Nov 20, 8:03 PM (ET)
By ARIEL DAVID
ROME (AP) - Archaeologists on Tuesday unveiled an underground grotto believed to have been revered by ancient Romans as the place where a wolf nursed the city's legendary founder Romulus and his twin brother Remus.
Decorated with seashells and colored marble, the vaulted sanctuary is buried 52 feet inside the Palatine hill, the palatial center of power in imperial Rome, the archaeologists said at a news conference.
In the past two years, experts have been probing the space with endoscopes and laser scanners, fearing that the fragile grotto, already partially caved-in, would not survive a full-scale dig, said Giorgio Croci, an engineer who worked on the site.
The archaeologists are convinced that they have found the place of worship where Romans believed a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the god of war Mars who were abandoned in a basket and left adrift on the Tiber.
Thanks to the wolf, a symbol of Rome to this day, the twins survived, and Romulus founded the city, becoming its first king after killing Remus in a power struggle.
Ancient texts say the grotto known as the "Lupercale"- from "lupa," Latin for she-wolf - was near the palace of Augustus, Rome's first emperor, who was said to have restored it, and was decorated with a white eagle.
That symbol of the Roman Empire was found atop the sanctuary's vault, which lies just below the ruins of the palace built by Augustus, said Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of the Palatine and the nearby Roman Forum.
Augustus, who ruled from the late 1st century B.C. to his death in the year 14, was keen on being close to the places of Rome's mythical foundation and used the city's religious traditions to bolster his hold on power, Iacopi said.
"The Lupercale must have had an important role in Augustus' policies," she said. "He saw himself as a new Romulus."
Andrea Carandini, a professor of archaeology at Rome's La Sapienza University and an expert on the Palatine, said the grotto is almost certainly the "Lupercale."
"The chances that it's not are minimal," said Carandini, who did not take part in the dig. "It's one of the greatest discoveries ever made."
Most of the sanctuary is filled with earth, but laser scans allowed experts to estimate that the circular structure has a height of 26 feet and a diameter of 24 feet, Croci said.
Archaeologists at the news conference were divided on how to gain access to the "Lupercale."
Iacopi said a new dig would start soon to find the grotto's original entrance at the bottom of the hill. Carandini suggested enlarging the hole at the top through which probes have been lowered so far, saying that burrowing at the base of the hill could disturb the foundations of other ruins.
The Palatine is honeycombed with palaces and other ancient monuments, from the 8th-century B.C. remains of Rome's first fledgling huts to a medieval fortress and Renaissance villas. But the remains are fragile and plagued by collapses, leaving more than half of the hill, including Augustus' palace, closed to the public.
Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said the first area to benefit from an extensive, $17.5 million restoration of the hills' ruins will be Augustus' palace, scheduled to reopen in February after being closed for decades.
Cave May Hold Secrets to Legend of Ancient Rome
By PETER KIEFER
Published: November 21, 2007
ROME, Nov. 20 — Italian archaeologists have inched closer to unearthing the secrets behind one of Western civilization’s most enduring legends.
The Italian government on Tuesday released the first images of a deep cavern where some archaeologists believe that ancient Romans honored Romulus and Remus — the legendary founders of Rome.
The cavern, now buried 50 feet under the ruins of the palace of Emperor Augustus on the Palatine Hill, is about 23 feet high and 21 feet in diameter. Photographs taken by a camera probe show a domed cavern decorated with extremely well-preserved colored mosaics and seashells. At its center is a painted white eagle, a symbol of the Roman empire.
“This could reasonably be the place bearing witness to the myth of Rome,” Francesco Rutelli, Italy’s culture minister, said Tuesday at a news conference in Rome at which a half dozen photographs were displayed.
The legend concerns Lupercal, the mythical cave where Romulus and Remus — the sons of the god Mars who were abandoned by the banks of the Tiber — were discovered by a female wolf who suckled them until they were found and reared by a shepherd named Faustulus. The brothers are said to have founded Rome in 753 B.C. The legend culminates in fratricide, when Romulus kills his twin in a power struggle.
The cave later became a sacred location where the priests of Lupercus, a pastoral god, celebrated ceremonies until A.D. 494, when Pope Gelasius I ended the practice.
The cave was discovered in January by Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of Palatine Hill, which abuts the Roman Forum and the Coliseum. It was found during restoration work on the palace of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, after workers took core samples that alerted them to the presence of a cave.
“This is one of the most important discoveries of all time,” said Andrea Carandini, a prominent Italian archaeologist. He has long held that the myths of ancient Rome could be true. He said he derived added satisfaction from the cave’s location.
“The fact that this sanctuary is under the lower part of the house of Augustus is significant because Augustus was a kind of Romulus himself who refounded Rome — and he did it in the place where Romulus had been,” he said.
Experts said the positioning of the cave, at the base of a hill between the Temple of Apollo and the Church of St. Anastasia, could prove problematic for excavation because of the risk of further collapse.
“We will continue the work with very much caution,” Ms. Iacopi said.