A Brief History of Ancient Rome

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Beginning in the eighth century B.C., Ancient Rome grew from a small town on central Italy’s Tiber River into an empire that at its peak encompassed most of continental Europe, Britain, much of western Asia, northern Africa and the Mediterranean islands. Among the many legacies of Roman dominance are the widespread use of the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian) derived from Latin, the modern Western alphabet and calendar and the emergence of Christianity as a major world religion. After 450 years as a republic, Rome became an empire in the wake of Julius Caesar’s rise and fall in the first century B.C. The long and triumphant reign of its first emperor, Augustus, began a golden age of peace and prosperity; by contrast, the empire’s decline and fall by the fifth century A.D. was one of the most dramatic implosions in the history of human civilization.

As legend has it, Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Mars, the god of war. Left to drown in a basket on the Tiber by a king of nearby Alba Longa and rescued by a she-wolf, the twins lived to defeat that king and found their own city on the river’s banks in 753 B.C. After killing his brother, Romulus became the first king of Rome, which is named for him. A line of Sabine, Latin and Etruscan (earlier Italian civilizations) kings followed in a non-hereditary succession.

Rome’s era as a monarchy ended in 509 B.C. with the overthrow of its seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, whom ancient historians portrayed as cruel and tyrannical, compared to his benevolent predecessors. A popular uprising was said to have arisen over the rape of a virtuous noblewoman, Lucretia, by the king’s son. Whatever the cause, Rome turned from a monarchy into a republic, a world derived from res publica, or “property of the people.”

The rise of Rome from an insignificant pastoral settlement to perhaps the world’s most successful empire—supreme as a lawgiver and organizer, holding sway over virtually all the then-known world W of Persia, on which it left a permanent imprint of its material and cultural achievements—is one of the great epics of history. Whatever its fortunes throughout history, Rome has remained the symbol of European civilization.

As in ancient times Rome is a center of transportation. It is the focus of international traffic by road, rail, sea (at the port of Civitavecchia), and air (at Leonardo da Vinci international airport at Fiumicino) and is as well a cultural, religious, political, and commercial center of international importance. Public transportation in Rome is provided by an elaborate bus system. A subway, the Metropolitana, was opened in 1955. Rome’s large number of automobiles has caused serious traffic congestion, and in the 1970s and 80s various attempts were made to deal with the problem, including the banning of traffic in certain parts of the city. The economy of Rome depends to a very large extent on the tourist trade. The city is also a center of banking, insurance, printing, publishing, and fashion. Italy’s movie industry (founded in 1936) is located at nearby Cinecitta.

Rome’s military conquests led directly to its cultural growth as a society, as the Romans benefited greatly from contact with such advanced cultures as the Greeks. The first Roman literature appeared around 240 B.C., with translations of Greek classics into Latin; Romans would eventually adopt much of Greek art, philosophy and religion.

The decadence and incompetence of Commodus (180-192) brought the golden age of the Roman emperors to a disappointing end. His death at the hands of his own ministers sparked another period of civil war, from which Lucius Septimius Severus (193-211) emerged victorious. During the third century Rome suffered from a cycle of near-constant conflict. A total of 22 emperors took the throne, many of them meeting violent ends at the hands of the same soldiers who had propelled them to power. Meanwhile, threats from outside plagued the empire and depleted its riches, including continuing aggression from Germans and Parthians and raids by the Goths over the Aegean Sea.

The reign of Diocletian (284-305) temporarily restored peace and prosperity in Rome, but at a high cost to the unity of the empire. Diocletian divided power into the so-called tetrarchy (rule of four), sharing his title of Augustus (emperor) with Maximian. A pair of generals, Galerius and Constantius, were appointed as the assistants and chosen successors of Diocletian and Maximian; Diocletian and Galerius ruled the eastern Roman Empire, while Maximian and Constantius took power in the west.

The stability of this system suffered greatly after Diocletian and Maximian retired from office. Constantine (the son of Constantius) emerged from the ensuing power struggles as sole emperor of a reunified Rome in 324. He moved the Roman capital to the Greek city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. At the Council of Nicaea in 325, Constantine made Christianity (once an obscure Jewish sect) Rome’s official religion.

Roman unity under Constantine proved illusory, and 30 years after his death the eastern and western empires were again divided. Despite its continuing battle against Persian forces, the eastern Roman Empire–later known as the Byzantine Empire–would remain largely intact for centuries to come. An entirely different story played out in the west, where the empire was wracked by internal conflict as well as threats from abroad–particularly from the Germanic tribes now established within the empire’s frontiers–and was steadily losing money due to constant warfare. Rome eventually collapsed under the weight of its own bloated empire, losing its provinces one by one: Britain around 410; Spain and northern Africa by 430. Attila and his brutal Huns invaded Gaul and Italy around 450, further shaking the foundations of the empire. In September 476, a Germanic prince named Odovacar won control of the Roman army in Italy. After deposing the last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, Odovacar’s troops proclaimed him king of Italy, bringing an ignoble end to the long, tumultuous history of ancient Rome.