ROME – The Eternal City


All cities in the world are shaped by their past and no-where is this more apparent than in the Capital City of Italy, Rome, located on and around the 7 hills and on both sides of  the Tiber River.

Legend has it that the city was founded by two twin brothers, Remus and Romulus who were conceived by a Vestal Virgin and the God Mars. According to the legend, the twins were placed in a basket and thrown into the Tiber at birth, but then were rescued and suckled by a female Wolf before a shepherd found them and brought them up. You will see an ancient sculpture of the wolf and the twins in the Capitolini Museum in Rome, but the image is also used in many souvenirs too and the original sculpture has many copies of it.

The legend says that as adults, Remus and Romulus decided to build a city at the place where the wolf had rescued them from the River Tiber, but then quarrelled and fought over the exact site to locate it. Remus wanted to locate it on Aventine Hill, Romulus on Palatine Hill but in the fight that ensued Romulus killed Remus and so the City of Rome was built first on Palatine Hill with the City named after Romulus.

Romulus became the first King of Rome in 753BC, and he would be the first of 7 Kings to rule Rome until the last King, Tarquin the Proud was deposed in 509BC with Rome becoming a Republic in 509BC ruled by 2 Consuls (appointed for a year by the Senate) and a Senate of 300 Senators – all of the Senators being nobles (Patricians) with an Assembly – the Plebeians chosen by the people – who would meet in the 'Forum'.  Soldiers were also accorded status too, called Equestrians – a name we still use in association with horse riding, while slaves had no status at all.

During the years of the Roman Republic (510BC to 27BC) the Romans greatly expanded their territorial claims, fighting wars and taking control over a vast territory on both the European and African sides of the Mediterranean, and also to the east bringing this wealth back to Rome. Their greatest rival, Carthage (in today's Tunisia) was destroyed by them in 146BC.

In 49BC the popular Roman General, Military hero and Consul, Julius Caesar (100BC- 44BC) who was also Governor over Spain and had conquered most of Gaul (France and Belgium) marched on Rome itself and give the title of 'Dictator Perpetuo' by the Senate, only to be assassinated in 44BC and stabbed 23 times by Senators Gaius Cassius Longinus (85BC-42BC) and Marcus Junius Brutus (85BC -42BC) and their co-conspirators who feared the growing power of Julius Caesar over the Senate.

Julius Caesar's nephew, Gaius Octavius was named as his heir and successor and taking the name, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.  Within a few years he became the Emperor of Rome in 27BC, having defeated Mark Antony (83BC -30BC) who had been Julius Caesar's greatest supporter. This whole story of power, politics, intrigue, romance (Mark Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt), plots and the assassination of Julius Caesar has been the subject of one of William Shakespeare's greatest plays 'Julius Caesar' and also in many books and movies since then.

Rome's new Emperor, naming himself Augustus also expanded out Roman power over more territories and the Roman Empire, no longer a Republic, would be ruled by a succession of Emperors – Claudius who conquered Britain, Nero, Titus, Trajan, Hadrian (Hadrian's Wall in England) and Diocletian who broke the Roman Empire into two halves given the vastness of the Empire – One half governed from Rome and the other half from Byzantine, (Today's Istanbul in Turkey).

In the days of the Roman Republic, Christians had been thrown to the lions as part of the Gladiator sports. When Emperor Constantine (circa 272AD-337AD) became Emperor in 306AD, ruling until his death in 337AD, he became the first Emperor in the Roman Empire to issue an edit in 313AD, what is called the 'Edict of Milan' decriminalizing Christian prayer and worship in the Roman Empire, an edict that would have been conveyed to all Governors within the regions of the Roman Empire.

Milan was the Capital of the Western Roman Empire at that time between 286AD and 402AD. In 402AD the Capital of the Western Roman Empire moved to Ravenna in the north east of Italy (near Venice) where it remained as the Capital until 476AD.

Emperor Constantine was born in what is now Serbia, in Naissus and died in what is now Turkey in İzmit, which also indicates the strength and importance of the Eastern Roman Empire and the city of Constantinople within the whole Empire.

