The Battle of Monte Cassino began when Allied forces launched the first of four attacks against the Gustav Line in Italy.

The Gustav Line, which together with the Bernhardt and Hitler lines formed a series of defences known as the Winter Line, had been established by the Germans and Italians to defend Rome from a northern advance by the Allies. The Allied forces had secured a foothold in Italy in Operation Avalanche the previous September, having first captured Sicily.

By early January 1944 the Allies had advanced a long way north, but their progress had been stopped by poor weather that forced them to approach Rome along Highway 6 that ran from Naples through the Liri valley. The southern entrance to the valley was dominated by the town of Cassino and overlooked by the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino.

Although the German army did not position defensive units in the abbey itself, the natural topography gave them a notable advantage over the Allies. Combined with minefields that had been laid in advance, the strong German position withstood the first assault that lasted for two and a half weeks and involved troops under British, American and French command attacking the position from three sides.

German forces finally withdrew on 17 May, and the following morning soldiers from the Polish 12th Podolian Cavalry Regiment raised a Polish flag over the ruins. The four assaults that made up the Battle of Monte Cassino had led to 55,000 Allied casualities and destroyed the ancient abbey. The treasures it contained had been evacuated to Rome in November 1943.

On the 16th January 27 BCE, the Roman Senate granted Octavian the titles Augustus and Princeps. The title Augustus is understood to roughly translate as “the illustrious one” and, although the title did not grant him political authority, many historians see this as the point at which Augustus’ rule as first Roman Emperor began.

Octavian’s rise to power, and his position as Emperor, was achieved over a long period of time. Julius Caesar was his great-uncle, and in Caesar’s will was declared his adopted son and heir. Consequently he inherited Caesar’s property and lineage, but also a number of titles and offices that had been bestowed upon his adoptive father. Octavian had already proved himself a formidable general, but his position as Caesar’s heir won him further support from many veteran legionnaires.

Octavian’s assumption of the role of an Emperor was achieved by effectively collecting a further range of powers as Princeps Civitatis, which translates as “First Citizen of the State”. These were voluntarily granted to him for life by the Senate. In fact when he appeared before them in 27 BCE to return the powers he had already accumulated, the Senate requested he remain and even extended his authority. Consequently his position was in keeping with the traditions of the Republic as his powers came from the Senate, but in practice he wielded exclusive political power. Furthermore, having been granted control of the more problematic provinces of the empire, the Senate had effectively given him control of the vast majority of the Roman army, which further guaranteed his dominance of Roman politics.

Relations between Catholicism and Judaism cover a long, complex and violent history in which Christians revered the Jewish scriptures yet held Jews collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. However, the murderous anti-Semitism of the Nazi Holocaust led to moves for reconciliation between the two religions in the second half of the 20th century.

A key milestone in relations came when the Second Vatican Council published Nostra aetate, (‘In Our Time’) in 1965. This document formally rejected the idea of collective Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion. Two decades later, John Paul II became the first Pope to visit a synagogue where he called Jews “our beloved elder brothers” and condemned anti-Semitism.

Despite these positive steps towards reconciliation, the diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the Holy See in the 1990s were still enormously complex. Significantly the Vatican maintained its call for Jerusalem to have ‘international status’ due to its unique position as a holy site for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Property rights and tax exemptions for the Church in Israel also featured heavily in the discussions.

The agreement was signed by Monsignor Claudio Celli, the Vatican Undersecretary of State, and Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin. However, it has never been ratified by the Israeli Knesset due to ongoing economic disputes over the legal status of church properties in Israel. Despite this, the Vatican appointed an apostolic nuncio to Israel in 1994 while Israel appointed an ambassador to the Vatican.

Mussolini, who was determined to restore the glory of the Roman Empire following the ‘mutilated victory’ of the First World War, had formed the precursor to the Fascist Party in 1919. His skill as an orator, the intimidating power of his Blackshirts, and the relative weaknesses of the existing liberal government all contributed to the speed at which the Fascists gained influence.

On 24 October 1922 Mussolini went on stage at the Fascist Congress in Naples to declare his willingness to use the power of the Fascist movement to overthrow the government of liberal Prime Minister Luigi Facta. Four days later approximately 30,000 Blackshirts from around the country gathered in the capital in an event known as the March on Rome. As they filled the streets and occupied public buildings, they called for Facta’s resignation.

