history spans three millennia, from the classical myths of vengeful gods to the
follies of the Roman emperors, from Renaissance excess to swaggering
20th-century Fascism. Emperors, popes and dictators have come and gone, playing
out their ambitions against foreign powers and domestic rivals, stamping out
heresies and conspiring for their place in history.
Everywhere you go in this remarkable city, you’re surrounded by the past. The
martial ruins, huge Renaissance palazzi (mansions) and flamboyant baroque
churches all have a tale to tell – of family feuding, artistic rivalry or
personal grief, of political infighting or dark intrigue.
Rome’s ancient history is mired in legend. The most famous of all is the story
of Romulus and Remus, the mythical twins who are said to have founded
Rome on 21 April 753 BC. Few historians accept the myth as historical fact, but most accept
that the city was founded as an amalgamation of Etruscan, Latin and Sabine
settlements on the Palatino (Palatine), Esquilino (Esquiline) and Quirinale (Quirinal)
hills. Archaeological discoveries have confirmed the existence of a settlement
on the Palatino dating to the 8th century BC.
Romulus and Remus were born to the vestal virgin Rhea Silva after she’d been
seduced, some say raped, by Mars. At their birth they were immediately sentenced
to death by their great-uncle Amulius, who had previously stolen the throne of
Alba Longa from his brother, and Rhea Silva’s father, Numitor. Fortunately,
though, the sentence was never carried out. A royal servant took pity on the
twins and instead of killing them abandoned them in a basket on the banks of the
River Tiber. In the floods that followed, the basket ended up under a fig tree
on the northwestern summit of the Palatino. Here the babies were found and
suckled by a she-wolf (in some versions of the story the wolf was sent by Mars
to save them) until discovered by a shepherd, Faustulus. Faustulus took the
brothers in and, with his wife Acca Larentia, brought them up.
twins grew up to be a high-spirited, if somewhat unruly, pair and it wasn’t long
before they were in trouble. Remus was arrested for attacking some shepherds on
the Aventino and carted off to face the king. Hearing the news, Faustulus told
Romulus about the circumstances surrounding his birth and asked him to save
Remus. Romulus immediately set off for the Alban palace, where he not only freed
his brother but also killed Amulius and reinstated his grandfather Numitor to
To celebrate, the twins decided to found a city on the site where they’d
originally been saved. But as they didn’t know where this was they consulted the
omens. Remus, on the Aventino, saw six vultures; his brother over on the
Palatino saw 12. The meaning was clear and Romulus began building his new city
walls. In a fit of anger Remus is said to have jumped over the unfinished walls,
shouting that if they couldn’t keep him out how were they going to keep invaders
out. Romulus, by now in a rage himself, killed his brother.
Romulus continued building and soon had a city, albeit one with no citizens. To
populate it he created a refuge on the Campidoglio, Aventino, Celio and
Quirinale hills, to which a ragtag population of criminals, ex-slaves and
outlaws soon decamped. However, Romulus still needed women.
His solution was as audacious as it was devious. In one of history’s first
recorded sting operations, he invited everyone in the surrounding country to
celebrate the Festival of Consus (21 August). As the spectators watched the
games he’d organised, he and his men pounced and abducted all the women. Known
as the Rape of the Sabine Women, the attack understandably angered the Sabine
king Titus Tatius, who promptly marched on Rome. Fate, however, was against him,
and after warnings from Juno and Jupiter, Romulus repulsed the attack.
But Sabine feelings soon calmed – thanks, it’s said, to their women begging for
an end to the fighting. Peace was made, and Romulus and Titus ruled jointly
until Titus died shortly afterwards. Romulus himself lived to the age of 54. His
death, in 717 BC, was as mysterious as his birth. While inspecting troops on the
Campus Martius (the area that’s now the centro storico, or historic centre) he
simply disappeared during a terrible storm. Poetic accounts claim he was taken
up by the gods; more prosaic versions say that he was murdered by senators.
By the 4th century BC Rome had established itself as the dominant force in
central Italy. However, it was still far from invincible and in 390 BC a tribe
of Gauls swept down from the north and besieged the city. The population
retreated to the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill), site of a temple to Juno Moneta
(known as the goddess who alerts people), and prepared to sit out the siege. At
this point myth takes over from history and relates how a sleeping soldier was
woken by the squawking of Juno’s sacred geese, just in time to catch a Gallic
night attack and raise the alarm. The Gallic siege was finally lifted when the
city authorities bribed the invaders to go home.
