Mary Beard: Should we believe the story about the discovery of the Romulus and Remus cave?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mary Beard is a wickedly subversive commentator on both the modern and the ancient world. She is a professor in classics at Cambridge and classics editor of the TLS.]

There’s lots in the news this morning about Italian archaeologists having found the very cave where “according to legend” the famous wolf suckled the abandoned twins – Romulus and Remus – who went on to found the city of Rome. Or at least Romulus did; he murdered Remus in the process.

It’s one of those funny returning news stories, because it was first announced way back in January. Presumably it didn’t get enough attention then, so it’s now being re-run, backed by Mr Rutelli, ex-mayor of Rome and now the Minister of Culture, as triumph for the Italian nation (“ a mythological place has become real”, he said). And sure enough, today, it’s all over the press and the airways.

But is it true?

Well, for a start, it depends on how much stress you give to “according to legend”. For the last ten years or so, there’s been a huge campaign in Rome to find the traces of the “real Romulus”. One tremendously charismatic Italian archaeologist, Andrea Carandini, has boasted of unearthing the traces of Romulus’ own palace, not to mention his original city boundary (the one Remus jumped over and got himself killed). So why not the cave too?

Well the truth is, folks, Romulus didn’t exist. He is a MYTH. So searching for his physical remains is a pretty fruitless task.

But is this the place that the Romans themselves BELIEVED was the cave of Romulus?

That’s a finer question.

And the answer is “maybe”. But, honestly, I still have my doubts.

What has been discovered is a rather elegant underground cavern on the Palatine hill, with a nicely 035cave_468x365 decorated vault, inlaid with seashells, mosaics and marble. No one has crawled into it yet (it’s not exactly stable, so all photos have been taken by “probe” – fleshed out with some sixteenth-century drawings, from a previous “re-discovery”). And it’s not entirely clear from the maps provided where it is, or where it was entered from.  But  it’s somewhere beneath the house – the  rather modest proto-place -- occupied by the first Roman emperor Augustus (hence the “first emperor decides to live on top of Romulus’ cave” aspect of the story).

The place is Roman all right, and it looks for all the world like one of those decorated underground grottoes that Roman toffs went wild about. But that doesn’t mean it’s the "Lupercal", as the Romans called the cave where they thought the twins had been found by the wolf (lupa).

The mysterious entrance is a problem for me. One thing we know about the Lupercal is that it was easily accessible. It was, for example, the starting point of one of the major – and strangest – rituals of Roman religion: the Lupercalia. This happened every year on 15 February, and involved a group of young men stripping naked and running around the city beating any woman who got in their way with goat thongs (a good antidote to the general view that Romans were buttoned up and stuffy – and the ritual that features in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). The whole thing seems to have kicked off in the Lupercal with the sacrifice of a couple of goats and a dog, and then the blood was smeared all over the young men’s foreheads.The implication is that it was easy enough to get to.

So I shall be reserving judgment until I see a bit more of this grotto.

The reassuring thing is that Romans themselves could sometime take a sceptical turn when it came to the myth of Romulus. Not all of them fell for the story of the wolf at all. They pointed out that lupa was also the Latin word for prostitute. So who was it who had found and suckled the abandoned twins . . ?

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