The Rise of Rome

How Rome emerged from obscurity

or, Livy versus the Archaeologists

What was the secret of Rome? How was it that a small town on the western side of Italy, far from the ancient civilisations of the Near East was gradually able to conquer the small towns that were its neighbours, and then reach out and dominate the whole of Italy, and then eventually make the whole of the Mediterranean and most of Europe into its empire? And how was it that those who came within their control gradually came to realise, perhaps reluctantly at first, that becoming part of the Roman Empire had its advantages, so that for several hundred years the Roman empire enjoyed peace and prosperity and became one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen?

Plan of settlement around Rome in the early period.

Map of Rome and the surrounding settlements. Note the Etruscan town Veii to the north to be discussed in the next chapter. Note the Alban Hills to the south. the ritual centre of the Latin tribes. And note Gabii where the major cemetery of Osteria dell’Osa has been excavated.

Rome lacked most of the obvious advantages: it lies near the mouth of the River Tiber which winds its way up the backbone of Italy to the north, but there is no natural harbour, indeed the mouth of the Tiber is notoriously difficult to penetrate and Rome eventually had to build two magnificent artificial harbours. The land around is agriculturally prosperous, but there is no hidden mineral wealth. Perhaps one of the advantages was that it lay on a boundary of three rival societies.

Two seated Etruscan figures in the British Museum

Two seated statues from the Tomb of the Five Chairs at Cerveteri now in the British Museum.

To the north lay the Etruscans. Now the Etruscans are always something of a mystery: their language is non Indo-European and though it can be read, it can not be understood – only guessed at. Herodotus thought they were originally colonists from the East, but archaeology shows otherwise: they are descended from the Villanovan culture, the culture known from its pottery that marks the beginning of the Iron Age in the north of Italy. But from the 9th to the 4th century BC a number of settlements coalesced into substantial towns, twelve of which formed a league. Their towns are little known but they spent lavishly on their burials in underground chambered tombs. These were extensively robbed in the 18th and 19th centuries and their contents, notably the fine Greek vases that they imported, form the basis of many collections in museums around the world. But their towns are little known, mostly situated under modern towns. But there is no sign of palaces – that is a dwelling large enough to denote a single ruler, and it seems that they were aristocracies not under the control of any single ruler, but each dominated by a number of wealthy families who competed to see who could build the most lavish tombs.

Paestum: Temple of Zeus/Neptune

The Greek colonists built lavishly: this is one of the three Greek temples at Paestum, south of Naples.

Then to the south were the Greek colonies. In the 8th and 7th centuries the Greeks sent out colonies all around the Mediterranean, establishing little city states just like their mother towns in Greece, and the coasts of southern Italy and Sicily were peppered with these colonies, bringing Greek culture and Greek ambitions to disturb and sometimes stimulate the aboriginal inhabitants.

But who were these aboriginal inhabitants? They have been mostly ignored by history, or passed off as being wild barbarians who needed to be civilised by the Greeks and Romans. Archaeology is bringing them back to life.

Osteria dell'Osa: grave group

The best Latin cemetery of this early period is that at Osteria dell’Osa. This lies 15 miles east of Rome near the town of Gabii where some 600 graves were excavated from 1971 onwards. The cemetery was divided into twelve family groups, the majority dating from 900 – 750 BC, though some were later.

To the south of Rome were the Latins, who spoke the same language as the Romans, and who, if truth be told, were very little different from the Romans. Then there were the Sabines who occupied the hills behind the Roman area, and their neighbours to the south the Samnites, all speaking a language known as Oscan which was indeed spoken at Pompeii before it was conquered by the Romans in 89 BC. These Italic tribes form the background to our study of the history of Romans, for Rome gradually ensnared them.


However, in the task of trying to reconstruct the early history of Rome, we must also consider what might be called the mythology of Rome. Rome acquired a magnificent mythology, and we must try to work out just how much, if any, of the mythology might possibly contain just a smidgeon of history. And here we come on to the great historian of the early Rome, Livy.

Livy was one of the writers who flourished under the Emperor Augustus. He was a wonderful story teller who wrote the history of Rome from the beginning up to his own time in 142 books. Sadly only 35 of these survive, but they provide the background to our story. Livy was a great writer: but was he a great historian? Here judgement must be suspended. The first 5 books deal with what must be called the mythical history of Rome. They were the first books he wrote and are artistically his finest, among the greatest achievements in world literature. But his grasp of history was not always sound. One tends to compare him with the Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus also told myths, but one feels Herodotus always had his tongue in his cheek and his judgement was usually surprisingly sound. Livy was more keen to tell a polished story, but for the modern historian it is a constant challenge to know how far one should be sceptical about Livy and how far we can trust him.

There is one point in his favour we can make straight away: he was an annalist, that is he arranged his history year by year, beginning each year with the names of the consuls for the year – and fortunately Rome compiled a list of consuls right from the beginning. Whether it is reliable, at least in the early years, is a matter of debate, but it does mean that we get a firm framework for Rome’s early history.

