Geography of Rome

Rome sits about 15 miles inland on the banks of the Tiber river. The Tiber starts in the eastern part of the Apennines and flows 252 miles southwest until it empties into the Mediterranean. In ancient times, the Tiber wound through lush meadows and marshes filled with wildlife, while on either side stretched rolling plains of fertile soil. One of the Tiber’s tributaries is the Anio River, and both rivers play roles in the early years of Rome’s beginning.  Right where Rome was established, the Tiber bends in a kind of C-shape, and just below this bend is a long oval-shaped island. Up to this island, the Tiber has been navigable by small ships. The river has been turbulent river, prone to flooding, especially in winter and spring, and was difficult to cross.  But near island was the first, natural crossing of the Tiber to move inland.  Since the marshes near the mouth of the Tiber were rich in salt, this crossing would have proved useful.

The navigability of the water, the crossing by foot, and the existence of the salt-marshes, must have encouraged people to come through the area often. Ancient writers refer to a road eventually called the Via Salaria, which may have been used by the Sabine Latin people to come and go as they transported salt, before, and during the early days of Rome. On a nearby hill stood the Latin city of Antemnae, defeated and destroyed by Romulus. This road goes on and around 5-6 miles from Rome passes close to where the ancient city of Fidenae lived, also familiar from the early wars of Rome.

Many hills were located close to the Tiber island and its river crossing. These hills served as refuges from floods and heat and became fortified settlements. From their lower slopes, freshwater springs provided drinking water. The three hills of Rome closest to the Tiber were the Capitoline, the Palatine and the Aventine. The Capitoline was the smallest, with two crests connected by a low saddle. Sharp cliffs overlooked the river on its southwest end and these became known as the Tarpeian Rock, from which death sentences would be carried out as criminals were thrown over. The Palatine was the central hill of Rome, directly overlooking the Tiber crossing. Its large flat top spanned about 25 acres. Archaeology has uncovered several small huts here, and one has been called the hut of Romulus. Eventually the patricians of Rome clustered their residences here. The Aventine is the southernmost hill, specifically granted to the plebeians to settle.

These three hills are enclosed by additional hills farther inland, which form an arc around them. From north to south, the Quirinal is a long ridge, which became home to the Sabine people after they made peace with Romulus and merged to expand Rome’s population. The Viminal hill runs to the south. The Esquiline hill is a large bluff., which had two main spurs called the Cispian and the Oppian hills, which extended out toward the Tiber. The Velia was a ridge that stretched from the middle of the northern Palatine, towards the Oppian hill.

The Caelian hill was a long narrow ridge curving to the south of the Esquiline. The Janiculum was a line of hills on the other side of the Tiber. It is the highest hill in Rome and served as a key observation. When the last king of Rome was expelled and brought in Etruscan Lars Porsenna, he captured and held the Janiculum for a time.

In between these hills lay small valleys. The most significant of these lay in a depression between the Palatine, Capitoline and Quirinal and became the Roman Forum. An open space at the foot of and between the Palatine and Aventine became the Forum Boarium. A long narrow valley ran between the Aventine and the Palatine and it would become the Circus Maximus. The Campus Martius was a low-lying flatland, north of the Palatine. It stretched 1.5 miles across by 1.5 miles wide between the Pincian hill and the Tiber river bend.

Today it is difficult to visualize this topography, as Rome has been considerably built up. The hills have been reduced over the centuries. Ancient buildings may in places be seen only as ruins. or modern buildings completely cover them over. The Tiber river’s course may have been changed, and many bridges cross it. Rome has expanded over many of the towns familiar in Romulus’ day.

But the geography and the people who lived within it mattered.

Geography of Italy

Geography often plays an important part in human history. Where a people plan to live, whether or not they fight for that land with other peoples, whether or not they expand out of that land to colonize nearby, or cross oceans to settle elsewhere-geography plays an important part.

The people of a land form a part of the geography, and also matter in the history of a land. Rome’s history brought it into contact, both peaceful and warlike, with the Etruscans, the Latin Sabines, Volscians, and Samnites, the Greeks in southern Italy beyond Naples, the Celtic Gauls in northern Italy, and in Rome’s first foray outside its own shores, Carthaginians in the waters around Sicily.

Sicily lay just off the boot of Italy, across the narrow Straits of Messina. The island had an indigenous population, and attracted attention from the eastern Mediterranean, and was settled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Greeks. While Sicily played no significant role in Rome’s history until it became a province in 238 BC (before Hannibal invaded), its history was filled with battles and political wranglings. Eventually the wars between Greeks and Carthaginians, and between various Greek tyrants on the island, spilled onto the Italian mainland. First the Greek cities in southern Italy became involved-then Rome was drawn in. One cannot ignore one’s neighbors and events outside one’s borders.

Sardinia lies off the western coast of Italy.  It had an indigenous population, the nuraghic culture, but was also settled by Phoenicians and Carthaginians. Sardinia played no role in Rome’s history until it became a province in 238. Before that, its Carthaginian presence involved it in the so-called Mercenary War. Sardinia’s role in Rome’s history after it became part of Rome’s empire differed from that of Sicily.

