ROMAN HISTORY - Abraham Lincoln - James M. McPherson

Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)


Three Millennia in Eight Pages


Ancient Rome lasted a thousand years (500 B.C.-A.D. 500), half as an expanding republic, half as a dominating empire. When Rome fell to invaders, all of Europe suffered a thousand years of poverty and ignorance (A.D. 500-1500), though Rome’s influence could still be felt in the Catholic Church. Popes rebuilt Rome for pilgrims—in Renaissance, then Baroque and Neoclassical styles (1500-1800). As capital of a newly united Italy, Rome followed fascist Mussolini into World War II (and lost), but rebounded in Italy’s postwar economic boom.

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Aeneas flees burning Troy (1200 B.C.), wanders like Odysseus, and finally finds a home along the Tiber. His descendants, Romulus and Remus—orphaned at birth, suckled by a she-wolf, and raised by shepherds—grow up to steal wives and build a wall, thus founding Rome (753 B.C.).

Closer to fact, the local agrarian tribes were dominated by more sophisticated neighbors to the north (Etruscans) and south (Greek colonists). Their convenient location on the Tiber was perfect for a future power.



✵ Romulus’ “huts” and wall (Palatine Hill)

✵ She-Wolf statue (Capitoline Museums)

✵ Frescoes of Aeneas and Romulus (National Museum of Rome)

✵ Bernini’s Aeneas statue (Borghese Gallery)

✵ Etruscan wing (Vatican Museums)

✵ Etruscan Museum (in Villa Borghese Gardens)

✵ Etruscan legacy (the original Circus Maximus, the drained Forum)

THE REPUBLIC (509-27 B.C.)

The city expands throughout the Italian peninsula (500-300 B.C.), then defeats Hannibal’s North African Carthaginians (the Punic Wars, 264-146 B.C.) and Greece (168 B.C.). Rome is master of the Mediterranean, and booty and captured slaves pour in. Romans bicker among themselves over their slice of the pie, pitting the wealthy landowners (the ruling Senate) against the working class (plebs) and the rebellious slaves (Spartacus’ revolt, 73 B.C.). In the chaos, charismatic generals like Julius Caesar, who can provide wealth and security, become dictators. Change is necessary...and coming.



✵ Forum’s Curia, Temple of Saturn, Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rostrum, Basilica Aemilia, Temple of Julius Caesar, and Basilica Julia (all rebuilt later)

✵ Appian Way built, lined with tombs

✵ Aqueducts, which carry water to a growing city

✵ Portrait busts of citizens (National Museum of Rome)

✵ The republic’s “S.P.Q.R.” monogram and motto, seen today on statues, buildings, and even manhole covers: Senatus Populusque Romanus, or the “Senate and People of Rome.” (Some northern Italians, who feel the South is dragging them down, translate S.P.Q.R. as Sono Porci Questi Romani—“These Romans Are Pigs.”)


After Julius Caesar is killed by disgruntled republicans, his adopted son Augustus takes undisputed control, ends the civil wars, declares himself emperor, and adopts a family member to succeed him, setting the pattern of rule for the next 500 years.


Rome rules an empire of 54 million people, stretching from England to Africa, from Spain to Turkey. The city, with more than a million inhabitants, is decorated with Greek-style statues and monumental structures faced with is the marvel of the known world. The empire prospers on a (false) economy of booty, slaves, and trade, surviving the often turbulent and naughty behavior of emperors such as Caligula and Nero. You can see Roman history in the faces of the emperors by reading the Image National Museum of Rome Tour chapter.


✵ Colosseum

✵ Forum

✵ Palatine Hill palaces

✵ Ara Pacis (“Altar of Peace”)

✵ Augustus’ house (House of Livia and Augustus) on Palatine Hill

✵ Pantheon

✵ Trajan’s Column and Forum

✵ Greek and Greek-style statues and emperors’ busts (National Museum of Rome, Vatican Museums, Capitoline Museums)

✵ Piazza Navona (former stadium)

✵ Hadrian’s Villa (Tivoli) and tomb (now Castel Sant’Angelo)

ROME FALLS (200-476)

Corruption, disease, and the constant pressure of barbarians pecking away at the borders slowly drain the unwieldy empire. Despite Diocletian’s division of the empire and Constantine’s legalization of Christianity (313), the city is sacked (410), and the last emperor checks out (476). Rome falls like a huge column, kicking up dust that will plunge Europe into a thousand years of darkness.



✵ Arch of Constantine

✵ The Forum’s Basilica of Constantine

✵ Baths of Diocletian

✵ Old Roman Wall (gates at Via Veneto or Piramide)

MEDIEVAL ROME (500-1500)

The once-great city of a million people dwindles to a rough village of 20,000, with a corrupt pope, forgotten ruins, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Cows graze in the ruined Forum, and wolves prowl the Vatican at night. During the 1300s, even the popes leave Rome to live in France. What little glory Rome retains is in the pomp, knowledge, and wealth of the Catholic Church.


✵ The damage done to ancient Roman monuments, caused by disuse, barbarian looting, and pillaging for pre-cut stones

✵ Early Christian churches built before Rome fell (Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano, and San Clemente)

✵ Churches of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and Santa Maria in Trastevere

✵ Castel Sant’Angelo


As Europe’s economy recovers, energetic popes rebuild Rome to attract pilgrims. The best artists decorate palaces and churches, carve statues, and build fountains. The city is not a great political force, but as the center of Catholicism during the struggle against Protestants (c. 1520-1648), it is an influential religious and cultural capital.


