Ancient Rome

Ten Facts on Ancient Rome

Let's dive into ten insightful facts about ancient Rome, addressing some of the most common curiosities and questions

By Gemini
ten facts on ancient rome

The story of ancient Rome is like a grand tapestry, weaving through time and leaving its threads in our modern world. It started with the rise of the Roman Republic around 509 BCE, evolving into a vast Empire by 27 BCE. This empire, at its zenith in 122 CE, stretched impressively from Italy to Britain, and from Greece and North Africa to the Levant, Asia Minor, and even Central Asia. The Romans didn’t just rule; they infused their culture, language, and customs into the lives of people across these regions.

Even today, the echoes of Roman culture resonate in our languages, arts, architecture, and various aspects of entertainment. Understanding Rome is like unearthing the roots of our current world. It sheds light on who we are and how our society has been shaped. Let’s dive into ten insightful facts about ancient Rome, addressing some of the most common curiosities and questions, and unravel a bit more about this influential civilization.

Rome founded

The origins of Rome are shrouded in a mix of fascinating legends and intriguing historical theories. One of the most captivating tales is that of the demigods Romulus and Remus. According to this legend, after being suckled and nurtured by a she-wolf, the brothers grew up only for Romulus to tragically kill Remus, after which Romulus founded Rome in 753 BCE. It’s an image that has become almost iconic in the story of Rome’s beginnings.

Apart from this dramatic tale, there’s another legend with a different flavor. It suggests that Rome was founded by a woman named Roma, a survivor of the Trojan War. She, along with others including the Trojan prince Aeneas, is said to have settled in the area, giving birth to the city.

Then there’s a theory with a more historical grounding, linking Rome to the Etruscans, a dominant civilization in the region before Rome’s rise. This perspective suggests that Rome was initially an Etruscan port-city known as Rumon. Given the Etruscans’ influence in that era, it’s quite plausible that the early Roman settlement had Etruscan roots.

Each of these stories, whether veiled in myth or based on historical conjecture, contributes to the rich tapestry of Rome’s mysterious origins. The city, first emerging as a small city-state on the Tiber River in Latium, eventually grew into a colossal empire, and these foundation myths and theories play a pivotal role in understanding the cultural and historical context of ancient Rome.

Roman Republic

During the period from around 753 to 509 BCE, Rome was indeed under the rule of Etruscan kings. These monarchs wielded absolute power, though they did consult with a senate composed of upper-class citizens. However, the king’s word was always final. The wealthy and powerful upper class of Rome grew increasingly dissatisfied with this system, seeking a change but finding no legal means to overthrow the monarchy.

The turning point came in 509 BCE, a moment marked by a scandal involving the royal family. The son of King Tarquin the Proud committed a heinous crime by raping a governor’s daughter and refusing to take responsibility. This act led to his deposition and exile, and it was this event that catalyzed the end of the monarchy and the birth of the Roman Republic.

The foundation of the Roman Republic represented a significant shift in governance. The concept of representational government was introduced, keeping the senate but abolishing the role of the king. In place of a monarch, a magistrate, known as a praetor, was established, who was accountable to the people rather than to a sole ruler.

As the Republic evolved, the role of the praetor was replaced by two consuls. These consuls acted based on laws written by the Roman Senate, which were interpreted by a group of eight judges. This division into separate branches – executive, legislative, and judicial – offered greater stability and fairness than the previous monarchical system. Laws were now enacted in the interest of all citizens, not just the elite.

One of the most significant legal advancements during this time was the creation of the Twelve Tables in 449 BCE. This codification of laws guaranteed equality before the law for all citizens, regardless of social class. This legal foundation played a crucial role in establishing a stable society, which in turn supported Rome’s expansion through conquest.

Following its victories in the Punic Wars against Carthage from 264 to 146 BCE, Rome emerged as a dominant Mediterranean superpower. This expansion continued until it transformed into an empire under the leadership of Augustus Caesar, who reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE and became Rome’s first emperor. Under his rule, the Roman Empire consolidated its power and set the stage for a period of unprecedented influence and expansion.

