What are the Romulus and Remus complexes?

"Then Romulus began to understand
the terms of their equality:
'While both can grow as my creation'
'Your creation. How shall that be done?'
'Imagine you are stronger now than I'
So Remus threw his brother to the ground
and each let out a cry of triumph."
- Rodney Hall, Romulus and Remus, 1970.

The figure of Remus, or "Remus complex", illustrates the eternal fate of the younger sibling: resentful of his more successful elder brother and forever in his shadow, he must strive to outdo him. The figure of Romulus, or "Romulus complex", reveals the horror that is felt by the elder sibling when the younger begins to succeed in this challenge: he must react with violence and intensify efforts to suppress him (1).

What follows is the outline of a possible (I must stress this word) trajectory from which the Romulus and Remus complexes may be formed. As regards the female subject, this theory discards the notorious "penis envy" myth in favour of a trajectory in which the female is on equal terms with the male as both are discussed largely in relation to their own sex only. My use of the traditional masculine form throughout the rest of the text should not therefore be seen as favouring the male subject but merely for the sake of euphony: the feminine form would be equally acceptable. I have divided the major (likely) developments in sibling relationships into four stages as follows:


i) Initial period of jealousy (Romulus complex) from the elder child towards his younger sibling when he is born.

When his new sibling is born, the elder child is not immediately aware of his innate superiority, and develops a feeling of intense jealousy, especially if the baby is of the same sex as himself. A gap of three years between children, which is considered by many child psychologists to be the "ideal" gap, is also associated with the peak age of sibling rivalry as the elder child is old enough to realise that the baby represents a threat, but not old enough to decipher the limits of that threat (2). He wishes that the baby was dead as his mother's attention is transferred to the new arrival, a process that Adler termed "dethronement". Whilst all the children in a family except the youngest experience some feelings of dethronement, it is always the eldest who is the most strongly affected, as he is completely unused to sharing parental affections. It is not all that unusual for a two or three year old to actually attempt to kill his new sibling. TV presenter Samantha Norman once confessed that as a jealous small child she hit her baby sister Emma on the head with a spark plug, putting her in hospital. Emma still has the scars (3). Occasionally these homicidal tots succeed in disposing of their hated rivals: "horror stories" of young children "accidentally" killing their little siblings (often by shooting) have become a regular feature of the American tabloid press.

Freud considered this period of development in some detail in The Interpretation of Dreams and later claimed that the arrival of a younger sibling is often what causes the dissolution of the Oedipus complex as the elder child feels that he has lost his mother's love. Freud's 1933 lecture on Femininity gives a particularly vivid picture of this:

"But what the child grudges the unwanted intruder and rival is not only the suckling
but all the other signs of maternal care. It feels that it has been dethroned [note
Freud's use of Adler's pet term here], despoiled, prejudiced in its rights; it casts
a jealous hatred upon the new baby and develops a grievance against the faithless
mother....we rarely form a correct idea of the strength of these jealous impulses,
of the tenacity with which they persist and of the magnitude of their influence on
later development"

Although Freud claimed to be speaking of females here this passage has equal relevance to males too, and especially to Freud himself. He felt very hostile towards his younger brother Julius, born in October 1857 when he was seventeen months old. Freud was afraid that Julius would try to castrate him by becoming their mother's favourite, particularly as he was his first male sibling, so wished him dead. Julius did indeed die, in April of the following year, and this had a profound affect on Freud. As he told Fliess: "I welcomed my one year younger brother with ill wishes and real infantile jealousy, and his death left the germ of self-reproaches in me" (5). Freud later categorised such feelings as "infantile omnipotence" - a child who finds his death wishes fulfilled remains ever fearful of his own desires. Julius's death was followed by the births of a succession of girls, whom Freud found somewhat less threatening.

Adler had a similar experience: when he was nearly four his eight-month-old brother Rudolf, who shared a bed with him, died of diphtheria. Rudolf's death inspired Adler to become a physician, possibly through guilty feelings on his part as he had been unable to save him and may have earlier wished him dead. Lacan, too, suffered the loss of a baby brother at a young age. His response is unrecorded, however, we can, perhaps, expect it to have been similar since this would explain his emphasis in his 1938 article on the family on the "intrusion complex", which represents the ordeal that a child must go through when he is presented with siblings (6).


ii) Lessening of jealousy from the elder towards the younger child.

