Section 1: The Roman World Takes Shape
Section 2: From Republic to Empire
Section 5: The Long Decline
The Italian peninsula is centrally located in the Mediterranean Sea, and the city of Rome sits toward the center of Italy. This location would benefit the Romans as they expanded—first within Italy and then into the lands bordering the Mediterranean.
Unifying the Lands of Italy
Because of its geography, Italy proved much easier to unify than Greece. Unlike Greece, Italy is not broken up into small, isolated valleys. In addition, the Apennine Mountains, which run down the length of the Italian peninsula, are less rugged than the mountains of Greece. Finally, Italy has broad, fertile plains in the north and the west. These plains supported the growing population.
Early Peoples Settle Italy
By about 800 B.C., the ancestors of the Romans, called the Latins, migrated into Italy. The Latins settled along the Tiber River in small villages scattered over seven low-lying hills. There, they herded and farmed. Their villages would in time grow together into Rome, the city on seven hills. Legend held that twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, had founded the city. Romans regarded this tale highly because the twins were said to be sons of a Latin woman and the war god Mars, lending the Romans a divine origin.
The Romans shared the Italian peninsula with other peoples. Among them were Greek colonists whose city-states dotted southern Italy and the Etruscans, who lived mostly north of Rome. The origins of the Etruscan civilization are uncertain. One theory says they migrated from Asia Minor, while another suggests they came from the Alps. What is certain is that, for a time, the Etruscans ruled much of central Italy, including Rome itself.
The Romans learned much from Etruscan civilization. They adapted the alphabet that the Etruscans had earlier acquired from the Greeks. The Romans also learned from the Etruscans to use the arch in construction, and they adapted Etruscan engineering techniques to drain the marshy lands along the Tiber. As well, the Romans adopted some Etruscan gods and goddesses and merged them with Roman deities.
The Romans Establish a Republic
The Romans drove out their Etruscan ruler in 509 B.C. This date is traditionally considered to mark the founding of the Roman state, which would last for 500 years. The Romans established their state with a form of government called in Latin a res publica, or “that which belongs to the people.” In this form of government, which today we call a republic, the people chose some of the officials. A republic, Romans thought, would prevent any individual from gaining too much power.
Structuring the Republic
In the early republic, the most powerful governing body was the senate. Originally, its 300 members were all patricians, or members of the landholding upper class. Senators, who served for life, strongly influenced the republic’s laws.
Each year, the senators nominated two consuls from the patrician class. Their job was to supervise the business of government and command the armies. Consuls, however, could serve only one term. They were also expected to approve each other’s decisions. By limiting their time in office and making them responsible to each other, Rome had a system of checks on the power of government.
In the event of war, the senate might choose a dictator, or ruler who has complete control over a government. Each Roman dictator was granted power to rule for six months. After that time, he had to give up power. Romans particularly admired Cincinnatus as a model dictator. Cincinnatus organized an army, led the Romans to victory over the attacking enemy, attended victory celebrations, and returned to his farmlands—all within 15 days.
Plebeians Fight for Their Rights
At first, all government officials were patricians. Plebeians (plih bee unz), the farmers, merchants, artisans, and traders who made up the bulk of the population, had little influence. The efforts of the plebeians to gain power shaped politics in the early republic.
In time, the plebeians gained the right to elect their own officials, called tribunes, to protect their interests. The tribunes could veto, or block, those laws that they felt were harmful to plebeians. Little by little, plebeians forced the senate to choose plebeians as consuls, appoint plebeians to other high offices, and finally to open the senate itself to plebeians.
Another breakthrough for the plebeians came in 450 B.C., when the government oversaw the inscription of the laws of Rome on 12 tablets, which were set up in the Forum, Rome’s marketplace. Plebeians had protested that citizens could not know what the laws were because they were not written down. The Laws of the Twelve Tables made it possible for the first time for plebeians to appeal a judgment handed down by a patrician judge.
Romans Leave a Lasting Legacy
Although the senate still dominated the government, the common people had gained access to power and won safeguards for their rights without having to resort to war or revolution. More than 2,000 years later, the framers of the United States Constitution would adapt such Roman ideas as the senate, the veto, and checks on political power.
