Think of a gorgeous old actress that instead of walking on her sunset boulevard shows no sign of cooling despite her age and instead celebrates her aging in great style. This is precisely what has happened every 21st of April since 753 BC when Romans celebrate the birthday of Rome with parties, events, plays, masquerades, and exhibitions.
Table of Contents
- 1 History and Myths about the Birthday of Rome
- 1.1 When is Rome’s birthday?
- 1.2 Why is the birthday of Rome called Natale di Roma?
- 1.3 How did we get to the date of the 21st of April 753 BC for the foundation of Rome?
- 1.4 How did the founding of Rome happen?
- 1.5 Founding of Rome: the truth behind the myth
- 1.6 What are the celebrations for the birthday of Rome?
- 2 Birthday of Rome 2023 – What to do
History and Myths about the Birthday of Rome
When is Rome’s birthday?
Rome was founded on April 21st, 753 BC, so if you are wondering how old is the city of Rome, this year the eternal city turns 2776. Every year on the 21st of April, the citizens celebrate the birthday of Rome with parties and events.
Why is the birthday of Rome called Natale di Roma?
Even though called “Natale di Roma”, the recurrence of the 21st of April in Rome has nothing to do with Christian rites of festivities.
“Natale” is the Italian word used in Christianity to refer to Christmas, the birth of Christ, but the birthday of Rome is called “Natale di Roma” because it refers to the expression “dies natalis“, Latin for “day of birth”, an ancient secular occasion when Romans would celebrate the foundation of Rome that allegedly happened on the 21st of April 753 BC by the actions of Romulus.
The year of Rome’s birth has been set to be 753 BC but archaeologists found much more ancient traces of life on Palatine Hill. Nevertheless, this is the date from which the chronology of the city’s history starts, from the alleged founding of Rome.
Make sure you read our full guide to visiting the Colosseum.
How did we get to the date of the 21st of April 753 BC for the foundation of Rome?
Through the calculation of how many kings and how many consuls Rome had, the scholar Marcus Terentius Varro established the year 753 BC to be when Rome was founded.
He set the year of the first consuls Brutus and Collatinus in 245 BC taking as good the gap of 244 years as the period of the seven kings of Rome given by the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus who lived during the reign of Augustus in his monumental book “Roman Antiquities” where he chronicles the history of Rome from its mythical founding.
No historian has managed to prove that Varro’s calculation was correct but this is the date that has been universally approved and used up to now.
As far as the date of April 21st is concerned, research suggests that it’s the result of the astrological calculations of 1st-century mathematician and astrologer Lucius Tarutius Firmanus, but also mentioned in ancient history books such as “Historiae romanae ad M. Vinicium libri duo” by the 1st-century Roman historian and senator Velleius Paterculus.
Several ancient historians, authors, mathematicians, and philosophers came up with alternative calculations and historical research to place the foundation of Rome, the most important event of their time, and what changed the world’s civilization.
From Marcus Porcius Cato known as Cato the Censor to Plutarch, many are theories, analyses, and also myths linked to the birthday of Rome. Some calculations involve the day of conception and birth of Romulus and Remus, including references to the Egyptian calendar, some even following natural phenomena like solar eclipses.
We owe to Plutarch the account of the Greek poet Antimachus of Teos who observed a solar eclipse in 753 BC. Some even count the years from important events such as the Olympic Games and the fall of Troy.
According to records by Plutarch, Titus Livius, Cicero, and others, Romulus disappeared or was killed by the senate when he was around 54 years old, after some 37 or 38 years of reign after he founded Rome.
Depending on the author and the theory, whether it’s mythological or has historical claims also referring to the reports of natural events like solar eclipses, the year of Rome’s foundation can slightly change but more or less always pins down between 754 and 752 BC.
Even though myths definitely outnumber historical research, there seems to be some level of truthfulness in this date that has gone down in history as Natale di Roma. Despite the hardship in setting apart facts from myths, it seems fairly accepted that around that date some Romulus put the roots of what would have become “Caput Mundi”, the world’s capital.
Don’t miss our extensive article on the most important ancient sites in Rome.
21st of April as an ancient festival
There is another reason, however, that led to the choice of the 21st of April. This was originally, and far before the foundation of Rome, a very ancient farming festival known by the name of Parilia or Palilia in honor of Pales, goddess patron of farmers.
