A gap of 2,000 years may seem to have put the Romans at a safe distance from our own lives and experience, but modern world with its Union is unthinkable without the Roman Empire. It is part of the story of how we came to be what we are.
The Romans are important as a conscious model, for good or ill, to successive generations. Why do they have such a powerful hold on our imaginations? What attracts us to them, or repulses us? What do they have in common with us, and what makes them different?
(Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill at BBC)
People have inhabited Italy for a long time, because of its fertility, but the time when Ancient Rome was powerful did not begin until after the immense power of Greece and Egypt. History of Rome is usually divided into three main phases: before the rise of Rome, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire is usually divided up according to who was emperor.
Before the rise of Rome:
Stone Age (to 3000 BC)
Bronze Age (ca. 3000 BC-1000 BC)
Etruscans (ca. 1000 BC-500 BC)
The early period (ca. 500 BC-300 BC)
The Punic Wars (ca. 275 BC-146 BC)
The Civil Wars (ca. 146 BC-30 BC)
The Julio-Claudians (30 BC-68 AD)
The Flavians (69 AD-96 AD)
The Five Good Emperors (96 AD-161 AD)
The Severans (161 AD-235 AD)
The Third Century Crisis
Constantine and his family (312 AD-363 AD)
The Theodosians (363 AD-450 AD)
The Fall of Roman Empire (476 AD)
After the fall of Rome:
The Lombards, the Pope, and Islam
From its early days as a monarchy, through the Republic and the Roman Empire, Rome lasted a millennium … or two. Those who opt for two millennia date the Fall of Rome to 1453 when the Ottoman Turks took Byzantium (Constantinople). Those who opt for one millennium, agree with Roman historian Edward Gibbon. Edward Gibbon dated the Fall to September 4, A.D. 476 when a so-called barbarian named Odoacer (a Germanic leader in the Roman army), deposed the last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, who was probably partly of Germanic ancestry. Odoacer considered Romulus so paltry a threat he didn’t even bother to assassinate him, but sent him into retirement.
At the time of the coup and for the two preceding centuries, there had been two emperors of Rome. One lived in the east, usually in Constantinople. The other lived in the west. The emperor whom Odoacer deposed had lived in Ravenna, Italy. Afterwards, there was still one Roman emperor, Zeno, who lived in Constantinople. Odoacer became the first barbarian king of the western empire.
Some say the Roman Empire never fell. But assuming it did fall, why did it fall? There are adherents to single factors, but more people think Rome fell because of a combination of such factors as Christianity, decadence, and military problems. Even the rise of Islam is proposed as the reason for Rome’s fall, by some who think the Fall of Rome happened at Constantinople in the 15th Century
Ancient Rome was a civilization that grew out of a small agricultural community founded on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 10th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea, it became one of the largest empires in the ancient world.
In its centuries of existence, Roman civilization shifted from a monarchy to an oligarchic republic to an increasingly autocratic empire. It came to dominate South-Western Europe, South-Eastern Europe/Balkans and the Mediterranean region through conquest and assimilation.
(Rome: The Roman Republic by Richard Hooker. Washington State University)
The empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government.
The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.
(Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, 18th century historian)
One of the striking features of Roman life, whether under the Republic or Empire, was that Rome was specifically an urban culture — Roman civilization depended on the vitality of its cities. There were perhaps only a handful of cities with populations exceeding 75,000, the typical city having about 20,000 permanent residents. The city of Rome, however was greater than 500,000 and some scholars have projected a population of one million or more. Like people who today visit a place like New York City, London or Paris for the first time, most people must have been overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of Rome. Of course, if the Roman poet Juvenal (c.60-131), was an astute observer, Rome must have been a rather horrifying place at the same time.
The very wealthy lived in private homes called domus, which were usually single-storied houses with several rooms and a central courtyard. Although these homes were quite large, only a small percentage of Rome’s population lived in them (yet they occupied one third of the available space). Public buildings of all kinds took up about one quarter of Rome. What this meant is that less than half of the available territory in the city of Rome was used to house the vast majority of Rome’s population. Most Romans lived in multi-storied apartment buildings called insula. Amenities were few and the buildings were hot in the summer, cold in the winter and full of smoke from the fires of small, cooking stoves. Without central plumbing, the residents had to make many trips to wells or fountains for water. Chamber pots had to be emptied, usually into large vats on the landing of each floor, but sometimes their contents were emptied into the streets from a window.
