The origins of Rome
‘In those days the countryside there was wild and empty. The story goes that when the waters receded, the basket in which the twins had been abandoned was left on dry land. A she-wolf, on her way from the hills round about to drink, came across the howling infants. She gave them her teats to suck, and was so gentle with them that the king’s shepherd found her licking them with her tongue.‘
(Livy, History of Rome 1.4)
The bronze sculpture of the Capitoline wolf and twins is one of the most famous symbols of early Rome. The wolf (85 cm high) was believed until very recently to be Etruscan work from the end of the sixth or early fifth century BC. It was officially announced in July 2008 that carbon dating and other tests now gave an indication of a thirteenth-century AD date for the sculpture, with the suggestion that it was cast somewhere in the valley of the river Tiber. The figures of the boys were added in the fifteenth century. (VRoma: Conservatori Museum, Rome: Barbara McManus)
The Romans themselves were in no doubt when Rome was founded: 21 April 753 BC. On that day of the year, too, they celebrated the traditional festival of the Parilia, in honour of Pales, the god (or goddess – the Romans were notoriously vague about the gender of some of their deities) of shepherds and sheep. In 1948 traces were found on the Palatine Hill, the central and most easily fortified of the hills of the ultimate city, of the huts of a settlement of shepherd folk dating from about 750 BC. Recent excavations have uncovered the remains of a ritual boundary wall of about the same period.
The founding legends: Romulus and Aeneas
The legend of the founding of Rome by Romulus tells how a local king, Numitor of Alba Longa, was ejected by his younger brother, Amulius. To secure his position, Amulius murdered Numitor's sons and forced Numitor's daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal Virgin, thus, he thought, preventing her from having any children, at least for the moment. Vestal Virgins normally served as priestesses in the Temple of Vesta for thirty years from the age of between six and ten. The penalty for those who broke the vow of virginity was death. Rhea Silvia, however, caught the eye of the god Mars, who had his way with her while she slept. The outcome was the birth of twin sons, Romulus and Remus.
Handle of a silver bowl of the second century AD. Mars and two cupids descend from Mount Olympus on a sleeping Rhea Silvia. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)
There was a fine rumpus. Amulius had Rhea Silvia thrown into the river Tiber, where she sank conveniently into the arms of the god of the river, who married her. The twins were also consigned to the Tiber, in a reed basket, which floated away until it came to rest on the shore. They were suckled by a she-wolf (appropriately, for wolves were sacred to Mars) until found by the royal shepherd. In another version of the story they were breast-fed by his wife, a former prostitute, who had just lost her baby (the Latin word for she-wolf also means prostitute). The couple cared for the twins and in due course revealed to them the circumstances of their birth. Amulius was killed in battle and their grandfather Numitor was restored to his throne. As a contribution to the ensuing celebrations the brothers resolved to establish a new city near the spot where they had been washed ashore. They took omens by watching the flight of birds, which indicated that the city should be built on the Palatine Hill, on which Romulus was standing, and that he should be its king. Romulus then set about marking the boundaries with a plough drawn by a white cow and a white bull. Remus, either in fun or as a gesture of derision, committed the impropriety of jumping over the furrow. Romulus lost his temper and killed his brother.
The embryonic city, still no more than a settlement, was short of women. Romulus invited the neighbouring Sabine tribe to a programme of games he was organising to mark the harvest festival. When the guests were comfortably seated, the Romans, as they were now known, abducted at swordpoint six hundred Sabine daughters.
The rape of the Sabine women. (VRoma: 'The Rape of the Sabine Women', sixteenth-century fresco by Cavalier d'Arpino. Capitoline Museum, Rome: Susan Bonvallet)
A further tradition, well known by at least 240 BC, traces the origins of Rome to the earlier time of the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas, son of a mortal father and the goddess Venus. Aeneas fought against the Greeks in the Trojan War, escaped from the sack of the city, and, after many wanderings, vicissitudes, and divine interventions, landed in Italy and founded the dynasty from which Romulus eventually came.
