A number of pages have been written to give a rapid and easily legible Rome history, particularly the history of the Etruscans (who ruled central Italy before Rome became great), Ancient Rome as well as other periods such as Medieval Rome, the Renaissance, Baroque periods through to modernity.
Should you require an even quicker introduction please read on our very quick summary of Rome history” below. Alternatively our timeline of Rome’s history provides a pocket-sized solution.
Quick summary of Rome history: 1000BC to 2000AD
The history of Rome goes so far back that its origins are shrouded more in myth than documented history.
The facts show us that there were shepherd huts and settlements around the Rome’s Palatine and Capitoline hills as early as 1000BC. We also know that around 700BC there were two dominating cultures around the region: the Etruscans to the centre-north and the Greek colonies called Magna Grecia to the south.
The myth would have it that Rome was founded in 753BC by Romulus and Remus who had been found by the river Tiber and fed by a She-Wolf. The twins were born of the relationship between the god Mars and Rhea Silvia who had been forced into becoming a Vestal Virgin by her evil uncle Amulio. Rhea Silvia happened to be a direct descendant of Aeneas who, as the poet Virgil tells us, had escaped the destruction of Troy. The twins learned of their origins, killed the evil uncle, freed the good uncle-King Numitor and then went off to found their own city – Rome.
As the two young men went about the religious rituals required to found a new city – namely the plowing of a holy furrow called pomerium around the future city – they came to argue and luck would have it that one killed the other with a shovel blow. Romulus was thus the sole founder and first king of the new city. It was built across seven hills next to the River Tiber, not far from the Mediterranean sea.
The foundations of Rome’s future greatness were laid by the first kings of Rome – seven in all, including Romulus lasting some 250 years. They accepted citizens into the new city, raided the women and trade of surrounding villages, learned of religion and laws from nearby Etruscan civilisation and built the first important urban infrastructures such as the Circus Maximus and Cloaca Maxima (the city drains). The seventh king, Tarquin the Proud had taken power with the aid of a heinous crime and was particularly belligerent and hated by his subjects – you might call him a Tyrant. By the time he was done with he certainly made sure the citizens of Rome were battle-hardened. He was expelled from the city and Rome became a Republic.
The kings of Rome had ensured growth of the city and her power continued to grow as more and more territories were won. For example, Rome soon took over the metal and wheat trades which hitherto had been the staple of Etruscan wealth. Where they couldn’t win the Romans set up alliances and treaties and within another couple of hundred years the whole of Italy was under the city’s control.
Once Italy was taken the next necessary step was to take control of the Mediterranean trade routes. This brought Rome into direct conflict with international trading powers such as Carthage. The three “Punic wars” ensued with Carthage. Most people know of the great general Hannibal – the first and perhaps most disastrous defeat the Romans were ever to bear. It certainly remained engrained in their collective memory for the next thousand years or so. In any case, even the wars against Carthage were won and so the road was laid open for the empire which was to rule the (known) world. “Roma Caput Mundi” – Rome head of the world.
All this success brought its troubles at home of course as the increasing concentration of wealth in the city tended to flow directly into the pockets of the founding fathers’ pockets, or rather their noble descendants known as the “Patricians“. The plebeians or “Plebs” were increasingly poor and soon revolted. Social and civil wars persisted in Rome until the advent of the empire, around the year 0, actually about 14BC if you don’t count the great JC as a sort of Emperor – he was named Dictator for life.
Perhaps what is most impressive is how civil and social war at home could coexist with continuous victory and success abroad. The Plebs did succeed in forcing a more equitative distribution of wealth and power and eventually they even won the right to cut price grain, veto of laws debated in the Senate and a share of government. The Gracchi brothers who embodied the social reforms died by assassination but their legacy lived on throughout the empire’s years.
