Emperors, popes and Renaissance glory: exploring Rome’s history
Now capital of a united Italy, Rome has enjoyed eras of imperial might but also periods of conflict and chaos. Dr Shushma Malik guides us through the key events of the past 28 centuries.
Famously – or, at least, according to legend – Rome owes its existence to twin brothers Romulus and Remus, sons of the war god Mars, who had been abandoned and suckled by a she-wolf.
Having established settlements on the Palatine and Aventine Hills, respectively, the two fought, and Remus was killed. By tradition, Rome was founded on that day, 21 April 753 BC, with Romulus becoming the first of seven kings. Remains of Iron Age settlement have been discovered on the Palatine Hill, and evidence of even earlier Bronze Age occupation in the region, so perhaps that story isn’t pure myth.
The last of the seven mythical kings, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus – Tarquin the Proud – was a tyrannical ruler. His son, Sextus Tarquinius, was also a criminal; Sextus’ rape of another man’s wife, Lucretia, and her subsequent suicide was the highly disturbing episode that, according to the historian Livy (writing some five centuries later), prompted the expulsion of the king and the foundation of the Roman Republic in 509 BC.
From kingdom to republic
Rome would be governed by a senate headed by two consuls, ensuring that no one man had complete power. In that nascent republic, the centre of civic life, as well as religion, commerce and entertainment, was the Roman Forum, still a fascinating place to visit today.
Initially a relatively small settlement with limited influence, over the following five centuries of the republic Rome grew as its territory expanded. Its power swelled throughout what’s now Italy, then across and around the Mediterranean with wars against the Macedonians and with Carthage in the third and second centuries BC.
By the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, Roman territory covered parts of the Iberian Peninsula and what’s now Tunisia. The following century, as a result of conquests by generals including Julius Caesar, it grew to encompass much of mainland western Europe, swathes of coastal North Africa and the Middle East.
Successful generals became very wealthy – and the spoils of their victories, which included money, artefacts and vast numbers of enslaved people, were used to build monuments to their glory. One of the earliest examples is the Temple of Castor and Pollux, associated with a Roman triumph over other Italians at the battle of Lake Regillus in 495 BC.
Later figures during this period of conquest and expansion, including Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (known as Pompey the Great) and Julius Caesar, also left their marks on the city. The latter bought some very expensive land to build a new forum, north-east of the Roman Forum. And the former built a great theatre on the Campus Martius (Field of Mars), sadly no longer surviving – but infamous as the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.
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From republic to empire
Caesar’s death sparked a tussle for power that erupted into civil war, ending when his adopted son, Octavian, defeated Mark Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 BC. Four years later, the senate awarded him the title Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.
During his lengthy rule (until AD 14), Augustus oversaw major building projects. He finished Julius Caesar’s Forum, expanding it into the Campus Martius, where soldiers had traditionally mustered before heading out to war. And in 13 BC, the senate ordered the creation of the Ara Pacis – an altar dedicated to Augustus, celebrating the peace he’d secured across the now-vast empire – which now stands next to his mausoleum.
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Successive emperors vied to outdo the one before in expanding, improving and beautifying the city. Trajan (ruled AD 98–117) built the towering column carved with reliefs commemorating his campaigns in what’s now Romania. Hadrian (ruled AD 117–138) – builder of the wall in Roman Britain – comprehensively rebuilt the Pantheon, the only ancient building that’s remained largely intact over the past two millennia. And several emperors built palaces on the Palatine, from which the English word palace is derived.
Alongside these religious and monumental buildings designed to glorify themselves, emperors also acted as benefactors to the people of the city and the empire. The Colosseum is a famous example – probably Rome’s first permanent amphitheatre, it was commissioned by Vespasian in AD 72 and finished by his son, Titus, in AD 80. Its construction partly funded by the war in Judea.
There were also porticos around central Rome where people could congregate in the evening, as well as tavernas and restaurants – some of which would have been very cheap – and of course shops and other places to buy and sell. Visit Trajan’s Markets to get an idea of these kinds of amenities.
