A Pilgrim's Guide to Rome and Assisi
A Pilgrim's Guide to Rome and Assisi
The Historical Setting
Not without reason is Rome frequently referred to as the 'Eternal City'. There is a large measure of agreement which dates its foundation to 753 BC and, indeed, there are those who would even suggest a precise date, 21 April. Prior to that date, however, a number of small villages appear to have existed in the region. According to legend, Rome as such was established on that date by Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the Vestal virgin Rhea and the god Mars, the boys being brought up on the Palatine Hill (one of the seven hills which now form Rome) and cared for by a she-wolf. It was Romulus who duly gave his name to the city and set himself up as its first king, having killed Remus in a family feud.
By far the most important influence on the emerging city at this time was that of the Etruscans (616-509 BC ), powerful neighbours living in the north and gradually expanding their influence southwards towards the Tiber. They were a much more advanced civilisation and under their direction Rome developed as a major city, with the various Etruscan kings residing there. As well as building the city walls they were also responsible for the Great Drain, the Cloaca Maxima sewers, which were necessary to drain the marshlands so that the Forum could be built.
But things were to change. Although the Etruscans had much to offer, the Romans came to resent their domination and in 509 BC the last of Rome's seven kings, Tarquin the Proud (Tarquinius Superbus), was dethroned and the Roman Republic founded.
For nearly 500 years, from 509-23 BC , the Republic was governed by the Senate and its assembly, though there was constant friction between the ruling classes (the patricians) and the lower classes (the plebeians), the latter having their interests overseen by the office of the tribune. Considerable power was invested in certain officials, in particular the consuls. They exercised authority in much the same way as the previous kings, dealing with legislation, the judiciary and the military. There were always two consuls in office, with the one having the power of veto over the other. As a safeguard against dictatorship, consuls ruled for only one year, though they could be re-elected. Such a system of annual appointments meant that on the whole the consuls ruled rather conservatively and without a great deal of creativity. That said, however, the period of the Republic ushered in a great expansion of Roman power and civilisation, gradually conquering the rest of Italy and its Mediterranean neighbours in spite of a setback when the Gauls invaded Italy and sacked Rome in 390 BC . This was also the period of the three Punic Wars (264-146 BC ) as Rome's expansion inevitably resulted in conflict with Carthage. Yet at the end of these wars, notwithstanding a defeat by Carthage and Hannibal in the second war, Rome dominated the Mediterranean including also, by 63 BC , the Holy Land.
But it was the continuing internal factions which led to the demise of the Republic and the rise of Julius Caesar. It was he who had to pull the nation together again in the aftermath of civil strife by means of a popular dictatorship, yet even that was too much for some and on the Ides of March, 15 March 44 BC , he was assassinated.
However, prior to his death, Caesar appointed Octavius as his son and heir and, ruling as Augustus, he was to do much to restore Rome and in 27 BC claimed for himself the title 'Emperor'. So began the great third period of Roman history after the Etruscans and the Republic, the mighty Roman Empire , which in political, cultural and religious terms was to become the very centre of the known world.