The roots of the most influential empire in Western history.
Around the 8th century BCE, an enigmatic and sophisticated civilization emerged in the Italian peninsula. Their influence on early Roman culture and politics was profound, shaping the nascent city’s development.
**The Etruscans** created advanced, theocratic city states with kings and magistrates. Etruscan city-states such as Tarquinia and Veii were powerful and prosperous, dominating the region through trade and military prowess.
The Etruscans were skilled artisans, creating intricate bronze and terracotta works that showcased their mastery of metallurgy and ceramics. Their tombs, adorned with vibrant frescoes, reveal a society that valued both the afterlife and the pleasures of the living world. The Etruscans’ sophisticated engineering techniques, including the construction of arches and drainage systems, were later adopted by the Romans.
The Etruscans’ decline in the face of Roman expansion remains a subject of historical debate. Some argue that the Etruscans were gradually assimilated into Roman society, while others contend that they were conquered and subjugated. They continued to coexist with Romans in different ways long into the Empire’s history.
Aeneas and Alba Longa
Aeneas, the mythical founder of Rome, was a Trojan hero who escaped the destruction of his city and embarked on a perilous journey to Italy. His tale, immortalized in Virgil’s epic poem the *Aeneid*, was a cornerstone of Roman mythology and identity.
Aeneas’ odyssey, fraught with divine intervention and tragic love, culminated in his marriage to a local Latin princess, Lavinia, and the establishment of a new city, Alba Longa, near the future site of Rome, by Aeneas’ son Ascanius.
In imperial Rome, the story of the *Aeneid* served as propaganda by linking the Romans to the ancient and noble lineage of the Trojans. This connection bolstered Rome’s claim to greatness and justified its imperial ambitions. It also offered a mythic account of the assimilation of local Italic peoples such as the Latins and Etruscans into Rome.
Aeneas’ descendants, including the legendary twins Romulus and Remus, were said to have continued his legacy, ultimately founding Rome itself. The *Aeneid* and its hero served as a symbol of the city’s divine origins and its destiny for greatness.
The Legend of Romulus and Remus
The founding of Rome is attributed in legend to Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the god Mars and Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin (a priestess of Vesta, Roman goddess of the hearth).
Abandoned at birth and left to die on the banks of the River Tiber in Alba Longa, the infants were miraculously saved by a she-wolf who nursed them until they were discovered by a shepherd.
Raised among humble shepherds, the twins grew to be strong and resourceful leaders. They eventually became aware of their true identities, and their divine lineage imbued them with a sense of destiny. They resolved to build a city on the site where they had been saved, but a bitter dispute over its location led to Romulus killing Remus. Romulus went on to found Rome, naming it after himself and establishing its institutions and traditions.
The legend of Romulus and Remus encapsulates the themes of fraternal rivalry and inexorable destiny that pervade Roman mythology and history.
The Rape of the Sabine Women
The ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’, recounted by the Roman historian Livy, is a pivotal event in the early history of Rome. According to the tale, the fledgling city, founded by Romulus, faced a dire shortage of women. To ensure the survival of their nascent society, the Romans devised a plan to abduct the daughters of the neighboring Sabine tribe during a festival.
The abduction of the Sabine women led to a protracted conflict between the Romans and the Sabines. However, the Sabine women themselves intervened, imploring their fathers and their new Roman husbands to end the bloodshed and unite as one people. Their entreaties were heeded, and the Sabines were integrated into Roman society, enriching its culture and strengthening its political foundations.
The story of the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ (in Latin, *raptio*, meaning abduction or kidnapping) highlights the complex interplay of violence, diplomacy, and integration that characterized Rome’s early history.
The Latin League
The Latin League, a confederation of Latin tribes in Latium, the region surrounding Rome, played a crucial role in the city’s early history. Initially led by Alba Longa, the ancestral home of Romulus and Remus, the League later came under the control of Rome during the reign of the tyrannical king Tarquinius Superbus. The League’s shifting allegiances and power dynamics reflect the complex political landscape of ancient Italy.
The Latin League served as a bulwark against external threats, such as the Etruscans and the Volsci, and facilitated cooperation and trade among its members. The League’s military and economic strength enabled Rome to expand its influence and assert its dominance over neighboring tribes. The eventual dissolution of the Latin League and the absorption of its members into the Roman Republic marked a turning point in Rome’s rise to power.
