The History of Ancient Rome in 20 Quick Minutes: A Primer Narrated by Brian Cox

Two thou­sand years ago, Rome was half the world. A thou­sand years before that, it was “a tiny trib­al set­tle­ment of the Latins by the riv­er Tiber.” So, what hap­pened? An awful lot. But nar­ra­tor Bri­an Cox makes the his­to­ry and longevi­ty of Ancient Rome seem sim­ple in 20 min­utes in the Arza­mas video above, which brings the same tal­ent for nar­ra­tive com­pres­sion as we saw in an ear­li­er video we fea­tured with Cox describ­ing the his­to­ry of Russ­ian Art.

This is a far more sprawl­ing sub­ject, but it’s one you can absorb in 20 min­utes, if you’re sat­is­fied with very broad out­lines. Or, like one YouTube com­menter, you can spend six hours, or more, paus­ing for read­ing and research after each morsel of infor­ma­tion Cox toss­es out. The sto­ry begins with trade—cultural and economic—between the Latins and the Etr­uscans to the north and Greeks to the south. Rome grows by adding pop­u­la­tions from all over the world, allow­ing migrants and refugees to become cit­i­zens.

Indeed, the great Roman epic, the Aeneid, relates its found­ing by refugees from Troy. From these begin­nings come mon­u­men­tal inno­va­tions in build­ing and engi­neer­ing, as well as an alpha­bet that spread around the world and a lan­guage that spawned dozens of oth­ers. The Roman numer­al sys­tem, an unwieldy way to do math­e­mat­ics, nonethe­less gave to the world the stateliest means of writ­ing num­bers. Rome gets the cred­it for these gifts to world civ­i­liza­tion, but they orig­i­nat­ed with the Etr­uscans, along with famed Roman mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline and style of gov­ern­ment.

After Tar­quin, the last Roman king, com­mit­ted one abuse too many, the Repub­lic began to form, as did new class divides. Plebs fought Patri­cians for expand­ed rights, Sen­a­tus Pop­u­lusque Romanus (SPQR)—the sen­ate and the peo­ple of Rome—expressed an ide­al of uni­ty and polit­i­cal equal­i­ty, of a sort. An age of impe­r­i­al war ensues, con­quered peo­ples are osten­si­bly made allies, not colo­nials, though they are also made slaves and sup­ply the legions with “a nev­er end­ing sup­ply of recruits.”

These sketch­es of major cam­paigns you may remem­ber from your World Civ class: The Punic Wars with Carthage, and their com­man­der Han­ni­bal, con­duct­ed under the mot­to of Cato, the sen­a­tor who beat the drums of war by repeat­ing Cartha­go delen­da est—Carthage must be destroyed. The con­quer­ing of Corinth and the absorp­tion of Alexander’s Hel­lenist empire into Rome.

The sto­ry of the Empire resem­bles that of so many oth­ers: tales of hubris, fero­cious bru­tal­i­ty, geno­cide, and end­less build­ing. But it is also a sto­ry of polit­i­cal genius, in which, grad­u­al­ly, those peo­ples brought under the ban­ners of Rome by force were giv­en cit­i­zen­ship and rights, ensur­ing their loy­al­ty. Rel­a­tive peace—within the bor­ders of Rome, at least—could not hold, and the Repub­lic implod­ed in civ­il wars and the ruina­tion of a slave econ­o­my and extreme inequal­i­ty.

The wealthy gob­bled up arable land. The tri­bunes of the peo­ple, the Grac­chi broth­ers, sug­gest­ed a redis­tri­b­u­tion scheme. The sen­a­tors respond­ed with force, killing thou­sands. Two mass-mur­der­ing con­quer­ing gen­er­als, Pom­pey and Julius Cae­sar, fought over Rome. Cae­sar crossed the Rubi­con with his legions to take the city, assum­ing the title Imper­a­tor, a move that cost him his life.

But his mur­der didn’t stop the march of Empire. Under his nephew Augus­tus, a dic­ta­tor who called him­self a sen­a­tor, Rome spread, flour­ished, and estab­lished a 200-year Pax Romana, a time of thriv­ing arts and cul­ture, pop­u­lar enter­tain­ments, and a well-fed pop­u­lace.

Augus­tus had learned from the Grac­chi what nei­ther the venal sen­a­to­r­i­al class nor so many sub­se­quent emper­ors could. In order to rule effec­tive­ly, you’ve got to have the peo­ple on your side, or have them so dis­tract­ed, at least, by bread and cir­cus­es, that they won’t both­er to revolt. Watch the full video to learn about the next few hun­dred years, and learn more about Ancient Rome at the links below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Play Cae­sar: Trav­el Ancient Rome with Stanford’s Inter­ac­tive Map

Rome Reborn: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 C.E.

An Inter­ac­tive Map Shows Just How Many Roads Actu­al­ly Lead to Rome

The Ups & Downs of Ancient Rome’s Economy–All 1,900 Years of It–Get Doc­u­ment­ed by Pol­lu­tion Traces Found in Greenland’s Ice

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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