The Italian peninsula is shaped like a boot. The Etruscan people lived mostly in the north, while various groups of Latin peoples lived in the center of Italy. The Greeks settled in the south of italy, from Naples down through and into the toe and the heel of the boot. The Greeks invariably came into conflict with other Latin peoples like the Samnites, who migrated south. Rome became involved in their business in the early 3rd century.

The Alps mountain range separates Italy from France and Austria. Celtic tribesmen crossed the Alps and settled in the rich Po Valley, named for the longest River in Italy. The Gauls marched to Rome and at some point in the late 4th century, sacked Rome. They also met and pushed out the Etruscans. The region of the Po valley became known as Cisalpine Gaul. In the fourth quarter of the 3rd century, Hannibal the Carthaginian general crossed the Alps from France and rampaged south through Italy. The Po River starts in the western Italian Alps, and flows west to east emptying into the Adriatic. The cities of Parma, Ravenna, Felsina (modern Bologna) were established here by the Etruscans.  One of the cities established there by a group of Gauls was Mediolanum (modern Milan).

The Apennines mountain range is said to form the spine for the Italian peninsula. The mountains begin in northwestern Italy in the area called Liguria, and run southeast, for a third of their length, thus forming the headwaters of the Tiber River which runs southwest to the Mediterranean Sea. The first two battles Hannibal waged in Italy against Rome, at Ticinus and Trebia, were fought in this first part of the Appenine range. They then run more or less south down the eastern side of Italy, leaving a narrow strip of land to the east, but a wider stretch of land along the west.

It is on this western side, the regions called Etruria and Latium that Latin and Etruscan cities such as Lavinium, Alba Longa, Caere, Veii, Tarquinii, Fidenae, Gabii, Praeneste, and of course, Rome near the mouth of the Tiber when it emptied into the Mediterranean,  were established. The land here opened into plain and hill country, suitable for pasturing sheep, pigs, goats and cattle. The soil was rich and fertile, due to the activity of a line of volcanoes in western Italy, no longer active today. The people with whom Romulus associated for much of his youth were shepherds and herdsmen. The region known as Etruria, north of Latium, was bounded by the Arno and Tiber rivers and by the Apennines. Its rich deposits of iron and copper helped encourage the Etruscans to become skilled and famous for their metalcraft. Latium lay between Etruria and Campania, where the Greeks began settling as early as the date of Rome’s founding. The Apennines turn back toward the Mediterranean, after Campania, and end in Bruttium, in the toe of Italy’s boot. The plain of Apulia stretches down the heel of Italy. Here, at Cannae, Hannibal gave the Romans a disastrous defeat. But it was also here that the Roman legions began anew thereafter.

More on Rome in the Next post.

The Land of Romulus

The story of Romulus is history and myth, myth and legend. The people and events may, or may not, have happened. Romulus may or may not have existed-as he has been depicted, or as perhaps a different person altogether.

Two things are very clear from the stories we have.

We can picture and understand the geography of the land in which Rome was established-the hills, the rivers, the plains, even the towns. The geography includes the Tiber River and its tributary the Anio, the seven-plus hills including the Palatine and the Capitoline, the plains including the Campus Martius, the nearby towns- some of which still exist, at least to archaeology-of Gabii, Caenina, Veii, Antemnae, Cures.

We can appreciate the politics of the people in the region. The politics of attempted alliances, seeking justice for grievances, tolerating a ruling partner, setting forth laws, waging war or organizing peace.

Geography and Politics, often interwoven-two elements of our 21st century world that bind us closely together with the Land of Romulus. Future posts will share some research and some ideas on these subjects as they relate to the Founding of Rome.

Rome First Rulers were Seven Kings

For 255 years, according to the historians Livy, Dionysius Halikarnassus, and Plutarch, Rome was ruled by kings.  Modern scholars question the exactness of this king-list as to the length of the reigns, whether or other men also ruled as formally acclaimed as kings, or were merely warlord chiefs who conquered Rome for a time.

But for now, we must begin with the seven kings of Rome.

Romulus-the traditional founder of Rome who was a very fortunate warrior-king. Rome still celebrates April 21 as its birthday, the exact date that Romulus is said to have begun building the city. He reigns for 37 years, a small part of which is in partner-rule with the Sabine king Titus Tatius. The highlights of his reign are the betrayal that allows the Sabines to capture the Capitoline fortress, the “abduction-rape” of the Sabine women, and all Romulus’ military victories. Tatius and Romulus had been at war, and Tatius had occupied the fortress heights, before he and Romulus became co-kings. In scenes reminiscent of the story of Lysistrata, the Sabine women, now wives and mothers of Rome, walk onto a raging battlefield to end the bloodshed between their fathers, brothers, and husbands. The rich spoils Romulus brings home from his conquests do not stop the wealthy men of Rome from plotting against his life.

Numa Pompilius is a Sabine from the same city Tatius ruled. In fact, Numa was Tatius’ son-in-law. While Tatius ruled with Romulus, he was murdered, and Romulus may have been slow to bring his killers to justice. Perhaps that helped Numa be reluctant to become king in Rome after Romulus was gone. But he did—reigning for 43 years as a priest-king under whom Rome knew only peace.

