The founding of Rome is a legendary event much embellished by later Roman myth. Archaeological evidence indicates that Rome was developed from earlier hilltop villages and was never so singularly founded. The habitation of the Italian Peninsula goes back far into prehistory; evidence of settlement on the Capitoline hill goes back to 1700–1350 BC, in line with more general archaeological evidence of settled habitation c. 1600 BC. Evidence of graves on the site goes back to 1000 BC. Likely influenced by a trend for city-state formation emerging from Greece, these hilltop settlements agglomerated into a single polity by the later eighth century BC.
Contrary to the gradual account given by material evidence, the Romans believed that their city was founded by the legendary king Romulus at a specific time and date, the most famous of which is 21 April 753 BC given by Marcus Terentius Varro in the first century BC. Other dates, however, are scattered through the Roman tradition. Roman myth cast Romulus and his brother Remus as sons of Mars and princes from the royal line of Alba Longa, a city which itself had been founded by Aeneas following his departure from Ilium after the fall of Troy. Almost no historians take these myths as historical and there is no evidence of Alba Longa's historicity. The alleged royal line connecting Romulus and Remus to Aeneas is almost certainly an antiquarian fiction from the third century BC.
The conventional division of pre-Roman cultures in Italy deals with cultures which spoke Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages. The Italic languages, which include Latin, are Indo-European and were spoken, according to inscriptions, in the lower Tiber valley. It was once thought that Faliscan – spoken north of Veii on the right bank of the Tiber – was a separate language, but inscriptions discovered in the 1980s indicate that Latin was spoken more generally in the area. Etruscan speakers were concentrated in modern Tuscany with a similar language called Raetic spoken on the upper Adige (the foothills of the eastern Italian Alps).
When drawing a connection between peoples and their languages, a reconstruction emerges with Indo-European peoples arriving in various waves of migrations during the first and second millennia BC: first a western Italic group (including Latin), followed by a central Italic group of Osco-Umbrian dialects, with a late arrival of Greek and Celtic on the Italian peninsula, from across the Adriatic and Alps, respectively. These migrations are generally believed to have displaced speakers of Etruscan and other pre-Indo-European languages; although it is possible that Etruscan arrived also by migration, it must have done so before 2000 BC.
The start of the Iron age saw a gradual increase in social complexity and population that led to the emergence of proto-urban settlements in central and northern Italy writ large. These proto-urban agglomerations were normally clusters of smaller settlements that were insufficiently distant to be separated communities; over time, they would unify.
The canonical Roman myth held that their city was founded by a Latin named Romulus some time around 750 BC on the 21 April. Most modern historians and archaeologists largely ignore ancient Roman myths to focus on the archaeological evidence, which indicates that Rome had been occupied long before the ancients' c. 750 BC foundation date.
Contrary to ancient accounts, archaeological evidence suggests that Rome developed over a long period. The site of Rome was an attractive one for a city, as it controlled one of the sites to cross the Tiber between Etruria and Campania and also the salt beds at the Tiber's mouth. Traces of occupation also have been found in the general region – including in Lavinium and on the coast near Ardea – going back to the fifteenth century BC.
The site that became Rome was definitely occupied by the middle of the Bronze Age. Pottery shards discovered in the Forum Boarium indicate human activity in the area around that time. The Seven hills of Rome provided defensible points for settlement; the marshes between the hills similarly provided protection. The river Tiber was fordable near the Aventine hill and also provided transport for locals. Current evidence points to three different Bronze Age settlements at the Capitoline hill by 1700–1350 BC and at what became the Roman Forum between the Capitoline and Palatine hills by 1350–1120 BC. Some ancient accounts assert there was a Mycenaean Greek settlement on the Palatine some time during the 12th century BC but there is no persuasive archaeological evidence for that claim.
