Every year, the Romans celebrated their city’s birthday on 21 April, the day on which, according to early traditions, Romulus founded Rome by tracing the pomerium, the sacred urban boundary separating the city (urbs) from the country (ager). The celebrations were held during the Parilia, a rural festival associated with flocks and herds, which predated Rome’s founding. In AD 121, for the 874th birthday of Rome, Hadrian established a new series of games in the Circus Maximus, elevated the Parilia festival into the Romaia, the Natalis Urbis Romae, consecrated the Temple of Venus and Roma on the Velian Hill and renewed the existing line of the pomerium.
According to Roman mythology, the story of the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, led to the founding of Rome. The twins were the children of the war god Mars and Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa, an ancient city near Rome. Because of a prophecy that they would overthrow their great-uncle Amulius, the brothers were abandoned as babies on the Tiber River. A she-wolf nursed them until a shepherd called Faustulus found the boys and took them as his sons. Over time, they became co-leaders of a band of young shepherd warriors and decided to found a town on the site where they had been saved as infants. The brothers soon quarrelled over the location of the foundation of their new city, and Romulus killed his brother. Romulus established a city on Palatine Hill that 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 by the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro in the 1st century BC.
The Parilia, celebrated annually on 21 April in honour of the god or goddess Pales (protector of shepherds), originated as a rural festival designed to purify and protect the flocks and ensure Rome’s agricultural fertility. In his Fasti (book 4), Ovid describes in detail the rites of the Parilia festival as a public purification by fire and smoke, followed by the drinking of wine mixed with milk and the leaping through the flames. Ovid connects the Parilia with the birth of Rome by suggesting that the fire of the Parilia is like the fire burning Troy that Aeneas escaped.
“The night has gone, and Dawn comes up. I am called upon to sing of the Parilia, and not in vain shall be the call, if kindly Pales favours me. O kindly Pales, favour me when I sing of pastoral rites, if I pay my respects to thy festival. Sure it is that I have often brought with full hands the ashes of the calf and the beanstraws, chaste means of expiation. Sure it is that I have leaped over the flames ranged three in a row, and the moist laurel-bough has sprinkled water on me. The goddess is moved and favours the work I have in hand. My bark is launched; now fair winds fill my sails.” Ov. Fast. 4.721
By the late Republic, the Parilia was celebrated alongside the dies natalis of the city of Rome (Cicero, Div. 2. 98; Varro, Rust. 2. 1. 9), before being officially renamed ‘Romaia’ by Hadrian (Ath. 8. 361e–f), a cult to commemorate Rome’s birthday (the Natalis Urbis Romae) and thus the city’s sacred boundary which was ploughed on this day. The connection between the Parilia and the dies natalis was reinforced by the fact that Romulus and Remus grew up to be shepherds like their adoptive father, Faustulus.
Year 121 was the Year of the Consulship of Verus and Augur, and year 874 Ab urbe condita (‘from the founding of the City’, the dating system of classical Rome). With immediate plans for an extensive trip to the provinces, Hadrian no doubt considered it wise to show his devotion to the Eternal City and provide a spectacle before his departure. A uniquely securely dated aureus with the anno urbis conditae formula (RIC II 144) marks the event. It shows that circus games were held on 21 April 121 to celebrate the foundation day of Rome. The coin (and its associated sestertius type) shows the Genius of the Circus holding a chariot wheel and reclining around the three-pointed metae (turning posts) of the Circus Maximus with the legend:
ANN. DCCCLXXIIII NAT. VRB. P. CIR. CON.
ann(is) dccclxxiiii nat(ali) urb(is) P(rimum)? cir(censes) con(stituti)
In the eight hundred and seventy-fourth year, games were for the first time held in the Circus on the birthday of the city
Rome’s birthday and the Parilia festival were now connected with the establishment of chariot races in the Circus Maximus. The games were held annually until at least the 5th century AD.
Nestled in a long valley between the Aventine and Palatine Hills, the Circus Maximus was the oldest and largest Circus in Rome, reputed to have been founded in the 6th century BC by order of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome. However, tradition has it that Romulus introduced the first horse races during which the infamous event, the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ took place. As Livy tells us in Book 1 of his History of Rome (Liv. 1 9), the followers of Romulus were mainly men, and they needed women to increase their population. So Romulus thought of a trick and instituted the Consualia, a festival celebrated in honour of the agricultural god Consus (also called Equestrian Neptunus) that involved horse races. For the occasion, Romulus gathered his Sabine neighbours, and while they were watching the races, the Sabine girls were carried off to be wives for his soldiers.
