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This article about Roman history takes a rather simplistic and direct approach at some of the main events and transformation which the city and its people, the Romans, underwent. Before diving into the story we make a note of why it's interesting to dig around in Roman history and even take a quick glimpse at the different approaches that can be taken....
The history of ancient Rome is interesting per se because perhaps more than other civilizations it is able to give us a relatively complete picture of what life was like 2000 years ago, particularly thanks to numerous artifacts and remains of great value from sites such as Pompeii.
Unfortunately we are often so taken by what we are observing or by the hurdle of redressing stone walls into a Roman villa that we fail to observe the real value ancient Roman history has to offer us: that of observing the evolution of events, discoveries, social structure, beliefs and so on. Ie the real value lies in observing how Roman history evolved and then comparing to other periods so that we can understand the present and even the likely future.
An example of this might be to observe the ancient roman economy in the context of Roman innovation: observing the level of technology, resources available, relative peace (pax romana) we have to admit that the level of technology reached a level (albeit slowly) close to that of 15-17th century Europe. Why then did the Romans fail to make the amazing breakthrough into an age of industrial revolution?
Yet more examples exist, for example:
A deeper insight into the different approaches which can be taken to understanding Roman history is provided in the introductory article about the reasons, causes and factors involved in the decline and fall of the Roman empire - where we see that the interpretation we can achieve of ancient Roman history can actually be influenced by the approach we choose to take in considering it.
It is said that Rome was founded on the 21st April 753 BC by Romulus. When babies, Romulus and his brother Remus had been found and raised by a She-Wolf, but more probably a Roman prostitute.
Early Rome was raised on the Palatine hill. A further 6 hills came to form part of the city as it grew and new citizens came within its walls. Romulus was succeeded by 6 kings. The last of these, an Etruscan called Tarquin the Proud, was thrown out for his brutality and the kingdom became a republic.
Although the history of the kings of Rome is shrouded in mystery and myth it is certain that they laid the foundations for the future greatness of the city. Many works and institutions of the greatest importance were founded by them. The Cloaca Maxima (the great drain system under Rome) and the Circus Maximus are examples of the engineering work undertaken, as is also the religious system headed by the Pontifex Maximus, a title still utilised by the modern Popes, the social structure, the Senate and Senators, the military systems, taxation, laws bureaucracy and so on.
During the republican age, which lasted approximately 500 years from 500BC, the power and dominion of Rome continued to grow throughout Italy and the Mediterranean. This expansion brought the city into direct conflict with all the existing powers as they fought for control of trade and trade routes. Particularly notable were the wars against Carthage (remember Hannibal). By the year 1AD Rome controlled the Mediterranean basin including Asia Minor and the great Egypt, not to mention Greece.
The enormous growth in power and wealth created an increasing social imbalance which led Rome and Italy to unrest and civil war. The poor Plebeians wanted, and to an extent took, a share of the wealth and power which the aristocratic Patricians were amassing.
The end of the republic saw the murder of Julius Caesar. Caesar had been crowned Dictator for life and given absolute power over Rome. His murderers thought it best to do away with him in an effort to defend republican rights. Et tu Brute! Some years of civil war between Caesar's allies and rivals concluded with the rise to power of Caesar's adoptive son Octavian as Imperator - Emperor. Octavian was later known as Augustus the Great. The republic ended and the empire began a decade or so before the year 0.
It should be noted that in many ways the civil war was actually "positive". It allowed a readjustment of social order around the empire's new wealth and might. Before the civil war Rome was but the head of an alliance of Italic peoples which had been more or less forced into cooperation. By the end of the 100 year struggle all "Italians" saw themselves as Romans and the city of Rome was the undisputed ruler. Rome and its power, including its social structure were thus consolidated to rule the empire.
