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History – Last Minute City Breaks

Foundation & Kings

The territory of modern day Rome exhibits signs of occupation as early as 1500 bc, but the traditional date of the city’s foundation is 753BC, probably by the merging of neighboring villages. Still, modern historians tend to adopt a much later date, probably at the early 6th century, when the Etruscans dominated the whole area.

According to tradition, seven kings ruled the city before Rome finally adopted a unique type of democracy. That period marked also the formation of 2 distinct classes of free citizens, namely the patricians (the aristocracy) and the plebeians. In addition, the initial organization based on tribes was replaced by another founded on army units and shaped by wealth criteria.

The “early” Republic

The traditional date given for the foundation of the famous Roman Republic is 509 bc. The city was ruled by a peculiar amalgam of aristocratic, oligarchic and democratic elements:

  • 2 consuls took decisions and led the armies for one year.
  • The Senate, including the most important patricians, was officially only an advisory council, but, in fact, it was responsible for Rome interior and exterior policy.
  • The masses of free citizens that enjoyed few privileges but asked for more power as the city grew in power and wealth.

Of course, economic and political crisis created recurring tensions between the patricians and the plebeians. A major step was the writing down of the traditional roman laws in 12 Tables that still survives today. Next, the plebeians found some support in the office of tribunes, whose role entailed the protection of the plebeians from patrician abuse. In the meantime, Rome steadily expanded its power to neighboring cities.

In 390 Rome suffered one of the most disastrous and traumatic defeats in its history when hordes of Gauls flooded the city. That was the only capturing of the city for the next 800 years. The plebeians managed to get even more rights during the 3rd century bc, and succeeded in gaining access to all state offices and the decisions of the plebeian assembly had the validity of a law.

Dominating the Mediterranean Sea

Gradually, Rome conquered the whole Italian peninsula. Conquests brought riches and economical growth and relieved social tension fro as short period of time. Still, the maritime superpower of the western Mediterranean Sea, Carthage, didn’t see Rome’s growth with a friendly eye. An exhaustive series of wars broke out in 264 that almost brought Rome to its knees, but eventually, with the ultimate destruction of Carthage, Rome rose as the single most powerful state in the Mediterranean.

Rome did not actually plan all this expansion. Entangled though by politics and greed it soon found itself confronting the Greek empires and states of the east. Its mighty armies thought never failed the Roman people, who by the end of the 1st century BC ruled most of the Mediterranean coasts.

Still, during this successful period social struggle did not cease. The famous tribunes Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his brother Gaius, strived to solve some problems in favor of the suffering plebeians but both were assassinated by the Senate. Rome’s political system was not capable of dealing with all this rapid expansion. Room for nobles who lusted for power and wealth was ample and soon private armies formed around ambitious and capable military leaders. By using their assignments for personal gain, they conquered new territories and used the booty to convince their armies to support their political ambitions. The Senate usually found another general to protect it against such action and a series of catastrophic civil wars broke out: the first one between Marius and Sulla, the second between the famous Julius Caesar and the third one between Mark Antony and Octavian.

Julius Caesar almost managed to gain full control of the state, but its murder delayed the unavoidable transformation of the Republic into an Empire for another 20 years. Finally, his adopted son, Octavian, who is better known as Augustus, became the first Roman Emperor.

The Empire

Augustus exhibited excellent skill in transforming the political system and Rome into a capital of an Empire. As he boasted, “he found the city in bricks and left it attired in marble”. From then on, all emperors strived to surpass his predecessors in building ever more lavish and beautiful monuments – palaces, forums, baths, aqueducts, arcs etc. For the most part, the successors to Augustus continued his administrative policies and building program, though with less innovation and more ostentation.

Rome, who reached a population of almost 1 million, suffered often from catastrophic fires, of which the one bursting at ad 64 is the most well known, not only because it destroyed large sections of the city, but because it marked the first official persecution against Christians. The fire gave Nero the opportunity to redesign several of Rome’s districts. The same happened after the devastating fire of 191.

