Apr 212014


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.

©Spelt Soup


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.

Sep 042013


Los Angeles was founded on this date in 1781, by the Spanish governor of California, Felipe de Neve. It became a part of Mexico in 1821 following the Mexican War of Independence. In 1848, at the end of the Mexican–American War, Los Angeles and the rest of California were purchased as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, thereby becoming part of the United States. This post focuses on Los Angeles from its founding up to 1848 – the Spanish/Mexican years – when the town was very different from the massive urban sprawl it has become.

In 1777 Governor Neve toured Alta California and decided to establish civic pueblos for the support of the military presidios (fortified bases). The new pueblos would reduce the secular function of the Franciscan missions in the area by reducing the dependency of the military on them. At the same time, they would promote the development of industry and agriculture. Neve identified Santa Barbara, San Jose, and Los Angeles as sites for his new pueblos. His plans for them closely followed a set of Spanish city-planning laws contained in the Leyes de Indias (Laws of the Indies) promulgated by King Philip II in 1573. Those laws were responsible for laying the foundations of the largest cities in the region, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tucson, and San Antonio—as well as Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Fe, San Jose, and Laredo.

The royal regulations were based on the ancient teachings of Vitruvius, who set down the rules for founding of new cities in the Roman Empire. Basically, the Spanish laws called for an open central plaza, surrounded by a fortified church, administrative buildings, and streets laid out in a grid, defining rectangles of limited size to be used for farming and residences. It was in accordance with such precise planning that Governor Neve founded the pueblo of San José de Guadalupe, California’s first municipality, on the great plain of Santa Clara on 29 November 1777.


According to a written message sent by Governor Neve to report the juridical foundation of Los Angeles, 44 pobladores (settlers) gathered at San Gabriel Mission and, escorted by soldiers and two padres from the mission, set out for the spot that had been chosen twelve years earlier. The official name of the pueblo was “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula” (“The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Porciúncula River”). “The Queen of Angels” is an honorific of the Virgin Mary.

At the end of the first year only eight of the original founders were still in the pueblo; three had been forced out “for being useless to themselves and the town.” But the town grew as soldiers and other settlers came and stayed. In 1784 a chapel was built on the Plaza. The pobladores were given title to their land two years later. By 1800, there were 29 buildings that surrounded the Plaza, flat-roofed, one-storey adobe buildings with thatched roofs made of bullrushes.


By 1821 Los Angeles had grown into a self-sustaining farming community, the largest in Southern California. Its development conformed strictly to the Leyes de Indias and the Reglamento of Governor Neve. Town planning was based on the unit of measurement, the vara, which was somewhat flexible, but was approximately 33 inches.The pueblo itself included a square of 10,000 varas, five and a quarter miles, on each side. The central Plaza was in the middle, 75 varas (208 ft.) wide and 100 varas (277 ft.) long. On the west side of the Plaza facing east, space was reserved for a church and municipal buildings. Each vecino (freeholder) received a solar (lot), 20 varas (55.5 ft.) wide and 40 varas (110 ft.) long.

Each settler also received four rectangles of land for farming, two irrigated plots and two dry ones. Each plot was 200 square varas. The farm plots were separated from the pueblo by a tract of land 200 varas wide. Some plots of land, propios, were set aside for the pueblo’s general use and revenue. Other plots of land, realengas, were set aside for future settlers. Land outside the city, baldíos, included mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests, and belonged to the king.


When the settlers first arrived, the Los Angeles floodplain was heavily wooded with willows and oaks. The Los Angeles river flowed all year. Wildlife was plentiful, including deer, antelope, and bear, even an occasional grizzly bear. There were abundant wetlands and swamps. Steelhead and salmon swam the rivers. The first settlers built a water system consisting of ditches (zanjas) leading from the river through the middle of town and into the farmlands. The city was first known as a producer of fine wine grapes. The raising of cattle and the commerce in tallow and hides would come later.

Because of the great economic potential for Los Angeles, the demand for labor grew rapidly. Los Angeles began attracting Native Americans from as far away as San Diego and San Luis Obispo. Unlike the missions, the pobladores paid Native Americans for their labor. In exchange for their work as farm workers, vaqueros, ditch diggers, water haulers, and domestic help, they were paid in clothing and other goods as well as cash and alcohol. The pobladores bartered with them for prized sea-otter and seal pelts, sieves, trays, baskets, mats, and other woven goods. This commerce greatly contributed to the economic success of the town and the attraction of other Native Americans to the city.

Not only economic ties but also marriage drew many Native Americans into the life of the pueblo. In 1784—only three years after the founding—the first recorded marriages in Los Angeles took place. The two sons of settler Basilio Rosas, Maximo and José Carlos, married two young Native American women, María Antonia and María Dolores.

The construction on the Plaza of La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles took place between 1818 and 1822, much of it with Native American labor. The new church completed Governor Neve’s planned transition of authority from mission to pueblo. The angelinos would no longer have to make the bumpy 11-mile ride to Sunday Mass at Mission San Gabriel. In 1820 the route of El Camino Viejo was established from Los Angeles, over the mountains to the north and up the west side of the San Joaquin Valley to the east side of San Francisco Bay.


Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 was celebrated with great festivity throughout Alta California. No longer subjects of the king, people were now ciudadanos, citizens with rights under the law. In the plazas of Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and other settlements, people swore allegiance to the new government, the Spanish flag was lowered, and the flag of independent Mexico raised. Independence brought economic growth. There was a corresponding increase in population as more Native Americans were assimilated and settlers arrived from the United States, Europe, and other parts of Mexico. Before 1820, there were just 650 people in the pueblo. By 1841, the population nearly tripled to 1,680.

During the rest of the 1820s the agriculture and cattle ranching expanded, as did the trade in hides and tallow. The new church was completed, and the political life of the city developed. The system of ditches which provided water from the river was rebuilt. Trade and commerce further increased with the secularization of the California missions by the Mexican Congress in 1833. Extensive mission lands suddenly became available to government officials, ranchers, and land speculators. The governor made more than 800 land grants during this period.

la zanja madre

In 1834, Governor Pico was married to Maria Ignacio Alvarado in the Plaza church. It was attended by the entire population of the pueblo, 800 people, plus hundreds from elsewhere in Alta California. In 1835, the Mexican Congress declared Los Angeles a city, making it the official capital of Alta California. It was now the region’s leading city. The same period also saw the continued arrival of many foreigners from the United States and Europe. They would play a pivotal role in the U.S. takeover

In May, 1846, the Mexican American War broke out. Because of Mexico’s inability to defend its northern territories, California was exposed to invasion. On August 6, 1846, Commodore Robert F. Stockton anchored off San Pedro and proceeded to march inland to occupy Los Angeles. On August 13, accompanied by John C. Frémont, Stockton marched into the Los Angeles Plaza with his brass band playing “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia.” Stockton’s troops occupied the headquarters and home of Governor Pico, who had fled to Mexico. After three weeks of occupation, Stockton left, leaving Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie in charge. Subsequent maltreatment by Gillespie and his troops caused a local force of 300 locals to rise up in protest, led by Captain José María Flores, José Antonio Carrillo, and Andrés Pico. Flores demanded the U.S. troops surrender, and promised safe passage to San Pedro. Gillespie accepted and departed, ending the first phase of the Battle of Los Angeles.

John C. Frémont

John C. Frémont

Full-scale warfare came to the area when Los Angeles residents dug up a colonial cannon that had been used for ceremonial purposes. They had buried it for safekeeping when Stockton approached the city. They used it to fire on American Navy troops on 8 October 1846, in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho. The victorious locals named the cannon el piedrero de la vieja (the old woman’s gun). In December, the Mexicans were again victorious at the Battle of San Pascual near present-day Escondido.

Determined to take Los Angeles, Stockton regrouped his men in San Diego and marched north with six hundred troops, along with U.S. Army General Stephen Watts Kearny and his guide Kit Carson. Captain Frémont marched south from Monterey with 400 troops. After a few skirmishes outside the city, the two forces entered Los Angeles, this time without bloodshed. Confronted with overwhelming force, Andrés Pico, who had succeeded Flores as military commander and acting as chief administrative officer, met with Captain Frémont. At a ranch in what is now Studio City, they signed the Treaty of Cahuenga on 13 January 1847. That formally ended the California phase of the Mexican–American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on 2 February 1848, ended the war and ceded California to the U.S.

In honor of the Mexican heritage of Los Angeles I have chosen a recipe for tamales adapted from the cooking of El Cholo restaurant in Irvine (the image is from their website).


El Cholo Tamales


12 ears yellow corn
¼ lb cornmeal
¼ cup butter
¼ cup lard (or vegetable shortening)
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup half and half or light cream
12 (1 oz/28 g) strips Monterey Jack cheese, halved
1 (12 oz/340 g) can green chiles, cut into strips


Cut both ends off the ears of corn. Remove the husks, careful to keep them whole for wrapping. Put them to soak in warm water for at least 15 minutes, and up to 2 hours.  They must be pliable.

Cut the corn kernels off the cob and grind them with the cornmeal in a food processor. Set aside.

Beat the lard and butter in mixing bowl until creamy. Add the sugar, half and half, and corn mixture plus salt to taste and mix well. This is your masa (corn dough).

For each tamale, overlap 2 corn husks lengthwise. Spread ¼ cup layer of masa on the husks as thinly and evenly as possible to within 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the edges.

Place 1 cheese strip and 1 chile strip over the masa. Spread 2 tbsps of masa thinly over the top of the filling.

Bring the edges of the corn husks over the filling to cover completely, then fold the ends of the corn husks up. Place husks on square of parchment paper, then fold the sides of the parchment over the tamale and then fold up the ends. Tie string around the packages to hold them in place. Repeat for the rest of the tamales.

Place the packages on end on a steamer rack, and steam over water on a gentle boil for about 40 minutes.

Yield: 24 tamales