A scene from the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
For many people including myself, it is utterly impossible to imagine a world without Rome. The fabled “Eternal City of the Seven Hills” dominated the ancient world for centuries, and its legacy reverberated throughout the ages ever since its lamentable fall. Its crumbling marble facades and agéd moss-covered stones excite the Romanticist imagination. Through these ancient ruins come the whispered memories of days gone by: great emperors enrobed with purple silk, mighty generals leading troops into battle against the barbarian hordes, the steady throbbing rhythm of the marching legions, the raucous decadence of festivals and orgies, or the crowds cheering to the sharp clang of gladiators’ swords or the thunderous clattering of chariot wheels.
Yet Rome was not always the giant colossus astride the world; indeed it didn’t always exist. According to legend, the city of Rome was founded by the divine twins Romulus and Remus on April 21, 753 BC. Consequently, within the ancient Roman calendar, April 21 was acclaimed as Urbis Natalis, “the Birth of the City”. (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 21”), and was a great holiday in Rome – the birthday of the Eternal City of the Seven Hills.
Nearly all of our knowledge of Rome’s early history is due to the great ancient Roman historian Titus Livius, more commonly known by his Anglicized name Livy. His epic Ab Urbe Condita, meaning “From the City’s Founding”, written during the reign of Rome’s first emperor Caesar Augustus, was a monumental work of literature, covering seven and a half centuries of history from Rome’s founding to the reign of Augustus, measuring 142 books long…although it should be said that a “book” in ancient times is more like a “chapter” to us nowadays. Regrettably, only about one-fourth of this majestic tome has survived to the present day, but luckily, the first five chapters which speak of Rome’s founding have survived virtually intact, and it is from this that we get the “origin tale” of the Roman people. Yet how much is actual history and how much is merely folklore and legend? That we’ll never truly know.
The origins of Rome’s founding lay in the mythical past – as far back as the Trojan War. When Prince Aeneas fled from the burning city of Troy, he eventually landed on the coast of west-central Italy within the territory known as “Latium”, named after the local tribe who lived there – the Latins. Within this new land, Aeneas and his followers erected a new settlement called “Lavinium”, named in honor of his wife Lavinia, and there they began their lives anew. Thirty years afterwards, Aeneas’s son Ascanius founded a settlement of his own which he christened “Alba Longa”. Several generations passed, with a succession of kings ruling this city, concluding with King Numitor, and it is with him that the story takes a dramatic turn (Livy, From the Founding of the City, book 1, chapters 1-3).
King Numitor had a younger brother named Amulius, who was jealous of his brother’s power and seized the throne. Numitor was driven from the city, and to ensure that no heir could take his throne back, the pretender Amulius had all of Numitor’s sons executed. However, he spared the only daughter, a maiden named Rea Silvia, and made her a Vestal Virgin. However, she was afterwards raped (it’s amazing just HOW OFTEN rape figures into ancient Greek and Roman legends), and when it was revealed that she was pregnant, she claimed that she had been divinely impregnated by the war god Mars. Amulius ordered Rea Silvia to be imprisoned, and when she gave birth to twin boys, Amulius ordered that the two newborns were to be drowned in the Tiber River. As can be expected from tales such as this, the villain’s schemes don’t go according to plan, and the children survived. Rather than simply chucking the infants into the water, the king’s henchman instead laid the two babies in a basket and set it adrift (Exodus comparisons, anyone?). Inevitably, the basket washed ashore on the river’s bank, discovered by a she-wolf and cared for by her as her own pups, until they were taken away by a shepherd and taken in as his adopted children. Growing up as outlaws, living a life of robbery and brigandage, Remus was captured and brought before King Amulius to account for his conduct. Then, for reasons which beggar the imagination, Amulius dispatched Remus to his exiled and deposed older brother Numitor, principally on the charge of trespassing upon his land and intending to engage in highway robbery. It was at this point that Romulus’ and Remus’ true origins were made known. Realizing that they are in fact of royal blood, the twins vowed to restore their grandfather Numitor to his rightful throne. They organized a rebellion, executed Amulius, and re-instated Numitor as the king of Alba Longa (Livy, From the Founding of the City, book 1, chapters 3-6).
After Amulius’ death, Romulus and Remus felt that the city of Alba Longa was too small for them and they wanted to establish a new city all their own. They decided to build their new community upon the spot in the Tiber River where they were washed ashore in their basket as babies. It was taken for granted that the new city ought to be built atop high ground for the purpose of defense, but there were seven hills within this small area, and the two twins argued about which particular hill the city ought to be built upon. Romulus wished to begin construction atop the Palatine Hill. His brother Remus wanted the city to be built atop the Aventine Hill, which wasn’t the tallest of the seven hills, but it covered the largest amount of acres and as such could accommodate a much larger city. Rather than continuing to argue over the matter, they decided to let the issue be decided by augury – the power to predict the future by observing the movements of birds in the sky. Depending upon the outcome, one hill or the other would be the site of the new city, with one brother or the other reigning as its first king. It is said that a flock of six birds landed first upon the Aventine Hill, which Remus had chosen, but shortly afterwards, another flock of twelve birds landed upon the Palatine Hill of Romulus. Remus asserted that since the birds had chosen his hill first, the new city ought to be built there, with himself as its first king. Romulus countered that a greater number of birds had landed on his hill, showing him more divine favor, and therefore the city ought to be built upon the Palatine Hill, with Romulus as the first king. A vigorous argument between the two brothers quickly ensued. The argument soon escalated into a fist-fight, and the two twins began brawling with each other. In the heat of the moment, Romulus picked up a rock which was lying on the ground and slammed it into his brother Remus’ head, killing him instantly. Thus, through brother murdering brother, Romulus emerged victorious and he was acclaimed as the ruler of a new city which he duly named after himself – Rome (Livy, From the Founding of the City, book 1, chapters 6-7; Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 21”).
