The birth of Rome – a crucible for many ethnicities.

Whilst we think of ancient Rome as a unitary ethnic identity, the birth of Rome was all about assembling a number of sub-cultures into a new whole. This was not simply achieved through ethnic deletion but rather through assimilation and gradual absorption of the many local customs over time.

The approach created opportunity for those populations who had been taken over to actually create their own career and future, reshaping Roman society itself. It wasn’t always pacific and also resulted in revolts, but the approach was largely successful. It remained a characteristic of the later Roman Empire in what is known as “Romanisation”. It was also a bedrock of the shift to Christianity over 1000 years later: rather than delete and replace previous customs it was much more effective to acknowledge them and reshape them towards the new reality; for example replacing the fertility festival of Juno in February with Saint Valentine’s day.

These few notes capture some thoughts and ideas about the birth of Rome and the development of archaic Latin culture in the period from the 8th – 2nd centuries BC. Visiting a range of Italian cities including Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Roman Pompeii, Nocera and Paestum it is evident how a number of local cultures had many similarities yet also their own ethnic differences. Were they simply wiped out? Can they tell us something about the development of their most successful neighbour?

Greek colonies in the south of Italy pushed northwards and spread their own cultural influences. Etruscans, Latins, Sabines, Oscans, Samnites, Lucanians and other Italic peoples were coalescing into local identities, sometimes allied to one another and at other times warring for territorial dominance of resources, waterways, agricultural land and pastures for their cattle. Each of these were themselves an assemblage of smaller local groups, each with their own local characteristic, a village or fortified area on a given hill or mountain. Just like ancient Rome on the Capitoline and Palatine hills.

It is interesting to note how they had their own local languages and alphabets developed: Greek, Etruscan, Oscan, Nuceran, Latin and others were very much alive in parallel. Several of them even at the time of Pompeii’s destruction in 79AD. Roman dominance incorporated them into a unitary existence. It was recorded that Emperor Claudius was one of the last to know Etruscan language and wrote books on their culture. On the other hand, there are graffiti in Pompeii written in Oscan. Pontius Pilate was an Equestrian of Samnite origins – as his name suggests he was from the Samnite tribe of the Ponti(!) not Latin.

Visiting the city of Paestum, further to the south of Italy we can see a number of funeral paintings which portray events from every day life. It is interesting to compare them, and their similarities with those of Etruscan cities such as Tarquinia much further to the north. This gives us a sense of the many similarities across these cultures with that of Rome such as a love for Gladiatorial fights at funerals or of hunting and chariot racing.

In conclusion, the birth of Rome wasn’t a case of a culture coming out of nowhere and deleting those around it. It was more a case of various cultural identities coming together over time and the Romans having had the ability to incorporate and thread them together into a form of coexistence. Perhaps this can give us new ideas about the social reasons for the fall of the Roman empire.

Walks of Rome you can easily fold in the back of your pocket

Some ideas for walks and tours of Rome: If I had little time to waste and wanted a short walk to get the main flavour of the city where would I go?

Entire books have been written on the subject and it is almost impossible to do Rome justice in just few pages, or perhaps that is just the way to do it justice: Some indications and then off you go to discover its wonders.

Tip #1: Rome is obviously an intricate mass of different periods of history annexed and built over one another. It is therefore quite difficult to understand and appreciate the wow factor of the bits of the puzzle you’re looking at. So make sure you have a quick cheat-sheet of Roman History and/or Rome Timeline in the back of your pocket!

Tip #2: If you want to ad lib as much as possible read just a little background:

  • Our bluffer’s Rome’s history (a page: but not bad for a couple of thousand years)
  • Bluffer’s guide to Roman architecture – another page giving a quick idea of why Roman architecture was great. A good key to understanding the forumcolosseumpantheon, St. Peter’s and many other buildings.
  • The Bluffer’s Baroque Rome – Rome’s so full of churches you may as well try to understand why they look the way they do – it’s all to do with fighting those protesting Protestant reformers (and power of course).

