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The Romans and their empire at its height in 117 CE was the most extensive political and social structure in western civilization. By 285 CE the empire had grown too vast to be ruled from the central government at Rome and so was divided by Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE) into a Western and an Eastern Empire.

Scroll down to see more articles about the history of the Romans.

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The Legend of Rome: Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus were twin brothers. Their father was Mars, the God of War, their mother was Rhea Silvia, a vestal virgin and daughter of the King, Numitor. Numitor’s brother, Amulius, had taken the throne from him and had forced Rhea Silvia to become a vestal virgin so that she would not have any children who might try to take back the throne.

When the boys were born, Amulius seized them, put them into a basket and threw them into the river Tiber. He hoped that they would drown. However, the boys were rescued by a she-wolf who fed the babies with her own milk and cared for them.

romulus and remus with wolf and shepherd

They grew up and were found by the shepherd Faustulus, who took them home and looked after them until they were grown up.

The two young men discovered who they really were and decided to kill Amulius and put their grandfather back on the throne. After doing this they decided to build a city of their own but could not agree where to build it. Remus favoured the Aventine Hill but Romulus wanted to use the Palatine Hill. They could not reach an agreement and so each began to build his own city enclosed with walls.

One day, Remus visited Romulus and made fun of his wall by jumping over it and saying how easily it could be breached. Romulus was so annoyed that he killed Remus and said the he would kill anyone who mocked his city or tried to break through the walls of Rome.

The legend says that Romulus became the first King of Rome in 753BC and populated his new city with runaway slaves and convicted criminals. He stole women from the Sabine tribe to provide wives for the slaves and criminals and to populate his new city.

The Sabine tribe were not happy about this and declared war on Rome. The war went on for many years but eventually the Sabine tribe and Romulus reached an agreement and the Sabines became a part of Rome under the Kingship of Romulus.

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The legend ends by telling how Romulus was carried up to the heavens by his father, Mars, and was worshipped as the God Quirinus.

* Romulus and Remus illustration by: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

When was Julius Caesar Born?

The exact date of Julius Caesar’s birth is not known, but historians claim it to be on July 12 or 13, 100 or 102 BC in Rome. His parents were Gaius Julius Caesar (a praetor) and Aurelia and although he belonged to a noble family, they weren’t very influential or rich during this time. His aunt, Julia was the leader of the Popular faction, Gaius Marius’ wife.

Julius Caesar’s Youth

Caesar’s father died when he was only sixteen, leaving him as the head of the house. Rome at the time was very unstable, struggling to manage its influence and size. Caesar was already very ambitious and decided that his family would benefit most if he would become a  priest. He got himself nominated as Jupiter’s High Priest, but was required to not only be a patrician, but to also be married to one. This led him to break off his current engagement with a plebeian girl and to marry Cornelia, a patrician and daughter of a the influential Lucius Cinna (member of the Populares). Sulla, the Roman ruler at the time declared himself to be dictator of rome and started to purge his enemies systematically. He targeted Caesar, who fled Rome, but his mother’s family successfully convinced the ruler to lift his sentence. He was however no longer allowed to be a priest and Cornelia’s dowry was confiscated. With no other way to provide for his family, Caesar decided to join the army. From there he worked himself up until he, himself became dictator of Rome.

How Did Julius Caesar Die?

How did Julius Caesar die? Julius Caesar died from being stabbed to death by a mob of conspirators in a place just next to the Theatre of Pompey, in 44 BC on the Roman Ides of March. At the time, Julius Caesar had been declared dictator by the Senate and had only served a year’s term. He has, however, already reformed the Senate in that short period and made changes in how local governments worked. He became very popular with the lower and middle-class Romans, but many senators despised him and were concerned about him having too much power as dictator. One of his biggest mistakes was to appoint two of his former enemies, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus who ended up leading the plot to assassinate him.

How Julius Caesar’s Assassination Took Place

Over 40 people were involved in the plot to murder Julius Caesar, or, as they called it, commit tyranicide. They organized a gladiator game and a meeting of the Senate. During the meeting, Casca struck at Ceasar with a dagger, after which Caesar acted in surprise. Casca called for help and the whole group, Brutus included, stabbed him. He tried to get away but was surrounded by a mob of about 60 men. He was stabbed 23 times, although only one of the wounds was fatal.

What Caused the Fall of the Roman Empire?

The main cause of the fall of the Roman Empire is still a topic of debate among historians, maybe because it is a symbol of what we fear about our own civilization. There are many different theories about why a superpower that ruled for 500 years crumbled and fell, but most scholars degree that it wasn’t one event, but a series of factors that caused a steady decline. Alexander Demandt, for example, had 210 different theories and even more emerged afterwards.

Possible Major Causes:

  • Conflict between the Emperor and the Senate
  • Weakening of the emperor’s authority (after Christianity the Emperor was no longer seen as a god)
  • Political Corruption – there was never a clear-cut system for choosing a new emperor, leading the ones in power to “sell” the position to the highest bidder.
  • Money wasting – the Romans were very fond of their prostitutes and orgies and wasted a lot of money on lavish parties, as well as their yearly “games”
  • Slave labor and price competition – Large, wealthy farm owners used slaves to work their farms, allowing them to farm cheaply, in contrast to smaller farmers who had to pay their workmen and could not compete price wise. Farmers had to sell their farms, leading to high unemployment figures.
  • Economical Decline – After Marcus Aurelius, the Romans stopped expanding their empire, causing in a decrease of gold coming into the empire. The Romans however kept spending, causing coinmakers to use less gold, decreasing the value of money.
  • Military spending – Because they wasted so much money and had to defend their borders all the time, the Government focused more on military spending than building houses or other public works, which enraged the people. Many stopped volunteering for the army, forcing the government to employ hired mercenaries, who were expensive, highly unreliable and ended up turning against the Roman Empire.
  • A stop in technological advancement – The Romans were great engineers, but did not focus on how to produce goods more effectively to provide to their growing population.
  • The Eastern Empire – The Roman Empire was divided in a Eastern and Western empire that drifted apart, making the empire easier to manage, but also weaker. Maybe the empire’s rapid expansion was its own downfall in the end.
  • Civil War and Barbarian Invasion – Civil war broke out in Italy and the smaller Roman army had to focus all of its attention there, leaving the borders wide open for the barbarians to attack and invade. Barbarian bandits made travel in the empire unsafe and merchants could not get goods to the cities anymore, leading to the total collapse of the empire

Roman Britain Timeline

Below is a Roman Britain timeline, featuring the most important events in the Roman occupation of Britain, from Julius Caesar’s first attempts at invasion to the fall of the island to the Saxons to the military success of the Britons, leading to the legends of King Arthur.

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The Roman invasion and occupation of Britain

Date

Summary

Detailed Information

26th – 31st August 55BC Julius Caesar attempted to invade Britain Julius Caesar crossed the Channel with a force of around 10,000 soldiers. They landed on the beach at Deal and were met by a force of Britons. The Romans eventually took the beach and waited for cavalry back up to arrive from France. However, a storm prevented the back up force from reaching Britain and Caesar had to withdraw.
July – Sept 54BC Julius Caesar’s second invasion of Britain Julius Caesar crossed the Channel with a force of around 27,000 infantry and cavalry. They landed again at Deal and were unopposed – the Britons had retreated to higher ground. The Romans marched inland and met a large force of Britons led by Cassivellaunus north of the River Thames. After a hard battle the Romans defeated the Britons and some tribal leaders surrendered to the Romans. Cassivellanus ordered crops to be burned and made guerrilla attacks on Roman forces.  But the Romans were too strong and Cassivellanus was forced to surrender. In September Caesar was forced to return to Gaul (France) to deal with problems there and the Romans left Britain.
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54BC – 43AD Roman influence increased Although not present in Britain, the influence of the Romans increased due to trade links
5AD Cymbeline Cymbeline, King of the Catuvellauni tribe, was acknowledged by Rome to be King of Britain.
May 43AD Romans Invaded Britain A Roman force of about 40,000 led by Aulus Plautius landed in Kent. They defeated a force of Britons led by Caratacus and began taking the South-East of Britain. Caratacus escaped and fled to Wales where he set up a resistance base.
Autumn 43AD Claudius arrived with reinforcements The Roman emperor Claudius arrived in Britain with reinforcements. Colchester (Camulodunum) was taken and eleven tribal Kings surrendered to the Romans. Claudius appointed Aulus Plautius Governor of Britain before returning to Rome.
43 – 47AD Conquest of the South The Romans continued their conquest and by 47AD had conquered the whole of South Britain and claimed Britain as part of the Roman Empire.
47 – 50AD London Founded London (Londinium) was founded and a bridge built across the river Thames. A network of roads was built across the south of Britain.
51AD Caratacus defeated and captured Caratacus’ guerrilla force was joined by other tribes who resisted Roman conquest. and confronted the Romans near the River Severn. However, Caratacus was defeated. He escaped again and sought shelter with the Brigantes tribe. However their Queen, Cartimandua betrayed him to the Romans. Caratacus, his family and other rebels were taken prisoner and sent to Rome. In Rome Caratacus was pardoned by Claudius and allowed to live out his days in Italy.
60 – 61AD Boudicca leads revolt against the Romans Prasatugas, King of the Iceni tribe who had signed a peace treaty with the Romans, died. His wife, Boudicca intended to honour the treaty, but after the local Roman authorities seized Prasatugas’s property and raped his two daughters, Boudicca retaliated by signing a treaty with Trinovantes who were hostile to the Romans.

