Rome: Origins of the Empire

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar

Nestled along the 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 other small tribes and peoples, with the Etruscans to their north, it would be a long road to dominance for Rome.

While Rome spent its formative years in relative obscurity, the world around it changed.

In the east, grand empires had risen and fallen. Assyrian dominance met an absolute, crushing end at the hands of the Medes, Babylonians and Scythians; Greek and Persian mauled each other on the shores of Greece and the plains of Gaugamela and Carthage would rise.

If one were to observe Rome during its infancy, it might be difficult to envisage its eventual dominance over the Mediterranean and beyond. A speck of dust in a grand house inhabited by giants.

Rome would come to dominate, however. From Scotland to North Africa, from the shores of the Atlantic to the Red sea, the empire Rome carved out over the centuries would have a monumental impact upon countless lands, cultures and peoples.

Indeed, to this day, Rome still remains one of the most effective military, economic and political entities to have ever existed.

Legendary Beginnings

Ancient history wouldn’t quite be the same without the quintessential origin stories. Shrouded in myth and metaphor, Rome is no different.

With very few credible sources of how the great city came to arise, the story of Rome begins with the legendary tale of Romulus and Remus.

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. During 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.

A depiction of Romulus and Remus by Peter Paul Rubens

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.

However, the story also has deeper mythological roots stretching back to the Trojan War.

We all know the story of Troy and the events immortalised in Homer’s Iliad. 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.

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, Aeneas sailed to the Italian peninsula. Upon his arrival the Trojans were met with hostility. No large-scale conflict would erupt yet however, as a regional monarch, King Latinus, is said to have favoured the Trojans.

Rejecting a proposal of marriage from a neighbouring power, Latinus offered 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. In reality, the Latins are farmers and herdsmen, hardy people who have an appetite for conflict and yet the strict administration of law.

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 Rome’s first true enemy, and one that must be vanquished if Rome were 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. Virgil’s epic ends rather abruptly, but what is stated is that Turnus is defeated, and the Latin kingdom is fully established.

Aeneas’ son, Asconius, acceded the throne and with the Trojan settlement established and flourishing, the population began to grow rapidly. In response, 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 Romulus and Remus begins.

Aeneas’ Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci.

Treachery and Betrayal

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.

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 the deity 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.

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.

Numitor is said to have suspected that the two boys are a relation in some capacity. Call it intuition or perhaps recognition of common features. Nonetheless, he speaks to their adoptive father and a plan is set in motion to retake the throne.

After a whirlwind struggle and the deposition of Amulius, Numitor is unanimously reinstated as king. The two brothers had their own path to travel and their own destiny to pursue, however, and it is in the spot which they were left to die that Remus and Romulus establish the settlement of Rome.

The legendary Roman she-wolf with Romulus and Remus

The Beginning of an Empire

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 fought. Remus claimed ‘primacy of arrival’ and Romulus claimed ‘primacy of number’ as each argued their case to become ruler of the new settlement.

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 truly unfolded, Romulus is widely accepted as being the founding father 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. One which I will explore in the next instalment of this series; the age of the republic.

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