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Ancient Civilizations

Classical Rome:
An overview

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

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In about the 9th century BC, the Etruscan Kingdom over-ran the Latin settlements along the Tiber River in central Italy to form the city-state of Rome.


Much of its culture was a combination of traditional Etruscan, mixed with Greek from the Greek settlements in the south of Italy. They used the Latin language but wrote in the Greek alphabet and many Greek words came into their vocabulary.

There was also a marked similarity between the Roman and the Greek gods. Indeed, it can be argued that the Roman civilization was merely an extension of the Greek, and that the two formed one great Greco-Roman civilization.


In the 6th century BC the development of political ideas led to the overthrow of the Etruscan kings and the establishment of a Roman Republic.

Like the Greek city-states, from whom the idea was probably adopted, the government of this Roman Republic was democratic, with elected magistrates and consuls. Also like the Greeks, however, this democracy extended only to the wealthy.

The need for better defence led to the conquest of more territory. By 275 BC, all the Italian Peninsula had been brought under the control of the Roman Republic.

By 164 BC, with the end of the 100 year Punic Wars, the Republican control had spread to North Africa. In 146 BC the Romans attacked and conquered Greece.

Because of the larger territory now under the control of the Roman city-state, new forms of administration had to be devised, and Governors were established in the Roman Provinces.

The conquest of more territory also had the affect of increasing the wealth of the Patricians (the ruling class in Rome), although it correspondingly impoverished the working classes (Plebeians).

By now Rome had become too large for efficient political control by its city-state government. As a result, much power became vested in the hands of the Roman Senate, originally a consultative body which was given executive powers only when the younger men were away fighting the various military campaigns.

However, impoverishment periodically led to food riots among the plebeians. A strong ruler was therefore needed to restore order, but rivalry among the ruling classes led to a protracted period of civil war.

Julius Caesar, one of the two consuls who ruled Rome from 59 to 44 BC, attempted to bring about the much-needed reform. He believed that Rome needed a more autocratic form of government.

Because his system was a deviation from the long cherished concept of the democratic Republic, he conflicted with Pompey, an eruption which led to civil war.

Before Caesar had had time to cement his position after the Civil War, however, he was assassinated and a new civil war erupted, which continued for another decade.

This war ended in 31 BC, when Octavius Caesar (Octavian) defeated Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium and established himself as Emperor under the title of "Caesar Augustus".


The new system which Octavian inaugurated was to last another three centuries and represented the Golden Age of Rome. Octavian himself became Emperor, Commander-in-Chief of the army and head of the state religion. Democracy ceased and all major appointments were made by the Emperor himself.

A vast reform programme was thereupon undertaken and, although the Roman Empire grew substantially in size, it was a period of comparative peace for the Roman population, the time of the "Pax Romana". Rome prospered as it had never before done.

Although there were poor Emperors, such as Caligula (37 to 41 AD) and Nero (54 to 68 AD), the statesmen by far outshone the bad.

Excellent roads and bridges were constructed during this period, thus aiding the expanding economy. Many new cities were built in the western provinces, especially at the tribal centres.

That development, however, was not so marked in the eastern part of the Empire which already had its multitude of established cities.

The distinctive aptitude of the Romans lay in organisation, administration, government and law. Their armies were magnificently disciplined and effectively manoeuvred. Never before had so many peoples been governed from a single centre.

The empire kept peace and provided even-handed justice amongst its various peoples, flexible enough to be acceptable to all people, although Roman law favoured the state rather than the interests of the individual person.

Nevertheless, the true happiness of the Golden Age was for the aristocrats alone. The greater part of the population was probably under-nourished and impoverished. And bear in mind that 80 to 90% of the population consisted of slaves.


The peace was also questionable because Germanic tribes were continually hammering on the frontiers and often penetrated the borders.

By the time of the Golden Age, the army was already stretched to its maximum, the provinces were under-policed and under-governed and the professional administrative class of the entire Empire numbered less than 1 000 people.

Violence within the towns was on a ever increasing scale. In short, the Roman Empire had already reached its full bloom and contained the seeds of decay which would begin to take root during the 3rd century AD as a period of anarchy set in.

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