The social distress and civil wars came to an end with Julius Caesar who as a particularly ambitious Patrician took the side of the Plebs, took Gaul (France), minted the first gold coins and got himself nominated Dictator for life. He initiated a vast number of extremely necessary reforms and public works. He was murdered shortly after by republican idealists who feared the return to the bad old days of the kings.
With a little struggle, Julius Caesar was succeeded by his adoptive nephew Octavian, better known as Emperor Augustus the Great. Augustus learned from the past, made sure he wasn’t seen as a dictator and ran a good propaganda machine. He invented the title “emperor” which at the time was signified little more than a military commander, built himself a relatively humble home on the Palatine and proceeded to set up the bases of the empire.
It was during this period that Rome was converted from a city of brick to one of marble. Writers, thinkers, historians and artists such as Ovid, Virgil, Horace and Livy were writing their great works and the citizens knew their greatest periods of peace and opulence. Jesus Christ was born during this period but died during the reign of a less inspired emperor – Tiberius. The crazy Nero and Caligula and the awesomeColosseum are perhaps the best remembered sign of the times to come.
The following three or four hundred years are chequered: some good emperors and some not so good emperors made their way to the throne. The Roman empire reached its greatest extension under Emperor Trajan some 100 years after Augustus, after which the great and gradual decline was set albeit not immediately evident. An end to conquest brought an end to the influx of slaves and wealth and hence economic stagnation. By now the Romans weren’t the hardened lovers of austerity but rather hardened lovers of opulence and fineries of the East. Not good.
Christianity was growing, chiefly thanks to the great work of the apostles Peter and Paul, both of whom were martyred by Nero. Paul, incidentally, had never known Christ in person and he himself was a Roman citizen which meant he had the privilege of being beheaded in comparative privacy rather than being crucified in public.
Emperor Constantine was the next super great emperor, around the year 300AD. He legalised Christianity, made important donations and opened the path for it to become the religion it is nowadays. He also split the empire in two, making the new Rome in Constantinople (Istanbul). This enlightened idea was to protect the Christian “West” from the barbaric and Muslim threats from the East throughout the Dark and Middle Ages right up to the Renaissance. In spite of that there was little that could be done to save the Roman empire of the West from itself and the barbaric turmoil which was descending from the north.
For a whole Millenium, the Church was to provide the only relatively stable structure of order and learning in a world of Baronies, Kings and Emperors. Pope Leo the Great struck a formidable coup for Papal authority by taking it onto himself to crown Charlemagne “Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire” on Christmas day of the year 800, at St. Peter’s.
But even within the church there were periods of instability and sleaze, for example during the Medieval period of the “Pornocracy” when the Popes were unduly influenced by their courtesans, or during the “Babilonian” captivity when King Louis of France decided to remove the Papacy to Avignon giving rise to as many as three contemporary claimants to the throne of St.Peter.
The continued Muslim pressure and eventual fall of the Roman empire of the East and its capital Constantinople (1453) meant that much of the classical learning of the ancients, ancient manuscripts art and philosophy winged its way back west. Rich mercantile cities such as Florence and Venice were already profiting from the changing times, opening of trade routes and flourishing of thought and culture.
The definitive return of the Papacy to Rome (1417) after almost a hundred years under French influence at Avignon heralded a delayed start to the Renaissance for the city. It wasn’t long however before Rome came back to the focus of cultural and political attention. Popes such as Nicolas the fifth, Alexander VI (Borgia), Leo X (Medici) and Julius II spent enormous efforts and cash, won through taxes, indulgences and nepotism to renew the city through great projects such as the rebuilding of St. Peter’s or the opening of the first Museum in the world (the Capitoline).
Supreme artists such as Michaelangelo, Rafael, Bernini, Borromini and Caravaggio were commissioned to transform and decorate the city according to the tenets of the church and its “Counter Reformation“. This was the Catholic Church’s answer to the Protestant Reform: doctrinal militancy through Orders such as the Dominicans and Jesuits which directly translated itself into the art and architecture of the Baroque and the fearsome “Holy Inquisition”. Not even the Germanic incursion and violent depredation of the city by Charles the V in the year 1527 managed to stem the lavish spending and development of Rome. The cupolas of Rome multiplied and the skyline was changed from one of Medieval towers to an undulation of sparkling domes.
