An underground stone sarcophagus discovered by Italian archaeologists may have been the tomb of the first king of ancient Rome, Romulus.
The 1.4-metre shrine, described by archaeologists as an “amazing discovery” from the 6th century BC, was found inside the Roman Forum.
According to Rome’s Colosseum Archaeological Park, the shrine is dedicated to Romulus who, as legend says, founded Rome with his twin Remus on April 21, 753 BC, and became its sole ruler after killing his brother.
The unveiling on Saturday (AEDT) has created debate within the archaeological community, with some experts divided over whether the empty tomb can be linked to Romulus or whether the brothers actually existed.
“It consists of a stone sarcophagus 1.4 metres in length and a circular structure presumed to be an altar,” the park said in a statement.
The shrine’s location coincides with the place where, according to ancient texts, Romulus was buried, the park said.
“The location of the discovery … makes it quite likely that it could be what the ancient Romans considered the tomb of Romulus,” a statement from the park read.
It should not be considered a burial place, because, according to tradition, Romulus either disappeared in a storm or was killed and cut to pieces by senators, the statement noted.
“This is not the tomb of Romulus, but is a place of memory where the cult of Romulus was celebrated, a cenotaph,” Alfonsina Russo, director of Rome’s Colosseum Archaeological Park, said.
Archaeologist Patrizia Fortini said that while it was wise to exercise caution, the idea that the tomb may be linked to Romulus was “a suggestion based on ancient sources”.
“[Stories] speak of the presence of the tomb of Romulus in this area of the Roman Forum,” she told AFP news agency.
The brothers Romulus and Remus were said to have been the twin sons of the war god Mars and priestess Rhea Silvia and, according to mythology and illustrated in literary texts, artworks and sculptures spanning hundreds of years, the brothers were nursed by a she-wolf.
As LiveScience explained: “When the new king of Alba Longa ordered the infants Romulus and Remus thrown into the Tiber, the story goes, they were instead abandoned on the river bank; there, they were rescued by a she-wolf, who raised them until they were found by a shepherd.
“In later years, Romulus and Remus restored their grandfather to the throne of Alba Longa and decided to build a new city overlooking the spot where they had been abandoned as infants.
“But, according to legend, they could not agree on which hill to build it, and Remus was killed by Romulus or his supporters in the argument.
“Romulus established Rome on the Palatine Hill and became its first king; in later centuries, it became a republic led by the Senate, and then an empire.”
“All myths and legends have an element of truth,” Ms Russo added. “I am convinced that there was a founding hero.”
After his death, Romulus was venerated as the god Quirinus.
According to the park, the shrine might have been “a funerary monument” created sometime after his death “to celebrate his cult and memory”.
The monument was first discovered in 1899, but quickly forgotten, as its significance was not understood. It was hidden by a staircase built in the 1930s during the fascist-era renovation of the forum.
Contemporary archaeologists reinvestigated the area and, in November, began dismantling the staircase, bringing the shrine back to light.