Chapter 6

When in Rome

In This Chapter

• The geography of Rome

• The rise of the Roman republic

• The Roman Empire and its achievements

• Jesus and the rise of Christianity

• The decline and fall of the Roman Empire

During the first half of Roman history, the Roman republic, influenced by the Greeks, developed legal traditions and government to a higher and more advanced level than had been seen before in the Mediterranean region. Later, during the second half of Roman history, the Roman Empire spread those traditions all over Europe to become a foundation of Western civilization.

The Boot of Europe

The Italian Peninsula, which most people recognize from its bootlike shape, was where the Roman civilization began and also ended. This boot in southern Europe extends into the Mediterranean Sea, which gives it a very mild and sometimes damp climate, excellent for farming. Of course, the nutrient-richsoil doesn’t hurt either. And isn’t it odd that most great civilizations are founded on the sweat and dirt of a farmer’s brow?

The Italian Peninsula is also protected by natural barriers that prevented migrations and invasions (with the exception of Hannibal). There are the Alpine Mountains, or Alps, in the North and the surrounding waters of the Tyrrhenian, Adriatic, and Ionian Seas, all part of the much larger Mediterranean Sea. All of these factors made the Italian Peninsula an excellent spot to start a civilization.

Early People of the Italian Peninsula

Roman history and legends have it that in about 753 B.C.E. the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, founded the city of Rome. This historical fact shouldn’t be taken too seriously.The legend also says the orphaned twins were suckled by a she-wolf that took in the abandoned boys.

The archaeological and historical records indicate that from 2000 to 1000 B.C.E. the Latium and Oscan tribes migrated and settled in the Italian Peninsula. From 900 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E., the Etruscans invaded the peninsula and conquered the Latium and Oscan tribes, by that time called the Romans after their major population center, the city of Rome.

What in the World

Oddly, another part of the legend of Romulus and Remus has the boys’ great-uncle setting the infants adrift in a basket on the Tiber River. Variations of this legend have been found in the Bible as well as Mesopotamian civilization.

Rome If You Want To

Little is known about the Etruscans, and what historians do know comes from the conquered Romans. With that in mind, the following events are said to have taken place during the period of Etruscan rule.

Around 620 B.C.E. the Etruscans gained control of the city of Rome. A wealthy Etruscan family, the Tarquins, provided Rome with kings to rule over the city. These kings tended to treat the Romans rather harshly, especially Tarquin the Proud, who came to the throne in 534 B.C.E. By 509 B.C.E. the Romans had had enough of Tarquin the Proud, overthrew him quickly and violently, and declared Rome a republicruled by the people. Around 270 B.C.E., the Roman city and republic had control of the entire Italian Peninsula—and was poised for something much bigger.

The Roman Republic

The Roman republic was not the first representative form of government; you’ll remember that Athens holds that honor. But the Roman government did represent more people and territory than ever before. To govern well, the Romans had to develop an efficient government. This was a constant struggle, and one that they ultimatelylost.

At first the Roman government was organized into two branches, the executive and the legislative. The Office of the Consul took care of the day-to-day operations as the executive branch. The legislative branch was made of the Senate and the Assembly of Centuries. The 300 members of the Senate were elected men who served for life; the Assembly of Centuries was made up only 100 men who were elected on a regular basis.

Generally the legislative branch was dominated by the patricians, the wealthy aristocraticclass. The plebeians, the middle class, resented their lack of political power and were continually locked in a struggle with the patricians. Eventually the plebeians were able to gain a measure of political equality by threatening to strike from service in the armed forces. The patricians created the Office of Tribune for the plebeians. It had veto power over any law passed by the Senate, a sizeable check on the powers of the legislative branch.

Roman Law

The Roman republic created an impressive law code beginning with the Twelve Tables in 451 B.C.E. Twelve bronze tablets engraved with Roman law were placed throughout the republic so the law could be fairly applied to all. Of course, fairness and equality are sometimes subjective, and the Romans created the position of praetor, or judge, to act as moderator.

