Rome was one of the first great international powers in the world. While it was founded by the wealthy citizens of one small Italian city-state, its political system eventually embraced Spaniards and Syrians, Gauls and Greeks, Celts and Copts. In the later period of Rome's history, emperors were drawn from all over the empire: Philip the African came from modern-day Morocco; Hadrian came from Spain; Elagabulus came from Syria; Constantine the Great was born in Britain.
The city of Rome itself was founded sometime between 850 and 700 BC (traditional date is 753 BC), and it remained a minor town for a hundred years after that. The Etruscans, whose confederation of towns to the north lends its name to the modern Italian province of Tuscany, took over the city relatively peacefully around 640 BC, and a series of kings governed the town for more than a century thereafter. The kings made a number of investments in the city's infrastructure, including the construction of a wall, a drain to clear water from the Roman Forum, a wooden bridge over the River Tiber, and a temple to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.
In 509 BC, the Romans grew tired of Etruscan rule, and expelled their king, Tarquin Superbus, from the city. They established a Republic, which ruled Rome for the next four centuries. The Republic was in essence a broad oligarchy, with the city's aristocrats dominating politics, economics and social life. However, the Romans developed effective military and foreign policies, which enabled them to conquer first Italy, and enter into conflict with Carthage for control of the western Mediterranean Sea.
By 100 BC, the Republic was fracturing. Powerful men secured military commands and governorships abroad that brought them great wealth, but oppressed both foreigners and Roman citizens. Conflicts arose regularly between the aristocrats and the common people, with the middle class holding a precarious balance of power between them. Eventually, the system splintered, and two different gatherings of three powerful men, the Triumvirates, ruled Rome to their own advantage. Both Triumvirates ended in civil wars. In the end one man, Octavian Caesar, ruled Rome alone. His accession to power marked the downfall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
Octavian took the title Augustus, and ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD. In his forty-one years in power, he reorganized the military, regularized the bureaucracy and the coinage, and brought the Mediterranean world under a single law. It was a spectacular achievement, but it was not achieved without grave costs. Augustus established the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, throughout the western world, but never established a formal system for emperors to choose and acknowledge their successors. The result was a continuing struggle for power at the center, and the Roman army regularly intervened in political matters.
As with any civilization, the Roman Empire experienced periods of decline and renewal over the next four hundred years. A number of ancient historians have passed down stories from the lives of the Emperors that make for both dignified and salacious reading, and archeology has revealed much of the life of the Roman world. In 79 AD, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy buried two whole Roman towns, Pompeii and Herculaneum. Historians and archaeologists gained a valuable snapshot of life in the Roman Empire. Excavations at other sites have revealed additional information.
In the end, Rome's internal decline coincided with the rising ambitions of its neighbors. Beginning in the early 5th century AD, a series of invasions broke the Empire's long-standing border defenses, and huge populations of Germanic peoples swept through the western half of the Empire. While the eastern Empire continued as the Byzantine Empire until 1453 AD, the western Empire was overrun. In 476 AD, the last Emperor in Rome, Romulus Augustulus, abdicated under pressure from a German general named Odoacer, who named himself King of Italy.
The boot-shaped Italian peninsula should be familiar to most readers. Italy has few natural harbors, and a spine of steep mountains, the Apennine range, runs north to south through the peninsula. In the north, the Apennines jag to the west, creating a natural basin for the Po River valley to travel from west to east. North of the Po valley, the Alps scrape the sky, their high and snow-covered peaks creating a relative isolation within Italy itself.