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Roman Empire: An introduction
Te gebruiken bij
Auteur(s): Anthony Kamm
Druk/Jaar van uitgave: 2th, 2008
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1. Rome’s Origins
As many of you probably know Rome was not built in a day, it was a civilization that was developing, flourishing, and finally fell to pieces in the span of twelve hundred years. This period is a considerable one in the history of mankind as it is almost as large as phase between the Dark Ages in Britain and the present day. Having existed for such a long time Roman civilization has had a profound influence on Western society.
Having said that and the fact that various civilizations in history have been influenced by others, it is worth mentioning that many aspects of Roman culture were borrowed from ancient Greece. Even though Romans were not great innovators, they used many aspects of Greek culture for their own purposes. These purposes include the zealous pursuit of order and discipline, and the administration of their vast empire. Furthermore, the freeborn ancient man was different in the sense that working hard has never been a valued quality. This is because slavery had been established as a mark of humanity to be inflicted upon the ones on the losing side in battle. In the first century AD, for instance, it is possible that one third of the population of Rome was composed of slaves.
The Roman epoch can be divided into three distinct parts. The first of which is known as the period of the kings. It starts with the founding of Rome on 21 April 753 BC, until 510 BC, when the last Roman king was cast out. The second one – the period of the Roman republic, lasted from 509 BC until 27 BC, it ended with the legal establishment of absolute rule by Augustus. This led to the inauguration of the Imperial age of Rome, which lasted from 27 BC until 476 AD, when the last emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer, his German mercenary. This brought the western empire to an end. The eastern empire, however, carried on beyond the Middle Ages, until the Turk, Mehmed II, finally captured Constantinople and brought the empire to an end.
The Legends behind Rome’s founding
The legend of the founding of Rome by Romulus is the most popular one. It dictates how a king, Numitor of Alba Longa, was expelled by his brother, Amulius. In order to secure his position, Amulius murdered Numitor’s sons and forced his daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a vestal virgin, so that she would not have any sons, who could compete for Amulius’ throne. Regardless of how, Rhea Silvia caught the eye of the god Mars, who had his way with her while she was asleep. The result of this divine experience was two twins Romulus and Remus.
After having found about this, Amulius threw Rhea Silvia into the river Tiber, where she sank in the arms of the river’s god, who decided to marry her. The children were then put in a reed basket, which floated until it was trapped in the branches of a fig tree, and were then taken by a she-wolf. Later on, Romulus and Remus were found and saved by a royal shepherd. After that a couple found them and took care of them until Amulius was killed in battle and his place on the thrown was taken by the twin’s grandfather, Numitor.
As a result of the celebrations that took place afterwards, Romulus and Remus decided to build a new city next to the place, where they were rescued. Romulus took auspices by watching the flight of birds, which indicated that the city should be built on the Palatine Hill and that Romulus should be its king. He then proceeded to setting a boundary with an oxen-pulled plough. When Remus saw the boundary, probably in the gesture of mockery, jumped over the furrow, after which Romulus lost his temper and killed him.
The newly established settlement was short of women. When Romulus invited the neighboring Sabine tribe for a celebration to mark the harvest festival, the Romans abducted 600 Sabine daughters.
Another popular legend about the founding of Rome traces its origins from the Trojan War hero Aeneas – song of a mortal father and the goddess Venus. After having fought against the Greeks during the Trojan War, he wandered for many years until he finally settled in Italy and found the dynasty, from which Romulus originated. This legend particularly appealed to the emperors of Rome, as they liked to think that they were descended from heroes and that the city’s early struggle for survival reflected the heroic struggle of a true legend.
The historical sack of Troy was in about 1220 BC, therefore in order to cover the period until the date of the founding of Rome, the Romans invented a number of monarchs starting from Ascanius, son of Aeneas, to Numitor.
Historically, Latium and Etruria were essential for the establishment of Rome as an autonomous city-state, though the origin of the Roman tribes is yet unknown. It is known, however, that the Latins had been in the region since 1000 BC and herded sheep, goats, and cattle. They lived in dispersed communities, and their houses were made of wooden poles interwoven with branches, and then covered with clay.
Etruria was on the northern side of Rome and was a predominantly urban society, which gained its wealth through trade and their naval supremacy. The Etruscans were known for the extravagance of their decoration, artistic play, and the worship of gloomy gods. All of these features were later on transferred into Roman society.