As the republic developed so did the law codes. Gradually, three types of laws were created. The first was jus civile, or civil laws, which were the laws for the citizens of the Roman republic. Another was jus gentium, the law of the gentiles, which governed noncitizens of the republic. And the Romans debated the idea of jus naturale, the natural laws that governed all humans.

This legal advancement by the Roman republic created some conceptions of law that have endured into modern times. In the Roman legal mind, a state should be made of laws not men; in other words, no man should be above the law. Another Roman concept was the idea of guilt based on verifiable evidence, which was closely related to the Roman concept of legal rights. Finally, the Romans advocated a respect for law and justice in the citizenry.

Roman Culture

The Roman republic was not only made of government and laws but also people whose culture was becoming distinct as they assimilated and then modified cultures with which they came into contact.

At first, the Romans worshipped different spirits they believed were found in nature. Under Etruscan influence, the Romans saw these spirits as gods and goddesses. As the republic expanded and took control of Greece, they borrowed Greek deities and myths, giving them Roman names. Finally they stamped Roman structure and organization upon religion, creating the office of Pontifex Maximus, in charge of the prayers and sacrifices for the entire Roman republic.

Rome Around the World

The Roman form of democracy and law spread across the Italian Peninsula and began to expand into other regions. Part of the catalyst for this expansion were the Punic Wars, a series of three conflicts with the city-state of Carthage in north Africa. The Carthaginians’ wealth and power were based in trade and commerce. The city-statewas originally a colony of the great trading empire of the Phoenicians.

Notable Quotable

"Let us relieve the Romans of the fear which has so long afflicted them, since it seems to tax their patience too hard to wait for an old man’s death.”

—Hannibal, on being forced to drink poison when the Romans caught him long after the Punic Wars.

The Punic Wars

The conflict between the two powers began over trading interests in the island of Sicily. The Romans had considerable territory and interest in the island; the Carthaginians wanted it to expand their commerce into the Mediterranean Sea. The war lasted 23 years, from 264 to 241 B.C.E. In the end the Romans won, making Carthage pay a huge indemnity for the inconvenience of the war.

But this was not the end of the conflict. The Second Punic War began in 221 B.C.E., when Carthage, led by the brilliant general Hannibal, took Roman territory located in Spain. Knowing about Roman military weakness on the Italian Peninsula, Hannibal brought the war to them by leading an army across the Alps. Once on the peninsula, Hannibal defeated several Roman armies and terrorized the Italian countryside. Finally the Roman general Scipio formulated a plan to advance on Carthage, forcing Hannibal’s army to return to its defense. In 202 B.C.E. at the Battle of Zama, Scipio defeated the Carthaginian army, forcing the city-state of Carthage to sue for peace.

The Carthaginians thus sufficiently humbled,the Romans felt confident enough to expand eastward. For 45 years, from 214 to 169 B.C.E., the Romans defeated forces in Greece, the Balkans, and modern-dayTurkey, then returned to the Carthaginians, perhaps from a deep-seated fear of their return to power. In 146 B.C.E., the Romans went to war with Carthage over some imagined offense. By the time they left, Carthage was burnt to the ground and the soil around the city was sowed with salt to prevent the growth of plant life. The Romans also sold all of the Carthaginians— men, women, and children—into slavery. The message this sent to the Mediterranean rim people was, “Don’t mess with the Romans.” This reputation allowed the Romans to conquer more territory in western Asia, Egypt, and Europe.

What in the World

The Roman army did not defeat every foe. In 9 C.E., three Roman legions, approximately15,000 men, were slaughtered to the man in the Teutoburg Forest by Germanic tribes led by a former Roman ally, Arminius. After that, Rome’s policy of aggressive expansion ceased and the empire focused on border defense.

The Roman Army

It wasn’t just their reputation that allowed the Romans to expand their territory and interests around the Mediterranean rim. It was also their military discipline and organization. Roman troops were organized into legions of 5,000 men trained to fight with a short sword and shield.

In battle, the legion moved as a unit with their tall shields up. Once upon the enemy, they used their short swords in a stabbing motion while constantly moving forward. As men fell, the disciplined Roman soldiers filled in the ranks and pressed forward, with none of the fancy sword play of later medieval knights! With these tactics, the legions literally pushed other armies from the battlefield. Of course it became more complex as the years progressed with archers and cavalry, but the common denominatorwas the discipline of the legion, which won many battles for the Romans.

