statue of she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus

A Tale of Two Empires: Humble Beginnings

December 29th, 2016 by

Before the ancient city of Rome achieved supremacy over its neighbors and rivals as a republic, and later an empire, it was actually organized as a kingdom. Although the primary actors of Rome’s origin story are more myth than anything else, historians do agree that the kingdom was established around 753 BCE. For more than two centuries, this was the type of government that the Romans administered.

Before jumping into the heart of Rome’s incredible history and comparing it to the rise of the United States, we’ll explore the kingdom period and how this settlement in central Italy became the dominant civilization of the ancient world.

Origin Legend: Romulus and Remus

statue of she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus

Image courtesy of Rosemania [CC BY 2.0]

The birth of the Roman Kingdom (753 BCE to 509 BCE) is mythologized in the tale of the city’s founder, Romulus. Popular Roman symbolism shows Romulus and his twin brother Remus (who is ultimately murdered) suckling from a mother wolf. As the story goes, the two brothers were abandoned as infants and rescued from the Tiber River by a she-wolf who proceeded to raise them as her children. Many of the ancient sources attest to the use of this symbolism to represent Rome as a whole. To this day, certain nationalist groups in Italy and elsewhere still invoke the she-wolf imagery as a proxy for Latin identity.¹ Such iconography even appeared on some of the earliest silver coins minted by the Romans—just like the bald eagle and Lady Liberty motif that have characterized U.S. coins from their very beginning.

Romulus supposedly founded Rome at Palatine Hill near the aforementioned Tiber River. Interestingly enough, in this way, the origin of Rome somewhat mirrors the “Shining City on a Hill” that was envisioned by the first Puritan settlers in America. Especially as Ancient Rome and the United States grew into hegemonic powers during their respective eras in history, the notion of preordained greatness gained currency within both societies. (This idea will loom particularly large when conquest and territorial expansion are discussed later.)

No matter the veracity of the Romulus myth, the ex post facto reality is that no reliable account of this period exists. Near the beginning of the 4th century BCE, the Gauls (who inhabited modern-day France and Western Europe) destroyed much of Rome’s historical records while sacking the city. What we do know of the Roman Kingdom comes from the time of the Roman Republic, told by biased historians long after the fact. For this reason, researchers are still trying to piece together when this cosmogonic story first came into prominence.

In most versions of the myth, Remus was purported to be slain by Romulus or one of his associates due to a squabble over where to start building the city—Palatine Hill or Aventine Hill. Palatine Hill won out, leaving the latter to establish and shape Rome by himself. Romulus is credited with creating many of the structures that would later define how Roman society was organized: He was believed to have laid down many of Rome’s religious and martial traditions, as well as putting its incipient government and fundamental institutions in place. The truth of matter, obscured by the shifting sands of time, is that these foundations were gradually arrived at over time through collective influences rather than a single individual. Consider that the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights were silent on a number of matters, and many of our familiar institutions and judicial canon actually coalesced only in the first half of the 20th century. Rather, the founding myth of Romulus serves as a heuristic for making meaning of Ancient Rome’s distinctive cultural heritage.

The founding of Rome shares some other key commonalities with the colonization of the New World. Like the way the Romans borrowed heavily from Greek culture, the early American colonies built upon their connections to British traditions of law and self-governance. They also carried on the entrepreneurial spirit of Great Britain and Northern Europe generally through what the early-20th-century sociologist Max Weber called the “Protestant Ethic.” This development predates the Founding Fathers and informs America’s embrace of capitalism (and eventually imperialism). The main point is that even before either Ancient Rome or the contemporary United States set up a republican government and became global powers in their own right, certain principles and precedents for defining the style of rule were already in place. As tempting as the idea may seem, there are no major historical developments that spontaneously emerge overnight.

Fittingly, as the old adage goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

How It Worked

Partly due to the lack of written records, the way the Roman Kingdom functioned is clouded by a lack of information and embellishment in the accounts that do exist. It is generally agreed upon that a succession of seven kings ruled over Rome before the monarchy was replaced by a more representative system, although the sources from the early republic that must be relied upon for this history provide a dubious timeline for the events.

