Chapter 13: The Rise of Rome

Lesson 1: The Birth of Rome

Down the river floated a tiny reed basket carrying two babies, left to die. The basket came ashore at the foot of a hill. There, a wolf found the crying orphans and cared for them. Later, a shepherd came upon the children and took them home to raise as his own. They were twin boys, and he named them Romulus and Remus.

Years later, the two brothers decided t build a city. This would be a city where others who were homeless, as they once were, could come to live. But the brothers argued over where to build the city.

One night Romulus and Remus agreed to watch for an omen, a sign from the gods, to settle their argument. At dawn, Remus saw six vultures flying overhead. However, as the sun rose higher in the sky Romulus saw 12 vultures.

The brother quarreled over the meaning of the omens, and in a rage, Romulus killed Remus. He then began to build his city on the spot he had chosen—the hill where the tiny basket containing the two babies had come to rest years before. He named his new city after himself—Rome.

Seven Kings

Much of the early history of Rome comes to us in the form of legends, like the story of Romulus and Remus. Though they are not historically accurate, legends are useful. They tell us what qualities people admired and the values they wished to pass on to future generations.

Rome’s Early Kings—According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 B.C., and Romulus was the first of seven kings. He was believed to be a great warrior-king and is credited with starting Rome’s first army and its first government.

Rome’s second king was Numa Pompilius. He brought peace to Rome and, according to legend, founded the Roman religion. The early kings were advised by a Senate (from the Latin word for “old men”), a council of elders from Rome’s leading families. A citizens’ assembly voted on decisions made by the king and the Senate.

At the time of the early kings, government and religion were closely linked. The king was also the chief priest. He chose other priests from members of the Senate. In addition, the king and his priests performed religious duties and interpreted omens.

The Etruscans—During the rule of the Roman kings, Rome’s powerful neighbors to the north, the Etruscans, were expanding their territory, Etruria. The Etruscans traded in the eastern Mediterranean and had established many wealthy city-states in northern Italy. About 575 B.C., the Etruscans moved into Rome. Etruscan kings ruled Rome for the next 66 years.

The Etruscans had an older, more advanced civilization. Rome made rapid progress under their influence. The Etruscans introduced their alphabet and taught the Romans new building techniques, including the use of the arch.

Under the Etruscan kings, Rome grew from a village of straw-roofed huts into a walled city with paved streets. During this time, the Romans began a tradition of great building that eventually far surpassed that of their teachers. The Romans built the Circus maxima, and arena that seated thousands, and the Temple of Jupiter in honor of their highest god. They also built the Cloaca Maxima, a sewer that is still in use today. The sewer drained a marshy valley that became the Forum.

Rome flourished under the Etruscans, until Tarquin the Proud, the seventh and last Roman king, came to power. He was a cruel ruler who ignored the Senate and terrorized the people. In 509 B.C., the people rebelled against him and finally sent him into exile. Never again would Romans be ruled by a king.

Midpoint of the Mediterranean

At the time of the early kings, Rome was just one of many city-states in Italy, a peninsula centrally located in the Mediterranean Sea. Rome lay near the center of that peninsula on a broad plain known as Latium. Archaeologists have found evidence of settlements dating to the 1100s B.C. throughout the region.

The Latium Plain—The area once known as Latium has a typical Mediterranean climate. Summers are hot and dry, and winters are wet and mild. The people of Latium were called Latins, and they spoke the same language, Latin. Like other Mediterranean peoples, the early Latins were herders and farmers who harvested wheat, grapes, and olives.

To the north of Rome lay the Etruscan city-states, and to the south lay Greek colonies. The Etruscans and the Greeks carried on much trade in the Mediterranean, with the Etruscans controlling the greater portion of the Italian peninsula.

Advantages of Latium—Rome’s location offered many advantages. As the Roman historian Livy described it, “Not without good reason did gods and men choose this spot as the site of a city.”

Livy, who lived from 59 B.C. to A.D. 17, noted that Rome was built on several hills, which made the city a difficult place for enemies to attack. He also pointed out the advantages of being on the Tiber River, “by means of which the produce of inland countries may be brought down and inland supplies obtained.” The Tiber flows into the Mediterranean Sea 15 miles away, which means Rome is “near enough [to the sea] for all useful purposes, but not so near as to e exposed to danger from foreign fleets.” Livy wrote that Rome was “in the very center of Italy, in a word, a position singularly adapted by nature for the growth of a city.”

From its location in the center of the Italian peninsula and the center of the Mediterranean, Rome was within easy reach of Greece to the east, Spain to the west, and the northern coast of Africa to the south. In the centuries that followed, Rome expanded to all of thee areas. Eventually, the Romans would rename the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum—“our sea.”

Chapter 13: The Rise of Rome
Lesson 2: The Rise of the Republic

There was great panic in the city, and through mutual fear, all was suspense. The people left in the city dreaded the violence of the senators; the senators dreaded the people remaining in the city, uncertain whether they should prefer to stay or to depart; but how long would the multitude [crowd] which had seceded [left] remain quiet? What were to be the consequences the, if, in the meantime, any foreign war should break out?

Livy wrote that description telling of the crisis in Rome in 494 B.C. The common people of Rome had seceded, or moved out of the city. They were very angry over their treatment by the rich and powerful leaders of Rome. The leaders knew that their city was in serious danger unless the common people returned. So they agreed to five the people more rights. This crisis between the Roman leaders and the people marked the beginning of a 200-year struggle by the common people of Rome to gain equal rights.

Patricians and Plebeians

With the overthrow of the last Etruscan king in 509 B.C., Roman leaders adopted a very new form of government—a republic. In a republic, citizens elect leaders to run their government. The leaders the citizens elected to replace the king were called consuls. These consuls were leaders elected by a citizen assembly and advised by a Senate. Although the citizens elected their representatives, the early Roman Republic was not a democracy because not every citizen had the same economic power.

Citizens were divided into two classes, patricians and plebeians. Patricians were members of the small number of wealthy Roman families. Plebeians were the bulk of the population—artisans, shopkeepers, and peasants. Class was determined by birth.

As citizens, both patricians and plebeians had the right to vote. However, only patricians could hold political, military, or religious offices. All power was in the hands of the patricians.

Though most plebeians were poor, some were quite wealthy. They believed that they should have the same social and political rights as the patricians. The poor plebeians, too, believed that the system was unfair. When a poor plebeian had to borrow money from the rich to survive, he and his family were forced into debt bondage. A man in debt bondage became a servant of the man to whom he owed the money. He was treated almost like a slave, and, without wages, he could never get the money he needed to regain his freedom. yet the patrician government did nothing to end this cruel practice.

Roman citizens were divided into patricians and plebeians. But Roman society as a whole was also divided into two groups: citizen and slave. Adult male citizens had certain rights, such as the right to vote and to own property. Women citizens, however, had limited rights. They could not vote or take part in the government but were protected by Roman laws. Slaves, war captives, were owned by citizens and had no rights.

Struggle for Rights 

Although the plebeians had fewer rights than the patricians, they still had to serve in the army and pay taxes to the very forces that were oppressing them. By 494 B.C., the plebeians had suffered long enough. They withdrew from Rome and formed their own assembly, which was known as the Council of Plebeians. They also elected their own officials, who were called tribunes.

As you have read, the patricians were desperate. They knew that Rome could not survive without plebeians. Who would do the work? Who would protect the Republic from enemy attacks?

The patricians had no choice but to let the plebeians keep their assembly and their tribunes. Tribunes were to protect plebeian rights. The plebeians could vote against any unjust law passed by the Senate.

Next, the plebeians demanded a reform of the laws. Rome’s laws had never been written down. The plebeians believed that patrician judges took advantage of this fact to rule unfairly against plebeians.

The Twelve Tables—Finally in 450 B.C., the laws were engraved on 12 bronze tablets called the Twelve Tables. The tablets were then displayed in the Forum, so all citizens could appeal to them, though few could actually read them.

During the 300s B.C., the plebeians gained more and more of the rights already held by the patricians. The priesthood was opened to plebeians. Debt bondage was outlawed. Eventually, plebeians even won the right to become members of the Senate.

Though the plebeians had made many gains, the plebeians and patricians still had separate political bodies. The laws passed by the patrician Senate applied to everyone. However, the laws passed by the plebeian assembly applied only to plebeians.

Equality for Plebeians—The plebeians demanded that the laws passed by their assembly apply to all citizens, plebeian and patrician alike. Once again, the plebeians forced the issue by withdrawing from Rome. This time, the patricians gave in and, in 287 B.C., agreed to meet the demands of the plebeians. After more than 200 years of struggle, plebeians and patricians were finally equal under Roman law.

Roman Government

As the plebeians gained power, the Republic became more democratic. Since 509 B.C., the Roman government had been headed by two consuls. By 367 B.C., one of these consuls had to be a plebeian. The consuls had the same powers as the early kings, but with tow important limitations. To avoid one-person rule, consuls were elected to serve only one year, and each consul could veto the other’s actions. Our word veto is from the Latin word meaning “I forbid.”

The consuls carried on the daily business of the government and of the army. They were also advised by a Senate made up on 300 citizens. The Senate controlled the Roman treasury and foreign policy. Most of the Senators were members of wealthy Roman families. Though the consuls changed each year, senators were chosen or life. The Senate was the most powerful group in the government of the Roman Republic.

Laws proposed by the Senate could be approved or disapproved by citizen assemblies. Candidates for consul were also elected by these assemblies. The government of the republic spread its power among many groups.

Early Expansion

While the patricians and plebeians struggled for power within the city’s walls, other battles raged on the outside. Year after year, the Roman army marched off to wage war against its neighbors and to expand the area under Roman control. The army was not always victorious, however. In face, in 390 B.C., Rome itself was attacked and destroyed by the Gauls, a warlike people from the north.

Nevertheless, Rome rebuilt and continued to grow. By 338 B.C., Rome had conquered Latium and Etruria. By 275 B.C., Rome ruled the whole Italian peninsula.

