Encyclopædia Orbis Latini

Origin and the Regal Period (753 - 509 B.C.)

Ancient Rome was built on the left bank of the Tiber on elevations (now much less prominent) emerging from the marshy lowlands of the Campania. The seven hills of the ancient city are the Palatine, roughly in the center, with the Capitoline to the northwest and the Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, and Aventine in an outlying north-southwest curve. The Pincian, to the north of the Quirinal, is not included among the seven. In the westward bend of the Tiber, to the west of the Quirinal, lies Campus Martius (the Martian Field), now facing the Vatican across the Tiber. On the side of the Tiber opposite the Palatine is the Janiculum, a ridge running north and south, which was fortified in early times.

Early in the first millennium B.C. the Tiber divided the Italic peoples from the Etruscans in the north and west. Not far to the north were the borders between the Sabines and the Latins; the Sabines were closely related to Roman life from the very beginning. The hills of Rome, free from the malaria that had been the bane of the low-lying plains of Latium, were a healthful and relatively safe place to live and a meeting ground for Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans. In the 8th cent. B.C., the fortified elevation of the Palatine was probably taken by Etruscans, who amalgamated the tiny hamlets about the Palatine into a city-state. Tradition tells of the founding of Rome by Romulus in 753 B.C. (hence the dating ab urbe condita, or AUC, i.e., from the founding of the city), and of the Tarquin family, the Etruscan royal house. It was probably Etruscan rule that civilized Rome and gave it the hegemony of Latium.

The establishment of the Roman Republic

The Romans overthrew their foreign rulers c.509 B.C. and established the Roman republic, which lasted four centuries. The patrician class controlled the government, but the plebs (who comprised by far the major portion of the population) were allowed to elect the two patrician consuls, who held joint power. The vitality of the patricians was remarkable, and long after political power had been granted to the plebs, experienced patricians continued to govern Rome.

As the majority realized its power and the aristocracy continued its rule, the people demanded (and received) privilege after privilege; the greatest were the election of plebeian tribunes and the codification (c.450 B.C.) of the Twelve Tables. With the growth of the city, multiplication of consular duties called for new officials: quaestor, praetor, and censor. The three popular assemblies, or comitia, developed slowly, but they quietly abstracted legislative power from the patricians. The ancient senate, theoretically the supreme power of the state, became more and more powerful until in the 3rd cent. B.C. it controlled the consuls completely.

Although the Roman republic was never a true democracy, historians have modified the traditional view that it was the tool of a powerful aristocracy and have acknowledged that the system had open aspects beyond the control of the ruling class. It remains true, however, that it was under senatorial administration that Rome began its march to world supremacy and that in the end the senate was crushed under the weight of the huge problems of empire.

The Conquest of Italy (till 264 B.C.)

In the 4th cent. B.C., Rome extended its influence over Western Latium and Southern Etruria; during the course of that century and the next, Rome came in full contact with Greek culture, which modified Roman life tremendously. The idea of the old Roman courage and morality, however, was kept alive by such staunch conservatives as Cato the Elder. The power of the city may be inferred from the tremendous impression the sack of Rome (390 B.C.) by the Celts made in subsequent times.

The Samnites were subdued in the wars dated conventionally 343–341 B.C., 326–304 B.C., and 298–290 B.C., and the inhabitants of Picenum, Umbria, Apulia, Lucania, and Etruria were pacified. The Roman policy in subduing Italy was that of a master toward slaves. Tarentum, besieged by the Romans, called for the aid of Pyrrhus of Epirus; he won victories at Heraclea (280 B.C.) and Asculum (279 B.C.), but after a dispute with his Italian allies he returned to Greece, leaving the Romans masters of central and Southern Italy.