There’s yet another intriguing parallel between Rome and America’s early forms of government. The Romans broke from the more familiar monarchical model of hereditary succession, instead electing their leaders through a Senate. Originally composed of 100 members, the Senate expanded over time to 300 senators in order to give equal representation to the three major tribes that came under Rome’s control: the Latins, the Etruscans, and the Sabines. Similarly, the American colonies enjoyed a relatively less exploitative relationship with its colonial mother than most other imperial possessions. A comparison to the inhumanity and coercion directed at European colonies in South America, for instance, bears out this distinction. In both the case of pre-republic Rome and Colonial America, certain rights and freedoms uncommon to the time period were afforded to the public despite their being under the boot of a monarchy.

The kings of Ancient Rome were elected to serve a lifetime term and essentially wielded the powers of an unfettered dictator through the concept of imperium. Later on, during the republican period, the ruler’s exercise of imperium was more limited. The king additionally was both the supreme leader of the military as well as the high priest of the kingdom. Beginning with the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, the succession of monarchs seemed to swing back and forth between emphasizing the king’s martial or religious role. The king also served as the country’s highest legislative and judicial authority. Prior to the Roman Republic, the Senate held very little sway outside of an advisory capacity.²

Expanding Map

Rome had many natural environmental and geographic advantages that helped the city-state triumph over its rivals. This was even more the case for the Americans, who benefited greatly from their location across the Atlantic Ocean and the vast expanse of fertile farmland across the North American heartland. Thanks to consistently adding territory along their frontiers, sometimes through diplomacy but more often by outright conquest, economic opportunities abounded in both cases. These natural endowments contributed to the early success of these humble societies.

ancient Rome city growth map

The growth of Rome’s city territory during the kingdom period

It can be difficult to imagine that the fifty states of the Union, and America’s sprawling empire of alliances, grew out of a handful of colonies along the East Coast. Yet the progressive growth of land under Rome’s control is perhaps even more impressive, given the small size of the original city and the constraints on long-distance travel during antiquity. Still, it is true of both Ancient Rome and the U.S. that acquiring territory became deeply intertwined with economics and cultural identity—and thus accelerated—under republican rule.³

Aside from seeing Rome absorb some of its neighboring rivals into the fold of its dominion, the kingdom period is also noteworthy for being the origin of a number of traditions that eventually came to broadly characterize Ancient Rome. In fact, the outsized influence that the Romans had on the known world as their power grew enshrined many of these traditions in the cultural memory of contemporary Western society.

For instance, many of the most import religious functions of the Roman king were delineated by the office of the Pontifex Maximus, the “bridge-builder” between mankind and the gods. First introduced by Numa Pompilius, this idea was inherited by the early Christian Church. Today, the pope is still sometimes referred to as the “pontiff,” and is seen by some two billion Catholics as an intermediary between the people and Providence.

The practice of providing mass entertainment in the form of sport, and building fantastic architectural monuments to host these games, also has its origins in the time of the Roman Kingdom. King Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth in the succession of seven kings, introduced the Circus Maximus and began construction on the famous Roman Forum. Priscus also oversaw the beginning of Rome’s great sewer system known as Cloaca Maxima, placing a very early date on the Roman mastery of engineering concepts. Revolutionary feats of engineering prowess (like an intricate network of aqueducts) later became one of the hallmarks of the empire—not unlike the American penchant for innovation, invention, and enthusiasm for science. Even with millennia separating these two societies, a shared ethic about technological advancement allowed the Ancient Romans and Americans alike to subjugate and harness the power of their physical environment in unprecedented ways.

The similarities between the embryonic United States and the Roman Kingdom of antiquity are not nearly as numerous as the resemblances with the republican period that lasted for almost five centuries. Nonetheless, these formative years are when many of the pillars that defined Ancient Rome—economically, militarily, and culturally—first took hold. As kingdom gave way to republic, the parallels between Rome and the U.S. become increasingly pronounced.

We’ll explore even more of these historical connections next week as our “Tale of Two Empires” series continues, so be sure to check back for the next installment.

 

 

 

Notes

  1. “Romulus and Remus.” Wikipedia.
  2. “Overthrow of the Roman Monarchy.” Wikipedia.
  3. Steven Strauss, “8 Striking Parallels Between the U.S. and the Roman Empire.” Salon. 26 Dec 2012. <Originally appeared on Alternet.org>