How was Rome founded? Not in a day, and not by twins.

The mythical Romulus and Remus may get the credit, but Rome's archaeology reveals local tribes established the ancient kingdom.

By Jane von Mehren
Published 11 Jan 2023, 09:33 GMT
Legendary beginnings or opener
A mosaic on the floor of Vittorio Emanuele Gallery is one of many examples of the art inspired by the legend of Romulus and Remus.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Anibal Trejo, Shutterstock

The highly civilised Etruscans had a huge impact on Rome’s eventual geography, architecture, government, trade, and agriculture. They created excellent schools to which rich Romans sent their sons, much as they would later send them to Greek institutes. By the sixth century B.C., some of Rome’s most famous institutions, from the Forum to the Senate, were in existence but even the most reputable historians—including Fabius, Livy, and Plutarch—started their accounts of the empire in legend.

The story of Rome’s founding begins in Alba Longa, the first “city” of Latium, a region in central western Italy, occupied by Latins. The area had been inhabited since the Bronze Age by farming communities and was known to the ancient Greeks, which is perhaps why Aeneas, a Trojan prince, is said to have established it around 1150 B.C.

Legendary beginnings 2
According to historian Livy, there was no sexual assault of Sabine women. Here, Hersilia separates Romulus and the Sabine king, Tatius.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Erich Lessing, Art Resource, NY

According to legend, in Alba Longa, two of Aeneas’s descendants, the brothers Amulius and Numitor, fought over who would rule. Amulius triumphed, killing Numitor’s sons and exiling his daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal Virgin. Through divine intervention, she gave birth to the twins Romulus and Remus.

Threatened by these potential claimants to his throne, Amulius beheaded Rhea Silvia and abandoned the babies in the river Tiber. Miraculously, a she-wolf rescued and cared for the boys until a shepherd, Faustulus, adopted them, raising them on the Palatine Hill, located in modern-day Rome.

The legend goes on to say that the brothers established the city of Rome on the banks of the Tiber River, where it was narrow enough for crossing and the hills provided a good defensive position. The land between the hills, however, was quite marshy and not all that fertile. The twins soon quarrelled about the city’s exact boundaries and Romulus killed Remus.


A coloured engraving shows a 16th-century view of the Capitoline Hill from the Farnese Gardens, the first private botanic garden in Europe.

Photograph by Image courtesy of Bibliothèque Mazarine, Paris, France, Archives Charmet, The Bridgeman Art Library

Romulus, along with the outlaws and criminals he recruited, invited neighbouring tribe the Sabines, who had resisted intermarrying with the Romans, to a fête. During the merriment Romulus raised his cloak signalling his men to seize and abduct the young Sabine women. As the origin story goes, being Roman wives suited the women and they stopped the Sabine men from battling the Romans when they came to recapture them. In the end the Sabines remained in Rome as part of the new city.

Archaeological evidence tells us that Rome’s actual origins were less dramatic. The first Romans were Latin farmers and shepherds living in small village huts on the Esquiline and Palatine hills. The Sabines, a tribe living to the north, divided soon after the city’s founding, and some of them came south and united with Rome’s people.

Kingdom of Rome
Ruins of a comitium in Salerno, Italy, are shown, where the assemblies of the Roman courts gathered to elect the local magistrates and where popular assemblies were held.
Photograph by Stefano Ravera, Alamy Stock Photo

Rome remained relatively primitive until the 600s B.C., when the Etruscans, who controlled a series of city-states to the north, began taking control of the city.

Kingdom of Rome

While modern scholars discount some of the accounts of ancient Roman historians, they agree that during the first phase of its history—from approximately 753 to 509 B.C.—Rome was ruled by kings. According to these writers, Romulus was the first, succeeded by Numa Pompilius, a Sabine, and in 616 B.C. by an Etruscan named L. Tarquinius Priscus.

Kings had almost absolute power, serving as administrative, judicial, military, and religious leaders. A senate acted as an advisory council. The king chose its members, who became known as patricians, from the city’s leading families. Unlike later monarchs, Roman kingship was not inherited. After a king died, there was a period known as an interregnum, when the Senate chose a new ruler, who was then elected by the people of Rome. The king-elect needed to obtain approval of the gods and the imperium, the power to command, before assuming his throne.

Etruscan influences

Etruscan influences

Coin from Pontus in Asia Minor showing a pantheistic god.

Photograph by Image courtesy of Münzkabinett at Staatliche Museen, Reinhard Saczewski, Art Resource, NY

The Etruscans ruled a loose confederation of city-states that stretched from Bologna to the Bay of Naples. It remains unclear where they originated, but they used a version of the Greek alphabet and some ancient sources describe them as coming from Asia Minor. Around 650 B.C., they were already dominant in the region and took control of Rome, wanting its strategic position on the Tiber.

Under Etruscan kings, Rome grew from a series of villages into a proper city. The Etruscans drained the marshes around the city, constructed underground sewers, laid out roads and bridges. They established the cattle market, Forum Boarium, as well as Forum Romanum, the central market and meeting place that evolved into the heart of the empire. Toward the end of this period of Etruscan influence, the first temple of Jupiter was built on the Capitoline Hill; this temple, although rebuilt many times, became the symbol of Rome’s power.

Etruscan influences 2
Built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian on the banks of the Tiber, Castel Sant’Angelo is now a museum.
Photograph by anshar, Shutterstock

Founding the Republic

The era of Roman kings ended in 509 B.C., when the Romans supposedly expelled the last Etruscan king, L. Tarquinius Superbus, in another mythicised event. As recounted by historians, including Livy, the son of Tarquinius Superbus, Sextus, raped at knifepoint the noblewoman Lucretia, wife of the king’s great nephew. Lucretia, feeling that her honour and virtue had been lost, committed suicide. Her uncle Brutus swears to avenge her and commits to revolution and the expulsion of the monarchy. To the Roman people her story represents the tyrannical powers of the monarch on the state, and so the saga of Lucretia is cited as the event that spurred the Roman Republic into being.

Tourists visit the Roman Forum in Rome, Italy.
Photograph by Andrea Frazzetta, National Geographic Image Collection

In place of the monarchy, Romans established a republic, which lasted until 30 B.C. Over the course of nearly five centuries, Rome became a dominant Western power, seizing territory throughout the Mediterranean, creating an enormous and efficient army, and learning how to administer its vast provinces.

Portions of this work have previously appeared in The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by Jane cvon Mehren. Copyright © 2014 National Geographic Partners, LLC.​
To learn more, check out The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.


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