In the late 1st and early 2nd centuries Rome enjoyed the peak of its glory and population. Rome’s renowned paved streets, its aqueducts and sewage system made life much easier. Still, most of its inhabitants lived in poorly built and overcrowded slums without water or cooking facilities.

While rising in political power, Rome was largely a city of consumers, and this soon sealed the city’s fate.

The fall of the Empire

Colosseum of a Fallen Empire

Gradually but steadily, the city’s population and prominence began to decline in the late 2nd century. Plagues and the serious economical and political crisis of the 3rd century took their toll of the city. Despite Aurelian’s efforts to protect the city by a new wall around 270 AD, later emperors seldom spent much of their time in the city, preferring to live close to the empires borders, which were frequently invaded by Germans and Persians.

The famous reforms of Diocletian and Constantine gave the city its final blow. Soon Ravenna and Constantinople served as the main administrative centers of the eastern and western Roman Empire. In 410 Alaric seized Rome and allowed his troops to pillage the city for three days; much booty was taken, and many Romans fled. By the mid-5th century the population had dropped to fewer than 250,000.

But Rome would remain important for another reason. Rome’s Christian church has long risen to prominence and its bishop, known as the “Pope” tried hard to ensure its control over all the other churches. Papacy has preserved for Rome an important religious and political role throughout the middle ages. Despite the sack by the Alaric and later by the Vandals, Romans did more damage to the cities glorious monuments, by stripping marble and other building materials.

The Middle Ages

In 476 Odoacer, the first barbarian king of Italy, seized total control of the city. The continuous efforts of the Byzantine kings to recapture the city brought many disasters to the city. By the end of the 6th century, inhabitants were less than 50,000.

The 8th century marked the turn of the popes to the Franks for military protection and help. In 774 Pippin’s son Charlemagne conquered the Lombard kingdom in Italy, and in 800 he was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III and acclaimed by the people of Rome. For the next 2 centuries most of Rome’s churches were rebuilt and restored.

Soon enough Frankish authority declined. Around 846, Pope Leo IV constructed a wall around the Vatican (the Leonine City). For the next 2 centuries, Rome and the papacy were controlled by local nobility. The Normans sacked the city in 1084 and a new phase of rebuilding begun. By now, Rome was also becoming a place of pilgrimage, something that led to its economic growth.

Rome as a Commune

A revolution that broke out in 1143 made Rome a self-governed city, i.e. a commune, mainly aiming at freeing itself from papal authority and controlling the surrounding countryside. In the 1280s and ’90s Rome was torn by the bitter rivalries between the Colonna, Orsini, and Annibaldi families.

The popes in Avignon were able to retain control over the city. The catastrophic Black Death reduced the city’s population to less than 20,000. Finally, the papacy returned from Avignon in 1377, but, the first decades of the 15th century, Rome was described as a city “filled with huts and thieves”.

The Renaissance

The year 1420 marked the beginning of the Renaissance Era in the city, when the Popes fully controlled the city unit the end of the 19th century. The Commune was transformed into the center of papal rule.

The 15th century saw the transformation of many of the city’s narrow streets into much wider and properly constructed. The city attracted scholars and artists from all over Italy and quickly became the most important cultural centre of Italy. The peak was marked by the papacy of the Leo X, whose new St. Peter’s Church brought to the city artists of the caliber of  a as Michelangelo and Raphael.

Still, Rome was sacked once again in 1527 by Charles V and many monuments were destroyed. The city revived under the papacy of Sixtus V and by the end of the 16th century Rome became again a prosperous cosmopolitan city. The populations grew again to more than 100,000.

The fall of the papal control

During the 17th and 18th century, corruption and bribery within the nobility and ecclesiastical circles in Rome was immense and eventually paved the way to the fall of papal supremacy.

Becoming Italy’s capital

Napoleon gain control of the city in 1798, but the newly founded “Roman Republic” had a short history. In 1809 Rome was absorbed by the French Empire. Eventually, Rome in 1870 became the capital of the united Kingdom of Italy. After several disputes, in 1929 the papacy recognized the state of Italy, with Rome as its capital, and retained its sovereignty within the Vatican City.