December 11 – The Septimontium: The Day of the Seven Hills

Ancient Rome was known far and wide as “the City of the Seven Hills”. The seven eminences which the city of Rome was built upon were known as the Palatine, Capitoline, Aventine, Quirinal, Caelian, Viminal, and Esquiline. For some reason, the Janiculum Hill has not been traditionally included.

A scene from the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

The Mons Palatinus, or Palatine Hill, “the Hill of the Palace”, was the place where Romulus, the founder of Rome, had his house. It later served as the site of the imperial palace of the Roman emperors. Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that the hut of Romulus was on display on the Palatine Hill in Rome, continuously restored using the same materials and the same construction techniques to make it appear exactly as it would have been approximately 750 BC.

“Their life was that of herdsmen, and they lived by their own labour, generally upon the mountains in huts which they built, roofs and all, out of sticks and reeds. One of these, called the hut of Romulus, remained even to my day on the flank of the Palatine hill which faces towards the Circus, and it is preserved holy by those who have charge of these matters; they add nothing to it to render it more stately, but if any part of it is injured, either by storms or by the lapse of time, they repair the damage and restore the hut as nearly as possible to its former condition” (1).

The Capitolinus, “the Capitoline Hill”, was formerly the property of the Sabines, a neighboring tribe of the Romans. The hill was sacred to the god Saturn, and atop this hill there once stood a village called “Saturnia”, “the city of Saturn”, in much the same way that Athens was named in honor of the goddess Athena. For this reason, the Capitoline used to be called the Saturnine Hill in the distant past. Afterwards, the hill was re-named as the Tarpeian Hill, named after a Vestal Virgin named Tarpeia who had been murdered by the Sabines, who beat her to death with their shields, and buried her there. Finally, when the Romans took possession of it, it was re-named once again to the Capitoline Hill. There’s a story that the Capitoline Hill got its name because, when the Romans were digging the foundation to build a temple to the god Jupiter, they discovered a human skull buried in the ground. The Romans took it as a sign, claiming that this hill would serve as the head (capit) of the Roman world. As such, the Capitoline Hill became the seat of Roman government. Here stood the Senate House and all of the other important offices of State (2).

The Aventinus, “the Aventine Hill”, is not the tallest of the Seven Hills of Rome, but it is the largest in terms of the sheer amount of physical acreage that it takes up. The name of the Aventine Hill has several etymological explanations. The Roman writer Titus Livius claims that it was named after an ancient king who was buried atop its summit (3). He also claimed that a large flock of birds were seen on its summit, and Romulus’ brother Remus saw this as a sign to found the city upon this hill and not the Palatine (4). Marcus Terentius Varro was of the opinion that the name was a corruption of advent, meaning “arrival”, because people would often cross over the Tiber River and arrive at this spot. Even in Varro’s day, there was a ferry service which transported people and cargo back and forth across the Tiber at this location (5). Atop this hill was constructed a temple to the goddess Diana (6).

The Quirinalis, “the Quirinal Hill”, was owned by the Sabines and was named in honor of the Sabine god Quirinus (7). The hill is noted for having a pair of large marble horse statues erected atop it, for which reason it was sometimes referred to as the Mons Caballi or Mons Caballinus (8).

The Caelius, “the Caelian Hill”, is named in reference to an Etruscan nobleman named Caeles Vibenna who fought alongside King Romulus against the Sabines. He was, apparently, the leader of an Etruscan community which resided atop this hill. However, the Romans became suspicious of these people and re-located them elsewhere (9). It might also be a reference to the Latin word caelum, meaning “sky”.

The Viminalis, “the Viminal Hill” was named in reference to the large numbers of willow trees (vimineta) which grew there. Later, a temple dedicated to Jupiter was erected atop this hill which was given the name Jupiter Viminius, “Jupiter of the Willows” (10).

The Esquilinus, “the Esquiline Hill”, has a name of uncertain origins. Some say it is in reference to a grove of oak trees (aesculata) which once grew on the hill, while others say it is in reference to soldiers being posted on watch duty (excubiae) there, but both of these explanations are unlikely (11). It is more likely that this hill was once thought of as a community on the outskirts of Rome before it was absorbed as part of the Eternal City; the people who lived within the city limits were known as the inquilini “the inside dwellers”, while the people who lived beyond the city limits were called the exquilini, “the outside dwellers” (12).

December 11 was the date of an ancient Roman festival called the Septimontium, “the Day of the Seven Hills”, named in reference to the seven hills of the city of Rome (13). In Varro’s words, “Where Rome now is was called the Septimontium from the same number of hills which the City afterwards embraced within its walls” (14).