Augustus was the first Emperor and he led the newborn empire into its golden age. He was responsible for a great number of reforms and public works, not least amongst which was a rebuilding of Rome in line with its new world status. "I took a city made of brick and left a city made of marble". Within the next hundred years the empire reached its greatest expansion and also saw its longest period of peace and rest. The advent of the "Pax Romana" was celebrated with Augustus' great altar to peace, the "Ara Pacis still visible in Rome. A fantastic work of political propaganda. Another great building of his time and unforgettable to this date is the Pantheon also still visible in Rome.
Within a further century or two the empire reached its greatest extent, great civil works and reforms were undertaken and there was a clear demarcation between civilised and uncivilised world. This period saw great works such as forums, huge public thermal baths, aqueducts to supply them and of course the widespread enjoyment of circuses and theatres. The Romans of this age were said to live on "Bread and Circus" and the Colosseum is a remarcable symbol of this period. A less obvious but nonetheless equally poignant symbol of the age is the public latrine. Both Colosseum and public latrine owe their conception to emperor Vespasian.
But then, unavoidably, the decline and fall of the Roman empire began under the weight of its own success.
By the fourth century the Roman economy was flagging and serious reform was necessary. Roman coinage which has come down to our times is witness of great inflationary pressures (modern problems huh?). There had been a gradual shift of power towards the Roman army and rule of the Roman empire became increasingly unstable.
Around the year 320AD Emperor Constantine brought what was perhaps the last great revival of this failing giant. He was responsible for the final division of the empire into two halves with Roman empire of the West controlled from Rome and the empire of the East controlled from Constantinople (Istanbul).
Constantine is responsible for shaping the entire future of the West. Not only had Constantine made Christianity a recognised religion of the empire but furthermore he created in Constantinople (Istanbul) the safe keeper of Graeco-Roman culture through the dark ages which were besetting the West.
In spite of various attempts the two halves of the empire were never lastingly reunited and the empire of the West finally collapsed as successive barbarian invasions, social unrest, economic poverty. A falling population and lack of labour meant that resources were insufficient to keep the enormous imperial machinery and bureaucracy fully functional.
This period of decay in the West saw a sharp decrease in literacy as well as artistic and cultural decline. A good example of this being the Arch of Constantine standing by the Colosseum: the arch is in fact a collage of pieces taken from several other (far older) monuments. If we observe the art work of the later empire and early middle ages we note how capability in arts and crafts declined and was not to be recovered until the Renaissance period. This interpretation is clearly very superficial but by and large it gives a good impression of how the decline and fall of the empire was characterised by loss and decay on all social fronts.
It was from these ashes that those two seeds left by Constantine the Great germinated and grew back to world status:
Constantine gave Christianity the impulse it required, and with Christianity the city of Rome "caput mundi" was to witness greatness through all ages, through the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Baroque right to the modern epoch. The Pope's power rested in the "eternal city" throughout, and the greatest artists and thinkers of all ages came to leave their mark for posterity to see and for tourists to photograph.
The Roman empire of the East survived until 1453, safeguarding the Roman empire's inheritance from the barbarian invasions in the west and the ensuing "dark ages". This inheritance began to make its way back to the west thanks to the increase in mercantile travel around the 14th and 15th centuries and was made complete when first the Crusaders and then the Turks managed to breach Constantinople's walls. Many lost texts and knowledge written by the likes of Plato and Aristotle made their way back to the West and vastly contributed to the period we know as the Renaissance. The Rebirth of Classical Culture.
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Roman History: | aeneas | Romulus, Remus & the origins of Rome | The ancient roman kings | Oath of the Horatii | The Kingdom and Seven Kings of Rome | The Roman Republic | The Conquest of Italy and the Punic Wars | The Republic in crisis | Julius Caesar and the end of the Republic | Queen Cleopatra of Egypt | Augustus and the Empire | The 12 Caesars | The Five Good Emperors | Other Emperors | Emperor Constantine and Christianisation | fall of the roman empire |
| roman empire | pax romana | Reasons for the collapse and fall of the roman empire | Contributions by Ancient Romans |
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"Roman History" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for www.mariamilani.com - Rome apartments