The Foundation of Rome: April 21st, 753 BC. (Months Past)

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Foundation of Rome: April 21st, 753 BC. (Months Past)


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


THE TRADITIONAL date for the founding of the greatest city 9f the Western world was the product of guesswork by Roman writers of the late centuries BC, working backwards from their own time. There were reports of kings of Rome in the early days before the last of them, Tarquin the Proud, was expelled and the Roman Republic was founded, which was believed to have happened in 510 BC. Allowing for the reigns of Tarquin's predecessors carried the calculation back some two to three hundred years. After ranging shots by various writers, the author Varro, greatly respected for his learning in the first century BC, settled on the year 753, which became the accepted, official date. All subsequent dates were expressed ab urbe condita, `from the city's founding'.

The story of the founding also went through variations. Roman tradition ascribed it to Romulus, whose name means simply `man of Rome', but Greek writers from at least the fifth century BC attributed it to the Trojan exile Aeneas. By the first century BC the two versions had coalesced. After the fall of Troy (conventionally dated to 1184 BC), Aeneas went to Central Italy and married Lavinia, the daughter of the local king, Latinus. From them sprang a line of kings who ruled Alba Longa (twelve miles southeast of Rome) down to Numitor, whose throne was usurped by Amulius, his younger brother. Amulius forced Numitor's daughter Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, so that she would bear no children to challenge him. Rhea Silvia, however, was raped by the war god, Mars--or so she said, as the historian Livy cynically remarked--and bore twin boys, Romulus and Remus (or Romus).

The wicked Amulius had the babies set afloat on the Tiber, but they were miraculously washed up beneath a fig tree, called Ruminalis, near the Palatine Hill. There they were suckled by a she-wolf and, according to one version, a woodpecker helped to feed them: both the wolf and the woodpecker were beasts of Mars. Later the children were cared for by a shepherd and his wife.

They were not sons of the war god for nothing and they grew up bold, vigorous and the leaders of the local shepherd boys. Presently the twins killed Amulius, put Numitor back on his throne and set out to found a city of their own, but they quarrelled over the exact site. …

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