Rome’s history spans three millennia, from the classical myths of vengeful gods to the follies of Roman emperors, from Renaissance excess and papal plotting to swaggering 20th-century fascism. Everywhere you go in this remarkable city, you’re surrounded by the past. Martial ruins, Renaissance palazzi (mansions) and flamboyant baroque basilicas all have tales to tell – of family feuding, historic upheavals, artistic rivalries, intrigues and dark passions.
Ancient Rome, the Myth
As much a mythical construct as a historical reality, ancient Rome’s image has been carefully nurtured throughout history. Intellectuals, artists and architects have sought inspiration from this skilfully constructed legend, while political and religious rulers have invoked it to legitimise their authority and serve their political ends.
Imperial Spin Doctors
Rome’s original myth-makers were the first emperors. Eager to reinforce the city’s status as caput mundi (capital of the world), they turned to writers such as Virgil, Ovid and Livy to create an official Roman history. These authors, while adept at weaving epic narratives, were less interested in the rigours of historical research and frequently presented myth as reality. In the Aeneid, Virgil brazenly draws on Greek legends and stories to tell the tale of Aeneas, a Trojan prince who arrives in Italy and establishes Rome’s founding dynasty. Similarly, Livy, a writer celebrated for his monumental history of the Roman Republic, makes liberal use of mythology to fill the gaps in his historical narrative.
Ancient Rome’s rulers were sophisticated masters of spin and under their tutelage, art, architecture and elaborate public ceremony were employed to perpetuate the image of Rome as an invincible and divinely sanctioned power. Monuments such as the Ara Pacis, the Colonna di Traiano and the Arco di Costantino celebrated imperial glories, while gladiatorial games highlighted the Romans’ physical superiority. The Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon were not only sophisticated feats of engineering, they were also impregnable symbols of Rome’s eternal might.
The Past as Inspiration
During the Renaissance, a period in which ancient Rome was hailed as the high point of Western civilisation, the city's great monuments inspired a whole generation of artists and architects. Bramante, Michelangelo and Raphael modelled their work on classical precedents as they helped rebuild Rome as the capital of the Catholic Church.
But more than anyone, it was Italy’s 20th-century fascist dictator Benito Mussolini who invoked the glories of ancient Rome. Il Duce spared no effort in his attempts to identify his fascist regime with imperial Rome – he made Rome’s traditional birthday, 21 April, an official fascist holiday, he printed stamps with images of ancient Roman emperors, and he commissioned archaeological digs to unearth further proof of Roman might. His idealisation of the Roman Empire underpinned much of his colonialist ideology.
Nowadays, the myth of Rome is used less as a rallying cry and more as an advertising tool – and with some success. However cynical and world-weary you are, it’s difficult to deny the thrill of seeing the Colosseum for the first time or of visiting the Palatino, the hill where Romulus is said to have founded the city in 753 BC.
Feature: Romulus & Remus, Rome’s Legendary Twins
The most famous of Rome’s many legends is the story of Romulus and Remus and the foundation of the city on 21 April 753 BC.
According to myth, Romulus and Remus were the children of the vestal virgin Rhea Silva and the god of war, Mars. While still babies they were set adrift on the Tiber to escape a death penalty imposed by their great-uncle Amulius, who at the time was battling their grandfather Numitor for control of Alba Longa. However, they were discovered near the Palatino by a she-wolf, who suckled them until a shepherd, Faustulus, found and raised them.
Years later the twins decided to found a city on the site where they’d originally been saved. They didn’t know where this was, so they consulted the omens. Remus, on the Aventino, saw six vultures; his brother over on the Palatino saw 12. The meaning was clear and Romulus began building, much to the outrage of his brother. The two argued and Romulus killed Remus.
Romulus continued building and soon had a city. To populate it he created a refuge on the Campidoglio, Aventino, Celio and Quirinale Hills, to which a ragtag population of criminals, ex-slaves and outlaws soon decamped. However, the city still needed women. Romulus therefore invited everyone in the surrounding country to celebrate the Festival of Consus (21 August). As the spectators watched the festival games, Romulus and his men pounced and abducted all the women, an act that was to go down in history as the Rape of the Sabine Women.
Feature: A Who’s Who of Roman Emperors
Of the 250 or so emperors of the Roman Empire, only a few were truly heroic. Here we highlight 10 of the best, worst and completely insane.
