History of Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a fascinating civilization that still influences us today. Their advances in art, architecture, engineering, law, and government, and even their language, Latin, have all impacted modern-day society. When studying Ancient Rome’s civilization, it is helpful for students to organize their facts utilizing the acronym G.R.A.P.E.S. (geography, religion, arts and achievements, politics, economy, and social structure). This is an effective way for students to categorize and analyze the main features of this ancient society from two thousand years ago.
Ancient Rome began on a peninsula in southern Europe that extends into the Mediterranean Sea. This peninsula is now today's Italy. It was founded in 753 BCE when several farming communities located in the seven hills along the Tiber River banded together under its first ruler, Romulus. According to legend, Romulus and his twin brother Remus were raised by a she-wolf!
Ancient Rome is typically divided up into three periods: the period of Kings (625-510 BCE), the period of the Roman Republic (510-31 BCE), and the Period of the Roman Empire or Imperial Rome (31 BCE - 476 CE). Ancient Rome was constantly evolving and continually expanding. At its height in 117 CE, the Roman Empire included much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
Rome was founded along the banks of the Tiber River, which provided fresh water for drinking, bathing, watering crops, and fishing, as well as transportation. Rome was also located on the Mediterranean Sea, which gave easy access to trading, traveling, and fishing. The Mediterranean climate had warm summers and mild winters. The soil along hillsides was fertile for farming and raising livestock. Ancient Romans also mined for iron, copper, tin, lead, gold, and silver throughout their empire. The Apennine Mountain Range along the peninsula of Italy and the Alps in the North provided a natural protective barrier for Rome against potential enemies.
Ancient Romans practiced polytheism, meaning that they believed in many gods and goddesses that were responsible for various aspects of the natural world and their lives. Their beliefs were derived from the Ancient Greeks but the names of the gods and goddesses were changed from Greek to Latin, the language of Ancient Rome. Here are some examples of their main deities:
- Jupiter came from the Greek god Zeus. He was the king of the gods and the god of thunder and lighting. He was the Patron God of Rome.
- Juno came from the Greek goddess Hera. She was Jupiter's wife, queen of the gods, and considered the protector of Rome.
- Mars came from the Greek god Ares. He was Jupiter and Juno's son and was the god of agriculture and war.
- Minerva came from the Greek goddess Athena. She was the goddess of wisdom, professions, the arts, and war.
- Mercury came from the Greek god Hermes. He was the god of trade, wealth, luck, and travel. He was often pictured with winged sandals, a winged cap, and carrying a caduceus (staff).
- Neptune came from the Greek god Poseidon. He was the god of the sea, brother to Jupiter, and the patron of horses. Neptune's weapon was his powerful trident.
- Venus came from the Greek goddess Aphrodite. She was the goddess of love, family, victory, and beauty.
- Apollo came from the Greek god Apollo. He was the god of music, poetry, and archery.
- Diana, Apollo's twin sister, came from the Greek goddess Artemis. Diana was the goddess of the hunt, archery, and animals. Her symbols included the moon, snake, and bow.
- Ceres came from the Greek goddess Demeter. She was the goddess of agriculture and of the seasons. The word cereal comes from Ceres.
- Vulcan came from the Greek god Hephaestus. He was the blacksmith for the gods and the god of fire. The word volcano comes from the name Vulcan.
- Bacchus came from the Greek god Dionysus. He was the god of wine, theatre, and festivities. He was the youngest of the major gods and the only one born to a mortal.
Ancient Romans made great contributions in art, architecture, engineering and technology. They created life-like sculptures, used concrete in massive structures like the Colosseum, and engineered sturdy roads and aqueducts throughout their empire. They excelled in writing poetry, plays, and also created complex legal systems and some of the first representative governments.
- Art: Ancient Romans were influenced by pottery, painting, and sculpture from Ancient Greece. Wealthy Romans collected art and displayed it in their homes. Sculptures, paintings, and relief carvings also adorned public buildings and temples. Many sculptures were life-like recreations of gods, goddesses, generals, or statesmen.
