Art, History & Culture / Rome

Of Birds, Brothers and Beginnings: The Birth of Rome

Ancient mythology tells the story of the founding of Rome by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, born of a union between the god of Mars and their mortal mother, a vestal virgin. But archaeology indicates another origin story: that Rome grew when seven different villages, each settled on one of seven nearby hills, united to construct a wall surrounding their territories.

With the fording spot of the River Tiber, and eventually the bridge which would be constructed, now nicely encapsulated within the walls, tolls could be demanded of outsiders traveling through. The people of the seven different areas now had their earliest source of income and ultimately, wealth.

Wikimedia Commons

Rome’s seven hills are the Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal. You may also be familiar with Vatican Hill, Pincian Hill and Janiculum Hill, but they are not among the seven hills, due to their location outside the original walls.

While this story neatly explains why Rome was founded on seven hills, the mythology of the two foundling twins, and their she-wolf mother, is more widely known.

Romulus and Remus were born to mother Rhea Silvia, a vestal virgin whose service included a vow of chastity, and father Mars, the Roman god of war. As a punishment for breaking her vows, Rhea Silvia was buried alive, and her twins thrown into the River Tiber. Legend has it that all were saved by river god Tiberinus, who rescued Rhea Silvia and later married her. The newborn twins were destined to live too, being plucked from Tiber by a she-wolf, an animal sacred to Mars, and carried to a cave where she nursed the babies, until they were eventually found by a herdsman.

The wolf’s cave of legend is thought to be the Lupercal cave, situated at the base of the Palatine Hill. Remains of which were believed to be discovered in 2007.

Fast forward to the year 753 BC, when the land was still a community of settlements, and not yet Rome. Romulus and Remus, healthy, strong, and having reached manhood, wanted to establish a new home for their tribe, and had their eyes on the hilly land where their lives had been saved. But with so many hills, and potential sites, which to choose?

The brothers turned to augury, the ancient practice of interpreting omens based on observing the flight of birds. At stake was the right to chose the new settlement’s name, founding site, and ultimately, be named as founder and leader. As the story goes, Romulus set up camp on the Palatine Hill, Remus on the Aventine. The brothers kept vigilant watch on the skies, scanning, searching, waiting for a sign from the gods.

“Soon six vultures flew across the Aventine, and Remus understood from this that his claims had been preferred. But then a flight of twelve vultures spread their wings above the Palatine, and Romulus took this as a sign that the gods’ favours had fallen upon him.”

Christopher Hibbert, Rome: The Biography of a City

The gods had clearly spoken. That is, as clear as gods can speak with two flocks of vultures. (Modern-day side note, in flight, a flock of vultures is called a kettle). Romulus emerged the chosen brother, sparking the fateful feud between the twins. “The brothers fell to quarreling; their supporters began to fight each other; Remus jumped over the half-finished walls which his brother had built on the Palatine, and Romulus killed him in a fit of rage.” Rome began its fabled origin story from the land of the Palatine Hill. If you’re sticking with the archaeological origin story, the Palatine Hill is said to be home of the earliest Romans, settled by the immigration of the Sabines and Albans possibly around 1000 BC.

To experience Rome at its most ancient, head Romulus’ Palatine Hill, the mythological and archaeological birthplace of the city.

Palatine Hill viewed from the Forum | Image credit: Lalupa, Wikimedia Commons

Located between the Colosseum and Circus Maximus, early Rome grew out from the Palatine Hill, and the area retained its importance as Rome’s center. It’s where the ancient festival of Lupercalia (remember the Lupercal cave?), dating to pre-Roman times, was celebrated. Bloody and violent, this annual holiday took place February 13 – 15 with the intent of warding evil spirits from the city and allowing for the health and fertility of the people.

As early as 509 BC and throughout the Republican period, the Palatine Hill was home to the most prosperous Romans. Palatine is derived from the Latin platinus, “of the palace”, and true to its etymology, the area was eventually populated exclusively by emperors, starting with Augustus [ADD emperor with enormous building and works programs — give him a catchy modern title]

“From the start of the Empire (27 BC), Augustus built his palace there and the hill gradually became the exclusive domain of emperors; the ruins of the palaces of at least Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD), Tiberius (14 -37 AD) and Domitian (81 – 96 AD) can still be seen.” Source

Wandering Romulus’ Palatine is to travel back to Imperial Rome, when the caput mundi really was the capital of the world, and left its mark on all of civilization then, and even now.

Chance, fate, brothers, birds. However it happened, it brought us to today, and the celebration of Rome’s 2,773rd birthday. Happy birthday, Rome.

We hold you in our hearts especially today, in 2019, as Italy, and the world, stays home.

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