Ancient Rome

The story of ancient Rome is a tale of how a small community of shepherds in central Italy grew to become one of the greatest empires in history--and then collapsed. According to Roman legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 B.C. By 275 B.C., it controlled most of the Italian Peninsula. At its peak, in the A.D. 100's, the Roman Empire covered about half of Europe, much of the Middle East, and the north coast of Africa. The empire then began to crumble, partly because it was too big for Rome to govern. In A.D. 476, Germanic tribes overthrew the last Roman emperor.

The millions of people who lived in the Roman Empire spoke many languages and followed many different customs and religions. But the Roman Empire bound them together under a common system of law and government. This remarkable achievement has aroused interest and admiration from ancient times until today.

Ancient Rome had enormous influence on the development of Western civilization because the empire was so vast and lasted so long. The language of the ancient Romans, Latin, became the basis of French, Italian, Spanish, and the other Romance languages. Roman law provided the foundation for the legal systems of most of the countries in Western Europe and Latin America. Roman principles of justice and the Roman political system contributed to the building of governments in the United States and other countries. Roman roads, bridges, and aqueducts--some of which are still used--served as models for engineers in later ages.

This article provides a broad overview of the people, achievements, government, and history of ancient Rome. Many separate World Book articles have detailed information. For a list of these articles, see the Related Articles at the end of the article.

The Roman world:

The land. Ancient Rome arose on seven wooded hills along the Tiber River in central Italy. The Tiber provided a convenient route to the sea, which lay about 15 miles (24 kilometers) to the west. But Rome was far enough from the sea to escape raids by pirates. Rome's hills were very steep, and so the city could be easily defended against enemy attacks. Fertile soil and excellent building materials lay nearby.

The Italian Peninsula gradually came under Roman rule. The peninsula jutted far out into the Mediterranean Sea. Italy thus occupied a central position among the lands bordering the Mediterranean. To the north, the Alps helped protect Italy against invaders from central Europe. But mountain passes let through a slow stream of settlers, who were attracted by Italy's mild climate and fertile soil. In time, the steadily growing population provided the soldiers Rome needed for expansion.

Roman rule slowly spread over all the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The Romans called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) or Mare Internum (Inland Sea). At its greatest size, in the A.D. 100's, the Roman Empire also extended as far north as the British Isles and as far east as the Persian Gulf.

The Roman Empire had many natural resources. They included fertile grainfields in Sicily and northern Africa, rich mineral deposits in Spain and Britain, and marble quarries in Greece. There were also thick forests in Asia Minor and thriving vineyards and olive orchards in Gaul (now France, Belgium, and part of Germany).

The people. The Roman Empire probably had from 50 to 70 million people at its height. Of that number, nearly l million people lived in Rome, and from 5 to 6 million lived in the rest of Italy.

The peoples of the Roman Empire differed greatly in their customs and spoke many languages. Peoples in Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, and Greece had cultures far older than that of Rome. But many peoples in Britain, Germany, and Gaul were introduced to more advanced civilization by the Romans. Throughout the empire, government officials and members of the upper class spoke Latin and Greek. But most conquered peoples continued to use their native languages. For example, people spoke Celtic in Gaul and Britain, Berber in northern Africa, and Aramaic in Syria and Palestine.

The people of ancient Rome were divided into various social classes. Very few Romans belonged to the upper classes. Members of the Senate and their families made up the most powerful upper-class group. Most people belonged to the lower classes and had little social standing. Within this group, Romans distinguished between citizens and slaves. Citizens included small farmers, city workers, and soldiers. Most slaves were people captured in warfare. In time, slaves could buy or be given their freedom and become citizens.

As the Roman world expanded, a new social class became important. This class consisted of prosperous landowners and business people, who were called equites (pronounced EHK wuh teez). Under the Roman emperors, equites held important government positions and helped run the empire's civil service.

Roman citizenship was eventually granted to most peoples of the empire. Citizenship meant protection under Roman law. The privilege of citizenship promoted loyalty to the empire and gave peoples of all classes and all regions a greater stake in its success.