There is some debate as to whether Constantine converted to Christianity at that same year as the Edict of Milan was issued, before or after, but before his death he did receive a Baptism and in the Orthodox Christian Church he is called Saint Constantine the Great. It is likely however that he became a Christian even before becoming Emperor, as he gave the Christian Church in Rome, the Lateran Palace building and the Basilica of St John Lateran in 311 – what became the Cathedral of Rome.

The reality is that most certainly that Christianity after 313AD was recognized as the Roman Empire's Religion throughout both the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, while still paying some homage to the old Gods of Apollo, Mars, Bacchus and others. 

It is said that Constantine had received a vision and message from God to say that if his soldiers wore a cross on the front of their uniform, they would be protected from harm. Other stories say that he received a vision that said that because the Christians had been persecuted in the past, there needed to be atonement for these sins against the Church in order to enter the 'kingdom of heaven'.

Whatever the story is, this conversion of Emperor Constantine to become a Christian could well be the greatest single event in history determining the future of the Roman Empire, world religion, Europe and millions of people as a consequence down through the centuries. 

Christians no longer had to hide. They could openly preach the Gospel and build churches, with their church buildings becoming in many cases the most prominent and significant buildings wherever they were built.

It was not until 395AD that the Roman Empire was officially split into two Empires – so becoming the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), with Byzantium renamed Constantinople (named after Emperor Constantine -today's Istanbul) and the Western Roman Empire, controlled from Milan.

The Western Roman Empire would however ultimately collapse by 476AD under attack by the Barbarians and Ostrogoths, from the north but the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) with its centre, Constantinople would continue to flourish right up to 1453AD when it was overthrown by the Turkish Ottomans, becoming part of the Ottoman Empire at that time.

At its height the Roman Empire controlled a vast territory, with the Western Roman Empire (27BC – 476AD) lasting just over 500 years and the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire even longer from 330 to 1204 and then from 1261 to 1453AD.

While much of the Roman Empire's success came from its Military power and conquests, it was also the skills of its Emperors and  political leaders, organisational skills, systems, civil and criminal laws, trading, Fortifications, road building, documentation, town planning, agriculture, architecture, building and other skills that it imparted within the Empire that enabled it to achieve so much success.

Wherever the Empire had control, they left behind a huge legacy in buildings, walls, cities, aqueducts, Roman baths, theatre and sports, Amphitheatres, laws, language and so much more.

Most people would be aware of the Colosseum in Rome, (built 315AD) the massive Amphitheatre but this was just one of the known 230 Amphitheatres that were built in territories controlled by the Roman Empire. Many of these today still exist are almost complete, while some are in ruins and others just marked where they existed. 

There are Roman Amphitheatres in a number of locations in Italy, but also in Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Romania, Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and in England, Wales, and Scotland. There are also spread across these countries Roman baths, towers, temples, walled cities, aqueducts and other building works many that have survived over the centuries and can still be seen today.

While the Romans brought 'Roman Civilisation' to the lands that they conquered they also learnt from them too, particularly from the ancient Empires in Egypt and Greece and you can see the influence of Greece and Egypt on Roman Architecture, politics and governance, law, through the Latin language, in art, sculpture, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, philosophy, metallurgy and other forms of learning and knowledge. Their legacy in shaping Europe, Britain, North Africa and the Middle East was immense.

Romans had until 313AD (and for some years after) also worshiped many of the same gods and goddesses as the Greeks, mostly under different names – for example the Greek God, Zeus became the Roman God Jupiter; Poseidon became Neptune; Ares became Mars; Aphrodite, Venus; Eros, Cupid; Dionysus, Bacchus while Apollo stayed as Apollo. There were many others.

The most notable building in Athens, Greece, the Parthenonwas built for the God Athena and the other Greek Gods in 447BC-438BC and such was its significance that a copy of the Parthenon was built for the Gods in Rome and named as the Pantheon,  built between 118AD and 126AD and then again copied in Paris and built as the Panthéonbetween 1757 and 1791. All three of these buildings still exist, a tribute both to their design and also the skills of those who built them.

