The Foundation of Rome: The Birth of an Ancient Power

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Rome and the Empire that expanded out, far beyond the city’s initial borders, is one of the most famous ancient empires in history, leaving such a profound and lasting legacy on so many modern nations. Its Republican government – through the late 6th to the late 1st century BC – inspired much of the early American constitution, just as its art, poetry and literature have inspired scores of more modern works, throughout the world today.

Whilst each episode of Roman History is just as fascinating as the next, it is imperative to get an understanding of Rome’s early founding, which itself is outlined by modern archaeology and historiography, but substantiated most by ancient myths and stories. In exploring and understanding it, we learn so much about the Roman state’s early development, and how later Roman thinkers and poets saw themselves and their civilization.

As such, the “foundation of Rome”, should not be circumscribed to a single moment, where a settlement was founded, but should instead encompass all of the myths, stories and historical events, that characterized its cultural and physical birth – from a fledgling settlement of farmers and shepherds, to the historical behemoth we know today.  

Topography and Geography of Rome

To explain things with greater clarity, it is useful to first consider Rome’s location and its geographical, as well as its topographical features. Moreover, many of these features have been important for Rome’s cultural, economic, military, and societal development.

For example, the city sits 15 miles inland on the banks of the river Tiber, which flows out to the Mediterranean Sea. Whilst the Tiber provided a useful waterway for early shipping and transport, it also flooded the adjoining fields, creating both problems and opportunities (for river administrators, and rural farmers).

Additionally, the location is characterized by the famous “Seven Hills of Rome” – those being the Aventine, Capitoline, Caelian, Esquiline, Quirinal, Viminal, and Palatine. Whilst these provided some useful elevation against floods or invaders, they have also remained focal points of different regions or neighborhoods to this day. Additionally, they were also the sites of earliest settlement, as is further explored below.

All of this is located in the relatively flat valley region known as Latium (hence the language Latin), which as well as being on the west coast of Italy, is also in the middle of “the boot” as well. Its early weather was characterized by cool summers and mild, but rainy winters, whilst it was bordered most prominently in the North by the Etruscan civilization, and the in the South and East, by the Samnites.

Issues with Exploring Rome’s Origins

As previously mentioned, our modern understanding of Rome’s foundation is characterized mainly by both archaeological analysis (which is limited in its scope) and a lot of ancient myth and tradition. This makes details and any exactitude quite tricky to establish, but that is not to say that the picture we do have contains no basis in fact, regardless of the amount of myth which surrounds it. Hidden within it, we are sure, are some vestiges of the truth.

Yet the myths that we do have hold up a mirror to those who first wrote or spoke about them, illuminating what later Romans thought about themselves and where they must have come from. We will therefore explore the most essential ones below, before delving into the archaeological and historical evidence we can sift through.

Roman writers continued to look back to their origins in order to understand themselves and also to shape ideology and the collective cultural psyche. Most prominent amongst these figures are Livy, Virgil, Ovid, Strabo and Cato the Elder. Additionally, it is important to note that it is quite clear Rome’s early development was heavily influenced by their neighboring Greeks, who created many colonies throughout Italy.

Not only is this connection evident in the pantheon of gods that both cultures revered, but also in much of their traditions and culture as well. As we will see, even the founding of Rome itself was said by some to be attributed to different bands of Greeks searching for refuge.

Romulus and Remus – The Story of How Rome Began

Perhaps the most famous and canonical of Rome’s founding myths, is that of the twins Romulus and Remus. This myth, which originated sometime in the 4th century BC, begins in the mythical city of Alba Longa which was ruled over by King Numitor, the father of a woman called Rhea Silva.

In this myth, King Numitor is betrayed and deposed by his younger brother Amulius, just as Rhea Silva is forced to become a vestal virgin (presumably so that she cannot have any children to one day challenge his rule). The Roman God of war Mars however, had other ideas and he impregnated Rhea Silva with the twins Romulus and Remus.  

Amulius finds out about these twins and orders that they be drowned in the Tiber river, only for the twins to survive and be washed ashore at the foot of the Palatine Hill, in what was to become Rome. Here they were famously suckled and reared by a she-wolf, until they were later found by a local shepherd called Faustulus.

After being raised by Faustulus and his wife and learning their true origins and identity, they gathered a band of warriors and attacked Alba Longa, killing Amulius in the process. Having done so, they put their grandfather back on the throne and founded a new settlement at the site where they had first washed ashore and been suckled by the she-wolf. Traditionally, this was supposed to have happened, on April 21st, 753 BC – officially heralding the beginning of Rome.  

When Romulus was building the new walls of the settlement, Remus kept mocking his brother by jumping over the walls, which were clearly not doing their job. In anger at his brother, Romulus killed Remus and became the sole ruler of the city, subsequently naming it Rome.

The Rape of the Sabine Women and the Foundation of Rome

Having killed his brother, Romulus set about populating the settlement, offering asylum to fugitives and exiles from neighboring regions. However, this influx of new residents did not include any women, creating a glaring predicament for this fledgling town if it was ever to advance beyond a single generation.