Life of the people:

City life. Rome was the capital and the largest city of the Roman Empire. It had almost a million inhabitants at its height. No earlier city had achieved such size and splendor. Alexandria, in Egypt, was the empire's second largest city. It had about 750,000 people. Other important cities included Antioch in Syria and Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).

Cities in the Roman Empire served as centers of trade and culture. Roman engineers planned cities carefully. They located public buildings conveniently and provided for sewerage and water supply systems. Emperors or wealthy individuals paid for the construction of such large public buildings as baths, sports arenas, and theaters. At the heart of a Roman city lay the forum--a large open space surrounded by markets, government buildings, and temples. Rich and poor mingled in the bustling forum and at the baths, theaters, and arenas.

Rural life. The first Romans were shepherds and farmers. In early Rome, farmers who worked their own land formed the backbone of the Roman army. They planted their crops in spring and harvested them in fall. During the summer, they fought in the army.

Rural life changed after Rome began to expand its territory. Many farmers were sent to fight wars abroad for long periods, and so they had to sell their land. Wealthy Romans then built up large estates on which they raised crops and livestock to sell for a profit. They bought slaves to work for them and also rented land to tenant farmers. For most farmers, life was hard. But they could look forward to regular festivals, such as those at planting and at harvesttime, which provided athletic games and other entertainment.

Family life. The head of a Roman household was the paterfamilias (father of the family). He had total power over all members of his household. The paterfamilias even had the power to sell his children into slavery or have them killed. As long as his father lived, a son could not own property or have legal authority over his own children. Many households were therefore large and included married sons and their families.

Children in ancient Rome enjoyed many of the same kinds of toys and games that delight children today. For example, they had dolls, carts, hobbyhorses, and board games. They also had dogs, cats, and other pets. But Roman children took on adult responsibilities sooner than most children do today. In poor rural families, children had to work in the fields. In wealthier families, children married early. Most boys married when they were 15 to 18 years old, and most girls when they were 13 or 14. Parents selected marriage partners for their children, who had little say in the matter. Many marriages were arranged for the economic or political benefits they would bring to the families.

Education. Ancient Rome had no public schools. Children received their earliest education at home under their parents' supervision. From the age of 6 or 7 until about 10 or 11, most boys and some girls attended a private school or studied at home. They learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. Slaves taught the children in many homes. Some slaves, especially those from Greece, had more education than their masters.

Most Roman children who received further education came from wealthy families. Until age 14, they studied mainly Latin and Greek grammar and literature. They also studied mathematics, music, and astronomy.

Higher education in ancient Rome meant the study of rhetoric--that is, the art of public speaking and persuasion. Only upper-class Romans who planned a career in law or politics studied rhetoric. Training in rhetoric provided the skills needed to argue cases before law courts or to debate issues in the Roman Senate. To improve their abilities as public speakers, students might also read philosophy and history. Few women studied rhetoric because women were forbidden to enter politics.

Religion. The earliest Romans believed that gods and goddesses had power over agriculture and all aspects of daily life. For example, Ceres was the goddess of the harvest, the goddess Vesta guarded the hearth fire, and the god Janus stood watch at the door. Even Jupiter, who later became the supreme Roman god, was first worshiped as a sky god with power over the weather.

During the 300's B.C., the Romans came into increasing contact with Greek ideas. They then began to worship Greek gods and goddesses. They gave them Roman names and built temples and shrines in their honor.

The government controlled the religion of ancient Rome. Priests were government officials, who were either elected or appointed to office. They performed public ceremonies to win the favor of the gods and goddesses for the state.

By A.D. 100, many Romans had lost interest in their religion. They became attracted to the religions of the Middle East, which appealed strongly to the emotions. Some of these religions promised salvation and happiness after death. Christianity, one of the Middle Eastern religions, gained many followers.

Food, clothing, and shelter. The Romans began their day at sunrise. Daylight was precious because the oil lamps the people used after dark gave off little light. Breakfast was usually a light meal of bread and cheese. Most Romans ate lunch just before midday. For wealthy Romans, it consisted of meat or fish and olives or fruit. Dinner, the main meal, began in the late afternoon so that it could end before sunset.