The Punic and Macedonian wars

Rome, previously a continental power, began to look seaward in the 3rd cent. B.C. Sicily, a granary of the ancient world, was an obvious goal, but Rome’s rapid conquests could not continue there without meeting the like ambitions of Carthage, which ruled the Western Mediterranean. The Punic Wars (264-241 B.C., 218-201 B.C. and 149-146 B.C.) were thus inevitable, and in this titanic struggle the fate of Carthage and the destiny of Rome were decided. Although Carthage had the great general Hannibal, Rome fought with the resources of Italy behind it and had such leaders as Scipio Africanus Major. Rome gained from the Punic Wars dominion over Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the northern shores of Africa, indisputable hegemony in the Mediterranean, and an insatiable desire for conquest.

With Carthage humbled, the Roman republic turned its attention eastward. Philip V of Macedon was defeated after two campaigns (215–205 B.C., 200–197 B.C.), and Antiochus III of Syria was conquered at Magnesia (190 B.C.); eventually the defeat of Perseus (171–168 B.C.) made Macedonia a Roman province. Greece did not become a Roman province, but the brief opposition of the Achaean League was disposed of, and the Greeks became subject to Rome. Egypt acknowledged vassalship to the republic in 168 B.C.

The crisis of the Republic

The rapid expansion of Roman dominion, however, had terrible effects at home. The provinces were governed by the senate for the benefit not of Rome but of the senatorial class; enormous wealth (by graft and by trade) flowed into the hands of the senators, who used it exclusively to their own advantage. The equites (knights), a class of financiers, came into its own through management of imperial trade. Class dissension was rife, and in spite of agrarian laws the masses were daily more dissatisfied. The slaves in Sicily rebelled twice (c.134–132 B.C., c.104–101 B.C.), and the Gracchus brothers in a political victory tried to make the populace more powerful, but such defiance was to no avail. Massacres and incredible barbarities disposed of the slaves’ restlessness, and the Gracchi were assassinated (133 and 121 B.C.).

Marius defeated Jugurtha (106 B.C.) and the Cimbri and the Teutons (101 B.C.), and he heralded a new era by definitively introducing Roman arms into Transalpine Gaul. Rome was forced by the Social War (90–88 B.C.) to extend citizenship widely in Italy, but the republic was nevertheless doomed. A slave revolt led by Spartacus was put down mercilessly. Marius, the idol of the populace, used proscription to rid himself of his foes, but Sulla, a conservative, destroyed Marius’ party by the same method.

Julius Caesar

After Sulla’s retirement his lieutenant Pompey emerged as a popular champion. He abolished some of Sulla’s reactionary measures, suppressed Mediterranean piracy, and made himself master of Rome. His defeat of Mithradates VI brought Pontus, Syria, and Phoenicia under Roman dominion.

On Pompey’s return from the East, he found an ally for his ambitions in Julius Caesar, a popular democratic leader of the best patrician blood. With Marcus Licinius Crassus to furnish the funds, Pompey and Caesar formed the First Triumvirate (60 B.C.), and Caesar departed to make himself immortal in the Gallic Wars. Within ten years Caesar and Pompey fell out; Pompey joined the senatorial party, and Caesar (as the champion of the people and of republican legality) led his devoted army against Pompey. Pharsalus was the result (48 B.C.), and Caesar was master of Rome.

He governed through the old institutions, with wisdom and vigor. His territorial additions were the most important ever made, for his conquest and organization of Gaul placed Rome in the role of civilizer of barbarians as well as ruler of the older world. The age of Caesar was a great period in Roman culture, and the cosmopolitan Roman was considered the ideal. Greek was the language of much of the empire, and Greek literature became fashionable. Even more influential was Greek thought, which served to destroy Roman religion and to open the Romans to the Eastern cults, which were enormously popular for years. Cicero, an urbane lawyer and philosopher of broad culture, was typical of the period.

At the death (44 B.C.) of Caesar, the territories ruled by Rome included Spain (except part of the northwest), Gaul, Italy, part of Illyria, Macedonia, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Cyrenaica, North Western Africa, and the islands of the sea, and Rome completely controlled Egypt and Palestine. The rule of Caesar marked an epoch, for it completed the destruction of the republic and laid the foundations of the empire.

