A History of the City of Rome

By Tim Lambert

The Ancient City of Rome

There was a settlement in Rome by the mid-8th century BC. In the 6th century BC, it was ruled by Etruscan kings. The kings were advised by the Senate, a body that consisted of Roman aristocrats or patricians. However, in 510 BC the Romans rebelled and expelled the last king Tarquinius Superbus. The middle and working-class Romans were called plebeians. In the 6th century, there was antagonism between the two classes.

Finally, in 494 BC the plebeians left Rome and founded their own settlement on the Aventine Hill. The patricians were forced to make concessions to win them back.

From the beginning, Rome was an aggressive and expansionist state. At first, the Romans conquered central Italy. However, in 390 the Gauls captured and sacked Rome. Yet Rome recovered and conquered southern Italy. By 272 BC almost all the south of Italy was in Roman hands.

Rome then came into conflict with Carthage, a city in North Africa. Carthage was very powerful. The wars between Rome and Carthage are called the Punic Wars. The first lasted from 264 to 241 BC. It ended with the Romans capturing Sicily. Shortly afterward they also occupied Sardinia and Corsica. The Second Punic War lasted from 218 to 202 BC. In 218 Hannibal marched a great army including elephants from Spain, through southern France, and over the Alps into Italy. He defeated the Romans in several battles. However, Hannibal did not have the resources to completely destroy Rome and the Romans sent an army to North Africa. Led by Scipio the Romans won a decisive battle at Zama in 202 BC.

Meanwhile, the Romans expanded northwards. North Italy was inhabited by Celts but the Romans conquered them piecemeal. By 90 BC all of northern Italy was in Roman hands. Some Romans became very rich as a result of these successful wars. Furthermore, prisoners of war were made slaves and so there was a huge influx of slaves into Roman territory. Some wealthy Romans made fortunes by using slave labor on large estates.

However many peasants were forced to leave the land and move to the cities. Fortunately, there were plenty of jobs for them. As Rome grew more and more prosperous many public were built such as roads and temples. However, the dramatic social changes caused much unrest in Rome.

Meanwhile, the slaves sometimes rose in rebellion. The first rebellion or servile war lasted from 135 to 132 BC when slaves in Sicily rebelled. Sicilian slaves rebelled again in 103 BC but they were crushed in 99 BC. Finally, Spartacus led a rebellion of Italian slaves in 73 BC. However, the rebellion was crushed in 71 BC.

Then non-Roman Italians rose against Rome in the Social War of 91-89 BC. They demanded certain rights and privileges. Roman troops under Cornelius Sulla crushed the revolt. Nevertheless, in 89 BC all free Italians were granted Roman citizenship. In the first century BC the Roman Republic slowly broke down and power was increasingly in the hands of successful generals. In times of emergency, the Romans sometimes appointed a temporary dictator to take charge. In 83 BC Sulla made himself dictator. He ruled until 80 BC.

Julius Caesar conquered Gaul (modern-day France). His military victories made him very popular with his men. However, in 49 BC the Senate voted that Caesar should give up command of the army and return to Rome without his troops. Caesar refused and instead marched on Rome. Julius Caesar became dictator of Rome until 44 BC when he was assassinated.

After a civil war, Octavian became the first Roman emperor. In 27 BC he was granted the title ‘Augustus’. The Roman Republic was at an end. Augustus kept the Senate but he held the real power. He controlled the army and the civil service. Augustus managed to restore order to the Roman empire and when he died in 14 AD it was peaceful and prosperous. He was followed by his stepson Tiberius (14-37 AD). The next emperor was Gaius or Caligula (37-41 AD), who ruled so badly he was assassinated by his bodyguard, the praetorian guard. He was succeeded by his uncle Claudius (41-54 AD). During his reign the Romans conquered Britain. Next came Nero (54-68).

Vespasian (69-79) built the Coliseum and under Trajan (98-117) and Hadrian (177-138) the Roman Empire was at its peak. In 212 the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free people in the empire. By then the Roman empire was beginning to decline. When the emperor Severus Alexander was murdered in 325 there were decades of political instability. Between 235 and 284 there were 22 emperors.

The Colosseum

Order and prosperity were temporarily restored by Diocletian (284-305). He abdicated in 305 and there was a struggle for succession. Constantine was proclaimed emperor in 306 but he was not in complete control of the empire until 324. Crucially Constantine introduced a policy of tolerating Christianity. He was baptized on his deathbed in 337.