Rome was so successful, in part, because instead of punishing the people it conquered, Rome made them allies. As allies, they had to fight for Rome in any future wars. In return, Rome promised them protection and a share in the profits from future victories. In some cases, Rome even granted citizenship to conquered peoples.

By 270 B.C., Rome had more citizens and well-trained soldiers than any other Mediterranean power. During the next century, Rome used those resources to conquer the Mediterranean world.

Chapter 13: The Rise of Rome
Lesson 3: Overseas Expansion

Let’s leave Rome for a moment and travel across the Mediterranean to the coast of North Africa. The time is 238 B.C. The place is the Phoenician city of Carthage. The great Carthaginian general, Hamilcar, is preparing to leave for Phoenician outposts in Spain where he hopes to raise a new army. Carthage has just been defeated in a long and bitter war with Rome for the island of Sicily, and the general is angry and humiliated at the loss.

Hamilcar is making sacrifices to the gods, so that they will bring him good luck in Spain. His young son, Hannibal, looks on. Livy describes the scene:

Hannibal, then about nine years old, was childishly teasing his father to take him too. His father, still angry at the loss [to the Romans] led him to the alter and made him swear to be the enemy of Rome as soon as he was able.

Hamilcar took the young boy to Spain with him and taught him to be a soldier. Twenty years later, Hannibal fulfilled his oath to his father. He became a brilliant general, one of the greatest foes Rome ever faced.

The Punic Wars

In the 200s B.C., Rome was conquering Italy. Another power, Carthage, existed on the opposite side of the Mediterranean. It was a prosperous Phoenician city with trading posts all around the Mediterranean. Carthage and Rome became fierce rivals and fought three long and bloody wars over which power would control the Mediterranean.

The First Punic War—By the 200s B.C. Carthage had settlements on Sicily. Rome feared it would gain complete control of the island. In 264 B.C., the two powers went to war over Sicily. This struggle marked the beginning of the First Punic (PYOO nihk) War. Punici was the Roman word for the people of Carthage.

The fighting raged on land and sea. Rome had a stronger army and soon controlled Sicily’s inland. But Carthage controlled the coast with its stronger navy.

In fact, at the beginning of the war, Rome had few ships and little experience at sea. Yet the Romans found a clever answer to their problem. They invented a device called a “crow,” a kind of gangplank with clawlike hooks. The crow was held upright until the Romans pulled their ship up next to an enemy ship. Then they swiftly lowered the crow so the hooks caught in the enemy ship’s deck. The crow thus served as a bridge, allowing Roman soldiers to board the enemy ship easily.

The First Punic War lasted 23 years. Rome was in a better position than Carthage to withstand the heavy losses because of its huge army and loyal allies.

By 241 B.C., the Carthaginian army, led by General Hamilcar, was forced to admit defeat. Sicily became the first territory outside of the Italian peninsula to come under Rome’s control. Rome had begun its expansion into the Mediterranean world.

The Second Punic War—Despite its defeat at the hands of the Romans, Carthage remained an important power. It immediately began to rebuild its empire, starting in Spain, where it already had numerous trading posts.

Under the leadership of General Hamilcar, Carthage succeeded in expanding its holdings in Spain. In 229 B.C., however, Hamilcar was killed in battle. His successor was assassinated, and in 221 B.C., the army elected Hannibal commander. Hamilcar’s son was only 26 years old, but it was time for him to fulfill the oath he had made as a child. 

Rome watched anxiously as Carthage expanded its empire in Spain. Then, in 219 B.C., Hannibal attacked Saguntum, one of Rome’s allies in Spain. After Saguntum had fallen, Rome declared war on Carthage. Thus began the Second Punic War, which ended in 201 B.C.

The Romans sent troops to Saguntum, but Hannibal had other plans. True to his oath, he decided to invade Italy. He gathers an army of 60,000 soldiers, 6,000 horses, and 37 elephants. They marched across the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain and through southern Gaul, crossed the Rhone River with trumpeting elephants on rafts, and reached the Alps five months later, in winter. Only one-half of the army was left, and they still had to cross the craggy, wind-whipped Alps to reach Italy.

Try to image the scene as it ws described by the Greek historian Polybius:

After nine days’ climb Hannibal’s army reached the snowcovered summit of the pass over the Alps—all the time being attacked by the mountain tribes. However, when the enemy now attacked the column, the elephants were of great use to the Carthaginians. The enemy was so terrified of the animals’ strange appearance that they dared not come anywhere near them.

Hannibal crushed the Romans in battle after battle. Only the determination of Rome’s people helped them to survive until a general arose who was a match for Hannibal—Scipio Africanus.

First, Scipio made a secret pact with one of Carthage’s allies, Numidia, the country now known as Algeria. The, while Hannibal was still in Italy, Scipio attacked Carthage. But just as Carthage was about to admit defeat, Hannibal returned from Italy. Scipio fought Hannibal at Zama, a town near Carthage. With the help of the Numidians, Scipio won. He was given the name “Africanus” in honor of this victory in northern Africa.

This defeat marked the end of Carthage’s empire. Carthage was forced to give up its territories and its ships, and to pay Rome vast sums of money.

In 149 B.C., Carthage rebelled against Rome, thus beginning the Third Punic War. Rome once again defeated Carthage. And as punishment, Rome sold all of the surviving Carthaginians into slavery and leveled the city.

Conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean

With the defeat of Carthage, Rome became the most important power in the western Mediterranean. Next, Rome turned eastward, conquering Greece and Macedonia, the country to the north of Greece, by 146 B.C. By 50 B.C., Rome controlled the entire area around the Mediterranean.

How was it possible for Rome to conquer so much so quickly? Historians give several reasons. First, the Romans took great pride in their Republic and fiercely defended it. The Greek historian Polybius, who lived among the Romans in the 100s B.C., wrote that the power of the Roman people under their balanced government was stronger than the power of any one opposing leader. Not even Hannibal could overcome the determination of the Roman people.

Second, by treating conquered peoples as allies and, in several cases, making them citizens, Rome was able to raise a large army. Moreover, Rome’s allies generally remained loyal to Rome because they shared in the profits from Roman wars.

Third, Rome’s army was highly disciplined and seasoned by years of war. Few other armies could match its strength. Fourth, Romans greatly valued military success. In fact, military success was needed for political advancement. The highest honor for a general was a “triumph,” a grand parade through the streets of Rome. The victorious general, dressed up as the supreme god Jupiter, rode in a chariot. Behind him marched the soldiers, carrying the many valuables seized from the enemy and leading the unfortunate captives of war.
Finally, wars were a great source of wealth. Conquered lands were often distributed to Roman colonists. Valuables seized from the enemy enriched both the government treasury and individual leaders. Prisoners from the conquered lands became slaves.

For all these reasons, Roman leaders were ready to go to war year after year. From 338 to 50 B.C., Rome steadily extended the area under its control.

Trouble at Home

By 50 B.C., Rome ruled the Mediterranean world, but it had serious problems at home. Before the Punic Wars, Italy was a land of small family farms and farmer-soldiers. Wars were fought nearby between planting and harvest. In 458 B.C., Cincinnatus, a citizen farmer, laid down his plow to lead the Roman army. At the request of his fellow citizens, he was made dictator. According to legend, within 16 days he had defeated the neighboring tribe, resigned his dictatorship, and gone back to his farm.

However, as Rome expanded, wars were fought farther away, and farmers were gone for longer periods of time. Many of them were killed in battle. The Second Punic War had destroyed Roman farms. Returning from war, farmers often did not have the money needed to begin farming again. Wealthy Romans bought up the land and created plantations run by slave labor, thus putting more farmers off the land.

Many landless farmers moved to the city, but few found jobs. Slaves, captured in Rome’s many wars, provided cheap labor, putting poor Romans out of work. As the numbers of poor and unemployed people grow, the Roman leaders feared that violent mobs would demand a solution to their troubles. Some Roman leaders wanted to help the poor, but their efforts were blocked by wealthy senators. In fact, two tribunes who tried to help the poor were killed for their efforts.

Rome’s large population of slaves caused other problems. Most slaves, who had been free in their homelands, were treated brutally by their roman masters. Desperate for freedom, the slaves rebelled. In 73 B.C., the slave Spartacus gathered an army of more than 100,000. They fought the Roman army for two years. In 71 B.C., the Romans killed Spartacus and crucified 6,000 slaves.

Fall of the Roman Republic

By 50 B.C., Rome ruled an area about the size of the United States. Rapid expansion brought about change in the Republic. The small farm society had changed, the gap between rich and poor had grown, and the slave population had greatly increased. And wealth from the wars had made Roman leaders greedy. Dishonest leaders had huge incomes and ignored the poor. The poor, in turn, felt no loyalty to a government that was keeping them poor. Conflicts broke out between rich and poor. 

Also, by 50 B.C., the army was made up of professional soldiers, mostly poor citizens who couldn’t find work elsewhere. They were fighting for money, not for Rome. And money depended on victory in battle. Thus, these soldiers were loyal only to the generals, who hired tem and paid them with land and money. Power-hungry generals fought one another for control of the government.

One of those generals was Julius Caesar. Caesar was elected consul, but he knew he must win military glory to fulfill his ambitions. He took command of Roman troops and left to tame the Gauls, who still threatened Italy. Nine years later, he had succeeded.

Caesar’s successes in Gaul worried his rivals in Rome. They feared that Caesar was becoming too powerful. They persuaded the Senate to declare Caesar a public enemy. The Senate ordered Caesar to return to Rome without his troops. But Caesar feared that if he did, his life would be in great danger. Instead, he decided to lead his troops to Rome.

On January 11, 49 B.C., Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon River, which divided Gaul and Italy. Since it was treason for a general t leave his assigned province and bring his army to Rome, this was a serious action. Caesar knew he must win or die.

Civil war broke out and lasted for three years. Eventually, Caesar defeated his rival, Pompey, and in 46 B.C., declared himself dictator. A dictator is a ruler who has absolute power. 

