Rome before the Romans

The legend of Romulus and Remus explains the origin of the ancient city of Rome. Romulus founded the city on the Palatine Hill after he and his brother had been left to die on the bank of the River Tiber by their uncle King Amulius.
[Ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome]


But there is another legend about the origins of Rome. An even older legend tells us that there was a Greek city which existed in the same place.

In Book VIII of the epic poem 'Aeneid', written in the first century BC by Virgil (70-19 BC), Prince Aeneas of Troy is described as sailing to Italy and visiting the region where Rome would later be established. But when he arrived in the area, there was already a Greek city on the site. It was the city of Pallantium.

The ruler of the city was a king named Evander who 'chose (honoring Pallas, their Pelasgian sire), the name of Pallantium'. That means they honoured the Greek goddess Pallas Athena. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus explained that Evander grew up in the city of Pallantium (from Ancient Greek Pallántion (Παλλάντιον) in Arcadia, Greece. When he moved to Italy and founded a new city, he decided to name it after his home city. According to the same writer, Evander founded the city sixty years before the Trojan War.

Some ancient writers did not consider Pallantium to be a Greek city that came before Rome. Rather, they viewed it as actually being the original Rome. For example, the Greek historian Strabo (64 BC-24 AD) wrote that Rome was originally founded by Arcadians from Greece. This is obviously a reference to the legend of Pallantium. Yet, Strabo does not call it ‘Pallantium’ – he simply calls it ‘Rome’.

Another historian of the first century BC, Ateius Philologus, agreed with this view. He wrote that the city which existed on the site of Rome was actually called ‘Rome’ in Evander’s time. Interestingly, he also wrote that Evander’s Rome was not the original settlement either. Rather, a settlement called Valentia existed there first, and then Evander changed its name to ‘Rome’ when he moved there.

As early as the fifth century BC, the reliable historian Antiochus of Syracuse referred to a Rome that existed before the Trojan War. This supports the story that Virgil presents in the Aeneid, which is based just after that war. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of written information available about the Greek city of Rome that existed before the Romans. Nonetheless, this evidence from Antiochus of Syracuse shows that the legend dates back to at least the fifth century BC.

Archaeologists did find evidence of what might be a Greek colony just next to the Palatine Hill. The Palatine Hill was where the earliest part of Rome was founded, so this is significant. Note the similarity with the Palatine Hill, where Rome was supposedly founded. This evidence of a possible Greek colony dates back to about the middle of the eighth century BC, which is very early in the history of Rome. In fact, this is before there was any major settlement on the Palatine Hill.

Could this have been Evander’s city, the ‘Rome before the Romans’? It is certainly possible. The earliest records of the founding of Rome usually make Romulus a son of Aeneas rather than a distant descendant. This would mean that Evander’s city would have existed fairly soon before Romulus lived, and since Romulus is usually placed in the eighth century BC, the chronology works well with these archaeological findings.


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