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The Greek City of Rome Before the Romans

The Palatine Hill, Rome
Ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Credit: Lalupa / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Many people are familiar with the legend of Romulus and Remus, which supposedly explains the origin of the ancient city of Rome. Romulus established this city on the Palatine Hill after he and his brother had been abandoned on the bank of the River Tiber by their wicked great uncle. But what many people do not know is that Greek legend tells us that this was not actually the first settlement that existed on the Palatine Hill. Before Rome, there was a Greek city which existed in the same place.

What do the legends reveal about this city, and how does this information tie in with archaeological findings?

King Evander and the Greek city before Rome

In the Aeneid, written in the first century BCE by Virgil, Prince Aeneas of Troy is described as sailing to Italy and visiting the region where Rome would later be established. But when he arrived in the area, there was already a Greek city on the site. It was the city of Pallantium.

The ruler of the city was a king named Evander. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus explained that Evander grew up in the city of Pallantium in Arcadia, Greece. When he moved to Italy and founded a new city, he decided to name it after his home city. That is why he called it ‘Pallantium’. According to the same writer, Evander founded the city sixty years before the Trojan War.

A Greek city precursor to Rome, or simply Rome itself?

Some ancient writers did not consider Pallantium to be a Greek city that came before Rome. Rather, they viewed it as actually being the original Rome. For example, the Greek historian Strabo wrote that Rome was originally founded by Arcadians from Greece. This is obviously a reference to the legend of Pallantium. Yet, Strabo does not call it ‘Pallantium’ – he simply calls it ‘Rome’.

Another historian of the first century BCE agreed with this view. His name was Ateius Philologus. He wrote that the city which existed on the site of Rome was actually called ‘Rome’ in Evander’s time. Interestingly, he also wrote that Evander’s Rome was not the original settlement either. Rather, a settlement called Valentia existed there first, and then Evander changed its name to ‘Rome’ when he moved there.

An Invention of the First Century BCE?

By far the most prominent record which mentions King Evander is Virgil’s Aeneid. Because of this, it is easy to assume that this was just another fiction created by Virgil. The other historians mentioned so far (Dionysius and Strabo) also lived in the first century BCE. However, the evidence is clear that the legend of a Greek city that existed in Rome before the Romans was not invented in the first century BC.

As early as the fifth century BCE, the reliable historian Antiochus of Syracuse referred to a Rome that existed before the Trojan War. This supports the story that Virgil presents in the Aeneid, which is based just after that war. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of written information available about the Greek city of Rome that existed before the Romans. Nonetheless, this evidence from Antiochus of Syracuse shows that the legend dates back to at least the fifth century BCE.

Archaeological evidence for a Greek city in Rome

Even if the basic legend about this Greek city goes back to the fifth century BCE, that does not necessarily mean that the legend is based in fact. What does archaeology reveal?

Interestingly, archaeologists have found evidence of what might be a Greek colony just next to the Palatine Hill. The Palatine Hill was where the earliest part of Rome was founded, so this is significant. This evidence of a possible Greek colony dates back to about the middle of the eighth century BCE, which is very early in the history of Rome. In fact, this is before there was any major settlement on the Palatine Hill.

Could this have been Evander’s city, the ‘Rome before the Romans’, so to speak? It is certainly possible. The earliest records of the founding of Rome usually make Romulus a son of Aeneas rather than a distant descendant. This would mean that Evander’s city would have existed fairly soon before Romulus lived, and since Romulus is usually placed in the eighth century BCE, the chronology works well with these archaeological findings. Therefore, it could well be that archaeologists have already uncovered Pallantium, the Greek city of Rome before the Romans.

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