Another factor that had an impact on the physical landscape of Rome over the following centuries was the arrival of Christianity, probably only about 20 or 30 years or so after the death of Christ.
The first Christian emperor, however, was Constantine, who is believed to have converted to Christianity in AD 312; the first known dedicated churches in Rome were built later that century. You can visit one of the earliest beneath the 12th-century Basilica of San Clemente, on the Via di San Giovanni in Laterano.
From empire to papacy
During this time, Rome’s power was challenged in various regions. In AD 286, the emperor Diocletian had decided to divide the empire into east and west. The wealthy city that became the eastern seat of power, Constantinople, was already in the ascendancy. Though there was still a senate in Rome, and an incredibly powerful symbolism to the city, it increasingly suffered security problems. And in AD 410, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths – the first time in some 800 years that the city itself had actually been physically attacked.
A different kind of power remained in Rome, though: that of the Catholic Church. So while some ancient monuments were dismantled or allowed to fall into ruin over the following centuries, and the population dwindled to just a few thousand, the papacy remained – most of the time, anyway. But the power that lay behind the idea of the Roman emperor endured and, after the Frankish king Charlemagne conquered Italy, in AD 800 he was crowned as an emperor in charge of governing the Roman empire – a hugely symbolic event.
Over the next few centuries, the city suffered some of its hardest days. It was riven by local conflict, external attacks, even a schism after the papacy moved to Avignon in 1309; the Black Death also took its toll.
From the 15th century, though, political, financial and cultural capital returned to Rome during the Renaissance. Wealth arrived with families such as the Borgias, funding the creation of great art and architecture; Michelangelo, Raphael and Cellini were drawn to work in the Vatican, and villas and palaces were built around Rome to accommodate the immensely rich people who patronised such artists.
Over the next few centuries, styles evolved. St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, begun in 1506 at the zenith of the Renaissance, had become an opulent Baroque edifice by the time it was completed in 1626. Francesco Borromini continued the theme with his churches and other work across Rome, adapting Classical forms into Baroque structures.
The 18th century saw the installation of rococo monuments such as the Trevi Fountain – itself built on the site of an ancient Roman original – and Spanish Steps. All the while, aristocratic visitors from Britain and elsewhere – so-called Grand Tourists – were collecting artworks and taking back these ideas.
From Grand Tourist hotspot to Italian capital
The French Revolution in the late 18th century, and the revolutions that rocked much of Europe in 1848, had an impact on Rome, which briefly returned to a republic in 1849. Two key figures of the time were Giuseppe Manzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, who both held offices in that republic, and who helped to drive the Risorgimento – unification movement – through the 1860s and early 1870s, essentially creating the kingdom of Italy.
Rome, though, was not immediately its capital; that was first Turin, then Florence, until the seat of government settled in Rome in the 1870s. That reunification is celebrated in the grandiose white marble confection of the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, built from 1885 to honour the first king of the reunified Italy.
Following the First World War, when Italy fought the Austro-Hungarian empire on its northern borders, nationalist sentiments swelled. The main beneficiary was Benito Mussolini, who saw himself as a new Emperor Augustus, and focused on building back the glory of Rome through the Fascist state he established after seizing power in 1922.
As part of that process, to imprint his mark on the ‘Eternal City’, he built the vast Via dei Fori Imperiali, a triumphal route leading from the Victor Emmanuel Monument to the Colosseum – ironically, cutting through and destroying parts of the ancient forums.
Italy became a republic once again after the Second World War. And in the decades since – some politically turbulent, many triumphant – it has continued to restore and reinvent. Hosting the 1960 Summer Olympics sparked major rebuilding work. Since then, in fashion, film and music as well as sport, it’s once again become a powerhouse, as well as an extraordinary place to visit – for its modern spirit as much as its astonishingly long, varied history.
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Dr Shushma Malik was speaking to Paul Bloomfield, travel journalist and host of our podcast series History's Greatest Cities
What to see: Rome in five places
The ancient imperial capital has undergone many transformations over the centuries. Shushma Malik highlights five spots to visit for insights into Rome’s layered past.
