The not-tomb of Romulus: Part the Second

The legends of the founding of Rome have come down to us from ancient chroniclers, but the earliest extant accounts we have come from the 2nd century B.C., more than 600 years after the supposed events. Those authors refer to earlier histories, now lost, but it doesn’t exactly help identify any potential kernels of truth. It just adds to the cacophony of unknowns.

Here, for example, is Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus writing in the 1st century B.C. (Roman Antiquities I.72):

But as there is great dispute concerning both the time of the building of the city and the founders of it, I have thought it incumbent on me also not to give merely a cursory account of these things, as if they were universally agreed on. For Cephalon of Gergis, a very ancient writer, says that the city was built in the second generation after the Trojan war by those who had escaped from Troy with Aeneas, and he names as the founder of it Romus, who was the leader of the colony and one of Aeneas’ sons; he adds that Aeneas had four sons, Ascanius, Euryleon, Romulus and Remus. And Demagoras, Agathyllus and many others agree with him as regards both the time and the leader of the colony. But the author of the history of the priestesses at Argos and of what happened in the days of each of them says that Aeneas came into Italy from the land of the Molossians with Odysseus and became the founder of the city, which he named after Romê, one of the Trojan women. He says that this woman, growing weary with wandering, stirred up the other Trojan women and together with them set fire to the ships. And Damastes of Sigeum and some others agree with him. But Aristotle, the philosopher, relates that some of the Achaeans, while they were doubling Cape Malea on their return from Troy, were overtaken by a violent storm, and being for some time driven out of their course by the winds, wandered over many parts of the sea, till at last they came to this place in the land of the Opicans which is called Latinium, lying on the Tyrrhenian sea. And being pleased with the sight of land, they hauled up their ships, stayed there the winter season, and were preparing to sail at the beginning of spring; but when their ships were set on fire in the night and they were unable to sail away, they were compelled against their will to fix their abode in the place where they had landed. This fate, he says, was brought upon them by the captive women they were carrying with them from Troy, who burned the ships, fearing that the Achaeans in returning home would carry them into slavery. Callias who wrote of the deeds of Agathocles, says that Romê, one of the Trojan women who came into Italy with the other Trojans, married Latinus, the king of the Aborigines, by whom she had three son, Romus, Romulus and Telegonus, . . . and having built a city, gave it the name of their mother. Xenagoras, the historian, writes that Odysseus and Circê had three sons, Romus, Anteias and Ardeias, who built three cities and called them after their own names. Dionysius of Chalcis names Romus as the founder of the city, but says that according to some this man was the son of Ascanius, and according to others the son of Emathion. There are others who declare that Rome was built by Romus, the son of Italus and Leucaria, the daughter of Latinus.

If you think that was a long quote, consider that that’s just the paragraph about the Greek historians, and he didn’t even include all of them. He goes on to relay some of the conflicting stories and dates in Roman accounts. (A moment of silence for all these books we will never get to read.)

By the time of the late Republic, the Romulus legend was thoroughly ingrained in Roman culture. Although chroniclers still debated the veracity of various elements and versions, they expressed no doubt on the historicity of Romulus himself. There were several important cult sites dedicated to the founder: the temple to Jupiter Stator built by Romulus after the peace with Titus Tatius, the wild fig tree the twins had been found under was transplanted to the Forum, the humble wood and thatch house Romulus had built for himself on the Palatine still stood and would continue to be a noted city landmark at least into the 4th century A.D., the Lapis Niger, an ancient shrine in the Forum featuring a truncated tufa pillar inscribed in Latin so old that nobody in the late Republic could read it, was alternately said to mark the spot of Romulus’ death or grave, that of his adoptive father Faustulus, or that of Hostus Hostilius (father of the third king, Tullus Hostilius), who had died heroically fighting off the Sabines.

The question of Romulus’ death was just as much debated as every other aspect of the founding. Livy and Plutarch relay accounts that, accompanied by mighty thunderclaps, Romulus was assumed bodily into heaven and became the god Quirinus, protector of Rome. They also proffers another possibility: that that was just a story told to appease the masses after Romulus’ sudden disappearance, when really the senators had killed Romulus, cut his body into small pieces and smuggled chunks of him in the folds of their togas to dispose of the evidence of their regicide.

The lack of a physical body was no barrier to a tomb, however. A cenotaph — an empty tomb memorializing the dead — or heroon — a shrine dedicated to a hero built over his ostensible tomb — required no bodily remains, and whatever the real origins and ages of these relics of Romulus, they were revered as sacred sites.

Between natural disasters, unnatural ones like the Gallic sack in 390 B.C., an ever-expanding population, normal wear and tear and shifts in fashion, the architecture of the city never stood still. The Lapis Niger was covered, at first after it was damaged in the sack, again, possibly by Sulla, and then entirely obscured by Julius Caesar’s major reorientation of the Forum. The massive markets, basilicas and forums of the Imperial age needed deep foundations, and much of Rome’s earliest archaeology must have been destroyed during those construction programs.

After the fall of Western Empire, the city cannibalized itself. Ancient structures were left to ruin, built onto, deliberately demolished or scavenged for their materials. Layers upon layers of construction, flood silt, disaster rubble built up over 1,500 years, raising ground level far above the earliest remains and creating a stratigraphic maze below.

The first to attempt to crack the complex conundrum of what was under the Forum from what era was archaeologist Giacomo Boni, director of excavations in the Roman Forum from 1898 until his death in 1925. Boni’s work was groundbreaking in more than the literal sense as he was the first to undertake a systematic analysis of the stratigraphy of the Forum, the archaeological nucleus of the city. He unearthed the two most ancient sites in Rome: a tufa shrine he identified as the Vulcanal and the Lapis Niger.

In his 1899 excavation, the results of which he published in 1900, Boni noted the discovery of a tufa coffin and cylinder under what was left of the ancient staircase in front of the Curia Julia.

3.6 meters [11.8 feet] from the nucleus of the staircase, a rectangular tufa casket or basin 1.4 meters long [4.6 feet], .7 meters [2.3 feet] wide and .77 meters [2.5 feet] high was found, in front of which rises a cylindrical trunk of tufa .75 meters [2.5 feet] in diameter.

The tufa case contained pebbles, shards of coarse pots, fragments of pottery from Campania, a certain amount of pectunculus valves [sea snail shells] and a piece of red colored plaster.

That’s all he had to say about it. Boni recorded the find but did not connect it to Romulus or any other ancient monument, and moved right along to record the myriad other finds he’d made in his pioneering excavation of one of the most archaeologically dense spots in the world.

In the 1930s, archaeologist Alfonso Bartoli was directed by Mussolini to peel the church additions off the Curia Julia and restore it as close as possible to its ancient design. He built a new staircase in front of it over the nucleus of the ancient one. And over the modest little tufa sarcophagus and cylinder Boni had unearthed.

Bartoli could so easily have done what 2,500 years of Roman builders before him had done and destroyed those remains in the process. They were deep underground, visually unremarkable, entirely out of sync with Mussolini’s fantasy of the shiny white marble imperial city, and basically unknown. Instead, he kept the shrine intact and safe, building brick pillars to sustain a soffit made of iron beams and perforated wooden planks.

Even though nobody knew about it, Bartoli’s protective structure was securely in place when the excavation team from the Parco Archeological del Colosseo began to retrace Boni’s steps in November 2019.