Problems with Expansion

The expansion of the Roman republic brought many benefits including commerce and wealth, but the expanding republic also had to deal with new problems. The exploitation of the newly conquered provinces brought resentment and armed resistance,which required an ever larger Roman army. A steady supply of slaves created a labor problem as many Romans became unemployed.

In addition, people flocked to the Roman cities as they became centers of the new commerce and wealth. The Roman farmer, the backbone of the early republic, began to disappear from the landscape. Food production went to the hands of wealthy landowners.Finally the ranks of the military, once populated with small farmers who volunteered for short periods, became populated with professional soldiers who could fight long campaigns. Unless occupied with war, however, these professional soldiers grew restless and troublesome.

What in the World

One unusual ruler of the Roman republic was Cincinnatus. He was called to lead Rome when his military services were needed to defend the borders. When the invaders were defeated, he returned to his farm allowing for an orderly change of power. George Washington was said to have thought of himself as an American Cincinnatus; following his example, Washington only served two terms as President of the United States.

The Beginning of the End of the Republic

With the problems came solution-minded men, two brothers and two generals. The first reformers were two brothers, Tiberus Gracchus and Gaius, the grandsons of the great general Scipio. Tiberius Gracchus came to power after he won the office of Tribune in 133 B.C.E. He gained his support by representing the plebeians and their economic and political struggles. This did not sit very well with the patricians. They organized a riot, which killed Gracchus. Apparently Gaius, his brother, did not learn very well from his brother’s fate. Gaius suggested a redistribution of land to help poor farmers, and wanted to help Rome’s urban poor. Again the patricians organized a riot, killing Gaius in 121 B.C.E. The generals, Marius and Sulla, tried different strategies to end the economic inequalities and acquire political power in the Roman republic. General Marius was the first to try a new strategy when he was elected consul in 107 B.C.E., giving the poor jobs as soldiers in the army. This created an army loyal to him, but combined military and political power—generally a dangerous combination.

By 88 B.C.E. General Sulla, using Marius’ example, recruited an army to defeat Marius’ army and became dictator for a short period before the republic was restored. These men did little to solve the problems of the republic, but these small episodes in the history of the Roman republic were not forgotten. Marius and Sulla gave political leaders who followed them a template for acquiring power in the Roman republic.

The First Triumvirate and the Rise and Fall of Julius Caesar

The men who learned most from Marius and Sulla were the so-called First Triumvirate: Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar. They combined their respective political and military powers in 60 B.C.E. to gain control of the Roman government. Afterward, Julius Caesar, always the general, went to the territory of Gaul to defeat the Celtic and Germanic barbarian tribes and protect the north European borders of the Roman territory. He probably also sought to gain Rome’s popular support through his military victories. (Everybody loves a winner!)


The First Triumvirate designates a group of three rulers who ruled ancient Rome with equal authority.

Crassus also tried this method to gain the support of the Roman people, but was killed in battle in 53 B.C.E. At that point Pompey, who had stayed in Rome and the Senate, feared that Caesar might use his army in Gaul to seize power in Rome. When Caesar marched south into the Italian Peninsula, they sent word to him to stay north of the Rubicon River. Legend has it that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and announced, “The die is cast,” meaning that whatever his fate, he was ready.

At first Caesar’s prospects were good. He cornered and defeated Pompey and his forces, and the Roman people loved him and supported the reforms he advocated to solve the republic’s ills. But the Roman Senate feared Caesar and his popular appeal— with good reason. In 45 B.C.E., Caesar took the position of dictator for life, a powerful position that weakened the power of the Senate considerably. In response, a group of senators, some of them once friends of Caesar, cornered and stabbed him to death on the floor of the Senate. Caesar’s fate was the beginning of the end of representative government in Rome.

Notable Quotable

"As soon as Caesar took his seat the conspirators crowded around him ... one of the Casca brothers with a sweep of his dagger stabbed him just below the throat … Confronted by a ring of drawn daggers, he drew the top of his gown over this face and did not utter a sound … though some say that when he saw Marcus Brutus … he reproached him in Greek with: ‘You, too, my child?’”