- Augustus (27 BC−AD 14) Rome’s first emperor. Ushers in a period of peace and security; the arts flourish and many monuments are built, including the Ara Pacis and the original Pantheon.
- Caligula (37−41) The third emperor, after Augustus and Tiberius. Remains popular until illness leads to the depraved behaviour for which he becomes infamous. Is murdered by his bodyguards on the Palatino.
- Claudius (41−54) Expands the Roman Empire and conquers Britain. Is eventually poisoned, probably at the instigation of Agrippina, his wife and Nero’s mother.
- Nero (54−68) Initially rules well but later slips into madness – he has his mother murdered, persecutes the Christians and attempts to turn half the city into a palace, the Domus Aurea. He is eventually forced into suicide.
- Vespasian (69−79) First of the Flavian dynasty, he imposes peace and cleans up the imperial finances. His greatest legacy is the Colosseum.
- Trajan (98−117) Conquers the east and rules over the empire at its zenith. He revamps Rome’s city centre, adding a forum, marketplace and column, all of which still stand.
- Hadrian (117−38) Puts an end to imperial expansion and constructs walls to mark the empire’s borders. He rebuilds the Pantheon and has one of the ancient world’s greatest villas built at Tivoli.
- Aurelian (270−75) Does much to control the rebellion that sweeps the empire at the end of the 3rd century. Starts construction of the city walls that still today bear his name.
- Diocletian (284−305) Splits the empire into eastern and western halves in 285. Launches a savage persecution of the Christians as he struggles to control the empire’s eastern reaches.
- Constantine I (306−37) Although based in Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople in his honour), he legalises Christianity and embarks on a church-building spree in Rome.
Legacy of an Empire
Rising out of the bloodstained remains of the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire was the Western world’s first great superpower. At its zenith under the emperor Trajan (r AD 98−117), it extended from Britannia in the north to North Africa in the south, from Hispania (Spain) in the west to Palestina (Palestine) and Syria in the east. Rome itself had more than 1.5 million inhabitants and the city sparkled with the trappings of imperial splendour: marble temples, public baths, theatres, circuses and libraries. Decline eventually set in during the 3rd century, and by the latter half of the 5th century, the city was in barbarian hands.
The empire’s most immediate legacy was the division of Europe into east and west. In AD 285 the emperor Diocletian, prompted by widespread disquiet across the empire, split the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves – the west centred on Rome, the east on Byzantium (later called Constantinople) – in a move that was to have far-reaching consequences. In the west, the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476 paved the way for the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States, while in the east, Roman (later Byzantine) rule continued until 1453 when the empire was conquered by Ottoman armies.
Democracy & the Rule of Law
In broader cultural terms, Roman innovations in language, law, government, art, architecture, engineering and public administration remain relevant to this day.
One of the Romans’ most striking contributions to modern society was democratic government. Democracy had first appeared in 5th-century-BC Athens, but it was the Romans, with their genius for organisation, who took it to another level. Under the Roman Republic (509−47 BC), the Roman population was divided into two categories: the Senate and the Roman people. Both held clearly defined responsibilities. The people, through three assembly bodies – the Centuriate Assembly, the Tribal Assembly and the Council of the People – voted on all new laws and elected two annual tribunes who had the power of veto in the Senate. The Senate, for its part, elected and advised two annual consuls who acted as political and military leaders. It also controlled the Republic’s purse strings and, in times of grave peril, could nominate a dictator for a six-month period.
This system worked well for the duration of the republic, and remained more or less intact during the empire – at least on paper. In practice, the Senate assumed the assemblies’ legislative powers and the emperor claimed power of veto over the Senate, a move that pretty much gave him complete command.
The observance of law was an important feature of Roman society. As far back as the 5th century BC, the republic had a bill of rights, known as the Twelve Tables. This remained the foundation stone of Rome’s legal system until the emperor Justinian (r 527−65) produced his mammoth Corpus Iurus Civilis (Body of Civil Law) in 529. This not only codified all existing laws, but also included a systematic treatise on legal philosophy. In particular, it introduced a distinction between ius civilis (civil law – laws particular to a state), ius gentium (law of nations – laws established and shared by states) and ius naturale (natural law – laws concerning male–female relationships and matrimony).
More than the laws themselves, Rome’s greatest legacy to the legal profession was the Latin language. Latin was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire and was later adopted by the Catholic Church, a major reason for its survival. It is still one of the Vatican’s official languages and until the second Vatican Council (1962−65) it was the only language in which Catholic Mass could be said. As the basis for modern Romance languages such as Italian, French and Spanish, it provides the linguistic roots of many modern words.
