Category Archives: Lesson 5 Roman Empire

Lesson 5. From the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire


Republican Rome

Rome, in around the eighth century BC, was the usual post-Dark Age cluster of clannish villages, struggling for survival, fighting for pre-eminence and squabbling over cattle-rustling, ownership of water sources and land.

The people who first settled there picked a good spot. Situated in northern Latium (the region of western central Italy surrounding Rome), on a group of seven hills, it was the best crossing point of the Tiber river. Not only did it occupy a good defensive position but it was also blessed with a supply of fresh water and easy access to the sea.

By the end of the seventh century BC Rome had begun to develop those indicators of urban civilization: planned streets, temples and a forum.

Between 509 and 264 B.C.E., this city expanded and united almost all of Italy under its control. During this time of conquest, Rome also developed the political institutions of a republic ruled by an aristocratic oligarchy.

 5th century BCE Etruscan bronze wolf to which two small figures of Romulus and Remus were added in 15th century CE

The founding myth for Romans was the tale of Romulus and his twin brother Remus. They were the children of Rhea Silvia and Mars (or in some versions, Hercules). The story tells that Romulus and Remus were chucked into the Tiber to drown by their great-uncle, the king of a local city who feared that they would grow up to claim the throne. But the infants were washed up at the future site of Rome, where they were sheltered and suckled by a she-wolf. After an argument, Romulus murdered his twin, spilling his blood on the foundations of the fledgling city.

For later Romans, who knew of the tumultuous civil wars that had racked their city, that Rome should have come into being against the backdrop of bloody murder must have seemed fitting. The story of Romulus and Remus highlighted a persistent and well-founded fear of the consequences of destructive strife within its ruling elite.

The Roman Republic came into being, with noblemen Lucius Collatinus (Lucretia’s widowed husband) and Marcus Brutus (who had led the revolt against Tarquin) as the first consuls of Rome, ridding Rome of its line of kings.

The Republic which lasted for over 450 years, was a mix of monarchical, oligarchic and democratic elements. The king was replaced by two elected consuls, who could serve no longer than a year in office. This constitutional arrangement was designed to ensure that no individual could amass too much political power or influence.

The first act of the two consuls was to administer an oath, taken by all the Roman people, which promised never to accept another king. As Rome grew, new roles, or magistracies, were added to assist the consuls: praetors, aediles and quaestors, each one with a fixed set of responsibilities and seniority. Rome’s courts interpreted the huge body of laws based on the twelve tablets (see below).


All these officials were elected from the law-making body of the state, the Senate. Roman government revolved around the Senate’s body of aristocratic citizens who distinguished themselves from everyone else with their titles, purple-striped togas, senatorial rings and even special shoes. Senators held the key public offices and many would command provinces and armies.

Lastly, there was a Popular Assembly made up of the whole citizen body, enacted legislation and an army of magistrates who enforced it. The Assembly, as in many other city-states, was essentially powerless, but used by aristocrats to legitimate their power through its support. Plebians attempted to wrest some power back. In 495 BC, during discord over debt and military recruitment, the Senate realized it could not function if it lost almost its entire army, and agreed to the Plebeians’ demands. From then on, two Plebeian tribunes, in what became known as the Popular Tribunate, were elected every year to protect the interests of the Roman people in the Senate as well as presiding over the Popular Assembly.

Despite the semi-democratic institutions, Patricians (a closed group of aristocratic clans) had power over the Plebeians (everybody else) Republican Rome was basically still in the thrall of an aristocratic warrior class engaged in cattle rustling and attacking their neighbours.

Like all oligarchies, the Roman elite strove to achieve good order by admitting the barest minimum of ‘rights’ to lower social classes while at the same time preventing anyone of their own number from achieving pre-eminence by breaking ranks and recruiting the lower orders to their banner.

To speak of a Roman senatorial elite is to ignore the fact that political life was controlled by an über class made up of just a few select families. Others might become senators, but it was rare for them to break into the charmed circle of consular families. When individuals from less exalted senatorial families did achieve this, it was usually because they had the support of one of the grand aristocratic houses. Once a consulship had been attained, then a family could dare to hope that more might follow and that eventually they might too join the rarefied ranks of the nobiles (The families of Fabius, Cornelius, Metellius and Marcellus, …).

