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Founding of Rome

The founding of Rome is reported by many legends, which in recent times are beginning to be supplemented by more scientific reconstructions.

Vergil's Aeneid, while not definitive, is an important source for information about those early times or, at least, the then-official versions of many historical events.

Latium and central Italy

It is supposed (with a certain probability) that in the age between the 10th and 8th centuries BC, central Italy was populated by the two main groups into which the Italics had divided: Osco-Umbri and Latins. Latium Vetus (the ancient territory of Latium) was populated by Etruscans, Volsci, Sabins, Equi, Rutuli, and Ausonians. They came from different areas of central Italy, including current Tuscany, Marches, and groups came from Liguria.

Among them, the Latins developed an organised society, which was the main source of the people who settled Rome. The Latins originally stayed in Colli Albani (the Alban hills, modern Castelli - 20 to 50 miles southeast of the Capitoline hill); later, they moved down towards the valleys, which provided better land for animal breeding and agriculture.

The area around the Tiber river was particularly advantageous and also offered notable strategical resources, as the river was a natural border on one side, while the hills could provide a safe defensive position on the other side. This position would also have enabled the Latins to control the river (and eventual commercial or military traffic on it), from the natural observation point at Isola Tiberina (the island in front of modern Trastevere[?]). Moreover, road traffic could be controlled, since Rome was at the intersection of the principal roads to the sea coming from Sabine (in the northeast) and Etruria (to the northwest).

The development of the town is presumed to have started from the development of separate small villages (borgate), located on top of hills, which joined together to form Rome.

Although recent studies suggest that the Quirinal hill was very important in ancient times, the first hill to be inhabited seems to have been the Palatine (therefore confirming the legend), which is also at the center of ancient Rome. Its 3 peaks, minor hills (Palatium, Cermalus or Germalus, and Velia) united with the 3 peaks of Esquiline (Oppius, Cispius andFagutal), and then villages on the Caelian hill and Suburra (between current Rione Monti and Oppius hill) joined them.

These hills had expressive names: Caelian was called Querquetulanus, because of oaks (quercus), while Fagutal revealed its beech-woods. Recent discoveries reveal that Germalus, on the northern part of Palatinum, was the site of a village (dated to the 9th century BC) with circular or elliptic dwellings. It was protected by a clay wall (perhaps reinforced with wood), and it is likely that this is where Rome was really founded.

The territory of this federation was surrounded by a sacred border called Pomerium, which enclosed the so-called Roma Quadrata (Square Rome). This would have been extended with the inclusion of the Capitoline hill and Isola Tiberina at the time that Rome became an oppidum, a fortified town. Esquiline still was a satellite village that would be included at the time of the Servian expansions of Rome.

Celebrations for Septimontium (literally "of the seven hills"), on December 11, were in the past considered related to the foundation. However, as April the 21st is the only datum for foundation upon which all the legends agree, it has been recently argued that Septimontium was likely to have actually celebrated the first federations among Roman hills: a similar federation was, in fact, celebrated by Latins at Cave (a village southeast of Rome) or at Monte Cavo (in Castelli).

The Legend

The legend about the foundation of Rome obviously tends to relate the town to some of the most eminent entities of its age, in order to "demonstrate" that the great success of the town depends also on this special origin, or simply to complete a successful reputation with first-class references. It is, however, a complete story, and the entire Roman tradition is based on it. There are several versions of this legend; the version below is commonly considered the main one.

Aeneas and Julus

The defeated army of Troy crossed the Mediterranean sea on the orders of prince Aeneas, to reach Latium's coasts. Here they landed in an area that is likely between current Anzio[?] and Fiumicino[?], southwest of Rome. Most commonly it is supposed they landed at Laurentum[?] (or Larentum); other versions say that they landed at Lavinium[?], a place called by the name of Latinus' daughter.

Latinus, the wise king of the Latins, hosted them and let them reorganise their life in Latium. His daughter Lavinia had been promised to Turnus, king of the Rutuli[?], but Latin preferred to offer her to Aeneas; Turnus consequently declared war on Aeneas. The outcome was that Turnus was killed and his people captured. Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, also known as Iulus, founded Albalonga and was the first in a long series of kings.

King Proca was the father of Numitor and Amulius. At Proca's death, Numitor became king of Albalonga, but Amulius captured him and sent him to prison; he also forced Rea Silvia (Numitor's daughter) to become a priestess of the Vestan cult. For many years Amulius was then the king.

Gods and priestesses

The legend of Rome's origin would have been poorer if the gods had had no role in it. Mars (who will always be the most important god for Romans) had two sons with Rea Silvia, a priestess devoted to the sacred cult of Vesta. (The name Rea Silvia (often written Rhea Silvia) suggests a minor deity, a demi-goddess of forests. Silva means woods or forest, and rea may be related to res and regnum.)