Archaeological evidence of habitation of Rome dates to about 1000 BC. It would appear that each of the hills that made up the fabled “Seven Hills of Rome” were originally independent hilltop settlements. At some point, all of these separate communities merged together to form a single interconnected community, likely due to a rise in population. This political merging is known as synoikism, meaning “coming together” (15). It’s possible that this feast day on December 11 marks the date in which the separate hilltop communities merged together into one city. This is corroborated in the writings of the Greco-Roman historian Plutarch, who states “The festival Septimontium they observe in commemoration of the addition to the city of the seventh hill, by which Rome was made a city of seven hills” (16).

According to the Roman writer Titus Livius, known to posterity simply as Livy, that the expansion of Rome was a gradual piecemeal process taking place over several decades, until it eventually encompassed the seven hills that would make it famous. According to his chronicles, the Palatine Hill was the epicenter of Rome, and it was from this point that the Romans spread outwards to subjugate and dominate their neighbors. The Capitoline Hill was the next to come under the Roman sway. This hill belonged to the Sabines, a neighboring tribe, until the Romans took possession of it during Romulus’ reign. It is uncertain when the Caelian Hill came under Roman authority, as different sources ascribe this event to different persons: Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that it was taken by King Romulus (17); Titus Livius says that it was taken by Tullus Hostilius, Rome’s war-mongering third king who reigned from 673 to 642 BC (18); the Greek geographer Strabo says that the hill was taken by Ancus Marcius, Rome’s fourth king who reigned from 642 to 617 BC (19); the Roman historian Tacitus states that the hill was taken by Tarquinius Priscus, “Tarquin the Ancient”, Rome’s fifth king, who reigned from 616 to 579 BC (20). Based upon all of the possible dates given, it seems likely that the hill was taken sometime during the 600s BC. Ancus Marcius, Rome’s fourth king who reigned from 642 to 617 BC, took possession of the Aventine Hill (21). Servius Tullius, Rome’s sixth king who reigned from 579 to 535 BC, took possession of the Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquiline Hills (22).

The Roman writer Suetonius makes mention of when Emperor Domitian presided over the feast day of the Septimontium: “In the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave a plentiful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights, and smaller one to the commons” (23).

It appears that December 11, although called a “feast day” in the sources, was actually more a date of historical importance to the Romans rather than a date of public celebration. By contrast, April 21, the legendary date that Rome was founded by Romulus, was indeed a public holiday of merriment and spectacle. To use a modern analogy, modern-day Americans loudly and boisterously celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, but hardly anybody gets merry over “Constitution Day” on September 17, which established the system of government that has been in place within the United States since 1787. I think we need to look at Roman attitudes towards April 21 and December 11 in much the same way.

 

Source Citations

  1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapter 79.
  2. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 41-42. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 39; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 520.
  3. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 3.
  4. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 6.
  5. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 43-44. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Pages 39 and 41.
  6. Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 520.
  7. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 51. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 49.
  8. Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 521.
  9. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 46. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 43.
  10. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verses 51. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 49; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 521.
  11. Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Page 521.
  12. Gaius, The Elements of Roman Law, Second Edition, book 1, chapter 3. Translated by Edward Poste. London: Macmillan and Co., 1875. Page 31.
  13. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 24. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 197.
  14. Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 5, verse 41. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 39.
  15. The History of Ancient Rome, lecture 4 – “The Foundation of Rome”.
  16. Plutarch, Roman Questions, #69.
  17. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 2, chapter 50.
  18. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 30.
  19. Strabo, Geography, book 5, chapter 3.
  20. Tacitus, The Annals, book 4, chapter 65.
  21. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 33.
  22. Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 44; Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities, 11th Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1830. Pages 520-521.
  23. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, book 12 – “The Life of Domitian”, chapter 4.

 

Bibliography

 



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3 replies

  1. This was a fantastic and very well informed post. I was wondering if you can shed light on the linguistic reason for the variation in the word for hill used for these seven. Mons vs Collis. Does it delineate the early Roman territory from that of the Sabines?

    • Honestly, I wouldn’t know where to begin with this. Traditionally, “mons” has been translated to “mountain” while “collis” has been translated to “hill”. I have seen both terms used to describe the Seven Hills of Rome. I don’t know if the differentiation reflects Roman vs. Sabine, but it probably doesn’t.

      • When I was learning Latin, the meaning you gave were the translations we were given of each word, yet the Quirinal hill, Collis Quirinalis, is the tallest of the seven hills. It makes no sense for a mountain to be smaller than a nearby hill. The Quirinal was the site of an ancient Sabine village, before being integrated into Rome.

        The original settlement was on the Palatine, with the Capitoline as a stronghold. The three “hills” using the word mons were the Capitoline, Palatine and Caelian. The Caelian was occupied by the second king with settlers from Alba Longa, which is where Romulus and Remus were from. All the northern hills were called collis. It just seems like it is probably a different regional naming convention, between the Albans and the other Latin tribes, rather than a simple hill/mountain distinction.

        Of course, it is possible that Romulus was just being pretentious, by naming the Palatine etc as mountains.

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