Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome

753 BC–476 AD
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Ending invasions on Roman Empire between AD 100–500. Visigoths entering Athens. The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre.

The situation became more critical in 408, after the death of Stilicho, a general who tried to reunite the Empire and repel barbarian invasion in the early years of the 5th century. The professional field army collapsed. In 410, the Theodosian dynasty saw the Visigoths sack Rome.[141] During the 5th century, the Western Empire experienced a significant reduction of its territory. The Vandals conquered North Africa, the Visigoths claimed the southern part of Gaul, Gallaecia was taken by the Suebi, Britannia was abandoned by the central government, and the Empire suffered further from the invasions of Attila, chief of the Huns.[142][143][144][145][146][147] General Orestes refused to meet the demands of the barbarian "allies" who now formed the army, and tried to expel them from Italy. Unhappy with this, their chieftain Odoacer defeated and killed Orestes, invaded Ravenna and dethroned Romulus Augustus, son of Orestes. This event of 476, usually marks the end of Classical antiquity and beginning of the Middle Ages.[148][149] The Roman noble and former emperor Julius Nepos continued to rule as emperor from Dalmatia even after the deposition of Romulus Augustus until his death in 480. Some historians consider him to be the last emperor of the Western Empire instead of Romulus Augustus.[150]

After some 1200 years of independence and nearly 700 years as a great power, the rule of Rome in the West ended.[151] Various reasons for Rome's fall have been proposed ever since, including loss of Republicanism, moral decay, military tyranny, class war, slavery, economic stagnation, environmental change, disease, the decline of the Roman race, as well as the inevitable ebb and flow that all civilizations experience. At the time many pagans argued that Christianity and the decline of traditional Roman religion were responsible; some rationalist thinkers of the modern era attribute the fall to a change from a martial to a more pacifist religion that lessened the number of available soldiers; while Christians such as Augustine of Hippo argued that the sinful nature of Roman society itself was to blame.[152]

The Eastern Empire had a different fate. It survived for almost 1000 years after the fall of its Western counterpart and became the most stable Christian realm during the Middle Ages. During the 6th century, Justinian reconquered the Italian peninsula from the Ostrogoths, North Africa from the Vandals, and southern Hispania from the Visigoths. But within a few years of Justinian's death, Byzantine possessions in Italy were greatly reduced by the Lombards who settled in the peninsula.[153] In the east, partially due to the weakening effect of the Plague of Justinian, the Byzantines were threatened by the rise of Islam. Its followers rapidly brought about the conquest of the Levant, the conquest of Armenia and the conquest of Egypt during the Arab–Byzantine wars, and soon presented a direct threat to Constantinople.[154][155] In the following century, the Arabs also captured southern Italy and Sicily.[156] On the west, Slavic populations were also able to penetrate deep into the Balkans.

The Byzantines, however, managed to stop further Islamic expansion into their lands during the 8th century and, beginning in the 9th century, reclaimed parts of the conquered lands.[154][157] In 1000 AD, the Eastern Empire was at its height: Basil II reconquered Bulgaria and Armenia, and culture and trade flourished.[158] However, soon after, this expansion was abruptly stopped in 1071 with the Byzantine defeat in the Battle of Manzikert. The aftermath of this battle sent the empire into a protracted period of decline. Two decades of internal strife and Turkic invasions ultimately led Emperor Alexios I Komnenos to send a call for help to the Western European kingdoms in 1095.[154] The West responded with the Crusades, eventually resulting in the Sack of Constantinople by participants of the Fourth Crusade. The conquest of Constantinople in 1204 fragmented what remained of the Empire into successor states; the ultimate victor was the Empire of Nicaea.[159] After the recapture of Constantinople by Imperial forces, the Empire was little more than a Greek state confined to the Aegean coast. The Byzantine Empire collapsed when Mehmed the Conqueror conquered Constantinople on 29 May, 1453.[160]


The Roman Forum, the political, economic, cultural, and religious center of the city during the Republic and later Empire

The imperial city of Rome was the largest urban center in the empire, with a population variously estimated from 450,000 to close to one million.[161][162][163] The public spaces in Rome resounded with such a din of hooves and clatter of iron chariot wheels that Julius Caesar had once proposed a ban on chariot traffic during the day. Historical estimates show that around 20 percent of the population under jurisdiction of ancient Rome (25–40%, depending on the standards used, in Roman Italy)[164] lived in innumerable urban centers, with population of 10,000 and more and several military settlements, a very high rate of urbanization by pre-industrial standards. Most of those centers had a forum, temples, and other buildings similar to Rome's. Average life expectancy was about 28.[165][timeframe?]


The roots of the legal principles and practices of the ancient Romans may be traced to the Law of the Twelve Tables promulgated in 449 BC and to the codification of law issued by order of Emperor Justinian I around 530 AD (see Corpus Juris Civilis). Roman law as preserved in Justinian's codes continued into the Byzantine Empire, and formed the basis of similar codifications in continental Western Europe. Roman law continued, in a broader sense, to be applied throughout most of Europe until the end of the 17th century.

The major divisions of the law of ancient Rome, as contained within the Justinian and Theodosian law codes, consisted of Ius Civile, Ius Gentium, and Ius Naturale. The Ius Civile ("Citizen Law") was the body of common laws that applied to Roman citizens.[166] The Praetores Urbani (sg. Praetor Urbanus) were the people who had jurisdiction over cases involving citizens. The Ius Gentium ("Law of nations") was the body of common laws that applied to foreigners, and their dealings with Roman citizens.[167] The Praetores Peregrini (sg. Praetor Peregrinus) were the people who had jurisdiction over cases involving citizens and foreigners. Ius Naturale encompassed natural law, the body of laws that were considered common to all beings.

