By NM '20
Note: This mini-article is the first in a 10-part installment on Roman history, after which will follow a 10-part series on Greek history. Please enjoy!
On April 21, 753 BC, Romulus and Remus stood atop a rather unremarkable Italian hillock—it was known as the “Palatine”—and founded a small settlement that would rise to become one of the most dominant and lasting empires in world history. This ten-part survey briefly traces the traditional, legendary, and mythical history of Rome, and I shall attempt to answer the crucial question; how did a diminutive encampment on the Palatine rise to global dominance, and what became of its grandeur?
I. The Journey Latiumwards
Our story begins at Troy. According to legend, in the 1200s BCE a titanic struggle was waged between the Greeks and the Trojans, inhabitants of a city known as Troy upon the Dardanelles in modern-day Turkey. The cause of the war was divine; three of the most prominent goddesses in the Greek pantheon (Hera, Queen of the Gods; Athena, goddess of Wisdom; and Aphrodite, goddess of Sexual Love) found themselves in the midst of a passionate disagreement about who was the most beautiful. To settle their dispute, Zeus (King of the Gods) appointed Paris, a Trojan prince. Attempting to sway Paris, each of the three goddesses offered him a precious reward should he choose her, but it was Aphrodite’s offer—that he be wed to Helen, wife of a Greek king called Menelaus—that was most convincing to the Trojan squire. Her promise was swiftly delivered upon, and Helen was spirited away from the court of Menelaus to the high walls of Priam, king of Troy.
War followed forthwith, as Greeks hastened to Troy to support Menelaus and regain his snatched wife from Paris. The fighting was intense and heroic—much of it is retold in Homer’s Iliad, most especially the exploits of a Greek general named Achilles—but supported by many of the gods and aided by cunning trickery in the “Trojan Horse” (a fake peace offering that in fact contained Greek soldiers within its belly, allowing the marauders to flood the city by night and open its gates to the invaders waiting outside), the Greeks breached the walls, and began to pillage and burn.
From the carnage escaped a particular Trojan prince—Aeneas, who happened to be a son of the goddess Venus—accompanied by a retinue of comrades. In search of friendly lands and a place to found a new city, he set out from Troy by ship and, after an arduous journey, arrived on the shores of North Africa to a city called Carthage (modern-day Tunis), the home of Queen Dido. The people were friendly, milk and honey flowed, and, most of all, Dido and Aeneas had fallen into the throngs of love for one another, a rather scandalous affair for the previously-unbetrothed Dido and the now-uxorious Aeneas. Alas, this was not to be the Romans’ final home; for Mercury [I have by now switched to the Roman names of the effectively equivalent Greek gods—“Mercury” for “Hermes,” “Venus” for “Aphrodite,” “Jupiter” for “Zeus,” etc.—and yes, the names of our modern-day planets come from these Roman divinities], the Messenger god, flitted down to Aeneas, whom he found strutting bejeweled atop the high walls of Carthage, and bore to him the fateful message from Jupiter himself: Aeneas must head to Latium (the region of Italy around modern-day Rome), as was his fate. Immediately, devoted Aeneas (or pius Aeneas, as goes the famous Latin phrase) sets out, and soon reaches Latium. However, his departure was not casualty-free; in a fit of woeful despair at seeing her lover gone, Dido stabs herself to death, leaving a final curse on the Trojans that shall reappear later in this survey (stay tuned!). Much of the tale of Aeneas’ journey to Rome, it should be noted, is retold in Vergil’s Aeneid.
Thus we conclude the first chapter of Rome’s history, with Trojan ships on Latian sands.