The not-tomb of Romulus: Part the Third

In 2019, Boni’s “crate” captured the attention of Patrizia Fortini, an archaeologist with the Parco Archeological del Colosseo, who was studying his turn-of-the-century excavation records. Boni’s description and the drawings he made, like a cross-section illustrating the stratigraphy of the casket and cylinder in relation to the curia and other finds, underscored that this simple tufa box must have held great importance to be located in the very heart of Rome’s political and religious life.┬áThe shrine is in a direct line to the Lapis Niger only yards away, another indicator of its symbolic importance. Fortini also deduced from the drawings that the box was inside a designed structure, ie, a hypogeum or an underground temple.

In November 2019, the excavation began. The Bartoli staircase was dismantled, revealing the nucleus of the ancient staircase Boni had found and structural elements of the portico that had once faced the Curia Julia. Behind a brick wall built by Bartoli to protect the site, the team rediscovered the tufa sarcophagus and cylindrical block.

Both are made of Capitoline tufa quarried in situ, which is about as local a material as you can get, and which attests to their great age. As Rome’s territories expanded, they turned to richer sources of stone outside the city center instead of gutting the soft, friable tufa out of the Capitoline and Palatine. Large blocks of grey tufa on the south and west sides may have been part of the structure of the hypogeum itself.

As far as what might link this empty sarcophagus with the cult of Romulus, the biggest clue comes from a lost ancient text by the prolific polymath Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27 B.C.) who wrote at least 74 works in more than 600 volumes on many topics including the Latin language, philosophy, what in the Middle Ages would become known as the nine liberal arts, architecture, agriculture, religion and history. His chronology of the consuls established the founding date of Rome as 753 B.C. and while there were plenty of other proposed dates, Varro’s is the one that stuck.

The only complete work of his that has survived is Three Books on Agriculture, in which, as an aside to illustrate what a genius this guy was, he postulated the existence of microscopic creatures that enter the body and cause disease. We have only fragments from his Antiquities of Human and Divine Things, mostly quotes in Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, full name: On the city of God against the pagans, a rebuttal of the widespread belief that the sack of Rome in 410 was the result of the abandonment of the city’s traditional gods. Smaller quotes from Varro’s Antiquities can be found in a number of surviving ancient text. In one from a scholia (scholarly annotation) of Horace’s Epodi XVI, Varro states that Romulus was buried behind the Rostra. That’s where the hypogeal chamber with the sarcophagus is located.

Making a conclusive link between this find and the symbolic Tomb of Romulus is likely impossible, as there are simply too many variables and unknowns. This incredibly long-winded extendopost only scratches the surface of them. Nonetheless, it’s a discovery of great antiquity and significance.

Excavations will pick up again at the end of April. Archaeologists will be looking at the stratigraphic section on the west side of the chamber in particular. They will also look under the Curia Julia itself. Bartoli noted that there were two trapdoors in the Curia. Both are in line with hypogeum and monumental blocks of tufa are visible through them today. It’s possible those blocks were part of the underground temple’s back wall.