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Part I – ‘Not without cause did gods and men select this place for our city’

Location was key to ancient Rome's early success and expansion of her empire. Hear more from Dr Matthew Nicholls and meet Professor Christopher Smith.
Why did this wonderful city grow so big, so rich, and so powerful? Well, one answer has to be the site that the early Romans chose to found their city. Rome famously is a city of hills– the seven hills of Rome. Well, in fact, if you count them they are rather more than seven, and no one seems able to agree which seven you should include. But leaving that idea aside, we can say with confidence that this is a city of hills and valleys. Now, down in the city centre it’s actually rather hard to tell that.
And if you’ve got the experience of wandering around Rome, you might well have realised that over the years, as inundation from the Tiber, and years and years of continuous habitation and demolition, have raised the ground level up in places in the city. We’ll see that the modern ground level is five or six metres above the ancient ground level. And that’s why we’ve come up here to this lovely Pincio hill on the northern edge of the city, with a wonderful view behind me. And you can see there that difference in elevation.
So thinking about the landscape of Rome, we have hills and we have the river valley. The River Tiber, navigable from the sea inland, up to this point, and well beyond here, creating a highway from the sea, inland for the transport of goods, crops, and materials. As well as transport by river, the site of Rome is well connected by land. A number of major routes passed through here or close by. And where the river shallows out into gravel shoals on either side of Tiber Island, there is a natural crossing point where the roads can get over, so it really is a pivotal point of connection. And really what these hills are, are spurs of a volcanic plateau.
Over the years, tributary streams winding down to the main river, the Tiber, below us, have cut grooves or valleys in the side of this plateau, forming finger like spurs that are the hills of Rome– the Aventine, the Palatine, the Capitoline, the Caelian, and so on. And these hills were where the earlier settlers decided to build their first habitations, because the hills offer lots of advantages. They are high up, they’re defensible, they’re away from enemies, from predators. So this place was in the perfect spot.
A transport hub, a nexus, a central point in this crucial, central part of Italy, where people coming and going, trading and settling, could gather and turn this city quite rapidly from a series of little villages into a town, from a town into a city, and eventually into a global superpower. It really is all in the location.
The early history of Rome is complex and fascinating. But the evidence we have is limited and some of it conflicts. So to try and make sense of it, I’ve come to this research academy, the British School at Rome, to talk to its director, Professor Christopher Smith.
So, as we think about the city in this part of Italy, who are the first Romans and what do we know about them? It’s likely that the first Romans actually thought of themselves, perhaps, as members of individual communities inside the city. We have evidence for settlement early on in the Palatine Hill, from say the eighth century BC. We’ve the postholes of huts up there. We think we’ve got evidence from some of the other hills to the Capitoline hill. There are beginning to be some quite interesting things on Quirinal hill. And this settlement, and some burial evidence, and some fortification evidence, would seem to suggest that there may be discrete communities on the each of the hills.
That goes a long with priests that are connected with individual hills, and festivals that seem to be connected with individual hills. So we’ve talked about the site of the city and you’ve mentioned archaeological evidence like postholes and burials. But of course, there’s also a rich literary tradition and mythical tradition about the origins of Rome. How do those two things fit together? It’s a huge question about whether you can actually make a literary record map up to the archaeological record. What Romulus and Remus is said to do is to create a single community.
At some stage, in the eighth century, you see a lot of investment of energy and effort into the Forum of Rome, which is the natural depression between the hills. From the 8th century onwards– the idea of a synoecism– a bringing together of these communities does seem to work. They develop tighter, and closer, and stronger senses of citizenship over time, and that what we think of as a city-state, where the broader community takes a strong position vis-a-vis families or individual communities.
So these people, whether we call them Romulus and Remus, or we think of them as the inhabitants of this area, wherever they’ve come from, they’ve started fortifying the hilltops, growing into a town, developing themselves into a city– but lots of places are doing this as we’ve heard. So, what is it about Rome, in particular, that takes off, that grows to be a city that dominates the world. It has a couple of things that really work well. The river flowing through the middle of the city is useful for access for water. It’s got good access down through to the sea.
It sits on a good fording point across the Tiber, sufficiently far inland that if there’s any piracy or any disruption from the sea, it’s defended. But there are always two reasons why a city grows, and one of them is going to be about geography. The other one is going to be what you do with those natural advantages. It’s clear that for some reason or another, Rome has a particular attitude towards allowing people to join its community, which allows it to grow its military strength in a way that other cities don’t do. The classic Roman mechanism, when they conquer someone, is to allow them to be part of the Roman army as allies.
So, as Rome begins to grow, by conquest of its nearest neighbours, at the same time it becomes stronger. So there’s an ambition there, and that ambition is taking Rome to a very significant position amongst its peer-group.
Here’s A Roman historian called Livy, who’s putting a speech into the mouth of a figure in the city’s history, explaining why the city is so well-located. “Not without cause,” he says, “did gods and men select this place for establishing our city, with its healthful hills, its convenient river by which crops would be floated down from the midland regions, and foreign commodities brought up,” –so that idea of trade and transport again. “Yet sea, near enough for use, yet not exposing us by too great propinquity to peril from foreign fleets. A situation in the heart of Italy, a spot, in short, of a nature uniquely adapted for the expansion of a city.”
And expand it certainly did, from this tiny on edge villages, growing out on the separate hilltops, down into the valleys, where the marshes were drained and the ground paved and made good for building– we’ll see that in the Forum– eventually expanding to a city of a million or so people, maybe three to five kilometres across. They can never get too big because they didn’t have motorcars, they had to walk everywhere. So the Ancient City is actually quite compact and we can stroll around it, but nonetheless, by ancient standards, in terms of the size of its population, a huge, densely-inhabited, teeming city, pullulating with human life and activity.
Those hilltops, where the early settlers lived, took on a sense in the later city, the imperial city, of being elite residences. The cool breezes, the healthful air, the views, all of these meant that this was the place where the elite Romans, the emperors on the Palatine, built their villas. In the valley bottoms, the busy arterial roads, all those roads leading to Rome and from Rome, carrying people, waggons, carts, and goods, along the roads out of the city. And down in those valleys, crowded apartment blocks, street corners, fountains, warehouses, shops, restaurants, the everyday Rome where most people went about their daily lives. [THEME MUSIC]

Rome is a city of hills and valleys. This, together with the River Tiber, must have been important reasons why the area’s first inhabitants chose to settle there. In this video, I explain why ‘it’s all in the location’ and how this landscape was pivotal to the early success and expansion of ancient Rome.

I also meet with Professor Christopher Smith, former Director of the British School at Rome, to ask what we know about these early inhabitants through archaeological.

As you watch this video, you may like to consider the following topics:

  • Why do you think the Romans told so many stories about their original founders?

  • What does Livy’s paragraph tell us about the importance of communication networks to ancient Rome?

Share your thoughts on these discussion points in the comments area below.

Later this week, you’ll investigate just how important the transport links I mention in the video, were to the expansion for the Roman empire.

To help you as you move through this course, a course supplement and a glossary are available to download which you may like to keep to hand as you work through the materials.

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