Consequently, Romulus invited the neighboring Sabines to a festival, during which he gave a signal for his Roman men to abduct the Sabine women. A seemingly long war ensued, which was actually ended by the Sabine women who had apparently grown fond of their Roman captors. They no longer wished to return to their Sabine fathers and some had even begun families with their Roman captors.

Both sides therefore signed a peace treaty, with Romulus and the Sabine king Titus Tatius as joint rulers (until the latter mysteriously died an early death). Romulus was then left as sole ruler of Rome, reigning over a successful and expansionist period, wherein the settlement of Rome really laid down its roots for future flourishing.

Nonetheless, like the fratricide that occurs when Romulus kills his own brother, this other myth about Rome’s earliest days, further establishes a violent and tumultuous image of the civilization’s origins. These violent elements then appear as though they forebode the militaristic nature of Rome’s expansion and with regards to the fratricide especially, its infamous and bloody civil wars.  

Virgil and Aeneas Speak on the Foundation of Rome

Along with the story of Romulus and Remus, there is one other preponderant myth for interpreting the traditional “founding of Rome” – that of Aeneas and his flight from Troy, in Virgil’s Aeneid.

Aeneas is first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, as being one of the only Trojans who escaped the besieged city, after it has been sacked by the assembled Greeks. In this text and other Greek myths, Aeneas was supposed to have fled in order to later found a dynasty that would one day rule over the Trojans again. Seeing no signs of this dynasty and refugee civilization, various Greeks proposed that Aeneas had fled to Lavinium in Italy, to found such a people.

The Roman poet Virgil, who wrote prolifically under the first Roman Emperor Augustus, took up this theme in the Aeneid, charting how the eponymous hero escaped the flaming ruins of Troy with his father in hopes of finding a new life elsewhere. Like Odysseus, he is thrown from place to place, until he eventually lands in Latium and – after a war with the native peoples – founds the civilization that will birth Romulus, Remus and Rome.

Before he actually lands in Italy however, he is shown a pageant of Roman heroes by his dead father when he visits him in the underworld. In this part of the epic, Aeneas is shown the future glory that Rome will achieve, inspiring him to persevere through subsequent struggles to found this master race of Romans.

Indeed, in this passage, Aeneas is told that the future civilization of Rome is destined to spread its dominion and power across the world as a civilizing and master force – similar in its essence to the “manifest destiny” later celebrated and propagated by American imperialists.

Beyond just substantiating a “founding myth”, this epic therefore helped to set and promote an Augustan agenda, demonstrating how such stories can look forwards as well as backwards.  

From Monarchy to the Roman Republic

Whilst Rome is supposed to have been ruled by a monarchy for a number of centuries, much of its purported history (most famously outlined by the historian Livy) is suspect to say the least. Whilst many of the kings in Livy’s account live for inordinate amounts of time, and implement prodigious amounts of policy and reform, it is impossible to say with any surety whether many of the individuals existed at all.

This isn’t to suggest that Rome was not in fact ruled by a monarchy– unearthed inscriptions from ancient Rome contain terminology relating to kings, strongly indicating their presence. A large catalog of Roman and Greek writers also attest it as well, not to mention the fact that kingship seems to have been the governmental framework of the day, in Italy or Greece.  

According to Livy (and most traditional Roman sources) there were seven kings of Rome, beginning with Romulus and ending with the infamous Tarquinius Superbus (“the Proud”). Whilst the last one and his family were removed from office and exiled – for their greedy and iniquitous conduct – there were some kings who were remembered fondly. For example, the second king Numa Pompilius was regarded as a just and pious ruler, whose reign was characterized by peace and progressive laws.

Nevertheless, by the seventh ruler, Rome had clearly become sick of its kings and established itself as a Republic, with power ostensibly lying with the people (“res publica” = the public thing). For centuries, it continued as such and in that time strongly rejected the idea of monarchy or any symbols of kingship.

Even when Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, established his rule over the Roman empire, he made sure to cloak the accession in symbols and propaganda that presented him as “the first citizen”, rather than a ruling monarch. Subsequent emperors then struggled with the same ambiguity, aware of the deeply embedded negative connotations about kingship, whilst also being aware of their absolute power.

As such, in a glaringly transparent show of propriety, for a long time the senate “officially” bestowed the powers of government on each successive emperor! Although this was really just for show!

Other Myths and Exempla Central to the founding of Rome

Just as the myths of Romulus and Remus, or the mytho-history of Rome’s early kings help to construct a composite picture of “the foundation of Rome”, so do other early myths and stories of famous heroes and heroines. In the field of Roman History, these are called exempla and were named as such by ancient Roman writers, because the messages behind the peoples and events, were supposed to be examples for later Romans to follow.

One of the earliest of such exempla is Horatius Cocles, a Roman army officer who famously held a bridge (with two other soldiers) against an onslaught of attacking Etruscans. By standing his ground on the bridge, he was able to save many men, before he destroyed the bridge, preventing the Etruscans led by king Lars Porsena, from attacking Rome directly.