The aristocratic Roman was expected to uphold the virtues of civilitas (being a good citizen). This involved a rigid set of virtues including courage, clemency, wisdom, duty, modesty and gravitas. The aristocratic male was hard-wired to pursue political and military glory. The extreme competitive ethos that was the hallmark of the ruling class was the greatest engine for Roman expansion.

Republican expansion and integration

Rome first expanded through Italy. It’s great strength was its ability to integrate native populations, creating a large and stable territories.

Rome granted full Roman citizenship to virtually all the Latin cities, they also bestowed the old Latin legal status that guaranteed rights such as property ownership, intermarriage and migration on the populations of the new colonies that they established further afield across the rest of Italy. These Latin rights acted as a kind of halfway house between foreigner and Roman citizenship. Using newly created legal statuses, rather than ethnicity or geography, as the basis for membership of their club, all sorts of very different populations could be quickly and fairly painlessly absorbed into the Roman state. They were good incentivizers too, because by maintaining a sliding scale of statuses, Rome could reward loyal allies with an upgrade. At the same time these communities were able to maintain their own local political offices and identities. It was a blueprint that would help Rome to hold together a vast empire for centuries.

For Rome, the most important benefit of this generosity with rights and citizenship lay in military recruitment: Latin rights brought with them an obligation to provide troops for military service. As Roman territory grew, so did the potential size of its army, giving it a huge advantage over other states with far more finite resources. By the second century BC, over half the Roman army was made up of Italians, not Romans.


Firm control over Italy made Rome one of the Mediterranean’s major powers. Between 264 and 133 B.C.E., Republican Rome expanded to the west and east and became master of the Mediterranean. The Romans began to come into conflict with another rising power located just across the water: Carthage. Located in North Africa near modern-day Tunis, Carthage was the capital of a seafaring empire, shown here in red, that dominated commerce in the Western Mediterranean. Rome fought three conflicts with Carthage, known as the Punic Wars, between 264 and 146 BC. The first conflict occurred after Carthage intervened in a dispute on the island of Sicily, just off the southern tip of Italy. While Sicily wasn’t Roman territory at the time, the Romans felt this was a little too close to home. They sent an army to expel the Carthaginian troops. The result was the First Punic War, which lasted for more than 20 years. This map shows the situation after the war: Rome gained control of the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia, making it a significant naval power for the first time.

Rome prevailed against the Carthaginian empire in Spain and Africa in the second and third Punic wars. In the east, Rome conquered Macedonia and also took control of the Greek states.

The Romans made their rule acceptable by allowing local autonomy and gradually granting Roman citizenship to non-Romans. Rome’s early laws, written in the Twelve Tables, constituted civil law for Romans. As Rome expanded, the Romans developed the law of nations, that applied to Romans and non-Romans alike.


Religion permeated Roman life. Ritual was at the focus of religion, for ritual established the correct relationship with the gods, both for individuals and for the state. or most of its history, Rome was a pagan society. Romans worshiped a pantheon of Roman and Greek deities, including Jupiter, Apollo, and Venus. From the early days of the republic, the Romans built temples and made sacrifices to the gods, and would consult religious leaders to determine which days were auspicious ones for a wedding, military offensive, or other major undertaking. This map shows the temples in Pompeii. Notice that in addition to temples to traditional pagan gods, the map shows a Temple of Vespasian. pompeiiThis is an unfinished structure that some historians speculate was intended to honor the emperor who was in power at the time Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city. Religion and state were closely intertwined in Roman society, and subjects were encouraged to think of their rulers as semi-divine figures.


Rome was a slave state.


When the Romans prevailed on the battlefield, they would often take their defeated enemies captive and sell them into slavery. People could also become slaves due to failure to pay debts or as a punishment for crime. Roman slavery differed from American slavery in some important respects. Roman slaves could be of any race. And while American slaves generally performed manual labor, Roman slaves could sometimes be highly skilled. Educated slaves captured from the Greek world were highly sought after for tutoring children and performing clerical work.

Many slaves resented their subservient status, and some revolted. This map shows a portion of the most famous slave revolt in Roman history. The Third Servile War, also called by Plutarch the Gladiator War and The War of Spartacus, was the last in a series of slave rebellions against the Roman Republic, known as the Servile Wars.

