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Of Romulus and Homer

Though many will identify Romulus and Remus as the mythical origin of Rome, is that all there is to know about the birth of what would become one of, if not the biggest empire in history?

Philip Coppens


Rome. For many it is a city of loved, arrived at by mirroring Amor into Roma. It is the seat of the Vatican (though an independent state), but above all, it was the capital of one of the largest empires in history. What lay at the creation of this great empire? Legend has it that Rea Silvia was a vestal virgin and daughter of a local king Numitor, who had twin sons, said to be the result of a rape by the god Mars. The children were to be sacrificed, but instead they were raised by a wolf, until they were adopted by a shepherd, who named them Romulus and Remus. Both then set out the boundaries of “Rome”, Romulus choosing the Palatine Hill, Remus the Aventine Hill. But the city eventually built on seven hills was not large enough for two rulers on two nearby hills; Romulus thus killed Remus in one of the ensuing battles, to become the first Roman ruler in 753 BC.

Historians have dismissed the story of Romulus and Remus as a legend, but in June 2007, Italian archaeologists reported discovering the long-lost cave under the Palatine Hill that ancient Romans held sacred as the place where the twins were nursed. Andrea Carandini, the cave’s discoverer, is a historian and an archaeologist at the University of Rome, and now argued that “the tale of the birth of Rome is part myth and part historical truth”. Previously, he had already found remains of an ancient wall and ditch and also ruins of a palace that he said was built in the eighth century BC. The wall was dated through a number of foundation deposits to about 775-750 BC. He said that the wall was possibly the sacred boundary in Rome’s foundation legend and concluded that it was “archaeological evidence of the existence of Romulus and Remus.”
As could be expected, Dr. Carandini’s support of the legend “has earned him the admiration of the Roman public but the disapproval of many of his colleagues.” A lecture that Dr. Carandini gave in late 2006 in Rome attracted 5,000 people, according to an Italian newspaper. But other archaeologists, while praising his excavations, are sceptical of his interpretations. Albert Ammerman, an archaeologist at Colgate University who has excavated Roman ruins, has argued that the presence of certain physical remains does not necessarily validate the literary tradition of Rome’s founding and the existence of someone known as Romulus.

Whoever founded Rome, the city was founded, and for approximately two centuries, Rome remained a kingdom before it became a Republic in 509 BC and slowly began to extend its borders, which would eventually encompass virtually the entire known world, at which time it was ruled by the likes of Julius Caesar and Nero.
In 70 BC, Virgil, or Publius Vergilius Maro to give him his official name, was born; In 29 BC, he began with the writing of his Aeneid, which is often described as the third greatest epic of the Graeco-Roman world, completing the Trojan saga that Homer began with the Iliad and continued with the Odyssey – though Homer wrote it in the mists of time, at least half a millennium earlier. In the final part of the trilogy (which before was never envisioned to become a trilogy), the Trojan Aeneas undertakes an epic journey from Troy, slipping away from the town before its destruction, fleeing via Carthage, towards Italy, where he meets the Sibyl of Cuma, before settling in what would eventually become Rome. Hence, the work created a link with the greatest legend of all times and Rome’s creation.
Homer had largely shaped Greek civilisation and recent research by Florence and Kenneth Wood, publishing in Homer’s Secret Iliad, suggests that the story of the Iliad is not so much a physical battle in a coastal plain in Turkey but (also?) a humanized account of the movement of the stars and constellations in the night’s sky and their rise and fall as the procession of the equinoxes occurred. We should thus perhaps wonder whether Virgil tried to apply the same in his Aeneid – a debate we will leave for elsewhere… and perhaps others.

Aeneas is described as being caught between a Trojan past and a Roman future. And that was exactly the purpose of this work: the Romans ruled the world, yet were largely of humble origins. The story of Romulus and Remus was nothing to brag about and did not set them apart, mythologically, from the rest of the world. The name Rea Silvia suggests a minor deity, a demi-goddess of forests. Silva means woods or forest, and Rea may be related to res and regnum; Rea may also be related to the Greek rheô, "flow", and thus reveal her association with the spirit of the river Tiber. However you twist it, Rome lacked a sense of prophecy: a sense that the capital’s foundation was already linked with what it was destined to be; “it had been said all along that Rome was going to be great”… but before Virgil, no-one had actually so… and the Romans desired a place in the greatest history of all: Troy. Hence Aeneas. Hence Virgil. In short, what Virgil did was write a “prehistory” of Rome, going back to Troy, via Aeneas, whose descendant would be Romulus. History was rewritten; Rome had its glorious beginning… and it was a technique that others would equally adopt to such cities as London, claiming that King Brutus had founded London, naming it New Troy.