The Prime Minister chose to oppose the attempted revolution, but King Victor Emmanuel III refused his request to declare martial law. Stunned by the King’s rejection of military action, Facta offered his resignation which was immediately accepted. Victor Emmanuel later invited Mussolini to form a government, whose cabinet was sworn in on 31 October in front of the King himself.

The establishment of Mussolini’s government was greeted by a victory march by tens of thousands of Blackshirts. In time the March on Rome would achieve mythical status among Fascists as a revolutionary seizure of power, but the reality is that Mussolini was granted power the King. Within a few years, however, he would transform the country into a dictatorship.

The Second Punic War is famed for the Carthaginian commander Hannibal leading his troops and elephants over the Alps to face the Roman armies. After seventeen years, the war was finally brought to an end with the decisive victory of the Roman general and consul Scipio Africanus over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama.

Scipio proposed an invasion of the Carthaginian Empire itself, and gradually built a force of volunteers to mount the offensive. These Roman forces secured victories at the battles of both Utica and the Great Plains in 203 BCE, resulting in an armistice between the two sides and Hannibal being called back to Carthage. However, the Carthaginians soon broke the armistice, and the stage was set for the decisive Battle of Zama in modern day Tunisia.

Hannibal arrived first and arranged his army, consisting of 36,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 80 war elephants, in three lines. Scipio’s smaller force of 29,000 infantry and 6,100 cavalry was arranged in three broken lines, with gaps between groups of soldiers hidden from the Carthaginians by loose collections of other troops.

Hannibal opened the battle by sending his war elephants at the opposing Roman forces. The Romans blew loud horns to confuse the elephants, and then channelled them through the prepared gaps in the lines and away from the battle. Meanwhile the Roman cavalry drove the Carthaginian cavalry from the field and, later, returned to attack Hannibal’s troops from the rear. Hannibal and many of his men managed to escape, but up to 20,000 others were killed. The ensuing peace treaty crippled Carthage and paved the way for the Roman victory in the third and final Punic War fifty years later.

Gibbon’s six volume history traces the collapse of the Roman Empire from the rule of the Five Good Emperors until the end of Byzantium. Gibbon, like Machiavelli who had coined the term over two centuries earlier, believed that Rome had reached its peak during the period from the Emperor Nerva to Marcus Aurelius and that a decline in civic virtue had led to the Empire being gradually overrun by barbarians.

Having previously served with the South Hampshire militia during the Seven Years War, the 25 year old Gibbon was in the midst of the Grand Tour when he arrived in Rome in October 1764. Known as the “Capitoline vision”, Gibbon later recounted the inspiration for his magnum opus in his autobiography:

‘It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.’

The first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published on 17 February 1776. It was immediately greeted with praise, and made Gibbon a celebrity. The sixth and final volume finally reached the press over a decade later, in May 1788, six years before his death. Gibbon’s extensive use of primary sources, and the relative objectivity of his writing, has had a lasting impact on the methodology of historians. Consequently he has been called the first “modern historian of ancient Rome” though others have gone further by describing him as truly the first modern historian.

The shortest papacy in history ended after just twelve days following the death of Pope Urban VII, shortly after he introduced Europe’s first smoking ban.

Giovanni Battista Castagna was elected as Pope on 15 September 1590 but died of malaria less than two weeks later. Despite his short reign, he was responsible for introducing a range of financial reforms that benefited the poor. Ranging from bread subsidies to public works projects, these were partly funded through restrictions on luxury items and partly from his own pocket.

As well as these charitable acts, Urban VII was also responsible for Europe’s first smoking ban. Tobacco had arrived in Europe less than a century earlier, and the new Pope threatened to excommunicate anyone who was caught “chewing it, smoking it with a pipe or sniffing it in powdered form through the nose”  in the porchway of, or inside, a church.

An earlier smoking ban had been introduced by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico in 1575, specifically prohibiting smoking inside churches. It was Urban VII’s ban, however, that gained most attention due to the growing popularity of tobacco in Europe in the 16th Century. It was later extended by Urban VIII in 1624 when he completely banned the use of snuff due to the sneezing it prompted resembling ‘sexual ecstasy’.

