IT HAS OFTEN BEEN SAID THAT HISTORY IS WRITTEN by the victors, but in the case of Rome it was the losers who commandeered the narrative. Even those who published under the severe gaze of the emperors looked back on the Roman Republic with respect and nostalgia. For this, Cicero and Varro can take much of the credit. They committed scholarly errors and misjudgments, but, like a sacred flame, they preserved the spirit of the Republic that was dying.

They were political failures. Enemies of Julius Caesar, they witnessed the destruction of all their hopes. Varro made his peace with the great dictator, won over by a commission to establish Rome’s first public library; he died in his bed at the ripe age of eighty-nine. Cicero was made of sterner stuff. After the Ides of March, he bravely returned to politics. He tried to save the Republic, but fell victim to Octavian and Mark Antony’s Proscription.

As authors, though, the two friends excelled. Their rural retirement was not wasted. They wrote much on the rise of Rome, excavating and analyzing the past as best they could. Cicero said of Varro:

We were wandering and straying about like strangers in our own city, and your books led us, so to speak, right home, and enabled us at last to realize who and where we were. You have revealed the age of our native city, the chronology of its history, the laws of its religion, its civil and military institutions, the topography of its districts and sites … and you have likewise shed a flood of light upon our poets and generally on Latin literature and the Latin language.

Cicero was less of a scholar than Varro and more of a controversialist. He noted: “Like the learned men of old, we must serve the state in our libraries, if we cannot do so in the Senate or the Forum, and pursue our researches into custom and law.” His main contributions were Republic and Laws, two substantial tomes in which he examined the history of the Roman constitution and, while allowing for reforms, commended its virtues. A moderate conservative, he believed that “excessive liberty leads both nations and individuals into excessive slavery.”

Cicero had sharp eyes, and it seems strange that his books do not offer a more accurate perception of what was really happening. The explanation is that, like most of his contemporaries, he saw politics fundamentally in personal rather than ideological or structural terms. There had been a decline in moral standards in public life. All would be well if only there was a return to traditional values, to the mos maiorum. Caesar disagreed. With the insight of genius, he saw that incremental reforms would not save the day, nor would a return to the ideals of Cincinnatus. An altogether new system of government was required.

Grief-stricken by his daughter’s death in 45, Cicero went on to write a series of books that presented Greek philosophy to Latin readers. They form the basis of his reputation with posterity and, in the past two millennia, empowered the thinking of generations of European readers.

Cicero regarded Julius Caesar as a second Hannibal, but though the dictator manipulated and bullied him as a politician, he held Cicero in the highest esteem as an author. He once wrote of him that he was “winner of a greater laurel wreath than any gained by a triumph, insomuch as it is greater to have advanced the frontiers of Roman genius than those of the Roman empire.”

Praise from one’s worst enemy is the most annoying, but also the most credible, of compliments.

SO THE LONG, slow collapse of the Roman Republic had one positive consequence. The uncertainties of the age impelled men like Cicero and Varro to inquire into their collective past—to find an explanation for the crisis and, as a kind of antidote, to reveal the basis of their country’s vanishing greatness. They evoked an idea of Rome that still lives and breathes two thousand years later.

But what was gone was gone, and they knew that. Cicero wrote the epitaph:

The Republic, when it was handed down to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colors were already fading with age. Our own time has not only neglected to freshen it by renewing its original colors, but has not even gone to the trouble of preserving its design and portrayal of figures.

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If ancient Rome were to have a logo, it would be this bronze wolf, ferocious and tender, that suckled the babies Romulus and Remus, who as young men went on to found the city of Rome. The wolf is traditionally believed to be of Etruscan make, dating from the fifth century (although some scholars argue that it is medieval). The infants were added by the Renaissance artist Antonio Pollaiuolo. Capitoline Museums, Rome


There are no original images of Rome’s early history. The French revolutionary painter Jacques-Louis David admired the legendary stories of austere patriotism and created his own versions, which are close in spirit to a Republican Roman’s worldview.

