Ancient Rome  

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"The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful."--The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) by Edward Gibbon


"The pious Emperor Theodosius abstained from destroying the not very decent statues and other relics of the heathen, in order to perpetuate and expose all the absurdity and infamy of false religions, and to inspire contempt and hatred of them." --Sylvain Maréchal cited in The Royal Museum at Naples, Being Some Account of The Erotic Paintings, Bronzes, and Statues Contained in that Famous "Cabinet Secret"

The Appian Way as it appeared in Piranesi's imagination (1756), from Le Antichità Romane.
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The Appian Way as it appeared in Piranesi's imagination (1756), from Le Antichità Romane.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In historiography, ancient Rome is Roman civilization from the founding of the Italian city of Rome in the 8th century BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, encompassing the Roman Kingdom (753–509 BC), Roman Republic (509–27 BC) and Roman Empire (27 BC–476 AD) until the fall of the western empire.

The civilisation began as an Italic settlement in the Italian Peninsula, traditionally dated to 753 BC, that grew into the city of Rome and which subsequently gave its name to the empire over which it ruled and to the widespread civilisation the empire developed. The civilization was led and ruled by the Romans, alternately considered an ethnic group or a nationality. The Roman Empire expanded to become one of the largest empires in the ancient world, still ruled from the city, with an estimated 50 to 90 million inhabitants (roughly 20% of the world's population at the time) at its height in AD 117.

In its many centuries of existence, the Roman state evolved from an elective monarchy to a democratic classical republic and then to an increasingly autocratic semi-elective military dictatorship during the Empire. Through conquest, cultural, and linguistic assimilation, at its height it controlled the North African coast, Egypt, Southern Europe, and most of Western Europe, the Balkans, Crimea and much of the Middle East, including Anatolia, Levant and parts of Mesopotamia and Arabia. It is often grouped into classical antiquity together with ancient Greece, and their similar cultures and societies are known as the Greco-Roman world.

Ancient Roman civilisation has contributed to modern language, religion, society, technology, law, politics, government, warfare, art, literature, architecture and engineering. Rome professionalised and expanded its military and created a system of government called res publica, the inspiration for modern republics such as the United States and France. It achieved impressive technological and architectural feats, such as the construction of an extensive system of aqueducts and roads, as well as the construction of large monuments, palaces, and public facilities.

The Punic Wars with Carthage were decisive in establishing Rome as a world power. In this series of wars, Rome gained control of the strategic islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily; took Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal); and destroyed the city of Carthage in 146 BC, giving Rome supremacy in the Mediterranean. By the end of the Republic (27 BC), Rome had conquered the lands around the Mediterranean and beyond: its domain extended from the Atlantic to Arabia and from the mouth of the Rhine to North Africa. The Roman Empire emerged with the end of the Republic and the dictatorship of Augustus. Seven-hundred and twenty-one years of Roman–Persian Wars started in 92 BC with the first struggle against Parthia. It would become the longest conflict in human history, and have major lasting effects and consequences for both empires.

Under Trajan, the Empire reached its territorial peak. It stretched from the entire Mediterranean Basin to the beaches of the North Sea in the north, to the shores of the Red and Caspian Seas in the East. Republican mores and traditions started to decline during the imperial period, with civil wars becoming a prelude common to the rise of a new emperor. Splinter states, such as the Palmyrene Empire, would temporarily divide the Empire during the crisis of the 3rd century before some stability was restored in the Tetrarchy phase of imperial rule.

Plagued by internal instability and attacked by various migrating peoples, the western part of the empire broke up into independent barbarian kingdoms in the 5th century. The eastern part of the empire remained a power through the Middle Ages until its fall in 1453 AD.

Contents

Roman mythology

Roman religion

Roman mythology, the mythological beliefs of the people of Ancient Rome, can be considered as having two parts. One part, largely later and literary, consists of whole-cloth borrowings from Greek mythology. The other, largely early and cultic, functioned in very different ways from its Greek counterpart.