Roman Empire

Augustus’ rise to power and the establishment of the Roman Empire marked a pivotal moment in history. After his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, Augustus (then known as Octavian) effectively ended their influence and the lingering aspirations tied to Julius Caesar and the old Republic. Antony and Cleopatra’s demise was symbolic, severing the final ties to the Republic’s ideals and paving the way for a new era under Augustus’ rule.

Upon assuming control, Augustus not only consolidated Rome’s existing territories but also embarked on ambitious campaigns to extend its borders even further. He maintained the structure of the Senate, but as Emperor, he held ultimate decision-making power, fundamentally altering Rome’s political landscape.

His reign proved to be extraordinarily effective. One of his most notable achievements was the establishment of the Pax Romana or “Roman Peace,” a period of over 200 years of relative peace and stability within the empire. This era, stretching from his reign until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE, was marked by economic prosperity, cultural flourishing, and significant advancements in infrastructure and governance.

However, the period following Marcus Aurelius’ reign witnessed a decline in effective leadership. The emperors who succeeded him struggled to maintain the empire’s stability and expansion. As the empire grew, it became increasingly challenging to govern from a single center, leading to its division by Emperor Diocletian in 284 CE into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Byzantine Empire.

The Western Roman Empire faced a multitude of challenges, including internal government corruption, relentless invasions, and an overreliance on slave labor. These factors, among others, led to its eventual fall around 476 CE. Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire, continued to thrive for nearly another millennium until its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. This enduring legacy of the eastern half of the empire highlights the vast differences in the historical trajectories of the two halves of what was once a unified Roman Empire.

And How to Maintain the Empire

Rome’s approach to expansion was quite unique. Instead of simply conquering and enslaving the people they defeated, they often incorporated them into their empire as provinces. These new provinces were offered Roman citizenship, a significant incentive, but in exchange, they had to adhere to Roman laws, pay taxes, and contribute soldiers to the Roman army.

What made Roman rule stand out was not just their policies but their engineering prowess. They brought advanced infrastructure to these provinces, including roads and aqueducts. These aqueducts were built using a special Roman cement, whose strength and durability are still admired today. This cement was a key factor in constructing more robust structures and bridges.

The Roman road network was another marvel. It wasn’t just about connectivity; these roads were strategic, enabling rapid troop movements and efficient communication between the capital and provincial governors. This network also boosted trade, facilitating easier and faster exchange of goods across the empire.

Moreover, the Romans promoted intermarriage between Romans and provincial elites. This policy fostered closer ties between Rome and its provinces. Additionally, the spread of Latin as a language and Roman culture played a significant role in unifying these diverse regions under Roman rule. This blend of strategic infrastructure, cultural integration, and administrative policies was key to Rome’s long-lasting power and influence.

Roman Religion and Its Impact

The Roman religion was a rich tapestry of beliefs and practices, drawing from a variety of sources. Initially rooted in animism, the belief that everything, even inanimate objects, possesses a spirit, it evolved to incorporate elements from Etruscan religion and, significantly, the religion of the Greeks.

This blend resulted in a polytheistic system where Roman gods often mirrored their Greek counterparts: Jupiter was akin to Zeus, Juno to Hera, and so forth. While the religion evolved, ancestor worship remained a constant, reflecting a deep respect for lineage and tradition throughout Rome’s history.

State sponsorship was a key aspect of Roman religion. The Romans believed that by honoring their gods through various rituals and ceremonies, they could, in turn, secure the gods’ favor for the state. Jupiter, as the king of the gods, and his wife Juno, were central figures in this pantheon. Other significant deities included Minerva, Mars, Vesta, and Saturn. Saturn, the god of agriculture and abundance, was believed to look after the state’s welfare, while Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home, symbolized the domestic sphere.

The Capitoline Hill was the religious epicenter of Rome, housing important temples and serving as the venue for major festivals like Saturnalia, dedicated to Saturn. The Vestal Virgins played a crucial role in Roman religion. Tasked with tending Vesta’s temple and keeping her sacred fire burning, they were believed to ensure the wellbeing and prosperity of Roman households and, by extension, the entire state.