In AD 64 up to 70% of Rome was destroyed by fire. The vast conflagration broke
out in shops near the Circo Massimo and spread rapidly through the wooden
housing that covered much of the city. According to the historian Suetonius, the
fire raged for six days and seven nights.
What Emperor Nero did during the fire is the subject of debate. Suetonius has
him singing on the Palatino, while historian Tacitus claims that he rushed back
from his residence in Anzio to lead relief efforts. In the city’s gutted lanes,
rumours spread that Nero had used the burning city as a backdrop for a play on
the fall of Troy, or even that he had started the fire in order to build a vast
new city called Neropolis. The pleasure with which he used a large amount of the
ruined city for his new palace, the Domus Aurea, did little to assuage popular
In an attempt to deflect criticism, Nero blamed Rome’s Christians for the fire.
A savage persecution ensued and thousands were killed. Among the victims were St
Peter and St Paul: the former was crucified upside down; the latter, a Roman
Rising out of the blood-stained remnants of the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire
grew to become the Western world’s first great superpower. At its zenith under
Emperor Trajan (r AD 98–117), it extended from Britannia in the north to North
Africa in the south, from Hispania (Spain) in the west to Palestina (Palestine)
and Syria in the east. Rome itself had more than 1.5 million inhabitants and the
city sparkled with the trappings of imperial splendour: marble temples, public
baths, theatres, circuses and libraries. It truly was the undisputed caput mundi
(capital of the world).
Roman power had been steadily growing since the 3rd century BC, when the
battling republic rid itself of its two most dangerous rivals, Greece and
Carthage (present-day Tunisia). The Greeks were dealt with first and by 272 BC
had fled their Magna Graecia colonies in southern Italy. The North African
kingdom proved a harder nut to crack and it took the Romans almost 120 years to
tame the Carthaginian forces. By the mid-2nd century BC the Mediterranean was in
But peace was never long-lived, and as the 2nd century BC drew to a close,
Rome entered a period of factional strife exacerbated by problems abroad. Germanic
tribes began to make a nuisance of themselves in northern Europe and eventually
attacked Gaul, while at home divisions were becoming increasingly serious.
In 87 BC civil war broke out between Gaius Marius and his fellow consul
Cornelius Sulla. Marius proved no match for the ruthless Sulla, who, in 82 BC,
forced the Senate to appoint him dictator for 10 years.
By now power in Rome had become a matter of might – the general who controlled
the bigger army prevailed. And no-one was more popular with the troops than the
rising military star Julius Caesar. Initially he was happy to share power with
Crassus and Pompey, a protégé of Sulla, but when Crassus died in 53 BC Caesar
and Pompey fell out in spectacular style. The following civil war led to
Pompey’s defeat in 48 BC and Caesar’s accession to supreme power – in 44 BC he
was proclaimed dictator for life. However, his accumulation of power had
alienated even those who’d originally supported him, and he was assassinated on
the Ides of March (15 March) 44 BC.
Once again the top job was up for grabs. Caesar’s lieutenant, Marcus Antonius
(Mark Antony), took command of the city, but when Octavian, Caesar’s 18-year-old
great-nephew and nominated heir, returned to town things began to heat up. At
first, Octavian sided with Caesar’s assassins against Antonius, but he then
switched sides and fought with Antonius against Brutus and Cassius, who were
defeated at Philippi. Finally, in 40 BC, Octavian and Antonius agreed to share
control. But it was an uneasy truce, and when Antonius started handing over
Roman territory to his Egyptian lover, Queen Cleopatra VII, Octavian attacked.
The end came at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC.
Octavian was left the sole ruler of the Roman world, but, remembering Caesar’s
fate, trod very carefully. In 27 BC he officially surrendered his powers to the
Senate, which promptly gave most of them back, making him the first emperor of
Rome with the title of Augustus.
One of the more stable emperors, he ruled well and Rome enjoyed a rare period of
calm and artistic achievement. Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Tibullus contributed to
what later generations of Romans would wistfully regard as a golden age.
