A History of Rome in Paintings: Overview and Contents

J M W Turner (1775–1851), Modern Rome – Campo Vacino (1839), oil on canvas, 91.7 x 122.5 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

According to legend, the ultimate founder of Rome was the Trojan Aeneas, who fled that city when it was sacked and destroyed by the Greeks. He settled in central Italy, where he founded the city of Lavinium. Ascanius, son of Aeneas, then founded the city of Alba Longa, in the Alban Hills, not far from the current site of Rome.

1 Trojan Origins

During the early days of Rome, the Etruscans were an important neighbouring civilisation, and the subject of legends which claim that the Romans wiped them out. It’s more probable that the two merged by a process of gradual assimilation.

2 Etruscans

Descendants of Aeneas ruled Alba Longa, until a daughter, a ‘virgin’ priestess of the goddess Vesta, gave birth to twin boys, Romulus and Remus. They were abandoned to die in the River Tiber, but survived by suckling from a she-wolf, to become the founders of the city of Rome.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Romulus and Remus (1615-16), oil on canvas, 213 x 212 cm, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Remus was killed in a dispute between the twins, but Romulus went on to oversee the building of the city. Populated overwhelmingly by men, the Romans abducted the womenfolk of their neighbours, the Sabines, resulting in conflict. This was resolved after the Sabines seized Rome, through the intervention of the Sabine women. When he was only fifty-four, Romulus vanished, apparently being elevated to become a god.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), oil on canvas, 385 x 522 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

3 Foundation

A series of kings succeeded Romulus, who laid down its first code of laws, and defended it against enemies. In the course of this, the Romans defeated and destroyed its precursor city of Alba Longa, following combat between the sons of the Horatius and Curiatius families.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Oath of the Horatii (copy) (1786, original 1784-5), oil on canvas, 130.2 x 166.7 cm (original 329.8 x 424.8 cm), Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH (original Musée du Louvre). Wikimedia Commons.

4 Kings

The last king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown after his son raped Lucretia, daughter of a prefect and wife of a consul.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), Lucretia (1666), oil on canvas, 110.2 x 92.3 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

5 The last king’s downfall

The Romans then defeated the Etruscan Lars Porsena, but only following gallant defence of the city’s weak point of the Sublicius bridge over the River Tiber by Publius Horatius Cocles.

6 War with the Tuscans, and defending the bridge

The new Republic of Rome faced further conflicts, this time with the Volscians, to whom the Roman Coriolanus defected. When Coriolanus and the Volscians were just five miles from the gates of the city, it was only the intervention of his wife and mother who persuaded him to abandon their attack.

7 Rome saved by a mother

Next to challenge the Republic of Rome were the Gauls, who sacked the city before being routed by Camillus.

8 Sacked by Gauls

Further conflict led to the First Punic War against Carthage, which the Romans won.

Regulus 1828, reworked 1837 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Regulus (1828, 1837), oil on canvas, 89.5 x 123.8 cm, The Tate Gallery (Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-regulus-n00519

9 Pyrrhic victories

The Carthaginian General Hannibal led his army, complete with its famous war-elephants, over the Alps and came close to defeating Rome. The republic succeeded in defeating Carthage, and set about dismantling and destroying its competing empire.

10 War with Carthage

Although growing in power and extent, Rome descended inexorably towards its First Civil War, and a period in which many Romans were murdered as factions led by figures such as Sulla and Pompey vied for power.

11 The Road to Civil War

Lionel Royer (1852–1926), Vercingetorix Throwing down His Weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar (1899), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée Crozatier, Puy-en-Velay, France. Wikimedia Commons.
Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), Caesar and His Fortune (Caesar in the Boat) (1855), oil on canvas, 114 x 146.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was Julius Caesar who emerged the victor, and was made Dictator of Rome in 48 BCE.

12 Civil War

Julius Caesar’s passion for royal powers generated open and deadly hatred, and Marcus Brutus found favour as his successor.

13 Hail Caesar

On the Ides of March, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a large group of senators shortly after he had arrived at the Senate.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Death of Caesar (1859), oil on canvas, 85.5 x 145.5 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. By courtesy of Walters Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

14 Assassination

At first, Mark Antony, Octavian and Marcus Lepidus formed a triumvirate to succeed Julius Caesar, but it was Octavian, under the name of Augustus, who became the first Emperor of Rome in 27 BCE.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Ancient Italy – Ovid Banished from Rome (1838), oil on canvas, 94.6 x 125 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

15 Peace in the age of Augustus

Although the reign of Augustus marked the start of what is known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), the new Empire suffered severe military defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, in what is now Germany.

16 Disaster and death

The Emperor Nero also proved disastrous: the city was almost destroyed in a fire on the night of 18/19 July 64 CE.

Carl Theodor von Piloty (1826-1886), Nero Views the Burning of Rome (1861), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Nero’s role in the fire remains in doubt, but he was eventually driven to order his own private secretary to kill him in 68 CE.

17 Murder and martyrs

Nero’s death did nothing to solve the Empire’s problems, and was followed by a period of great instability, in which there were no less than four emperors in a single year.

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), Vitellius traîné dans les rues de Rome par la populace (Vitellius Dragged Through the Streets of Rome by the People) (1882-3), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée de Sens, France. Wikimedia Commons.

18 Four Emperors in a Year

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856), The Young Martyr (1853), oil on canvas, 73.5 x 60 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

The systematic oppression and martyrdom of Christians continued until the Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 213 CE.

19 More martyrs

Among the historical sites in the city of Rome are the Capitoline Hill, with its major temples, and the Tarpeian Rock, from which traitors were thrown.

20 The Capitoline Hill and Tarpeian Rock

The Forum was at the heart of life: a meeting place, somewhere to do business, a market, and political hub.

21 The Forum

The Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre in the ancient world.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Ave Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant (1859), oil on canvas, 92.5 x 145 cm, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. The Athenaeum.

22 The Colosseum

A temple to Aesculapius, the god of medicine and the healing arts, is the subject of an elaborate legend.

23 Aesculapius comes to town

The Senate was the location of many important orations, and of Julius Caesar’s assassination, but was very different from that shown in paintings.

24 The Senate

J M W Turner (1775–1851), Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (1839), oil on canvas, 91.7 x 122.5 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.