Roman civilization started with the city of Rome. Rome was on the Italian Peninsula, in the centre of the Mediterranean. Consequently, it was situated in a strategic location to extend their territories on three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia.
The growth of the Roman Empire was a long process. First, Rome conquered all the Italian Peninsula (500-250 BC). It continued to expand across the Mediterranean, knowm as “Mare Nostrum”. Finally, Roman Empire territories stretched north to south from the British Isles to the Sahara Desert, and east to west from Mesopotamia to the Iberian Peninsula.
The Roman Empire included people of many different ethnic groups, a lot of them were made slaves. The Romans spread their language, Latin, their laws and their way of life. The Empire was organised into provinces, which was controlled by a governor.
At the beginning of its history, Rome was governed by a king, chosen by the most important families in the city, the patricians. The king was helped by the Senate, an assembly formed by senators, who were the heads of the leading families.
In the 6th century BC, Rome was conquered by the Etruscans. The highest civilization in Italy before the rise of Rome. In 509 BC, a rebellion dethroned Tarquin the Proud, the last Etruscan king.
After, a new form of government was established, a Republic. There were three main institutions:
  • The comitias: assemblies where Roman citizens voted for laws and elected magistrates.
  • The magistratus: magistrates held political, military and sometimes religious power. The highest magistrates were two consuls who controlled political life and the army.
  • The senate: the most important institution; it established the laws, directed foreign policy and gave instructions to magistrates.
During the Republic, society was divided into two groups:
  • The patricians, a minority formed by the richest and most powerful families. They claimed to be descendants of the founders of Rome.
  • The plebeians were all the other citizens.
Initially, only the patricians had political rights. However, the plebeians fought for equal rights. They had a representative, the tribune of the plebeians, to defend their interests in the Senate. By the 4th century BC, they could be magistrates and senators.
During the Republic, Rome conquered many territories, but soon its interests came into conflict with Carthage, a North African power. The three Punic Wars lasted over a hundred years. After its victory, Rome extended its dominion around the Mediterranean.
In the 1st century BC, the Republic was weakened by corruption and internal conficts. The power of the military increased. To prevent disorder, they formed triumvirates, alliances of three men.
  • The first triumvirate was formed by Julius Caesar, Crassus and Pompey. After a civil war between them, Caesar won and was proclaimed perpetual dictator. However, he was assassinated by a group of senators.
  • The second one was formed by three of Caesar’s supporters: Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavian.
Octavian took control after several wars and the Senate gave him maximum powers.

Octavian eliminated his enemies and pacified the situation. Then, he introduced a new form of government: the Empire. Octavian “Augustus” was the first emperor. He presided over the senate, he was the head of the army and also the highest religious leader. He directed foreign policy, dictated laws and decided upon taxes.
During the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the Empire reached its peak, with emperors such as Claudius, Vespasian and Trajan. Trade and economy grew. Many buildings and public works were constructed.
At the beginning of the 3rd century, the Empire suffered a crisis. Peasants and soldiers revolted and anarchy spread. The cities were attacked, the population emigrated to the country, trade collapsed. Germanic tribes invaded from the north and the Persians attacked from the east. The power of the emperors diminished.
Under emperor Diocletian’s reforms the economy recovered. Constantine tolerated Christianity to achieve greater unity. However, Romans were unable to stop the invasion of Germanic tribes, known as barbarians. After, the emperor Theodosius divided the Empire into two to defend it easier. The Western Roman Empire had its capital in Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople. Each Empire had its own emperor and its own institutions.
The two parts followed different ways. The Western was incapable of stopping the Germanic tribes, which formed their own kingdoms. In 476, they deposed the last Western Roman Emperor. The called Byzantine Empire was maintained for another thousand years.
Roman society was unequal. There were two main groups:
  • Citizens had rights. They could own property, go to trials, vote and get married.
  • Non-citizens had none of these rights. They could be freedmen (without rights), slaves (they could become free if their owner gave them their freedom) or women (they were under the rule of a man: their father or their husband; however, they could own property, manage businesses, and go to parties and shows).
  • Agriculture was the main activity. There were small farmers, but also wealthy people who owned large areas of land. They employed peasants and slaves. The main crops were wheat, grapes and olives.
  • Crafts were also important, there were workshops in cities.
  • Mining: gold, silver, iron, copper, mercury, salt (it was used to season and preserve food).
  • Trade was facilitated by a single imperial currency and a vast network of roads and ports. Main goods were oil and wheat that came from the Iberian Peninsula, spices, silk and cotton from China or slaves from Africa.
During the Roman period, many cities were founded and existing cities grew. Rome was the capital of the empire and the largest city. It had a population of one million inhabitants.
All Roman cities had a rectangular shape, with parallel streets around two main axes: the cardo, from north to south, and the decumanus, from east to west. In the centre there was a forum or central square, with the city main buildings, such as the capitol (main temple), basilica (place for trade and justice) and curia (meeting place for the city council). Rome was so large that it had several forums.
Roman cities had all kinds of facilities, such as theatres, circus, amphitheatres, thermaes (palaestras and public baths), libraries, fountains and sewage systems.
The romans lived in two types of housing, domus (the home of wealthy people, it generally had only one floor and was organized around a central courtyard) and insula (a block of very small apartments which were rented to poor people). In the country, villas were built. These were large farms with just one owner.
Religion was very important to the Romans. They were polytheists. Their main gods were Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Their temples were very similar to Greek temples. Romans were very tolerant. They allowed the conquered territories inhabitants’ to keep their religion and even worshipped their gods.
In the 1st century AD, the followers of Jesus founded a new religion, called Christianity. Christians were persecuted by the Romans because they refused to worship the emperor and they allowed both rich and poor people in their churches. Despite these persecutions, the number of Christians grew.
In 313 AD, Constantine allowed Christians to practise their religion freely. In 380 AD, Theodosius declared Christianity the only religion of the Roman Empire. All other religions were prohibited, and their followers were persecuted. The Pope, who was the Bishop of Rome, was the main authority of the Church.