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From City to Empire

From City to Empire

Knowledge of early Rome is based on two sources of evidence: the traditional histories written by Livy and others several centuries later; and the findings of archaeology.

Legend says that the Romans traced their ancestry back to Aeneas, the hero who escaped from the sack of Troy carrying his father Anchises on his back.

Later on Aeneas' son then founded the city of Alba Londa, and it was from the kings of Alba Longa that Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were directly descended. The story of Romulus and Remus founding the city of Rome may incorporate elements of truth. For it was in the 8th century that two existing settlements, on on the Palatine Hill, the other on the Quirinal, coalesced to form a single village. This was the approximate time that the traditional foundation of Rome by Romulus in 753 BC.

Early Rome has been give especially vivid form by the discovery early this century of oval hut foundations on the Palatine Hill, and by burials in the Forum valley and on the Esquiline Hill. The nascent settlement of Rome soon found itself at war with its powerful neighbors, the Sabines. According to tradition, Romulus enticed the Sabines to a feast, during which the Romans seized the Sabine women as their wives.

From Village to City

The four earliest kings were shadowy characters and the settlement itself was small and undistinguished. Major change began to take place during the 7th century, when tiled roofs and stone foundations appear, culminating in the draining of the Forum area and its laying out as a public square.

According to legend the first Etruscan ruler, Tarquinius Priscus, took control of Rome by peaceful means, gaining the acquiescence and support of the leading families. Rome never became an Etruscan city-state in the strict sense of the term, but it took on many Etruscan trappings.

It was especially important to the Etruscans since the latter had established a major zone of influence in Campania to the south, and the Tiber Bridge was the strategic artery of communication between the homeland and these southern outposts.

The Birth of the Republic

The Etruscans ruled Rome for a little over a century: the traditional dates are 616 BC for the accession of the first Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus, and 510 BC for the expulsion of the last, Tarquinius Superbus. Livy tells us it was the rape of Lucretia by Sextus, son of Tarquin the Proud, which incited rebellion by a group of Roman aristocrats led by Lucious Junius Brutus. The Tarquins were expelled from Rome, and a new constitution devised, where by power rested in the hands of the senate, who delegated executive action to a pair of consuls who were elected from among their number to serve for one year. Thus was born the Roman Republic.

Many troubles lay ahead for the Roman Republic, since the new constitution was not flawless and there remained powerful external enemies. Internally, one serious threat was the internecine feuding of the leading families, many of whom commanded the support of large numbers of clients and used them on occasion to subvert the power of the state. Another was the struggle between the leading families as a whole and the rest of the population, especially the underprivileged groups (the plebeians).

After some years of conflict the plebeians forced the senate to pass a written series of laws (the Twelve Tables) which recognized certain rights and gave the plebeians their own representatives, the tribunes. It was only later, in the 4th century, that plebeians were given the right to stand for the consulship and other major offices of state.

Expansion in Italy

By the 5th century BC, Rome was an important city, but by no means of a major regional power. The transition came about only through piecemeal expansion in a series of minor wars. By the end of the 5th century these peoples had been defeated, and the Romans pushed forward their own frontiers, establishing colonies in strategic places.

The first resounding Roman military success was to the north of the city, where in 396 BC after a ten-year siege they captured Veii. This was the southernmost of the Etruscan cities and a major metropolis. Any feelings of elation must have been short-lived. Since six years later, a new and more distant enemy, the Celts, sacked Rome itself. They have come from Central Europe and established themselves in northern Italy during the course of the 5th and 6th centuries, and in 391 BC a Celtic war-band launched a raid deep into the Etruria. They returned the next year in even greater strength, defeated the Romans at the River Allia, and captured the city. The citadel on the Capitoline Hill held out for a few months but eventually capitulated. The Celts withdrew with their booty back in northern Italy, leaving the Romans to pick up the pieces, rebuild the city and restore their damaged prestige. One of their first acts was to provide Rome itself with better defenses: the Servian Wall, 6 miles (10 km) long, which was the only city wall that Rome possessed until the Emperor Aurelian build a new one over 500 years later. But it was some years before the Romans were able to return to the offensive.

In 343 BC, they came into conflict with the Samnites, a powerful tribal confederation who controlled the central backbone of southern Italy. This First Samnite War was brief and inconclusive, but was followed by more significant Roman gains in the Second and Third Wars.

Victory in the Third Samnite War extended Roman territory across the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea. This made Rome a major regional power and attracted hostile attention from the Greek cities around the coast of souther Italy. They called in the help of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, an ambitious adventurer who arrived at Tarentum in 280 BC with a well-trained army which included war elephants, the first the Romans had encountered.

