Whether one believes Rome was founded around 750 BC by Romulus and Remus, by refugees from Troy, or by a bunch of filthy barbarians who happened to find a nice hilltop with a source of clean water nearby, for a few centuries all roads – as the saying goes – led to it. In time the patricians found that the plebeians could be kept inattentive to serious matters with bread and circuses – a truism still – and the Republic became a dictatorship, and later an Empire. Rome laid the foundation of Western civilization, and its traditions (good and bad) live on today.
According to Roman belief, the city was founded by twin brothers named Romulus and Remus, the sons of the god Mars and a human king’s daughter. The children were abandoned at birth, but they were rescued by a she-wolf who suckled them. Upon reaching maturity the boys founded a new city, then quarreled over who would rule (or, as some would have it, the height of a wall). Romulus won; he killed his brother and became the first king of Rome. This story of abandonment and she-wolf and murder may explain quite a bit about Rome’s subsequent history.
Rome’s strategic location made it greatly prized by its neighbors; for two centuries the Latins fought off attacks by the Etruscans and the Sabines, eventually subjugating both and claiming their culture, religion, technology, wealth and of course land for Rome, establishing a serviceable template for building their empire.
Roman lore states that the last Roman king was a brutal tyrant. This villainous king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown by the citizens after his son raped a virtuous noblewoman. Modern historians believe that the truth is far more prosaic. According to these stuffy academics Rome was captured by the Etruscans, who ejected the Roman king, but external events forced them to vacate the city before they could install their own monarch. Finding that they preferred being kingless, the Romans did not recall Tarquinius to power but instead implemented a republic loosely (emphasis on “loose”) based upon the Greek model of democracy (not that the Greeks were particularly democratic themselves).
The political structure was convoluted, but went something like this: Rome was ruled by two consuls. The consuls acted as the city’s chief administrators as well as the military commanders. The consuls were elected annually by the “centuriate assembly” – the Roman army. To ensure unity of command in times of great danger a “dictator" could be appointed from the consuls who had complete power. The second power bloc in the Roman government was the Senate. The Senate was composed of approximately 300 “virtuous” men drawn from the leading families. According to theory the Senate was strictly an advisory body, but in fact it held enormous political clout (given that members were all filthy rich), and its “advice” was almost always followed. The Roman Republic became the model, for better and worse, for most republics that followed.
During much of its history, the Roman Republic was at war with one or more of its neighbors since it was constantly expanding its territory at the expense of other, less efficient kingdoms. Most of these gains were swept away in 390 BC, when a Gallic tribe defeated the vaunted Roman legions and sacked the city … not the last time a bunch of illiterate barbarians would wander the streets of the Eternal City. It took almost half a century for Rome to recover from this debacle. By the middle of the 200s BC, however, Rome was master of central Italy, with Latin colonies extending far to the north and south. Further, work was progressing on the incomparable Roman road network tying the growing republic together, and Rome was in the process of constructing its first navy ... just in time for most of it to be sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean.
As Rome’s expanse and reputation grew, it inevitably came into conflict with other regional kingdoms also looking to be the biggest bully on the block. One such was Carthage, a one-time Phoenician colony based on the North African coast in Tunisia. At the time Carthage had a mighty maritime empire which covered most of North Africa west of Egypt, coastal Spain and France, and much of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. Rome and Carthage fought three “Punic Wars” (264-146 BC) to decide who would control the western Mediterranean. When the dust settled, despite the brilliance of Hannibal, courage of the Carthaginian seamen and acumen of their politicians, Carthage and all its holdings disappeared into the maw of the soon-to-be Roman Empire.
Although Rome continued fighting wars across the Mediterranean, the first century BC saw tens of thousands of soldiers return as civilians from foreign lands. There was not enough work for the ex-soldiers, especially since Rome was being flooded with slaves from overseas possessions. To be elected consul, Roman politicians had to appease these ex-soldiers, and Roman politics turned increasingly populist, with political infighting becoming increasingly bitter. It was clear that control of Rome would fall to whomever could buy the loyalty of the disaffected army. In 62 BC three men agreed to share power between them; this “First Triumvirate” consisted of the great Gnaeus Pompey, the senator Marcus Crassus, and an obscure general from a wealthy family named Julius Caesar.
