History of Rome

While staying in Rome, it's almost impossible to forget about its history as it catches you at every corner of this ancient city. The generally accepted date of Rome’s founding is April 21, 753 BC. Since that time, the area has been constantly inhabited by shepherds whose goddess, Pales, was worshipped on April 21. Legend has it that Rome was founded 437 years after the sacking of Troy. The name of the town might refer to Romulus, but also possibly to a proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘river’, as Rome stands on the banks of the Tiber. A special bell tolls on the Capitoline Hill on April 21 every year, exactly at noon, to commemorate the founding of the city. This is the only day of the year on which the Cannon of Janiculum does not sound.

Founding of Rome

According to myth, the Trojan prince and war hero Aeneas sailed across the Mediterranean after the Trojan War and founded the city of Lavinium. Later, the city of Alba Longa was founded by his son Iulus, and the twins Romulus and Remus came from the royal family of Alba Longa. They were the sons of the war god Mars and Ilia. Legend has it that Ilia was the daughter of the king of Alba, Longa Numitor. Her uncle Amulius did away with her father and forced her to become a priestess to the goddess Vesta (Vestal Virgin). As the virgins took vows of celibacy for 30 years, she would have no heirs, which is exactly what Amulius wanted. However, she conceived the twins after Mars raped her. Amulius ordered the twins killed, but a merciful servant set them adrift in a basket on the Tiber. A she-wolf, Lupa, found the basket and nursed the babies. When they grew up, they established Rome. Archaeological discoveries indicate that the present-day area of Rome was first settled in the early 600s BC.

As for the famous ancient legends of Rome, very few written before the Republic survive, and none of them are complete. At that time, the Romans had a complex series of stories about their history. Many of them were borrowed from ancient Greek myths and legends, and some stories were told in praise of great Roman families.

The Roman History

The first king of Rome was Romulus, one of its two founders. Before the Republic and the Empire, Rome was ruled by kings. The last king was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who was expelled in 510 BC. The kings ruled for life and were elected by the people. Romulus was the exception, being founder of the city. The king had the exclusive right to read the special omens, known as auspices. These omens were a very important part of life in Rome at the time. The king was the chief augur or prophet. In antiquity, Romans believed the auspices showed the will of the gods. Special ceremonies were held involving tracing the patterns of birds in the sky. The people saw the king as a mediator between the gods and humanity, and thus viewed him with awe. The king was therefore also the religious leader. Romulus appointed the augurs, while his successor Numa Pompilius developed the basis of religious dogma in Rome.

The king held supreme military power as commander-in-chief of the Roman legions. He was also the chief justice of the city, as regards both civil and criminal cases. Thus, he had supreme power both in times of war and in times of peace.

Romulus built the city on Palatine Hill. He populated five of the city’s seven legendary hills by granting asylum to runaways slaves, criminals, exiles, and other people of that kind. He divided his people into those fit and those unfit for combat. The able-bodied men formed the legions. The others became the people of Rome. Of them, Romulus selected 100 nobles to serve as senators in the Roman Senate. They became known as the Patricians, and their descendands formed the elite classes of the later Republic.

Romulus also established the Comitia Curiata assembly. He reigned for 38 years, during which he led a number of successful wars, spreading Roman authority over vast territories. After his death, he was deified in the image of the war god Quirinus, one of the three major Roman gods.

His successor, Numa Pompilius, was a benign and wise man. He adjusted the Roman calendar for the solar and lunar year and added the months of January and February to make a total of 12 months. He instituted a number of religious customs, such as the Salii Festival. The Salii were the Roman priests of Mars. This body consisted of 12 young men of aristocratic descent. Their function was to protect Rome in battle. 

Numa also made important administrative reforms. He organised Rome and the surroundings into districts, and established the city’s first occupational guilds. He was deeply religious and constructed temples to the gods Janus and Vesta.