Aeneas on his voyaging. (Detail from the Low Ham fourth-century AD mosaic pavement. VRoma: Somerset County Museums: Barbara McManus)
This was the version of the story much favoured by the emperors of Rome, who liked to think of themselves as being nominally descended from the ancient heroes, and by the Romans themselves, who could thus see the early history of their city, which was one of continual struggle for survival, reflected in heroic legend. It was written up in verse by Virgil (70–19 BC) in the Aeneid, which was published posthumously. This is the national epic of the Roman empire, and the most famous poem of the Roman era.
The Emperor Augustus. (Suzanne Cross)
The Aeneid was composed largely in response to the encouragement of the Emperor Augustus. According to legend, and to Virgil, Aeneas casts anchor at the mouth of the Tiber, which flowed through Latium. Latinus, king of Latium, had received divine intimation that he should hand over his daughter in marriage to a stranger, so he offered her to Aeneas, much to the discomfort of another local king, Turnus of the Rutuli, who fancied her for himself. Reluctantly drawn into war, Aeneas obtained the support of Tarchon, king of the Etruscans, and finally triumphed. The historical sack of Troy was in about 1220 BC. To cover the period between the presumed arrival of Aeneas and the founding of Rome, the Romans invented a string of monarchs from Ascanius, son of his first (Trojan) wife, to Numitor.
Aeneas, carrying his aged father on his back, leads Ascanius from the devastation of Troy. Bronze coin issued by the Emperor Antoninus in AD 147 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the founding of Rome. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)
So much for the legend. Historically, Latium and Etruria (land of the Etruscans) were crucial in the development of Rome into an autonomous and then an independent city state, though it is not known for certain where the original Latins and Etruscans came from. The Latins who first settled on the Palatine Hill, however, had been in the region since about 1000 BC. They herded sheep, goats and cattle, and kept pigs.
The site of Rome
The hills of Rome. (After Enea nel Lazio, from R. Ross Holloway, The Archaeology of Early Rome and Latium, Routledge, 1994)
The summit of the Palatine Hill itself was roughly trapezoidal in shape. On three sides, the rock sloped steeply down into valleys that were often full of flood water. On the other, north-eastern, side, a narrow saddle of rock led to the adjoining hill. The cluster of hills, each between sixty and a hundred metres high, stood on a plateau above the surrounding plain, the soil of which was continually enriched by deposits of volcanic silt from the Tiber and its tributaries. We may imagine, then, the summit of the Palatine Hill covered with clusters of small thatched huts of wood and clay, and somewhere a flat, open meeting space, the forerunner of the Roman Forum. The burial place was in the marshy ground at the foot of the hill, where years later would stand the great Forum of republican and imperial Rome.
Thatched village hut, eighth century BC, on the Palatine Hill. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press, 1969)
The site was an inspired choice for other reasons, too. The sea, with its potential for foreign trade, was only a few miles downstream. The hill overlooked the shallows which constituted the most convenient point for crossing the Tiber as it neared the sea, and thus commanded the main route along western Italy. The city lay mid-way between the north and the south of the Italian peninsula, that natural formation of land enclosed by the Alps to the north and by the sea everywhere else. Furthermore, Italy itself lay centrally in the Mediterranean, with ready access to the rest of Europe, to Africa and to the East.
At much the same time as the first settlement on the Palatine Hill, the Greeks were establishing sea-ports around the south and west coasts, and in Sicily. The most northerly port, and one of the first to be built, was Cumae on the bay of Naples, within comparatively easy reach of Rome. Through these ports Rome had access to the Greek world; from the Greeks at Cumae, the Latins learned the Greek alphabet, which they adapted for their own use and language.
Latium and southern Etruria. (Ancient World Mapping Center)
Etruria was immediately across the Tiber to the north. It was, unusually for the times, predominantly an urban society; its wealth came from trade and its supremacy through sea power. The Etruscans were given to extravagant but extraordinarily varied decoration and artistic display, and to the worship of gloomy gods. In the much the same way as their culture, the Etruscans' political philosophy took its origins from the East and its direction from the Greeks, while developing on lines distinctive to Italy.
