Ancient Rome

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Ancient Rome was a civilization that existed in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East between 753 BC and its downfall in AD 476. For several centuries, the Romans controlled the whole of Western Europe, as well as the entire area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and some of the area surrounding the Black Sea.

The Roman Empire during the reign of Trajan
The Roman Empire during the reign of Trajan




Main article: Roman Kingdom
The female wolf, feeding the baby twins Romulus and Remus
The female wolf, feeding the baby twins Romulus and Remus

The city of Rome grew from settlements on and around the Palatine Hill, approximately eighteen miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea on the river Tiber. At this location the Tiber has an island where the river can be forded. Because of the river and the ford, Rome was at a crossroads of traffic and trade.

In Roman legend, Rome was founded by Romulus on 21 April 753 BC. Romulus, whose name is said to have inspired Rome's name, was the first of seven Kings of Rome, the last of whom, Tarquin the Proud, was deposed in 510 BC or 509 BC when the Roman Republic was established. The mythical or semi-mythical kings are (in chronological order): Romulus, Numa Pompilius (Good King Numa), Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud).


Main article: Roman Republic
A map of Republican Rome.
A map of Republican Rome.

The Roman Republic was established around 509 BC, according to later writers such as Livy, when the king was driven out, and a system based on annually elected magistrates was established in its place. The most important were the two consuls, who between them exercised executive authority, but had to contend with the Senate, which grew in size and power with the establishment of the Republic. The magistracies were originally restricted to patricians but were later opened to plebeians.

The Romans gradually subdued the other peoples on the Italian peninsula, mostly related Italic tribes (of Indo-European stock) such as the Samnites and Sabines, but also the Etruscans. The last threat to Roman hegemony in Italy came when Tarentum, a major Greek colony, enlisted the aid of Pyrrhus of Epirus in 282 BC.

In the latter half of the 3rd century BC, Rome clashed with Carthage in the first two Punic wars, conquering Sicily and Iberia. After defeating Macedonia and the Seleucids in the 2nd century BC, the Romans became the undisputed masters of the Mediterranean.

Internal strife now became the greatest threat to the Republic. The Senate, jealous of its own power, repeatedly blocked important land reforms. An unintended consequence of Gaius Marius's military reforms was that soldiers often had more loyalty to their commander than to the city, and a powerful general, such as Marius or his rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla, were able to hold the city and Senate to ransom.

In the mid-1st century BC three men, Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus, took virtual control of the republic through a secret pact known as the First Triumvirate. Caesar was able to reconcile the rivals Pompey and Crassus, both extremely rich men with distinguished military and senatorial careers, and acted in both their interests when elected consul, before using his proconsular appointment as governor of Gaul to gain a military reputation himself.

After Crassus's death and the collapse of the Triumvirate, a stand-off between Caesar and the Senate led to civil war, with Pompey leading the Senate's forces. Caesar emerged victorious and was made dictator for life after refusing the title of king. He took on too much power too soon for some of the senators, however, and was murdered in a plot organised by Brutus and Cassius on the Ides of March 44 BC.

A Second Triumvirate, consisting of Caesar's designated heir Octavian and his former supporters Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, took power, but its members soon descended into a struggle for dominance. In the last republican power struggle, Octavian defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and annexed the territories of Cleopatra, Antony's Egyptian (and, in Rome, despised) partner. Octavian retained Egypt as a virtual crown dominion, guaranteeing an income to buy the favour of the capital's residents. He now assumed almost absolute power as military Imperator, the common people's sole tribune, and supreme authority over the Roman territories, and took the name Augustus. These constitutional settlements (27 BC and 23 BC) transformed Rome from a Republic to an Empire. His designated successor, Tiberius, took power without any bloodshed (or even much resistance), thus completing Augustus's project.


Main article: Roman Empire
The extent of the Roman Empire in 133 BC, in 44 BC, in AD 14, and in AD 117.
The extent of the Roman Empire in 133 BC, in 44 BC, in AD 14, and in AD 117.

After the reign of the first emperor, Augustus, the empire was ruled by his relatives, the Julio-Claudian dynasty until the death of Nero in 69. The territorial expansion of the state continued and the empire remained secure despite some incompetent emperors. Their rule was was followed by the Flavian dynasty.

During the reign of the Five Good Emperors (AD 96-180) the empire reached its zenith in terms of territory, economy and culture. The empire was secure from both internal and external threats and the Pax Romana created prosperity from trade. With the conquest of Thrace during the reign of Trajan the Empire saw the peak of its territorial expansion.

