Is it true that Rome was born on April 21, 753 BC? The legend and history of the birth of Rome

According to the Latin author Varrothe city of Rome was born on April 21 of the year 753 BC and this is why every year the Christmas of Rome, also known as Rome, is celebrated on this date Dies Romana, where various events are organized including shows and parades. Today we would therefore celebrate the 2777th birthday of the “Eternal City”. In fact, a famous legend tells that Romulusthe first king of Rome, founded the city after killing his twin brother Oar. Historians and archaeologists, however, provide a different explanation. Most likely Rome was formed for “synecism”, i.e. progressive unification of the villages scattered on the hills (Palatine, Capitoline Hill, Aventine etc.) located in the area. The city was not born, therefore, in a single day, but through a long-lasting process. However, archaeological findings demonstrate that some elements of the myth are based on real facts: the first city wall, for example, was actually built in the 8th century. There is no certainty, however, about the meaning of the name “Rome”.

Who chose the date of April 21, 753 BC

That Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC was first stated by Marcus Terentius Varroa scholar of the 1st century BC

Marcus Terentius Varro
Marcus Terentius Varro

Varro, based on the research of another scholar, Lucio Taruzio Firmano, deduced that the city was born on a date that we, with our calendar, identify with 21 April 753 BC. Varro's “proposal” was successful and, within of a few decades, it was accepted by everyone as the date of the foundation of Rome. Furthermore, the Romans, who until then identified the years based on the name of the consuls in office, began to count them ab urbe condita, that is, from the foundation of the city. 753 was year 1, while what for us is 2024 AD would be 2777 auc

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The legend of the foundation of Rome

Since ancient times, the birth of Rome was narrated by numerous legendswhich in the Augustan age (between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD) took on a more defined form and were connected to the date established by Varro, giving life to a coherent story.

According to myth, Rome was founded by Romulus, belonging to the royal family of Alba Longa, a powerful city in the Alban hills area. Romulus and his twin Remus were children of the god Mars and Rhea Silvia, in turn daughter of the king of Alba Longa, Numitor. The throne of Alba Longa had been usurped by Numitor's brother, Amuliuswho, having learned of the birth of the twins, ordered them to be killed.

The servant in charge of carrying out the order, however, did not find the courage to suppress the two newborns and placed them in a basket, which he abandoned in the Tiber. The basket ran aground in the area where Rome would be built and the two twins were saved because they were suckled by a “she-wolf” (probably to be understood as a prostitute and not as an animal) and then they were adopted by a shepherd. In the year 753, having become adults, they killed Amulius, returned the throne of Alba Longa to Numitor and decided to found a city in the place where they grew up.

The Capitoline she-wolf, symbol of the city
The Capitoline she-wolf, symbol of the city

Both brothers, however, wanted to become rulers of the new city and they established that the choice would be up to the gods. Therefore they positioned themselves on two nearby hills, Romulus on the Palatine and Remus on the Aventine, waiting for the gods to send an omen. Remus spotted six vultures, his brother twelve: the gods had chosen Romulus, who founded the city on the Palatine hill, tracing the perimeter of the walls, and called it Rome from its name. He also killed Remus, who had not accepted the result of the dispute.

The true story behind the legend

When is there truth in the legend? Probably little, but the myth has been built on some real elements.

Based on archaeological evidence, historians believe that the area where Rome was founded was already “frequented” many centuries before 753 BC for commercial activities. The area, in fact, was strategic for the salt and livestock trade – two very important goods at the time – being a short distance from the sea and having a navigable waterway like the Tiber. Furthermore, the hills located in the area allowed for effective defense against enemies. For this reason, some settlements already arose in the area in the last centuries of the 2nd millennium BC.

The area where Rome was born (credits Cristiano 64)
The area where Rome was born (credits Cristiano 64)

Rome, according to most scholars, was born from progressive unification of the settlements founded on the hills. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that the first walls it was built in the 8th BC and that in the same century a settlement was founded on the Palatine, as the myth has it.

Naturally, it is not reflected in archeology date of April 21stalso in consideration of the fact that the process of formation of the city lasted a long time and, consequently, the precise day on which Rome was born cannot be identified.

Remains of huts on the Palatine dating back to the 8th century BC.  C.
Remains of huts on the Palatine dating back to the 8th century BC. C.

The name of the city and the historicity of Romulus

If the name most likely does not derive from Romulus, why is the city called Rome? The answer is very simple: we don't know. The meaning of the name it was lost already in ancient times and modern historians have formulated it numerous hypotheses, none of which tested. The name Rome could derive from the Etruscan word rum, which means udder, in reference to the history of the she-wolf or the hilly conformation of the area; from Greek rhome, which means strength; from the root –ruowhich means to flow and would also have given rise to a presumed archaic name of the Tiber, Rumon. None of the hypotheses, however, enjoy the consensus of the scientific community.

However, Romulus, although he did not name the city, most likely did a character who actually existed and, according to some historians, he was the progenitor of gens (extended family) Romilia, still existing in the imperial age.