Characterizing Roman Society
The family was the basic unit of Roman society. Under Roman law, the male head of the household—usually the father—had absolute power in the family. He enforced strict discipline and demanded total respect for his authority. His wife was subject to his authority and was not allowed to administer her own affairs. The ideal Roman woman was loving, dutiful, dignified, and strong.
The Role of Women Changes Over Time
Roman women played a larger role in society than did Greek women. They could own property, and, in later Roman times, women from all classes ran a variety of businesses, from small shops to major shipyards. Those who made their fortunes earned respect by supporting the arts or paying for public festivals. However, most women worked at home, raising their families, spinning, and weaving.
Over the centuries, Roman women gained greater freedom and influence. Patrician women went to the public baths, dined out, and attended the theater or other forms of public entertainment with their husbands. Some women, such as Livia and Agrippina the Younger, had highly visible public roles and exercised significant political influence.
Romans Educate all Children
Both girls and boys from the upper and lower classes, all learned to read and write. By the later years of the republic, many wealthy Romans would hire private tutors, often Greeks, to supervise the education of their children. Under their guidance, children memorized major events and developments in Roman history. Rhetoric was an important subject for boys who wanted to pursue political careers.
Roman Religious Practices
The Romans believed in numerous gods and goddesses, many of whom they adapted from Greek religion. Like the Greek god Zeus, the Roman god Jupiter ruled over the sky and the other gods. His wife Juno, like the Greek goddess Hera, protected marriage. Romans also prayed to Neptune, god of the sea, whose powers were the same as those of the Greek god Poseidon. On the battlefield, they turned to Mars, the god of war.
The Roman calendar was full of feasts and other celebrations to honor the gods and goddesses and to ensure divine favor for the city. As loyal citizens, most Romans joined in these festivals, which inspired a sense of community. Throughout Rome, dozens of temples housed statues of the gods. In front of these temples, Romans took part in ritual activities such as worshipping the gods and asking for divine assistance.
As Rome’s political and social systems evolved at home, its armies expanded Roman power across Italy. Roman armies conquered first the Etruscans and then the Greek city-states in the south. By about 270 B.C., Rome controlled most of the Italian peninsula.
After gaining control of the Italian peninsula, Rome began to build an empire around the Mediterranean Sea. This expansion created conflicts in Roman society that weakened and finally crushed the republic. Out of the rubble, however, rose the Roman empire and a new chapter in Rome’s long history.
Rome Grows Through Conquest
Rome’s conquest of the Italian peninsula brought it into contact with Carthage, a city-state on the northern coast of Africa. Settled by North Africans and Phoenician traders, Carthage ruled over an empire that stretched across North Africa and the western Mediterranean, including parts of Spain. As Rome expanded westward, conflict between these two powers became inevitable.
Rome Fights Carthage in the Punic Wars
Between 264 B.C. and 146 B.C., Rome fought three wars against Carthage. They are called the Punic Wars, from Punicus, the Latin word for Phoenician. In the First Punic War, Rome defeated Carthage and won the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia.
The Carthaginians sought revenge in the Second Punic War. In 218 B.C., the Carthaginian general Hannibal led his army, including dozens of war elephants, on an epic march across the Pyrenees, through France, and over the Alps into Italy. The trek cost Hannibal one third of his army. But with it he surprised the Romans, who had expected an invasion from the south. For 15 years, Hannibal and his army moved across Italy, winning battle after battle.
The Impact at Home
Conquests and control of busy trade routes brought incredible riches into Rome. Generals, officials, and traders amassed fortunes from loot, taxes, and commerce. A new class of wealthy Romans emerged. They built lavish mansions and filled them with luxuries imported from the east. Wealthy families bought up huge estates, called latifundia. As the Romans conquered more and more lands, they forced people captured in war to work as slaves on the latifundia.
The widespread use of slave labor hurt small farmers, who were unable to produce food as cheaply as the latifundia could. The farmers’ problems were compounded when huge quantities of grain pouring in from the conquered lands drove down grain prices. Many farmers fell into debt and had to sell their land.