Augustus: the establishment of the Empire and the Pax Romana

Caesar’s assassination brought anarchy, out of which the Second Triumvirate emerged with the rule of Octavian (later Augustus), Antony, and Lepidus. Octavian was Caesar’s nephew, ward, and heir, and his true successor. At Actium (31 B.C.) he defeated Antony and Cleopatra and made the empire one. No change was made in the government, but Octavian received from the senate the title Augustus and from the people life tribuneship; this, with the governorship of all the provinces conferred by the senate, made him the real ruler. He was called imperator [commander] and princeps [leader] and is usually considered the first Roman emperor.

Augustus organized provincial government and the army, rebuilt Rome, and patronized the arts and letters. His rule began a long period (200 years) of peace, called the Pax Romana. During this time the Roman Empire was the largest it would ever be; its boundaries included Armenia, middle Mesopotamia, the Arabian desert, the Red Sea, Nubia, the Sahara, the Moroccan mountain mass, the Atlantic Ocean, the Irish Sea, Scotland, the North Sea, the Rhine, the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus. Augustus’ chief additions to the empire were a strip along the North Sea to the west of the Elbe and part of the Danubian area.

The blessings of peace were great for the empire. The extensive system of Roman roads made transportation easier than it was again to be until the development of railroads. A postal service was developed closely tied in with the organization of the army. Commerce and industry were greatly developed, particularly by sea, over which grain ships carried food for Rome and the West from the ports of northern Africa. The Roman Empire became under Augustus one great nation. The enlarged view of the world made a great impression on Rome, where literary and artistic interests were of importance, although nearly always tending to imitation of Greece and of the East.

Augustus' successors

Augustus died A.D. 14 and was succeeded by his stepson Tiberius; his general Germanicus Caesar fought fruitlessly in Germany. Caligula, who followed, was a cruel tyrant (A.D. 37–A.D. 41); he was succeeded by Claudius I (A.D. 41–A.D. 54), who was dominated by his wives, but during his rule half of Britain was conquered (A.D. 43). In his time Thrace, Lydia, and Judaea were made Roman provinces. His stepson Nero (A.D. 54–A.D. 68) was an unparalleled tyrant. In his reign occurred the great fire of Rome (A.D. 64), attributed (probably falsely) to Nero; it burnt everything between the Caelian, the Palatine, and the Esquiline, but it was a boon to the city, for Nero moved the population to the right bank of the Tiber, then very thinly populated, and rebuilt the region with broader streets and great buildings.

At that time an entirely new element, Christianity, made itself felt in Rome. On Nero’s orders a barbarous persecution took place in which many Christians died, among them St. Peter and St. Paul. Throughout the Roman Empire the Christians expanded steadily for the next centuries. Their conflict with the empire, which brought on them continual persecution, was chiefly a result of the Christian refusal to offer divine honors to the emperors. But Christianity penetrated the army and the royal household in spite of the constant danger of detection and persecution. There were many periods in the first three centuries when Christians worshiped openly, even in Rome, where the catacombs housed not only graves but also churches.

Growth of the empire under the Flavians and Antonines

With Nero the Julio-Claudian line ended. There was a brief struggle before Vespasian (A.D. 69–A.D. 79) became emperor. Under him his son Titus destroyed Jerusalem (A.D. 70); Titus then briefly succeeded his father. After his mild, rather benign rule, his brother Domitian (A.D. 81–A.D. 96), a despot and persecutor of Christians, gained the empire. In Domitian’s reign Agricola conquered Britain almost entirely. Domitian was unsuccessful in his dealings with the Daci and finally bought them off. After Nerva came Trajan (A.D. 98–A.D. 117), one of the greatest of emperors. Trajan undertook great public works, defeated the Daci and established Roman colonies there (in what is now modern Romania), and pushed the eastern borders past Armenia and Mesopotamia.

Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, withdrew Roman rule to the Euphrates and in Britain built his wall (Hadrian’s Wall) to hold back the barbarians who constantly threatened that fast-developing province. He also reorganized the senate and the army. Roman armies were then seldom seen far from the boundaries of the empire, and life continued throughout the Roman world in peace and quiet. Italy was sinking into a purely provincial state, although many emperors made attempts to make it a special country. The successors of Hadrian were Antoninus Pius (138–161) and Marcus Aurelius (161–180), who ruled in what is commonly called the Golden Age of the empire.

