Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy


In the last episode, we left you with the victory of the Romans over Pyrrhus. Now Rome dominates the Italian peninsula; only Carthage can rival it in Western Mediterranean. The clash between the maritime empire of Carthage and the new power of Rome, which needs complete control of the surrounding seas, is inevitable. Their duel will drag on for over a century.

Carthage as Rome had a legend at the origin of its story. According to it, it was founded by Dido, daughter of the Phoenician king of Tyre. Her brother had killed her husband, and she had fled with a group of followers and had sailed west. They had landed near Tunis, and she had said: "here we will build our new city". In fact, they called it so, new city; in their language, it was Carta Dash, which the Romans then translated into Carthago. That's the legend. And there’s a second part, narrated by the poet Vergilius in the Aeneid: Aenea, on the way to Lazio, stopped close to Carthage and was brought to the Queen. She fell in love with the hero, but he left to fulfil his mission (the foundation of Rome, though at the time he did not know he had one), and Dido, before killing herself, cursed him and his offspring.

You can see, it was all set for a fight to the death.  

In reality, the city was founded by the Phoenicians, great merchants and navigators who went up and down across the Mediterranean with their boats, selling and buying a little bit of everything. The Phoenicians were originally from the coastal regions of the eastern Mediterranean (present-day Lebanon). They founded colonies on the northern coasts of Africa, in Spain, Sicily, Sardinia.

The term Phoenician comes from the Greek phòiniks meaning "red". This name is linked to the most precious and important commodity that the Phoenicians exported to Greece and throughout the Mediterranean: purple, a special pigment that was extracted from molluscs, that Phoenicians had learned to use very early on an industrial scale to dye fabrics. The long and complex extraction process of this substance meant that purple-treated fabrics were costly, and their use was long associated with the idea of royalty.

One of the most important legacies of the Phoenicians is the alphabet. Unlike Egypt, where hieroglyphics were used, Phoenicians were the first to adopt an alphabetic writing system, consisting of a limited number of signs, each of which served to designate a sound. Therefore, in Phoenician, a word was generally composed of several signs, just as in modern languages.

Carthage was the wealthiest Phoenician colony and was one of the richest cities in the Mediterranean: it had more than 200,000 inhabitants, who did not live in huts as in Rome, but in houses up to 12 floors. Nobles and great merchants had villas with gardens and swimming pools, and the city boasted great baths. The port had 220 piers. As in Rome, the supreme body was the Senate, also composed of 300 members. Carthage did not count very much on the army because its African neighbours did not worry her. On the sea, however, it was the strongest naval power of that time. In peacetime, its fleet had 500 quinqueremes (5 rows ships), somewhat the battleships of the time; in all the ravines of the Spanish and French coasts, the Carthaginians had construction sites, supply warehouses and informants.

Conquering southern Italy, Rome had invaded Carthage’s sphere of influence, and so the two powers began a confrontation. The step towards war was short: between 264 and 242, Rome and Carthage fought the 1st Punic war, a mostly naval war.

But, you may wonder, the Romans did not have a fleet. It is true, but after the first defeats, they set up, in a short time, a fleet of 120 quinqueremes and equipped them with so-called "crows", they were mobile walkways with hooks that were hoisted on the deck and attached themselves to enemy ships and prevented manoeuvring. Roman soldiers could assault enemy ships walking on these walkways, thus transforming the naval battle into a sort of land battle. With this equipment, Romans won several naval battles, and in 241, in the final clash between the two exhausted rivals, they defeated and destroyed the last Carthaginian ships. To achieve peace, the Carthaginians had to surrender Sicily and were compelled to pay a heavy indemnity.

After the war in the south, the Roman expansion turned north, towards the fertile lands of the Po Valley, inhabited by the Gauls. When, in 226, they dared to attempt yet another raid in central Italy, the Romans were prepared; in three years, the Po Valley was subjugated, except for the territory of the Veneti, who had always been allies of the Romans. They called this new rich province Cisalpine Gaul, occupied the capital Mediolanum, i.e. Milan and founded two strong colonies, Cremona and Piacenza.

In Carthage, the leader of the army and head of the most powerful family, Amilcare, who had already fought the Romans in Sicily in the 1st Punic war, was preparing his revenge. He was allowed by the Senate to move to Spain with the remainder of the army. Before leaving, he led his three sons, Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago, to the temple and made them swear before the altar that they would avenge Carthage one day. Within a few years, Amilcare expanded the possessions of Carthage until Spain became its main colony. The control of the richest silver mines in the ancient world allowed Carthage to pay the war allowance to Rome, and at the same time, Amilcare could rearm a mighty army.

Amilcare died in Spain, and his son-in-law Hasdrubal succeeded him at the head of the army for eight years. When he, in turn, died, the soldiers hailed Amilcare's son Hannibal as their commander in chief. He was only 26 years old: he would become the most famous general of antiquity.