Or was it, indeed, history, and not pre-dating? Like the story of Romulus of Remus, in 2007, archaeologists claimed to have discovered the place where Aeneas was believed to have first set foot in Italy. It is the closest point on the Italian peninsula to Albania: the town of Castro. In the third book of the Aeneid, according to John Dryden's 17th century translation, the poet describes the hero's discovery of Italy thus:
"... And now the rising morn with rosy light
Adorns the skies, and puts the stars to flight;
When we from far, like bluish mists, descry
The hills, and then the plains, of Italy ...
The gentle gales their flagging force renew,
And now the happy harbour is in view.
Minerva's temple then salutes our sight,
Plac'd, as a landmark, on the mountain's height ..."

In trying to map this description to a landscape, Minerva's temple is the key: the head of the Archaeology Department at Lecce University has found clinching evidence of the existence of a temple of Minerva, exactly where the poet describes it. "There is no doubt," Professor Francesco d'Andria said. "We have found fragments of a female divinity, and many iron weapons given to the goddess as offerings. In this temple a warrior goddess was worshipped. Minerva was worshipped."

Though Rome was the centre of the world, Rome itself had a geographic centre: the Roman Forum and the surrounding hills, specifically the Palatine and Capitol, that lurks over the almost crater-like depression that the Roman Forum is. It was the Palatine plateau, between the Tiber and the Forum, which was also the legendary home to the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. It was here that Romulus built the first wall of the city, before it turned a residential area, where men such as Cicero and Marc Antony would build houses, which would later be known as “palaces”, a word originating from the name of the hill. Whereas the story of Romulus and Remus was deemed to be purely mythical, remarkably, in the 1940s, evidence of Iron Age habitation on the hill was unearthed, suggesting that there was indeed the possibility that there was a settlement founded by Romulus in 753 BC. The site is now known as Capanna di Romolo, or Romulus’ Hut.

The Tomb of Romulus (see glass flooring in front, indicating location of the tomb below)

But the true heart – navel – of Rome sits in the Forum. It is the legendary tomb of Romulus, the so-called Lapis Niger and it is a site on the Roman Forum that is easily missed… as it is underground. It is, in fact, located just downhill from the Arch of Septimus Severus. And what it seems to be, is a few metres of paving… but all around, you can see that there is something underneath… though normally always closed off for the thousands of tourists that pass through the Forum. Below rest the underground ruins of a 6th century BC altar, along with a pyramidal pillar with the oldest known Latin inscription in Rome, warning against defiling the shrine. Though some believed it to be the tomb of Romulus, in truth, there have always been several competing theories as to what the site was meant to be. What everyone did agree upon, was that the site was very sacred and should be treated as such. Despite its austere warning, defilation of the shrine did occur in 1955, when a major excavation of the area failed to find any trace of a tomb beneath the Lapis Niger – possibly suggesting that if it was considered to be the Tomb of Romulus, at least it wasn’t his “physical” tomb – which still leaves the option that ancient Romans considered the site to be a spiritual tomb – a cenotaph?

The Lapis Niger is one of three important parts of the Forum. Nearby are the three replanted sacred trees: the olive, fig and grape. A few yards away, a circular tufa basin recalls the “Lacus Curtius”, the chasm into which the Roman warrior Marcus Curtius threw himself in 362 BC. The story goes that a chasm opened during the earliest days of Rome and the soothsayers determined that it would be closed only when Rome had sacrificed its most valuable possession in it. Marcus Curtius, a Roman soldier, declared that Rome’s most valuable possession was a loyal citizen, then hurled himself and his horse in it, to prove his point, and apparently proven to be right, as the chasm closed. A portrait of a warrior on his horse stands near the basin that sits on top of the chasm, which, if ever a chasm there was, is now indeed totally sealed. But like the Lapis Niger, there are competing theories: Titus Livius stated that the Lacus Curtius was named after Mettius Curtius, a Sabine horseman who rode or fell into the chasm while fighting against Romulus. Yet another version, told by the historian Marcus Terentius Varro, had it that Gaius Curtius Philon, a consul of 445 BC, consecrated the site after a lightning strike opened it. Again, the site was known to be important, though its particular importance had been lost in the mists of time.
In between the closed chasm and the Lapis Niger – in fact right next to the latter – runs the Via Sacra, the “sacred road”, the most important and well-known road of the Empire – though the present large pavement slabs possibly do not mark the original route. If anything, we would perhaps expect the Via Sacra to be a straight (straight roads being linked with royalty and sacred rule), not the bent shape it has inside the Forum. The Via Sacra arrives from the Arch of Titus (near the Coliseum – where it is straight) and follows the Forum, to the Arch of Septimius Severus, before ascending to the Capitoline Hill.