Boudicca is said to have been very tall with striking red hair that hung to her hips. Her army of Iceni tribesmen and women captured and burned Colchester, London, St Albans and caused the governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, to raise the biggest force he could. Boudicca’s army were eventually cornered and massacred. Boudicca poisoned herself to evade capture.

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63AD Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’s disciples, was sent to Britain to convert the people to Christianity.
75 – 77AD Roman Conquest of Britain completed The Romans defeated the last of the resistant tribes in the North making all of Britain Roman.
77 – 400AD Life in Roman Britain Under Roman rule the Britons adopted Roman customs, law, religion. Many were taken by the Romans as slaves. The Romans built many roads, towns, bath houses and buildings. Trade and industry flourished under Roman rule.
79AD Agricola invaded Scotland The Governor of Britain, Agricola, attempted to conquer Scotland for Rome but was unsuccessful.
122AD Hadrian’s Wall built The Emperor Hadrian visited Britain and ordered that a wall be built between England and Scotland to keep the rebellious Scottish tribes out. Construction of the wall began in 122 and was completed by 139.
142AD Antonine Wall Built The Romans made another attempt to conquer southern Scotland and after making some gains built another wall across the land between the Forth and the Clyde. It was abandoned in 160AD.
216AD Britain divided into two provinces In order to better control Britain the Romans divided the land into two provinces. The South was known as Britannia Superior and the North Britannia Inferior.
260 – 274AD The Gallic Empire The Roman general Postumus rebelled against Rome and established himself as Emperor of France (Gaul) and Britain (Britannia)
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22nd June 304AD St Alban Martyred Alban became the first Christian Martyr in Britain. The Emperor Diocletian ordered that all Christians should be persecuted. St Alban, a recent convert to Christianity changed places with a local priest who was wanted by the Romans. When he was discovered he was executed at Verulamium (St Albans).
312AD Christianity the official religion of the Empire The Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire.
360sAD Attacks from Picts, Scots, Franks, Saxons Roman Britain was attacked by tribal groups of Picts, Scots, Franks and Saxons. Reinforcements were sent to Britain and the attacks were repelled.
388 – 400AD Romans begin to leave Britain The Roman Empire was being attacked by many different barbarian tribes and soldiers stationed in Britain were recalled to Rome.
410 Last Romans leave Britain All Romans had been recalled to Rome and the Emperor Honorious told the people of Britain that they no longer had a connection to Rome and that they should defend themselves.
500 Ambrosius Aurelianus – British warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus was a British warlord who commanded the victorious Britons at the Battle of Mons Badonicus. The Saxons had pushed the Britons further and further west unchecked until this battle. The story of King Arthur dates from this period.

For more resources similar to this Roman Britain timeline, specifically the Roman invasion of Britain, please click here.

The Romans – Fall of the Empire

The Fall of the Empire was a gradual process. The Romans did not wake up one day to find their Empire gone!

By AD369 the Empire was beginning to crumble for the following reasons:

The Government was running out of money.

The people had to pay very high taxes – up to a third of their money.

The rich were given grants of money and land which made them richer while the poor got poorer.

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There was not enough money to pay for the army.

Barbarians from Germany called vandals were conquering parts of the Empire and there were not enough soldiers to fight back.

Although the outer edges of the Empire were well defended, there was no defence with in the Empire. This meant that once barbarians had broken through there was nothing to stop them marching to Rome.

The Roman network of roads allowed invaders an easy route to Rome.

No one had decided on a good way to choose an Emperor,. This meant that any general could march into Rome, kill the Emperor and make himself the next Emperor. In 73 years there were 23 Emperors and 20 of them were murdered.

Roman Britain Timeline

The Roman invasion and occupation of Britain

Date

Summary

Detailed Information

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26th – 31st August 55BC Julius Caesar attempted to invade Britain Julius Caesar crossed the Channel with a force of around 10,000 soldiers. They landed on the beach at Deal and were met by a force of Britons. The Romans eventually took the beach and waited for cavalry back up to arrive from France. However, a storm prevented the back up force from reaching Britain and Caesar had to withdraw.
July – Sept 54BC Julius Caesar’s second invasion of Britain Julius Caesar crossed the Channel with a force of around 27,000 infantry and cavalry. They landed again at Deal and were unopposed – the Britons had retreated to higher ground. The Romans marched inland and met a large force of Britons led by Cassivellaunus north of the River Thames. After a hard battle the Romans defeated the Britons and some tribal leaders surrendered to the Romans. Cassivellanus ordered crops to be burned and made guerrilla attacks on Roman forces.  But the Romans were too strong and Cassivellanus was forced to surrender. In September Caesar was forced to return to Gaul (France) to deal with problems there and the Romans left Britain.
54BC – 43AD Roman influence increased Although not present in Britain, the influence of the Romans increased due to trade links
5AD Cymbeline Cymbeline, King of the Catuvellauni tribe, was acknowledged by Rome to be King of Britain.
May 43AD Romans Invaded Britain A Roman force of about 40,000 led by Aulus Plautius landed in Kent. They defeated a force of Britons led by Caratacus and began taking the South-East of Britain. Caratacus escaped and fled to Wales where he set up a resistance base.
Autumn 43AD Claudius arrived with reinforcements The Roman emperor Claudius arrived in Britain with reinforcements. Colchester (Camulodunum) was taken and eleven tribal Kings surrendered to the Romans. Claudius appointed Aulus Plautius Governor of Britain before returning to Rome.
43 – 47AD Conquest of the South The Romans continued their conquest and by 47AD had conquered the whole of South Britain and claimed Britain as part of the Roman Empire.
47 – 50AD London Founded London (Londinium) was founded and a bridge built across the river Thames. A network of roads was built across the south of Britain.
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51AD Caratacus defeated and captured Caratacus’ guerrilla force was joined by other tribes who resisted Roman conquest. and confronted the Romans near the River Severn. However, Caratacus was defeated. He escaped again and sought shelter with the Brigantes tribe. However their Queen, Cartimandua betrayed him to the Romans. Caratacus, his family and other rebels were taken prisoner and sent to Rome. In Rome Caratacus was pardoned by Claudius and allowed to live out his days in Italy.
60 – 61AD Boudicca leads revolt against the Romans Prasatugas, King of the Iceni tribe who had signed a peace treaty with the Romans, died. His wife, Boudicca intended to honour the treaty, but after the local Roman authorities seized Prasatugas’s property and raped his two daughters, Boudicca retaliated by signing a treaty with Trinovantes who were hostile to the Romans.

Boudicca is said to have been very tall with striking red hair that hung to her hips. Her army of Iceni tribesmen and women captured and burned Colchester, London, St Albans and caused the governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, to raise the biggest force he could. Boudicca’s army were eventually cornered and massacred. Boudicca poisoned herself to evade capture.

63AD Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’s disciples, was sent to Britain to convert the people to Christianity.
75 – 77AD Roman Conquest of Britain completed The Romans defeated the last of the resistant tribes in the North making all of Britain Roman.
77 – 400AD Life in Roman Britain Under Roman rule the Britons adopted Roman customs, law, religion. Many were taken by the Romans as slaves. The Romans built many roads, towns, bath houses and buildings. Trade and industry flourished under Roman rule.
79AD Agricola invaded Scotland The Governor of Britain, Agricola, attempted to conquer Scotland for Rome but was unsuccessful.
122AD Hadrian’s Wall built The Emperor Hadrian visited Britain and ordered that a wall be built between England and Scotland to keep the rebellious Scottish tribes out. Construction of the wall began in 122 and was completed by 139.
142AD Antonine Wall Built The Romans made another attempt to conquer southern Scotland and after making some gains built another wall across the land between the Forth and the Clyde. It was abandoned in 160AD.
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216AD Britain divided into two provinces In order to better control Britain the Romans divided the land into two provinces. The South was known as Britannia Superior and the North Britannia Inferior.
260 – 274AD The Gallic Empire The Roman general Postumus rebelled against Rome and established himself as Emperor of France (Gaul) and Britain (Britannia)
22nd June 304AD St Alban Martyred Alban became the first Christian Martyr in Britain. The Emperor Diocletian ordered that all Christians should be persecuted. St Alban, a recent convert to Christianity changed places with a local priest who was wanted by the Romans. When he was discovered he was executed at Verulamium (St Albans).
312AD Christianity the official religion of the Empire The Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire.
360sAD Attacks from Picts, Scots, Franks, Saxons Roman Britain was attacked by tribal groups of Picts, Scots, Franks and Saxons. Reinforcements were sent to Britain and the attacks were repelled.
388 – 400AD Romans begin to leave Britain The Roman Empire was being attacked by many different barbarian tribes and soldiers stationed in Britain were recalled to Rome.
410 Last Romans leave Britain All Romans had been recalled to Rome and the Emperor Honorious told the people of Britain that they no longer had a connection to Rome and that they should defend themselves.
500 Ambrosius Aurelianus – British warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus was a British warlord who commanded the victorious Britons at the Battle of Mons Badonicus. The Saxons had pushed the Britons further and further west unchecked until this battle. The story of King Arthur dates from this period.
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The Romans – Trade

The Romans traded goods throughout their Empire. By importing goods from other countries they raised their standard of living and were able to have many luxuries.

