Capitoline Wolf, 1021-1153 CE, Bronze
75 × 114 cm (30 × 45 in)
Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy
The reason is that this bronze sculpture was long thought to have been created by the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilisation of which we will be seeing more over the next week. The influential art historian, J. J. Winckelmann, dated the wolf to the early 5th century BCE (he correctly identified the twins beneath as a Renaissance addition), and for a long time it was taken to be one of the earliest significant examples of early Roman large-scale sculpture. But recent carbon dating at the University of Salento has shown that the sculpture of the wolf can, in fact, be dated with 95.4% accuracy to 1021–1153 CE – over 1500 years after the original date posited by Winckelmann.
Although it seems fairly certain, then, that the Capitoline Wolf is a medieval artefact, it doesn't diminish the importance of what it stands for: the legend of the foundation of Rome. In the myth, Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Rhea Silvia and the god Mars, were cast out by their usurping great-uncle and raised by a she-wolf. Romulus went on to found the city of Rome in the year 753 BCE (according to legend), killing his brother in a dispute and laying the foundations of his new settlement on the Palatine Hill. In years to come, the she-wolf became a symbol of ancient Rome: the Roman historian Livy mentions a statue of a she-wolf set up on the Palatine in 295 BCE, and the orator Cicero describes another she-wolf statue being struck by lightning on the Capitoline Hill nearby in 65 BCE.
With the foundation of Rome we open a new chapter in our history of the classical world in a hundred objects: the story of the Romans, and their journey from a small outpost on the marshy banks of the Tiber to a worldwide empire that would bring down the Greeks, and see the Romans ruling from the Euphrates River in the east to the furthest reaches of Britain in the north.