Tip #3: is to plan each day out, even if just for a minute. Nothing’s to say you can’t change your mind half way through – in fact if you do so much the better: something will have grabbed your undivided attention! What’s it to be? Soak up some Rome culture? Do a quick tour of the antiquities? Shops? Food and hanging out at the Coffee Bars? See below for some planned tour suggestions.

Last Tip #4Avoid going around with your nose stuck in a (guide) book. What’s so wonderful about the “Eternal City” is the innumerable surprises which lurk around each corner. Take a camera and possibly a notepad. Jot a couple of notes of what you really appreciated and read about them in comfort whilst sipping a road-side Espresso at one of our suggested Coffee Bars. They’ll also provide a pleasant memory when you’re on the plane back home.

TOUR NUMBER 1: “I’ve been there too” (1 Day Tour)

This is the “I need to run through the city and take pics of the major bits” sort of tour. Here are the musts which you could probably do in a day. “I’ve done Rome”. Shame to rush about this way but perhaps a good way of getting a taster before delving into the bits you enjoyed best.

Follow the links for a little further detail of the places referred to. Don’t forget the Rome shopping section and into Rome restaurants, these aspects are a must as much as the Colosseum! The areas concerned include Piazza del PopoloPiazza Navona & Forums with a glimpse of Vatican across the river. The area descriptions include sites and notes of particular interest.

We would suggest starting from the Piazza del Popolo and following Via del Babbuino to Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps. From there down Via Condotti. You might try a coffee at the Antico Caffe’ Greco. Here’s your chance to look at the luxury designer shops and boutiques, not all of them are overly expensive.

We would suggest brunch in (relatively inexpensive) style at the Caffettiera in Piazza di Pietra, between Via del Corso and the Pantheon. Chance to see the side of a major Roman temple – to Hadrian’s genius, now the stock exchange – and then on to the PantheonPiazza Navona & Campo de’ Fiori.

Get to the Tiber & view to St. Peter’s. Actually going to St. Peter’s would require quite a lot of energy if you’re considering the next part of the trip:

Up to Piazza Venezia, see the balcony of Palazzo Venezia from where Mussolini delivered his speeches. The “Type Writer” monument to the unknown soldier & up the steps to the Capitoline Hill. Great view over the Forum from around the back of the hill (go round the Palazzo Senatorio which faces the steps up to the hill).

Back down the steps and a good walk along the Via dei Fori Imperiali will allow you to see the Forums. The Roman/Imperial forums on the right and Trajan’s on the left, including the famous Trajan’s column which depicts his wars of conquest in Rumania.

Get to the end of the street and you’ll hit your nose against the Colosseum.

You should be pretty tired at this point. Clearly it all depends on a trade-off of speed versus quality time.

A 1 day alternative with less walking about: If you’re intellectually inclined then you might do away with the shopping side of things and go for CapitolPantheon and St. Peter’s. Brunch as above.

The Capitol will afford the view over the Roman Forum whilst a march to the top of St. Peter’s dome will give you a great view over the entire city.

About the intellectually minded: there are important comparisons to be made between the Pantheon and St. Peter’s which will reveal the ingredients which made Rome the “eternal city”. Some research into the two buildings, their history and uses will shed light a perfect blend of engineering with architecture, religion with mysticism and politics with propaganda. Read more.

