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No one knows precisely when Rome was founded. Excavations on the Palatine Hill have revealed the traces of an Iron Age village, which date back to the ninth or eighth century BC, but the legends relating to Rome's earliest history tell it slightly differently. Rea Silvia, a vestal virgin and daughter of a local king, Numitor, had twin sons - the product, she alleged, of a rape by Mars. They were supposed to be sacrificed to the god but the ritual wasn't carried out, and the two boys were abandoned and found by a wolf, who nursed them until their adoption by a shepherd, who named them Romulus and Remus . Later they laid out the boundaries of the city on the Palatine Hill, but it soon became apparent that there was only room for one ruler, and, unable to agree on the signs given to them by the gods, they quarrelled, Romulus killing Remus and becoming in 753 BC the city's first monarch , to be followed by six further kings. Whatever the truth of this, there's no doubt that Rome was an obvious spot to build a city: the Palatine and Capitoline hills provided security, and there was, of course, the river Tiber, which could be easily crossed here by way of the Isola Tiberina, making this a key location on the trade routes between Etruria and Campania.

The Roman Republic
Rome as a kingdom lasted until about 507 BC, when the people rose up against the tyrannical King Tarquinius and established a Republic , appointing the first two consuls and instituting a more democratic form of government. The city prospered under the Republic, growing greatly in size and subduing the various tribes of the surrounding areas - the Etruscans to the north, the Sabines to the east, the Samnites to the south. The Etruscans were subdued in 474 BC, the Samnites a little later, and despite a heavy defeat by the Gauls in 390 BC, by the following century the city had begun to extend its influence beyond the boundaries of what is now mainland Italy, pushing south into Sicily and across the ocean to Africa and Carthage. By the time it had fought and won the third Punic War against its principal rival, Carthage , in 146 BC, it had become the dominant power in the Mediterranean, subsequently taking control of present-day Greece and the Middle East, and expanding north also, into what is now France, Germany and Britain.

Domestically, the Romans built roads - notably the Via Appia, which dates back to 312 BC - and developed their civic structure, with new laws and far-sighted political reforms, one of which cannily brought all of the Republic's vanquished enemies into the fold as Roman citizens. However, the history of the Republic was also one of internal strife , marked by factional fighting among the patrician ruling classes, as everyone tried to grab a slice of the riches that were pouring into the city from its plundering expeditions abroad - and the ordinary people, or plebeians, enjoying little more justice than they had under the Roman monarchs. This all came to a head in 44 BC, when Julius Caesar , having proclaimed himself dictator, was murdered in the Theatre of Pompey on 15 March, by conspirators concerned at the growing concentration of power into one man's hands.

After his murder, Julius Caesar's deputy, Mark Antony , briefly took control, joining forces with Lepidus and Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, in a triumvirate that marshalled armies that fought and won against those controlled by Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, in a famous battle at Philippi, in modern-day Greece, in 42 BC. Their alliance was further cemented by Antony's marriage to Octavians's sister, Octavia, in 40 AD, but in spite of this a brief period of turmoil followed, in which Antony, unable to put his political ambitions before his emotional alliance with the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, was defeated by Octavian at the battle of Actium in 31 BC - escaping to Alexandria, where he committed suicide, with his lover, the queen.

The Roman Empire
A triumph for the new democrats over the old guard, Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) - as Octavian became known - was the first true Roman emperor, in firm control of Rome and its dominions. Responsible more than anyone for heaving Rome into the Imperial era, he was determined to turn the city - as he claimed - from one of stone to one of marble, building arches, theatres and monuments of a magnificence suited to the capital of an expanding empire. Perhaps the best and certainly the most politically canny of Rome's many emperors, Augustus reigned for forty years. He was succeeeded by Tiberius (14-37), who ruled from the island of Capri for the last years of his reign, and he in turn by Caligula (37-41), who was assassinated after just four years in power. Claudius (41-54), his uncle, followed, at first reluctantly, and proved to be a wise ruler, only to be succeeded by his stepson, Nero (54-68), whose reign became more notorious for its excess than its prudence, and led to a brief period of warring and infighting after his murder in 68 AD.

Rome's next rulers, the Flavian emperors , restored some stability, starting with Vespasian (69-79), who did his best to obliterate all traces of Nero, not least with an enormous ampitheatre in the grounds of Nero's palace, later known as the Colosseum, and ending with the emperor Trajan (98-117), under whose rule the empire reached its maximum limits. Trajan died in 117 AD, giving way to Hadrian (117-138), who continued the grand and expansionist agenda of his predecessor, and arguably provided the empire's greatest years. The city swelled to a population of a million or more, its people housed in cramped apartment blocks or insulae; crime in the city was rife, and the traffic problem apparently on a par with today's, leading one contemporary writer to complain that the din on the streets made it impossible to get a good night's sleep. But it was a time of peace and prosperity, the Roman upper classes living a life of indolent luxury, in sumptuous residences with proper plumbing and central heating, and the empire's borders being ever more extended.

The decline of Rome is hard to date precisely, but it could be said to have started with the emperor Diocletian (284-305), who assumed power in 284 and divided the empire into two parts, east and west, while becoming known for his relentless persecution of Christians. The first Christian emperor, Constantine (312-337), shifted the seat of power to Byzantium in 330, and Rome's heady period as capital of the world was over, the wealthier members of the population moving east and a series of invasions by Goths in 410 and Vandals about forty years later only serving to quicken the city's ruin. By the sixth century the city was a devastated and infection-ridden shadow of its former self, with a population of just 20,000.

