The Roman Empire


Ancient Rome was the center of one of the largest and most powerful empires in history. With its center in today’s Italy, the Roman Empire conquered the whole Mediterranean region and spread its influence to the Middle East, Northern Africa, Western and Central Europe. It reached the height of its power between 100 and 200 A.D. Afterwards the Roman Empire began to collapse because it became too big to rule. The West Roman Empire ended in 476 A.D. when Germanic tribes invaded, the East Roman Empire continued to exist for many centuries.

The ancient Romans influenced countries and civilizations in the following centuries. Their language, Latin, became the basis for many other European languages. Governments and legal systems in the western world were founded on Roman law. The ancient Romans were the first to build bridges, concrete roads and a sewage system that took waste water away from houses and homes.

The Roman Empire at the height of its power
Image : User:Jrockley / User:Kasper HollCC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

History of Ancient Rome

According to legends, ancient Rome was founded on 7 hills in the 8th century before Christ by Remus and his brother Romulus, who became the first king of Rome. Its early inhabitants were called the Latins, who lived on the fertile plains of Latium. During its early history ancient Rome was controlled by the Etruscans, people who lived in northern Italy. At that time they were the most modern civilization in Italy. Rome grew steadily under Etruscan influence. At about 500 B.C., the Etruscan occupation ended and Rome became a republic.

The Roman Republic

The republic was governed by two consuls. They were chosen by an assembly of men. The Senate was an institution that advised the consuls. Although it was weak at first, its power grew gradually. By this time Rome was the largest city in Latium. In the following centuries it conquered many smaller towns around it. By the third century B.C. Rome ruled over most of the Italian peninsula.

At about 400, Rome was under attack by Gauls, who occupied northern Italy. Although they invaded Rome and burned down the city in 390 B.C., the Romans fought back and defeated the Gauls. Between 264 and 146 B.C. Rome fought three wars against Carthage, a sea power located in today’s Tunisia.

The Punic Wars brought most of Northern Africa and Spain under Roman control. A famous Carthaginian general, Hannibal, wanted to attack Rome from the north. He led his soldiers over the Alps and invaded Italy from the north, but in the end he was defeated. In 146 Carthage was destroyed.

Ancient Carthage and the lands controlled by it
Image (altered) : Aldan-2CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By 150 B.C. Rome had expanded its influence eastward and took control of Greece, which became one of Rome’s richest provinces. Because faraway territories could not be directly ruled, governors, called proconsuls, were put in charge of the conquered territories. Many people were taken as slaves and brought back to Rome to work as servants or on farms.

In the first century B.C. ancient Rome suffered from power struggles and civil wars. Senators, generals and tribunes fought for power. When an important Roman general, Julius Caesar, came back to Italy after defeating Gaul another civil war began. Caesar’s supporters helped him win over his rivals and Julius Caesar became the sole ruler of Rome. However, many Romans didn’t trust him and in 44 B.C. he was assassinated.

The Roman Empire

The assassination of Julius Caesar led to the downfall of the Roman republic. Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 B.C. After the government of the people had been destroyed, the Romans wanted a strong ruler who would give them peace and prosperity. For the next 200 years Roman emperors were very strong.

Although the emperors had ultimate power, Senators and other representatives elected by the people still existed. Augustus controlled the army and appointed new Senators and consuls. He also created strong fortifications along the borders of the Roman Empire, which extended to Britain and the Danube River.

Economically Rome was now at its height. There were large farms in rural areas that produced food for an ever growing population. Throughout the empire the Romans built roads that made it possible to bring troops and supplies to other parts of the empire.

Section of Hadrian’s wall – a border wall in the north of the U.K.

Image: quisnovus from Gloucester, EnglandCC BY 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Decline of the Roman Empire

One of the reasons for the Roman Empire’s decline is that it became too much too big. A single ruler could not efficiently rule such a large territory. During the second century A.D. Germanic tribes from the north started attacking Rome. The empire was defended by Marc Aurelius one of the great emperors of the period.

When Diocletian became emperor in 284 A.D. he tried to reorganize the empire and divide it into smaller areas. One of his successors, Constantine the Great, permanently divided the empire into two parts: an east Roman Empire with its capital Constantinople and a west Roman Empire with Rome as its capital city. Constantine granted freedom to the Christians and promised not to persecute them any longer. He also became the first ruler to convert to Christianity.

In the 5th century Germanic tribes kept moving to the south and invaded the Roman Empire. Vandals invaded Rome and plundered the city. In 476 A.D. Odoacer, a German tribal leader forced the Roman emperor to give up power. The east Roman Empire survived for almost another thousand years. In 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and made it centre of the Ottoman Empire.

The East and West Roman Empire in 395 A.D.

Image (altered) : AKIKA3DCC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Life in Ancient Rome

Country and City Life

Roman cities were very modern places in which people lived, traded and worked. The center of these ancient cities was a forum, a large open space surrounded by markets, baths, arenas and other public buildings.

