It was known that a she wolf nursed Remus and Romulus, the twin brothers who founders Rome. Now, archaeologists claim to have unearthed Lupercale, the sacred cave where, according to legend, the she-wolf nursed the two and where the city itself was born.
The long-lost underground chamber was found beneath the remains of Emperor Augustus' palace on the Palatine, a 230-foot-tall hill in the centre of the city.
Archaeologists from the Department of Cultural Heritage of the Rome Municipality came across the 50-foot-deep cavity while working to restore the decaying palace.
"We were drilling the ground near Augustus' residence to survey the foundations of the building when we discovered the cave. We knew from ancient reports that the Lupercale shouldn't be far from the Emperor's palace, but we didn't expect to find it. It was a lucky surprise," National Geographic quoted Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of the area, as saying.
"They show a richly decorated vault encrusted with mosaics and seashells, too rich to be part of a home. That's why we think it could be the ancient sanctuary, but we can't be sure until we find the entrance to the chamber," she said, however adding, "we didn't enter the cave but took some photos with a probe".
According to myth, Lupercale is where a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the war god Mars and mortal priestess Rhea Silvia. The children had been abandoned in a cradle on the bank of the Tiber. The cave's name also comes from the Latin word for wolf, lupus.
The brothers are said to have later founded Rome on April 21, 753 BC, at the same site. The two however, fought for the leadership of the new city, in which Romulus killed his brother.
Later the Palatine Hill became the residential area of the most affluent Roman citizens, beginning 500 BC.
When the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire in the first century BC, Augustus built himself and his wife Livia palaces on top of the hill. Later emperors followed his example and built larger and larger homes on the same spot.
Archaeologists say now the whole hill is a honeycomb of buildings and tunnels extending far underground.
Andrea Carandini, a historian and archaeologist at the University of Rome, La Sapienza, said, "archaeological findings were providing more and more evidence that the tale of Rome's foundation wasn't a later legend but originated from historical facts".
"The tale of the birth of Rome is part myth and part historical truth. The story of the twins reflects the previous tradition of the Lares, the twin deities protecting the area, but there was indeed a historical founder who constituted the Palatine Hill as the sacred heart of the city around 775 BC," he said.
"The remains are now crumbling due to atmospheric agents and lack of funds for maintenance. Most of the buildings are closed to the public for safety reasons. It's a real pity. Archaeologists are doing what they can to restore and stabilize the ruins," Iacopi added.
"Now we have to find the entrance and study the chamber. In the meantime we are going to finish the restorations in Augustus' palace.
We hope to open part of the emperor's residence to the public in a few months," she said.