Ancient History & Civilisation




About fifteen miles from its mouth the River Tiber winds through a group of hills which rise from the Latin plain. Here was the natural meeting-place of the Etruscans, Latins and Sabellians, and the objective of any ambitious people. Far enough from the sea to protect its inhabitants from the danger of piracy, the settlement which spread over these hills lay on the chief river of central Italy. It commanded both the Tiber valley, which gave access to Etruria and the central highlands, and a ford which lay south of an island in the Tiber; any traffic from north to south or from the eastern hills to the sea would pass through it. It was thus a natural centre and a point of distribution.1 The hills themselves were well wooded, fairly precipitous and defensible; some were isolated, others formed spurs of a surrounding plateau. Though the ground between them was marshy and subject to flooding by the Tiber, the hills afforded some protection against disease, as well as against man and beast. Some, though not all, of the potential natural advantages of the future site of Rome must have been obvious to the earliest settlers.

The chief hills of ancient Rome, except the Janiculum, all lay on the east bank of the Tiber. From a plateau there projected westwards towards the river (in order, from north to south) the Quirinal, Viminal, three spurs of the Esquiline called Cispius, Fagutal and Oppius, and the Caelius; between the Caelius and the river lay the Aventine. Within this semicircle were two nearly isolated hills, the Capitoline and Palatine, the former between the Quirinal and Tiber island, the latter connected by a ridge in the east, called the Velia, with the Oppius. The Palatine was spacious and had steep cliffs on three sides, which overlooked the moat-like marshes that later were converted into the Forum, Velabrum and Circus Maximus; on the fourth side its isthmus, the Velia, ensured communication with the interior, and this was the hill nearest to the ford below the island. It is here that ancient tradition places the first settlement of the Latins. The isolation of some of the hills was increased by the streams which flowed in gullies between the Quirinal, the Viminal, the Cispius and the Oppius; these joined the main stream that flowed through what was later the Roman Forum to reach the Tiber.

Whatever geographical, commercial or military advantages of the site contributed to the future growth of Rome, in origin it was probably merely a shepherds’ village or group of villages lying midway between the plain and the hill country. Sporadic finds of flint implements, stone axes and a copper dagger, which were discovered in the 1870s, show that much of the Esquiline was inhabited at the end of the Neolithic period and at the beginning of the Chalcolithic, but the continuity or duration of this early settlement is uncertain. Then quite recently some Bronze Age ‘Apennine’ pottery was found in the Forum Boarium: it came from a soil filling made when a very early temple there had been rebuilt after a fire in 213 BC. This indicates that the settlement from which the earth had originally been taken lay nearby, probably on the Capitoline, Palatine or Aventine; it should be dated around 1500 BC, but continuity of habitation until the Iron Age settlements arrived cannot yet be confidently asserted.2

Early in the eighth century Iron Age village settlements began to appear on the hilltops of the Palatine, Esquiline, Quirinal and probably the Caelian. These shepherds and farmers lived in wattle-and-daub huts and disposed of their dead on the slopes and valleys between the hilltops. The village on the Palatine was well placed: the hill commanded the Tiber and was easily defensible, but was also comparatively spacious and reasonably accessible from the landward side. It claimed to be the earliest settlement, founded by Romulus himself, whose Hut (casa Romuli) was preserved in historical times. In fact there were two heights on the Palatine, the Germalus and the Palatine itself; a cremation-grave has been found between them under the so-called House of Livia, so probably at first two separate communities existed, divided by a cemetery. That on the Germalus was probably slightly the older, since here lay the Hut of Romulus, and it is here that the foundations of three huts cut in the tufa rock were discovered in 1948. They are roughly rectangular (some 13½ × 11¾ feet), with drainage channels around. The disposition of the post-holes, together with the appearance of surviving clay hut-urns, enables the wooden superstructure to be reconstructed. A central wooden pillar held a ridge-piece, from which a gabled roof descended to, and extended beyond, the upright sides of the hut. In front of the door was a small porch or extension of the roof. The roof and walls consisted of wattle and daub (branches and thatch laid on a coating of dry clay). Clusters of such huts thus formed the earliest villages of Rome. The settlers on the Esquiline hill, however, buried their dead a fossa, while on the Quirinal the earliest tombs are a pozzo cremations – which are followed by a fossa inhumations. A main burial-ground lay at the foot of the Palatine on the site of the later Forum: here again both cremation and inhumation burials have been found, but with cremation dominant in the earliest tombs. These cremations are almost certainly the burials of the Palatine village (the alternative of a Velian village is less likely), and the inhumations those of the occupants of other hills; they extend from the eighth to the early sixth century. No traces of early settlement have yet come to light on the Capitol, despite its dominant position, a steep and narrow bluff; it may have served as an oppidum or temporary refuge rather than attracting a permanent settlement. Although their pottery showed some individual characteristics, the inhabitants of these villages shared a common Latial culture, those on the Palatine being closer to the Villanovans of the Alban Hills, while finds on the Esquiline have their parallels at Tibur and in southern Latium. The Esquiline graves from about 700 BC, however, contain many weapons; this points to the intrusion either of a wave of Fossa culture people or of the Sabines whom later Romans believed to have formed a substantial element in the early population, (p. 46). Thus the earliest settlers may have been joined by others from the area of the central Apennines; the Anio valley afforded easy access to the basin of the Tiber.

