The Lapis Niger - Mystery in the Forum Romanum - Ancient Mythology in Rome

At the center of the city of Rome lies the Forum Romanum, a small, rectangular plaza surrounded by the ruins of ancient government buildings. Within the plaza lies a mysterious black stone known as the Lapis Niger, which means “black stone” in Latin. This ancient Roman monument shares a unique connection with mythological figures such as Rome's first king “Romulus” as well as others: Mars, Aries, Jupiter, and Quirinus.

The Lapis Niger is in the Forum Romanum which was not only the center of all political activity, it was the central marketplace as well. Most of the oldest structures in the entire city were built in the forum. It is located in the small valley between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills. Statues and monuments are placed throughout to commemorate the cities great men. Temples are found on all sides of the forum, and they were specifically built in areas where they could be easily seen from the forum (Anderson). There were government buildings, temples, sanctuaries, shrines, and tombs of heroes. For centuries upon centuries, it was the center of Roman public life. Some believe it to be the most celebrated meeting place of history. The area directly in front of the Senate House was called the Comitium. In Republican times, the Comitium was known as “the chief place of elected political assembly, an inaugurated space delimited towards the Forum by a series of ritual pits, whose positions were still carefully recorded in the early imperial paving of the square” (Claridge 73). The black stone is one of the oldest surviving remnants of the old Comitium, and ancient artifacts have been preserved nearby for centuries.

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The Lapis Niger is a mysterious place. Built in the fifth century B.C., the black marble shrine supposedly covers an underground tomb that is home to one of the earliest known Latin inscriptions. The ancient inscription seems to be a set of religious regulations in which the king performed sacrificial practices: “Written in very early Latin, it seems to be a set of regulations for a religious rite in which the king (or high priest) and his herald perform various duties involving yoked animals” (Claridge 74). However, more recent sources indicate that the only phrase that can be fully grasped from the inscription is: “may the one who will violate this place be consecrated to the gods of the underworld”. Sayings similar to this are usually “associated with sanctuaries and in particular with altars” (Coarelli 55). The inscription is found near an altar, which “makes it practically certain that this is a lex area—a ritual and sacrificial regulation pertaining to the site” (Coarelli 55). Coarelli goes on to confirm that the “king” mentioned in the inscription is a real king, and that he “made sacrifices in the Comitium to ensure the successful consummation of the political and judicial tasks associated with this venue” (Coarelli 56). In a more recent excavation of Lapis Niger in 1955, Romanelli discovered that the altar was built over the side of a pool. Located next to the pool was an artificially cut basin, “made to assist in drawing water. Both pool and basin were filled in at some time in the sixth century, judging from the Corinthian pottery in the fill” (Holloway 86). This pool most likely served as an early cult site, “it is described as an area of ill omen” (Claridge 73). In ancient Roman times, an “omen” was simply a means of predicting the future. Considered to be of less importance to the community as a whole and more important to the individual who experienced it, omens could either be classified as “good” or “bad”.

The group of monuments surrounding the Lapis Niger can also be associated with the Volcanal, an ancient sanctuary of Vulcan. In fact, the Lapis Niger sits directly in between the two Republican platforms: Graecostasis and Rostra. Festus, the only writer that has used the term “Niger Lapis” confirms that it “is not the tomb of Romulus—who was supposed to have disappeared miraculously—but the site of his death, according to one tradition, at the hands of the senators” (Coarelli 56). The monuments beneath the Niger Lapis and the Volcanal share many of the same qualities, and it could be said that they are one in the same. Through this, the sanctuary that is associated with the Lapis Niger can now be directly linked to the Comitium, “for it commemorates two potentially complementary aspects of Romulus: the city’s heroic founder, and the divinity overseeing the Comitia Curiata, the oldest formal assembly of the Roman people, which met in the Comitium” (Coarelli 57). As legend has it, Romulus disappeared while in the Volcanal and transformed into the deity Quirinis. Could it be that Romulus transformed into Quirinus at the exact location of Lapis Niger?

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The great mystery surrounding the Lapis Niger is the identity of the person who rests there. Some suggest that it is the tomb of Romulus, Rome’s founder and first king. Others believe that Hostus Hostilius, father of Tullus Hostilius, is buried there. Tullus Hostilius was Rome’s third king. The “two tufa bases which have been found are assigned to the fourth century B.C.E and may have been used as supports for crouching lions” (Robathan 59). Believers in the Romulus theory argue that the two lions were put in place to guard the tomb, similar to a tomb of a hero. Also, funeral orations in praise of great men are still held close by. The grammarian Festus says on the subject: “The black-stone in the comitium marks a place of ill omen destined as a grave to Romulus, although the hero was not actually buried there” (Lanciani 56). Through examinations of the site’s excavations, it can be deduced that no tomb was ever discovered there, which makes it even more likely that what Festus said is true.