The League’s evolution, from a loose confederation of tribes to an instrument of Roman power, underscores the city’s growing ambition and its ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
The Seven Kings of Rome
Monarchy was the first form of government in ancient Rome. Rome was governed by a succession of seven kings from c.753-509 BCE. The kings were elected by the Roman people to hold absolute power over the state, while the Senate (established by Romulus) only had lesser administrative powers.
The Seven Kings of Rome were legendary figures – both in the sense that they were widely revered, and in the sense that they may have only existed in stories. Each had their own distinct attributes and accomplishments.
These kings – Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus – established early Rome’s institutions, laws, and infrastructure.
They oversaw the construction of the city’s walls, temples, and public spaces, and forged alliances with neighboring tribes and city-states. Their creations included the position of Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of Rome; the home of the Senate, the *Curia*; and the Circus Maximus.
The reigns of these kings were marked by both progress and strife, as Rome grappled with internal divisions and external threats. The era of the Seven Kings came to an abrupt end with the expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus.
Tarquinius Superbus or ‘Tarquin the Proud’, the seventh and final king of Rome, is a figure of infamy in Roman history. His tyrannical reign ultimately led to the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Roman Republic.
Tarquin ascended to the throne through treachery, having murdered his father-in-law, the previous king, and seized power. His reign was characterized by the suppression of dissent, the exploitation of the populace, and the pursuit of personal glory at the expense of the common good. His most notorious act, the rape of the noblewoman Lucretia, sparked a popular uprising that led to his expulsion from Rome.
The fall of Tarquinius Superbus and the end of the Roman Monarchy marked a turning point in Rome’s history. The establishment of the Roman Republic, with its emphasis on shared power and civic virtue, was a direct response to the excesses of Tarquin’s rule. His ignominious legacy served as a potent reminder of the perils of tyranny and the importance of upholding the values of the Republic.
The Role of the Vestal Virgins
The Vestal Virgins, priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, held a revered position in Roman society. With ancient Italian, pre-Roman origins, the Vestals were responsible for maintaining the sacred fire of the temple of Vesta and performing various rituals and ceremonies. Their role in the religious life of Rome was both symbolic and practical.
The mother of Romulus and Remus, Rhea Silvia, was herself a Vestal Virgin, underscoring the importance of these priestesses in the founding myth of Rome. The Vestals’ sacred duties, which included preserving the city’s sacred objects and ensuring the continuity of its religious traditions, were believed to be essential to the well-being and prosperity of Rome.
The Vestal Virgins enjoyed rights and protections that were unusual for women in Roman society. Their unique role as guardians of the sacred fire and the city’s religious heritage highlights the centrality of the hearth and the home in Roman culture, as well as the enduring influence of ancient Italian traditions on the development of Rome.
The Capitoline Triad
The Capitoline Triad, consisting of the gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, held a central place in the public religion of Rome. These deities, representing the domains of sovereignty, protection, and wisdom, were venerated in the Capitolium, a magnificent temple on the Capitoline hill built during the reign of Tarquinius Superbus.
The Capitoline Triad was the focus of numerous festivals, ceremonies, and rites, which served to reinforce the bonds between the Roman people and their gods. The worship of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva was not only an expression of piety but also a means of asserting Rome’s divine mandate and its status as the center of the world.
The Capitoline Triad likely had Etruscan origins, testifying to the city’s ability to synthesize diverse traditions and beliefs into a coherent and powerful system. The veneration of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, as well as the monumental architecture of the Capitolium, served as a constant reminder of Rome’s divine origins and its destiny for greatness.
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum, the bustling heart of ancient Rome, was the center of political, religious, and social life in the city throughout its history. This vibrant public space, with its temples, basilicas, and monuments, came to embody the values of Roman public life, particularly a commitment to civic engagement, justice, and the rule of law.
The Forum was the site of numerous important events and ceremonies, including elections, trials, and triumphal processions. It was also a place of commerce, where merchants and traders from across the empire gathered to exchange goods and ideas.
The site of the Forum was established during the regal era, but its political and civic function reached its peak in the Republican period, when it was a locus for public speeches and meetings. The space was strongly associated with the Roman art of political and legal rhetoric, as well as piety and state power.
The ruins of the Forum still serve as a testament to the city’s extraordinary past and its lasting impact on the course of human history.