During his reign, it was said that a shield from Jupiter fell from the sky. The fate of Rome was inscribed upon it. Numa ordered 11 copies of the shield, and the 12 sacred shields were used by the Salii during their rites.

Numa never fought a single war. He was a gentle, peace-loving person. The same cannot be said for his successor, Tullus Hostilius. He was an aggressive warmonger and completely lacked respect for the gods. He declared war on the cities of Alba Longa, Veii, and Fidenae, attaining even more territories and glory for Rome. During his reign, however, the city was infected by a plague. The king himself became infected. He died, it is believed, after Jupiter threw a bolt of lightning at him. This was his punishment for neglecting the gods. Among his achievements was the Curia, the new Senate building. It survived for more than five centuries after his death.

The Romans elected a peaceful, religious ruler to succeed Tullus. This was Ancus Marcius, the grandson of Numa. He was a lot like his grandfather – he did not get involved in wars, and only retaliated when Rome was threatened. Ancus built the city’s first prison. He formed alliances with some of the smaller nearby cities and relocated the Latins to Aventine Hill. This gave rise to the plebeian class of Rome.

The fifth king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus, was the first ruler of Etruscan birth. He was adopted by Ancus Marcius. As king, he fought against the Sabines and Etruscans, the result of which doubled the size of the city. He brought hordes of treasure to Rome, increased the number of senators and used war booty to construct monuments and facilities like sewer systems (Cloaca Maxima), the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus stadium for chariot races. This stadium remains the biggest in the world to this day.

Tarquinius Priscus was succeeded by Servius Tullius, his son-in-law. He is credited with adopting a new constitution, instituting the first census in the world, establishing the Tribal Assembly, and building a temple in honor of the goddess Diana. Under the census, people were divided into five economic classes. Then voting privileges came to be granted on the basis of wealth. However, over time the king came to favor the poorer classes more and more. The patricians grew wary of him. After 44 years on the throne, he was assassinated in a plot devised by his daughter and her husband, Tarquinius Superbus, who became the next and last king of Rome.

Tarquinius Superbus was a very unpopular ruler. He used violence as a means of controlling the city and destroyed sacred monuments and objects. The tension reached its zenith in 510 BC, when Tarquinius Superbus was ousted from power by the Senate. Soon after that, the Senate transformed Rome into a republic, doing away with the royal tradition for good.

Roman Republic

With the establishment of the Republic, the consuls took over most of the king’s functions. The relationship between patricians and plebeians was strained, to the extent that the plebeians seceded from the city on a number of occasions. They took their possessions and set up camp on the hills outside the city walls. The last secession of this kind was in 287 BC. After that, the Council of the Plebeians was established. It was an official institution protecting the rights of this class. Its vote had the effect of law.

Rome began to expand into the Italian peninsula in 340 BC. The way Rome treated its captives was unique. They were brought under the protection of the city, granted citizenship, and received specific rights by law. By 268 BC, Rome dominated most of Italy through conquered city-states, strategic garrisons, colonies and a network of allies. Then the Republic started to look beyond Italy, toward the Mediterranean and its rich trade.

In 264 BC, Rome entered into the Punic Wars against Carthage. Mostly naval and generally consisting of Roman victories, the first Punic War lasted untill 241 BC, when Carthage signed a peace treaty granting Rome complete control over Sicily. The Second Punic War began with Hannibal’s attack on the city in 221 BC. After that, Hannibal invaded Italy with a large army of mercenaries and the infamous African war elephants. He had a few triumphs, but in the long run his campaign failed. He didn’t receive enough support from Carthage. The war continued indecisively for over 16 years.

At the time, Rome was fighting a war against the Macedons as well. The Roman commander Publius Scipio captured several Carthaginian cities and invaded Africa. Carthage was facing a direct threat. Hannibal fought Scipio in Africa, and was eventually defeated in 202 BC at the Battle of Zama. Rome and Carthage reached a truce. Carthage had to pay a huge indemnity, lost its colonies, and was deprived of the right to have an army or navy.

