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.