Before his father took him to Spain, Hannibal had received an excellent education. He knew history, the Greek and Latin languages, he was an admirer of Alexander the Great and had studied his strategies and tactics, and from Amilcare's tales, he had come up with a relatively clear idea of Rome, its strengths and weaknesses; he was convinced that Rome was invincible far from Italy, due to her strong ties with Italic allies, but a defeat in Italy would take them away from her. Hence, war should be fought on Italian soil.

He was robust, frugal, clever and courageous. The Roman historian Livy says that he was the first to enter the battle and the last to leave. But he also insists on his greed, cruelty and lack of scruples. His soldiers loved him and believed in him blindly. He dressed like them, ate with them and shared all their inconveniences.

In 218, he assaulted the city of Saguntum. By the time of Hasdrubal, Rome had recognized the territories south of the river Ebro as an area of Carthaginian influence. In turn, Carthaginians would not expand north of the river. Saguntum was south of the river but, being an ally of Rome, was protected by her. Hannibal knew that, by assaulting Saguntum, Rome would react, and that’s the casus belli he was looking for. He spent eight months around the walls of Sagunto before conquering it; then, when the Romans ordered him to retreat, he crossed the river Ebro and headed for Italy with 50,000 infantrymen, 9000 cavalrymen and 30 elephants.

Crossing the Pyrenees and bypassing Marseille, he began the climb to the Alps, avoiding a Roman army sent to block his way to the coast.

We do not know where he passed exactly: some say through St. Bernard, some Monginevro. However, around the beginning of September 218, he reached the summit; the descent was even more difficult, especially for elephants. Eventually, he arrived in the Po Valley with only 26,000 men, less than half of those who had left. But here, the Gauls welcomed him, supplied him with food and allied with him, slaughtering the Romans in Cremona and Piacenza.

The Senate realized that this second war was much more dangerous than the first. It called to arms 300,000 infantrymen and 14,000 cavalrymen and entrusted part of them to the first of the many Scipios we’ll encounter, later on, Publius Cornelius. He faced Hannibal on the Ticino River and lost the battle. He would have died if it was not for his son, who came to his rescue and saved him. We’ll meet him again, many years later. It was October 218 B.C.

After two months, another army was sent to face Hannibal and intercepted him on the Trebbia river. The army was led by the two consuls, Scipio and Sempronius; Sempronius was eager to fight, while Scipio was more prudent after the defeat on the Ticino river. Now, to let you understand Hannibal’s cunning, let me tell you something about this battle (it’s the only one I am going to describe, I promise). 

The Romans had 40,000 men and the Carthaginians about 30,000 soldiers. The two armies were more or less of equal strength, but with a big difference: Hannibal had 10,000 cavalrymen against less than 5,000 roman cavalrymen.

The two Roman generals did not agree on the strategy to follow: Scipio preferred to wait and study his enemy, Sempronius wanted to attack immediately. The two generals led the army every other day.

The night before the battle, December 24th, the temperature was below 0°C, and it rained heavily. Before the sun rose on the 25th, Hannibal ordered that all men be fed and keep warm around the fires; he also ordered them to smear their bodies with oil to fight the cold and rain and keep muscles flexible. Also, he told his brother Mago, the head of the cavalry, to choose 1,000 infantrymen and 1,000 cavalrymen, lead them to a nearby islet, remain hidden there in the bushes, and wait for his signal.

In the morning, Hannibal ordered a few hundred cavalrymen to descend into the river, cross it, climb to the opposite bank and harass the Romans, making a big noise. Sempronius was the commander in chief that day. Could he tolerate this kind of mockery? No way! He decided to send his cavalry out on the field. The Carthaginians then began to retreat to the river, but slowly. Sempronius, feeling that the situation turned in his favour, sent out the light infantry. The more the Carthaginians withdrew, the more the Romans came out of their camp to support the front line.

To press the enemy, Roman infantrymen had entered the river with water at chest level. Unlike the Carthaginians, Romans were unprepared for this situation: cold, without having eaten, their hands numb. Several were carried away by the strong current; others drowned. However, the bulk of the front line arrived on the other side. To press the enemy even more and perhaps think of giving him the final strike, Sempronius ordered the other half of the troops to move to the opposite shore.

So, the trap was complete. Now, Hannibal ordered his men to advance towards the river. They were fed, dry and fresh; the enemy was empty-bellied, wet and tired. The Carthaginian cavalry hit the wings of the Romans. At the centre of the battle, the Roman formation was still well united. Finally, Hannibal gave the signal to Mago and his 2,000 men, you remember, to attack. They charged the Roman army in the back. Romans were surrounded. In a last desperate effort, 10,000 managed to break out finally and head towards Piacenza, finding refuge within the walls. The Carthaginians were also tired and wet by the persistent rain, could not pursue the Romans and returned to their camp.

