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The Natale di Roma: Exploring The Foundations of Rome

The foundation of Rome by Romulus in 753 BC has been celebrated on the 21st of April for thousands of years. Though this status quo is generally accepted, for the scholarly world the date and story surrounding the foundation of Rome are shrouded in mystery. Therefore, in honour of the festival, we will be exploring when and how this foundation myth came about, ultimately to uncover how the story of Aeneas, the Alban Kings, and Romulus became woven into the fabric of ancient Rome.

aerial view of the roman forum of modern day
Figure 1. View of The Roman Forum. Credit: Maksym Harbar.

This is an endeavour that has puzzled scholars for centuries, largely due to the paucity of ancient sources available to us. The earliest sources for the regal period of Rome are overwhelmingly Greek and, while the myth-making surrounding the Roman foundation from this group was extensive, generating over 60 different accounts during the 5th Century BC, the Greeks did not compose serious accounts of Roman history until the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC).[1] We do have some earlier native sources from the period, such as Timaeus and the 3rd Century BC writers Fabius Pictor and L. Cincius Alimentus. However,  these writers come down to us mostly from later, more extant sources such as Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who provide the fullest accounts of early Rome but wrote considerably later, in the 1st Century BC. [2] The development of the foundation myth must therefore be seen within this murky context.


The Foundation of Rome: The Traditional Narrative

Focussing chiefly on the episodes concerning Romulus and Remus, a brief account of the foundation of Rome goes as follows: Aeneas, Trojan warrior and son of the goddess Venus, flees Troy with his family and people and eventually settles in Latium, marrying Lavinia and founding a town of the same name after considerable strife. This is followed by the long reign of the Alban Kings, a largely invented temporal injection of a few hundred years. Rhea Silvia, the daughter of one of the last of these kings, is raped by Mars and gives birth to the twins Romulus and Remus.

Engraved gem depicting romulus, remus and the she-wolf, together with faustulus and venus
Figure 2. Carnelian Oval Engraved Gem, depicting the Roman she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus under a tree, in the presence of the goddess Roma and the shepherd Faustulus. Ca. 1st Century BC-AD. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 81.6.33. Credit Line: Gift of John Taylor Johnston, 1881.

The twins are exposed yet come to be cared for by a she-wolf, before being taken in by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife. Once matured, the twins set out to found a city, but a quarrel between themselves at the moment of the ritual foundation leads to the murder of Remus at Romulus’ hand (depending on the account), leaving the latter to found Rome alone. Romulus collects male citizens for Rome and secures them wives by a collective act of rape of the Sabine women, eventually ruling jointly with the Sabine Titus Tatius. The story terminates with a loose collection of military conquests until Romulus ultimately disappears. [3] The Romans believed that the Palatine was the initial site of the settlement, and faithfully preserved a thatched hut that was believed to be the ancient home of Romulus which was still intact during the Augustan period. The wall that Romulus built around the Palatine was also still marked in imperial times by boundary stones and held sacred. [4]


The Development and Dating of The Foundation Myth


The creation of this story began during the 5th Century BC and was largely completed by the late 3rd Century BC. Once a large collection of varied accounts, the established tradition was gradually woven together by a bevy of Greek and native Roman writers. The notion of Aeneas being associated with the foundation of Rome was first attributed to the late 5th Century BC Greek writer Hellanicus, replacing the preceding theory originating from Hesiod’s Theogony that it was Odysseus’ sons by Circe that were the original rulers of the region. [5]

The 4th Century BC Sicilian writer Alkimos, though he credits Romulus’ son Rhomos with the foundation of Rome, was the first to include Romulus in the textual tradition, and the first to associate him with Aeneas. He likely takes into account an existing Roman narrative to make this largely artificial link, designating Romulus as Aeneas’ only son despite the considerable time gap. [6] The general scope of Romulus’ narrative must have been codified by the end of the 4th Century BC, as according to Livy the famed statue of the wolf and twins was set up in 296 BC. [7] The Romans began writing about their history in the 3rd Century BC, first in Greek, such as with the lost work of Fabius Pictor, and then in Latin, such as with Ennius’ Annales, a foundational text for the Roman literary arts and education. [8]

