This day in 753 BC is the traditional date for the founding of Rome… or it might have been a different year but everyone seems pretty sure that it was definitely 21st April. It was a day sacred to the Roman deity Pales, who looked after shepherds and livestock. No one is certain whether Pales was male or female, or even a pair of deities. At the festival in honour of Pales, Parilia, a shepherd would drive his flock through a bonfire to purify the animals and offer prayers to protect them from evil during the coming year. Over time, as the population became more urban, it turned into a celebration of the birth of Rome.
So Rome began with twin brothers called Romulus and Remus… or just Romulus… or maybe someone completely different, a Trojan named Aeneas. The Romans had two completely different foundation myths; the one about Romulus and Remus is from Italy, the one about Aeneas, clearly Greek in origin. Aeneus is a mythological figure who was half human and half divine. His mother was Venus, if you’re and ancient Roman, or Aphrodite, if you’re an ancient Greek. Aeneus and a band of followers fled Troy after it was attacked by some Greeks who had been hiding out inside a giant horse. After much wandering and adventures, they wound up in Italy. Aeneus married the daughter of the king of that country, whose name was Lavinia, and their son Ascanius founded a city called Alba Longa, about twelve miles south east of Rome.
The Romans liked the idea of the founder of their people being part god and, in order to reconcile the two myths, they recorded a long line of legendary kings which show Romulus and Remus to be direct descendants of Aeneus. The Emperor Augustus would enjoy claiming kinship to the gods through Romulus. Incidentally, this is not just a Roman thing. Our English mythological King Arthur was also supposed to be descended from Aeneus.
Romulus and Remus, as you know, were abandoned at birth, in the way that heroes often are. This was either because their uncle was a king who had been told they would overthrow him when they grew up, or because their mother, niece to the king, was a Vestal Virgin who was impregnated by the god Mars… or Hercules… or her uncle…They were either exposed as infants… or thrown in the Tiber to drown… or left on the river bank in a basket and carried away by a flood. They were found by a she wolf who suckled them… or by a wolf goddess named Luperca. They were also fed by a woodpecker. The woodpecker usually gets left out of tthe story, but you can see him in this painting. The twins were found and raised by a shepherd and his wife, Acca Larentia.
Now let me tell you some things about Acca Larentia. She might have a shepherd’s wife. She might have been a beautiful woman with a notorious reputation who was won by Hercules in a game of dice. She may, after that, have married someone rich, inherited all his property when he died and bequeathed it to the Roman people. Or maybe she was neither of those, but a prostitute who bequeathed all her earnings to Rome. It is interesting to note that Romans called their prostitutes ‘Lupa’, which means she-wolf. So maybe there was no real wolf at all.
Anyway, when Romulus and Remus grew up they decided to build a city. Romulus thought the Palatine Hill would be a good place to start but Remus thought the Aventine Hill would be better. They fell out about who was right, who had seen the most auspicious birds and who had seen them first. Then Remus told Romulus that the wall he was building was rubbish and jumped over it. That was when Remus somehow died… or was hit in the head with a spade.
So Romulus won and the city was named after him. He ruled for thirty-seven years and no one really agreed on what happened to him after that. He disappeared, or died in a mysterious way, or ascended to heaven or something…