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.
The future Roman Emperor Titus began the Siege of Jerusalem, during which the Second Temple was burned and destroyed.
The Roman attack on Jerusalem came four years into the First Jewish–Roman War. Triggered by ethnic tensions between Romans and Jews in Judea, the Great Revolt quickly spread throughout the province. Emperor Nero sent four legions, approximately 80,000 soldiers, under the command of his trusted general Vespasian and his son Titus to crush the uprising. By the time Vespasian was recalled to Rome in 69 CE to be appointed Emperor, the Roman forces had driven most of the rebels back to the fortified city of Jerusalem.
Titus moved to besiege the city in early 70 CE, coinciding with Passover. Assisted by the experienced general and former governor of Judea, Tiberius Julius Alexander, he positioned three legions on the western side and a fourth to the east on the Mount of Olives. Pilgrims were permitted to enter the city to celebrate Passover, but the Romans refused to allow them out again. The increase in population placed additional strain on the already-depleted food and water supplies in the city.
Many of the details of the siege were recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, who had defected to the Roman side after his surrender earlier in the war. Having failed to negotiate with the defenders of the city, but having breached the Third and Second walls, the Romans sought to force the Jews into starvation by erecting a wooden palisade that used every tree in a 10 mile radius.
When the Romans breached the final defences in August the remaining defenders were massacred and the Temple was destroyed, leaving the Western Wall as the only surviving feature.
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 24th January 41 CE, Caligula became the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated. Killed by a small group of Praetorian guardsmen in a cryptoporticus (underground corridor) beneath his palace on the Palatine Hill, he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius.
Caligula had come to power in March 37 following the death of his great uncle and adoptive grandfather Emperor Tiberius. The early stages of his reign saw him lauded by the people as “our baby” and “our star” while he built support through granting bonuses to the Praetorian Guard and other soldiers and providing the people of Rome with games and circuses.
However, following a severe illness in October, it is reported his behaviour slowly became more tyrannical to the point of megalomania. Only two sources exist from his rule – those of Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger – but both demonstrate acts of enormous cruelty and, to some extent, insanity. He banished or executed his rivals, including his own father-in-law and brother-in-law, cousin and adopted son. He was accused of numerous sexual transgressions including incest with his sisters and of turning the palace into a brothel. Furthermore, in 40 CE he began to style himself as a living god and introduced religious policies that required people to worship him as such. However, perhaps most famously he is alleged to have wanted to make his favourite horse a consul.
Such actions led to three failed conspiracies attempts against him, but on the 24th January 41 three Praetorian Guards led by Cassius Chaerea cornered him in a corridor and stabbed him to death.
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.
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 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.
Recorded in front of a live audience at Scrivener’s Books as part of Buxton Festival Fringe, this extended edition of HistoryPod attempts to answer the most common question from listeners: how and why are certain events featured (or not) in the daily podcast? In addressing the question this episode makes reference to a British truck driver in Romania; a Victorian tobacconist; American songwriter Billy Joel; the Islamic calendar; and the foundation of Rome.
On the 13th October AD 54, the Roman Emperor Claudius died, supposedly after being poisoned. Believed by ancient sources to have been killed on the orders of his fourth wife, his niece Agrippina who was 25 years younger than her husband, Claudius was succeeded by his adopted son – Agrippina’s child from a previous marriage – who became known as Emperor Nero.
Claudius was the grandson of Mark Antony and the great-great-grandnephew of Gaius Julius Caesar on his mother’s side. His father was the legal stepson of his mother’s second husband, Emperor Augustus. However his physical disabilities, that some argue were related to cerebral palsy, saw him disowned by his mother and instead raised by his grandmother who employed the historian Livy as his tutor.
Claudius therefore spent a number of years as an historian, despite making various attempts to enter public office. Under Caligula he was finally appointed co-consul and, after Caligula’s assassination in AD 41, was proclaimed as the new Emperor. It was Claudius who was responsible for expanding the Roman Empire to Britannia in the north, with the Emperor himself crossing the Channel in AD 43 to witness the attack on modern-day Colchester.
Claudius’ fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, was one of the few remaining descendants of Augustus which made her twelve year old son from her previous marriage one of the last male heirs of the Imperial family. Claudius adopted him and proclaimed him joint heir with his own nine-year-old son Britannicus.
The ancient sources generally claim that Claudius was poisoned, although who administered the poison – and on whose orders – continues to be debated, with some believing that he died of old age. After his death Nero was made Emperor, and Britannicus died of suspected poisoning just four months later.