Plutarch’s Life of Romulus essentially transmits a mixture of these Greek and Latin narratives, which had transformed into the canonical tale Ca. 250-200 BC. [9] The Augustan version of the myth, most famously told in Virgil’s Aeneid, keeps the connection between Aeneas and Romulus, sorting the chronological issues of their relationship through the invention of the Alban kings. [10]

The 21st of April, 753 BC

Before the 1st Century BC, the actual date of the foundation of Rome remained under scrutiny. Fabius Pictor, for example, dated the foundation to 748/7 BC, while another contemporary historian, Cincius Alimentus, dated Rome’s foundation to 729/8 B.C. [11] Indeed most of Roman affairs before 300 BC were subject to considerable chronological confusion and debate. This all changed in 47 BC when the antiquarian Atticus published his Liber Annalis (The Book of Chronology). This system was accepted by Varro, the greatest antiquarian of the age and namesake of the modern term "Varronian Chronology", and subsequently the Roman state. [12] Aligning Atticus’ theory to modern chronology, we arrive at a date of the 21st of April.

coin depicting a bull, minted by philip I
Figure 5. Silver antoninianus of Philip I, Ca. AD 248. One of a series of coins depicting animals from the games to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the foundation of Rome. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 08.170.356. Credit Line: The Rodgers Fund, 1908.


During the Imperial period, various emperors used the birthday to bolster their popularity or as a pretext for certain policies. Claudius for example held games in AD 47 to honour the 800th birthday of Rome, while Hadrian founded a Temple of Venus and Rome in concert with the celebration. [13] Philip the Arab, reigning during the turbulent 3rd Century AD, poured money into one of the most important occasion of his reign, leading the celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of Rome’s foundation in AD 247/8. [14]



The Origins of the Foundation Myth


It is pertinent to look at the theories put forward by eminent scholars as to why the Roman foundation myth is the way that it is. Dumézil was first to propose that the foundation myth of Rome was born out of a complex mixture of popular Indo-European myths, historicised to give Rome a glorious past as it began to establish itself as a power in Italy. [15] The question remains as to whether the whole story is an invention, or simply an existing Roman tradition embellished by the devices of Greek narrative. For example, the divine twins Castor and Pollux were worshipped at Lavinium ca. 500 BC, providing a local model for the creation of Romulus and Remus. The motif of twins exposed to die yet surviving is also common to many other cultures, such as in the stories of Moses, Cyrus the Great, and even as far back as the Akkadian King Sargon. The motif was popular as it served to demonstrate the future power of these great leaders. [16]


Momigliano puts forward an interesting theory to explain the Roman association with the Trojans through Aeneas. Dionysius of Halicarnassus suggests that a hot topic for Greek scholars of the 4th Century BC was debating the question of whether Rome was a Greek polis. [17] For the Romans to decide that they were ultimately Trojans during this period, not Greeks of Etruscans, might show an anticipation of this debate and a desire by the Romans to differentiate themselves. [18]


Wiseman suggests that the performance of Romulus’ narrative and other Greek myths in public plays from the 4th Century onwards served to form and entrench the tale into Roman collective memory and identity. [19] Treiber was first to point out the similarity of the tale to various Greek tragedies, and Wiseman builds on this by suggesting that such plays were in circulation in Italy from the archaic period, with the theatre eventually forming the arena through which the ancient Roman people constructed their identity. [20]


Other Arguments for The 21st of April

There are also reasons beyond pure chronology that serve to explain why the birth of Rome was associated with the 21st of April. In general, the ancient Romans regarded odd numbers as auspicious, thus basically every festival on the ritual calendar took place on an odd-numbered day. [21] Secondly, the nature of the birthday chimes well with the pre-existing pastoral festival held on the 21st of April, the Paralia. [22] The Paralia was held for Pales, the god of herds and livestock, and its connection to Romulus and Remus has been explained variously by the ancient sources. Varro argues:

“Further, does not everyone agree that the Roman people is sprung from shepherds? Is there anyone who does not know that Faustulus, the foster-father who reared Romulus and Remus, was a shepherd? Will not the fact that they chose exactly the Parilia​ as the time to found a city demonstrate that they were themselves shepherds?” (Varro 2.1.9)

engraving of the goddess pales seated on a bull and holding a pitchfork
Figure 8. Pales, Goddesses and Nymphs, Cornelis Cort, after Frans Floris (I), 1564. Source: Rijksmuseum, Object number: RP-P-1986-363. Credit Line: Donation from Mrs. AC Teding van Berkhout, Amsterdam and SF Baroness van Höevell-Teding van Berkhout, Bergen (North Holland).



