Rome celebrated its 2,774th birthday on April 21. Known as Natale di Roma, the annual birthday celebration is based on the legendary founding of Rome in 753 BC. To cover the history of Rome in detail takes volumes. In this feature, the Italian Tribune will present some of the highlights in the long history of the Eternal City, as well as a description of its annual birthday party.
On April 21, 753 BC, Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, founded the City of Rome. At least, that is the story, according to legend. We do not know if the historical Romulus and Remus actually existed, the Romans, at least, officially believed they did and accepted the myth about them as a historical fact that was intertwined with their whole political, religious and cultural identity. The year 753 was first calculated by Titus Pomponius Atticus (c. 110 – 32 BC) and then accepted by scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (116 – 27 BC) in his writings.
The date was calculated based on the tradition that the first pair of consuls took office in 508 BC and that the seven legendary Kings of early Rome had ruled for 35 years each. In actuality, there is archeological evidence that the Hills of Rome have been settled since at least 1000 BC.
As for April 21, that was the day of the Parilia, the Festival of Pales, Roman goddess of shepherds. In 121 AD, under Emperor Hadrian, the Parilia holiday was renamed to Romaia to celebrate the Natalis Urbis Romae, the birthday of the city. Rome has never missed a birthday celebration since. Romans marked their city’s birth with popular festivals involving large quantities of eating, drinking, joke playing and other forms of merrymaking.
More recently, especially since Rome became Italy’s capital in 1870, the city has used the occasion for slightly more refined ends, to highlight Rome’s unique cultural, archeological, musical and artistic heritage. Historical re-enactments recount scenes from Rome’s storied past, from the beginning of her founding, to battle scenes between Romans and Barbarians. The demonstrations take place at several locations, with the most impressive taking place within the Circus Maximus.
A special event to mark Rome’s birthday is one that not many are aware of. The Pantheon was designed expressly so that at noon on Rome’s birthday, the sun streaming through the oculus in its dome comes in at an angle that centers exactly on the doorway at its entrance on the north of the building. The Emperor would position himself to enter the door just as the full sunlight illuminated the doorway, proving as bit of theater to the dignitaries in attendance. The phenomenon still occurs to this day, although without an Emperor.
Other focal points to this celebration are lively street performers and parades, where patrons can mingle with historical figures such as Roman soldiers, barbarians, slaves and senators. Live bands and concerts perform throughout the day at locations such as the Pantheon and Piazza del Campidoglio. The party ends with an impressive fireworks display.
We have covered many aspects of Roman history throughout the years. Here is a very short summary of well-known accomplishments and events in the history of Ancient Rome. Beginning in the eighth century BC, it grew from a small town on central Italy’s Tiber River into an empire that at its peak encompassed most of continental Europe, Britain, much of western Asia, northern Africa and the Mediterranean islands. Among the many legacies of Rome is the widespread use of the Romance languages, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian, which were each derived from the Latin. Among the innumerable features of Rome that are with us today, it gave us the modern Western alphabet and calendar.
Roman architecture and engineering innovations have had a lasting impact on the modern world. Roman aqueducts, first developed in 312 BC, enabled the rise of cities by transporting water to urban areas. Roman cement and concrete are part of the reason ancient buildings such as the Colosseum and Roman Forum are still standing strong today. Roman roads, the most advanced in the ancient world, enabled the Roman Empire of over 1.7 million square miles at the pinnacle, to stay connected. They included innovations such as mile markers and drainage. Amazingly, over 50,000 miles of roads were built by 200 BC. Several are still in use today.
Rome was built on seven hills, the Esquiline, Palatine, Aventine, Capitoline, Quirinal, Viminal and Caelian hills. In 509 BC, Rome changed from a monarchy into a republic, a world derived from res publica, meaning property of the people.
In 450 BC, the first Roman law code was inscribed on 12 bronze tablets which were displayed in the Roman Forum. These laws addressed issues of legal procedure, civil and property rights. It not only provided the basis for all future Roman civil law, many of the constitutional rights adopted by the Founding Fathers of the United States are derived from Roman law.
Rome had gained control of the Italian peninsula by 264 BC. It soon engaged in a series of wars with Carthage. The first two Punic Wars ended with Rome in full control of Sicily, the western Mediterranean and much of Spain. In the Third Punic War, which ended in 146 BC, the Romans captured and destroyed the City of Carthage, making a section of northern Africa a Roman province. It spread its influence east following the Macedonian Wars, turning that kingdom into another Roman province.
In 49 BC, Julius Caesar ignited a four year civil war from which he emerged as dictator for life. He was murdered on the Ides of March less than one year later by a group of his enemies. Twenty years later, Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir, Octavian became the sole leader of Rome and all its provinces. In 27 BC, Octavian assumed the title of Augustus, becoming the first Emperor of Rome. This ushered in two full centuries of peace and prosperity, where Roman literature, art, architecture and religion flourished. Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117 AD, expanded Rome’s borders to the greatest extent in its history.
During the third century, Rome suffered from a cycle of near-constant conflicts. A total of 22 emperors took the throne, many of them meeting violent ends. Constantine emerged from the ensuing power struggles as Emperor of a re-unified Rome in 324. The following year, he made Christianity Rome’s official religion. He also moved the Roman capital to the city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. Within a generation, the Roman Empire was divided into west and east.
The eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, would remain largely intact for centuries to come. An entirely different story played out in the west, where the empire was wracked by internal conflicts as well as threats from abroad in the form of barbarians. Rome eventually collapsed, losing its provinces one by one. In September 476, the Roman army was defeated by Odovacar, who deposed the last western Emperor, Romulus Augustus.
The ancient Romans dubbed their home the “Eternal City” because they believed that no matter what happened to the world, no matter how many other empires might rise and fall, Rome would go on forever. Tanti auguri to the Italian capital – here’s to another 2,774 years.