Even the quickest tour of the city will give a sense of the Machiavellian politics and intrigue which acted as an undercurrent throughout this period. The Borgia name is but the tip of the ice berg and virtually all the monuments bear the name, emblem or shield of this or the other Pope or Cardinal of this or the other noble family. Even St. Peter’s ubiquitously reminds us that it was completed by a Pope belonging to the Borghese family.
This period too was to come to an end: The Renaissance was not only an artistic rebirth but also a rebirth of thought and of inquisitive philosophy. The Church no longer held the custody and monopoly and knowledge and as such great thinkers such as Newton, Bacon, Galileo and Descartes heralded the “age of reason”. The church was unprepared and perhaps a little at odds with this newfound freedom of thought and scientific speculation and so culture and growth followed economic and political power northwards, across the Alps.
The Papacy held on to its temporal power (military control over much of central Italy) for as long as it could and in spite of itself Rome also became the focus of attention of the northern Romantics such as Goethe, Shelley and Byron who saw in the city the echoes of its dying glories (of the Roman Empire that is). The city was one of the principal targets of the wealthy travellers of northern Europe in what was called the “Grand Tour”.
The shift of power soon made itself felt however and it wasn’t long before the city was taken by Napoleon and the French. The Pope himself was held captive for several years. No sooner was a truce struck that the Pope had to call on French assistance to keep out Garibaldi and the new “Risorgimento” movement which aimed to unify Italy. The Pope was horrified at King Victor Emanuel’s pretence that Rome should become the capital of the newly unified country and attempted to fight back through dogmas such as “Papal Infallibility”. Some successful resistance was made but the Franco-Prussian war meant a retreat of the French assistance and the automatic fall of Rome in 1871.
The Pope retreated behind Vatican walls in protest and Rome was made capital of Italy. New buildings were built to cater for this new role such as the palace of Justice on the banks of the river Tiber. It wasn’t until 1922 that a new truce was struck between the Italian state and the church by Mussolini. The Vatican was recognised as an independent sovereign state and compensation was paid for the territories and possessions which had been taken.
The unification of Italy was relatively late if compared to that of the other states of Europe and as such it is hardly surprising that Mussolini’s expansionist policies were rather behind the times. Countries such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and England had all built up their empires a century earlier. Italian dominions extended into a few regions of northern Africa such as Libia and Ethiopia and more or less naturally heralded Italian entry into the Second World War alongside Germany. The events which actually led Italy to war are still in dispute but the results are well known: Italy was forced to surrender, Mussolini fled, was captured by partisan forces and was killed (then hung and mutilated).
The witness of that idealistic, imperialistic and certainly anachronistic period of history is to be found in the rather overbearing EUR area developed to the south of Rome (EUR stands for Universal Exhibition in Rome) which had been planned and begun but stopped because of the war. It was completed in the 50s and undoubtedly deserves a quick visit. Buildings such as the bleached white “Square Colosseum” are unusual enough to strike anyone’s imagination (and feature in Nike adverts).
The Rome we see today is a collage of all these facets, each blatantly superimposed on the other: Catacombs, pagan altars, Paleo-Christian churches covered by Basilicas built into ancient Roman walls which make way for modern apartments in Medieval buildings and roads to run through ancient city gates. The Romans themselves go to the football stadium in much the same way that their ancient ancestors went to the Colosseum and the general culture is that of a people who have lived more or less everything that destiny can reserve.
What I find most striking is the Romans’ ability to know instantaneously what is in fashion and what is out and to nonchalantly display it over a plate of Spaghetti alla Puttanesca in a Trastevere trattoria.