Oddly Enough

Italian expert skeptical of sacred Roman cave

ROME (Reuters) - A leading Italian archaeologist said Friday that the grotto whose discovery was announced this week in Rome is not the sacred cave linked to the myth of the city’s foundation by Romulus and Remus.

The Lupercalia cave, a structure rebuilt at Palatine hill during the reign of Roman emperor Augustus to commemorate the place where due to legend a she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus, is shown in a handout photo during an archeological study of the area in Rome released November 20, 2007. REUTERS/Italian Culture Ministry/Handout

The Culture Ministry and experts who presented the find said they were “reasonably certain” the cavern is the Lupercale -- a sanctuary worshipped for centuries by Romans because, according to legend, a wolf nursed the twin brothers there.

But Adriano La Regina, Rome’s superintendent of archaeology from 1976 to 2004, said ancient descriptions of the place suggest the Lupercale is elsewhere -- 50 to 70 meters northwest of the cave discovered near Emperor Augustus’ palace. “I am positive this is not the Lupercale,” La Regina told Reuters in an interview.

Instead, he believes the cave -- which ministry pictures show is decorated with well-preserved seashells and colored mosaics -- was a room in Nero’s first palace on the Palatine Hill, which burnt down in 64 AD in the great fire of Rome.

The Culture Ministry had no immediate comment on the statements from La Regina, who pointed to a description of the Lupercale given by Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his major work on early Roman history, “Roman Antiquities.”

Dionysius said the Lupercale, which draws its name from the Latin word for wolf, was close to the Temple of Victory, also on the Palatine Hill, while the cave unveiled this week was found near the Temple of Apollo.

“If this were the Lupercale, Dionysius would have surely mentioned the Temple of Apollo, which was much bigger and more famous than the Temple of Victory,” said La Regina.

He said the mosaics and other decorations found in the cave were typical of Nero’s era and its structure similar to a grotto found in the emperor’s new palace, the lavish Domus Aurea (House of Gold) he built after his first mansion went up in flames.

According to La Regina, the cave was a nymphaeum, or an artificial grotto used for dinners and receptions, which often had a fountain.

“This remains a great discovery because it is so well-preserved,” he said.

The cave was found thanks to a camera probe 16 meters (52 feet) underground in a previously unexplored area during restoration work on the palace of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

According to the myth, Romulus and Remus, twin sons of the god Mars, were abandoned in a cradle by the banks of the river Tiber where a wolf found them and fed them with her milk.

The brothers are said to have founded Rome at the site on April 21, 753 B.C. and ended up fighting over who should rule. Romulus killed Remus and became the first king of Rome.

Reporting by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Michael Winfrey