Wealthy Romans feasted on several courses at dinner. Their first course might include eggs, vegetables, and shellfish. The main course featured meat, fish, or fowl. For dessert, they usually ate honey-sweetened cakes and fruit. Poorer Romans ate much simpler meals. For example, their dinners consisted mainly of porridge and bread plus some olives, fruit, or cheese.

The Romans wore simple clothes made of wool or linen. The main garment for both men and women was a gown called a tunic. It hung to the knees or below. The tunic also served as sleepwear. Over the tunic, men wore a toga and women wore a palla. Both garments resembled a large sheet, which was draped around the body. Men almost always wore white clothing, though the toga of upper-class Romans had a purple border. Women's clothing might be dyed various colors.

In the cities, most Romans lived in crowded apartment buildings from three to five stories high. Only rich Romans could afford houses. Their houses were built around a courtyard called an atrium. Most rooms surrounding the atrium were small and windowless. But the atrium was spacious and had a roof opening that let in light and air. Large houses had a second courtyard, called a peristyle, which served as a garden. Poor people in farm areas lived in huts made of sun-dried bricks.

Recreation. The Romans observed many holidays. Most holidays were religious festivals in honor of gods and goddesses. Holidays had become so numerous by the A.D. 100's that Emperor Marcus Aurelius limited them to 135 days a year. On many holidays, the emperor or wealthy government officials sponsored free, public entertainments in outdoor arenas called amphitheaters.

The most famous amphitheater in the city of Rome, the Colosseum, seated about 50,000 spectators. Many of the entertainments held there were violent and bloody. For example, trained warriors called gladiators fought one another to the death. Most gladiators were slaves, prisoners of war, or condemned criminals. In other events, armed men fought wild animals, or starving beasts attacked condemned criminals or Christians.

Chariot races drew huge crowds in ancient Rome. The races took place in a long, oval arena called a circus. The Circus Maximus, the largest arena in Rome, held about 250,000 people. Skilled charioteers became popular heroes. Many Romans bet on their favorites.

Three theaters in Rome staged comedies and serious dramas by Greek and Roman authors. But most Romans preferred mimes (short plays about everyday life) or pantomimes (stories told through music and dancing).

Roman emperors built lavish public baths decorated in marble and gold to encourage daily exercise and bathing. Bathers moved through steam rooms and indoor pools of warm, hot, and cold water. Romans also visited the baths for recreation and to meet with friends. Gymnasiums, exercise grounds, gardens, sitting rooms, and libraries surrounded the bathing areas.

Work of the people:

Agriculture. About 90 per cent of the people of the Roman world lived by farming. The Romans understood the need to rotate crops. They also knew that by leaving half of every field unplanted each year the soil would be enriched for a crop the next year. However, few small landowners could afford that practice.

In fertile valleys north and south of Rome, farmers grew such grains as wheat, rye, and barley. On hillsides and in less fertile soil, they planted olive groves and vineyards and grazed sheep and goats. Roman farmers also raised pigs, cattle, and poultry. As the empire expanded, farms in Gaul, Spain, and northern Africa supplied Rome with many agricultural products.

Manufacturing. The city of Rome never became a manufacturing center in ancient times. It imported most of its manufactured goods. Other Italian communities supplied the capital with such products as pottery, glassware, weapons, tools, and textiles. They also made the bricks and lead pipes needed by Rome's booming construction industry. As the empire expanded, important manufacturing centers developed outside Italy. They produced goods for local use and for export to Rome.

Mining was one of ancient Rome's most important activities. The empire's great building projects required large supplies of marble and other materials. Marble came from Greece and northern Italy. Italy also had copper and rich deposits of iron ore. Most of the empire's gold and silver came from Spain. Mines in Britain produced lead and tin. Work in the mines was hard and unhealthful. The Romans forced slaves, condemned criminals, and prisoners of war to work in the mines.

Trade thrived as the Roman Empire expanded. Huge sailing ships carried cargo from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other. Carts and wagons hauled goods over the empire's vast network of roads.

