In this page:
Rome in the VIIIth Century BC
Expansion of the First Settlements (Regia)
Lacus Curtius and Lapis Niger
The First Prison
Graecia capta, ferum victorem cepit (the fierce conqueror was conquered by conquered Greece), this sentence
by Horace provides a key to the "official" history of Rome. When the Romans expanded their direct rule in the Eastern Mediterranean
they came in contact with civilizations which had elaborated sophisticated accounts explaining the origin of their nations and of their towns.
Augustus, the first emperor, realized that to ease the acceptance of Rome among these
new subjects, it was useful to embellish the traditional tales about the foundation and first expansion of Rome.
Livy and Virgil with their essays and poems linked Rome
with the ancient Greek world.
However, archaeologists and modern historians have come to the conclusion that the legendary account of the foundation of the Eternal City is not entirely unrelated to the evidence they have found in the remains of the oldest buildings of Rome.
This page and the others of this section do not have any academic pretensions: their objective is limited to revisiting Rome following a historical approach.
Maps of Latium and of the seven hills of Rome: the brown line marks the area of the first
According to the traditional account Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC: at that time the region around Rome (Latium) was split between the Etruscans and a group of tribes, usually called Italic tribes, by this meaning that they were autochthonous (in Greek: sprung from that same land), while the origin of the Etruscans has been the subject of lengthy debates. The Etruscans were organized in town-states and they had advanced knowledge of metallurgy, ceramics and masonry. Their territory spanned from the southern bank of the River Po, in northern Italy, to the northern bank of the River Tiber in central Italy. The Italic tribes were divided into groups of villages sharing a common shrine: the Latins occupied the land between the Albani hills and the Tiber and had their shrine in Ariccia, not far from their main town Alba Longa, near today's Albano. The Sabines lived on the hills on the left (south/eastern) bank of the Tiber. Another important tribe in the early days of Rome, the Volsci, had their main centre in Velletri.
(left) The south-western corner of the Palatino hill; (right) Hercules and Cacus by Baccio Bandinelli (1533) at Piazza della Signoria in Florence
Archaeologists have found evidence of early settlements on the Quirinale and Palatino
hills. In particular they found in the south-western corner of the Palatino hill
three huts dating from the Iron Age. The existence of such a human settlement prior
to the foundation of Rome is perhaps at the root of the account which sets in this part
of the Palatino one of Hercules' labours: not one of the famous twelve labours, but a
sort of repetition of the tenth labour: the cattle of Geryon. Hercules, on his way back
from Spain (where the tenth labour was set) to Greece, came with some cattle to the right bank
of the Tiber; he swam across the river and with his cattle he lay down on the grass to rest. Cacus (the bad man) lived in a nearby deep cave: he
stole two bulls and four heifers while Hercules was sleeping.
When the demigod awoke, he noticed the missing cattle, but was unable to find them, because Cacus had dragged them backwards into
his cave; he was about to move on with the remaining cattle, when one of the stolen heifers
lowed hungrily and Hercules understood where the sound came from. In the ensuing fight with the
thief, Hercules battered Cacus to pulp.
This myth tells the historians that the shepherds living in this location had to protect their cattle from thieves and that the foundation of Rome might have been originated by the need to protect cattle raising and trading activities. The access to the Palatino from the river bank was called by the Romans Scala Caci (the steps of Cacus) and the area below the Palatino was used as a cattle market (Foro Boario). Hercules was regarded as a patron of Rome and he was revered in many temples. This explains why Arco degli Argentieri, which is located just a few yards from the Palatino, was decorated with a relief portraying Hercules.
The portico of S. Giorgio al Velabro on the site of the marsh (Velabro) at the foot of the Palatino hill
Velabro, from the Latin vel, means marshy land: the site called Velabro is located between the south western corner
of the Palatino and the river where the latter makes a turn: at times it was flooded and then when the
level of the river lowered it returned to dry: so it is with some sense of reality that Velabro
was identified as the place where the river god gently deposited the infants Romulus and Remus, who were to play a key role
in the foundation of Rome.
They were borne by Rea Silvia, a Vestal, a virgin consecrated to the goddess Vesta, vowed to chastity and in charge of a perpetually burning sacred fire. The father was Mars, the god of war. Rea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa, had been forced to become a vestal by her uncle Amulius, who had usurped the throne and banished her father: the laws of Alba Longa prescribed that the infants should be exposed and that the vestal who had violated her vow should be condemned to perpetual imprisonment.
Musei Capitolini: Peter Paul Rubens: Romulus and Remus milked by the she-wolf (detail).
You may wish to see the whole painting (it opens in a separate window)
The salvage of an infant
abandoned in a river is not the only
point the tale of the foundation of Rome has with other accounts.
