City foundation myths of the ancient world

They say that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but legend tells us that it WAS founded on one…

The 21st April 753 BC was just like any other day (well, we imagine) until two famous brothers had a fall out. The result was the creation of Rome, one of the powerhouses of the ancient world. Though the story of Rome’s origins is rooted in myth, we still acknowledge its foundation on this day. So, to mark its anniversary, here’s the myth of Romulus and Remus, along with a few other city foundation myths from the ancient (and not so ancient) world.

The foundation of Rome – Romulus and Remus

The twin brothers Romulus and Remus, were supposedly the sons of Mars, god of War, and Rhea Silvia, daughter of the king of Alba Longa and a revered ‘Vestal Virgin’ (or priestess, sworn to chastity in honour of the goddess Vesta). Poor Rhea Silvia hadn’t become a Vestal Virgin by choice, but had been forced into it by her uncle Amulius after he deposed her father, killing off his male children in the process.

When Amulius discovered that Rhea Silvia had broken her vow of chastity (though how much say she had in the matter is questionable where Roman gods are concerned), and given birth to two boys, he was understandably cross. He charged his servants to set the boys adrift in a basket on the River Tiber, rather optimistically assuming that would be the end of the matter!

La Lupa

Instead of meeting the watery death intended though, the brothers floated down the river and were discovered by a she-wolf, who suckled the twins, keeping them alive until they were taken in by a shepherd and his wife. The pair grew up, and decided that as a thank you, they’d found a city on the site where the she-wolf discovered them. Nice!

A city is born

However, the nicety of the gesture was short lived. After a quarrel about which hill was best to build the city on, Romulus killed his brother, and founded Rome in his own name to celebrate. Talk about brotherly love. Sadly, Romulus’ dishonourable actions didn’t stop there, in order to populate the city, he stole women from the nearby region of Sabinum – a scene now immortalised in numerous pieces of Renaissance art as ‘The Rape of the Sabines.’

Under his leadership, Rome was to go on to become the dominant power in the region. We’re told that eventually Romulus himself disappeared in mysterious circumstances during a violent thunderstorm. Spooky…

Athens – Athena vs. Poseidon

Athens, the city at the heart of the Greek civilisation was also founded by a contesting pair. Both Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon god of the sea competed for the honour of becoming the patron god of the city, and offered gifts for judgement by its citizens.

First Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and created a spring, offering water to drink and indicating that he could offer great naval power to the city. The inhabitants rushed forward to drink but were shocked to find that it was (naturally) salt water! Athena, on the other hand, offered the first olive tree, a symbol of prosperity and peace, along with the promise of food, oil, and firewood.  The citizens decided that on balance, Athena’s gift was the most promising, and the city has taken her name ever since.

N.B. Depending on the version of the myth that you read, Poseidon proves to be a very sore loser and floods the city in revenge.

Alexandria – Alexander’s dream

After conquering vast swathes of the ancient world, Alexander the Great decided it was about time that he founded his own city to help assert his dominance (and further inflate his ego).

On the advice of his architects, Alexander had already settled on a good spot to build his city, until, during a dream, he saw a vision. An old man with white hair and an esteemed appearance came to him and said: “There is an island in a stormy sea in front of Egypt. They call it Pharos.” *FIN*… Who this man was remains about as unclear as his message. Some say it was the Greek historian Homer (of whom Alexander was a huge fan), but whoever it was, Alexander jumped straight to the conclusion that THIS was where he should build his city.

No chalk, no problem

He travelled to Pharos (an island above the mouth of the Nile in Egypt), and on arrival discovered that it was THE perfect spot. Shortly after, he set to work laying out the outline of the city. Annoyingly, he didn’t have any chalk to hand, and so he used barley instead. As you do.

When he finished, he sat back to admire his work, but suddenly a huge flock of birds flew from the river and ate the whole thing, every last grain. Alexander was understandably pretty miffed about that, but his quick-thinking seers hurriedly advised him that ACTUALLY, this was a good sign. In their view, what it meant that the city he was founding would ‘abound in resources and would sustain men from every nation.’ Alexander shrugged, thought “fair enough”, and a city was born.

Tenochtitlan – An eagle in a (prickly) pear tree

The tribes who were soon to be known as the famous ‘Aztecs’ received some rather peculiar orders from their god Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war.  Huitzilopochtli instructed them to abandon their home-land and start a pilgrimage to find a new one, where they would become the most powerful race in Mesoamerica. He told them that they would know once they’d found the place if they spotted an eagle, perched on a prickly pear cactus, oh and it would also be devouring a snake.

The precise spot turned out to be rooted in the heart of rebel god Copil, Huitzilopochtli’s nephew, who had been killed after his latest failed uprising attempt. As further punishment, his heart had been carelessly thrown into the centre of a lake.

The Aztecs located the spot in the centre of Lake Texcoco, and named the city after tetl meaning rock, and nochtli, the prickly-pear cactus.