By Richard Ayling - Volunteer Guide

Every year on the 21st April crowds gather around the Traciatto del Solco (a.k.a The Circus Maximus) in Rome to celebrate the city’s birthday with mock historical re-enactments for the tourists. Those in the know walk the boundary on the Palatine hill that marks the limits of the first city founded by the legendary Romulus.

Circus Maximus in Rome (Elizabeth Greene)

These celebrations are a faint echo of the Parilia festival that goes back to before the foundation date of Romulus’ city in 753 BCE. The festival was a celebration of Pales, a deity of shepherds, flocks and livestock. Who Pales was is obscure and was considered as male by some sources and female by others. Pales can be either singular or plural in Latin, and in at least one reference was described as a pair of deities.

It was a normal springtime chore for shepherds to perform the cleansing of the sheep and the fumigation of the pens, and, like many labours undertaken in those days, it would have been accompanied with rituals of purification to ensure the fertility of the flocks.

Sheep or goat skull from Vindolanda

According to the poet Ovid, the celebration involved the shepherds lighting fires of straw at twilight, adding chemicals and wood such as juniper, olive and pine to the fires to make coloured and a distinctive smelling smoke that purified the sheep and their pens. Then the shepherds would leap through the fires, after making incantations and washing their faces in dew.

By the time of the late republic in the 1st century BCE Cicero, the orator, identified the 21st April as the dies natalis (birthday) for the city and it coincided with the festival of the Parilia.

The legendary Romulus’ and Remus’ foster-father was a shepherd. The foundation of the city by Romulus commemorated the connection to a culture of sheep and shepherds which the ancient communities that came together to found Rome practised.  The educated elite will have been familiar with Virgil’s Georgics which contained the phrase “Ante Iovem nulli subigebant arvi coloni” … ("before Jupiter no husbandman tilled the fields”). Remarkably, there is a Vindolanda tablet on which the phrase had been written by either a teacher or student sometime in the early 2nd century CE. Significantly the author Varro, also writing the late republic, considered that all Romans understood the pastoral origins of the city, despite living in a huge city of about 750,000 inhabitants.

Vindolanda writing tablet found in 2002 with a quote from Virgil’s Georgics.

Over time, and under the influence of several Roman rulers, the structure of the Parilia changed. When Julius Caesar gained a final victory over his opponents at the battle of Munda in 45 BCE, he added games to the ceremony. At these games, the citizens would wear crowns in his honour. Later, Caligula instituted into the celebration a procession of priests, noblemen, boys and girls of noble birth singing of his virtues while escorting the Golden Shield, previously bestowed upon him by the citizens of Rome, to the Capitol.

Like so many Roman institutions and ceremonies, the rituals of the Parilia had changed with time. At some point it became the custom to drive cattle through the flames, rather than celebrants jumping through them. By the 1st century CE the rites included the offering of the ashes of new born calves and the blood of a horse, all of which had been sacrificed before the Parilia. But during the festival itself, and unusually for a religious ceremony in the ancient world, no sacrifices were made, making the ceremonies rather “new age” in our eyes.

But this lack of a sacrifice disguises the dark side of the “Birthday of Rome”. The 21st of April does not commemorate the day that Romulus marked out his city on the Palatine hill, but rather, the day that he (or in some accounts his henchmen) killed his brother Remus, when he leapt over the first walls, calling them laughable.

The result of the murder was a deep unease amongst the late Republican elite. Living as they were with Julius Caesar’s assassination and civil wars that led to Augustus’ rise to power, they wondered if murder and destruction were in some way an inevitable consequence of the original killing. Reputedly, Romulus had been deeply remorseful and decreed that the Parilia should not involve sacrifice, but was this enough to prevent the cycles of murder of citizen by citizen?

Maybe they were right; the empire was plagued with civil war throughout its existence and contributed to its eventual “fall”. The first fort at Vindolanda was founded as the result of a new dynasty’s (the Flavians) desire to prove their fitness to rule by expanding the boundaries of the empire. The first emperor of the line (Vespasian) had gained the throne after bloody turmoil following the revolt against Nero; his son and successor Domitian initiated the campaigns in Britain that eventually led to the establishment of the northern frontier.


Coins from Vindolanda showing the Flavian emperor Vespasian and Domitian.

Eventually, the Parilia became Rome's birthday celebration, rather than the rural festival it had once been. In 121, AD Hadrian founded a new temple of Venus and Roma and changed the festival’s name to Romaea.  It is this festival that the citizens of Rome commemorate to this day.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.


Roman Festivals Aprilis
Founding of Rome

Wiley on-line Library

Kent University UK
Rome's Birthday
Poetry in Translation
De re Rustica by Varro

Beard SPQR Profile Books 2016 Chapter 2: In The Beginning