Evidence in the final Bronze age around 1200–975 BC is clearer and shows occupation of the Forum, Palatine, and Capitoline. Excavations near the modern Capitoline Museums suggest the construction of fortifications and some scholars have speculated settlement on the other hills, especially the Janiculum, Quirinal, and Aventine. The oldest structures, dating to the thirteenth century BC, indicate that by this period terraces had been constructed on the Capitoline to manage its slope. With the earliest material remains being discovered on the Capitoline, this suggests that the ancient accounts of Palatine priority are incorrect. The Palatine hill was occupied by the start of the ninth century BC; there were likely in this period multiple settlements across the hills; whether they were separate or joined by Capitoline colonisation is debated.
There are human remains by 1000 BC, with discovery of cremation graves in the forum. By the early Iron age c. 900 BC, graves started to be placed into the ground in what are now the Imperial fora. Other cemeteries appear on the Esquiline, Quirinal, and Viminal hills by the 9th century, containing pottery, imported Greek wares, fibulae, and bronze objects. The remains of huts on the Palatine hill date to the ninth or eighth centuries BC, with accelerating development by the early or middle eighth century BC.
By this time, four major settlements emerged in Rome. The nuclei appeared on the Palatine, the Capitoline, the Quirinal and Viminal, and the Caelian, Oppian, and Velia. There is, however, no evidence linking any settlement on the Quirinal hill with the Sabines, as is alleged by some ancient accounts.
The area of the Forum also was converted at this time into a public space. Burials there discontinued and portions of it were paved over. Votive offerings appear in the comitium in the eighth century, indicating a more central religious cult, and other public buildings appear to have been erected around that time. One of those buildings was the domus publica (the official residence of the pontifex maximus), which is now believed to have been constructed between 750 and 700 BC. Religious activity started also in this period on the Capitoline hill, suggesting a connection to the ancient cult of Jupiter Feretrius. Other offerings discovered indicate Rome's connections outside Latium, with imported Greek pottery from Euboea and Corinth.
The first evidence of a wall appears in the middle or late eight century on the Palatine, dated between 730 and 720 BC. It is possible that the circuit of the wall marked out what later Romans believed to be the original pomerium (sacred boundary) of the city. The discovery of gates and streets connected to the wall, with the remains of various huts, suggest that Rome had by this time:
acquired a defined boundary ... [and] a more sophisticated level of social and political organisation ... the use of the Forum as a public space point[s] to the development of [a] shared civil and ritual space for the inhabitants of all communities, demonstrating an increasing level of centralisation.
Like other Villanovan proto-urban centres, this archaic Rome was likely organised around clans that guarded their own areas, but by the later eighth century had confederated. The development of city-states was likely a Greek innovation that spread through the Mediterranean from 850 to 750 BC. The earliest votive deposits are found in the early seventh century on the Capitoline and Quirinal hills, suggesting that by that time a city had formed with monumental architecture and public religious sanctuaries. Certainly, by 600 BC, a process of synoikismos was complete and there had been formed a unified Rome – reflected in the production of a central forum area, public monumental architecture, and civic structures – can be spoken of.
The Roman foundation stories are myths. Even the name of the eponymous founder, Romulus, – translated as "Mr Rome" by Mary Beard – is now generally believed to have been retrojected from the city's name rather than reflecting a historical figure. Some scholars, such as Andrea Carandini, have controversially suggested that these earliest myths reflect underlying historical events and that the city was in fact founded by a single actor as the Romans claimed; this theory is, according to Kathryn Lomas in the 2017 book Rise of Rome, "highly controversial" and based on highly tendentious interpretations of the archaeological evidence; they have failed to gain wide acceptance.
The Romans' origin myths, however, provide evidence of how the Romans conceived of themselves as a mixture of different ethnic groups and foreign influences; this does reflect in a very distant manner the cultural mixing-grounds that were Latium in the early Iron age. The Romans, themselves founders of cities, took the idea of a ritual urban foundation seriously. To commemorate their presumed founder, they maintained a hut which they ascribed to Romulus, although they had no firm basis for this belief.