The city of Rome's chief imports included foods, raw materials, and manufactured goods. The Italian Peninsula exported wine and olive oil. The Romans also traded with lands outside the empire. For example, they imported silk from China, spices and precious gems from India, and ivory from Africa. The Roman government issued coins of gold, silver, copper, and bronze and controlled the supply of money, which made trade easier.

Transportation and communication. An excellent system of roads crisscrossed the Roman Empire. The roads covered about 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers) and helped hold the empire together. The Roman army built the roads to speed the movement of troops. But the roads also promoted trade and communication. The highly organized Roman postal system depended on the road system. The straight, smooth roads designed by Roman engineers were superior to all other roads of the time.

The Romans built up the largest fleet of cargo ships of ancient times. Their ships traveled to all ports on the Mediterranean Sea and on such large rivers as the Rhine, Danube, and Nile.

In Rome, a government newssheet called Acta Diurna (Daily Events) was posted throughout the city. The paper reported on new laws and other important events.

Arts and sciences

Architecture and engineering. The ancient Romans adopted the basic forms of Greek architecture. These forms included the temple surrounded by columns and the covered walkway known as a portico. The Romans also created new kinds of structures, such as public baths and amphitheaters, that held many people. In general, the Romans designed larger and grander buildings than did the Greeks.

Two achievements of Roman engineering made the large Roman buildings possible. They were the arch and concrete. Arches supported such structures as bridges and the aqueducts that carried water to Roman cities. Arched roofs called vaults spanned vast interior spaces of buildings. Vaults eliminated the need for columns to hold up roofs. Although the Romans did not invent the arch, they were the first people to realize its possibilities. Concrete, which the Romans did invent, provided a strong building material for walls and vaults.

Sculpture and painting. Roman sculptors and painters borrowed from Greek art and native Italian traditions. Their works thus reflected both the lifelike but idealized human figures of Greek art and the specific details of Italian traditions.

Roman sculptors created realistic portraits that revealed individual personalities. They also illustrated historical events by means of carvings on large public monuments. For example, the richly decorated Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) celebrated the peace brought to the empire by Emperor Augustus. Carvings on tall columns and triumphal arches told of military campaigns.

Large wallpaintings decorated the houses of well-to-do Romans. Such paintings showed garden landscapes, events from Roman mythology, and scenes of everyday life. The richly colored, carefully created paintings made rooms in Roman houses seem larger and brighter.

Literature of ancient Rome was greatly influenced by Greek poetry and drama. The Roman poets and dramatists Naevius and Ennius and the playwrights Terence and Plautus adapted Greek forms to Roman audiences. Cato and Sallust based their historical writings on Greek models. Powerful and original works were produced by Rome's greatest poets--Catullus, Lucretius, Ovid, and Virgil--and by its most brilliant historian, Tacitus. Other important works of Latin literature include the speeches of Cicero, the satires of Horace and Juvenal, and the letters of Cicero and Pliny the Younger.

Science. The ancient Romans made few scientific discoveries. But the work of Greek scientists flourished under Roman rule. The Greek geographer Strabo traveled widely in the Roman Empire and wrote careful descriptions of what he saw. Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer living in Egypt, developed a system of astronomy that was accepted for nearly 1,500 years. Galen, a Greek physician, proposed important medical theories based on scientific experiments. The Romans themselves assembled important collections of scientific information. For example, Pliny the Elder gathered the scientific knowledge of his day in a 37-volume encyclopedia.


A series of kings ruled ancient Rome at the beginning of its history. Each king was advised by a Senate made up of the heads of Rome's leading families. Citizens met in assemblies to vote on decisions made by the king and the Senate.

The Roman Republic was established in 509 B.C., after Roman nobles overthrew the king. The new government kept many features of the earlier system, including the Senate and citizen assemblies. Two elected officials called consuls headed the government. The consuls shared power, but either consul could veto the actions of the other. A consul served for only a year.

The Senate was the most powerful government body of the Roman Republic. The Senate conducted foreign policy, passed decrees (official orders), and handled the government's finances. Senators, unlike consuls, served for life. At first, all senators were patricians--that is, members of Rome's oldest and richest families. Patricians controlled not only the Senate but also the assembly that elected the consuls and other important officials. All the rest of Rome's citizens, who were called plebeians, had little political influence.