In 149 BC, Rome demanded that Carthage be demolished and rebuilt further away from the coast. This resulted in the outbreak of the Third Punic War. Roman general Scipio Aemilianus laid Carthage under siege for three years, after which he sacked and burned the city to the ground. With that, Carthage ceased to exist.

Apart from Carthaginian, the Romans led also Macedonian and Seleucid wars, which occurred in the Aegean, the Adriatic and the eastern Mediterranean. In their wake, Rome took control of the entire Mediterranean basin.

Philip V of Macedon was an ally of Hannibal in the Second Punic War. Rome fought four Macedonian wars in total. The first two were aimed at keeping the Macedons at bay. After the third (172 to 168 BC), the kingdom of Macedon was divided into four puppet republics. During the fourth war, Rome formed the provinces of Macedonia, Epirus, and Achaea on the Greek peninsula. Greece retaliated through the Achaean League. The Greek forces were defeated easily, and Rome destroyed the city of Corinth as punishment. Greek independence came to an end.

Now that Rome had secured a vast territory of Europe, it turned its attention to Asia. Its vast wealth attracted the greedy senators. At this time, the political situation in Rome worsened. The city was marred by economic and political strife. The grandiose military successes put intense pressure on Rome. The amassed wealth was concentrated in the hands of several powerful families. Military campaigns lasted for years and soldiers were unable to return to their farms, which fell into disuse. Often, they would come back from war only to find that creditors had taken their lands away. Nor could they find work, because the enslaved captives were a cheaper source of labor. The economic imbalance was threatening to destroy the republic by 133 BC. It was too acute to ignore. Tiberius Gracchus attempted to introduce land reforms that year. He aimed for equal and fair distribution of land. The corrupt Senate, however, refused to enforce the law. Tiberius decided to bypass the Senate, passing his reform through the Plebeian Council instead. The Senate blocked him by veto. Tiberius arranged for the veto to be withdrawn and passed the reform. Then the Senate placed another obstacle before him by refusing to fund the land commission. It became clear that Tiberius didn’t have time to finish the reforms. He decided to run for the tribunate, where he had held office in the past. His growing political power and popular support vexed the patricians, so they murdered him in the streets of Rome. This act changed the political traditions of Rome, and was something that the Republic would never recover from.

In 60 BC, the young Julius Caesar was elected senior consul of the Roman Republic. He formed the First Triumvirate with reputed general Pompey the Great and former consul Marcus Crassus. Caesar entered the Gallic Wars, reaching as far as Britannia. He exceeded his authority on a number of occasions. When civil war broke out in Rome, Caesar was assassinated. Later, his murderers fled to Greece. In his last will, Caesar had named Octavian as his successor. Octavian created the Second Triumvirate with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Mark Antony. The three divided power and authority, as was the custom.

Antony’s infamous romance with Cleopatra angered Octavian. Antony had granted vast territories of the eastern part of the Empire to his children by Cleopatra. Octavian accused him of abandoning Rome’s cause. War broke out in 31 BC. 200 senators, a third of the total, supported Antony and Cleopatra. At the Battle of Actium, Octavian’s fleet routed the fleet of Antony. He fled to Egypt with Cleopatra. Octavian took control of Asia Minor and Antony’s legions in Greece. Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide shortly thereafter. This act is perceived as noble and inspiring to this day, the proper reaction of a Roman general to military defeat and a pre-Christian act of dignity.

With Antony’s suicide, there was no one left to challenge Octavian, who moved to take absolute control. He filled the Senate with his supporters and made all final decisions in the Republic. The citizens of Rome gave him their unwavering support, because they were tired of civil strife and believed he could put Rome back in order. The Senate proclaimed Octavian Augustus, or 'revered one'. He also took the title of imperator, which had previously been given to victorious commanders by Roman troops. The transition from Republic to Empire was complete by 27 BC.