Earlier Roman dictators had been chosen by the city officials only for emergencies. The citizen farmer, Lucius Cincinnatus, you recall resigned 16 days after saving the city. When Caesar made himself dictator for life, he ended the Republican system.

Chapter 13: The Rise of Rome
Lesson 4: Greece and Rome

Although we conquered Greece, she conquered us: she brought Art to rustic Rome,” wrote Horace, the great Roman poet, in about 35 B.C. Many Roman citizens agreed with him. The Romans may have triumphed militarily over Greece in 146 B.C. However, the resulting close contact with Greek culture dramatically changed many parts of Roman life. Greek ideas, art, and customs all were to become an important part of the roman heritage.

Greek Influence on Rome

The Greek roots of Roman culture run deep. As early as the 600s B.C., Greece had established powerful colonies in southern Italy and Sicily. Greek culture spread quickly as Greek merchants traded Greek goods, such as fine pottery and metalwork, with neighboring peoples. By the 200s B.C., the Greek epic poem the Odyssey had been translated into Latin. 

Greek influence grew even more when the two cultures came into greater contact after Rome’s conquest of Greece. Victorious Roman troops brought Greek statues and painting back to Rome, where they were admired and copied. Greek scholars were brought to Rome as slaves to teach wealthy Roman children.

In fact, Greek culture influenced Roman culture so much that the result is called Greco-Roman culture. With the growth of the Roman Republic, Greco-Roman culture spread throughout the Mediterranean world.

The Romans borrowed heavily from the Greeks. They worshiped Greek gods and gave them Roman names. The Greek god Zeus, ruler of the gods, became the Roman god Jupiter; Aphrodite, goddess of love, became Venus; Ares, the god of war, became Mars. 

Roman writers often turned to the Greeks for inspiration. The Roman poet Virgil began to write the Aeneid, his epic poem, as the Trojan War was ending. This is where the Greek epic closes.

In the Aeneid, a Trojan hero known as Aeneas escapes from the Greeks and sails to Italy. It is then Aeneas’s descendant, Romulus, who founds the city of Rome. In this way, Virgil links one of the central myths of Greek culture with the birth of Rome.

In architecture, the Romans adopted basic Greek forms. A number of Roman temples, for example, have columns surrounding the main structure, just as most Greek temples do.

Many Romans, including Horace, were not pleased that Greek culture was so widely admired and imitated in Rome. One of the most vocal critics was a well-known Roman senator of the 100s B.C., Cato the Elder.

Cato, who had a great love for Rome, feared that Greek ideas would make the Romans weak. The Romans did borrow very heavily from Greek culture. However, they also created many original works of their own.

Roman Genius

The Greeks were inventive, bringing out new ideas and new art forms. The Romans were practical, using and adapting whatever ideas and forms suited their needs. The early Romans were bent on expansion, and they mastered the skills necessary for building and governing an empire. Among these skills were military organization, legal administration, and special engineering ability.

Military Organization—The Roman army was one of the greatest military forces the world has ever seen. Before the Romans, most armies triumphed over their enemies simply by outnumbering them. The Roman army, however, won its victories mainly because of its determination and discipline.

Although the early Republic relied on citizen-farmers, after about 100B.C., Rome began to build a full-time army. Roman soldiers enlisted for periods of up to 25 years. They became hardened by years of fighting.

The roman army was well organized with a strict chain of command. The army was divided into legions of 6,000 men each. Each legion was a self-contained unit with all the workers necessary to supply the army during long campaigns. Arrow makers, nurses, and engineers, traveled with the soldiers. Thus the army could wage long battles without returning to Rome for supplies.

The roman army was also usually good at adapting to changing conditions. Specially trained troops of skilled archers, spear throwers, or horse riders could be called into battle.

In contrast, most Greek city-states (except for Sparta) had small armies of citizens, not professional soldiers. These armies served only when needed.

Engineering Skill—To unify and control their huge Republic, The Romans built more than 50,000 miles of roads—many of them paved with stone. With the paved roads, both messengers and troops could race to remote Roman provinces in case of enemy attack. The network of roads was also a great help to trade and communication. 

Roman roads were built so well that some are still in use. In the city of Rome, honking cars and buses filled with commuters and sightseers clatter over the Apian Way, one of the very first Roman roads, built in 312 B.C. In contrast, the mountainous countryside of Greece made road building difficult. Since no part of their country was very far from the sea, the Greeks turned to it instead. Sea-lanes became Greek highways.

Romans also used their engineering skills to perfect the arch they had inherited from the Etruscans. In addition, they invented a new building material—concrete. Concrete is long-lasting, but compared to stone, lightweight. With arches and concrete, the Romans were able to build huge public works—bridges, aqueducts, and stadiums. Among the engineering skills developed by Roman builders was surveying.

Romans used arches and concrete to build huge bridgelike structures. These aqueducts were built to carry water from mountain springs to the public fountains and baths in nearby cities. One of the longest of these supplied water to the Roman city of Carthage. It ran for more than 50 miles from its source in the mountains to the city.

Legal Administration—Roman laws were first written as the Twelve Tables in 450 B.C. Over time, the Romans developed a legal system with courts, judges, and lawyers. Judges based their decisions on common sense, fairness, and individual rights.

The Athenian system of justice was more direct. There were no judges or lawyers. Instead, the accused and accuser argued their own cases before the assembly, which acted as a jury. As the Romans extended citizenship to a conquered people, they spread their legal system throughout the Mediterranean world. Roman law is the origin of modern-day legal systems in many parts of the world.

The Romans owed much to Greek culture. Yet in practical matters, such as military organization, engineering, and legal administration, the Romans made their own mark on the world.

Chapter 14: The Roman Empire

Lesson 1: The Early Empire

“Beware the ides of March,” the fortuneteller whispered in Julius Caesar’s ear. “I have seen many warning of danger in your future.” But Caesar, confident of his power in early 44 B.C., simply went on about his business. He was even bold enough to dismiss his bodyguards. However, March 15, referred to in the Roman calendar as the “ides” of March, turned out to be the day of Caesar’s undoing.

As Caesar strode into the senate that day, a group of men gathered around him as if to pay their respects. One of them took hold of Caesar’s robe and said, “Friends, what are you waiting for?” That was the signal to attack. Several men drew daggers from their robes and began stabbing Caesar. He tried to defend himself, but then he recognized one of the men. It was Brutus, a man Caesar thought was his friend. ‘Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”) Caesar asked. Realizing that even his friend had turned against him, he stopped resisting. Caesar fell to the floor and died. He had been stabbed 23 times.

Brutus jumped up, waving his bloody knife. He announced that he and his men had saved the Roman Republic by killing Caesar. However, the death of Caesar did not restore the Republic. Instead, it sparked 13 years of civil war as various groups struggled to control Rome.

Establishing Peace and Order

Caesar had seized control of the government of the Roman world in 49 B.C., making himself dictator for life. As dictator, Caesar seemed to have little respect for the constitution. According to the constitution, a Roman leader was supposed to share power with the senators. but many senators thought Caesar acted as if he were above the law. They thought he treated them as servants. They saw his behavior as haughty and insulting. Many began to think of him as both a personal enemy and an enemy of the Roman Republic.

Senators and other Roman citizens whispered among themselves that Caesar intended to make himself king. If he did so, he could establish a dynasty. His family line would rule the Roman world even after his death, and the Senate would then have no role in choosing the next leader. Outraged, more than 60 senators met secretly. They planned how they would assassinate Caesar—murder him for political reasons. One leader of the group was Brutus, the so-called friend of Caesar.

When Brutus and his men killed Caesar on the ides of March, they thought they had saved the Republic. But by the end of that day, the assassins had to hide from angry mobs of Roman citizens. Many were outraged by Caesar’s murder. Caesar was well liked because he made many reforms that improved people’s lives. For example, he reorganized the government and lowered taxes. He founded new colonies and gave people land to far. He hired people to build temples and public buildings. He made citizens of many people in the colonies.

A power struggle followed Caesar’s death. Caesar’s adopted son Octavian was the leader of one group that was fighting to control Rome. He defeated his rivals in 31 B.C, and led Rome into a new era.

The Empire of Augustus—Octavian brought peace to the Roman Empire and became a popular leader. In 27 B.C., the Senate voted to give him the title Augustus, meaning “respected one.” He ruled the empire until A.D. 14.

Augustus learned from his father’s mistakes. He continued many of the reforms that had been started by Caesar. He knew that the people wanted a republic, so he always claimed to be restoring the government of the Roman Republic.

But Augustus held the real power. He controlled almost all of the military troops. He appointed the most important officials of the government—those who governed the provinces. He carefully avoided using the title of king. Instead, he called himself “first citizen” to show that he was one of the people.

Augustus ruled an empire. He is considered to be the first Roman emperor. The people welcomed him because they craved a strong leader. They desperately wanted peace and order after the time of turmoil that followed Caesar’s death.

Order in the City—Augustus once boasted, “I found Rome built of sun-dried bricks. I leave her covered in marble.” During the 41 years of his rule, Augustus built or restored 82 temples. Most of them were dressed in the smooth marble from the quarries that were just opening north of Rome.

Augustus also worked to improve life in the city of Rome. With a population of nearly one million people, Rome had no city service. Some of the worst problems were hunger and poverty. Violence and disorder increased, and Rome had a major crime problem. In addition, fires regularly swept through the city. Augustus created a police force and fire brigade. He set up a department to supply food to the city’s citizens.

Growth in the Provinces—The Roman Empire beyond Italy was divided into about 40 provinces, or territories. Each province had a governor, who was appointed by the emperor or named by the Senate. The governors’ work included keeping order and collecting taxes.

Augustus and the emperors who followed him expanded the empire by conquering new territories. At its peak in A.D. 117, the Roman Empire had a population of about 60 million. This was more than one-fifth of the total population of the world at that time.

The Pax Romana—Augustus’s reign marked the beginning of a remarkable period in Rome’s history. For more than 200 years, the vast Roman Empire was united and, for the most part, peaceful. This period from 27 B.C, to A.D. 180 is called the Pax Romana, or “Peace of Rome.”

