ROME—There is something both magical and nonsensical about the legend of the founding of Rome. As the story goes, twins Romulus and Remus were born to a vestal virgin who had rather miraculously coupled with the god Mars. Because the twin’s existence threatened the ruling king of the moment, the infants were sentenced to death and abandoned by a river. As luck would have it, they were soon saved by a shewolf who suckled them along with her own pups. Some time later, a shepherd rescued them and raised them as humans.
But then, as is often the case between siblings, they agreed on very little and Romulus eventually killed his twin brother Remus after an argument over where to build a new city in 753 B.C. Because Romulus won the fight, the city was called Rome. One might imagine an alternative outcome in which the caput mundi could have been known as Reme instead.
The legend of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome has been passed down by notable sources, from Livy and Plutarch to Virgil, for millennia. Almost no one agrees on all the details of the story, which—coupled with common sense—has called into question the veracity of the account. Nevertheless, the shewolf suckling the tiny babies is a symbol that shows up on everything from tourist aprons to police hats in the eternal city.
But a year ago, archeologists working in the ruins of the ancient forum in Rome discovered what appeared to be the very shrine to Romulus, dating back 2,600 years, that so many people had written about. They decided to dig deeper and, on Friday, presented what is not quite a tomb—there are no bones— but instead a sarcophagus and altar that they believe was built as a shrine to Rome’s legendary founder.
"This is not the tomb of Romulus per se,” Alfonsina Russo, director of Rome's Colosseum Archaeological Park, told The Daily Beast as she stood in front of the excavation. “It is a place of memory where the cult of Romulus was celebrated.”
Russo says that pagan rituals and sacrifices of all kinds were likely held at this site over the many centuries, based on preliminary evidence found, which backs up the theory that this was an historically important shrine. She also explains that the lack of bones could be because, according to one version of events, Romulus was attacked and dismembered by senators of the time, meaning the body was not intact to be buried. Another version is that Romulus “ascended into heaven,” leaving no earthly remains.
The work that began in March 2019 to uncover this unusual ruin will continue. Russo told a press conference in the Forum on Friday that she hopes to inaugurate the site to tourists within two years, when she plans to retire.
Patrizia Fortini, an archeologist working on the site, conceded to The Daily Beast that a lack of human remains makes it impossible to verify just who the tomb honors. But she says that as sensational as it might seem to point to the funerary shrine of a mythical legend, the site needed further exploration before verifying or discounting any theories. “You need to let us do our work, to continue excavating and discover more about this entire section of the Roman Forum,” she said. “The suggestion that this is linked to Romulus is supported in literary documents, but only further study will reveal the truth.”
This peculiar dig site, which is nestled below the marble stairs leading up to the Curia inside the Roman Forum archeological park, was first exposed in 1898 by archaeologist Giacomo Boni. At the time, he identified the sarcophagus and a truncated cylinder but made no mention of Romulus at all, which led later explorers to pay little attention as they dug out the ruins. In the 1930s, Benito Mussolini ordered enhancements to the city of Rome, which included paving over much of the Forum ruins and adding monumental staircases to access some of the better ruins. Many scholars studying the legend had worried that whatever it was that Boni found might have been ruined by later work.
Fortini has spent her career studying Boni’s original excavations, many of which were recorded through intricate drawings, and using modern archeological methods to bring some of what he may have discounted or left buried to light.
“This is a great relief that this ruin is still intact and was not destroyed by work done during the Fascist era,” Fortini says. “Now we need time to tell the full story.”