In his Rape of the Sabine Women, Hersilia, Romulus’s wife and daughter of his enemy Titus Tatius, rushes between the two men and halts a battle in the Forum between Romans and Sabines. She proposes that the Sabine women, whom the Romans have kidnapped, be given the chance to accept their forced marriages. This agreed, the union of the two peoples soon follows. Louvre, Paris

In The Oath of Horatii, three brothers swear, in the presence of their father, to sacrifice their lives, if need be, in Rome’s war with the city of Alba Longa. With their unflinching gaze and taut limbs, they are the embodiment of noble valor. They go on to fight a ritual duel with three Alban counterparts, the brothers Curiatii, whom they kill. The women on the right remind us that one of their sisters is in love with a Curiatius. A brother puts her to death as punishment for her treasonable grief. Louvre, Paris


Hannibal was Rome’s greatest enemy and for a time brought it to its knees. This marble bust is reputed to be of the Carthaginian general and was found at the ancient city of Capua. If genuinely classical, it must surely have been carved after the defeat of his cause at the battle of Zama, for fierceness and focus are softened by melancholy and resignation. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

It took Rome more than a generation to produce a commander capable of beating Hannibal. The young Scipio Africanus learned from his opponent, and outdid him. This bust of the mature Scipio was discovered in the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples (Photo: Massimo Finizio)

Hannibal’s greatest victory was at Cannae, a town near the river Aufidus in Apulia. Eighty thousand Roman soldiers lost their lives. A solitary, commemorative column stands above the flat, dusty plain where the battle was fought. (Photo: Jörg Schulz)


Everywhere they went, Romans built roads. These linked distant settlements to the capital, enabled the legions to march swiftly to trouble spots, and asserted power over the mountainous Italian landscape. In 312 Appius Claudius Caecus built the opening stretch of the Republic’s first major highway, the Via Appia, and parts of it can still be seen to this day.


As the first century got under way, Marius spoke for the People and Sulla for the aristocracy. One after the other, each man hijacked the state and massacred his opponents. During their time, the ruling class lost its tolerance of opposition, without which the finely balanced Roman constitution could not function. Both busts, Munich Glyptothek


In 196 Titus Quinctius Flamininus proclaimed the freedom of the Greeks, a gesture that won him immense popularity. He was the first Roman whose portrait head appeared on a Greek or Macedonian coin, in this case a gold stater in the style of Alexander the Great’s money.


In 63 Pompey the Great defeated Mithridates, king of Pontus. With his long-lasting settlement of the provinces and kingdoms of the Middle East, Rome became the unchallenged superpower of the classical world, and remained so for centuries. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek


The great orator Cicero believed that the Roman constitution was nearly perfect, despite all the evidence that it was in a state of terminal decay. He looked back with pride to a glorious past. He was put to death for defending the Republic he loved by those who worked to destroy it and replace it with an autocracy. Capitoline Museums, Rome


The Forum Romanum was the public square in the heart of ancient Rome. Here were the Senate House, the Comitium, or place of public assembly, the law courts (held in the open air), shops, and temples. As this panoramic view shows, all that remains are pillaged ruins. In the center stands the columned frontage of the temple of Saturn behind which can be seen the arch of the emperor Septimius Severus and, beyond, the plain brick wall and pediment of the Curia Julia, the Senate House. On the right are the foundations of a shopping mall and business center, the Basilica Julia, in the distance three tall columns of the temple of Castor and Pollux and on their left the white fragment of the circular temple of Vesta, where the city’s sacred flame was kept. (Photo: Arnold Dekker)


Roman authors say little of the life of the people, but structures, objects, and carvings have survived that throw light on everyday pursuits. The rich lived in spacious luxury, as can be seen in first-century A.D. Pompeii (Photo: S. H. O’Leary), but most urban Romans made do with one or two rooms in apartment blocks, or insulae, like this one (restored) in Ostia.

There were few facilities for cooking at home in an insula and eating out was popular, as at this bistro with a heated bar for keeping food warm (Photo: Daniele Florio). It is backed by a fresco that shows the spirit of the house flanked by the household gods, with Mercury, god of business and commerce, on the far left and Bacchus, god of wine, on the far right.

Sex was widely available, and often for sale; this bedroom fresco gave stimulation and guidance to its occupants. Brothels thrived. So too did old-fashioned male attitudes, as a Pompeiian wall graffito indicated. “If Venus can break my tender heart, why can’t I hit her over the head?”

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