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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of Rome (& List of 61 Cultural Attractions!)


Rome Skyline

Why is Rome So Popular?

In an imaginary competition of European cities over cultural heritage, Rome would be without match. Its combination of haunting ruins, soaring domes silhouetted against distant hills, and ornate palaces serves as a constant reminder of its place at the forefront of European history. Meanwhile its charming cobbled streets, hidden corners and lively street life create a wonderful sense of intimacy typical of Roman settlements across the continent. It’s little wonder that the city draws in a staggering ten million tourists each year. They come to investigate the capital’s many sumptuous palaces and galleries, stroll in its distinctive piazzas and, of course, to sample Rome’s seemingly infinite signature dishes.

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A Brief History of Rome

Three thousand years of continuous development makes for a complicated history. Tradition holds that the city was founded in 753 BC and in the beginning was ruled by kings. Following a popular uprising, the monarchy was overthrown; in its place the Romans established a republic that lasted for nearly 500 years. Wary of concentrated power’s tendency to corrupt, they passed the duty of rule to two annually elected consuls. Under the republic, the city’s control began to expand across the Mediterranean world, leading one of the finest poets of the time, Tibullus, to coin an epithet which endures to this day: the ‘eternal city’. But just before the turn of the millennium, after a century of civil wars and political violence (including the murder of Julius Caesar), Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, took the helm.

Rome was now the capital of an ever-increasing empire, stretching, at its height, all the way from Britain to modern-day Iraq. As the empire reached such a vast size it trembled under the pressure and eventually split into a western and eastern half. Internal power struggles, religious changes and pressure from invading barbarians eventually reduced Rome to a fraction of its former size. The eastern part became the Byzantine Empire, whilst Rome fell under the sovereign rule of the popes, and would remain so for another thousand years, until 1870.

At the turn of the 15th century, Rome was a shadow of its former self, its churches dilapidated and palazzi neglected. However, under the patronage of a series of popes preoccupied by art and architecture, the city was transformed. The Renaissance in art and learning had spawned master craftsmen like Michelangelo and Raphael, and magnificent new buildings such as St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the Palazzo Farnese. Though the city was destroyed again in 1527 by the (somewhat confusingly and ironically named) Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of small states in central Europe that acted as a major player in Christendom’s politics, the popes managed to reassert their control and The Eternal City continued to flourish.

The styles of the Renaissance and their underlying theories were evolving or transitioning into what we now call Baroque. Papal control began to fragment as the Reformation (a movement to reform the Roman Catholic church) swept across northern and central Europe. As a result, popes commissioned large-scale artworks and ambitious building projects in an effort to assert a message of political and spiritual authority. Artists were producing highly emotive works with dramatic and illusory effects in an effort to stimulate religious devotion, capture the attention of casual onlookers, and create visual luxury. Much of the architecture and church decoration you’ll see across the city, enthralling in both its complexity and power, dates from this period.

Though conquered by Napoleon in the early 19th century and technically under French rule for a few years – only to be besieged again by the Allies in 1943 in the Second World War – Rome managed mostly to maintain its historic sites and became the capital of the new Italian Republic in 1946. Rome’s cultural regeneration in this post-war era happened through cinema, specifically Italian Neorealism where directors like Roberto Rossellini created brutally honest portrayals of the Roman working class and their struggles (filmed on location with non-professional actors). In the following decades, Rome played host to both the Olympics and FIFA World Cup, and its population doubled. It’s now a sprawling city home to around three million residents, the epicentre of Italian politics and, of course, given its proximity to the Vatican, a spiritual home of the Catholic church.

61 Must-See Cultural Attractions in Rome

Below, in no particular order, are 61 of Rome’s most interesting cultural attractions that you should check out on your visit to Rome.

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