The wolf opened wide her grinning jaws, seized on first Romulus, then Remus, and ran with them to her lair.


At first sight, I thought first as a modifier of Romulus. But then again, I thought it ought to be an adverb of the verb seized.

  • As an adverb: seized first on Romulus, then Remus
  • As an adjective: seized on first Romulus, then Remus

At any rate, could first be thought of as a modifier of Romulus? Think of this interpretation "Romulus whose destiny was to be picked up first." Of course if you have three items/people then the notion would extend to second Dylan, but third Billy might be off on stylistic and prosodic or any other grounds you might think of.

My question: If not in this context, would you come up with a sentence where "first Romulus", or any example of your choosing for that matter, is correct and has a similar interpretation as per above?

Edit: - A pdf file with the exact quote can be found here - The quote is merely a prompt to my question. You could safely ignore the quote and focus on the idea behind my question as an ESL learner.

  • What is the source of "seized on first Romulus"? If you wrote it, pls justify why you think it could be OK (why "first Romulus" when there is only one of them). Writing "second Dylan" or "third Billy" indicates a quantity of either one.
    – user3169
    Jul 13, 2016 at 4:07
  • The quote has only prompted my question to think about whether such constructions of order- not quantity- exist. As for the source, I read various things and when I run into an interesting piece of text I keep it in a file to ask later but they pile up. The quote above is exactly the same as the one in file but it is from an online pdf file. The title of the selection is: ROMULUS AND REMUS: TWIN BOYS WHO FOUNDED ROME
    – learner
    Jul 13, 2016 at 4:25
  • I think it is OK for quantity, but not ordering. Maybe in some stylistic sense, but not regular usage.
    – user3169
    Jul 13, 2016 at 4:49

2 Answers 2


I am far from convinced that first is being used as an adjective in your sentence. To me, it's an adverb of seized that is placed in an abnormal (or marked) position, to highlight that it was Romulus who was first seized, then Remus, or just to give a weird (marked) effect. One could get the same parsing, but not so marked, by explicitly using first as parenthetical, by using commas, a dash or actual parentheses:

The wolf opened wide her grinning jaws, seized on– first–Romulus, then Remus, and ran with them to her lair.

As an adverb, first could also be placed in any of several places, including after Romulus:

The wolf opened wide her grinning jaws, seized on Romulus first, then Remus, and ran with them to her lair.

Here, it is still an adverb. Supporting any interpretation of first as an adverb is then, which is also an adverb and not an adjective.

It's true then Remus can be used without any other person mentioned, but even so then is an adverb:

Baxter looked back to his life when, as a boy, he–then Remus–ate a lot of fudge.

This means Baxter was known as Remus when this person was a boy. You could substitute when for then. You can also say

George W Bush, then governor of Texas, executed the law of capital punishment on many people.

(Actually, I would still parse then as an adverb here. To alleviate this interpretation, you can use the less common the then governor of Texas, with then functioning as an adjective similar to the erstwhile or the former.)

As for first, you can say

The first George Bush that was president was George H. W. Bush....


The first Romulus I saw was played by Harrison Ford in Romulus Goes West, but the best Romulus was the one in Romulus Returns, played by Will Smith. This was the third Romulus I saw.

Here first, best, third are determiners (sometimes called adjectives for simplicity's sake). modifying Romulus.

But I don't think first Romulus is working as a noun phrase in the sentence you mention.


"First" here is an adverb modifying "seized". The more common word order would be to say "seized first on Romulus", etc. I suspect the writer is varying the word order to avoid repeating the word "on". If he had written "seized first on Romulus", he would have had to follow with "then on Remus". Yes, the unconventional word order breaks the prepositional phrase "on Romulus" into two pieces, but the sentence is understandable.

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