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Prehistory to the Rise of Rome

Of all the early inhabitants of Italy, the most extensive legacy was left by the Etruscans. No one knows exactly where they came from, and the inscriptions that they left behind (often on graves in necropoli) are of little help—the Etruscan language has never been fully deciphered by scholars. Whatever their origins, within 2 centuries of appearing on the peninsula around 800 b.c., they had subjugated the lands now known as Tuscany (to which they left their name) and Campania, along with the Villanovan tribes that lived there.

From their base at Rome, the Latins remained free until they were conquered by the Etruscans around 600 b.c. The new overlords introduced gold tableware and jewelry, bronze urns and terracotta statuary, and the art and culture of Greece and Asia Minor. They also made Rome the governmental seat of Latium. “Roma” is an Etruscan name, and the ancient kings of Rome had Etruscan names: Numa, Ancus, and even Romulus.

The Etruscans ruled until the Roman Revolt around 510 b.c., and by 250 b.c. the Romans and their allies had vanquished or assimilated the Etruscans, wiping out their language and religion. However, many of the former rulers’ manners and beliefs remained, and became integral to what we now understand as “Roman culture.”

The Greeks predated both the Etruscans and the Romans, and built powerful colonial outposts in the south, notably in Naples—founded as Greek “Neapolis.” Remains of the Agora, or market square, survive below San Lorenzo Maggiore, in the old center of the city. The Greeks have left behind crumbling stone monuments above ground too, including at the Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily.

Rome’s Museo Nazionale Etrusco and the Etruscan collection in Rome’s Vatican Museums are a logical start-point if you want to see the remains of Etruscan civilization. Florence’s Museo Archeologico houses one of the greatest Etruscan bronzes yet unearthed, the “Arezzo Chimera.” There are also fine Etruscan collections in Volterra, Tuscany and Orvieto, Umbria.

The Roman Republic: ca. 51027 B.C.

After the Roman Republic was established around 510 b.c., the Romans continued to increase their power by conquering neighboring communities in the highlands and forming alliances with other Latins in the lowlands. They gave to their allies, and then to conquered peoples, partial or complete Roman citizenship, with the obligation of military service. Citizen colonies were set up as settlements of Roman farmers or veterans—including both Florence and Siena.

The stern Roman Republic was characterized by a belief in the gods, the necessity of learning from the past, the strength of the family, education through reading and performing public service, and most important, obedience. The all-powerful Senate presided as Rome defeated rival powers one after the other and came to rule the Mediterranean. The Punic Wars with Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia) in the 3rd century b.c. cleared away a major obstacle, although it wasn’t all plain sailing for the Republic. Carthaginian general Hannibal (247182 b.c.) conducted a devastating campaign across the Italian peninsula, crossing the Alps with his elephants and winning bloody battles by the shore of Lago Trasimeno, in Umbria, and at Cannae, in Puglia. Rome eventually prevailed.

No figure was more towering during the late Republic, or more instrumental in its transformation into the Empire than Julius Caesar, the charismatic conqueror of Gaul—[“]the wife of every husband and the husband of every wife.” After defeating the last resistance of the Pompeians in 45 b.c., he came to Rome and was made dictator and consul for 10 years. Conspirators, led by Marcus Junius Brutus, stabbed him to death at the Theater of Pompey on March 15, 44 b.c., the “Ides of March.” The site (at Largo di Torre Argentina) is best known these days as the home to a feral cat colony.

The conspirators' motivation was to restore the power of the Republic and topple dictatorship. But they failed: Mark Antony, a Roman general, assumed control. He made peace with Caesar’s willed successor, Octavian, and, after the Treaty of Brundisium which dissolved the Republic, found himself married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia. This marriage, however, didn’t prevent him from also marrying Cleopatra in 36 b.c. The furious Octavian gathered western legions and defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 b.c. Cleopatra fled to Egypt, followed by Antony, who committed suicide in disgrace a year later. Cleopatra, unable to seduce his successor and thus retain her rule of Egypt, followed suit with the help of an asp. The permanent end of the Republic was nigh.