The Twelve Caesars, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus

The Real End of the Republic

The end of the republic began with revenge and ended with an emperor. Octavian, grandnephew and adopted son of Caesar, formed the Second Triumvirate with Marc Anthony and Lepidus to exact revenge on Caesar’s enemies in the Senate. The three men then divided the large Roman empire into three parts.

Of course that arrangement did not last long. Octavian wanted more power and, in 31 B.C.E., reached his goal of total control of the empire with the defeat of Marc Anthony in Egypt. Once in Rome, Octavian took the name Augustus Caesar, by which most people remember him. Augustus ruled Rome from 27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E. During his rule he systemically took power away from the Senate and became the sole lawmaker and law executor, ending the representative government of the republic.Although most would consider the end of the representative government a bad thing, it did provide stability for an expanded empire for which the republican form of government was unsuited. This began a period of 200 years of relative peace in Roman history, called the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace.

The Roman Empire

Of course, the new Roman Empire that Augustus established wasn’t all roses. There were some interesting episodes of intrigue among the first four emperors who ruled from 14 to 68 C.E., called the Julian emperors because they were all related to Julius Caesar.

Tiberius Caesar was paranoid of treachery within his administration (could you blame him?) and accused innocent people of treason. The emperor Caligula was mentally disturbed, and it showed. Claudius was old and frail and could not focus on affairs of the state. And finally Nero was cruel and quite mentally disturbed. It was even rumored that in order to have a palace built in a section of Rome that was already settled, Nero set fire to it and that while “Rome burned, Nero fiddled.”

What in the World

Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, Roman emperor from 37 to 41, was born and raised in Roman military camps. There he gained his nickname, Caligula, meaning “little boots,” on account of the little military boots he wore as an infant. Apparently the name did not contribute to his mental stability. Caligula was said to be mad and participated in many wild exploits of debauchery during his reign. His madness became evident to the Roman public when he tried to name his favorite horse as a Roman consul.

The Good Emperors

After Nero, things were put back on track by the Senate, which in 96 C.E. began to elect emperors. What followed were five emperors who have been aptly named the “Five Good Emperors.” Nerva was the first of those emperors, ruling with justice and temperance. Emperor Trajan followed Nerva and expanded the empire to its greatest size. The emperor Hadrian strengthened the empire’s frontier defenses with fortressesand walls, one of which is Hadrian’s Wall found in north England. Antoninus Pius maintained a steady hand on the rudder of prosperity that the empire produced. Finally, Marcus Aurelius, Stoic philosopher, brought order and stability and even more wealth to the empire.

Pax Romana

Early in the Roman Empire and Pax Romana, there were several significant improvementsin Roman rule. First the emperors learned to carefully choose the governors of the provinces to keep them under control. The emperors also ended the office of Pontifex Maximus and themselves became chief priest of the Roman state religion. In fact, starting with Augustus, the emperors were considered divine gods on Earth and as such, worthy of worship. The emperors also made all conquered peoples citizens of Rome, with all the rights and privileges, which created loyalty in the provinces. Conquered peoples were even allowed to join the Roman legions.

The Roman Empire enjoyed unprecedented wealth and prosperity, most of which came from imports and exports that extended from England to China. The prosperity allowed the Roman people to have over 130 holidays to enjoy festivals, races at the Circus Maximus, or the gladiatorial contests at the Coliseum.

The Romans made cultural advancements during Pax Romana, too. In architecture, the Romans constructed many impressive projects, such as the Pantheon, finished in 128 C.E. The Romans also built one of the first major roadways, the Appian Way, portions of which still survive to this day.

Roman education advanced as well. The Romans borrowed a great deal of knowledge from the conquered Greeks, but, unlike the Greeks, who generally focused on theory, the Romans looked to the practical. The theories of the Greek physician Galen were systemized, formingthe basis of Roman medical science. The work of the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy was perfected and formed the basis of Roman astronomy. With Latin as the official language of the Roman Empire, literatureflourished. The work of The Aeneid, written by the Roman poet Virgil, compares to Homer’sIliadin beauty, style, form, and epic dimensions. Other Romans, most notably Livy and Tacitus, wrote accuratehistories (by the day’s standards) of Rome.

