There is archaeological evidence of human occupation of the Rome area from at least 14,000 years, but the dense layer of much younger debris obscures Paleolithic and Neolithic sites. Evidence of stone tools, pottery and stone weapons attest to at least 10,000 years of human presence. The power of the well-known tale of Rome’s legendary foundation tends also to deflect attention from its actual, and much more ancient, origins.
Monarchy, republic, empire
Rome’s early history is shrouded in legend. According to Roman tradition, the city was founded by Romulus on 21 April 753 BC. The legendary origin of the city tells that Romulus and Remus decided to build a city. After an argument, Romulus killed his brother Remus. The Roman poet Virgil refers to this belief when he depicts Aeneas as escaping the fall of Troy by coming to Latium to found a line descending to Romulus, first king of Rome. Archaeological evidence supports the view that Rome grew from pastoral settlements on the Palatine Hill built-in the area of the future Roman Forum. While some archaeologists argue that Rome was indeed founded in the middle of the 8th century BC, the date is subject to controversy. The original settlement developed into the capital of the Roman Kingdom (ruled by a succession of seven kings, according to tradition), and then the Roman Republic (from 510 BC, governed by the Senate), and finally the Roman Empire (from 27 BC, ruled by an Emperor). This success depended on military conquest, commercial predominance, as well as selective assimilation of neighboring civilizations, most notably the Etruscans and Greeks. From its foundation Rome, although losing occasional battles, had been undefeated in war until 386 BC, when it was briefly occupied by the Gauls. According to the legend, the Gauls offered to deliver Rome back to its people for a thousand pounds of gold, but the Romans refused, preferring to take back their city by force of arms rather than ever admitting defeat, after which the Romans recovered the city in the same year.
The Republic was wealthy, powerful and stable before it became an empire. According to tradition, Rome became a
republic in 509 BC. However, it took a few centuries for Rome to become the great city of popular imagination, and it only became a great empire after the rule of Augustus (Octavian). By the 3rd century BC, Rome had become the pre-eminent city of the Italian peninsula, having conquered and defeated the Sabines, the Etruscans, the Samnites and most of the Greek colonies in Sicily, Campania and Southern Italy in general. During the Punic Wars between Rome and the great Mediterranean empire of Carthage, Rome’s stature increased further as it became the capital of an overseas empire for the first time. Beginning in the 2nd century BC, Rome went through a significant population expansion as Italian farmers, driven from their ancestral farmlands by the advent of massive, slave-operated farms called latifundia, flocked to the city in great numbers. The victory over Carthage in the First Punic War brought the first two provinces outside the Italian peninsula, Sicily and Corsica et Sardinia. Parts of Spain (Hispania) followed, and in the beginning of the 2nd century the Romans got involved in the affairs of the Greek world. By then all Hellenistic kingdoms and the Greek city-states were in decline, exhausted from endless civil wars and relying on mercenary troops. This saw the fall of Greece after the Battle of Corinth (146 BC) and the establishment of Roman control over Greece.
The Roman Empire at its greatest extent controlled approximately 6.5 million square km of land surface.
The Roman Empire had begun more formally when Emperor Augustus (63 BC–AD 14; known as Octavian before his throne accession) founded the Principate in 27 BC. This was a monarchy system which was headed by an emperor holding power for life, rather than making himself dictator like Julius Caesar had done, which had resulted in his assassination on 15 March, 44 BC. At home, Emperor Augustus started off a great program of social, political and economic reform and grand-scale reconstruction of the city of Rome. The city became dotted with impressive and magnificent new buildings, palaces, fora and basilicae. Augustus became a great and enlightened patron of the arts, and his court was attended by such poets as Virgil, Horace and Propertius. His rule also established the Pax Romana, a long period of relative peace which lasted approximately 200 years. Following his rule were emperors such as Caligula, Nero, Trajan, and Hadrian, to name a few. Roman emperor Nero was well known for his extravagance, cruelty, tyranny, and the myth that he was the emperor who “fiddled while Rome burned” during the night of 18 to 19 July 64 AD. The Antonine Plague of 165–180 is believed to have killed as much as one-third of the population.
Roman dominance expanded over most of Western Europe and the shores of the Mediterranean, though its influence through client states and the sheer power of its presence was wider than its formal borders. Its population surpassed one million inhabitants. For almost seven hundred years, Rome was the most politically important, richest, and largest city in the Western world. After the Empire started to decline and was split, it lost its capital status to Milan and then to Ravenna, and was surpassed in prestige by the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, whose Greek inhabitants continued through the centuries to call themselves Roman.
15th century miniature depicting the Sack of Rome (410)
The Bishop of Rome became the Pope due to his increased political and religious importance under Emperor Constantine I. The Pope set Rome as the centre of the Catholic Church. After the Sack of Rome in 410 AD by Alaric I and the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, Rome alternated between Byzantine and Germanic control. Its population declined from more than a million in 210 AD to a mere 35,000 during the Early Middle Ages, reducing the sprawling city to groups of inhabited buildings interspersed among large areas of ruins and vegetation. Rome remained nominally part of the Byzantine Empire until 751 AD, when the Lombards finally extinguished the Exarchate of Ravenna which was the last holdout of the Byzantines in northern Italy. In 756, Pepin the Short gave the Pope temporal jurisdiction over Rome and surrounding areas, thus creating the Papal States. In 846, Muslim Arabs invaded Rome and looted St. Peter’s Basilica.
Rome remained the capital of the Papal States until its annexation by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870; the city became a major pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages and the focus of struggles between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire starting with Charlemagne, who was crowned its first emperor in Rome in 800 by Pope Leo III. Apart from brief periods as an independent city during the Middle Ages, Rome kept its status as Papal capital and “holy city” for centuries, even when the Papacy briefly relocated to Avignon (1309–1377).