When Emperor Constantine decriminalised Christianity in 313AD he became a Patron of the Christian Church and with his blessing the Church gained property, recognition, status, financial reward and access to high positions within the hierarchy of the Empire, as well as ownership title over new lands and buildings with a day of worship also declared (Sun Day) too.

The Christian Church itself was a breakaway church from the Judaism Religion) and dates back to the story, birth and life of Jesus and his 12 disciples – with the Disciples names of Andrew, James the Elder, James the younger, John, Peter, Andrew,  Philip, Simon, Thomas, Judas, Jude and Matthew. Matthias replaced Judas (who betrayed Jesus) and then there were the Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, whose lives were spent spreading the Gospel throughout the world as they knew it at that time. In the first Century AD, the Coptic Christian Church was formed in Egypt by St Mark. Most of the Disciples and some of the early followers would be venerated as Saints. In Venice the most famous square is St Mark's – Read the Venice section of this website.

The closest Disciple to Jesus was Peter and he is said to have been sent to Rome by Jesus to form the 'Rock' on which to build the foundations of the Christian Church in Rome.

Here Peter became a Martyr dying in the name of Jesus, but given Sainthood by the Church as well as proclaimed as the first 'Bishop of Rome'.  Future Popes would also be Bishops of Rome, and early Popes also claimed their rights to be Pope on the basis of their lineage back to the First Bishop. The body of St Peter and his tomb are located in the St Peter's Basilica below the high altar.

The Christian Church, now called the Roman Catholic Church – the word Catholic meaning 'Universal, for all people' was in 311AD given properties in Rome by Emperor Constantine, including the Palace of Laterani and the Basilica of St John Lateran – and this became the first Basilica and official residence for Popes until 1929, when they moved to the Vatican. These buildings and the Pontifical Lateran University are located of Piazza Giovanni Laterano (St John's Square) in Rome.

Emperor Constantine also built a Basilica between 319 and 333AD on the site where St Peter's Basilica now stands, but the first Basilica was rebuilt with the construction starting in 1506 and the new Basilica finished in 1626. St Peter's Basilica is located right next to St Peter's Square and is considered to be the most magnificent of all churches in the world.

While the Western Roman Empire went into decline and then was attacked and destroyed in 476AD by the Ostrogoth General, Odoacer, an Arian Christian, who became the King of Italy, maintaining Ravenna as its Capital, the Roman Catholic Church was able to survive in Rome.

The City of Ravenna would however come under attack and be conquered in 540AD– this time by the Byzantines from Constantinople and come under the control of an Archbishop from the Eastern Church  too. This is why in Ravenna you see a more Eastern version of the churches and other buildings constructed during this time. The City has a number of World Heritage listed buildings.

Byzantine rule would continue in Ravenna until 712AD, when it came under attack and control by the Lombards and in 751 it looked like the Lombards would also attack Rome.

The Roman Church had established by this time its own Ecumenical Councils and church hierarchy and authority while further defining its accepted practices, religious teachings and interpretations of the Gospel scriptures, bible and other matters. Bishops and monks through their teachings and monasteries had also spread the word of the Church to the north in Europe across Francia (France, Belgium, Netherlands, parts of Germany) and their missionaries, Boniface and Willibrord had even spread  Christianity in England and to Ireland in 678AD and by 743 they had established missions in Germany.

As head of the Church in Rome, the Pope was seen as God's representative on Earth, and those bishops and monks as God's servants spreading the word of God. Monks were also seen as having great wisdom too – being able to read and write, speak in Latin and have knowledge beyond that of the people they served. They became the educators.

In Paris, the monks of St Denis taught Charlemagne (742-814AD), the son of the King of the Franks, Pepin the Short (714-768AD) who was also a Christian.

In 754AD, Pope Stephen II (715-757AD) travelled to Paris to meet with Pepin the Short to request the King's protection from the possible Lombard invasion of Rome following the Lombard possession of Ravenna and other towns and lands across the Italian Peninsula. The King agreed and Pope Stephen II also anointed him King with the Pope's blessing.

