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Roman history in brief

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Rome’s early history is interwoven with legend. Rea Silvia, a vestal virgin and daughter of a local king, Numitor, had twin sons – the product, she alleged, of a rape by Mars. The two boys were abandoned and found by a wolf, who nursed them until their adoption by a shepherd. He named them Romulus and Remus, and they became leaders of the community and later laid out the boundaries of the city on the Palatine Hill. Before long it became apparent that there was only room for one ruler, and they quarrelled, Romulus killing Remus and becoming in 753 BC the city’s first monarch, to be followed by six further kings.

The Roman Republic and Empire

Rome as a kingdom lasted until about 507 BC, when the people rose up against the tyrannical King Tarquinius and established a Republic. The city prospered, growing greatly in size and subduing the various tribes of the surrounding areas. By the time it had fought and won the third Punic War against its principal rival, Carthage, in 146 BC, it had become the dominant power in the Mediterranean.

The history of the Republic was, however, also one of internal strife, marked by factional fighting among the patrician ruling classes, and the ordinary people, or plebeians. This all came to a head in 44 BC, when Julius Caesar, having proclaimed himself dictator, was murdered by conspirators concerned at the growing concentration of power into one man’s hands. A brief period of turmoil ensued, giving way, in 27 BC, to the founding of the Empire under Augustus, who transformed Rome, building arches, theatres and monuments of a magnificence suited to the capital of an expanding empire. Under Augustus, and his successors, the city swelled to a population of a million, its people housed in cramped apartment blocks or insulae; crime in the city was rife, and the traffic apparently on a par with today’s. But it was a time of peace and prosperity too, with the empire’s borders being ever more extended, reaching their maximum limits under the Emperor Trajan, who died in 117 AD.

The decline of Rome is hard to date precisely, but it could be said to have started with the Emperor Diocletian, who assumed power in 284 and divided the empire into two parts, East and West. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, shifted the seat of power to Byzantium in 330, and Rome’s period as capital of the world was over; the wealthier members of the population moved east and a series of invasions by Goths in 410 and Vandals about forty years later served only to quicken the city’s ruin.

The papal city

After the fall of the empire, the pope – based in Rome owing to the fact that St Peter (the Apostle and first pope) was martyred here in 64 AD – became the temporal ruler over much of Italy, and it was the papacy, under Pope Gregory I (“the Great”) in 590, that rescued Rome from its demise. By sending missions all over Europe to spread the word of the Church and publicize its holy relics, he drew pilgrims, and their money, back to the city, in time making the papacy the natural authority in Rome. The pope took the name “Pontifex Maximus” after the title of the high priest of classical times (literally “the keeper of the bridges”, which were vital to the city’s well-being).

As time went on, power gradually became concentrated in a handful of families, who swapped the top jobs, including the papacy itself, between them. Under the burgeoning power of the pope, churches were built, the city’s pagan monuments rediscovered and preserved, and artists began to arrive in Rome to work on commissions for the latest pope, who would invariably try to outdo his predecessor’s efforts with ever more glorious buildings and works of art. This process reached a head during the Renaissance; Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo all worked in the city throughout their careers, and the reigns of Pope Julius II and his successor, Leo X, were something of a golden age. However, in 1527 all this was brought abruptly to an end, when the armies of the Habsburg monarch Charles V swept into the city, occupying it for a year, while Pope Clement VII cowered in the Castel Sant’Angelo.

The ensuing years were ones of yet more restoration, and perhaps because of this it’s the seventeenth century that has left the most tangible impression on Rome, the vigour of the Counter-Reformation throwing up huge sensational monuments like the Gesù church that were designed to confound the scepticism of the new Protestant thinking. This period also saw the completion of St Peter’s under Paul V, and the ascendancy of Gian Lorenzo Bernini as the city’s principal architect and sculptor. The eighteenth century witnessed the decline of the papacy as a political force, a phenomenon marked by the seventeen-year occupation of the city starting in 1798 by Napoleon, after which papal rule was restored.

The post-Unification city

Thirty-four years later a pro-Unification caucus under Mazzini declared the city a republic but was soon chased out, and Rome had to wait until troops stormed the walls in 1870 to join the unified country – symbolically the most important part of the Italian peninsula to do so. Garibaldi wasted no time in declaring the city the capital of the new kingdom – under Vittorio Emanuele II – and confining the by now quite powerless pontiff, Pius IX, to the Vatican. The Piemontese rulers of the new kingdom set about building a city fit to govern from, cutting new streets through Rome’s central core (Via Nazionale, Via del Tritone) and constructing grandiose buildings like the Altar of the Nation. In 1929 Mussolini signed the Lateran Pact with Pope Pius XI, a compromise which forced the Vatican to accept the new Italian state and in return recognized the Vatican City as sovereign territory, independent of Italy, together with the key basilicas and papal palaces in Rome which remain technically independent of Italy to this day.

The contemporary city

During World War II, Mussolini famously made Rome his centre of operations until his resignation as leader in July 1943. The city was liberated by Allied forces in June 1944. The Italian republic since then has been a mixed affair, regularly changing its government (if not its leaders) every few months until a series of scandals forced the old guard from office. Since then things have continued in much the same vein, with the city symbolizing, to the rest of the country at least, the inertia of their nation’s government. However, the city is looking sprucer, and more vibrant, than it has done for some time, and there are even plans afoot to deal with the city centre’s chronic traffic problem, with the construction of a third metro line well under way.

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