Ancient Italy, Rome to 476

Ancient Italy, Rome to 476

Italy Ancient Rome (753 Bc-Ad 476)
 
Though numerous stories recount the founding of Rome, the tale of the brothers Romulus and Remus is by far the most famous. According to legend, one of the seven Vestal Virgins, priestesses who protect Rome’s Eternal Flame, conceived the twins Romulus and Remus when she lost her virginity to Mars, the god of war. In a fury over the shame his niece brought to the family name, the priestesses’s royal uncle ordered the infants killed. The servant commissioned for the task found himself unable to do so, and instead laid the children in a basket by the Tiber River. Various accounts describe their rescue, though one of the most common depictions is of Romulus and Remus suckling at the teats of a she-wolf who adopted them (an excellent example can be found in a sculpture dating to 500 BC, in the Musei Capitolini). In 753 BC, the brothers founded Rome together on the Palatine Hill. While Romulus was building the wall around the Palatine, however, Remus challenged the height of the wall by showing he could jump over it. Angered by this insult, Romulus killed his brother and became the first king of Rome, which was named in his honor. Despite the early successes of Romulus and his successors, Etruscan kings eventually forced themselves back into power. By 616 BC, their Tarquin dynasty, short-lived though it may have been, was infamous for its tyranny. This era of kings ended in 509 BC, when Prince Sextus Tarquinius raped the noblewoman Lucretia, compelling her relative Lucius Brutus to expel the Tarquins and establish the Roman Republic.
 
The Republic (509-27 Bc)
 
The end of the monarchy and the foundation of the Republic raised new debates over equality. The Republic faced social struggles between upper-class patricians, who enjoyed full participation in the Senate, and middle- and lower-class plebeians, who were denied political involvement. In 450 BC, the Laws of the Twelve Tables, the first codified Roman laws, made a slight concession to the lower classes, requiring that the law be made public and allowing them some political liberties.
 
As the Republic made efforts to placate those within its territory, it continued in its efforts to dominate those outside it. The defeat of Tarentum (modern day Taranto) in 272 BC completed the Roman conquest of mainland Italy. Never satisfied, the Romans went on to conquer Sicily in 241 BC and to wrest Sardinia in 238 BC from the Carthaginians, an extremely successful Phoenician colony. With this conquest, the Romans gained control of all of modern-day Italy.
 
The spoils of war that supposedly enriched Rome actually undermined its stability by creating further class inequality. In 133 BC Tiberius Gracchus, the first of the two Gracchi brothers, attempted to push through land reforms, but was assassinated. Ten years later his brother Gaius again attempted reforms with the same results. Demands for land redistribution led to riots against the patrician class and then to the Social War in 91 BC. The patrician general Sulla saw his chance for glory in the unrest, defeated his rivals in 82 BC, and quickly named himself dictator.
 
In 73 BC, Spartacus, an escaped gladiatorial slave, led an army of 70,000 slaves and impoverished farmers on a two-year rampage around the Italian peninsula. Sulla’s close associates, Marcus Crassus and Pompey the Great, quelled the uprising and took control of Rome for themselves. They joined forces with ambitious Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul, but their alliance rapidly fell apart as their absolute power corrupted them absolutely. By 45 BC, Caesar had defeated his “allies” and emerged as the Republic’s leader, naming himself Dictator for Life. Angered by Caesar’s pandering to the poor, an aristocratic coalition, led by Brutus, assassinated the reform-oriented leader on the Ides (15th) of March, 44 BC. Caesar’s death created yet another power vacuum as would-be successors struggled for the helm. In 31 BC, Octavian, Caesar’s adopted heir, emerged victorious over Marc Antony and his exotic mistress Cleopatra; he was granted the title Augustus (meaning “majestic”) in 27 BC.
 
The Empire (27 BC-AD 476)
 
As the center of the world’s largest and most powerful empire, Rome eventually reached as far as modern Britain in the north and Iran in the east. Political power and economic prosperity brought about great cultural achievement, and Roman civilization and language made a lasting impact on every corner of the Empire, and often beyond.
 
Augustus was the first of the Empire’s Julio-Claudian rulers (27 BC-AD 68). Superficially following Republican traditions, he did not call himself rex (king), but princeps (first citizen). His principate (27 BC-AD 14) is considered the Golden Age of Rome, and this period of relative stability and prosperity, the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), continued until AD 180. During this time, Augustus extended Roman law and civic culture, beautified Rome, and reorganized its administration. For all of his excellent reforms, Augustus ran a tight ship. He even exiled his daughter, Julia, for reasons of promiscuity.
 
The Empire continued to expand despite the fact that two of its emperors during this time, Caligula (AD 37-41) and Nero (AD 54-68), were violent, economically irresponsible, and likely mad: a veritable trifecta of political incompetence. Following a series of civil wars after Nero’s death in AD 68, the Flavian dynasty (AD 69-96) ushered in a period of prosperity, extended to new heights by Trajan (AD 98-117), who conquered the regions at the borders of the Black Sea. By this point, the Empire had reached astounding geographical limits, encompassing Western Europe, the Mediterranean islands, England, North Africa, and part of Asia. Following Trajan, Hadrian (AD 117-130) established the Antonine dynasty, which lasted until AD 193. The Antonines, especially philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius , were known for their enlightened leadership. When Septimius Severus (AD 146-211) won the principate after yet another civil war, he founded the robust Severan dynasty (AD 193-235).
 
Weak governments and rapid inflation led to near anarchy in the AD third century, until a formerly obscure general, Diocletian (AD 284-305), divided the empire into two eastern and two western regions, each with its own ruler. As a result of his persecution of Christians, Diocletian’s reign became known as the “Age of Martyrs.” While Diocletian’s economically successful four-part empire eventually crumbled under his successor, Constantine (AD 272-337), Christian fortune took a turn for the better. Before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312, he claimed he saw a cross of light in the sky, emblazoned with the words “by this sign you shall conquer.” When victory followed, he converted to Christianity and issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313 abolishing religious discrimination. In AD 330 he began the process of moving the capital to Byzantium, renaming the city Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in his honor. These changes split the Empire permanently into the stronger, wealthier Byzantine Empire and the down-sized Roman Empire, which struggled to integrate a large barbarian immigrant population. Alaric, king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome in AD 410, dealing a crushing blow to Roman morale. Roman leadership proved little help in this situation: Emperor Honorius so uninformed of the state of his Empire that he believed news of the imminent fall of Rome referred to the death of his pet rooster, Roma. The final symbolic blow came in AD 476 when the German chief Odoacer crowned himself king and put the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, under house arrest.
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