The Later Empire

With Commodus (180–192) the decline of the empire is usually said to have begun. The age of the Praetorians was then at hand, when the rise and fall of emperors was determined by this elite corps of soldiers. Septimius Severus (193–211) was unusually able for his period; he campaigned with success against the Parthians and against the Picts of Northern Britain. His son Caracalla is noteworthy for extending Roman citizenship to all free men of the empire and for the famous baths named after him.

Emperors succeeded one another rapidly in the 3rd cent.: Heliogabalus, Alexander Severus, Philip the Arabian, and Decius among them. Decius was one of the most violent persecutors of Christians; he fell fighting the Goths, first of the Germans, who were eventually to overwhelm the empire. In 260 the emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians, and the empire fell into anarchy. The provinces suffered from increasingly bad government as well as from a pestilence that carried off half the population. Claudius II (268–70) revived Roman fortunes somewhat, while Aurelian (270–75) overthrew the Palmyrene kingdom of Zenobia.

In 284, Diocletian was made emperor by the army. He was a reformer of government and of the social order, but only one of his efforts was successful. This was the division of the empire into four political sections, two eastern and two western. There were to be two Augusti and two Caesars.

The division of East and West was resumed after the death (337) of Constantine I, who moved the capital to Byzantium, renamed Constantinople. By the Edict of Milan (313), Constantine granted universal religious tolerance, thus placing Christianity on the same footing as the other religions. He divided the empire administratively into prefectures, dioceses, and provinces; the bishops thus gained great influence and shared in the authority of the civil administration. There was a brief resurgence of paganism under Julian the Apostate, but Christianity was securely established.

On the death of Jovian, Julian’s successor, Valentinian I (364–75) ruled the Western Empire; Valentinian II (375–92) succeeded him. After the death (395) of Theodosius I the empire was permanently divided into Eastern (see Byzantine Empire) and Western, and Rome rapidly lost its political importance.

Under the emperors, Rome had been the center of the world. It must have presented a splendid, although heterogeneous, appearance. Little remained of the original city, for the emperors had replanned it to glorify themselves as well as the city. Parts of the Aurelian Wall still stand. On the Capitoline were the citadel (the arx) and the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; the Palatine was the site of the palaces of Augustus and Tiberius (the word palace derives from the hill); the palace of Nero and Trajan’s baths were on the southern slopes of the Esquiline. South of the Palatine was the Circus Maximus, where the famous chariot races were held. The old Roman Forum (see forum), extending from the Palatine almost to the Colosseum, remained the center of the city; northwest of it were the Emperors’ Fora, with many fine public buildings, and the Temple of Peace. On the Martian Field were Pompey’s theater, the Circus Flaminius, the Pantheon (see under pantheon), and the baths of Agrippa and Nero. Across the Tiber was Nero’s circus, where St. Peter’s now stands; Hadrian’s tomb, now known as the Castel Sant’ Angelo, has survived as a major landmark. The largest of the many public baths were those of Caracalla, near the Appian Way.

At its height, imperial Rome counted well over a million inhabitants. It was well policed, sanitation was excellent, and a fire-fighting force of seven brigades was maintained. Nineteen imposing aqueducts, of which many remains are extant, supplied the city with water. Among the rich such luxuries as central heating and running water were not unknown. The indigent (c.200,000) were cared for at public expense. Not until the 18th cent. were luxury and technical proficiency on a comparable scale to return to any European city.

Decline, once it began, came quickly, however. Honorius (395–423) made Ravenna the capital of the West; other emperors chose Milan and Trier (Treves), where they were nearer the border to check Germanic attacks. The West sank into anarchy, and Italy was ravaged by invaders. Alaric I took Rome in 410, and Gaiseric conquered it in 455. Attila was kept from sacking it, supposedly through the efforts of the pope, Leo I (St. Leo the Great). In this general disintegration the popes, originally the bishops of Rome, greatly increased their power and prestige, thus restoring to Rome in the religious field the importance it had lost in the political.