Class structure

The Patrician Torlonia bust of Cato the Elder, 1st century BC
The Orator, c. 100 BC, an Etrusco-Roman bronze statue depicting Aule Metele (Latin: Aulus Metellus), an Etruscan man wearing a Roman toga while engaged in rhetoric; the statue features an inscription in the Etruscan alphabet

Roman society is largely viewed as hierarchical, with slaves (servi) at the bottom, freedmen (liberti) above them, and free-born citizens (cives) at the top. Free citizens were also divided by class. The broadest, and earliest, division was between the patricians, who could trace their ancestry to one of the 100 Patriarchs at the founding of the city, and the plebeians, who could not. This became less important in the later Republic, as some plebeian families became wealthy and entered politics, and some patrician families fell economically. Anyone, patrician or plebeian, who could count a consul as his ancestor was a noble (nobilis); a man who was the first of his family to hold the consulship, such as Marius or Cicero, was known as a novus homo ("new man") and ennobled his descendants. Patrician ancestry, however, still conferred considerable prestige, and many religious offices remained restricted to patricians.

A class division originally based on military service became more important. Membership of these classes was determined periodically by the Censors, according to property. The wealthiest were the Senatorial class, who dominated politics and command of the army. Next came the equestrians (equites, sometimes translated "knights"), originally those who could afford a warhorse, and who formed a powerful mercantile class. Several further classes, originally based on the military equipment their members could afford, followed, with the proletarii, citizens who had no property at all, at the bottom. Before the reforms of Marius they were ineligible for military service and are often described as being just above freed slaves in wealth and prestige.

Voting power in the Republic depended on class. Citizens were enrolled in voting "tribes", but the tribes of the richer classes had fewer members than the poorer ones, all the proletarii being enrolled in a single tribe. Voting was done in class order, from top down, and stopped as soon as most of the tribes had been reached, so the poorer classes were often unable to cast their votes.

Women shared some basic rights with their male counterparts, but were not fully regarded as citizens and were thus not allowed to vote or take part in politics. At the same time the limited rights of women were gradually expanded (due to emancipation) and women reached freedom from paterfamilias, gained property rights and even had more juridical rights than their husbands, but still no voting rights, and were absent from politics.[168]

Allied foreign cities were often given the Latin Right, an intermediary level between full citizens and foreigners (peregrini), which gave their citizens rights under Roman law and allowed their leading magistrates to become full Roman citizens. While there were varying degrees of Latin rights, the main division was between those cum suffragio ("with vote"; enrolled in a Roman tribe and able to take part in the comitia tributa) and sine suffragio ("without vote"; could not take part in Roman politics). Most of Rome's Italian allies were given full citizenship after the Social War of 91–88 BC, and full Roman citizenship was extended to all free-born men in the Empire by Caracalla in 212.


In the early Republic, there were no public schools, so boys were taught to read and write by their parents, or by educated slaves, called paedagogi, usually of Greek origin.[169][170][171] The primary aim of education during this period was to train young men in agriculture, warfare, Roman traditions, and public affairs.[169] Young boys learned much about civic life by accompanying their fathers to religious and political functions, including the Senate for the sons of nobles.[170] The sons of nobles were apprenticed to a prominent political figure at the age of 16, and campaigned with the army from the age of 17 (this system was still in use among some noble families into the imperial era).[170] Educational practices were modified after the conquest of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the 3rd century BC and the resulting Greek influence, although Roman educational practices were still much different from Greek ones.[170][172] If their parents could afford it, boys and some girls at the age of 7 were sent to a private school outside the home called a ludus, where a teacher (called a litterator or a magister ludi, and often of Greek origin) taught them basic reading, writing, arithmetic, and sometimes Greek, until the age of 11.[170][171][173]

Beginning at age 12, students went to secondary schools, where the teacher (now called a grammaticus) taught them about Greek and Roman literature.[170][173] At the age of 16, some students went on to rhetoric school (where the teacher, usually Greek, was called a rhetor).[170][173] Education at this level prepared students for legal careers, and required that the students memorize the laws of Rome.[170] Pupils went to school every day, except religious festivals and market days. There were also summer holidays.


Initially, Rome was ruled by kings, who were elected from each of Rome's major tribes in turn.[174] The exact nature of the king's power is uncertain. He may have held near-absolute power, or may also have merely been the chief executive of the Senate and the people. At least in military matters, the king's authority (Imperium) was likely absolute. He was also the head of the state religion. In addition to the authority of the King, there were three administrative assemblies: the Senate, which acted as an advisory body for the King; the Comitia Curiata, which could endorse and ratify laws suggested by the King; and the Comitia Calata, which was an assembly of the priestly college that could assemble the people to bear witness to certain acts, hear proclamations, and declare the feast and holiday schedule for the next month.

Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate: Cicero attacks Catilina, from a 19th-century fresco

The class struggles of the Roman Republic resulted in an unusual mixture of democracy and oligarchy. The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, which literally translates to "public business". Roman laws traditionally could only be passed by a vote of the Popular assembly (Comitia Tributa). Likewise, candidates for public positions had to run for election by the people. However, the Roman Senate represented an oligarchic institution, which acted as an advisory body.

In the Republic, the Senate held actual authority (auctoritas), but no real legislative power; it was technically only an advisory council. However, as the Senators were individually very influential, it was difficult to accomplish anything against the collective will of the Senate. New Senators were chosen from among the most accomplished patricians by Censors (Censura), who could also remove a Senator from his office if he was found "morally corrupt"; a charge that could include bribery or, as under Cato the Elder, embracing one's wife in public. Later, under the reforms of the dictator Sulla, Quaestors were made automatic members of the Senate, though most of his reforms did not survive.

