The city of Rome has been one of the great centers of Western civilization for more than 2,000 years. Located in Latium in Italy, Rome lies 15 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Tiber River valley. The city was founded in the 700s B.C. and was ruled by kings from neighboring Etruria for more than 200 years. During this period of Etruscan rule, Rome became one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean region.

Rome grew in size and power as the capital of the Roman empire. Strongly influenced by Greek culture, Rome became an important center of art and literature. The Romans constructed beautiful and magnificent buildings, monuments, and other structures throughout the city. Toward the end of the Roman Empire, barbarians* began to invade the city and the surrounding regions, and the prosperity of the city declined. The culture developed by the ancient Romans remains influential in law and government, and architectural and engineering ruins in the city are a testimony to its past greatness.

* barbarian referring to people from outside the cultures of Greece and Rome, who were viewed as uncivilized


The Tiber River was the major line of communication between southern and northern Italy, and Rome was the most convenient place where the river could be crossed. This location guaranteed that it would become an important city in central Italy. Rome was also protected by seven steep hills, known as the Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal, Quirinal, Capitoline, Palatine, and Aventine. After these hills were fortified with walls, the city of Rome became almost invulnerable to invasion.

The Tiber River curves in an S-shape as it flows through the city. The top of the S borders the Campus Martius (Plain of Mars), a field that was originally used for military practice and later became the site of some of the grand buildings for which Rome is famous. The bottom of the S borders the Aventine and Capitoline hills, which were settled even before Rome became a city. Later these and some of the other hills were also covered with grand buildings and other structures. At the center of the S is Tiber Island, where the river crossing was located. A nearby swamp was drained to create the Roman Forum, which became the heart of the city.


According to Roman myth, the city of Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who were abandoned as babies and rescued by a wolf. When the brothers became adults, they built a city, which was named Rome in honor of Romulus. The date of the founding was given as April 21, 753 B.C., and Romulus was believed to be the first king.

Archaeological* evidence shows that people lived in small villages on the hills of Rome as early as 3000 B.C. The evidence also indicates that the villages were united by 700 B.C., although whether by Romulus or someone else is unknown. At about this time, a sewer was built to drain the swamp, and the Roman Forum was created to serve as a central meeting area and marketplace.

* archaeological referring to the study of past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins

Rome's Rise to Power. Rome was originally ruled by kings. Under the kings, Rome grew from a village into an important and prosperous city- state*. The last king, Tarquin the Proud, was a tyrant* who was overthrown in 510 B.C. In place of the monarchy*, the Romans established a republic*, and the area under Roman control quickly expanded. By 500 B.C. Rome dominated all of Latium. Around 390 B.C. Gauls invaded and briefly occupied Rome, the first time the city’s defenses had ever failed. By 270 B.C. Rome controlled almost all of Italy.

As Rome’s strength grew, the city clashed with other major powers in the Mediterranean region. Rome fought the North African city of Carthage in the three Punic Wars, finally conquering and destroying the city in 146 B.C. Around the same time, Rome fought and won in Macedonia,western Asia, and Greece. By 129 B.C. Rome had a population of at least half a million people and controlled most of Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.

Years of fighting drained Rome’s wealth and resources, and civil unrest led to a series of bloody civil wars during the last decades of the republic. The civil wars ended in 27 B.C., when Augustus became the first emperor of Rome. Augustus ruled with almost absolute power while giving the appearance of restoring the republic. He also brought more territory than ever before under Rome’s control. The reign of Augustus introduced almost 200 years of peace and prosperity.

Rome’s Decline and Fall. Eventually, unpopular emperors and renewed civil unrest weakened Rome’s control over the empire. Although dramatic reforms around A.D. 300 gave the empire a new lease on life, Rome’s days of controlling the empire were numbered. In the early A.D. 300s,realizing the growing importance of the eastern segment of the empire, the emperor Constantine made Constantinople the capital. No longer able to call on the stronger eastern half of the empire for support, Rome was sacked* by the Visigoths in A.D. 410. It was raided again, less than 50 years later, by the Vandals. The last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was forced to surrender the city of Rome to the Ostrogoths in A.D. 476.


The Etruscans not only ruled Rome in its early years, but they influenced the development of Roman art as well. After the formation of the Roman Republic, the Greek influence grew in importance. Romans greatly admired Greek art, which victorious generals brought back to Rome in great quantities. Roman artists imitated Greek art and produced many fine copies of Greek masterpieces.

The Etruscan kings turned Rome from a village of huts and dirt paths into a city with sewers, roads, and fortifications. The kings also built many temples, including the temples of Jupiter and Minerva on the Capitoline Hill, Diana on the Aventine Hill, and Vesta in the Roman Forum. The Curia, or Roman Senate house, was built in the Forum during the monarchy.

The city expanded further during the Roman Republic. Around 300 B.C. the Romans built the first aqueducts* to provide an adequate water supply for the growing population. As the empire expanded, the influx of war booty* resulted in more public construction. New temples were built in the forum, and the shops that had once lined it were pushed out by basilicas*. The Campus Martius became crowded with temples that were built by rival aristocrats* trying to impress both the gods and the voters.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

* tyrant absolute ruler

* monarchy nation ruled by a king or queen

* republic government in which the citizens elect officials to represent them and govern according to law

* sack to rob a captured city

* aqueduct channel, often including bridges and tunnels, that brings water from a distant source to where it is needed


A walk through Rome today can reveal glimpses of the grandeur of the city's past. Since the 1800s, the Italian government has cleared many of the ancient ruins of the city and surrounded them with trees and gardens. The best preserved structure is the Pantheon, a temple dedicated to the Roman gods. The most famous ruin, however, is the Colosseum, a huge amphitheater that was used for gladiatorial games. About half of it still stands. Another well-preserved ruin is the impressive Column of Trajan, a 100-foot-tall monument with carved scenes of the emperor’s military victories. Parts of the original Roman Forum still stand as well, including the Curia and the Temple of Saturn.

Most of the surviving architectural structures of ancient Rome were built by the emperors, beginning with Augustus. Augustus once boasted that he found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. A new forum and the Temple of Apollo were among many other magnificent structures built by Augustus. After a great fire destroyed much of the city in A.D. 64, the emperor Nero undertook a massive five-year program to rebuild the city. Under later emperors, huge public baths, triumphal arches, new forums and palaces, and the Colosseum were added.

As the empire declined, so did construction in the city. Except for a few functional buildings on the outskirts of the city, little new construction was undertaken. Rome had become crowded with magnificent buildings and other structures that reflected a grander time in its history. (See also Government, Roman; Rome, History of.)

* booty riches or property gained through conquest

* basilica in Roman times, a large rectangular building used as a court of law or public meeting place

* aristocrat person of the highest social class

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