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Why Rome celebrates its birthday on April 21st

Jessica Phelan
Jessica Phelan - [email protected] • 21 Apr, 2023 Updated Fri 21 Apr 2023 13:30 CEST
Why Rome celebrates its birthday on April 21st
People dressed as Roman legionaries and as Ancient Rome citizens attend a parade to mark the anniversary of the foundation of Rome in 753 BC, on April 22, 2019 in Rome. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

According to legend, the Eternal City was founded on April 21st nearly 3,000 years ago. Here's the history behind Rome's birthday.


Italy's capital celebrates the anniversary of its founding on April 21st every year – a very specific date for an event surrounded by mystery. 

The stories we have about Rome's birth come from Ancient Romans, who were hardly the most reliable sources: they weren't interested in documenting the mundane process of how settlements develop over time, but wanted to tie their city to gods, fate and myths to bolster its standing as Caput Mundi, head of the Roman Empire and rightful 'capital of the world'. 

The legend goes that Aeneas, son of the goddess Aphrodite and prince of the doomed Greek city of Troy, led the survivors of the Trojan War across the Mediterranean and all the way to the Italian peninsula.


Having been guided by gods and destiny to the southwest coast, the hero fought a rival king and married a local princess, winning the right for the Trojans and their descendants to settle.

Two of these descendants were Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers abandoned by the River Tiber because the reigning king feared they might one day challenge him for the throne. The boys survived thanks to a she-wolf who nursed them and a shepherd who took them in, before growing into brave fighters with ambitions to found a city of their own. 

A statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf lies outside Rome's city hall. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Myth has it that the brothers couldn't agree on which hill should be the starting ground: the Palatine Hill, preferred by Romulus, or the Aventine Hill wanted by Remus.

The brothers put the question to the gods, each seeking an omen that would prove they were right: Remus claimed he saw six auspicious birds fly over his hill, while Romulus topped him by saying he had seen 12.

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Each twin continued to insist he was right, and Romulus began drawing up the limits of the new city. When Remus crossed the boundary he had etched on the ground, his brother (or one of his henchmen) was so angered he killed him.

Romulus would go on to found Rome on the Palatine Hill, becoming its first king and its namesake.


While historians dispute almost every element of this story, that's the version that Ancient Romans told about their city.

They also pinned the events to a specific day: April 21st, which is the date named by the Roman poet Ovid in his 'Book of Days' (Fasti), a literary account of the origins of various Roman festivals throughout the year. 

It seems that Roman emperors co-opted an earlier agricultural festival traditionally held on April 21st, which saw shepherds symbolically 'purify' their sheep in honour of the god of livestock, Pales. Known as the Parilia, the ritual saw shepherds pray for forgiveness for any accidental offences they and their flock might have given the god, such as trespassing on sacred ground, then make offerings and finally leap through the cleansing flames of a sacred bonfire.

Reenacting the Parilia ritual in the Circus Maximus in 2016. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP

As Rome grew into a metropolis, its rulers repurposed the Parilia and turned it into a celebration of Rome's legendary origins as a way of uniting Romans behind the city's old and new identities. Julius Caesar introduced games; Caligula added a procession of the city's great and good.

Over the years, April 21st went from a farming festival to the imposing dies natalis Romae, or 'birthday of Rome'.

As for the year of Rome's birth, ancient historians pegged it as 753 BC (though archaeologists have found traces of much older settlements on the Palatine Hill and surrounding areas).

Writing in the 1st century BC, Marcus Terentius Varro identified this date from the records available and set it as the starting point of Roman chronology: years were subsequently measured ab urbe condita, or 'from the founding of the city', making 753 BC the year AUC 1.

That timeline makes Rome 2,776 years old on April 21st 2023.


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