Today is the traditional date of the founding of Rome in ancient legend. The Romans themselves quibbled about the year but not about the day of the year. The year was important because the Roman calendar was based on it. Roman enumeration of years employed the abbreviation auc standing for ab urbe condita (from the founding of the city). Eventually the Latin noun urbs came to be a general word for any city, but originally, and in special cases, it meant Rome. This is still reflected in the pope’s Easter message urbi et orbi (to the city [Rome] and to the world) which was the conventional beginning of imperial proclamations in the Roman empire.
Nowadays we can use archeology to investigate the history of Rome, but in ancient times they relied on legend based on multiple oral histories, and, therefore, there was a certain amount of confusion when historians wrote their accounts. This problem is made more complicated for us now when we try to get at the truth because histories, then and now, are not neutral narratives of events, but, rather, the interpretation of data with some agenda in mind. Archeology is not always clear either. As with most old cities, many significant sites are buried under more recent building which cannot be disturbed. Treasured discoveries are often made by accident when something is torn down to make way for a new project, subway tunnels are drilled, and the like. So it can be a bit hit and miss. Not to mention the fact that archeologists come with their own agendas too. I’ll spare you my rant on the impossibility of “objectivity.”
There are two main legends concerning the founding of Rome which ultimately had to be reconciled. The more familiar is the story of the twins Romulus and Remus who were abandoned as infants and lived in the wild, suckled by a she-wolf, until they were found and adopted by a shepherd and his wife. The other is the tale of Aeneas which has its roots in Homer’s Iliad, where he is mentioned several times as a Trojan warrior. Aeneas’ part in the founding of Rome is laid out in Virgil’s Aeneid, a 12 volume epic poem whose primary purpose was to establish the legitimacy of Augustus as emperor, the heir of Aeneas’ son Iulus (namesake of the Julio-Claudian dynasty). See what I mean about “objective” history?
The story of Romulus and Remus was probably originally unconnected with Aeneas and Troy; it was almost certainly a home grown tale whose origins cannot now be known. Taken as historical figures, which is unwarranted but still makes a comeback now and again, Romulus and Remus would have been born around 771 BCE.
Romulus and Remus’ mother was Rhea Silvia, daughter to Numitor, king of Alba Longa (legendary predecessor city to Rome). Before their conception, Numitor’s brother Amulius seizes power, kills Numitor’s male heirs and forces Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, sworn to chastity. Rhea Silvia conceives the twins by the god Mars, or by the demi-god Hercules. Once the twins are born, Amulius has them abandoned to die in the river Tiber. They are saved by a series of miraculous interventions: the river carries them to safety, a she-wolf finds and suckles them, and a woodpecker feeds them. A shepherd, Faustulus, and his wife, Acca Laurentia, find them and foster them to manhood, as simple shepherds. The twins, still ignorant of their true origins, prove to be natural leaders. Each acquires many followers. When they discover the truth of their birth, they kill Amulius and restore Numitor to his throne. Rather than wait to inherit Alba Longa, they choose to found a new city.
Romulus wants to found the new city on the Palatine Hill; Remus prefers the Aventine Hill. They agree to determine the site through augury but when each claims the results in his own favor, they quarrel and Romulus kills Remus. Romulus founds the new city, names it Rome, after himself, and creates its first legions and senate. The new city grows rapidly, swelled by landless refugees. Because most of them are male, and unmarried, Romulus arranges the abduction of women from the neighboring Sabines (who will not willingly part with their daughters). This event is captured in numerous paintings usually called the Rape of the Sabine Women. Here “rape” is an archaic term for abduction and not sexual assault. In David’s painting Romulus’ wife is depicted preventing bloodshed between the warring sides.
Legend has it that the Sabines and Romans reconciled and joined forces as one Roman people. Thanks to divine favor and Romulus’ inspired leadership, Rome becomes a dominant force, but Romulus himself becomes increasingly autocratic, and disappears or dies in mysterious circumstances. In later forms of the tale, he ascends to heaven, and is identified with Quirinus, the divine personification of the Roman people.
The legend as a whole encapsulates Rome’s ideas of itself, its origins and moral values. For modern scholarship, it remains one of the most complex and problematic of all foundation legends, particularly in the matter and manner of Remus’ death. Many variants exist, including a version that when Romulus and Remus were planning the layout of the city Romulus outlined the city boundaries, where the walls would be built, using a plough. Remus mocks Romulus by leaping over the ploughed outlines saying that any invader could scale the walls. At this point Romulus, furious, slays Remus. Regardless of the specifics, Rome is portrayed as founded in the shadow of fratricide which became symbolic of Rome’s endless internal political struggles and civil wars.
Ancient historians had no doubt that Romulus gave his name to the city. Most modern historians believe his name is a deliberate back-formation from the name Rome. The basis for Remus’ name and role remain subjects of ancient and modern speculation. The legend was fully developed into something like an official chronological version in the late Republican and early Imperial era. Roman historians dated the city’s foundation to between 758 and 728 BCE, and Plutarch reckoned the twins’ birth year at c. 27/28 March 771 BC. The image of the she-wolf suckling the divinely fathered twins became an iconic representation of the city and its founding legend.
The national epic of imperial Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid, tells the story of how the Trojan prince Aeneas came to Italy. The Aeneid was written during the reign of Augustus, who claimed ancestry through Julius Caesar from the hero and his mother Venus. According to the Aeneid, the survivors from the fallen city of Troy banded together under Aeneas, underwent a series of adventures around the Mediterranean Sea, including a stop at newly founded Carthage under the rule of Queen Dido, and eventually reached the Italian coast. The Trojans were said to have landed in an area between modern Anzio and Fiumicino, southwest of Rome. Sometimes the site is called Laurentum, or in other versions, Lavinium, a place named for Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus, whom Aeneas married. The marriage started a series of armed conflicts with Turnus who had previously been betrothed to Lavinia. Aeneas won the war and killed Turnus.