Tullus Hostilius was a fierce warrior-king of Rome, from a city that Romulus had earlier conquered. The history of his 32-year reign is filled with war between Alba and Rome, secret conspiracies and betrayals of Rome by a pledged ally, and a battle-duel between two sets of triplet cousins- one Alban, one Roman- which leads to victory for Rome and the total destruction of Alba. It also ends in a heartbreaking family tragedy-which tangentially highlights some of the cultural mores of the time.

Ancus Marcius is Numa’s maternal grandson and thus another Sabine. By this time, cities that had treaties of peace with Rome’s earlier kings now decide that those treaties no longer have effect, and so Ancus takes Rome again into war. His 24-year reign is most notable because of the appearance in Rome of the Etruscan Tarquinius Priscus, grandfather of the last king of Rome. Priscus becomes a close friend and advisor to Ancus, even being appointed guardian for his sons.

Tarquinius Priscus becomes king of Rome, expelling the sons of Ancus. It is interesting to note that the revolt that eventually brings down his grandson Superbus is engineered by descendants of Priscus and his brother-making the fall of the monarchy one of history’s earliest royal family squabbles. Priscus is another warrior-king of Rome, fighting Latins and Etruscans at various times. During his 38-year reign, Servius Tullius, the next king of Rome is born in Priscus’ palace to a Roman captive servant.

Servius Tullius had humble origins, supposedly born to a servant in the Roman palace. He grows to become a trusted officer in Priscus’ army, and when Priscus is murdered in a plot by Ancus’ sons, his Etruscan wife sets up Servius to become the new king. He reign for 44 years, and new walls of Rome, divisions of the classes and army, are all attributed to Servius. Emperor Claudius, who was fascinated with Etruscan history, referred to Servius in a speech as having possibly been an Etruscan mercenary chief-an interesting fictional path to tread, to be sure.

Tarquinius Superbus is the last traditional king of Rome. He was depicted as a tyrant in the Greek style, lecherous, arrogant, and cruel-and his sons were no better. The commonly held story of his fall was that a beautiful honorable Roman matron was raped by his son, and her subsequent suicide inspired a group of Roman patricians to rebel and oust Superbus from the throne. Some research into Etruscan artifacts has presented a theory that Lucretia may have been engaged in an affair with Sextus, which proved a good excuse for her husband’s cousin to finally act on his own high ambitions. The ringleaders of this revolt are in fact close Tarquin relatives. The expelled Superbus seeks the help of the Etruscan king Lars Porsena, who invades Rome’s territory, occupies the Janiculum hill and, according to later Roman writers, may in fact have actually conquered Rome for a time. Porsena also takes some of the noble Roman youths as hostages, and one of these, Cloelia, becomes famous for engineering their rescue back to Rome, but then as a point of honor she returns to Porsena to remain a hostage.

To Begin, Rome was not built in a day

Italy consists of three parts–its boot-shaped mainland which includes the regions of Tuscany in the north to Calabria in the south, the island of Sicily which lies west of the mainland’s toe, and the island of Sardinia, which lies off the mainland’s western coast, south of Corsica.

Italy’s history is far more than the story of ancient Rome, or the Renaissance art of da Vinci and Michelangelo, or the political tension of the Medicis. Before Rome was founded, traditionally in 753 BC, Greeks, Etruscans, Oscan-speaking Latins, all established colonies and cities in the Italian mainland. Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthaginians battled constantly over who controlled Sicily. Phoenicians and Carthaginians settled much of western coastal Sardinia, while Sardinia already had an indigenous population. Sardinia took part in the so-called Truceless War which occurred between the First and Second Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage and she played a role in the growth of Pisa and Genoa in the late medieval period.

One must, of course, begin the story of Italy with the story of Rome. As an ancient civilization Rome’s history is filled with rich personalities, exciting battles, bloodshed, corruption, tense political maneuverings, deeds of honor and courage–much like a modern 21st-century political-social drama. From her first seven kings, through her Republican consuls and temporary dictators, until the more than 80 emperors until the end of the western Roman empire, Rome existed as a political, economic and social entity for more than 730 years.

Gothic kings began to rule Rome, formally as agents of the Eastern emperors. Even there, the political wrangling did not stop, as the Eastern Emperor first urged the Ostrogoths to expel Odoacer, then invited the Lombards to oust the Ostrogoths, then encouraged the Franks to expel the Lombards. With Rome becoming little more than a seat of religious authority, rather than of royal political ruling power, the story of Italy’s various dukedoms and principalities now arises. Lombard duchies in the south confront the Carolingian emperors in northern Italy, the Byzantine empire in the East, and Arab invaders into Sicily and part of the Italian mainland.

Eventually, northern Italian cities such as Pisa, Genoa and Venice become mercantile powers, who have to deal with the Byzantine empire and the southern Italian cities.

In these posts, I hope to share my fascination in the story of Italy’s history from the early days of Rome’s founding, through to the Italian Renaissance.