Ruling the Empire

Remember the problems that arose after Caesar’s death over who would be the next emperor. Augustus hoped to avoid the same problems. He wanted his stepson Tiberius to be the next emperor. To make sure it would happen, Augustus began to share his power with Tiberius. When Augustus died in A.D. 114, Tiberius stepped into his stepfather’s position. In that way, Augustus established a new way of choosing emperors. Each emperor chose his successor from his family or adopted someone he thought would make a good emperor.

During the 200 years after Augustus’s death, four family lines, or dynasties, ruled the Roman Empire. Some emperors in each dynasty ruled wisely. Others were cruel or foolish. Each of the four dynasties ended with the violent overthrow of an unpopular or unfit emperor.

The Dynasties—Augustus’s family line ended in disgrace in A.D. 68 with Emperor Nero. Nero came to power when he was just a boy of 17. He did not gain the respect of the senators or the army. Many Romans complained that he was more interested in entertaining himself than in governing the empire. Opposition to his rule mounted. A bloody civil war broke out, and Nero committed suicide.

The second dynasty lasted only 26 years. It ended with the assassination in A.D. 96 of Emperor Domitian, a cruel and ruthless leader. The third dynasty became known as the dynasty of the “good emperors.” It included five talented emperors. Trajan, for example, pushed the boundaries of the empire beyond the Danube and into Armenia and Mesopotamia. He also gave low-cost loans to farmers and helped support poor children and orphans.

Hadrian was the first emperor to settle on fixed borders marked by physical defenses—walls. Under Hadrian, small settlements around forts and castles became towns and cities. Marcus Aurelius protected the borders, but his death ended the Pax Romana. Emperors who followed failed to control the vast empire. They even lost the respect of the Roman army.

Finally, Emperor Severus Alexander was assassinated by his own soldiers in A.D. 235. His death marked the end of the dynasties and the start of 50 years of civil war within the empire.

Rebellion in the Provinces—Most of the Roman provinces lived in peace during the Pax Romana. However, a few areas resisted Roman rule. The Roman army had to put down rebellions in Gaul and Britain. The greatest resistance, however, came from the Jews in Judea. The Jews rebelled in A.D. 66 and again in A.D. 132. Each time, the Roman army crushed the Jewish resistance.

Unifying the Empire

Despite resistance to Roman rule in some provinces, the empire remained unified during the Pax Romana. However, maintaining unity was a large task. Over the centuries, the Romans conquered vast areas and diverse peoples. These millions of people spoke many different languages, had different customs, and worshiped different gods. The Roman emperors, though, managed to unify them. They did so in several ways. They encouraged the conquered people to build cities. They made these people Roman citizens. And they involved them in the government of Rome.

Policies for the Provinces—These new cities that the people in the provinces built followed the model of Rome. The city center surrounded a main square called the forum, like the one in Rome. The new cities also had temples for Roman gods, an amphitheater for games, and public baths. These and other public buildings were patterned after the ones in the city of Rome. The ideas of the Romans, their customs, and their Latin language gradually spread from the cities into the surrounding areas.

As a second way of unifying the empire, Rome gradually granted citizenship to people in the provinces. In A.D. 212, Emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to the entire free population of the empire. As citizens, the people gained some important new rights. For example, citizens were protected by Roman law. They could do business and own property in Rome. They could also pass their property and citizenship on to their children.

As a third means of unifying the empire, Rome allowed officials in the provinces to govern their own cities. They collected taxes and kept order on Rome’s behalf.

Rome allowed some of these officials from the provinces to participate in the central government in Rome. By A.D. 200, more than half of the 600 senators came from the provinces. Some of these senators even became emperors. Emperor Trajan, for example, came from Spain. Septimius Severus, who ruled from A.D. 193 to 211, came from North Africa.

These policies of Rome made the people who lived in the provinces feel that they were a part of the empire. Therefore, most of them did not have any reason to rebel.

Rome at its Peak—One of the Rome’s greatest poets described the purpose of the empire in this way: 

Remember, Roman, that it is for you to rule the nations. This shall be your task: to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished and to tame the proud by war
Virgil, Aeneid, c. 19 B.C.

For 200 years, Rome did just that. The Pax Romana is remembered as the period during which Rome reached the peak of its political and cultural achievement.

Chapter 14: The Roman Empire

Lesson 2: Social Rank in the Empire

It’s a beautiful day in A.D. 150. The people of ancient Rome are heading eagerly to the Coliseum. They are going to watch an afternoon of games in which professional fighters called gladiators will fight lions, bears, other wild beasts—and each other. “Such a throng flocked to all these shows,” wrote Suetonius, “that many strangers had to lodge in tent pitched . . . along the roads, and the press was often such that many were crushed to death.”

Now the people are pushing and shoving as they scramble toward the entrances to the giant outdoor stadium. Like sports fans today, the Romans pass through the gates and head for their seats. Where they sit, however, depends on their social status. The emperor and his guests are seated nearest the field on a magnificent platform. In the first rows are senators and other wealthy Romans. They wear flowing white robes called togas. The togas are trimmed with purple borders—the mark of the elite, the upper class.

Sitting in the rows above the elite are ordinary citizens, also dressed in togas. Their togas are plain white. Only the elite are allowed to wear the purple border. Crowded near the top of the stadium, above the ordinary citizens, are poor people and slaves in drab, grey clothes. They have no seats and must stand for hours waiting for the games to begin.

Three Social Classes

Roman social status determined what people could wear, where they could sit—even what their job could be. Roman society was divided into three major classes—the elite, the “more humble,” and the slaves. Birth and wealth determined social class.

The Elite Class—The best seats at the Coliseum were saved for the elite. This group included senators and other government officials and wealthy citizens. The elite made up less than 2 per cent of the people, but they were the most powerful. They even had special legal rights. If they were guilty of a crime, they could not be punished as severely as ordinary citizens or slaves.

Only a few jobs were acceptable for a man of the elite class. The emperor appointed members of the elite class to serve as government officials. Also acceptable for the elite were jobs in law and ownership of farms. Jobs in business were not acceptable. If a man of the elite class wanted to make money in business, he would hire someone of the “more humble” class to do it for him.

The “More Humble” Class—The people seated above the elite in the Coliseum were the ordinary citizens, who belonged to the “more humble” class. The more humble class included most of the free men and women in the empire. Farmers, laborers, shopkeepers, soldiers, and other working people were in the more humble class. Some of the more humble were fairly wealthy. Others just scraped by.

The Slaves—Crammed together with the poorest people at the top of the Coliseum were the slaves—human property that could be bought and sold. Slaves could not own property. By some estimates, slaves made up as much as a third of the people of Roman Italy during the empire.

Besides working in households and on farms, trained slaves worked in mining, shipping, road building, and construction. Slaves also might hold office jobs in the provinces. Conditions for slaves varied widely. Slaves on the farms worked long hours in the fields. Sometimes they were chained together.

Slaves in cities usually worked as servants in the homes of wealthy masters. They had an easier life than the slaves on farms. Some city slaves even gained important positions as heads of household staffs. Bur all slaves were at the mercy of their masters, who could beat or torture them.

Some Romans complained about the mistreatment of slaves. However, no one in the ancient world thought seriously about the end of slavery. apparently, people saw slavery as a necessary part of the social system.

The Importance of Social Level

Social level was important to all Romans. Let’s visit the home of en elite Roman to see the role it played at a dinner party.

A Roman Dinner Party—As the guests arrive, they are led to the special dining room. Painted on the walls are sayings like this: “Let the slave wash and dry the feet of the guests, and let him be mindful to spread a linen cloth on the cushions of the couches.

Couches rather than chairs surround the tables because Romans prefer to lean back as they eat. Eating in a reclining position is considered a mark of elegance. Only children and slaves sit upright as they eat. On holidays, the slaves in this house are allowed to recline like their masters.

Soon an usher announces the guests and shows them to their places at the tables. Elite Romans follow a complex formula for seating people according to their social status. The most honored guests may even be served better food than the other guests. Pliny the Younger once complained about the favoritism shown by a host: “… very elegant dishes were served u to himself and a few more of the company; while those placed before the rest were cheap and paltry.” Pliny said that the host even served his guests wines of three different qualities, depending on each guest’s social status.

The host at this dinner part has invited a man who belongs to eh “more humble” class. The invitation is a reward for services performed. Unfortunately, the other guests treat this man as an inferior. They joke about his clothes, his table manners, and his vocabulary.

Slaves serve the dinner. The Roman writer Seneca described such slaves: “The unfortunate slaves are not allowed to move their lips, let alone talk . . . A cough, a sneeze, a hiccup is rewarded by a flogging, with no exceptions.”

Changes in Social Level—As this dinner party shows, social divisions were clearly defined in ancient Rome. However, people were occasionally able to improve their social position. The key was gaining wealth, and for most, becoming wealthy was impossible. According to Juvenal, the Romans decided the importance of a man in this way:

The first question to be asked will be about his wealth, the last about his character. How many slaves does he maintain? How much land does he possess? How many courses does he have served at table and how much does he provide for his guests?

Romans could improve their social position if they became wealthy. If they lost wealth, however, they could lose their social status. Raising one’s social level was not easy. The great majority of people in the “more humble” class worked on farms, and they were usually lucky just to get by each year. They had little chance of becoming rich. Soldier had a better chance. Some earned promotions and wealth during long military careers. When they retired, they were rich and respected enough to join the elite class. 

Even slaves had a chance to better themselves. Through a master’s kindness, an urban slave might be set free as a young adult. His master might even set him up in business, and then he might join the “more humble” class. Rural slaves had harder lives and fewer opportunities. They had little chance of gaining freedom or improving their lot in life.

