-forgiving, sugary emotion, but as a kind of deeply
rooted loyalty spiced with fierce criticism, passionate competitiveness and a burning
desire for fairness."
- Sarah Johnson, Parents on Parenting, 1996.

Romulus and Remus.

The story of Romulus and Remus is perhaps the most famous of all the "new" fables developed from the Greek myths by the later Roman community. It was originally rendered by the Roman annalist Quintus Fabius Pictor and later by the celebrated historian Livy some time around the beginning of the first century AD. Romulus and Remus were twin brothers (though Romulus is usually considered to have been the elder) born to Rhea Silva, a Vestal Virgin, after a visit by the god Mars. Their great uncle Amulus ordered that they be thrown into the River Tiber to drown as he feared that they would one day try to take back the throne which he had usurped from his elder brother Numitor (Rhea's father). As usually happens in such fables, however, the babies were saved: they were first adopted by a she wolf and later raised by a shepherd, Faustulus, and his wife Acca.

As young adults, Romulus and Remus led a rebellion to restore their grandfather to the throne and killed their great uncle. Not content with being ruled by their grandfather, however, they resolved to build a city of their own. They quarrelled about which one of them should take official credit for founding it, and decided to settle the issue by means of divination by birds. Whilst Remus saw only six vultures from his vantage point on a hill, Romulus saw twelve, and was awarded the right to rule. Remus, jealous of his brother's victory over him, insulted his twin by leaping over the incomplete city wall, contemptuously asking how it would ever keep the inhabitants safe. Romulus, infuriated by this challenge, responded by striking and killing his younger sibling with a spade, an act which he later regretted, despite his subsequent successes as the founder of Rome.

There are many similarities between this myth and the Oedipus legend - like Oedipus, Romulus and Remus were rejected and left to die by a father figure (here, their great uncle) as he feared that they would later become a danger to him. In both cases they later took their revenge and murdered this evil father, which at first brought greatness but later led to tragedy. This is a common theme in these myths (1). There are also parallels to the Romulus and Remus legend in many Bible stories. Many biblical siblings come into conflict with each other (most famously and first, Cain and Abel). Often the younger brother, unlike Remus, does succeed in usurping the elder, as the youngest is usually the most powerful in the Bible (2).


The story of Esau and Jacob and their descendants provides a good example here. Jacob (the name means "usurper") twice tricked his elder brother out of his birthright with the help of his mother. Esau resolved to kill him, but they were eventually reconciled by a timely piece of divine intervention. Jacob seemed not to have learned from this experience that it was unwise to favour a particular child, and the privileges he bestowed upon his son Joseph caused his ten elder (half) brothers to attempt to murder him too. Once again, however, the youngest proved to be the more powerful and, as is well known, Joseph later became the co-ruler of Egypt whilst his brothers were brought close to death by famine before the family were reunited. The dominance of the younger brother continued into the third generation, when, as Jacob had prophesied on his deathbed, Joseph's younger son Ephraim became a greater ruler than his elder one Manasseh.


1) See Rank, Otto (1907) The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, in Sagal, Robert A. (ed.) (1990) In Quest of the Hero, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

2) This is also true of many Greco-Roman myths: Kronos and Zeus were both youngest sons.


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ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

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