The revolt began in 73 BC, with the escape of around 70 slave-gladiators from a gladiator school in Capua; they easily defeated the small Roman force sent to recapture them. Within two years, they had been joined by some 120,000 men, women and children; the able-bodied adults of this band were a surprisingly effective armed force that repeatedly showed they could withstand or defeat the Roman military, from the local Campanian patrols, to the Roman militia and to trained Roman legions under consular command. The slaves wandered through Italia, raiding estates and towns with relative impunity, sometimes dividing into separate but connected bands with several leaders, including the famous gladiator-general Spartacus.

The war ended in 71 BC when, after a long and bitter fighting retreat before the legions of Crassus and the realization that the legions of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus were moving in to entrap them, the armies of Spartacus launched their full strength against Crassus’ legions and were utterly defeated. When the rebellion was finally crushed, 6,000 surviving slaves were crucified along the Appian Way, a major road leading into Rome.

(Let’s listen to Bettany Hughes on Roman Slavery, 0.1.00-)

Fall of the Republic

Huge wealth, earned in a series of military victories across the second century BC, largely found its way into senatorial pockets. The senators were keen to invest their new riches in prime agricultural land, much of which was still in the hands of small peasant farmers. In turn, many of these smallholdings were heavily in debt because their men had been called up to serve in the Roman armies often for many years. A land grab ensued, in which Italian smallholders were kicked off and their farms became part of the huge estates owned by extremely rich senators. The evicted peasant farmers went to swell the ranks of the dispossessed urban poor in Rome.

The Gracchi brothers were two aristocrats who thought rule had become too unfair. Their scheme was to redistribute of the huge bank of public land that the Roman state had accumulated during its conquest of Italy and the central Mediterranean region, and to set up subsidized corn rations in Rome.

These proposals put them on a direct collision course with their fellow senators, many of whom had appropriated much of this public land for themselves. The Gracchi’s appealed to the Popular Assembly; this earned them the hatred of the Senate. When they realized that they could not stop the Gracchi by legitimate means, the senators took the law into their hands. In 133 BC, Tiberius was battered to death on Capitol Hill by senators armed with clubs and planks. In 122 Gaius and 3,000 of his supporters were killed, with swords this time. The corpses of both brothers ended up in the Tiber river.

After 133 B.C.E., Rome’s republican institutions proved inadequate for the task of ruling an empire. Ambitious individuals such as Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar saw opportunities for power. Military reforms at the beginning of the first century had made possible the creation of professional armies that were loyal to the generals who recruited them, rather than to the state. Bloody civil war ensued.

In 58 BC, Julius Caesar took command of Rome’s northern frontier and set out to conquer Gaul, which corresponds roughly to modern-day France. He was following in the footsteps of other ambitious Roman politicians who had led foreign conquests as a way to bolster their reputation at home. This map shows Caesar’s exploits, which took almost a decade and brought him to almost every part of modern-day France. While he was on campaign, Caesar’s enemies gained the upper hand in Rome and declared martial law. Roman law forbade a general on campaign to enter Italy at the head of an army. In 49 BC, Caesar took the fateful step of crossing the Rubicon, the river that marked the northern border of Italy, with his army. That triggered the civil war that would destroy the Roman Republic.

The decisive battle came on August 10, 48 BC, when Caesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Parsalus, in the north of modern-day Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt, but officials there betrayed him and sent Caesar his head. After that, Caesar became the master of Rome. His strategy would be very different from that of Sulla, the last man to have occupied such a position of political supremacy. Under Caesar, there were no proscriptions or illegal land grabs. Former enemies were treated with impressive compassion.

Under Caesar, poverty was alleviated by debt reform, and new colonies were planned for the landless. Road building and drainage projects were introduced to provide employment and improve the infrastructure of Italy. Economic reforms were enacted to revive an economy shattered by war and mismanagement.

In the provinces, unfair taxation systems were overhauled and large numbers of provincials were granted Roman citizenship. Many loyal followers were elevated to an enlarged Senate.

Julius Caesar’s reforms showed that fair and decent government was easier to achieve under the rule of one man. The previous hundred years of political strife proved that Rome’s constitution had not evolved to meet the needs of a city-state that was now a world empire

Caesar ruled Rome as an autocrat despite his efforts to mask it by showing due deference to the political institutions of the Republic – he held successive consulships, but the idea of Caesar as just another senator was clearly preposterous.