This first stage of jealousy is usually an infantile phenomenon. The elder child soon discovers that the new baby's only power lies in its helplessness, and learns to use the age gap as a means of asserting superiority over it (7). This was the case with a number of children observed by Freud: Little Hans scornfully criticised his small sister for her lack of teeth, whilst Freud's six year old niece frequently inquired in regard to her three year old sister: "Lucie can't understand that yet, can she?" (8). According to child psychologists Kevin Leman and Richard Woolfson (9), this attitude should be encouraged by parents as jealousy is minimised if the elder sibling is made to feel that it is in some way more "important" than the new baby is. The elder child is able to "reclaim" the mother as the baby begins to gain its independence and she does not have to devote so much time to it. He becomes fond of his little sibling as the younger child becomes more mobile and is capable of joining in games as a playmate - from age four we spend more time with our siblings than with our parents (10). After the initial shock of being presented with a rival fades, the elder child is also better equipped to deal with additional siblings (11).

 In his later years Freud came to disagree with the view that this murderous form of jealousy in elder children usually diminishes with age and argued instead that it actually increases with the birth of each new sibling (12). However, this is not borne out by his own experience. When Alexander was born, the ten year old Sigi declared himself pleased to have a brother as an ally against his five sisters and was even allowed to name the new baby, choosing "Alexander" after Alexander the Great. He had realised by then that no little sibling (even a male one) could take away his authority as the firstborn son and position as his mother's favourite child. It is also possible that he still felt guilty for what had happened to Julius. Freud remained very fond of Alexander throughout his life - it is surely significant that when in August 1901 Freud finally threw off the "Rome" phobia he had inherited through his identification with Hannibal, it was Alexander he took with him to Italy. It should be noted, however, that the "forgetting" (i.e. repression) of jealousy is not as simple as it first appears. Some people (particularly neurotics, who as we have seen, remain tied to childhood conflicts) may remain intensely jealous of their younger siblings throughout the whole of their lives. Even in the case of the "normal" child, the sense of threat that the baby first evoked is never entirely destroyed. It may re-surface later in adulthood if the younger brother tries to usurp the elder's position since the younger will no longer be as helpless as he was as a baby (see below) (13).


iii) Transference of feelings of jealousy so that the younger sibling is now the resentful one. He develops a vengeful hatred (Remus complex) against his elder brother, which is at first repressed but later returns and leads to attempts to threaten him.

Although the younger brother initially looks upon his elder sibling with admiration, this is soon transformed into resentment. Younger children never enjoy the special status as the subject of their parents' unrivalled attention as the eldest sibling did but are forever in the elder's shadows from the moment of birth (14). Their early achievements such as their first step and their first word will never mean as much to their parents as the eldest child's did - it is hard to be so enthusiastic about these things the second or third time round (15). It is especially hard for the younger sibling if comparisons are made since someone always loses out on them, and even the favoured child may not like his achievements being used in this way (16). Historically, in most fields it has been the eldest siblings who have proved to be the most successful, perhaps because they usually have a chance to establish themselves first. This is especially apparent in Hollywood film stars.

From a Lacanian point of view, the older sibling might thus be said to be in the Symbolic, whilst the younger is stuck in the Imaginary. As Frank Sulloway has shown, whilst eldest siblings are likely to conform to authority, laterborns often have a rebellious temperament (17). Therefore the younger will not suffer this oppression passively but will want revenge, to succeed where Remus failed. Although the younger sibling has less fear than the elder of castration (as he is in a sense already castrated, as noted above), he is still faced with a conflict as he loves his brother as much as he resents him. They may in fact appear very close, as Romulus and Remus were before Remus's fatal jealousy. Therefore, he will repress these hateful feelings. He will often strive to be as different from his elder sibling as possible, to excel in a sphere in which the firstborn has not already established himself, thus minimising the possibility of rivalry between them (18). If he is unable to do this, however, hatred for the elder sibling will eventually break free from repression and he will attempt to challenge him.