During the 600s, there was disagreement between Rome and Constantinople on religious matters. Pope Martin I was deported to Constantinople in 653, put on trial, and exiled. Emperor Constans II visited Rome in 663. The was the first Imperial visit to the city in 200 years. In 727, Pope Gregory II organized an iconoclasm, the destruction of icons and other religious symbols. Emperor Leo III failed to enforce his decrees and sent troops, but the attack was unsuccessful. In 731, the Emperor confiscated the pope’s estates in Calabria and Sicily, transferring them to the Patriarch of Constantinople, the counterpart of the Roman Pope. This had the effect of the expulsion of Rome from the Byzantine Empire. At this time, the Lombards, who were experiencing a revival, invaded and razed the Roman countryside. There was little the pope could do against the Lombards, who had become allies of Byzantium. Pope Gregory III asked the Franks for help. Lombard’s king, Aistulf, conquered Ravenna and Ferrara and set his sights on Rome. Pope Stephen II reacted by naming King Peppin of the Franks as Protector of Rome. Later that year, the king and the pope defeated Aistulf at Susa. In 756, Aistulf laid Rome under siege. When the Lombards heard Peppin was approaching, they fled to the north. The Papal States were formed after Peppin donated some lands to the pope.

The next king of the Lombards, Desiderius, plotted to capture Rome and seize the pope in 771. The plot failed. The pope defeated Desiderius with the support of Charlemagne in 773. This was the end of the Lombard Kingdom.   

Papal Rule

Pope Leo III led the traditional procession along Via Flaminia (today Via del Corso) in 799. Two nobles who disliked his allegiance with Charlemagne attacked and wounded the pope. Leo escaped to the kingdom of the Franks, and the following year the king entered Rome with an army. He announced that a trial would be held to determine if Leo should remain pope or if the nobles had had just causes. Naturally, Leo was declared legitimate and the attackers were exiled. Leo crowned Charlemagne the Emperor of Western Rome on December 25, 800.

The connection between Rome and Constantinople was severed for good. This act resulted in a rival empire, which came to encompass the majority of Christian territories in the west after the military triumphs of Charlemagne.

After the Emperor’s death, it was difficult to find a successor as prestigious and determined as Charlemagne. Political and economic strife ensued. As a result, Rome’s power weakened. At this time, the Arabs had become a major threat throughout Europe. In 846, they approached Rome and sacked St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Leo IV reacted by building another wall around an area on the bank of the Tiber across from the seven hills of Rome. This territory is called the Leonine City today. It encompasses the Vatican, Borgo and other areas.

During this period, the Church began to attract pilgrims from across Christian lands, and their money came with them. Although Rome had only 30,000 inhabitants, it became a wealthy and prosperous city.  The new class of merchants and businessmen was beginning to replace the old aristocracy. Rome was sacked by the Normans in 1084, and its reconstruction was funded by affluent families like the Pierleonis. Inspired by the cities of Viterbo and Tivoli, Rome began to aspire toward freedom from papal authority and a communal status. The Romans revolted in 1143. The Roman Republic had been reborn, together with the Senate and other republican institutions.

During the 13th Century, Milan and Florence evolved into autonomous, stable communities, but Rome did not. The city was torn apart by the ambiguous stances of the popes, the incessant struggles between noble families, and an arrogant population that hung on to its glorious past and disregarded the present.  

In 1300, Pope Boniface VIII launched the first Jubilee, a religious celebration of forgiveness. The Jubilee attracted pilgrims from far and wide, and the city attained high revenues. Boniface VIII also established Rome’s first university.

Clement V, who succeeded Boniface, set the tradition of the so-called Babylonian Captivity. He never entered Rome and moved the papal seat to Avignon, where it remained for the next seven decades. 