Caesar careful to refuse the crown, not wanting to appear to want to rule as king. However, many of the old senatorial elite disliked the personal oath to protect his life that they had been obliged to swear. In fact, they disliked it so much that they decided to break it.

On the ides (the 15th) of March, a group of senators murdered Jul ius Caesar. When he recognized one of his assassins, Marcus Brutus, an Optimate whom he had pardoned and subsequently admitted into his inner circle, he was said to have cried out ‘Et tu, Brute’, ‘Even you, Brutus’, words of injured betrayal that have rattled down through the centuries.

The plotters were driven out of Rome, an then Italy, by an enraged urban mob. Caesar had nominated an heir, Marcus Octavius, his nephew and adopted son

After the series of civil wars, peace was achieved when Octavian (Julius Caesar’s nephew) defeated Antony and Cleopatra (the Egyptian Queen) at the Battle of Actium, in 31 BC. Antony and Cleopatra tried to flee from Octavian’s advancing army by sea, but he was intercepted by a navy commanded by Octavian’s deputy, Agrippa. Octavian’s ships won the battle, and although Antony and Cleopatra escaped, they no longer had enough forces to pose a serious threat to Octavian.

Let’s listen to Bettany Hughes narrating the fall of Mark Antony and the rise of Caesar (video in class 28.40-37.00)

Roman Empire


Octavian renamed himself with the title of Augustus (redeemer of the people) in 27BC (this date is often seen as the end of the Republic).

After a series of bloody civil wars, Augustus created a new order that began the
Roman Empire. Although he never declared the Republic dead and continued
to give the senate a role in governing, most political power remained in the hands of the princeps, or First Citizen, as he called himself. the army swore loyalty to
him, and the restoration of peace soon made the new political order acceptable to most people in the empire.

Augustus established the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which lasted until 68.

In the second century, the five ‘‘good emperors’’ maintained a period of peace and prosperity in which trade flourished and the provinces were governed efficiently.

Within their empire, the Romans were responsible for a series of achievements that were fundamental to the development of Western civilization, a civilization that would arise for the most part in the lands in Europe conquered by the Romans, where Roman culture and political ideals were gradually spread.


The Romance languages of today (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian) are based on Latin.


Roman Republican and Imperial Law and its legacy

Western practices of impartial justice and trial by jury owe much to Roman law. The Twelve Tables (aka Law of the Twelve Tables) was a set of laws inscribed on 12 bronze tablets created in ancient Rome in 451 and 450 BCE. They were the beginning of a new approach to laws where they would be passed by government and written down so that all citizens might be treated equally before them. Although not perhaps a fully codified system, it was a first step which would allow the protection of the rights of all citizens and permit wrongs to be redressed through precisely-worded written laws known to everybody. Consequently, the Roman approach to law would later become the model followed by many subsequent civilizations right up to the present day.


As great builders, the Romans left monuments to their skills throughout Europe, some of which, including aqueducts and roads, are still in use today. Other monuments provided models for public buildings in the West for hundreds of years.

Roman Britain

Throughout the classical period, Britain was at the fringes of civilization. Caesar invaded in 55 BC, but didn’t establish a permanent Roman presence on the island. Conquest of Britain began in earnest under the emperor Claudius in 43 AD. Over the next four decades, Roman troops explored the entire island, including the northernmost parts of Scotland. But the Romans only conquered an area roughly corresponding to modern-day England and Wales. The Romans would govern this territory until 410, when the declining Western Roman Empire was forced to abandon the remote province.


Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138 AD,  believed the empire was becoming overextended militarily, and immediately upon taking office he focused on consolidating Roman control of the territories that had already been conquered. One reflection of this shifting thinking was Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction was begun in 122. Over time, similar fortifications would be built all around the edges of the empire, transforming what had been a fluid frontier into a clearly defined border. The wisdom of Hadrian’s decision became apparent after 142, when Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, conquered additional British territory and ordered a second wall built farther north. The new wall was only manned for a few years before the Romans were forced to abandon the new territory and retreat to the border Hadrian had chosen.


Protected behind Hadrian’s Wall, Roman Britain flourished. The island’s economy became more specialized and more integrated with the continent. The Roman empire provided its subjects with a reliable and standardized system of currency. Uniform money brings major economic benefits because cash transactions are a lot more efficient than those done by barter.

