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Why one scholar wrote 142 books about the founding of Rome

Written by Peter Reynaers | 15th April 2019

Every year on the 21st of April, modern Romans (and Italians in general) celebrate the founding of their capital city with a public holiday and much festivity. While the day itself presents observers with simple, straight-forward enjoyment; trying to understand Rome’s earliest history is a much for murky, complicated undertaking.

At Catawiki, we care about history and the facts surrounding it. Which is why we’ve asked Peter Reynaers, Ancient Art & Archaeology Expert, to take us through why so much is so unknown about the founding of The Eternal City.

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In the beginning of the 4th century CE, during the invasion of the Gauls, Rome was destroyed and several archives and other remains, containing information about the initial period, went up in flames. There is, of course, Ancient Roman historiography, but its character and nature are not based on historical facts.


Ancient Roman marble figure of Hermes and Ram

The views of a number of ancient writers have been preserved in the main work of Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita (literally, “From the founding of the City”), namely: the Annalists. These views were not intended to be actual historiography but were rather nationalistic. The only thing we have to thank them for is that they at least give a more or less correct description of the institutions and cultural history.

When Rome began writing its own history, it had already risen to power and wanted to boost national pride, to show its growth and encourage others to sing the praises of Rome. Concerning Rome’s beginnings, connected through the Greeks with the fall of Troy, several versions were in circulation until the official acceptance of the saga of Aeneas, an ancestor of Romulus.


Etruscan golden 'sanguisuga-type' fibula

According to this legend, the city was founded on April 21 in 753 BCE by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus. This, however, is just a story, recorded for the first time by Virgil in his book Aeneas. It probably finds its origin in an assignment from the young state’s kings and governors, who wished to add a divine touch to the city’s origins.

The ancients believed that from 754 BCE. onwards, kings reigned over the region in which Rome is located. The first of these mythical ancestors was Romulus, of the royal family of Alba Longa, the founder of the city on the Palatine and the organizer of the state. After him several kings reigned. But then the city fell into the hands of the Etruscans.

It was the Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus from Tarquinii, who doubled the senate of Romulus and built the Circus Maximus. He also ordered the construction of the Cloaca Maxima, the channel that ensured that the marshes were drained. This was a very important feat: the city could now be built on dry land.


Roman oil lamp with a depiction of a Gladiator

In fact, there are two phases we can distinguish and that are also supported by archaeological finds. During the 2nd Millenium BCE., the Chalcolithic period, we can observe the Aenean phase in which the first settlements can be found on the Germalus, one of the peaks of the Palatine, Fagutal and the Esquiline.

Then comes the Romulean period that falls completely into the Iron Age. New villages emerged on several of Rome's hills. These villages grew towards each other and through the intervention of the Etruscans and their construction of the afore-mentioned Cloaca Maxima the Eternal City gradually came into being.


Roman bronze statue of Hercules

In the 6th century BCE, Servius Tullius, the sixth Etruscan king, implemented a reform which was primarily a new division of the population according to their origin. The idea of the territorial families (Tribus and Gens) was born and would continue to control the history of Rome until its fall. An end came to this era, also known as Rome’s Regal Period, in 509 BCE (or for the archaeologists the more acceptable date of 451 BCE) The Etruscan kings were expelled and the monarchy was overthrown. This also marks the beginning of a new era: the Republic.

Rome’s history, therefore, has very close ties with the Etruscans and was greatly influenced by Greek culture. The latter was mainly because there was contact with the Greek colony of Cumae and in the first half of the 3rd century BCE, all of Southern Italy came under the control of Rome. Later, with the conquest of Greece itself, Greco-Roman relations were lasting and extremely important.


Bracelet with Roman amethyst beads

Rome is a concoction of history: Bronze Age and Iron Age peoples, Etruscans and influences of colonial Greeks. Which is doubtless why Titus Livius needed 142 books to write his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita. This is the kind of stuff on which to build collections; starting with the relics you can find in our auction celebrating the founding of a city that everybody should take time out to see, live and breathe once in a lifetime… 

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