That aside, the city continued to hold on to its spiritual prestige. Famous poet Petrarca came to Rome to be proclaimed as poet in Campidoglio. Rich and poor alike demanded the return of the pope. Ambassador Cola di Rienzo emerged as an important political player at this time. He conquered the Campidoglio in 1347. That same year, he conferred Roman citizenship upon every city in Italy. He even began to prepare for the election of a Roman Emperor of Italy. That was the straw which broke the camel’s back – in this case, the pope’s. He publicly deemed Cola a criminal and heretic. As his popular support had waned by then, Cola fled the city.

Pope Gregory XI reinstated the Holy See in Rome in 1377. The following year, the Catholic Church split, an event known as the Papal Schism. The city plunged deeper into anarchy and deterioration. The Council of Constance resolved the schism 40 years later.

Unification Era

Papal rule was briefly interrupted by the Roman Republic, which was established in 1798 under the influence of the French Revolution. The Congress of Vienna instituted new states throughout Italy after the fall of Napoleon’s Empire. These were the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the restored Papal States and King Charles-Albert’s Piedmont-Sardinia. Another Roman Republic was established in 1849 in the wake of the cross-continental anti-monarchy movements of 1848. Giuseppe Garibaldi was the most influential figure of the Italian unification. His aims were supported by the sly Camille Cavour, Prime Minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. Cavour launched wide-scale industrialisation in his effort to unite Northern Italy. He sent the army of Piedmont-Sardinia to fight alongside the British and French in the Crimean War. He established cordial relations between France and Piedmont-Sardinia, which he was to exploit in the future.

With the return of the pope to Rome, the city was excluded from the unification process, a key element in the second Italian war of independence. Garibaldi invaded Sicily with little resistance and captured it. Publicly, Cavour denounced the revolutionary’s act, but he had provided military assistance to him in secret. After that, Garibaldi crossed the Strait of Messuna and captured the entire kingdom. Cavour’s alliance with France motivated him to plan an attack against Venetia and Lombardy. French and Italian forces agreed to capture the two states, but the French pulled out of the agreement shortly thereafter. At this time, only Venetia had been captured. Cavour was enraged and resigned. Later, he was reappointed.

During the Austro-Prussian War, Italy and Prussia agreed that Italy would attack Austria in exchange for Lombardy. The Prussians were victorious, and the northern front of Italy became complete. The Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. Napoleon III could no longer defend the Papal States. The Italian army entered Rome that same year. The Kingdom of Italy then annexed Rome and Latium. The Italian government offered to let the pope retain authority over Leonine City, but the pope refused because he believed that he would be affirming the legitimacy of the Italian kingdom's rule over his former territory. The pope declared himself a prisoner in the Vatican. Finally, Rome became the capital of Italy in 1871.

Recent History of Rome

Rome became the capital of Italy after national unification was achieved in 1870. The population increased dramatically thereafter, from a quarter million to approximately three million in 1995.

Italy suffered a massive defeat in World War II, which ended with the fall of the fascist government. In 1946, the citizens voted for the establishment of a republic. At this time, the Christian Democratic Party emerged. Its leader, Alcide de Gasperi, was appointed prime minister and remained at this post until 1953. The second most influential party was the Communist Party. It started out with revolutionary propaganda, but abandoned this approach in the 1970s. It was renamed the Democratic Party of the Left in 1991.

Italy lost all its overseas colonies after the war, but managed to breathe new life into its economy nonetheless. In part, this was due to the support of the United States by means of the Marshall Plan (1948-1952). The European Community was established in Rome in 1957. As a member of this organization, Italy began to make progress, transforming into a leading industrial nation. Its automobile and office equipment industries were the most prolific. Naturally, this prosperity was most evident in its capital.

The country was not without its problems during this period. There was an unprecedented flight of capital, and unemployment and inflation rates skyrocketed in the 1970s. Rome had a problem with escalating terrorism perpetrated by fascist organizations during this decade and the next.

Today, Rome is the seat of government and a centre of art and science. It is not an industrialised city, which is among its major advantages. However, the levels of pollution are consistently high. The high number of motor vehicles affects historic sites very negatively, but there are available many hotels located far from the busy city centre.