Rome wasn’t built in a day. And, according to myth, it wouldn’t be around at all if not for the heroic efforts of Romulus and Remus, twins suckled by a benevolent she-wolf who found them abandoned on the banks of a river shortly after birth. Later, when the pair founded the iconic city in 753 B.C., Romulus allegedly proceeded to celebrate the momentous occasion by squabbling with, and then murdering, his brother.
Where fiction ends and fact begins in this legend remains a topic of intense debate among scholars. But the brothers’ legacy undoubtedly left its mark on Roman culture—and now, archaeologists may be one step closer to unraveling a crucial chapter in the twins’ lupine tale.
Excavations at the Roman Forum, once a bustling center that hosted many of the ancient city’s most prominent events, has revealed a subterranean shrine researchers think is dedicated to Romulus, according to the Associated Press. Dated to roughly the sixth century B.C., the underground chamber contains what looks like an altar, as well as a 55-inch sarcophagus that doesn’t appear to contain bones.
“This is an extraordinary discovery,” Alfonsina Russo, director of the Colosseum Archaeological Park, told reporters on Monday, as quoted by Philip Willan of the Times. “The forum never ceases to yield amazing fresh treasures.”
Though the apparent lack of human remains may make the claim difficult to verify, scholars suspect the altar sits atop the spot where ancient Romans believed Romulus was buried, according to a report from Italy’s Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata.
The location of the discovery is also fairly close to the Lapis Niger, another shrine in the forum where, in 1899, researchers unearthed an inscribed black shrine warning its readers not to disturb its sacred grounds, which contained the remains of a “holy king,” as Andreas Steiner, editor of the magazine Archeo, tells the Times. Scholars have long suspected this is a reference to Romulus, who, according to myth, met a tragic end at the hands of an infuriated Roman Senate—a death violent enough, perhaps, to match his brother’s.
That narrative has proven difficult to verify. And in recent years, researchers have accumulated a decent amount of evidence suggesting Rome’s architecture predates the twins’ arrival by about a century. Migrants may have even settled the region’s hills as early as 1,000 B.C., wrote Laura Swift for the Conversation in April 2014.
Still, the legend of Romulus and Remus has endured—at least in part due to the story’s wild and memorable twists and turns. Given the tale’s significance for Romans both ancient and modern, the findings at the forum may still stir up a fair bit of excitement.
“Whether Romulus existed or not is not important,” Italian archaeologist Paolo Carafa tells AFP. “What matters is that this figure is considered by the ancients to mark the political birth of the city.”