Rhea Silvia / / (also written as Rea Silvia), and also known as Ilia //, was the mythical mother of the twins Romulus and Remus, who founded the city of Rome. Her story is told in the first book of Ab Urbe Condita Libri of Livy and in fragments from Ennius, Annales and Quintus Fabius Pictor.
The name Rhea Silvia suggests a minor deity, a demi-goddess of forests. Silva means woods or forest, and Rea may be related to res and regnum; Rea may also be related to Greek rheô, "flow", and thus relate to her association with the spirit of the river Tiber or Greek Titaness Rhea. Barthold Georg Niebuhr asserts that the word Rhea in the earliest sources was not a proper name at all, but simply the word rea, which he defines as culprit, in reference to the taking of virginity of a Vestal Virgin.
According to Livy's account of the legend she was the daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa, and descended from Aeneas. Numitor's younger brother Amulius seized the throne and killed Numitor's son, then forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, a priestess of the goddess Vesta. As Vestal Virgins were sworn to celibacy for a period of thirty years, this would ensure the line of Numitor had no heirs. Rhea, however, became pregnant with the twins Romulus and Remus, ostensibly by the god Mars.
When Amulius learned of the birth he imprisoned Rhea Silvia and ordered a servant to kill the twins. But the servant showed mercy and set them adrift on the river Tiber, which, overflowing, left the infants in a pool by the bank. There, a she-wolf (lupa), who had just lost her own cubs, suckled them. Subsequently Faustulus rescued the boys, to be raised by his wife Larentia. The god of the Tiber, Tiberinus, rescued Rhea Silvia and took her to be his bride.
Despite Livy's euhemerist and realist deflation of this myth, it is clear that the story of her seduction by Mars continued to be widely accepted. This is demonstrated by the recurring theme of Mars discovering Rhea Silvia in Roman arts: in bas-relief on the Casali Altar (Vatican Museums), in engraved couched glass on the Portland Vase (British Museum), or on a sarcophagus in the Palazzo Mattei. Mars' discovery of Rhea Silvia is a prototype of the "invention scene", or "discovery scene" familiar in Roman art; Greek examples are furnished by Dionysus and Ariadne or Selene and Endymion. The Portland Vase features a scene that has been interpreted as a depiction of the "invention", or coming-upon, of Rhea Sylvia by Mars.
Rhea is a corruption introduced by the editors, who very unseasonably bethought themselves of the goddess: rea seems only to have signified the culprit.
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