Early Rome

Wolf feeding Romulus and Remus (Wikki)

Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf. It has long been known that the figures of the two children were added in the 15th century, and it has been suggested that the whole wolf is medieval. However the metal is of an Etruscan composition and does not show any of the impurities of Medieval bronze, so the wolf is probably genuine.

According to the traditional story, Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 BC – a date suspiciously close to the first Olympiad in 776 BC, the base date for Greek history. Romulus and his twin brother Remus were of royal descent, but following a dispute over their birth, they were exposed on the banks of the River Tiber, where they were suckled by a wolf and then found by a shepherd, who brought them up eventually they reclaimed their Royal birth and went off to found a new city of Rome.

The new city was a great success and young men flocked to it, but there was a shortage of women, so they decided to go out and seize some. They therefore invited their neighbours, the Sabines, to a feast, at which they seized all the Sabine women and raped the lot. Not surprisingly the Sabine men objected, and war followed, but peace was brokered by the raped women who didn’t want to have their fathers and brothers fighting their rapists who were by now their husbands. It is a pretty story, though it is a bit difficult to see why the Romans adopted it into their tradition.

Hut-urn from Alban Hills

A hut-urn from Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills, now in the British Museum. Such hut-urns were often buried in the richest graves of this early period.

There is however a prequel to this story to link Rome to the Trojan war. Here we come onto the story of Aeneas, the hero of Virgil’s great poem the Aeneid. In this, Aeneas escapes from the burning Troy carrying his aged father Anchises, and then wanders round the Mediterranean, calling in at Carthage where he has a year long fling with Queen Dido. He then abandons her and sets off to Italy where he is welcomed by the Latins, the tribe to the south of Rome. However there is a problem here that was revealed in the third century BC, when the librarians at Alexandria used genealogy to work out the past. They calculated the fall of Troy to be 1184 BC, which surprisingly is more or less correct. They then worked out the foundation of Rome to be 753 BC. So what was happening between Aeneas arriving at Rome soon after 1184 and the foundation of Rome by Romulus in 754 BC? A new story was therefore concocted that they settled at Alba Longa, a ritual site about a dozen miles south of Rome and the story of Alba Longa neatly fills the 400 year gap between the fall of Troy in 1184 and the foundation of Rome in 753.

Romulus who founded Rome in 753 BC was followed by seven kings, all of whom reigned for around thirty years. Kingship was not hereditary, but when one king died, there was an interregnum until the next king was elected by the tribal council which was the forerunner of the Senate. The first four kings were largely mythical, but the last three Kings were often considered to be ‘Etruscan’ Kings. There is no evidence that Rome was actually ruled by the Etruscans, but this was the Etruscan heyday, when a Etruscan influence was spreading widely throughout Italy. The most important of these late kings was the middlemost one, Servius Tullius, conventionally dated 579 to 534. He apparently carried out major reforms, holding the first census, which was a ‘democratic’ proceeding as it brought in all the lower classes who had previously been ignored by the leading families. He also reformulated the comitia, the tribal assembly so that instead of just being composed of the leading families, it grew into an assembly that incorporated all ranks. Eventually the Romans had 35 tribes, and it is possible that the first four of these go back to an early period: when similar reforms were introduced in Greece, they are sometimes linked to the introduction of hoplite fighting which depended on the existence of a solid middle-class to form the solid mass of well armoured soldiers. But these reforms introduced what was to be one of the great secrets of Rome’s success that they were constantly enlarging the citizen body to draw in outsiders.

But the last of the Etruscan kings, Tarquinius Superbus was a tyrant, who only came to the throne by murdering his wife and his elder brother, and assassinating his predecessor; his son was then involved in the rape of Lucretia, a still potent myth and as a result he was ejected, and the Roman Republic was born.


Early Roman (7th century) vase in British Museum

Reticulated vase from Castel Gandolfo, now in the British Musem

After the elevated stories of mythology, what has archaeology to contribute? The evidence for early Rome consists mainly of burials. The earliest burials are in the Forum itself where there is a light scattering of burials, which may go back to the 10th century, mostly cremations where the ashes were place in a large circular jar. By the 9th century, burials had moved out to the Esquiline area to the north east, where inhumation graves have been discovered, while a group of eighth and ninth century houses – oval wooden huts — were discovered on the Palatine in the 1930s. More recently further work on the Palatine has been carried out by the flamboyant and controversial figure of Andrea Carandini, or rather Count Andrea Carandini, who, with his political connections has been able to carry out excavations in the Palatine where a group of sixth century buildings has been found.

Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in the Capitoline Museum.

The reconstructed walls of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. This temple built around 500 BC was the largest building of this date in central Italy. It is now incorporated on its original foundations in the Capitoline Museum.

Speculative plan of the temple, showing the many rows of columns.

In the sixth century, Rome became rich: pottery improved and fine vases were imported from Greece and temples were built in stone. The biggest was the temple to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill which was dedicated in 509 by the new Republic, though it was actually built by the last of the kings. Its remains are now incorporated in the Capitoline Museum and if the reconstruction is correct, it would have been the largest known temple in Italy at the time. There were smaller temples too such as the pair discovered under the church of Santa Omobono down in the cattle market. Perhaps the most significant achievement of all of these late kings was the construction of the Cloaca Maxima, the great drain that drained, and indeed still drains the forum.

