A Short History Of Rome

A history of Rome and the Roman civilisation in around 10 minutes

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It’s hard to be brief when trying to cover a history of Rome. After all, the Roman Empire is one of the greatest civilizations that has ever been, and lasted over 1000 years.  Hopefully we didn’t leave too much out, read on and find out…

The Founding of Rome

Rome was probably founded sometime around the 8th century BCE, although there is a little debate amongst historians as to the exact date and manner in which this happened. The date generally given is 753 BCE.

According to Roman legend, the city was founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus. These two brothers were the sons of the Roman God of War, Mars. When they were born, The King saw them as a threat to his crown, and ordered that they be killed. They were put in the Tiber River to drown, but somehow survived. The legend goes that they were then found and raised by a she-wolf, and grew to be strong leaders. They decided to lay the foundations for a new city at the exact place where they had been left to drown, and thus the city of Rome came to be.

A sculpture of the brothers with the Capitoline Wolf. @wikimedia commons

As they were building the city, the brothers began fighting over who would be the leader of the city. According to the legend (or at least one version of it), Romulus killed Remus, and so Romulus was left as the sole leader of the city, which took his name… Rome.

The legend goes further. Romulus initially opened the city up to all free men. To find these men wives, he abducted women from surrounding villages, and took them to be wives, in what is known in Roman mythology as The Rape of the Sabine Women.

And thus Rome was founded. Did all of this actually happen? Nope, it almost certainly did not. But it’s a good story, and a good way to kick off our history of Rome.

Stages of the Roman Civilization

After its founding, Rome went through three distinct stages over the next 1000 or so years, which we’ll try and break down.

  1. It began as a kingdom, and was ruled over by a succession of seven Kings up until 509BCE
  2. It then became a Republic, led by two consuls and a senate. The Roman Republic is commonly thought to have lasted from 509BCE until 27BCE
  3. It became an empire, beginning with the rule of Augustus, and remained an empire until it fell, in 476CE

The Kingdom of Rome

After it was founded in 753BCE, Rome was led by a succession of seven kings. During this time, its territory remained quite small, and so its history is not quite as well known as the later periods. The main thing to know is that there were seven Kings, and the last of them was overthrown.

As we’re keeping things brief, we won’t delve any deeper here, but if you want to know more, the podcast The history of Rome by Mike Duncan has some great episodes on the seven Kings.

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last King of Rome. Image by John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett

The Roman Republic

In 509 BCE, the last of the Roman Kings, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown, and the Roman Republic was born.

The Roman republic was an attempt at rule not by a single leader or monarchy, but by a more democratic form of government. At the head of this government sat two Consuls, who were elected annually by the citizens. These consuls were ultimately in charge, but each had the power to veto the other on any decision, meaning no one person held ultimate power. The two Consuls were advised by a Senate, which was mainly made up of the land-owning aristocracy of Rome.

It was during the time of the Roman Republic that Rome began to expand and dominate the Mediterranean. This was initially through a series of wars with the Samnites, known as the Samnite Wars, and later through three wars with the Carthaginians, that were known as the Punic Wars. The Carthaginians were the civilization that had previously dominated the Mediterranean seaboard, particularly on the African coast, and so it was this series of wars and victories for the Romans that really established their dominance of the region.

It was also probably during this time period that the famous Roman Gladiator battles developed. Gladiators fought animals, criminals, and other gladiators to the death, for the entertainment of large crowds. They were often slaves, and were treated quite poorly despite the acclaim they could achieve.

A mosaic depicting Roman Gladiators battling.

Julius Caesar and the end of the Republic

The end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire more or less coincides with (and has a lot to do with) Julius Caesar. Caesar was born to a leading family of Rome. He was probably not, as is widely reported, born by Caesarian section. The origin of the name for this procedure, often credited to Caesar, is hotly debated amongst historians, but widely accepted to not come from Caesar himself.

A popular leader, Caesar ran for Consul of Rome, and was elected and held the position for a year. After that, he went to Gaul (which was roughly in the area of modern day France, Belgium and The Netherlands), and conquered a lot of territory. He also twice invaded Britain during this time, but was never successful in occupying it.

After his successful battles in Gaul, Caesar returned to Rome with his army and took over the city by force. He was declared the sole consul and the dictator of Rome. Over the next few years he made huge reforms to the city and republic, including land reforms, and famously changing the calendar to include a leap year.

However, many of the senators weren’t happy with a dictator ruling the city, and weren’t happy with the reforms that were taking place. So, in 44BCE, the senators, led by Cassius Longinus and Marcus Brutus, betrayed Caesar, killing him by stabbing his 23 times on the floor of the Roman Senate.

La morte di Cesare — Artwork depicting the stabbing of Caesar. @Wikimedia Commons

The Struggle for Power

After the death of Caesar, there was a struggle for power that lasted around 10 years. This struggle centred around a few famous figures from history: Octavian (who later became Augustus, the first emperor of Rome), Brutus, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra (there were a few others too, but we’re keeping this as brief as possible).

After the death of Caesar, Octavian and Mark Antony defeated Brutus and took control of Rome. But each was after ultimate power, and so the relationship was strained. Mark Antony then married Octavian’s cousin, but at the same time he was having an affair with Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt (yep, it’s getting a little complicated).  This may have strained the relationship between Antony and Octavian even further. In 31BCE, Octavian declared war on Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and they were forced to flee to Egypt, where they committed suicide.

