As the city states of Greece were entering their golden age, a city built on seven hills in central Italy cast out its king and became a republic. In 509 B.C., 19 years before the Greeks and Persians fought at Marathon, Rome was not at all the largest or the richest city in Italy. The cities of the Etruscans to the north and of the Greek colonists in southern Italy and in Sicily were larger and better known to the Greek world. Yet in the centuries to come this new republic would expand to ring the entire Mediterranean Sea.
The city of Rome was first settled 800-700 years before the birth of Christ, and at first it was much like other cities in central Italy. The area was called Latium, and the people who lived there, Latins. Their language, which many people still study today, was called Latin as well. In those early days, the city itself was small: houses, temples and the forum (or, public square) surrounded by defensive walls. Most Romans lived outside the walls, on their family farms. Even as Rome became a great and powerful city, the Romans continued to think of themselves a city of tough, practical farmers.
The family (familia) was the center of early Roman life. The father of a family, or Pater Familias, had complete authority over his wife and all his children, even after his children themselves became adults and married. When he died, his sons would assume full control of their own families. An extended family was called a gens, and included all of the families who shared a common ancestor and last name.
The Romans worshiped many gods, and as they met other peoples who worshiped other gods, they often began to worship those gods too, if they liked them. In those earliest days of Rome, the Romans worshiped two main gods:
Janus was the god of beginnings and endings. He was symbolized by the sun, which rises and sets each day, and statues of him showed him with two faces, one looked forward, the other looking back. Romans ofter placed statues of him in doorways and arches, so that he could watch over and guard everyone who came and went.
Vesta was the goddess of the hearth. In the days before electricity and gas stoves and matches, keeping the fire always burning on the hearth was an important household task. Every house had a small shrine to Vesta in it, and as long as the fire was kept burning on the hearth, and small offerings were made to her in the morning and evening, the Romans believed that Vesta would watch over everything that happened in the house and protect them from evil spirits. Vesta was a virgin goddess, and so the priestesses who tended the sacred fire in her temple had to take a vow not to marry. They were called the Vestal Virgins.
Each family also had its own household gods, whom they believed watched over them. Each familia believed that household spirits called lares watched over them. They kept statues of the lares in the family shrine. They gave the statues little offerings (wheat cakes, honey combs, grapes, wine, incense) and sometimes sat them with the family for meals. When a boy grew up and first had to trim his beard, he offered the trimmings to the lares, and when a girl left the family to marry, she offered the lares her toys and her the clothes she had worn as a little girl. The gens also had protectors called penates, who watched over everyone who bore the family name.
Not only families but cities, fields, rivers and mountains all had their own spirits or gods. The Romans were very superstitious. They looked to their household and family gods to protect them against witches, ghosts, evil spirits and curses.
The Romans learned to write from the Etruscans, a people in northern Italy who had in turn adapted their alphabet from the Greek one. This alphabet, which we call the Latin Alphabet, is the one that we still use today. (You are reading it now.) Through the Etruscans and the Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, the Romans also learned the myths about the Greek gods, and they liked them so much that they adopted all the Greek gods as their own, giving them Roman names and building temples to them in Rome. Zeus became Jupiter or Jove. Hera became Juno. Aphrodite became Venus and Ares became Mars.
But while the Romans loved the myths about the Greek gods, and retold them in their own language, their own Roman myths were mostly about Rome itself. These myths about the origins of Rome tell us a great deal about who the Romans were and what sort of men they admired, and so we will read some of those stories now. We don't know if Rome was really founded by a man named Romulus, or if Horatius really defended a bridge against a whole army, but these stories are important because they tell us what the Romans believed it meant to be Roman.
Go back to: Elementary Program: Volume One