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Buon Compleanno Roma! Posted by on Apr 22, 2009 in Culture

Yesterday, Tuesday the 21st April, Rome celebrated her birthday, and she’s is not doing too badly given her age: 2,762! Rome’s birthday is called il Natale di Roma: Natale comes from the Latin word natus, which is the past participle of the verb nascere meaning ‘to be born’. Nowadays we only use the word Natale for Jesus’ birthday (i.e. Christmas), and Rome’s birthday, ordinary people like me and you have a mere compleanno, which literally means ‘a year’s completion’. Very confusing! But let’s get back to the Natale di Roma:  I wonder if there are any other cities in the world that have such a definitive birthday?

How do we know the exact date of Rome’s foundation? Well, the Roman historian Varrone (Varro, 1st century B.C.) fixed the date of the foundation of Rome to the 21st of April of the year 753 B.C. Varrone based his dating on the calculations made by his friend the astrologer Lucio Taruzio

There is a legend of Rome’s foundation that tells us how Numitore, king of Alba Longa (a pre-Roman town near Rome), and descendent of the Trojan hero Enea, was overthrown by his brother Amulio, his daughter, Rea Silvia, being forced to become a Vestale (vestal, a virgin priestess). The amorous god Marte (Mars), however, seduced Rea Silvia, and she gave birth to the twins: Romolo (Romulus) and Remo. King Amulio ordered a servant to kill the twins, but the servant, not having the courage carry out the order, put the two babies in a basket instead and placed it on the river Tevere (Tiber). The basket ended up in a marshy area between the Campidoglio (Capitol) and the Palatino, two of the seven hills that form Rome, and was found by a lupa (she wolf) who breast fed the twins, an act that has been immortalized in many Roman sculptures, and which has become the symbol of Rome. Animal lovers, be aware: according to modern historians the Lupa was in reality a prostitute. In Roman times ‘Ladies of the Night’ were also called lupae (female wolfs), the root of this word can be found in lupanare, the Latin name for ‘brothel’!

To return to the legend: Romolo and Remo were later found by the pig herd Faustolo, who reared them as his own children. On reaching adulthood, Romolo and Remo took their revenge on their uncle Amulio by killing him and reinstating their grandfather Numitore on the throne of Alba Longa. As they were unable reign while their grandfather was still alive, they decided to build a new town in the area where they had grown up. Romolo wanted to found the town on the Palatino hill and call it Roma, whilst Remo wanted to found it on the Aventino hill and call it Remora. As they couldn’t reach an agreement, they decided to wait for an omen to guide them. It was Remo who sighted the first omen, which arrived in the form of a flight of six vultures, but later on in the day Romolo sighted twelve vultures! A fight broke out between the group supporting Remo and that supporting Romolo and, tragically, Remo was killed.

On the 21st of April 753 B.C. Romolo ploughed the pomerium (the sacred furrow) which traced out the perimeter of the town that he would build on the top of the Palatino hill. He named the new town Roma, and hence become the first king of Rome.

This, with a few variations, is the legend told by ancient historians such as Livio and Plutarco. A few years ago, Professor of Archaeology Andrea Carandini discovered an ancient city wall in the northeastern area of the Palatino hill. This so called ‘muro di Romolo’ (Romulus’ wall), seems to prove that the city was actually founded according to a preconceived plan rather than evolving at random.

The 21st of April was designated a national festival in 1870 when Rome become the capital of the newly unified Italy, and since then it has always been celebrated with public events such as concerts and exhibitions. This year’s celebrations will include a re-enactment of the ploughing of the sacred furrow by the Gruppo Storico Romano which will take place at the Circo Massimo.

When I was in Rome for il Natale di Roma a few years ago, Piazza di Spagna and la Scalinata di Trinita’ dei Monti (the Spanish steps) had been decorated with a sea of flowers: it was magnificent!

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