The recent rediscovery and promotion of a “tomb of Romulus” in the Roman Forum created a frenzy and renewed interest in both Rome’s mythical foundation story and the archaic city in general. While subsequent reporting indicated that nothing in the material itself indicated a relationship to Romulus, and that the “tomb” was more likely a cenotaph, this space is still an important data point for our understanding of archaic Rome, as well as the Roman conception of their own foundation. It also allows us to reconsider the place of burials within the city and how this “cenotaph” fits into the larger picture. The Parco archeologico del Colosseo dates the sarcophagus to the 6th c. BCE on the basis of its Capitoline tuff material, and therefore we should contextualize it with other early Roman funerary evidence and activity in the Forum.
While funerary evidence dating back to the early Bronze Age has been found within the city of Rome, most archaeologists agree that the key period begins in the 8th century (roughly Latial phases IIIB-IVB), and our main evidence for the location and extent of habitation spaces is the distribution of burials (Fulminante 2014, Hopkins 2016, Cornell 1995). Despite the difficulties of both preservation and excavation within the city of Rome, burial evidence as early as the 10th century (and even earlier in some areas) exists on the Palatine, Capitoline, Quirinal and Esquiline hills (de Santis 2010). These burials have been put to use to fit a variety of different theories on the origins of Rome, such as the Septimontium and the tradition of the integration of the Sabines (Carandini 2000, Cornell 1995, 75-80). Rather than circumscribing the evidence into the traditional stories of Early Rome, this paper considers what these burials, their contents and their spatial layout can tell us about the development and unification of a society.
Following on recent work arguing that archaic central Italy was centered on the activities, rivalries, and alliances of individual clan groups, we can make more sense of the developments and burials within the city of Rome (Cohen and Naglak 2019, Terrenato 2011). The move to a more centralized burial area on the Esquiline beginning in the 8th century demonstrates the beginning of a sense of a larger community between these disparate settlements. The taboo on burial of adults inside habitation areas is widespread throughout archaic Italy, and likely does not result from an awareness of disease or pollution, but the ideological role of burials. The final resting places of ancestor’s bones (along with, often, quite wealthy grave goods) allow a lineage group to claim spaces as their own, as well as a monopoly on the memory of the deceased. This cenotaph therefore represents a moment where this taboo is symbolically contravened and thus represents a critical moment in the alliance between lineage groups.
Other pieces of evidence for corporate actions and thinking are tied to the space where the “tomb of Romulus” was discovered – the fill of the Forum itself, the creation of the Comitium, and the cippus inscription associated with the Lapis Niger (Hopkins 2016). This cenotaph is another piece to consider alongside these, requiring communal decision and likely representing a figure with importance to the entire community. A founding hero is a likely option, and would then demonstrate not only corporate decision making, but a sense of a community. Tombs of founders are a common aspect of the foundation of Greek city states in Italy, and here we may be seeing the influx of Greek ideas about what it meant to form a community. Thus this “cenotaph” provides another key piece of evidence for the consolidation of authority at Rome in the 6th century, another example of negotiation between lineage groups and the role of the central spaces of the city between the hills in the formation of a communal enterprise that eventually becomes the Roman Republic.
Between Myth and Materiality: The Origins of Rome 800-500 BCE