The Republic had no fixed bureaucracy, and collected taxes through the practice of tax farming. Government positions such as quaestor, aedile, or praefect were funded by the office-holder. To prevent any citizen from gaining too much power, new magistrates were elected annually and had to share power with a colleague. For example, under normal conditions, the highest authority was held by two consuls. In an emergency, a temporary dictator could be appointed. Throughout the Republic, the administrative system was revised several times to comply with new demands. In the end, it proved inefficient for controlling the ever-expanding dominion of Rome, contributing to the establishment of the Roman Empire.

In the early Empire, the pretense of a republican form of government was maintained. The Roman Emperor was portrayed as only a princeps, or "first citizen", and the Senate gained legislative power and all legal authority previously held by the popular assemblies. However, the rule of the Emperors became increasingly autocratic, and the Senate was reduced to an advisory body appointed by the Emperor. The Empire did not inherit a set bureaucracy from the Republic, since the Republic did not have any permanent governmental structures apart from the Senate. The Emperor appointed assistants and advisers, but the state lacked many institutions, such as a centrally planned budget. Some historians have cited this as a significant reason for the decline of the Roman Empire.


Modern replica of lorica segmentata type armor, used in conjunction with the popular chainmail after the 1st century AD

The early Roman army (c. 500 BC) was, like those of other contemporary city-states influenced by Greek civilization, a citizen militia that practiced hoplite tactics. It was small (the population of free men of military age was then about 9,000) and organized in five classes (in parallel to the comitia centuriata, the body of citizens organized politically), with three providing hoplites and two providing light infantry. The early Roman army was tactically limited and its stance during this period was essentially defensive.[175][176][177]

By the 3rd century BC, the Romans abandoned the hoplite formation in favor of a more flexible system in which smaller groups of 120 (or sometimes 60) men called maniples could maneuver more independently on the battlefield. Thirty maniples arranged in three lines with supporting troops constituted a legion, totalling between 4,000 and 5,000 men.[175][176]

The early Republican legion consisted of five sections, each of which was equipped differently and had different places in formation: the three lines of manipular heavy infantry (hastati, principes and triarii), a force of light infantry (velites), and the cavalry (equites). With the new organization came a new orientation toward the offensive and a much more aggressive posture toward adjoining city-states.[175][176]

At nominal full strength, an early Republican legion included 4,000 to 5,000 men: 3,600 to 4,800 heavy infantry, several hundred light infantry, and several hundred cavalrymen.[175][178][179] Legions were often significantly understrength from recruitment failures or following periods of active service due to accidents, battle casualties, disease and desertion. During the Civil War, Pompey's legions in the east were at full strength because they were recently recruited, while Caesar's legions were often well below nominal strength after long active service in Gaul. This pattern also held true for auxiliary forces.[180][181]

Until the late Republican period, the typical legionary was a property-owning citizen farmer from a rural area (an adsiduus) who served for particular (often annual) campaigns,[182] and who supplied his own equipment and, in the case of equites, his own mount. Harris suggests that down to 200 BC, the average rural farmer (who survived) might participate in six or seven campaigns. Freedmen and slaves (wherever resident) and urban citizens did not serve except in rare emergencies.[183]

After 200 BC, economic conditions in rural areas deteriorated as manpower needs increased, so that the property qualifications for service were gradually reduced. Beginning with Gaius Marius in 107 BC, citizens without property and some urban-dwelling citizens (proletarii) were enlisted and provided with equipment, although most legionaries continued to come from rural areas. Terms of service became continuous and long—up to twenty years if emergencies required although six- or seven-year terms were more typical.[184]

Beginning in the 3rd century BC, legionaries were paid stipendium (amounts are disputed but Caesar famously "doubled" payments to his troops to 225 denarii a year), could anticipate booty and donatives (distributions of plunder by commanders) from successful campaigns and, beginning at the time of Marius, often were granted allotments of land upon retirement.[175][185] Cavalry and light infantry attached to a legion (the auxilia) were often recruited in the areas where the legion served. Caesar formed a legion, the Fifth Alaudae, from non-citizens in Transalpine Gaul to serve in his campaigns in Gaul.[186] By the time of Caesar Augustus, the ideal of the citizen-soldier had been abandoned and the legions had become fully professional. Legionaries received 900 sesterces a year and could expect 12,000 sesterces on retirement.[187]

At the end of the Civil War, Augustus reorganized Roman military forces, discharging soldiers and disbanding legions. He retained 28 legions, distributed through the provinces of the Empire.[188] During the Principate, the tactical organization of the Army continued to evolve. The auxilia remained independent cohorts, and legionary troops often operated as groups of cohorts rather than as full legions. A new versatile type of unit—the cohortes equitatae—combined cavalry and legionaries in a single formation. They could be stationed at garrisons or outposts and could fight on their own as balanced small forces or combine with other similar units as a larger legion-sized force. This increase in organizational flexibility helped ensure the long-term success of Roman military forces.[189]

The Emperor Gallienus (253–268 AD) began a reorganization that created the last military structure of the late Empire. Withdrawing some legionaries from the fixed bases on the border, Gallienus created mobile forces (the Comitatenses or field armies) and stationed them behind and at some distance from the borders as a strategic reserve. The border troops (limitanei) stationed at fixed bases continued to be the first line of defense. The basic unit of the field army was the "regiment", legiones or auxilia for infantry and vexellationes for cavalry. Evidence suggests that nominal strengths may have been 1,200 men for infantry regiments and 600 for cavalry, although many records show lower actual troop levels (800 and 400).[190]

