Murder, myth and mystery surround the founding of the Italian city of Rome. According to one story, the founder was a Trojan hero, while another tells of 2 brothers fighting it out for the prize. Whatever the truth, Rome traditionally celebrates its birthday – known as Il Natale di Roma, the Birth of Roma – on 21st April. So as Romans prepares to blow their 2768 candles out, lets take a look back at the city’s birth all those years ago.
Our Trojan hero turns out to be a chap called Aeneas, who achieved fame fighting the Greeks in the Trojan Wars. The son of the goddess Venus and a mortal father, he escaped Troy before the death of Laocoön and the destruction of the city in 1220 BC. And according to Roman poet Virgil, Aeneas then went on a bit of a wander before finally landing in Italy.
Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid, written between 29 and 19 BC, stretches over 12 books and 9896 (wow, count them!) lines of dactylic hexameter rhyme. The first six books tell the story of Aeneas’s wanderings from Troy to Italy whilst the second six books tell of his victory in battle in Latium, the central western Italian region in which Rome would later be founded.
The victorious Aeneas set up home in Latium, meaning wide, flat land, marrying the daughter of a local ruler, King Latinus. How and when Aeneas is supposed to have set up Rome is a bit vague but Virgil and the Ancient Romans saw him as their ancestor, founder and, most importantly, a link back to the legends of Troy and ultimately, therefore, the gods. And historians of the day recorded that Aeneas named his new city “Rhome”, meaning strength. But sadly for Virgil and Aeneas, however, there is a more popular founding tale that has taken over; the story of the she-wolf and the twin brothers.
Before we can get to the boys, though, we need to backtrack a bit as their story actually starts with King Numitor of Alba Longa, an ancient city of Latium. Numitor, son of King Procas was a descendent of our old friend Aeneas. On his father’s death Numitor inherited the throne but unfortunately for him, his brother Amulius coveted the position and in 794 BC overthrew the new king, murdering his sons to seize power for himself.
Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, was forced to become a Vestal Virgin, a priestess expected to guard her virginity on pain of death in honour of the goddess Vesta. The pagan god Mars, however, had other ideas as he had fallen in love with the new priestess and decided to sneak into her temple to sleep with her. Rhea bore him beautiful twin boys and named them Romulus and Remus and so the story begins. Still with me? Bene! Good!
Amulius was furious, as any evil uncle would be, and promptly threw Rhea into the River Tiber. Fortunately she was caught beneath the river’s waves by the river god who married her.
The twins were similarly thrown to the river’s mercy. Set adrift in a reed basket, the babes floated gently downstream until finally being caught in branches of a fig tree at the bottom of a hill named Palatine in honour of Pale, goddess of shepherds.
And this is where the story gets a bit unusual as legend has it that the she-wolf, an animal held sacred by the god Mars, found the twins, suckling them until a shepherd arrived and took them home to his wife.
Another version of the story suggests that it was actually the wife, a former prostitute, who suckled the children as the Latin word lupa means both she-wolf and was slang for prostitute.
Romans also claim that the Italian expression for Good Luck, “In bocca al lupo” meaning in the mouth of the wolf, originates from the twins’ good luck in being found by the lupa, whichever form she took!
Over the years the twins grew up knowing their story and in 753 BC, aged just 18, decided to found a new city near to the site of the fig tree that had caught them. Sadly they couldn’t agree which of 7 hills in the area that they should build on. Romulus favoured the Palatine hill whilst Remus preferred the Aventine. That’s kids for you!
So to settle the argument the twins turned to religion, trying to read the auspices or signs from the gods, to resolve the fight. The presence of birds on the hills was taken as an indication of favour and so the Palatine won as Romulus saw 12 birds on his hill whilst Remus only saw six on his.
You’d think that after all the family conflict down through the years the boys would have learnt how to play nicely but sadly not. Remus started to tease his brother, jumping repeatedly over the low settlement boundary, a simple plough line made by a white bull and white cow. And whether in jest or possibly in jealousy, his actions were taken as a bad omen for the nascent city suggesting that the city’s defences could be easily overcome. Remus’s fate was sealed.
Romulus took the jeering badly and the joke finally turned sour when Remus was murdered either by his own brother or one of his followers on 21 April 753 BC.
The victorious Romulus named his new settlement – Rome – after himself and went on to oversee the growth of the city, including the capture of neighbouring Sabine women to help populate his dream. No record is known of exactly when or how Romulus died but the Greek historian Plutarch wrote that Romulus may have vanished in a violent storm in 717 BC aged 53. The Romans clearly still venerated Romulus though, and declared him a deity after his death.
So are you an Aeneas admirer or a Romulus fan? Personally, rather than contradicting each other, I think the stories actually compliment each other with one leading into the other. And although archeologists have found evidence of early settlements dating back to around 750 BC on the Palatine Hill, evidence of habitation in the wider region actually dates back much further, possibly as far back as 14,000 years ago. So maybe neither is really true and they’re both just story tales? Who knows!
Either way, Rome and the Romans will be celebrating their 2768th birthday based on the legend of Romulus and Remus this week. So if you’re in the city why not do as the Romans do and enjoy the concerts, parades and fireworks. And make sure to visit the illuminated forum too to explore the original political centre of the eternal city by night. Leave me a comment if you know any other Roman stories and in the meantime lets raise a glass to wish Rome a happy birthday, buon compleanno, and many more to come!
Birthday celebrations run from the 19th to 24th April.
Details of battle re-enactments, historic events and costumed parades can be found on the Gruppo Storico Romano website (English version)
Many of Rome’s municipal museums offer free entry as part of the Natale di Roma birthday celebrations. Check websites and direct with museums for information.
Happy 2768th Birthday Rome!