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Overview of Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome Study Guide—Printable Version

The Roman Roots of Western Culture

The Roman civilization which first arose over twenty-five hundred years ago in central Italy is one of the longest lasting and most fascinating civilizations in human history. It is proper to give Ancient Greece the credit for first establishing many of our most cherished western institutions, but it was Rome which assimilated these ideas and made them into a permanent bedrock of Western Culture. The middle ages are often considered to be an age of relative ignorance and superstition, but the Roman civilization that pre-dated it by 1000 years was astonishingly sophisticated and in many ways eerily similar to our own. The more one learns about Ancient Rome,—its people, politics, problems, and achievements—the less remote and more relevant its civilization appears.

Law, Engineering, Commerce, Justice, Bureaucracy, and Latin

In addition to preserving and building upon Greek ideas of arts and literature, democracy, philosophy, theatre, and free speech, Rome made many of its own invaluable contributions to western civilization. Roman engineering of roads, aqueducts, canals, bridges, buildings, baths, sewer systems and fortifications was on a scale unprecedented in human history, and after Rome fell, unmatched again for a thousand years. The Roman legal system and code of justice was developed so that Roman citizens in far flung provinces could be assured that they would be treated fairly and protected from arbitrary judgments.

The Roman Forum

As the Roman Empire expanded and absorbed diverse societies it extended the benefits of Roman citizenship to leaders of the conquered territories so that they could govern on equal footing with native Romans. To some extent the ideas of promotion by merit and equal opportunity, while imperfectly applied, were advanced rather than discouraged by the Roman government in both its republican and imperial form. In terms of financial operations, accounting, equitable taxation, and record keeping, the bureaucracy of the Roman empire was far in advance of any contemporaneous culture.

The Latin language evolved to become a universal language of trade and government throughout western Europe and was the basis for many modern European languages. The Roman legions that were created to protect the borders of Roman territory served not only as border guards, but as policemen and officers of public works. Finally the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace allowed imperial civilization to flourish in terms of trade, commerce, arts, and engineering for hundreds of years without substantial interruption. Notwithstanding the numerous civil wars and border skirmishes of the Imperial age, the long-term peace and security afforded by the Roman government was unprecedented in human history.

The Roman Legacy

Rome was eventually over-run by barbarians, and the centralized government collapsed. But even after the fall of Rome, many of the ideas of Rome lived on. Most of the Germanic tribes who arose in the place of Rome sought to re-establish some aspects of the Roman government, but were generally unsuccessful. The dream of a universal government that would keep the peace and administer justice fairly was sought after for centuries following the collapse of Rome, and the "Holy Roman Empire", although far less imposing than its predecessor, was at least a testimony to the ideals of the lost civilization.

Most importantly for the survival of Roman culture, the Christian Church adopted many of the Roman habits of hierarchical order, record keeping, and canon law, and over time helped imbue mediaeval Europe with this legacy of Roman order and organization. At the time of the collapse of Rome the Germanic territories of Europe were utterly uncivilized compared with the regions surrounding the Mediterranean and Asia, which had been civilized for millennium. Yet its Roman heritage helped raise western Europe from a backward culture to the foremost position among world civilizations.

Divisions of Roman History

The history of Rome begins in 753 B. C. when the city was founded by Romulus and Remus. The end of Roman history, however, is much harder to pinpoint, but is often given as 476 A. D. when the last emperor of Rome surrendered Italy to the barbarian king Odoacer. During these twelve centuries, the Roman government evolved from a kingdom to a republic, and finally to an empire. Its territory grew from a single village in central Italy to the premier city in Italy, and finally incorporated much of Northern Africa, Western Europe, and all of the Middle East.

In order to better facilitate the study of Rome, we have broken Roman history into seven eras. The first corresponds to the Kingdom of Rome, and the final era covers the Byzantine, or Eastern Empire, which survived for nearly 1000 years after the fall of the Western Empire. The Republic and Empire phases each lasted for nearly 500 years and produced a great many interesting characters, events, and stories. Each of these phases is therefore divided into eras, corresponding to their early, middle, and late periods.

The Kingdom of Rome—According to Legend, Rome was founded in 752 B. C. by twin brothers who were descended from Aeneas, one of the heroes of the Trojan War. For over 200 years it existed as a kingdom and during this time had only seven kings, each ruling for at least 30 years. The years of the Roman Kingdom are rich in legend and involve several well-known episodes of Roman History. Among these are the story of the kidnapping of the Sabine Woman, and subsequent war with their fathers and brothers; the story of Servius and his unfaithful daughter, the story of the battle of the Horatii and Curatti, the story of the Sibylline Books and Tarquin, and finally, the rape of Lucretia. The Kingdom came to an end when King Tarquin Superbus was exiled from Rome, and the citizens declared Rome to be a republic.