The Christian era
It was the papacy, under Pope Gregory I ("the Great"; 590-604) in 590, that rescued Rome from its demise. In an eerie echo of the empire, Gregory sent missions all over Europe to spread the word of the Church and publicize its holy relics, so drawing pilgrims, and their money, back to the city, and in time making the papacy the natural authority in Rome. The pope took the name "Pontifex Maximus" after the title of the high priest of classical times (literally "the keeper of the bridges", which were vital to the city's well-being). Four of the city's great basilicas were built during this time, along with a great many other early Christian churches, underlining the city's phoenix-like resurrection under the popes, who as well as building their own new structures converted those Roman buildings that were still standing - for example fortifying the Castel Sant'Angelo to repel invaders. The crowning a couple of centuries later of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, with dominions spread Europe-wide but answerable to the pope, intensified the city's revival, and the pope and city became recognized as head of the Christian world.

There were times over the next few hundred years when the power of Rome and the papacy was weakened: Robert Guiscard, the Norman king, sacked the city in 1084; a century later, a dispute between the city and the papacy led to a series of popes relocating in Viterbo; and in 1308 the French-born Pope Clemente V (1305-16) transferred his court to Avignon. In the mid-fourteenth century, Cola di Rienzo seized power, setting himself up as the people's saviour from the decadent ways of the city's rulers and forming a new Roman republic. But the increasingly autocratic ways of the new ruler soon lost popularity; Cola di Rienzo was deposed, and in 1376 Pope Gregory XI (1370-78) returned to Rome.


The Renaissance and Counter-Reformation
It was the papacy, under Pope Gregory I ("the Great"; 590-604) in 590, that rescued Rome from its demise. In an eerie echo of the empire, Gregory sent missions all over Europe to spread the word of the Church and publicize its holy relics, so drawing pilgrims, and their money, back to the city, and in time making the papacy the natural authority in Rome. The pope took the name "Pontifex Maximus" after the title of the high priest of classical times (literally "the keeper of the bridges", which were vital to the city's well-being). Four of the city's great basilicas were built during this time, along with a great many other early Christian churches, underlining the city's phoenix-like resurrection under the popes, who as well as building their own new structures converted those Roman buildings that were still standing - for example fortifying the Castel Sant'Angelo to repel invaders. The crowning a couple of centuries later of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, with dominions spread Europe-wide but answerable to the pope, intensified the city's revival, and the pope and city became recognized as head of the Christian world.

There were times over the next few hundred years when the power of Rome and the papacy was weakened: Robert Guiscard, the Norman king, sacked the city in 1084; a century later, a dispute between the city and the papacy led to a series of popes relocating in Viterbo; and in 1308 the French-born Pope Clemente V (1305-16) transferred his court to Avignon. In the mid-fourteenth century, Cola di Rienzo seized power, setting himself up as the people's saviour from the decadent ways of the city's rulers and forming a new Roman republic. But the increasingly autocratic ways of the new ruler soon lost popularity; Cola di Rienzo was deposed, and in 1376 Pope Gregory XI (1370-78) returned to Rome.


The eighteenth century to World War II
It was the papacy, under Pope Gregory I ("the Great"; 590-604) in 590, that rescued Rome from its demise. In an eerie echo of the empire, Gregory sent missions all over Europe to spread the word of the Church and publicize its holy relics, so drawing pilgrims, and their money, back to the city, and in time making the papacy the natural authority in Rome. The pope took the name "Pontifex Maximus" after the title of the high priest of classical times (literally "the keeper of the bridges", which were vital to the city's well-being). Four of the city's great basilicas were built during this time, along with a great many other early Christian churches, underlining the city's phoenix-like resurrection under the popes, who as well as building their own new structures converted those Roman buildings that were still standing - for example fortifying the Castel Sant'Angelo to repel invaders. The crowning a couple of centuries later of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, with dominions spread Europe-wide but answerable to the pope, intensified the city's revival, and the pope and city became recognized as head of the Christian world.

There were times over the next few hundred years when the power of Rome and the papacy was weakened: Robert Guiscard, the Norman king, sacked the city in 1084; a century later, a dispute between the city and the papacy led to a series of popes relocating in Viterbo; and in 1308 the French-born Pope Clemente V (1305-16) transferred his court to Avignon. In the mid-fourteenth century, Cola di Rienzo seized power, setting himself up as the people's saviour from the decadent ways of the city's rulers and forming a new Roman republic. But the increasingly autocratic ways of the new ruler soon lost popularity; Cola di Rienzo was deposed, and in 1376 Pope Gregory XI (1370-78) returned to Rome.


Modern times
Since the war , Italy has become renowned as a country which changes its government, if not its politicians, every few months, and for the rest of Italy Rome has come to symbolize the inertia of their nation's government - at odds with both the slick, efficient North, and the poor, corrupt South. Despite this, the city's growth has been phenomenal in the post-war years, its population soaring to close on four million and its centre becoming ever more choked by traffic. Though famous in the Sixties as the home of Fellini's Dolce Vita and Italy's bright young things, Rome is still, even by Italian standards, a relatively provincial place, and one which is in some ways still trying to lug itself into the twenty-first century. Great efforts were made to prepare the city for the arrival of the Millennium and the millions of visitors who came to celebrate the Jubilee (Holy Year) declared by the pope, and the city is looking better than ever; museums and monuments that have been closed for decades have reopened to an eager public. Traffic congestion is still a major problem in the city centre, but by the time you read this, it's hoped that there will never have been a better time to visit Rome.
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