Diocletian split the empire into two halves, western and eastern. Constantine united them in 324 but they split again after his death. Gradually there was less and less co-operation between the two halves. In the Western Roman Empire, there was a relentless economic decline with raging inflation. Meanwhile, the Germanic tribes beyond the border were growing stronger and stronger.

Then in 410 Alaric the Goth captured Rome. Nevertheless, the Roman Empire survived for some time afterward. However, in 429-430, a people called the Vandals crossed from Spain to North Africa. That had serious consequences for the Romans because they imported much of their grain from there.

Worse in 455 the Vandals sacked Rome. Finally, in 476, the last Roman emperor in the west was deposed and a German called Odoacer made himself king of Italy. That was the end of the Roman empire in the west (although it continued in the east).

Rome in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Yet the great city of Rome did not die. In the Middle Ages Rome was much smaller than it had been during its heyday as the center of an empire. By the 7th century, the population of Rome fell to only about 30,000. It was still a very large town compared to others in Europe but it was only a shadow of its former self. However, the Pope took over from the Roman emperor as ruler of Rome. The writer Edward Gibbon said the papacy was ‘The Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned on the grave thereof’. The Pope took the title Pontifex Maximus, a title that once belonged to pagan high priests. Popes also spread their influence by converting parts of Europe to Catholicism. The Popes gradually became more powerful.

In the 8th century, the Franks (from France) were allies of the Pope and invaded Italy. In 754 the ruler of the Franks made the Pope ruler of a large part of central Italy, which became known as the Papal States. So not only was the Pope head of the Church he was also the secular ruler of his own state.

Meanwhile, trade and commerce in Europe revived and Rome slowly grew prosperous again. (Although it was sacked by the Norman king Robert Guiscard in 1084. By the 14th century, Rome was booming again. Meanwhile, people from all over Europe went to Rome on pilgrimages.

In the 16th century, Rome had a population of about 100,000 and the Popes paid for great works of art to be created. However, in 1527, the Holy Roman Emperor (ruler of Germany) captured Rome. However, the city soon recovered. Then in 1555 Pope Paul IV forced all Jews in Rome to live in a ghetto. In the 17th century, Rome continued to prosper and great architecture was created.

Meanwhile, in 1542 the Roman Inquisition was founded. In 1600 the great astronomer and philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned to death in Rome by the Inquisition. Later Galileo was summoned to Rome to be examined by the Inquisition. He arrived in January 1633. Galileo was threatened with torture unless he renounced the Copernican theory (which stated that the Earth orbits the Sun). Not surprisingly he agreed to do so. Nevertheless, he was put under house arrest for the rest of his life.

With the rise of reason and the decline of dogma in the 18th century, the power of the Popes and the Catholic Church declined. Finally, in 1798 Napoleon occupied Rome.

Modern Rome

In 1849 the people of Rome rebelled and the Pope was forced to flee but he was restored to power by the French. In 1861 Italy was unified. Most of the Papal States were absorbed into the new kingdom but the French prevented the Italians from taking Rome.

However, in 1870 French troops were withdrawn from Rome to fight the Prussians. The Italians took the opportunity to liberate Rome. It became the capital of Italy. Meanwhile, Rome became a popular tourist destination.

In 1919 Benito Mussolini formed the Fascist movement. The Fascists grew rapidly. Finally, at a mass rally in Naples on 24 October 1922, the Fascists demanded a march on Rome to take power by force. So on 28 October 1922, a force of Fascists marched on Rome (although Mussolini remained in Milan in case anything went wrong).

At first, the king planned to use the army to resist the Fascists. However, at the last moment, he changed his mind and refused to sign an order placing Italy under martial law. Instead, he summoned Mussolini to be Prime Minister. Mussolini traveled from Milan and arrived in Rome to take up the post on 29 October 1922.

Then in 1929, the Pope made a deal with the Fascist dictator. It was called the Lateran Pact. The Vatican was made a sovereign state. The Pope recognized the kingdom of Italy for the first time and he accepted that Rome was now the capital of Italy.

Italy joined the Second World War on Germany’s side in 1940. However, Italy surrendered on 8 September 1943. The Germans then poured troops into Italy. On 11 September they captured Rome. The Allies liberated Rome on 4 June 1944.

In 1960 the Olympic Games were held in Rome. Today tourism is an important industry in Rome. MAAXI Museum of 21st Century Arts opened in 2010. IT is also an important industry in Rome. In 2024 the population of Rome was 2.8 million.

The City of Rome

Last revised 2024