Saturday, August 15, 2009

History of Ancient Rome, Condensed Version, Part I

We -- or at least, I -- don't know very much about the history of Rome before about 500 BC. But I will mention a couple of things from the Roman legends of the time before 500 BC, because I think they shed some light on the way things were in Rome. First of all, the Romans believed -- if they believed in their traditional legends. How seriously did they take these legends? Good question! -- that they were descended from a Trojan, Aeneas, the hero of Vergil'sAeneid, who, because of his valiant behavior during the Trojan War, was set free by the conquering Greeks, to wander hither in yon in Vergil's poem, which copied Homer's Odysseyvery closely, until he found a new home among the Latins, the precursors of the Romans, just as in Homer's poem Odysseys must wander long before regaining control of his home of Ithaca.

But Aeneas' settling with the Latins was still a few centuries before the -- legendary -- founding of the city of Rome proper. This occurred on April 21, 753 BC. The city was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus, who had been raised by a she-wolf. But Remus did not live to see the city completed, because as they were laying out the outlines of the city walls, he kept jumping back and forth over the lines in a playful manner, and so Romulus killed him. Because you weren't supposed to play with such important things.

From these legends you can see two important threads in Roman culture: an awed reverence before the achievements of Greece; and a particularly grim seriousness. Of course, you can't sum up any culture so simply: not all Romans were in awe of Greece, and not all were grimly serious. But those were prominent tendencies.

Actual Roman history starts around 500 BC, when the city of Rome threw off the overlordship of the Etruscan empire. The Etruscans, who once competed with the Greeks and the Phoenicians for mastery of the Mediterranean world, faded so thoroughly as Rome rose that their language, although conserved in many inscriptions, wriiten in letters taken from the Greeks and very similar to those of the Romans, is now undecipherable. They gave their name to the Italian region of Tuscany. The Romans, meanwhile, began to expand their power in a truly spectacular way. (From not long after 500 BC, when Rome consisted either only of a small town, or that town and a few square miles around it, dated the Twelve Tables, the earliest preserved version of Roman law. Law & order were always very big in Rome, and to this day, Roman law is still enthusiastically studied by lawyers.) By the mid-fourth century BC they had gone from a small town to the rulers of a third or so of the Italian peninsula; by the mid-third century they ruled almost all of the peninsula and were beginning to butts heads with the Greeks and the Phoenicians. The latter were referred to by this time as the Carthaginians, after their capital city on the northern coast of Africa, although the name by which we refer to Rome's wars with Carthage, the Punic Wars, is related to the word Phoenician. The Phoenician or Carthaginian language spoken around the time of Christ, when it remained a widespread lingua france in the Mideast, is usually referred to as Aramaic. It is still the first language of at least hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, I don't know for sure. And it is the liturgical languages of the Syriac Church which has millions of adherents. The language as it is used today is called Syriac, or Aramaic, or Assyrian. Why does the name of these people and their language keep changing? Good question!

In keeping with the general tendency of grim Roman seriousness, there is not much evidence of any well-developed native literature before 200 BC. We have the image of a people concentrated on law, commerce, war and other grimly serious things, with little interest in or even comprehension of literary pursuits. Still, the Romans admired the Greeks, and the Greeks were often anything but grimly serious. The earliest lengthy specimens of Latin literature of which we know are the comic plays of Plautusand Terrence,written in a style of Greek plays well-established in Alexandria. One may find it odd that the earliest known genre to flourish in Rome was comedy, or one may find it a natural reaction to an atmosphere which could be overly grim and stuffy. Not long after Plautus and Terrence, Luciliusestablished the genre of satire, which remained quite popular in Rome throughout the ancient period. (Which makes perfect sense to me: the more stuffy seriousness there is all around one, the more there is to make fun of, and the more readers will appreciate writers who do so.)

To return, sadly, from the joys of the muses to the grim political world: as I said, by the middle of the third century BC, Rome was almost as big as the entire Italian peninsula, big enough to begin to a serious rival to the Greeks and the Phoenicians/Carthagenians/Aramaics. The Carthagenian leader Hannibal put a crimp in the steady advance of Rome for a while, famously crossing into Roman territory from the north, over the Alps, and causing the Romans serious problems. But Rome eventually defeated Hannibal, and he was the greatest exception to a fairly steady progress of Roman expansion. By the middle of the second century BC, Rome was the biggest power in the mediterranean world, and as it continued to expand, the greatest threat to Rome gradually came to be, not any foreign power, but the fighting of Roman generals and politicians against each other. But despite assassinations and civil wars Rome continued to expand, until by 30 BC the entire coastline of the Mediterranean was under Roman control, and by the end of the first century AD Roman rule stretched from present-day northern England in the west to present-day Armenia and Iraq in the east.

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