The Roman civilization was one of the largest the world has known. At its height, the Roman empire included most of western Europe, all of Britain except Scotland, parts of Northern Africa, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and the region around Jerusalem known as Judaea. The civilization had a big impact which lasts to this day. The towering columns in the entrance of the White House in Washington D.C. are based on that of Roman temples. Everyone knows the sayings: “All roads lead to Rome”, and “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
The Romans are famous for grand buildings, engineering, aqueducts, amphitheatres, baths, roads, military organization, vast empire, and gladiatorial games. At its height around 100 AD, the population of the empire was around 56 Million, which constituted around one third of the then world population. Some famous people of Rome include – the great general and dictator Julius Caesar; Brutus, the senator who led the assassination of Caesar; the statesman and orator Cicero; the despotic emperor Nero; the conqueror Trajan; Marcus Aurelius, emperor.
The Roman empire came into being with the founding of Rome ca. 753 B.C., by the twins Romulus and Remus on the banks of the Tiber river. Romulus was the first king of Rome. He was followed by a succession of kings, the last of whom was overthrown around 500 B.C., and Rome became a republic. The republic was run by a group of senators who acted as the government. They framed the laws and dictated policy. Some senators had specialized roles – some were judges, some were governors of provinces, some were in charge of finances, some managed public activities and events, some were in charge of civic infrastructure. There were around 100 senators in all.
Rome conquered Greece around 200 BC. The Romans were heavily influenced by the Greeks in various ways. Their grid-like town layout is influenced by that of the Greeks. The famous Roman columns are inspired by those found on Greek temples. Several Greek statues made originally in bronze survive today only as copies made in stone by the Romans.
How did the Roman empire become so powerful? Romans were very good at engineering and organization. Their roads and bridges are prime examples of their skills in engineering. Roads enabled the army to march quickly to cover vast distances, something that is of essence in a war. Their military organization and tactics were superior to that of their opponents. One can see similarities between the Roman military, and modern corporations. The military stressed on training and process, rather than individual bravery. Soliders were not born; they were made. Each new soldier underwent rigorous training as part of his induction into the army. As the army marched to war, every night a camp was made. These camps were extremely well organized. Every camp was laid out in the same way, so that anyone could make his way around them easily. Soldiers had to know how to build a fence and pitch tents. Every soldier carried a shovel as part of his standard equipment. In battle as well, training trumped individuality. Soldiers were taught how to fight. They were trained to defend and conserve energy, and attack when the opponent was vulnerable. Contrast this with the dash and slash heroic depictions of soldiers in popular movies.
Around 50-45 B.C., Julius Caesar became a very powerful man in Rome. He was a great military leader, and was also a consul, who was a special senator and had more powers. There were two consuls at any time. As Caesar became more powerful, his designs became grander, and finally he declared himself dictator of Rome. This obviously didn’t go down too well with the senators, who always thought of Rome as a republic. In fact, Rome became a republic by overthrowing a despotic monarch. Caesar had crossed the line. In 44 B.C. a group of senators led by Brutus and Cassius assassinated Caesar. Brutus and others intended to restore the republic, but their plan was not made well. Rome plunged into a civil war for several years. In 31 B.C., Caesar’s heir Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra (the Egyptian queen) in the Battle of Actium. Octavian went on to become the first emperor of the Roman Empire, and took on the name of Augustus.
Augustus was followed by a succession of emperors – Tiberius; Caligula; Nero (ca. 64 A.D. fire of Rome); Vespasian (ca. 70-79AD), in 70 AD commissioned the building of the Colosseum; Titus, conquered the Jews in 70 AD (commemorated by the arch of Titus in Rome); Trajan, conquered new regions, the empire was at its largest extent in his reign; Hadrian, built a wall around the borders of the empire (now known as Hadrian’s wall); Marcus Aurelius (ca. 161 – 180 A.D.). After the rule of Marcus Aurelius, Rome was increasingly attacked by barbarian tribes – Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Gauls. Constantine (ca. 330AD) shifted the capital from Rome to Constantinople (present Istanbul, Turkey). The empire was split into two parts – an Eastern empire and a Western. The Eastern empire went on to be called the Byzantine empire (Justinian, ca. 500 A.D.). The Western empire was overrun by barbarians. In around 470 A.D., the last Roman emperor (also called Romulus) was deposed. This event is conventionally thought to signify the end of the Roman empire.