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The Founding of Ancient Rome & Rome's Early History

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  • 0:05 Italy: An Unlikely…
  • 2:02 Early Inhabitants of Italy
  • 3:56 The Latin Invaders
  • 5:47 The Myth of Rome's Founding
  • 8:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the foundation of Rome. We look at the geography of Italy. We examine some of its most important inhabitants before the Romans. Finally, we look at both the historical facts and the Roman myths regarding the foundation of Rome.

Italy: An Unlikely Home to a Mighty Empire

Behold Italy. It may not look like much, but this graceful peninsula would come to be home to one of the largest, most enduring civilizations in human history: the Roman Empire. Given its glorious future, we might expect Italy to be a land overflowing with natural resources, but in fact, Italy offered few resources, just a bit of tin, copper, iron and gold. The only thing Italy had a lot of was fertile land and some very fine marble. Well then, perhaps Italy was a great mercantile center, given its central position and miles of shoreline. But no, the shores of Italy offered few natural harbors, making it surprisingly unsuited to a mercantile empire. Maybe Italy was sort of a natural fortress, surrounded by the sea on three sides and protected by the Alps to the north. But no, Italy's low-lying coastline made it easy to invade by sea. The Alps provided some protection but not very much. It was not an effective barrier against invaders from the north.

So why, with few resources, few harbors, and vulnerable borders, did Italy become the seat of such a mighty empire? Well, Italy had plenty of fertile land, allowing it to support a large population. And since the people of Italy could not easily acquire other resources through mining or trade, the only option remaining was to take them by force. And since Italy offered so few boundaries to invasion, the people of Italy learned the valuable lesson of 'Conquer, or be conquered.' That must have been the sight that greeted the first Latin-speaking peoples as they made their way across the Alps between 2,000 and 1,000 BCE: a lush, fertile land just begging to be conquered.

Early Inhabitants of Italy

Yet these early Latin-speaking invaders, or Latins as they're called, were not the first people to set their sights on Italy. The Italian peninsula was already occupied by Etruscans in the north and Greeks in the south. We actually know very little about the Etruscans. We know that they didn't speak Latin or any of the other Indo-European languages that had spread from the Black Sea basin. This suggests that the Etruscans had been living in Italy since as early as 3-4,000 BCE. In the centuries that followed, the Etruscans made some neat architectural innovations, including the arch and the vault as well as some pretty art, including murals and sculptures. The most famous forms of Etruscan art are their funerary urns and sarcophagi.

Etruscan women had more freedom than Greek and Roman women.
Etruscan burial statue

As you may have deduced from these burial statues, women enjoyed an elevated status in Etruscan culture. Both the Greeks and Romans wondered at the freedom of Etruscan women, who engaged in public festivals and dined with their husbands. Unfortunately, the Romans borrowed the Etruscans' arches and art but not their views on women. While the Etruscans were spreading across northern and central Italy, the Greeks began colonizing southern Italy and Sicily around 800 BCE.

The mountains of Greece might have protected the Greeks from invasion, but they offered very little good land for farming. The fertile plains of Italy served as a breadbasket for growing Greek states, who raced to establish colonies and feed their expanding populations. These Greek colonies were just as civilized as their homeland and were centers of art, religion and even philosophy, being the home to such famous philosophers as Pythagoras and Archimedes. The Greeks provided the Romans with their alphabet, their religion and many elements of their art and architecture.

The Latin Invaders

Thus, the stage is set for the founding of the Roman Empire. We've examined the setting - the fertile but vulnerable Italian peninsula - and we've met most of the cast of characters: the Etruscans in the north and the Greeks in the south. Now, let us look at these Latin invaders and their first steps into Italy. Our main source for the history of these early Latins is the Roman historian Livy, whose work 'Ab urbe condita,' From the Founding of Rome, served as a textbook of Roman history for centuries. We're not sure how much to trust Livy. He seems to be fairly rational and tends to look at myths with a great deal of skepticism; however, he's still obviously a big fan of Rome and seeks to paint the empire in the best light possible. Moreover, Livy wrote his history in the last century of the classical era, at least a thousand years after the first Latin-speaking people found their way to Italy. This means even Livy's sources were probably more mythical than historical. And as Livy himself puts it, 'To such legends as these ... I shall attach no great importance.'

Due to these difficulties, no one is quite sure where the Latin invaders came from. The Romans claimed that their Latin ancestors emigrated from Troy, a far-off city on the coast of Asia Minor and scene of the famous Greek epic The Iliad. Historians do not take this claim very seriously. The general assumption is that the Roman link to Troy was an attempt to co-opt some of the glory of Greek civilization. It is much more likely that the Latins weren't civilized people from Asia Minor but rather barbarians from somewhere in Northern Europe. Whatever their source, these people forced their way down into the Italian peninsula sometime between the first and second millennium BCE.

The Myth of Rome's Founding

The Latins established cities from the Alps all the way down to Central Italy, violently displacing the native Etruscans. According to Livy, these Latin cities banded together for mutual protection, forming the Latin League. At the head of this league was the city of Latium, also known as Alba Longa. Latium was ruled by a series of kings who engaged in all of the normal scheming and political maneuvering one might expect from rulers.

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