The latter half of the 15th century saw the seat of the Italian Renaissance move to Rome from Florence. The Papacy wanted to equal and surpass the grandeur of other Italian cities and to this end created ever more extravagant churches, bridges, town squares and public spaces, including a new Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, Ponte Sisto (the first bridge to be built across the Tiber since antiquity), and Piazza Navona. The Popes were also patrons of the arts engaging such artists as Michelangelo, Perugino, Raphael, Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli, Botticelli, and Cosimo Rosselli.
The period was also infamous for papal corruption, with many Popes fathering children, and engaging in nepotism and simony. The corruption of the Popes and the extravagance of their building projects led, in part, to the Reformation and, in turn, the Counter-Reformation. Popes, such as Alexander VI, were well known for their decadence, wild parties, extravagance and immoral lives. However, under these extravagant and rich popes,Rome was transformed into a centre of art, poetry, music, literature, education and culture.Rome became able to compete with other major European cities of the time in terms of wealth, grandeur, the arts, learning and architecture.
Rome in 1642
The Renaissance period changed Rome’s face dramatically, with works like the Pietà by Michelangelo and the frescoes of the Borgia Apartment, all made during Innocent’s reign. Rome reached the highest point of splendor under Pope Julius II (1503–1513) and his successors Leo X and Clement VII, both members of the Medici family. In this twenty-year period Rome became one of the greatest centers of art in the world. The old St. Peter’s Basilica built by Emperor Constantine the Great (which by then was in a terrible state) was demolished and a new one begun. The city hosted artists like Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli and Bramante, who built the temple of San Pietro in Montorio and planned a great project to renovate the Vatican. Raphael, who in Rome became one the most famous painters of Italy creating frescos in the Cappella Niccolina, the Villa Farnesina, the Raphael’s Rooms, plus many other famous paintings. Michelangelo started the decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and executed the famous statue of the Moses for the tomb of Julius. Rome lost in part its religious character, becoming increasingly a true Renaissance city, with a great number of popular feasts, horse races, parties, intrigues and licentious episodes. Its economy was rich, with the presence of several Tuscan bankers, including Agostino Chigi, who was a friend of Raphael and a patron of arts. Before his early death, Raphael also promoted for the first time the preservation of the ancient ruins. The fight between France and Spain in Europe caused the first plunder of the City in more than one thousand years. In 1527 the Landsknechts of Emperor Charles V sacked the city, putting to an abrupt end the golden age of the Renaissance in Rome.
Beginning with the Council of Trent in 1545, the Church began the Counter-Reformation as an answer to the Reformation, a large-scale questioning of the Church’s authority on spiritual matters and governmental affairs. (This loss of confidence then lead to major shifts of power away from the Church.) Under the popes from Pius IV to Sixtus V, Rome became the center of the reformed Catholicism and saw the installment of new monuments which celebrated the papacy’s restored greatness. The popes and cardinals of the 17th and early 18th centuries continued the movement by having city’s landscape enriched with baroque buildings. During the Age of Enlightenment, new ideas reached also the Eternal City, where the papacy supported archeological studies and improved the people’s welfare. But not everything went well for the Church during the Counter-Reformation.
There were setbacks in the attempts to restrain the anti-Church policies of European powers of the time. The most notable setback perhaps being in 1773 when Pope Clement XIV was forced by secular powers to have the Jesuit order suppressed.
Late modern and contemporary
The rule of the Popes was interrupted by the short-lived Roman Republic (1798), which was built under the influence of the French Revolution. During Napoleon‘s reign, Rome was annexed into the French Empire. After the fall of Napoleon, the Church State under the pope was reinstated through the Congress of Vienna of 1814. In 1849, another Roman Republic arose within the framework of revolutions of 1848. Two of the most influential figures of the Italian unification, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, fought for the short-lived republic.
Rome became the focus of hopes of Italian reunification when the rest of Italy was reunited under the Kingdom of Italy with a temporary capital at Florence. In 1861, Rome was declared the capital of Italy even though it was still under the control of the Pope. During the 1860s, the last vestiges of the Papal States were under the French protection, thanks to the foreign policy of Napoleon III. And it was only when this was lifted in 1870, owing to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, that Italian troops were able to capture Rome entering the city through a breach near Porta Pia. Afterwards, Pope Pius IX declared himself as prisoner in the Vatican, and in 1871 the capital of Italy was moved from Florence to Rome.
Soon after World War I, Rome witnessed the rise to power of Italian Fascism guided by Benito Mussolini, who marched on the city in 1922, eventually declaring a new Empire and allying Italy with Nazi Germany. The interwar period saw a rapid growth in the city’s population, that surpassed 1,000,000 inhabitants. In World War II, due to its status of an open city, Rome largely escaped the tragic destiny of other European cities, but was occupied by the Germans from the Italian Armistice until its liberation on 4 June 1944. However, on 19 June 1943 Rome was bombed by Anglo-American forces, being one of the hardest hit areas in the San Lorenzo district, resulting in about 3,000 deaths and 11,000 wounded.
Rome grew after the war, as one of the driving forces behind the “Italian economic miracle” of post-war reconstruction and modernization. It became a fashionable city in the 1950s and early 1960s, the years of “la dolce vita” (“the sweet life”), with popular classic films such as Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita being filmed in the city’s iconic Cinecittà Studios. A new rising trend in population continued until the mid-1980s, when the commune had more than 2,800,000 residents; after that, population started to slowly decline as more residents moved to nearby suburbs.