The period between 180 and 235 was dominated by the rule of the Severan dynasty. The period saw some of the most incompetent rulers in the history of the empire, Elagabalus being one of the most notorious ones. This and the increasing influence of the army to imperial succession led to a period known as the Crisis of the 3rd Century.

The crisis was ended by the competent rule of Diocletian, who in 293 divided the empire into four parts ruled by two co-emperors, both aided by a junior emperor. This period is known as the Tetrarchy, and was the basis of the later East-West division of the empire. The various co-rulers of the empire competed and fought for supremacy for more than half a century. In 330 emperor Constantine I moved the capital to Byzantium. The empire was permanently divided into Eastern Byzantine and Western empire in 364.

The Western Empire was constantly harassed by barbarian invasions. In 410 the city of Rome itself was sacked. In 476 the Germanic chief Odoacer forced the last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, to abdicate. Having lasted for approximately 1200 years the rule of Rome in the West came to an end. The empire survived in the East as the Byzantine Empire.


See the book: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

According to Edward Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian[1] invasions because of a loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become lazy and soft, entrusting their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries. The ranks of barbarian armies became so thick and ingrained that they were able to easily overtake the Empire. Romans, Gibbon says, had become effeminate and were unwilling to live the military lifestyle.

In addition, Gibbon implicated Christianity in the downfall of Rome. Christianity, he said, created a belief in another world and suggested that a better life existed after death. This fostered indifference among Roman citizens who believed they would live a better life once they died, thus sapping their desire to maintain and sacrifice for the Empire. Also, the rise of Christianity created an affiliation that was more important than the state, further diminishing desire to put the state's needs above one's own. This explanation is viewed with scepticism because the empire only disintegrated in the West, while in the East, the Empire continued as the Byzantine Empire. However, all agree that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a complex issue with no single cause.

Modern historians have offered competing theories such as lead poisoning from leaden wine containers, plagues, political corruption, a non-productive urban culture, and transfer of military service to the barbarians and other frontiersmen for the fall of the western empire.

^  In the Roman Empire, the word barbarian meant anyone not a Roman citizen, which was applied chiefly to northern European tribes outside of the influence of Roman culture.


Cultural and Linguistic Legacy

One of the most enduring legacies of Rome is linguistic: Romance languages that evolved from Latin spoken in the Roman Empire are now spoken widely in Europe and Latin America, such as Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian, amongst others. Although English is a Germanic language, many English words derive from Latin roots, either directly or through intermediary successor languages such as French. Latin remains the official language of Vatican City and is studied and understood by scholars around the world. However, fluent speech in Latin is very rare in present day. This is mainly due to the differences between Latin's reliance upon inflection of words and modern Romance languages' reliance upon syntax, in addition to lack of use.

Successor States

After the fall of the city of Rome and the Western Empire the state continued its existence as the Byzantine Empire, which is conventionally treated as a separate entity in history books. Also the Holy Roman Empire and Russia have claimed the "Roman" legacy after the fall of Constantinople (See Third Rome).


A sculpture of the King of gods, Jupiter
A sculpture of the King of gods, Jupiter

Main articles: Roman mythology, Roman religion

Early Roman Religion

Archaic Roman "mythology", at least concerning the gods, was made up not of narratives, but rather of interlocking and complex interrelations between and among gods and humans. Gods were not personified, unlike in Ancient Greece. Romans also believed that every person, place or thing had their own genius (such as "Lares Familiares" - the family guardian spirits). Therefore the early Roman cult could be described as polydemonism instead of polytheism.

The Romans distinguished two classes of gods, the di indigetes and the de novensides or novensiles. The indigetes were the original gods of the Roman state (see List of Di Indigetes). The novensides were later divinities whose cults were introduced to the city in the historical period, usually in response to a specific crisis or need.

At the head of the earliest pantheon were the triad Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. Their priests, or flamens, were senior to others. Later this triad was supplanted by the Capitoline Triad, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.

During the Roman republic there was a strict system of priestly offices, of which the Pontifex maximus was the most important. Flamens took care of the cults of various gods, while augurs were trusted with taking the auspices. The rex sacrorum, or "sacrificial king" took on the religious responsibilities of the deposed kings.

Late republic and the empire

As contact with the Greeks increased, the old Roman gods became associated with Greek gods. Therefore Jupiter was perceived to be the same deity as Zeus. Mars was associated with Ares and Neptune with Poseidon. The Roman gods also assumed the attributes and myth of these Greek gods.