- Architecture: The Ancient Romans further developed architecture learned from Ancient Greece and perfected designs such as the arch, vaults, and domes, which could withstand much more weight. Some of their greatest architectural achievements are the Colosseum, Pantheon, Circus Maximus, and the Arch of Constantine, among others.
- Inventions: The Ancient Romans built an extensive network of roads, many of which still exist today. They stretched across the empire and made traveling and trading more efficient. They invented aqueducts to carry fresh water from the mountains to the cities. They used cement and concrete in many of their structures, which have survived for two thousand years! Under Julius Caesar, they created the Julian Calendar, which is also still in use today.
- Speaking and Writing: Ancient Romans spoke Latin. They wrote on wax tablets, thin leaves of wood, papyrus, or parchment. They valued oral storytelling and speeches called oratories. Cicero (106-43 BCE) was known as one of Ancient Rome's greatest philosophers and orators. Virgil (70BC-19 BC) was a lauded, famous poet who wrote the Aeneid.
- Rule of Law: Ancient Romans believed in theory that the law should apply to all citizens. As early as 451 BCE, Ancient Romans wrote their laws down so that all citizens could see them. The Twelve Tables was a set of laws that were carved onto 12 bronze tablets. The goal was that all citizens might be treated equally and people who broke the law would be tried by a jury before conviction. Still, in the days of the empire, "Whatever pleases the emperor was the law" and the poor generally faced far harsher punishments than the rich.
Rome's government was first a kingdom and, later, a republic divided into three branches: Assemblies, Senate, and Magistrates. The top two Magistrates were the consuls. Each branch had its own powers and could “check and balance” each other.
- All free adult male citizens could participate in assemblies, though the votes of the wealthy usually counted for more than those of the poor. Assemblies elected magistrates and passed laws. This was a form of direct democracy. The power of assemblies was checked by the powers of the Senate and the Magistrates.
- The senate were the wealthiest and most well-known older Roman men, often former magistrates. Senators were chosen by an official called the Censor. They helped pass laws and controlled foreign policy and government money.
- Magistrates were elected and often moved from lower to higher offices. Quaestors kept track of public money; Aediles were in charge of festivals and buildings; Tribunes of the Plebs protected Plebeians and could veto the laws and actions of others; Praetors judged cases, led armies,and were leaders in governing; The top two magistrates were called Consuls and their job was to lead the state, the military, and act as the highest judges.
After 450 years as a republic, Rome became an empire ruled by an emperor who ruled with much more authority. The Senate and representative governments ended up with far less power. The Imperial Period lasted until 476 CE when the western Roman Empire fell and 1453CE when the Easter Roman Empire (or Byzantine Empire) fell.
Rome's economy was mainly agrarian with wealthy Romans owning large farms. These farms were worked by poor Romans or enslaved people. The robust economy also included artisans and craftsmen, merchants and traders, politicians and soldiers. Enslaved people were a key part of Rome's economy and worked throughout the empire in a variety of jobs both manual labor and skilled.
- Farming: The mild climate in Rome lent itself to farming. Crops such as grain, grapes, olives, and citrus fruits were raised. Farmers also raised livestock such as sheep and goats. Surplus crops and meat were sold and traded. Tenant farmers also worked the land but did not reap as much benefits as they rented their land from wealthy landlords.
- Artisans: Craftsmen provided Ancient Romans with goods that were specialized. They were builders, carpenters, leatherworkers, shoemakers, glass blowers, sculptors, marble workers, painters, goldsmiths, potters, and more. Artisans were highly skilled and created goods that were traded and sought after throughout the ancient world.
- Politicians: Roman citizens aged 25 or over, with military and administrative experience, could become a senator or a magistrate. Often, they needed to have a certain amount of land, wealth, or fame to secure a seat in the government. These positions held much prestige and many lived a lavish lifestyle.
- Soldiers: Roman soldiers were paid and being a soldier was a respected profession that could lead to positions of power. Rome's armies were a significant part of the economy as they expanded Rome's territories and protected trade routes. Soldiers also required a lot of food and metals for armor and weapons.
- Merchants and Traders: Maritime (sea) traders would sell surplus crops of olive oil, wine, pottery and papyrus to places such as Greece, Spain, northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In return, they would buy other items to import back to Rome such as beef, corn, glassware, iron, lead, leather, marble, silk, silver, spices, and timber.