Many of the standing buildings of ancient Rome date to periods after the Republic, but parts of the Roman Forum date from the Republic, including the Temple of Saturn. The adjacent Capitoline Hill and Palatine Hill have been sacred religious and civic places since the earliest days of Rome. Rome’s best artifacts from the days of the Republic are housed inside the Musei Capitolini. The greatest exponent of political oratory in the period was Marcus Tullius Cicero (10643 b.c.), who wrote widely on philosophy and statesmanship, and was killed after expressing outspoken opposition to Mark Antony in his “Philippics.”

The Roman Empire in Its Pomp: 27 B.C.–A.D. 395

Born Gaius Octavius in 63 b.c., and later known as Octavian, Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 b.c. and reigned until a.d. 14. His autocratic reign ushered in the Pax Romana, 2 centuries of peace. In Rome you can still see the remains of the Forum of Augustus and admire his statue in the Vatican Museums.

By now, Rome ruled the entire Mediterranean world, either directly or indirectly, because all political, commercial, and cultural pathways led straight to Rome, the sprawling city set on seven hills: the Capitoline, Palatine, Aventine, Celian, Esquiline, Quirinal, and Viminal. It was in this period that Virgil wrote his best-loved epic poem, “The Aeneid,” which supplied a grandiose founding myth for the great city and empire; Ovid composed his erotic poetry; and Horace wrote his “Odes.”

The emperors brought Rome to new heights. But without the countervailing power of the Senate and legislatures, success led to corruption. The centuries witnessed a steady decay in the ideals and traditions on which the Empire had been founded. The army became a fifth column of unruly mercenaries, and for every good emperor (Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Vespasian, and Hadrian, to name a few) there were three or four cruel, debased tyrants (Caligula, Nero, Caracalla, and many others). 

After Augustus died (by poison, perhaps), his widow, Livia—a shrewd operator who had divorced her first husband to marry Augustus—set up her son, Tiberius, as ruler through intrigues and poisonings. A series of murders and purges ensued, and Tiberius, who ruled during Pontius Pilate’s trial and crucifixion of Christ, was eventually murdered in his late 70s. Murder was so common that a short time later, Domitian (ruled a.d. 81–96) became so obsessed with the possibility of assassination that he had the walls of his palace covered in mica so that he could see behind him at all times. (He was killed anyway.)

Excesses ruled the day—at least, if you believe surviving tracts written by contemporary chroniclers infused with all kinds of bias: Caligula supposedly committed incest with his sister, Drusilla, appointed his horse to the Senate, lavished money on egotistical projects, and proclaimed himself a god. Caligula’s successor, his uncle Claudius, was poisoned by his final wife, his niece Agrippina, to secure the succession of Nero, her son by a previous marriage. Nero’s thanks were later to murder not only his mother but also his wife, Claudius’s daughter, and his rival, Claudius’s son. The disgraceful Nero, an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians, committed suicide with the cry, “What an artist I destroy!”

By the 3rd century a.d., corruption had become so prevalent that there were 23 emperors in 73 years. Few, however, were as twisted as Caracalla who, to secure control, had his brother Geta slashed to pieces while Geta was in the arms of his mother, former empress Julia Domna.

Constantine the Great became emperor in a.d. 306, and in 330, he made Constantinople (or Byzantium) the new capital of the Empire, moving the administrative functions away from Rome altogether, partly because the menace of possible barbarian attacks in the west had increased. Constantine was the first Christian emperor, allegedly converting after he saw the True Cross in a dream, accompanied by the words in this sign shall you conquer. He defeated rival emperor Maxentius and his followers at the Battle of the Milivan Bridge (a.d. 312), a victory that’s remembered by Rome’s triumphal Arco di Costantino. Constantine ended the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan (a.d. 313).