Wealthy Romans could afford living in large luxurious houses, which often lay on the outskirts of the city, far away from the noise and smell of the city center. They had servants and slaves to do everyday work for them. The poor population had to live in overcrowded, dirty buildings. They were always in danger of collapsing or being burned down.

Life in the countryside was more relaxed. The population was made up of farmers who raised animals and planted crops. During the summer they often fought in the army. A latifundium was the large farm of a rich landowner. He was able to make a higher profit by working with slaves.

Normal people lived in small houses or huts that were not as big and luxurious as those of the city. Many inhabitants of Rome had country houses, which they went to in order to escape the hectic city life.

Model of a Roman town house for upper class people
Image:Arnaud 25CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Roman Family

Head of the Roman family was the paterfamilias, the oldest male. He controlled the whole household and had power over all the members of his family. In the upper classes, slaves and servants also lived with a family. Romans often married for political reasons. Many rich Romans arranged marriages for their children so they could stay in the higher classes and keep their influence and power.

When Rome was still a republic, women had very few rights. They had to stay at home and care for the household, prepare meals and look after their children. They were not allowed to own land. This changed when ancient Rome became an empire. Women were allowed to have their own shops and businesses, and they were able to buy land. They could also get a better job.


While many Romans ate simple meals, wealthy inhabitants had the best food the empire could offer. They ate white bread, olives, fruit and cheese, as well as fish. Breakfast was usually a slice of bread or a pancake with dates and honey. Romans usually had a small lunch at about 11 in the morning. Dinner was the main meal of the day. It was normally taken in the late afternoon or early evening. Fish, cooked meat and a variety of vegetables were served. Sometimes they had a small cake with honey for dessert.


Roman clothing was made out of wool, which women spun into cloth. Richer citizens could afford to buy clothes made out of silk, linen or cotton, which the Romans obtained from other parts of the empire.

Citizens of Rome wore a tunic, a piece of loose clothing that fell down to the knees. On special occasions they were allowed to wear a toga, an elegant piece of white clothing that was wrapped around their body.

Women wore tunics and later on stolas, which reached down to their feet. They liked jewelry and experimented in dyeing their hair.

Outdoors, Romans often wore shoes that were closed around the toes, when in the house, they liked to wear sandals.

Toga worn by men in the Roman empire
Image : Pearson Scott Foresman, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons

Leisure Time

Bath houses were the centre of Roman leisure life. Men and women often got together in separate bath houses. There they could relax, get massages, exercise, take baths and gossip. People of all social classes got together in such public bath houses. Going to a bath was a symbol of cleanliness, of being purer and better than others.

Ancient Romans celebrated religious holidays very often. Almost every god and goddess had their own holiday. Festivals and entertainment were arranged in honor of them.

Amphitheaters were the ancestors of modern stadiums. The Colosseum in Rome was, by far, the biggest amphitheater. It could hold over 50 000 spectators. Gladiators entertained the audience by fighting against wild animals and often combating each other.

The Circus Maximus was the center of chariot races. Up to 250 000 people attended such a race. Chariot racing had been popular in ancient Greece and was one of the highlights of ancient Olympic Games. Each chariot was pulled by four horses.

Roman citizens went to the many theatres in the city that showed plays of famous Roman playwrights. Most of the plays were comedies, in which actors wore masks that showed if they were happy or sad.

Ancient Roman bath house
Image:Diego DelsoCC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Colloseum – Rome’s largest amphitheatreImage: FeaturedPicsCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Chariot race in ancient Rome
Image:Midx1004 at English Wikipedia, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons


During the early centuries of ancient Rome children were mostly educated at home by their parents. Fathers taught their sons how to read and write , as well as the basics of law and religion. Mothers showed their daughters how to cook, weave and spin.

Later on, rich Romans started sending their children to school, which they had to pay for. There they learned to read, write and solve mathematical problems. One of the main tasks was to teach child to become a good speaker. Older pupils studied Greek language and literature, as well as, astronomy.

Famous Romans

Julius Caesar may be regarded as Rome’s most important general and statesman. He was a great military leader and won many battles that helped him gain power and, in the end, made him the sole ruler of Rome.

During his military career he conquered Gaul, invaded Britain and kept Germanic tribes out of the empire.

Julius Caesar

Image: Unknown author, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons

Augustus was born as Octavian, son of a rich Roman banker. His great-uncle Julius Caesar adopted him and made him his heir. After Caesar’s death Octavian formed an army to fight against Mark Antony, who took over control of Rome from Caesar. The two men came to an agreement and shared control of the Roman Empire. They also defeated Caesar’s murderers. When Octavian found out about the love relationship between Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt he saw this as a threat to the Roman Empire and turned against Antony. After Antony’s death, Octavian was given the name Augustus and became Rome’s first emperor.

Under his reign Augustus expanded Rome’s territory. He conquered the Iberian Peninsula and pushed the boundaries of the Roman Empire north to the Danube River. He also gave orders to restore old buildings that needed repair and built roads to the outskirts of the empire.

After his death Augustus was worshipped in Rome because of his successful reign .