Many infantry and cavalry regiments operated in pairs under the command of a comes. In addition to Roman troops, the field armies included regiments of "barbarians" recruited from allied tribes and known as foederati. By 400 AD, foederati regiments had become permanently established units of the Roman army, paid and equipped by the Empire, led by a Roman tribune and used just as Roman units were used. In addition to the foederati, the Empire also used groups of barbarians to fight along with the legions as "allies" without integration into the field armies. Under the command of the senior Roman general present, they were led at lower levels by their own officers.[190]

Military leadership evolved over the course of the history of Rome. Under the monarchy, the hoplite armies were led by the kings of Rome. During the early and middle Roman Republic, military forces were under the command of one of the two elected consuls for the year. During the later Republic, members of the Roman Senatorial elite, as part of the normal sequence of elected public offices known as the cursus honorum, would have served first as quaestor (often posted as deputies to field commanders), then as praetor.[191][192] Julius Caesar's most talented, effective and reliable subordinate in Gaul, Titus Labienus, was recommended to him by Pompey.[193]

Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, c. 122 BC; the altar shows two Roman infantrymen equipped with long scuta and a cavalryman with his horse. All are shown wearing chain mail armour.

Following the end of a term as praetor or consul, a Senator might be appointed by the Senate as a propraetor or proconsul (depending on the highest office held before) to govern a foreign province. More junior officers (down to but not including the level of centurion) were selected by their commanders from their own clientelae or those recommended by political allies among the Senatorial elite.[191]

Under Augustus, whose most important political priority was to place the military under a permanent and unitary command, the Emperor was the legal commander of each legion but exercised that command through a legatus (legate) he appointed from the Senatorial elite. In a province with a single legion, the legate commanded the legion (legatus legionis) and also served as provincial governor, while in a province with more than one legion, each legion was commanded by a legate and the legates were commanded by the provincial governor (also a legate but of higher rank).[194]

During the later stages of the Imperial period (beginning perhaps with Diocletian), the Augustan model was abandoned. Provincial governors were stripped of military authority, and command of the armies in a group of provinces was given to generals (duces) appointed by the Emperor. These were no longer members of the Roman elite but men who came up through the ranks and had seen much practical soldiering. With increasing frequency, these men attempted (sometimes successfully) to usurp the positions of the Emperors who had appointed them. Decreased resources, increasing political chaos and civil war eventually left the Western Empire vulnerable to attack and takeover by neighboring barbarian peoples.[195]

Less is known about the Roman navy than the Roman army. Prior to the middle of the 3rd century BC, officials known as duumviri navales commanded a fleet of twenty ships used mainly to control piracy. This fleet was given up in 278 AD and replaced by allied forces. The First Punic War required that Rome build large fleets, and it did so largely with the assistance of and financing from allies. This reliance on allies continued to the end of the Roman Republic. The quinquereme was the main warship on both sides of the Punic Wars and remained the mainstay of Roman naval forces until replaced by the time of Caesar Augustus by lighter and more maneuverable vessels.[196]

As compared with a trireme, the quinquereme permitted the use of a mix of experienced and inexperienced crewmen (an advantage for a primarily land-based power), and its lesser maneuverability permitted the Romans to adopt and perfect boarding tactics using a troop of about 40 marines in lieu of the ram. Ships were commanded by a navarch, a rank equal to a centurion, who was usually not a citizen. Potter suggests that because the fleet was dominated by non-Romans, the navy was considered non-Roman and allowed to atrophy in times of peace.[196]

Information suggests that by the time of the late Empire (350 AD), the Roman navy comprised several fleets including warships and merchant vessels for transportation and supply. Warships were oared sailing galleys with three to five banks of oarsmen. Fleet bases included such ports as Ravenna, Arles, Aquilea, Misenum and the mouth of the Somme River in the West and Alexandria and Rhodes in the East. Flotillas of small river craft (classes) were part of the limitanei (border troops) during this period, based at fortified river harbors along the Rhine and the Danube. That prominent generals commanded both armies and fleets suggests that naval forces were treated as auxiliaries to the army and not as an independent service. The details of command structure and fleet strengths during this period are not well known, although fleets were commanded by prefects.[197]


Ancient Rome commanded a vast area of land, with tremendous natural and human resources. As such, Rome's economy remained focused on farming and trade. Agricultural free trade changed the Italian landscape, and by the 1st century BC, vast grape and olive estates had supplanted the yeoman farmers, who were unable to match the imported grain price. The annexation of Egypt, Sicily and Tunisia in North Africa provided a continuous supply of grains. In turn, olive oil and wine were Italy's main exports. Two-tier crop rotation was practiced, but farm productivity was low, around 1 ton per hectare.

Industrial and manufacturing activities were smaller. The largest such activities were the mining and quarrying of stones, which provided basic construction materials for the buildings of that period. In manufacturing, production was on a relatively small scale, and generally consisted of workshops and small factories that employed at most dozens of workers. However, some brick factories employed hundreds of workers.

The economy of the early Republic was largely based on smallholding and paid labor. However, foreign wars and conquests made slaves increasingly cheap and plentiful, and by the late Republic, the economy was largely dependent on slave labor for both skilled and unskilled work. Slaves are estimated to have constituted around 20% of the Roman Empire's population at this time and 40% in the city of Rome. Only in the Roman Empire, when the conquests stopped and the prices of slaves increased, did hired labor become more economical than slave ownership.

