An empire is an extensive territory under the same government. In this sense, the Roman Empire was a territory conquered by the city of Rome around the Mediterranean Sea between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD.
The river Tiber forms a meander near its mouth, around seven hills. These hills were inhabited in the 8th century BC by seven villages located on the highest areas to protect themselves from floods. Its location in the centre of Italy and the trading routes between the north and south of the Italian Peninsula were strategic.
The Etruscans, a people from the centre of Italy, conquered the seven hills in the 7th century BC and turned the small villages into a real city: Rome. This is the origin of the Roman Empire. A period
We also designate with the name of empireone of the three stages of the Roman history.
During the period of Etruscan influence, Rome was a monarchy ruled by a king assisted by a Senate. Later, the Romans threw out the Etruscan monarchs and established the republic. When corruption and internal clashes finished with this system of government, the empire began. This was the final stage and it lasted around 500 years.
The Etruscan monarchy The king was assisted by a Senate, an assembly where only the noble families were represented. In this period Rome became a great city, where families from the centre of Italy emigrated.
Its settlers, the Romans, never willingly accepted the authority of the Etruscans. For this reason, Rome clashed with different Etruscan cities, which it defeated. The Romans threw out the Etruscan monarchs.
The republic: a period of conquests During the republic the citizens met in assemblies called comitia, to pass laws and to elect the different magistrates who were responsible for government. The Senateincreased in importance: it advised the magistrates and decided on foreign policy.
At this stage, Rome undertook the conquest of Italy and the territories of the Mediterranean. The Romans beat many peoples, including the Carthaginian, led by Hannibal, which they defeated in the Punic Wars (3rd and 2nd centuries BC).
The crisis of the republic In the lst century BC a period of corruption, struggles and internal clashes began. Some generals gained a lot of influence during this situation of crisis. This was the case of Julius Caesar, who managed to accumulate all power in his hands.
Julius Caesar was assassinated and his nephew Octavius seized power after a series of civil wars. Octaviusproclaimed himself Emperor in 27 BC. It was the beginning of the empire.
The emperor, an absolute power
The senators gave Octavius, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, the title of princeps and the name of Augustus, which means divine. Octavius Augustus took the title of Emperor and exercised all power personally. He was the military and religious leader, presented the laws (edicts), established taxes and decided on war and peace. The Senate remained, but it had lost its power.
Augustus’s successors insisted on the absolute nature of their power. The Emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Nero proclaimed themselves gods. The empire achieved its greatest splendour in the 2nd century, with the Emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.
Cities were the main centres of the empire. A great number of them were founded in the Roman period, and many of the already existing ones were developed.
Occupations of the inhabitants
The inhabitants of the cities were mainly occupied in two activities: craftwork and trade.
Craftwork was carried out in the workshops of potters, weavers, blacksmiths, dyers, etc. The workshops were usually owned by free people, but the workforce was mainly slave labour.
The need to supply the cities of the empire led to a strong development of trade in varied goods: agricultural, mineral and handcrafted products, such as Greek pottery or silks and perfumes from the east. Trade became easierbecause of the use of coins as a means of payment.
A network of roads was built and harbours were constructed along the Mediterranean, in order to favour the transport of goods between Rome and the provinces.
There were also many shops: bakeries, wine shops, groceries, etc.
Many buildings were built in the cities for the population to spend their leisure time: theatres, baths, amphitheatres and circuses.
The most successful shows were fights to the death between gladiators and horse-pulled chariot races. For example, the circus games, which took place in Rome and were regulated by the Senate, usually lasted between 6 and 8 days. They began with a luxurious procession in which charioteers, victims of sacrifices and athletes participated.
Although the cities developed greatly in the Roman period,most of the population lived in the countryside.
Agriculture The most important crops were wheat, vines and olive trees, which constituted the basis of the diet. The vine and the olive tree, with which wine and oil were made respectively, were the most cultivated crops in Italy. Cereals, especially the wheat that was used to produce bread, came mainly from the provinces.
The work of the country people was still very hard, since there were few machines. However, there was a substantial development of irrigation. The Roman plough is note worthy among the tools.
Work in the mines
Work in the mines was very hard and it was mostly carried out by slaves.
Roman society of the republican period was divided into three large groups: patricians, plebeians and slaves.
The patricians were the owners of most of the lands and herds. They participated in the Senate and occupied the highest political and military positions.
The plebeians were the foreigners, immigrants, small land owners, traders, farmers and craftsmen. They were the largest group, but at first they could not participate in politics. Only after a long struggle did they get the right to vote.
The slaves, who were prisoners of war or sons and daughters of other slaves, did not have rights. They were not considered people, but the property of their owners. They could buy their freedom, and they then became freedmen.
The population of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD was of around 50 million inhabitants.
Two groups were differentiated: citizens and non-citizens .
Citizens were people who had right s: they could own property , go to trials , vote , and they even had the right to get married . There were differencesbetween them, since the privileged group were still the nobles or patricians .
the beginning only the inhabitants of Rome were citizens. Then citizenship extended to the Italian Peninsula and some cities of other provinces. In the 3rd century the Emperor Caracalla extended this right to all free me n in the empire.