The Republic of Rome—The Republic of Rome was founded in 510 B. C. and lasted nearly 500 years until it finally collapsed during the lifetime of Julius Caesar. The Republic era is undoubtedly the most Romantic and interesting period of Roman history, and involves many of the most famous Roman heroes and villains. Horatius (who held the bridge), Cincinnatus, Coriolanus, Appius Claudius, Regulus, Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Cato the Censor, Polybius, Marius, Sulla, Spartacus, Cicero, and Julius Caesar are only a few of the characters of outstanding interest during this period of Roman history. Likewise, the wars and battles fought during the rise of Rome, and particularly the Punic Wars are especially notable.

Rome began its history as a Republic as little more than a village, surrounded by hostile enemies, and scarcely able to defend itself against its own exiled king. It finished as uncontested lord of the western Mediterranean and much of western Europe. The secret of Rome's success was its remarkable and resilient character, exemplified by a series of brave and virtuous heroes who led Rome through the worst of its struggles. In addition to the well-known military virtues of courage, loyalty, and valor, the Romans celebrated many other virtues in their citizens, including honesty, piety, dignity, mercy, frugality, prudence, industry, justice, and fair dealing. These virtues were promoted in Roman culture throughout its history, but most earnestly in the early years of the Republic. By the first century B. C. however, the conduct of many of Rome's statesmen was no longer consistent with the old standard.

The decline of the Roman Republic and the establishment of an empire in its place was not a sudden occurrence, but rather a gradual process. The territory controlled by Rome by the first century B. C. was simply too vast to be governed by a senate where accountability was dispersed, and luxury had dissipated the high standards of conduct once exhibited by Roman statesmen. The Civil War between Sulla and Marius, the first triumvirate, and finally the Caesarean Civil War broke down the old senatorial system beyond repair, and the Republican ideal of Roman government gave way to the Imperial Era.

The Roman Empire—A great deal of the long term success of the Imperial Roman government over time was due to the reforms made during the early years of the empire, which divided the provinces between those controlled by the emperor, and those controlled by the Senate. This division of responsibility allowed the Senate to save face, by retaining control of the "peaceful" provinces, while the emperor controlled the troublesome provinces, where border wars or rebellions might be expected. In effect, this gave the emperor control of the vast majority of the legions. It also gave him control of most of the richest provinces, and even more importantly, nearly complete control of the military.

Another important factor for the long term survival of the Imperial government was fact that for much of the Empire's early history, competent and reasonably benign men were in control of the imperial throne. Nero, Caligula, Caracalla, and many other villainous scoundrels notwithstanding, the overall caliber of the Emperors of Rome was high for much of early imperial history, and most Roman citizens were reasonably content without direct representation in imperial government as long as peace was kept, commerce was able to thrive, and taxes were not intolerable. Eventually, of course, a time came when a strong leader was needed and none rose to the occasion. The causes of the collapse of the Western Empire is one of the most discussed topics in world history and provides many exceedingly relevant lessons to our modern world. Decadence, high taxes, uncontrolled immigration, poor political leadership, cynicism, and civilization exhaustion are only some of the problems our civilization shares with that of its ancient forbearer.

The Byzantine Empire—The history of Rome typically ends with the collapse of the western government because, although the Byzantine government in the east managed to persevere for hundreds of years, it lost the great part of its territory during the Moslem conquests of the 7th century, and was not of great political influence after that. Culturally, however, it played a very important role in preserving the traditions of Greek learning, and of converting much of Eastern Europe to Christianity. Furthermore, the period between the collapse of the Western Empire to the Germans (476 A. D.), and the fall of much of the Eastern Empire to the Moslems (636 A. D.) is a particularly interesting period and there was briefly a time under Justinian when it almost seemed as though it might have been possible to restore Rome's lost fortunes. The histories of the Vandal Kingdom in Africa, the Ostrogoth Kingdom in Italy, and the Visigoth Kingdom in Hispania also belong to this period.

Historical Eras of Rome

EraDates Description
Kingdom of Rome BC 753-510 Reign of Romulus to the exile of Tarquin Superbus
Early Republic BC 510-275 Establishment of Republic to the Conquest of Italy
Punic Wars BC 274-146 First Punic War to the Destruction of Carthage
Decline of Republic BC 146-44 Age of the Gracchi to the Death of Julius Caesar
Early Empire BC 44-AD 180 Second Triumvirate to the Death of Marcus Aurelius
Fall of Western Empire AD 180-476 Reign of Commodus to the Fall of Western Empire
Byzantine Empire AD 476-1453 Fall of Western Empire to the Fall of Constantinople

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