21 April 753 BC: Romulus murders his brother and founds an empire

According to enduring legend, blood is shed at the birth of the city of Rome


For the citizens of imperial Rome, the festival of the Parilia, which took place every year on 21 April, was always a jolly occasion, complete with all sorts of sacrificing and feasting. For, as everybody knew, this was the city’s birthday, the anniversary of Rome’s establishment by Romulus in the year 753 BC.

Even at the time, there were several different versions of the story of Rome’s foundation. In the most common, Romulus and Remus were the twin sons of the princess Rhea Silvia and the god Mars, who were abandoned by the river Tiber and suckled by a she-wolf. Later, as adults, they returned to the riverbank to found a city of their own. According to legend, the two brothers could not agree on the precise spot on which to start work. In one version, Romulus went ahead and ploughed a furrow around the Palatine Hill to show where the walls should be. When Remus mockingly leaped over the walls to demonstrate their inadequacy, his brother angrily struck him down. “So perish anyone else,” he supposedly said, “who shall leap over my walls.” So that was the end of Remus, leaving the solitary Romulus as the undisputed first king of the new city on the Palatine.

Was it true? “Pure myth,” writes classicist Mary Beard, who argues that “there was almost certainly no such thing as a founding moment of the city of Rome.” Even Romulus probably never existed; he was an invention, projected backwards in time, while the story of his feud with Remus probably reflected Rome’s history of bloody civil war. But the Romans themselves undoubtedly took it seriously. After all, who can resist a birthday party? | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

21 April 1142

Peter Abelard, scholar, theologian, opponent of Bernard of Clairvaux and doomed lover of Heloise died at Chalon-sur-Saone. His burial place is disputed but some claim he is buried with his lover in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

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21 April 1509

Afflicted with tuberculosis, Henry VII of England dies at his new palace in Richmond, Surrey at the age of 52. The news of his death is suppressed for two days while those around him secure their positions and prepare for the accession of his son, Henry VIII. | Read more about the decline and death of Henry VIII

21 Apr 1643

Royalist commander Prince Rupert recaptured Lichfield from the parliamentarians after blowing up a section of the walls of the Cathedral Close. This was the first time that gunpowder had been used for such a purpose in England.

21 April 1857

Alexander Douglas patents the bustle in the USA.

21 April 1861

Birth in Cockpen, Edinburgh, of traveller and gardener Isabella (Ella) Christie. She travelled widely in Asia, made two notable trips to Russian Turkestan in 1910 and 1912, and was the first British woman to visit the state of Khiva.

21 April 1918

During the First World War, the Red Baron, German fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen, is shot down and killed by ground fire over Allied lines at Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme.

21 April 1934: Nessie sparks a press circus

The Daily Mail ‘proves’ the existence of the Loch Ness Monster with a sensational front page photograph

Even by the standards of the Daily Mail, its front page on 21 April 1934 was a sensation. ‘London Surgeon’s Photo of the Monster’ read the headline. Below, a black-and-white image showed the long neck and head of a dinosaur-like monster, emerging from the waters. The picture’s source could hardly have been more respectable: the London society gynaecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson. Now there could be no doubt: the Loch Ness Monster was real.

Although the legend of a monster dates back to the sixth century, the Loch Ness Monster was really an invention of the 1930s, when a series of witnesses claimed to have seen a creature in the loch. So in December 1933, the Mail sent a big-game hunter, Marmaduke Wetherell, to locate the creature. He duly found some huge footprints on the shore. ‘Monster of Loch Ness is Not Legend But a Fact’ screamed the headline. But when the Mail asked experts from the Natural History Museum to examine the prints, they reported that they had probably been created by the foot of a dead hippopotamus that had been converted into an umbrella stand.

The ‘surgeon’s photograph’, then, could hardly have been better timed. But was the timing suspicious? Indeed it was. Decades later, Wetherell’s stepson confessed that he and his father had made the ‘monster’ from a toy submarine, and used Wilson as a go-between to lend authenticity. “We’ll give them their monster,” Wetherell reportedly said. And, fake or not, the result was one of the most famous photographs in history. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook


21 April 1960

Brasilia was inaugurated as the capital of Brazil. The city was built from scratch in the centre of the country with Oscar Niemeyer as the principal architect.

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