- Curious Peoples
- Ancient Rome
The Birthplace of Western Civilization
From its humble beginnings on the banks of the Tiber River, ancient Rome rose from a small town in central Italy in the 8th century BCE to a colossal empire. By its zenith, it had spanned most of continental Europe, Britain, a large portion of western Asia, northern Africa, and the Mediterranean islands. More than just a territorial giant, Rome was a cradle of culture, law, technology, and institutions, profoundly shaping Western civilization.
According to popular legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BCE by the demigod brothers Romulus and Remus. Their argument over the city’s rule, or possibly its location, ended with Romulus killing Remus and naming the city after himself. From these mythic beginnings, Rome expanded its influence and transformed into a prosperous city between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE.
The early Romans excelled in adopting and adapting cultural aspects from their neighbors. They borrowed literacy, religion, and architectural fundamentals from the Greeks in the south, while the Etruscans in the north influenced trade and urban luxury.
Rome’s strategic location on the Tiber River facilitated trade, and under the rule of a succession of seven kings, from Romulus to Tarquin, it grew in both size and power. Interestingly, despite being called “Rex” or “King,” all kings after Romulus were elected by the Senate.
However, in 509 BCE, the monarchy was overthrown, and Rome became a republic. This new system allowed male Roman citizens to vote, excluding women and enslaved individuals, many of whom were prisoners from military battles.
Roman expansion in Italy from 500 BCE to 218 BCE. The Roman Republic in 500 BCE is marked with dark red.
Two annually elected magistrates, known as Consuls, took over the monarch’s power. They worked alongside Senators, who not only advised them but also played a crucial role in lawmaking. Senators, appointed by other officials, often held their positions for life. As commanders in chief, the Consuls also led the army.
Despite being elected by the populace, the Consuls were mainly patricians, descendants of the original Senators from Romulus’s era, who dominated early republican politics. This period saw a prolonged conflict between the patricians and the plebeians, the common people. After years of struggles, the plebeians gradually gained political influence, including the ability to propose or veto legislation through their tribunes.
Life in Rome varied greatly across social classes. Most residents lived in insulae, crowded apartment buildings rising five to seven stories. In contrast, wealthier Romans resided in domus, luxurious houses with dining rooms and atria centered around pools.
An insula dating from the early 2nd century CE in the Roman port town of Ostia Antica
Regardless of status, Romans frequented bathhouses for relaxation, socialization, and hygiene. These facilities, equipped with exercise rooms, swimming pools, saunas, and massage areas, were reminiscent of modern spas. Public entertainment also played a significant role in Roman life, with citizens enjoying plays, chariot races, and gladiator battles.
Life for enslaved people in ancient Rome starkly differed from the leisurely lifestyle of Roman citizens. Enslaved individuals labored in fields, mines, and on ships, with some, like educated Greeks, forced to work in the homes of the wealthy. However, some enslaved people managed to buy or earn their freedom, eventually gaining Roman citizenship.
Roman women sometimes worked as midwives or became priestesses, but their primary role in society was to manage the home and family. While divorce was common in Rome, children were legally under the custody of their father or a male relative in his absence.
Rome’s military prowess was formidable, first securing Italy and then defeating Carthage in 146 BCE, a crucial victory for Mediterranean trade dominance. The subsequent conquest of Greece further expanded Roman influence.
For half a millennium, the republic functioned effectively. However, civil wars eventually fractured this stability. Gaius Julius Caesar capitalized on this chaos in 59 BCE, gaining power as a Consul. His reforms and military campaigns were successful, but his increasing power alarmed the Senate, leading to his assassination in a bid to prevent tyranny.
Caesar’s death led to further turmoil, with his nephew and heir Augustus defeating the conspirators and establishing himself as the first Roman emperor. This event marked the end of ancient Rome and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire at its greatest extent in 117 CE
The ancient Romans significantly shaped the modern world, leaving a lasting influence in various fields such as art, architecture, technology, science, literature, language, and law. Their contributions are still evident today.
The Romans, influenced by Greek designs, advanced architectural forms like decorative columns, curved roofs, and large-scale arches. These innovations supported massive structures like bridges, aqueducts, and amphitheaters. Meanwhile, their cement and concrete techniques keep structures like the Colosseum standing today.
Renowned as engineers, the Romans developed extensive aqueduct systems and road networks and utilized water for energy. Their agricultural techniques, such as crop rotation and seed selection, laid foundations still relevant in modern farming.
Roman roads, unparalleled in the ancient world, featured innovations like mile markers and drainage, ensuring the empire’s connectivity. By 200 BCE, over 50,000 miles (89,500 kilometers) of roads had been constructed, some of which still remain in use.
The Roman legal system, despite its harshness, influenced modern judicial proceedings with concepts like preliminary hearings and evidence presentation. Roman law forms the basis of legal systems in countries like the United States and much of Europe.
The cultural legacy of Rome is also evident in the spread of Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian), derived from Latin, the Western alphabet of 26 letters, and the calendar of 12 months and 365.25 days. These are just some examples of Rome’s enduring contributions to Western civilization.
Words of wisdom
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” —Mahatma Gandhi
“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” —Alexander Graham Bell
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” —Oscar Wilde
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