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HISTORY

Why Rome celebrates its birthday on April 21st

According to legend, the Eternal City isn't ageless but 2,775 years old this week. Here's the history behind Rome's birthday.

Why Rome celebrates its birthday on April 21st
Rome last celebrated its birthday in full in April 2019. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

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. 

READ ALSO: Rome is about to reveal an ancient tomb thought to belong to founder Romulus

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.

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.

READ ALSO: 

That timeline makes Rome 2,775 years old on April 21st 2022.

While Romans have continued to celebrate the anniversary throughout the millennia, this birthday – like last year’s – will be more subdued than usual.

Covid-19 restrictions have forced the city to cancel the historical reenactments that usually take place in the Circus Maximus, while Mayor Virginia Raggi’s wreath-laying ceremony in Piazza Venezia had to be socially distanced and fully face-masked.

Instead the city will mark its 2,775th birthday with a series of online events, including video streams from the Colosseum and the Pantheon – which, every April 21st, sees the midday sun focus a perfect circle of light on the doorway (it’s thought that Roman emperors, ever with an eye for theatrics, would choose precisely that moment to enter the temple for the dies natalis celebrations).

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CULTURE

Phallus of Pompeii: Italian art exhibition reveals ancient sexuality

Raunchy scenes may redden faces at a new exhibition in Pompeii on art and sexuality in the ancient Roman city, where sculptures and paintings of breasts and buttocks abound.

Phallus of Pompeii: Italian art exhibition reveals ancient sexuality

 Archaeologists excavating the city, which was destroyed by the eruption of nearby Vesuvius in 79 AD, were initially startled to discover erotic images everywhere, from garden statues to ceiling frescos.

Since those first digs in the 18th-century site, racy images have been found in taverns, thermal baths and private homes, from huge erect penises to a statue with both male and female physical attributes.

READ ALSO: Roman chariot unearthed ‘almost intact’ near Pompeii

It became clear that “this is a city where sensuality, eroticism, are ever-present,” Pompeii’s site director Gabriel Zuchtriegel told AFP as he stood in front of statues of bare-chested Centaurs.

The discoveries initially caused “dismay, embarrassment, and curiosity, and were seen by some as a great opportunity to think about the relationship with their bodies and nudity in a very different way”.

Pompeii’s site director Gabriel Zuchtriegel, poses during a new exhibition in Pompeii’s site entitled “Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii”. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

The Neapolitan King Charles VII, who financed the excavations, shut some of the more bawdy finds away in a secret cabinet in Naples, only showing them to those of proven moral standing, Zuchtriegel said.

READ ALSO: Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

That secret cabinet still exists today in the archaeological museum in the southern Italian city.

The exhibition, which runs until January 2023 and brings together some 70 works, begins with the vast erect penis on a statue of the god Priape – a Roman symbol of fertility and prosperity.

This photograph shows a “Statue-fountain of Priapus, symbol of prosperity” during a new exhibition in Pompeii’s site entitled “Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii”. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Priape and his phallus was traditionally placed in the atrium, the large central hall of Roman houses.

Suitable for children?

Visitors are told this has nothing to do with eroticism, “though the modern imagination gives it this meaning”, says Tiziana Rocco from the Pompeii exhibition office.

The smirking of embarrassed tourists is proof enough of that, despite some wishing it otherwise.

“I think modern American culture is a little bit too prudish, and uncomfortable with the human body,” says Seattle tourist Daniel Berglund.

“It’s nice to see ancient culture that was more open and willing to display and glorify the human body,” the 40-year-old said as he lingered in front of paintings from a “cubiculum”, or Roman bedroom.

Various scenes are shown, including a man and a woman having sex. Further on, a series of oil lamps shine light on images to make pulses race – though the curators have not forgotten that some people will be bringing their children to the exhibition.

“Families and children make up a large part of our public,” says Zuchtriegel, who has put together an illustrated guide for them.

READ ALSO: IN PHOTOS: Pompeii’s treasures go on display at reopened Antiquarium museum

“The theme may seem difficult, but it is omnipresent in Pompeii, so it must be explained to children in one way or another,” he said.

In the guide, a centaur – a creature from Greek mythology that is half man, half horse – searches for a mate.

A visitor walks during a new exhibition in Pompeii’s site entitled “Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

On the way he meets Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image, Dionysus, the god of wine, and Hermaphrodite, the child of Aphrodite and Hermes, who had both male and female sexual organs.

“It’s a playful way to meet the different figures of Greek myths present in Pompeii,” Zuchtriegel said

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