Lanciani goes on to describe in great detail the condition of the Lapis Niger when it was excavated: “The whole group was found embedded in a layer of sacrificial remains, ashes, charred bones of victims, clay ex-voters, and it was found in the exact state of injury and profanation to which it was reduced by the Gauls in 390 B.C.” (Lanciani 56). There were many other items found during the excavation as well: “a hundred vases, tiny pottery discs, glass paste beads, potter spindle whorls, 164 knucklebones, precursors of dice, Greek decorated pottery, and 11 small bronze figures of the Greek Kouros” (Holloway 82). Even though much can be deduced from the objects themselves, it is certain that they were not found in their original locations. Furthermore, one can conclude that even though some of these objects may have originally been offerings, the way in which they were found makes it unlikely that they were in fact stips votiva: “The material in this layer was probably scraped together from the ruins of neighboring buildings when burned, and used with the gravel to cover the tufa structures. Above it was laid a mass of broken tufa, with bits of travertine and fragments of the black marble of which the Lapis Niger consists. On this was laid the concrete bed of the Lapis Niger itself” (Platner 246). The evidence gathered about the monuments and the adjacent strata show their orderly placement: the inscribed cippus, the column of tufa, the sacellum (altar and pedestals), and the pavement of black marble.

Romulus has a strong connection with Lapis Niger, although his tomb is not located there. Traditional myth holds that the area was indeed intended for Romulus’ tomb; however, no excavation has uncovered any tombs at all. Romulus is most commonly associated with his own myth of origin. This founding myth of Rome incorporates two mythological figures: Romulus and his brother Remus. As legend has it, the brothers disputed over where exactly their new city would be located. Romulus favored Palatine Hill, and Remus chose Aventine Hill. Because of this dispute, Romulus ends up murdering his own brother. Following the death of his brother Remus, Romulus names his new city Rome and begins to create the Roman senate and military. In an alternative story, Romulus gets to found and name the new city because in a contest of augury, he saw twelve vultures while Remus saw only six. Their mother was a Vestal Virgin named Rhea Silvia and after being raped by Mars she gave birth to the twins, but they were thrown into the Tiber River by their uncle, who did not wish to have them as competition for his throne. The boys survived and were nursed by the legendary she-wolf until they were found by a shepherd and his wife Acca Larentia. When they boys were old enough they returned to their uncle and overthrew him before deciding to establish their own state. Romulus’ father Mars is the god of war, but is also commonly associated with spring, and was known by many as an agricultural deity. This “is shown by the use of his name for the month of March, which began the Roman year in the pre-Julian calander” (Lenardon 661). Since Romulus was Rome’s founding father, it would have been easy enough for him to include his father’s name in the Roman calendar. In fact, “an inscription set up in the forum under Augustus begins with the proud claim: ‘Romulus, son of Mars, founded Rome’” (Ogilvie 115). Ogilvie goes on to mention that Augustus almost named himself ‘Romulus’ and that he also admired Mars greatly. Augustus made it clear that the worship of Mars was important when he “ordered a temple of Mars to be built to commemorate the recovery of the standards captured by the Parthians” (Ogilvie 115). The Lapis Niger is connected to Mars and his Greek counterpart Aries as well, since most of Roman mythology is borrowed directly from Greek mythology.

Eventually, Rome went to war with the neighboring Sabine people because Romulus thought it would be a good idea to kidnap their women. Neither side claimed victory in the battle due to the Sabine women, who ran into the middle of the fight and begged for a truce. Through this, “peace was made, and the Sabines and Romans agreed to live together at Rome” (Lenardon 689). Because of Romulus’ continued support and leadership, Rome quickly becomes one of the superior forces in central Italy. This mixing of early Romans and the Sabine people is important in understanding Romulus himself. Furthermore, “Just as the Roman people turned from farming to war, so Mars became a war god, and this aspect became more important than his agricultural character” (Lenardon 661). People began offering sacrifices to him either before or after a battle, as well as donating a portion of their spoils in victory as well. After a long reign as king, Romulus “disappeared while reviewing his army in the Campus Martius”, and “became the god Quirinus” (Lenardon 689). Interestingly enough, Romulus’ wife became “Hora Quirini”. Her name means “the power, or the will, of Quirinus, and this was her original function, before the myth made her the wife of the mortal Romulus” (Lenardon 690). It is easily seen how Romulus and Quirinus are sometimes used interchangeably.

Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus | Source

The ancient Roman empire was filled with multiple personality deities and “there were as many varieties of cult buildings and sanctuaries, east and west, as there were deities, mystery cults, and local shrines requiring monuments or gathering places and liturgical spaces” (Macdonald 119-121). Some took the traditional temple form, whereas others, such as the Niger Lapis, were constructed underground, or in a cave-like atmosphere. These underground areas seem like the perfect place for ancient Roman mystery cults to hold their meetings. What better place for like-minded individuals to gather than the center of all Roman life, the forum? Remember, at this time “politics, business, the administration of justice, official meetings, as well as the city’s daily market had their main center in the Forum and its immediate neighborhood” (Paoli 4). Along with the growth of the empire came the growth of the Forum. A great number of Romans would flock to the Forum daily for a number of reasons: “affairs of the state were discussed in the offices, financiers met to hatch their crooked schemes, and money-changers jangled their coins waiting for their next customer” (Paoli 7). It was the place to be in ancient Rome, and it seems as though almost everything took place there. Even funeral processions were done through the Forum. Every nationality, interest, and sect had an interest there. All walks of life could be found in the Forum: “among the toga-clad magistrates, leading citizens and their clients, among the crowd milling round the praetor’s Tribunal, could be seen working men in their tunics, slaves with shaved heads, and Greek-speaking Orientals, with a finger in every pie” (Paoli 11). It was the political, cultural, religious, and social capital of Rome.

Clearly, there were many cults that met inside the Forum, not just the followers of Romulus. First, let’s examine what the cult of Romulus was about: “The followers of Romulus acknowledged the imperial majesty of Jupiter, invoked in war the “affiftance” of Mars, and often devoted to him the bloody spoils of victory” (Hereford). Obviously these deities were admired by Romulus, himself. After all, Mars is Romulus’ father, and Jupiter is the great Italian sky-god. In fact, after the battle with the Sabines, Romulus founded the Temple of Jupiter (Syme ?). Taking a closer look at the name “Romulus” may reveal a few more details about his followers. The connection of the name “Romulus” with ficus Ruminalis “affirms that Romulus had been protected by this tree” (Pais 56). Additionally, since these are related thoughts, “it is quite natural that not wine but milk only was to be used in the sacrifices which Romulus was said to have established” (Pais 56). Ficus Ruminalis is the name of the fig tree mentioned above. Even this fig-tree shares a special connection with Lapis Niger: “therefore we can readily understand why a branch of the old fig-tree was transported to the Comitium in the Forum Romanum, and why it was planted near the puteal of Attus Navius and the tomb of Romulus” (Pais 57). Another relatable cult is none other than the cult of Quirinis, whom is already known as the deified Romulus. The cult of Quirinis also happens to be devoted to Jupiter (Woodman). Since Mars and Aries are both the same deity, Romulus, Quirinus, Jupiter, Mars, and Aries can now all be directly linked to the Lapis Niger.

The importance of the fig-tree in the cults of ancient Rome gives insight to their many different ceremonies and beliefs. According to one legend, Romulus dies in the marsh Caprea. This marsh used to be where the caprificus is located in the Roman Forum, near the Niger Lapis. The cult of Romulus allegedly celebrated the feast of Nona Caprotina here. Nona Caprotina is “the day in which, according to some, Romulus disappeared from mortal eyes” (Pais 57). This would also mark his transformation into Quirinus. Because of these events, “not only does it become clear why the tree sacred to Jupiter Ruminus had the virtue of warding off the lightning bolt, but we can also understand why Romulus was supposed to have died in the marsh Caprea” (Pais 57). It will forever remain a mystery.

The influence that Rome has had on the world is un-measureable. Countless people have learned its history and legends. In archaic times, religious deities and cults had a relatable importance to that of one’s nationality today. The myths surrounding Lapis Niger fit in well with the mythological figures surrounding ancient Rome and Italy. Great men and deities were a part of everyday Roman life. Romulus, Rome’s founder, is a great example of one of these men. The Lapis Niger has many unique qualities ranging from its ancient Latin inscription to the many myths and deities that surround the black-stone. Through the Lapis Niger, one can begin to develop an excellent foundation for learning about the religious beliefs of ancient romans.

Works Cited

Anderson, William. 1927. Architecture of Ancient Rome. London: McCorquodale and Co, Ltd.

Burn, Robert. 1880. Old Rome. London: George Bell and Sons.

Claridge, Amanda. 1998. Rome. New York: Oxford University Press.

Grant, Michael. 1971. Roman Myths. Great Britain: Michael Grant Publications Ltd.

Hereford, Charles. 1792. The History of Rome. London.

Lanciani, Rodolfo. 1910. The Roman Forum. Rome Frank and Co.

Macdonald, William. 1986. Architecture of the Roman Empire. Yale: Yale University.

Morford, Mark, and Lenardon, Robert, and Sham, Michael. 2011. Classical Mythology. 9th ed.

Ogilvie, R. 1969. The Romans and their Gods. London: Chatto and Windus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Pais, Ettore. 1905. Ancient Legends of Roman History. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co.

Paoli, Ugo. 1963. Rome, it’s People, Life, and Customs. Longmans Green and Co, Ltd.

Rose, H. 1948. Ancient Roman Religion. Britain: Cheltenham Press Ltd.

Syme, Ronald. 1984. Roman Papers III. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 4 vols.

Taylor, Lily. 1931. Divinity of the Roman Emperor. Middletown, Connecticut: American Philological Association

Woodman, A.J. 2002. Traditions and Contexts in the Poetry of Horace. Cambridge, U.K.: New York Cambridge University Press.


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