It is unimportant at what age this challenge takes place. There is no necessity for the Romulus and Remus situation to be resolved in early childhood (although of course it can be). Therefore the complexes are not infantile phenomenons like the Oedipus complex and their emergence from the repressed unconscious later in life should not automatically be taken as a sign of neurosis, as would be the case with Oedipus (19). The Romulus and Remus complexes will contribute towards the development of a neurosis only if the siblings concerned are psychologically vulnerable and unable to cope with the hateful feelings for each other that are generated by the return of the complexes from the repressed. As Freud reminds us, "neurotics break down at the same difficulties that are successfully overcome by normal people" (20). If the younger brother can resolve these feelings by accepting his position as castrated, the complexes will merely take the form of "friendly" sibling rivalry on both sides. This will also occur if he does castrate his elder sibling and the elder sibling accepts this (as Esau did). However, this is a lot less likely, as I will demonstrate in the next section of this chapter.

Interestingly, Freud came very close to discovering the Remus complex himself in his discussion of the French general Napoleon in a letter to the writer Thomas Mann. Freud stated that the biblical story of Joseph was a prototype for Napoleon's relationship with his elder brother Joseph (21):

"The elder brother is the natural rival; the younger one feels for him an elemental,
unfathomably deep hostility for which in later life the expressions 'death wish' and
'murderous intent' may be found appropriate. To eliminate Joseph, to take his place, to
become Joseph himself, must have been Napoleon's strongest emotion as a small child"

Ambivalent feelings occurred here too: Napoleon later came to love and respect Joseph so directed his hatred towards his conquered territories instead. As had been the case with his oedipal feelings towards his mother, Freud never developed this argument. This becomes significant when we consider that the Remus complex, like the Romulus rivalry with the younger brother, was strongly evident in his own early life, in his feelings towards his nephew John.

John was Emmanuel Freud's son, a year older than Freud, who functioned as a brother substitute for him. He was Freud's closest companion until the age of four when he went with his family to Manchester (23). Freud had a very ambivalent attitude toward him and described him in The Interpretation of Dreams as "an intimate friend and a hated enemy" (24). Freud fantasised long into adulthood about beating John physically, of winning the childish squabbles they used to have which John, being older, would invariably win in real life. Freud saw his relationship with both John and Julius as exerting a large influence on his adult life, as he told Fliess in a letter: "This nephew and this younger brother have determined what is neurotic, but also what is intense, in all my friendships" (25). These ambivalent infantile relationships did indeed set the pattern for the rest of Freud's life; as we have seen, he had many friends who became enemies - Eli Bernays, Meynert, Breuer, Fliess, Adler, Stekel, Jung, Rank, Ferenczi....


iv) Reawakening of the feelings of jealousy (Romulus complex) in the elder sibling, who retaliates against the supposed threat by trying to oppress his younger brother.

The elder sibling never gives up his privileged position without a fight, especially in adulthood. He will be proud of his younger brother's achievements, but only whilst they do not overshadow his own. He will feel threatened by a strong challenge as he can remember the fear he had of his little brother when he was born so usually reacts by trying to oppress him further. He will try to once again use the superiority of the age gap to keep the younger sibling in the Imaginary, though this time in a much more oppressive manner, perhaps by attacking his sexual prowess. This stage provides the elder brother with a basis for neurosis if he refuses to accept his new position in the event of the younger succeeding in this challenge (see above). The elder is probably more vulnerable to neurosis; firstborns are said to be more insecure than laterborns as this reflects the attitude of their parents in their earliest years - they become more confident of their parenting skills with each additional child (26). Firstborns are also far more likely than their younger siblings to be put under pressure by their parents to be high achievers, which explains why the majority of people who seek counselling are eldest or only children (27).


1) Since this theory displaces the father-mother-child triad of the Oedipus complex in favour of the conflict between the child and his siblings, it would perhaps be more appropriate to name it after Oedipus's sons Eteocles and Polynices, who slew each other in a battle over which one of them should rule the kingdom after Oedipus's death. However, since the details of the Eteocles/Polynices legend are sketchy at best (there is even a discrepancy over who was the elder), this writer is of the opinion that a better known legend such as the story of Romulus and Remus serves to illustrate the trajectory better. Conversely, the term "Cain complex", used by many to denote the fratricidal wish (Freud himself used the expression "'Cain' phantasy" in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900, Standard Edition V, p.458)), is rejected here as it has become over used and carries too many prior connotations to be able to satisfactorily accompany a new theory.

2) See, for example, Woolfson, Richard C. (1995) Sibling Rivalry, Thornsons, London, p.34.

3) See Norman, Samantha, quoted in The Daily Mail, March 20, 1999.

4) See Femininity (1933), Standard Edition XXII, p.123.