The new Republic

Following the expulsion of the Kings, Rome became a republic. The new arrangement showed Roman genius at its best: the single king was replaced by two leaders called Consuls, elected for just a single year. It was a system that lasted actively for 500 years, and indeed continued partially for a further 500 years. Electing them for just a year meant that they never had long enough to establish themselves, while having two of them ensured that there was always a balance of power.

Hut on Palatine hill (BM)

Reconstruction drawing of a hut – the earliest house found on the slopes of the Palatine Hill.

The history of Rome for the next two hundred years is dominated by the Struggle of the Orders, which sounds very dull and boring, but in fact forms the beginnings of what I believe to be the secret of Rome — rather reluctant compromise. I suppose we might call it a class struggle: on the one side were the patricians – the upper classes, and on the other side were the plebs who were the lower classes. But it was not quite like this. It is tempting to say that the plebs should really be called the middle classes, but this does not really work either. A lot of the patricians were in fact solid working farmers, and some of the plebs were undoubtedly pretty grand, but the majority were indeed the poor, constantly getting into debt and complaining that they did not have enough land.

But basically, the story was always the same. The plebs were discontented, so they struggled with the patricians, and for ten years the patricians said no, but finally the plebs went on strike and eventually the patricians gave way. And it was this art of reluctant compromise that was the ultimate Roman secret.

The first great struggle came in 494: an old soldier had fallen into debt and was imprisoned and tortured by his creditor and the patricians were unsympathetic: something must be done about it. The plebs therefore went on strike and decamped to the Sacred Mount where they could not be touched because it was sacred. However Rome was in the middle of a war with their neighbours to the south and when the plebs decamped, they lost half their army, so reluctantly they had to compromise. This led to the formation of what turned out to be one of the most powerful features of the Roman government, the creation of the Tribune of the Plebs. Originally there were two of these, and they were sacrosanct which meant that they could not be touched – even by the consuls, and to some extent they could veto the decisions of the patricians. The plebs now had proper representation and a proper organisation.

The Twelve Tables

Engraving of the Twelve Tables being read.

18th century engraving of the Twelve Tables being prominently displayed and eagerly read. Imaginary, but good.

These concessions were a start, but they were not enough. Further agitation arose which came to a head in 471 with the introduction of the Twelve Tables of Law. The trouble was that the laws were not written down: in primitive societies, when a disagreement arises, the two parties bring their dispute before the chief who decides who is right. Inevitably this becomes biased – the rich are right the poor are wrong, so the plebs wanted to have the law written down. So a ten man strong special board was appointed which drew up a set of laws which were inscribed on ten bronze tablets which were displayed in the forum. These were mostly concerned with matters of debt and family law, codifying the place of women: women were the property of their fathers while their fathers were still alive, after which they became the property of their husbands.

The ten tables were a great success so a further board of ten was appointed, but they became despotic, so the plebs once more decamped to the Sacred mount and the second board of ten was ejected. The worst of their laws was one that forbade marriage between patricians and plebs which would have been disastrous for it codified a sort of caste division, and castes are always disastrous, and fortunately ten years later it was repealed. This was followed in 449 by the rather important Valerio-Horatian Law, which not only confirmed the sacrosanctity of the tribunes, but made the decisions of the Council of the Plebs binding on the patricians as well.

The establishment of the Twelve Tables was a major step forward. One of the big criteria for the establishment of civilisation is that there should be the rule of law. In primitive societies when a dispute arises it is taken before the big chief who hears both sides and decides who is right. When the rule of law is established disputes are settled by the rule of law – fairness does not matter, the important thing is what the law actually states. (Today in the 21st century we seem to be going backwards and abandoning the rule of law for the sake of ‘human rights’ where disputes are settled by what seems to be fairness).

The fifth century continued to be a time of chaos. Part of the trouble was that the latter part of the century saw an economic downturn. Thus between 497 and 484, five new temples were dedicated, but only a single new temple was dedicated between 484 and the end of the century. Similarly the amount of imported Greek pottery declines.

The allocation of public land was equally important. After every war, the victors punished the losers by confiscating some of their territory which became state land, and the patricians inevitably grabbed it. Now the patricians were limited to 100 iugera (133 ha or 328 acres) each, and the grazing for a hundred cows. The trouble is that there was a similar agitation and a similar solution in the 130s BC when the Gracchi brothers were agitating on behalf of the poor, and there is the suspicion that their demands were transferred back into the past. But the problems of debt and the allocation of the public lands were real, and problems like this dominated the Struggle of the Orders.

For the first century of its existence as a Republic, Rome remained insignificant, but in the fourth century BC, its fortunes began to change and it is to these changes that we must now turn.

(Header: The Rape of the Sabine women as imagined by Sebastiano Ricci, 1659 – 1734)

Next: The Fourth Century

2nd November 2019