There is little that remains of Rome in the Republican period, which lasted for roughly the 500 years before the beginning of the Common Era. A few surviving structures can still be seen on the Forum, such as the House of the Vestals, but most are the remains of buildings that were destroyed by earthquake, fire, insurrection, or urban renewal. Just on the other side of the Palatine Hill from the Forum is what is left of the racing arena called the Circus Maximus. Today it is pretty much a dirt imprint of the chariot track and some fragments of stone architecture. Once it was the grandest structure in all of Rome.

The remains of the Palitine palaces and the  leveled ground of the Circus Maximus

The remains of the Palitine palaces and the
leveled ground of the Circus Maximus

The green field where the Circus Maximus would one day be built was the scene of the founding of Rome in the earliest version of its mythical history. It was on the slope of the nearby hill that the she-wolf suckled the infant twins, Romulus and Remus. When Romulus became king of the newly founded Rome, he conducted the abduction of the Sabine women as a strategy for a population increase. The other foundation myth, which came much later, is taken from the Aeneid by Virgil. Both of these myths are loosely treated in Italian sword-and-sandal movies.

The best movie by far about Republican Rome is Spartacus (1960). It evokes the deep fears of the ruling class that their slaves would revolt and take power. The filmmakers took some historical liberties with this true story, but it effectively positions the metaphor of a people’s uprising on the threshold of modern human affairs.

Julius Caesar, a contemporary of Spartacus, was the engineer of the Republican collapse. The full drama of his downfall is reviewed in any of the movies of Shakespeare’s play bearing the name of Caesar, or in any of the movies about Cleopatra, Caesar’s paramour. Republican Rome labored for almost 500 years to build a democratic system ruled by a power elite, an ideal inspired by the Greeks. At the millennial turning point, they lost confidence in their ability to govern a vast empire and empowered an Emperor. The Empire would endure in Europe for the better part of five hundred years and then fall to the chaotic will of the people.

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