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The Romans used their network of roads and also waterways to transport goods from one country to another. The Romans traded with Britain for silver, which they used to make jewelry and coins, and wool which they used to make clothes. They imported dyes to color their clothes from the south-eastern part of their Empire and also spices to flavor their food.

From the Far East, what is now China, they imported silk to make fine clothing. Cotton came from Egypt and exotic and wild animals for the gladiator fights came from Africa by sea.

The Romans – Roads

The Romans are noted for their skill at building roads. At the time of the Empire there was a vast network of roads that all led to the centre of Rome. Many of these roads still exist today.

The Romans were the first people to build paved roads that would be able to be used in all types of weather. They built their roads so that they were higher in the middle than at the edges. This meant that when it rained the rain would run off the sides of the roads. They often put a drainage system alongside the roads to catch the water as it ran off.

roman road

Rich people travelled along the roads in litters carried either by six or eight men or pulled by mules. Those who could not afford a litter often travelled in small groups for safety. They would travel in carriages. Messengers, who had to travel alone and fast, would ride in a light carriage like a chariot.

Travel was not safe, especially at night. There were roadside inns along all the roads but even these were not safe. Fights would break out and sometimes people were murdered. Travelers preferred to stay with either friends of their own or friends of their friends.

The Romans – Public Health

Pont du Gard, Roman Empire, October 2007, by Emanuele

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The Romans were the first civilization to introduce a public health system. They had to do this because Rome had grown in size and it was impossible to find a natural source of fresh water in the city. It was also necessary to find a way of disposing of the rubbish to prevent pollution causing health problems.

Aqueduct         Aqueduct

Aqueducts were built to transport fresh water into the city. In AD100 there were a total of nine aqueducts that brought fresh water into the city of Rome.

Bath House          Bath House

Public baths were places where people could go to bathe, meet and discuss business. There were hot and cold baths as well as massage rooms.

Sewer in Rome

A network of sewers was built to take sewerage and waste out of the city to the river Tiber. There were also public lavatories.

Roman Society and Social Classes

Roman society was clearly hierarchical, with legally defined privileges allotted to different classes and countless informal differences in attitudes toward the classes in everyday life.

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In ancient Rome the population was divided into two groups: patricians and plebeians.

Patricians

Plebians

The patrician class were the descendants of the most ancient and powerful noble families. They were landowners, lived in large houses and they had political power in the Senate.

The patricians married and did business only with people of their own class.

Plebeians were mainly artisans or peasants who worked the patricians’ land; they lived in apartments and they had no political rights.

If they were lucky plebeians could become clients (obedient servants) of a patrician family. They offered their services in return received the protection of the head of the patrician family, who became their patron.

 

Roman Society in the Era of the Empire 27BC – 1453AD

Below is the pyramid of Roman society, with the emperor at top and slaves at the bottom. Multiple layers existed between them. While it was possible to move up and down this social latter, as the categories were not immutable, changing one’s social standing was extremely difficult and only possible through meritocratic institutions such as the military.

The Emperor
Head of Roman society and ruler of all Rome

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Patrician Families
Wealthy influential landowning families

Senators
Served in the Senate and governed Rome

Equestrians
Wealthy property owners who chose business over politics

Plebeians
Working class. Men without substantial wealth who worked for their living at jobs such as artisans, craftsmen, bakers etc

Freed Slaves
Slaves who had either been given their freedom or had paid for their freedom and now worked for their living.

Slaves
Generally prisoners of war but sometimes abandoned children who were owned by their master

The Romans – Roman Government

The Roman government took on my different forms from its centuries-long existence, back to its legendary founding. For the sake of brevity, this article will skip over its city-state and kingdom periods to focus on its republican and imperial periods. From the time of Julius Caesar, 48 BC, Rome and the Roman Empire was ruled by an Emperor. The Emperor was wise if he listened to the advice of the Senate but some chose to be dictators and do what they wanted rather than follow the Senate’s advice.

Before Julius Caesar took control in 48BC, the Roman Empire was not ruled by the Emperor but by two consuls who were elected by the citizens of Rome. Rome was then known as a Republic.

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Roman Government in the Republic Period

People were divided into different classes. There were Patricians, Plebeians and Slaves.

Patricians were wealthy citizens of Rome. They usually lived in grand houses and had slaves to do their work for them. Because they were citizens of Rome they were allowed to go to the Assembly to vote.

Plebeians were not wealthy but they were citizens of Rome. They were usually craftsmen or tradesmen and they worked for a living. Because they were citizens of Rome they were allowed to go to the Assembly to vote.

Slaves had no money, no rights, no freedom and were not citizens of Rome. Because they were not citizens of Rome they were not allowed to go to the Assembly to vote.

Patricians and Plebeians met in the Assembly and voted for consuls, tribunes and magistrates. Women and slaves were not allowed in the Assembly and could not vote.

Roman Government: Consuls

The citizens of Rome voted for two consuls. They were elected to serve for one year. It was the Consuls job to govern Rome. They had to both agree on all decisions. After they had served their year they were replaced. They were not allowed to be consuls again for ten years.

Magistrates

The citizens of Rome voted for a number of magistrates. It was the magistrates job to keep law and order and also to manage Rome’s financial affairs. When magistrates retired they became senators and attended the Senate.

Tribunes

The citizens of Rome voted for tribunes. It was the tribunes job to make sure that the people were treated fairly.

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Roman Senate

The Senate

Senators went to the Senate to discuss important government issues. Senators were retired magistrates and knew a lot about the government of Rome. It was the job of the senate to give advice to the two consuls. When Rome had an Emperor the senate still gave advice on governing Rome and the Empire.

The Romans – Invasion of Britain

The Roman invasion of Britain was a determined military and political effort to project Roman power in the Northeastern Atlantic.

Julius Caesar
Although Julius Caesar had visited Britain in 55BC (Before the birth of Christ) and reported that the soil was good, there was plenty of food and people that could be used as slaves, the Romans did not have a large enough army to invade and conquer Britain.

Claudius

It was AD (Anno Domini [after the birth of Christ]) 43 before the Romans, under the Emperor Claudius, were ready to conquer Britain.

roman ship

The Romans crossed the Channel from Boulogne and set up a base at Richborough in Kent. Different legions were sent to conquer different parts of Southern Britain. The 2nd legion set up their first base at Fishbourne, near Chichester in Sussex, then continued to Exeter where they set up their main base. The 20th legion, established their base at Colchester, the 14th legion at Leicester and the 9th at Longthorpe near Peterborough. Eleven British Kings surrendered to Claudius immediately while King Caratacus was easily defeated by the 20th legion and escaped to Wales.

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By AD 47 half the country had been conquered but some Kings, like Caratacus still resisted the Romans. Caratacus lost another battle to the Romans near the river Severn in AD 51 but escaped again and hid in the camp of the Brigantes tribe. However, the Queen of the Brigantes told the Romans that Caratacus was hiding with them. The Romans captured Caratacus and sent him to Rome as a slave.

Boudicca

In AD 60, King Prastagus of the Iceni tribe, who had signed a peace treaty with the Romans, died. His wife, Boudicca, became Queen and intended to remain at peace with the Romans. However, the Romans said that all Prastagus’s land and possessions now belonged to them. They attacked the Iceni tribe, took their land and Prastagus’s two daughters. Boudicca was not happy and planned revenge on the Romans.

Boudicca's Chariot

Boudicca joined forces with the Trinovantes and together they raised an army to fight the Romans. Boudicca’s army captured and burned London, Colchester and St Albans. The Romans were forced to raise the largest army they had ever had to defeat Queen Boudicca. The Romans killed anyone who had fought them. Boudicca poisoned herself to prevent the Romans from capturing her.

