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Journal Articles Graeco-Latina Brunensia Year : 2021

Romulus as altellus (Verrius Flaccus, Ovid): Semantics and symbolic significance

Romulus comme altellus (Verrius Flaccus, Ovide): sémantique et portée symbolique


Romulus and Remus were twin brothers, but according to a curious statement by John Lydus, Romulus was younger than Remus. The gloss altellus Romulus dicebatur transmitted by Paul the Deacon suggests that the Byzantine scholar may have been preserving an old tradition. Although the form altellus has been interpreted in various ways, the likeliest explanation is that altellus goes back to *alter-elo-s and means 'the second of the twin brothers'. Of the twins, Remus was the first to be born. The word altellus is not related to altus 'high, tall' or alere 'nourish', despite the attempts of ancient authorities (and more recently the Christian cabalist Egidio da Viterbo) to buttress such an etymology. Moreover, a playful allusion to altellus can possibly be found in Ovid's Fasti (Romulus alter erit), which would confirm the reconstruction *alter-elo-s. As a result, the founder of Rome is not the elder brother. Scholars have emphasised that the biblical twins Esau and Jacob offer a close parallel, as Jacob, who may be regarded as the founder of Israel, was not the firstborn son. The parallel is even more striking if one pays attention to the fact that in the Book of Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Esau was killed by his brother. The logic of these stories is ultimately based on a high degree of diagrammaticity or constructional iconicity between the order of the twins' births and their personal tropism: Esau (a hunter) and Remus are associated with a quite primitive way of life (elder brother: past), whereas Jacob and Romulus are characterised by metis and are presented as the bearers of a more advanced way of life (younger brother: modernity). The word altellus is rich in implications because it encapsulates the fact that the elder brother must be supplanted by his younger twin.
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hal-03720326 , version 1 (11-07-2022)



Vincent Martzloff, Barbora Machajdíková. Romulus comme altellus (Verrius Flaccus, Ovide): sémantique et portée symbolique. Graeco-Latina Brunensia, 2021, 26 (1), pp.95 - 116. ⟨10.5817/glb2021-1-7⟩. ⟨hal-03720326⟩
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