Chapter 14: The Roman Empire

Lesson 3: Daily Life in Ancient Rome

Before it is light I wake up, and, sitting on the edge of my bed, I put on my shoes and leg-wraps because it is cold…. Taking off my nightshirt I put on my tunic and my belt; I put oil on my hair, comb it, wrap a scarf around my neck and put on my white cloak. Followed by my school attendant and my nurse I go to say good morning to daddy and mummy and I kiss them both. I find my writing things and exercise book and give them to a slave. I set off to school followed by my school attendant….
I go into the schoolroom and say, “Good morning master.” He kisses me and returns my greeting. The slave gives me my wax tablets, my writing things and ruler…. When I finish learning my lesson I ask the master to let me go home to lunch…. Reaching home I change, take some white bread, olives, cheese, dried figs, and nuts and drink some cold water. After lunch I go back to school where the master is beginning to read. He says, “Let’s begin work.”
At the end of the afternoon I’m off to the Baths with some towels with my slave. I run up to meet the people going to the Baths and we all say to each other, “Have a good bathe and a good supper.”
A Roman schoolboy, quoted by F.R. Cowell, 
Everyday Life in Ancient Rome

A boy from a wealth Roman family wrote the above description of a typical day in about A.D. 300. Accounts like this are one source of information about daily life in ancient Rome.

Rich and Poor

The boy who wrote this account belonged to an elite family in Rome. Only the rich could send their children to school and have slaves wait on them. A rich family in one of these homes might own 500 slaves. Some very wealthy Roman families might own 4,000 slaves. An emperor might command a personal slave population of 20,000. Household slaves did just about every job imaginable. They cooked, served meals, cleaned, and took care of the children. Each slave might have only one job—folding the master’s clothes or fixing the mistress’s hair, for example.

In contrast, the vast majority of those who lived in the city had tiny apartments in five-story apartments buildings called insulae. In some cases, an entire family would crowd into to a single room. 

For every wealthy home in Rome, there were 26 blocks of insulae. most insulae were dark and dirty and had no heat or running water. The poor got water from public fountains outside.

The Roman writer Juvenal described the poorer neighborhoods of Rome in the A.D. 100s:

Most of the city is propped up with planks to stop it collapsing. Your landlord stands in front of cracks that have been there for years and says, “sleep well!” although he knows that the house itself may not last the night. I wish I lived where there were no fires, no midnight panics.

In these crowded conditions, fires and crime were serious problems. Lack of sanitation also contributed to the spread of disease. The problem was so severe that about one fourth of the babies born in Rome did not live through their first year. Half of all Roman children did not live to be 10 years old.

Family Life in the Empire—By the time Rome had become the center of an empire, family life was changing. In the days of the Republic, the father was the undisputed head of the family. He could even sell his children as slaves. He could arrange marriages for his daughters when they were only 12 to 15 years old. He would do this for the political and economic benefits it would bring to the family. The young bride and groom had little to say about it.

By the A.D. 100s, however, family discipline had become less harsh, and the father’s power had been reduced. A father no longer had the right to sell his children or to force marriages. In addition, women had more freedom. Unlike women in other ancient cultures such as Greece, Roman women were independent under the law. They could have their own property and slaves.

Families that could afford the cost of private education sent their children and even household slaves to school beginning at about age seven. These children studied basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. The schools were small, and one teacher was responsible for all subjects. Teachers followed the rule of the Greek playwright Menander: “A man who has not been flogged [beaten’ is not trained.”

Girls usually did not have any formal education after age 15. Usually at 15, the sons of wealthy parents continued their education by taking classes in Latin and Greek literature and rhetoric—the art of effective writing and speaking. Students needed to learn rhetoric in order to enter law or politics. Romans believed that skill in rhetoric was the mark of a gentleman.

The Roman schools rarely had classes in science, engineering, or complex mathematics. The few professional people—engineers, doctors, or lawyers, for example—learned through apprenticeships, not through formal education.

Benefits of Life in Rome

The city of Roe was a crowded, busy, thriving place—the center for the best and worst of the Mediterranean world. Disease, crime, and fires raged there. But life in Rome also had its benefits. The emperors made appoint of trying to keep the city people happy.

Public Services—The government gave free wheat to male citizens on a regular basis. This gift of food was important to the poor people of Rome, who often went hungry. On special occasions, the emperor also gave money to the citizens of Rome. The wheat and money came from taxes that the farmers and other people in the provinces paid.

Another benefit of living in Rome was the plentiful water supply. The system of aqueducts carried 200 million gallons of water to Rome daily. With so much water available, the city built public baths where residents, rich and poor, could bathe and swim for a small fee. These baths became important gathering places.

Entertainment—The emperors spent enormous sums of money to entertain the people. in fact, 159 days each year had been declared holidays by the A.D. 50s. Later emperors found it necessary to limit the number of holidays each year. Still, nearly one-third of the days of each year remained holidays throughout the A.D. 100s.

On these holidays the emperors provided elaborate circuses and games to keep the people content. The Circus Maximus was a gigantic Roman arena that could hold nearly 200,000 spectators. There, spectacular daredevil chariot races took place. “All Rome today is in the circus,” wrote Juvenal. “Such sights are for the young, whom it befits to shout and make bold wagers with a smart damsel by their side.”

Chariot racing was also popular at the Coliseum, but so were some of the more bloody sports. Wild beasts were hunted and killed by the hundreds. Gladiators fought each other to the death. During the years A.D. 106 to 114, 23.000 gladiators fought to entertain the citizens. The Romans were so fond of bloody events that during the intermissions, Roman officials executed condemned criminals for the entertainment of the audience.

However, the benefits of life in Rome such as free food and spectacular entertainment did not appeal t all Romans. Some claimed that the citizens took too much interest in those things and not enough interest in their government. Even members of the elite class, who benefited the most, saw problems. The Roman historian Tacitus said that the empire made slaves of free men. The Roman writer Juvenal also complained that the public “longs for just two things—bread and circuses.”

Religious Practices

Many Romans believed that they had been able to build their empire and find peace because they had kept their gods happy. Like many other ancient peoples, the Romans had gods for every act and event in their lives

The Many Gods of the Romans—The great gods of the Roman stare were Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Jupiter was the supreme god. He controlled the thunder and lightning and was the special guardian of Rome. Juno was his wife. She was the queen of the gods and the protector of women. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom and guardian of craftworkers. The Romans joined together on specific days to worship these gods. In this way they showed their unity and their loyalty to the state.

At home, the Romans worshiped household gods, such as Vesta, Lares, and Penates. Vesta guarded the fireside, where people cooked and kept warm. Lares guarded the land, and Penates watched over the stored food. Family members made daily offerings to these gods and asked for protection in exchange.

Many of these Roman gods had been borrowed from the Greeks at an earlier time. For example, Jupiter was the Greek god Zeus, and Juno was the Greek goddess Hera. Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, was the Greek goddess Artemis. Mars, the Roman god of war, was the Greek god Ares.

In A.D. 126, the Romans erected a magnificent temple called the Pantheon to honor all the Roman gods and goddesses. They built it in the shape of a drum, with a dome rising 14 stories above the ground. They covered the dome with gleaming brass so that people could see it shining all over the city. The Pantheon is still standing today.

During the empire, the Romans also began t worship their emperors. the emperor was not a god like Jupiter, but he was so powerful that people believed he was divine.

Religious Ceremonies—The Roman religion was based on rituals, or ceremonies, rather than a written creed or right behavior. If a priest carried out the rituals properly, the Romans thought that the gods would be happy and would reward them with protections and wealth.

In one of the most important rituals, priests sacrificed animals to please the gods. The priests also made sacrifices in order to find signs, or omens, in the organs of the sacrificed animals. These signs, the people believed, would tell the will of the gods and would help them make decisions. How were the beliefs of the Romans similar to certain ideas of the ancient Greeks and Chinese?

Other Religions—By the A.D. 100s, many Romans were becoming dissatisfied with the state religion. Since their religion did not teach about how people ought to act, some Romans started looking for other religions. Some gods and religious beliefs from Greece, Asia, Persia, and Egypt began to gain popularity during the first two centuries A.D. People in many parts of the empire were becoming Christians. Like the Jews, the Christians believed in just one god. They honored their God above the gods of the empire or the orders of the emperor.

For the most part, the Romans were tolerant of other religions within the empire. However, when the fortunes of the empire began to decline, emperors tried to force people to follow the state religion. A struggle lay ahead over what religious beliefs should guide the Roman people.

Chapter 14: The Roman Empire

Lesson 4: The Roman Economy

In 1957, a 16-year-old boy who was skin-diving near the Italian island of Sardinia made an important discovery. He saw a group of large jars on the floor of the sea, about 65 feet below the surface. These jars turned out to be amphorae from a Roman ship that had sunk more than 2,000 years ago.

A team of underwater archaeologists was called in to investigate. To search the floor of the sea, they used techniques similar to those used in excavations on land. They took underwater photographs of the area. They placed a grid of tape over the area so that they could make records about where they found evidence. Then they brought the amphorae up to the surface.

From what the archaeologists found, they determined that the ship had probably set sail from a port in Italy. It had run aground near the little island of Sparghi off the coast of Sardinia.

The Sparghi ship, as it is now called, was part of the vast fleet of ships that carried goods between ports on the Mediterranean Sea beginning in the 200s B.C. By the time of the Roman Empire, the Romans sent ships to the far corners of the ancient world as they knew it. The olive oil and wine found on the Sparghi ship were probably on their way from Italian farms to people in Spain or Gaul.

An Agricultural Economy

Agriculture was the backbone of the Roman economy. In Italy itself, farmers grew grain and planted olive groves and vineyards. Olive oil and wine were shipped to cities throughout the empire. As the empire expanded, olive oil and wine were also produced in Gaul, Spain, and North Africa as well as Italy.

But on the whole, Roman farming methods were not very advanced. As a result, crops were small, and many people were needed to work the land. Four out of five people in the Roman Empire worked on farms. Compare that with about one in forty-five people who farm in America today. What does the comparison tell you about Roman agriculture?

Another reason for the poor performance of Roman agriculture was taxation. The emperors required farmers to give most of their surplus grain to the government in taxes. Farmers could not make money by selling surplus grain at a profit, and so they had little to spend.

