Chapter 5 Roman Civilization: The Roman World, c. 900 BCE – 500 CE

The classical world is seen as the cradle of European civilization: if Greece shaped Europe’s culture, Rome laid its practical foundations. The Roman Empire was the first empire to bring unity to much of Europe, from North Africa to Scotland. Rome introduced to this realm a common culture, language, and script through efficient administration, codified laws, and the spread of literacy. Just as Hinduism provided the fundamental cultural unification for India’s diverse ethnic groups, Rome’s adoption and spread of Christianity profoundly influenced the cultural and political consolidation of Europe’s many tribes into nations. And while China’s Han dynasty developed sophisticated technologies during roughly the same period as the early Roman Empire, Rome developed impressive technologies including the construction of roads, bridges, aqueducts, watermills, public baths, public buildings, and under floor heating.

The Founding of Rome:

The legend of the founding of Rome comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, the classical Roman text of 19 BCE. Virgil’s character, Aeneas, the heroic and sole survivor of Troy, had a passionate affair with Carthage’s Phoenician queen and founder Dido (despite the fact that the story of Troy and the founding of Carthage were centuries apart). According to the legend, Aeneas founded a town in Latium that would become Carthage’s rival city, Rome. Supposedly, Aeneas’ descendents in the Italian peninsula, the twin bothers Romulus and Remus, were abandoned by their mother and brought up and suckled by a wolf. These twins founded the city of Rome, but Romulus killed his twin brother Remus. The mythology of Romulus and Remus continues to be visible in Roman culture.

More likely, the city of Rome developed in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE from several settled Latin tribes spread over seven hills. It was ruled by Etruscan kings until around 500 BCE when the kings were overthrown by the Latin tribes who become known as Romans. These Romans replaced the Etruscan monarchy with a Roman republic. The republic was governed by the Senate (a council of elder statesmen and leaders of clans) along with two elected officials called consuls. Around the same time, Rome defeated the neighboring tribes and gradually expanded through Italy. In the Latin war the Romans crushed a rebellion of Latin tribes and incorporated them into a pro-Roman league. The Romans also overran the Greek-influenced civilization of the Etruscans.

The Etruscans had come to central Italy around 1000 BCE (and probably came, like the Minoans, from somewhere in Asia Minor (Turkey)). It was the Etruscans who brought the first city-state organization to the Italian peninsula that was inhabited by Iron Age peoples. Under the Etruscans Rome became a sizable city, an important center of trade and power in that part of Italy. The Etruscans are perhaps most famous for their pottery. The Greek-influenced Etruscans are also known for having taught the Romans about building as well as reading and writing. The Etruscans had learned to read and write (with the Phoenician alphabet) from Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily. However, by 500 BCE Etruscan sovereignty over central Italy was on its way out, as Rome would absorb Etruria and later the Greek colonies in southern Italy.

By the end of the 3rd century, with the conquest of the neighboring Latin tribes, the Etruscans, and the Greek colonies, the Romans now had control of the entire Italian peninsula. Rome strengthened its grip on the region by founding Roman colonies and encouraging their Latin allies to do the same. The Romans conjoined these colonies by a system of roads beginning in the 4th century BCE and greatly extended this network of roads in the 2nd century BCE.

The Roman Republic (509-30 BCE)

Social Organization:
For centuries the core of Rome’s power would be the Roman peasantry (plebeians or commoners), their patrician overlords (who were the only citizens eligible to be Senators), and the Roman army. The division between plebeians (commoners) and patricians (members of ancient and noble Roman families) was one of the central social distinctions in Roman society. Another central feature of Roman social organization, among the upper classes at least, was the paterfamilias (“father of the family”) who exercised life and death power over every member of the family including younger siblings, women, children, and slaves. Like Greek women, Roman women were legally under the authority of their fathers (even more so than their husbands), however unlike Greek women, Roman women could and did legally inherit and manage property. Relative to Greek societies, Roman societies were much more heavily dependent upon slaves.

Roman Slavery:
“Roman slavery under both the Republic and the Empire lasted even longer than the period between 1492 and the present, the era of European and African contact with the Americas. Roman slavery encompassed household slavery and industrial slavery and was found in every corner of the Empire. Before Constantine’s imposition of Christianity on the Empire, the Roman slave code could encompass both incredible cruelty and incredible generosity on the slave. A slave favored by his master could be freed and even elevated to the rank of Roman citizen. And yet the Roman code called for the execution of all slaves in the household if one slave killed the master. This was done regardless of the guilt or innocence of the other slaves.…Roman slavery did not require a theoretical justification rooted in the putative inferiority of slaves or of the peoples who were enslaved. In ancient Rome, slavery was a matter of personal misfortune, not group inferiority. Indeed in one important respect the ancient Romans were willing to acknowledge the cultural equality, or even superiority, of some of those they held in bondage. It was not uncommon in wealthy Roman households for Greek slaves to act as the tutors of children” (Cottrol 2001:53.)

