Larentia, Acca (fl. 9th, 8th, or 7th c. BCE)
Larentia, Acca (fl. 9th, 8th, or 7th c. bce)
Legendary personage or minor goddess honored on a special Feast day in Rome and the subject of two traditions: one associates her with the stepmother of Romulus and Remus, the other depicts her as a prostitute during the reign of King Marcius Ancus. Pronunciation: AK-kah Lar-EN-tia. Name variations: Larentina, Laurentia, Fabula. As the stepmother of Romulus and Remus her floruit would fall before any one of several dates in the 9th and 8th centuries bce that the Romans claimed as the foundation date of their city; as the prostitute and lover of Hercules her floruit would fall within the dates of the reign of King Ancus: 642–617 bce. Married to herdsman Faustulus according to the former story; married to Carrutius or Tarrutius according to the latter. Honored by Roman festival day, the Larentalia or Larentinalia, on December 23.
Often it can be difficult to account for the figures of Roman mythology. The Roman mind was intensely religious, honoring dozens of named deities in many cult festivals throughout the year. Unlike the Greeks, however, the Romans did not readily conceive of their gods in human form; Italian divinities remained in the folk consciousness as abstractions of fertility or health, for example, and few legends or myths grew up around them. At a certain point in Roman history, however, the influence of Greek literature, with its varied and colorful tales of gods and heroes, made a profound impact on Roman tastes. This influence, coincident with Rome's growing conception of itself as a political power in the world, created in its educated citizens the need to explain the religious and historical foundation of the state in Latin literature. The result, though by no means insincere, is a fundamentally self-conscious mythology: even a single author can argue with himself over the versions or meanings of a story he is recounting to explain a religious custom or historical practice, and sometimes the native Italian or Etruscan origins of a mythical subject are conflated or confused with Greek subjects in the process.
This situation is responsible for the mixed accounts of the personage known most often as Acca Larentia, whose feast was celebrated at Rome into Imperial times at a shrine in the district of the city Velabrum. She is referred to in many ancient texts which offer slight variants, and differences in viewpoint, on her role, but the two basic stories to account for her honors are easily retold.
The first story makes Acca Larentia a figure in the history of Rome's foundation, intimately associated with its legendary founders, Romulus and Remus. Livy's and Plutarch's accounts of this association are probably the best known. During the reign of King Amulius of Alba, his niece Rhea Silvia became pregnant, claiming the god Mars as the father. She eventually delivered the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, whom the king, fearful for his succession, commanded to be exposed on the banks of the Tiber. The servant allotted for this task found that the river had over-flowed its banks, and rather than wade out to where the stream was strong, left the boys in a basket in the stagnant pools of the flood. They did not drown, as he had hoped, but were instead stranded on a patch of dry land when the waters receded. Crying from hunger, they were heard by a she-wolf come down from the mountains to drink, who immediately began to suckle them.
As this wolf was gently licking the infants, the king's herdsman, Faustulus, happened by. He took the boys home to his wife Acca Larentia, who was grieving at the stillbirth of her own child. She nursed the twins, and thus gained her reverend position in the Roman religious year as the alma mater of the Roman state in the person of its founder, Romulus.
The second story of Larentia (for which the accounts of Macrobius, Plutarch, and Augustine are particularly full) says that she was a beautiful and well-known courtesan living in the days of Marcius Ancus, the fourth king of Rome. When the caretaker of the temple of Hercules found himself bored on a festival day, he began to throw dice to amuse himself. His game was to roll once for himself, and then once for Hercules, swearing that the winner should have a good dinner and a prostitute as reward. The hand that threw for Hercules won. True to his word, the caretaker locked dinner and Acca Larentia in the temple for the night. The next morning, Larentia claimed that Hercules had indeed visited her bed, and had offered her some advice in thanks for his pleasant evening. He told her that she should befriend and marry the first man she met upon leaving the building, and that he would provide her reward.
This tradition says that the lucky man first attracted by her charms that morning was a wealthy old (or young) gentleman named Tarrutius (or Carrutius). When he died, his estate passed to Larentia, and upon her death, in gratitude for the benefit she had received from the god, she left her wealth to the people of Rome. In exchange for this, King Ancus had her buried in the most frequented area of the city, the Velabrum, and instituted yearly honors to her in a shrine on the site.
The fact that neither of these two stories was deeply rooted in the collective memory of the Roman people allowed for several authors of the above accounts to speculate openly on their relative truthfulness as explanations for the rites of the Larentalia celebrated in December. Livy adds to his story of the wolf the opinion of some that this element originated because Larentia, Faustulus' wife, was rather loose in her morals, and had thus earned the nickname lupa, "wolf," which in common parlance was equivalent to "whore." Plutarch, in reporting the same tradition, takes the further step of linking the two Larentia stories. He postulates that there were, in fact, two women of that name, one the nurse of Romulus in the earliest days of Rome, the second the courtesan of Ancus' day (with the surname Fabula). He avoids the need to choose between them absolutely by adding the following flourish to the story of the latter Larentia's death: already esteemed as a benefactor and the mistress of a god, she one day vanished into thin air on the site of the former Larentia's grave in the Velabrum.
Ancient speculation on the relationship between the Lares (Roman household gods) and Larentia associated the rites of the Larentalia with chthonian beliefs; she also came to be known as the mother of the original fratres arvales, an important priestly college in Rome. The original characteristics of the minor goddess have also been a subject of scholarly debate in modern times, especially within the last century. Contemporary consensus shifts away from the identification of Larentia with the Lares. The modern analytical eye has also detected Greek and possibly Etruscan origins for the myths of Larentia reported in Classical sources, and students of comparative mythology have noticed its several points of similarity with quite unrelated myths from around the world. Such scholarship, however, does not lessen the force of the figure presented to posterity by the ancient Roman mythographer. His purpose was to ground the forgotten past in an accessible and memorable form: he explained obscurities, smoothed over omissions, and made vagueness concrete for the greater glory of Rome. All of the various stories about her offered great possibilities to the Roman imagination, a fact verified both by the frequent retelling of her story throughout Classical times, and the occasional appeal to her image in art and poetry.
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Coin portrait of Acca Larentia in Grant, Roman Myths, pl. 12.
Peter H. O'Brien , teaches English and classics at Boston University Academy, Boston, Massachusetts