A Brief History of Rome

The History of Rome, Italy

Creation Myth: Romulus and Remus suckled by the Capitoline Wolf bronze statue
Creation Myth: Romulus and Remus suckled by the Capitoline Wolf.

Wikimedia Commons

Rome is the capital city of Italy, the home of the Vatican and the Papacy, and was once the center of a vast, ancient empire. It remains a cultural and historical focus within Europe.

The Origins of Rome

Legend says Rome was founded by Romulus in 713 B.C.E, but the origins probably predate this, from a time when the settlement was one of many on the Latium Plain. Rome developed where a salt trade route crossed the river Tiber en route to the coast, near the seven hills the city is said to be built on. It’s traditionally believed that the early rulers of Rome were kings, possibly coming from a people known as the Etruscans, who were driven out c. 500 B.C.E.

The Roman Republic and Empire

The kings were replaced with a republic which lasted for five centuries and saw Roman dominion expand across the surrounding Mediterranean. Rome was the hub of this empire, and its rulers became Emperors after the reign of Augustus, who died in 14 C.E. Expansion continued until Rome ruled much of western and southern Europe, north Africa, and parts of the Middle East. As such, Rome became the focal point of a rich and opulent culture where vast sums were spent on buildings. The city swelled to contain perhaps a million people who were dependent on grain imports and aqueducts for water. This period ensured Rome would feature in the retelling of history for millennia.

Emperor Constantine instituted two changes which affected Rome in the fourth century. Firstly, he converted to Christianity and began building works dedicated to his new god, changing the form and function of the city and laying the foundations for a second life once the empire vanished. Secondly, he built a new imperial capital, Constantinople, in the east, from where Roman rulers would increasingly run just the eastern half of the empire. Indeed, after Constantine no emperor made Rome a permanent home, and as the western empire declined in size, so did the city. Yet in 410, when Alaric and the Goths sacked Rome, it still sent shocks across the ancient world.

The Fall of Rome and the Rise of the Papacy

The final collapse of Rome’s western power—the last western emperor abdicated in 476—occurred shortly after a Bishop of Rome, Leo I, was stressing his role as direct heir to Peter. But for a century Rome declined, passing between warring parties including Lombards and Byzantines (Eastern Romans), the latter trying to reconquer the west and continue the Roman empire: the draw of the homeland was strong, even though the eastern empire had been changing in different ways for so long. The population shrank to perhaps 30,000 and the ​senate, a relic from the republic, vanished in 580.

Then arose the medieval papacy and a reshaping of western Christianity around the pope in Rome, initiated by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. As Christian rulers emerged from across Europe, so the power of the pope and the importance of Rome grew, especially for pilgrimages. As the wealth of the popes grew, Rome became center of a grouping of estates, cities, and lands known as the Papal States. Rebuilding was funded by the popes, cardinals and other wealthy church officials.

Decline and Renaissance

In 1305, the papacy was forced to move to Avignon. This absence, followed by the religious divisions of the Great Schism, meant that papal control of Rome was only regained in 1420. Striven by factions, Rome declined, and the fifteenth-century return of the popes was followed by a consciously grand rebuilding program, during which Rome was at the forefront of the Renaissance. The popes aimed to create a city which reflected their power, as well as deal with pilgrims.

The Papacy didn’t always bring glory, and when Pope Clement VII backed the French against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Rome suffered another great sacking, from which it was again rebuilt again.

The Early Modern Era

During the late seventeenth century, the excesses of the papal builders began to be curbed, while the cultural focus of Europe moved from Italy to France. Pilgrims to Rome began to be supplemented by people on the ‘Grand Tour,’ more interested in seeing the remains of ancient Rome than piety. In the late eighteenth century, the armies of Napoleon reached Rome and he looted many artworks. The city was formally taken over by him in 1808 and the pope was imprisoned; such arrangements didn’t last long, and the pope was literally welcomed back in 1814.

Capital City

Revolution overtook Rome in 1848 as the pope resisted approving revolutions elsewhere and was forced to flee from his fractious citizens. A new Roman Republic was declared, but it was crushed by French troops that same year. However, revolution remained in the air and the movement for the reunification of Italy succeeded; a new Kingdom of Italy took control of much of the Papal States and was soon pressurizing the pope for control of Rome. By 1871, after French troops left the city, and Italian forces had taken Rome, it was declared capital of the new Italy.

As ever, building followed, designed to turn Rome into a capital; the population rose fast, from roughly 200,000 in 1871 to 660,000 in 1921. Rome became the focus of a new power struggle in 1922, when Benito Mussolini marched his Blackshirts towards the city and took control of the nation. He signed the Lateran Pact in 1929, conferring on the Vatican the status of an independent state within Rome, but his regime collapsed during the Second World War. Rome escaped this great conflict without much damage and led Italy throughout the rest of the twentieth century. In 1993, the city had received its first directly elected mayor.

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Wilde, Robert. "A Brief History of Rome." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-rome-1221658. Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 26). A Brief History of Rome. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-rome-1221658 Wilde, Robert. "A Brief History of Rome." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-rome-1221658 (accessed March 30, 2023).