Rome and the Mediterranean

Rome now controlled the whole of the Italian peninsula, either through alliance or direct conquest. The next wars were fought against a much more redoubtable opponent -the Carthaginians- and the prize this time was not merely Italy but the whole of the West and Central Mediterranean.

Rome's advantage lay in the enormous reserves of Italian manpower on which it could call. Carthage was a maritime power with a redoubtable fleet. The First Punic War (264-241 BC) was fought for control of Sicily. The Carthaginians had long held the western end of the island and had sought from time to time to conquer the Greek cities of eastern Sicily, such as Catana and Syracuse. Despite their seafaring skill, the Romans in a number of naval engagements defeated the Carthaginians and by the end of war Sicily was reduced to the status of a Roman province, becoming indeed Rome's first overseas possession.

The Carthaginians were slow to accept their reverse, and in 218 BC, struck back in the Second Punic War, with an invasion of Italy itself, led by Hannibal. This time it was a land battle. The Romans turned the tables by invading Carthaginian territory. Hannibal crossed back to Africa to defend his homeland but was defeated in the final battle of the war, at Zama, by the Roman general Scipio "Africanus" in 202 BC.

The victory over Hannibal removed Carthage as a military threat, but did not bring the Romans any great measure of peace. Instead, they found themselves embroiled in new wars that took them further and further afield. In the west, they became involved in a whole succession of wars in Spain, seeking to protect and expand the territory in the south of the country that they had taken from the Carthaginians. In Italy, close to home, they renewed the conquest of the Celtic lands in the north, which became the province of Gallia Cisalpina. The greatest wars of the 2nd century BC were fought in the Balkans and the east Mediterranean. As the century began, the Romans declared war on Philip, King of Macedonia, and in 196 BC, defeated the Macedonian army at Cynoscephalae. In 146 BC, Roman forced Greece and Macedonia together to become the Roman province of Achaea. In 133 BC, Rome gained yet another overseas territory when the last king of Pergamum left his kingdom to the Romans upon his death.

Thus, almost by accident, Rome became the ruler of a great Mediterranean empire. The provinces brought wealth to Italy, and fortunes were made through the granting of valuable mineral concession and enormous slave run estates.

The Fall of the Republic

The beginning of the end of the Republic came when the brothers Gracchus challenged the traditional constitutional order in the 130s and 120s BC. Though members of the aristocracy themselves, they sough to parcel out public land in the dispossessed Italian peasant farmers. Other measures followed, but many senators came to view the Gracchi as public enemies, and both the brothers met violent deaths. The next champion of the people was Gaius Marius, a brilliant military commander who reformed the Roman army and saved Italy from the invading Cimbri and Teutones in 102 and 101 BC. The temporary ascendancy achieved by Marius was eclipsed by that of Sulla in the 80s BC. Sulla made his name in two crucial wars. The first in Italy itself, the so-called Social War of 91-89 BC, where the Italian allies, though they lost the war, largely won their demand for full Roman citizenship. The second was being the defeat of Mithridates, king of Pontus, who chose this moment of Roman weakness to overrun Asia Minor and Greece. Sulla was a staunch proponent of aristocratic privilege, and his short-lived monarchy saw the repeal of pro-popular legislation and the condemnation, usually without trial, of thousands of his enemies.

After Sulla's death the pendulum swung back somewhat in favor of the people under a successful new commander, Pompey the Great. He became immensely popular for clearing the seas of pirates and went ton to impose a new political settlement on the warring kingdoms of the East Mediterranean, notably making Syria a Roman province. When he returned to Rome in 62 BC he found himself faced by two astute political opponents: the immensely wealth Marcus Licinius Crassus, and the young but promising Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar was well known for conquering Gaul, and then later occupying Rome.

The three men reached a political accommodation now known as the First Triumvirate. Under the terms of this arrangement Caesar become consul in 59 BC and was then made governor of the two Gallic provinces, Cisalpina south of the Alps, the other Transalpina covering the southern part of modern France. Caesar's career was cut short by his assassination at Rome in 44 BC, but rule by one man was becoming a increasingly inevitable prospect. It was a prospect brought to fruition by Octavian, Caesar's adoptive son. He and Mark Antony, Caesar's friend and lieutenant, defeated Caesar's assassins at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. They then formed the Second Triumvirate, joining with Lepidus to divide power between them. The arrangement did not last, however, and eventually resolved itself into direct military conflict between Octavian and Mark Antony. Octavian's victory at the battle of Actium left him sole ruler, and in 27 BC the Senate granted him the title Augustus, making him the first official emperor of Rome.