Rome: A Historical Perspective
“Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Literally! If you browse through thousands of Roman history books and a vast ocean of documented literature, you will find a city that went through ups and downs, a society that saw more change than any other comparable one, empires and republics reaching their zeniths only to be drawn to ashes. Strolls around the modern metropolis of Rome would paint the same picture. To the more inspired, you can hear hoofs of Cesar’s horses on cobblestone roads, or clanging of swords in the Colosseum, or whispers of common folk in the Roman Forum.
Legend has it, that the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf founded
the city. Documented history of the city goes back about three thousand years to 750 B.C. when it was governed by seven kings. Kingdoms by Romans, Sabines and their struggle with the outsider Etruscans, followed by a Republican Rome established the foundation of the Roman empire. After Julius Cesar’s influential yet controversial reign in the 100’s B.C., Augustus, the emperor took reign of the empire and it grew substantially. Art, culture, military and societal prowess helped Rome become the ominous superpower in the entire Western world. Rome saw a steep decline during the first half of the first millennium due primarily to spread of Christianity and ignoble emperors like Nero, Caligula, Claudius. A weakened Rome saw barbarian attacks, mainly by Attila the Hun, and rise of the Byzantine empire.
Walk through history
Although somewhat isolated, the ruins in the center of the city, especially in Roman Forum, contains some of the key artifacts that helps to revisit the old days. From sixth century B.C. to the Byzantine age, the lives of the Romans including political, cultural and social centers of ancient Rome are depicted here. Due to absence of any signage or relevant narration, it is close to impossible for a casual tourist to fathom the significance of the ruins. From what is left of the temples of Saturn, Vesta, Antinius and Faustina, in Roman Forum, and others (especially Imperial Forum, Forum of Augustus and Forum of Caesar), if coupled with appropriate historical anecdotes, one could reconstruct the historical timelines with relative ease.
Arches, that are signatures of Roman architecture primarily erected to celebrate major victories, were built during this time. Arches of Constantine (next to the Colosseum), Settimus Severius (in Roman Forum) and Arch of Titus (in the Imperial Forum) are some of the most remarkable ones. Read about the above here.
Establishing Christianity as the only religion of the country, in the Constantine era, united the country, albeit conceding some of the ruling powers to the papacy. It became the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ under the pope-installed emperor Charlemagne in the 800’s A.D. Following 500 years saw a ceaseless struggle between the papacy and feudal nobles. It was during these years, that Roman art and architecture reached their pinnacles, albeit driven by political agenda. Pristine artistry by Michaelangelo, Bernini, Raphael and Cellini still inspire awe; but the underlying propaganda to establish Church’s dominance shows the depth of the power struggle during the protestant revolution.
Walk through history
Politically treacherous times and multiple barbarian invasions, likely would have hindered construction of significant monuments during the early years of the middle ages. Rise of Christianity influenced establishment of churches and cathedrals like Trinita dei Monti (above the renowned Spanish Steps). The Capitol was also established during this time, although the main square (Square of Michaelangelo) was built much later. The Piazza’s built during the ancient times, also saw some change with Churches, Fountains and Obelisks being put in to commemorate victories or events. Each of the Piazzas (e.g. Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza Venezia) have their own history and significance beyond their picturesque facade. But among all the sites, Pantheon, due to its usage over the ages, holds its antiquity and is probably the most important. It holds history of old pagans, translated into a church and holds plethora of tombs.
Modern times beginning in the eighteenth century saw the rise of the state again with Fascism taking over in the early 20th century. Establishment of the Vatican City, a walled sovereign country within the city boundaries of Rome, in 1929 through the Lateran treaty, ended the cold war between the papacy and the state. Post World War II saw mastery of Italian art take shape of cinema, the age of “La Dolce Vitta” by Fellini.
Modern day Roma is a progressive metropolis with inhabitants from all around the globe with a juxtaposition of cultures and modern amenities. On one hand, Vatican City displays the jewels of renaissance art work at the helm of Christianity, and on the other hand you can find niche designer brands like Gucci, Ferregamo and like in the Piazza de Spagna next to the Spanish steps.
Even in the modern day, the influence of the city cannot be ignored, be it from the center of the Roman Empire, to the architectural ingenuity, and being the bedrock of Christianity. As described elsewhere in this website, no matter whether you are a history buff or a casual explorer, take time to walk the ruins and understand the relevance. Your high-school history lessons on Roman history will not appear as unremarkable as it did before. Enjoy your Roman holiday!