The history of Rome, part one

Rome was not built in a day. Rome cannot be summarized in a single thousand-word post. Roman civilization became the foundation of all western civilization—from Iceland and Ireland to Russia, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and all the lands of the Americas. As a result, Roman civilization also has impacted greatly upon China, India, Africa, and the other civilizations of the world.

Rome began as a small settlement on the Italian peninsula. Although Rome was not a colony of the Greeks or Phoenicians, its inhabitants garnered much from both cultures, as well as that of the Etruscans, their neighbors to the north. Much of Roman civilization was borrowed, especially from the Greeks. Romans adopted Greek philosophy, Greek mathematics and science, Greek art and literature and music, and the Greek approach to history. Curious about many religions, some Romans experimented with Egyptian and Persian mystery religions before the civilization finally adopted Christianity, which developed out of the Jewish religion. Roman engineering surpassed all that had come before; the Romans discovered concrete, learned to build arches and domes, and made roads and aqueducts that remained useful for twenty centuries. Roman politics also set the standard by which civilizations have evaluated themselves and one another up to the present time.

At first, Rome was ruled by kings. Traditionally, Rome had a series of seven kings, some of them with Etruscan names. This form of government ended when the citizens of Rome rose up, overthrew their seventh king, and declared a republic. No longer, they declared, would Rome be ruled by kings. (When describing this vital decision to students, I would write “Rex”—the Roman word for king—on the board in black, then circle it in red and draw a slash line through it—no rex, no king.) Rome’s laws were made by a Senate. The people elected various officers, most for temporary positions that were term-limited; they could not remain in office indefinitely. Roman government was dominated by an elite of wealthy and powerful men, the upper class or patricians. Later, they permitted the middle class, or plebians, to participate in government as well, but the poor, slaves, women, and foreigners were always barred from voting and from participating in government offices.

Early in its history, Rome was threatened and almost destroyed by Celtic warriors who came from the north of Italy as invaders. Having survived that attack, Rome began to consolidate its position by overpowering and incorporating its neighbors, including the Latins (whose name became the name of the Roman language). Roman citizenship was granted to the leaders of Rome’s defeated neighbors. Army leaders retired to their farms—and, the more the army grew, the more farmland Rome needed to acquire to satisfy its retired veterans. This led to more acts of conquest and greater wars, including the three Punic wars against Carthage, wars I will describe in the next post.

At the same time that Rome fought to enlarge its Republic, the civilization also benefited from trade. The Roman Republic was included in a trade network that stretched all the way to China—a network called the Silk Roads, which I will also describe in a separate post. Because of the Silk Roads, Chinese silk was sold in Rome and Italian glass was sold in China. Through trade, Romans learned a little bit about civilizations far away from Italy—not only China, but also Italy, Persia, Arabia, Egypt, and other parts of Africa. To encourage such trade, Rome built and maintained roads, as was being done in China and Persia and India as well. Along these roads traveled merchandise of every kind. Also, ideas traveled on these roads: political ideas, economic ideas, scientific ideas, technological ideas, philosophic ideas, and religious ideas. This exchange of ideas made the time of the Romans one of the most interesting and important times in all of history. J.