The altar of Consus (Ara Consi) was located at the first turning post of the Circus Maximus (Tertullian Spect. 5.7). According to Tacitus, in his Annals (12-24), one of the markers placed in front of the altar of Consus recalled a boundary marker of Rome’s city, as Romulus’ plough drew it.
The Circus Maximus was a chariot racetrack but could accommodate other spectacles, including gladiatorial combats (ludi gladiatorii), wild animal hunts (venationes), athletic events and public executions. Several festivals were held at the Circus. The oldest was the Roman Games (Ludi Romani), held annually for fifteen days in September in honour of Jupiter, but in the centuries that followed, about twenty more fixed dates for ludi were added to the Roman calendar. The building underwent various development stages and systematization after several major fires damaged the structure, including the Great Fire of AD 64 under Emperor Nero. As a result, subsequent emperors gradually began to rebuild the Circus, and the seats around the track, initially made of wood, were replaced with stone.
Trajan gave the Circus Maximus its final appearance by rebuilding it entirely in stone, with an impressive marble façade, elevated stands and an additional 5,000 seats. Pliny the Younger celebrates the restoration project in his Panegyric (51) for Trajan:
“Elsewhere the vast façade of the circus rivals the beauty of the temples, a fitting place for a nation which has conquered the world, a sight to be seen on its own account as well as for the spectacles there to be displayed: to be seen indeed for its beauty.”
By the time Hadrian instituted the new spectacles on Rome’s birthday, the Circus Maximus was a large stone building on three levels with an arched structure in the first story and two levels of seats divided by walkways.
On the same day, while celebrating the natalis urbis, Hadrian consecrated a new temple dedicated to Venus, the divine ancestress of the Roman people, and Roma herself. The great double-ended decastyle temple was to stand on the Velian Hill at the Sacred Way’s highest point on a vast artificial platform, stretching from just beyond the Arch of Titus and almost as far as the Colosseum. The two goddesses would be set against the other, back-to-back, in a single structure with one cella facing east towards the Colosseum (dedicated to Venus) and the other facing west towards the Forum (dedicated to Roma).
No cultic building had been previously consecrated to the goddess Roma who was worshipped in this temple as Roma aeterna, “eternal Rome”. Venus was the goddess of love but also the mother of Aeneas, the mythical ancestor of Romulus. Besides, she was the legendary ancestor of Augustus and a source of inspiration for Hadrian. Venus was now to be venerated as Venus Felix, a goddess of fertility and prosperity (Boatwright, 1987). Boatwright suggests that the Temple of Venus and Roma “united all Romans in a new state cult that reflected their glory and origins.”
Hadrian considered himself somewhat of an architect, and Cassius Dio credited him with the temple’s design (69.4.1-5). It may have been Hadrian who drew up the unique plan with the pair of back-to-back cellae and the low steeped podium (stylobate) with ten columns at both ends that was typical characteristics of Greek Hellenistic temples rather than Roman temples. It is also possible that a sort of architectural palindrome attracted Hadrian as ROMA is AMOR backwards, with amor (love) standing in for Venus. However, the temple created many controversies. According to Dio, the well-known architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, credited for many of Trajan’s projects, strongly criticized the building and told Hadrian to ‘go draw your pumpkins’, dismissively referring to a sketch Hadrian had made. For that, Apollodorus is said to have been put to death, although scholars often dismiss the authenticity of Dio’s anecdote. This passage is probably a mix of facts and fiction. The Historia Augusta doesn’t mention Hadrian killing Apollodorus.
“[Hadrian] first banished and later put to death Apollodorus, the architect, who had built the various creations of Trajan in Rome — the Forum, the odeum and the gymnasium. The reason assigned was that he had been guilty of some misdemeanour, but the true reason was that once when Trajan was consulting him on some point about the buildings, he had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted with some remark: “Be off and draw your gourds. You don’t understand any of these matters.” When he became Emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man’s freedom of speech. He sent him the plan of the temple of Venus and Roma by way of showing him that great work could be accomplished without his aid, and asked Apollodorus whether the proposed structure was satisfactory. The architect, in his reply, stated, first, in regard to the temple, that it ought to have been built on high ground and that the earth should have been excavated beneath it so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position, and might also have accommodated the machines in its basement so that they could be put together unobserved and brought into the theatre without anyone’s being aware of them beforehand. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella.” Dio 69.4.1-4
The Temple of Venus and Roma was the largest in Rome and one of the largest in Antiquity. The massive building stood on a vast artificial platform of 145 by 100 metres (equal in area to the entire Forum of Augustus) and visually dominated its surroundings. It was accessed from the Forum through seven large steps and from the east through two narrow side stairs (González-Longo, 2021). The temple itself was 113 m long and 56 m wide, and around 30 m high and was covered with marble (González-Longo and Theodossopoulos, 2009). It sat above a continuous crepis of seven steps with three rows of ten columns on the front sides and two rows of twenty-two on the long sides. The order was Corinthian, with fluted columns of white Proconnesian marble in the temple’s exterior and porphyry in the interior. The temple was surrounded by a collonaded portico on the longer sides with a monumental entryway in the middle.