Christianity & Papal Power
For much of its history Rome has been ruled by the pope, and still today the Vatican wields immense influence over the city.
Before the arrival of Christianity, the Romans were remarkably tolerant of foreign religions. They themselves worshipped a cosmopolitan pantheon of gods, ranging from household spirits and former emperors to deities appropriated from Greek mythology (Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Minerva etc). Religious cults were also popular – the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis enjoyed a mass following, as did Mithras, a heroic saviour-god of vaguely Persian origin, who was worshipped by male-only devotees in underground temples.
Emergence of Christianity
Christianity entered Rome's religious cocktail in the 1st century AD, sweeping in from Judaea, a Roman province in what is now Israel and the West Bank. Its early days were marred by persecution, most notably under Nero (r 54−68), but it slowly caught on, thanks to its popular message of heavenly reward and the evangelising efforts of Sts Peter and Paul. However, it was the conversion of the emperor Constantine (r 306−37) that really set Christianity on the path to European domination. In 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, officially legalising Christianity, and later, in 378, Theodosius (r 379−95) made it Rome’s state religion. By this time, the Church had developed a sophisticated organisational structure based on five major sees: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. At the outset, each bishopric carried equal weight, but in subsequent years Rome emerged as the senior party. The reasons for this were partly political – Rome was the wealthy capital of the Roman Empire – and partly religious – early Christian doctrine held that St Peter, founder of the Roman Church, had been sanctioned by Christ to lead the universal Church.
But while Rome had control of Christianity, the Church had yet to conquer Rome. This it did in the dark days that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. And although no one person can take credit for this, Pope Gregory the Great (r 590−604) did more than most to lay the groundwork. A leader of considerable foresight, he won many friends by supplying free bread to Rome’s starving citizens and restoring the city’s water supply after it had been cut by barbarian invaders. He also stood up to the menacing Lombards, who presented a very real threat to the city.
It was this threat that pushed the papacy into an alliance with the Frankish kings, an alliance that resulted in the creation of the two great powers of medieval Europe: the Papal States and the Holy Roman Empire. In Rome, the battle between these two superpowers translated into endless feuding between the city’s baronial families and frequent attempts by the French to claim the papacy for their own. This political and military fighting eventually culminated in the papacy transferring to the French city of Avignon between 1309 and 1377, and the Great Schism (1378−1417), a period in which the Catholic world was headed by two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon.
As both religious and temporal leaders, Rome’s popes wielded influence well beyond their military capacity. For much of the medieval period, the Church held a virtual monopoly on Europe’s reading material (mostly religious scripts written in Latin) and was the authority on virtually every aspect of human knowledge. All innovations in science, philosophy and literature had to be cleared by the Church’s hawkish scholars, who were constantly on the lookout for heresy.
Almost a thousand years on and the Church is still a major influence on modern Italian life. Its rigid stance on social and ethical issues such as birth control, abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia informs much public debate, often with highly divisive results.
The relationship between the Church and Italy’s modern political establishment has been a fact of life since the founding of the Italian Republic in 1946. For much of the First Republic (1946−94), the Vatican was closely associated with the Christian Democrat party (Democrazia Cristiana; DC), Italy’s most powerful party and an ardent opponent of communism. At the same time, the Church, keen to weed communism out of the political landscape, played its part by threatening to excommunicate anyone who voted for Italy’s Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano; PCI).
Today, no one political party has a monopoly on Church favour, and politicians across the spectrum tread warily around Catholic sensibilities. But this reverence isn’t limited to the purely political sphere; it also informs much press reporting and even law enforcement. In September 2008 Rome’s public prosecutor threatened to prosecute a comedian for comments made against the pope, invoking the 1929 Lateran Treaty under which it is a criminal offence to ‘offend the honour’ of the pope and Italian president. The charge, which ignited a heated debate on censorship and the right to free speech, was eventually dropped by the Italian justice minister.
Feature: Donation of Constantine
The most famous forgery in medieval history, the Donation of Constantine is a document with which the emperor Constantine purportedly grants Pope Sylvester I (r 314−35) and his successors control of Rome and the Western Roman Empire, as well as primacy over the holy sees of Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and all the world’s churches.
