Rome, SPQR

Happy birthday, Roma!

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Today (April 21) is the traditional date given for the founding of Rome. According to Roman mythology, the founders were Romulus and Remus, twin brothers and sons of the gods Mars and 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.

The She-Wolf feeding the twins Romulus and Remus, the most famous image associated with the founding of Rome.

Rome has its origins on the Palatine. According to the myth, the Palatine Hill was the location of the cave, known as the Lupercal, where Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf Lupa who kept them alive. Archaeologists have traced evidence of hut villages on the western edge of the Palatine Hill dating back to between the 9th and 7th century BC, approximately when the city of Rome was founded.

The ancient Romans celebrated the founding of their city every April 21 during the festival of Parilia. This festival aimed at cleansing sheep and shepherds in honour of Pales, the patron 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, Faustulus.

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 are fed by a she-wolf, surrounded by representations of the Tiber and the Palatine Hill.

This relief 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.

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 October 1 AD 124. In this period, Hadrian promoted a renewed interest in themes related to the origins of Rome.

Gold coin of Hadrian struck to commemorate games held on April 21 AD 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 were 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 which he dedicated to Venus, the divine ancestress of the Roman people, and 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 in a single structure with one cella facing toward the Colosseum and the other facing towards the Forum.

As Dio Cassius tells us, Hadrian seems to have designed the temple. However, construction of the temple did not begin until AD 125-126, and the project took at least until AD 135 and may have been completed under his successor Antoninus Pius.

By dedicating the temple to the goddess Roma, Hadrian demonstrated his devotion to the city and emphasised the power of Rome within a vast empire. Mary T Boatwright, Hadrian and the City of Rome (1987)

Temple of Venus and Rome.

Having dedicated the temple, Hadrian changed the name of the Parilia festival to Natalis Urbis (the city’s birthday). He associated the new Temple with 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 by 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 Aion (a deity associated with cyclical time or eternity) holding the phoenix, the symbol of rebirth and renewal, on a globe. Aion emerges from the Zodiac as an oval frame with the Legend SAEC AVR, a shorthand for ‘saeculum aureum‘ (Golden Age’). Through this type of coin, Hadrian aimed at bringing the empire to its pinnacle while emphasising the power of Rome within the vast empire.

Today, in Hadrian’s Pantheon in Rome, we can witness something special on April 21 when the midday sun strikes the doorway and fills the outside courtyard with golden light. One thousand nine hundred years ago, when Hadrian entered the temple at noon on Rome’s birthday, the sunlight fell right above the doorway of the Pantheon, creating a bright halo around the emperor, a symbol of the emperor’s divinity. It is believed that Hadrian had his engineers use precise mathematical calculations to astronomically align the Pantheon to make the sun appear in the doorway on the birth date of Rome.

Like the Augustan Obelisk at Campo Marzio, the Pantheon also had a strong solar association and, like the Ara Pacis, a special symbolic with the date of Rome’s foundation. The mouvement of the sun thus exalts the connection between Romulus, first founder of the city, whose apotheosis the Pantheon celebrates. Eugenio La Rocca,The Pantheon: From Antiquity to the Present (2018)

Links and further reading:


  • 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)

6 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Roma!”

  1. Dear Friends,

    I am working on a paper on Hadrian and Antinous at Nicopolis in Epirus, Greece. Due to the covi-19 all the libraries in Greece are closed and I am isolated at Ioaninna. Could someone provide me with the book by Clairmont, C. W. 1966. Die Bildnisse der Antinous, in a pdf format? Happy birthday, Roma!

    With best wishes to all.

    Konstantinos Zachos Emeritus curator of Antiquities

      1. Oh, I would love to have it too. My email is madge [at] hotmail [dot] fr

  2. Great Birthday post from my favorite blog! I always enjoy learning more about both the Pantheon and the Temple of Venus and Rome. Your post ties them together very well. What is your opinion on whether it was Hadrian or Trajan who initiated the construction of the Pantheon?

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