A city having a birthday? That’s right. Rome has so much history, and has been in existence for over two thousand years, so it’s no wonder the city likes to celebrate its own birthday.
While the founding of Rome is drenched in myth, a specific date has been decided on to usher in the festivities for the birth of the Eternal City. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity for Romans to party and let their hair down.
But where did it all start? Continue reading as I will be telling you everything you should know about the birthday of Rome.
Everything You Need To Know About The Birthday Of Rome
The history of Rome’s foundation
It’s not so much a history as a myth. And there isn’t just one founding myth of Rome: there are several, in fact. But the most famous origin story of Rome is part of the tale of Romulus and Remus.
These twin brothers were born in Alba Longa, located close to the present-day location of Rome. Their grandfather was the former King Numitor of Alba Longa, who had been ousted by his brother, Amulus.
King Amulus saw the twin boys as a threat, and gave orders for them to be killed. The brothers were then abandoned on the banks of the River Tiber. Luckily for them, they were saved by the god of the river – Tiberinus – and were cared for by a female wolf, who raised them as cubs.
Later the twins were adopted by a shepherd. They grew up tending to sheep, unaware of who they really were. Gradually, they seemed to show qualities of leaders, and eventually learned of their past and true identity.
Remus was captured during a dispute between Numitor and Amulus, who didn’t know his true identity. Romulus meanwhile set out to rescue him; in doing so, they learned of their royal heritage, and helped restore Numitor, their grandfather, to the throne.
Inspired, they then set out to build their own city. But this is where they hit a bump in the road. Arriving among Rome’s seven hills – at the spot along the Tiber where they had been abandoned – the two brothers had a disagreement on which of the hills they should found the new city. Romulus wanted to build on the Palatine Hill, but Remus had his eyes set upon Aventine Hill.
Unable to come to a resolution, they decided to look for auspicious signs in the form of birds in the sky (an ancient way of telling fortunes). Sadly, this didn’t solve things and Remus was killed by Romulus, though it may have been one of his supporters.
Romulus then founded his city on the Palatine Hill, created its government, religion and military, and reigned for many years as the first king of Rome.
Of course, this is all mythological. There are other myths, such as Rome being founded by Aeneas – a survivor of the Trojan War, from Troy. Another legend puts Hercules in the founder’s position. Roman poet Ovid writes that Evander, a hero from Arcadia in Greece, founded a city on the Tiber called Pallantium, which was to become Rome.
The actual founding of Rome is difficult to discern. That’s because the ancient Romans were not exactly certain of the year it had been founded themselves. One of the most well known dates is 753 BC, proposed by ancient Roman historian Titus Pomponius Atticus.
More recent archaeological discoveries have dated fortification walls on the north slope of the Palatine Hill to the mid-8th century BC.
Make sure to read my post The Most Famous Roman Myths And Legends.
When is the birthday of Rome celebrated?
Officially, the date of founding of Rome is 21st April, 753 BC. And, incredibly, it’s on this day that the birthday of Rome is still celebrated every year. This year, Rome will turn 2,774 years old.
Although the actual date is uncertain, there is a very good reason behind why this particular date was chosen. It’s because 21st April is based on the traditional date of the ancient festival of Parilia.
Parilia was a festival celebrated in ancient Rome. This was a festival with particularly rustic roots, with shepherds and their sheep being the center of attention – as well as Pales, a deity connected with sheep farming.
During the Parilia ceremony, sheep pens would be decorated with all sorts of greenery, with a wreath on the gate. At the break of day, a shepherd would sweep the pen to purify it, and then create a bonfire of laurel, sulphur, straw and olive branches (the noises created by the crackling fire were believed to be an auspicious omen). The ritual would continue with the shepherd grabbing a sheep and jumping through the flames.
Offerings of cakes and milk would be presented to Pales, and prayers would be offered to protect the shepherd from any wrongdoing they have done. The festival would then culminate in the drinking of burranica – sheep’s milk mixed with boiled wine – before the shepherd would close the ceremony by jumping through the fire three times.
In more urban settings, the ceremony is more of a combination of other Roman religious practices, described by Ovid in his work Fasti. It still had elements of the rural ceremony, but was performed by a priest and involved animal sacrifice.
By the end of the late Roman Republic, Parilia became entwined with Rome’s birthday; it was thought that Romulus had actually founded the city on the same day as the auspicious festival. Various Roman rulers added their own twists to Parilia, with Emperor Hadrian finally changing its name to Romaea, and even putting up a temple dedicated to it.
Fast-forward to the Renaissance, and a group of Humanist scholars with an interest in ancient Rome banded together to solidify the date of Rome’s founding. This was suppressed by the Pope in 1468, who believed these Humanists were promoting “republicanism, paganism, and conspiracy” and imprisoned some of them.
A decade later, however, with a new Pope in power (Sixtus IV), the group reformed. They found that Parilia conveniently coincided with the feast day of three Christian saints (Victor, Fortunatus and Genesius) and decided to hold a mini celebration on that day. It featured poetry competitions, speeches and a meal.
Why is it called Natale di Roma?
Natale di Roma literally means “Birth of Rome”. The celebration was previously known as Dies Romana, or “Roman Day”. It’s pretty obvious why it’s called the Birth of Rome because, well, it’s on this day that Rome was born.
Similarly in Italy, Christmas is known as “Natale”, which – of course – celebrates the birth of Jesus.
How is Rome’s birthday celebrated?
No longer just a secret gathering of persecuted scholars reading poetry and making speeches, Rome’s birthday today is a much more widespread, and much more fun, event. Visit Rome on 21st April, and you can expect to find a city alive with parades, decorations, and various events taking place across the capital.
The parade itself takes place around ancient monuments of Rome, starting at the Circus Maximus and winds its way to Via dei Fori Imperiali. Around 1,500 people – from 13 different counties (all formerly part of the Roman Empire) – are dressed in costumes as Roman soldiers, gladiators, citizens and senators in togas.
They also participate in a historical re-enactment of a battle between Roman soldiers and barbarians. The mock battle is a spectacular sight to see. It’s free, and is easy to see without making special arrangements.
Various different events, both private and sponsored by the city, take place across the weekend nearest to the 21st. This culminates with an open-air party where everyone can enjoy the celebrations in piazzas across the capital.
One particularly well known party zone is the area spanning Piazza della Bocca della Verità and Via Petroselli, which is pedestrianized for the occasion. This usually takes place from 2:30 to 8:00 pm, when the area is transformed into an open-air theatre, with four stages in collaboration with Rome’s numerous theatre companies.
Along Via Petroselli, there’s music and performances that depicts and celebrates Rome through the ages. You’ll see typical street performers, too, juggling, fire-eating and people on stilts.
The celebration starts on the morning of the 21st of April, when the Mayor of Rome lays a laurel wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Piazza Venezia. This is followed by a ceremony in the Julius Caesar hall. Afterwards, there’s a musical performance in Piazza del Campidoglio.
Institutions like art galleries, museums and universities schedule events to mark the occasion; as well as things like concerts, there may also be educational seminars and exhibitions for the Natale di Roma. Another bonus is that all museums and exhibitions are free on this day.
And, if you do like poetry readings, then you’ll be pleased to know that there is usually a marathon reading of sonnets by Giuseppi Gioachino Belli (1791-1863). His sonnets, often depicting the lives of everyday Romans – and often anti-clerical – are written in Roman dialect; they’re read by Roman, Italian and European citizens.
For more about Rome, make sure to read my other posts: