The Hut of Romulus

Hut of Romulus (Post holes where arrow is pointing.)

Today, all that remains of the so-called “Hut of Romulus” are the holes you see in the picture above (the slight indentations on the platform where the arrow is pointing). When intact, Romulus’ humble wattle-and-daub dwelling, located in the southwest corner of the Palatine Hill in Rome, might have looked something like this. One might have expected that the passing of nearly three millennia would not have treated well the wood, straw, and twisted bark ties of the hut, but even in its own day the Hut was prone to accidental destruction. One particularly ignominious story has a crow dropping onto the hut a bit of smoldering meat it had carried away from a sacrifice, sparking a fire that burned it down. Owing to its great historical significance to the Romans, repairing it after each calamity was held to be a sacred duty.

In fact, one can see in the enduring presence of Romulus’ hut on the Palatine traces of the Romans’ ever-important sense of traditionalism: the squalid hut stuck around for centuries, despite the Palatine becoming a prime location for the houses of Rome’s notables and, later, the location for the imperial residences. This was probably because, whether or not Romulus “really” existed, his crude house served as a reminder to the Romans of their simple, unpretentious beginnings, when even the first (princeps) among them lived under a thatched roof and toiled along with his fellow citizens. This sort of rosy retrospection idealized the tough, agricultural life of the Roman forefathers, sublimating its harsh realities into timeless virtues. Indeed, many elements of Roman culture reflected this fixed gaze on their “simple” past: their worship of Saturn, who presided over a pre-historical “golden age”; reverence for the early farmer-soldier generals of the army; xenophobia (especially a fear of the corrupting “Eastern” ways of life); and pervasive anti-intellectualism, even among the elite. The Romans’ positive outlook on the past was only strengthened by the fact that Rome had conquered much of the Mediterranean in the third and second centuries BC, a time when they had yet to possess significant material wealth domestically. (The sacks of Corinth and Carthage in this period, and the corresponding immense influx of booty, are sometimes pinpointed in the ancient writings as the beginning of corruption of the Roman way of life.)

The Hut of Romulus is a concise opening onto this historically focused Roman consciousness, though, to be sure, it is only one reading of the site, and we must be careful lest we cover over the great richness of the ancient worldview in our haste to “make sense of it.”

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