On this trip I brought with me a copy of “The Middle Sea, A History of the Mediterranean” by John Julius Norwich. It feels good to learn just a little of the history of some of the places I am visiting. Here is some of what I learned.
In legend, if not in fact, Rome was founded by Prince Aeneas of Troy (following the Trojan War with the Greeks recounted in Homer’s Iliad) and his descendants Romulus and Remus. The mysterious Etruscan civilisation ruled Rome until its defeat in 510BC. In 280BC the Greek King Pyrrhus fought the Romans for 5 years, technically winning but suffering losses so great it was a “Pyrrhic” victory and he had to return home empty handed. Then Carthage (originally a colony of sea-going Phoenicians) became Rome’s great rival fighting 2 Punic wars, without conquering her. Even Hannibal in 218BC, who had left Spain with 40,000 men including cavalry (horses and 37 elephants) succeeded in crossing the Alps and defeated the Roman army in most of Italy, but was unable to capture Rome.
In 49BC Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River over the Alps in Gaul (which over 8 years he had completely conquered) to return to Rome, defeat his rivals for power there and install himself as ruler. In 44BC on the Ides of March (15 March) he was assassinated by Cassius, Brutus and other conspirators. The former Republic of Rome had become a great Empire that stretched from Britain to Syria. The Romans admired Greek civilisation and saw themselves as its heirs, especially in literature and the visual arts. In museums I visited in Rome there were many examples of Roman copies of lost Greek original sculptures. While the Romans were not as artistically talented as the Greeks they surpassed them in the fields of military matters and engineering. They were great builders of roads and aqueducts, and the invention of the Roman arch (and its 3D extension, the cupola) with its immense weight-bearing capacity, allowed them to construct impressive buildings such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon.
Meanwhile in Nazareth, in the obscure Roman province of Palestine, a Jewish child was born, inspiring a religion which over the next 300 years was to spread to the point where, from initially having its followers brutally persecuted, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 305AD, following the unprecedented voluntary abdication of Emperor Diocletian, Constantine (“The Great”) took power. He subsequently adopted Christianity and in 330AD transferred the capital of the Empire from Rome to the Greek settlement of Byzantium (renamed Constantinople) – present-day Istanbul, Turkey. On the day I spent in Rome walking to find the MAXXI Museum, little did I know at the time that I was walking such an historic route. alongside the River Tiber, asking directions to the Milvian Bridge (Ponte Milvio) from where I hoped to get to Via Flaminia and the museum. Lord Norwich says it is “seven or eight miles north-east of Rome”. It didn’t seem that far. Anyway, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge” on October 28, 312AD could be seen as a pivotal moment for Western civilisation. Constantine, who had been in Britain and Gaul for several years, returned to claim his right to rule Rome as Augustus and defeated the army of his rival, his brother-in-law Maxentius. From then on he became an active patron of Christianity, made preparations to relocate to Byzantium, which from 11 May, 330AD became the undisputed centre of Christendom for many centuries. If Constantine had lost that battle , who knows if Christianity would have remained an obscure Jewish sect, or died out completely?