The Romans – Roman Britain Timeline

Roman hemispherical sundial in the Side Archaeological Museum (Side, Turkey), photo by Ad Meskens

The Roman invasion and occupation of Britain

Date

Summary

Detailed Information

26th – 31st August 55BC Julius Caesar attempted to invade Britain Julius Caesar crossed the Channel with a force of around 10,000 soldiers. They landed on the beach at Deal and were met by a force of Britons. The Romans eventually took the beach and waited for cavalry back up to arrive from France. However, a storm prevented the back up force from reaching Britain and Caesar had to withdraw.
July – Sept 54BC Julius Caesar’s second invasion of Britain Julius Caesar crossed the Channel with a force of around 27,000 infantry and cavalry. They landed again at Deal and were unopposed – the Britons had retreated to higher ground. The Romans marched inland and met a large force of Britons led by Cassivellaunus north of the River Thames. After a hard battle the Romans defeated the Britons and some tribal leaders surrendered to the Romans. Cassivellanus ordered crops to be burned and made guerrilla attacks on Roman forces.  But the Romans were too strong and Cassivellanus was forced to surrender. In September Caesar was forced to return to Gaul (France) to deal with problems there and the Romans left Britain.
54BC – 43AD Roman influence increased Although not present in Britain, the influence of the Romans increased due to trade links
5AD Cymbeline Cymbeline, King of the Catuvellauni tribe, was acknowledged by Rome to be King of Britain.
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May 43AD Romans Invaded Britain A Roman force of about 40,000 led by Aulus Plautius landed in Kent. They defeated a force of Britons led by Caratacus and began taking the South-East of Britain. Caratacus escaped and fled to Wales where he set up a resistance base.
Autumn 43AD Claudius arrived with reinforcements The Roman emperor Claudius arrived in Britain with reinforcements. Colchester (Camulodunum) was taken and eleven tribal Kings surrendered to the Romans. Claudius appointed Aulus Plautius Governor of Britain before returning to Rome.
43 – 47AD Conquest of the South The Romans continued their conquest and by 47AD had conquered the whole of South Britain and claimed Britain as part of the Roman Empire.
47 – 50AD London Founded London (Londinium) was founded and a bridge built across the river Thames. A network of roads was built across the south of Britain.
51AD Caratacus defeated and captured Caratacus’ guerrilla force was joined by other tribes who resisted Roman conquest. and confronted the Romans near the River Severn. However, Caratacus was defeated. He escaped again and sought shelter with the Brigantes tribe. However their Queen, Cartimandua betrayed him to the Romans. Caratacus, his family and other rebels were taken prisoner and sent to Rome. In Rome Caratacus was pardoned by Claudius and allowed to live out his days in Italy.
60 – 61AD Boudicca leads revolt against the Romans Prasatugas, King of the Iceni tribe who had signed a peace treaty with the Romans, died. His wife, Boudicca intended to honour the treaty, but after the local Roman authorities seized Prasatugas’s property and raped his two daughters, Boudicca retaliated by signing a treaty with Trinovantes who were hostile to the Romans.

Boudicca is said to have been very tall with striking red hair that hung to her hips. Her army of Iceni tribesmen and women captured and burned Colchester, London, St Albans and caused the governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, to raise the biggest force he could. Boudicca’s army were eventually cornered and massacred. Boudicca poisoned herself to evade capture.

63AD Joseph of Arimathea visited Britain Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’s disciples, was sent to Britain to convert the people to Christianity.
75 – 77AD Roman Conquest of Britain completed The Romans defeated the last of the resistant tribes in the North making all of Britain Roman.
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77 – 400AD Life in Roman Britain Under Roman rule the English adopted Roman customs, law, religion. Many of the English were taken by the Romans as slaves. The Romans built many roads, towns, bath houses and buildings. Trade and industry flourished under Roman rule.
79AD Agricola invaded Scotland The Governor of Britain, Agricola, attempted to conquer Scotland for Rome but was unsuccessful.
122AD Hadrian’s Wall built The Emperor Hadrian visited Britain and ordered that a wall be built between England and Scotland to keep the rebellious Scottish tribes out. Construction of the wall began in 122 and was completed by 139.
142AD Antonine Wall Built The Romans made another attempt to conquer southern Scotland and after making some gains built another wall across the land between the Forth and the Clyde. It was abandoned in 160AD.
216AD Britain divided into two provinces In order to better control Britain the Romans divided the land into two provinces. The South was known as Britannia Superior and the North Britannia Inferior.
260 – 274AD The Gallic Empire The Roman general Postumus rebelled against Rome and established himself as Emperor of France (Gaul) and Britain (Britannia)
22nd June 304AD St Alban Martyred Alban became the first Christian Martyr in Britain. The Emperor Diocletian ordered that all Christians should be persecuted. St Alban, a recent convert to Christianity changed places with a local priest who was wanted by the Romans. When he was discovered he was executed at Verulamium (St Albans).
312AD Christianity the official religion of the Empire The Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire.
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360sAD Attacks from Picts, Scots, Franks, Saxons Roman Britain was attacked by tribal groups of Picts, Scots, Franks and Saxons. Reinforcements were sent to Britain and the attacks were repelled.
388 – 400AD Romans begin to leave Britain The Roman Empire was being attacked by many different barbarian tribes and soldiers stationed in Britain were recalled to Rome.
410 Last Romans leave Britain All Romans had been recalled to Rome and the Emperor Honorious told the people of Britain that they no longer had a connection to Rome and that they should defend themselves.
500 Ambrosius Aurelianus – British warlord Ambrosius Aurelianus was a British warlord who commanded the victorious Britons at the Battle of Mons Badonicus. The Saxons had pushed the Britons further and further west unchecked until this battle. The story of King Arthur dates from this period.

The Roman Army: Organization and Battle Tactics

The Roman army was the backbone of the empire’s power, and the Romans managed to conquer so many tribes, clans, confederations, and empires because of their military superiority. It was also the source of the empire’s economic and political strength, ensuring domestic peace so that trade could flourish. However, this peace was often coterminous with subjugation. The Emperor used the army to protect Rome and to control the people it had conquered.

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The Roman army was also a tool of cultural assimilation. Some soldiers were away from their families for long periods of time, loosening their clan loyalties and replacing them with loyalty to Rome. The Roman army was a means by which a barbarian could become a citizen, but the process was not fast. Only when a soldier had served in the army for 25 years he could become a citizen of Rome.

Organization of the Roman Army

The army was organised in a very simple way:

5000 Legionaries (Roman Citizens who were in the army) would form a Legion.

The Legion would be split into centuries (80 men) controlled by a Centurion.

The centuries would then be divided into smaller groups with different jobs to perform.

A Roman Soldier

Roman Soldier

Roman soldiers had to be physically vigorous. They were expected to march up to 20 miles per day in line, wearing all their armor and carrying their food and tents.

 

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Roman Army Turtle

Roman soldiers were trained to fight well and to defend themselves. If the enemy shot arrows at them they would use their shields to surround their bodies and protect themselves. This formation was know as ‘the turtle’.

They fought with short swords, daggers for stabbing and a long spear for throwing. They also carried a shield for protection as well as wearing armor.

The tactics were simple but versatile enough to face different enemies in multiple terrains: From the forests of Germania to the rocky planes of the Greek peninsula. For these and many other reasons the Roman army was the reason for the Empire’s existence for several centuries.

Ancient Roman Slaves: A Life of Bondage

Ancient Roman slaves were the backbone of the empire’s economy, up until its end, but their personal lives were anything but glamorous. A favored slave of a wealthy patrician could live in relative comfort; a less-fortunate laborer could literally be worked to death.

Ancient Roman slaves were usually prisoners captured in war, but some were people who had been kidnapped in Italy. These Slaves were sold at a slave-market. They were put on show, naked, with a notice around their necks. anyone who had enough money could buy them. Once sold they were the property of their new owner and had to work for no money. Sometimes a rich man would have as many as 400 slaves.

Some slave owners beat their slaves and slaves that ran away could be killed. Slaves could not argue with their masters, they had to do exactly as they were told or else they would be punished. If a slave killed his master then all the other slaves in the household would be killed.

Female slave

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Both men and women were sold as slaves and young boys were the most expensive slaves to buy. Some slaves were well educated, especially those from Greece, and they would be used to teach the children of the house.

Women slaves would be used as hairdressers, dressmakers, cooks and servants for rich women. Other slaves worked in small workshops making leather or silver goods or pots and pans.

Slave working

The ancient Roman slaves who had the hardest lives were those who were put to work in the mines. They had to spend long hours underground in hot, cramped conditions. The mines were also unsafe and often slaves were killed in accidents. Farmers used slaves to do the hardest work on their farms like digging and ploughing.

Some slaves were called public slaves; they worked for Rome. Their job was to build roads and other buildings and to repair the aqueducts that supplied Rome with fresh water. Other public slaves worked as clerks and tax collectors for the city.

Although they, and other slaves, would be killed if they ran away, many did try to escape. However, this was very difficult because they had no one to help them and many of them did not speak Latin.

Spartacus

Spartacus was a famous ancient Roman slave who did manage to escape and form a group of slaves who defeated the Roman army in battle. However, their success did not last for long as the army managed to stop more slaves from joining Spartacus and killed those that had survived the battle.

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Roman Entertainment: Bread, Circuses, and Everything Else

Roman entertainment is a byword for the decadence of the late empire, leading to its downfall when it spent more time on amusement than reforming the military or rooting out corruption. But few did mass entertainment better then the Romans. Their coliseums still inspire modern-day sporting arenas. Other forms of Roman entertainment could be found in the amphitheater, the hippodrome or the theatre.

Roman Entertainment: The Amphitheater

The Colosseum in Rome could seat up to 50,000 people and was the largest amphitheatre in the Empire. It was here that people gathered to see the fights between gladiators, slaves, prisoners and wild animals like lions.

The Emperors encouraged people to go to see the fights as it stopped them from being bored and criticising their ruler. The fights were very violent and ended when the loser died.