To obtain political rights, plebeians formed their own assembly, the Concilium Plebis, and elected leaders called tribunes. Largely through the work of the tribunes, plebeians gradually gained the same political rights as the patricians. In time, a new and larger assembly, the Comitia Tributa, developed. It represented both patricians and plebeians, but plebeians largely controlled the assembly.

The Roman Republic lasted nearly 500 years, until 27 B.C. It combined strong heads of state, a respected Senate of senior statesmen, and assemblies where the people could be heard. For centuries afterward, historians and political scientists viewed the Roman Republic as a model of balanced government.

The Roman Empire was established in 27 B.C., after the republic was destroyed by 20 years of civil war. The empire lasted until Rome fell in A.D. 476. During that time, emperors held supreme authority. The republican institutions of government were kept. But emperors nominated the consuls and appointed new senators. The citizen assemblies had little power. Emperors headed the army and directed the making of laws. They relied more on their own advisers than on the Senate. A vast civil service handled the empire's day-to-day business.

The law. The Romans published their first known code of law about 450 B.C. This code, called the Laws of the Twelve Tables, set down accepted practices in written form. Roman law remained flexible. It depended on the interpretations of skilled lawyers and judges.

Through the years, a general set of legal principles developed that governed all the various peoples living under Roman rule. Roman lawyers called this set of principles the jus gentium (law of nations). The jus gentium was based on common-sense notions of fairness. It took into account local customs and practices.

The army. Under the Roman Republic, the army was made up only of citizens who owned land. The Romans felt that property owners had a greater stake in the republic than did landless people and would therefore defend it better.

As Rome began to fight wars overseas, it required more soldiers, and they had to serve for longer periods. The government abolished the property requirement in 107 B.C. and opened the army to volunteers. The army then offered a long-term career for many Romans. In time, more and more soldiers were recruited from the provinces. By about 20 B.C., some 300,000 men served in the Roman army. The number of soldiers changed little thereafter. Most soldiers were professionals, whose training and discipline made the Roman army one of the greatest fighting forces in history.

Roman soldiers did not only fight. They also built roads, aqueducts, walls, and tunnels. After Rome reached its greatest size, the army's main task was to defend the empire's frontiers. Many troops were thus stationed along the Rhine and Danube rivers. Other important army posts stood in Egypt, Syria, and Britain.


Beginnings. Historians know little about the early days of ancient Rome. According to Roman legend, twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, established a settlement in 753 B.C. on the Palatine Hill, one of Rome's hills overlooking the Tiber River. Greek legend told of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who founded a settlement in central Italy after the destruction of Troy by the Greeks in the Trojan War. Some versions combined the two myths and made Romulus and Remus descendants of Aeneas.

The first known settlers of ancient Rome lived on the Palatine Hill about 1000 B.C. Most historians believe that these settlers were a people called Latins. Latins also inhabited many neighboring towns in Latium, the region surrounding Rome.

About 600 B.C., Rome and other towns in Latium came under the control of the Etruscans, a people who lived north of Latium. The Etruscans had the most advanced civilization in Italy. They built roads, temples, and public buildings in Rome. They also promoted trade and introduced the idea of the citizen assembly. Under Etruscan rule, Rome grew from a village of farmers and shepherds into a prosperous city. The city became so powerful that the people were able to drive out the Etruscans in 509 B.C.

The early republic. The Roman Republic was established in 509 B.C., after the overthrow of the monarchy. However, the institutions of republican government developed gradually through a long struggle between the landowning upper class--that is, the patricians--and all the other citizens, the plebeians. At first, only patricians held political office, served as priests, and interpreted Roman law. Plebeians had few political rights and often received unfair treatment from judges.

Plebeians fought for political rights during the 400's and 300's B.C. By 287 B.C., they had won the right to hold any public or religious office and had gained equality under the law. But vast differences in wealth and social position still separated most plebeians from patricians.

Meanwhile, Rome was slowly gaining military control over the rest of the Italian Peninsula. In 493 B.C., Rome entered an alliance with the Latin League, a federation of cities of Latium. Rome had become the largest city in Latium by 396 B.C. and thereafter used the league's resources to fight wars with its neighbors. Rome offered protection and certain privileges of Roman citizenship to the cities it conquered. In return, the conquered cities supplied the Roman army with soldiers.