Although life in the city offered many cultural benefits to its people, daily life was actually quite precarious. Because the floors of apartment buildings were supported by wooden beams, and because there was no running water, fires usually meant disaster. And the dark of night brought other problems. Again, the words of the satirist, Juvenal, speak volumes:
Look at other things, the various dangers of nighttime
how high it is to the cornice that breaks
and a chunk beats my brains out
or some slob heaves a jar
broken or cracked from a window
bang! It comes down with a crash and proves its weight on the sidewalk
you are a thoughtless fool, unmindful of sudden disaster
if you don’t make your will before you go out to have dinner
there are as many deaths in the night as there are open windows
where you pass by, if you’re wise, you will pray, in your wretched devotions
People may be content with no more than emptying slop jars
Since the earliest days of the Republic, Roman society was a society of status. Institutionalized in what is called the patron-client system. Roman society was really a network of personal relationships that obligated people to one another in a legal fashion. The man of superior talent and status was a patron (patronus). It was he who could provide benefits to those people of lower status, who then paid him special attention. These were his clients who, in return for the benefits bestowed upon them, owed the patron specific duties. Of course, since we are talking about a network of relationships, a patron was often the client of a more superior patron.
In the early days of the Roman Republic, Rome did not have any public education. What education there was, and we’re speaking of education for the citizens of Rome, was done within the context of the family. In other words, it was within the family that children learned the basic techniques of farming, developed physical skills for war, learned Roman traditions and legends, and in the case of young boys, became acquainted with public affairs. However, in the second and third centuries B.C., contact with the Greek world during the Macedonian Wars stimulated new ideas and education. The wealthiest classes wanted their children exposed to Greek studies, especially rhetoric and philosophy. This was necessary, so they thought, to make them fit for successful public careers. This was a practical ideal because these children would eventually serve Rome as administrators, officials, and perhaps even members of the Senate. Incorporated in this new educational ideal was the concept of humanitas, an education in the liberal arts or humanities. It was hoped that such an education in the liberal arts would prevent overspecialization and instead promote sound character. A sound knowledge of Greek was positively essential and schools taught by professional scholars began to emerge. And, of course, the Romans already had the example of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum.
The very wealthy provided Greek tutors for their children. For the less wealthy there were private schools in which Greek educated slaves would instruct students. Children learned the basic requirements of reading, writing and arithmetic. By the age of twelve or thirteen, and if the child had shown promise, he could attend the grammaticus, or grammar school. The standard curriculum in the liberal arts included literature, dialectics (or the art of reasoning), arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. At the core of this curriculum was, of course, Greek literature. So, students were exposed to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, as well as Pindar’s Odes. The philosophies of Plato, Aristotle and Zeno of Elea, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides and dramas of Sophocles and Aeschylus were also standard fare. One result of all this is that the Romans were bilingual — they knew Latin and Greek. And with the growth of empire, students also knew a third language, their local dialect. Very promising students would end their education by studying Greek oratory, the best schools being found at Athens. Schools in the Empire were important vehicles for spreading Roman culture and ideas. The influx of Greeks scholars, language, and writers also stimulated the Roman mind. And there were first rate Roman writers: Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the Odes of Horace, Livy’s History of Rome, Tacitus’ Histories, and the Satires of Juvenal are just a few examples.
Gladiatorial contests were originally an Etruscan practice and so date back to the days before the Roman Republic was founded. For the Etruscans, armed combat between individuals was connected to religious practice. Men fought to the death beside the tomb of their chief in order to strengthen their spirits as well as the spirits of others. The first Roman practice of these contests took place in 264 B.C. By the reign of Augustus Caesar, however, the gladiatorial contests were made public and although gladiatorial contests were a source of entertainment for everyone, there were those like SENECA who thought differently. The gladiators were usually criminals, slaves or prisoners of war. The Romans, as is well-known, forced the gladiators to attend combat schools where they would learn the necessary skills of killing. At these schools, there were three groups of gladiators, based on defense: those who were heavily armed and wore helmets; those who carried a light shield and sword; and those who carried a net, trident and dagger.
The Romans also had other events during the gladiatorial contests. In one case, boxers wore leather gloves laden with metal studs. Artificial lakes were often created and ships conducted a mock battle (called the Naumachia). These “sea” battles were often recreations of past victories.
The chariot races were the passion of all social classes and bound wealthy and poor together. There were keen rivalries between teams — Reds, Whites, Blues and Greens. Each team had its own faction who would find the best horses and riders. Carried out in the Hippodrome, there were 12 starting boxes, six on either side of the gate above which sat the starter. The drivers cast lots for their starting position. The races were usually seven laps in length, counted by the lowering of an egg or figure of a dolphin, and lasted about 20 minutes. Each race was run for a sum of money and prizes were given for second, third, and fourth place. When two or three chariots from one faction raced, they did so as a team and not individually. There is evidence, as in all sports, of cheating, bribery, throwing an event, and even the doping of horses. The chariot races occupied an entire day of festivities, and there were usually about 24 races. The Romans were not that much fascinated with the skill of either driver or horse, but rather, which color crossed the finish line first. In other words, allegiance was to color and not to skill. Obviously, the major attraction of the races was to place bets and people bet both at the course and off. In fact, the Romans are known for betting on the outcome of just about anything.