5) See Letters to Fliess (1892-99), Standard Edition I, p.261.

6) See Evans, Dylan (1996) An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London, p.27.

7) In children under five years of age, this assertion of superiority may be proceeded by a brief period of regression to infantile habits such as bed wetting in the hope of distracting the parents' attention from the new baby. However, the child soon learns that this is likely to bring punishment, whereas "grown up" behaviour will be praised.

8) See The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Standard Edition IV, p.253.

9) See Leman, Kevin (1984) The Birth Order Book, Revell, New Jersey, p.141; Woolfson, Richard C. (1995) p.29.

10) See Woolfson, Richard C. (1995) p.107. In siblings of opposite sexes, this period is often the time at which sexual explorations come into play. There is incidentally a possibility that Freud attempted a childish seduction on his sister Anna, as he had earlier with his half niece cum potential future wife Pauline. See Krull, Marianne (trans. Arnold J. Pomerans) ([1979] 1986) Freud and His Father, Hutchinson, London.

11) See Toman, Walter (1993) Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Bwhaviour (fourth edition), Jason Aronson Inc, New Jersey, p.19.

12) See Femininity (1933), Standard Edition XXII, p.123.

13) This was also apparent in Freud's case: he expressed annoyance when his ten year younger brother was appointed Professor Extraordinarius in 1899, three years before Freud himself. However, Alexander's career was never a direct threat to his own.

14) It is important to remember, however, that rivalry between siblings does not just involve a battle for parental love, as Freud appears to have assumed. Siblings may compete for many things, especially as they grow older, for instance love of a third party (this is especially common, of course, amongst teenage sisters); political power (as the legendary Kennedy family); sporting trophies (for an example of this, see the case study in the following chapter).

15) See Leman, Kevin (1984) p.85; Woolfson, Richard C. (1995) p.56.

16) See Woolfson, Richard C. (1995) p.49.

17) See Sulloway, Frank J. (1996) Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives, Abacus, London.

18) This was recognised by both Kevin Leman (1984) and Frank J. Sulloway (1996) and is again borne out by the Sunday Times Relative Values interviews: "One of the reasons I started sculpture was because at school they said I was going to write and I didn't want to compete with Penelope. The idea was so horrific I definitely chose to do something else" - Angela Conner, sculptor, of her elder sister Penelope Gillat, writer (May 8 1988); "We have never been competitive, we are in different leagues. I don't feel overshadowed by his success. But I would if he drew. I'd cut off his fingers if he drew" - Clive Collins, cartoonist, of his younger brother Phil, musician (July 3 1988).

19) Which is supposed to have been destroyed in childhood, of course.

20) See An Autobiographical Study (1925), Standard Edition XX, pp.55-6.

21) Though in the biblical story of Joseph, Joseph was in fact (functionally at least) the youngest brother. Freud himself identified with this Joseph, being the son of Jacob and an interpreter of dreams.

22) See Freud, Sigmund and various (ed. Ernst L. Freud; trans. Tania and James Stern) ([various dates] 1961) The Letters of Sigmund Freud 1873-1939, Hogarth Press, London, p.428.

23) Oddly, John disappeared from family records after 1875 and his death does not appear to be registered anywhere in Britain, giving a somewhat sinister air to his relationship with Freud.

24) See The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Standard Edition V, p.483.

25) See Letters to Fliess (1892-99), Standard Edition I, p.261.

26) See, for example, Lowe, Gordon R. ([1972] 1985) The Growth of Personality: From Infancy to Old Age, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, p.97; Leman, Kevin (1984) p.79; Woolfson, Richard C. (1995) p. 12. Frank Sulloway, whose attempt to classify personality traits according to birth order in his magnum opus Born to Rebel (1996) is certainly more scientific and less ambiguous than Adler's, asserts that firstborns are "more self confident" than laterborns (p.69), then claims on the following page that they are "more anxious about their status....more emotionally intense than laterborns and slower to recover from upsets". These seemingly contradictory statements indicate that the apparent "confidence" of firstborns may be a mere front designed to defend their position against encroaching laterborns.

27) See, for example, Adler, Alfred (ed. Colin Brett) ([1931] 1998) What Life Could Mean To You, Oneworld, Oxford, p.12; Lowe, Gordon R. (1985), p.97; Leman, Kevin (1984) p.47.


Go to Contents Page

Go to Previous Page

Go to Next Page

ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

All rights reserved.