From Robert Hughes, one of the greatest art and cultural critics of our time, comes a sprawling, comprehensive, and deeply personal history of Rome--as city, as empire, and, crucially, as an origin of Western art and civilization, two subjects about which Hughes has spent his life writing and thinking.
Starting on a personal note, Hughes takes us to the Rome he first encountered as a hungry twenty-one-year-old fresh from Australia in 1959. From that exhilarating portrait, he takes us back more than two thousand years to the city's foundation, one mired in mythologies and superstitions that would inform Rome's development for centuries.
From the beginning, Rome was a hotbed of power, overweening ambition, desire, political genius, and corruption. Hughes details the turbulent years that saw the formation of empire and the establishment of the sociopolitical system, along the way providing colorful portraits of all the major figures, both political (Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Nero, Caligula) and cultural (Cicero, Martial, Virgil), to name just a few. For almost a thousand years, Rome would remain the most politically important, richest, and largest city in the Western world.
From the formation of empire, Hughes moves on to the rise of early Christianity, his own antipathy toward religion providing rich and lively context for the brutality of the early Church, and eventually the Crusades. The brutality had the desired effect--the Church consolidated and outlasted the power of empire, and Rome would be the capital of the Papal States until its annexation into the newly united kingdom of Italy in 1870.
As one would expect, Hughes lavishes plenty of critical attention on the Renaissance, providing a full survey of the architecture, painting, and sculpture that blossomed in Rome over the course of the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, and shedding new light on old masters in the process. Having established itself as the artistic and spiritual center of the world, Rome in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries saw artists (and, eventually, wealthy tourists) from all over Europe converging on the bustling city, even while it was caught up in the nationalistic turmoils of the Italian independence struggle and war against France.
Hughes keeps the momentum going right into the twentieth century, when Rome witnessed the rise and fall of Italian Fascism and Mussolini, and took on yet another identity in the postwar years as the fashionable city of "La Dolce Vita." This is the Rome Hughes himself first encountered, and it's one he contends, perhaps controversially, has been lost in the half century since, as the cult of mass tourism has slowly ruined the dazzling city he loved so much. Equal parts idolizing, blasphemous, outraged, and awestruck, Rome is a portrait of the Eternal City as only Robert Hughes could paint it.
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November 01, 2011
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Excerpt from Rome by Robert J. Crane
Although nobody can say when Rome began, at least there is reasonable certainty of where it did. It was in Italy, on the bank of the river Tiber, about twenty-two kilometers inland from its mouth, a delta which was to become the seaport of Ostia.
The reason no one can pinpoint when the foundation took place is that it never ascertainably did. There was no primal moment when a loose scatter of Iron and Bronze Age villages perched on hills agreed to coalesce and call itself a city. The older a city is, the more doubt about its origins, and Rome is certainly old. This did not prevent the Romans from the second century b.c.e. onward coming up with implausibly exact-looking dates for its origins: Rome, it used to be asserted, began not just in the eighth century but precisely in 753 b.c.e., and its founder was Romulus, twin brother of Remus. Here a tangled story begins, with many variants, which tend to circle back to the same themes we will see again and again throughout Rome's long history: ambition, parricide, fratricide, betrayal, and obsessive ambition. Especially the last. No more ambitious city than Rome had ever existed, or conceivably ever will, although New York offers it competition. No city has ever been more steeped in ferocity from its beginnings than Rome. These wind back to the story of the city's mythic infancy.
In essence, the story says that Romulus and Remus were orphans and foundlings, but they could claim a long and august ancestry. It stretched back to Troy. After Troy fell (the legendary date of this catastrophic event being 1184 b.c.e.), its hero Aeneas, son of Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite or Venus, had escaped the burning city with his son Ascanius. After years of wandering on the Mediterranean, Aeneas fetched up in Italy, where Ascanius (now grown up) founded the city of Alba Longa, not far from the eventual site of Rome, traditionally in about 1152 b.c.e.
Here, Ascanius' progeny began a line of kings, his descendants. The last of the line was called Amulius, who wrested the throne of Alba Longa from its rightful occupant, his elder brother, Numitor.
Numitor had one child, a daughter named Rhea Silvia. Amulius the usurper used his convenient, newly seized power to make her a vestal virgin, so that she could not produce a son, who might be not only Amulius's heir but also a deadly threat to him. But the war god, Mars, no respecter of either virginity or vestality, impregnated Rhea Silvia. Amulius, realizing she was pregnant, had Rhea Silvia imprisoned; presently she died of ill treatment-but not before delivering her twin sons, Romulus and Remus.
We have the great historian Livy's word for what happened next. Amulius ordered his men to fling little Remus and Romulus into the Tiber. But the river had been in flood, and its waters had not yet receded. So, rather than wade right out into the current and get uncomfortably wet, they merely dumped the babies into the shallower floodwater at the river's edge, and went away. The level of the Tiber dropped some more, stranding the twins in the mud. In this state, wet but still alive, they were found by a she-wolf, which benignly nourished them with its milk until they were old and strong enough to be brought to adulthood by the royal herdsman Faustulus. (Most visitors, when they see the bronze sculpture in the Museo dei Conservatori of the Founding Babies sucking on the pendulous conical teats of the lupa, naturally think it is one original piece. It is not; the wolf is ancient and was cast by an Etruscan craftsman in the fifth century b.c.e., but Romulus and Remus were added c. 1484-96 by the Florentine artist Antonio del Pollaiuolo.)
In any case, in the myth they eventually overthrew Amulius and restored their grandfather Numitor to his rightful place as king of Alba Longa. And then they decided to found a new settlement on the bank of the Tiber, where chance had washed them ashore. This became the city of Rome.
Who would be its king? This was settled by an omen in the form of a flight of birds of prey. Six of them appeared to Remus but twelve to Romulus, thus marking him-by a majority vote from the gods above, as it were-as the indisputable ruler of the new city.
Where exactly was it? There has always been some disagreement over the original, "primitive" site of Rome. There is no archaeological evidence for it. It must have been on one of the Tiber's banks-which one, nobody knows. But the district is famous for having had seven hills-the Palatine, the Capitoline, the Caelian, the Aventine, the Esquiline, the Viminal, and the Quirinal. Nobody can guess which one it may have been, although it is likely that the chosen site, for strategic reasons, would have been a hill rather than flatland or a declivity. Nobody was keeping any records, so no one can guess which one of these swellings, lumps, or pimples was a likely candidate. "Tradition" locates the primitive settlement on the modest but defensible height of the Palatine Hill. The "accepted" date of the foundation, 753 b.c.e., is of course wholly mythical. There was never any possibility of authenticating these early dates-of course nobody was keeping any records, and since later attempts at recording the annals of the city, all belonging to the second century b.c.e. (the writings of Quintus Fabius Pictor, Polybius, Marcus Porcius Cato), only began to be made approximately five hundred years after the events they claim to describe, they can hardly be deemed trustworthy. But they are all we have.