Bust of Augustus
Image : © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Nero was 17 when he became emperor of Rome in 54 A.D. He turned out to be a ruthless ruler who had his mother killed. But at first Nero was good-natured and a sensible leader. He focused on improving trade and the cultural life of the empire. However, as time went on, Nero became more violent and unpredictable.

According to rumors, he laid a fire that destroyed most of Rome. He blamed Christians for setting the fire and persecuted them throughout his reign. In 68 A.D. Nero saw that he no longer had the support of the Senate and committed suicide.

Romulus and Remus were twins who supposedly founded the city of Rome. According to the legend, their parents abandoned them at an early age, placed them into a basket and put it into the river Tiber. A wolf discovered the basket and brought it to a shepherd who brought up the twins.

When they became adults the brothers argued over which hill to build a city on. After a following fight Remus was killed and Romulus became the first king of Rome. He was a popular ruler and a great military leader.

Marcus Brutus was a Roman statesman who helped assassinate Julius Caesar because he wanted to break his power. On March 15, 44 B.C. Brutus and other men stabbed Julius Caesar to death as he entered a meeting of the Senate. After the Senate took over control of Rome again, Brutus was sent to govern the eastern part of the Roman Empire. In 43 B.C. Brutus killed himself after he had been defeated by Octavian and Mark Antony in the Battle of Philippi.

Hadrian became Roman emperor in 117 A.D. He was especially known for construction projects. He completed the Roman Pantheon and built a stone wall across northern Britain to defend the empire from outsiders. Hadrian traveled to almost every corner of the empire. He admired ancient Greece and wanted to make Athens the cultural centre of the empire. Hadrian was considered to be a peaceful emperor. He died in 138 A.D.

The Pantheon in Rome
Image: Rabax63CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Virgil was Rome’s greatest poet. Born in northern Italy in 70 B.C. he started writing during his studies in Rome and Naples. His most famous work was the Aeneid which was left uncompleted. Based on Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad, Virgil describes the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas who sailed westwards and founded the city of Rome. In the epic poem Virgil shows the greatness of Rome and his admiration for its rulers.

In other poems Virgil wrote about country and peasant life. After his death, Virgil’s influence spread throughout Rome. Roman schools taught their pupils about him and made them read his poems. Writers in the Middle Ages often referred to Virgil in their works.

Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.) was a great Roman philosopher, speaker and writer. He was one of the most important translators from Greek to Latin. He was banned from Rome by the first triumvirate, but then allowed to return. He was killed because of his opposing views. Even today, Latin students around the world read the works of Cicero.

Bust of Cicero
Image:José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro ,
via Wikimedia Commons

Constantine I (275 – 337 A.D.) was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. When he ruled Rome the Christians and other religious groups got their freedom. He rebuilt Byzantium, and named it Constantinople, the Christian capital of ancient Rome.

Pontius Pilate was a Roman governor in Judea during the time of Jesus Christ. He became famous as judge at the trial of Jesus Christ. He had Jesus killed for treason because he claimed to be the king of Jews. Leaders of Judea thought of him as dangerous to the Roman Empire.

According to the Bible, however, Pilate claims he did not want to have Jesus Christ crucified.

Painting that shows Jesus Christ appearing before Pontius Pilate
Image: Mihály Munkácsy, Public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons


Like the ancient Greeks, the Romans worshipped many gods. The most important was Jupiter. Like Zeus, he was the king of gods and the god of thunder. Almost every Roman city had temples to worship the gods. Sometimes emperors were made gods. It helped to make people more loyal to them.

Romans wanted to have a good relationship with their gods, who they believed had magical power. Gods were responsible for the growth of good crops and a good harvest; they watched over the family and brought favorable weather. People made sacrifices to gods and in return they hoped for their blessing. When the Romans conquered other territories they worshipped local gods of that area.

Roman Gods

  • Jupiter – god of the sky
  • Saturn – father of Jupiter
  • Neptune – Jupiter’s brother, god of the sea
  • Mars – god of war
  • Pluto – god of the underworld

Roman Goddesses

  • Juno – Jupiter’s wife;
  • Minerva – goddess of wisdom and knowledge
  • Venus – goddess of love
  • Diana – goddess of the hunt

In ancient Rome, there was a strong connection between religion and government. Priests were officials elected by the government. Pontiffs were high religious officials who oversaw festivals and laid down the rules for worship .The highest priest was the pontifex maximus. During the empire, the emperor automatically held this position.

Astrology and the ability to foresee future events were important in Roman religion. It was necessary to find out what the gods wanted and how people could please them.

During the last centuries of the Roman Empire many people turned to Christianity. The Roman government considered this to be a threat to their religion and persecuted Christians for a long time. By 300 A.D. Christianity became the main religion of the empire. Emperor Constantine became the first ruler to convert to Christianity.

Life expectancy in ancient Rome was not very high. People started to worry about death from an early age on. Romans believed that after a person died their spirit would descend to the underworld.

Marble statue of Jupiter, king of the Roman gods

Image: I, SailkoCC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons



Printable Downloads (PDF)

Scroll to Top