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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
The Roman Forum — Its History and Its Monuments

by Christian Hülsen

published by Ermanno Loescher & Co
Publishers to H. M. the Queen of Italy

Text, maps, and black-and‑white images
are in the public domain.
Color photos are © William P. Thayer.


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 p103  XVII. The Lapis Niger and the Grave of Romulus
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On the boundary-line between the Forum and the Comitium there lies, at present protected by a wooden roof, a square of black marble slabs fenced in by a wall of white marble. The surface of the black pavement has been injured in several places and patched together, for example with a piece of an inscription, but the patching has been done with great care. Its orientation agrees with that of the Curia of Julius and Diocletian, and it is situated almost exactly in front of the entrance to this Curia. Immediately upon the discovery of this pavement it was brought into connection with a group of monuments, the existence of which in the Comitium is mentioned by writers of the late republic and the early empire.

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Fig. 46. Lapis Niger.

"The black stone in the Comitium", says the antiquarian Pompeius Festus (whose work is an abridgment of a larger work by  p104 Verrius Flaccus, the contemporary of Augustus, "marks an unlucky spot: according to some it was intended to serve as the grave of Romulus, but this intention was not carried out, and in the place of Romulus his foster-father Faustulus was buried; according to others it was the grave of Hostus Hostilius, the father of the third  p105 king Tullus Hostilius". Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who wrote in the time of Augustus, states that "many people think that the stone lion, which is in the noblest place in the Roman Forum, close by the Rostra, was a monument for Faustulus, who was buried on the spot where he fell in battle". The same author repeats in another place the other explanation, namely that "Tullus Hostilius was buried in the noblest place in the Forum, and received a memorial stone (stele) with an inscription which praised his virtues". Finally the old commentators on Horace remark: "most people say [in another passage Varro is mentioned by name] that Romulus was buried close to [in front of or behind] the Rostra, and that this was the reason that the two lions were placed there, just as they may be seen to‑day guarding graves".

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Fig. 47. The upper layer of the Lapis Niger.

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Fig. 48. The lower layer of the Lapis Niger.

On the level of the Julian-Augustan pavement we have to be sure instead of a "black stone" a black pavement of marble blocks, and we find no traces of lions as guardians or of a stele with an ancient inscription. However, by digging deeper, there was discovered about five feet lower a group of monuments of very ancient time, which were covered over in late antiquity and in part purposely destroyed.

In the first place, covered only in part by the black pavement are to be seen two bases of tufa (fig. 48 A B) which seem especially appropriate for two reclining statues of lions. Between the two bases there lies (possibly not in its original position) a single block of stone (C). Behind, the two bases run against a foundation (D) which has not as yet been more closely investigated: the suggestion, which has recently been made, that this foundation represents the speaker's platform of the republican Rostra is impossible on account of the smallness of the dimensions (5½ ft. × 11½ ft.). This shrine, a 'sacellum', is usually considered identical with the 'grave of Romulus' mentioned by ancient writers; some scholars think that on the single block of stone (C) stood the 'black stone', perhaps as in the case of  p107 Etruscan graves a conical block of black vulcanicº substance.

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Fig. 49. The 'Sacellum' and the archaic Stele.

Behind the 'sacellum', under the black pavement, stands the mutilated trunk of a round column of tufa (G); further behind in the darkness (the custodian provides a candle) is a rectangular stele (H) covered with inscriptions on all four faces. The writing goes from the  p108 top down and from the bottom up (vertical boustrophedon): fig. 50 and 51 show the lines of writing horizontal in order that they may be more easily legible:

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		1. ← quoiho . . .
2. → sakros es-
3. ← ed sor. . .
4. → iasias
5. 2 recei l. . .
6. → . . .evam
7. ← quos r. . .
Fig. 50. Inscription on the archaic Stele.

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			8. ←m kalato-
9. →rem hap. . .
10. ←. . .iod iouxmen-
11. →ta kapia dota v. . .
15. ←m ite ri
14. →quoiha-
13. ←velod nequ. . .
12. →. . .od iovestod
16. ←loiquiod. . .
Fig. 51. Inscription on the archaic Stele.

The letters show greater resemblance to the Greek alphabet than those of any other Latin inscription (it is in this inscription only that R still has the form P): among all the inscriptions preserved on stone it is certainly the oldest, and is not younger than the fifth century B.C. Unfortunately the content is up to the present almost entirely unknown, and inasmuch as the lines are preserved in scarcely half their length, and possibly only in a third, the future promises little for their deciphering. This much however is known, that mention is made of a rex — whether this be the real king of Rome or his shadow-like successor of republican times the rex sacrorum — further of iouxmenta, that is to say wagons and animals to draw them, and of a public servant, kalator. Finally the end of one sentence is still preserved: sakros esedsacer esto (sit), according to which it is probable that we have before us a lex sacrata: and for that matter in so ancient a time scarcely anything else would have been engraved on stone. The rex (and later the rex sacrorum) had business in the Comitium especially on three days in the year, February 24th, March 24th, and May 24th (see above p6); and it is at least conceivable that the lex had to do with the holy ceremonies to be performed by him, and that the privilege was granted him of appearing with his servant in the  p109 Comitium in a wagon, although wagons were otherwise forbidden there, and whoever broke this law was delivered over to the deity for punishment. But a genuine restoration of the inscription is impossible.

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Fig. 52. Small bone figures found near the 'Sacellum'.

When the 'sacellum' was excavated the plinths of the bases were found packed in a layer of gravel which had been purposely brought there: in this layer were found numerous dedicatory gifts, small idols of clay, bone, and bronze, pieces of terracotta bas-reliefs, fragments of vases, bones of animal sacrifices etc.; these are all stored at present in the magazzino of the excavations (plan I m). These objects too come mainly from very ancient times (VIII‑VI centuries B.C.).

It is still a mooted question at what date this old sanctuary was destroyed and at what date it was entirely covered over. Some scholars consider that the first destruction took place as early as the invasion of the Gauls (B.C. 390), and that the final covering over and the laying of the black pavement occurred in the time of Caesar or Augustus; others believe that as late as the time of Varro the lower group was still completely visible, and that the black pavement was laid in the time of the late empire as a memorial for the grave of Romulus which had long since disappeared. The settlement of this and of many other disputed points may be expected from the continuance of the excavations.

Under the right-hand corner of the black pavement is a rectangular well-like structure, made of slabs of tufa, the mouth of which is on a level with the Comitium of Julius Caesar and Augustus; a similar but pentagonal well is found on the right-hand side at the entrance to the excavation. The meaning of these constructions, and of similar ones in front of the Rostra, along the Sacra Via in front of the Basilica Julia and elsewhere, is uncertain. The name 'ritual wells' (pozzi rituali) is unfounded, at  p110 least for the majority of them; and it seems much more likely that they served some practical purpose (drainage).

See: Festus p177; Dionys. I.87, III.1; Schol. in Horat. epod. 16, 13. 14. — Iscrizione del cippo: Dessau 4913.

Notizie degli scavi, 1899, 151‑169; Comparetti, Iscrizione arcaica del Foro Romano. (Firenze, 1900); Huelsen, R. M. 1902, 22‑31; Beiträge zur alten Geschichte II (1902), 230; Vaglieri 102‑143; Studniczka, Jahreshefte des Oesterr. Instituts VI (1903), 129‑155. VII (1904), 239 sg.; Boni, Atti del Congresso storico, 550‑554; Petersen, Comitium, Rostra, Grab des Romulus (Rom 1904).

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Page updated: 23 Jan 05