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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The last king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown after his son raped Lucretia, daughter of a prefect and wife of a consul.
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.
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.
Next to challenge the Republic of Rome were the Gauls, who sacked the city before being routed by Camillus.
Further conflict led to the First Punic War against Carthage, which the Romans won.
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.
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.
It was Julius Caesar who emerged the victor, and was made Dictator of Rome in 48 BCE.
Julius Caesar’s passion for royal powers generated open and deadly hatred, and Marcus Brutus found favour as his successor.
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.
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.
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.
The Emperor Nero also proved disastrous: the city was almost destroyed in a fire on the night of 18/19 July 64 CE.
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.
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.
The systematic oppression and martyrdom of Christians continued until the Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 213 CE.
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.
The Forum was at the heart of life: a meeting place, somewhere to do business, a market, and political hub.
The Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre in the ancient world.
A temple to Aesculapius, the god of medicine and the healing arts, is the subject of an elaborate legend.
The Senate was the location of many important orations, and of Julius Caesar’s assassination, but was very different from that shown in paintings.