Among the most familiar symbols of ancient Rome is the she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus. It harkens back to the very origins of Rome — at least in legend. The twin-founders overcome a tumultuous start to their lives, having been exposed to the wilderness as infants to be cared for only by a she-wolf.
According to the popular mythology of the writer Livy, Rome was founded at the spot where the infant twins had washed ashore on the banks of the Tiber, and subsequently were raised. When they began to build the city that would become Rome, Remus wished it to be named Remuria and Romulus preferred Roma, and they quarreled over who should rule the new city.
In one version they left the decision to the gods of the countryside. The signs of augury were disputed and a fight ensued in which Remus was killed. Another tradition records that Romulus killed Remus in an act of vengeance after his brother mocked him by jumping over the half-built walls of the new settlement.
She-wolf-and-twins in art
The she-wolf-and-twins design, which celebrates Rome’s twin-founders, figures prominently in Roman art. It makes a number of high-profile appearances on coinage, though perhaps not as many as one might expect.
Most coins bearing this design were struck at Rome and at other imperial mints, yet a great many were also struck at provincial mints located throughout the Roman world, from the Balkans to Asia Minor and Syria. Occasional issues were even struck in Sicily, Judaea and Egypt.
The first use of this design was on a silver didrachm of the Republic, which generally is dated to circa 275 to 255 B.C. It was struck at a time when the Romans were issuing very few silver coins, and many scholars associate the issue with the First Punic War (264 to 241 B.C.). It shows on it is obverse the head of young Hercules and on its reverse the wolf and twins.
The scene next occurs as a full design on a copper sextans generally dated to circa 217 to 215 B.C. This time the wolf and twins are used on the obverse as the primary type and are paired with an eagle holding a flower in its beak.
Silver denarii appearances
The two other notable appearances during the Republic are on silver denarii. Both times the wolf and twins are used as a reverse type, being paired with the helmeted head of Roma as the obverse. The first of these, struck circa 137 B.C., portrays the wolf and twins in a larger context of foundation mythology: they appear under a fig tree bearing three birds, and are accompanied by a shepherd, all of which adds details of their discovery at the foot of the Palatine Hill.
In the second instance, on denarii of circa 115 to 114 B.C., the wolf and twins are a sub-design, appearing at the feet of Roma, who sits on a pile of shields. She is accompanied by two birds, perhaps ravens, who are emblematic of augury.
The next occurrence of note would not occur for nearly another two centuries. The wolf and twins are used as a reverse type for coins of A.D. 77 and 78: silver denarii of Titus, and silver denarii and gold aurei of Domitian, brothers who eventually would be emperors, but who at the time held the subordinate title of Caesar.