The earliest history of Rome (ca. 1600-753 BCE)

The Capitoline wolf with Romulus and Remus (Capitoline museums, Rome).

According to tradition Rome was founded on 21 April 753 BCE, the year 1 Ab Urbe Condita. It was on 21 April that the Romans celebrated the founding of their city during the festival of the Parilia. However, this feast was originally unrelated to the founding: it was the feast of Pales, a god that had traditionally been worshipped on the Cermalus, one of the two summits of the Palatine Hill. The correct name of the feast is actually Palilia, with an ‘l’. If we check the most ancient sources of Roman history, we may conclude that classical authors disagreed about the year in which Rome was founded. The Greek historian Timaeus for instance claimed that Rome had been founded in the same year as Carthage, so in 814 BCE. Polybius, who was also Greek, did not concur and claimed 750 BCE as the foundation year. The first Roman historians, Fabius Pictor and Cincius Alimentus, held different opinions as well. Fabius asserted that Rome was founded in 747 BCE, but according to Cincius the correct year was 728 BCE. Dionysius of Halicarnassus summarised the views of the aforementioned authors, and after making a few calculations himself held 751 BCE to be the foundation year.[1]

Although the aforementioned authors stuck to different foundation years, they did agree that Rome could be considered a proper city as early as the eighth century BCE. Until fairly recently several historians and archaeologists assumed that the urbanisation process started much later, in the second half of the seventh century or even as late as the first half of the sixth century. Until then Rome had, according to these historians and archaeologists, been no more than a collection of settlements, scattered across several hills and lacking a political and religious centre. We can now safely reject this position. The classical authors were right that Rome could already be considered a city around 750 BCE.[2] Of course the individual settlements on the hills were even older, much older.

In this post and the other posts in these series I will attempt to make a broad reconstruction of the earliest history of Rome. Since we are dealing with extremely ancient history and are discussing a time when written sources did not yet exist, a fair degree of speculation is inevitable. However, the conclusion that we have no certainty at all about the period discussed here, is much to sombre. We have a lot of archaeological evidence, and some of it is very compelling.

Life on the hills

The modern city of Rome lies dab smack in the centre of the modern Italian region of Lazio. This was very different in Antiquity, when Rome was a city on the fringes of Ancient Latium, in the border area between the Latin and Etruscan world. Initially other Latin settlements were of much greater importance. One of these settlements was Alba Longa, a city that was said to have been founded by Ascanius, also known as Julus, the son of the Trojan hero Aeneas.[3] Tradition dictates that, hundreds of years later, a distant relative of Julus named Romulus founded Rome from Alba. There is no reason whatsoever to give these myths any credence, but it is very likely that Alba was much older than Rome. The city lay close to the important sanctuary of Jupiter Latiaris on Mons Albanus (modern Monte Cavo). It was here that the Latin peoples held an annual religious festival that included sacrifices. The Latin city of Lavinium was also presumably older than Rome. According to a rather unreliable tradition it had been named after Aeneas’ Latin wife Lavinia, daughter of the legendary king Latinus.

Latium in the 8th and 7th century BCE (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Rome was born on several hills close to a strategic spot near the river Tiber. In discussions about the traditional seven hills of Ancient Rome, we usually mention the Palatine, Aventine, Capitoline, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal and Quirinal Hills. This list is not incorrect, but it is slightly arbitrary. At an early stage the Romans for instance decided to occupy the strategically important Janiculan Hill on the other side of the Tiber, while an important settlement had been founded on the Velia, a hill which has now all but disappeared, but was situated between the Palatine and the two southernmost summits of the Esquiline Hill, the Fagutalis and Oppius. Although it is no exaggeration to call the Palatine Hill the birthplace of Rome, it should be noted that the oldest evidence for human settlement has been found on the Capitoline Hill. Already during the Middle Bronze Age, around 1600 BCE, a stable community of people lived and died here.[4]

So why exactly was a settlement founded here, on the Capitoline Hill? The reason is quite simple. The southernmost summit of the hill – the Capitolium – is close to a bend in the river Tiber. Partly because of the presence of the Tiber Island, the river could be forded here. From their elevated position the inhabitants of the Capitoline Hill could observe traffic going from one river bank to the other. More importantly, they could also control it, and with it the salt trade. There were sizeable salt pans near the mouth of the Tiber and at some point the transport of salt from the coast to the inland regions of Italy became ever more important. Salt was crucial for preserving food and therefore a very valuable commodity: the modern word ‘salary’ derives from Latin sal for a reason.

View of the Tiber island.

The settlement on the Capitoline hill gradually expanded and probably also annexed the northern summit, which is called the Arx or ‘citadel’. Between the Capitolium and Cermalus (one of the summits of the Palatine hill, see above) was a marshy area that was known as the Velabrum. It was here that, according to tradition, the basket holding the twins Romulus and Remus was found by the she-wolf, who subsequently suckled the boys. The name of the area, which prior to its draining in the sixth century BCE was regularly flooded, has been preserved in the name of the church of San Giorgio in Velabro.

Velienses, Querquetulani and Latinienses

The hills of Rome, showing the (presumed) locations of the Velienses, Querquetulani and Latinienses (source: Cristiano64, Wikimedia Commons).

