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  • Writer's pictureAndrew C. Fox

Tree of the Week: Romulus' Spear

As promised in a previous Tree of the Week, we're moving onto a spear that grew into a tree, albeit a week later than anticipated.

When I was first researching this tree/spear, I had a lot of trouble actually finding anything about it on Google. You see, Romulus' spear is a weapon in a fantasy video game, given to those who fight without any thought of surrender. And that's quite enough of that digression. It caused me enough distraction during the research.

The spear we're actually going to be talking about today is very different. It belonged to Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, and was not given to players as a reward. There are two accounts of this tree, one Latin, and one Greek, and they were written in that order. The Roman one is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses (15.560-4):

Or as when Romulus saw his spear, which had stuck in the Palatine, suddenly growing leafy, with a new root, no longer standing with an iron point in the earth, no longer even a weapon, but a tree with tough branches, offering unexpected shade to those amazed witnesses.

The Greek account, written by the Greek-Roman Plutarch, in his biography of Romulus (20.5-6), offers a different location for the tree: on the Aventine. Of course, it is possible that there were two trees. But not many people throw a spear at a hill and have it turn into a tree once, let alone twice. What's more likely is that there was some confusion about the location of this tree from the early days of Rome, seven to eight hundred years later. Plutarch also goes into a bit more detail about the spear-tree, including the species, and what happened to it after Romulus... threw it?.. lost it?.. planted it?.. planted it. After Romulus planted the tree.

This passage is quite long, so rather than translate it in its entirety, here are the salient points:

  1. The spear was made of cornus, or cherry wood.

  2. Plutarch describes the tree as 'sacred', or ἱερος.

  3. Like Mjolnir or Excalibur, many tried to pull the spear out, but the earth loved it too much.

  4. It was preserved 'with religious care' by future generations.

  5. Everyone helped to care for it, it was a community effort.

  6. It was accidentally killed in the first century CE, during the reign of everyone's favourite emperor to not live with, Caligula.

Let's deal with these things in order

1. Cornus spear

Cornus, more commonly known as dogwood, is commonly associated with spears in the Roman Trees Database, although Pliny tells us it is not the best wood for a spear, the ash being more suitable (Natural History 16.228). However, Italian spears are made of cornus, according to Servius, who wrote a 4th century CE commentary on the Aeneid (an epic poem written in the first century CE by Vergil).

2. It's sacred.

'Sacred' can mean a huge number of different things in a modern context. It can mean anything from 'of or pertaining to an organised religion', to being 'of extreme social importance, as if it were belonging to a religion'. The Oxford English Dictionary definition for 'sacred' has six different main definitions, and multiple sub-definitions. Historically, ancient history scholarship has looked at 'sacred' as a black and white issue: either something is 'sacred', and therefore holy and belonging to a god or gods, or it is not described as 'sacred', and can never be holy. Recently, Ailsa Hunt has questioned this view in Reviving Roman Religion: Sacred Trees in the Roman World, suggesting that there were degrees of 'sacred-ness' (or sacrality) in the ancient world. Asking what sacred means brings up new questions for items of unclear sacrality, such as this tree. One of these is 'who, or what, is it sacred to?'

3. The earth loved the spear too much.

This is a bit of a weird one. There are famous examples of weapons being impossible to move (like the two mentioned), but these are both more recent examples. The idea of a spear turning into a tree is not unique to Plutarch's account: Ovid has the same story, and Silius Italicus has Scipio throw a spear which turns into an oak (Punica 16.586-91. Helen Lovatt picks up the similarities between both these Latin accounts in a chapter from 2010. But both of these stories emphasise the speed of the growth. It is immediate, onlookers are amazed by it. In Plutarch's account, the onlookers have time to try to pull the spear from the ground, showcasing Romulus' superhuman strength, and the earth is then given the agency to love the spear. This tree, then, could demonstrate the unity of early Rome and nature, while also stressing that Romulus, who would later ascend and become a deity, Quirinus, is not a normal human. This latter point is key. Plutarch wrote his biographies as parallels, each one with a pair. The pair to the Life of Romulus is the Life of Theseus, a similarly mythical individual, with a divine father. Highlighting Romulus' own divine attributes serves Plutarch's purpose here.

4. It was preserved 'with religious care', and 5. looked after by the community.

Here we come to two slightly contrasting points, though not necessarily contradictory. The tree, once it had grown, was walled in, and then cared for by the community. The walling in of the tree is not unlike a temple enclosure, bringing to mind Pliny the Elder's statement that trees were once the temples of the gods (at the opening of Book 12 of the Natural History). This is an act deliberately intended to preserve the tree, while also separating it, isolating it from its surroundings. What is odd then is that the community are the ones who continue to preserve it.

Bearing in mind the question of sacrality, and who or what something is sacred to, we now need to explore what this could be. The tree could be sacred to a) Romulus, b) the earth, or c) the event itself. Being sacred to Romulus has little to no evidence, but that's not a good reason to discount something. However, what we would expect would be a body of priests, as with the ficus Ruminalis/Navia, the second Tree of the Week. Same with if it was sacred to the earth. Both of these sacralities would also have dire consequences if the tree died. The ficus Ruminalis/Navia's death portended problems for Rome, while the unauthorised pruning of an elm in Nocera caused Roman fortunes in the Cimbrian War to shift. However, option c remains. Perhaps the tree was sacred to the event. Preserved as a reminder, a placeholder for social memory, and kept that way by a proud community. Like the volunteers who clean up war memorials, people on the Aventine ran out their house to water a tree that they were proud of. Instead of 'Our revered dead', it was 'Our revered tree'. Of course, this is all supposition. There is no way of proving one way or the other.

6. It died, under Caligula

The cornus is dead by the time that Plutarch is writing, and was killed in the reign of Caligula (famous for all sorts of things, including his horse's elevation to high office). The death was the result of a building accident, when the roots were accidentally damaged. That this careless death happens under Caligula is no accident (and is also not necessarily accurate). Instead, it is a comment on Caligula's differences from Romulus. Romulus planted, Caligula uprooted. He removed the natural world from Rome's built environment, just as the natural world withered under Nero when the ficus Ruminalis/Navia died.

This tree, then, can tell us a great deal. It can be used to examine a range of different aspects of Rome's relationship with its natural environment, and is unusual in a few different ways. However, at its death, it had one clear message, and Plutarch gave us one clear takeaway from the entire life of an 800 year old tree.

Caligula = bad.

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