Rome: The Origins of The Empire

Nestled along the fertile banks of the Tiber river, in its early years Rome can be considered as nothing more than inconspicuous. Tidily hidden away from the prying eyes of the world.

Sharing the Italian peninsula with a host of many other small tribes and peoples, with the Etruscans to their north, it would be a long road to dominance for Rome.

In the east grand empires had risen and fallen; the Assyrian dominance had ended at the hands of the Medes, Babylonians and Scythians, the Greeks and Persians would partake in epic struggles immortalised by Herodotus, Carthage would rise and Greek culture would spread through trade and exploration.

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If one were to look at Rome throughout its early years it would be difficult to envisage their dominance over the Mediterranean and beyond. A speck of dust in a grand house inhabited by giants. Rome would come to dominate however. And the empire forged by this small regional power can be acknowledged as one of the most effective military, economic and cultural figures in world history.

This is the history of Rome.

Rome’s origin – as with the origin of many cultures and dynasties of the time – is shrouded in myth and mystery. With very few credible sources of how the great city came to arise, the story of Rome begins with the legendary tale of Remus and Romulus.

According to legend the two brothers were the sons of Mars, the god of war, and the city takes its name from the latter of the two. For political reasons, in their early childhood the brothers were left to die along the banks of the river Tiber by a local king, Amulius. They found an unlikely savour in the form of a she wolf however, and upon reaching adulthood the two brothers deposed the king and their would-be killer in around 753bc.

Naturally, it is unlikely that the two brothers were raised at the teat of a wolf. Contrasting tales state that they were found by a herdsman and his wife, perhaps the she wolf aspect found its origins with the wife of the herdsman? Ultimately it is unknown.

This alone makes for an epic tale. Two brothers, whether raised by a wolf or a peasant, deposing the king that ordered them killed. Murder, tragedy and redemption, it has it all. But the story has deeper mythological roots stretching back to the Trojan War.

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We all know the story of Troy, it is the quintessential Greek drama. Deception and war, heroes and villains, the romantic Trojans versus the war mongering Spartans; A war fought for love.

The epic tale that brings us to the shores of the Italian Peninsula, Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, is like many tales of the time embellished with myth and fantasy. But a compelling tale nonetheless.

Upon its destruction, legend has it that Aeneas – a friend and lieutenant of Hector – fled by sea from Troy. It is here we see the supposed origins of Roman history, and the beginning of cultural divide that would shape Rome in centuries to come.

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Reaching the shores North Africa, Aeneas is said to have seduced the Carthaginian queen Dido. As with all heartbreak tales he abandons her and as we know, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Before committing suicide, Virgil claims Dido curses both peoples to an eternal hatred, thus sewing the seeds of future conflict:

“See to it hate his progeny and all his race to come, make this your offering to my dust. 

“No love, no pact, must be between our peoples.”

Once the eternal enemy and the melancholic tragedy had been established in this story, Aeneas sailed to the Italian peninsula. Upon his arrival the Trojans were met with hostility. No large scale conflict would erupt yet however, as King Latinus is said to have favoured the Trojans.

Rejecting a proposal of marriage from a neighbouring power, Latinus offers his daughter to Aeneas, creating an alliance. This insult to Turnus, prince of the Rutuli, results in a war between the Trojan-Latin alliance and the scorned prince.

When the dust settles, Latinus lies dead. The reigns firmly in the control of Aeneas.

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Defeated, Turnus turns to the Etruscans, northern Italy’s dominant power in this period. The dynamic between the Latins and Etruscans provides an insight into the political complexities of the time in the Italian peninsula. Historical evidence suggests the Etruscans themselves migrated from Asia Minor, with archaeological evidence supporting the hypothesis that the Latins find their origins in the Balkans.

The Etruscans are how many view Rome; Artisans and traders, metalworkers and a cultured people. The Latins however are nothing more than farmers, hardy people who have an appetite for conflict and the strict administration of law – A small glimpse at the typical Roman style of the future, but lacking the final touch. Even their gods are an altered interpretation of the Greek Pantheon.

Trade with Greek powers in the south and around the Mediterranean flowed southward – crucially through the Latin region – and so any rising force in the region would naturally pose a threat to the Etruscans. They hold the mantel of Romes first true enemy, and one that would need vanquished if Rome was to expand in centuries to come. (That’s a story for another time though.)

Conflict with the Etruscans was brutal. Aeneas, now in control of the Latins and Trojans does battle with the northern enemy, and in his last act, he is triumphant. Virgils epic ends rather abruptly, but what is stated is that Turnus is defeated, and the Latin kingdom is fully established.

Aeneas’ son Asconius assumed the mantel of king, and with the Trojan settlement established and flourishing, the population began to grow and could not cope.

Expansion was needed and Latin eyes gazed eastward.

An expedition is launched and Alba Longa is founded. It is here that the seat of the Latin kingdom would reside, and thus the line of kings that lead us to Remus and Romulus begins.

With each passing generation the stability and security of the Latin kingdom grew. From father to son the kingship was passed until it fell to Numitor. Numitor’s throne was coveted by his treacherous brother, Amulius however.

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Amulius seized the throne, driving his brother from Alba Longa and killing his sons. Numitor’s daughter, Rhae Silvia is said to have become a vestal virgin, but shortly after her vows were taken she was raped. Claiming that the perpetrator was in fact Mars, her cries fell on deaf ears and she was imprisoned. Upon giving birth to two boys, the babes were taken to be drowned along the banks of the Tiber river.

Those entrusted with the ghastly task arrived to find the river flooded, but rather than wade into the water they simply left the boy’s on the banks, it is here that the aforementioned tale of Remus and Romulus begins.

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Earlier I mentioned the tale of the she wolf and the contrary origin tales that are often proposed. In the herdsman version of events, the boys are raised by the couple, and quickly make a name for themselves in young adulthood. This is where a great twist of fate occurs. Battling local brigands, Remus is captured and the criminals take him to a local landowner with the intention of claiming that he is in fact the brigand.

His valiant brother Romulus arrives to save his brother and the landowner just so happens to be the deposed king Numitor. Suspecting the boys are his blood, he speaks to their adoptive father and quickly a plan is set in motion to retake his throne.

Alumius is deposed and Numitor is unanimously reinstated as king. The brothers had their own path to follow however, and it is in the spot where they were left to die that they founded the city of Rome.

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Remus’ demise is, again, a tale with many differing versions of events. When deciding whom would take the mantel of king, the brothers climbed the nearest hill. Six vultures landed at the feet of Remus, followed by twelve at the feet of Romulus. In a rage the two brothers did battle; Remus claiming ‘primacy of arrival’ and Romulus claiming ‘primacy of number’.

Another version of events involves Remus mocking his brother by leaping over the half-constructed walls of Rome. Romulus, in a bout of rage killed him, swearing:

“So shall perish whoever shall over leap my battlements.”

Regardless of how the story unfolded, Romulus now stood as the first king of Rome. It is a line that would last for more than two centuries, until Rome’s experiment with the monarchy would end, propelling it into a new age, an age which I will explore in the next instalment of this series; The age of the republic.

 

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