The Market for Roman Industry—One result was a limited demand for manufactured items. Modern industry employs so many people and produces so many items because there is a large market, or demand, for its products. In ancient Rome, most people could afford only simple clothes and inexpensive pottery. Only the wealthy could afford decorated pottery and fine jewelry. As a result, the market for such items was small.

Most manufacturing plants in ancient Rome were small. An example is the pottery shop in Arretium, one of the empire’s best-known manufacturing operations. It employed only about 50 slaves. In contrast, a modern manufacturing plant might employ thousands of workers.

For all its accomplishments, the Roman Empire never developed a complex economy. It did not create large banks and other financial institutions. Instead, the Roman economy was mainly concerned with the basic task of feeding the empire’s soldiers and city dwellers. This same basic task made Rome the hub of an extensive network of trade routes.

Trade in the Empire

Here’s how the Greek writer Aelius Aristides described Roman shipping in the A.D. 100s:

So many merchant ships arrive in Rome with cargoes from everywhere, at all times of the years, and after each harvest, that the city seems like the world’s warehouse. The arrival and departure of ships never stops—it’s amazing that the sea, not to mention the harbor, is big enough for these merchant ships.

Ships hauled goods, such as wine, grain, and exotic animals. To and form ports in every part of the Roman Empire. On land, carts pulled by oxen or mules and even caravans of camels carried such items as lumber, clothing, and household goods over the empire’s extensive system of roads. A side benefit was that trade brought news of other cultures and foreign places.

Feeding the Empire—The most important item that the Romans traded for was grain. Wheat and barley were used in making the bread and other foods that formed most of the Roman diet. Grain was needed for the people of the cities as well as the army legions throughout the empire. Providing enough was a constant challenge. 

Rome itself had become a city with about one million people by the A.D. 100s. The farmland around Rome could not grow enough grain to feed everyone. Therefore, the city depended heavily on products imported from North Africa, Egypt, and Sicily. 

An added problem was that as many as 300,000 people in the city of Rome were so poor that they could not buy grain. The government had to give it to them. Free handouts became important to the peace of the city. An emperor might face riots if he did not provide enough grain for the people.

Another 300,000 men in the army stationed in the empire’s provinces also had to be fed. Food was generally supplied by the provinces where the men were stationed. Sometimes, though, the provinces could not produce enough for themselves and the army too. Then the government had to send more grain from other parts of the empire.

Manufacturing and Mining—The largest industry in the empire was mining. Marble and other materials for the empire’s great building projects were mined in Greece and northern Italy. Gold and silver came from mines in Spain. Lead and tin came from Britain. The metals were needed to manufacture weapons and other items, including coins for trade within the empire. Metals were also exchanged for luxury goods form foreigh lands.

Italian communities manufactured pottery, glassware, weapons, tools, and textiles for use in Rome and for trade throughout the empire. In contrast to farm products, however, trade in manufactured goods was limited.

Luxury Trade—The trade in luxury goods made up the smallest part of the Roman economy. Not many people had enough money for luxuries. However, traders traveled far beyond the borders of the empire to bring back unusual items for wealthy Romans.

Traders went south into the Sahara and brought back ostrich eggs and ivory, which were strange and wonderful to the Romans. They went north and brought back blond slaves from the land that is now Germany. These blond slaves were so intriguing to the dark-haired Romans that some rich Romans even began wearing blond wigs. The traders also went into the Far East, bringing back silks from China, and spices and gems from India.

Such items of course, were always far less important than grain. Remember that both trade and agriculture had the same primary purpose. They provided food for the vast numbers of people in the Roman Empire.

Chapter 15: Christianity and the Fall of Rome

Lesson 1: The Early Christians

One day in about A.D. 36, a Jew named Saul was on the road to Damascus, a city in ancient Syria. He was tracking down Christians, the followers of the Jewish teacher Jesus. Saul was on e of the many Jews who believed these Christians should be persecuted, or punished, for their failure to obey all the Jewish laws. 

The New Testament of the Christian Bible describes what Christians believe happened next:

Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord? And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
Acts 9:3-6

According to the New Testament, Saul was blinded by the light from heaven. He did not regain his sight until a follower of Jesus touched him. At that moment, Saul’s life changed forever. Once a persecutor of Christians, Saul now became one of the most devoted followers of the new faith.

The New Faith

Saul’s conversion, or change from one belief to another, came a few years after the death of Jesus. At the time of Saul’s conversion, Christianity was not a separate religion. The Christians were a sect, or group, among Jews.

Religions in the Roman Empire—Judaism was one of many religions practiced in the Roman Empire. The Romans themselves followed a number of religions. Romans were even willing to accept the gods of other people alongside their own. They also allowed a great deal of freedom to different religious groups, so long as the groups respected the gods of the Roman state.

Nevertheless, the beliefs of the Jews (and of the Christians) clashed with those of the Romans. The Jews believed in one god, and they were unwilling to worship the many Roman gods. The Jews also lived by the laws of their god, as set forth in the Torah, and the teaching of the their prophets. The Romans believed in serving their gods by following certain rituals, such as sacrificing animals. They believed that keeping their gods happy would keep the empire strong.

Even so, Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire. Jews and Romans disagreed mainly on political grounds. However, Jews and Christians began to disagree on religious grounds. As a result, Christianity slowly became a separate religion. The growth of Christianity had a lasting impact on Western civilization.

New Testament—At first, however, few people in the Roman Empire took much notice of this small band of believers, the Christians. This is why there are few accounts of the history of early Christians. Much of what we know comes from the part of the Christian Bible called the New Testament, a collection of books that tells the story of Jesus and his followers.

Besides telling stories about Jesus, the New Testament tells about the birth and early development of Christianity. It also includes the story of Saul and his conversion to Christianity.

The New Testament books were collected between A.D. 100 and 200 to teach and to inspire Christians. As a result, the New Testament tells the story of Christianity from the point of view of the Christians only—not the Romans or the Jews.

Jews and Christians

The Christians felt that their faith was the fulfillment of Judaism. The Jews and early Christians shared the same basic beliefs. But their ideas differed on the messiah, or savior. The Jews believed that the messiah had not yet come. They expected the messiah to overthrow the Roman governors and reunite the Jews. The Christians believed that Jesus was the messiah. Instead of bringing freedom from Rome, Christians believed he would bring eternal life.

Jews and Gentiles—Nevertheless, the Jewish roots of Christianity ran deep. In addition to sharing many beliefs, Jews and Christians lived in the same communities. Since the Diaspora, the scattering of Jewish settlements throughout the Mediterranean that began in the 500s B.C., Jews had been gathering together in communities within the cities of the Roman Empire.

Jews saw themselves as the chosen people of their god. Jews, including sects such as the Christians, saw the world as divided into two groups—Jews and Gentiles, or non-Jews. The Jews and Gentiles did not always get along. In fact, at times violent hatred led to open conflict between them.

Preaching to Gentiles—The early Christians concentrated on trying to convert other Jews. However, Jewish leaders opposed their efforts. They charged that Christians were not obeying Jewish law. The Christians insisted that belief in Jesus and in Jesus’ love was more important than strict obedience to Jewish law. As Christians spread their message, tensions grew between Christians and Jews.

The friction led to a serious debate within the early church: Should Christians reach out to all people, or just to other Jews? According to the New Testament, the turning point came in about A.D. 48. That was when Peter, a disciple who had been chosen by Jesus to spread his teachings, was instructed in a vision from God to break some of the Jewish rules. Jewish law prohibited Jews from eating food that was not prepared according to their rules.

According to the book of Acts, Peter went to the house of a Roman soldier and visited with a group of Gentiles. Peter said to the Gentiles:

You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
Acts 10:28

From that point on, Peter and the other Christians decided to preach Christianity to all people. One of the first to set off on this mission was Saul, the former persecutor of Christians. Saul, who came to be known by the Roman name Paul, traveled throughout the Roman Empire

The Work of Paul

Paul played an important role in early Christianity. Because he was a devout Jew, he could speak to fellow Jews and be heard. He was also a Roman citizen. Not only could he claim all the benefits of citizenship, but he could be seen by the Romans as one of their own. Finally, he was a passionate supporter of the new faith, and he devoted his life to this cause.

From about A.D. 47 until his death in about A.D. 64, Paul made three long journeys during which he spread Christian teachings. He also established Christian communities. Paul’s second journey began in Asia Minor and took him through much of the eastern Mediterranean region.

Paul’s journeys were not easy. His preaching angered many Jews. After all, he was challenging the very foundations of Jewish belief. For centuries, Jews had lived by the commandments of God as given to them in the Jewish scriptures. Now Paul was telling them that simply obeying God’s laws was not enough. Paul said that people needed to accept Jesus as their savior.

Many Jews rejected the ideas that Paul preached, and some Jews even attacked him. They believed that Paul was trying to spread ideas that went against Jewish beliefs. Here is how Paul described the sufferings his preaching caused him:

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; at night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren.

2 Corinthians 11:24-26

Paul also insisted that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to observe all the Jewish laws. This angered the Jews, and it also angered some Christian leaders whose backgrounds wee Jewish.

Paul was becoming a troublemaker in the eyes of the Roman authorities. He was eventually arrested in Jerusalem and sent to Rome to stand trial. For two years, he remained there, continuing to preach and teach. According to Christian tradition, Paul was executed in about A.D. 64.

By this time, Christianity had become a religion that was separate and distinct from Judaism. In the centuries to come, the gulf between the two faiths would continue to widen.


Chapter 15: Christianity and the Fall of Rome

Lesson 2: Rome and the Christians

In A.D. 64, a great fire swept through Rome. It burned for six days, and it destroyed much of the city. Here is how the Roman historian Tacitus described the scene:

First, the fire swept violently over the level spaces. Then it climbed the hills—but returned to ravage the lower ground again. When people looked back, menacing flames sprang up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed… Some who had lost everything—even their food for the day—could have escaped, but preferred to die.
Tacitus, Annals, c. A.D. 120

At the time of the fire, Nero was the emperor. He was a young man who was known for his ruthless hunger for power, not for his leadership. In fact, Nero’s poor leadership made many Romans turn against him.

