How was Rome founded – myth vs reality

How was Rome founded – myth vs reality

The question of how Rome was founded has always been a place for speculations, legends, and rumors.

According to legend, Rome was founded by Romulus, a descendant of the Troyan Aeneas. In reality, multiple small settlements, situated in a strategic position on the hills overlooking the Tiber river, grew together and formed Rome.

Let`s dive into the myth and the reality of how the eternal city of Rome originated.

The founding myth of Rome

According to the roman founding legend their city was founded and first ruled by Romulus, a descendant of the Troyan Aeneas.

Since the Romans didn`t really have an idea about how Rome was actually founded they started creating a myth that connected Rome with the trojan war. That by the way, is a trick that was not only used by the Romans. The Holy Roman Empire did the exact same thing, more on that here.

Aeneas – how a trojan became the progenitor of Rome

According to the myth, a trojan named Aeneas (coincidentally the son of the goddess Venus) escaped the destruction of troy together with his son Iulus (by the way, that Iulus was claimed by Caesar as the progenitor of the Julius clan giving Caius JULIUS Caesar a direct link to both the gods and the founding father of Rome) and other survivors of Troy’s destruction.

Kind of like the legendary greek figure Odysseus, Aeneas and his Companions were also forced to wander through the Mediterraneum before they found a new home somewhere around the area of modern-day Rome.

Iulus, the son of Aeneas, went on to found the city of Alba Longa in around 1060 BC where his Descendants would rule for many centuries.

The last two kings of Alba Longa were brothers called Numitor and Amulius. The just Numitor should have been king but was expelled by his tyrannic and cruel brother.

In an attempt to end the bloodline of Numitor, Amulius forced the daughter of Numitor, Rea Silvia, into the Priesthood of the goddess Vesta. That priesthood demanded its priests to stay virgins. One night Mars, the Roman god of war, visited Rea Silvia and got her pregnant with twins.  These twins were called Romulus and Remus.

Amulius, their granduncle, was outraged and ordered that the two infants should be thrown into the sea.

Luckily they were put into a basket and due to the influence of the gods were driven back to the shores.

Romulus & Remus – founding fathers of Rome?

It was at the shore that the two infants were found and nurtured by a wolf before they were found and adopted by the Shepherd Faustulus. By the way, that is also the reason why there are a lot of statues of the wolf and the two children in Rome.

Romulus and Remus grew up, returned to Alba Longa where they overthrew their greatuncle and reinstated their grandfather Numitor.

But Romulus and Remus did not stay in Alba Longa for long since they wanted to start their own city.

The mythical founding of Rome by Romulus

It was in the Year 753 BC that Romulus took up the plow and created a furrow around the area where he wanted to build his city.

According to the roman historian and writer Titus Livius, he wrote the book „Ab urbe condita“, he choose Palatine Hill. One of the 7 hills Rome stands upon.

Romulus proclaimed that nobody should ever cross that sacred border of Rome (the so-called Pomerium) while bearing weapons.

Remus, who must have been quite amused by the fact that his brother gave such importance to a simple furrow, decided to jump over the furrow while still bearing his weapons.

Romulus, in an approach of anger, killed his brother.

After killing his brother Romulus needed people to inhabit his city. Romulus transformed Rome into an asylum for the suppressed and pursued and promised life in freedom.

By the way, the asylum that Romulus according to legend established was of high political importance for the self-image of Rome!

Whenever Roman senators were debating if defeated former enemies should be granted the roman civil right the asylum was used as an argument that Romulus, the founder of Rome himself, wanted Rome to integrate foreigners and former enemies. And that furmula actually became one of the 3 reasons for Rome`s success!

Populating Rome – who were the first Romans?

Many men grabbed that opportunity and settled in Rome. Many of them being criminals who were running from the law, slaves who had escaped their masters, and other sorts of criminals.

A truly illustrious group, one could say!

But that kind of social composition led to a problem: There were almost no women. In typical rustic roman fashion, it was decided to steal women from their neighboring people, the Sabines.

The early Romans invited their neighbors together with their women, daughters, and mothers for a feast. And when their guests started to feel the effects of intoxication they were expelled. The women who were held back by the Romans were (forcefully) married to their kidnappers.

Of course, the sabinian men had no intention of accepting the abduction of their women.

They armed themselves and marched onto the settlement that would later be known as Rome. Heavy fights broke out between the Romans and sabines until the women stepped in and ended the violence between their new husbands and their families of origin by forcing them to accept a peace treaty.

The Romans and Sabines decided to join forces and the kingship over Rome was shared between the roman Romulus and the Sabines king Titus Tatius.

Romulus – the first roman king

Romulus went on to rule Rome for a total of 38 years until 715 BC. The creation of the senate, the organization of the army, structuring the population into curiae, and also the difference between patricians and plebeians are traced back to him (at least according to the founding myth).

When Romulus died during a thunderstorm his corps disappeared. It is said that Romulus was included in the world of the Roman gods. That’s by the way the first time a roman ruler was deified, a procedure that would be quite common after (and Including) the death of Caius Julius Caesar.

