How did the Roman Empire Begin?

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They say that Rome wasn't built in a day, but how exactly did it come about?

Picture the Roman empire.

There's little doubt that some of the first things that comes to mind are the armies marching in perfect organisation in knee-high sandals and polished helmets; the toga-wearing old men gathered and gossiping in the senate; cheering crowds of the collesium gathered around the surviving gladiator (who may or may not be Russel Crowe). The mad emperor that made his horse council (who, indeed, may or may not be John Simm); 'weleasing Woderwick'; the marvels in engineering; the network of roads; the arrogant gods and the far stretching, mighty Roman empire that threaded like arteries through Europe, with Rome at its heart.

Roman history, whether silly, sensational or serious, is a huge part of our own culture. But it wasn't always the force of nature that it became to be. In 1000BC, Rome was nothing more than a smattering of individual settlements of thatched huts that populated what would become the seven 'hills' of Rome.Even in the early days, the settlements of Rome had the resources that they needed for potential greatness. The seven 'hills'  - Paletine, Capitoline, Quirinal, Virminal, Esquiline, Caelian and Aventine -made the area easily defensible. The river Tiber that wound it's way through the complex gave easy access to the sea, and the whole area bore fertile volcanic soil.

As the Roman empire grew and they looked back on their own history, as is always the case, myth and legend soon wove around the facts of the origins of the Roman people until it near smothered it. Nowadays it is very difficult to pick apart the history from the legend, but the stories of the foundation of the Roman empire are certainly worth telling in their own right.There are two stories that lasted through the ages...

The Romans and the Trojan War.

The Romans were notorious for stealing 'borrowing' from Greek culture in order to bolster their own status. For example, many of the Roman Gods that pre-existed were re-imagined as containing attributes of the Greek gods: There was Zeus to the Roman's Jupiter, Hades to the Roman's Pluto, Aphrodite to the Roman Venus and so on.  That said, the Romans were also happy to adopt other gods like the goddess Minerva from the the arguably Etruscan Menrva or the Persian Mythras. This also happened in their legends, and they were eager to associate their own origin story with the heroic Greek tales that they admired.

The Trojan War was written in the Iliad by Homer in around 700Bc, when Many Greeks were emigrating to Southern Italy. The epic story told the tale of the Trojan War, that was thought to have taken place at around 1,200 bc. While most of us know the famous part of the story involving the wooden horse bringing victory, the story goes on to tell the story of the Trojan hero Arneas who was fated to rule over a resurrected Troy. However, in the story Troy is burned to the ground by the Greeks and the surviving Trojans fled. Over time, storytellers wondered where the hero Arneas could have gone and in the late 5th century BC the Greek historian Hellanicus suggested that Arenas was the founder of Rome - a claim that the Romans were all too happy to encourage.

Just as the Romans fed off the status of the Greeks, so too did other cultures feed off the fame and power of the Roman empire. For example, in 1200AD Geoffrey of Monmouth tried to bolster Britain's status by also claiming the the first British king was a descendant of Aeneas. If it could work for the Romans, why not for Britain too?

The Tale of Romulus and Remus.

No. I said Rom-u-LUS
Perhaps the most famous Roman origin story centres around the twin boys Romulus and Remus. Like the story of Moses, it centres around a jealous king -Amulius - who feared that he would be overthrown by a baby boy. In this tale, he had his own niece -Rhea- turned into a vestral virgin so that she would not be at risk of producing rightful heirs to the throne that he had taken from her brother. However, she was found by the god Mars and raped. She bore twins and, fearing for their lives and her own, put them in a basket to drift down the river Tiber. When the basket was washed ashore, the babies were discovered by a female wolf who, instead of killing them, suckled them until a herdsman arrived and took care of them. The herdsman and his wife raised them and when they grew to adults they discovered the truth of their births.

Give or take the detail of the she-wolf.
Furious at the injustice of their abandonment, and no doubt incited by the prospect of such power awaiting them, the twins gathered an army to overthrow Amulius and take the throne that was rightfully theirs.

When they won, they founded a whole new city near Alba. Sibling rivalry took hold and Remus mocked the size of Romulus' walls. The furious Romulus killed Remus and took sole control, which is why the city was named Roma.

Roma (from the Greek Rhome)  means 'strength; and 'might'. Romulus too means 'little Roman', and Remus is simply a grammatical variation of the word as 'e's and 'o's are often associated (like 'foot' and 'feet'). Clearly the name Roma was chosen first, and the names of the two heros picked to match. 
There is also some linguistic uncertainty around the word Lupa as in the 'she-wolf' that suckled the twins. The festival that the Romans used to celebrate the twins was called the Lupercal, so it was throught that the addition of the she-wolf was only inserted to associate with the festival that already existed. Even more troubling, some Romans doubted that Rhea had been impregnated by Mars at all, however impressive this link with the God of War was for the Roman people. Lupa in Latin also means 'prostitute', so some Romans posited that the twins had a baser origin.

So How Did the Roman Empire Really Begin?

However shaky either legend might be to modern eyes, there is a germ of truth within them that is supported by historical evidence. In the Romulus and Remus story, Romulus was said to have found the site of Rome completely deserted. Therefore he turned the site into an asylum and welcomed in runaway slaves, exiles, paupers, debtors or anyone else who needed a place to escape to.

One aspect of Rome that always endured, and which is notoriously absent in the historical epics that brought the culture to the silver screens is the sheer multi-ethnicity of the city. Rome was a melting pot of cultures from it's early settlement to the height of the Roman empire. From early times, Rome extended citizenship to all the people that it subdued and in the 6th century BC the Roman king Servius (578-534bc) first declared that freed slaves automatically became full Roman citizens. More than half of the ancient funerary monuments in Rome commemorate ex-slaves rather than freeborn Romans, as it's people celebrated this achievement. If we were to step back in time and walk through the streets of Rome, the most common language that we could hear would be, not Latin, but Greek - the universal Meditterranean language of the time.
Archaeological digs in the area have uncovered votive offerings near the Capitol that were dated to a time before the area was ever settled. This is tentative but significant evidence that Rome may well have served as an asylum area before it came into power and so this was absorbed into the Romulus myth.

While in the end, it will always be difficult to pick apart the fact from the legends about the beginning of Rome, it is clear that it was a unique place and that, even early on, the seed of greatness had already been sown.

A special thanks to the great book Veni Vidi Vici - Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Romans But Were Afraid to Ask by Peter Jones, which informed by article this week.

Other Sources
Discussion on the influence for Roman Gods
Adopted Roman Gods
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