The two cellae were separated by a straight wall (or an apse, according to the latest study by González-Longo) with two passages to the side connecting them. They housed the cult statues of Roma Aeterna and Venus Felix. The two goddesses were seated with a spear in the left hand and a small divinity to the right, as they appeared in Hadrian and Antonine coins (see here). González-Longo has suggested that the 4th century AD fresco “Roma Barberini” may represent the goddess Venus of the temple. The cella oriented towards the Forum is better preserved than the other because it was later incorporated into the monastery of S. Maria Nova.
The temple’s pediments were adorned with sculptural scenes depicting Mars visiting Rhea Silvia and of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (Platner, 1929). A series of at least nine Medusa head masks decorated the (now lost) frieze.
The area where Hadrian vowed his new architectural project had originally formed part of Nero’s notorious Domus Aurea. The Historia Augusta relates that twenty-four elephants were required to remove the Colossus of Nero to make room for the vast artificial platform. The 30-metre bronze statue of the now sun god Helios was relocated by the architect Decrianus to a spot near the Flavian Amphitheatre (later giving the Colosseum its name). Besides, Hadrian planned to build a similar statue dedicated to the Moon.
“With the aid of the architect Decrianus, he raised the Colossus and, keeping it in an upright position, moved it away from the place in which the Temple of Rome is now, though its weight was so vast that he had to furnish for the work as many as twenty-four elephants. He then consecrated this statue to the Sun after removing the features of Nero, to whom it had previously been dedicated. He also planned, with the assistance of the architect Apollodorus, to make a similar one for the Moon.” HA Had. 19.12
The obverse of a rare gold coin of Hadrian with the legend ROMA AETERNA shows the female personification of the city supporting the heads of the Sun and the Moon as symbols of eternity. As reported by Kenneth J. Pratt in his paper’ Rome as Eternal’ (1965), the sun-moon association with Rome passed into the Middle Ages, and during the Renaissance and into the late eighteenth century, Hadrian’s temple to Venus and Roma was referred to as the Temple of the Sun and Moon.
In Antiquity, the Temple of Venus and Roma was known by different names. Maurus Servius Honoratus refers to it as templum urbis Romae, “the temple of the city of Rome” (Serv. Aen. II.227), the Historia Augusta just as templum Urbis, “the temple of the City” (Hist. Aug. Hadr. 19), while Prudentius refers to it as urbis Venerisque templa, “the temples of the City and of Venus,” (Prud. c. Sym. I.221). Another passage of the Historia Augusta refers to the temple as the templum Veneris, “the Temple of Venus” (Hist. Aug. trig. tyr. 32).
The temple’s construction did not begin until AD 123, as brick stamps recovered from the building indicate (Mary Boatwright has suggested a likely date of 125–126). It took over a decade to build, although is no agreement about when the building was dedicated or even finished. Dates between AD 131 and 144 have been proposed. Still, brick stamps dated to 134 and Cassiodorus’ remark in his Chronicles under the year 135 (“templum Romae et Veneris sub Hadriano in urbe factum“) indicate that the building was consecrated in around AD 135-137 upon Hadrian’s return from Judea. The temple was completed only in 141 under Antoninus Pius, who had coins portraying the monument minted for the occasion.
In 307, the temple was destroyed by fire and subsequently rebuilt by Maxentius (Chron. 148; Aur. Vict. Caes. 40). Apart from the artificial platform and the foundations, most of what we see today of the temple is said to be from the time of Maxentius. The back wall of the two cellae was transformed into two apses with barrel vault ceilings and coffering and large columns in porphyry, while the floor was covered with splendid polychrome panels (see illustration here). However, the common belief that Maxentius rebuilt the temple has been challenged by González-Longo and Theodossopoulos based on a structural analysis of the vaults. They argue that “while Maxentius restored the temple after the fire, this intervention was not as extensive as it is believed: he only rebuilt and repaired the damaged areas.” (González-Longo, 2021).
