Rome and the Roman Empire

No matter how much vacation time you allot to Rome, you will want to come back. As much as you manage to see, there will always be more. There are monuments you have known about since your childhood, places you have studied in high school or college, masterpieces on display in very public and very private spots throughout the city.

Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus and their surrogate Mom

There are two huge themes that have made Rome such an incredible travel destination: the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. Between them, they made Rome the “Caput Mundi,” the capitol of the world, for almost two thousand years of western history. Each in its turn was able to combine the power, wealth, and egos that it takes to build and revitalize a world class city and to decorate it to the hilt. If you just read one book in preparation for your journey, make it Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History (Vintage), by Robert Hughes. He will take you through the whole process. For a wonderful contemporary portrait of the Italian “manners and morals,” pick up Italians, by Italian journalist, Luigi Barzini.

The mythic history of the founding of Rome, distilled from Vergil’s The Aeneid (Penguin Classics), goes something like this:

  • Dardanus of the Oenotrians, living on the west coast of central Italy in “a place the Greeks have called Hesperia,” sails east and founds Troy.
  • Generations later, Paris, prince of Troy, abducts Helen, Queen of Mycenae in Greece, causing the Trojan War. (See Homer’s The Iliad / The Odyssey, and the essay on Tunisia.)
  • The Trojans lose the War. Their surviving hero, Aeneas, escapes with family and friends to seek refuge far from the Greeks.
  • The oracle of Apollo sends him back to Hesperia, near the mouth of the Tiber.
  • After much adventure, romance, divine intervention, and good old-fashioned warriorly bloodshed, Aeneas stakes a claim on the Italian coast.
  • Generations later, his twin descendants, Romulus and Remus, survive an attempted drowning, are suckled to health by a she-wolf and set the first site of the city of Rome.
  • Romulus kills Remus and starts the line of kings that ultimately take over central Italy.

End of myth. Start of history.

  • Around 500BC, the kingdom is replaced by the Roman Republic. (The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire)
  • For almost 500 years, Rome is ruled by consuls, tribunes and the Senate. An extensive rule of law is established. Loyalty to the Republic is paramount. (A History of the Roman Republic)
  • The republic expands through Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Northern Africa (See essay on Tunisia), Turkey, and Syria. Wealth

    “Et tu, Brute?” Caesar’s famous demise on the Ides of March. Karl von Piloty [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    and slaves stream in from all corners of the Mediterranean. Forums, temples and sculptures are everywhere.
  • Julius Caesar consolidates power, to the consternation of the other senators, and is assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC. (See Julius Caesar, and Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar (Folger Shakespeare Library)>)
  • Octavian, Julius’ nephew and adopted son, chases Marc Antony and Cleopatra around the Med, (See Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love, and Politics in the Ancient World, and Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra (Folger Shakespeare Library)).
  • Octavian wins. Consolidates power and becomes Augustus Caesar, first emperor of the Roman Empire. Wealth and slaves stream in from all corners of the Mediterranean. More forums, temples and palaces are built, incorporating the important Roman innovation, concrete.
  • Emperors come and go. Some good, (Constantine, Hadrian), some bad, some very bad, (Caligula, Nero). More palaces and arenas are built. (See: Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome (Chronicles); For adults: A Scandalous History of the Roman Emperors)
  • The Empire grows so large that it is split in two, with the Western Empire ruled from Rome and the Eastern Empire is ruled from Constantinople. (See essay on Istanbul in Eastern Mediterranean section.)
  • Western Emperor Valens upsets the Visigoths in 377 CE and they devastate the Roman army at Adrianople. Historically, this defeat ranks up there with Hannibal’s victory at Cannae in the Italian Hall of Shame.
  • It takes the Germanic tribes a hundred years to wear the western empire into submission in 476 CE. Even Attila the Hun shows up in 453, inspiring an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, Verdi: Attila (Bonus CD).

Once the western empire had collapsed, the various Italian states formed their own alliances. The political power of the papacy grew. Ultimately, after three hundred years or so, roughly 756 CE, the Pope signed his own treaties with Pepin the Short and established the Papal States.

Aside from Vergil’s Aeneid, one of the other classics to come out of the Golden age of Augustus was Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Oxford World’s Classics). Ovid was the bad boy of Roman literature, with a definite slant to romance and an eye for the ladies. He was ultimately banished to the Romanian shores of the Black Sea, (before there was a Romania). No one knows precisely why, but it has been noted that Octavian’s niece, Julia, was sent to a convent at the same time. Coincidence? Maybe not. Ovid’s classic is a retelling of the famous myths of Greek gods and goddesses, with the names changed for the Roman audiences.

The Roman Forum

The Forum of Ancient Rome

The wealth of the Roman Empire built the grandest city in the world. White Carrara marble from Tuscany was matched with colored marbles from all around the Mediterranean for ostentatious palaces and intimidating memorials and monuments. Each succeeding emperor wanted to make his own architectural statement. Sometimes they tore down previous structures to use the materials and workmanship for their own. These projects kept many working class plebeians busy and helped to spread the wealth. Emperors declared holidays to such an extent that a third of the year was vacation, with festivals, chariot races, gladiator fights and other light fare to keep the poor people happy.

Walking from the Coliseum through the Forum, past the monument to Victor Emmanuel, to Trajan’s column and the Basilica Ulpia, you get a sense of the ancient city center. With your mind’s eye, if you add lots of temples and buildings crowding the streets, you’ll have some idea of the profile of this downtown area. Now, jump in your imaginary chariot and try to negotiate rush hour traffic!