The best chronological overview of the history of Rome that I know of is on the Rome Art Lover website by Roberto Piperno. It has the great advantage of hot links that take the reader to images and discussion of each of the events it lists. Click here to open it in a new tab.
I offer a simpler timeline, one which we can even remember. This Big Picture Timeline is divided into sections on Ancient, Christian, and Modern Rome. I omit much, but Google and the site listed above can help. More focused timelines will follow to support specific podcasts.
ANCIENT ROME: Big Picture
Mythical Origins extend, more or less, to the founding of the Roman Republic: The main sources are Livy, History of Rome, and Virgil, Aeneid.
1. Let’s say c. 1100 BC. Aeneas, the son of Venus, flees Troy as the conquering Greeks burn it. He and his fellow refugees land on the coast near Rome. His son Ascanias goes off to found Alba Longa in the hills to the southeast of Rome. Romulus and Remus were born there centuries later, before being sent to die as infants by the Tiber River.
2. Descended from Aeneas, Romulus founds the Monarchy after a fight with his brother, Remus. Tradition says this was April 21, 753 BC. The king’s power is limited by a strong and aristocratic Senate whose members are Patricians. Romulus orchestrates the infamous rape of the Sabine women to make it possible for Rome to survive into a second generation and shows that he is a great general by warding off the Sabines’ (and others’) attacks.
3. Lucius Brutus founds the Republic 509 BC. He seized the occasion of the rape of Lucretia by the son of the seventh king of Rome to lead a revolt against the monarchy, but he had long seen that the king, now known as Tarquin the Proud, was in fact a tyrant and that the Romans were ready to make the aristocratic Senate their dominant institution.
4. After centuries of an aristocratic but austere republic and an expanding empire, Rome is threatened by a series of its own generals, who grew strong during long terms of office fighting wars far from Rome. Julius Caesar is one of these, but some Senators assassinate him in the hope of preserving shared rule in Rome. They fail, as Caesar’s adopted son Octavian defeats all challengers, including especially Antony and Cleopatra, and in 27 BC takes the title, “Augustus,” making it clear to all that the Republic is over and done with.
5. With almost all power in the hands of one man, Rome’s fortunes now depend very much on who that one man happens to be. The first century features such brutes as Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. The second century, on the other hand, sees such leaders as Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius at the helm. In the third century, there is a succession of rulers propped up and taken down by the Praetorian Guard and other military groups. Their time is office tends to be short, and their end, violent.
The entire Roman Empire becomes Christian 4th century. The Emperor Constantine first legalizes Christianity and then encourages it. By the end of the century, the old pagan temples are officially closed and the pagan sacrifices banned.
6. The traditional Fall of Rome occurs in 476. Constantine had moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in 330, which continued Rome’s declining political importance, wealth, population, and security. Alaric and the Goths sacked Rome in 410, Gaiseric and the Vandals did so in 455, and the Western Roman Emperor gave up the throne in 476, which ended the Western Roman Empire (but not the Eastern or Byzantine Empire).
Hence, 250 years of an aristocratic monarchy; 500 years of an aristocratic republic; and 500 years of an empire.
CHRISTIAN ROME: Big Picture
1. The Triumph of Christianity and Fall of Rome (325-476). Rome builds her first big churches, including churches dedicated to St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Lawrence, St. Mary, St. Agnes, St. Sebastian, and St. Clement.
2. Late Antiquity, or the Early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages (476-1000). Scholars have their reasons for no longer speaking of the Dark Ages, but Rome suffered a striking decline in population: she sank to perhaps 30,000 residents, a mere 3% of her former size. Naturally enough, her magnificent ancient structures, including temples, palaces, baths, statues, and entertainment venues, had lost their purpose and are not maintained. The live-giving aqueducts were cut in the Gothic War of the 6th century, and Rome remained vulnerable to attack, as the Saracen raids of 846 demonstrated. Yet a few beautiful churches are built and decorated with impressive art even in the troubled ninth and tenth centuries.
3. The High Middle Ages (1000-1300), or the Middle Ages at their Best. Reforms in Rome and beyond help make the papacy more respected and capable of ruling, and Rome generally enjoys an greater degree of peace and order. This is reflected in the building and rebuilding of such beautiful churches as Santa Maria in Cosmedin, San Clemente, and Santa Maria in Trastevere.
4. The Late Middle Ages (1300-1450), the Black Death (1347-51), and a Troubled Papacy. From 1309-1377, the papacy and its court packed up and abandoned Rome in favor of Avignon, which left Rome in chaos. Perhaps surprisingly, since the College of Cardinals was then largely French, a pope decided to return to Rome, which prepared the way for a new crisis, the Western Schism (1378-1417), in which there were first two men claiming to be pope, one in Rome and one in Avignon, and then there were three. In the end, one pope was seated on the papal throne, and it was in Rome.
5. The Renaissance in Rome (1450-1527), the Rediscovery of Nature in Art and Thought. Somehow, the papacy recovered a measure of strength and authority, and a series of popes and cardinals began to rebuild Rome. They built the first library and museums since the Fall of Rome, and they employed scholars as well as artists of extraordinary skill. In this relatively brief period, the Sistine Chapel was built and decorated, not only by Michelangelo but also by Botticelli, Perugino, and others. The four great Raphael Rooms were painted in fresco. Above all, the centers of ecclesiastical and political authority were rebuilt, as construction on a New St. Peter’s began and the Capitoline Hill was redesigned, with Michelangelo a leading figure in both projects.