The most sacred site was indeed that hill. The name of this hill has been used to coin the word “capital” and is also linked with the Latin Caput mundi, which means “head of the world”. Its most important and highest site is now occupied by Santa Maria in Aracoeli, translating as “Altar of Heaven”. The chief object of veneration in this now Christian church used to be the Santo Bambino, the figure of a baby, carved from the wood of a Gethsemane olive tree. The relic was supposed to have miraculous healing powers, and the sick would be rushed across Rome in a coach to benefit from its miracles. The relic, however, was stolen in 1994.
In Antiquity, it was the site of the temple of Jupiter. In Roman mythology, Jupiter held the same role as Zeus in the Greek pantheon; he was the chief of the pantheon; and he was called Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter Highest, Greatest) as the patron deity of the Roman state, in charge of laws and social order. In this pagan temple, Jupiter was worshipped alongside Juno and Minerva, forming the Capitoline Triad. In fact, what is remarkable about Rome is how well the Church has been able to do away with virtually every “pagan” temple – normally, only the foundations were kept. Only a few remain in the Forum, and even there, some have been converted into churches. It seems that even for the Christian zeal, there were simply too many pagan temples in the Roman Forum to turn them all into churches. Still, the largest temple in Rome on the Capitoline Hill became – had to become – a church.
The site is also said to be the location where the Tiburtine Sibyl (from Tivoli) is said to have foretold the birth of Christ – no doubt another example of rewriting history to fit in with the changing times. There were many Sibyls in the ancient world, but it was the Etruscan Sibyl who was said to have predicted the Trojan War.

Another important temple was in the depths of the Forum below: the House of the Vestal Virgins. The Vestal Virgins tended to the city’s eternal sacred fire, keeping it lit continuously for over a thousand years. For the duration of thirty years (ten as students, ten in service, and ten as teachers), the six virgins officiated over Vesta’s rites, each ordained between the age of six and ten. The Virgins were among the most respected people of the Rome. They had certain privileges: they were the only women allowed to walk unaccompanied in the Forum and they also possessed the right to pardon prisoners. But with privileges, come responsibilities – and penalties if failing to abide by them: a virgin who strayed from celibacy was said to be buried alive with a loaf of bread and a candle. Still, they were able to resign from their position when they so desired. In a secret room of the temple, where only the virgins could enter, stood the Palladium, the small statue of Minerva that Aeneas was said to have taken from Troy to Italy. Just to the side of this temple was the Regia, the office of the Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s high priest and titular ancestor of the Pope. It was he who selected the Virgins.
The Fire of Vesta burned until 394 AD, when Emperor Theodosius I's decrees forbade public pagan worship. He had the fire extinguished, closed the Temple of Vesta and disbanded the Vestal Virgins. An era had come to end. In 667 AD, Costans II paid a state visit to Rome. When he saw that the temples and basilicas of the Forum were held together with bronze and iron crams, he decided that the metal would serve better in his war against Islam. It took just twelve days to dismantle them and most of the Forum fell down with the next earth tremor. By the early 9th century, hardly anything remained standing.

The Via Sacra

Rome was indeed not build in seven days… in fact, it took so long that the Romans themselves had forgotten its origins, and then decided to “rewrite” what no-one no longer knew… or which was no longer considered to be grandiose enough. But dismantling the heart of the Roman Empire took hardly longer than seven days: twelve. Today, the Forum remains nestled inside its valley. It doesn’t tower above the city like St Peter’s Basilica… and the ancient temple of Jupiter has equally been turned into a Christian shrine. Did any Sibyl ever prophesise Ancient Rome’s fate?