Urban VII’s ban on tobacco in churches and their porches stayed on the books until the early 18th Century, far outlasting the Pope himself. Following his death from malaria, which it is believed he contracted within two days of his election as Pope, Urban VII was buried in the Vatican. His remains were later moved to the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon in Rome.

The 24th August AD 79 is traditionally believed to have been the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that wiped out numerous Roman settlements including Pompeii and Herculaneum. Eyewitness accounts of the eruption have survived in the shape of two letters from Pliny the Younger, and the discovery of the astoundingly well-preserved settlements has provided astoundingly detailed evidence about daily Roman life.

It should be noted that there is considerable debate over the accuracy of this date due to archaeological discoveries and recent meteorological research, but the majority of scholars continue to favour the 24th August. This, by unnerving coincidence, was just one day after the annual Roman festival of Vulcanalia, which was held to honour the Roman god of fire.

It’s known that the eruption lasted for two whole days, and released thermal energy that was hundreds of thousands times greater than the atomic bomb. Beginning at around 1pm on the 24th August, Vesuvius sent gas, volcanic ash, and pumice into the stratosphere for up to 20 hours. This was followed by a pyroclastic flow, which carried gas and molten rock down from the volcano and which then buried the previously fallen ash.

It’s believed that the majority of the 1,500 people whose remains or impressions have been discovered died of thermal shock during one of the pyroclastic surges. Others may have suffocated, or been hit by falling rocks and collapsing buildings. There is still a lot of archaeological work to be done, especially at Herculaneum, but digging has been put on hold to focus on the preservation of the areas already uncovered.

On the 15th March 44BCE, Roman dictator Julius Caesar was stabbed to death near to the Theatre of Pompey in Rome. His death, coming shortly after he had been declared dictator for life by the Senate, was intended to stop his attempt to seize more power and restore the Roman Republic. However, it instead resulted in a period of instability and civil wars that culminated in the ascendancy of his adopted son Octavian who became Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.

Julius Caesar was a respected military general, whose return to Rome saw him quickly gain respect from many ordinary citizens due a sweeping series of political, social and economic reforms. While these won support from some, however, others became concerned as he received numerous honours that began to propel him to a position akin to a king. Caesar’s apparent arrogance through accepting such honours, combined with his reluctance to stand out of respect when approached by members of the Senate, further fuelled a conspiracy against him. 

On the 15th March, amidst rumours of a conspiracy and despite warnings from his doctors and his wife, Caesar attended the Senate on the urging of Decimus. Having taken his seat, Caesar was then approached by Cimba who pulled back Caesar’s robes. He was quickly surrounded by the other conspirators who, according to Eutropius, formed a crowd of up to 60 men. Casca dealt the first blow, a stab wound to his neck, but Caesar suffered a total of 23 stab wounds in the attack. The earliest-known postmortem report in history later stated that he died of blood loss.

On the 21st April 753 BC, the ancient city of Rome was founded.  You may already be familiar with the Italian myth of Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who were suckled by a she-wolf.  The story goes that, as adults, they decided to establish a new city but disagreed on the location.  After a quarrel about the walls, Remus was killed by his brother and so Romulus named the city after himself.

The foundation myth became quite commonly accepted by ancient historians, although modern scholars disagree.  However, they virtually all accept that Rome began on the 21st April.  The precise date seems implausible at first glance, but there’s a clear reason that it is used.

The ancient Roman scholar, Marcus Terentius Varro, is the person who pinpointed the founding of Rome to 21st April 753 BC.  He created a timeline of Roman history by using a combination of a list of Roman consuls, together with a little bit of historical license to allow for periods of dictatorial rule.  Therefore Varro’s timeline is known to be slightly inaccurate, but nobody has ever provided sufficiently trustworthy evidence to propose a different calendar.  Therefore his system is accepted as the standard chronology.

Despite the inaccuracies of Varro’s work the recent discovery of ancient walls on Palatine Hill in Rome support the legend that Romulus plowed a furrow to mark his new city.  The walls have also been dated to the 8th Century BC, broadly supporting the chronology of Varro’s calendar.