Although barter was used in ancient Rome, and often used in tax collection, Rome had a very developed coinage system, with brass, bronze, and precious metal coins in circulation throughout the Empire and beyond—some have even been discovered in India. Before the 3rd century BC, copper was traded by weight, measured in unmarked lumps, across central Italy. The original copper coins (as) had a face value of one Roman pound of copper, but weighed less. Thus, Roman money's utility as a unit of exchange consistently exceeded its intrinsic value as metal. After Nero began debasing the silver denarius, its legal value was an estimated one-third greater than its intrinsic value.

Horses were expensive and other pack animals were slower. Mass trade on the Roman roads connected military posts, where Roman markets were centered.[198] These roads were designed for wheels.[199] As a result, there was transport of commodities between Roman regions, but increased with the rise of Roman maritime trade in the 2nd century BC. During that period, a trading vessel took less than a month to complete a trip from Gades to Alexandria via Ostia, spanning the entire length of the Mediterranean.[108] Transport by sea was around 60 times cheaper than by land, so the volume for such trips was much larger.

Some economists consider the Roman Empire a market economy, similar in its degree of capitalistic practices to 17th century Netherlands and 18th century England.[200]


A gold glass portrait of a family from Roman Egypt. The Greek inscription on the medallion may indicate either the name of the artist or the pater familias who is absent in the portrait.[201]

The basic units of Roman society were households and families.[167] Households included the head (usually the father) of the household, pater familias (father of the family), his wife, children, and other relatives. In the upper classes, slaves and servants were also part of the household.[167] The power of the head of the household was supreme (patria potestas, "father's power") over those living with him: He could force marriage (usually for money) and divorce, sell his children into slavery, claim his dependents' property as his own, and even had the right to punish or kill family members (though this last right apparently ceased to be exercised after the 1st century BC).[202]

Patria potestas even extended over adult sons with their own households: A man was not considered a paterfamilias, nor could he truly hold property, while his own father lived.[202][203] During the early period of Rome's history, a daughter, when she married, fell under the control (manus) of the paterfamilias of her husband's household, although by the late Republic this fell out of fashion, as a woman could choose to continue recognizing her father's family as her true family.[204] However, as Romans reckoned descent through the male line, any children she had belonged to her husband's family.[205]

Little affection was shown for the children of Rome. The mother or an elderly relative often raised both boys and girls. Unwanted children were often sold as slaves.[206] Children might have waited on tables for the family, but they could not have participated in the conversation.

In noble families a Greek nurse usually taught the children Latin and Greek. Their father taught the boys how to swim and ride, although he sometimes hired a slave to teach them instead. At seven, a boy began his education. Having no school building, classes were held on a rooftop (if dark, the boy had to carry a lantern to school). Wax-covered boards were used as paper, papyrus, and parchment were too expensive—or he could just write in the sand. A loaf of bread to be eaten was also carried.[207]

Groups of related households formed a family (gens). Families were based on blood ties or adoption, but were also political and economic alliances. Especially during the Roman Republic, some powerful families, or Gentes Maiores, came to dominate political life.

In ancient Rome, marriage was often regarded more as a financial and political alliance than as a romantic association, especially in the upper classes (see marriage in ancient Rome). Fathers usually began seeking husbands for their daughters when these reached an age between twelve and fourteen. The husband was usually older than the bride. While upper class girls married very young, there is evidence that lower class women often married in their late teens or early 20s.


Life in ancient Rome revolved around the city of Rome, located on seven hills. The city had a vast number of monumental structures like the Colosseum, the Forum of Trajan and the Pantheon. It had theatres, gymnasiums, marketplaces, functional sewers, bath complexes complete with libraries and shops, and fountains with fresh drinking water supplied by hundreds of miles of aqueducts. Throughout the territory under the control of ancient Rome, residential architecture ranged from modest houses to country villas.

In the capital city of Rome, there were imperial residences on the elegant Palatine Hill, from which the word palace derives. The low Plebeian and middle Equestrian classes lived in the city center, packed into apartments, or Insulae, which were almost like modern ghettos. These areas, often built by upper class property owners to rent, were often centred upon collegia or taberna. These people, provided with a free supply of grain, and entertained by gladatorial games, were enrolled as clients of patrons among the upper class Patricians, whose assistance they sought and whose interests they upheld.


Roman fresco of a blond maiden reading a text, Pompeian Fourth Style (60–79 AD), Pompeii, Italy

The native language of the Romans was Latin, an Italic language the grammar of which relies little on word order, conveying meaning through a system of affixes attached to word stems.[208] Its alphabet was based on the Etruscan alphabet, which was in turn based on the Greek alphabet.[209] Although surviving Latin literature consists almost entirely of Classical Latin, an artificial and highly stylized and polished literary language from the 1st century BC, the spoken language of the Roman Empire was Vulgar Latin, which significantly differed from Classical Latin in grammar and vocabulary, and eventually in pronunciation.[210] Speakers of Latin could understand both until the 7th century when spoken Latin began to diverge so much that 'Classical' or 'Good Latin' had to be learned as a second language[211]

While Latin remained the main written language of the Roman Empire, Greek came to be the language spoken by the well-educated elite, as most of the literature studied by Romans was written in Greek. In the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which later became the Byzantine Empire, Latin was never able to replace Greek, and after the death of Justinian, Greek became the official language of the Byzantine government.[212] The expansion of the Roman Empire spread Latin throughout Europe, and Vulgar Latin evolved into dialects in different locations, gradually shifting into many distinct Romance languages.


Punishment of Ixion: in the center is Mercury holding the caduceus and on the right Juno sits on her throne. Behind her Iris stands and gestures. On the left is Vulcan (blond figure) standing behind the wheel, manning it, with Ixion already tied to it. Nephele sits at Mercury's feet; a Roman fresco from the eastern wall of the triclinium in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii, Fourth Style (60–79 AD).