During the 300's B.C., Rome won victories over the Etruscans. Rome also defeated the Gauls, who had invaded Italy from the north and burned Rome in 390 B.C. In 338 B.C., Rome overpowered and disbanded the Latin League. In 290 B.C., the Romans conquered the Samnites, a mountain people who lived south of Rome. Rome ruled most of the Italian Peninsula by 275 B.C., after a victory over the Greek colony of Tarentum in southern Italy.

Expansion overseas made Rome a mighty empire during the 200's and 100's B.C. Rome came into conflict first with Carthage, a sea power and trading center on the coast of northern Africa. Rome and Carthage fought for mastery of the Mediterranean Sea in three struggles called the Punic Wars. In the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.), Rome conquered Sicily, an island off the tip of Italy, and made it the first Roman province. Rome also seized two other Mediterranean islands--Sardinia and Corsica. In the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.), the brilliant Carthaginian general Hannibal led his army over the Alps into Italy. He won several key battles, but Roman manpower and endurance eventually wore him down. Under Publius Cornelius Scipio's leadership, the Roman forces defeated Hannibal in 202 B.C. In the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.), Rome destroyed Carthage. These victories brought the Mediterranean coasts of Spain and Africa under Roman control.

After the Second Punic War, Rome began to expand in the east. At first, Rome acted to protect its allies along Italy's east coast from pirate raids. But it soon became involved in conflicts between Greece and Macedonia. Macedonia, which lay north of Greece, had conquered the Greeks in 338 B.C. Rome posed as the liberator of the Greeks. But by the 140's B.C., it had taken control of Greece and Macedonia. In 133 B.C., King Attalus III of Pergamum, a Roman ally, died and left his kingdom (now part of Turkey) to Rome.

Two reasons help explain Rome's remarkable expansion overseas. First, Rome built an alliance of cities in Italy that supplied the army with enormous manpower. Second, pride in their military power and government institutions gave the Romans great confidence in their superiority and in the justness of their cause.

Breakdown of the republic. Although the Romans had triumphed overseas, they faced growing discontent at home. Wealthy Romans profited from the tax revenues, slaves, and looted property that poured into Rome from defeated lands. But unemployment rose as plantations worked by slaves drove out the small farmers, and the gap between rich and poor widened. In 133 and 123 B.C., two Roman tribunes tried to help the poor. Tiberius Gracchus and his brother, Gaius Gracchus, promoted a program to distribute state-owned land to the poor. But the majority of the Senate opposed them, and both brothers were assassinated.

Conflicts among leaders caused upheaval in the Roman Republic during its last 100 years. Revolts by Rome's Italian allies, a war in Asia, and unrest at home weakened the republic. In 82 B.C., the Roman general Lucius Sulla became dictator. Sulla restored stability to the government and strengthened the Senate by bringing in new leaders. Sulla retired in 79 B.C., but he had given Rome a taste of one-man rule.

In the 60's B.C., Rome again began to expand overseas. The Roman general Pompey conquered eastern Asia Minor, Syria, and Judea. He returned to Rome a popular hero, but the Senate refused to recognize his victories. As a result, Pompey and two other Roman leaders--Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus--formed a three-man political alliance called the First Triumvirate in 60 B.C. Crassus died in warfare in 53 B.C. Other Roman leaders then tried to split the two surviving members of the Triumvirate.

From 58 to 51 B.C., Caesar conquered Gaul, thereby adding the huge territory west of the Rhine River to the Roman world. Pompey and the Senate feared Caesar's power and ambition, and they ordered him to give up his command. But Caesar marched his troops across the Rubicon, a stream that separated Italy from Gaul, and invaded Italy in 49 B.C. In the civil war that followed, Caesar defeated Pompey and his followers. By 45 B.C., Caesar had become sole ruler of the Roman world. A group of aristocrats who hoped to revive the Roman Republic assassinated him in 44 B.C.

