Hadrian, Rome, SPQR

Felix dies natalis, Roma!

The she-wolf feeding the twins Romulus and Remus, the most famous image associated with the founding of Rome © Carole Raddato
The she-wolf feeding the twins Romulus and Remus, the most famous image associated with the founding of Rome

Today (21 April) is the traditional date given for the founding of Rome. According to Roman mythology, the founders were Romulus and Remus, twin brothers and supposed sons of the god Mars and the priestess Rhea Silvia. The twins were then abandoned by their parents as babies (because of a prophecy that they would overthrow their great-uncle Amulius) but were saved by a she-wolf who nursed them. Romulus killed his brother after a vicious quarrel and went on to establish a city which he named after himself.

Although the original date given by Roman historians for the founding of Rome varied between 758 and 728 BC, the official date was set as 753 BC. Archaeologists have traced evidence of villages on the Palatine Hill dating back to around the 9th century BC.

The ancient Romans celebrated the founding of their city every 21 April during the festival of Palilia. This festival was originally aimed at cleansing both sheep and shepherds in honour of Pales, the goddess of shepherds, but was later associated with the founding of Rome. The connection between these two characters of the festival is evident as the founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, grew up to be shepherds like their adoptive father.

Representation of the lupercal: Romulus and Remus fed by a she-wolf, surrounded by representations of the Tiber and the Palatine © Carole Raddato
Representation of the lupercal: Romulus and Remus fed by a she-wolf, surrounded by representations of the Tiber and the Palatine.

This panel comes from a sacrificial altar dedicated to the divine couple of Mars and Venus found at Ostia (Italy). This side of the altar shows a scene with the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, a personification of the river Tiber, and two fleeing shepherds, probably Faustulus, the adoptive father of the twins and his brother Faustinus. On the left is the personification of the Palatine, also dressed as a shepherd. The eagle of Jupiter, symbolically hovering over the sacred grotto of the Lupercal, indicates that the events are unfolding under divine auspices.

Representation of the lupercal: Romulus and Remus fed by a she-wolf, surrounded by representations of the Tiber and the Palatine © Carole Raddato
Detail of representation of the lupercal: Romulus and Remus fed by a she-wolf, surrounded by representations of the Tiber and the Palatine.

The altar carries various inscriptions. One of the inscriptions tells us that the altar was later used as a pedestal for a bronze statue of the god Silvanus. The consuls mentioned in the text inscribed securely date the inscription to 1 October AD 124.

In this period Hadrian promoted renewed interest in themes related to the origins of Rome.

Gold coin of Hadrian struck to commemorate games held on 21 April AD 121 to mark the 874th birthday of the city of Rome.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

This aureus of Hadrian was struck in AD 121 to commemorate the circus games that marked the 874th birthday of the city of Rome. The reverse of the coin depicts the Genius of the Circus Maximus with the legend “ANN. DCCCLXXIIII NAT. VRB. P. CIR. CON.” meaning that in the 874th year after the birth of the city (= AD 121), circus games have been founded (circenses constituta) for the Parilia on the Birthday of the City (natalis urbis romae). A lying genius (of the Circus Maximus) reclines on the three turning posts (metae) and holds a chariot wheel.

In the same year, while celebrating the Parilia festival, Hadrian founded a new temple dedicated to Venus, the divine ancestress of the Roman people, and to Roma herself. The temple was to stand on the north side of the Sacred Way on a great podium, stretching from just beyond the Arch of Titus and almost as far as the Colosseum. The two goddesses would be placed back to back with one cella facing toward the Colosseum, the other facing towards the Forum. As Dio Cassius tells us, Hadrian himself seems to have personally designed the temple. However, construction of the temple did not begin until AD 125.

Temple of Venus and Roma, Upper Via Sacra, Rome
Temple of Venus and Roma, Upper Via Sacra, Rome.

Having dedicated the temple, Hadrian changed the name of the Parilia festival to Romaia (the Natalis Urbis Romae) and associated the new Temple to the celebrations of the birthday of Rome. In addition, Hadrian retraced the sacred boundary of the pomerium, the original line ploughed by Romulus around the walls of the original city. In doing so, Hadrian renewed the festival of Parilia in associating himself with Romulus.

One other coin minted in Rome in the year 121 proclaimed a new Golden Age (saeculum aureum), making Hadrian the new Romulus.

Gold coin of Hadrian that proclaims a new Golden Age (saeculum aureum).
© The Trustees of the British Museum

This gold aureus featured on the reverse the Genius of the golden age “Saeculum Aureum” holding the zodiac and the phoenix on a globe, suggesting rebirth and renewal. Through this type of coin, Hadrian aimed at bringing the empire to its pinnacle while emphasising the power of Rome within the vast empire.

Links and further reading:

Sources:

  • Boatwright, M.T. (1987) Hadrian and the City of Rome, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, pp. 121-122
  • Birley, Anthony R. (1997) Hadrian: The Restless Emperor, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 112
  • Marie-Henriette Quet (2004). L’aureus au zodiaque d’Hadrien, première image de l’éternité cyclique dans l’idéologie et l’imaginaire temporel romains – Revue numismatique  Volume 6 Numéro 160 pp. 119-154 (link)

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