Another eight months passed, with Hannibal heading south. Now consul Flaminius with 30,000 men, moved to meet Hannibal’s army. Despite the two battles lost by his predecessors, he was so sure to win that he had taken a load of chains with him to put them at the feet of the prisoners. Hannibal seemed to want to avoid the battle, but instead, he was preparing another trap. In fact, with a skilful game of patrols and skirmishes, he attracted the enemy to a plain on the northern shores of Lake Trasimeno, in Umbria, surrounded by hills of woods where he had hidden his cavalry. The Romans, eager to reach him and attack, moved early in the morning when the area was shrouded in thick fog, without avantgarde. And here they were surrounded, with no way out. Almost no one remained alive, not even the Consul.

Now, Hannibal was getting closer to Rome, but for the time being, the strategy behind his military victories, to separate Rome from her allies, was not working. In Tuscany and Umbria, the cities closed in front of his army, and he did not know how to resupply. Hannibal even sent non-Roman prisoners home, but in vain, Italy was backing Rome. And all he could do was to divert to the Adriatic Sea in search of more hospitable lands. After three consecutive battles, his soldiers were tired, and he himself suffered from an infection that had made him blind in one eye. Now that they were moving away from their regions, the Gallic allies began to desert; he asked Carthage for reinforcements, but the Senate refused. So, he resumed his march southwards, but now there was a true strategist, Quintus Fabius Maximus, in front of him.

Romans had resorted to appointing a “dictator”, and Fabius was now the commander in chief with unlimited military powers, though only for a limited time. He inaugurated a new strategy: inaction. For this, he will be known as "cunctator". He set up skirmishes and ambushes, but he did not let himself be drawn into battle. He waited for the difficulties, the hunger, the weariness to work against the enemy, who was in despair. His strategy was working, but his fellow citizens could not stand to stay inactive and see Hannibal devastate the territories of Central and Southern Italy, with Rome’s allies turning to the Carthaginian for fear of being burnt down. They wanted a victory and grew tired too soon.

With the new year came the new Consuls, Varro and Paulus, who wanted what their voters wanted, a quick success. They led 80,000 infantrymen and 6,000 cavalrymen against Hannibal who, despite having only 20,000 veterans, 15,000 Gauls and 10,000 cavalrymen, drew a sigh of relief. He feared only Fabius Maximus. It was a huge army, but also difficult to direct: in ancient times, armies over 50,000 men were almost impossible to manoeuvre, and in addition to that, the Romans, being not one but two consular armies together, alternated the commander every day, one day Varro and one day Paulus.

The battle, the biggest of antiquity, took place in Cannae, in Puglia, not far from Barletta, on August 2nd, 216, BC. Hannibal, as usual, attracted the enemy to flat ground, suitable for the game of his cavalry. Then he put the Gauls in the centre, he was sure they would retreat soon, and so they did, but slowly, they managed to contain the fury and impetuosity of the legions. Varro's troops slowly threw themselves into the hole, and Hannibal's cavalry on the wings closed around them. The other consul, Paulus, who prudently had suggested not to engage, fought bravely and fell. At the end of the day, 50,000 Romans, including 80 senators, laid on the ground, and 19,000 were taken prisoners. Only 15.000 could escape, among them the consul Varro.
The Carthaginian lost only 6,000 Gauls, 1,500 Hispanics and Africans, and only 200 cavalrymen. He had achieved the most brilliant victory of his career as a general, which consecrated him as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. The battle of Cannae remains a never topped example of military strategy and is studied in all military schools in the world, many generals in WWII and even in recent wars took inspiration from his manoeuvres of 2,000 years ago.

Cannae was Hannibal’s masterpiece. But it would also be his last; with this battle, the secret of his success, the superiority of his cavalry, was uncovered, and after so many battles lost, the Romans will never be retaken by surprise.


From the year 509 BC, when the Republic was founded, all the monuments that the Romans raised anywhere bore the acronym SPQR, meaning Senatus Populus-Que Romanus, that is, the Senate and the Roman people.

We've talked about the Senate before. But what about the people? The people did not correspond at all to what we mean today by this word. In those distant days, it did not include all citizens but only two orders, that is, two social classes: the “patricii” and the “equites”. The “patricii”, the aristocrats, were the descendants of the Patres, that is, the founders of the city, and were also the most prominent landowners. They formed the Senate, which was accessible only to the members of their families, each of them bearing the name of the ancestor who founded it. In fact, Julius, Valerius, Aemilius are family names.

With King Tarquinius Priscus, merchants and artisans had also settled in the city, but the Patricians kept them at a distance: these were called Plebeians. Under King Servius Tullius, this class had already differentiated itself: on the one hand, those who devoted themselves to activities of pure subsistence, herding, agriculture and in general all manual jobs; on the other, a large bourgeoisie, or middle class, quite numerous and very strong financially. They called themselves the Equites, the cavalrymen, and outnumbered the Patricians.

With the advent of the Republic, the Patricians understood that they could not be alone against all others, and so they allied with the Equites. They co-opted the Equites, that is, they allowed them to the Senate. But even on the day when the eques finally managed to become a senator, he was not welcomed as a “pater”, that is, patrician, but as a conscriptus; the assembly was in fact made up of “patres et conscripti”.

