There are few cities in the world that are as coated in myth, legend and superstition as Rome. From she-wolves, to divine apparitions, there are plenty of places linked with strange happenings. In fact, you can make a tour of some of the city’s most famous sites by following the bizarre tales and traditions.
According to legend, Rome’s founders were descendents of escapees from Troy, and the story starts with Numitor and Amulius, joint rulers of the ancient city of Alba Longa. Amulius won a power struggle, and forced Numitor’s daughter into celibacy to prevent her producing an heir. However, the daughter was then attacked by Mars, the God of war, and produced twins as a result.
Amulius ordered Romulus and Remus to be killed, but the slave charged with doing the job couldn’t go through with it, and left them in a basket. They were then nursed to health by a she-wolf, and fed by a woodpecker, before eventually being found by a shepherd.
Through a long series of unlikely coincidences, the twins ended up taking the city from Amulius, but refused to be kings there as long as their grandfather, Numitor, was still alive.
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So they looked for somewhere else to live, and ended up squabbling over the site. Romulus wanted to base the new city on the Palatine Hill, while Remus fancied the Aventine.
They decided to settle the argument by the logical method of seeing who could spot the most vultures. Romulus won hands down and started work on the city that would eventually be named after him.
Remus got awkward though, and was eventually slain by his brother.
Most historians, for some reason, believe this story to be utter nonsense, but they do accept that Romulus was the first king of Rome in 753 BC.
Today, the Palatine is one of the city’s major draws. It looks down upon the Colosseum and Roman Forums, and is dotted with some of the most important of the Roman ruins. These include the former residences of emperors such as Augustus, Caligula and Domitian.
The Church of Domine Quo Vadis
During the days of Christian persecution, St Peter had decided to flee from Rome in order to survive, but on his way out, he supposedly saw an apparition of Jesus walking towards the city.
He asked: “Lord, where are you going?” (Domine quo vadis in Latin), to which the vision replied that he was going to Rome in order to be crucified again.
This reportedly stirred Peter into abandoning his escape and return to meet his end as a martyr.
A church was later built on this spot – where the Via Ardeatina meets the Appian Way, about 800m from Porta San Sebastiano – in 1637. The church of Santa Maria in Palmis, as it is officially known, plays host to a very special marble slab. It contains two footprints, which are revered as belonging to Jesus himself.
Given that he killed his brother, it comes as no surprise to learn that Romulus was a somewhat conniving and ruthless ruler. As the city expanded, he became worried that the newcomers were mostly male, and he realised that the city needed women to survive.
Therefore he decide to invite the neighbouring Sabine tribe to the city for a big party. Once there, he had 700 of the Sabine women kidnapped to be used as they wished by the Roman men.
This, of course, led to war, and the Sabines overran the Roman citadel on the Capitoline Hill, forcing Romulus and his men out of the city. But the Romans fought back, and the whole thing was on the verge of becoming an almighty bloodbath.
At that point the Sabine women came streaming out, begging their fathers and husbands to make peace with each other and become one.
After reflection, the Sabines agreed to become part of Rome. With the Romans on the Palatine Hill, and the Sabines on the Quirinal, the Capitoline was chosen as the neutral centre of Government and administration.
The city council is still based there, in the Palazzo Senatorio, whilst elsewhere on the hill there are the Michaelangelo-designed Piazza del Campidoglio, the Capitoline museums and the art-crammed Palazzo del Conservatori.
The spot where the fighting stopped is marked by the Tempio di Vesta, in the heart of the Roman Forum. This is where six virgin priestesses had a duty of keeping a flame alive, and were punished by flogging if it ever went out.
The Mouth of Truth
Made famous by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, La Bocca della Verità is perhaps the only former manhole cover in the world that acts as a polygraph test.
Standing outside the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin near the Ponte Palatino, it supposedly catches out liars. The old manhole cover takes the form of a human face carved into stone, and it has a small stone hole in which the brave can put their hand, and then make a statement.
Should your words be the truth, you will be able to pull your hand out with no effect. Should you tell a dastardly, wicked lie – and now is probably not the time to continue your line about how the hamster died or how much that bargain pair of shoes cost – the mouth will snap shut and bite your hand off.
There must be a lot of honest people around, as there is no pile of amputated fingers to be seen on the floor beneath.
The Mamertine Prison
The Romans weren’t great believers in imprisonment as a punishment, and this old prison was effectively a place to dump political enemies until they starved to death. These enemies reportedly included Saints Paul and Peter, who were helped to escape after they converted fellow prisoners to Christianity.
It is also the supposed site of one of St Peter’s miracles, and the first Bishop of Rome is reported to have wished a stream into existence within the grounds in order to baptise his jailers.
The prison is now part of the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, which can be found on the slopes of the Capitoline Hill. The prison is open to visitors every day.
As befits as mysterious life, Romulus had an unusual exit from his reign. He, and most of the town’s population were in the Campius Martius (the area west of the Tiber, and east of the Quirinal Hill), when suddenly a violent storm came from nowhere.
The city was plunged into darkness, and when it passed, Romulus was nowhere to be found.
After much panic and searching, a Senator asked the crowd for silence, and told everyone that he had seen Romulus ascend to the heavens to live amongst the Gods.
He also added that the departed ruler now wished to be worshipped as Quirinus, and the hill from which he ascended was named in his honour.
The Quirinal Hill is now home to the presidential palace, whilst many of Rome’s major attractions – including the Pantheon, can be found in the Campius Martius.
The Trevi Fountain
In one of those legends that has built up through time, without any basis, it is said that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain that you will one day return to the Eternal City.
Some would say that putting the coin towards an airfare would be a better guarantee, but that doesn’t stop thousands of people turning their back to the fountain and lobbing loose change over their shoulder every day.
However, there are other conditions attached – those who throw two coins in are supposedly getting married, while those who throw in three are heading for divorce.
This adds up to an awful lot of coins being thrown in every day, a fact that wasn’t lost on a homeless chancer called Roberto Cercelletta who over 34 years made up to EUR1,000 a day by fishing the coins out whilst no-one was looking.
He was eventually thwarted by the introduction of new Euro coins in 2002, which couldn’t be picked up with his homemade magnet.
Those wishing to throw money away can join the tradition safe in the knowledge that the cash is collected by an AIDS charity. The fountain is north-east of the Quirinal Hill.
The Basilica di San Paolo Fuori-le-Mura
Second only to the Basilica of St Peter in size, this is the reputed burial place of St Paul. However, a more interesting – and worrying – tale relates to the portraits of the Popes under the nave.
Every pontiff is represented here, with only the current one illuminated. Through the ages, though, a dark prophecy has emerged, saying that when the space runs out to put up new portraits, the world will come to an end.
There are only eight slots left, which makes you inclined to think that the cardinals are being a little inconsiderate when they keep electing really old men as Pope.