In 476 the last emperor of the West, appropriately called Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Goths under Odoacer; this date is commonly accepted as the end of the West Roman Empire, or Western Empire. The so-called Dark Ages that followed in Western Europe could not eradicate the profound imprint left by the Roman civilization. Roman law is still alive; the Romance languages are but modifications of Roman speech. Roman Catholicism for 15 centuries was the only religion and the main cultural force of Western Europe.

The fall of Rome marked no abrupt ending of an era, for the barbarians that filled the gap left by the disappearance of the old order were quick in accepting and adapting what vital elements remained of it. The survival of the East Roman Empire, or Eastern Empire, and the creation of the Holy Roman Empire showed how much vitality was left in the imperial ideal. Italy itself, however, did not recover from the fall of Rome until the 19th cent.

Medieval Rome

The history of Rome in the Middle Ages, bewildering in its detail, is essentially that of two institutions, the papacy and the commune of Rome. In the 5th cent. the Goths ruled Italy from Ravenna, their capital. Odoacer and Theodoric the Great kept the old administration of Rome under Roman law, with Roman officials. The city, whose population was to remain less than 50,000 throughout the Middle Ages, suffered severely from the wars between the Goths and Byzantines. In 552, Narses conquered Rome for Byzantium and became the first of the exarchs (viceroys) who ruled Italy from Ravenna. Under Byzantine rule commerce declined, and the senate and consuls disappeared.

Pope Gregory I (590–604), one of the greatest Roman leaders of all time, began to emancipate Rome from the exarchs. Sustained by the people, the popes soon exercised greater power in Rome than did the imperial governors, and many secular buildings were converted into churches. The papal elections were, for the next 12 centuries, the main events in Roman history. Two other far-reaching developments (7th–8th cent.) were the division of the people into four classes (clergy, nobility, soldiers, and the lowest class) and the emergence of the Papal States.

The coronation (800) at Rome of Charlemagne as emperor of the West ended all question of Byzantine suzerainty over Rome, but it also inaugurated an era characterized by the ambiguous relationship between the emperors and the popes. That era was punctuated by visits to the city by the German kings, to be crowned emperor or to secure the election of a pope to their liking or to impose their will on the pope. In 846, Rome was sacked by the Arabs; the Leonine walls were built to protect the city, but they did not prevent the frequent occupations and plunderings of the city by Christian powers.

By the 10th cent., Rome and the papacy had reached their lowest point. Papal elections, originally exercised by the citizens of Rome, had come under the control of the great noble families, among whom the Frangipani and Pierleone families and later the Orsini and the Colonna were the most powerful. Each of these would rather have torn Rome apart than allowed the other families to gain undue influence. They built fortresses in the city (often improvised transformations of the ancient palaces and theaters) and ruled Rome from them.

From 932 to 954, Alberic, a very able man, governed Rome firmly and restored its self-respect, but after his death and after the proceedings that accompanied the coronation of Otto I as emperor, Rome relapsed into chaos, and the papal dignity once more became the pawn of the emperors and of local feudatories. Contending factions often elected several popes at once. Gregory VII reformed these abuses and strongly claimed the supremacy of the church over the municipality, but he himself ended as an exile, Emperor Henry IV having taken Rome in 1084. The Normans under Robert Guiscard came to rescue Gregory and thoroughly sacked the city on the same occasion (1084).

Papal authority was challenged in the 12th cent. by the communal movement. A commune was set up (1144–55), led by Arnold of Brescia, but it was subdued by the intervention of Emperor Frederick I. Finally, a republic under papal patronage was established, headed by an elected senator. However, civil strife continued between popular and aristocratic factions and between Guelphs and Ghibellines. The commune made war to subdue neighboring cities, for it pretended to rule over the Papal States, particularly the duchy of Rome, which included Latium and parts of Tuscany. Innocent III controlled the government of the city, but it regained its autonomy after the accession of Emperor Frederick II. Later in the 13th cent. foreign senators began to be chosen; among them were Brancaleone degli Andalò (1252–58) and Charles I of Naples.