Another famous figure from the early days of Rome, is Cloelia, who escapes captivity under the same Lars Porsena and under a barrage of missiles, manages to get back to Rome with a band of other female escapees. As with Horatius, she is honored and revered for her bravery – even by Lars Porsena!

Additionally, there is Mucius Scaevola, who along with the two exempla above, makes up a sort of early triad of courageous Romans. When Rome was at war with the very same Lars Porsena, Mucius volunteered to sneak into the enemy camp and kill their leader. In the process, he misidentified Lars and instead killed his scribe, who was dressed in similar garb.

When captured and questioned by Lars, Mucius proclaims the courage and fortitude of Rome and its peoples, stating that there is nothing Lars can do to threaten him. Then, to demonstrate this courage, Mucius thrusts his hand into a campfire and holds it there firmly with no reaction or indication of pain. Astonished by his steadfastness, Lars lets the Roman go, acknowledging that there is little he can do to hurt this man.

There are then, many other Roman exempla that proceed to be immortalized and re-utilized for these moralizing purposes, throughout the history of Rome. But these are some of the earliest examples and the ones that established a foundation of courage and fortitude in the Roman psyche.

The Historical and Archaeological Foundation of Rome

Whilst such myths and exempla were undoubtedly formative for the civilization that became the great Roman empire, as well as the self-assured culture it spread, there is also a lot we can learn of Rome’s founding from history and archaeology as well.

There is archaeological evidence of some settlement in the region of Rome, from as early as 12,000 BC. This early settlement seems to focus around the Palatine Hill (which is supported by Roman historical claims as well) and it is later where the first temples to the Roman gods were apparently built.

This evidence itself is very scanty and is obfuscated by subsequent layers of settlement and industry deposited on top of it. Nonetheless, it seems as though early pastoral communities developed, first on the Palatine Hill and then on top of the other Roman hills in the region, with settlers coming from different regions and bringing varied pottery and burial techniques with them.

The prevailing belief is that these hilltop villages eventually grew together into one community, utilizing their natural surroundings (of the river and hills) to ward off any attackers. The historical record (again, mainly Livy) then tells us that Rome became a monarchy under Romulus in 753 BC, who was the first of seven kings.

These kings were apparently elected from a catalog of candidates put forward by the Senate, which was an oligarchical group of aristocratic men. The Curiate Assembly would vote for a king out of these candidates, who would then take absolute power of the state, with the Senate as its administrative arm, carrying out its policies and agenda.

This elective framework seemed to stay in place until Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings (from the fifth king onwards), after which a hereditary framework of succession was put in place. It seemed as though this hereditary dynasty, beginning with Tarquin the Elder and ending with Tarquin the proud, was not popular with the Roman people.

Tarquin the proud’s son forced himself on a married woman, who subsequently killed herself in shame. As a result, her husband – a senator named Lucius Junius Brutus – banded together with other senators and expelled the wretched tyrant Tarquin, establishing the Roman Republic in 509 BC.

The Conflict of the Orders and the Growth of Roman power

After establishing itself as a republic, the government of Rome in reality became an oligarchy, ruled over by the senate and its aristocratic members. Initially the senate consisted exclusively of ancient families that could trace their nobility back to the founding of Rome, known as                   Patricians.

However, there were newer families and poorer citizens who resented the exclusionary nature of this arrangement, who were called the Plebeians. Indignant at their treatment at the hands of their patrician overlords, they refused to fight in an ongoing conflict with some neighboring tribes and assembled themselves outside of Rome on a hill called the Sacred Mount.

Since the Plebeians made up the bulk of the fighting force for the Roman army, this immediately caused the Patricians to act. As a result, the Plebeians were given their own assembly to debate matters and a special “tribune” who could advocate for their rights and interests to the Roman senate.

Whilst this “Conflict of the Orders” did not end there, this first episode gives a flavor of the class-warfare enmeshed within an actual war, that was to characterize much of the subsequent history of the Roman Republic. With two distinct classes of Romans established and separated, under an uneasy alliance, Rome continued to spread its influence across the Mediterranean basin, in time becoming the empire we know today.

Later Commemorations of Rome’s Founding

This amalgamation of stories and collection of scanty evidence then, make up the “founding of Rome” as we have come to understand it today. Much of it was itself an act of commemoration, with Roman poets and ancient historians seeking to substantiate the identity of their state and civilization.

The date attributed to Romulus and Remus’s founding of the city (April 21st) was continuously commemorated throughout the Roman empire and is still commemorated in Rome to this day. In Ancient times, this festival was known as the Parilia Festival, which celebrated Pales, a deity of shepherds, flocks and livestock who the early Roman settlers must have revered.

This also paid homage to the foster father of Romulus and Remus, Faustulus, who was himself, a local Latin Shepherd. According to the poet Ovid, the celebrations would involve shepherds lighting fires and burning incense before dancing around them and uttering incantations to Pales.

As just mentioned, this festival – which was later called the Romaea – is still celebrated in some sense today, with mock battles and dress-up near the Circus Maximus in Rome. Furthermore, each time we delve into Roman History, marvel at the Eternal City, or read one of the great works of Roman literature, we too are celebrating the founding of such a fascinating city and civilization.  

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