We do not know for certain what the inhabitants of the hill settlements called themselves, but Plinius the Elder’s Naturalis Historia does give several clues. In this work the author mentions the names of 30 Latin tribes that participated in the aforementioned festival on Mons Albanus.[5] Among these tribes were the Velienses, Querquetulani and Latinienses. According to an attractive theory, which is endorsed in Andrea Carandini’s Atlas of Ancient Rome, these three tribes inhabited the area where Rome would be founded since about the tenth century BCE. The Velienses initially settled on the Velia, the hill from which they took their name. The settlement of the Querquetulani was situated on the Caelian Hill, while the Latinienses purportedly inhabited the collis Latiaris, the southernmost summit of the Quirinal Hill (see the map on the right).[6]

Although undeniably attractive, the theory about the three tribes cannot be considered proven beyond all doubt. The linguistic connection between the Velienses and the Velia is evident, for instance, but already in Antiquity the hill was excavated in such a way that we should no longer expect the discovery of any significant archaeological finds there. Construction of the Via dell’Impero – now the Via dei Fori Imperiali – made an already small chance of finding anything even more slim. In the Imperial age part of the Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden House, stood here. Nowadays the former Velia is where we find the Temple of Venus and Roma, the large basilica built by Maxentius and Constantine and the churches of Santa Francesca Romana and Santi Cosma e Damiano. Thanks to Tacitus we know that the Caelian Hill used to be called the Querquetulanus.[7] Moreover, there used to be a gate on this hill called the Porta Querquetulana. The name presumably referred to a sacred oak grove (querquetum) inhabited by nymphs. I concede that the presumed connection between the Latinienses and collis Latiaris seems to be based largely on speculation. I can add that the relationship between the settlement on this summit and the older settlement on the opposite Capitoline Hill is not clear at all.

In the background: the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. On the left: the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. Below: the House of the Vestal Virgins.

Uniting the settlements

Whether the settlements were inhabited by Velienses, Querquetulani and Latinienses or not, they grew ever larger over the course of the tenth and ninth centuries BCE. The Velienses reportedly expanded their territory from the Velia to the Palatine Hill, where they probably annexed and developed the two peaks, the Cermalus and Palatium. A later phase saw them coming off their hills and starting to engage in activities in the aforementioned Velabrum and the valley between the Palatine and Aventine Hills, which was called the Vallis Murcia. Much later the Circus Maximus was built in this valley. The Querquetulani spread to the Oppius. Even before that, probably as early as about 1350 BCE, the inhabitants of the Capitoline Hill – perhaps Latinienses or people who had merged with the Latinienses – took control of the marshy area west of their hill. This area was later known as the Campus Martius or Field of Mars.

The former Vallis Murcia, with the remains of the Circus Maximus.

The individual settlements sometimes came into conflict with one another, but there was also peaceful co-habitation and cooperation. Between ca. 850 and 775 BCE the individual settlements were gradually integrated into a single settlement. Burial grounds were moved to the edges of the unified settlement so that the inhabitants did not have to live among the dead.[8] The ancient religious feast of the Argei played an important role in the unification process. The Roman historian Livius attributes the establishment of the sacella Argeorum or sanctuaries of the Argei to king Numa Pompilius (ca. 715-672 BCE), but historically the traditions and ceremonies involved were much, much older. Comments in Varro[9] and Festus[10] allow us to locate 27 sacella, which stood on several of the aforementioned hills, but not on the Capitoline Hill or the site of the future Forum Romanum.[11] Each year on 16 and 17 March, a sacred procession passed by the 27 sacella. On 15 May 27 wicker dolls – also called Argei – were thrown into the Tiber. The ceremony may have been a reference to a time when human sacrifice was still common. It is possible that the 27 sacella corresponded to 27 districts or curiae[12] in proto-urban Rome. It is certainly conceivable that the 30 curiae from the Age of Kings emerged from these original districts, but it cannot be proven.

View of the Forum Romanum from the Capitoline Hill.

The absence of sacella on the Capitoline Hill and Forum demonstrates that proto-urban Rome did not yet have a political and religious centre. At the same time the united settlements covered a surface of 205 hectares, making proto-urban Rome already larger than her future rival, the Etruscan city of Veii. Veii was situated a mere 15 kilometres north of Rome, on a plateau on the other side of the river (see the map above). The city occupied a surface of ‘just’ 180 hectares.[13] The rise of urban Rome, of Rome as an Urbs or city, was now just a matter of time. In 775-750 BCE the first set of walls was constructed around the Palatine. These were made of beaten earth, wood and stone. At the same time the open space between several of the inhabited hills was laid out as the Forum Romanum. Sanctuaries were established here for deities related to fire, Vulcan and Vesta, and the principal leader of the proto-urban settlement moved his residence from the Palatine to the Forum. There he made the building that became known as the Regia his residence. In this way the city of Rome was indeed founded in about 750 BCE. With the establishment of a political and religious centre we now enter the Regal period or Roman Age of Kings.


[1] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1.74. As a Greek, Dionysius obviously measured time in Olympiads.

[2] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 37: “It was long believed that Rome dated from the second half of the seventh century or the first half of the sixth century BC; that is the story that has been historiographically diffused. However, today archaeology can make the clear argument (based on an enormous and well-ordered quantity of data) that the origin of the city and “public entity” dates from approximately 750 BCE.”

[3] Livius 1.3. Julus was considered an ancestor of the Julii. He was the son of Aeneas and the goddess Venus, which made the Julii descendants of Venus as well.

[4] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 149.

[5] Plinius the Elder, Naturalis Historia 3.69.

[6] See The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, passim, and especially p. 69, p. 149-150, p. 218, p. 284, p. 309, p. 344, p. 361, p. 424 and p. 429.

[7] Annales 4.65.

[8] A ban on burying the dead inside the city would be included in the Law of the Twelve tables centuries later.

[9] See for instance De lingua Latina V.45-54 and VII.44.

[10] Festus 142 L, who writes about the ancient sanctuary of the fertility god Mutunus Tutunus on the Velia.

[11] See the map in The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. Ia.

[12] The etymology is possibly co-viriae, ‘gathering of men’.

[13] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 326. Dominique Briquel, De Etrusken, p. 43 mentions a surface of 194 hectares.

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