He was succeeded by 6 other kings, all of them being portrayed in stereotypes. More on these 6 kings here in my article.

Now I think we can agree that Rome was probably not founded by a descendant of the son of the goddess Venus. But the legend gives us a lot of interesting insights into the Roman mentality:

Why were the Romans proud of their founding myth?

Just think about it. How many states do you know that would actually be proud of such a history?

I mean the early history of Rome is, according to the legend, full of brothers killing brothers, abduction, and other crimes.

And if we remember that the first inhabitants of Rome were fugitive criminals and slaves it is kind of astonishing that the memory of that kind of founding myth was kept alive during the entire history of Rome. But there are also explanations for the behavior of Rome during its prime that can be rooted back to the founding myth! I just talked about how the first inhabitants of Rome were criminals and fugitive slaves and how that is not really an origin to brag about.

The Romans turned that around: They were saying that, by creating that asylum, Romulus had made it clear that the full roman civil right could be handed out to people who were not born in Rome.

The sharing of power between Romulus and the Sabines King Titus Tatius also shows that Romulus didn`t want „new“ Romans to be deprived of their political influence.

It is actually a true story. If you look at the rise of Rome then you will realize that the Romans often gave their full citizenship to former enemies.

That gave Rome an enormous advantage! Just one example: At the beginning of the First Punic War in 264 BC entire Italy (except for the islands like Sicily) up to the Po-delta was under Roman control and many of the cities had the roman civil right.

Remember, only Roman citizens were allowed to serve in the legions!

So generously handing out the citizenship was not coming from the goodness of the roman heart. By handing out citizenships the Romans could grow their military potential much faster than if they would have only relied on the birth of roman children. More on that and the different ways Rome could govern newly conquered areas in my article here.

But let’s leave the legends behind and look at the scientific data about the foundation of Rome!

The scientific explanation of how Rome was probably founded

There are graves on the palatine hill that can be assigned to the 10 century BC. These graves hint at small settlements in strategically and economically important areas.

The most popular theory on how Rome was founded is that through time (and maybe also by the interaction of a powerful individual, the small settlements grew together and formed early Rome.

Why was Rome built where it is?

Rome was placed in an area of strategic and economic importance.

There was a river crossing that made it easy to defend the settlement.

In addition to that, the River Tiber could only be cruised by ship until the area of Rome and major paths where shepherds drifted their Flocks crossed here. The area was also a cultural interface between the Greeks to the south and the Etruscans to the north.

The strategic position of Rome

Modern-day Rome is crossed by the River Tiber. Today many bridges are crossing the Tiber but in the 10-7 century BC Fords were pretty much the only way to cross the river. Rome is placed at such a ford.

Or to be more precise, Rome is placed on Palatine hill, Aventine hill, and Capitoline Hill (there are 4 other hills, but these are the 3 most important). Aventine Hill is the hill overlooking the ford.

The position of the settlements on the hills made it easy to defend and control the Ford which came in handy for the next part.

The economically advantageous position of Rome

Romes` advantageos economic position was a direct result of its strategic placement. Fords have always been a great place for transshipment centers.

That was reinforced by the fact that ships could only cruise from the sea up to Rome on the Tiber. After Rome, the river was not suited for ships. That means that Rome was the last station where ships could sell their cargo to merchants who then further transported it on land.

In addition to that Rome was also the interjunction of major trade routes. It was a critical station on the trade route for amber. Amber came from the baltic coast in modern-day Germany and was an extremely desirable material.

Rome was also situated at a crosspoint where shepherds would drive their flocks through to get them from their summer pastures to their winter pastures. That led to the establishment of a busy marketplace for livestock. That marketplace was soon known as Forum Boarium.

By the way, due to its position between the 3 already mentioned hills with their settlements, the Forum Boarium was also the first place where gladiatorial games were held. Click here to check out my article on how a day of gladiatorial games would work and here to learn more about the surprising structures and places gladiators would fight in.

But Rome was not only a part of the trade routes that brought Amber to the Mediterranean.

The via Salaria (the salt street) also ran through Rome. The via Salaria is one of the oldest trade routes in Italy. Salt was extremely important, not so much for flavoring but for conserving perishable goods like meat or fish. The via Salaria secured Rome a monopoly in the salt trade which substantially contributed to the wealth of Rome.

Rome as a cultural interjunction

During its early days, Rome was not more than a small regional power. The dominating forces in Italy were the Etruscans to the north and the Greeks in Magna Graecia (basically Southern Italy) to the south.

That position between two cultural and military powerhouses had several advantages for Rome. First of all the Etruscans and Greeks kept each other in check until around 700 BC.

The area that would later become Rome was basically like a neutral zone. If the Greeks would have pushed north the Etruscans would try to push them back.

That kept Rome in a comfortable spot since both Greeks and Etruscans didn`t really have ambitions to invade.

That chanced with the Etruscan expansion into the south between 700 and 500 BC.

It is actually likely that during the expansion the different early roman settlements fell under Etruscan influence.

That would also explain why the 3 somewhat historical kings of early Rome were Etruscans. Please click here to read my article (especially the second half) for more information about the early roman kings.