Archaic Roman religion, at least concerning the gods, was made up not of written narratives, but rather of complex interrelations between gods and humans.[213] Unlike in Greek mythology, the gods were not personified, but were vaguely defined sacred spirits called numina. Romans also believed that every person, place or thing had its own genius, or divine soul. During the Roman Republic, Roman religion was organized under a strict system of priestly offices, which were held by men of senatorial rank. The College of Pontifices was uppermost body in this hierarchy, and its chief priest, the Pontifex Maximus, was the head of the state religion. Flamens took care of the cults of various gods, while augurs were trusted with taking the auspices. The sacred king took on the religious responsibilities of the deposed kings. In the Roman Empire, emperors were deified,[214][215] and the formalized imperial cult became increasingly prominent.

As contact with the Greeks increased, the old Roman gods became increasingly associated with Greek gods.[216] Thus, Jupiter was perceived to be the same deity as Zeus, Mars became associated with Ares, and Neptune with Poseidon. The Roman gods also assumed the attributes and mythologies of these Greek gods. Under the Empire, the Romans absorbed the mythologies of their conquered subjects, often leading to situations in which the temples and priests of traditional Italian deities existed side by side with those of foreign gods.[217]

Beginning with Emperor Nero in the 1st century AD, Roman official policy towards Christianity was negative, and at some points, simply being a Christian could be punishable by death. Under Emperor Diocletian, the persecution of Christians reached its peak. However, it became an officially supported religion in the Roman state under Diocletian's successor, Constantine I, with the signing of the Edict of Milan in 313, and quickly became dominant. All religions except Christianity were prohibited in 391 AD by an edict of Emperor Theodosius I.[218]

Ethics and morality

Like many ancient cultures, concepts of ethics and morality, while sharing some commonalities with modern society, differed greatly in several important ways. Because ancient civilizations like Rome were under constant threat of attack from marauding tribes, their culture was necessarily militaristic with martial skills being a prized attribute.[219] Whereas modern societies consider compassion a virtue, Roman society considered compassion a vice, a moral defect. Indeed, one of the primary purposes of the gladiatorial games was to inoculate Roman citizens from this weakness.[220][219][221] Romans instead prized virtues such as courage and conviction (virtus), a sense of duty to one's people, moderation and avoiding excess (moderatio), forgiveness and understanding (clementia), fairness (severitas), and loyalty (pietas).[222]

Contrary to popular descriptions, Roman society had well-established and restrictive norms related to sexuality, though as with many societies, the lion's share of the responsibilities fell on women. Women were generally expected to be monogamous having only a single husband during their life (univira), though this was much less regarded by the elite, especially under the empire. Women were expected to be modest in public avoiding any provocative appearance and to demonstrate absolute fidelity to their husbands (pudicitia). Indeed, wearing a veil was a common expectation to preserve modesty. Sex outside of marriage was generally frowned upon for men and women and indeed was made illegal during the imperial period.[223] Nevertheless, prostitution was seen entirely differently and indeed was an accepted and regulated practice.[224]

Art, music and literature

Woman playing a kithara, from the Villa Boscoreale, 40–30 BC

Roman painting styles show Greek influences, and surviving examples are primarily frescoes used to adorn the walls and ceilings of country villas, though Roman literature includes mentions of paintings on wood, ivory, and other materials.[225][226] Several examples of Roman painting have been found at Pompeii, and from these art historians divide the history of Roman painting into four periods. The first style of Roman painting was practiced from the early 2nd century BC to the early- or mid-1st century BC. It was mainly composed of imitations of marble and masonry, though sometimes including depictions of mythological characters.

The second style of Roman painting began during the early 1st century BC, and attempted to depict realistically three-dimensional architectural features and landscapes. The third style occurred during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD), and rejected the realism of the second style in favor of simple ornamentation. A small architectural scene, landscape, or abstract design was placed in the center with a monochrome background. The fourth style, which began in the 1st century AD, depicted scenes from mythology, while retaining architectural details and abstract patterns.

Portrait sculpture during the period[which?] utilized youthful and classical proportions, evolving later into a mixture of realism and idealism. During the Antonine and Severan periods, ornate hair and bearding, with deep cutting and drilling, became popular. Advancements were also made in relief sculptures, usually depicting Roman victories.

Latin literature was, from its start, influenced heavily by Greek authors. Some of the earliest extant works are of historical epics telling the early military history of Rome. As the Republic expanded, authors began to produce poetry, comedy, history, and tragedy.

Roman music was largely based on Greek music, and played an important part in many aspects of Roman life.[227] In the Roman military, musical instruments such as the tuba (a long trumpet) or the cornu (similar to a French horn) were used to give various commands, while the bucina (possibly a trumpet or horn) and the lituus (probably an elongated J-shaped instrument), were used in ceremonial capacities.[228] Music was used in the amphitheaters between fights and in the odea, and in these settings is known to have featured the cornu and the hydraulis (a type of water organ).[229]

Most religious rituals featured musical performances, with tibiae (double pipes) at sacrifices, cymbals and Tambourines at orgiastic cults, and rattles and hymns across the spectrum.[230] Some music historians believe that music was used at almost all public ceremonies.[227] Music historians are not certain if Roman musicians made a significant contribution to the theory or practice of music.[227]

The graffiti, brothels, paintings, and sculptures found in Pompeii and Herculaneum suggest that the Romans had a sex-saturated culture.[231]


