Ferdinand Mount at The New York Times:
How on earth did they do it? The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century B.C., was the first to ask the question: “Who could be so indifferent or so idle that they did not want to find out how, and under what kind of political organization, almost the whole of the inhabited world was conquered and fell under the sole power of the Romans in less than 53 years?” It was not as if Rome was a promising spot: a swampy piece of ground up a barely navigable river surrounded by scrubby hills, its few thousand inhabitants alternately flooded out and ravaged by malaria.
Even its founding myth suggested a bumpy ride ahead: Romulus and Remus, those twins born to a delinquent priestess, were abandoned on the banks of the Tiber, then rescued by an improbable she-wolf, who suckled them. This shared ordeal engendered no brotherly love. Romulus murdered Remus on the city’s first day, and then with his gang abducted a bunch of women from the Sabine Hills to provide mothers for their children. So Rome began with a murder and a mass rape. From the start, its people were aggressive and acquisitive, and its narrow streets were a hide-out for the riffraff of Italy. Romans were like New Yorkers. They came from somewhere else, and they were proud of it.
In “SPQR,” her wonderful concise history, Mary Beard unpacks the secrets of the city’s success with a crisp and merciless clarity that I have not seen equaled anywhere else.