Sometimes, when the arena was flooded there would be fights with boats. The cells where the animals and prisoners were kept was underneath the floor of the main arena. The Colosseum even had a lift to bring them up to the arena.

Roman Entertainment: The Hippodrome

Circus Maximus

This was where the Romans went to see the chariot racing.

The Circus Maximus was the largest hippodrome in Rome and could hold up to 250,000 people. Chariots were pulled by 2 – 4 horses, and were driven seven times around the ring at extremely fast speeds. Sometimes accidents happened and drivers were often trampled to death.

There were four teams – red, white, blue and green – and fans of each team would wear their team’s colours.

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Roman Entertainment: The Theatre

Drama Masks

People went to one of the big theatres in Rome to watch plays.

Because the audience would not stay quiet the actors had to wear costumes. The actors wore masks – brown for men, white for women, smiling or sad depending on the type of play. The costumes showed the audience who the person was – a purple gown for a rich man, a striped toga for a boy, a short cloak for a soldier, a red toga for a poor man, a short tunic for a slave etc.

Women were not allowed act, so their parts were normally played by a man or young boys wearing a white mask.

The actors spoke the lines, but a second actor mimed the gestures to fit the lines, such as feeling a pulse to show a sick person, making the shape of a lyre with fingers to show music. The plays were often violent and could result in the death of an actor by mistake.

Ancient Roman Games For Children

The sort of leisure enjoyed by Roman children typically depended on one’s class. Children from poor Roman families engaged in near-constant labor, typically in agriculture, but they still found time to play, whether after the harvest or the fleeting moments of time between sundown and bedtime. Accounts by Roman writers and archeological evidence suggests they fashioned instruments at hand into many sorts of toys.

Children from wealthy Roman families had significantly more time for leisure. As the household slaves performed most of the menial labor, and their parents feared that the appearance of their children laboring would lower their social standing among other patricians, they had ample opportunities to play.

Some of the games were directly influenced by Roman social institutions. Children loved to engage in mock swordplay and mimic their favorite gladiator. Others reenacted the Punic Wars and pretended to be Scipio Africanus, dispatching Hannibal of Carthage.

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Other toys and objects of leisure were influenced by the inter-imperial trade of Rome. Cats came to Europe in approximately 100 AD, thanks to growing connections with Egypt and the Near East.

Some of the most favored ancient Roman games and toys include the following:

hobby horse Balls
Bats
Board games
Hobbyhorses
Kites
Models of people
Models of animals
Hoops
Stilts
Knucklebones (like Jacks)
board game

Jacks

rag doll Boy’s Games

War games
Wooden sword fights
Wrestling
Tag

Girl’s Games

Rag dolls
Wax dolls
Board games

wooden swords
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Goose Children also played with their pets

Dogs
Pigeons
Ducks
Quail
Geese
Monkeys – though these were rare
Cats after 100 AD

Dog

 

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The Romans – Religion

The Romans were very superstitious. They believed that good or bad luck was given by the gods – if the gods were happy then you would have good luck but if they were unhappy then your luck would be bad.

There were many different gods and each of them looked after different things.

jupiter neptune mars
Jupiter was the god of the sky and the most important god Neptune was the god of the sea Mars was the god of war
venus bacchus ceres
Venus was the goddess of love Bacchus was the god of wine Ceres was the goddess of agriculture

The Romans worshipped their gods in a temple. They made sacrifices of animals and precious items to their gods. They believed that when an Emperor died he became a god and so a sacrifice was also made to the Emperor. The Romans also worshipped Gods in their own homes.

christians in arena

Christians worshipped one god and refused to recognise or make sacrifices to either the Roman gods or the Emperor. Many of them worshipped in secret. The Romans were very suspicious of the Christians and believed that they were dangerous to Rome. Christians who refused to sacrifice to the gods were put into the arena with lions. Although the Christians were persecuted by the Romans for 400 years, the religion continued to become more popular and by 500AD it was the official religion of Rome.

The Romans – Education

The Romans education was based on the classical Greek tradition but infused with Roman politics, cosmology, and religious beliefs. The only children to receive a formal education were the children of the rich. The very rich families employed a private tutor to teach their children. Those that could not afford to do this used either slaves or sent their children to a private school.

Children of poor families, those living in the country or those whose parents were slaves were not educated at all.

A Roman school would be one room with one teacher. Teachers were very badly paid and worked long hours. Children learned to read and write. It was important to be able to read and write because words were everywhere. If a boy answered a question with the wrong answer, the teacher would beat him with a cane. If he spoke in class without permission he would be dragged to the front of the class and beaten with a cane or a whip.

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cane    whip

Boys and girls did not receive the same education.

Boys

Boys would be given lessons in honourability and physical training which were considered preparation for a man’s role in society and the army. Although they learned how to do simple addition and subtraction more difficult mathematics was not taught because it was difficult to add up numbers written in the Roman system.

Girls

Girls were only allowed to learn to read and write.

 

The Romans – Gladiators

It is believed that the first gladiators were slaves who were made to fight to the death at the funeral of Junius Brutus Pera. The spectacle was arranged by the dead man’s relatives to honour his death.

The tradition was copied at other funerals and then became staged events put on by rich locals for the benefit of their local population. Spectators to the games were charged a fee to watch an array of gladiatorial tournaments.

The majority of gladiators were slaves who were taught how to fight in special schools. They were trained to fight with daggers, swords, forks and nets. They had to fight slaves and criminals who were either unarmed, or armed only with the net.

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gladiators

The fight ended when one man died. If a man was wounded and unable to fight on, he make a sign for mercy. The crowd would then decide whether he should live or die by giving him thumbs up or thumbs down. Thumbs up signified that the crowd wanted the loser killed while thumbs down meant that he should be spared.

The largest and most spectacular gladiator fights were those staged in Colosseum in Rome. The huge circular amphitheatre could seat up to 50,000 people. Spectators were given tickets showing their seat place and also which of the 80 entrances they should use.

Colosseum in Rome

The gladiator fights took place on the huge central stage. Underneath the stage was a network of rooms and corridors used to store costumes and props used to stage the larger spectacles. Some rooms were also used by the gladiators as dressing rooms.

Lifts were used to bring the gladiators up to the main arena.

The Romans – Housing

Ancient Roman housing was bereft of modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing, but they were surprisingly sophisticated as well. There were big differences between the housing of the rich and the poor in Roman times.

ancient rome housing

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Poor Romans lived in insulae.

An insulae consisted of six to eight three-storey apartment blocks, grouped around a central courtyard. The ground floors were used by shops and businesses while the upper floors were rented as living space.

Insulae were made of wood and mud brick and often collapsed or caught fire. There was no heating or running water and often no toilet. The upper floors were the most unsafe and therefore the cheapest to rent. An entire family would often occupy just one or two rooms.

Insulae were dirty, noisy and unhealthy places to live.

Domus

Rich Romans lived in a single-storey dwelling called a domus.

A domus was very grand – with marble pillars, statues, plaster or mosaic walls and mosaic floors.

Domus plan

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A domus was divided into two sections the antica, which was at the front and the postica, which was at the back.

Both sections were designed in the same way with small rooms leading off a large central area.

The front door of the domus was at the end of a small passageway called the vestibulum.

A corridor called the fauces led from the front door to the central area of the antica which was called the atrium.

There was an opening in the centre of the atrium ceiling, beneath which there was a shallow pool called an impluvium to catch rainwater.

The bedroom (cubiculum), dining room (triclinium) and other general living rooms surrounded the atrium.

The ala was an open room which had windows in the outside wall. There were two alae, found on each side of the atrium, and it is thought that their main function was to let light into the house.

The main reception room of the house was located between the antica and postica and was called the tablinum. It was separated from the atrium by a curtain which was often drawn back when the weather was warm. A door or screen separated the tablinum from the postica.

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The main feature of the postica was the peristylium which could be reached by going through the tablinum or through an arched passageway called an andron. The peristylium did not have a roof and was the garden of the house. The Romans grew both herbs and flowers and when the weather was warm would often eat their meals here. The kitchen (cucina), bathroom and other bedrooms surrounded the peristylium. The exhedra was a large room used as a communal dining room or lounge during the summer months.

The Romans – Clothing

Roman clothes were made of wool, spun into cloth by the women of the family. Later on the richer people had slaves to do this work for them. If you could afford to buy clothes, you could buy linen, cotton or silk, which was brought to Rome from other parts of the Empire. Washing clothes was difficult because the Romans did not have washing machines or soap powder. They used either a chemical called sulphur or urine.

These are the clothes that Roman men wore

The Toga

romans clothing

This man is wearing a toga. Only male citizens of Rome were allowed to wear togas. They were made out of wool and were very large. The material was not sewn or pinned but was draped around the body and over one arm. Togas were very expensive because of the large amount of material needed to make them and very heavy. It was the law that all citizens wore togas for public events. They were even told which colour of toga they had to wear:

A plain white toga was worn by all adult male citizens

An off-white toga with a purple border was worn by magistrates and upper class boys

A toga made of dark coloured wool was worn after someone had died

A bleached toga was worn by politicians

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A purple toga with gold embroidery was worn by a victorious general and later by emperors.