In despair, landless farmers flocked to Rome and other cities looking for jobs. There, they joined an already restless class of unemployed people. As the gap between rich and poor widened, angry mobs began to riot. In addition, the new wealth led to increased corruption. Greed and self-interest replaced virtues such as simplicity, hard work, and devotion to duty, which had been so prized in the time of the early republic.
The Roman Republic Declines
Unable to resolve its problems peacefully, Rome plunged into a series of civil wars. At issue was who should hold power—the senate, which wanted to govern as it had in the past, or popular political leaders, who wanted to weaken the senate and enact reforms.
The turmoil sparked slave uprisings at home and revolts among Rome’s allies. Meanwhile, the old legions of Roman citizen-soldiers became professional armies whose first loyalty was to their commanders. This often happened because commanders provided them with more benefits—such as parcels of captured land—than the state did. Once rival commanders had their own armies, they could march into Rome to advance their ambitions.
The bold rise to power of Julius Caesar (100 B.C. [?]–44 B.C.) echoed his boldness on the battlefield (at left). His brilliant conquest of Gaul made him enormously popular. Romans were thrilled by reports of his many victories, which added great riches and huge territories to the empire. In nine years of campaigning, Caesar lost only two battles. His tactics in Gaul are still studied at military academies today.
When Caesar, in defiance of Pompey’s orders, crossed the Rubicon River from Gaul back into Italy, he said, “iacta alea est,” or “the die is cast,” meaning there was no turning back. Today, people use the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” to mean making a decision from which there is no turning back. Painters and writers such as William Shakespeare have also immortalized Caesar in their works. In what different ways did Caesar leave a lasting impact on the world?
Julius Caesar the Dictator
Out of this chaos emerged Julius Caesar an ambitious military commander. For a time, Caesar and another brilliant general, Pompey, dominated Roman politics.
In 58 B.C., Caesar set out with his army to make new conquests. After nine years of fighting, he completed the conquest of Gaul—the area that is now France and Belgium. Fearful of Caesar’s rising fame, Pompey persuaded the senate to order Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Caesar defied the order. Swiftly and secretly, he led his army across the Rubicon River into northern Italy and headed toward Rome. Once again, civil war erupted across the Roman world.
Caesar crushed Pompey and his supporters. He then swept around the Mediterranean, suppressing rebellions. “Veni, vidi, vici”—“I came, I saw, I conquered”—he announced after one victory. Later, returning to Rome, he forced the senate to make him dictator. Although he maintained the senate and other features of the republic, he was in fact the absolute ruler of Rome.
Caesar Makes Reforms
Between 48 B.C. and 44 B.C., Caesar pushed through a number of reforms intended to deal with Rome’s many problems. He launched a program of public works to employ the jobless and gave public land to the poor. He also reorganized the government of the provinces and granted Roman citizenship to more people. Caesar’s most lasting reform was the introduction of a new calendar based on that of the Egyptians. The Roman calendar, later named the Julian calendar, was used in western Europe for more than 1,600 years. With minor changes, it is still our calendar today.
Caesar Killed, War Follows
Caesar’s enemies worried that he planned to make himself king of Rome. To save the republic, they plotted against him. In March of 44 B.C., as Caesar arrived in the senate, his enemies stabbed him to death.
The death of Julius Caesar plunged Rome into a new round of civil wars. Mark Antony, Caesar’s chief general, and Octavian, Caesar’s grandnephew, joined forces to hunt down the murderers. The two men soon quarreled, however, setting off a bitter struggle for power. In 31 B.C., Octavian finally defeated Antony and his powerful ally, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.
The Age of the Roman Empire Dawns
The senate gave the triumphant Octavian the title of Augustus or Exalted One, and declared him princeps, or first citizen. Although he was careful not to call himself king, a title that Romans had hated since Etruscan times, Augustus exercised absolute power and named his successor, just as a king would do.
Under Augustus, who ruled until A.D. 14, the 500-year-old republic came to an end. Romans did not know it at the time, but a new age had dawned—the age of the Roman empire.
Through firm but moderate policies, Augustus laid the foundation for a stable government. He left the senate in place and created an efficient, well-trained civil service to enforce its laws. High-level jobs were open to men of talent, regardless of their class. In addition, he cemented the allegiance of cities and provinces to Rome by allowing them a large amount of self-government.Augustus Builds a Stable Government
Augustus also undertook economic reforms. To make the tax system more fair, he ordered a census, or population count, of the empire so there would be records of all who should be taxed. He set up a postal service and issued new coins to make trade easier. He put the jobless to work building roads and temples and sent others to farm the land.