Renaissance Sights

✵ Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (Vatican Museums), dome of St. Peter’s, Pietà (St. Peter’s), Moses (St. Peter-in-Chains Church), Christ statue (Santa Maria sopra Minerva), Piazza del Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill Square), Santa Maria degli Angeli church (in former Baths of Diocletian)


✵ Raphael’s School of Athens and Transfiguration (Vatican Museums)

✵ Paintings by Raphael, Titian, and others (Borghese Gallery)

Baroque Sights

✵ St. Peter’s Square and interior (largely by Bernini)

✵ Bernini statues (at Borghese Gallery; also St. Teresa in Ecstasy at Santa Maria della Vittoria church) and fountains (Piazza Navona, Piazza Barberini)

✵ Ancient obelisks erected in squares (Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Navona)

✵ Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps

✵ Gesù and San Ignazio churches

✵ Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesi Church) and other paintings (Borghese Gallery and Vatican Museums)

✵ Baroque paintings (Borghese Gallery)

✵ Borromini’s facade of Santa Agnese Church (Piazza Navona)

Church Architecture

History comes to life when you visit a centuries-old church. Even if you wouldn’t know your apse from a hole in the ground, learning a few simple terms will enrich your experience. Note that not every church has every feature, and that a “cathedral” isn’t a type of church architecture, but rather a designation for a church that’s a governing center for a local bishop.

Aisles: The long, generally low-ceilinged arcades that flank the nave.

Altar: The raised area with a ceremonial table (often adorned with candles or a crucifix), where the priest prepares and serves the bread and wine for Communion.

Apse: The space beyond the altar, generally bordered with small chapels.

Barrel Vault: A continuous round-arched ceiling that resembles an extended upside-down U.


Choir: A cozy area, often screened off, located within the church nave and near the high altar, where services are sung in a more intimate setting.

Cloister: A square-shaped series of hallways surrounding an open-air courtyard, traditionally where monks and nuns got fresh air.

Facade: The outer wall of the church’s main (west) entrance, viewable from outside and generally highly decorated.

Groin Vault: An arched ceiling formed where two equal barrel vaults meet at right angles. Less common usage: term for a medieval jock strap.

Narthex: The area (portico or foyer) between the main entry and the nave.

Nave: The long, central section of the church (running west to east, from the entrance to the altar) where the congregation stood through the service.

Transept: The north-south part of the church, which crosses (perpendicularly) the east-west nave. In a traditional Latin cross-shaped floor plan, the transept forms the “arms” of the cross.

West Portal: The main entry to the church (on the west end, opposite the main altar).


Rome becomes the capital of a newly reunited Italy (1871) under King Victor Emmanuel II, is modernized by fascist Mussolini, and survives the destruction of World War II to become a republic. Italy’s postwar “economic miracle” makes Rome a world-class city of cinema, banking, and tourism.



✵ Victor Emmanuel II Monument, which honors modern Italy’s first (democratic) king

✵ Mussolini: the balcony he spoke from (at Palazzo Venezia, on Piazza Venezia), his planned city (E.U.R.), grand boulevards (Via dei Fori Imperiali, Via della Conciliazione), his home (Villa Torlonia), and Olympic Stadium

✵ Cinecittà film studios and Via Veneto nightlife, which have faint echoes of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

✵ Subway system, broad boulevards, smog

Rome in World War II

By 1943, as bombs began falling just outside the walls of Rome, it was clear to all that Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany was a huge mistake, leading the country to ruin. The fascist Grand Council dismissed Mussolini, and the king ordered his arrest. The ex-dictator fled north, and fascism collapsed without violence. Rome was declared an “open city” (meaning a city with no military bases). Italy surrendered to the Allies. The king fled to Allied-occupied southern Italy, abandoning Rome to Nazi forces, which occupied it for nine terrible months. The Roman people and the Vatican joined forces to save some citizens from the Nazis.


The Gestapo demanded 50 kilos of gold from the Roman Jews, who, with great difficulty and help from non-Jews, succeeded in providing it. Regardless, more than 2,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps. After Italian partisans planted a bomb near the Trevi Fountain, killing 32 Germans, more than 300 people randomly chosen from Rome’s prison were executed in retaliation. This tragic event—called the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, for the caves near the Appian Way where it took place—remains an important milestone in the Italian consciousness. As the Allies marched closer, they bombed Rome and its surroundings, but avoided striking the center.

Thankfully, Hitler granted the occupying Nazi troops permission to leave the city, which he declared a “place of culture” that should not be “the scene of combat operations.” Pope Pius XII agreed, declaring, “Whoever raises a hand against Rome will be guilty of matricide to the whole civilized world and in the eternal judgment of God.” Finally, the Germans marched out, the Americans marched in (through the gate of San Giovanni) on June 4, 1944, and the exhausted city welcomed them with joy and relief.


After surviving the government-a-year turbulence and Mafia-tainted corruption of the postwar years, Rome is stabilizing. Today, the average Roman makes more money than the average Englishman. The city is less polluted and more organized. And the 21st century has seen a flurry of activity.

In celebration of the year 2000, the Eternal City gave its monuments a facelift, and Christian pilgrims poured in for a Great Jubilee Year to kick off the third millennium of their faith. Bold new architecture was added: the Auditorium Parco della Musica (by Renzo Piano, 2002), the Ara Pacis museum (by Richard Meier, 2006), and MAXXI, a state-of-the-architecture museum of modern art (by Zaha Hadid, 2010).

The Vatican is buzzing, too. In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shockingly took an early retirement and handed the keys to the kingdom over to a free-wheeling successor, the first Jesuit pope, Francis I. A recent pope, John Paul II, was made a saint. In 2014, the classical world met classic rock when the Rolling Stones entertained the masses at the Circus Maximus. Hail, Caesar! And in 2016, Pope Francis encouraged the faithful to celebrate the “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy” Holy Year.

Today’s Rome is ready for pilgrims, travelers, and you to come and make more history. For more on Roman history, consider Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler, written by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw (available at