Likely, the Palatine was named after Pales as opposed to the Aventine which was the reign of Ceres goddess of lands and fertility linked to the plebs. Apparently, this was one of the three days of the agropastoral festivities taking place between the 15th and the 25th of April.
One of the most ancient ceremonies of the area, they were purifying and propitiatory rituals taking place in both the city and the countryside to bid well to the farmers, the cattle, and the lands.
The ceremony involved several rituals including adorning the stable with laurel branches, offering bread and milk to the goddess, and praying to her three times towards the east. In the evening, farmers would jump across big fires, a cleansing ritual common to many countries back then and still now like in Iran around Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
The ceremony would continue with animal sacrifices and then their ashes symbol of fertilization thrown to fire along with fava beans, a sacred bean propitiatory to bid well for the crops.
Make sure you read our complete guide to the things to do in Rome.
How did the founding of Rome happen?
Much of what we know about the foundation of Rome, be it mythological or with some historical evidence, comes from the monumental work by Titus Livius “Ab Urbe Condita“.
Our story started somewhere around the Greek islands and our hero is Aeneas, the star of Virgil’s Aeneid. Son of goddess Venus, Aeneas fled the sack of Troy and went to Italy, with a brief stop in Carthage, just in time to make the queen Dido fall in love with him and then commit suicide when he’s forced to leave by Fate and Jupiter.
Once he reached Cumae in Italy, Aeneas summons the Cumaean Sybil who directs him to the Underworld where his dead father Anchises reveals to him that his destiny is in Rome. In Lazio (Latium), Rome’s region, Aeneas is welcomed by the king Latino and especially by his daughter, Lavinia. After winning a duel with her arranged fiancé Turno, Aeneas marries Lavinia and founds a city named after her, Lavinio.
Fast forward, thirty years later, Ascanius, Aeneas’ son also called Iulius (a celebration of the future important Gens Julia dynasty of Julius Caesar and Augustus), founds yet another city, Alba Longa, where his descendants ruled for generations until the king Numitor got overthrown by his own brother Amulius. The new king, among other things, forces Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a vestal sworn to chastity to avoid her procreating and giving birth to a potential pretender to the throne.
However, Amulius didn’t do a full calculation of the events.
In fact, Mars, one of the most important Roman gods nonetheless, fell in love with Rhea Silvia and got her pregnant with the twins Romulus and Remus (to celebrate the divine origins of Rome). King Amulius was all but pleased to hear he had two new nephews and ordered for the twins to be killed. The servant in charge couldn’t do it and left them in a basket on the shore of the Tiber river.
After floating along for a while, the basket stopped near the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill), in the area where today lies the Roman Forum, and the twins were rescued and fed by a she-wolf that had heard them cry. Here things are a little fuzzy.
According to some, it’s possible that the she-wolf is a metaphor for a prostitute (from “lupanare“, a sort of brothel in ancient Rome), some say they were protected also by a woodpecker, holy the Latins. Some others say they were also fed by a fig tree and some that they were rescued by a family of farmers where the wife was known as “lupa” maybe because she moonlighted as a call girl.
Once adults, Romulus and Remus went back to Alba Longa, killed Amulius, and put their grandfather Numitor (amazingly still alive and strong enough to rule) back in power.
Once Numitor is at the head of Alba Longa again, since the two nephews didn’t want to rule there at least as long as he was alive, they received permission for founding a brand new city in the place where they grew up. Romulus wanted to build it on Palatine Hill and call it Roma, while Remus preferred Aventine Hill and wanted to name the new city Remora.
Here we only know for sure that Remus died, but there are many accounts of the how. He did die at the hand of his brother, but we are not sure if it was within a normal fight or if there was some form of cheating. Whatever happened, Romulus won and this is what allowed the foundation of Rome on April 21st 753 BC, of which he became its first king.
Don’t miss our article on Rome’s location now and throughout history.
Founding of Rome: the truth behind the myth
I think we can all agree that being founded by a semi-god who has been fed by a she-wolf and a fig tree is pretty unlikely even for a beautiful and important city like Rome. This is why archaeologists kept digging all these years to give some sort of realism to the founding of Rome. And all in all, in the myth, they see a seed of truth.
According to the most recent studies, a settlement of about 30 villages on Palatine Hill was already there before the 8th century BC. And it’s here that in the second half of the century, so around 753 BC, some “Romulus” with some royal lineage, gave the area a special status somehow establishing the birthday of Rome.
