The Founding of Rome is very much embroiled in myth.
Traces found by archaeologists of early settlements of the Palatine Hill date back to ca 750 BC.
This ties in very closely to the established legend that Rome was founded on 21 April 753 BC. Which was traditionally celebrated in Rome with the festival of Parilia.
The founding legends exist – Romulus and Remus and Aeneas.
Rather than contradict each other, the tale of Aeneas adds to that of Romulus and Remus.
Romulus and Remus
King Numitor of Alba Longa was ejected by his younger brother Amulius. To do away with any further possible pretenders to his usurped throne, Amulius murdered Numitor’s sons and forced Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a vestal virgin. (Vestal virgins were priestesses to the goddess Vesta and were expected to guard their virginity in the goddess’ honour on pain of death.)
However Mars, the god of war became enchanted by her beauty and has his way with her while she slept. As a result of this Rhea Silvia bore twins, Romulus and Remus.
An enraged Amulius had Rhea Silvia thrown into the river Tiber where she was caught beneath the waves by the river god who married her.
The twins were set adrift on the river in a reed basket. They floated downstream until the basket was caught in the branches of a fig tree.
This was where they were found by a she-wolf who suckled them (wolves are sacred to Mars) until a shepherd found them.
Another version of the same story tells of the shepherd finding them and taking them to his wife, who had just lost a stillborn child and who breast fed them. The tale says the shepherd’s wife was a former prostitute.
Which one of the two versions is the original is hard to tell. In Latin lupa means both ‘she-wolf’ and ‘prostitute’.
As the two boys had grown to men in the care of the couple, they were told of their true origins. Amulius was subsequently slain in battle and Numitor was restored to his throne.
The twins decided to found a new city close to where they had been washed ashore, caught by the fig tree.
Reading omens of the flight of birds they decided to build their city on Palatine Hill and that Romulus should be King.
Romulus took to marking the city’s boundaries with a plough drawn by a white bull and a white cow.
Remus however leapt over the furrow, either in jest or derision. Romulus lost his temper and killed his brother.
The new city, little more than a small settlement, had almost no women. So, determined to solve this problem, Romulus invited the neighbouring tribe of the Sabines to a harvest festival. Once their guests had arrived the Romans though chose not to entertain them but far more to abduct at swordpoint 600 Sabine daughters.
If the tale of Romulus and Remus appears the more popular Roman founding tale today, then the tale of Aeneas, harking back to yet earlier times, was perhaps the more popular in the days of the Roman Empire. In fact through Virgil the Aeneid became the national epic of the Roman empire and the most famous poem of the Roman era.
Aeneas was to have been a hero fighting the Greeks in the Trojan wars. The son of Venus and a mortal father he escaped as the great city of Troy was sacked and after quite an odyssey he landed in Latium through which the river Tiber flows. Aeneas married the daughter of King Latinus, only to aggrieve King Turnus of Rutuli who himself had his eye on her. As usual in ancient tales, there ensued a war for the princess between Turnus and Aeneas, who was by then supported by King Tarchon of the Etruscans. Naturally Aeneas, son of Venus, was triumphant.
The sack of Troy is dated to around 1220 BC. To fill the years from Aeneas to Romulus the Romans therefore were required to produce a string of fictional Kings to make the tale work. This was done across all the generations with some ease from Ascanius, son of Aeneas to Numitor.
As such the Latins settled in the wider area of Rome around 1000 BC. Though those early settlements were not to be mistaken for anything like a city. They kept pigs, herded sheep, goats, cattle and lived in primitive huts.
So how could such archaic beginnings ever lead to a city of power which would rule the world ? The rise of Rome was certainly not inevitable, but it had many advantages right from the start. Rome lies only a few miles from the sea with all its possibilities of trade. It lies central to the Italian peninsula, which in turn lies central to the entire Mediterranean Sea. Italy is guarded by the Alps to the North and by the sea all around. Add to this the influence of the Greeks which were settling Italy, founding cities like Cumea, and hence bringing advanced civilization to the country and you have a place with lots of potential. From the Greeks the Romans learnt fundamental skills such as reading and writing, even their religion is almost entirely derived from Greek mythology. i.e. for Jupiter write Zeus, Mars is Ares, Venus is Aphrodite, etc… If the Greeks settled to the south of them, then the Roman had the Etruscans to the north. Etruria was predominantly an urban society, drawing its considerable wealth from seaborne trade. Were the Etruscans rather extravagant people, they were generally seen by the more hardy Romans to be decadent and weak. While being distinctly unique in their right the Etruscans too had very much developed from the more advanced and civilized cultures of the east, owing much of their culture to the Greeks. At around 650 to 600 BC the Etruscans crossed the Tiber and occupied Latium. It is through this, so one believes, that the settlement on the Palatine Hill was brought together with the settlements on surrounding hills, either in an attempt to fend off the invaders, or, once conquered, by the Etruscan master who sought to rule their kingdom via a structure of city states. It is at this point that the first known Kings appear. Always assuming that the likes of Romulus were to be seen as myth.