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Birth of Rome : Origins of the Roman Empire

Roman Colosseum

A classical Latin author cannot imagine that the birth of Rome was not marked with the seal of the extraordinary. The literary tradition has disseminated a legend of the origins of Rome, used by the propaganda of the emperors. Today, archaeological research strives to ravel out myth from history.

From Troy to Rome

Because the Romans do not doubt their Trojan origin. From Troy, burnt down by the victorious Greeks in 1184 BC, if we believe the traditional dating, escapes Aeneas, son of Anchises and of the deity Aphrodite, taking with him his son Ascanius, his father and the protective gods (Penates) of his city. After a long wandering, Aeneas settles in Italy, in Lazio, the region of the future Rome, and marries Lavinia, daughter of the local king Latinus. His son Ascanius founds a new city at the foot of the Alban Hills: Alba Longa. For three centuries, Alba Longa knows twelve kings. The latter is chased away by his brother who, in order to dry up the legitimate branch, makes his niece Rhea Silvia a Vestal Virgin, priestess bound to chastity. But the god of War, Mars, unites with the Vestal. From their union were born twins whom the uncle felons had placed in a cradle thrown into the Tiber. Miraculously, the waters of the river are lowered; at the foot of the Palatine Hill, a wolf, attracted by the cries of infants, comes to breastfeed them; a shepherd finally collects them.

The enemy brothers

As adults, Romulus and Remus - so the twins are called - are made aware of the secret of their birth. They return to Alba Longa, overthrows the usurper from the throne and restore their grandfather. Then they found, in 753 BC according to tradition, a new city on the place of their wonderful childhood. As they dispute the honor of the founding of Rome, they entrust to the gods the care to decide between them: both climb atop a hill, Romulus on the Palatine and Remus on the Aventine, and then they take the auspices there, that is to say they observe the divine disposition expressed by the flight of birds. Twelve vultures give victory to Romulus. Legend has it that Remus, to provoke his brother, jumps over the furrow marking the future enclosure. Romulus then kills him.

An ideal site

The legend thus links the installation on the seven hills to a series of supernatural events, and the founding of Rome to a divine choice. A more rational examination shows that the choice of place corresponds above all to a judicious human analysis. Lazio is a small volcanic plain, swampy and infested with mosquitoes carrying malaria near the coast. But it is also a natural crossroads located in the center of the peninsula. The Tiber, descending from the Apennines in the northeast to the Tyrrhenian Sea in the southwest, although capricious, represents a valuable axis of penetration. Used early for trade with mountain populations, it is, in particular, the vehicle for the trade of salt, a product of coastal marshes that the need to salt meats to preserve them makes essential.

But the Tiber is also an obstacle that must be crossed: the site of the future Rome is the first possible crossing point from the coast. According to Cicero, it ensures all the advantages of the sea and avoids the disadvantages because, located about twenty kilometers from the coast, it is in a healthy area. In addition, its seven volcanic tuff hills (the Aventine, the Palatine, the Capitol - where the citadel will be built -, the Quirinal, the Viminal, the Esquiline and the Caelius) constitute a remarkable defense site.

Small villages of shepherds

At the beginning of the 20th century, archaeological excavations began to uncover the oldest remains of Ancient Rome. Under the Forum, between the hills, first existed a necropolis. In the 8th century BC, in its first period, the ashes of the dead were placed in urns in the shape of a hut. Later, the bodies were buried there in tuff sarcophagi: for a long time, the population had to live in the heights, reserving the low areas, less healthy, for their deaths.

Literary tradition and archaeological data therefore agrees to locate around the years 750 BC the first Roman settlements at the origins of Rome. But, until the sixth century, the Roman Empire was probably nothing more than a collection of pastoral villages spread over the different hills. It is under Etruscan domination that the city is truly born. Then, the Forum, sanitized, exterior (foris), becomes central: the Rome that we know begins to appear.