Notable Quotable

"The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find yourself.”

History of Rome, Livy

Roman Religion and Christianity

During the Pax Romana a new religion was established that would eventually conquerthe empire via the very roads and trading networks the empire had established and protected with Roman legions. This new religious force was Christianity, and it changed the face of Rome and, of course, all of Western civilization.

The Roman State Religion

The Roman state religion worshipped the emperor and various gods and goddesses of the Roman pantheon. Romans believed that observing certain rituals made them right with the gods. This meant it was a Roman citizen’s duty to perform the appropriaterituals to ensure the peace and tranquility of the empire.

That did not make Romans intolerant of other religions. In fact, other religions from Persia, Greece, and Africa flooded Rome after their conquest. To be accepted by the Romans, those religions needed only to perform the prescribed rituals at the appropriatetimes—they didn’t have to believe in them.

The Jewish People Under Rome

Under Roman rule the Jewish people of Judea were given certain freedoms, including a degree of religious freedom and self-rule. By 6 B.C.E., the Romans sent a procurator to rule the nation of Judea, and self-rule was revoked. This caused widespread unrest, and three groups emerged. The Sadducees favored cooperation with the Romans. The Essenes preferred to wait on a Messiah or savior to save them from Rome. And the Zealots thought, “Why wait?” They wanted a violent overthrow of Roman rule, and they wanted it now.


A procurator was a Roman officialwho was in charge of the financial affairs of a province or who was governor of a lesser province.

Jesus of Nazareth

During this period, Jesus of Nazareth was born. Although little of Jesus can be found in historical records, his disciples provided many details of his life and teachings in the four gospels that make up the New Testament of the Bible. A carpenter by trade, Jesus preached for a short period, probably no more than three years. During that time he spread a new message to the Jewish people. That message was not about the importance of Jewish law, but the importance of transforming the inner person. To Jesus, the greatest commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus was well received by the Jewish people but not the Jewish priests, who saw him as rival to be silenced. So when he brought his message to the capital, Jerusalem, he was detained and denounced for his teachings by a Jewish court, and crucified by Roman authorities, who only abided by the Jewish court’s conviction to appease provincialpolitics. Under Roman law, Jesus had committed no crime.

The Spread of a New Religion

Jesus’ death did not stop his teachings from spreading. Many of Jesus’ followers believed that he rose from the dead and was the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.

Inspired by this belief, now called Christianity, his followers spread Jesus’ teachings across the Mediterranean rim along Roman roads and trade routes.

Two leaders emerged during this early Christian movement. Simon Peter was one of the leaders and the first bishop of Rome, who focused on teaching that Jesus was the son of God, or Christ. Paul of Tarsus was the other leader of the early Christians who arguably had the most impact. He cleared the way for gentiles, or non-Jews, to be converted to Christianity, setting the stage for the conversion of the Roman Empire. His letters also form a major portion of the New Testament of the Bible.

The Romans did not tolerate the new religion, and it spread underground at first. The Romans viewed Christianity as a threat to the state religion, because Christians refused to perform the Roman state religious rituals. Christians were persecuted and suffered death by crucifixion or sport. Yes, throwing Christians to the lions in the Coliseum really was once a favorite Roman pastime. The persecutions reached their peak under the emperors Nero and Diocletian, but the Christian church grew despite this violent opposition. As a matter of fact, the church appeared to grow in spite of the Roman opposition. It has been said that the Christian church grew because it was watered by the blood of Christian martyrs.

Notable Quotable

"Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

—Mark 5:3, Jesus on the poor

Why was Christianity so popular? It gave some Romans meaning and purpose in their lives. In addition, Christianity fulfilled the need to belong, which was sometimeshard to find in the vastness and the cosmopolitan nature of the empire. Finally, the teachings of Jesus were attractive to the poor and powerless.

The Conversion of Rome

By the fourth century C.E., a majority of citizens in the Roman Empire had convertedto Christianity. This became apparent when pagan Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E., which granted official tolerance for the religion. Constantine later converted to Christianity himself.

