The Greeks developed a myth about Rome being founded by a refugee from Troy called Aeneas. The apotheosis of that myth is reached in the epic poem The Aeneid by the great Roman poet Virgil. The other myth of the foundation of Rome was home-made. The traditional date was 753 BC. Romulus was said to have been born a bastard and to have been cast into the Tiber, but providence directed the river to swirl him ashore and a wolf to suckle him and a shepherd to rear him. Later he would murder his twin brother, Remus, and provide wives for his settlers by raping the Sabine maidens. So far we have a militant warlike refugee who drives to suicide someone who trusted him and a bastard who is weaned by a wolf, who commits the primal crime of Cain, before completing his holy mission by raping the neighbours. Those auspices were not so good – they are indeed very ominous. But some at least at Rome thought that this myth was worth recording as saying something about the eternal city.
Rome was divided into patricians and plebeians, words which have much the same meaning today, except that the division then was one of caste. The nature of the split is gorgeously framed by Shakespeare in Coriolanus. The Romans got rid of their kings, and they always put great weight and faith in the word ‘republic’. But then they fell into class wars. They saw themselves as free, but power tended to stay with their senate, as they did not develop a form of representative government like a parliament.
Rome extended its power over Italy and near areas. The process is described in Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus, which tells of human sacrifice and other barbarities. The Romans were much better at dealing with allies and conquered people than the Greeks. They were real empire builders. They were also more business-like – they extended Roman citizenship to others. In the third century BC, Rome fought long hard wars with its African trading rival, Carthage, which was led by the great Hannibal. They defeated Hannibal and destroyed Carthage. Their impact on Africa is described by Shelley in the poem Ozymandias.
The wars Rome undertook called for a paid army and the Romans themselves became weakened. They looked to gladiators and turned killing into a game. Their religion was not civilising. Their soldiers had to be paid out of booty of conquest and that led to vicious faction fighting among the generals who returned to Rome to hand out the benefits of their conquests. Cicero would later attack these mercenary generals, but Rome never found a way to stop the conflict between them. The nature of this faction fighting, like territorial disputes between mafia capos, is described in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. When you go from Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus to Marius and Sulla, you go from the butchered to the butchers – and to a march on Rome.
Internal division promotes the strong man. Julius Caesar extended the Empire over much of Europe and North Africa. It was bad luck to be in Gaul (France) when Caesar needed to curry favour to win an election. He did so with butchery. Caesar was made dictator, but when he showed signs of becoming a king, the Roman republicans murdered him (in 44 BC). There was yet another civil war. Antony (like Caesar, a lover of Cleopatra) was defeated by Octavian (Augustus) who made himself Emperor. The Roman republic was finished.
The emperors called themselves gods. Many were degenerate, and most were put there by the army. They succeeded where the Greeks had failed in imposing law and order. Most of Europe would adopt their laws. The language of Latin would also be used throughout Europe. Their roads covered most of the known world. They developed a literature from that of the Greeks, but deep down they were concerned with power and money. They gave up enquiry and they despised science. For the most part they had a well-organised army, but their religion was primitive and based on sacrifice. It was ripe for a takeover.
The emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and moved to Byzantium (Constantinople) in about 323 A D. The Empire had stretched the resources of Rome far too far. It was sacked by nomads from the area of Germany – the Huns, Vandals and Goths. The Eastern Empire, based in Constantinople (Istanbul), lasted for another thousand years. This was the Byzantine Empire. It gave rise to the Orthodox Church, maintained the learning of the Greeks, and offered a buffer between divided Europe and Asia. It fell to the forces of Islam in 1453.
Gibbon said: ‘Such was the unhappy condition of the Roman emperors, that, whatever might be their conduct, their fate was commonly the same. A life of pleasure or virtue, of severity or mildness, of indolence or glory, alike led to an untimely grave; and almost every reign is closed by the same disgusting repetition of treason and murder.’ That, sadly, was equally true of the Republic. As an exercise in government, Rome was a disaster – as is Italy today.