The new Temple of Venus and Roma enabled Hadrian to put his mark on Rome’s most central public area. Roma had not previously been worshipped in the capital as a goddess in her own right. Her cult, associated with Venus Felix, also a novelty, carried a powerful message of renewal.
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. Boatwright (1987)
Having dedicated the Temple, Hadrian transformed the Parilia into the Romaia, an opulent festival celebrating the founding of Rome. In the Deipnosophistae, Athenaeus remarks on the joyful commemorations that accompanied the rituals of the Romaia and says that all who lived or happened to be in Rome participated in the festivities every year. He evokes the noisy procession that accompanied the celebrations of Rome’s birthday with the sounds of drums, pipes and cymbals.
“While the conversation was continuing in this kind of way, right then, throughout the whole city was heard the resounding note of pipes, the clash of the cymbals and the beat of the drums, accompanied by the singing. It so happened that it was the festival of the Parilia, as it used to be called. However, it is now called the Roman Festival, instituted in honour of the Fortune of Rome, when her temple was erected by that best and most enlightened of emperors, Hadrian. That day is celebrated annually as especially glorious by all the residents of Rome and by all who happen to be staying in the city.” Ath., Deipn. 8. 361e-f
The Temple of Venus and Roma, with its associated cult and festival, proclaimed a rebirth of Rome and signalled the beginning of a Golden Age, which was celebrated on one other coin minted in Rome in the year 121; an aureus featuring on the reverse Aion, the personification of eternal time, with the legend SAEC AVR, a shorthand for ‘saeculum aureum‘ (‘Golden Age’). Aion is shown holding the phoenix, the symbol of rebirth and renewal, on a globe. He is emerging from a celestial sphere decorated with zodiac signs.
The pomerium was another important aspect of Rome’s origins. The story of Romulus concerns not only the founding of the city but also the creation of its sacred boundary (Ann. XII.24). In AD 121, Hadrian renewed the pomerial line and, in doing so, further associated himself with Rome’s founding and Romulus.
Hadrian’s restoration of the pomerium is archaeologically evidenced by four inscribed cippi, the large boundary stones (2 m by 1 m) that marked out the line of the pomerium. One cippus (CIL 6.40855) was found in situ in the northern Campus Martius directly above an older one from the time of Vespasian. The Hadrianic cippus was found 4.15 m below the current ground level, and the Vespasianic one was 2.95 m deeper than this (Boatwright, 1987). It has been suggested that Hadrian’s restoration of the boundary and elevation of the ground level of almost 3 metres (considered as a broad dike) was a pragmatic response to control flooding of the Tiber (Boatwright, 1987).
From the inscriptions on these cippi, we learn that the work was undertaken primarily by the college of Augurs on the senate decree, but at Hadrian’s request, who had probably already left Rome on his travels to the western provinces. His renewal of the boundary stones and confirmation of the pomerium as it corroborates what we know of Hadrian’s general attitude to borders and frontiers during his reign and his non-expansion policy.
(front) [Ex s(enatus)] c(onsulto) col[l]e[g]ium / [au]gurum auctore / [Im]p(eratore) Caesare divi / [T]raiani Parthici f(ilio) / [d]ivi Nervae nepote / [T]raiano Hadriano / Aug(usto) pontif(ice) max(imo) trib(unicia) / potest(ate) V co(n)s(ule) III proco(n)s(ule) / terminos pomerii / restituendos curavit // (left side) CLIIX // (right side) P(edes) CCXI
Around the same time, Hadrian also deliberately represented himself in the guise of the Roman god of war, Mars, the divine consort of Venus and mythical father of Romulus and, thus, ancestor of the populus Romani (Haley, 2005). Hadrian was the first princeps to depict himself as a helmeted Mars, based on the well-known ‘Ares Borghese’ type, as a portrait in the Capitoline Museum in Rome shows (Haley, 2005). The portrait dates to c. 120-125.
Since his first return trip to Rome as the new Emperor in July of 118, Hadrian’s building program had been relentless. He was especially active in restoring earlier structures in the Campus Martius (literally the field of the god Mars), and his interests focused on projects closely associated with Agrippa (and thus with Augustus), beginning with the burned Pantheon (although the investigation of brick stamps shows that Trajan initiated the rebuilding). Hadrian also constructed new dynastic buildings to celebrate his family, with a precinct in the central Campus Martius to worship his deified mother-in-law, Matidia (see here) and a temple to his deified father in the imperial fora (the only building that, according to sources, Hadrian put his name on).