No one is exactly sure when the document was written but the consensus is that it dates to the mid- or late 8th century. Certainly this fits with the widespread theory that the author was a Roman cleric, possibly working with the knowledge of Pope Stephen II (r 752−57).
For centuries the donation was accepted as genuine and used by popes to justify their territorial claims. But in 1440 the Italian philosopher Lorenzo Valla proved that it was a forgery. By analysing the Latin used in the document he was able to show that it was inconsistent with the Latin used in the 4th century.
New Beginnings, Protest & Persecution
Bridging the gap between the Middle Ages and the modern era, the Renaissance (Rinascimento in Italian) was a far-reaching intellectual, artistic and cultural movement. It emerged in 14th-century Florence but quickly spread to Rome, where it gave rise to one of the greatest makeovers the city had ever seen. Not everyone was impressed though, and in the early 16th century the Protestant Reformation burst into life. This, in turn, provoked a furious response by the Catholic Church, the Counter-Reformation.
Humanism & Rebuilding
The movement’s intellectual cornerstone was humanism, a philosophy that focused on the central role of humanity within the universe, a major break from the medieval world view, which had placed God at the centre of everything. It was not anti-religious, though. Many humanist scholars were priests and most of Rome’s great works of Renaissance art were commissioned by the Church. In fact, it was one of the most celebrated humanist scholars of the 15th century, Pope Nicholas V (r 1447−84), who is generally considered the harbinger of the Roman Renaissance.
When Nicholas became pope in 1447, Rome was not in good shape. Centuries of medieval feuding had reduced the city to a semi-deserted battleground, and its bedraggled population lived in constant fear of plague, famine and flooding (the Tiber regularly broke its banks). In political terms, the papacy was recovering from the trauma of the Great Schism and attempting to face down Muslim encroachment in the east.
It was against this background that Nicholas decided to rebuild Rome as a showcase for Church power. To finance his plans, he declared 1450 a Jubilee year, a tried and tested way of raising funds by attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the city (in a Jubilee year anyone who comes to Rome and confesses receives a full papal pardon).
Over the course of the next 80 years or so, Rome underwent a complete overhaul. Pope Sixtus IV (r 1471−84) had the Sistine Chapel built and, in 1471, gave the people of Rome a selection of bronzes that became the first exhibits of the Capitoline Museums. Julius II (r 1503−13) laid Via del Corso and Via Giulia, and ordered Bramante to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo frescoed the Sistine Chapel and designed the dome of St Peter’s, while Raphael inspired a whole generation of painters with his masterful grasp of perspective.
The Sack of Rome & Protestant Protest
Rome's Renaissance rebuild wasn't all plain sailing. By the early 16th century, the long-standing conflict between the Holy Roman Empire, led by the Spanish Charles V, and the Italian city states remained the main source of trouble. This simmering tension came to a head in 1527 when Rome was invaded by Charles’ marauding army and ransacked while Pope Clement VII (r 1523−34) hid in Castel Sant’Angelo. The sack of Rome, regarded by most historians as the nail in the coffin of the Roman Renaissance, was a hugely traumatic event. It left the papacy reeling and gave rise to the view that the Church had been greatly weakened by its own moral shortcomings. That the Church was corrupt was well known, and it was with considerable public support that Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517, thus sparking off the Protestant Reformation.
The Counter-Reformation, the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, was marked by a second wave of artistic and architectural activity as the Church once again turned to bricks and mortar to restore its authority. But in contrast to the Renaissance, the Counter-Reformation was also a period of persecution and official intolerance. With the full blessing of Pope Paul III, Ignatius Loyola founded the Jesuits in 1540, and two years later the Holy Office was set up as the Church’s final appeals court for trials prosecuted by the Inquisition. In 1559 the Church published the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) and began to persecute intellectuals and freethinkers. Galileo Galilei (1564−1642) was forced to renounce his assertion of the Copernican astronomical system, which held that the earth moved around the sun. He was summoned by the Inquisition to Rome in 1632 and exiled to Florence for the rest of his life. Giordano Bruno (1548−1600), a freethinking Dominican monk, fared worse. Arrested in Venice in 1592, he was burned at the stake eight years later in Campo de’ Fiori.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the Church’s policy of zero tolerance, the Counter-Reformation was largely successful in re-establishing papal prestige. And in this sense it can be seen as the natural finale to the Renaissance that Nicholas V had kicked off in 1450. From being a rural backwater with a population of around 20,000 in the mid-15th century, Rome had grown to become one of Europe’s great 17th-century cities.