(Steven Kreis at The History Guide)
Even during PaxRomana (A long period from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius when the Roman empire was stable and relativly peaceful) there were 32,000 prostitutes in Rome. Emperors like Caligula and Nero became infamous for wasting money on lavish parties where guests drank and ate until they became sick. The most popular amusement was watching the gladiatorial combats in the Colosseum.
There were many public health and environmental problems. Many of the wealthy had water brought to their homes through lead pipes. Previously the aqueducts had even purified the water but at the end lead pipes were thought to be preferable. The wealthy death rate was very high. The continuous interaction of people at the Colosseum, the blood and death probable spread disease. Those who lived on the streets in continuous contact allowed for an uninterrupted strain of disease much like the homeless in the poorer run shelters of today. Alcohol use increased as well adding to the incompetency of the general public.
One of the most difficult problems was choosing a new emperor. Unlike Greece where transition may not have been smooth but was at least consistent, the Romans never created an effective system to determine how new emperors would be selected. The choice was always open to debate between the old emperor, the Senate, the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s’s private army), and the army. Gradually, the Praetorian Guard gained complete authority to choose the new emperor, who rewarded the guard who then became more influential, perpetuating the cycle. Then in 186 A. D. the army strangled the new emperor, the practice began of selling the throne to the highest bidder. During the next 100 years, Rome had 37 different emperors – 25 of whom were removed from office by assassination. This contributed to the overall weaknesses, decline and fall of the empire.
Wealthy Romans lived in a domus, or house, with marble walls, floors with intricate colored tiles, and windows made of small panes of glass. Most Romans, however, were not rich, They lived in small smelly rooms in apartment houses with six or more stories called islands. Each island covered an entire block. At one time there were 44,000 apartment houses within the city walls of Rome. First-floor apartments were not occupied by the poor. The more shaky wooden stairs a family had to climb, the cheaper the rent became. The upper apartments that the poor rented were hot, dirty, crowed, and dangerous. Anyone who could not pay the rent was forced to move out and live on the crime-infested streets. Because of this cities began to decay.
Another factor that had contributed to decline and fall of the Roman empire was that during the last 400 years of the empire, the scientific achievements of the Romans were limited almost entirely to engineering and the organization of public services. They built marvelous roads, bridges, and aqueducts. They established the first system of medicine for the benefit of the poor. But since the Romans relied so much on human and animal labor, they failed to invent many new machines or find new technology to produce goods more efficiently. They could not provide enough goods for their growing population. They were no longer conquering other civilizations and adapting their technology, they were actually losing territory they could not longer maintain with their legions.
Maintaining an army to defend the border of the Empire from barbarian attacks was a constant drain on the government. Military spending left few resources for other vital activities, such as providing public housing and maintaining quality roads and aqueducts. Frustrated Romans lost their desire to defend the Empire. The empire had to begin hiring soldiers recruited from the unemployed city mobs or worse from foreign counties. Such an army was not only unreliable, but very expensive. The emperors were forced to raise taxes frequently which in turn led again to increased inflation.
For years, the well-disciplined Roman army held the barbarians of Germany back. Then in the third century A. D. the Roman soldiers were pulled back from the Rhine-Danube frontier to fight civil war in Italy. This left the Roman border open to attack. Gradually Germanic hunters and herders from the north began to overtake Roman lands in Greece and Gaul (later France). Then in 476 A. D. the Germanic general Odacer or Odovacar overthrew the last of the Roman Emperors, Augustulus Romulus. From then on the western part of the Empire was ruled by Germanic chieftain. Roads and bridges were left in disrepair and fields left untilled. Pirates and bandits made travel unsafe. Cities could not be maintained without goods from the farms, trade and business began to disappear. And Rome was no more in the West. The total fall of the Roman empire.
We are left with a paradox. The Roman Empire set up and spread many of the structures on which the civilisation of modern world depends; and through history it provided a continuous model to imitate. Yet many of the values on which it depended are the antithesis of contemporary value-systems. It retains its hold on our imaginations now, not because it was admirable, but because despite all its failings, it held together such diverse landscape for so long.
(Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill at BBC)