click here for a look at Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome

Roman Expansion:
Rome’s first confrontation outside of Italy was against the Carthaginians. The North African city of Carthage originally settled by the Phoenicians dominated the trade throughout the Mediterranean. The Carthaginians saw their commercial interests in Sicily threatened by Rome’s expansion. This led to three Punic Wars in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. Rome seized territory formerly held by the Carthaginians (Sardinia, Corsica, Spain, and the northern tip of Africa), but also suffered its worst defeats. Carthage’s famous general Hannibal twice obliterated the Roman army with African war elephants, and according to Frank Snowden, African soldiers and elephant handlers. Rome continued to acquire new provinces. The conquest of Hellenistic provinces like Macedonia, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and Greece, would bring in Greek culture as a powerful influence on Roman life and art. The acquisition of provinces also created the opportunity for individuals for make a fortune and forge a local army. The most influential general who arose in this way was Julius Caesar.

In the 1st century BCE Rome’s powerful commander Julius Caesar annexed Gaul (France) and expanded Rome’s African province. As a commander, Caesar became so influential that the Senate, feeling threatened, ordered him to disband his army. Caesar instead led his army out of the province to which he had been posted—in open defiance of Roman law. Caesar then ruled Rome as a dictator until he was assassinated in 44 BCE. Caesar's adoptive son, Octavian, succeeded him. Octavian nominally restored the Senate’s powers and took up the position of princeps (first citizen) while gradually increasing his authority. In 27 BCE Octavian was awarded the title Augustus (“revered one”)—this is usually taken as beginning of Rome’s imperial period.


The Roman Empire (30 BCE - 500 CE)

Augustus Octavian
Like Asoka’s reign during the Mauryan dynasty in India, and Pericles’ Athens, Augustus’ Rome is considered a high point in human governance. Augustus’ reign brought a period of stability and peace, known as the Pax Romana, which would last until 180 CE. Augustus annexed additional provinces like Egypt as well as strengthened the support of existing provinces by granting them the status of imperial provinces. He established fixed and defensible borders for the northern reaches of his conquered territories in present day Germany and Austria and he secured his less defined eastern borders with alliances with neighboring kingdoms. Trade flourished under Augustus’ rule. An infrastructure of roads, lighthouses, and sheltered harbors encouraged commercial activity while the presence of Roman soldiers in faraway provinces encouraged long-distance trade. In Rome, Augustus built and restored many public buildings, encouraged the arts, revived traditional religious beliefs, and enacted numerous political, economic, and social reforms.

The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) was a two hundred year period of peace and prosperity that has never been repeated in European history. During the Pax Romana Rome expanded into a vast empire and cosmopolitan world state with more than 100 million people of diverse cultures united under the protection of Roman law and administration.

Numerous emperors followed Augustus Octavian. Some have been grouped by as “good” and “bad” emperors. Tiberius and Claudius were adequate rulers. Caligula and Nero were immoral madmen. The Antonines “Five Good Emperors” between 96-180 CE brought the Roman Empire to its height. Particularly noteworthy of these “good emperors” were Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.


The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

After Marcus Aurelius’s benevolent reign, the Roman good times ended. Rome’s “crisis of the third century” is characterized by anarchy, invasion, and despotism. “Standards of living declined sharply. The countryside was depopulated, the cities swollen with poor people living on the grain dole, the middle classes shrinking under the pressure of government extractions” (Esler 165). The government basically became a pawn of the military (in the 50 years between 235 and 85 CE Rome had 26 emperors only one of whom died a natural death). “There were rebellious rumblings in the provinces—Gaul, Spain, North Africa—and new pressure on the frontiers from Germanic peoples in Europe and a revived Persian Empire in the East.” (Esler 165). German tribes (Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Saxons, Angles, Franks) entered the Roman Empire in waves during 3rd and 4th centuries as slaves, soldiers, and settlers. The approach of the Huns from the East in the late 4th century intensified the German movement—which some call the barbaric invasions.

Diocletian (285-305), a Balkan peasant who rose through the ranks of the Roman army to become empror, restructured the empire, strengthened the bureaucracy, reformed taxation, and fixed prices. “In his last years he embarked upon the last major persecution of the Christian church, in whose growing power he…detected a threat to the restored authority of the state” (Esler 165).

Constantine (306-337) “carried Diocletian’s reforms to even greater lengths. His Edict of Milan demanded the toleration of Christians throughout the empire. He established two capitals, one at Rome and one at Byzantium (renamed Constantinople in his honor) in the east, where the Byzantine (or East Roman) Empire would survive for another thousand years” (Esler 165).

The fall of Rome in the 5th century continues to challenge historians, and many have been fascinated with the possible causes of the destruction of one history’s most impressive political achievements. However, it clearly involved both internal weakening and external assault.

One of Rome’s most important contributions was the impact of Roman law; it serves as the base of modern Western law.


Cottrol, Robert. "The Long Lingering Shadow: Law, Liberalism, and Culltures of Raical Hierarchy and Identity in the Americas," Tulane Law Review, Vol. 76, No. 1, 2001.
Esler, Anthony. The Human Venture. Pearson. 2004.
Brummet, et. al. Civilization Past and Present. Addison, Wesley, Longman. 2001.