It happened today - March 1, 2016

On this day in history, March 1, Romulus did not celebrate the first Roman triumph back in 753 B.C. Or if he did, no one took photographs or any of that stuff so we just don’t know.

Nonetheless, the Romans believed he did, following his victory over Caenina, Antemnae and Crustumerium, three Latin towns that resisted Roman rule and it didn’t work out very well. Although according to legend the deal was that the Romans had just carried off their daughters, along with those of the Sabines, which doesn’t sound to me like that valid a reason for conquering them when they tried to get them back.

Nor does it sound that great to celebrate a guy conceived by Mars with a vestal virgin who killed his own brother in a spat over where the city should be, became autocratic and vanished mysteriously, perhaps ascending to heaven to become Quirinius, “the divine personification of the Roman people.” Or so says Wikipedia and if it’s on the Internet it must be true, right?

Same as if it’s in your foundation myth, along with Romulus being descended from Trojans and raised by a wolf.

The thing is, it sure makes you sound fierce. But at some point it also makes you sound gullible. And I wonder just how early Romans started scoffing into the sleeves of their togas even while pretending on formal occasions to take it all very seriously.

Indeed, in reading Roman mythology, on which I was quite keen as a teen, I’ve often been struck by the way in which, except in their most unattractive moments, the Romans were far better men and women than their philosophy would justify. Their gods were cruel, capricious, short-sighted and often remarkably dim as well as lustful and dishonest. On what grounds would the Olympians inspire you to be selfless, honest, dutiful and of all things pious?

Over in Greece this realization dawned at least on some people early on. Euripedes ripped the gods to bits to cheering theatre audiences, while Pindar and Aeschylus had tried in vain to clean up the myths.

And before they even got to the topic, Xenophanes of Colophon, who lived in the 6th century BC, protested indignantly that “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is disgraceful and blameworthy among men: theft, adultery, and deceit.” But perhaps the Greeks were more given to abstract thought than the Romans.

Still, Juvenal around 100 AD certainly ridiculed the traditional religion, saying “Today not even children – except those small enough To get a free public bath – believe all that stuff about ghosts, Or underground kingdoms and rivers, or black frogs croaking In the waters of Styx, or thousands of dead men ferried Across by one small skiff.” And there’s no question that the ancient world was ripe for conversion by Christianity because its people were too cosmopolitan for all this rubbish.

Still, I puzzle over how they could for centuries have gone around half-believing in a religion whose gods were lewd resentful bums and whose afterlife you wouldn’t wish on your enemy’s goat.

I know, it’s easy to laugh at past ages. It’s a habit I discourage. They were people like ourselves. And it’s disturbing to reflect that we presumably therefore believe stuff as offensively ludicrous as the Olympian religion. For instance the horoscopes in the newspapers. And much else besides in politics as well as in religion.

As for Rome, I do think the lar had a cool name. But the rest was rubbish. Even Romulus.