Civil war again broke out after Caesar's death. In 43 B.C., Caesar's adopted son and heir, Octavian, formed the Second Triumvirate with two army officers, Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus. Octavian and Antony defeated Caesar's enemies and soon pushed Lepidus aside. Octavian and Antony then fought each other for control of Rome. Antony sought the support of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, and they fell in love. In 31 B.C., Octavian defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium off the west coast of Greece. The next year, the Romans conquered Egypt and made it a Roman province.

After the defeat of Antony, Octavian was the unchallenged leader of the Roman world. In 27 B.C., he became the first Roman emperor and took the name Augustus, meaning exalted. In spite of his power, Augustus avoided the title of emperor. He preferred to be called princeps, meaning first citizen. Nearly 20 years of civil war had destroyed the republic. Only a strong central authority seemed able to govern the empire.

The height of the empire. The reign of Augustus marked the beginning of a long period of stability, which became known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). The Pax Romana lasted about 200 years. Augustus reestablished orderly government and the rule of law. The Senate, consuls, and tribunes still functioned, but Augustus had supreme power. He commanded the army, controlled the provinces, and filled the Senate with his supporters.

Augustus established strong defenses along the frontiers of the Roman Empire and kept the provinces under control. He began to develop a civil service staffed by skilled administrators to help govern the empire. Trade flourished, and art and literature reached a high point during what has been called the Augustan Age.

Augustus died in A.D. 14. He had groomed his stepson Tiberius to succeed him, thereby preparing the way for a succession of emperors. Members of Augustus' family, known as the Julio-Claudians, ruled until A.D. 68. They were followed by the Flavian family, which reigned until A.D. 96. The Roman Empire reached its height of power and prosperity during the reign of the Antonines, from A.D. 96 to 180. The Antonine rulers--Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius--were noted for their wisdom and ability.

The Roman Empire grew relatively little after the reign of Augustus. In A.D. 43, Emperor Claudius invaded Britain. Trajan seized Dacia (now part of Hungary and Romania) in A.D. 106. The stable political and military situation encouraged Romans to invest in land. Small farms and large estates thrived. Roman roads made excellent communications possible. Roman emperors encouraged the founding of new towns and cities, even in remote areas. The civil service grew increasingly skilled at running the day-to-day business of the empire. Provincial governors usually served long terms and so gained familiarity with the territories they controlled.

The authority of the Roman emperors gradually grew stronger. An emperor's order overruled any act of the Senate. The Romans worshiped an emperor as a god after his death. Emperor worship provided a common base of loyalty among the empire's peoples, who otherwise observed many different religions and traditions.

In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, a new religion developed based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Although the Romans crucified Jesus for treason about A.D. 30, His followers spread Christianity throughout the empire. The Roman government took little notice of Christianity at first. Persecutions of Christians stemmed from local hostility rather than orders from Rome.

Growing disorder. Marcus Aurelius became emperor in A.D. 161. He defended the Roman Empire against attacks by Germanic tribes from the north and Parthians from the east. But growing disorder plagued the empire after his son, Emperor Commodus, died in 192. Many emperors seized power by force, and rival leaders fought for the throne. From 235 to 284, 60 men were proclaimed emperor. Most of the men were army commanders whose troops named them emperor.

The enormous size of the Roman Empire hastened its breakdown. A central authority in Rome could no longer hold the empire together. In addition, the struggles for power among Roman generals seriously weakened the empire's defenses. The Goths, a Germanic people, invaded Roman territory many times during the 200's, and the Persians overran Mesopotamia and Syria.

Temporary recovery. Diocletian, a Roman general, was proclaimed emperor by his troops in 284. Diocletian realized that one man could no longer govern the empire. To restore order, he divided the provinces into smaller units. Each unit had its own government and army. He appointed a soldier named Maximian to be co-emperor and two deputies to succeed them. Maximian ruled the western part of the empire, and Diocletian ruled the eastern part. Diocletian's reforms temporarily halted the empire's collapse. But heavy taxes were needed to pay for the larger army and government.

Christians suffered severe persecution during the 200's. Many Romans blamed them for causing the evils of the time by having offended the traditional Roman gods. In 303, Diocletian forbade Christian worship.