The government that Augustus organized functioned well for 200 years. Still, a serious problem kept arising: Who would rule after an emperor died? Romans did not accept the idea of power passing automatically from father to son. As a result, the death of an emperor often led to intrigue and violence.
The Pax Romana Brings Prosperity
The 200-year span that began with Augustus and ended with Marcus Aurelius is known as the period of the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace.” During that time, Roman rule brought peace, order, unity, and prosperity to lands stretching from the Euphrates River in the east to Britain in the west, an area roughly equal in size to the continental United States.
During the Pax Romana, Roman legions maintained and protected the roads, and Roman fleets chased pirates from the seas. Trade flowed freely to and from distant lands. Egyptian farmers supplied Romans with grain. From other parts of Africa came ivory and gold, as well as lions and other wild animals to be used for public entertainment. From India came spices, cotton, and precious stones. Trade caravans traveled along the great Silk Road, bringing silk and other goods from China. People, too, moved easily within the Roman empire, spreading ideas and knowledge, especially the advances of the Hellenistic east.
The Distraction of Entertainment
Throughout the empire, rich and poor alike loved spectacular forms of entertainment. At the Circus Maximus, Rome’s largest racecourse, chariots thundered around an oval course, making dangerously tight turns at either end. Fans bet feverishly on their favorite teams—the Reds, Greens, Blues, or Whites—and successful charioteers were hailed as heroes.
Gladiator contests were even more popular. Many gladiators were slaves who had been trained to fight. In the arena, they battled one another, either singly or in groups. Crowds cheered a skilled gladiator, and a good fighter might even win his freedom. But if a gladiator made a poor showing, sometimes the crowd turned thumbs down, a signal that he should be killed.
During the Pax Romana, the general prosperity hid underlying social and economic problems. To the emperors who paid for them with taxes they collected from the empire, these amusements were a way to pacify the city’s restless mobs. In much the same spirit, the government provided free grain to feed the poor. Critics warned against this policy of “bread and circuses,” but few listened.
After ruling the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, the Roman empire faced threats from inside and outside. Economic problems, foreign invasions, and a decline in traditional values were undermining stability and security.
The Roman Empire Divides
After the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180, the golden age of the Pax Romana ended. For the next 100 years, political and economic turmoil rocked the Roman empire.
Political Violence Becomes Common
During this period, a disruptive political pattern emerged. Again and again, emperors were overthrown by political intriguers or ambitious generals who seized power with the support of their troops. Those who rose to the imperial throne in this way ruled for just a few months or years until they, too, were overthrown or assassinated. In one 50-year period, at least 26 emperors reigned. Only one died of natural causes. Political violence and instability had become the rule.
Social and Economic Problems Arise
At the same time, the empire was shaken by disturbing social and economic trends. High taxes to support the army and the bureaucracy placed heavy burdens on business people and small farmers. Farmland that had been over-cultivated for too long lost its productivity.
Many poor farmers left their land and sought protection from wealthy landowners. Living on large estates, they worked for the landowners and farmed small plots for themselves. Although technically free, they were not allowed to leave the land.
Emperor Diocletian Shares Power
In 284, the emperor Diocletian (dy uh klee shun) set out to restore order. To better handle the challenge of governing the huge empire, he divided it into two parts. He kept control of the wealthier eastern part for himself and appointed a co-emperor, Maximian, to rule the western provinces.
Diocletian also took steps to end the empire’s economic decay. To slow inflation, or the rapid rise of prices, he fixed the prices of many goods and services. Other laws forced farmers to remain on the land. In cities, sons were required to follow their fathers’ occupations. These rules were meant to ensure steady production of food and other goods.
Emperor Constantine Makes Further Reforms
In 312, the talented general Constantine gained the throne. As emperor, Constantine continued Diocletian’s reforms. In addition, he took two steps that changed the course of European history. First, as you have read, Constantine granted toleration to Christians. Second, he established a new capital at a centuries-old city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. With this “New Rome,” Constantine made the eastern empire the center of power.
