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A potted history of ancient Rome

Watch an animated video created by University of Reading students, showing a ''potted history of Rome' from 753 BC to 337 AD.
Rome’s legendary founder was Romulus, twin brother of Remus. Sons of the war god Mars, abandoned by their human mother, but found and suckled by a wolf, explaining perhaps Rome’s later bloodthirsty reputation. Romulus and Remus quarrelled over the right site for their future city. Romulus killed his brother, establishing Rome on the aristocratic Palatine Hill. Remus’ preferred site had been the Aventine Hill, which later had a reputation as a stronghold of the lower classes. Archaeological evidence, like post holes and burials, suggest that individual villages on Rome’s hilltops gradually merged into a unified community. In the beginning, Rome was ruled by kings. From Romulus, a total of seven legendary kings ruled the city. These figures are more or less mythical.
But, like the legend of Romulus and Remus, they might at least be able to tell us something about how later Romans saw the origins and character of their city. These kings assisted in Rome’s rise to military and civic greatness. Draining the Forum space and building the Capitoline Temple, for example. But their rule could be harsh and their power was absolute. Eventually the Romans resented the all-powerful rule of these kings and rose up against them, expelling the last king, the violent tyrant Tarquinius Superbus, and establishing in his place a republican form of government. The traditional date for this is 509 BC.
Power in this new Roman Republic was vested in annually-elected magistrates, always in pairs to stop any one of them gaining king-like powers, and aided by an aristocratic senate. Rome’s new rulers had military ambitions. It emerged from a gruelling series of wars as the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Through conquest and brutality, but also through extending the benefits of the Roman lifestyle and of the Roman citizenship to allies and conquered peoples. Conquering Roman armies and commanders encountered the magnificent cities of the Greek east on their campaigns, and they wanted to imitate the brilliant architecture they saw there in Rome. The city gradually acquired temples, the first aqueducts, and the beginnings of urban grandeur.
This powerful republican state lasted for nearly five centuries, but eventually it, too, failed. As the profits of Rome’s growing empire poured into the city, its politics became corrupted by wealth and ambition. Long running tensions between the ordinary people and the aristocratic elite led to political violence. Populist politician-generals appealed directly to the people with magnificent building projects, handouts, games, and electoral bribes. Genuine attempts at political reform degenerated into violence and gang warfare. The last generation of republican politicians, Julius Caesar and Pompey among them, tore the state apart and lurched into outright civil war. Julius Caesar won and established himself in Rome, where he hatched grand plans for rebuilding the city, but Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March 44 BC.
His adopted heir Augustus emerged as the first Roman emperor. And through he was careful to avoid the hated title of King, he did rule like a monarch. Through his long reign Augustus transformed Rome, as he liked to boast, from a city of brick into a city of marble. And in his architectural work, as in so much else, Augustus set a pattern that later emperors followed. From Augustus, power passed to the backstabbing, murderous Julio-Claudian dynasty of emperors, who nonetheless clung so tightly to power that no serious attempt was made to put anything except more emperors in their place. The last Julio-Claudian emperor was Nero.
He was forced to commit suicide in AD 68, after spending too much time on banquets, palaces, stage plays, and chariot racing. After Nero’s death, another period of civil war resulted in more emperors, this time the Flavian dynasty, who built the Colosseum. And then throughout the second century AD, a series of emperors chosen by their predecessors through adoption. With a few ups and downs, the Roman Empire now entered its period of maximum expansion and prosperity, creating many of the finest surviving buildings that we see on this course.
At the end of the second century AD power passed to the Severan dynasty from North Africa, who restored and upgraded a number of buildings in Rome, adding, among other things, a great bathhouse and carving, as we will see, a useful marble map. From there, things went rather downhill. A series of weak, short-lived emperors were part of a third century malaise or crisis, that also included civil war, economic decline, and plague. Diocletian, emperor from AD 284, restored matters, dividing the empire up into a tetrarchy, or rule by four emperors. At Rome, his huge bathhouse was a sign of renewed imperial investment in the city.
Constantine, at the beginning of the fourth century, won another civil war, and erected a triumphal arch to celebrate it. As we’ll see, this arch contained hints pointing towards the Christianisation of the Roman empire, another huge transformation of the city and of the world, and the point at which this course ends.

Watch our ‘potted history of Rome’ for a light-hearted approach to Rome’s fascinating but complex history from 753 BC to 337 AD. I hope you enjoy this animated introduction, and that it helps you navigate the different periods of Rome’s history in the weeks ahead.

This animation was created by Guy Horsfall, Todd Howson Moxey and Will Day, students from the University of Reading’s Typography and Graphic Communication department.

If you’d like a more in-depth look at the history of Rome, you can view this interactive timeline or read the PDF version of the timeline (without images). You will re-visit the timeline, along with supplementary information, in Week 2 of the course.

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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

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