During the “Babylonian captivity” of the popes at Avignon (1309–78) Rome was desolate, economically ruined, and in constant turmoil. Cola di Rienzi became the champion of the people and tried to revive the ancient Roman institutions, as envisaged also by Petrarch and Dante; in 1347 he was made tribune, but his dreams were doomed. Cardinal Albornoz temporarily restored the papal authority over Rome, but the Great Schism (1378–1417) intervened. Once more a republic was set up. In 1420, Martin V returned to Rome, and with him began the true and effective dominion of the popes in Rome.

Renaissance and Modern Rome

A last effort at restoring the Roman republic failed utterly in 1453. The history of Rome became more than ever that of the papacy. The successors of Martin V in the 15th cent. and the first half of the 16th cent. were chiefly interested in increasing the temporal power of the papacy, in patronizing the arts and letters, in beautifying the city, and in raising the fortunes of themselves and their relatives. The moral tone of the papal court was a scandal to Christendom and contributed to the success of the Reformation.

Rome during the Renaissance

The period of the great popes of the Renaissance—Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII, and Paul III—was one of sensuous splendor. Among the countless artists and architects who served the papal court, Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Domenico Fontana were the chief creators of Rome as it is today. Saint Peter’s Church and the frescoed Sistine Chapel in the Vatican are outstanding examples of the artistic resources of Renaissance Rome. The popes also played a leading part in the Italian Wars of the 16th cent. As a result of Clement VII’s alliance with Francis I of France, Rome was stormed (1527) by the army of Emperor Charles V and subjected to a thorough plundering.

The triumph of the Counter Reformation in the late 16th cent. restored dignity and moral power to the papal court and gave the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) great influence. Although the power of the pope was established as absolute, more religious tolerance (particularly toward the Jews) could be found at Rome than in many other capitals of Europe. The city continued to prosper and to benefit by the influx of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The great creative wave of the Renaissance was largely spent, but the noble baroque monuments—notably those of Bernini—that were erected in the 17th and early 18th cent. added to the grandiose harmony of the city. The splendor of religious ceremonies, as well as the encouragement given by the popes to art, music, classical and archaeological studies, and the restoration of ancient monuments, continued to make Rome a center of world culture.

Napoleon to the Present

When, in 1796, French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the Papal States, a truce was bought by Pope Pius VI, and many art treasures passed into French possession. In 1798 the French occupied Rome, deported the pope, and proclaimed Rome a republic. Pius VII reentered Rome in 1800, but in 1808 Napoleon reoccupied the city and in 1809 annexed it to France. Papal rule was restored in 1814.

Pope Pius IX, who ruled during a crucial period (1846–78), yielded to liberal demands and granted a constitution. However, disorders in 1848 caused his flight to Gaeta, and once more Rome became a republic, under the leadership of Giuseppe Mazzini. French troops intervened, defeated the republican forces under Giuseppe Garibaldi, and restored Pius IX, who made no further attempts at liberalism.

The Italian kingdom, proclaimed in 1862, included most of the former Papal States but not Rome, which remained under papal rule as a virtual protectorate of Napoleon III. Napoleon’s fall in 1870 made possible the occupation of Rome by Italian troops, and, in 1871, Rome became the capital of Italy. Pius IX and his successors, however, did not recognize their loss of temporal sovereignty. The conflict between pope and king—or Vatican and Quirinal, as the antagonists were designated because of the location of their palaces—was not solved until the conclusion (1929) of the Lateran Treaty, which gave the pope sovereignty over Vatican City.

With the Fascist march on Rome (1922) Benito Mussolini came to power. In World War II, Rome fell to the Allies on June 4, 1944. The postwar years were marked by a vigorous economic, artistic, and intellectual revival. The year 1950 was designated a holy year by Pope Pius XII, and Rome, more than ever the spiritual capital of Catholicism, was host to many thousands of pilgrims. In 1960 the Olympics were held in Rome.


General References Main Page
Orbis Latinus Main Page

This page is part of Orbis Latinus
© Zdravko Batzarov