TOUR NUMBER 2: Rome in a Weekend

  • Breakfast at Barcaccia coffee bar in Piazza di Spagna with view over the Spanish Steps.
  • Via Condotti, Via Frattina, Corso for shopping. Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, Campo Marzio, Via del Corso, Piazza Venezia. Capitoline hill, view over Forum
  • Lunch in Trattoria.
  • Piazza del Panteon (Piazza della Rotonda) for coffee. (Caffe’ Tazza d’Oro). Piazza Navona. Cross river to Castel St. Angelo, see the bridge of Ponte St. Angelo. Up the river to St. Peter’s and stop for tea at Hotel Columbus (end of Via della Conciliazione which leads to St.Peter’s itself). St. Peter’s square and into the Basilica. Chance to either go up to the top of the dome – access from outside – or under to see the treasury – access from inside the basilica.
  • Evening out in Trastevere or romantic dinner at Bacaro restaurant (reserve before hand).
  • Day two: breakfast at Rosati in Piazza del Popolo. Up the hill to Villa Borghese. Walk through the gardens. Here’s a chance for a museum, Vatican museum requires at least half a day. Capitoline Museum is good. Lunch at the museum. Quick cabby or even horse drawn carriage to the Colosseum and off home.

TOUR NUMBER 3: Rome in a Week

  • Take with you the appropriate pages out of this guide including bits of the time line attached at the end of the document. You will then be able to place (almost) everything you see in terms of period and events.
  • Get some inspiration from the area descriptions in the chapter above, something might strike a chord of particular interest around which you can generate a more entertaining tour for yourself rather than having to see the “must see”. Surely the most important objective is towards yourself and making sure you take away with you the memories which you are most likely to hold dear in future. You can always come again to see more.
  1. Cut the chase and go to visit the church of San Clemente, not far from the Colosseum. It isn’t the most famous but it has the enormous advantage of containing various levels of history within it: the very bottom level is Roman housing of Nero’s age. Next level up is a temple to the god Mithras which believe it or not was the direct competition to Christianity. The Christians smashed it up. Gives you a good eerie feel of ancient mysticism. Next level up is the early “paleo-christian” church and the top-most level is a medieval church with baroque elements (18th century). The art is well worth having a look at too. It’ll be difficult to get a better feel of “Rome” in a single place. You might be tempted to go “do” the Colosseum as it’s nearby. Check it out on the timeline. For a more in-depth idea read about it in the website (
  2. The next trick is to realise that various parts of Rome tend to have a bountiful supply of this or that period. So start from the Piazza del Popolo (north gate) and choose:
  • – Up the hill to the left for the Villa Borghese gardens
  • – First road to the left of the trident, Via del Babbuino, for Romantic Rome and the Spanish Steps. High class shopping too.
  • – Central road, Via del Corso, to tackle some shopping followed by Ancient Rome, The Capitol, the Forum and Colosseum.
  • – The road to the right, Via di Ripetta, to go via the Campo Marzio, a little shopping, some antiquities and through to the Vatican/Saint Peter’s. Walk up to the top of the dome and get your breath back.
  • – Via del Corso again and swing a right towards the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori. This is Medieval Rome. Some good food and a little shopping too.
  • – The Vatican Museums require a whole day unless you’re pretty focused about what you want to see. Half a day’s do-able if you go for Rafael’s rooms and the Sistine chapel. A little research ahead will allow you to stop to pick up the real jems. Watch out for opening times, might be mornings only.
  • – Half a day for the Via Veneto is more than enough. Visit the weird cemetary for that spooky note and then up towards the Spanish Steps again (always a good place to gravitate). Take the opportunity to visit the Caffe Greco.
  • – Follow the river to the bottom of the Aventine hill. This is the Forum Boarium. Visit the Santa Maria in Cosmedin and the Mouth of Truth. There are a couple of interesting Roman temples: a round one and a rectangular one. If you read about them you may well find them pretty interesting. If not walk by and straight up the Aventine hill, pleasant walk with good basilicas at the top and views down.
  • Sounds like not a lot so far but if you’ve got this far you quite likely sped through much of what you saw on the way and have probably been in town for a week. You still haven’t visited the Trevi Fountain, the Capitoline Museums (on the Capitoline hill) and the old Appian way/Catacombs – these are quite resource hungry because of the distance. Your feet are worn out and you realise how you’ve only just scratched the surface. Have you seen the Lateran? Santa Maria Maggiore? There’s loads more but I suggest you select according to taste at this point rather than historical importance. Eg go for an ice cream or cup of tea in the Jewish Ghetto (see section on Coffee Bars).
  • – For a different angle at things you might go for a boat trip along the tiber. Requires a couple of hours.
  • – My favorite spots: Piazza del Popolo, The Pantheon, Piazza Navona, San Clemente and the view from the top of St. Peter’s dome.