Once given official tolerance, the Christian religion became an unstoppable force in the empire. In 395 C.E., Emperor Theodosius the Great adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, putting an end to the pagan traditions of Rome that had endured for 800 years. Some historians have pointed to this historical moment as the beginning of the decline of the empire.

Roman Chaos and Decline

In reality, the decline of the Roman Empire can never be attributed to one factor. There are many possible reasons for the decline that led to the fall of the empire, which began around 180 C.E. Between 235 and 284 C.E., there was a great deal of political upheaval as evidenced by the list of 22 emperors who ruled during that 49-yearperiod. It was also after the third century C.E. that the Germanic tribes that had been kept outside the borders of the empire began to make incursions into Roman territory. The Germanic problem forced higher and higher taxes, as it cost more money to fund and equip a large army to protect the borders. Trade and small industryalso declined, and the well of wealth of the empire started to run dry.

Diocletian and Constantine

Two emperors tried to stop this decline. Diocletian ruled the empire from 285 to 305 C.E.—quite long compared to the preceding 22 emperors. He made his rule more efficient by dividing it into four administrative units. Diocletian also pushed economic reforms, including price and wage freezes, to fight inflation.

His successor, Emperor Constantine, enjoyed a long rule, too. He consolidated his rule over the empire and constructed a new capital city in the eastern Roman Empire named after himself: Constantinople. Constantine was able to make both economic and military reforms to help slow the decline of the empire. But slowing the decline was all Diocletian or Constantine could do. Their administrative reforms were only a quick and temporary patch.

This Is the End

The fall of the Roman Empire is traditionally thought to have started in the fifth century. The fall was started by the tribes of Huns united under Attila the Hun, who migrated from the plains of Asia in the east and pushed a Germanic tribe, the Visigoths, into Roman territory. By 410, the Visigoths had invaded the Italian Peninsula and sacked Rome, an act that sent shockwaves throughout the Roman world.

Later, a Germanic tribe called the Vandals (from whom the word vandal originates) invaded the Roman Empire from the west


The term vandal, which means one who intentionally destroys something, originated with the Germanic tribe named the Vandals, who destroyed the beauty of the Roman Empire during their invasions.

and sacked the city of Rome in 455. Finally, in 476, a Germanic chieftain deposed the last emperor of the remnants of the western Roman Empire. Because of this, 476 is traditionally considered the date of the fall of the Roman Empire, but the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, under the capital city of Constantinople, continued for another 1,000 years.

Reasons for the Fall

Over the ages, historians have speculated over the exact reason for the fall of the Roman Empire. No single cause can be established, but several factors are possible contributors. The first was the conversion of the empire to Christianity. Some historianshave suggested that this led the Romans to spend more time thinking about the afterlife rather than the here and now of the empire. In addition, the cohesive power of the Roman state religion was lost.

Notable Quotable

"The union of the Roman Empire was dissolved; its genius was humbled in the dust; and armies of unknown barbarians,issuing from the frozen regions of the North, had establishedtheir victorious reign over the fairest provinces of Europe and Africa.”

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon

Other historians have thought that a decline in traditionalRoman values associated with the simple, humble, agrarian lifestyle of the Roman republic was the reason for the fall. Other factors include successiveplagues that weakened the empire, slavery that made the Romans lazy and unemployed, and even lead poisoning from their indoor plumbing.

Finally, one factor that has carried a lot of credence with historians is the fact that the Romans struggled to find a workable political system to control such a vast empire for an extended period. Regardless, because of one or all of these factors, the Roman Empire fell and left a void in western Europe. But its legacy in western Europe remained.

The Least You Need to Know

• The Roman republic originated in the city of Rome, inhabited by the Latins.

• After winning the Punic Wars, the Romans dominated the Mediterranean Sea rim.

• With expansion came political strife, and the Roman republic was replaced by an empire ruled by an emperor.

• The Christian religion was founded during the period of Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, and spread throughout the Roman Empire and became its official religion.

• The Roman Empire fell into political and cultural decline during the fifth centuryC.E., and by 476 C.E. the empire fell after a series of invasions by Germanic tribes.

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