The Eternal City : History and Legend

The sayings ‘Rome was not built in a day’, ‘All roads lead to Rome’ or ‘In Rome do as the Romans do’ are popular proverbs indicating a more contemporary association with the ‘eternal city’. Quotations by travellers over the centuries show little, if any, enthusiasm about visits to Rome, rather more disappointment and disillusion of its … insalubrious decadence and ruin. Today Rome provides the same views and sights of ‘grandiose’ or, in the view of some, ‘monstrous’ architecture and ancient ruins.
Frequently described as a giant outdoor museum, or a modern day theme park, Rome is suspended between history and legend, leaving much scope to the imagination of what life was like in the days of consuls and emperors, priests and the common people.
History and Legend
Described as the greatest city of the ancient world, its name is possibly either from Ruma, a former name of the River Tiber, of Etruscan origin, or from Greek rhein ‘to flow’ or rhome, ‘strength’. This last suggestion is supported by its other name, Valentia (Latin valens, ‘strong’).
According to legend, the city was founded on the Palatine Hill in 753 BC by Romulus, its first king. The abandoned twin babies Romulus and Remus had been washed ashore from the Tiber and, according to tradition, were found in the marshes at the foot of the hill by a shepherd while being suckled by a she-wolf. They eventually set about founding a city but quarrelled over the plans so that Remus was slain by his brother in anger.
The city developed experiencing great turmoil with attacks and sackings at the time of the Roman Republic, established in 509 BC after the overthrow of the last of the seven kings, and the Roman Empire, established by Augustus in 27 BC at the ruin of the Republic. From the sixth century Rome became an important ecclesiastical centre acquiring a new significance as the seat of the papacy. It remained under papal control until 1871 when it became the capital of the newly unified Italy.
The Vatican City was created in 1929 when Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty with the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). It remains an independent state within the city of Rome. Seat of the Roman Catholic Church it is governed by a commission appointed by the Pope.
The Eternal City
Roman architecture is distinguished by its massive character and abundance of ornament, largely derived from the Greek and Etruscan. Their greatest works were baths, amphitheatres, basilicas, aqueducts, bridges, triumphal arches and gateways. On the River Tiber, Italy’s capital city is now mainly an administrative and cultural centre and the focal point of the Roman Catholic Church. Relics of classical times include the Forum, the Pantheon and the Coliseum and the city contains many outstanding Renaissance buildings such as St. Peter’s Basilica.
The city’s historic centre was granted UNESCO cultural heritage status in 1980 extended in 1990 to include the extra-territorial properties of the Holy See making up the world heritage site. To appreciate its grandeur past and present, it is sufficient to visit the monumental centre of ancient Rome starting with the Coliseum which is currently undergoing reparation. It is the accepted symbol of Rome and her eternal destiny that constituted a monumental centre for the imperial city.
Visitors to archaeological ruins know the difficulty, often indeed impossibility, of imagining how it looked before the buildings were destroyed. The sights and monumental ruins of the eternal city help to provide a sense of participation in the stream of history that is far more vivid than any object preserved in a museum.
Ita Marguet
Note : Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows a visit to Rome with a walking tour of the historical sites and monuments of ancient Rome (June 2012).