In later times it became more acceptable to wear togas of different colours with embroidery  but this was frowned on by those who preferred to keep to the established order.

The Tunic

Roman tunic worn under a cloak

The tunic was standard dress for all men from slaves to the nobles. It could be worn plain, belted at the waist or under a cloak. Citizens of Rome would wear a tunic under their toga.

The simplest and cheapest tunics were made by sewing two pieces of wool together to make a tube with holes for the arms. For those that could afford it tunics could be made of linen or even silk. The tunic would be worn belted at the waist and just covering the knees.

Underwear

Both men and women wore a simple loincloth called a subligaculum under their clothes.

Shoes

Shoes

Indoors, the Romans wore open-toed sandals. However, outdoors they preferred to wear shoes that covered their toes. The Romans made shoes and sandals by fixing strips of leather to a tough leather or cork base. Sandals, to be worn indoors or in the summer, had a smaller number of leather strips. Shoes for walking, for winter or for soldiers had many more leather strips to cover the toes and provide more warmth.

Jewellery

Men were only allowed to wear one piece of jewellery – a ring that was used to make a mark in wax for sealing documents. However, many ignored the rules and wore several rings and brooches to pin their cloaks.

Hairstyles

All men had their hair cut short and shaved. After the time of Hadrian some men began growing beards.

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Roman Food: Plain Sustenance for a Powerful Empire

Despite the opulence of the city of Rome, and the power of its imperial army, Roman food was quite plain by modern standards and served in small portions. As such, the Romans did not eat huge meals.

Their main food was pottage. Pottage is a kind of thick stew made from wheat, millet or corn. Sometimes they would add cooked meat, offal or a sauce made out of wine.

Food for the common people consisted of wheat or barley, olive oil, a little fish, wine, home grown vegetables, and if they were lucky enough to own a goat or cow or chickens, cheese and a few eggs.

As the Republic grew and the Empire expanded the Romans came into contact with food from other ethnic grojuops. They used herbs and spices to flavor their food and began eating more fish, especially shell fish.

Vegetables were plentiful and most of the Roman’s recipes included vegetables. They also ate a lot of fruit, especially grapes, and made wine.

The Romans ate their food with their fingers. They used knives made from antlers, wood or bronze with an iron blade to cut their food. They also had spoons made from bronze, silver and bone which they used to eat eggs, shellfish and liquids.

Typical Roman Food in Everyday Situations

Breakfast – This would be eaten early, probably as soon as the sun rose and would include bread and fresh fruit.

Lunch – Probably taken around noon. Lunch was only a small meal as it was thought a large meal would make one fall asleep in the afternoon. It would include some of the following – a little cooked meat – ham or salami, salad, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, vegetables and bread.

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Dinner – This would begin at about four in the afternoon and could continue into the night. The starter would be either a salad or dish of small fish. The main course of fish, cooked meat and vegetables would be served next. The dessert would consist of fresh fruit and cheese. Sometimes small cakes sweetened with honey would be served.

The Romans – Bibliography

Fall of the Roman Empire

Roman Baths – Bath, UK

Roman Games – Nettlesworth Primary School

Roman Roads – KET

Roman Society – Roman Empire Net

The Romans – BBC

The Romans in Britain – The Romans in Britain

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More About The Romans

The following is an account of Roman History from Prof. Anthony Esolen.

In some ways ancient Rome, especially during the centuries of the Republic, was as politically incorrect a place as you can imagine. Our feminists, who consistently uphold the demands of a minority of well-heeled women against the common good, the family, and every freedom recognized in our Bill of Rights, would hate the patriarchy of ancient Rome, and not least because that patriarchy worked. Nowadays, gripped in our great national passion of envy, we demand all sorts of equality: economic, social, and political. We’ll destroy the family to attain this equality, and never mind the prisons that result. The Romans instead first sought the good of the family and the city. For the most part, they found that good not in leveling distinctions but in revering them. Let’s see how.

Respecting your elders

You’re a small child growing up under the watchful eyes of your grandfather, his father before him, his father’s father, and a host of great-uncles to boot. But you won’t see them pottering about the garden, tending the fig tree, and telling stories. They have gone down to the shades, and are all the more potent for it. You see them every day, though. They stand upon the mantel above the focus, the hearth, where your family will take meals, talk, and gather for the holy rites. They are your household gods, these ancestors. When they died, their kin made a plaster or wax impression of their faces, or small figurines. In later centuries, a rich family might hire someone to sculpt their busts in marble. They are holy. They are the guardians of the family and of ancient traditions. They define for you, the child, what it means to be a Roman.

Such a religion, like Shinto among the Japanese, befits a strongly patriarchal society, with well-established lines of authority and a deep suspicion of innovation. Now, all societies, without exception, have been dominated by men; they have had to be, if they wanted to survive. But the father was central to Roman order. Not so in Greece, where the allmale club, at the gymnasion or the assembly, tended to shoulder aside the family as the ruling institution of civil life. The Roman head of household, or paterfamilias, possessed an astounding authority. His word was law. In the early days he could, legally, commit his children to death.

That was no idle power. Various Roman historians tell the story of one of Rome’s legendary heroes, nicknamed Torquatus, or “The Man with the Neck Chain,” because in the middle of battle he raced up to a gigantic Gaul, killed him, and ripped the chain off the man’s neck. This same Torquatus later led the Romans against the Latins. By then he had a son of his own, commanding a small company of soldiers. This son, using some independent strategy, or hankering after glory, broke the orders of the consuls and, challenged to single combat by a Tuscan nobleman, slew him. For breaking orders, Torquatus had that son executed. An army without discipline is no army. A city without an army will soon be no city. And a father who is not obeyed is no father.

In 509 BC, Lucius Junius Brutus freed the city from its last Etruscan king, but then learned that his grown sons were conspiring to return Tarquin to the throne. He sentenced them to death. In the Roman imagination, the city was an extension of the family, and treason against the patria was tantamount to parricide. We see this identification everywhere, this rule by fathers. The historian Livy preserves for us the language of an archaic oath between warring factions: the legate entrusted to act for one of the sides in a controversy is called a pater patratus, a “father enfathered,” a father endowed with the full authority of a father. The members of the Senate, a body that predates the establishment of the Roman Republic, are literally “old men,” seniors. They are the revered heads of the most powerful families.

This preference for a severe wisdom and the performance of duty, as opposed to the glow of a moment of individual triumph, is easy to see in Roman art. The Romans, who mostly looked down upon free men who competed in sports, did not idolize the young athlete. When they finally learned a little bit about sculpture, their tastes did not run to the buff bodies of nude youths, as in Greece. They preferred bald heads and jowls and warts and all, the serious busts of old men. What you see in a Greek youth sculpted in the golden age of Athens is the ideal of youth: a young man at the height of his strength, about to hurl a discus, or striding forth to throw the javelin; looking like a god, and enjoying for a brief moment the blessedness of the gods. What you see in the Roman bust of a jowled Cicero is hard public thought, experience, determination, responsibility.

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What is the politically correct line on such a society? If today’s assumptions are correct, what should we expect of ancient Rome? It must have been violent, ruled by despots, and oppressive to women. But Rome was none of those things.

Women enjoyed more freedom and higher esteem in the Roman family than anywhere else in the Mediterranean world, outside of Israel. The woman was the heart of the home, and the home was holy. Roman women did not have to endure being shunted aside for second and third wives: the Romans were monogamous, and, especially early in their history, they looked down on divorce.

The histories are full of accounts of noble women, like Cornelia, the mother of the reformist tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, or Portia, the daughter of the moralist Cato and wife of Brutus, or Cloelia, the woman who escaped from her captors by bravely swimming across the Tiber under enemy fire. Greece was more male-dominated than Rome, but Rome was more committed to the rule by fathers, and that seems to have been a good thing for Roman women.

Despots? From the time they expelled Tarquin, the Romans abhorred one-man rule. Occasionally they did delegate dictatorial powers to a single man, as they did with Cincinnatus, the farmer who took command of the armies, defeated the enemy in a couple of weeks, and resigned his commission. But that was for an emergency, and only for a specified term; and when the term was out the ex-dictator had to face the people, should anyone come forth to accuse him of abusing his authority. The Roman devotion to the family set up a strong buffer against the State, even as it helped to create the State. It is interesting to note how this buffer worked, because it helps explain why America’s founders established the checks and balances of its apparently unwieldy government.