The Romans had no sequential narratives about their gods comparable to the Titanomachy or the seduction of Zeus by Hera until their poets began to adopt Greek models in the later part of the Roman Republic. What the Romans did have, however, were:

  • a highly developed system of rituals, priestly colleges, and pantheons of related gods.
  • a rich set of historical myths about the foundation and rise of their city involving human actors, with occasional divine interventions.

The Roman model involved a very different way of defining and thinking about gods than that of Greek gods. For example, if one were to ask a Greek about Demeter, he might reply with the well-known story of her grief at the abduction of Persephone by Hades.

An archaic Italian, by contrast, would tell you that Ceres had an official priest called a flamen, who was junior to the flamens of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, but senior to the flamens of Flora and Pomona. He might tell you that she was grouped in a triad with two other agricultural gods, Liber and Libera. And he might even be able to rattle off all of the minor gods with specialized functions who attended her: Sarritor (weeding), Messor (harvesting), Convector (carting), Conditor (storing), Insitor (sowing), and dozens more. Thus the archaic Roman "mythology", at least concerning the gods, was made up not of narratives, but rather of interlocking and complex interrelations between and among gods and humans.

The original religion of the early Romans was modified by the addition of numerous and conflicting beliefs in later times, and by the assimilation of a vast amount of Greek mythology. We know what little we do about early Roman religion not through contemporary accounts, but from later writers who sought to salvage old traditions from the desuetude into which they were falling, such as the 1st century BC scholar Marcus Terentius Varro. Other classical writers, such as the poet Ovid in his Fasti (Calendar), were strongly influenced by Hellenistic civilization models, and in their works they frequently employed Greek beliefs to fill gaps in the Roman tradition.

Roman mythology in Renaissance mythological painting

The Loves of the Gods, Roman mythology, mythological painting, Greek mythology in western art and literature, Metamorphoses, pretexts for nudity in art, pretexts for violence in art

Secular mythological painting first came to prominance during Renaissance art. Of the many painters of the Renaissance that painted from mythology, Titian deserves special mention, because he subverted the mythological Venus into a common Nini. The two most important mythological painters of the seventeenth century are Rubens and Poussin are both heirs to the Carracci. The source for their inspiration were Ovid's Metamorphoses, especially the The Loves of the Gods section.

The Loves of the Gods is also the title of a fresco cycle completed by Annibale Carracci and his studio in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, completed in 1608. The fresco series was greatly admired in its time, and was later felt to reflect a change in aesthetic in Rome from Mannerism to Baroque.

Latin literature

Latin literature

Latin literature, the body of written works in the Latin language, remains an enduring legacy of the culture of ancient Rome. The Romans produced many works of poetry, comedy, tragedy, satire, history, and rhetoric, drawing heavily on the traditions of other cultures and particularly on the more matured literary tradition of Greece. Long after the Western Roman Empire had fallen, the Latin language continued to play a central role in western European civilization.

For most of the Medieval era, Latin was the dominant written language in use in western Europe. After the Roman Empire split into its Western and Eastern halves, Greek, which had been widely used all over the Empire, faded from use in the West, all the more so as the political and religious distance steadily grew between the Catholic West and the Orthodox, Greek East. The vernacular languages in the West, the languages of modern-day western Europe, developed for centuries as spoken languages only: most people did not write, and it seems that it very seldom occurred to those who wrote to write in any language other than Latin, even when they spoke French or Italian or English or another vernacular in their daily life. Very gradually, in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, it became more and more common to write in the Western vernaculars.

It was probably only after the invention of printing, which made books and pamphlets cheap enough that a mass public could afford them, and which made possible modern phenomena such as the newspaper, that a large number of people in the West could read and write who were not fluent in Latin. Still, many people continued to write in Latin, although they were mostly from the upper classes and/or professional academics. As late as the 17th century, there was still a large audience for Latin poetry and drama; no-one found it strange, for example, that, besides his works in English, Milton wrote many poems in Latin, or that Francis Bacon or Baruch Spinoza wrote mostly in Latin. The use of Latin as a lingua franca continued in smaller European lands until the 19th century.