Ancient Roman cuisine changed over the long duration of this ancient civilization. Dietary habits were affected by the influence of Greek culture, the political changes from kingdom to republic to empire, and empire's enormous expansion, which exposed Romans to many new, provincial culinary habits and cooking techniques. In the beginning the differences between social classes were relatively small, but disparities evolved with the empire's growth. Men and women drank wine with their meals, a tradition that has been carried through to the present day.[232]

Games and recreation

The "bikini girls" mosaic, showing women playing sports, from the Villa Romana del Casale, Roman province of Sicilia (Sicily), 4th century AD

The youth of Rome had several forms of athletic play and exercise, such as jumping, wrestling, boxing, and racing.[233] In the countryside, pastimes for the wealthy also included fishing and hunting.[234] The Romans also had several forms of ball playing, including one resembling handball.[233] Dice games, board games, and gamble games were popular pastimes.[233] Women did not take part in these activities. For the wealthy, dinner parties presented an opportunity for entertainment, sometimes featuring music, dancing, and poetry readings.[225] Plebeians sometimes enjoyed similar parties through clubs or associations, but for most Romans, recreational dining usually meant patronizing taverns.[225] Children entertained themselves with toys and such games as leapfrog.[234][225]

Public games were sponsored by leading Romans who wished to advertise their generosity and court popular approval; in the Imperial era, this usually meant the emperor. Several venues were developed specifically for public games. The Colisseum was built in the Imperial era to host, among other events, gladiatorial combats. These combats had begun as funeral games around the 4th century BC, and became popular spectator events in the late Republic and Empire. Gladiators had an exotic and inventive variety of arms and armour. They sometimes fought to the death, but more often to an adjudicated victory, dependent on a referee's decision. The outcome was usually in keeping with the mood of the watching crowd. Shows of exotic animals were popular in their own right; but sometimes animals were pitted against human beings, either armed professionals or unarmed criminals who had been condemned to a spectacular and theatrical public death in the arena. Some of these encounters were based on episodes from Roman or Greek mythology.

Chariot racing was extremely popular among all classes. In Rome, these races were usually held at the Circus Maximus, which had been purpose-built for chariot and horse-racing and, as Rome's largest public place, was also used for festivals and animal shows.[235] It could seat around 150,000 people;[236] The charioteers raced in teams, identified by their colours. The track was divided lengthwise by a barrier that contained obelisks, temples, statues and lap-counters. The best seats were at the track-side, close to the action; they were reserved for Senators. Behind them sat the equites (knights), and behind the knights were the plebs (commoners) and non-citizens. The donor of the games sat on a high platform in the stands alongside images of the gods, visible to all. Large sums were bet on the outcomes of races. Some Romans offered prayers and sacrifices on behalf of their favourites, or laid curses on the opposing teams, and some aficionados were members of extremely, even violently partisan circus factions.


Pont du Gard in France is a Roman aqueduct built in c. 19 BC. It is a World Heritage Site.

Ancient Rome boasted impressive technological feats, using many advancements that were lost in the Middle Ages and not rivaled again until the 19th and 20th centuries. An example of this is insulated glazing, which was not invented again until the 1930s. Many practical Roman innovations were adopted from earlier Greek designs. Advancements were often divided and based on craft. Artisans guarded technologies as trade secrets.[237]

Roman civil engineering and military engineering constituted a large part of Rome's technological superiority and legacy, and contributed to the construction of hundreds of roads, bridges, aqueducts, baths, theaters and arenas. Many monuments, such as the Colosseum, Pont du Gard, and Pantheon, remain as testaments to Roman engineering and culture.

The Romans were renowned for their architecture, which is grouped with Greek traditions into "Classical architecture". Although there were many differences from Greek architecture, Rome borrowed heavily from Greece in adhering to strict, formulaic building designs and proportions. Aside from two new orders of columns, composite and Tuscan, and from the dome, which was derived from the Etruscan arch, Rome had relatively few architectural innovations until the end of the Republic.

The Appian Way (Via Appia), a road connecting the city of Rome to the southern parts of Italy, remains usable even today

In the 1st century BC, Romans started to use concrete widely. Concrete was invented in the late 3rd century BC. It was a powerful cement derived from pozzolana, and soon supplanted marble as the chief Roman building material and allowed many daring architectural forms.[238] Also in the 1st century BC, Vitruvius wrote De architectura, possibly the first complete treatise on architecture in history. In the late 1st century BC, Rome also began to use glassblowing soon after its invention in Syria about 50 BC. Mosaics took the Empire by storm after samples were retrieved during Lucius Cornelius Sulla's campaigns in Greece.

With solid foundations and good drainage,[239] Roman roads were known for their durability and many segments of the Roman road system were still in use a thousand years after the fall of Rome. The construction of a vast and efficient travel network throughout the Empire dramatically increased Rome's power and influence. They allowed Roman legions to be deployed rapidly, with predictable marching times between key points of the empire, no matter the season.[240] These highways also had enormous economic significance, solidifying Rome's role as a trading crossroads—the origin of the saying "all roads lead to Rome". The Roman government maintained a system of way stations, known as the cursus publicus, that provided refreshments to couriers at regular intervals along the roads and established a system of horse relays allowing a dispatch to travel up to 80 km (50 mi) a day.

The Romans constructed numerous aqueducts to supply water to cities and industrial sites and to aid in their agriculture. By the third century, the city of Rome was supplied by 11 aqueducts with a combined length of 450 km (280 mi). Most aqueducts were constructed below the surface, with only small portions above ground supported by arches.[241][242] Sometimes, where valleys deeper than 500 m (1,640 ft) had to be crossed, [48]

The Romans also made major advancements in sanitation. Romans were particularly famous for their public baths, called thermae, which were used for both hygienic and social purposes. Many Roman houses came to have flush toilets and indoor plumbing, and a complex sewer system, the Cloaca Maxima, was used to drain the local marshes and carry waste into the Tiber river.

