As usual, it seems appropriate to begin with a bit of history, a context from which to hang all the pictures and experiences. Hold on tight. A thousand years of history in just a few paragraphs.
Origins of Rome - A Mixture of Legend and History
To really understand Rome’s beginnings we need to go all the way back to the fall of Troy in Asia Minor, sometime around the early to mid 11th century BC. According to legend the original residents of Troy migrated there from Italy and the area near the modern city of Rome. Legend also connects the Trojans with the residents of the Greek mainland. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas and his family escape the sacking of Troy by the Achaean Greeks and begin a perilous journey that lands them in the area of the modern day city of Rome. Virgil tells this story more than 1000 years later and acknowledges his style-copying of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. So while I believe there is a great deal of truth to be learned from his telling, there are also quite likely many stretchings of the truth. Anyway, Aeneas’ family and descendants settle (resettle?) in the area of modern day Rome that was then predominantly Etruscan. Who were these Etruscans? That’s a great question. The Etruscans were the earliest permanent settlers of the Italian peninsula. They were greatly influenced by the Greeks of the 8th century BC. Maybe they were actually Greeks, or maybe Aeneas’ Asia Minor descendants, but most likely they were farmers that settled there and absorbed the best of the visiting Greek explorers. So who were the earliest Romans? Greco-Trojan-Etruscan farmers? Your guess is probably as good as anyone else’s.
According to Roman legend, around the year 753 BC, Remus and Romulus (descendants of Aeneas) are left to die in a basket along the Tiber River by an evil power-hungry uncle. A friendly, and apparently not-so-hungry she-wolf takes them in and raises them as her own. Later a friendly farmer finds them and raises them in the ways of humans. These two wolf-boys later have an argument that leads to a fight over where to found a new city. Romulus kills his brother Remus, founds the city on the Palatine Hill, and names the city after himself, Rome. For the next 200 years Rome is a monarchy, ruled by a mixture of good and bad Roman and Etruscan kings.
The Roman Republic
Somewhere around 500 BC Rome threw out the last of the Etruscan kings (Evil King Tarquin the Proud - great name eh?) and formed a new representative style of government called the Republic. In the Republic, voting citizens elected representatives called senators. From this pool of senators a consul (president) was elected to give leadership to the government. At first the rich and powerful Patrician class dominated this system of leadership. Lower class citizens known as Plebeians eventually rebelled and were granted equality. Plebeians eventually gained equal rights to leadership and a co-consul leadership was established. This top position consisted of both a Plebeian and Patrician who had to agree upon decisions. Rome struggled in its defenses and growth during this internal turmoil over equality of citizenship for over 100 years but eventually pulled its people together and began a grand age of expansion. It was during this time that Rome took control of the entire Mediterranean region, from Portugal in the west to Persia in the east, from Britain and Gaul (France) in the north to all of northern Africa including Egypt. Rome was huge!
Rome became very wealthy as a result of all these conquests, and as with most rapid acquisitions of power and wealth there came a plethora of problems. The rich Patricians became even richer and the poorer Plebeians became even poorer. With all the conquered peoples there came a tremendous number of slaves. By the first century BC there were more slaves in Rome than there were citizens. Around 73 BC a slave named Spartacus lead a revolt against Rome with an army of 70,000 runaway slaves. Rome squashed the revolt and crucified 6,000 of these rebels along the Via Apia leading to the city. That put a damper on revolts, but Rome was still experiencing a leadership vacuum.
Enter Julius Caesar. Julius was a consul and a very popular and powerful general. Around 48 BC, after a series of skirmishes with the Republican senate and General Pompeii, Julius was able to centralize the government around him through strong leadership and force. He was advised by the Senate but made decisions on his own; he was not bound to their rule as in the former Republic. Julius had become a dictator and the Senate did not like it. After four years of rule they assassinated him on March 15, 44 BC.