Notable works include Ovid's Metamorphoses, Petronius's Satyricon and The Golden Ass Apuleius's Golden Ass.

Mad emperors

Mad emperors

The five "mad emperors" of ancient Rome were Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, and Elagabalus.

Slavery in Ancient Rome

Slavery in Ancient Rome

The institution of slavery in ancient Rome reduced those held to a condition of less than persons under their legal system. Stripped of many rights, including the ability to marry, slaves were the property of their owners. Over time, the rights of slaves increased, to include the ability to file grievances against a master. Even after manumission, or manimissio, a freed slave lacked many of the rights and privileges of Roman citizens. Uprisings such as that of the late 70s BC were harshly dealt with. It is estimated that over 25% of the population of Ancient Rome was enslaved.

Theater in Ancient Rome

Theatre of ancient Rome

The theatre of ancient Rome refers to dramatic performances performed in Rome and the its dominions during classical antiquity.

Ancient Roman theatre was heavily influenced by the Greek tradition, and as with many other literary genres Roman dramatists tended to adapt and translate from the Greek. For example, Seneca's Phaedra was based on that of Euripides, and many of the comedies of Plautus were direct translations of works by Menander.

When comparing and contrasting ancient Roman theatre to that of Greek theatre it can easily be said that Roman theatre was less influenced by religion. Also, Roman theatre was more for aesthetic appeal. In Roman theatre war was a more common thing to appear on stage as opposed to the Greek theatre where the plays were mimed and repetitive. The actors developed a kind of code that would tell the audience about the characters just by looking at them.

  • A purple robe meant the character was a young man.
  • A yellow robe meant the character was a woman. (Needed in early Roman theatre, as originally female characters were played by men, however as the Roman theatre progressed, women slaves took the roles of women in plays.)
  • A yellow tassel meant the character was a god.

Roman costumes mirrored traditional Greek garments. Actors commonly wore a long robe, called a Chiton. Chitons were often colored to denote character and rank.

Plays lasted for two hours, and were usually comedies. Most comedies involved mistaken identity (such as gods disguised as humans).

Visual art

Roman art

Most early Roman painting styles show Etruscan influences, particularly in the practice of political painting. In the 3rd century BC, Greek art taken as booty from wars became popular, and many Roman homes were decorated with landscapes by Greek artists. Evidence from the remains at Pompeii shows diverse influence from cultures spanning the Roman world.

An early Roman style of note was "Incrustation", in which the interior walls of houses were painted to resemble colored marble. Another style consisted of painting interiors as open landscapes, with highly detailed scenes of plants, animals, and buildings.

Portrait sculpture during the period utilized youthful and classical proportions, evolving later into a mixture of realism and idealism. During the Antonine and Severan periods, more ornate hair and bearding became prevalent, created with deeper cutting and drilling. Advancements were also made in relief sculptures, usually depicting Roman victories.

Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum was discovered in the ancient cities around the bay of Naples (particularly of Pompeii and Herculaneum) after extensive excavations began in the 18th century. The city was found to be full of erotic art and frescoes, symbols, and inscriptions regarded by its excavators as pornographic. Even many recovered household items had a sexual theme. The ubiquity of such imagery and items indicates that the sexual mores of the ancient Roman culture of the time were much more liberal than most present-day cultures, although much of what might seem to us to be erotic imagery (eg oversized phalluses) was in fact fertility-imagery. This clash of cultures led to an unknown number of discoveries being hidden away again. For example, a wall fresco which depicted Priapus, the ancient god of sex and fertility, with his extremely enlarged penis, was covered with plaster (and, as Karl Schefold explains (p. 134), even the older reproduction below was locked away "out of prudishness" and only opened on request) and only rediscovered in 1998 due to rainfall. The Times reported in 2006 "Erotic frescoes put Pompeii brothel on the tourist map".