Buildings were restored and monuments erected, including the Ara Pacis Augustae
(Altar of Peace).
But if Augustus set new standards of artistic achievement, his successors
plumbed new depths of depravity. Tiberius (r AD 14–37) and Caligula (r AD 37–41)
ensured notoriety through their insane cruelty, the latter famously making his
horse a senator and ordering his soldiers to collect seashells.
Following Caligula’s assassination, Rome enjoyed a brief interlude of sanity in
the person of his bumbling uncle Claudius (r AD 41–54). A conscientious if
reluctant ruler, he extended the port facilities at Ostia and constructed a new
aqueduct, the Acqua Claudia, to serve Rome’s growing population. He also
strengthened Rome’s hold on Britannia (Britain), first invaded by Caesar. But in
AD 54 he was murdered, probably by his beautiful and ambitious wife Agrippina,
and madness returned to the city.
Claudius’ successor was Agrippina’s 17-year-old son from a previous marriage, a
man best known for his musical pretensions and extravagant sadism. Nero (r AD
54–68) considered himself a great artist and loved to play the lyre when not
indulging in serial rape or the massacre of Christians. But when a violent
week-long fire ravaged Rome in AD 64 his already scant popularity took a nose
dive. Four years later the Senate declared him a public enemy and he committed
But if the Romans had been hoping that Nero’s death would herald a return to
calm, they were sorely disappointed. In the year after his death, the imperial
crown changed heads four times before the hard-nosed general Vespasian (r AD
69–79) took charge. A practical man of dry wit and generous nature, he
constructed the Colosseum in the grounds of Nero’s demolished Domus Aurea and
did much to restore the severely tarnished image of the emperorship.
A golden age followed in the 2nd century under Trajan and his successor Hadrian
(r 117–138), who remodelled the Pantheon and built an extensive villa at Tivoli.
By the 3rd century, however, economic decline was fuelling a new wave of anarchy
and civil war. Diocletian (r 284–305) addressed the situation by splitting the
empire into eastern and western halves, with himself controlling the rich east
and Maximian, based in Milan, in charge of the shaky west.
In 305 Maximian and Diocletian abdicated simultaneously, leaving the empire to
Constantius in the west and Galerius in the east. However, the move did little
to calm the waters and war eventually broke out between Constantine (Constantius’
son) and Maxentius (Maximian’s son). In 312 Constantine defeated his rival at
the Battle of Ponte Milvio. The first Christian emperor, Constantine later
claimed that before the battle he’d seen a vision of the cross and the message
‘with this sign you will conquer’. It was a message he clearly took to heart, as
in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan and officially legalised Christianity.
Christianity suddenly became all the rage and a number of high-profile churches
were built in this period, including St Peter’s Basilica and the Basilica di San
Lorenzo fuori le Mura. But it was a short-lived bloom, and when Constantine
transferred to the new city of Constantinople in 330, the centre of world power
shifted irreversibly eastwards.
Rome was increasingly left to its own devices and in the 5th century the
Germanic tribes started to eye the once-great metropolis. The sack of
the Goths in 410 marked the beginning of the end. In 440 only the intervention
of Pope Leo I persuaded Attila the Hun not to attack, while 15 years later the
city was thoroughly plundered by the Vandals.
In 476, the year traditionally recognised as the end of the Western Empire, the
last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed.
The history of medieval Rome is dominated by the feud between the papacy and the
Holy Roman Empire, a feud that set the city’s noble families against each other
in bitter, and often bloody, rivalry.
The emergence of the two poles dates to the dark period after the fall of the
Roman Empire. Rome, leaderless and with a rapidly decreasing population, was a
shadow of its former self; there was no fresh water – the aqueducts had all been
cut during barbarian attacks – and disease was rife. It was a city crying out
for a leader.
In the event, it wasn’t a person who took power, but an institution – the papacy.
And although no one person can take credit for this, Pope Gregory the Great (r
590–604) did more than most to lay the groundwork. A leader of considerable
foresight, he won many friends by supplying free bread to Rome’s starving
citizens and repairing the city’s broken aqueducts. He also stood up to the
menacing Lombards when they threatened the city.
