After two episodes on the Forum Boarium, we move up to the Palatine Hill. At the same time, we move from Rome’s distant prehistory and Aeneas to its founding by his descendant Romulus, the son of Mars. Later still, Caesar and his adopted son Augustus presented Aeneas and Romulus as precursors of the Caesars.

Show Notes

We devoted the last two episodes to the Forum Boarium and the myths and temples for which it is best known. Today we move forward in time, from Rome’s distant ancestry to her founding, and hence from Aeneas to Romulus. We also move in space, from the low ground of the Forum Boarium, down by the banks of the Tiber River, up to the Palatine Hill.

The Palatine Hill is so located that visitors get a nice view down onto the Roman Forum from one side and onto the Circus Maximus from the other. Its southwest corner also slopes up from the Forum Boarium, where Evander first met Hercules and later met Aeneas, and this part of the Palatine loomed large in the Romans’ imagination and manipulation of their rugged but divinely favored past. When visiting the Palatine, find this oldest part of it by locating the ruins of the House of Augustus, which are a prominent landmark.

The Palatine has an important and well-documented history under the emperors, but its first association is with the prehistoric times of Romulus. This was where Romulus was camped before he and his twin brother settled the question of who would be the first king of Rome. Remus was on an adjacent hill, the Aventine, and the decision between the brothers and their hills was to be made by augury, that is, by interpreting the flight of birds as signs of the will of the gods. First Remus received the favorable sign of six vultures, but then Romulus claimed to have seen twelve. These were both sons of Mars, which may explain why a fight broke out as to whether it was more decisive that Remus’s sign came first or that Romulus’s was twice as big. Romulus won the fight, reportedly killing his brother in the process, and so the Palatine became home to the new city, which would take its name from its founder, at least in the most common view of how Rome got its name. Its official and religious borders, the pomerium, were then marked by Romulus as he drove his plow in a ritual act to determine the location and size of the new city.

The Hut of Romulus, the Stairs of Cacus, and the Cave of the Lupercal

I doubt Romulus ever existed, but his house or hut did. Once the Romans began creating their past, various Romans had an interest in shaping and perpetuating useful parts of it. Romulus was remembered as a son of Mars, the nursling not of his mother but of a wolf, and a descendant of Aeneas, himself the son of Venus. This memory of a doubly-divine ancestry favored the suggestion that Rome’s founder was a combination of toughness and divine favor, and it was kept alive in part by building a simple hut and identifying it as Romulus’s home. This poor hut was maintained and rebuilt over the centuries by priests assigned to the task, one made difficult by the flimsiness of the materials and by the use of fire in the many religious rites that were performed there.

Romulus’s hut naturally lost importance in Christian times, as newer relics captured the Romans’ attentions, and the hut disappeared, but archeologists have found the post holes that had been dug into the rock to support the primitive huts that sheltered Rome’s few settlers back in the eighth century BC, more or less when Romulus was imagined to have founded Rome. The little museum on the Palatine contains a reconstruction of such huts; so, huts there were, whether or not a Romulus ever lived in one.

Loosely similar examples from the Christian tradition of such efforts to preserve a house’s memory are the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, near Italy’s Adriatic coast, and the Porziuncola in Assisi. The former is remembered by the faithful as containing within it the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was miraculously transported to Italy, while the latter is a tiny chapel that was dear to St. Francis. Both humble structures became so revered that they were encased within large and opulent basilicas, as if great wealth were necessary to honor those who cared nothing for it. Romulus’s hut was not enclosed in luxury, but it was surrounded by costlier structures from a later age. The most prominent of these was the House of Augustus, which the powerful first emperor of Rome chose to have built in close association with Romulus’ hut.

The hut remembered the heroic services of Romulus, and its simplicity suggested that virtue was more important than wealth. Poverty can help educate us to a proper sense of merit, as the memory of Abe Lincoln growing up and reading Shakespeare in a log cabin used to do for Americans. Virgil also stresses the lessons of domestic poverty by having Evander bring Aeneas into his home with the following words:

Friend, have the courage to care little for wealth, and shape yourself, you too, to merit divinity. Do not come into our needy home with disdain.

A visit to the area of these huts adds further evidence to the suspicion that Augustus made use of Romulus’s reputation to bolster his own. As he was busily accumulating in his own hands the authority that had been shared by the Senate and People of Rome for almost five centuries, he obviously had to rely heavily on keeping the army under his control. But even rulers who rely primarily on force also see the advantages of claiming that they deserve to rule, as dictators often do by holding elections, even when many know them to be bogus. Linking himself with Romulus was one way Augustus strengthened his claim to rule.