It was during the Imperial period that Rome flourished in architecture, advancing in size and majesty far beyond earlier cities built by the Greeks. Classical orders were simplified into types of column capitals: Doric (a plain capital), Ionic (a capital with a scroll), and Corinthian (a capital with flowering acanthus leaves). Much of this advance in building prowess was down to the discovery of a form of concrete and the fine-tuning of the arch, which was used with a logic, rhythm, and ease never before seen. Some of the monumental buildings still stand in Rome, notably Trajan’s Column, the Colosseum, and Hadrian’s Pantheon, among many others. Elsewhere in Italy, Verona’s Arena bears witness to the kinds of crowds that the brutal sport of gladiatorial combat could draw—Ridley Scott’s 2000 Oscar-winning movie “Gladiator” isn’t all fiction. Three Roman cities have been preserved, with street plans and, in some cases, even buildings remaining intact: doomed Pompeii and its neighbor Herculaneum, both buried by Vesuvius’s massive a.d. 79 eruption, and Rome’s ancient seaport, Ostia Antica. It was at Herculaneum that one of Rome’s greatest writers perished, Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23–79). It’s thanks to him, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, the historians Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and Livy, and satirist Juvenal, that much of our knowledge of ancient Roman life and history was not lost.

The surviving Roman art had a major influence on the painters and sculptors of the Renaissance. In Rome itself, look for the marble bas-reliefs (sculptures that project slightly from a flat surface) on the Arco di Costantino, the sculpture and mosaic collections at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, and the gilded equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Musei Capitolini. The Florentine Medici were avid collectors of Roman statuary, some now at the Uffizi. Naples's Museo Archeologico Nazionale houses the world's most extraordinary collection of Roman art, preserved for centuries under the lava at Pompeii.

The Fall of the Empire through the “Dark Ages”

The Eastern and Western sections of the Roman Empire split in a.d. 395, leaving the Italian peninsula without the support it had once received from east of the Adriatic. When the Goths moved toward Rome in the early 5th century, citizens in the provinces, who had grown to hate the bureaucracy set up by Emperor Diocletian, welcomed the invaders. And then the pillage began.

Rome was first sacked by Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, in 410. The populace made no attempt to defend the city (other than trying vainly to buy him off, a tactic that had worked 3 years earlier); most people fled into the hills. The feeble Western emperor Honorius hid out in Ravenna the entire time, which from 402 he had made the new capital of the Western Roman Empire.

More than 40 troubled years passed. Then Attila the Hun invaded Italy to besiege Rome. Attila was dissuaded from attacking, thanks largely to a peace mission headed by Pope Leo I in 452. Yet relief was short-lived: In 455, Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, carried out a 2-week sack that was unparalleled in its savagery. The empire of the West lasted for only another 20 years; finally, in 476, the sacks and chaos ended the once-mighty city, and Rome itself was left to the popes, though it was ruled nominally from Ravenna by an Exarch from Byzantium (aka Constantinople).

Although little of the detailed history of Italy in the post-Roman period is known—and few buildings survive—it’s certain that the spread of Christianity was gradually creating a new society. The religion was probably founded in Rome about a decade after the death of Jesus, and gradually gained strength despite early (and enthusiastic) persecution by the Romans. The best way today to relive the early Christian era is to visit Rome’s Appian Way and its Catacombs, along the Via Appia Antica. According to Christian tradition, it was here that an escaping Peter encountered his vision of Christ. The Catacombs were the first cemeteries of the Christian community of Rome, and housed the remains of early popes and martyrs.

We have Christianity, along with the influence of Byzantium, to thank for the appearance of Italy’s next great artistic style: the Byzantine. Painting and mosaic work in this era was very stylized and static, but also ornate and ethereal. The most accomplished examples of Byzantine art are found in the churches of Ravenna, and later buildings in the Byzantine style include Venice’s Basilica di San Marco.

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