The transference of the anthropomorphic qualities to Roman Gods, and the prevalence of Greek philosophy among well-educated Romans, brought about an increasing neglect of the old rites, and in the 1st century BC the religious importance of the old priestly offices declined rapidly, though their civic importance and political influence remained. Roman religion in the empire tended more and more to center on the imperial house, and several emperors were deified after their deaths.

Spread of Eastern Religions

Under the empire, numerous foreign cults grew popular, such as the worship of the Egyptian Isis and the Persian Mithras. Also, starting from the second century, Christianity began to spread in the Empire. Despite persecutions, Christianity steadily gained converts. It became an officially supported religion in the Roman state under Constantine I. All cults save Christianity were prohibited in AD 391 by an edict of Emperor Theodosius I.



The free citizens of Rome were divided into two classes: patricians and plebeians. The patricians were the dominant class. Originally, only they could be elected for office. Intermarrying between the classes was forbidden and the patrician title could only be inherited, not earned. During the Roman Republic, a series of struggles led to plebeians gaining equal, or nearly equal, rights.

Late in the republic, the distinction between patricians and plebeians started to lose its meaning. A new ruling class, the optimates, were those families, patrician or plebeian, who had produced a consul. During the empire, the class division fell into disuse and was largely forgotten.

In the early Republic citizens were also divided into classes according to the armament they could afford to buy for themselves for military service. The richest class was the equestrians or knights, who could afford a war horse. There were both patrician and plebeian equestrians. Later in the Republic fixed amounts of wealth replaced military equipment as the basis of classification. Higher classes had more political power and prestige than lower classes. This system also lost its meaning after the abolition of the Republic.


The basic units of Roman society were households and families. Household included the head of the household (paterfamilias), his wife, children, and other relatives. In the upper classes slaves and servants were also part of the household. Romans certainly did not see the family as those of the suburban West do today - their family was more far reaching in definition. The head of the household had great power over those living with him: could force marriage and divorce, sell his children into slavery and possibly even had the right to kill family members (this has been recently disputed in academic circles). This particular manifestation of familial power was called "patria potestas", literally "fathers power". One interesting point of note is that wives did not always count as family, as they could choose to continue recognising their father's family as their true family, and not necessarily adopt their husband's family.

Groups of related households formed a family (gens). Families were based on blood ties (or adoption), but were also political and economic alliances. Especially during the Roman Republic some powerful families, or Gentes Maiores came to dominate political life.


Upper class Roman fathers usually began seeking husbands for their daughters when they reached an age between twelve and fourteen. The husband was almost always older than the bride; he might be two years older or three times her age. She was expected to give little or no objection in the bargaining between families - although there is proof that some daughters had more say in their choice of husbands than we might expect (Cicero's daughter and wife planned the daughter's husband, all the time assuming that Cicero would just say yes - and he did). While upper class girls married very young, there is evidence that lower class women - plebeians, freedwomen etc - often married in their late teens or early twenties. Marriage for them was not about economic and political gain in the cut throat world of Roman politics, so it was not as urgent.

Friends and family attended an engagement ceremony before the wedding. Here the father was asked whether he promised to give his daughter ("Spondesne?") and he was expected to say he did ("Spondeo"). The bride-to-be then received financial gifts including a ring to wear on her middle finger, which many believed contained a nerve that ran straight to the heart.


Main article: Thermae

Most Romans visited public or private baths daily, not just to get clean but for social reasons as well. The baths contained three main facilities for bathing. After undressing in the apodyterium or changing room, Romans would proceed to the tepidarium or warm room. In the moderate dry heat of the tepidarium, some performed warm-up exercises and stretched while others oiled themselves or had slaves oil them. The tepidarium’s main purpose was to promote sweating to prepare for the next room, the caldarium or hot room. The caldarium, unlike the tepidarium, was extremely humid and hot. Temperatures in the caldarium could reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Many contained steam baths and a cold-water fountain known as the labrum. The last room was the frigidarium or cold room, which offered a cold bath for cooling off after the caldarium.


A Roman denarius, a standardized silver coin (See also Roman currency).
A Roman denarius, a standardized silver coin (See also Roman currency).
Main article: Roman commerce

The early economy was largely dependent on slave labour, and slaves constituted around 20 percent of the population. A slave’s price was dependent on their skills, and a slave trained in medicine was equivalent to 50 agricultural slaves. In the later period, hired labour became more economical than slave ownership.


Main article: Roman finance

Although barter was common (and often used in tax collection) the monetary system was highly developed, with brass, bronze, and precious metal coins in circulation throughout the empire and beyond (some have been discovered in India).