After the Republic was founded, the Consulate came as a consequence: 2 consuls with the imperium, the supreme military command and the powers to convene the Senate, administer justice, chair the rallies. It was two because they should control each other, which will last until the empire is established. In wartime, they led the army, each consul half of it. The Consuls took office on March 15, the Ides of March, and ruled for one year; they were also religious leaders and directed the State’s most important rites.

The richer a citizen was, the more taxes he had to pay, the more years he should serve in the army. For those who wanted to start a public career, the minimum in the military was ten years, and therefore only the rich could practically undertake it because only they could spend so much time away from the farm or the shop. But even if you wanted to exercise your political rights first and then your voting rights, you should have been a soldier because only then you could take part in the Comitia Centuriata, the highest legislative body in the state.

The young man who survived ten years of military life could embark on a political career that went step by step; it was wholly elective and subject to all sorts of precautions. The Comitia Centuriata examined the nominations and awarded the appointments, which were all multiple: 2 Consuls, 2 to 6 Ediles, civil magistrates, 2 to 8 Quaestores, the officials who supervised the state treasury and made audits.

The Comitia Centuriata was not a permanent Assembly; it met at the call of a Consul or a Tribune and could not issue laws by itself but only vote the magistrate's proposals by a majority yes or no.

The Senate met in the Curia in front of the Forum at the Consul's request, who presided over the assembly. Its decisions did not have the force of law; they were only a suggestion to the magistrates, but a magistrate would seldom bring before the Comitia a proposal that had not received the prior approval of the Senate. When a crisis was imminent, the Senate resorted to a special emergency decree, the "Senatus Consultum Ultimum", by which it decided irrevocably; so, the Senate was actually the ultimate ruler of the State. It could appoint a “dictator” for six months or a year during a crisis, investing him with full powers.

As I said before, the two Consuls led the army. In the Republican period before the Punic Wars, there were two armies, one consular army for each consul. If the army was just one, as was the case in Cannae, the consuls alternated daily. Often, they, or the dictator and his lieutenant, were personal and political rivals, which obviously did not favour the unity of command. From this, some of the worst defeats of the Romans will originate.

Another weakness of this system was that, while everyone had some military experience, the Consuls often did not have a command experience. Many times, they had no competence at all as generals and, if armies won, it was not thanks to them; perhaps the greatest mistake of the Romans of those times was to change commander every year, depriving him of command just when he was beginning to learn the art of war.

Generally speaking, within the Roman political system, and the military hierarchy was an extension of it, the principle of preventing an individual from gaining overwhelming power was deeply rooted: for example, in the military, there were two centurions for each platoon, three prefects for each cavalry wing and six tribunes, that is colonels, for each legion. From a military point of view, the consular system was also weak because every time the legions were discharged and then a new army needed to be formed; the whole process would restart from scratch.

The defence of the state was considered, at least by the Senate, as a duty, a responsibility and a privilege; but, besides aristocracy, most citizens were, in principle, farmers, they could only afford to spend a few weeks of their time on a military campaign, because they should return to their fields as soon as possible. The interruption of everyday working life could ruin these soldier-farmers, who traditionally formed the troops' base. As a result, conflicts were short and were usually determined by a single clash of enemy forces.

At the end of the 5th century, Rome was competing with Etruscans and Greeks in central Italy. In these years, the Etruscans were defeated from time to time by Carthaginians, Greeks and Celts, and started to lose their influence on the area north of Rome. And in 390, the Celts from the north invaded their territories. The Romans intervened but were severely defeated in the Tiber valley, at the confluence with the River Allia, on July 18th 390. From that moment on, this will be the “Dies Alliensis”, that is an “unfortunate day”. Clashing for the first time with a large unconventional army, the legions found themselves too slow and heavy to cope with agile, fast, sword-armed troops.

After this defeat, the city, which did not have strong fortifications, remained open and defenceless; the Gauls occupied it but renounced to seize the stronghold of the Capitol. The invaders, led by King Brenno, were content to be paid a large sum of money to withdraw from Rome. "Vae Victis”,  woe to the losers, King Brenno said when the Romans argued about the amount of gold they should pay to have the Celts leave the city. But even with this defeat, Rome increased its prestige, as it had been the only city to force the Gauls to withdraw from a location that had already been in their hands.

This military disaster severely shook the Romans, and many historians believe that the reforms to prevent a future one set them on the road to military superiority. The genius of Roman military commanders was their ability to learn from their opponents and adapt their techniques and their technology to suit their purposes.

From 389 on, Rome had formed a League with the other Latin cities, by which it managed to keep them under its complete control, and in 360, it had defeated the Etruscan town of Veio after a long struggle and extended its influence to southern Etruria. But, in 340, the Latins rebelled. Rome crushed the Latin revolt and forced the Latins to sign a new alliance: the faithful cities were rewarded with admission to Roman citizenship, the others remained formally independent. From now on, the Latins will become an integral part of the Roman State. Latin cities had no relations with each other, but only with Rome; this was the first application of the famous motto “divide et impera” (divide and rule).