The Pax Romana
Julius’ death launched Rome in further internal struggles for power. Eventually Octavian, Julius’ nephew and adopted son, gained control of the government. He continued what Julius had begun and officially became Rome’s first emperor. An emperor is a kind of dictatorial monarch. In fact the name Caesar is pronounced kaiser in Latin and should remind us of Hitler’s title in Nazi Germany. Not that Julius, Octavian, or the other emperors of Rome were all bad dictators. A few were downright evil, but many were quite benevolent. At any rate, Octavian changed his name to Caesar Augustus and lead Rome on a path of great reforms. His reign also marked the beginning of an era of general peace throughout the empire, which lasted about 180 years known as the Pax Romana, Roman Peace.
Rome prospered tremendously during this time, which lead to many great public projects. Roads and aqueducts assured safe travel and ample water. Coliseums, circuses, and theaters provided entertainment as well as a means for getting rid of public offenders. Criminals were regularly executed as part of the program in theater shows where a death was being portrayed. And public baths provided fitness and relaxation for the masses. Forums, the Roman versions of the Greek agora, flourished with each new emperor expanding the marketplace in his own name. It would have been a pretty glorious time to be alive.
It was also during this time that Christianity first began. Jesus was born and raised as a devout Jewish rabbi in the Roman territory of Palestine. Because of a perceived threat to the religious establishment in Jerusalem, Jesus was crucified in AD 33. Easter is the celebration of his resurrection three days after his death. His followers, known as disciples or apostles, spread the news of Jesus’ message and resurrection and many people throughout the empire believed them. Christianity came under a lot of scrutiny and was seen by many emperors as a threat to the empire. This was due in part to the monotheistic nature of Christianity that did not allow for believers to pray and pay homage to the emperors. Emperor worship had become the official religion of Rome, and for the most part you could practice whatever you wanted religiously just as long as you also worshipped the emperor. Nero is one of the most notorious persecutors of Christianity. Nero set fire to Rome in order to clear land possessed by the poor for his new palace. The fire got out of hand and burned for about a week straight causing tremendous damage throughout the city. The citizens of Rome accused Nero. Realizing that he needed a scapegoat, he quickly shifted the blame to the Christians who were seen as a strange Jewish cult in the city. He rounded up as many as he could, bound them to posts, dipped them in wax, positioned them around the theater, and lit them afire as living human torches to light the evening drama performances. In case you’re wondering, he was one of the bad emperors.
There were many good emperors as well: Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. While walking the ruins of the old Roman Forum you are surrounded by the work of these men. There are monuments built to honor their names and accomplishments as well as great structures built by them to honor their citizens.
Decline and Fall
After Marcus Aurelius, around AD 180, the empire began to slowly deteriorate. There were attacks by barbarians from the outside. From the inside, power hungry generals knocked off emperors that they disagreed with (15 different emperors in 40 years were assassinated by the army). The army was big and expensive and taxes were high for the regular class citizens. Rome had become lazy and accustomed to the easy life of the Pax Romana. At one point they had more than 200 public holidays a year (now there’s something Roman to strive for!) Christianity was no longer a small off-branch of Judaism but a major belief system and threat to emperor worship. Emperors believed that because so many had converted to this new religion that the gods must be angry and that is why Rome was having so many struggles. Christians were systematically rounded up and slaughtered in coliseums and circuses around the empire to no avail. Rome was in trouble. Around AD 300 Emperor Diocletian divided the empire in half, Rome ruling the west and Byzantium ruling the east. This forever split the empire but did nothing to alleviate the problems it was facing. Around AD 330 Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the empire entirely to the city of Byzantium and changed its name to Constantinople. He also gave in to the Christian way of life and legalized it for the first time.
After this western Rome limped along for another 140 years before it finally fell to the German barbarian King Odacer. All that remained of western Rome was the Christian church at St. Peter’s in Rome. The western empire was fragmented and never regained its unity. Meanwhile the eastern empire under rulership from Constantinople thrived for another 1000 years when it finally fell to the Ottomans.
So in the end Rome returned to Asia Minor, the circle complete from Aeneas’ great-great-grandson Romulus in the beginning to the last emperor, appropriately named, Romulus Augustus. What a crazy 1000-year journey it was.