In the period between 650 BC and 600 BC, the Etruscans crossed the Tiber and occupied Latium. This might have created the incentive for the Latin tribes to unite either to fend of the Etruscans or to be brought in line with the Etruscan imperial policy. From this point until the establishment of Rome the names of six kings are known: Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus. Even though there is little doubt that all of them existed, and the time is enough to fill the gap between Aeneas and Romulus, myth is so intertwined with history that it is hard to assign specific events the reign of any of them.
Rome under its Kings
The Roman talent for building empires originated from the period of the kings. Capturing land provided additional fighting power, and the Roman kings successfully captured lands to the south of the Tiber. After the destruction of the city of Alba Longa the Romans assumed precedence in religious affairs in all of Latium, since they took over the administration of festivities that had been celebrated on the Alban Mountain for centuries.
This period also left its footprints on the constitution of Rome. The king was appointed by the senate, which was an advisory body composed of patricians. The power of the king was similar to that of the father in a Roman family, and included the power to inflict capital punishment. The kings were responsible for foreign relations, war, security, public affairs, justice, and religious matters. Whenever he went he was followed by a band of lictors that carried the fasces, a bundle of sticks with an axe in the middle, signifying the punishments meted to criminals.
The Romans extended the concept of a father into the community. Every patrician family had its clients, an extended body of hereditary followers, who depended on the patricians for patronage and economic assistance and in return the clients offered their labor and in time of war, military service. Roman society was sharply divided; on one hand there is the socio-economic distinction between plebs, clients, and patricians, and on the other the tribal distinction between Ramnes, Luceres, and Tities, each responsible for the supply of 1.000 infantry and 100 cavalry in time of war. Each tribe was further split into ten curiae, whose representatives met with the king and the senate.
Roman trade was also divided. Numa Pompilius was the first one to start the policy of having different trade guilds. He divided the craftsmen in accordance to their trades. This division further facilitated barter, as Romans, unlike the Greeks, did not use money. Cattle’s value was measured by head of cattle, paecus, where the Latin word for money comes from - pecunia. Later on during the period of the kings, King Servius, who stamped an ox or a sheep on copper, developed a primitive monetary system.
The Etruscans were skilled in the construction of roads, hydraulics, and arch bridges. The Romans were to excel in all of them in time. A famous example of Roman architecture, for the construction of which all of them are used is the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. The temple is 60 meters long and 55 meters wide and its construction is attributed to Tarquinius Superbus, who supervised most of the building. Tarquinius also commissioned renowned Etruscan sculptors from Veii to construct a chariot to stand on top of the temple.
By the time the temple was completed the period of the kings was already over for good. The kings’ fall could best be represented by another legend told by Titus Livy (59 BC-17 AD), this story goes like this: Sextus, son of Tarquinius Superbus, angry with the chastity and beauty of Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, calls on her while her husband is away. According to the custom she offers him a bed for the night, and when all is quiet he enters her bedroom with his sword in hand. He threatens to kill her if she does not comply with his will, and when she refuses he threatens to kill her and lay beside her corpse the naked body of a slave. Lucretia regarded the rumor of her having committed adultery with a slave worse than death itself and therefore submitted to Sextus.
Since Lucretia is technically still guilty of adultery, which was in the time a crime of the upper class. She sends word to her father, whose authority exceeded that of her husband. She then calls her father and her husband, confesses her guilt, demands reparation for Sextus’ invasion of her body, and commits suicide.
Even though the rape of Lucretia is a popular theme in popular art and literature, it is difficult to prove that it was the reason for the fall of Tarquinius. Historically, it is more likely that it was simply a rebellion led by a band of nobles. Lucius Junius Brutus, who wished to follow the Greek model of a democratic government instead of a monarch who often extended his mandate, led the nobles.
When Tarquinius escaped he joined the ranks of the Etruscans, one of whose chiefs, known as Porsena, even occupied Rome. This campaign gave birth to the legends of Horatius, who held the bridge against the advancing Etruscans, and of Mucius Scaevola, who plunged his right hand into the flames rather than revealing details about a plan to assassinate the Etruscan leader. Porsena, having survived one assassination attempt, was so concerned that he withdrew his soldiers from the city in return for hostages.
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