Suppose I’m a Roman of the noble class, a patrician, and I want my son to be elected consul. I call in my markers. I’ve done many favors for the heads of lesser families: I am their patronus or patron, literally their sort-of-father, and they are my clients, literally the people who call on me for assistance. They repay me by supporting my candidates. Now if there were only one consul, we’d have a recipe for constant civil unrest; but the Romans relieved the pressure by establishing two consuls, parceling out the executive power month by month, by turns, for one year. Consider the disadvantages, if one believes that government should be a laboratory for, as Edmund Burke put it, “men who are habitually meddling, daring, subtle, active, of litigious dispositions and unquiet minds” (Reflections on the Revolution in France). The consul serves for one short year, and at that it’s a month on and a month off. It’s a system designed to prevent anything abrupt from happening; the more so, as one consul can veto the other. Then, when the year is out, said consuls may not immediately run for reelection. They become members of the Senate, a consultative and legislative body, and historically a brake on hasty measures.
Rome was set up to ensure precisely what is decried today: gridlock, infighting, and obstacles to “solving” problems—solving them, that is, by creating others that are new and worse. Our media buy wholesale the effete leftist line that we need to “put our differences behind us,” “get together and work towards solutions,” and fearlessly bring about some utterly undefined “change.” These notions, self-evidently good in the eyes of today’s media, were exactly the things the consuls and the Senate were created to block. The Romans had set up their government to prevent the newest ideas, however popular, from winning out over the traditional way of doing things and the wisdom of old men.
So we have a Roman state, suspicious of change, which still manages to change with the times, and survives and grows as a republic for five hundred years. And even after it lost a truly republican government, it continued in imperial form for yet another five hundred years in the West, and another fifteen hundred years in the East. It did so, unquestionably, with a lot of civil strife, but, during the centuries of the Republic, without any full-scale civil war, such as convulsed France twice in one century, England under Charles I, Spain under Franco, the United States in the War Between the States, and ancient Athens. It did so even though the geographical position of Rome made it vulnerable to attacks from north and south, and from the sea. Why?

Peace through strength

But weren’t the Romans warlike?

Yes, they were. They wanted to survive. A small consideration, easy to overlook.
They were not, for most of their history, aggressive. A strange thing to say, given that they rose from a village in the hills near the mouth of the Tiber, to the capital of the Mediterranean world and beyond. But it’s true. Until the late and decadent years of the Republic, when generals like Marius and Sulla commandeered professional armies loyal to themselves (for they, and no longer the Senate, paid them in plunder and land), Rome usually didn’t go forth to seek wars. But Rome also didn’t duck any, either. This conservative attitude calls for explanation.

Unlike most peoples at the time, Rome was not governed by a king who could increase his wealth, consolidate his authority, and win an immortal name by military conquest. The consuls served for far too short a time to conduct a war of any magnitude; besides, there were two of them. And, as Polybius notes, it was the Senate’s prerogative “either to celebrate a general’s successes with pomp and magnify them, or to obscure and belittle them.”

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Until Rome was flooded by the wealth from the east after the Third Punic War (146 BC), the state depended for its economy and its political stability on the small landed farmer. This ideal is ingrained so deeply in the Roman mind that, even after the rise of the empire under Augustus brought in cheap grain from Egypt and undercut the Italian farms, the poets Horace and Virgil still look upon it with nostalgia, Virgil writing four stupendous poems, his Georgics, on farming, animal husbandry, winemaking, and beekeeping, always with an eye to the political and theological lessons they suggest. But people who farm have little opportunity for professional warfare.

The Romans expressed their deep conservatism by a reverence for limits: one of their more important (and unusual) gods was Terminus, god of boundary stones. This reverence extended to their oaths and treaties. Not that they didn’t interpret treaties favorably to themselves, and act accordingly. This they did most notoriously when they sought cause against their nemesis Carthage, picking the fight in the Third Punic War. But that reverence restrained them from engaging in the trickery they associated with Greece. Consider a story from the First Punic War. A Roman general named Regulus was captured by the Carthaginians and brought to Africa. The senate of Carthage charged him to return to Rome to present terms for peace. Regulus was to swear that, if Rome refused the terms, he would return to Carthage as a prisoner and be executed. The Carthaginians depended upon his oath, and figured that, since he might prefer living to dying, he would persuade his fellow citizens to accept the treaty. Regulus went to Rome, persuaded his countrymen to reject the treaty, and returned to Carthage, where he was tortured and put to death. Is the story true? There’s no evidence to suggest that it is not true. The Romans believed it, and held Regulus up as a model of Roman integrity and manhood. By contrast, they considered the mythical Odysseus, whom Homer calls “the man of many turnings,” a liar and a villain. “The inventor of impieties,” Virgil calls him (Aeneid 2.233).

Rome won her wars and increased her territory. But it was centuries before she claimed control over Italy: as late as the fourth century BC, Gauls from beyond the Alps set fire to the city, assisted on their way by Gauls on the Italian side. But the real story in the Roman conquest of Italy is political, not military. That is, the Romans—unlike the Athenians—did something sensible after their victories over the Samnites, the Aequians, the Volscians, and most of the other rival states on the peninsula. They cleared out the few genuine enemies of peace, ruthlessly punishing those who led armies against them. Then they incorporated the lands into the Roman state, usually granting citizenship to the leading families, and extending citizenship, on evidence of good behavior, to the free men of the city. They made them Romans.
That didn’t mean the people couldn’t keep their local gods. The Romans were too pious and practical for that. You never know when you have overlooked a deity, so it’s better to have the Rhegians praying to a god you don’t know about, so long as they also pray to the state gods. The results were remarkable. When Hannibal came marauding over the peninsula for fifteen years, he expected that most of the “allies” of Rome, the other old cities, would revolt. They did not. Fear kept some in line, but most had long simply identified themselves as Romans.

To put it simply, a Roman citizen was a Roman citizen. We now associate citizenship with geography. “I am an American” means simply “I was born within the borders of the United States,” and suggests very little about devotion. The Romans prized citizenship far more highly than that. Yet at the same time they were generous in bestowing citizenship upon conquered peoples, without regard for race or ethnicity or religion. None of that mattered. Being Roman was what mattered. So when Saint Paul’s enemies had him arrested for insurrection, he appealed directly to the emperor to try his case, as was his right as a Roman citizen. It is as if an islander in Samoa should invoke the name of the President, calling a halt to local proceedings. The centurion immediately ordered Paul’s safe conduct to the Roman governor, and thence to Rome. Paul was a diminutive Jew from Tarsus on the coast of Asia Minor. He probably never set foot in Rome till he was brought there under arrest. Yet a citizen is a citizen, and the centurions obey the rules.

After the fall of Nero in 69, only one or two of the succeeding emperors hailed from Italy. No one cared. Saint Augustine was born in North Africa in 354. He too was a Roman citizen. Was he black or Caucasian? Berber, or Semitic? We don’t know. No one cared to notice.

In short, when it came to governing conquered peoples, no one did it more efficiently than the Romans did, with remarkably little brutality (there are important exceptions: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD). Their form of tolerance was simple. Swear loyalty to Rome and keep the peace, and they’d eventually make you Romans, with the same rights as anyone. You might enjoy a measure of home rule, if you abided by the law and kept the taxes coming in. But you wouldn’t be Spanish-Romans, or Parthian-Romans, or Greek-Romans. You’d be Roman Romans. Only one nation in the history of the world has managed to follow that wisdom consistently: the United States, until about 1970 (apart from its shameful treatment of blacks). After that, the numbers of illegal immigrants with no emotional ties to America grew, as the value of citizenship among the native people fell.
And the Roman armies, from the time of Augustus till the German takeover of the western empire in 476, brought considerable advantages to the frontier lands. I’m not ignoring the brutal efficiency of the army: when the Romans turned against the rebellious Jews of Palestine, they overran Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and plundered the Holy of Holies. That desecration is celebrated in relief on the Arch of Titus, near the Coliseum. Nor do I ignore how bloody army discipline could be. If a company of men had shown unseemly cowardice, their commander could order them to be “decimated.” The soldiers stood in a line. One tenth would be chosen by lot, to be clubbed to death by the rest. It was an effective deterrent.

But at its height the Roman army numbered about 400,000 men, guarding a frontier stretching thousands of miles, from the walls behind the Roman outposts in Britain, to Gaul and Germany along the Rhine, across the passes of the Alps and into eastern Europe along the Danube to the Black Sea, from there beyond Asia Minor at the Parthian and Persian borders, circling south and west to Arabia and the Sinai, then across North Africa. They could not have done it without discipline. The Romans left little to the whims of their commanders. They had clear lines of authority, and clear military traditions. They pitched camp when it was time to pitch camp, and their camps were laid out in exactly the same fashion everywhere. They knew too that many men will be lazy and careless without the fear of punishment. In the Roman army you risked your life if you fell asleep on sentry duty, or if you failed to pass on orders to the next patrol. Also if you committed those deeds that would sap the morale of your squadron: “The punishment of beating to death is also inflicted upon those who steal from the camp, those who give false evidence, those who in full manhood commit homosexual offenses, and finally upon anyone who has been punished three times for the same offense” (Polybius).

Nor could the Roman armies have succeeded if they had made themselves hated wherever they went. Augustus ensured that the armies would be paid by the State, relieving them of the need to plunder for food. He also gave twenty-year veterans a pension and a parcel of land in the provinces. The result was that many non-Romans determined that serving in the army was a good way to gain modest wealth and the privileges of Roman citizenship. Increasingly, recruits were taken from the provinces, and veterans settled there. And in those provinces the armies did not merely eat, drink, pick up whores, and fight. They built roads, some of the most durable ever, with gravel foundations many feet deep, to prevent buckling under loaded wagons and companies on the march. They built aqueducts. They dredged harbors. They cleared mountain passes. They contributed manual labor to civic works that had nothing to do with an army’s needs: temples, theaters, places of government. They were an ancient Army Corps of Engineers.

