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The foundation of Rome: the myth in the history

The foundation

21 April 753 b.C., it’s an important date where history and myth merge to give birth to the legend of one of the most important cities that the world has ever known: Rome.

Through literary sources, we’re going to retrace the events that led to the foundation of the city and, thanks to archaeology, we’re going to see if there’s any truth behind it.

The origins and the myth of Romulus and Remus through literary sources

Plutarch and Titus Livius are some of the greatest writers of the past that dedicated their writings to the myth of the foundation of Rome, associated with the legend of Romulus and Remus.

The story of the foundation starts when Romulus and Remus, thanks to the approval of their grandpa, Numitor (whose throne was initially usurped by his brother, and then returned to him thanks to the intervention of his grandchildren) left their hometown, Alba Longa, in order to go back to the banks of the Tiber where they grew up.

Apparently, this is supposed to be the place where they founded the city of Rome. However, the problem was to establish the name of the city and who should have had the right to reign. Titus Livius explains to us how the matter was resolved:

“Since they were twins, and birthright couldn’t be applied as an elective criteria, the gods who protected that area should have decided, through the haruspices, the one that could name the city and could rule after its foundation. So, in order to interpret the signs, Romulus chose the Palatine Hill and Remus chose the Aventine Hill.

(Livius, Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1)

According to the myth, the brothers looked towards Alba Longa from the top of the two hills. From there, the gods would have sent a sign which would have legitimated the future king. From the East, the first omen arrived: Remus saw six vultures flying around his head, while Romulus saw twelve of them. The gods had decided: Romulus was going to be the king.

After having established who would have ruled, it was time to found the city on the Palantine

Romulus, after obtaining the god’s favors, chose the Palatine as a starting point, and then he prepared to make a foundation ritual and trace the perimeter of the dawning city.

Plutarch described this moment in a detailed way:

“Romulus hooked a plowshare in the plow and yoked an ox and a cow on it, he rode them, tracing a deep groove in the perimeter that he established. Where it was intended to place a door, the plow was extracted while the plowshare was pulled so that they would leave a gap in the groove.”

(Plutarch, Life of Romulus)

Plutarch tells us that, after tracing the groove, the edge of the city was redesigned, and the foundation stones for the city were placed. That sacred and inviolable boundary was called Pomerium. To add a sacrality to the event, a girl was sacrificed and buried close to the pomerium.

The city of Rome was founded, and its ritual of foundation became the model of inspiration for other future cities.

Romolo traces the boundaries of Rome, Annibale Carracci (1520)

The Myth of Rome: archaeology could confirm or disprove

A specific date, two twins who were nursed by a Wolf and raised by shepherds in a hut, a circle of walls, a human sacrifice, and a small village named Rome, founded on the Palatine and ruled by one king. It seems like the Roman writers agree on the events that led to the birth of Rome, the Eternal City. How much of this “fairy tale” has convinced archaeologists? The answer is: a lot.

Andrea Carandini claimed that he made one of the most important discoveries during excavations around the Palatine’s area, in 2005.

The sacrifice of the girl during the furrow of foundation

On the slopes of the Palatine, a burial was dug containing the remains of a murdered little girl and buried with her grave goods. There was a small cup, which allowed us to determine the date of the burial, around 775-750 b.C., a date that is incredibly close to the one attributed to the foundation of Rome.

In the ridge between the Palatine Hill and the Velian Hill, Carandini and his team found the remains of a wall, dated at about 750-700 b.C., which took the name of Wall of Romulus”.

The “Wall of Romulus”, between the Palatine and the Velian hills


The huts of the kings and the temple of Vesta

Under the Palatine, archaeologists excavated the remains of some huts; hearths, stove tops, and post holes which were datable to the 8th century b.C.

Those elements were found near a temple dedicated to the goddess Vesta, which was already excavated in 1987. Inside the temple, the remains of a previous building, were discovered, once again, from the 8th century.  Even though it was a building of considerable size with an external court (which meant that it was a house worthy of an important figure), the construction technique was still rudimentary: once again, post holes that supported a roof and walls of dried clay, which were typical of constructions from that historical period.

This building was attributed to Numa Pompilius (754-673 b.C.).

Reconstruction of a 8th century b.C. hut on the Palatine hine


The “tugurium Romuli” or “the house of Romulus”

The tugurium Romuli is a hut that has been identified thanks to the presence of dugs where stakes supported the roof, which was of modest size.

The foundations of this building recur to the Iron Age (900-700 b.C.) and the position on the Palatine Hill could be associated with the first legendary king of Rome, that’s why it is named after him, “the house of Romulus”.


One of the huts that was found on the Palatine hill during Carandini’s excavations
The Lupercale

To conclude with the findings that allowed archaeologists to give credit to the myth, in 2007, the Italian archaeologist Irene Iacopi announced that, under the slopes of the Palatine, 16 meters deep, the archaeologists found a cave, which could only be explored with a camera probe, whose vault was decorated with Augustus’s eagle.

Perhaps, it might have been a place attributed to the legend and then became a house of worship.

“I’m an archaeologist, which means that I’m an historian, I study things that are made by humans and what is left of them on the land. I have been lucky enough to excavate for many years in those places that are mentioned in the myth, where Rome is supposed to be founded, and where the first kings may have lived. I have collected lots of material evidence in these excavations, which seem to be external to the literary tradition, and yet dating back to those days that recall the events and the actions of legendary figures. This is why I don’t believe that the legend of Rome is a fairy tale, but rather a tradition where truth and fiction are present and blended.”

-Andrea Carandini 


ENGLISH VERSION | Roman-age bridge resurfaces on the Tiburtine

The Special Superintendence of Rome has discovered a roman bridge on the Tiburtine during road extension works.


The discovery

Documentation of historical maps of Renaissance age showed the existence of a bridge on the Ditch of Pratolungo. However, traces of the roman-age structure had not yet been brought to light; preventive archeology investigations related to road widening works made by the Municipality have revealed the presence of the structure, which has been found at the 12th kilometre of the Tiburtine.

The excavations, which are still in progress, are carried out with the scientific direction of Fabrizio Santi, archeologist of the Special Superintendence of Rome and by archeologists Mara Carcieri and Stefania Bavastro of Land S.r.l.

Ditch Of Pratolungo


Chronology and final works

The history of the structure makes the discovery extremely exceptional: the bridge, which allowed to cross the ditch of Pratolungo, dates to the 2nd century B.C., during the mid-republican age; the dating seems to be confirmed by some ceramic findings, which are yet to be systemically analyzed, and by the type of masonry, made of big tuff blocks.

The bridge will be covered at the end of the investigation, not before an accurate survey and mapping. This will allow, along with the analysis of the specimen, a detailed study and understanding of this important discovery.

Discovery of the roman-age bridge
The Special Superintendent’s words

“It’s a discovery of great archeological interest”, explains Daniela Porro, Special Superintendent of Rome, “as well as historical and topographical. The research will continue in the next days in order to obtain a complete knowledge of the structure and its stages of use. Once again, Rome gives us important evidence of its past, which will allow to better understand its ancient history”.

Daniela Porro, Special Superintendent of Rome