This map, drawn from a database of amateur archeological finds, shows where Roman coins were found between 1997 and 2010. The fact that coins are still being found all over England and Wales, centuries after the empire’s collapse, suggests just how thoroughly Romanized these territories became during four centuries of imperial rule.

The Romans founded London as Londinium in 47 AD, later building a bridge over the River Thames and establishing the settlement as a port with roads leading to other outposts in Roman Britain. As the largest Roman city in Britannia, London remained under Rome’s authority until 410 AD

Model of Roman London

East-West diffusion (Roman Empire)


As Rome was rising in the West, the Han dynasty was consolidating power in China. These two great empires were too far apart to have a direct relationship. But they became linked together indirectly through trade networks. This map, based on geographical data recorded by a Greek writer in the early years of the Roman Empire, shows the trade route from Rome to India. Elites in India and China prized Roman-made glass and rugs, while Roman aristocrats enjoyed purchasing silks made in the Far East. Some Roman writers saw the increasing sums Romans were spending on silks for their wives as a symbol of Rome’s decadence and moral decline.

Fall of the Roman Empire

By the third century, the Roman world was suffering an era of decline. Generals fought each other in civil wars. Between the years 235 and 284, there were twenty-seven emperors, and only four of them did not suffer a violent end. German tribes and Persian armies invaded the empire. There were plagues, population
decline, and economic problems.

A new religion—Christianity—was spreading throughout the empire. Beginning among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity, with its promise of salvation, its similarity to many mystery religions, and its universality as a religion for all—
rich and poor, men and women, Greek and Roman—slowly gained acceptance.

Late Antiquity, Roman influence, birth of the Middle Ages


The period from the mid-third century to the mid-eighth century was both chaotic
and creative.

During late antiquity, the Roman world of the Mediterranean was gradually transformed. Diocletian and Constantine restored an aura of stability to the Late Empire by increasing the size of the bureaucracy and the army, establishing price controls, raising taxes, and making occupations hereditary.

Constantine made some profound changes to the empire after he became Rome’s sole emperor in 324. He created a new imperial capital at Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople, laying the foundations for an Eastern Roman Empire that would endure long after the West fell. Even more important, Constantine was Rome’s first Christian emperor. When he took the throne, he began the transformation of Rome into a Christian empire. While some of his subjects resisted Christianity, the change ultimately stuck. As a result, Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe for the next 1,500 years.

Upon Constantine’s death in 337, the empire was divided among Constantine’s three sons, who quickly began fighting among themselves. This cycle would repeat itself several times over the next half-century. It became clear that the empire was too big for any one man to rule. The last emperor to rule a united empire, Theodosius, died in 395. This map shows the result: an empire permanently divided between east and west.


Dividing East and West

In 476, the last western emperor was deposed. With fewer resources and little resolve, the government was less able to repel the German migrants who moved into the western part of the empire.As the western part of the Roman Empire disintegrated, a new civilization slowly emerged, formed by the coalescence of three major elements: the Germanic peoples who moved into the western part of the empire and established new kingdoms, the continuing attraction of the Greco-Roman cultural legacy, and the Christian church.

Politically, the Roman Empire in the west was replaced by a new series of Germanic
kingdoms, including the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Visigoths in Spain, several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain, and a Frankish kingdom in Gaul.Each of these kingdoms fused Roman and Germanic elements to create a new society.

Beginning in the fourth century, under Constantine, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Christian church (or Roman Catholic Church, as it came to be called in the west) played a crucial role in the growth of a new civilization.

The church developed an organized government under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, who became known as the pope. One of the most significant popes was Gregory I the Great, who gained both religious and political power. The church also assimilated the Classical tradition and through its clergy brought Christianized civilization to the Germanic tribes. Monks and nuns who led the way in converting the Germanic peoples in Europe to Christianity.

In the east, Greek and eastern elements of late antiquity were of more consequence as the Eastern Roman Empire was transformed into the Byzantine Empire. The Germanic kingdoms of the west and the Byzantine civilization of the east came to share a common bond in Christianity.

Despite the Christian bond, the two civilizations continued to move apart.

The rise of Islam, Rome’s third heir, resulted in the loss of the southern and eastern Mediterranean portions of the old Roman Empire to a religious power that was neither Roman nor Christian. The new Islamic empire forced Europe proper back upon itself, and slowly, a new civilization emerged that became the heart of what we know as Western civilization.