Some historians have speculated that lead pipes in the sewer and plumbing systems led to widespread lead poisoning, which contributed to the decline in birth rate and general decay of Roman society leading up to the fall of Rome. However, lead content would have been minimized because the flow of water from aqueducts could not be shut off; it ran continuously through public and private outlets into the drains, and only a few taps were in use.[243] Other authors have raised similar objections to this theory, also pointing out that Roman water pipes were thickly coated with deposits that would have prevented lead from leaching into the water.[244]


External video
Ancient Rome[245] (13:47), Smarthistory at Khan Academy

Ancient Rome is the progenitor of Western civilization.[246][247][248] The customs, religion, law, technology, architecture, political system, military, literature, languages, alphabet, government and many factors and aspects of western civilization are all inherited from Roman advancements. The rediscovery of Roman culture revitalized Western civilization, playing a role in the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment.[249][250]


Although there has been a diversity of works on ancient Roman history, many of them are lost. As a result of this loss, there are gaps in Roman history, which are filled by unreliable works, such as the Historia Augusta and other books from obscure authors. However, there remains a number of reliable accounts of Roman history.

In Roman times

The first historians used their works for the lauding of Roman culture and customs. By the end of Republic, some historians distorted their histories to flatter their patrons—especially at the time of Marius's and Sulla's clash.[251] Caesar wrote his own histories to make a complete account of his military campaigns in Gaul and during the Civil War.

In the Empire, the biographies of famous men and early emperors flourished, examples being The Twelve Caesars of Suetonius, and Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Other major works of Imperial times were that of Livy and Tacitus.

In modern times

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Interest in studying, and even idealizing, ancient Rome became prevalent during the Italian Renaissance, and continues until the present day. Charles Montesquieu wrote a work Reflections on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Romans. The first major work was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, which encompassed the Roman civilization from the end of the 2nd century to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.[252] Like Montesquieu, Gibbon paid tribute to the virtue of Roman citizens. Barthold Georg Niebuhr was a founder of the examination of ancient Roman history and wrote The Roman History, tracing the period until the First Punic war. Niebuhr tried to determine the way the Roman tradition evolved. According to him, Romans, like other people, had an historical ethos preserved mainly in the noble families.

During the Napoleonic period a work titled The History of Romans by Victor Duruy appeared. It highlighted the Caesarean period popular at the time. History of Rome, Roman constitutional law and Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, all by Theodor Mommsen,[253] became very important milestones. Later the work Greatness and Decline of Rome by Guglielmo Ferrero was published. The Russian work Очерки по истории римского землевладения, преимущественно в эпоху Империи (The Outlines on Roman Landownership History, Mainly During the Empire) by Ivan Grevs contained information on the economy of Pomponius Atticus, one of the largest landowners at the end of the Republic.

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  • Adkins, Lesley; Roy Adkins (1998). Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-512332-6.
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  • Durant, Will (1944). The Story of Civilization, Volume III: Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster, Inc.
  • Elton, Hugh (1996). Warfare in Roman Europe AD 350–425. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-815241-5.
  • Flower (editor), Harriet I. (2004). The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-00390-2.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  • Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith (2008). Caesar: Life of a Colossus. Yale University Press
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith (1996). The Roman Army at War 100 BC – AD 200. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-815057-2.
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith (2003). The Complete Roman Army. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-500-05124-5.
  • Grant, Michael (2005). Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum. London: Phoenix Press. ISBN 978-1-898800-45-3.
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  • Mackay, Christopher S. (2004). Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-80918-4.
  • Matyszak, Philip (2003). Chronicle of the Roman Republic. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-500-05121-4.
  • O'Connell, Robert (1989). Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-505359-3.
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  • Werner, Paul (1978). Life in Rome in Ancient Times. translated by David Macrae. Geneva: Editions Minerva S.A.
  • Willis, Roy (2000). World Mythology: The Illustrated Guide. Collingwood, Victoria: Ken Fin Books. ISBN 978-1-86458-089-1.

Further reading

  • Coarelli, Filippo. Rome and environs: An archaeological guide. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2007.
  • Cornell, Tim J. The beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000–264 BC). London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Coulston, J. C, and Hazel Dodge, editors. Ancient Rome: The archaeology of the eternal city. Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology, 2000.
  • Forsythe, Gary. A critical history of early Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Fox, Matthew. Roman historical myths: The regal period in Augustan literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Gabba, Emilio. Dionysius and the history of Archaic Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Holloway, R. Ross. The archaeology of early Rome and Latium. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Keaveney, Arthur. Rome and the unification of Italy. 2nd edition. Bristol: Bristol Phoenix, 2005.
  • Kraus, Christina Shuttleworth, and A.J. Woodman. Latin historians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Mitchell, Richard E. Patricians and plebeians: The origin of the Roman state. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Potter, T.W. Roman Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
  • Raaflaub, Kurt A., editors. Social struggles in Archaic Rome: New perspectives on the conflict of the orders. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
  • Rosenstein, Nathan S., and Robert Morstein-Marx, editors. A companion to the Roman Republic. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Scheidel, Walter, Richard P Saller, and Ian Morris. The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Smith, Christopher J. Early Rome and Latium: Economy and society c. 1000–500 BC. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Stewart, Roberta. Public office in early Rome: Ritual procedure and political practice. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.
  • Woolf, Greg. Rome: An Empire's Story. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Wyke, Maria. Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History. New York: Routledge, 1997.

External links