Interestingly, Rome did not have a separate priestly class. Priests were appointed by the state, and each city had its own temples and priests dedicated to the local patron deity. The religion was deeply integrated into daily life, from state-recognized gods receiving regular sacrifices to household deities and ancestral spirits providing protection.

Romans engaged in formal rituals and ceremonies to honor their gods, but on a more personal level, they also paid homage to their individual household gods and spirits daily. This blend of public and private worship practices underscored the integral role religion played in both the public and domestic spheres of Roman life.

How Was Daily Life Going On

In Roman society, the family unit was fundamental, with the father or the paterfamilias at its helm. He wielded significant authority, controlling not only property but also the lives of his family members. This power extended to making life-or-death decisions over newborns, reflecting the harsh realities of the time.

The concept of the paterfamilias was mirrored in the role of the emperor, who often portrayed himself as the paternal figure of the entire Roman populace, guiding and looking out for their welfare. This paternal role included providing public amenities like amphitheaters for entertainment, hosting cultural and religious festivals, and maintaining public spaces such as parks and baths.

Daily life in Rome varied based on social class. Romans engaged in a range of jobs, enjoyed leisure activities like Roman sports, theater, and swimming, and socialized in public baths. Breakfast typically consisted of simple fare like bread and pastries, while the main meal in the late afternoon varied greatly in extravagance between the classes. The wealthy indulged in spiced meats and other luxuries, whereas the poor often made do with bread and thin soups.

Housing too was a marker of social status. The upper classes lived in spacious houses or villas, while the poorer population resided in insulae, apartment-like structures similar to modern-day apartment complexes. These differences in lifestyle and living conditions underscore the class distinctions that were a defining feature of Roman society.

Food

Food in Roman culture had different meanings across social classes. While luxurious banquets, complete with reclining on pillows, sipping wine, and being served by slaves, were the norm for the upper echelons, most Romans experienced a far simpler culinary life.

A typical Roman day started with a light breakfast, followed by a larger afternoon meal, the content of which depended largely on one’s financial means. Olive oil was a staple in Roman cuisine, used both in cooking and as a dipping sauce for bread. The Romans were also fond of various sauces, with garum, a fermented fish paste, being particularly popular. They flavored their dishes with a variety of spices including celery seeds, coriander, dates, honey, and vinegar, and often consumed vegetables preserved in brine.

Wine, especially from grapes, is commonly associated with Rome, but a more affordable and popular drink among the masses was posca. This concoction, made from vinegar, water, and spices or diluted cheap wine with added spices, was especially favored by the lower classes and the military.

Fruits like grapes and dates were often dried for snacks, and carob was used in both meal flavoring and dessert preparation. The Romans were also pioneers of “fast food” with their thermopolia, where customers could quickly purchase hot, prepared foods. These establishments, although offering convenience and low prices, were generally looked down upon by the upper class, who considered the food inferior and the clientele predominantly lower class.

Roman Military

The Roman army was a formidable force, primarily divided into two types of soldiers: the legionaries, who were Roman citizens, and the auxiliaries, composed of non-Romans.

Legionaries were organized into legions, each consisting of 4,000 to 6,000 men. These legions were further divided into centuries, groups of 80 men each, led by centurions. Within each century, soldiers specialized in various roles like artillery, infantry, archers, slingers, and engineers. A legionary’s service spanned 25 years, earning them an average daily wage of 2.5 sesterces (equivalent to about $4.50 to $8.50), and upon retirement, they received a bonus and land.

Auxiliaries, on the other hand, were paid less and often placed on the front lines in battles, as their lives were deemed less valuable. They served for 25 years before they could gain Roman citizenship, with many not surviving that long.