The Historia Augusta gives an extended list of the buildings Hadrian restored in the names of their founders. These buildings are the Pantheon, the Saepta Julia, the Basilica of Neptune, numerous shrines, the Forum of Augustus, and the Baths of Agrippa. However, other restorations in the Campus Martius can be assigned to Hadrian (Boatwright, 1987).
“At Rome, he restored the Pantheon, the Saepta, the Basilica of Neptune, a great many sacred buildings, the Forum Augusti, the baths of Agrippa; and he consecrated all of these with the names of those who had first built them.” HA Had. 19.10-11
The site of the Pantheon was associated by tradition with the apotheosis of Romulus, the place from which the first king of Rome ascended to the heavens. The Pantheon had a strong solar association like the Ara Pacis and the Solarium Augusti. At midday on 21 April, the sun’s ray through the oculus of the Pantheon would strike the entrance doorway so that the Emperor entering the building would be illuminated by the intense sunlight and look god-like. If Hadrian had timed his entry at this very moment, the event would have further exalted his connection with Romulus.
Hadrian’s self-identification with Romulus would be further advertised through the coinage issued at Rome towards the end of his reign. Coins with the legend ‘ROMVLO CONDITORI’ (Romulus “the founder”) suggest the Emperor’s role as a second founder of Rome. On the aureus type, Hadrian is shown with youthful features and the simple legend HADRIANVS AVGVSTVS P P (Hadrian Augustus, Father of the Fatherland). Romulus, on the obverse, is shown advancing with a spear and trophy. Finally, Hadrian would restore the dilapidated auguratorium on the Palatine at his own expense, which recalled the spot where legend said that Romulus took the auspices for the foundation of his new town. An inscription dated to AD 136 (CIL VI 976) records this.
Imp. Caesar divi Traiani / Parthici f. divi Nervae
n. / Traianus Hadrianus / Aug. pontif. max. trib. pot.
XX / imp. II cos. III p.p. / Augurato [rium] dilaps(um)
/ a solo pe[c(unia) sua restitu]it
Furthermore, the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus would often be depicted on the breastplate of the cuirassed statues of Hadrian erected in the empire’s Greek-speaking provinces. These statues, of the so-called ‘Eastern Hadrianic Breastplate Type’, have a distinctive iconography showing Victories flanking a statue of Athena (or Roma-Virtus) standing on the back of a she-wolf with nursing twins. One of its most famous examples is the cuirassed torso on display in the Agora in Athens, but relatively complete specimens are also on display in Beirut, Knossos, Herakleion, Istanbul, Kissamos, Olympia, with additional fragmentary examples in Amman, London, Piraeus and Corinth.
Romulus, the city’s founder, was a figure with whom, like Augustus before him, Hadrian was eager to associate himself in many ways. Hadrian’s introduction of the cult of Roma in the city of Rome, his celebration of the Parilia under the new name of ‘Natalis Urbis’, his renewal of the pomerium, and his coins depicting Romulus, the founder, were all part of a deliberate advertisement program proclaiming a rebirth of Rome. With the great Romaia festival established, Hadrian then chose to leave Rome and soon departed to tour the western provinces of his empire.
Sources & references:
- Boatwright, M.T. (1987) Hadrian and the City of Rome, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press
- Birley, Anthony R. (1997) Hadrian: The Restless Emperor, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 111-112
- González-Longo, Cristina. (2021) The Temple of Venus and Rome and Santa Francesca Romana at the Roman Forum (Routledge Research in Architectural Conservation and Historic Preservation)
- Mols, S. (2003). The cult of Roma Aeterna in Hadrian’s politics. In The Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power. Leiden, The Netherlands.
- Haley, Evan. (2005). Hadrian as Romulus or the Self-Representation of a Roman Emperor. Latomus. 64. 969-980.
- Opper, T. (2008) Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, British Museum Press, exhibition catalogue. pp. 126-127
- Gergel, R. (2004). Agora S166 and Related Works: The Iconography, Typology, and Interpretation of the Eastern Hadrianic Breastplate Type. Hesperia Supplements, 33, 371-409.
4 thoughts on “21 April AD 121 – Hadrian celebrates Rome’s 874th birthday with circus games (#Hadrian1900)”
Wonderful your best.
Superb post Carole and wonderful photography. Thank you for sharing your travels and the Roman history you have brought to us over the years. Hope all is well with you during these trying times of Covid Stay safe.
Thank you for this wonderful post! I didn’t realize Roma had no temple before the one Hadrian built!
Excellent! I learned so much.