German author and poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe once said about Rome, “Only in Rome is it possible to understand Rome.” The city has a complex and rich history behind it. Once the capital of a sprawling empire, Rome’s cultural history has influenced the world in several different ways.

Now due to a viral TikTok trend, the Roman empire is splashed across headlines and all over social media.

So, here’s a brief look back at the founding of Rome, its transition from monarchy to republic, the fall of the republic, the fall of the empire and the inventions of Rome.

Founding of Rome

On April 21, 753 B.C.E., Rome was founded, or so the myth goes.

Roman authors often dated important events using this date as a vantage point using the acronym A.U.C. — ab urbe condita or “from the founding of the city.” The legendary origins of the city are recounted by authors like Livy and Virgil.

In Virgil’s “Aeneid” — a national epic poem sometimes considered propaganda, other times considered subversive — Virgil details the journey and war of the hero Aeneas. Exiled from Troy when the Hellenes pillaged and destroyed the city, Aeneas launches a voyage with his fleet to find a home. Juno, the goddess, tries to thwart him partially due to his dalliance with Queen Dido — the queen of Juno’s patron city Carthage.

He arrives on the Sicilian shoreline and soon engages in battle with Turnus and his army. It’s said by different authors that Aeneas has two descendants, Romulus and Remus. Livy said Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus, was a Vestal Virgin, who was assaulted by Mars. The wicked king Amulius put Romulus and Remus in a basket on the river Tiber.

A she-wolf raised them and they were eventually brought to a shepherd’s family. When the boys grew up, they killed Amulius and decided to start a city of their own. They used augury (oracle via birds) to decipher which hill to build the city upon — Remus saw six birds first, but Romulus saw 12. They disagreed on which one saw the divine sign. There are two variations of the story regarding what happened next.

Livy, or Titus Livius, said the more commonplace story is Remus jumped over the wall they built between their hills to mock Romulus, and then, Romulus killed him. Another version of the story is the pair of brothers fought each other over the augury and Romulus killed him during that dispute. After the death of Remus, Romulus secured and fortified the Palatine hill and declared himself king of Rome.

Like there are seven hills of Rome (Quirinal, Viminal, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Caelian and Aventine), there are seven kings of Rome — Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius and Tarquinius Superbus.

Each of these kinds contributed to the development of Rome.

Numa Pompilius was known for religious reforms and establishing religious groups (commonly referred to as cults in historical research — different meaning and connotation than the common use of the word). He also extended the calendar to 12 months from 10. Other kings like Tullus Hostilius built the curia (senate house) or as Ancus Marcius did, establish a bridge over the Tiber.

The Servian wall was built around Rome by Servius Tullius and Rome became an established monarchy. Then, Tarquinius Superbus became king.

He built a giant sewer known as Cloaca Maxima and he commissioned the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which was a primary space of worship for the ancient Romans. Notably, from the Cumaean Sibyl (an oracular priestess), he purchased the Sibylline Books, which were believed to contain important prophecies about the future of Rome. They also contain specific worship instructions.

Then, as Livy recounted it, Sextus Tarquinius, son of Tarquinius Superbus, raped Lucretia, who died by suicide. Then, her father and her husband staged a rebellion which led to the end of the Roman monarchy.

Rome's Appian Way a highway of history

When did Rome become a Republic?

In 509 B.C.E., Rome became a Republic. The monarchy was overthrown by a rebellion and soon the area became a representative republic. The first five consuls came from wealthy Roman families — they were L. Junius Brutus, L. Tarquinius Collatinus, P. Valerius Poplicola, Sp. Lucretius and M. Horatius Pulvillus.

Rome as a republic faced inner-secessions. The wealthy class, the patricians, and the other economic classes, the plebeians fought each other. As a result of plebeian revolutions, rights were expanded to plebeians and they held political officer at a higher rate as well as having expanded economic rights.

Rome fought several wars such as the Samnite Wars and the Pyrrhic War, but the most defining wars were the Punic Wars.

These were the wars fought between Rome and Carthage. Rome faced fierce enemies especially when Hannibal became general. Hannibal was the son of Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, who never lost a battle against Rome. As a young man, Hannibal swore to his religion’s gods he would always hate Rome, no matter what happened.

Hannibal led elephants and an army across the Alps to Rome, engaging in fierce battle with them. As an old man, he watched as the Romans demanded his surrender as the Carthaginians wavered. Cato the Elder, a famous Roman politician, would conclude all his speeches in the Roman Senate with the phrase “Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” translated as “Finally, I submit that Carthage must be destroyed.”

Carthage eventually had to surrender to the Romans and the land was destroyed by the Romans — who also were said to have salted the land to prevent crops from growing on it. This military crisis was followed by several other wars, which also led to Rome expanding its geographical boundaries. Simultaneously, wars closer to home were eroding the social fabric of the republic.

Some have called the two sub-groups that developed the Populares (the people) versus the Optimates (the senate). Enslaved persons and people of lower economic class revolted against intense restrictions, especially agrarian laws.

Generals like Marius and Sulla started gathering money and armies to fight during this time. They fought what’s called the Social War, which coincided with Julius Caesar becoming of age to join the army. Caesar was related to Marius and due to Sulla’s victory, experienced political difficulty.

Caesar trained in the army and eventually began ascending the political ranks. While he was doing this, the great orator Cicero began drawing attention to Catiline, who Cicero said had launched a coup to take over the Roman state. Caesar was said to be involved in the plot, but this didn’t harm him too much politically.

Eventually, Caesar formed a political alliance with two others, Pompey and Crassus — these two were both quite wealthy and had been fighting each other. Caesar left Rome to go to Gaul (which is modern day France and the surrounding areas). Political turmoil back home made Caesar worry about his prospects of returning home with his army. So, as it goes, Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and thus started a civil war.

After Caesar defeated his enemies, he became dictator. He abolished the tax system in favor of cities setting their tributes, started the rebuilding of Carthage, began issuing coins with him on it and stared building a massive temple to Mars as well as a public library. He was named dictator for life and began consolidating military and political power with plans to expand the borders of Rome.

But then, Caesar was assassinated. His last words were rumored to be the Greek “καὶ σύ, τέκνον” translated as “You too, child?” which Shakespeare understood to be directed towards Brutus who participated in the assassination. Caesar’s assassination led to the end of the Roman republic.

Caesar was popular among the lower and middle classes who saw Caesar’s assassination in a negative light and became angry with the upper classes. But another political figure consolidated power and became the first emperor of Rome — Octavian.

When did Rome become an empire?

After Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., a second trio of men (like Julius Caesar, Crassus and Pompey) took power. They were Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavian.

Octavian was the nephew of Caesar. The alliance with the two other men didn’t last long and in 31 B.C.E., Octavian defeated Mark Antony at Actium in a decisive battle and became the sole ruler of Rome.

He took on the name of Augustus and became the official ruler of Rome in 27 B.C.E. During his life, he dramatically expanded the borders of Rome, established a road system and created public services for the city like a proto-police department and fire-fighting department.

Augustus was also known for his patronage of the arts. He is said to have commissioned Virgil’s “Aeneid,” which some think is a unifying national epic about the history of Rome. Other artists and authors flourished during this time.

He described his own influence over the city as “I found Rome a city of bricks and I left it a city of marble.” Some disputed Augustus’ reign, but at this point there wasn’t much internal fighting during his reign which would last until his death in 14 C.E.

From that point on, Rome was an empire and would continue to expand. Not only did Rome expand geographically, but in terms of wealth and opulence as well. Many of the commonly known aspects of Rome like the Colosseum and gladiator games were established during this time.

There were different dynasties of rulers like the Julio-Claudians, the Year of Four Emperors, the Flavians, the Five Good Emperors, the Severans and others. During this time, Roman religion became more intertwined with the empire. The introduction of Christianity into the empire was largely initially met with persecution and eventually tolerance. The destabilization of the Roman empire was slow in process — it happened over time as emperors fought would-be successors and people grew more unhappy.

In 286 C.E., the Roman empire split in half: east and west.

Both the brokenness and the vast stretch of empire made it difficult to communicate efficiently and to maintain stabilization. Economic issues plagued Rome, which made it even more difficult to fund wartime efforts against invading armies.

Eventually, Rome would fall.

How did Rome fall?

Rome started with a Romulus and ended with a Romulus.

In 410 C.E., Alaric, one of the Visigoths, paraded his army into the Roman empire and invaded Rome, tearing down the walls of the city. Rome was sacked at this point, which left the city in tatters.

Different groups invaded Rome and took land from the empire, leading to empire further shrinking. Things came to a head in 476 C.E. when Romulus was emperor of the western side. Then, Odoacer overthrew him and the Roman empire fell. The eastern wing of the Roman empire had already evolved into the Byzantine empire at this point, which didn’t fall until 1453.

This date is disputed. It comes from Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” but some place a different date on the end of Rome. Some think Rome became too decadent, the empire was too big and the citizens were too financially burdened for Rome to surprise. Some also think Romans suffered from lead poisoning due to their water and sewer systems.

Rome didn’t survive the final series of invasions. Even though the empire ended, there are several contributions from ancient Rome.

What are famous Roman contributions?

From ice cream to postal services to books to plumbing, the Romans contributed the blueprints for several inventions.

The ancient Romans invented things like a plumbing and sewer systems, as well as a system to transport water known as aqueducts. This complex system was later recreated several years after the Romans did it.

Romans were also sophisticated in their development of roads. They built roads using gravel, dirt and concrete and were able to have steady, easy to cross road systems. As the saying goes “all roads lead to Rome,” Rome had something of a grid system when it came to their roads, which made them easy to navigate.

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In terms of society, arts and literature, Romans also invented things like the newspaper (they had an early newspaper called “Acta Diurna” or “Daily Acts”) and a modern welfare system, according to the History Channel. “These entitlement programs date back to 122 B.C.E., when the tribune Gaius Gracchus instituted lex frumentaria, a law that ordered Rome’s government to supply its citizens with allotments of cheaply priced grain.”

Rome was famous for great authors like Tacitus, Sulpicia, Livy, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and others. Mosaics like the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii’s House of the Faun showcase the brilliant artistic talent from Rome.

Philosophically, Rome drew a lot from ancient Greece which is credited with coming up with the scaffolding of the philosophy behind democracy. Rome had two major schools of philosophical thought: Epicureanism and Stoicism. Philosophers like Cicero, Lucretius, Seneca the Younger, Marcus Aurelius and others put forward ideas about government, the meaning of life and much more — these ideas are still debated today and they are still referenced today.

Beatrice Silva listed 25 different inventions of the Romans including surgical tools, heating systems, the Julian calendar, public entertainment, cooling systems (think proto-air conditioning), dental fillings, apartments, mass production of glass and other complex systems that are still used or mirrored today.

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