Sacred Cave of Rome’s Founders Found, Scientists Say

Sacred Cave of Rome’s Founders Found, Scientists Say
Maria Cristina Valsecchi in Rome
for National Geographic News January 26, 2007 UPDATE (NOVEMBER 20, 2007)

Lupercale ceiling picture
Photo of the cave’s ornate interior.

Archaeologists say they have unearthed Lupercale—the sacred cave where, according to legend, a she-wolf nursed the twin founders of Rome and where the city itself was born.

Photos: Rome — The Eternal City
Tomb of Prehistoric Leader Unearthed in Modern Rome (February 7, 2006)
St. Paul’s Tomb Unearthed in Rome (December 11, 2006)
The long-lost underground chamber was found beneath the remains of Emperor Augustus’ palace on the Palatine, a 230-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) hill in the center of the city.

Archaeologists from the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Rome Municipality came across the 50-foot-deep (15-meter-deep) cavity while working to restore the decaying palace.

“We were drilling the ground near Augustus’ residence to survey the foundations of the building when we discovered the cave,” said Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of the area.

“We knew from ancient reports that the Lupercale shouldn’t be far from the Emperor’s palace, but we didn’t expect to find it. It was a lucky surprise.

“We didn’t enter the cave but took some photos with a probe,” Iacopi added.

“They show a richly decorated vault encrusted with mosaics and seashells, too rich to be part of a home. That’s why we think it could be the ancient sanctuary, but we can’t be sure until we find the entrance to the chamber.”

Ancient Legend

According to myth, Lupercale is where a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the war god Mars and mortal priestess Rhea Silvia, who had been abandoned in a cradle on the bank of the Tiber River.

The cave’s name, in fact, comes from the Latin word for wolf, lupus.

The brothers are said to have later founded Rome on April 21, 753 B.C., at the site. But they eventually fought for the leadership of the new city, and Romulus killed his brother.

“We knew from ancient reports that the Lupercale shouldn’t be far from the Emperor’s palace, but we didn’t expect to find it. It was a lucky surprise.

“We didn’t enter the cave but took some photos with a probe,” Iacopi added.

“They show a richly decorated vault encrusted with mosaics and seashells, too rich to be part of a home. That’s why we think it could be the ancient sanctuary, but we can’t be sure until we find the entrance to the chamber.”

Ancient Legend

According to myth, Lupercale is where a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the war god Mars and mortal priestess Rhea Silvia, who had been abandoned in a cradle on the bank of the Tiber River.

The cave’s name, in fact, comes from the Latin word for wolf, lupus.

The brothers are said to have later founded Rome on April 21, 753 B.C., at the site. But they eventually fought for the leadership of the new city, and Romulus killed his brother.

That didn’t stop the site from becoming a sacred place to ancient Romans.

Every year on February 15 ancient priests killed a dog and two goats and smeared the foreheads of two boys from noble families with the sacrificial blood as part of the Lupercalia celebration. (Related: “‘Rome’ TV Wardrobe Not Built in a Day [August 26, 2005].)

Photos: Rome — The Eternal City
Tomb of Prehistoric Leader Unearthed in Modern Rome (February 7, 2006)
St. Paul’s Tomb Unearthed in Rome (December 11, 2006)
The ceremony survived until A.D. 494, when Pope Gelasius put an end to the tradition.

The Palatine Hill also became the residential area of the most affluent Roman citizens beginning in 500 B.C.

When the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire in the first century B.C., Augustus even built himself and his wife Livia palaces on top of the hill.

Later emperors followed his example and built larger and larger homes on the same spot. Now the whole hill is a honeycomb of buildings and tunnels extending far underground.

The English word “palace” derives from “Palatium,” the Latin name of the area.

Crumbling Ruins

“The tale of the birth of Rome is part myth and part historical truth,” said Andrea Carandini, historian and archaeologist at the University of Rome, La Sapienza.

“The story of the twins reflects the previous tradition of the Lares, the twin deities protecting the area, but there was indeed a historical founder who constituted the Palatine Hill as the sacred heart of the city around 775 B.C.,” he added.

“The archaeological findings are providing more and more evidence that the tale of Rome’s foundation isn’t a later legend but originates from historical facts,” he said.

Time may been running out for additional discoveries, however.

“The remains are now crumbling due to atmospheric agents and lack of funds for maintenance,” head archaeologist Iacopi said. “Most of the buildings are closed to the public for safety reasons. It’s a real pity.

“Archaeologists are doing what they can to restore and stabilize the ruins,” she added.

“Now we have to find the entrance and study the chamber,” Iacopi said.

“In the meantime we are going to finish the restorations in Augustus’ palace. We hope to open part of the emperor’s residence to the public in a few months.”
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Source: National Geographic.com
Photo in the News: Grotto of Rome’s Founders Revealed

November 20, 2007—Colorful mosaics spiral across the vaulted ceiling of a grotto that was unveiled today as the likely place where ancient Romans believed that a she-wolf suckled their city’s legendary founders.

In January archaeologists announced that the sacred cave, known as the Lupercale, had been found during excavations of Emperor Augustus’ palace on the Palatine, a 230-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) hill in the center of Rome.

According to Roman myth, a female wolf nursed the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus in the Lupercale. The grown brothers are said to have founded the Eternal City at the site on April 21, 753 B.C.

Since the grotto’s discovery, experts have been examining it with remote sensing devices, because they fear that a full dig might cause the already fragile cave to collapse, the Associated Press reported. So far the team estimates that the domed sanctuary is 26 feet (8 meters) high with a 24-foot (7-meter) diameter.

At a news conference today the team released images of the grotto—including the undated photo above—taken with a probe. The images show the cave’s richly detailed mosaics made of marble and seashells.

The center of the ceiling features a depiction of a white eagle, the symbol of the Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus. The first-century-B.C. emperor is thought to have restored the sacred site in a bid to improve his power by linking himself with Rome’s mystical founders.

“The Lupercale must have had an important role in Augustus’ policies,” Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of the site, told the AP. “He saw himself as a new Romulus.”

Archaeologists also announced that teams would soon start to search for the grotto’s original entrance, believed to be at the bottom of the Palatine, in the hopes of safely accessing the cave.

—Victoria Jaggard

AP Photo/Italian Culture Ministry, HO

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