Ironically, it was the threat posed by the Lombards that consolidated papal
power and paved the way for the creation of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 8th
century Pope Stephen II (r 752–57) allied with the Frankish king, Pepin the
Short, to drive the Lombards out of Italy and incorporate their holdings into
the newly created Papal States. The relationship between the Church and the
Frankish kings was further cemented when Leo III crowned Pepin’s son,
Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor during Christmas Mass at St Peter’s Basilica in
But it was no marriage made in heaven and from the mid-11th century onwards the
Papal States battled the Holy Roman Empire for spiritual and temporal control of
Europe. In Rome the rivalry between the Guelphs (pro-papacy) and Ghibellines
(pro-empire) was embodied in the bitter enmity between the Orsini and Colonna
families. The Orsini, who supplied three popes over the years, were avid Guelphs
and one of central Italy’s strongest feudal families, with holdings in Lazio and
Campania. The Colonna were traditionally pro-empire, even if one of their number
later put an end to the Great Schism as Pope Martin V.
Adding to the dark and dangerous atmosphere were the French, who had long had
their eyes set on the papal throne. Fighting between the French-backed
pretenders to the papacy and the Roman nobility in the early 14th century
culminated in the 1303 kidnap of Pope Boniface VIII. Led by the excommunicated
Sciarra Colonna, a French-backed group of soldiers grabbed the pontiff from his
residence in Anagni in an action known as the schiaffo di Anagni (slap of Anagni).
Boniface was released almost immediately but not before he had seen his prestige
reduced to tatters. Six years later, in 1309, the French-born Pope Clement V
transferred his court to Avignon.
It was a bleak time for Rome: goats and cows grazed on the Roman Forum, and the
population fell dramatically. The feuding Orsini and Colonna families turned the
city into a battleground, and Cola di Rienzo tried and failed to wrest control
from the nobility.
Only in 1377 did the situation in Rome calm down enough for the papacy (by now
in the hands of Pope Gregory XI) to return to the city. On arriving, Gregory
found a deserted city close to ruins, and decided to decamp to the fortified
Vatican, rather than the traditional papal residence, the Palazzo Laterano.
But Gregory didn’t enjoy his new home for long; he died in 1378 and the Church
feuding continued. The Roman cardinals tried to consolidate their power by
electing the controversial Urban VI as pope, but their French rivals elected an
antipope, Clement VII, who set up an alternative papacy in Avignon. Thus the
Catholic world was headed by two popes – a period known as the Great Schism
Largely destroyed in the Middle Ages, Rome was rebuilt in the Renaissance. Under
a succession of ambitious 15th- and 16th-century popes, the city was transformed
from a series of smouldering ruins into a showcase capital.
Pope Nicholas V (r 1447–55) is considered the harbinger of the Roman
Renaissance, and it was under his successors that Michelangelo, Raphael,
Bramante, Donatello, Botticelli and Fra Angelico all lived and worked in
Pope Sixtus IV (r 1471–84) had the Sistine Chapel frescoed and, in 1471, gifted
the people of Rome a selection of bronzes that became the first exhibits of the
Capitoline Museums. Julius II (r 1503–13) opened Via del Corso and Via Giulia
and ordered Bramante to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica.
The Renaissance, however, was also a period of terrible blood-letting as the
European powers fought for supremacy. In 1527 Pope Clement VII (r 1523–34) was
forced to take refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo as Charles V’s Spanish troops
ransacked Rome – an event that is said to have deeply influenced Michelangelo’s
vision of the Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment).
But out of the ruins rose Rome’s great Renaissance palazzi, roads and piazzas.
In 1538 Pope Paul III (r 1534–49) asked Michelangelo to design Piazza del
Campidoglio; later under Sixtus V (r 1585–90), the dome of St Peter’s was
By the mid-16th century the broad-minded curiosity of the Renaissance had begun
to give way to the intolerance of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church’s
bloody response to Martin Luther’s Reformation. With the full blessing of Paul
III, Ignatius Loyola founded the Jesuits in 1540, and two years later the Holy
Office was set up as the Church’s final appeals court for trials prosecuted by
Paul III’s opposition to Protestantism resulted in a widespread campaign of
torture and fear. In 1559 the Church published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index
of Prohibited Books) and began to persecute intellectuals and freethinkers.
