the ‘dies natalis’ of Rome and chariot-racing

Today (21st April) is marked as the anniversary of the legendary founding of the city of Rome – the Dies natalis Urbis – on the day of the Roman festival of Parilia. The accepted date of the founding of Rome is 753 BC. The dies natalis of Rome has been all over Twitter today. According to the legend, two brothers, Romulus and Remus, disagreed over the founding of a city: Romulus killed Remus and then founded Rome. The 21st April was, apparently, one of the most important days of the year in ancient Rome because of the natalis Urbis Romae. From AD 121, the founding of Rome was celebrated with a festival which included chariot races – ludi circenses – on the 21st April. Roma Aeterna was the goddess of the city and her festival was held on the 21st April. Today is also one of the days in the year when, by design, sunlight illuminates the interior of the Pantheon in Rome. (You can read about Romulus’ founding of Rome and the Roman festivals held on the 21st April in Book IV of the Fasti online at . The Fasti is a long poem written by Ovid and published in AD 8.)

‘… The Temple of Venus Felix and Roma Aeterna on the Velian, [was] consecrated in 121 and dedicated in 136 or 137. This temple marks the establishment of the first official cult of the city goddess in Rome… in the same year as the consecration of the temple, the first state-sponsored festival of Rome’s founding, the Natalis Urbis, was held on this day …’ (from The changing concept of Urbs Roma in Late Antiquity: Rome’s foundation legends as represented in the arts of the 4th and 5th centuries, by F Albertson (2010)). A Roman mosaic from Gerona in Spain (now in the museum at Barcelona) includes three panels and these show a scene from a chariot race in a Roman circus in between images from the legend of Romulus and Remus, ie Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf, the goddess Roma, and the parents of Romulus and Remus. These figures may represent the images carried to the Roman circus in the procession (pompa circensis) before the chariot races. The mosaic may date to the 4th century and it includes named charioteers and the monuments of the great Circus Maximus in Rome, so it seems to be a record of an actual race at that arena. The mosaic is described in Roman circuses: arenas for chariot racing by J H Humphrey (1986) and the author suggests that the mosaic depicts an anniversary, which must be the Dies natalis Urbis.

The Romans believed that Romulus also initiated a religious festival (the Consualia) and the Equirria, on the site of his legendary founding of Rome: all of these included horse-racing and chariot-racing. The Circus Maximus was the first and largest Roman circus in the Roman empire and it stands on the site of Romulus’ legendary founding of Rome. The first structures of the Circus Maximus were built in the 6th century BC and the monumental Circus Maximus was built between AD 80 and AD 103. The last chariot races were held there in the 6th century AD.

The Colchester Roman circus was built in the early 2nd century AD and seems to have been in use for about 150 years, until towards the end of the 3rd century AD. A finger-ring intaglio inscribed with the figure of the goddess Roma has been found at Colchester. The Trust excavated a Roman coin (a denarius of Julius Caesar, dating to the 40s BC) during our excavation at the Williams & Griffin store in the High Street at Colchester in 2014, and this shows an image of Aeneas, a mythical ancestor of Romulus. (Colchester also has a modern residential road called Romulus Close!) Perhaps chariot-races dedicated to Romulus and Roma, to celebrate the dies natalis of the city of Rome, were even held here on the 21st April…

(But you can visit Colchester’s Roman circus visitor centre and site any time! – they, and our tea room, are open Tuesday-Saturday, 11.00 am-4.00 pm. Admission is free.)

The images show the rotunda temple of the divine Romulus in Rome and part of the Roman circus mosaic at Gerona. The photo. of the temple was uploaded in 2005 and it is published in the public domain at . (The Pantheon is also a rotunda.) The mosaic is now held by the Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya at Barcelona: the photo. was uploaded in 2011 and it is published online at . Thank-you to the anonymous photographers.