In 1819, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret cabinet, accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals". Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, it was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s (the time of the sexual revolution) and was finally re-opened for viewing in 2000. Minors are still only allowed entry to the once secret cabinet in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.

Roman decadence

Roman decadence

Roman decadence defines the gradual and moral decline in the ancient Roman republican values of family, farming, virtus, and dignitas.

Some contemporary critics of Roman decadence, such as Cato the Younger, attributed its rise to the influence of the Hellenistic philosophy epicureanism, while modern historians such as Edward Gibbon ( The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788.) and Cyril Robinson also attribute increasing Roman affluence and the pacifying luxury it afforded.

According to Edward Gibbon, the root of the decadence may lie in the political system. Especially mentioned is the lack of clear rules of succession. A significant number of successions involved bribing the army to be elected emperor, and a civil war between different declared emperors. This resulted in higher taxes and frequent destruction that provoked the apathy of the elite.

More controversially, the early history of the Christian church is also mentioned as a cause of decadence. The early Roman Empire was usually tolerant of the religion of the people conquered, and tried to preserve peace amongst its subjects. After the conversion of most of the Empire to Christianity, religious issues took a proiminent place in the political debate, sometimes leading to civil wars and later persecutions.

Bacchanalia

Bacchanalia

The bacchanalia were wild and mystic festivals of the Roman and Greek god Bacchus. Introduced into Rome from lower Italy by way of Etruria (c. 200 BC), the bacchanalia were originally held in secret and only attended by women. The festivals occurred on three days of the year in the grove of Simila near the Aventine Hill, on March 16 and March 17. Later, admission to the rites was extended to men and celebrations took place five times a month. According to Livy, the extension happened in an era when the leader of the Bacchus cult was Paculla Annia - though it is now believed that some men had participated before that.

Panem et circenses

Panem et circenses

"Bread and circuses" (or Bread and games) (from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metaphor for handouts and petty amusements that politicians use to gain popular support, instead of gaining it through sound policy. The phrase is invoked not only to criticize politicians, but also to criticize their supporters for giving up their civic duty.

Bread and circuses was how the Roman satirist Juvenal characterized the imperial leadership's way of placating the masses.

Bread and circuses has come to be a derogatory phrase that can criticize either government policies to pacify the citizenry, or the shallow, decadent desires of that same citizenry. In both cases, it refers to low-cost, low-quality, high-availability food and entertainment that have become the sole concern of the people, to the exclusion of matters that the speaker considers more important: e.g. the Arts, public works projects, human rights, or democracy itself. The phrase is commonly used to refer to short-term government palliatives offered in place of a solution for significant, long-term problems.

Roman sexuality

Sexuality in ancient Rome, Roman erotica

Sexual attitudes and behaviors in ancient Rome are indicated by Roman art, literature and inscriptions, and to a lesser extent by archaeological remains such as erotic artifacts and architecture. It has sometimes been erroneously assumed that "unlimited sexual license" was characteristic of ancient Rome (Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity).

However, sexuality was not excluded as a concern of the mos maiorum, the traditional social norms that affected public, private, and military life. Pudor, "shame, modesty", was a regulating factor in behavior, as were legal strictures on certain sexual transgressions in both the Republican and Imperial periods. The censors were public officials who determined the social rank of individuals and would, on occasion, remove citizens from the senatorial or equestrian order for sexual misconduct. The mid-20th-century sexuality theorist Michel Foucault regarded sex throughout the Greco-Roman world as governed by restraint and the art of managing sexual pleasure.

Roman society was patriarchal (see paterfamilias), and masculinity was premised on a capacity for governing oneself and others of lower status, not only in war and politics, but also in bed. "Virtue" (virtus), related to the Latin word for "man", vir, was an active masculine ideal of self-discipline. The corresponding ideal for a woman was pudicitia, often translated as chastity or modesty, but a more positive and even competitive personal quality that displayed both her attractiveness and self-control. Roman women of the upper classes were expected to be well-educated, strong of character, and active in maintaining their family's standing in society. But with extremely few exceptions, surviving Latin literature preserves the voices only of educated male Romans on the subject of sexuality. While visual art was created by those of lower social status and of a greater range of ethnicity, it was commissioned by people wealthy enough to afford it, including in the Imperial era former slaves, and was tailored to their taste and inclinations.