The Trojans won the right to stay and to assimilate with the local peoples. The young son of Aeneas, Ascanius, also known as Iulus, went on to found Alba Longa and the line of Alban kings who filled the chronological gap between the Trojan saga and the traditional founding of Rome in the 8th century BCE.
Toward the end of this line, King Procas had two sons, Numitor and Amulius. At Procas’ death, Numitor became king of Alba Longa, but Amulius captured him and sent him to prison. He also forced Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a virgin priestess among the Vestals. For many years Amulius was then the king. The tortured nature of the chronology is indicated by Rhea Silvia’s ordination among the Vestals, whose order was traditionally said to have been founded by the successor of Romulus, Numa Pompilius. This awkward piece is necessary to link the line of Aeneas to that of Romulus.
During the Roman Republic, several dates were given for the founding of the city between 753 BC and 728 BC. Finally, under the Roman Empire, the date suggested by Marcus Terentius Varro, 753 BC, was agreed upon, but in the annals, Fasti Capitolini, the year given was 752. Although the proposed years varied, all versions agreed that the city was founded on April 21, the day of the festival sacred to Pales, goddess of shepherds. In her honor, Rome celebrated the Par ilia (or Palilia). The Roman a.u.c. calendar, begins with Varro’s dating of 753 BC.
Archaeology offers a chance of sorting out the historical details of the founding of Rome, and recent discoveries on Palatine Hill in Rome have offered solid evidence. Excavations have revealed a series of fortification walls on the north slope of Palatine Hill that can be dated to the middle of the 8th century BCE, which accords with the chronology of the legend concerning Romulus and Remus. However, very recent discoveries may push the date back a century.
According to archeological discoveries, the original Italic people who were the direct ancestors of Romans inhabited the Alban Hills. They later moved down into the river valleys, which provided better land for agriculture as the domestication of plants developed. The area around the Tiber river was particularly advantageous and offered notable strategic resources: the river was a natural border on one side, and the hills could provide a safe defensive position on the other side. This position would also have enabled the inhabitants to control the river and the commercial and military traffic on it from the natural observation point at Isola Tiberina. Moreover, road traffic could be controlled, since Rome was at the intersection of the principal roads to the sea coming from Sabinum (in the northeast) and Etruria (to the northwest).
The development of the town is presumed to have started from the development of separate small villages, located at the top of hills, that eventually joined together to form Rome. Although recent studies suggest that the Quirinal hill was very important in ancient times, the first hill to be inhabited seems to have been the Palatine (therefore confirming the legend in part), which is also at the center of ancient Rome. Its three peaks, the minor hills (Cermalus or Germalus, Palatium, and Velia), were united with the three peaks of the Esquiline (Cispius, Fagutal, and Oppius), and then with villages on the Caelian Hill and Suburra. These hills had expressive names. The Caelian Hill was also called Querquetulanus, from “quercus”” (oak), and “fagutal” (comes from “fagus” meaning “beech”). Recent discoveries revealed that the Germalus on the northern part of the Palatine was the site of a village (dated to the 9th century BCE) with circular or elliptic dwellings. It was protected by a clay wall (perhaps reinforced with wood), and it is likely that this is where Rome was really founded.
The territory of this federation was surrounded by a sacred border called the pomerium, which enclosed the so-called Roma quadrata (Square Rome). This border was extended to include the Capitoline Hill and Tiber Island when Rome became an oppidum, or fortified town. The Esquiline remained a satellite village that was included within Rome at a time of later expansion.
There are no recipes surviving from the earliest inhabitants of Rome, nor from neighboring peoples such as the Etruscans and Sabines. But archeology gives us a good list of ingredients based on pollen found at excavation sites. Most are vegetables and grains you might expect, but it was spelt that caught my attention when thinking about recipes. Spelt, also known as dinkel wheat, or hulled wheat, is a species of wheat cultivated since the fifth millennium BCE. Spelt was an important staple in parts of Europe from the Bronze Age to medieval times. It now survives as a relict crop in central Europe and northern Spain and has found a new market as a health food. You can find it in some health food stores and also online. It is no longer used regularly because it has a low gluten content and so is not suitable for most bread recipes. However, it does have some gluten so it is not suitable for people who have a reaction to gluten. Bulgar wheat would make an adequate substitute.
Spelt was probably used in ancient times to make a porridge which got me thinking about spelt soup which is still a favorite in Tuscany. Here is a recipe from Tuscany that I have modified to eliminate New World ingredients such as beans and tomatoes. If you like you can add broad beans (fava beans) to the soup which would be historically accurate. Modern Tuscans grate Parmesan cheese over the soup at serving time. I doubt this was done in antiquity, but you can if you like.
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small fennel bulb, cored and finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
2 cups spelt
2 cloves garlic minced fine
salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 cups water or chicken broth
½ head escarole, leaves torn into bite-size pieces
Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the spelt and cook, stirring regularly until the grains have browned. Be careful not to let any of them blacken in the process, no more than 5 minutes.
Add the onion, fennel, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened.
Add broth or water to the pot and add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, partially covered, until the spelt is tender. This should take about 1 hour.
Stir the escarole into the soup and cook until wilted.
Serve in deep bowls and have olive oil available to add if desired.
Serves 6 to 8 as a first course.