The foundation of Rome of thus a complex and perennially interesting area of study. The tale is of course far from the truth, but instead function as a hugely fascinating patchwork of Greek mythology, Italian folklore, oral tradition, and Roman socio-political ideology that developed over time and in response to the growing power of Rome in the region. It tells us volumes about ancient Roman collective identity building and remains continuously relevant well into the empire and indeed to the modern world, being worked into the ritual calendar with nuance and attention to existing religious sensibilities.

Happy 2777th Birthday to Rome!

Written by Ella Wakefield


Looking for a truly beautiful birthday present? Browse our wide-ranging collection of artwork to find the perfect fit!

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Bowman, A., Cameron, A., Garnsey, P. eds., 2005, The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 12, The crisis of Empire, AD 193–337. Cambridge University Press. 


Carandini, A., 1997. “La Nascità di Roma: Dei, Lari, Eroi e Uomini all’Alba di una Cività.” Biblioteca di Cultura Storica 219. Torino.


Dumézil, G., 1968, Mythe et épopé. Gallimard.


Grandazzi, A., 1997, The Foundation of Rome: Myth and History. Translated by J.M. Todd. Ithaca.


Forsythe, G., 2005, A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to The First Punic War. Berkeley: University of California Press.


 Momigliano, A., 1990, “The Origins of Rome” in Walbank, F. W., The Cambridge ancient history. Vol. 7. Part 2, Rise of Rome to 220 B.C. (2nd ed). Cambridge University Press. 52-96.


Ogilvie, R. M., 1990, “The Sources for Early Roman History” in Walbank, F. W., The Cambridge ancient history. Vol. 7. Part 2, Rise of Rome to 220 B.C. (2nd ed). Cambridge University Press. 1-29.


Trieber, C. 1888. “Die Romulussage.” RM 43: 569–82.


Wiseman, T. P., 1994, Historiography and Imagination: Eight Essays on Roman Culture. Exeter Studies in History 33. Exeter.

      ------- 1995. Remus: A Roman Myth. Cambridge.

      ------- 1998. Roman Drama and Roman History. Exeter.



[1] Wiseman 1995, 160–68; Forsythe 2005, 59-60, 93.

[2] Forsythe 2005, 59.

[3] Ennius, Ann. I.82-100; Livy. I. 7; Plut. Rom. 1-2; Momigliano 1990, 57. This disappearance prefigures the Roman model for divinisation of the sovereign.

[4] Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 1.79.11; Tacitus. Ann. 12.24; Forsythe 2005, 84.

[5] Hes. Theog. 1010-1016; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 1.72.2; Momigliano 1990, 57.

[6] Jac. FGrH 560 F4; Momigliano 1990, 57. The Greek tradition often includes a Rhomos figure as the founder, whereas the Roman generally omits this.

[7] Livy X.23.1.

[8] Oglivie 1990, 4; Forsythe 2005, 61.

[9] Plut. Rom. 3.1; 8.7

[10] Forsythe 2005, 94.

[11] Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 1.74.1.

[12] Plut. Rom. 12; Forsythe 2005, 369

[13] Athenaeus. 8.361e-f.

[14] Bowman, Cameron & Garnsey 2005.

[15] Dumézil 1968, 1:269; Grandazzi 1990, 38; Momigliano 1990, 55.

[16] Forsythe 2005, 95.

[17] Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 1.29.2; Plut. Cam. 22.

[18] Momigliano 1990, 52-56.

[19] Wiseman 1998, 153–64.

[20] Wiseman 1994, 1–22

[21] Forsythe 2005, 130.

[22] Ov. Fasti. 4. 725; Plut. Rom. 12.1.


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