Is Romulus, the founder of Rome, a real historical figure, a creation of Roman mythology or a little of both. We may be closer to an answer with the announcement of the discovery of a shrine underneath the Roman Forum that was dedicated to Romulus. What’s more, the shine holds an underground chamber containing an altar and a 55-inch (1.4 meter) sarcophagus dating back to the 6th century BCE – putting it near the time of the founding of Rome in 753 BCE and the assumed death of Romulus. Does it contain Romulus? An apology to his brother Remus for murdering him? A picture of the she-wolf who raised them?
“Peering down in an excavated space beneath the Curia Julia, or ancient senate house, one sees something resembling a stone washtub that archaeologists say is a sarcophagus, or stone coffin. There’s also a cylindrical stone block, possibly an altar.”
Reporting on the announcement, The New York Times admits the shrine is not much to look at, especially for the founder of Rome and alleged son of the god Mars. The stuff is made of tuff, a not-so-tough soft rock formed out of compacted volcanic ash that was prevalent in the area and often used for construction. The Colosseum Archaeological Park, which oversees excavations under the Forum, unveiled the recent discovery this week to more fanfare than the looks of it would seem to deserve. However, there have long been rumors of a lost temple and this is the location where early writings say Romulus was buried … that is, if he didn’t ascend into heaven. Wait, what?
“We don’t know whether Romulus physically existed.”
Archaeologist Patrizia Fortini tells The New York Times that the area is as much a product of the imagination as it is of history. According to the well-known legend, twins Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa. Even this half is a myth, since Rhea was considered to be a minor forest deity and a Vestal Virgin – a priestess of the goddess Vesta who was not supposed to bear children. That changed after a night with the war god Mars. Her uncle Amulius ordered the kids to be drowned, but the trough they were put in was found by a she-wolf who suckled and raised them long enough to be immortalized in a famous statue. Does any of this sound historically factual?
Their later lives aren’t much closer to historical reality. Skipping to the death of Romulus and where he might have been buried if he were a real figure, most accounts say Romulus mysteriously disappeared in a storm and was either murdered by jealous senators and torn limb from limb or ascended into heaven to be with his father, Mars. Surprisingly, the sarcophagus supports the latter because … it was empty.
“Therefore this cannot be his tomb, but it is very likely, we believe, that this is a memorial site, a cenotaph.”
Alfonsina Russo, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation of the shrine, says this could be considered by some to support the ‘ascension’ myth. Also, there’s a 200 year gap between the supposed death of Romulus and the estimated dating of the tomb, making it more likely its purpose was symbolic rather than functional. That’s also true of the famous Capitoline Wolf bronze sculpture, the symbol of Rome. Once thought to have been made in the 5th century BCE (with the twins added in the late 15th century CE), it’s more likely to have been cast in the 11th or 12th century CE.
Whichever of the stories you believe, one thing is certain – Rome definitely wants you to come visit the Forum and the tomb and buy plenty of little plastic she-wolf statues.