Roman women lacked most rights . Regardless of their social condition, they were kept by a man and excluded from political life . However, they could own property , run businesses and participate in public activities and parties.
Slaves went on making up a great portion of Roman Empire 's population. However, its number began diminishing in the late Roman Empire .
From the times of the republic, the empire was already organised into provinces . The governors , appointed by the emperor, were in charge of the provinces: they collected taxes, prevented uprisings and secured the defence of the frontiers.
The Romans introduced their way of life in the provinces . They founded many cities and built roads so that ah the empire was connected. Ah the provinces were also united by the same language, Latin , and the same laws, Roman law .
Rome was the capital of the empire. Successive emperors embellished it with monuments worthy of its imperial standing: aqueducts, libraries, thermal baths, theatres, etc. All the cities of the empire wanted to imitate Rome .
Almost all Roman cities followed the same rules of town planning. There were two main streets , the cardo , from north to south, and the decumanus , from east to west. The forum, the main square , was placed at the intersection of these two roads where the most important buildings were located: the capitol or principal temple, the curia , which was the meeting place of the Senate and the basilica , which was the building intended for business transactions and legal proceedings.
Cities competed with each other. They all wanted to be like Rome and many dignitaries financed great constructions to increase the prestige of their city .
The temple was the place where priests performed religious worship.
Roman religion was polytheist . The Romans worshipped Greek gods , although they gave them Roman names . The main deity was Jupiter , the equivalent of Zeus. Furthermore, each family worshipped household spirits ( Lares and Penates ) and spirits of their ancestors ( Manes ). In general, the Romans were very tolerant with local religions, and they even adopted foreign deities , like the Egyptian goddess Isis , or the Asian goddess Cybele .
The Romans consulted the augurs to know the will of the gods and they gave prayers and performed sacrifices in order to obtain their favours.
Most Roman constructions were monumental and practical. For this reason, civic buildings stand out. Besides the capital, the curia and the basilica, the following constructions are important.
Buildings for leisure : theatres, which followed the Greek model, amphitheatres for bea st and gladiator fights, circuses for chariot races and thermal baths or public baths.
Commemorative monuments : triumphal arches and columns in memory of a military or political event.
Public works : roads , bridges , reservoirs , aqueducts and harbours.
The Romans invented a new building material, concrete , with which they could build great vaults and domes to cover their buildings. They also used the architectural forms inherited from the Greek civilisation.
In the 2nd century, the Roman Empire went through a serious military, political and economic crisis . Once the period of conquests was over, the army defended the limes or borders .
The Germanic people s, called «barbarian» by the Romans, which means «who live outside the borders of the empire», applied pressure from the north. They lived in tribes and had commercial contracts with the Roman. Some enroled in the legion and were land-owners within the empire.
The Persians applied pressure from the east.
At the same time, the figure of the emperor weakened : many emperors died in combat or were murdered by military men who then imposed their candidates.
Trade was affected by the lack of security . Taxes increased because the military expenses were increasingly high. The richest people left the cities in search of security. The poor also moved to the country , where provisions were easier to find. A phenomenon of ruralisation occurred
The Huns, commanded by Attila, put pressure on the Germanic peoples and forced them to take refuge in the Western Empire. In view of the weakness of the emperors, some of these peoples organised their own kingdoms inside the Western Roman Empire.
The Germanic chieftain Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Emperor in the West, in 476. The Eastern Roman Empire withstood invasions and lasted until 1453.
Jesus was born in Palestine in the time of Augustus. He gathered a group of disciples together and he went with them ah over the region from 30 AD, preaching an innovative message of peace, a new religion, which was included in the Gospels.
The pillars of Christianity can be summed up in three ideas:
There is only one God, who loves the human beings equally.
People should love each other and forgive each other, just as God loves and forgives them.
Those who behave according to the Christian ideal, will be rewarded with eternal life in the kingdom of God.
Jesus was accused of blasphemy by the Hebrews and accused of being an agitator by the Romans, he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, in 33 AD
When Jesus died, his disciples continued spreading his message. The apostle Paul began to preach the Christianity in the Middle East, his teachings were easily accepted by the people (slaves, craftsmen, etc) as a consequence of the promise of eternal life.
The first Christians grouped themselves in churches. They met in private to pray and to break bread in memory of the Jesus’s last supper, and they recognised each other through symbols such as the cross and the fish.
Christians were considered a threat for Roman peace. They did not practice the cult of the emperor and they mixed both poor and rich people, Romans and barbarians, slaves and senators in their churches. They were persecuted from the 2nd century on, and this meant that they had to meet secretly in the catacombs.
The situation of the Christians changed when the Emperor Constantine, a general from a Christian family, granted religious freedom to the Christians in 313 AD and allowed them to perform their rites in public. Christianity began to spread quickly from that moment and the first basilicas were built for worship.
The Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the only official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD. The other religions were prohibited and the non-Christians were called pagans.