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The real reason Rome fell

Edward Gibbon suggested that it was because Christianity weakened the pagan militarism that kept Rome strong. The philosopher Nietzsche accused the Christians of the same thing. That was one of the things that led G. K. Chesterton to wonder whether there might not be something to Christianity. On Monday its critics reviled it for its pacifism, and on Tuesday for the Crusades and the conquest of the Americas.

Gibbon was wrong. Christians formed a significant portion of the legions, even before Constantine legalized the religion in 313 with his Edict of Milan. There’s nothing in the Bible that says that you cannot fight in the defense of your country, and so long as the commanders looked the other way, a Christian lad in armor might dispense with the “required” sacrifices to the gods Augustus and Rome. As early as 180, under the command of Marcus Aurelius (who permitted Christians to be persecuted in Rome), Christians served in the armies defending Rome against German invaders.

The fall was not caused by rampant immorality, either, at least not in the way that novels like I, Claudius might lead us to believe. That’s because the way the aristocracy and the rabble lived in Rome was not the way people lived out in the countryside, not to mention in the provinces. By the first century AD, the city of Rome was a cultural sinkhole. Petronius laughs at the emptiness of Roman life during the reign of Nero. In his Satyricon, a former slave rises to such wealth that he invites his banquet guests to wash their hands in wine, while he is flattered by “educated” Romans and Greeks, who elbow one another for a place at his table. Meanwhile, the “hero” spends an idle hour eyeing up boys playing ball near the baths. He squabbles with his friend over who gets to sodomize their pretty favorite, an effeminate slave boy. He is reduced to paying a sorceress to assist him when a certain member of his body won’t raise itself up anymore. Or the poet Juvenal can lend us a sour look on Rome’s filth, its firetraps, its noise and idleness—where every imaginable sin and stupidity festers, and where the poor man’s “liberty” is to be beaten senseless in the alleys, where he can beg his assailants to let him go home with a few teeth remaining in his head (Satire 3.299–301).

But that was the city, a magnet for people who wanted, as Juvenal put it, “bread and circuses,” free food and bloody games provided by the state. If the welfare-state mentality of the capital had prevailed throughout the empire, Rome would have fallen in a generation or two. It didn’t, partly because the money wasn’t there, and partly because the evil manners of the cities had only limited influence. People in the country preserved the old traditions, worshiping their household gods and living modestly, such as Italian peasants have done almost to the present day. They ate lentils, chickpeas, vegetables with olive oil, bread, cheese, some fruit, and a little bit of meat, not the fancy and uncomfortable dinners that Horace satirizes (e. g., in Satire 2.6, the source of the tale of the city mouse and the country mouse). So conservative were these farmers that they proved resistant to the new Christians, who were most numerous in urban areas, where history that empires that depend upon slave labor can get a lot done with it, but then they stagnate, since slavery removes the incentive for technological development and efficiency in production. Of all the peoples of the ancient world, the Romans could have had an industrial revolution. Their tradition had ennobled manual labor (though the rich came to view that as quaint, from the dusty past).

They imitated the accomplishments of other peoples, learning the use of the arch from the Etruscans, the colonnade from the Greeks. They were remarkably inventive in their uses of building materials. They used the volcanic ash of southern Italy to form a mixture we know as concrete— cheap, much lighter than marble or granite, and pourable into forms to make slabs or columns as needed. The concrete could also be mixed by various formulas, depending on the use. One kind would set up underwater, for bridge-piers, which could be driven deep into a riverbed by pile drivers.

But slaves there were, and Rome depended upon them too heavily for produce from the land. Hence, when the climate cooled in the third century and harvests were poor and the plague returned from the East, there was no way, by means of technology, to make up the economic shortfall.

The emperors had no easy way out. In the third century, they were men who had come to power mainly by military coups. They had been set up by their soldiers, so they were beholden to them, and needed to pay them back. But, what with the shrinking economy, people hoarded their cash. Money went out of circulation. You could sometimes rely upon payment in kind: you could give the common soldiers a salarium, or payment in salt (cf. English salary), which they might keep for personal use or to barter for other items. But commanders needed to be paid in more than salt, or else they will choose another man to follow. Of the Roman emperors from 235 to 284, only two died of natural causes; most of the other twenty were assassinated, usually by their own soldiers. What do you do?

Had the Roman emperors had the opportunity to lower taxes so that people could invest greater capital to produce better crops and more revenue for the state, they probably would have done so. People will always complain about taxes, and Roman tax collectors could sometimes be vile customers: Rome “farmed” her taxes, meaning that she would set somebody, often one of the locals (Matthew, for instance, in the Gospels, or Zacchaeus), the task of squeezing a fixed take from his district. Anything above that take, he could pocket. It’s a system that invites corruption. But, all in all, the people were not taxed too heavily. Rome knew better. She had all she could do to maintain the frontiers, and had no interest in kindling popular revolts in long-pacified Gaul or Spain. If we could trade our tax rate for what the Romans paid, we’d do it in an instant. The more so, as the Romans used the money for practical ends, to build roads and public works, and to maintain the standing army, the empire’s greatest expense.

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But there wasn’t any point to lowering taxes, since slave labor on the land made capital improvements unthinkable. So Rome raised taxes, and the consequences were bad. For a while they collected more money; but the higher rates made it no longer profitable for a private citizen to collect them. Soldiers then had to be employed to do it, and so one of the props of citizen government fell. Meanwhile, higher taxes lowered the birth rate, already lowered by poor living conditions and the scarcity of land to bequeath to children. That’s because, in good times, or among a people with something to hope for that transcends themselves, large families thrive. When times go bad, or when a nation falls to cynicism or a practical atheism, people decline to marry, and those who do marry have fewer children. To raise taxes then is to rouse an alcoholic by giving him a drink. Europe is learning this lesson now—or failing to learn it. So Rome fell for lack of men. It was already happening, among some of the conquered peoples, at the time of Plutarch. “We are not replacing ourselves,” says a Spartan.

So Rome fell into an economic sludge from which she never emerged.

The emperor Diocletian in 301 attempted wage and price controls; they failed. To avert odd shortages of goods, he ordered sons to follow the professions of their fathers (with some exceptions, for talented boys who could serve the government). Another prop of citizen government fell. To unite an increasingly restive empire, he—who probably didn’t believe a word of it—commanded all citizens to adore the gods Augustus and Rome as the highest of their pantheon. He himself was “Augustus.” Men entering his godly presence had to prostrate themselves. So fell still another prop. The Christians, who would offer no sacrifices to any such god, were persecuted. It was the last great persecution they suffered. Constantine, the man who came out on top in the struggle to succeed Diocletian, then lifted the ban on Christian worship. But the economic and military troubles of the empire remained.

It didn’t help that the Roman frontiers were invaded. Why were they invaded? Why not? Who would live on the steppes of Russia, if you could have Greece or Italy instead? And a materially better life: fine linen and basilicas and rich food. The telling thing about the invasions by Germans, Celts, and Huns was not that they wanted to conquer the Romans, but that they wanted to be Romans. They admired the land they were invading—not all of them, but enough of them to save Rome for another century or so. The Roman legions on the frontiers were, more and more, manned by recent invaders.

Three dates stand out for me. In 378, the Visigoths, a Germanic people fleeing the Hun, asked permission to settle within the bounds of the empire, but then rose in revolt against their abusive Roman commanders. The emperor Valens went east to settle the matter, but was slain in battle at Adrianople (modern day Edirne, in European Turkey), and Valens’ successor, Theodosius, came to terms with the enemy, to Rome’s disadvantage. Rome had lost battles on the frontier before, and had managed to close off the breaches. At Adrianople it may be said that she lost her first war. Then in 406 there was a particularly cold winter—global cooling makes for rough times—and the Rhine froze over. Rome had only had to post troops at the fords, but now the Germans crossed the ice with their herds and families wherever they pleased. The western frontier was thus breached. Finally, in 410, the Visigothic chieftain Alaric, disappointed of his hope to be granted political authority by emperor Honorius, swept into Rome and put it to the sword and flames. It was not long before those Germans, filled with a vigor and manly freedom that the Romans had lost, concluded that one of their own should govern the West. Hence in 476
Odoacer “encouraged” the lad Romulus Augustulus, last emperor in the west, to retire to a monastery. The last prop was kicked out, and the edifice fell.

Or did it? Did Rome fall? In the East, at the capital that Constantine built for himself, Constantinople, an emperor still reigned, and an emperor would continue to reign until 1453. And in the West, those German warlords still acknowledged, in polite words more than in deeds, the supremacy of the emperor. More than that, they long preserved the old Roman forms: consuls and senators, for example. And some of the reality was preserved, too. What did Rome bequeath to the West? A powerful compromise between democracy and aristocracy; a long tradition of citizen government, even during the rule of the emperors; a military ideal emulated by nations ever since, and an example of almost two centuries of peace; the spread of Latin and Greek learning to the hinterlands.

 

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"The Romans: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" History on the Net
© 2000-2019, Salem Media.
November 12, 2019 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/romans-the-rise-and-fall-of-roman-empire>
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