Few cities have birthdays as precise as Rome’s. According to tradition, Rome was founded by Romulus on 21 April 753 BC. So that makes the city – hold on – exactly 2763 years old.
The tradition of celebrating the Natale di Roma (‘Birth of Rome’) on this exact date each year fell into disuse in the early Christian period, but was revived during the Risorgimento, when Garibaldi and his followers used it as a healthy pagan slap in the face to what they saw as the oppressive power of the Vatican. Later, Mussolini would hijack the date as a ‘Workers Day’ national public holiday – allowing him to detach the celebration of work from the traditionally ‘Red’ date of May 1st and associate with the cult of Roman manliness that he was so keen to foster.
These days, 21 April has gone back to being a strictly civic celebration. Though it’s not officially a public holiday in the city – unlike 29 June, the feast of Rome’s patron saints, Peter and Paul – it is the occasion for a number of events and the focus of some time-honoured traditions. These include the very suggestivo nocturnal illumination of the Campidoglio – Rome’s Michelangelo-designed town hall – with torches, and (for the past eight years), a procession of Ancient Roman historic reenactors from various parts of the empire, including Gaul, Thrace, and Britannia, held on the Sunday closest to the 21st.
Organised by the Gruppo Storico Romano (www.gsr-roma.com), this year’s corteo attracted around 2000 participants, dressed as soldiers and senators, matrons and courtesans. I came upon it by chance as I was going home on the bus, and had one of those double-take moments that you always get in these cases, when for a moment you feel that you might have slipped though a crack in the time-space continuum. I was brought back to the present when I noticed that one of the centurions was talking on his mobile phone.
Interestingly, the Gruppo Storico Romano also organises courses (lasting from a day to two months) for aspiring gladiators. According to the group’s website, interested parties “must become member of the Gruppo Storico Romano, provide a medical certificate that states your good-health according to not agonistically activities and pay the subscription fare”. Hmm, I don’t remember Russell Crowe having to do all that in Ridley Scott’s film - but I suppose things were a little less bureaucratic then.
For sightseeing around the city try a rome hop on hop off bus, and take in all that Rome has to offer.