1. Basilica of San Clemente
Rome is a giant palimpsest, with successive strata of history written one on top of the other. There’s a great example of that in just one building on the Via di San Giovanni in Laterano. The Basilica of San Clemente, built from 1108, is a wonderful monument in itself, with fine mosaics and frescoes in a side chapel.
But below the 12th-century church there’s another, dating from the fourth century and rediscovered in 1857. And below that lie two Roman buildings from the late first century. One was a house possibly used as a titulus – a clandestine early Christian meeting place.
The other contained a Mithraeum, a temple to the cult of Mithras, of a kind seen in other parts of the empire, including Britain. (There’s a Mithraeum in the City of London, and another at Carrawburgh Fort on Hadrian’s Wall – the cult was popular with Roman soldiers in that period.) This one boasts a finely carved altar depicting the god Mithras killing a bull, typical of such sites.
2. Tomb of Cecilia Metella
This incredible funerary monument on the Via Appia, probably dating from the late first century BC, consists of an 11-metre-high cylindrical drum. It highlights the status of aristocratic women in Rome – specifically, one very well-connected woman, Cecilia Metella.
The inscription on the tomb tells us she was the daughter of Quintus Cecilius Metellus Creticus, and the wife of a man called Crassus. Her father was probably the consul of 69 BC, and her husband may have been Marcus Licinius Crassus, another important politician and the son of the Crassus who was famous as a member of the ‘first triumvirate’ along with Pompey and Julius Caesar.
So the monument is fascinating because of who she was, but also because, again, it’s an example of historical layering. In the early 14th century, the tomb was incorporated into a fortress built by the Caetani family, relatives of Pope Boniface VIII. Parts of that huge structure still survive today.
3. Servian Wall
If you arrive or depart Rome through the central train station, Termini, look carefully around the surrounding area – and inside: you’ll find bits of ancient wall among the fast-food restaurants.
The Servian Wall was one of Rome’s earlier defensive boundaries. It’s named after the Roman king Servius Tullius who, according to legend, reigned in about the sixth century BC, but the structure has been dated using modern methods to the fourth century BC. It’s quite something to eat a slice of pizza or a burger right next to this incredibly old piece of Roman history.
4. Monte Testaccio
This mound, in the Testaccio district, is no ordinary hill. Rising to around 35 metres, it’s made of the earthenware shards (testae, in Latin) of amphorae – pottery jars used to store goods and to transport them around the Roman empire. They contained all sorts of things, from grain to olive oil; very small amphorae contained more expensive goods such as perfumes.
The layers of this ancient Roman landfill site excavated so far (most from the second and third centuries AD), mainly comprise very large containers in which olive oil was shipped before being poured into smaller ones for domestic use.
Monte Testaccio is near the site of an olive oil warehouse, from where these amphorae were taken to be broken up then covered with lime to hide the smell.
5. Capitoline Insula
At the base of the Capitoline Hill, look for a distinctly everyday building: a block of flats. The Capitoline (or Ara Coeli) Insula dates from the early second century AD, probably during the reign of Emperor Trajan, which also saw the construction of a large marketplace and huge column celebrating his victories. W
e tend to think of ancient Roman houses as grand villas. But of course most people lived in much more basic accommodation, and this insula features examples of the small rooms or flats that ordinary people might have rented at the height of the empire.
The block is five storeys high, the first three of which housed shops; there were individual rooms on the fourth floor, and what looks like an apartment on the fifth. It’s an amazing insight into the urban lives of individuals nearly two millennia ago.
Shushma Malik is Onassis Classics Fellow at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, and author of The Nero-Antichrist: Founding and Fashioning a Paradigm (Cambridge University Press, 2020). She was talking to Paul Bloomfield, travel journalist and host of our new podcast series, History’s Greatest Cities. Listen to the companion podcast on Rome or explore the entire series
Shushma Malik is Onassis Classics Fellow at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, and author of The Nero-Antichrist: Founding and Fashioning a Paradigm
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