As the population increased in the seventh century the villagers began to spread down the hillsides and finally built some huts on the top of earlier tombs in the Forum valley. These seem to have been destroyed by flooding, but after more successful attempts were made to drain the Forum brook, by works which pre-dated the later Cloaca Maxima, settlement was renewed after c. 625, and two or three decades later was extended to the Velabrum valley and site of the Forum Boarium. By this time the various villages were merging, but it is too early to think in terms of an urbanized unit. Such unity was achieved in various stages.

The earliest phase, when each village was an independent community, is reflected in two later festivals. During the Lupercalia the Luperci used to run round the Palatine in a ceremony of purification: this suggests an originally isolated settlement there. Further, the procession that annually visited the twenty-four shrines of the Argei proceeded later not around the continuous circuit of the whole city but in four separate circuits around four areas; this reflects conditions when Rome had reached a stage of development where it was known as the City of the Four Regions (see below), but it seems also to point to an even earlier time when each of these four areas was an independent unit and had its own chapels (which in fact, so far as their positions have been identified, were on top of hills and not in the valleys, i.e. they were grouped according to the hills rather than as common sacred places).3 The first move to unity is reflected in the festival of the Septimontium, which probably means of seven hills (septem montes) rather than, as more recently suggested, palisaded hills (saepti montes). The hills involved were not the later Seven Hills of Rome, but the original components of three groups, namely the Palatine (comprising the Germalus, Palatinus and Velia), the Esquiline (i.e. the Oppius, Cispius and Fagutal) and the Caelius: the Quirinal and Viminal were excluded, and the frontier between the two communities was the Forum brook.4 Provision had to be made for peaceful passage across this sacred running water, and so inaugurated bridges, Jani, were built at places where tracks reached the brook: the Ianus Summus, Medius and Imus (the last in the Velabrum).5 Thus even if the Septimontium was little more than a grouping of villages for religious worship, it paved the way for wider cooperation. We do not know where the initiative for this movement arose, but the tradition of the priority of the Palatine may point in that direction.

The next stage was the union of the enlarged Palatine community with its neighbours on the Quirinal. This too was reflected in the organization of the Luperci, who were divided into two groups which appear to represent the Palatine and the Quirinal, as also were the Salii, two colleges of dancing warrior priests made up of the Salii Palatini and the Salii Collini (= of the Quirinal); the antiquity of the Salii is confirmed by their Bronze Age type of armour. This new ‘twin city’ was organized into four regions, namely Palatine, Caelius, Esquiline and Quirinal, which as we have seen are indicated in the ritual of the Argei. This area, which excluded the Capitoline and Aventine, corresponded roughly both with the four ‘urban’ tribes or city wards of the later Republican period and also with the district within the pomerium, a ritual furrow made by a yoked bull and cow to mark off the area of an augurally constituted city, as among the Etruscans. This spiritual boundary was not necessarily strengthened at this time by a surrounding defensive rampart, and the separate villages may have had no fortifications other than their own steep hillsides, although these may have been reinforced with wooden palisades; there may possibly have been some earth walls across the Oppius, Cispius and Quirinal.

While the isolation of the villages was breaking down during the seventh century, domestic industry was being complemented by more professional craftsmen who began to peddle their wares beyond the confines of Rome itself. The distribution of wealth was widening, as shown by a warrior’s chariot and armour of c. 650 BC found in a fossa tomb on the Esquiline. External influences also increased: from c. 625 BC Etruscan bucchero and metal-work from Veii and Caere begin to appear, together with Etruscan imitations of Greek pro to-Corinthian and Corinthian pottery, and before long some of the inhabitants were beginning to leave their huts for houses with tiled roofs. The archaeological evidence agrees in a remarkable manner with the Roman literary tradition that the first Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus, gained the throne of Rome in 616 BC: this is the very time when the material remains show Rome entering the ambit of Etruscan civilization and the scattered villages becoming an Etruscan urbs. The literary traditions about early Rome must now be considered.

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