The death of Mark Antony and Cleopatra left Octavian as the sole Ruler of the Roman Empire. In 27BCE he was given the title of Augustus, and he is now recognised as the first Emperor of Rome. 27BCE, is commonly given as the date of the fall of the Roman Republic, and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

Antony and Cleopatra. @wikimedia commons

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire lasted from 27 BCE until the fall of Rome in 476 CE. After Augustus, there was a succession of Roman Emperors that continued for hundreds of years. Some of these Emperors were good, and some were not so good. Rome initially continued to expand its territory, successfully invading Britain in 43 CE and occupying the region for close to 400 years.

A few of the other notable periods during this time were:

  1. The reign of Emperor Nero, who was considered by many to be eccentric and a little bit crazy. He was the Emperor in 64AD when the great fire of Rome broke out and devastated the city. Many blamed him and accused him of deliberately setting the city on fire, but this was never confirmed.
  2. The Flavian Dynasty, from 69–96 CE. They built one of Rome’s most famous buildings, the Flavian Amphitheatre… otherwise known as the Colosseum.
  3. The Crisis of the third century. During the third century, the Empire almost collapsed, due to invasions, political instability and economic depression. It was during this time that the Empire first began to show its vulnerability. A wall was constructed around Rome due to all of the invasions, and the Emperors began to spend much less time there.
  4. The splitting of the empire and establishment of Constantinople in 330 CE. Rome expanded greatly to the east, and so Emperor Constantine I established a new capital, Constantinople, which is modern day Istanbul. Constantine I is also generally considered the first christian emperor of Rome, and he ended the long standing persecution of christians in the Roman Empire. His reign marked a turning point for christianity, from which it would rise to dominate Europe and many other parts of the World.

The Fall of Rome

In 476 CE, Rome itself was invaded and fell. 476 CE is generally given and accepted as the date that the Empire fell. There have been a raft of reasons given for the fall of the empire, and it seems likely that a combination of many factors, dating back to the crisis of the third century, caused the fall of the once great empire. Some of the reasons given have included:

  1. A succession of weak emperors that were ineffective
  2. Unfair taxation on many of the citizens saw them lose loyalty to Rome
  3. Rome became unable to raise its own army (perhaps due to this lack of loyalty), and could only protect itself by paying others for protection
  4. A failure to integrate new people into its empire

Whatever the reasons, 476 CE saw the fall of this once great empire, and a huge change to the landscape of Western Europe. It’s worth mentioning that the Eastern part of the Empire, with the capital in Constantinople, actually survived and continued on until 1453 CE. But it wasn’t really all that Roman in culture, and as we’re more concerned with the history of Rome itself, we’ll skip over that and move on to what happened next.

If you want to know more about why Rome fell, again have a listen to The History of Rome, by Mike Duncan. In particular listen to the last episode, where he covers the reasons that the empire fell.

After the fall… The Holy Roman Empire?

The next major chapter in the history of Rome after the fall was that of the Holy Roman Empire. But actually, for Rome itself, it wasn’t much of a history at all.

Rome had always been the seat of the Pope. In the late 8th century, Charlemagne (Also known as Charles I or Charles the Great) conquered and united Western Europe. To legitimise his rule, he was coronated by the Pope at the time, Leo III.  This meant that in 800 CE Charlemange became the first Holy Roman Emperor. However, Rome had very little to do with the Empire, as it was mostly ruled from further North. The title of Holy Roman Emperor was probably used more to gain legitimacy than anything, as the title still carried a lot of weight due to Rome’s history.

Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer, probably put it best when he famously said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”

Rome through the Renaissance

Moving forward to the 15th century and the renaissance.  The renaissance had primarily been based in and around Florence, before moving its way south to Rome. This was probably due to the Catholic Church wanting Rome to remain more grand and spectacular than any other city. Many of the famous artists and thinkers moved to Rome, and some of its most famous buildings were constructed, including St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and Piazza Navona.

The Piazza Navona. @Wikimedia Commons

Rome in more modern times

Moving forward again, and Rome eventually became a part of the Kingdom of Italy. The Kingdom of Italy was first declared in 1861, and by 1870 Italian troops invaded the city, and Rome became the new capital.

The 20th century saw Rome and Italy endure through two world wars. Italy was on the side of the Allies during World War One. However, after the war, Italian fascism rose, and the fascist leader Benito Mussolini became the new Italian Prime Minister. In 1922 he famously marched on Rome with his National Fascist Party, declaring a new Italian Empire and an alliance with Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Italy then fought on the side of the Axis powers, along with Germany and Japan, during World War Two. Rome suffered relatively little damage throughout the war. This was mainly due to there being no prolonged battle for the city — the Nazis occupied it briefly from 1943 to 1944 but withdrew quickly and without much resistance.

Since the war, Rome has continued to be one of the most important and popular cities in the world. In 1957 the Treaty of Rome saw the establishment of the European Economic Community, one of the pillars of the European Union. in 1960, Rome hosted the summer olympic games. And modern day Rome remains one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth, with millions of visitors each year.

Tourists at the Trevi Fountain in Rome


More reading and resources on the history of Rome

More reading on Journey Seals Blog: