Advent Calendar - New discoveries from the Roman world

Posted December 16th, 2007 by Andrea Vianello

The Romans can still surprise us. It is rare that some new archaeological discovery in Rome really attracts attention of its citizens, but this is exactly what happened in the past few weeks. Archaeologists may have found the Lupercal, the place where the Romans believed the she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus. The she-wolf venerated by the Romans and symbol of the City remains its symbol, even if after recent metallurgical analyses some now believe it is a medieval forgery (image below is by Óscar Palmer, published in Flickr and licensed under a Creative Commons licence).

she-wolf (Lupa Capitolina)

According to the myth, Rhea Silvia, the mother of twin brothers Romulus and Remus placed them in a basket and set it adrift on the River Tiber. The brothers floated ashore near the entrance of a cave, where a she-wolf lived. The she-wolf brought them inside, where she suckled and tended them until they were found by royal shepherd Faustulus. Eventually, Romulus and Remus would found Rome. The event was celebrated in the Roman calendar with a holiday, on the 15th of February. And the cave itself became a sacred place that is mentioned by Classical sources and was even mentioned by Emperor Augustus in his will. However, after Christianity became the state religion of Rome, memory of the location of the cave was lost. The re-discovery was accidental: a probe was being inserted in the ground around the Palatine Hill to verify the structural stability of the House of Emperor Augustus, and while drilling the ground an unexpected cavity was found: perhaps it is the Lupercal.

Experts are already at odds: Prof. Andrea Carandini and the current Superintendent Angelo Bottini think that the cave is indeed the Lupercal, but former Superintendent Adriano La Regina disagrees, largely on the basis of what the written sources report. Henner von Hesberg, head of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome also disagrees: he thinks it is a private dining room. The study of the cave is progressing, and therefore it is too early to say if this is the Lupercal.


Image above: ceiling of the cave; image below: floor of the cave. Both images, and the video above are copyrighted by the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, and released by the Press Office.


The cave itself is a simple nympheus decorated with sea-shells and mosaics. The advent of Christianity replaced the cave of the she-wolf with something very similar: a manger guarded by an ox and a donkey. In both cases the humble origins were reason of pride, but the similarity of the stories ends there. The origins of both Rome and Christianity have inspired people for millennia, and re-enacting in some way the scene of the Nativity is still quite popular. I have fond memories of preparing presepi (singular presepe, from the Latin word presaepe, meaning manger; they are models of the Nativity scene following a tradition initiated by St. Francis of Assisi) in Italy. In the UK children enact Nativity plays, and other cultures may have different traditions, but the feelings are probably the same. I think that the discovery of what might be the Lupercal is quite appropriate for Christmas: in some way archaeologists have unearthed what there was before the manger, and it is not that different. And if the cave turns out to be something else, not the Lupercal, as it could well happen, then perhaps we could excuse those who think it is: the story of Romulus and Remus still fascinates, and near Christmas it appears even more powerful. And even if this specific cave is not the right one, this does not mean that the Lupercal did not exist.

Nativity play

Image above: adult Nativity play, picture by “Mozul” published in Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. I chose this particular image because of its simplicity, which contrasts with the elaborated art of the presepe (video below by “Alex“).

[Video not available]

The restoration of the House of Emperor Augustus is also revealing extraordinary spaces, such as those of the House of Livia and the locale cosiddetto della rampa, which preserve beautiful frescoes (image below: locale cosiddetto della rampa. The image is copyrighted by the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, and released by the Press Office).


And there is more. The discovery of the imperial standards, sceptre and lances of Emperor Maxentius is already considered one of the most important in recent years. However, archaeologists have also found a temple dating to the time of Numa Pompilius (second king of Rome).

Finally, the Romans have amazed archaeologists at the Rheinischen Landes Museum in Bonn, Germany, who have found traces of glue in a Roman helmet dated to the first century BC still keeping the helmet together after more than 2,000 years. The glue is made of bitumen, bark pitch and animal grease. Intute has catalogued many resources on the Romans and Rome, and countless books have published in the last 2,500 years, but after all the recent discoveries and passionate debates it has become evident that there is space for much more scholarship.