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Archaeologists Search for The Sarcophagus of Romulus, Rome’s Mythic Founder

Everyone loves a good origin story and the legend of the founding of Rome is one befitting an empire. Romulus and Remus were the sons of a vestal virgin named Rhea Silvia and, depending on who you ask, the god Mars or the demi-god Hercules. As infants they were condemned to death by their great uncle King Amulius, for fear they would usurp his throne and because that’s what kings and uncles did in the old stories. Not wanting to anger the brothers’ divine father by outright killing them, Amulius commanded his servants to execute Romulus and Remus by live burial or throwing them in the river Tiber. Because that was sure to make Mars, the god of war, less angry than a quick and honorable death by the sword. In any case, the servants took pity on the boys and instead floated them in baskets down the Tiber until they came to rest against a tree. That’s when the wolves found them, and usually that’s where the story ends. These were mythic empire-building wolves, however, and they took the boys in and raised them as their own.

Some years later after a bit of warring and regicide Romulus and Remus had become men and it was time to undergo that rite of passage that all men must: founding their own city. However, they disagreed on which hill to build the city so they had a bird counting contest. Romulus won but Remus called shenanigans and they argued until Romulus began building a wall around his hill. Remus made fun of the wall and Romulus killed him. So it goes.

Statue of Romulus and Remus

Statue of Romulus, Remus, and a very accommodating wolf.

Did any of that happen? No, probably not. It’s pretty goofy, but like all good myths there’s a lot of allegory crammed up in there and in the many years I hand-waved through. Romulus, however, may have been a real person and a team of archaeologists are now undertaking a quest to find Romulus’ sarcophagus, which they believe is buried deep below the Forum in the heart of ancient Rome.

The Forum was sealed up after excavations in the 19th century, but writings of archaeologist Giacomo Boni from the time of those excavations and the ancient writings of Horace and Livy point to a stone sarcophagus buried underneath the forum, supposedly linked to Romulus.

According to Alfonsina Russo, archaeological director of the area that includes the forum, there is a chance that Romulus was a real person:

“He may have existed. There are always elements of truth to foundation myths like this.”

Rome Forum

The Forum in Rome

However, they don’t expect to find Romulus’ body. According to legend, Romulus was dismembered by his Senate and then ascended to heaven. According to archaeologists, the sarcophagus was put there 400 years after he died, probably by the Cult of Romulus. Patrizia Fortini, the archaeologist in charge of the project, says:

“This is a new hypothesis, that the sarcophagus is linked to the cult of Romulus.”

 

We don’t expect to find any bodily remains – the cask was placed there about four centuries after Romulus’ death as a symbol, a memory of the man.”

But what they find may shed more light on how much of Rome’s founding myth was based on truth. If the sarcophagus is found, the team says the area will be opened to the public. At the very least, applying modern archaeological techniques to an area sealed more than one hundred years ago is sure to result in something. maybe we’ll learn what Remus could have possibly said about that wall.