Meanwhile, in 366 Plebeians got the chance to become consuls, then other offices will be accessible. Also, plebiscites, that is, the decisions of the Assembly of the plebeians, were granted legal value.

Now the Romans turned south. First, from 343 to 341, they fought the Samnites in what is called the 1st Samnite war. Later on, they extended their influence on Campania and in 327, they occupied Naples and forced it to an alliance. From 326 to 304, Rome was once again at war with the Samnites. The Consuls, who had entered Samnite territory in a region unknown to them, were surrounded in the Caudina valley and had to surrender. It is the famous episode of the so-called “Caudine Forks”: Romans had to hand over all weapons and 600 hostages and pass below a wooden trunk as a sign of defeat. But after some years of peace, Romans resumed war with the Samnites and with the Etruscans, who were now allies: in 310, they defeated the Etruscans and then the Samnites, who demanded peace.

From 298 to 290, Rome and the Samnites fought the 3rd and final war. The Samnites had again allied with the Etruscans, the Celts, the Sabini, the Lucani, Umbrians, practically all of Italy except the Greeks. But in 295 in northern Umbria, the Romans defeated the army of the allied enemies in the so-called “battle of the nations". Following this defeat, the Etruscans agreed to make peace. Five years later, so did the Samnites. And, between 285 and 282, the Romans conquered the territory of the Galli Senoni in the north. Now, almost all Etruscan cities recognized the supremacy of Rome and lost their independence. With the end of Etruscan power, Rome now controlled the whole of central Italy. The final step to the conquest of the Italian peninsula was the war against the Greek city of Taras, nowadays Taranto.

This leads us into Greek territory. In the 9th and 8th centuries BC, trade and the search for raw materials, especially metals, had brought the ancient Greeks to the shores of southern Italy and Sicily. This had led to permanent settlements, which then had turned into independent city-states, and these cities had developed their own distinctive culture and identity within the Greek world. Many aspects of Greek culture, especially writing and artistic styles, were transmitted to local communities in Italy, especially the Etruscans. Southern Italy and Sicily, which the Romans called Magna Graecia (Great Greece), were home to some of the wealthiest communities in the Greek world. You can see the best examples of Greek art and architecture in some extraordinary archaeological sites, such as Paestum, near Naples, and Agrigento in Sicily.

Paestum, which was once called Poseidonia, was founded in the 7th century BC by Greek colonists from Sybaris, then it fell under the control of the Lucanians and later of Rome. Walls of almost 5 Km encircled the city, these walls still surround the urban core, and their height could be up to 7 mt. Paestum is famous for its three Doric temples, still in excellent condition - so much so that they are considered unique exemplars of the architecture of Magna Graecia. The three temples were built between 550 and 460 BC, using brown-tinted local limestone. The oldest is the Temple of Hera 1, also known as the Temple of Neptune. Then, we have the Temple of Athena, and finally, the Temple of Hera II, the best-preserved: the facades have 6 fluted columns and the long sides 14. Inside, a double row of slim Doric columns divided the cella into three aisles and once supported a ridged roof of wood and tiles.

Further south, on the shores of Sicily facing Africa, in an almost enchanted valley full of almond trees, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento is the most impressive group of monuments of Hellenic origin in Sicily. The eight temples in the valley all date from the 5th century BC - the golden age of the Greeks in Sicily. The majority of the temples are constructed from local sandstone and tufa rock. Inside the sanctuaries, a deity statue was on display flanked by a colonnade of columns on three sides.

Except one, all temples are based on the classical Doric style of architecture and are similar to temples and buildings built during the Golden Age of Athens. The best-preserved temple is the Temple of Concordia, dating back to 420 BC, it was named after the Roman god of Concordia, but it was most likely dedicated originally to a Greek god. It is regarded as one of the most remarkable surviving temples in the Doric style. Situated on a set of steps, it has many well-preserved fluted columns that are 6.5 meters high. Among the others, you may admire the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Jupiter), which was built to thank Zeus for the Agrigentines’ victory over the Carthaginians in 480 BC. Here are the famous atlases, some gigantic statues with a human shape, once used as columns or pilasters.

Back to Rome, the cities of Magna Graecia, which were increasingly threatened by the expansion of the Italic peoples, turned towards Rome as a natural ally. In 285, the towns of Turii, Locri and Reggio asked Rome to defend them from a local population, the Lucanians. But the Greek city of Taras, then the main centre of Magna Graecia, felt threatened by this interference in its sphere of influence. In the same year, a small Roman naval team penetrated the Gulf of Taranto to test Taras’ defences, and the Tarantine fleet attacked it and half-destroyed it. War broke out between Rome and Taras, and the Greeks asked for the help of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, a region north of Greece.

