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The Memory of Early Rome

Is the power of memory underestimated in archaeological readings of the past? On the occasion of Rome’s 2,773rd birthday, PhD Student Nikoline Sauer considers cultural and collective memory and its impact on the archaeological studies of early Rome.

Fig. 1. The birthday of Rome celebrated annually with historical re-enactments at the Circus Maximus in Rome (credit: Andrea Ranalli / Southcreek Global).

By PhD Student Nikoline Sauer

A fortnight ago, on 21 April, Rome celebrated its 2,773rd birthday. The birthday is based on the legendary founding of Rome in 753 BCE by Romulus, the first king of the city. Every year, the inhabitants and municipality of Rome commemorate the day with several public events, including concerts, poetry readings, re-enactments of the history of Rome (Fig. 1), and free admission to the city museums.       

The date of Rome’s foundation is merely a convention, since it cannot be pinpointed accurately. The archaeological record shows that the formation of Rome was a slow and gradual process, which happened over several centuries (9th–6th century BCE). It was the ancient Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (116–127 BCE) who dated the founding of Rome to the 21 April 753 BCE, based on the tradition that the first pair of consuls took office in 508 BCE and that the seven legendary kings of early Rome had ruled for 35 years each. From the late Republic onwards, the foundation of Rome was celebrated annually together with the festival Parilia, a celebration of rural and agricultural deities. The day continued to hold great importance throughout the Imperial period and was later resurrected during periods of classical revival, such as the Renaissance and the unification of Italy in 1870.

As a symbolic event celebrated annually by the inhabitants of Rome, the city’s foundation is an excellent example of what may be termed “cultural memory”. Jan Assmann, who first coined the term in the late 1980s, explains the concept in an article from 1995 (“Collective Memory and Cultural Identity”, New German Critique 65, p. 129), noting that cultural memory revolves around a set of “fixed points”, namely “fateful events of the past, whose memory is maintained through cultural formation (texts, rites, monuments) and institutional communication (recitation, practice, observance)”.

Over the past three decades, archaeology has seen an increasing interest in the relation between culture and memory. In the field of ancient Rome, Karl Galinsky has been the pioneer of this development, with works such as Memoria Romana: Memory in Rome and Rome in Memory (2014), Memory in Ancient Rome and Early Christianity (2016) and Cultural Memories in the Roman Empire (2016). 

The foundation of Rome was a crucial element in the collective memory of the city. The “fixed points” described by Assmann need not be an event, but can also be a place, monument or object vested with historical significance. In the words of Pierre Nora, all these can be “sites of memory”, lieux de mémoire (1984). Both in the ancient and modern world, many such sites of memory refer back to the earliest parts of Rome’s history and especially to the mythical kings, such as the “Hut of Romulus” found on the Palatine Hill, the museum exhibitions “La Roma dei Re” (2019/2020) and “La Grande Roma dei Tarquini” (1990), and the emblem of the Italian football club Roma, which depicts the she-wolf and Romulus and Remus as infants.

In short, cultural memory is an important factor in shaping our understanding of early Rome, which I am currently investigating as part of my PhD project. By means of archaeological evidence, the project studies the Archaic period (c. 6th century BCE), a pivotal era in the history of Rome where the site developed into a city. In my research, I have found that the archaeology of the Archaic period is thoroughly shaped by the cultural memory of later periods. Literary sources for early Roman history from much later periods, such as Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (written 27–9 BCE), have been used to reconstruct the society of Archaic Rome. However, the cultural memories tell us more about the time in which they were “invented” than the actual period they are about.

In archaeology, where we mainly work with tangible material evidence, we tend to underestimate the influence of cultural memory, but archaeological data are not just facts. They are always interpreted by humans and should be understood in the light of cultural identity and changing ideologies. We need always to have this in mind when considering the archaeology of early Rome. The cultural memory of later times should be treated critically and held up against the material evidence that is actually available from the period itself. But of course, there is no harm in using the occasion of the 21 April to have fun and think back on the long history of Rome.