Etruscan temple, based on a description by the Roman architect Vitruvius. Steps led up to a platform (podium), across which was a wide portico. While some temples had only one room inside (cella), others had three, each one dedicated to a different god. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press, 1969)
Etruscan terracotta sculpture, known as an antefix, depicting the head of Medusa, one of the gorgons. It was used on a temple roof to hide the gap between the sloping roof and the tiles below. (VRoma: Villa Giulia Museum, Rome: Barbara McManus)
At some time between 650 and 600 BC, the Etruscans crossed the Tiber in force and occupied Latium. It would have been then that the villagers on the Palatine Hill joined up with settlers on the other hills to form one united community, either in an attempt to fend off the Etruscan invaders, or to be brought in line with the Etruscan policy of imperial government by means of autonomous city states. From this point until the establishment of the republic in Rome (assuming Romulus to have been as mythical as his origins lead us to suppose), we have the names of six historical kings: Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus (Tarquin the Elder), Servius Tullius and Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud).
Obverse and reverse sides of a coin of republican Rome, c. 97 BC. Top: The head of Apollo, wearing a laurel wreath, is partly encircled by the name of the moneyer, Lucius Pomponius Molo. Bottom: Numa Pompilius, holding the lituus, the staff of the augur, sacrifices a goat, which is being held by a boy. The family Pomponius was supposed to have descended from a son of Numa. (VRoma: Pergamon Museum, Berlin)
Under the Kings
The Roman talent for empire-building first emerged in the period of the kings, even though the original intention may have been to survive by aggression and by dominating the local scene. Territory gained provided additional fighting power, and the kings of Rome succeeded in subjugating a fair slice of land south of the Tiber. The most significant advance to a position of supremacy among the Latin states came with the destruction of the city of Alba Longa, of which nothing has been found of a date later than the sixth century BC. With that victory, the Romans assumed precedence in religious affairs in Latium, and took over the administration of the sacred festivals which had for years been celebrated on the Alban Mount.
Servius Tullius transferred the regional festival of Diana, goddess of wild nature and hunting, from Aricia to the Aventine Hill. (Gallery of the Candelabra, Vatican: René Seindal)
It is in this period, too, that the roots of the later Roman constitution are to be found. The king was nominally appointed by the Senate, an advisory body of patricians, members of a closed group of families of noble origin. He wielded much the same power over his subjects as did a Roman head of family over his household, which included the right to inflict capital punishment. The king was also responsible for foreign relations, war, security, public works, justice and the maintenance of religion. Wherever he went in public, he was accompanied by a band of attendants, or lictors, each carrying the fasces, a bundle of rods with an axe in the middle, signifying the punishments that could be meted out to criminals.
The concept of the father (Latin pater) was extended into the community. Each patrician family had its clients (from the Latin word for ‘listener’), an extended body of hereditary hangers-on who depended on the patricians for patronage and economic support. In return for these favours they gave their labour and, in time of war, military service, in the same way as the villeins of medieval times.
There was a sharp distinction between the patricians and their clients, on the one hand, and the plebs, the common people, on the other. The community was divided, probably territorially, into three tribes, each responsible for providing one thousand infantry and one hundred cavalry in time of war, which occurred frequently. Each tribe was further divided into ten curiae, whose representatives were responsible for civil affairs and met together as required by the king to discuss, but not to decide upon, matters of national importance. Servius Tullius is credited with reforming the army, to which he also gave the status of a political assembly, the comitia centuriata.
Numa Pompilius establishing the worship of the Vestal Virgins. (Seventeenth-century fresco by Cavalier d'Arpino: VRoma: Capitoline Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)
By now, we are a far cry from the notion of a primitive people scratching the soil and herding rudimentary flocks. Craftsmen plied their trades, and were properly represented by guilds. Numa divided them according to their trades: flute-players, goldsmiths, carpenters, dyers, shoemakers, leather-dressers, potters, and workers in copper and brass, with an additional guild of all the other trades grouped together. This diversity of crafts served a society which, unlike that of the Greeks, did not use money. Trade was conducted by barter or, in cases where the system was inadequate, by expressing value in terms of head of cattle. A head of cattle (pecus) was the first Roman monetary unit, from which came the Latin word for money, pecunia; one head of cattle was equal to ten sheep. Latterly during the period of the kings, a primitive monetary system evolved based on ingots of raw copper, weighed on a rudimentary balance that probably measured only a single standard unit, the Roman pound (libra) of 327 grams. An ingot could then be broken up into lumps of different sizes and values. Servius is credited with first stamping the design of an ox or a sheep on the copper.