TOUR NUMBER 4: Rome by Squares

Another idea is to pick a guiding theme like the Obelisks or squares around Rome.

The Obelisks were brought to Rome by the Emperors as bits of furnishing for the city, often placed in the central spine, called “spina”, of circuses. Later popes recovered them from where they lay abandoned and stood them throughout the city to act as visible landmarks for the pilgrims to follow round the city. A few have since been moved about but in any case you can be sure they still act as pretty good landmarks. You might add the two columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.

Following the Squares can be equally entertaining, especially as the “piazze” act as natural focus points throughout the. Follow the tiny streets which run between the hills like streams and converge into the fountains of the many remarkable “piazze”. If we try to combine a tour of the seven hills with the more popular squares we obtain a pretty complete tour (10 squares because I couldn’t cut it down to 7!). A little more about each may be gained from the area descriptions above.

So to the squares walk:

Piazza del Popolo (northern gate of Rome with Obelisk) – Piazza di Spagna (Spanish steps) – Trevi fountain – Piazza del Quirinale – Campidoglio (the Capitoline hill)- Pantheon – Piazza Navona (ancient circus turned into an elongated public square) – San Giovanni in Laterano (the square with Rome’s cathedral – predecessor of St. Peter’s basilica) – Saint Peter’s at the Vatican. Not strictly in this order�

Two more for a good coffee break: Sant’Eustachio and Piazza di Pietra. Two as part of the night life: Campo de’ Fiori and Santa Maria in Trastevere. (Campo de� Fiori can be a little overly lively at times)

TOUR NUMBER 5: Rome by Obelisks

Egypt fell into Roman hands at the time when the first Emperor, Augustus, heir of Julius Caesar, brought his rival Mark Anthony and his lover Cleopatra to heel.

What isn’t obvious is that the obelisks dotted around Rome were already ancient when the ancient Romans began to bring them over to glorify their capital city. This serves to give an idea of the esteem the Romans held for the ancient Egyptian culture, particularly with the regards to the “sciences”.

Obelisks quite evidently hold symbolic meanings. In Egyptian times they represented rays of the sun and glorified divinities. In Roman times this meaning largely persisted but doubled up to constitute first hand evidence of the power of Rome, focused on the Emperor.

As the Empire gave way to the dark ages the obelisks fell off their pedestals but as fortunes picked up again with the papacy so too did the obelisks. Around 1587 Pope Sixtus V gave orders for a number of them to be put to use. They were unburied from their original spots, often in the central spina of the abandoned circuses and transferred with great effort to behave as place markers for the Christian pilgrims to follow and wonder at: a constant reminder of the brutal empire which Christianity had heroically survived.

As the small obelisk in Piazza della Minerva perfectly describes the Obelisks came to hold a new symbolic meaning: wisdom. And more specifically, Christian wisdom.

The major obelisks of Rome (numbers in brackets are height/height with pedestal):

