Episode 1 - The Foundation of Rome

Tuesday, 02 March 2021 09:26 Written by
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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.

Read 1005 times Last modified on Tuesday, 14 November 2023 07:48
Marcello Cordovani

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

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