Although Ancient Rome was one of the most important influences on our modern world, it all began pretty simply. Before it became an empire, Roman culture began in a small, proto-Italian settlement on the shores of the Mediterranean. Not that we know much about those humble beginnings. Roman legends claimed the capital city was founded by Remus and Romulus, twin-brothers who were raised by wolves, and supposedly the descendants of the Trojan hero, Aeneas. Needless to say, that story is probably a little less than true. In truth, the town that would become the greatest city of the ancient world was just… a town. A safe place for a group of people to come together and create a home. Nothing more.

Whatever the truth of the matter, though, the rest of the story is clear. What began as a humble city-state (much like Sparta or Athens), soon rose to become one of the most powerful forces in the ancient world. At its height, the Roman Empire commanded the loyalty of 50 to 90 million people, amounting to roughly 20% of the world population at the time. No wonder, really, that historians now cite the Romans as one of the driving forces behind Western civilization as we know it.

So you may already think of Rome as a cradle of civilization. But there are details of the state’s history which could surprise you. Initially a small kingdom, Rome became a Republic for many years (ruled by the Senate) before giving way to the Roman Empire, ruled by a single emperor. It was a world superpower, which ruled through Europe and the Mediterranean for more than 1,000 years. Throughout it all, Rome created an archetype for the political intrigue we see today. Roman power changed hands via everything from backstabbing and deal-making to political marriages and assassinations.

The end of the Roman Empire generally marks the beginning of the Middle Ages. So powerful was the force of Roman rule, that the vacuum left after its collapse left the continent reeling. This wasn’t the case across the world, though: the Byzantines actually continued the Eastern Roman Empire, even after the overthrow of the West. But still, there’s a reason we call it the Dark Ages. To those alive at the time, the fall of Rome must have seemed like the end of the world. Indeed, although Romans pioneered some technologies we take for granted today (think running water), they were largely ahead of their time. When the empire fell, a host of their most incredible achievements died with it. Although Roman architecture and customs survive to this day, the techniques behind their brilliance were lost for hundreds of years. Talk about innovation.

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