The cry of the infants attracted a she-wolf which nurtured them: clearly the she-wolf was a close relative of Amaltheia, the she-goat which nurtured Jupiter: the event was celebrated by the Romans in the Lupercalia, a festivity during which two teenagers went through a rite of initiation in a cave (Lupercal) near Velabro (lupus is the Latin word for wolf). Eventually a shepherd, Faustulus, found the she-wolf and the two infants and here again the miraculous or at least positive intervention of a shepherd appears also in other accounts, even in historical times, such as the life of St. Benedict at Subiaco.
Faustulus, one of the Royal shepherds, entrusted the infants to the care of his wife, Acca Laurentia, by whom
they were brought up; she so jealously watched over them that she deserved the name of Lupa
(she-wolf), so there is some confusion
between the she-wolf and this woman.
The boys were raised acquainted with their lineage and history and when they grew up they traced their banished grandfather; with a few companions they were able to dispatch Amulius and restore Numitor to the throne of Alba Longa.
The young princes chose not to settle at the court of their grandfather, but decided to found a new town; they differed however on the site of the new town: Romulus chose the Palatino, Remus the nearby Aventino: they sought the advice of their grandfather, who recommended them to ascertain the will of the gods by consulting the flight of birds. Remus took position on the Aventino (on a site still called Remuria), Romulus on the Palatino. Remus soon saw six birds (either vultures or crows) and claimed to be the chosen one, but Romulus a moment later saw twelve birds and he too claimed to be the chosen one. They soon engaged into a heated dispute and Remus in contempt leaped over the furrow traced by Romulus to mark the location of the future walls of his town. In a fit of rage Romulus killed his brother.
In this way Romulus became the first king of Rome.
It is interesting to see how the account deals with the twins: in the first part the twins are seen as a lucky, positive pair; in the second one they become a metaphor for good/bad, positive/negative. This change may be a reflection of the custom, identified in several ancient civilizations, to sacrifice a young prince or a young princess by burying him/her in the foundations of a new town: so the traditional account of the death of Remus could be hiding a ritual murder.
The very site of the city carries us back to the time of its being founded. We see at once that no great people, under a wise leader, settled here from its wanderings, and with wise forecast laid the foundations of the seat of future empire. No powerful prince would ever have selected this spot as well suited for the habitation of a colony. No; herdsmen and vagabonds first prepared here a dwelling for themselves: a couple of adventurous youths laid the foundation of the palaces of the masters of the world on the hill at whose foot, amidst the marshes and the silt, they had defied the officers of law and justice.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - January 1787 - translation by Charles Nisbeth.
The erection of the monument to King Victor Emmanuel II at the end of
the XIXth century and additions to it in the 1930s caused the pulling down of many medieval
buildings on the northern side of the Capitolino or Campidoglio hill. These events led to
the discovery of some very old tufa walls which prove that the Romans very early
had expanded their settlements on this hill.
The control of the Campidoglio was necessary to protect the short strip of land between the Palatino and the river bank, especially the site facing a small islet, which allowed an easy passage to the other bank.
Campidoglio could be accessed only from its eastern side (towards the Palatino), because the western side was precipitous while today the steps built there in the XIVth/XVIth century are the usual access to the hill.
Ripa means river bank and it is the name given to the strip of land between the Palatino/Campidoglio hills and the river: it included Isola Tiberina, an
islet which, by splitting the river into two smaller streams, made it
possible, using the limited technology available to the Romans, to build timber
bridges to allow the passage of carriages, cattle and mules.
It was a very busy area as it included both Foro Boario (cattle market) and Foro Olitorio (fodder market). In the 1930s the opening of a new large street led to the discovery of the foundations of several temples and other buildings near the church of S. Omobono: the pavements in tufa and fragments of ceramics have led archaeologists to date the oldest buildings to a period consistent with the foundation of Rome.
"Roma è una groviera (gruyère, the Swiss cheese with holes)" is a modern saying which comes to mind every time a hole in a street or the sudden leaning of a building leads to the discovery of a cavern below them: in most cases these are man made caverns because the Romans quarried the tufa rock in the town itself. With the expansion of their possessions, they acquired other quarries providing stones of a higher quality, so archaeologists can determine the likely age of ancient buildings by examining the characteristics of their tufa walls.
A marshy land lay between the northern side of Palatino
and the eastern side of Campidoglio: the Romans had to drain it to make it available
for the expansion of their
original settlements: they eventually designed an advanced system of sewers, known as Cloaca Maxima, which collected the excess of water around the Palatine and conveyed it to the river.
The new area was dedicated to the religious and political life of Rome and became known as the Forum,
a Latin word meaning open space, market.
Sacrifices were a key element of the religious rites of the Romans, as well as of many other ancient civilizations: the move from human sacrifices to the sacrifice of animals (the Romans traditionally sacrificed an ox, a pig and a sheep) is hidden in the twelve labours of Hercules: the demigod killed various monsters who nourished themselves with human flesh: one of the earliest temples erected in Rome was dedicated to Hercules and also to Saturn, a Roman god with points in common with the Greek god Chronus, who every year swallowed the children whom his wife bore him, a transparent reference to human sacrifices. The temple was rebuilt several times, but the tufa basement (later on covered with travertine) is very old. Most likely the early Romans built just an ara, a high basement having on top an altar.
