Rome’s Hidden Name

A Spasso con Sara on the trail is one of the most fascinating mysteries of Rome, that of the secret name of the city!

 

The secret name of Rome

Rome. That’s what we’ve always called it. At most, we have used other synonyms: Urbe (the city par excellence), the Eternal City (because of its millenary history), the city of Romulus (in memory of its founder). But, according to Giulio Solino, a scholar and geographer of the third century AD, the real name of the most famous city of all time, would never be disclosed.

Rome’s name was different and no one knew about it, with the exception of the Pontiff Maximus and the Heads of State. A secret name, therefore, that was handed down with the utmost reserve, from generation to generation, among a few elected.

Each city entrusted itself to the hands of a protective deity. And Pliny, in his encyclopaedic Historia Naturalis, tells us that, before besieging an enemy city, the Romans invoked its tutelary divinity, promising her a greater cult in the City, if she favoured them. And it was thanks to this “stratagem” that, for example, Furio Camillo took possession of Veio and Scipione the African of Carthage.

Imagine, then, if the wrong mouth had pronounced the secret name of Rome! To say it out loud, to scan it well, meant to invoke the tutelary deity of the city, to recall the spirit itself, the essence … Such a secret could not be discovered by an enemy people, otherwise, who knows what curses could be hurled against Rome and its inhabitants.

 

Ancient Rome from above. Plastic in the Museum of Roman Civilization at EUR (Credits: wikipedia.it).

 

Ovid and the secret name of Rome

And a thin red thread would bind Ovid to the secret name of Rome. Known in the literary panorama for having written a famous poem on the art of loving, the life of this poet was irreparably marked by a condemnation to exile by Augustus, the first emperor. Related to Tomi (the current city of Constance in Romania), Ovid writes Tristia, a collection of about 50 poems in which he cries and commiserates his fate as an unfortunate man, relegated to a cold and unknown country, surrounded by barbarians who speak an incomprehensible language.

The reason for the condemnation is given to us by Ovid in person, who speaks of “a flesh and blood and a mistake”. Needless to say, scholars have been indulged in this: he discovered the love adventures of Augustus; he was involved in one of the feasts of Julia, the exuberant daughter of the emperor; he participated in court intrigues.

 

The Latin poet Ovid (Credits: bimillenariovidiano.it).

 

The reading key recently proposed by Felice Vinci and Arduino Maiuri is quite different, for whom the unfortunate poet was guilty of having discovered the secret name of Rome! Ovid, in fact, was also working on the Fasti, a poem composed with the intent to present and study the festivals, rites and traditions that marked the year.
In the last verses of the work, talking about the etymology of the month of May, he would touch the theme of the background of the founding of the city, calling into question the constellation of the Pleiades and their most important star, Maia.

The Constellation of the Pleaids (Credits: web.tiscali.it).

To put it briefly: there would be a link between the disposition of the seven Pleiades and that of the Seven Hills of Rome. The heart of the Pleiades is Maia, which would coincide with the centrality of the Palatine, the hill on which Romulus founded his city. And so, the secret name of Rome is Maia and Ovid would have discovered it through his studies and made it known through the Musa Calliope dei Fasti, thus seriously jeopardizing the fate of the Eternal City.

Scheme of the Seven Hills of Rome (Credits: welcometorome.net).

 

Sending it to the ends of the world was the least Augustus could do, and perhaps poor Ovid did well if he did. One hundred years earlier, the tribune Valerio Sorano was instead sentenced to death, guilty of having revealed the secret name of Rome in his book “Misteri Svelati”.

That Ovid perhaps committed the same crime?

 

Not only Maia…the other hypotheses on the secret name of Rome

In reality, Maia is not the only secret name that tradition attributes to Rome.
In Saturnalia, Macrobius (4th and 5th centuries A.D.) tells us that this name, kept as a real state secret, was reported in ancient books that proposed, however, discordant versions: Jupiter, Luna, Angerona, Ope Consiva.

Fascinating and suggestive is the theory that identifies Amor as the unpronounceable name of the City. Amor, fruit of the word Rome written from right to left, would place the Eternal City under the tutelary deity of Venus, goddess of love. The temples of Venus and Rome are of the same size and the two gods were offered incense at the same time. It is no coincidence that Augustus was the first to become emperor at the time. As a member of the Gens Iulia, he was in fact a direct descendant of Venus.

 

Graffito found in Pompeii, all played on the words Roma and Amor (Credits: veja.it).

 

We do not know the secret name of Rome and perhaps we will never know. But what does it matter after all? Its mysteries are infinite, just as its history is infinite.

 

 

Posted by Sara Pandozzi

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