Monday, 4 January 2016

The foundations of Rome

The she-wolf suckles Romulus and Remus

The Romans created an empire that ranged from Djem in north Africa to Hadrian’s Wall, from Baalbek in Lebanon and the Euphrates to southern France. The heirs of ancient civilizations such as the Phoenicians, Egyptians and Greeks became subject to Roman rule and part of an empire that at its height numbered about 100 million people. The Roman Empire lasted for centuries, not collapsing in the east until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Everywhere the Romans left marks of their presence – their alphabet, language, roads, aqueducts, bridges, and temples. They also left a way of doing things – a legal system, a moral code, an ideal of republican government. 

Much of ancient Rome as we see it today, is the creation of archaeologists inspired by Mussolini’s decree of December 1925: in particular the space round the Theatre of Marcellus, the Capitol, the Pantheon, the rediscovered port of Ostia, the raised columns in Trajan’s Forum, and the restoration of the Altar of Peace in the Campus Martius.  

The restored Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace)

Like Augustus, Mussolini wished to recreate Rome. Much of the history of Fascist Italy – and of the French Revolution – is incomprehensible without a realization that the politicians had the ancient Romans constantly in mind. But which Romans? If Mussolini saw himself as a Roman Emperor, the Renaissance political theorist Machiavelli, the English republicans of the seventeenth century, and the American revolutionaries of the eighteenth, all looked back to the ideal of the Republic. The American Senate is located on a hill called the Capitol.

Foundation myths

The Romans had two, not particularly compatible, foundation myths. 

Romulus and Remus: As early as the 5th century BC the establishment of the city was already being ascribed to a vague figure known as Romulus.  The fullest version of the story is found in the writings of the historian, Livy.  Romulus and his twin brother Remus were the sons of the vestal virgin Rhea Silvia and the god Mars.  They were also the great-nephews of the usurper Amulius, who had seized power from his brother Numitor. Amulius ordered the twins to be exposed but they were suckled by a she-wolf. When the boys grew to manhood they avenged their grandfather, and set out to found a city of their own.  But the two brothers quarrelled. Romulus wished to found his city on the Palatine Hill, Remus on the Aventine.  Romulus killed Remus and proceeded to found his city.

Historians disputed the date of the foundation, but Varro, a contemporary and friend of Cicero, finally set it at 753BC and from this date (ab urbe condita) all subsequent dates were set.  The Romulus story was remembered with pride (though some were troubled about the fratricide) and the she-wolf became the emblem of the city. In order to people his city, Romulus organised the kidnapping of the young women of a neighbouring tribe, an incident known as the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’.

If you click here you will be taken to Melvyn Bragg's 'In our Time' programme in which he and his guests discuss the story of Romulus and Remus.

Aeneas: This competed with the Romulus legend, giving the city a more prestigious origin and less morally problematic origin, by tracing it back to the Trojan, Aeneas, the son of the goddess Venus. Virgil’s Aeneid, written in the reign of Augustus, transformed this story into the national epic.

The foundation of Rome

The low hills around Rome held human settlement in the form of round shepherds’ huts, from as far back as the 10th or 11th centuries BC. The area was a natural site for settlement, being the first crossing-place of the Tiber, upriver from the sea, but far enough inland to be safe from pirates. The city was formed by the linking of a number of villages around the Tiber and the seven hills, so that by c. 620 BC archaeological evidence suggests an urban transformation.  A formal public square surrounded by temples and sanctuaries was laid out and paved in what became the Forum.  The people who created the city were Latins, but they were heavily influenced by two complex and sophisticated civilizations, that of the Etruscan Confederation to the north and the Greek colonies to the south. 

The Etruscan Confederation

From the Etruscans the Romans took their temples, the fasces (the symbol of the magistrates), and the cult of Jupiter. In 509 the Temple of Jupiter was founded on the Capitoline Hill.  The last two kings of Rome were Etruscans.

Model of the Temple of
Jupiter Optimus Maximus
('the best and greatest')
The 8th and 7th centuries had seen a wave of Greek colonization in Sicily and the mainland of southern Italy, centred round Neapolis (Naples). From the Greeks they took the alphabet, and it was through the Greeks, via the Etruscans, that the olive and vine were passed on to Rome.

The three periods of Roman history

  1. The Regal period dates from the alleged foundation of the city in 753 BC on the Palatine Hill when Rome was ruled by several Etruscan kings. In 509 the republican Lucius Junius Brutus expelled Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome. There is no written account of this period earlier than the third century BC. 
  2. The Republic: 509-27 BC. In this period, Rome won dominance first in Italy and then in the Mediterranean. The Republic collapsed after a century of disorder, beginning in 133 BC. This period is the best documented in Roman history.
  3. The Empire, which was founded in 27 BC. The term (imperium) refers to a method of government, not the acquisition of territory. Augustus, the first Emperor, always insisted that he had restored the Republic and wished to be referred to as Princeps.  The Empire collapsed in the west in 476 AD and in the east in 1453.