Pyrrhus landed in Taras with a strong army, including 20 war elephants, and clashed with the Romans at Heraclea, close to Matera, in 280. He defeated them, as the Roman cavalry was no match for the cavalry of the Greeks and Romans were not trained to defend themselves from the assaults of the elephants. But Pyrrus’ losses were just slightly lower than the Romans’. Rome and its allies could easily replace their losses by enlisting more soldiers among the allied cities, unlike Pyrrhus, who was far from his homeland.

In 279, the king of Epirus clashed for a second time with the Romans, near Foggia: Pyrrhus won, yes, but once again it was a "Pyrrhus’ victory", with so many losses that, according to Pyrrus himself, “another victory like this and I’ll be lost”. In fact, to avoid the 3rd battle, he preferred to enter into peace negotiations with the Romans. He had not foreseen that, after two serious defeats, Rome would not surrender.

In 278, Pyrrhus was called by Syracuse and landed in Sicily with the secret goal of creating a kingdom that would include Sicily, taking it from the Carthaginians and Southern Italy. So, facing this new enemy, the Carthaginians proposed the Romans an alliance. The Romans were granted the right to intervene freely anywhere in the Italian peninsula, and Carthage would not oppose them. For the first time, the Treaty constituted the recognition of Rome as a great power.

In 275, Pyrrhus was forced to return to the continent by a revolt of the Greek cities of Sicily; in the last battle near Benevento, the Romans beat him and forced him to embark back for Epirus. Three years later, Taras surrendered.

The defeat of Pyrrhus meant that the Roman infantry could defeat the strongest armies of the time, trained on the model of the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great and led by the best commanders. Now, Rome was the new ruler of the maritime trade in the low Adriatic and could deal on an equal footing with the most powerful states of the Mediterranean. The Romans extended their influence to several cities in Magna Graecia, where they placed their contingents. In 312, they began the construction of the Appian Way, the Regina Viarum, the Queen of the Ways from Rome to Capua, under the direction of the magistrate Appius Claudius. The Appian way was then extended to Brindisi and Taras, and on it marched the settlers who will romanize Benevento, Brindisi and many other Greek cities. The Romanization of Italy had begun.

Obviously, the Carthaginians were alarmed. This solidarity of interests between the Romans and their new allies, their common aspirations for maritime expansion, clashed with Carthaginians’ interests. This rivalry would turn soon into open war.

Tuesday, 02 March 2021 09:26

Episode 1 - The Foundation of Rome

Ciao a tutti. Good Morning, good afternoon and good evening, wherever you are. I am Marcello Cordovani from VITOR ITALY TOURS.

Welcome to the podcast “ITALY, AN EXTRAORDINARY HISTORY”. Our goal is to entertain you with the history of our wonderful country. It will be a history not only of events but also of cultures, of art, of religions, but most of all of men. We will travel back to the specific times and places of our history: Rome and the Romans, Venice and its maritime empire, Florence and its artists, and many other stories. And we will also talk about the little cities and villages, unknown to many of you, where history in Italy was made. We hope you will enjoy it.

Our history begins on an exact date: April 21st, 753 BC. It’s the day set by the Romans as the birth of their city, and in fact, every year in Rome, on April 21st, they celebrate the birthday of Rome.

We all think we know a lot about Rome, you know: Julius Caesar, the Emperors, Christians massacred inside the Colosseum. The legend of Rome has always been with us, in Italy but also abroad, since we were children. But, sometimes, this legend has been turned into a false or a mere tale. Just think of Hollywood: for decades, the Romans have been portrayed as imperialists who went seamlessly from a massacre to an orgy. The Romans were the bad, the ugly, the imperialists, against whom it was right to fight. We had heroes, but they were always on the other side.

So, back in the 50s and 60s of the last century, we had characters portrayed in movies with a strong ideology, such as Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus in 1960, the champion of freedom, a dreamer of a world of equals and lifters of the oppressed, or pro-Jewish Ben Hur and his running quadriga. And the Romans were always on the other side, the wrong one.

Then, after a time in which Rome was almost forgotten by Hollywood, in the first decade of the new century, we saw the rise of another hero, this time a Roman fighting for a better Rome: His name was Maximus Decimus Meridius, better known as “the Gladiator”. Of course, even in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, history is the background for a made-up story. The points of distance from the historical reality are really many. Still, the film remains much loved because, historical rigour and not, there’s a hero, Maximus, loyal general of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. And in the end, it does not matter if, instead of a historical fresco, this hero is the protagonist of a colossal, exciting, epic and well-directed fairy tale. Historians note that in Gladiator, the legions have a questionable combat tactic and strange use of pila (the spears), that brackets were not used yet, that Marcus Aurelius would have never planned the return to the Republic, that in reality, the incredible cavalry charge through the woods is impossible, that Latin endings are wrong (Roma is feminine but victor is masculine, you should say Roma victrix). But, who cares, good wins over evil, after all.

So, back to real history, how did a small village on the banks of a small river, in a small country which always was on the outskirts of the most advanced civilizations of the West, come to dominate the western world? Rome is more than its conquests. Rome is its legions but also its complex civilization, its ability to incorporate the other, making him feel like a part of the whole.