Power & Corruption
The exercise of power has long gone hand in hand with corruption. And no one enjoyed greater power than Rome’s ancient emperors and Renaissance popes.
Imperial Follies & Papal Foibles
Of all ancient Rome’s cruel, despotic leaders, few are as notorious as Caligula. A byword for depravity, he was initially hailed as a saviour when he inherited the empire from his hated great-uncle Tiberius in AD 37. But this optimism was soon to prove ill-founded, and after a bout of serious illness, Caligula began showing disturbing signs of mental instability. He made his senators worship him and infamously tried to make his horse a senator. By AD 41 everyone had had enough of him, and on 24 January the leader of his own Praetorian Guard stabbed him to death.
Debauchery on such a scale was rare in the Renaissance papacy, but corruption was no stranger to the corridors of ecclesiastical power. It was not uncommon for popes to father illegitimate children and nepotism was rife. The Borgia pope Alexander VI (r 1492−1503) had two illegitimate children with the first of his two high-profile mistresses. The second, Giulia Farnese, was the sister of the cardinal who was later to become Pope Paul III (r 1534−59), himself no stranger to earthly pleasures. When not persecuting heretics during the Counter-Reformation, the Farnese pontiff managed to father four children.
The early 1990s was a traumatic time for Italy's political establishment which was virtually brought to its knees during the so-called Tangentopoli (Kickback City) scandal. Against a backdrop of steady economic growth, the controversy broke in Milan in 1992 when a routine corruption case – accepting bribes in exchange for contracts – blew up into a nationwide crusade against corruption.
Led by magistrate Antonio di Pietro, the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) investigations exposed a political and business system riddled with corruption. Politicians, public officials and business people were investigated and for once no one was spared, not even the powerful Bettino Craxi (prime minister between 1983 and 1989), who rather than face trial fled Rome in 1993. He was subsequently convicted in absentia on corruption charges and died in self-imposed exile in Tunisia.
Controversy and lurid gossip were a recurring feature of Silvio Berlusconi's three terms as prime minister (1994, 2000–06, and 2008–11). Berlusconi himself faced a series of trials on charges ranging from abuse of power to paying for sex with an underage prostitute. To date, he has only been convicted once, for tax fraud in 2012, but in 2017 it was announced he would be facing yet another trial for bribing witnesses in one of his earlier cases.
Rome’s City Hall has also been embroiled in scandal. In 2014, the so-called Mafia Capitale case broke as allegations surfaced that the city's municipal council had been colluding with a criminal gang to cream off public funds. The subsequent investigation, the largest anti-corruption operation since the Mani Pulite campaign of the 1990s, resulted in hundreds of arrests. Former mayor Gianni Alamenno is one of many currently facing charges.
Feature: Berlusconi, Italy’s Media King
A charismatic media magnate, Silvio Berlusconi dominated Italian political and public life in the noughties. The undisputed leader of Italy's right wing (and one of Italy's richest men), he headed three governments and a business empire that spanned the media, advertising, finance, construction and football.
From the start his political career was controversial and highly divisive. Fans worshipped him for what they saw as his modern 'can-do' attitude and cheerful optimism. They readily forgave him his 'bunga bunga' sex parties and questionable jokes. Enemies railed against his hold over the country's media and claimed that he was in politics solely to protect himself from prosecution and safeguard his extensive business interests.
It's now more than six years since he resigned as PM, and while he is still an influential figure in right-wing circles, his days as Italy's commander-in-chief are well and truly behind him.
The First Tourists
Pilgrims have been pouring into Rome for centuries but it was the classically minded travellers of the 18th and 19th centuries who established the city's reputation as a holiday hotspot.
As seat of the Catholic Church, Rome was already one of the main pilgrim destinations in the Middle Ages, when, in 1300, Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed the first ever Holy Year (Jubilee). Promising full forgiveness for anyone who made the pilgrimage to St Peter’s Basilica and the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, his appeal to the faithful proved a resounding success. Hundreds of thousands answered his call and the Church basked in popular glory.
Some 700 years later and the Holy Year tradition is still going strong. Up to 24 million visitors descended on the city for Pope John Paul II's Jubilee, while it's estimated around 21 million pilgrims passed through the holy doors of St Peter's Basilica during Pope Francis’ 2016 Holy Year.