It was on April 21 that work got underway on the city’s construction. In local tradition, April 21 was a feast day dedicated to Pales, the protector of livestock and the patron goddess of shepherds – an important deity for an agricultural community. The date of her feast day heralded a countryside festival known as the Palilia. We don’t know what sort of festivities occurred in Romulus’ time, but the ancient Roman poet Ovid, writing during the reign of Caesar Augustus, states that the festivities during his time began with a purification ritual. Things were burnt in order to create a purging smoke, which included the shells of beans, the blood of the previous year’s October Horse sacrifice, and the ashes of calves which had been sacrificed at the Feast of Ceres earlier in mid April (note that this last detail is in complete contradiction to what he says in an earlier section of his Fasti about the Cerealia, in which cattle were NOT to be sacrificed). The people were sprinkled with holy water, they drank spring water, and they drank milk mixed with must. Sacrifices which were offered consisted of cakes, millet, milk, and other food and drinks. The shepherds offered a prayer to Pales. Once these solemn duties were performed, it was time for the merriment to commence. Bonfires were made of hay and straw. Accompanied by the shrill noise of flutes and the banging crash of cymbals, the sheep were compelled to run three times in between burning fires, and the shepherds did this also. Later, an open-air picnic was carried out, where the people lounged around eating and drinking. In the evening, laurel branches were used to sweep out the stables, and were afterwards used for sprinkling holy water within them, and finally the stables were decorated with laurel branches. Once this was done, the shepherds burnt offerings of sulfur, rosemary, chips of fir wood, and incense, and fumigated their stables with this purging smoke. (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 21”; William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859. Pages 849-850).
It was on the date of the Palilia festival that Romulus decided to begin the construction of his new city “Rome” atop the Palatine Hill. However, before a single shovel-full of dirt could be heaved or a single stone laid, it was important to beg the beneficence of the gods. Romulus dug a large pit and heaped into it various offerings of food, covered it over, and then erected a sacrificial altar atop it. A fire was kindled upon it and Romulus invoked the names of Jupiter, Mars, and Vesta to safeguard his new community: “Be with me, as I found my City, Jupiter, Father Mavors [Mars], and Mother Vesta: And all you gods, whom piety summons, take note. Let my work be done beneath your auspices. May it last long, and rule a conquered world, all subject, from the rising to the setting day” (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 21”). At this, a boom of thunder was heard in the distance, which was interpreted as Jupiter granting his approval (Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 21”).
With the opening sacrifice being made, Romulus set to work on the first item on the construction itinerary: laying out the circuit of the city’s walls. He did this using a plow pulled by a pair of white cattle, with the hope that the walls which were to be built would never be penetrated by the city’s enemies. The furrow which his plow dug would become the first outline of a city that would one day become the master of the known world. In time, it would spread out to encompass the other six hills of the adjacent countryside (this event is traditionally regarded as taking place on December 11 – click here for an article that I wrote about this event), becoming “the City of the Seven Hills” (Livy, From the Founding of the City, book 1, chapter 7; Ovid, Fasti, book 4, “April 21”).
No ancient author wrote down the exact date that the city of Rome was founded by Romulus. Tradition stated that the city was founded on April 21, but there was disagreement as to which particular year this happened. The Greek writer Timaeus of Tauromenium, writing in the 3rd Century BC, said that Rome was established thirty-eight years before the first Olympic Games, which would make the city founded in either 814 or 813 BC. However, all of the subsequent ancient Greek and Roman writers on this subject asserted that Rome was established sometime during the middle 700s BC, with different writers giving different dates. An official date would not be established until the 1st Century BC, when it became generally accepted that 753 BC was the year that Rome was born, although the evidence to support this date was rather sketchy (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 72-75; Gary Forsythe, A Critical History of Early Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Page 94).
Regardless of which particular year Rome was founded (even the ancient Romans themselves argued about this), it was universally agreed that April 21 was Rome’s birthday. So, this April 21, raise a hearty Samian-ware goblet of your finest Italian wine to the honor of Roma Urbs Aeterna, “Rome, the Eternal City”. May she forever stand and continue to inspire all. Roma Invicta.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 72-75. Translated by Earnest Cary. Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1937. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dionysius_of_Halicarnassus/home.html.
Livy. From the Founding of the City, book 1, chapters 1-7. Translated by Reverend Canon Roberts (1905). https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/From_the_Founding_of_the_City/Book_1.
Ovid. Fasti, book 4, “April 21”. Translated by A. S. Kline (2004). https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkFour.php.
Forsythe, Gary. A Critical History of Early Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Smith, William, ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition. London: Walton and Maberly, 1859.