6. The Counter-Reformation (1545–1650), Art in the Service of the Catholic Cause. Alas, the popes raised funds for their great Renaissance projects in part by teaching that people could cleanse themselves of sin, and reduce their punishment for it, if they just gave more money to the Church. This vulgarity caught the attention of Martin Luther, and he stimulated an anti-Catholic revolt. Perhaps surprisingly, the Catholic Church fought Luther’s Protestant Reformation by increasing the attention it paid to art and architecture. The result in Rome was another series of great artists and architects and the style we call “baroque.” We will see it all over the New St. Peter’s, in the Gesù, at Piazza Navona, and in tens of other locations.
7. Neoclassicism: Looking back to leap forward. The standout figures in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th century are the sculptor Canova and Napoleon. Both kept the greatness of the ancient Romans foremost in their attention; but Napoleon, who kidnapped both Pope Pius VI and Pius VII and made his infant son King of Rome, also spread the modern ideas of the Enlightenment and French Revolution. One of our pods will visit Canova’s sculptures in St. Peter’s, in the Galleria Borghese, and in the National Gallery.
MODERN, SECULAR ROME AND ITALY: Big Picture
1. The main steps toward the unification and liberalization of Italy are taken in 1848-1870. Before this time, Italy had been politically divided for over a thousand years, since the fall of Rome. It was not only divided, but all of its seven sovereign rulers were also absolute monarchs.
Revolts break out all over Europe in 1848. Even the powerful Austrian Chancellor Metternich was forced to run for cover as the West exploded, and Marx and Engels expected (and advocated) an international Communist Revolution. Piedmont-Sardinia, the most independent sovereignty of Italy, took the occasion to try to drive Austria out of Italy, but it failed.
The Roman Republic rules Rome briefly, then falls to French troops in 1849. A mob kills the Prime Minister of Pope Pius IX and drives the pope out of town. In his absence, the Roman Republic is established by revolutionaries from all over Italy and is led, above all, by Giuseppe Mazzini. Its most important general is Giuseppe Garibaldi. The French arrive in force and limit the life of the Roman Republic to a mere six months.
Piedmont gains much of northern Italy in First War of Independence in 1859. Thanks especially to the diplomatic efforts of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, Piedmont secures the help of France to drive Austria out of a big chunk of northern Italy.
Piedmont gains all of southern Italy, thanks to Garibaldi, in 1860. Without any clear authorization of any government, Garibaldi leads an initially small and ragtag band of soldiers against the mighty Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. He marches from western Sicily across the island, always victorious and always gaining more support. After marching up the boot to Naples, and then heading for Rome to overthrow the papacy, he is met by the King of Piedmont, Victor Emmanuel II and his army. He then hands all of his conquests over to the King.
Piedmont declares itself to be Italy on March 17, 1861. After the gains won in the north with the help of France and in the south through the agency of Garibaldi, the King declares Italy into existence. To suggest that Italy is not merely an expanded Piedmont, the capital moves from Turin to Florence. It would move to Rome once the popes were driven from power in 1870.
Italy gains Venetia (Venice and surroundings) in 1866, thanks to Prussia. Austria had still ruled the part of northern Italy around Venice, but this changed when Prussia waged a successful war against Austria. Italy joined the war but lost her two main battles. Nevertheless, she proved a beneficiary, even if an embarrassed one.
Italy takes Rome from the popes: September 20, 1870. Italy had been in existence for almost a decade, but Rome and surroundings were not part of the new country. Pope Pius IX was still their ruler, and he was protected by the troops and promises of the powerful French. (Garibaldi had long been eager to test these French troops and promises, but the King and his government thought friendship with France to be more important than the immediate acquisition of Rome.) When Prussia secured a decisive victory in its war with France in 1870, even taking the French Emperor prisoner, French troops were withdrawn from Rome. Italian troops then broke through Rome’s ancient walls and took all political power from the popes.
Italy makes Rome its capital: 1871. This was of course a long-expected development.
2. “Il ventennio”: Mussolini and his Fascism rule Italy for 20 years, 1922-1943
October 1922: The “March on Rome” helps bring Fascists to power in Italy, when King Victor Emmanuel III declares Mussolini to be Prime Minister in spite of electoral results. Mussolini rules with a measure of ardent support but never holds elections. Among other policies, he cuts new boulevards through old Roman neighborhoods to show off both Rome’s greatest architecture and his own troops as they march in parades. He also aggressively excavates ancient ruins, such as Augustus’ Mausoleum and Altar of Peace.
In foreign policy, Mussolini attempted to acquire an empire for Italy around the Mediterranean, including in Corfu, Albania, Ethiopia, and the Balearic Islands. In World War II he allied Italy with Hitler’s Germany, but Italy seemed to suffer only defeats. After a series of losses in Northern Africa, the Fascist Party deposed Mussolini 24 July 1943, and soon thereafter the Italian government ended Fascist rule.
3. World War II and its aftermath:
1940-43: Mussolini’s Italy allies with Germany, but suffers serious losses especially in northern Africa.
September 1943: Italy reaches an Armistice with the Allies but does not officially turn against Germany until its army has mostly dissolved.
September 1943-June 1944: German troops occupy Rome
8 May 1945: The end of World War II in Europe
June 2, 1946: A referendum ends the Italian monarchy and a republic is declared
3. Postwar Rome:
1962-65: Roman Catholic Church hold the Second Vatican Council
1978-1990: “The Years of Lead [Bullets]”: violence provoked by the extreme Left and Right (1978: Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro is kidnapped and later killed by the Red Brigade)
2004: A new constitution of the European Union is signed in Rome (but is not ratified by members of the Union).