Constantine I was named emperor of Rome's western provinces in 306. Diocletian's system of shared rule and succession quickly broke down as several men struggled for the throne. In 312, Constantine defeated his major rival after having had a vision promising victory if he fought under the sign of the cross. In 313, Constantine and Licinius, emperor of the eastern provinces, granted Christians freedom of worship. Constantine and Licinius ruled jointly until 324, when Constantine defeated the co-emperor in war. Constantine, who later became known as "the Great," moved his capital to Byzantium in 330 and renamed the city Constantinople.

Decline and fall. After Constantine died in 337, his three sons and two of his nephews fought for control of the Roman Empire. One of the nephews, Julian, became emperor in 361. Julian tried to check the spread of Christianity and restore the traditional Roman religion. But by the late 300's, Christianity had become the official religion of the empire. The empire was permanently split into the West Roman Empire and the East Roman Empire after Emperor Theodosius I died in 395.

The West Roman Empire grew steadily weaker. The Vandals, Visigoths, and other Germanic peoples invaded Spain, Gaul, and northern Africa. In 410, the Visigoths looted Rome. The fall of the empire is often dated 476. That year, the Germanic chieftain Odoacer forced Romulus Augustulus, the last ruler of the empire, from the throne. Germanic chiefs had already begun to carve up the empire into several kingdoms. The East Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when the Turks captured Constantinople.

The Roman heritage. The Roman Empire fell from political power. But its culture and institutions survived and shaped Western civilization and the Byzantine world. Roman law became the base of many legal systems in western Europe and Latin America. Latin remained the language of learned Europeans for over 1,000 years. French, Italian, Spanish, and other Romance languages developed from Latin. Roman architecture inspired building design in Europe and North America.

The Roman Empire transmitted its social and economic system to the Middle Ages, the period of European history that followed ancient times. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church replaced the Roman Empire as the unifying force in Europe. The church modeled its administrative structure on the organization of the Roman Empire. It used the Latin language and preserved the classics of Latin literature.

Learning about ancient Rome

Most of our knowledge about ancient Rome comes from written records of the Romans. These records include such documents as law codes, treaties, and decrees of the emperors and the Roman Senate. Other written records are masterpieces of Latin literature. In many works, the authors wrote about events they lived through. Such works include the letters and speeches of Cicero and the letters of Pliny the Younger. Julius Caesar wrote about his conquest of Gaul in Commentaries on the Gallic War. Roman historians supplied the narrations that connected many of the events that other writers described. Livy told of Rome's development from its legendary origins to his own time, the Augustan Age. Tacitus described the period of Roman history from Emperors Tiberius to Domitian. Suetonius wrote biographies of the rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Not all the records left by the Romans are written. Scenes carved on monuments also portray events in Roman history. For example, Trajan's Column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, both in Rome, tell about Trajan's and Marcus Aurelius' military campaigns.

The remains of Roman towns and cities also provide valuable information. Pompeii and Herculaneum, which lay south of Rome, were buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. Excavations of the sites have told us much about everyday life in Roman times.

Interest in the study of ancient Rome reawakened during the Renaissance, the great cultural movement that swept across Europe from the early 1300's to about 1600. The Renaissance started in Italy as scholars rediscovered the works of ancient Greek and Roman authors. In modern times, the first major history of Rome was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), a six-volume work by the British historian Edward Gibbon. During the 1800's, German scholars made important studies of ancient Roman texts. The German historian Theodor Mommsen produced some of the most important studies on Roman law and history. His History of Rome (1854-1856) has influenced all later scholarship on ancient Rome.


Why did rhetoric play an important role in higher education in ancient Rome?

From where does most of our knowledge of ancient Rome come?

What steps did Diocletian take to restore order in the Roman Empire?

What was an atrium and what purpose did it serve?

Why was the army of the Roman Republic made up only of property owners?

Why was building a network of roads so important to the Romans?

What two reasons help explain Rome's remarkable expansion overseas?

Where do Roman legal principles survive today?

What two engineering achievements made it possible for the Romans to construct large buildings?

How did Roman emperors limit the role of the members of the Roman Senate?


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