He built roads, the hubs for community gatherings, and a temple to Vesta, the Roman goddess of home and family. It was around this time that Capitoline Hill saw its first sanctuaries and the Roman Forum started taking shape.
According to the finds in the Capitoline Hill, dating back centuries before the foundation of Rome, the king founder of the city did have ancient Latin ancestors, and the whole family relation with Aeneas was created to provide the founder with some divine and heroic greatness and legacy.
Historical and anthropological research shows that the ancestors of the Latins were Indoeuropean people who arrived some 2000 years before Christ from the Balkans, probably Anatolia (modern Turkey). It seems like that in origin, Capitoline and Quirinale Hills were inhabited by the Sabines, while the Romans settled in the Palatine.
This is probably the context that shaped the story of the Rape of the Sabine Women, one of the most famous Roman myths, in which the Romans organized a large party as a ruse to abduct the women of the Sabines.
While the abduction of the Sabine women is a tale of Roman mythology, the truth beyond the legend is that Rome started to be a multiethnic society since its inception with Latins and Sabines mingling from the beginning and the Etruscan joining them very soon bringing their rich culture and fine civilization.
What are the celebrations for the birthday of Rome?
Every year on April 21st there are big celebrations for the birthday of Rome. From fireworks from the Aventine Hill to cultural representations and traditional masquerades in the Circus Maximus arranged by the cultural association Gruppo Storico Romano.
Among the events on the occasion of Rome’s birthday is often a tribute to Gioachino Belli, the most important Roman poet from the 19th century. Usually, actors, musicians, comedians, as well as Roman citizens read Belli’s poems and organize Belli-themed events.
Usually the celebrations for Rome’s birthday last two days and take place around the Circus Maximus, Via Petroselli, the area of Teatro Marcello, Forum Boarium, and Aventine Hill with theater plays, stages, and acting performances.
For the occasion of the birthday of Rome, all around the city, there are concerts, movies and multimedia installations, workshops for kids, as well as themed events and exhibitions in the main museums and landmarks.
With all this on the plate, if you happen to be in Rome on the 21st of April, join some of the celebrations for a deeper understanding of the local culture, society, and history.
Birthday of Rome 2023 – What to do
Here are some of the things you can do if you are in Rome on the 21st of April 2023.
- Historical representations. Organized by the Gruppo Storico Romano, you can attend several ancient Roman festivals and rituals at the Circus Maximus between the 20th and the 23rd of April from 9 am to 9 pm. Shows will include gladiator shows and historical re-enactments, accompanied by meetings with authors, music, photographic exhibitions, and educational workshops for children. On Sunday 23rd of April, a historical parade will take place and around 2,500 costumes will depart at around 11.00 from the Circus Maximus. The route will include Via dei Cerchi, Via Luigi Petroselli, Via del Teatro di Marcello, Via del Campidoglio, Piazza Venezia, Via dei Fori Imperiali, Colosseum, Via Celio Vibenna, Via di San Gregorio, and will reach the Circus Maximus at 2 pm.
- Free museums and landmarks. On the 21st of April, many Rome museums and the archaeological sites of the Circus Maximus, Augustus Mausoleum, and the Fori Imperiali will offer free entry. The museums that are free today are the civic museums of Roma Capitale local council such as Centrale Montemartini, Museo di Roma in Trastevere, Galleria d’Arte Moderna, and Musei di Villa Torlonia, and the temporary exhibitions are included.
- Roma Goddess Fountain. The fountain of the Dea Roma goddess has been reopened in Capitoline Hill after being renovated for the occasion of Rome’s birthday in 2023.
- Exposition of Roma Goddess golden glass. For the occasion of the 21st of April 2023 in Rome, visitors of the Musei Capitolini can view the piece of golden glass with the representation of the Dea Roma goddess found during the excavations for the building of the metro line C in Porta Metronia. The access will be free only on April 21st and then the usual museum fee will be charged until the end of the exhibition on October 1st, 2023.
- Free visit to Teatro della Scala. A guided tour of the main rooms of Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera built in 1880 by Domenico Costanzi. During the visit, the public will hear about the past of Rome’s Opera House from an artistic point of view enriched with anecdotes about composers and singers who went past this fascinating place steeped in history. The visit is at 12 pm and at 2.30 pm. Booking is mandatory and free subject to availability.
Wondering about more things to do? Check out our guide to visiting Rome in April.