A typical Roman infantryman was equipped with a helmet, body armor, a woolen tunic, sandals, a sword, shield, dagger, and javelin. The extensive road network across the empire enabled rapid deployment of the army. Roman soldiers were rigorously trained, capable of marching up to 20 miles a day in full battle gear and ready to fight at a moment’s notice. They were also adept at fighting in tight formations, providing protection and enhancing their ability to break enemy lines.

Significant Cultural Legacies

Roman cultural legacies have profoundly shaped various aspects of the modern world. The structure of the United States government, with its executive, legislative, and judicial branches, draws inspiration from ancient Rome. The concept of the Electoral College also has its roots in Roman practices, reflecting their skepticism about the common people’s ability to elect effective leaders.

While Athens is often hailed as the cradle of democracy, it was Rome that developed and refined this concept more thoroughly. In commerce, the Romans innovated the idea of merchandise returns for store credit, refunds, or replacements, a practice now commonplace in business.

Architecturally, the Romans left a lasting impact through their development of the vault, arch, and dome. Their roads were constructed with such skill that some remain usable today. Roman architectural influence is evident in numerous modern structures, including the United States Capitol and other buildings in Washington, D.C.

Rome was also pioneering in public services, establishing the first fire companies, police departments, and sanitation systems. In the realm of entertainment, they refined Greek drama and introduced the design of the amphitheater, a blueprint for modern stadiums and theaters.

The linguistic legacy of Rome is also significant. Latin, the language of Rome, is the foundation of the Romance languages like French, Italian, and Spanish, and it has significantly influenced English vocabulary, phrases, and legal terminology.

In religion, the Roman adoption of Christianity in the 4th and 5th centuries CE transformed it from a relatively obscure sect into a major world religion. Many modern practices in Christianity, particularly in Catholicism, are directly derived from Roman traditions. This diverse and extensive influence underscores Rome’s enduring impact on the modern world.

How Did It Fall?

The decline and eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE is a complex historical event attributed to multiple factors over a period of more than three centuries. While the Eastern Empire persisted until 1453 CE, the Western Empire faced a series of challenges that ultimately led to its downfall:

  1. Invasions by Barbarian Tribes: Although often highlighted, the invasions, such as those by the Goths, were just one of many factors contributing to Rome’s fall. These invasions were more impactful because the Empire was already weakened.
  2. Government Corruption: Corruption was rampant and worsened during the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284 CE), undermining the empire’s stability and effectiveness.
  3. Division of the Empire: The empire’s split in 284 CE created a rift between the Eastern and Western Empires, often leading to rivalry rather than cooperation, weakening both.
  4. Mercenary Armies: As Rome grew more affluent, fewer citizens were willing to serve in the military. This led to a greater reliance on auxiliary mercenaries who lacked inherent loyalty to Rome, diminishing the army’s effectiveness.
  5. Political Instability: Frequent changes in leadership and internal power struggles contributed to a lack of consistent governance and strategy.
  6. Overreliance on Slave Labor: A significant portion of Rome’s population were slaves, which led to unemployment among lower-class citizens. This unemployment forced the government to implement welfare programs, straining public finances.
  7. Economic Challenges: Widespread unemployment and inflation further destabilized the economy, leading to more strain on the empire’s resources.
  8. The Rise of Christianity: The spread of Christianity shifted focus away from the traditional Roman gods and the social structure they supported. With Christianity’s universal God, the uniquely Roman religious identity and its social functions began to lose their influence.

These factors, combined with internal decay and external pressures, culminated in the gradual decline of the Western Roman Empire. The fall was not due to a single event or crisis but rather a long process exacerbated by these various elements.

gemini a writer on ancient rome
Gemini
Gemini is a young writer with a fresh perspective on ancient history. Her studies in international relations fuel her passion for exploring Western civilizations like Greece and Rome, bringing a depth and insight to her writing. A graduate of the University of Lisbon in Portugal, her love for history shines through in every word.

Support us!

The History Affairs project aims to be a free gateway to historical knowledge for everyone, driven by our passion and commitment. Your financial support makes this work living on. Every dollar will be transformed into enriching content by our writers.

$5.00

EXPLORE OUR STORIES