Why Rome celebrates its birthday on April 21st

Why Rome celebrates its birthday on April 21st
Rome last celebrated its birthday in full in April 2019. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
According to legend, the Eternal City isn't ageless but 2,774 years old this week. 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’. 

A view over the Rome from the Palatine Hill. Photo by Laurent EMMANUEL / AFP

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.

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.

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

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.

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That timeline makes Rome 2,774 years old on April 21st 2021.

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 2,774th 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).

READ ALSO: Thirteen pan-tastic facts about Rome’s Pantheon

The Pantheon is currently closed to the public, but you can watch the phenomenon below.

And for those of us in Rome this month, until May 1st you can catch a nightly light show projected onto various monuments throughout the city, including city hall in the Piazza del Campidoglio and the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola on the Janiculum hill. Just remember to get back home before curfew at 10pm. 


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