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote: they steal, massacre, rob and by false name call it empire; where they make the desert, they call it peace. And, indeed, that was true, at least in Gaul. Hundreds of thousands killed by the Roman soldiers.  But perhaps in that desert called peace, we must see not only overpowering, death, destruction, enslavement, but also integration, tolerance, innovation and union. Look to Rome also for its great merit: the ability to assimilate, unite, include, without necessarily annihilating the different, without dissolving everything in a single law, in a single Pantheon, in a single way of life, of praying, of speaking, of fighting. Rome itself was born from a mixture of people: Sabines, Latins, Etruscans, different in language, lineage, customs. Romans were united by the will to be such. Union and mixing were the strengths from which a new and vital community was born. Cohesion and self-awareness in the Roman world are not established through ethnic identity, linguistic or territorial continuity, but through the common acceptance of moral, religious and political values. Romans by Roman oath, not by right of blood, not by divine right, but by choice.

The official history of Rome starts in 753 BC. But to understand it, we need to go way back to the war of Troy. When the Greeks of Agamemnon, Ulysses and Achilles conquered Troy in Asia Minor and set it on fire, Aenea was one of the few Trojans who could save himself, also protected by his mother, the goddess Venus. After many years of adventures and misadventures, Aenea landed in Italy, arrived in Lazio and married the daughter of the king of Latins, Lavinia. His son Ascanius founded the city of Albalonga and made it the capital of the Latins.

Eight generations later, on the death of the previous king, his son Amulius drove out his brother Numitor and killed all but one of his offspring, Rea Silvia, to whom he imposed, however, to become a priestess of the goddess Vesta, that is, nun and therefore virgin. However, the beauty of Rea had already conquered Mars, the god of war, and two twins were born from the union: Romulus and Remus. When Amulius knew it, he did not kill them, fearing the revenge of the god of war, but had them loaded on a small raft that he launched on the river to take them to the sea and have them drown. The raft ran aground not far away in the open countryside; here, the two crying children loudly drew the attention of a she-wolf, who rushed to breastfeed them. And here’s why that beast became the symbol of Rome.

When the twins grew, they returned to Albalonga, killed Amulius and put Numitor on the throne, then left to found a new city. They chose the spot where the raft had run aground, in the middle of the hills among which the River Tevere flows. Then, as it often happens, the brothers quarrelled over the name of the city. Romulus killed his brother, then with a plough, he dug a groove and declared that the city would be called Rome. April 21st, 753 BC, Rome was born.

This is the legend. Romans declare that they descend from Mars, the god of war, a pretty ambitious descent, a forecast of a future of fighting and dominance. The legend stresses the importance of the river and herding. Romulus is quite certainly a legendary character, an eponymous hero, that is his name derives from the original city name. Historically, around 1000 BC, from the mouth of the river Tevere to the bay of Naples, many villages arose which, although inhabited by people of the same blood, waged war on each other and only made peace in the face of some common enemy or on the occasion of some religious feast. The largest and most powerful of these towns was Albalonga, the capital of Lazio, at the foot of Mount Albano, which probably corresponds to Castel Gandolfo. From this city, some adventurous young men emigrated a few dozen kilometres further north and founded Rome. From the 10th century BC, the Palatine Hill housed a simple settlement of huts; quickly, other villages arose on the other hills that overlooked the river. To better defend themselves, the villages on top of the Palatino and Esquilino hills united and built a wall that later encircled the other hills. Meanwhile, the community began to have contact with the outside world, favoured by the commercial position.

So, the legend probably marks the emergence of a federation that gathered the social-political communities scattered throughout the area of the 7 Hills. The area was perfect for herding, it was a crossroads between Campania and Etruria (current Tuscany), the rich regions of the time, salt of the salt pans of the mouth of the river went inland through it (the Via Salaria will take its name from this pathway). According to tradition, Romulus organized the people into three tribes, then ten curia per tribe; each curia should provide 100 infantrymen and 10 cavalrymen. This made it a centuria, which will be the nucleus of the future Roman Army. A council of patres assisted Romulus, the oldest family members (the word Senate comes from senex, old in Latin), the Patres will elect the other kings.

From 753 to 616, we had 4 Latin and Sabine kings: Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Ostilius and  Ancus Martius (but they are probably more, the time is too long). The centre of the monarchy was already Colle Palatino, the Palatine Hill, the dominant position on the river and the surrounding hills, the true acropolis of the city. The city had an artisan commercial area, probably in the Forum area, where the market probably also took place. According to tradition, Tullus Ostilius was the ruler under whom Rome took over Alba Longa and the Latin League of the Alban Hills. King Ancus Martius enhanced the possibility of maritime expansion of the city, taking over the stretch of maritime coast where the river Tevere flows into the sea (that’s where Ostia is).