Some sexual attitudes and behaviors in ancient Roman culture differ markedly from those in later Western societies. Roman religion supported sexuality as an aspect of prosperity for the state, and individuals might turn to private religious practice or "magic" for improving their erotic lives or reproductive health. Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. "Pornographic" paintings were featured among the art collections in respectable upperclass households. It was considered natural and unremarkable for adult males to be sexually attracted to teen-aged youths of both sexes, and pederasty was condoned as long as the younger partner was not a freeborn Roman. "Homosexual" and "heterosexual" did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist. No moral censure was directed at the adult male who enjoyed sex acts with either women or males of inferior status, as long as his behaviors revealed no weaknesses or excesses, nor infringed on the rights and prerogatives of his male peers. While perceived effeminacy was denounced, especially in political rhetoric, sex in moderation with male prostitutes or slaves was not regarded as improper or vitiating to masculinity, if the male citizen took the active and not the receptive role. Hypersexuality, however, was condemned morally and medically in both men and women. Women were held to a stricter moral code, and same-sex relations between women are poorly documented, but the sexuality of women is variously celebrated or reviled throughout Latin literature. In general the Romans had more flexible gender categories than the ancient Greeks.

The Colosseum

Colosseum

The Colosseum was used to host gladiatorial shows as well as a variety of other events. The shows, called munera, were always given by private individuals rather than the state. They had a strong religious element but were also demonstration of power and family prestige, and were immensely popular with the population. Another popular type of show was the animal hunt, or venatio. This utilized a great variety of wild beasts, mainly imported from Africa and the Middle East, and included creatures such as rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, elephants, giraffes, aurochs, wisents, barbary lions, panthers, leopards, bears, caspian tigers, alligators, crocodiles and ostriches. Battles and hunts were often staged amid elaborate sets with movable trees and buildings. Such events were occasionally on a huge scale; Trajan is said to have celebrated his victories in Dacia in 107 with contests involving 11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators over the course of 123 days.

During the early days of the Colosseum, ancient writers recorded that the building was used for naumachiae (more properly known as navalia proelia) or simulated sea battles. Accounts of the inaugural games held by Titus in AD 80 describe it being filled with water for a display of specially trained swimming horses and bulls. There is also an account of a re-enactment of a famous sea battle between the Corcyrean (Corfiot) Greeks and the Corinthians. This has been the subject of some debate among historians; although providing the water would not have been a problem, it is unclear how the arena could have been waterproofed, nor would there have been enough space in the arena for the warships to move around. It has been suggested that the reports either have the location wrong, or that the Colosseum originally featured a wide floodable channel down its central axis (which would later have been replaced by the hypogeum).

Sylvae or recreations of natural scenes were also held in the arena. Painters, technicians and architects would construct a simulation of a forest with real trees and bushes planted in the arena's floor. Animals would be introduced to populate the scene for the delight of the crowd. Such scenes might be used simply to display a natural environment for the urban population, or could otherwise be used as the backdrop for hunts or dramas depicting episodes from mythology. They were also occasionally used for executions in which the hero of the story — played by a condemned person — was killed in one of various gruesome but mythologically authentic ways, such as being mauled by beasts or burned to death.

Symbols

One of the symbols of Rome is the Colosseum (70-80), the largest amphitheatre ever built in the Roman Empire. Originally capable of seating 50,000 spectators, it was used for gladiatorial combat. The list of the very important monuments of ancient Rome includes the Roman Forum, the Domus Aurea, the Pantheon, the Trajan's Column, the Trajan's Market, the Catacombs of Rome, the Circus Maximus, the Baths of Caracalla, the Arch of Constantine, the Pyramid of Cestius, the Bocca della Verità.

See also

Culture of ancient Rome




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