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was forced by the Church to renounce his assertion
of the Copernican astronomical system, which held that the earth moved around
the sun. He was summoned by the Inquisition to Rome in 1632 and exiled to
Florence for the rest of his life. Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), a freethinking
Dominican monk, fared worse. Arrested by the Inquisition in Venice in 1592, he
was burned at the stake eight years later in Campo de’ Fiori – the spot is today
marked by a sinister statue.
Ironically, though, the harder the authorities tried to suppress freedom of
thought, the more creative Rome’s architects and artists became. This explosion
of artistic imagination reached its climax in the baroque 17th century, led by
Bernini and his hated rival Borromini.
The exercise of power has long gone hand in hand with corruption. As the British
historian Lord Acton famously put it in 1887, ‘Power tends to corrupt; absolute
power corrupts absolutely’. And no-one enjoyed greater power than
Of all Rome’s cruel and insane leaders, few are as notorious as Caligula. A
byword for depravity, Caligula was hailed as a saviour when he inherited the
empire from his great-uncle Tiberius in AD 37. Tiberius, a virtual recluse by
the end of his reign, had been widely hated, and it was with a great sense of
relief that Rome’s cheering population welcomed the 25-year-old Caligula to the
Their optimism was to prove ill-founded. After a bout of serious illness,
Caligula began showing disturbing signs of mental instability and by AD 40 had
taken to appearing in public dressed as a god. He made his senators worship him
as a deity and infamously tried to make his horse, Incitator, a senator. He was
accused of all sorts of perversions and progressively alienated himself from all
those around him. By AD 41 his Praetorian Guard had had enough and on 24 January
its leader, Cassius Chaerea, stabbed him to death.
Debauchery on such a scale was rare in the medieval papacy, but corruption was
no stranger to the corridors of ecclesiastical power. It was not uncommon for
popes to father illegitimate children and nepotism was rife. The Borgia pope
Alexander VI (r 1492–1503) fathered two illegitimate children with the first of
his two high-profile mistresses. The second, Giulia Farnese, was the sister of
the priest who was to become Pope Paul III (r 1534–59), himself no stranger to
earthly pleasures. When not persecuting heretics during the Counter-Reformation,
the Farnese pontiff managed to sire four children.
As a religious centre Rome has long attracted millions of pilgrims. In 1300 Pope
Boniface VIII proclaimed the first Jubilee Year, with the promise of a full
pardon for anyone who made the pilgrimage to St Peter’s Basilica and the
Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. Hundreds of thousands came and the Church
basked in popular glory. In 2000 some 24 million visitors poured into the city
for Pope John Paul II’s Jubilee. However, it was in the late 18th and early 19th
centuries that Rome’s reputation as a tourist destination was born.
The Grand Tour, the 18th-century version of the gap
year, was considered an educational rite of passage for wealthy young men from
northern Europe and Britain in particular. In the 19th century it became
fashionable for young ladies to travel, chaperoned by spinster aunts, but in the
late 1700s the tour was largely a male preserve.
The overland journey through France and into Italy followed the medieval pilgrim
route, entering Italy via the St Bernard pass and descending the west coast
before cutting in to Florence and then down to Rome. After a sojourn in the
capital, tourists would venture down to Naples, where the newly discovered ruins
of Pompeii and Herculaneum
were causing much excitement, before heading up to Venice.
Rome, enjoying a rare period of peace, was perfectly set up for this English
invasion. The city was basking in the aftermath of the 17th-century baroque
building boom and a craze for all things classical was sweeping Europe.
papal authorities were also crying out for money after their excesses had left
the city coffers bare, reducing much of the population to abject poverty.
Thousands came, including Goethe, who stopped off to write his 1817 travelogue
Italian Journey, and Byron, Shelley and Keats, who all fuelled their romantic
sensibilities in the city’s vibrant streets. So many English people stayed
around Piazza di Spagna that locals christened the area er ghetto de l’inglesi
(the English ghetto). Trade in antiquities flourished and local artists did a
roaring business producing etchings for souvenir-hungry visitors.
Artistically, rococo was the rage of the moment. The Spanish Steps, built
between 1723 and 1726, proved a major hit with tourists, as did the exuberant