Interestingly it was around the year 509 BC (that’s the number that roman historians wrote down. It’s not clear if that is the actual number or if they got inspired by the Athenians overthrowing their tyrants, more on that here).

If you want to learn more about the shocking events that led to the expulsion of the last roman king and why the year 509 BC might not be accurate you might want to check out my article here.

The other advantage was that Rome could benefit from both sides. Not only by trading with both sides but also by adapting from both Greeks and Etruscans. There are many examples.

The sacred roman tradition of inspecting the organs of sacrificed animals to explore the will of the gods as well as some of the Roman gods (Saturn for example) can be traced back to the Etruscans.

And as already mentioned:

The last three (somewhat historical) roman kings were actually Etruscans. If you want to learn more than you might want to read the following article, especially the second half, on the early roman kings. And if you want to know what ended the early Roman kingship in 509 BC you might want to check out my article here.

The greek influence on the early Romans is much more known by the public:

Historians tend to see the origins of the gladiators and the gladiatorial games in Campania, an area under Greek dominance. If you want to learn more about why the gladiator fight established themselves in Rome you might enjoy reading my article here.

Now that we understand that position Rome was not chosen by accident we can take a look at the 3 major theories about how Rome was started:

How was Rome created – 3 scientific theories

The scientific origin of Rome is still debated by historians. The 3 theories are that

1. the city of Rome was founded in an official ceremony by the small settlements on the hills of Rome (similar to the founding myth);

2. the small settlements just naturally grew together as they became larger;

3. several villages developed that were united by a powerful individual in an official ceremony (basically a mix of 1 & 2)

To understand the theories it is important to realize that due to its already introduced strategic position the area of Rome had already been settled during the middle of the bronze age (around 1700-1350 BC).

The problem is that the archaeological sources for that time are rare.

During the late bronze age (1200-975 BC) there were at least 3 settlements. One on the Capitoline hill, one on the Palatine hill, and one on the forum (the vale between the Capitoline hill and palatine hill).

View of the Forum Romanum in Rome

It is possible that there were additional settlements on the other hills, but due to a lack of sources that is impossible to confirm.

The sources get better for the early iron age (since 900 BC). And we know for sure that during the early 8 century the Palatine hill, the Capitoline hill, and the forum between them was settled.

There were at least 4 main settlement centers in the area! The combined extend of these early roman settlements is estimated to have included between 207 and 501 acres.

That would have put the settlement into the same dimension as neighboring Etruscan cities like Veii.

The development of these settlements is typical for the iron age in Italy. The different settlements would grow and would then start to merge into each other.

Most likely the different settlements were ruled by powerful families or clans. With this in mind, the archaeologist Nicola Terrenato formulated a theory that the structuring of Rome into different curiae was a heritage of the different family clans who ruled the early settlements.

Although that Theory can not be confirmed with certainty it seems quite possible that the leading families of the different settlements started to collaborate. And it also seems possible that the settlements grew closer.

This leads us to the question of how these settlements came together to form the city of Rome.

There are basically 3 theories.

Official founding ceremony

The first theory goes back to the Swedish archaeologist Einar Gjerstad. His theory states that the smaller settlements came together and united during a symbolic founding act.

That theory is pretty close to the already described legend of Romulus.

Development into a city

The second theory assumes that Rome was not founded during a symbolic founding act but grew together. The assumption is that the settlement on the palatine hill grew stronger than the other settlements and during its expansion it basically swallowed & integrated the other settlements.

According to that theory, Rome would not have been planned but would have developed by accident.

The compromise

The third theory merges the first two by claiming that several settlements were established first. And that later a central power, maybe a local ruler, was able to unite a few of these settlements.

According to the theory, the united settlement would then expand and swallow & integrate the other villages that originally were not united under the central power.

Conclusion

The origins of Rome still are a mystery of which we only knew a few things.

– We know that Rome was not founded in 753 BC by a descendant of a Troyan son of the goddess Venus.

– We also know that due to its strategic and economic importance the area of Rome has been settled since the middle of the bronze age (somewhere between 1700 and 1350 BC.

– we know that early Rome was ruled by kings, maybe kings of Etruscan origin. These kings could also explain the central power that united the settlements (like mentioned in theory 3).

We actually know that between the years 700 and 500 BC the Etruscans were able to overpower the Greeks in southern Italy. That led to an expansion of Etruscan influence down to Campania. And that also included the territory of Rome.

That timeframe is especially interesting since around the year 500 BC the Romans got rid of their (Etruscan) kings. Click here to read my article on how and why the Romans decided to end the monarchy.

That would fit with the end of the Etruscan dominance over the area between Etruria and Campania, including Rome.

But the fall of the Roman monarchy and the creation of the Roman republic is a story for another post. Here you can find more information about the fall of the Roman monarchy.

And if you want to learn more about the significance of Rome during the Middle Ages I would like to recommend you my article here.

I hope you enjoyed our trip into the origins of Rome.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer

Sources

K. Lomas, The Rise of Rome. From the Iron Age to the Punic wars (1000 BC – 264 BC).

Propyläen Weltgeschichte, (Hg. G. Mann, A. Heuß), Bd. 4.