  • Vatican – 25.37/40m moved in 1586 to the centre of St. Peter’s square from where it lay nearby at Caligula’s & Nero’s circus. It weighs 330 tons. No hieroglyphs.
  • Esquiline hill – 14.75/25.53m. moved in 1587. North of Santa Maria Maggiore.
  • Lateran – 32.18/45.7m. The tallest. Stands in front of San Giovanni in Laterano.
  • Flaminio – 23.91/36.43m. Dates back to Ramses II about 1300 BC. It was brought to Rome by Augustus to stand in the centre of the Circus Maximus. It was moved in 1589 to Piazza del Popolo to greet the Pilgrims coming into Rome through the northern gate of the city.
  • Agonalis – 16.53/30.17m. Stands in the centre of Piazza Navona as part of Bernini’s famous fountain of the four rivers (1651). The Hieroglyphs were added about that time ie they’re not original Egyptian but Baroque to glorify the then Pamphilij pope (note the dove and olive sprig at the top). It originally stood in the middle of Maxentius’ circus on the old Appian way.
  • Minerva – 5.47/12.69m – small but striking. Now lovingly known as the “chick” (pulcino) because of the unlikely looking elephant which holds it up on its back. Used to be known as the “piglet” (porcino) for obvious reasons. Symbolises Christian wisdom gained through hard toil and strength of mind.
  • Quirinal – 14.63/28.94m – stands in the centre of the Piazza del Quirinale with the beautiful statues of the Dioscuri twins (the same ones after whom the star sign is named). Moved 1786 from its original location in front of Augustus’ tomb (Piazza Augusto Imperatore).
  • Montecitorio – 21.19/33.97m. One of the most interesting. Stood in front of the Italian parliament on Piazza Montecitorio in 1792, not far from where it once stood in the Campo Marzio since Augustus brought it over in 10BC. It acted as a sun dial designed, by Egyptian astronomers, to cast its shadow on the Ara Pacis altar to peace (Piazza Augusto Imperatore) on the date and time of Augustus’ birthday. It was found amongst Medieval debris and its hieroglyphs were for a long time believed to hide arcane secrets regarding Adam and Eve.
  • Several others�. Eg at the top of Trinita dei Monti, overlooking the Spanish Steps & dotted around the city. Another is that of Sallustius – 13.91/30.45m – Found and believed to have stood in the ancient and wonderful gardens Horti Sallustianii. Re-erected 1789.
  • Last but not least� Other interesting pieces of urban furnishing worth having a look at include:

the Pyramid of Caius Cestius (at Testaccio, south side of the city) and the two enormous columns of Trajan (in Trajan’s forum) and Marcus Aurelius (Piazza Colonna off Via del Corso). Entire studies have been dedicated to the columns so better leave it to you to dig further.

Ancient Roman Recipes

Numerous ancient Roman recipes have made their way down to us although we cannot be absolutely certain of their accuracy given that the primary sources, such as Apicius’ De Coquinaria have made it down to us via copies made by monks and quite likely distorted by tastes and available ingredients of their own times.

It is interesting how incredibly popular ingredients or elements of Roman cookery such as the fish based sauce called “Garum” should become completely unknown to us, at least as far as its preparation is concerned.

As outlined in our page on Roman food the foods and recipes found on Roman tables varied and went in parallel with did Roman fortunes, wealth and culture both on the way up and the subsequent way down. The early Romans were austere shepherds/warriors. The Romans of the Republic were increasingly rich and in spite of the warnings of a nostalgic few such as Cato, avidly took on the habits of the populations they took over, for example the Greeks.

Conquest and riches gave access to imports from distant countries and exotic spices and ingredients with the obvious consequences this would have on traditional foods and recipes.

It seems that Roman recipes were handed from cook to cook with little information by way of quantities, presumably because it would be the cook’s on job to decide how and how much of each ingredient to add.

The philosophy behind Roman cookery (and tastes) was one of addition. This contrasts with the modern western approach whereby the various ingredients and spices are generally meant to enhance and support a major flavour which takes the principal role in the dish. This could possibly be likened to oriental cookery where the notion of opposites (ying and yang) plays a strong role and opposing flavours are often played against one another in equally powerful quantities. For example in sweet and sour!

The space that follows will be employed to add ancient Roman recipes….


Please note: these recipes are shown for information purposes only. Should you try them you are doing so at your own risk – but do let us know how you get on!

Fabam Vitellianam – Cream of broad beans à la Vitellio – Cook the broad beans and when it has frothed add leaks, coriander and mallow wild flowers.


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