These men had the same ability to cooperate and desire to share power as one might expect to find in the average killer shark, and following Crassus's death in battle, Caesar and Pompey were at each other's throats. When Caesar eventually marched on Roma with his loyal legions, Pompey and the Senate fled the city; in 49 BC Caesar entered into Rome unopposed. While maintaining the façade that Rome was a republic, Julius became a de facto dictator. He gave himself the power to appoint all senators, and he altered the constitution so that the assemblies would vote only on candidates and bills he submitted. In 44 BC he was assassinated by members of the senate who had had enough of these shenanigans (the fact that the good citizens were scandalized by Caesar’s adulterous affair with that foreign witch Cleopatra didn’t help Julius).
Following Caesar's death, his lieutenant Mark Antony allied with Marcus Lepidus and Caesar's nephew Gaius Octavian to defeat Caesar's republican assassins. But in the process Anthony took up with Cleopatra and her son by Julius, who got busy resurrecting the Egyptian empire with his help. Thereafter the members of this “Second Triumvirate” quarreled. That tiff ended with Cleopatra, Caesar’s son, Anthony and a lot of others dead and Octavian – now termed “Augustus” – as undisputed permanent dictator, even though the danger to Rome was long over. While the Roman Republic was dead, the Roman Empire had just begun and the whole world would “tremble at its power and glory.”
For the next four centuries Rome would be ruled by the dictators, who took the title “Caesar” to remember from whence their power came. The long list of emperors includes the able (Tiberius, Vespasian, Hadrian), the brilliant (Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Constantine), some neither (Otho, Pertinax, Balbinus, and others too numerous to mention), and many downright villainous (Caligula, Nero, Commodus, the list goes on). Some had long reigns – the 48 years of Theodosius II is the record – while other lasted just months (some only days), many dying of lead poisoning on the blades of the Praetorian Guard. The whole mad stew was leavened with revolts, rebellions, uprisings, wars and the ever-present struggle to hold the borders against the barbarian hordes.
Through all this turmoil, the Romans did manage to produce some of civilization’s most enduring works. Latin art and literature had finally divested themselves of slavishly copying the Greeks; satire (something the Greeks had no appreciation for) is a Roman innovation, and Latin sculpture, frescos and landscape painting (the Romans invented the genre) surpassed anything previously seen. Roman contributions to architecture include the arch, vault and dome; some of their aqueducts, bridges and buildings still stand. Meanwhile wealthy Romans became the world’s first tourists, wandering about Egypt, Greece and Persia, marveling at the monuments and ruins but drawing no parallels to their own times. Those who stayed at home were entertained by blood sports in the Great Coliseum and chariot races in the Circus Maximus; and there were periodically those crucifixions along the Appian Way to relieve the ennui.
At the height of its holdings under Trajan, the Empire reached from the lowlands of Scotland to the Moorish mountains to the Euphrates and Rhine. Rome was itself the world’s largest metropolis, numbered an estimated two million inhabitants, citizens and otherwise. Trade flowed into Roman lands from Africa, Gaul, Scandinavia and far India, all of it kept track of with standardized weights and measures and counted up on the Roman abacus, perfectly suited for the Roman numeral system. In fact, as the Empire progressed, given the Roman proclivity for organization, just about everything became standardized.
It was a good time to be Roman.
But by the third century AD, things were started to decline. The administration, given the state of communications in that age, grew so unwieldy it could not react to crises. In 285 AD Emperor Diocletian partitioned the sprawling realm into a western half and eastern half, with the east administered from Byzantium, where a “second” emperor was installed to act in the name of the first emperor back in Rome. The no-nonsense religion of Christianity took hold of Rome, which had always been accepting of different faiths; Emperor Theodosius I made it the state religion, and intolerance wedged cracks in the social structure wider. Barbarians became more technologically advanced, and nibbled at the edges of Roman lands. Then, there was always the possibility that the Romans were suffering from lead-poisoning thanks to those wonderful aqueducts.
Whatever the contributing causes, the last years of the Western Empire were marked by inept rulers, usurpations and barbarian incursions into the heart of Roman lands. In 410 AD Rome itself was sacked by the forces of Alaric, a Visigoth king. The Vandals overran Africa, and various provincial Roman governors broke away to pursue their own dynastic dreams. Finally, the German Odoacer, who had been a general in Roman employ, invaded, deposed Romulus Augustus, sent the imperial insignia to Byzantium, and installed himself as the new King of Italy. The “light of Rome” had been extinguished, although its shadow still looms across Europe and beyond.