The first known royal palace (Regia) was also built at the foot of the Palatine: it was kept in its initial aspect for many centuries, but it was eventually incorporated into a temple/altar dedicated to Julius Caesar by Augustus. Next to it was Tempio di Vesta (you see its remains in the image used as background for this page), rebuilt several times: at the very beginning it was most likely just a hut which protected the sacred fire.
The first necropolis (city of the dead, cemetery) was located near and under Tempio di Antonino e Faustina.
(left) Relief showing the sacrifice of Curtius; (right) Lapis Niger (the black stone), both in Foro Romano
According to the traditional account, Rome was ruled by seven kings in the period between its foundation in 753 and
the expulsion of the last king, Tarquin the Proud, in 510. It is rather unlikely that seven
kings could cover 243 years, also considering that the kings were usually appointed it is unlikely
that the senators, at the beginning the members of an advisory body created by Romulus,
would choose a very young man for such a position. So most likely the legend talks of seven kings
because the number seven had some magic meaning, besides being the number of the hills upon which Rome expanded.
The second king was Numa Pompilius, a Sabine, his appointment is a sign of the alliance between the Romans and some Sabine towns, most likely to face the threat posed by the Etruscans: the abduction of the Sabines and the following events are also elements which support the theory that the Romans made an alliance with the Sabines. A tradition places in the context of the war with the Sabines a relief found in the Foro Romano and portraying the apparent fall of a horseman with his horse to the ground: the horseman was Metius Curtius and he was leading the Sabine cavalry when he fell into the then marshy land; according to another account the horseman was Marcus Curtius who sacrificed himself by voluntarily falling into a hole in the ground (filled with water, therefore called lacus, lake), which had suddenly appeared in the Forum: this second account is the one preferred by Bill Thayer for his extraordinary Roman web site named Lacus Curtius (it opens in another window).
A series of Lapis niger, black stones, marks the site of the mysterious death of Romulus: they cover a group of very ancient monuments bearing inscriptions which actually make reference to the role of a king in religious ceremonies. The stones were placed by Silla in 80 BC; because of their colour they ended up by making the site regarded as an unlucky one.
The name of the fifth king, Tarquin the Elder, is generally believed to be of Etruscan origin (Tarquinia being the name of a powerful Etruscan town-state), an indication of the influence of the Etruscans over Rome; an area between Foro Romano and Velabro was called Vicus Tuscus, Tuscan street, as many Etruscans lived there.
Although the tradition claims that the third king, Tullus Hostilius, conquered Alba Longa (but he was able to do it only owing to the successful duel between three Roman brothers, the Horatii, and three Alba brothers, the Curiatii), that the fourth king, Ancus Martius, founded Ostia and that the sixth king, Servius Tullius built new walls which included most of the seven hills, it is fair to say that at the end of the monarchic rule, more than two hundred years after its foundation, Rome was still a minor town-state, striving for survival.
(left) The site of the first prison of Rome beneath S. Giuseppe dei Falegnami; (right) Clivus Argentarius, once known
as Clivus Lautumiarum, because it led to the Lautumiae with Foro di Cesare to the left and SS. Luca e Martina in the background
Lautumia is a Latin word derived from the Greek lithos (stone), and it indicated a stone quarry; the Latomie di Siracusa are one of the attractions of that ancient Greek city in Sicily; they are also known because the Siracusans kept there their prisoners of war. The first Roman prison was a Lautumia too, as the Romans had a tufa quarry at the foot of Campidoglio: it was an open air prison where the convicts were forced to work. The fourth king Ancus Martius was, according to the tradition, the first who used the quarry as a prison. Later on the quarry was covered and a more proper prison, Carcere Tullianum (named after King Servius Tullius), was built, but everybody knew that below it there were underground halls where the fiercest enemies of Rome were thrown.
The characters and events mentioned in this page have inspired a very high number
of paintings, reliefs and statues; in addition some ancient ruins have been associated with them:
Piramide di Caio Cestio was
for centuries thought to be Meta Remi, the tomb of Remus; the tombs of the Horatii and the
Curiatii were also identified in ancient monuments along Via Appia and in Albano; Numa Pompilius
was associated with a fountain (Ninfeo di Egeria) near Via Appia.
An Etruscan bronze statue portraying a she-wolf, now in the Musei Capitolini and known as Lupa Capitolina has become the symbol of the city of Rome (the twins are a Renaissance addition). Palazzo dei Conservatori is entirely decorated with events of the history of Rome, including the duel between the Horatii and the Curiatii.
These events were also very popular during the Neoclassic period and one of the key paintings of the new style was inspired by the Horatii (Jacques-Louis David - The Oath of the Horatii - it opens in a separate window).
Next page: The Early Republican Period.