Some people even accused him of setting the fire, although no proof of his guilt exists. Nero was crafty, though. He knew that he needed to blame someone for starting the fire. He chose the Christians. They were already unpopular with most people in Rome because they refused to worship the Roman gods.

Emperor Nero gave orders that the Christians be killed for starting the fire. Tacitus described the cruel way in which they were put to death:

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt.

Rome’s Early Response

Tacitus, like many Romans, did not really believe that the Christians had set Rome on fire. Yet he shared the view of many Romans that Christians should be convicted, “not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.”

The Christians did not act like other Romans, and this made some Romans suspicious. Christians kept to themselves—almost like a secret club. Since they did not worship Roman gods, Christians no longer went to public festivals or took part in the life of their communities.

Jews also refused to worship the Roman gods. Yet Romans generally excused them because Judaism was an old, established religion. Christianity was a new invention, so Romans saw Christians as troublemakers.

Some Christian ideas, too, seemed shocking. Wealth and private property, for example, were very important measures of status in the Roman social hierarchy. Yet the Christians taught that money and earthly pleasures were not important at all, and that property should be shared.

The Romans considered their government and their religion to be closely linked, while the Christians saw religion and government as separate. Also, Romans believed that their gods protected them and their empire. Romans feared the failure of Christians to honor Roman gods would harm the empire.

The Roots of Persecution—Nevertheless, Nero’s treatment of the Christians was unusually harsh. For the most part, the Roman state ignored the early Christians.

Before A.D. 64, most of the persecution suffered by the Christians came at the hands of other Jews. The Roman government would not get involved in these conflicts. For example, the New Testament describes the reaction of a Roman governor when a group of Jews brought Paul before him. The governor said:

If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, I should have reason to bear with you, O Jews; but since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves.
Acts 18:14-15

The Romans generally did not try to change the differing religious beliefs of the people in the empire. And Christian leaders such as Paul taught Christians to obey Roman laws. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans. “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:7)

Roman Law and Early Christians—By A.D. 100, Roman law stated that anyone who admitted to being a Christian must be killed. However, this policy was seldom enforced. In general, the Roman emperor let officials in the provinces decide how Christians should be treated. But these officials were often unsure as to what to do. In fact, written records indicate that many Roman officials had little experience in dealing with Christians. 

The governor of Asia Minor, Pliny the younger, wrote to Emperor Trajan in about A.D. 110:

So far, this is how I have dealt with people who were brought to me for being Christians. I ask them if they are Christians: if they admit it, I ask them twice more, and warn them what the punishment is: if they persist I order them to be executed.

But the Christians were not a real danger to Pliny. “If we give these Christians a chance to repent, a large number of people could be brought back on the right path,” he said.

Trajan agreed with Pliny’s actions. His response indicates that the Romans did not actively seek to persecute Christians.

It is not possible to lay down strict rules to deal with every case, but certainly the Christians must not be hunted down. But if they are brought to you and found guilty, then they must be punished, with this exception: if anyone denies he is a Christian, and makes this fact quite clear by praying to the Roman gods, he must be pardoned, whatever his previous record.
Pliny, Epistles, c. A.D. 112

As the above exchange shows, Romans did not generally seek out Christians for punishment. In fact Christian settlements existed in North Africa for 100 years before the first Christian was executed.

Still, Christians were at times treated cruelly. Some Christians were even put into an arena to fight lions as entertainment for Romans. Later Christian writers attached great importance to these events. They used the events to reinforce the suffering endured by Christians who remained faithful to their beliefs. However, historians do not believe that many Christians were actually sent to the lions. Over all, most Christians lived in peace until the A.D. 200s.

The Attack on Christianity

By the early 200s, the Roman Empire was facing serious problems. Many Romans believed their troubles were a sign that the gods were angry. So in A.D. 250, Emperor Decius ordered all citizens to worship the Roman gods and make public sacrifices.

Decius believed that these offerings would please the gods and ease the troubles in the empire. The Christians, however, refused to follow his orders. Decius then ordered his soldiers to execute all Christians who refused.

Some Christians chose death. These martyrs, people who chose to die rather than give up their religious beliefs, became important symbols for the church. Their courage inspired other Christians and created new converts. 

Emperor Decius died in A.D. 251, and the persecution ended for a time. The Christians, though, were now marked as unpatriotic because they had refused to follow Decius’s orders. In A.D. 257 and 258, Emperor Valerian carried out another wave of persecution seizing the property of wealthy Christians. The most violent and systematic persecution of Christians started around A.D. 300 during the reign of the emperor Diocletian.

Roman mobs destroyed many churches, broke Christian crosses, and burned sacred books. Christians were fired from Roman jobs, forced out of the army, attacked, and killed. The wave of persecution that had begun under Diocletian continued until A.D. 311. The next year, however, a new emperor came to power and the official Roman position toward Christianity began to change.

The Rise of Christianity

In A.D. 312, Rome witnessed a struggle for power. One army leader fighting to become emperor was named Constantine. According to Christian historians, before Constantine went into battle, he saw a vision of a cross with the sun behind it. Although Constantine was not a Christian, the vision convinced him that his men would win if they fought under the sign of Christ. He ordered his soldiers to paint a Christian symbol called a chi-rho (ky roh) on their shields.

Constantine’s men won the battle, and that year Constantine became emperor. At the beginning of his rule, perhaps as little as 10 per cent of the empire’s population was Christian. But with his support, Christianity became the main religion in the Roman Empire.

Constantine was not baptized a Christian until shortly before his death in A.D. 337. Nevertheless, he promoted Christianity throughout his reign. In A.D. 313, he issued an order that allowed Romans the freedom to follow any religion they wanted to. This act ended the official persecution of Christians. He also contributed vast sums of money to repair churches that had been damaged earlier. He even gave church leaders money to build new churches.

Church and State—Constantine took an active interest in the operations of the Christian church. He held meetings with church leaders to settle disputes among Christian leaders.

In earlier times Christians had believed that religion and government should be separate. Now, Constantine’s decisions on behalf of the church had the power of the Roman Empire behind them. He even persecuted church members who opposed his views. Constantine feared that conflicts about worship would displease God and bring misfortune to the empire. Just as earlier emperors persecuted Christians for fear of displeasing Roman gods, Constantine now persecuted Romans for fear of displeasing the Christian god.

Constantine’s interest in Christianity helped to strengthen the religion. At the same time, the relationship between Constantine and the church brought up an issue that is still the subject of debate today—how much the church should be separated from the state.

The Power Shift—By the end of the A.D. 300s, church leaders felt powerful enough to give orders to emperors—or even to punish them. For example, in A.D. 390, Christian leaders punished Emperor Theodosius for ordering the massacre of a rebellious village. Bishop Ambrose of Milan threatened Theodosius with excommunication, or banning from the church, until he repented of his actions.

The fact that a Roman emperor would consider excommunication a punishment shows how powerful the church had become. Only a hundred years earlier, an emperor would have considered the church’s opinions to be unimportant.

Just as Roman leaders had persecuted Christians when they were in power, now some fanatical Christians persecuted pagans, people who were neither Christians nor Jews. These Christians burned pagan temples. Then, in A.D. 391, Theodosius outlawed all pagan religions.

The tables were turned. Now Christians forced their views on the pagans. In response, the pagans begged the Christians not to punish them for their beliefs. This was the same plea that the early Christians had once made to the pagans. This pattern—the majority forcing its views on the minority—has been repeated throughout history.

By the end of the A.D. 300s, the new faith had become a well-organized and powerful community with churches, priests, and bishops throughout the empire. In fact, Christianity was gaining power and members as the Roman Empire was declining.

Chapter 15: Christianity and the Fall of Rome

Lesson 3: The Decline of Rome

In A.D. 192, the signs for the future of Rome were not good. The roman historian Dio Cassius wrote that, “many eagles of ill omen soared about the Capitol and moreover uttered screams that boded nothing peaceful, and an owl hooted there.” Then a fire swept through some of Rome’s government buildings, destroying many of the empire’s records. Dio Cassius warned,

This, in particular, made it clear that the evil would not be confined to the City, but would extend over the entire civilized world under its sway.
Dio Cassius, History, c. A.D. 192

Dio Cassius, who was a senator at the time, believed bad times were ahead for the empire. Indeed, the Roman Empire was beginning a century of decline.

The End of the Pax Romana

The Pax Romana had been a 200-year period of peace and great achievements for Rome. But the Pax Romana ended in A.D. 180 when Emperor Marcus Aurelius died. He was succeeded by his 19-year-old son Commodus, who proved to be an unpopular and wicked ruler. He was finally killed in A.D. 193. This was the beginning of a period when military leaders fought for power and the empire began to decline.

Commodus was followed by Emperor Septimius Severus, a strong ruler who held the empire together by his tough military leadership. When he died in A.D. 211, the dynasty of Severus continued to rule Rome. Yet conditions in the empire got worse. The last emperor of this dynasty, Severus Alexander, was finally killed by his own men in A.D. 235.

Even worse times were ahead. In the next 50 years, 25 different emperors ruled Rome. Some ruled only a few months. All but one were killed. Political upset was only on of the many problems troubling the empire. The economy was a disaster. Prices were out of control. In Egypt, 30 liters of wheat had cost 12 to 20 drachmas, an ancient coin, in the early A.D. 200s. By the 280s, the same amount of wheat cost 120,000 drachmas.

To pay for the empire’s defense, the government raised taxes. Many people left their farms and jobs because they could no longer pay the high taxes that Rome demanded.

Warfare left much of the empire in ruins. There wasn’t enough food to go around. Trade was disrupted. Poverty and unemployment increased. Some Romans believed the empire stretched across too many lands to be well managed. With unrest inside and threats from outside, the empire badly needed strong leadership.

The Reign of Diocletian

Finally, in A.D. 284, the army declared Diocletian emperor. Diocletian then ordered the persecution of Christians in the hope of making the gods look with favor upon the empire once again. However, he also used more direct means to restore order.