S: Social Structure
Rome was a very divided society with wealthy landowners holding most of the power. Patricians were the wealthy noblemen and Plebeians were the majority who were working class. However, both groups held citizenship and therefore had a voice in government, unlike enslaved people and women.
Family ancestry was extremely important and therefore it was nearly impossible to gain a higher social status if you were plebeian. It was a patriarchal society, meaning that it was led by men. The word "patriarchal" even comes from Latin. The head of the household was the father or the oldest living male and was called the “paterfamilias”. He held legal control over the other members of the household. This includes his wife, children, and enslaved workers.
- Patricians were the upper class of Roman society. They were wealthy landowners who held political office or were rich business leaders. They lived very comfortably in well made homes decorated with art. They utilized the labor of enslaved people or poor people to serve and work for them. Patricians wore togas made from expensive clothes like linen, fine wool, or silk and leather sandals. The toga was a sign of citizenship.
- Plebeians were the poor and working class of Roman society. They made up the majority of Romans. Throughout history, they clashed with patricians over representation in government. They were artisans, builders, tenant farmers, day laborers, shop and tavern keepers, and other laborers. The poor generally lived in small apartments without running water. Plebeian men wore a tunic with a belt at the waist that was often made of thin wool felt and was dark rather than white like the patricians.
- Women had the role of caring for the house and children. However, they could own personal property and took an active role in social life attending parties, theater, and religious rituals. They could not vote or take part in government. Unlike many other ancient civilizations, Roman men were only married to one woman at a time. Divorce was also possible in ancient Rome. Women wore a long dress called a stola.
- Children were seen as important in wealthy families for carrying on the family name and legacy. They were generally loved, educated, and cared for. Children from wealthy families did not work or help around the house as they had enslaved people to do work for them. They would play with toys and games like tic-tac-toe or knucklebones, which was a game similar to jacks. They were educated in strict schools in mathematics, reading, writing, and speaking or could be apprenticed. Plebeian children had a much different experience than patricians. They worked at early ages and were responsible for helping around the house. They were generally educated by their parents, although wealthier plebeians might send their children to school or hire a tutor.
- Enslaved people were a large part of Ancient Rome’s society and economy. Most enslaved people were prisoners of war or Roman children sold by their struggling parents in desperate times. Enslaved people had harsh lives and could be abused by their owners. Ancient Rome was sadly built upon this foundation of forced labor, and they worked throughout the empire in households, mines, factories, farms, and even as gladiators. Gladiators were warriors who would fight to
a brutal and bloody death all for public entertainment. Enslaved people also worked for cities on engineering projects like roads, aqueducts, and buildings. Enslaved people who were educated could be physicians, teachers, or accountants. They were considered a part of the Roman family that owned them, but without rights. Some Roman owners freed their slaves either outright or by allowing them to purchase their freedom. If they were granted manumission formally, freed slaves could become Roman citizens and have voting rights.
- Entertainment: Ancient Romans enjoyed festivals, theater, sporting events, and spectacles. They gathered in large open squares called forums or piazzas to socialize and hear speeches. They also enjoyed “Roman baths” which were more about socializing than bathing. Roman baths were the equivalent to modern-day malls, gyms, or parks. They included exercise and sports as well as grooming. Ancient Romans also frequented giant stadiums like the Colosseum or the Circus Maximus to watch cruel and deadly gladiator fights, wrestling, or chariot racing.
With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about Ancient Rome. They’ll become familiar with their environment, resources, technologies, religion and culture.
Essential Questions for Ancient Rome
- Where is Ancient Rome and how did its geography impact the development of its culture and technology?
- What was the religion of Ancient Rome and what were some of its characteristics?
- What were some of the major achievements of Ancient Rome in art, architecture, technology, and writing?
- What were the different governments of Ancient Rome and what were some of their characteristics?
- What were some important jobs and major influences on the economy in Ancient Rome?
- What was the social structure in Ancient Rome? What were the roles of men, women and children? How did enslaved people impact the society and economy?