Pepin acted swiftly to defeat the Lombards and in gratitude for the Pope's blessing, the Donation of Pepin saw the lands of the Lombards on the Italian Peninsula given to the Church in Rome in 754AD, these land areas becoming known as the 'Papal States'. This gift was re-confirmed in 756AD by Pepin the Short and also by Charlemagne in 774AD when he came to power.

Charlemagne, an avowed Christian would become a great and a powerful leader as King of the Franks, King of the Lombards and then Holy Roman Emperor, crowned by the Pope on Christmas Day 800AD.

Increasingly, the church in Rome with its teachings in Latin and the church in Constantinople, teaching in Greek became estranged. In 1054 the Great Schism occurred, with the Greek Christian Orthodox Church based in Constantinople separating from the Roman Catholic Church based in Rome due to their religious differences.

In 1309 the Residence of the Pope also changed from Rome to Avignon in France and it would not return to Rome until 1377. At one point during this time there were three Popes – one in Rome, another in Avignon and the third in Constantinople.

The Roman Catholic Church and the role of the Pope as its Spiritual Leader saw the Religion become the dominant religion in Western Europe and equally the Christian Orthodox Church become dominant in Eastern Europe.

Great battles would also be fought over religion in the Great Crusades – seeking to 'reclaim The Holy Land', 'convert Heathens to Christianity'  with these crusades fought from 1095 onwards until the late 1400's.

Kings, Queens and later Governments would seek and sometimes demand the blessing of the Church and the Pope, with the Church and State co-existing in harmony and sometimes as adversaries.

Cardinals and Archbishops would build Abbeys, Cathedrals and Churches and Monks, Friars, Priests, Nuns and missionaries spread their religion throughout Europe, and in the days of Empire and exploration the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British also take the Christian religion to Africa, Asia, Australia, South and Central America - the New World.

Wars would also be fought in the name of God, with sometimes both sides at war claiming their right to Victory on the basis that 'they had God on their side'.

There would also be splits in the Church too with reform churches separating from the Roman Catholic Church, with just one of these splits being when the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, after English King Henry VIII was ex-communicated by Pope Clement III in 1533. King Henry VIII then proclaimed himself the head of the Church in England.

The right of succession to the royal throne in Britain would also in years to come be decided on the basis of the potential King or Queen being Catholic or Protestant.

As political power bases changed, the church in Rome and the Papal States continued to survive, but in 1861 the beginnings of the Unification of Italy led to the Papal States being annexed and taken over by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, with Rome becoming the Capital of Italy in 1871.

It was not until 1929 that the Lateran Treaty was signed between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy, whereby the Roman Catholic Church headed by the Pope was able to establish the Vatican City State as a territory having its own Sovereign Power and independency from Italy.

In turn the Vatican City State was compensated for the loss of the Papal States; certain buildings outside of the Vatican such as the Lateran Palace also became extra-territorial property of the Vatican and free of any imposition of taxes by the State.  Vatican City under the Treaty also pledged its neutrality in perpetuity in relation to International Affairs and was able to claim absentia if asked to arbitrate on any matter that arose, unless both parties to an issue requested that the Vatican intervene as an independent party.

Italy also in the 1929 Lateran Treaty also re-confirmed its commitment to uphold a principle agreed to in an 1848 Stature whereby the only religion of the Kingdom (and now State) would be Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Religions. This part of the Treaty would however be overturned in 1984, with the State also recognizing other religions.

Today the Vatican attracts millions of pilgrims, priests, nuns, Catholics, non-Catholics, tourists, tour groups, school groups and world leaders to see St Peter's Basilica, St Peter's Square, the art, Church treasures, museums and witness some of the Religious ceremonies that take place. The Vatican is certainly one of the most interesting places to visit in the world.

Most people think that a 100 years is a long time, but then if you think of the Church, it has been in existence for over 2000 years. Certainly there have been issues, scandals and controversies, but the fact that the Church is still strong and has had such an amazing impact on the world throughout these 2000 years is in itself a miracle.  

In these few pages we have skipped over thousands of years of History in just a few short words, but hopefully what we have written here will give you a better insight into what you are seeing here in Rome.

Happy Traveling!

Geoff Stuart

Happy Traveller

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