The “New Empire”—Diocletian introduced a number of major reforms. That is why his reign is called the “New Empire.” In order to improve the economy, Diocletian issued the Edict on Prices. This edict, or command, told farmers and merchants how much they could charge for various items. If a seller tried to charge higher prices, the penalty was death. But the edict failed to control the economy, and prices continued to rise.

To fight off foreign threats, Diocletian increased the size of the army from about 300,000 to 450,000 soldiers. He also increased both the size and complexity of the government. To run his huge empire more efficiently, he divided it into four regions. Each one had its own government and army. Although this new government was more efficient, it was also more costly. To pay for it, Diocletian created a new tax system and raised taxes.

In order to keep this new system running, the government had to make sure that its citizens worked hard and paid their taxes. Strict laws were passed to keep people on the job. Farmers could not leave their farms, and workers could not change or leave their jobs. Children had to work at the same job as their parents. Sons of soldiers had to enter the army.

Diocletian’s actions reestablished order, but they also brought about a harsher style of rule. The emperors who ruled during the Pax Romana had some from the Senate and were called “first citizen.” Beginning with Diocletian, emperors came from the army and were called dominus, or “master.” The power of the emperor over his people was complete, like the power of a master over his slaves.

A Divided Empire—Diocletian also tried to put an end to the civil wars which had troubled the empire following the death of emperors from A.D. 235 to 284. He divided the empire in two. Both the eastern and western portions had their own emperor. He set up a system to ensure that after each emperor’s reign, power would transfer peacefully to the next emperor.

However, when Diocletian retired in A.D. 305, his system did not work. Civil war broke out again, and military leaders fought for power for the next seven years. Finally, in A.D. 213, Constantine became emperor of the western part of the empire. Twelve years later, Constantine took control of the entire empire.

The Reign of Constantine

Under the reign of Constantine, Christianity became the main religion in the empire. However, Constantine’s importance as a leader went far beyond church affairs. He also completed the reorganization of the government that had been started by Diocletian. And he built a new capital for the empire.

A New Capital for the Empire—He chose for his capital the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople after himself. Constantinople had several advantages as a capital city. I was centrally located between Greece and Asia Minor, connecting Europe and Asia. It could easily be reached both by land and sea, making it ideal for trade. And the empire’s richest provinces were in the eastern empire.

The location was also ideal for defense. The new capital was on a narrow peninsula, so the Roman army could easily ward off enemy attacks. The capital was also closer to the empire’s eastern frontier, so troops could reach it more quickly.

Constantine rebuilt the city, making it a magnificent capital. To decorate the new buildings, he brought statues and artwork from pagan temples in other cities. Constantinople was dedicated in A.D. 330, and it became the “new Rome.”

A Split in the Empire—When Emperor Constantine died in A.D. 337, his two sons and two nephews fought for control of the Roman Empire. One of his nephews, Julian, became emperor in A.D. 361 and tried to restore the pagan religion. However, his effort failed, and by A.D. 400, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. During this period, the church continued to gain strength and support, but the once all-powerful empire was in decline.

By A.D. 400, the empire had permanently split into two parts. The Eastern Roman Empire, with Constantinople as its capital, was to last for another 1,000 years. The Western Roman Empire, with Rome as its capital, was nearing its end.

Chapter 15: Christianity and the Fall of Rome

Lesson 4: The Fall of Rome

Alaric is at the gates, and Rome trembles. He encircles the city; there is panic; he burst in; but not before giving his instructions, that all those seeking asylum in the holy-places and especially in the churches of the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul must be left untouched and unharmed. The invading army was also to refrain from bloodshed, while gorging itself on as many valuables as it could find.

Orosius, Histories, c. A.D. 417

That is how the early Christian historian Orosius described the invasion of Rome. 8in A.D. 410, the once-proud capital of the Roman Empire was captured by a tribe of invaders from the north called the Visigoths, led by leader named Alaric. Mighty Rome, itself once the conqueror of a vast empire, had finally met its downfall.

Barbarian Invasions

Rome did not fall as the result of a single invasion. The pressures that brought it down had been weakening it for centuries. Since the time of the Pax Romana, the empire had been fighting off attacks from outsiders. Romans called the invaders barbarians, which meant people from beyond the Roman frontier.

Over a period of about 300 years, many barbarian tribes made their way south into the Roman Empire. These barbarian tribes were trying to escape the attacks of other tribes migrating into their own territories from Asia. In addition, they were attracted by the wealthy cities and fertile farmlands of the empire.

The Romans looked down on the barbarians as uncivilized. The Roman historian Tacitus dew this unfavorable picture:

When they are not fighting, they spend little time in hunting, much more in doing nothing. They devote themselves to sleeping and eating. Even the bravest and most warlike are quite idle.

Tacitus, Germania, A.D. 98

However, Romans looked down on barbarians partly because they were different from Romans. They did not share Roman ideas about government and culture. Yet the barbarian tribes had their own government systems, including elected assemblies, and their own cultural values.

Battles with the Barbarians—In the A.D. 200s, the Romans’ internal troubles allowed barbarian invasions to reach the heart of the empire. Diocletian and the emperors who followed him fought the invaders to make the frontiers of the empire secure.

As the invasions continued, the empire needed more soldiers to defend itself. To relieve the pressure of barbarian attacks, some Roman emperors tried to “buy off” the invaders. These emperors gave the tribes land to live on, and they hired barbarians to serve in the army. By the A.D. 200s, the frontier of the empire was no longer a clear-cut boundary between the barbarians and the Roman world. The barbarians were gradually becoming part of the empire.

In the late A.D. 300s, pressure from the barbarians was growing. In A.D.378, the Visigoths, who had settled in the eastern part of the empire, revolted against the Romans. They killed the leader of the eastern part of the empire, Emperor Valen, and defeated his army. Then, encouraged by their victory, the Visigoths marched into Rome in A.D. 410.

The Fall of the Empire—The success of the invasions showed the weakness of the Roman army. Gradually, the emperors were losing control of their territories. In the early A.D. 400s, the barbarians overran and looted Britain, Gaul, Spain, and North Africa.

In fact, barbarian chiefs took control of much of the western part of the empire during the A.D. 400s. Historians use the year A.D. 476 to mark the fall of Rome. In that year, the Germanic chief Odoacer forced the last emperor out of the western part of the empire. Unlike Rome, Constantinople withstood barbarian attacks. The eastern part of the Roman Empire remained intact for another thousand years.

Growth of the Church

As the Roman Empire grew weaker under the pressure of barbarian attacks, Christianity grew stronger. During the A.D. 300s and 400s, even barbarian tribes such as the Goths, Vandals, and Franks had converted to Christianity. Nevertheless, some Romans blamed the empire’s many problems on the widespread growth of Christianity.

Pagan Romans were upset and angered to see the empire decline under Christian leadership. They blamed the decline on the fact that he Romans had abandoned their pagan gods. In past centuries, the pagans argued, Romans had made sacrifices to the pagan gods, and the empire had gotten stronger. Now Romans were no longer allowed to make these pagan sacrifices. The Christian god, they said, did absolutely nothing to protect the empire.

This charge against Christianity was so serious that a church leader named St. Augustine felt he needed to respond. In the early A.D. 400s, he spent 13 years writing a book called The City of God. This book, consisting of 22 volumes, explained what Christians believed to the role of God in human history.

In The City of God, St. Augustine argued that the decline of Rome taught an important lesson. Cities such as Rome, like all worldly things, break down, he wrote. But the city of God, which for St. Augustine represented the Christian faith and its believers, would last forever.

When the Roman Empire finally fell in the west, the church did not fall with it. In fact, Christianity continued to grow and increase its influence in the centuries that followed.

The Causes of the Fall

Why did the empire fall? Historians do not have one answer. Still, these factors played an important part:

· Christianity – Christians were more devoted to their faith and to the church than to the Roman state.
· Economic decline – In the last century of the empire, both the army and the government kept growing. In addition, Romans continued to import luxury items from distant lands. The Roman economy was not strong enough to support such activities.
· Growth of government – The large government kept demanding more of the people. Eventually, people saw no reason to support the emperor over the barbarians. In fact, some Romans, particularly poor Romans, would rather have barbarian rulers because they were not as harsh as Roman rulers.
· Decline in the work force – A high death rate among Romans and a decrease in the number of slaves meant that the empire had fewer workers and fewer soldiers.
· Moral decline – For centuries, the Romans had been proud of their military strength. During the Pax Romana period, though, many Romans took more interest in leisure activities than they did in protecting the empire from invaders. When the empire needed the Romans’ military skills again, these skills were no longer sharp. The Romans didn’t want to joint the army.
· Military defeat – The Roman army was no longer strong enough to defeat the barbarians and lost battle after battle.

As you learn about why Rome fell, you can see the challenge of studying history. You cannot understand the past just by collecting facts and dates. History is also explaining the facts and dates.

Historians have studied for centuries the causes that led to the fall of Rome. Yet they have come to many different conclusions about which causes were the most important. The more you learn, the more skilled you will be at understanding the puzzles of history.

The Roman Legacy

After the great Roman Empire fell to the German barbarians, Europe entered 500 years of decline. This period is known to historians as the Early Middle Ages. European cities that had just begun to blossom declined as increased warfare disrupted trade. The education system broke down. In many communities the priests were the only people who knew how to read and write.

Day-to-day survival became the main concern for most people. Under these conditions, the learning of the Greeks and Romans could easily have been lost to the world. Fortunately, several factors kept that from happening. In Europe, the church began to develop religious communities known as monasteries. These monasteries were centers of learning containing schools and libraries. They preserved Rome’s heritage in book form.

Centers of learning were also found in the Eastern Roman Empire, which did not fall with Rome. In Constantinople, the capital scholars copied the many important works of the Greeks and Romans for study.

Through the efforts of scholars at these centers of leaning and others like them, the ideas of Greco-Roman civilization were saved for future generations. The achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans have made lasting impressions on Western civilization.