Photo of the dome of the so-called Lupercal Cave, taken by a probe beneath the Domus Livia on the Palatine Hill, Rome, Italy.

The Lupercal Cave: A Refuge for Romulus and Remus and the Roman Festival of Lupercalia

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The Lupercal Cave is a cave mentioned in the story of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of the city of Rome. Like many other legendary forefathers of ancient cities and societies, Romulus and Remus are believed to have been extraordinary figures, and such claims are demonstrated by the stories about their lives. One of the most famous stories about Romulus and Remus comes from their childhood, and is about a she-wolf who suckled them. The depiction of this story is perhaps best represented in a bronze sculpture known as the Capitoline Wolf (thought originally to be from ancient Rome, but proven to be a forgery from the Middle Ages).   

Sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy.

Sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The Story of Rhea Silvia and Her Sons Romulus and Remus

According to Roman belief, Romulus and Remus were the direct descendants of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who was the son of Aphrodite (Venus in the Roman pantheon). It is said that after the fall of Troy, Aeneas travelled westwards, eventually arriving on the Italian coast, and settled there.

It was Aeneas’ son, Ascanius, known also as Iulus, who is believed to have founded Alba Longa and provided a line of Alban kings. One of these kings, Numitor, is thought to have been the maternal grandfather of Romulus and Remus. Numitor’s daughter was Rhea Silvia, who was forced to become a Vestal Virgin when her uncle, Amulius, dethroned Numitor, and usurped his position as the king of Alba Longa.

During the time when Rhea Silvia was a Vestal Virgin she became pregnant. According to some myths, the twins’ father was Mars, the god of war, whilst others claim that it was Hercules who fathered them. The Roman historian Livy provides this account:

“The Vestal was forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars as their father, either because she really believed it, or because the fault might appear less heinous if a deity were the cause of it.”      

Cast of the "Sarcofago Mattei," depicting many parts of the Rhea Silvia myth. (220 AD), Museo della civiltà romana a Roma.

Cast of the "Sarcofago Mattei," depicting many parts of the Rhea Silvia myth. (220 AD), Museo della civiltà romana a Roma. ( Giovanni Dall'Orto/Wikimedia )

As Rhea Silvia had broken her vows of chastity, she was condemned to die by being buried alive. Amulius, however, was aware that if the boys were truly the sons of a god/demi-god, then there would be divine retribution for their deaths.

Therefore, the king decided to imprison his niece, rather than have her buried alive. As for her children, Amulius ordered their deaths either by live burial, exposure, or being thrown into the Tiber River. In either scenario, the servant commanded to do the deed took pity on the babies, placed them in a basket on the Tiber, and the river carried them to safety.

The basket floated down the river, and was eventually caught in the roots of a fig tree at the base of the Palatine Hill in the Velabrum swamp. Romulus and Remus were then discovered by a she-wolf, who suckled the two boys.

The Festival of Lupercalia

Later on, the cave where the boys were suckled, the Lupercal Cave, became the place where a Roman festival known as the Lupercalia was held annually on the 15th of February. During this festival, the Luperci (the priests of the god Lupercus) would assemble at the Lupercal Cave, and sacrifice goats and young dogs to their god.

Another ceremony performed during the Lupercalia was a fertility rite that is perhaps most famous for its reference in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar . For this fertility rite, the Luperci would first cut the skins of the goats which they had sacrificed into pieces. Some of these would be used to cover parts of their bodies so as to imitate their god, who was represented as half naked and half covered with goat-skin. The other pieces of skin would then be cut into straps which were held in their hands. Then, the Luperci would run through the streets of Rome, touching or striking any person they met with their straps - especially women who wanted to conceive.

The Lupercalia Festival in Rome: Cupid and Personifications of Fertility encounter the Luperci.

The Lupercalia Festival in Rome: Cupid and Personifications of Fertility encounter the Luperci . (Public Domain )

Discovery of the Lupercal Cave?

In 2007, Italian archaeologists announced that they have discovered what they believe was the Lupercal Cave. This was an 8 meter (26.2 feet) high cave decorated with shells, mosaics and marble, and was discovered 16 meters (52.5 feet) underground in a previously unexplored area during restoration work on the House of Augustus on the Palatine Hill. Yet, one has to be cautious, as mistaken identities are quite common in archaeology.

Comments

Romulus and Remus were, in fact, picked up and raised by a LUPA, or, a prostitute, courtesan, as per Plaute and Cicero. The history of the She Wolf was a for-children story dating back to the middle-ages. But the Latin people of old, knew very well what LUPA meant!

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