Before the 3rd Century BC, copper was traded by weight (in unmarked lumps) across Central Italy. The original copper coins (As) had a face value of a Roman pound of copper, but weighed less (according to Mommsen early coins weighed at most 312 g, but late second century BC As contained only 19 g of copper). Hence, Roman money's utility as a unit of exchange consistently exceeded its intrinsic value as metal; after Nero began debasing the silver Denarii, Mommsen estimated its legal value at one third greater than intrinsic (it was an offence to refuse payment in Denarii).


Horses were too expensive, and other pack animals too slow, for mass trade on the roman roads, which connected military posts (rather than markets) and were rarely designed for wheels. Therefore, there was little transport of commodities between Roman regions, until the rise of Roman maritime trade in the second century BC. The agricultural free trade changed the Italian landscape, and by the first century BC vast grape and olive estates had supplanted the yeoman farmers who were unable to match the imported grain price. The volume of trade was so great that a single mound of cargo pottery vessel fragments is over forty metres high and a kilometre around.

Link: Sources of income and means of living from Johnston's The Private Life of the Romans.


The goal of education in Rome was to make the students effective speakers. School started on March 24th each year. Every school day started in early morning and continued throughout the afternoon. Originally, boys were taught to read and write by their father, assuming he knew how. Later, around 200 BC, boys and some girls were sent to schools outside the home around age 6. Basic Roman education included reading, writing, and counting, and their materials consisted of scrolls and books. At age 13, students learned about Greek and Roman literature and grammar in school. At age 16, some students went on to rhetoric school. Poorer people did not go to school, but were usually taught by their parents because school was not free..

Arts and literature

Rome produced many great authors and playwrights. A great deal of the literary work produced by Roman authors in the early Republic was political or satirical in nature. The rhetorical works of Cicero, in particular, were popular. Some of the most popular plays of the early Republic were comedies, especially those of Terence, a freed Roman slave captured during the First Punic War.


Roman Kingdom

Roman Republic

Main article: Roman Republic

The class struggles of the Roman Republic resulted in a mixture of democracy and oligarchy. Democratic institutions included the various popular assemblies, which elected magistrates and made some other important decisions. The senate represented oligarchy.

The republic had no fixed bureaucracy and only collected war taxes. Private citizens aspiring to high office largely paid for public works. In order to prevent any citizen gaining too much power, new magistrates were elected annually and had to share power with a colleague. For example, under normal conditions the highest authority was held by two consuls. In an emergency a temporary dictator could be appointed.

During the Republic the administrative system was revised several times to comply with new demands. In the end it proved inefficient for controlling the vastly expanded empire. This was one of the reasons for the birth of the Roman Empire.

Roman Empire

Main article: Roman Empire

Provinces and intermediate level

See also: Pretorian Prefectures, Dioceses, Roman provinces

Local administration

See also: Municipia, Coloniae

Ruling Bodies


Main article: Roman Senate

The Roman Senate was an advisory body consisting of some of the most influential citizens. It held great authority (auctoritas in Latin), but no actual legislative power (imperium). In the Roman Republic the Censors chose new members for the Senate among the most accomplished citizens. They could also remove a senator from his office if he was found morally corrupt. Later, membership in the Senate followed from the election as a Quaestor. In the Roman Empire the Emperor appointed senators, although for much of the time of the Empire elections were still held, and the results followed. However, this veil of democracy, created by Augustus at the beginning of the transformation from Republic to Empire, was deceiving. In reality, no one disliked by the Emperor could stand. The lists for elections were carefully monitored by the Emperor's civil service, and pruned as necessary. Furthermore, when there was a competitive election, the Emperor would issue his opinion on who should be elected. Needless to say that the smiled upon would always get elected.


Main article: Military history of the Roman Empire

See also: Roman legion and Roman Triumph

The early Roman army was, like those of other contemporary city-states, a citizen force where the bulk of the troops fought as hoplites. The soldiers were required to supply their own arms and would return to civilian life once their service was ended.

The first of the great army reformers, Camillus, reorganized the army to adopt manipular tactics and divided the infantry into three lines: hastati, principes and triarii.

The middle class smallholders had traditionally been the backbone of the Roman army but, by the end of the 2nd century BC, the self-owning farmer had largely disappeared as a social class. Faced with acute manpower problems, Gaius Marius transformed the army into a fully professional force and accepted recruits from the lower classes.

The last army reorganization came when Emperor Constantine I divided the army into a static defense force and a mobile field army. During the Late Empire, Rome also became increasingly dependent upon allied contingents, foederati.

Drugs were very prevalent in the Roman Empire. Emperor Augustus frequently smoked opiates, believing that they improved his decision making skills.

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