Improvements Prove Temporary
The reforms of Diocletian and Constantine had mixed results. They revived the economy, and by increasing the power of government, they helped hold the empire together for another century. Still, the reforms failed to stop the long-term decline. In the end, internal problems combined with attacks from outside to bring the empire down.
Invaders Threaten the Roman Empire
For centuries, Rome had faced attacks from the Germanic peoples who lived east of the Rhine and north of the Danube rivers. When Rome was powerful, the legions on the frontiers were successful in holding back the invaders. Some of the Germanic peoples who lived along the borders learned Roman ways and became allies of the Romans.
Migrating Nomads Attack
As early as 200, wars in East Asia set off a chain of events that would eventually overwhelm Rome, thousands of miles to the west. Those wars sent a nomadic people, the Huns, migrating from central Asia toward eastern Europe, which they reached by 370. These skilled riders fought fierce battles to dislodge the Germanic peoples in their path. The Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and other Germanic peoples crossed into Roman territory seeking safety.
With the empire in decline, Roman legions were hard pressed to halt the invaders. Under pressure from attacks, the Roman empire surrendered first Britain, then France and Spain. It was only a matter of time before foreign invaders marched into Italy and took over Rome itself.
Rome Is Sacked
In 378, when a Roman army tried to turn back the Visigoths at Adrianople, it suffered a stunning defeat. Roman power was fading. New waves of invaders were soon hammering at Rome’s borders, especially in the west. In 410, the Visigoth general Alaric overran Italy and plundered the city of Rome. Meanwhile, a Germanic people called the Vandals moved through Gaul and Spain into North Africa. Gradually, Germanic groups occupied more and more of the western Roman empire.
Many Problems Cause Rome to Fall
The passing of Rome’s power and greatness was a major turning point in the history of Western civilization. Why did Rome “fall”? Modern historians identify a number of interrelated causes.
Perhaps the most obvious cause of Rome’s fall was the invasions. Still, these attacks were successful partly because Roman legions of the late empire lacked the discipline and training from which earlier Roman armies had benefited. To meet its need for soldiers, Rome hired mercenaries, or foreign soldiers serving for pay, to defend its borders. Many were Germanic warriors who, according to some historians, felt little loyalty to Rome.
Political problems also contributed to Rome’s decline. First, as the government became more oppressive and authoritarian, it lost the support of the people. Growing numbers of corrupt officials undermined loyalty, too. So did frequent civil wars over succession to the imperial throne. Again and again, rival armies battled to have their commanders chosen as emperor. Perhaps most important, dividing the empire at a time when it was under attack may have weakened it beyond repair. The richer eastern Roman empire did little to help the west.
Economic problems were widespread in the empire. Heavier and heavier taxes were required to support the vast government bureaucracy and huge military establishment. At the same time, reliance on slave labor discouraged Romans from exploring new technology. The wealth of the empire dwindled as farmers abandoned their land and the middle classes sank into poverty. Some scholars have suggested that climate change was yet another reason for reduced agricultural productivity. In addition, the population itself declined as war and epidemic diseases swept the empire.
For centuries, worried Romans pointed to the decline in values such as patriotism, discipline, and devotion to duty on which the empire was built. The need to replace citizen-soldiers with mercenaries testified to the decline of patriotism. The upper class, which had once provided leaders, devoted itself to luxury and prestige. Besides being costly, providing “bread and circuses” may have undermined the self-reliance of the masses.
Did Rome Fall?
Although we talk of the “fall” of Rome, the Roman empire did not disappear from the map in 476. An emperor still ruled the eastern Roman empire, which continued to exist for another 1,000 years under the name of the Byzantine empire.
The phrase “the fall of Rome” is, in fact, shorthand for a long, slow change from one way of life to another. Roman civilization survived the events of 476. In Italy, people continued to live much as they had before, though under new rulers. Many still spoke Latin and obeyed Roman laws.
Over the following centuries, however, Germanic customs and languages replaced much of Roman culture. Old Roman cities crumbled, and Roman roads disappeared. Still, the Christian Church preserved elements of Roman civilization. In later chapters, you will read how Roman and Christian traditions gave rise to medieval civilization in western Europe.