Bronze decussis ( = 10 asses) of the third century BC, with the image of an ox. (From Sir John Edwin Sandys (ed.), A Companion to Latin Studies, Cambridge University Press, 1913)
The Etruscans had considerable skill in three aspects of building and civil engineering at which the Romans were to excel: road construction, hydraulics and the use of the arch to bridge space.
The Porta all' Arco at Volterra, an Etruscan gate of the fourth century BC, is still standing. (Communi di Volterra)
Tarquinius Priscus is said to have planned the Great Temple of Jupiter, about sixty metres long and fifty wide, but his grandson Tarquinius Superbus supervised its building, calling up labour from Etruria as well as from Latium to get the job done.
Tarquinius Superbus planned, if he did not also build, the Cloaca Maxima (Great Sewer) of republican and imperial Rome. Its arched exit, where it discharged into the Tiber, can still be seen under the Ponte Palatino. (VRoma: Jim Reubel)
The Etruscans were also past masters at the art of delicate sculpture in terracotta. Tarquinius Superbus commissioned some Etruscan sculptors from Veii to fashion a chariot to stand on top of the new temple. When it was in the furnace, the clay, instead of contracting as the moisture evaporated, swelled to such a size that the furnace had to be dismantled before the finished piece could be removed.
Etruscan terracotta horses at Tarquinia. (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)
By the time the temple was completed, however, the period of the kings was over for good. The rape of Lucretia by Tarquinius Superbus’ son has proved a popular subject for art, literature and even the stage ever since, but, if it ever took place, there is no evidence that it was the cause of the fall of the final Roman king. It is more likely that the rebellion by a band of nobles was the natural reaction of a society which, on the Greek model, was verging towards democratic government, against a monarch who had exceeded his constitutional brief and made himself even more unpopular by imposing forced labour. It is possible, too, that the conspiracy was part of a wider revolt by several Latin cities, including Antium, Aricia and Tusculum, against a king of Etruscan origin.
Etruscan bronze head, with inlaid eyes, of a Roman, so-called Lucius Junius Brutus, leader of the rebellion against Tarquinius. (VRoma: Capitoline Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)
Rome was not yet entirely free. Tarquinius escaped and naturally commanded the support of the Etruscans, one of whose chiefs, known as Porsena, occupied Rome for some time by force. To this campaign belong the traditional stories of Horatius, who held the bridge against the advancing Etruscans, and of Mucius Scaevola, who plunged his right hand into the flames rather than reveal details of a plot to kill Porsena.
Mucius Scaevola plunges his right hand into the fire. (Sixteenth-century fresco by Tommaso Laureti: VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)
Porsena, having previously survived one assassination attempt, was so unnerved by the thought of further ones that he withdrew his garrison from the city in return for hostages. Now women, too, were inspired to emulate Scaevola’s heroism. Cloelia, one of the hostages, tricked the guards and, at the head of a group of other women, swam across the Tiber back to the Roman side under a hail of missiles and javelins. Etruscan attempts to recapture Rome, as well as Antium, Aricia and Tusculum, smouldered on until 505 BC, when they were finally extinguished before Aricia: not by a Roman army but by a force of Greek auxiliaries from Cumae, called up to bolster the Latin army. In the meantime, Rome had become a republic.
Model of Rome from the time of Tarquinius to the beginning of the republic. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Ann Raia)
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The origins of Rome
(Most of these dates are approximate)
1220 - Destruction of Troy.
1152 - Traditional date of founding of Alba Longa.
1000–750 - Phoenician expansion overseas.
1000 - Latins settle in Latium.
814 - Traditional date of founding of Carthage.
775 - Euboean Greeks establish trading post in Bay of Naples.
753 - Traditional date of founding of Rome.
753–510 - Period of the kings in Rome.
650 - Etruscans occupy Latium.
616–578 - Tarquinius Priscus.
578–534 - Servius Tullius.
534–510 - Tarquinius Superbus.
524 - Defeat of Etruscans at Cumae.
510 - Ejection of kings.
505 - Final defeat of Etruscans.