At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Friday, 21 April 2017

The birth of Rome

City said to have been founded on April 21, 753BC


Nicolas Mignard's 1654 painting shows Faustulus  bringing home Romulus and Remus to his wife
Nicolas Mignard's 1654 painting shows Faustulus
bringing home Romulus and Remus to his wife
Three days of celebrations begin in Rome today to mark the annual Natale di Roma Festival, which commemorates the founding of the city 2,770 years ago.

The traditional celebrations take place largely in the large open public space of Circus Maximus, which hosts many historical re-enactments, and where Sunday’s main event – a costumed parade around the city, featuring more than 2,000 gladiators, senators, vestal virgins and priestesses – begins and ends, departing at 11.15am.

City museums offer free entry today and many of the city’s restaurants have special Natale di Roma menus.  After dark, many public places will be lit up, torches will illuminate the Aventine Hill, and firework displays will take place by the Tiber river.

According to legend, Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, founded Rome on the site where they were suckled by a she-wolf as orphaned infants.

They were said to be the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a city located in the nearby Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome.

Before they were born, Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who murdered his existing son and forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his title.

The 2016 Festival: Actors dressed as gladiators
gather at Circus Maximus ready to march on Rome
The legend has it that Rhea was nonetheless impregnated by the war god Mars and gave birth to Romulus and Remus, whom Amulius immediately ordered to be put to death by drowning in the Tiber.

Yet they did not die.  There are different explanations as to what happened next, but somehow the baby boys ended up on the shore of the river at the foot of the Palatine Hill – either because they were washed up there or because Amulius’s men took pity on them and left them at the side of the river instead of throwing them into the water.

It was there, according to the legend, that they were discovered by the she-wolf, who suckled them until they were found by a shepherd called Faustulus.

Brought up by Faustulus and his wife, the twins later became leaders of a band of shepherd warriors. When they learned who they really were they went to Alba Longa, where they killed Amulius and restored their grandfather, Numitor, to power.

They decided to found a city on the site where they had been saved as infants, only for the story to take a bizarre twist when an argument between them turned into a fight and Remus was killed. 

Women dressed as Vestal Virgins are part of the day's fun
Again there are different explanations for the argument. One is that it stemmed simply from their failure to agree on the exact location of their new city. Another says that a site was agreed, but that when Romulus ploughed a furrow around the Palatine Hill to mark where the walls of the city would be, Remus mocked his ‘wall’ by jumping over it, at which point Romulus struck him with such ferocity he fell to the ground, dead.

When work commenced on building the city, named Rome in his honour, Romulus divided the early population into three tribes, giving each an area of the city – a tribune – in which to live.  He chose 100 men from leading families to form a senate.  He called these men the patres – or city fathers – and their descendants became known as patricians, forming one half of the Roman class system.  The other class – which comprised servants, freedmen, the fugitives to whom Romulus offered asylum, and others – became known as plebians, or plebs for short.

The lack of women compared with men among the early population caused a problem for Romulus, which he tried to solve in a way that was always likely to end badly.  He invited the people of cities near Rome to attend a festival, promising games and entertainment, but had secretly instructed his soldiers at a given signal to kidnap women of marriageable age.

Most of those seized happened to be from the Sabine tribe. Naturally, the Sabine men were not pleased and war ensued, a settlement reached only when Romulus agreed to share Rome with the Sabine king, Titus Tatius, an arrangement that lasted until Tatius was killed in a riot.

The city then returned to the sole rule of Romulus, who went on to reign for 37 years until his death in 717BC, apparently during a violent storm.  Witnesses claimed to have seen him picked up by a whirlwind, which led to the idea that he had been plucked from the earth and changed into Quirinus, the god of the Roman state.

Circus Maximus is the largest public open space in Rome
Travel tip:

The Circus Maximus – or Circo Massimo in Italian - is an open space south of the Forum and south-west of the Colosseum, in the valley between the Aventine Hill and the Palatine Hill, that was the site of an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium. It was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome and its later Empire, measuring 621 m (2,037 ft) in length and 118 m (387 ft) in width, and capable of holding more than 150,000 spectators. Nowadays it is a public park often used for open-air music events and mass gatherings, such as took place after Italy won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when thousands of Romans turned out to see the players show off their trophy on a stage in the park.

Rome hotels from Hotels.com

The papal residence opens on to a normal square in Castel Gandolfo
The papal residence opens on to a normal
square in Castel Gandolfo
Travel tip:

The Alban Hills – or Colli Albani – is an area of volcanic terrain just 20km (12 miles) south-east of Rome, which comprises the Albano and Nemi lakes and the towns of the Castelli Romani, so-called because each originally had a castle. They include Frascati, Albano Laziale, Rocca di Papa and Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer residence of the pope.

Rome hotels from Expedia

More reading:


How emperor Trajan balanced military expansion with progressive social policies

Emperor Titus and the relief effort for victims of 79AD Vesuvius eruption

Moment that inspired Gibbon's epic history of the Roman Empire


Also on this day:


1574: The death of Cosimo I de' Medici





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