Romulus was remembered as a great leader in war, as Augustus also claimed to be, and Romulus founded the Roman state, while Augustus claimed to restore or re-found it. The devasting and protracted civil wars and the threat represented by Antony and Cleopatra had required some sort of new beginning, he claimed. Before he chose “Augustus” as his honorific title, Octavian was even encouraged to take the name Romulus. “Augustus” has sacred connotations and is opposed to the adjective, “humanus.” It at least hints that Augustus is not only pious toward the gods but also partakes of their divinity. The Hellenistic Kings of the east made more open claims to be divine, but Augustus’s new name or title, and his association with the deified Romulus, suggests he too is headed down this path.  Romulus, after all, was the only deified Roman until Augustus helped to have Caesar receive this honor on his death, a step in the direction of similar treatment for Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus himself. If the first emperor’s claim to rule as deriving from the Senate and People was dubious, even an only partly credible divine connection could help him shore up his authority.

Augustus’s adoptive father Julius Caesar had already recognized some such advantages and associated himself with Romulus. As a deity, Romulus was called Quirinus, from whom the Quirinal Hill takes its name, and Caesar placed a statue of himself in a temple dedicated to this god. The temple was damaged in the wars between Caesar and Pompey, but Augustus was careful to rebuild it. Caesar also received on his death the title pater patriae, “father of his country,” which had previously been given to Romulus, and, as just noted, he too was deified on his death. As we noted in an earlier episode, Augustus also featured Romulus prominently in the magnificent forum he built, the Forum of Augustus.

Augustus surely did not believe the myths he tried to bolster. In this respect he was like the historian Livy when he passed along mythical accounts from the distant past. But unlike Augustus, Livy also invited his readers to doubt the myths he reported. He did so by contrasting poetry and history, by saying openly that traditional accounts blur the important distinction between human and divine, and by sometimes giving two versions of a single story, one more mythical and the other more in keeping with a critical analysis. With regard to the death of Romulus, for example, Livy reported the usual story that some believed he had been assumed into heaven and joined the gods, but he also raised and supported the possibility that Romulus may rather have been torn into pieces by the Senators, who resented his dominant political role. (This would suggest another way Caesar was like Romulus, though it’s a likeness Caesar would have been happy to have avoided). Livy’s invitation to a more critical reading of events might suggest that he had an educational purpose, but Augustus’s purpose was to increase his own authority. Livy must also have thought he had an audience of some sophistication, a likely consequence of the influence of the Greeks, whose probing works had been circulating in Rome for over a century.

In the same area as the Hut of Romulus and House of Augustus are the ruins of the Stairs of Cacus (Scalae Caci) and the Cave of the Lupercal. These are other examples of the Romans’ efforts to keep myths alive by creating places that pertain to them. The Stairs are now just a gate in a tufa wall, but back when they were in good shape, they might have made it easier for some to believe that Hercules really did kill the monster Cacus, as we discussed earlier.

The Cave of the Lupercal is inaccessible today, but the stories associated with it are well-known and still engaging. As he initiated the rites honoring Hercules, Virgil’s Evander also established the Lupercalia, a religious festival that fostered fertility. The Lupercalia also became associated with the cave believed to have been home to Rome’s famous she-wolf. (“Lupus” is wolf in Latin.) She nursed the infants Romulus and Remus, who had been set adrift by a wicked king to drown in the Tiber, and, miraculously, she thus saved the child who would later found Rome.

About seven centuries after this event was imagined to have occurred, Augustus decorated or redecorated a grotto on the SW end of the Palatine Hill and reaffirmed that it was the she-wolf’s cave. Some contemporary archeologists claim to have found its ruins; others, of course, have published their doubts. Even if the she-wolf was complete fiction, a very real cave was created for her, just as the imagined Romulus acquired a hut, and Cacus got stairs.

Descriptions of the strange rite of the Lupercalia vary slightly, but they appear to have begun and ended in the cave of the she-wolf. First a dog and one or more goats were slaughtered, then some of the blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young male priests, then the animals’ skins were cut into strips, and then the priests ran naked through the city. Their task was to use the fleshy strips of raw animal skin to touch those women in the crowd who wished divine help in conceiving or in delivering a child.

Marc Antony was one of these naked runners, and in what is now the most widely imagined occurrence of the Lupercalia, the one from Act I scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar bids his wife to stand in Antony’s way, thus suggesting that he is eager to have an heir to the kingly power he is amassing for himself. Both Plutarch and Shakespeare have Antony use this public occasion to offer Caesar a crown, which he would then either accept or decline depending on his sense of the public’s attitude toward this revolutionary action. Since the people showed enthusiasm when he refused the crown, a disappointed Caesar judged it the wrong moment to seize it. One month later was assassinated for the steps he was taking toward overthrowing the Roman Republic and making himself the first king of Rome for almost five hundred years.

Share this podcase episode