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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 November 2007, 17:03 GMT
Digging into the myths of Rome
By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

Photo of the inside of the cave believed to be the Lupercal
What lies beneath? Ancient mythology is influencing modern archaeology

The discovery in Rome of a vaulted cavern, studded with coloured mosaics and buried deep beneath the ruins of an emperor's palace, suggests that the story of how the city was founded might be more than a mere myth.

Archaeologists are thrilled by the discovery of the colourful underground domed structure, saying it might prove to be the venerated site of the Lupercal.

This grotto was built on what was thought to be the cave of the she-wolf who, according to myth, suckled the city's twin founders, Romulus and Remus, sons of the god Mars and the priestess Rhea Silvia.

The archaeologists say the find illustrates the way that fictional myths can shape the search for solid structures and historical facts.

"All Roman mythology is linked to the city, tied up with the city's typography and with precise locations," Professor Andrea Carandini, of Rome's La Sapienza University, told BBC News.

"Naturally, if we find the places, the mythological reconstruction becomes more realistic," he said.

Rescued hero

The original site of the Lupercal was soon swallowed up by a rapidly expanding and transforming city, even if the myth lived on.

A statue showing the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus
According to myth, Romulus and Remus were nursed by a she-wolf

The cavern, some 26ft (8m) high, has been found in the very heart of the city, on the Palatine Hill.

"People have been looking for it for a long time because ancient Rome, like modern Rome, was a big city and was undergoing redevelopment all the time," said Professor Peter Wiseman of Exeter University.

"A huge amount of rebuilding took place, especially around the Palatine, which was right in the centre. Even Dionysius, writing in 1BC, says it is difficult to see in the modern city where the cave of the Lupercal is."

Mr Carandini believes that Romulus actually existed, even if the details of his survival - washed up on the banks of the River Tiber along with his twin brother where they were discovered, suckled and saved by a female wolf - may be untrue.

"The legend of Rome contains complete fictions," he said. "I don't believe for a moment that Romulus was suckled by a she-wolf, it was a myth he created that corresponds to the typical myth of the rescued hero.

We know Augustus was crazy about Romulus - he wanted to be the new Romulus
Professor Andrea Carandini

"But the Lupercal exists, the wall of the Palatine exist, the centre of political life that is the forum, founded by Romulus - all these are true."

One element of the Romulus and Remus story, which has Remus defying his brother by leaping over the settlement's boundary walls - an act which cost him his life - has became the defining characteristic of the Roman town.

"In all myths there is a purpose and a rationale, even though the particular story may not be true," said archaeologist Miranda Aldhouse-Green, of Cardiff University.

"The idea that there is a 'territorium', that Romulus is staking out territory and enclosing it within a sacred precinct, remains valid. It is quite true that whenever you excavate a Roman town, it has a clearly demarcated border."

"Even if we takes nothing else from the myth other than the idea of the importance of enclosure of a city, which is very much encapsulated in that myth... one can excavate and verify empirically," she added.

Layered history

A myth, she said, could often spark a search for a truth.

Probes revealed a ceiling with a white eagle at the centre

"In many cases, the myths that have come down to us have generated archaeological investigation," she said.

Myths woven around a site could encourage people to build above it, leading to layers of history and mythology in a single, culturally important place, she explained.

"In pre-history you will find reoccupation of a site over time because a site has a certain sanctity, for example. In the Roman period, a temple is built to venerate an ancestor but also because the site has gained the reputation for being sacred."

Cult site

The Romans were themselves archaeological tourists, travelling to sites that were several thousands of years old, much as we visit the remnants of their cities today.

Whether the myth of the founding of Rome has its basis in fact or fiction, the underground cavern became a place of veneration and worship, from where priests took place in complex rituals and celebrated the Lupercalia festival.

The choice of the first Roman emperor's palace was also influenced by the city's founding myth.

"We know Augustus was crazy about Romulus. He wanted to be the new Romulus so... if this is the Lupercal, and if the Lupercal is above Augustus's house, then this has a colossal significance," Mr Carandini said.

"It means that Augustus chose to live above the cave where Romulus was rescued; the place where the hero who founded the city was rescued is also home to Augustus, who re-founds Rome and begins the creation of the Roman empire."

Map and cross-section showing cave under the Palatine hill

Footage of the lupercalian shrine in Rome

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