This Week in History: Romulus and Remus Founded Rome in 753 B.C.

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Relief on a Roman altar (A.D. 124); Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome (photo by Raymond V. Schoder)

According to legend, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus founded the city of Rome on April 21, 753 B.C., near the Tiber River in central Italy. Romulus and Remus were born in the ancient Italian city of Alba Longa. Their parents were Rhea Silvia, a human woman, and the god Mars. When Romulus and Remus were babies, their great uncle Amulius, the ruler of Alba Longa, had them thrown into the Tiber River so they could not threaten his rule. The twins washed ashore and were nursed by a female wolf. Wolves are associated with the god Mars. The twins later were discovered and raised by a shepherd named Faustulus and his wife. Romulus and Remus eventually set out to establish their own city at the place where the wolf had found them. A quarrel between the brothers led to Remus’s death, and Romulus named the new city Rome, after himself. Romulus became the first of seven legendary kings who ruled Rome until the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C. He was a wise and popular ruler and a fine military leader. Under Romulus’s leadership, Rome expanded and became the most powerful city in the region. At the end of his reign, Romulus disappeared mysteriously in a storm. A later story tells that he became the god Quirinus.

Ancient Romans celebrated an important religious festival called Lupercalia every February near the Lupercal, a cave in the Palatine Hill. This cave was associated with the wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus. The Palatine Hill is one of seven historic hills east of the Tiber River in Rome. They form the heart of the ancient city. The other six hills are the Aveline, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Quirinal, and Viminal hills. Lupercalia included banquets, dancing, and the sacrificing of goats. Teams of young men called Luperci raced naked around the Palatine Hill with whips made from goats’ hides. Women who hoped to have children stood near the runners’ path to be struck by the whips. They believed this would make them fertile.

There is little evidence that Romulus and the six kings who succeeded him existed. Some scholars think the kings originated as gods whom the Romans converted into historical figures. The kings and gods have many similarities. For example, Romulus resembles the god Jupiter. The seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, resembles Mars. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of houses built about 900 B.C.—approximately 150 years before the legendary founding date—on the Palatine Hill. The earliest settlers in the area were a people called the Latins who inhabited neighboring towns in Latium, the region around Rome. The seven hills that comprised ancient Rome were steep and easily defended. The valleys between them were fertile, with a good water supply, and provided necessary building materials. The Tiber River provided a convenient route to the Mediterranean Sea, allowing for trade with other communities. These geographical features helped the young city prosper and eventually develop as the center of a great empire. Whether or not Romulus and Remus had any part in this history, they remain a prominent part of Roman mythology. A famous bronze sculpture at the Capitoline Museums in Rome shows a she-wolf nursing the brothers. The sculpture is thought to have been created in the 400’s B.C. or in the Middle Ages (from about the 400’s through the 1400’s A.D.).

 

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