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The Birth of Ancient Rome and the Forum

Rome, Italy

Rome lasted about 1,000 years (roughly 500 BC to AD 500), starting as a republic, then becoming an empire at the time of Julius Caesar. Romans governed effectively and created lasting works: grand buildings, triumphal arches, and impressive statuary.

Complete Video Script

In a nutshell, classical Rome lasted about a thousand years: roughly 500 BC to AD 500. Rome grew for 500 years, peaked for 200 years and fell for 300 years. The first half was a republic — run by elected senators, the last half an empire — run by unelected emperors.

In its glory days, the word Rome meant not the just city but what Romans considered the entire civilized world.

Everyone was either Roman or barbarian. People who spoke Latin or Greek were considered civilized part of the empire. Everyone else… barbarian.

According to legend, Rome was founded by two brothers — Romulus and Remus. Abandoned in the wild and suckled by a she-wolf, they grew up to establish the city.

In actuality, the first Romans mixed and mingled here — in the valley between the famous Seven Hills of Rome. This became the Roman Forum.

In 509 BC, they tossed out their king, established a relatively democratic Roman Republic, and began what was perhaps history's greatest success story — the rise of Rome.

From the start, Romans were expert builders and had a knack for effective government. This simple brick building was once richly veneered with marble and fronted by a grand portico. It's the Curia. The senate met here and set the legal standards that still guide western civilization.

The reign of Julius Caesar — who ruled around the time of Christ — marked the turning point between the Republic and the Empire. The Republic — designed to rule a small city state — found itself trying to rule most of Europe. Something new and stronger was needed. Caesar established a no-nonsense, more disciplined government, became dictator for life, and for good measure, had a month named in his honor… July.

The powerful elites of the Republic found all this change just too radical. In an attempt to save the Republic and their political power, a faction of Roman senators assassinated Caesar. His body was burned on this spot in 44 BC.

The citizens of Rome gathered here in the heart of the Forum to hear Mark Antony say; in Shakespeare's words, "Friends, Romans, countrymen… lend me your ears, I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." But the Republic was finished, and Rome became the grand capital of a grand empire.

The Via Sacra or Sacred Way was the main street of ancient Rome. It stretched from the Arch of Septimius Severus to the Arch of Titus. Rome's various triumphal arches — named after the emperors who built them — functioned as public relations tools. Reliefs decorating the various arches show how war and expansion were the business of state. Rome's thriving economy was fueled by plunder and slaves won in distant wars.

Ancient Rome had a population of over a million at its peak. And anywhere you dig in the modern city you'll find remains of the ancient one. Largo Argentina is a modern transportation hub with traffic roaring all around some of the Rome's oldest temples.

The Capitoline Hill — which rises majestically from the busy streets — has long been the home of Rome's city government. During the Renaissance, Michelangelo designed this regal staircase. He gave the square its famously harmonious proportions with a majestic centerpiece and its ancient statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

This is a copy. The second century original — considered the greatest equestrian statue of antiquity — is showcased in the adjacent Capitoline Museum. This, like the other great statues of antiquity, is now safely out of the elements.

The museum helps you imagine life before the fall of Rome.

These reliefs show Marcus Aurelius performing the various duties of an emperor: Here, as the chief priest or "pontifex maximus" he prepares to sacrifice a bull. Here, on the battlefield, he grants clemency to vanquished barbarian leaders. And this one puts you curbside at a victory parade with the emperor — the Eisenhower of his day — on a chariot, winged victory on his shoulder, and trumpets proclaiming his glory.

The art of Imperial Rome almost always carried a message. This Dying Gaul — a Roman copy of a Greek original — was part of a monument celebrating another victory over the barbarians.

Like any good propaganda art, battle scenes stoked imperial pride. You can wander among heroic statues in grand halls… and look into the eyes of now-forgotten emperors.

And the museum also shows a more peaceful and intimate side of Roman life. Here, a boy quietly pulls a thorn from his foot.

At first glance these look like paintings, but they’re actually micro-mosaics, made of thousands of tiny chips. This mosaic hung in Emperor Hadrian’s Villa.

Romans emulated the high culture of the Greeks and when it came to capturing beauty, their forte was making excellent copies of Greek originals.

The Capitoline Venus is one of the truest representations of the concept of feminine beauty from ancient times. Like so many classical statues, this is a 2,000-year-old Roman copy of a 2,500-year-old Greek original.