The Grand Tour
While Rome has a long past as a pilgrimage site, its history as a modern tourist destination can be traced back to the late 1700s and the fashion for the Grand Tour. The 18th-century version of a gap year, the Tour was considered an educational rite of passage for wealthy young men from northern Europe, and Britain in particular.
The overland journey through France and into Italy followed the medieval pilgrim route, entering Italy via the St Bernard Pass and descending the west coast before cutting in to Florence and then down to Rome. After a sojourn in the capital, tourists would venture down to Naples, where the newly discovered ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum were causing much excitement, before heading up to Venice.
Rome, enjoying a rare period of peace, was perfectly set up for this English invasion. The city was basking in the aftermath of the 17th-century baroque building boom, and a craze for all things classical was sweeping Europe. Rome’s papal authorities were also crying out for money after their excesses had left the city coffers bare, reducing much of the population to abject poverty.
Thousands came, including Goethe, who stopped off to write his travelogue Italian Journey (1817), as well as Byron, Shelley and Keats, who all fuelled their romantic sensibilities in the city’s vibrant streets. So many English people stayed around Piazza di Spagna that locals christened the area er ghetto de l’inglesi (the English ghetto).
Artistically, rococo was the rage of the moment. The Spanish Steps, built between 1723 and 1726, proved a major hit with tourists, as did the exuberant Trevi Fountain.
The Ghosts of Fascism
Rome’s fascist history is a highly charged subject. Historians on both sides of the political spectrum have accused each other of recasting the past to suit their views: left-wing historians have criticised their right-wing counterparts for glossing over the more unpleasant aspects of Mussolini’s regime, while right-wingers have attacked their left-wing colleagues for whitewashing the facts to perpetuate an overly simplistic anti-fascist narrative.
Benito Mussolini was born in 1883 in Forlì, a small town in Emilia-Romagna, a region of northern Italy. As a young man he was a member of the Italian Socialist Party, but service in WWI and Italy’s subsequent descent into chaos led to a change of heart, and in 1919 he founded the Italian Fascist Party. Calling for rights for war veterans, law and order, and a strong nation, the party won support from disillusioned soldiers, many of whom joined the squads of Blackshirts that Mussolini used to intimidate his political enemies.
In 1921 Mussolini was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. His parliamentary support was limited but on 28 October 1922 he marched on Rome with 40,000 black-shirted followers. Fearful of civil war between the fascists and socialists, King Vittorio Emanuele III responded by inviting Mussolini to form a government. His first government was a coalition of fascists, nationalists and liberals, but victory in the 1924 elections left him better placed to consolidate his power, and by the end of 1925 he had seized complete control of Italy. In order to silence the Church he signed the Lateran Treaty in 1929, which made Catholicism the state religion and recognised the sovereignty of the Vatican State.
On the home front, Mussolini embarked on a huge building program in Rome: Via dei Fori Imperiali and Via della Conciliazione were laid out; parks were opened on the Oppio Hill and at Villa Celimontana; the Imperial Forums and the temples at Largo di Torre Argentina were excavated; and the monumental Foro Italico sports complex and EUR were built.
Abroad, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935 and sided with Hitler in 1936. In 1940, standing on the balcony of Rome's Palazzo Venezia, he announced Italy’s entry into WWII to a vast, cheering crowd. The good humour didn’t last, as Rome suffered, first at the hands of its own fascist regime, then, after Mussolini was ousted in 1943, at the hands of the Nazis. Rome was liberated from German occupation on 4 June 1944.
Defeat in WWII didn’t kill off Italian fascism, and in 1946 hardline Mussolini supporters founded the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI; Italian Social Movement). For close on 50 years this overtly fascist party participated in mainstream Italian politics, while on the other side of the spectrum the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI; Italian Communist Party) grew into Western Europe’s largest communist party. The MSI was finally dissolved in 1994, when Gianfranco Fini rebranded it as the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale (AN; National Alliance). AN remained an important political player until it was incorporated into Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL; People of Freedom) party in 2009.
Outside the political mainstream, fascism (along with communism) was a driving force of the domestic terrorism that rocked Rome and Italy during the anni di piombo (years of lead), between the late 1960s and early '80s. Terrorist groups emerged on both sides of the ideological spectrum, giving rise to a spate of politically inspired violence. In one of the era's most notorious episodes, the communist Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) kidnapped and killed former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978, leaving his bullet-ridden body in the boot of a car on Via Michelangelo Caetani near the Jewish Ghetto.