Perhaps more than any other culture, Rome was the seminal civilization of the West. Over the centuries, a tiny town on the banks of the Tiber would be transformed into the beating heart of the greatest empire of antiquity — a shining city of marble that housed over a million souls with architectural marvels that could not be equalled for over a millennia.
For context, the population of London, the capital of the British Empire, the greatest imperial power of all time, did not reach one million until the early 19th century, decades before they mastered indoor plumbing.
The Romans had both in the 1st century.
Our political, legal, religious and linguistic traditions all have their roots in Rome: Republics and dictators, civil and common law, the Roman Catholic Church and its Protestant offshoots, and the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian … even English, that bastard mutt of a tongue, did not emerge unscathed.) Latin was the West’s liturgical language until the 16th century and the language of science for centuries after that. It’s only within the last century or so that Latin has declined as the international language of educated people.
People have often wondered how such a mighty empire fell, but in many ways the more interesting question is — why did it rise in the first place, and why didn’t it fall far sooner? Why didn’t it collapse in the face of centuries of crises that would have brought most self respecting civilizations to their knees?
All empires crumble, yet from their legendary founding the Romans lasted for over a millennia (two if we count the Byzantines), and their legacy is still going strong. It is the exceptional, above all, that requires an explanation.
The Romans were a martial, legalistic people who forged an empire through conquest. Their distant ancestor, Aeneas, was a refugee from the Trojan War, and the founder and the first of their mythical kings, Romulus, was supposedly the son of Mars, god of war, who slew his twin brother for daring to challenge his city’s borders.
Archeological evidence shows the site that would become Rome was intermittently inhabited as far back as 12,000 BC, although none of these settlements were cities. By the early first millennia BC small villages of Latin speakers across the many hills of Rome had begun to coalesce into a larger urban settlement sometime around the city’s mythical founding in 753 BC.
According to Rome’s own telling, its first inhabitants were brigands, runaways, and the castoffs that no respectable people would deal with — Romulus could supposedly find only 100 out of the entire lot pious enough to perform religious duties without angering the gods — the first patriarchs of what would become the patricians, and the first members of the city’s senate. The sex ratio of the new city was rather lopsided, and no father would ever marry his daughter to a Roman, so Romulus staved off a demographic crisis by luring the nearby tribes to the town for a festival, ambushing the lot of them and kidnapping as many of their daughters as they could.
Not the most flattering of origin stories.
Their neighbors, of course, took exception to this, the Sabines especially, and peace was only achieved when the captured Sabine brides begged their husbands, brothers, and fathers not to slaughter one another, and the Sabine tribes were integrated into the state and senate, doubling its number. The early Senate was responsible for choosing and advising the Kings, and after Romulus’s death — and a year of deadlock — the Sabines were granted a concession: a Sabine would be king, but the Roman senators got to pick.
They chose Numa Pomilius, an ascetic who did not want the job, who proceeded to found most of Rome’s important religious institutions and elevate the city to semi-respectable status among its neighbors.
In the heart of their city stood one of his most famous creations, the temple of Janus, god of beginnings, endings, doors and change, namesake of the month of January. In the heart of that temple there were the Gates of Janus. When Rome was at peace, the gates were closed, but when the city was at war they were flung open. Supposedly, for the entire reign of Numa, those gates were proudly sealed shut, but in the years to come they would be open ever after.
Most early Roman records are at least semi-mythical and probably wrong — no comparable kingdom ever had a stretch of seven kings reign for an average of 35 years, but there are helpful clues within the myths. Rome lies smack dab in the middle of the Italian peninsula, and was an important trading post between the Greek colonies in the south (Magna Graecia) and the powerful Etruscan city-states to the north.
The bloodline of Aeneas connected the Latins to the greatest work of Greek mythology, as Rome would borrow much of its religion from the Greeks. We can’t say much about the Etruscans — we can’t even read all of their language, but the last three kings of Rome came from an Etruscan family so it’s safe to say that the city fell under their dominion at some point. Whether or not its final king, Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud) actually murdered his brother, executed political opponents, and drained the treasury dry is up for dispute, but whatever Rome’s experience with monarchy actually was by the end of the ordeal they were good and through with it.
Thus, in 509 BC (one year before Athenian Democracy was born in 508, conveniently) the world’s first Republic was created — “res publica,” the public thing.