Romulus and Remus

By this birth Rea Silvia had, as a priestess, severely offended both Vesta and the common customs of the time. Therefore Amulius ordered a servant to kill the newborn twins. The servant, lacking the stomach for the deed, put them in a bag that he left in the Tiber, to be carried away and drowned. The twin brothers were transported by the river and washed up on the shore in a place that, curiously, the legends don't specify. Here they were saved by a female wolf who nursed them (this wolf, Lupa, is still now one of main symbols of Rome.)


the female wolf, with the twins

Nearby, in a poor dwelling, lived an old shepherd Faustulus and his wife Larentia[?]. The shepherd found the babies, brought them home, and adopted them. When they had grown to adulthood, the brothers were informed of their history, so they went back to Albalonga, killed Amulius, and freed their grandfather Numitor.

Romulus and Remus started planning a new town in the same place in which they had been found by Lupa. They decided that one of them would build a town and the other would help. So they went questioning the gods, asking for signs (presumably from the flight patterns of birds) that would tell them who should lead. Another version of the tale says that they had a competition to be won by the brother who saw more birds (or more birds of some species).

Romulus went to the top of Palatine hill, Remus to the top of Aventine. Romulus became convinced that he had been selected by the gods, or that he had seen more birds, so he casually threw his lance on the hill to find the place; when in the ground, the lance (which was wooden) immediately became the corniolus, a sacred tree in Rome.

With the help of a white cow and a white bull, he then used his plough to trace the square borders of his town, following the traditional Etruscan ceremony. Remus outrageously crossed this line, invading Romulus's area and happily saying "Can you see how easy it is?" Romulus killed him with one blow of his sword, declaring that everyone who dared to offend Rome would pay with his life.

Romulus was the first ruler of Rome, and reigned until he disappeared during a storm, carried off by his father Mars.

Evolution of the legend

While the main body of the legend had remained more or less the same since its creation, some details were changed, mainly in order to put together the (slightly) different versions and correcting several points in terms of time and geography. The local ancient legends, too, were little by little brought into harmony with main story. The effect of these interventions on the legend is quite evident.

One of the earliest versions (5th century BC) is by the Mitilene Greek Ellanicus[?], and is usually reported together with the version by Damastes[?] from Sigeo. In this version the founder of the village was Aeneas (in a minor version Ascanius (Iulus)). These versions survived until 509 BC (the year in which it is presumed the Roman republic started), when it was realised that, since there had been seven Roman kings[?] and Romulus was the first of them, there was a gap between the 8th century of the first kings and the 12th century BC (the supposed date of the destruction of Troy). So as Romulus could not be the son of Iulus, he became only a distant descendant. The time between Iulus and Romulus was "filled" with the series of Albalonga's kings. Aeneas would have landed on Latium's coast during the reign of Latinus (king of the Latins), in order to find a compromise with local legends. Mars then had to be added in order to honour him, so Romulus became a descendant of Mars on his father's side, while mother Rea Silvia was connected with Aeneas via the Albalonga dynasty. The condemnation of Rea Silvia's sons is only one among the many recollections of the divine laws, of the religion that so deeply entered Roman life.

Every group of people living in the area had its own similar legends:

  • The Italics: among the Italics, like the tale in Hesiod's Theogony, the two brothers Agrius and Latin were the sons of Telegono, who was the son of Ulysses and Circe the witch (to whom is dedicated a mountain, Mount Circeo, in southern Latium where her cavern was supposed to be and where a cult was celebrated in her honour).
  • The Latins: Saturn had been replaced by his son Jove, so he came down to the Earth and mixed with the Latins. After a while (maybe centuries), Evandrus came to Latium via Arcadia, and then Hercules came to free these lands from the menace of the giant Cacus. Finally Aeneas arrived from Troy, after tremendous risky adventures, and founded Rome. Notably in this version the Latins were not created or otherwise specially assisted by the gods, only the town was founded by Aeneas in the presence of these "authorities".

The date of the founding of Rome

During the Roman republic, several dates were given for the founding of the city, all in the interval between 758 BC[?] and 728 BC. Finally, under the Roman empire the date suggested by Atticus[?] and Varro, (753 BC) was agreed upon, but in Fasti Capitolini the year given was 752. Curiously, while the years varied, all versions agreed that the city was founded on April 21, a holiday dedicated to the sacred cult of Pales, goddess of shepherds; in her honour, Rome celebrated the Parritta (or Palilia). (It is to be noted, however, that the Roman Ab Urbe Condita (or a.u.c.) calendar begins with Varro's dating of 753 BC.)

The name of Rome

The name of the town is generally considered to refer to Romulus, but there are other hypotheses. One of them refers it to Roma[?], who should have been the daughter of Aeneas or Evandrus. Current studies seem to prefer a provenance from an Indo-European root meaning "river"; Rome would then mean "the town on the river".

Rome is also the Urbs, and this name (that in later Latin generically meant any town) comes from urvus, the furrow cut by a plough- here, by that of Romulus.

On the Capitoline hill, at noon on April, the 21st of every year, a special bell called Patarina rings from the Campidoglio to commemorate the founding of Rome. On that occasion, the famous cannon of Gianicolo remains silent, the only day in the year on which it does not sound.



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