The political history of Rome is marked by three periods. In the first period from 753–509 bc, the city developed from a village to a city ruled by kings. Then, the Romans expelled the kings and established the Roman Republic during the period from 509–27 bc. Following the collapse of the republic, Rome fell under the domination of emperors and flourished for another five centuries as the Roman Empire from 27 bc–ad 476.
This article begins the discussion of ancient Rome’s history with the city’s legendary founder, Romulus, and ends when Augustus becomes the first emperor of imperial Rome, in 27 bc.Modern motion pictures and television often portray the ancient Romans as military conquerors as well as ardent pleasure seekers, and there is some truth to those images. Their armies did brutally subjugate the Mediterranean world.
Today statues of native leaders such as Vercingetorix in France or Arminius in Germany honor those patriots who battled against Roman domination in Europe, just as Christians honor early disciples martyred by the Romans. The ancient Romans also did enjoy lavish and sometimes even cruel entertainments that included gladiatorial combats, chariot races, and animal hunts in the arena.
Yet these same Romans created a civilization that has shaped subsequent world history for 2,000 years. The remains of vast building projects, including roads and bridges, enormous baths and aqueducts, temples and theaters, as well as entire towns in the North African desert, still mark Rome’s former dominion. Cities throughout Western Europe stand on Roman foundations.
The Romans also had enormous cultural influence. Their language, Latin, gave rise to languages spoken by a billion people in the world today. Many other languages—including Polish, Turkish, and Vietnamese—use the Roman alphabet. The Romans developed a legal system that remains the basis of continental European law, and they brought to portraiture a lifelike style that forms the basis of the realistic tradition in Western art.
The founders of the American government looked to the Roman Republic as a model. Modern political institutions also reflect Roman origins: senators, bicameral legislatures, judges, and juries are all adapted from the Roman system. In addition, despite recent modernization, the Roman Catholic Church still uses symbols and ritual derived largely from the ancient Romans.
Roman Ruins in Lepcis
Magna Evidence of Roman influence remains throughout the Mediterranean world. The columns and arches still standing at the site of the ancient city of Lepcis Magna, now part of Libya, attest to the beauty of Roman architecture but also the extent of Rome’s political control. Roman advances in language, law, and engineering also had a lasting effect on other cultures throughout the world.
Contrary to popular image, the Roman state was not continuously at war. Roman armies most often served on the frontiers of the empire while Roman lands nearer the Mediterranean were more peaceful and more culturally and economically interconnected than in any subsequent era. The Romans extended citizenship far beyond the people of Italy to Greeks and Gauls, Spaniards and Syrians, Jews and Arabs, North Africans and Egyptians. The Roman Empire also became the channel through which the cultures and religions of many peoples were combined and transmitted via medieval and Renaissance Europe to the modern world.
II EARLY HISTORY
Mount Vesuvius looms above the ruins of Pompeii, one of the ancient cities that was destroyed by an eruption of the volcano in ad 79. Volcanic activity also had some benefits, as ash from Vesuvius and other volcanoes along the western coast of Italy made the soils of the region more fertile for agricultural development.
The land and environment of Italy provided the Romans with a secure home from which to expand. Italy is a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea and protected to the north by the Alps mountain range. The climate is generally temperate, although summers are hot in the south. Rome was part of a region near the Tiber River in central Italy that was called Latium (now part of Lazio). Its Latin-speaking inhabitants originally joined the waves of Indo-European peoples who crossed the Adriatic Sea from the Balkan Peninsula and settled in central Italy about 1000 bc.
To the north, the Etruscans had established a vigorous civilization (see Etruscan Civilization) in the region called Etruria. These people probably originated in Asia Minor and spoke an entirely different language than neighboring Indo-European peoples. In southern Italy and on the large island of Sicily, colonists fleeing from famine and political conflict in Greece founded new cities between 800 and 500 bc. The city of Naples derives its name from the Greek words Nea Polis (New City).
Volcanoes like Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius dot the western coast of Italy and its offshore islands, leaving sections of Latium, Campania near Naples, and Sicily fertile from the residue of volcanic ash. The mountains were once rich in timber and had meadows where sheep and goats grazed in the warmest months before they were driven to the plains for the winter.
There was salt along the Tiber River and large deposits of iron were located in Etruria. North-south land routes allowed for overland trade, and so commerce as well as agriculture, pasturage, and metalwork drove the economy.
Romulus and Remus
Left to drown at the edge of the flooding Tiber River, Romulus and Remus were found and raised by a wolf. As men, the brothers returned to the spot where they had been abandoned. There, they founded the city of Rome.
The story of Rome’s founding survives only in primitive myths and meager archaeological remains. An island in the Tiber River afforded the easiest crossing point, and archaeology shows that some Latins established a settlement on the nearby Palatine Hill; perhaps they hoped to rob, or collect tolls, from traders crossing the river on their way from Etruria to southern Italy.
Roman myth created a more glorious tale of the city’s beginnings. These legends trace Rome’s origins to Romulus, a son of the god Mars and also a descendent of the Trojan prince Aeneas, who brought his people to Italy after the city of Troy burned. Romulus and his twin brother Remus were grandsons of King Numitor of the ancient city of Alba Longa in Latium.
Numitor was deposed by his brother, who also tried to kill the twins by having them thrown into the Tiber. Instead, the infants washed ashore and were suckled by a she-wolf who became—and remains today—the symbol of Rome. When the brothers grew up, they restored Numitor to his throne and then founded a new city on the Palatine Hill above the river.
There are no contemporary written records of the Roman monarchy, so the stories of the early kings are primarily preserved in the works of historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who wrote seven centuries after the time of Romulus. These legends and even some of the kings themselves are probably mythical creations, and the dates that they reigned are either inventions or rough approximations. Nevertheless, such myths often contain bits of historical information that are passed on and transformed through repeated telling.
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