Now, let’s take a broader look at Italy in the 7th century BC: In northern Italy, we had the Veneti in the east, the Celts in the centre and the Ligurians in the west. In Tuscany, the Etruscans. In central Italy, the Equi, the Volsci, the Sabini, the Ernici, the Aurunci, the Opici, peoples composed of a few tribes who had lived on the hills for hundreds of years, well before the foundation of Rome. On the highest areas of the Apennines, a powerful military confederation, the Samnites. In the south, the cities founded by the Greeks: Naples (Nea polis, meaning new city in Greek), Taras (Taranto), Syracuse in Sicily. And in Lazio, the region of Rome, the Latins, the Etruscans in the northern part, and the Romans.

From 616 to 510 BC, Etruscans dominated the city: kings Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, Tarquinius the Superb were etruscans. More than a military occupation of the city, Rome's absorption into the area of Etruscan influence carried out with control over Roman trade and production. Under the Etruscan rule, the town was consolidated from an urban and administrative point of view: some public works are attributed to all the Etruscan Kings. The origins of the Etruscans date back to the settling, not far from the coasts of Tuscany, of a population of navigators and metal workers, probably coming from Asia Minor, currently Turkey, who seized the mining centres of the Elba island and the metallurgical centres of Populonia and Vetulonia. The Etruscans were organized into a religious union; as in Greece, each city was independent and not in a League like the Latins. The centre of the confederation was probably Tarquinia, in southern Tuscany, around which the other Etruscan cities gravitated. There were big Etruscan centers in the interior: Chiusi, Perugia, Volterra, Fiesole, Cortona and Arezzo; it was a multilateral alliance. A monarch first ruled the cities; they traded with the Greeks of the Adriatic and with the Celts in the north, to whom the Etruscans sold metal and luxury products. Also, there were Etruscans south of Rome, in Campania. Etruria was very open to Greek influences, and through them, religious and cultural elements penetrated Rome.

According to tradition, the first Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus, started the urbanization of Rome; he built a large drainage channel, the Cloaca Maxima, to make all the flat areas among the Hills habitable; then the Circus Maximus and the temple of Iupiter Capitolius. The city became a real town with well-traced streets, houses that were no longer huts but actual buildings, with windows and an atrium, and the Forum, a central square, where all the citizens gathered. His successor Servius Tullius promoted a critical reform, political and military together: he reorganized the army according to the Greek model, in which the strength of compact masses, trained and disciplined, reduced the military importance of individuals: discipline and coordination will make the Roman armies unbeatable for almost all the armies of the antiquity.

As in Greece, the army was composed only of those who could arm themselves at their own expense, so Servius distributed the population into five census classes, according to the degree of armament anyone could maintain. The first was made up of citizens who could pay for all their weapons, sword, shield, helmet and should contribute with the most significant number of armed men; the fifth had only throwers with slingshots.

Each class consisted of some centuria, so-called because each had to provide 100 men (centum in Latin) to the army; only armed citizens could participate in politics, so that the assembly of the military was also a political one, and the centuria met to vote in the Comitia Centuriata, the gathering of the centuria. This reform meant that the criterion for access to the army, and then to the management of the state, was no longer citizenship but only wealth. 193 centuria were established, and in the Comitia Centuriata, they voted by centuria, the first class, the richest, had 98, so the dominance of the wealthy aristocrats was guaranteed.

The last king was Tarquinius, nicknamed the “Superb”: according to tradition, he behaved like a tyrant, and his figure seems to symbolize all the negativities of monarchical power. The people sent the royal family away, proclaiming the Republic in 509 B.C. Beyond the legend, this was a time of decadence for the Etruscans and, due to some military defeats against the Greeks, they abandon Rome. So, with the end of the Etruscan rule and the Republic's foundation, Rome was now free from the economic and political ties with Etruria and could resume its expansionist aims in Central Italy.

Monday, 14 December 2020 07:50


Extra virgin olive oil (EVO) is undoubtedly the symbol of Mediterranean food, and Italian food in particular. Olive oil is an ancient product, rich in history. You don't drink it, you eat it; it is a valuable food, a few grams change the taste of food.

It is often said that the greatest satisfaction in creating something lies in the act of doing so, rather than in the outcome.

The landing of Salerno was designed to advance further north and free Naples as soon as possible, but it resulted in a painful time for the city.

One thing is clear: when you approach it, you should not be in a hurry. It is a work of art, a masterpiece, like a painting or a sculpture, where smell and taste take the place of sight. An inimitable taste: full, intense, harmonious.

All around the world, Italy is associated with culture, art, food, in a few words our way of life. But more and more people are attracted to our country for another reason: our ability to “do”, to manufacture beautiful things.

Today I will tell you about a very sad episode, which has left its mark on the city of Rome and beyond: the raid of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. An episode that some of the oldest Romans still remember. My intent is not to judge, but simply to let you know about a piece of our history, sad as it is.

Italy, in addition to being a wonderful country, boasts an incredible variety of extraordinary products. In these days, in so many places some special people are committed to carrying on ancient customs and traditions as if nothing had changed over time.

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