The canonical version of that myth is contained in the first book of Livy, which was written close to the end of the 1st century BC, some seven or eight centuries after the purported events the book describes. There are two main myths which were themselves developed through the centuries. The first relates to the foundation of the city by the brothers Romulus and Remus; the other to their mythical ancestor Aeneas.
|Ancient historian||Founding year|
|Gnaeus Naevius||c. 1100 BC|
|Ennius||c. 1100 BC or |
c. 884 BC
|Calpurnius Piso||757, 753, or 751 BC|
|Fasti Capitolini||753–52 BC|
|Dionysius of Halicarnassus||752–51 BC|
|Cato the Elder||751 BC|
|Fabius Pictor||748–47 BC|
|Cincius Alimentus||729–28 BC|
While the Romans believed that their city had been founded by an eponymous founder at a specific time, when that occurred was disputed by the ancient historians. Most estimates ranged from the ninth century BC down to the eighth. The officially accepted date eventually emerged in the late first century BC from the Varronian chronology, which placed Rome's foundation in the year 753 BC.
The earliest years given, c. 1100 BC in the modern calendar, were based on the belief that Romulus was Aeneas' grandson, placing Rome's foundation much closer to fall of Troy, which at the time was dated, per Eratosthenes, 1184–83 BC. This tradition is attested to as early as the fourth century BC. To solve the chronological problem, the Alban kings were interjected to reconcile the belief of Rome's foundation in the eighth century with the chronology of Troy.
According to the best-known version of the tale, Romulus and Remus are the grandsons of Numitor, the king of Alba Longa. After Numitor is deposed by his brother Amulius and his daughter Rhea Silvia is forced to become a virgin priestess for Vesta, she becomes pregnant – allegedly by Mars – and delivers the two illegitimate brothers. Amulius orders that they be left to die on the slopes of the Palatine, but they are rescued by a she-wolf and then by a herdsman called Faustulus. Brought up by Faustulus and his wife Acca Larentia – who in Livy is a prostitute, as the Latin word lupa was slang therefor, – the brothers reveal their true origins at adulthood and restore Numitor as king of Alba Longa, ejecting Amulius from the city. Afterwards, they leave and establish a city at the location they were rescued.
Romulus kills Remus shortly thereafter amid a quarrel over naming rights and interpretation of auguries. Stories differ: some say that Romulus killed his brother by his own hand while others attribute his death to a general fracas between their supporters. Romulus, after laying out the city's boundaries, then declares it an asylum for exiles, criminals, and runaway slaves. The city becomes larger but also acquires a mostly male population. When Romulus' attempts to secure the women of neighbouring settlements by diplomacy fail, he uses the religious celebration of Consualia to abduct the women of the Sabines. According to Livy, when the Sabines rally an army to take their women back, the women force the two groups to make peace and install the Sabine king Titus Tatius as co-monarch with Romulus.
The story has been theorised by some modern scholars to reflect anti-Roman propaganda from the late fourth century BC, but more likely reflects an indigenous Roman tradition, given the Capitoline Wolf which likely dates to the sixth century BC. Regardless, by the third century, it was widely accepted by Romans and put onto some of Rome's first silver coins in 269 BC. Cornell, in the 1995 book Beginnings of Rome, argues that the myths of Romulus and Remus are "popular expressions of some universal human need or experience" rather than borrowings from the Greek east or Mesopotamia, inasmuch as the story of virgin birth, intercession by animals and humble step-parents, with triumphant return expelling an evil leader are common mythological elements across Eurasia and even into the Americas.
The indigenous tradition of Romulus was also combined with a legend telling of Aeneas coming from Troy and travelling to Italy. This tradition emerges from the Iliad's prophecy that Aeneas' descendants would one day return and rule Troy once more. Greeks by 550 BC had begun to speculate, given the lack of any clear descendants of Aeneas, that the figure had established a dynasty outside the proper Greek world. The first attempts to tie this story to Rome were in the works of two Greek historians at the end of the fifth century BC, Hellanicus of Lesbos and Damastes of Sigeum, likely only mentioning off hand the possibility of a Roman connection; a more assured connection only emerged at the end of the fourth century BC when Rome started having formal dealings with the Greek world.
