Celebrating Rome’s Birthday: Intriguing Facts and Stories on Rome’s Founding Day – April 21, 753 BCE
The Legendary Founding of Rome
On April 21, 753 BC, Rome, the Eternal City, was said to be founded by its legendary first king, Romulus, and his twin brother Remus (Beard, 2015). Born to a Vestal Virgin named Rhea Silvia and the god Mars, the twins were abandoned as infants by their grand-uncle, who feared they would claim the throne. Nursed by a she-wolf and later raised by a shepherd, the twins eventually learned of their true heritage and sought to establish their own city (Livy, 1905).
The Sacred Boundary and the Fratricide
After some disagreement about the location, Romulus decided to build the city on Palatine Hill, while Remus preferred Aventine Hill (Wiseman, 1995). To mark the city’s sacred boundaries, Romulus traced a furrow with a plow, creating the pomerium. According to legend, Remus defied his brother by leaping over the boundary line, leading to his death at the hands of Romulus (Livy, 1905). With Remus gone, Romulus continued building the city, naming it Rome after himself (Beard, 2015).
The Curious Case of the Missing 244 Years
While the traditional founding date of Rome is April 21, 753 BC, ancient Roman historians, like Varro and Cato, offered different dates, leaving a gap of nearly 244 years (Beard, 2015). Modern scholars have tried to reconcile this discrepancy by examining archaeological evidence and Roman religious practices (Holloway, 1994).
The Capitoline Geese that Saved Rome
In 390 BC, the Gauls attacked Rome, and the city’s defenders retreated to the Capitoline Hill. The Gauls attempted a stealthy night assault, but the sacred geese, dedicated to the goddess Juno, raised an alarm, alerting the Romans to the attack (Livy, 1905). The Romans managed to repel the invasion, and the geese were honored with an annual procession known as the Pullarius (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 1937).
The Unearthing of the Lapis Niger
In 1899, archaeologists discovered the Lapis Niger, a black marble slab with a curse inscribed in archaic Latin (Coarelli, 2007). The curse warns against violating the sacred space where the slab was found, believed to be the grave of Romulus or the location of his murder of Remus (Coarelli, 2007). The inscription reveals a glimpse of early Roman religion and the significance of the city’s legendary founding.
The Fascinating Roman Sewer System
The Cloaca Maxima, one of the world’s earliest sewage systems, was constructed during the Roman Kingdom and expanded during the Roman Republic and Empire (Aldrete, 2007). Initially built to drain marshes and prevent floods, the Cloaca Maxima later became an essential part of Rome’s public sanitation, channeling wastewater from the city’s streets, public baths, and latrines into the Tiber River (Aldrete, 2007).
Rome’s Vestal Virgins and Their Sacred Duty
The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, tasked with maintaining Rome’s sacred fire and preserving the city’s welfare (Beard, 2015). Chosen from noble families, these women took a 30-year vow of chastity, with dire consequences for breaking it: unchaste Vestals were buried alive (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 1937). Despite the risks, the Vestal Virgins were highly respected and afforded unique privileges, such as the ability to own property and testify in court without a guardian (Beard, 2015).
The Curious Case of Rome’s Talking Statue
Pasquino, a fragment of an ancient Roman statue, became famous in the 16th century as a platform for anonymous political commentary (Knecht, 2000). The statue’s base was used to display satirical verses and criticisms of the city’s rulers, earning it the nickname “the first talking statue of Rome.” Pasquino’s popularity led to the creation of other “talking statues” throughout Rome, collectively known as the “Congregation of Wits” (Knecht, 2000).
The Mystery of the Etruscan Influence
The Etruscans, a civilization predating the Romans, left a lasting impact on Rome’s early history (Bonfante, 2011). Although the exact origins of the Etruscans remain uncertain, their civilization stretched across central Italy, and their culture and language influenced early Rome (Bonfante, 2011). The Etruscans contributed to Rome’s development through trade, artistic practices, and religious customs (Brendel, 1995).
The Strange Ritual of the October Horse
The October Horse was an ancient Roman festival held annually on October 15, involving a peculiar horse sacrifice (Wiseman, 2004). The right-hand horse of a victorious two-horse chariot team was sacrificed to Mars, the god of war (Wiseman, 2004). The horse’s head was then contested between two city districts, with the winning side nailing it to a wall in their neighborhood, while the tail was carried to the Regia, the king’s residence, to ensure fertility for the following year (Ovid, 1916).
The Unique Roman Triumph
The Roman triumph was a grand procession to celebrate a victorious general and his troops, a tradition dating back to Rome’s early history (Beard, 2007). During the triumph, the victorious general and his soldiers marched through the city displaying the spoils of war, accompanied by musicians, captives, and exotic animals (Beard, 2007). The procession culminated at the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, where the general offered a sacrifice to the god (Beard, 2007).
Beard, M. (2007). The Roman triumph. Harvard University Press.
Beard, M. (2015). SPQR: A history of ancient Rome. Liveright Publishing.
Bonfante, L. (2011). Etruscan dress (Updated ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press.
Brendel, O. J. (1995). Etruscan art (2nd ed.). Yale University Press.
Coarelli, F. (2007). Rome and environs: An archaeological guide. University of California Press.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus. (1937). Roman Antiquities (E. Cary, Trans.). Harvard University Press.
Holloway, R. R. (1994). The archaeology of early Rome and Latium. Routledge.
Knecht, R. J. (2000). The French Renaissance court. Yale University Press.
Livy. (1905). The history of Rome (B. O. Foster, Trans.). Harvard University Press.
Ovid. (1916). Fasti (J. G. Frazer, Trans.). Harvard University Press.
Wiseman, T. P. (1995). Remus: A Roman myth. Cambridge University Press.
Wiseman, T. P. (2004). The myths of Rome. University of Exeter Press.