The ancient Roman annalists, historians, and antiquarians faced an issue tying Aeneas to Romulus, as they believed that Romulus lived centuries after the Trojan War, which was dated at the time c. 1100 BC. For this, they fabricated a story of Aeneas' son founding the city of Alba Longa and establishing a dynasty there, which eventually produced Romulus.
In Livy's first book he recounts how Aeneas, a demigod of the Trojan royal Anchises and the goddess Venus, leaves Troy after its destruction during the Trojan War and sailed to the western Mediterranean. He brings his son – Ascanius – and a group of companions. Landing in Italy, he forms an alliance with a local magnate called Latinus and marries his daughter Lavinia, joining the two into a new group called the Latini; they then found a new city, called Lavinium. After a series of wars against the Rutuli and Caere, the Latins conquer the Alban Hills and its environs. His son Ascanius then founds the legendary city of Alba Longa, which became the dominant city in the region. The later descendants of the royal lineage of Alba Longa eventually produce Romulus and Remus, setting up the events of their mythological story.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus similarly attempted to show a Greek connection, giving a similar story for Aeneas, but also a previous series of migrations. He describes migrations of Arcadians into southern Italy some time in the 18th century BC, migrations into Umbria by Greeks from Thessaly, and the foundation of a settlement on the Palatine hill by Evander (originally hailing also from Arcadia) and Hercules.
The introduction of Aeneas follows a trend across Italy towards Hellenising their own early mythologies by rationalising myths and legends of the Greek Heroic Age into a pseudo-historical tradition of prehistoric times; this was in part due to Greek historians' eagerness to construct narratives purporting that the Italians were actually descended from Greeks and their heroes. These narratives were accepted by non-Greek peoples due Greek historiography's prestige and claims to systematic validity.
Archaeological evidence shows that worship of Aeneas had been established at Lavinium by the sixth century BC. Similarly, a cult to Hercules had been established at the Ara Maxima in Rome during the archaic period. By the early fifth century BC, these stories had become entrenched in Roman historical beliefs. These cults, along with the early – in literary terms – account of Cato the Elder, show how Italians and Romans took these Greek histories seriously and as reliable evidence by later annalists, even though they were speculations of little value. Much of the syncretism, however, may simply reflect Roman desires to give themselves a prestigious backstory: claim of Trojan descent proved politically advantageous with the Greeks by justifying both claims of common heritage and ancestral enmity.
By the time of the Pyrrhic War (280–75 BC), there were some sixty different myths for Rome's foundation that circulated in the Greek world. Most of them attributed the city to an eponymous founder usually "Rhomos" or "Rhome" rather than Romulus. One story told how Romos, a son of Odysseus and Circe, was the one who founded Rome. Martin P. Nilsson speculates that this older story was becoming a bit embarrassing as Rome became more powerful and tensions with the Greeks grew. Being descendants of the Greeks was no longer preferable, so the Romans settled on the Trojan foundation myth instead. Nilsson further speculates that the name of Romos was changed by some Romans to the native name Romulus, but the same name Romos (later changed to the native Remus) was never forgotten by many of the people, so both these names were used to represent the founders of the city.
Another story, attributed to Hellanicius of Lesbos by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, says that Rome was founded by a woman named Rhome, one of the followers of Aeneas, after landing in Italy and burning their ships. That by the middle of the fifth century Aeneas was also allegedly the founder of two or three other cities across Italy was no object. These myths also differed as to whether their eponymous matriarch Roma was born in Troy or Italy – ie before or after Aeneas' journey – or otherwise if their Romus was a direct or collateral descendant of Aeneas.
Myths of the early third century also differed greatly in the claimed genealogy of Romulus or the founder, if an intermediate actor was posited. One tale posited one Romus, son of Zeus, founded the city. Callias posited that Romulus was descended from Latinus and a woman called Roma who was the daughter of Aeneas and a homonymous mother. Other authors depicted Romulus and Romus, here a son of Aeneas, founding not only Rome but also Capua. Authors also wrote their home regions into the story; Polybius, who hailed from Arcadia, for example, gave Rome not a Trojan colonial origin but an rather Arcadian one.
Quintus Ennius... according to his account, the founding of the city was dated about the year 900.