Ancient Rome Facts

Tadashi

Tadashi

Published: 07 Mar 2022

great Roman empire

Ancient Rome fell over a thousand years ago, but its legacy lives on even today, in lists of Ancient Rome facts, even in how we conduct our day-to-day lives. The way we govern our nations, make our records, even the way we see the past, all that we inherited from Rome. Another area of influence was literature. Did you know that writers like Shakespeare, Robert Graves, Dante, and James Joyce were all influenced by the Romans?

From military structures like forts and walls, to engineering feats like baths and aqueducts, the Romans’ most visible impact that can still be seen today is their architecture. Often see buildings with columns, domes, and arches? You’ve got the Romans to thank for that. Roman architecture had a tremendous influence on modern buildings of the western civilization.

Itching to know more? Learn more about this colossus whose shadow continues to lie over the modern world, with these 100 Ancient Rome facts.

  1. At its height, Ancient Rome had a population of 90 million people, accounting for 20% of the world’s population at the time.
  2. Ancient Rome also covered an area of an estimated 5 million km² at its height.
  3. The value of the standard Roman silver coin, the denarius, varied over the centuries.
  4. At the beginning of the Roman Empire, 1 denarius equaled 10 Pounds Sterling.
  5. By the end of the Roman Empire, 1 denarius equaled 18 British Pound Sterling.
  1. Archaeologists set the founding of Rome between the 10th and 8th centuries BC.
  2. The Etruscans controlled Rome between the 7th and 6th centuries BC.
  3. The Roman Kingdom became the Roman Republic in 509 BC.
  4. The Romans completed their conquest of Italy around 281 BC.
  5. Rome and Carthage competed for control of the Western Mediterranean during the Punic Wars from 264 BC to 149 BC.
  6. The Roman Republic suffered from internal difficulties from the 2nd century BC onward.
  7. Augustus reorganized the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire in 27 BC and began the Pax Romana (Roman Peace).
  8. The Pax Romana ended with the Crisis of the Third Century AD.
  9. Constantine the Great began the Christianization of Rome in 313 BC.
  10. The Roman Empire ended with the Fall of Rome in 476 AD.
  1. Roman farms had surprisingly low productivity, only producing one ton for every hectare.
  2. Rome’s slave population reached its height under the republic, with slaves making 20% of the total population.
  3. The circulation of Roman coins reached places as far away as India.
  4. Romans favored trading by sea, as moving goods by sea could prove cheaper by as much as 60% than moving them on land.
  5. Some historians have compared the Roman economy to that of 17th century Netherlands, or even 18th century England.
Table of Contents

Myth and legend shroud Rome’s origins.

The name Rome itself comes from Romulus, the twin brother of Remus, and the sons of the god Mars by Prince Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, former King of Alba Longa. Numitor’s brother Amulius had usurped the throne, however, and saw the twins as threats to his power. He ordered them thrown into the River Tiber, but the servants instead just left the twins on the riverbank.

There, a she-wolf found them, who fed them with her milk until a shepherd found them and raised them as his own. In adulthood, the twins joined their grandfather Numitor after discovering their true origin. After restoring Numitor as the king, they set out to find a city of their own, but the twins couldn’t agree where to build it.

This eventually led to an argument where Remus died, while Romulus founded Rome, becoming its first king.

The Romans eventually tied their origins with the Greek legend of Troy.

This took place during the reign of Emperor Augustus, with the poet Virgil composing the epic Aeneid at the commissioning of the Emperor’s friend Maecenas.

Maecenas did so as part of his effort to create a new mythology to legitimize the new Imperial regime. The Aeneid focuses on Prince Aeneas of Troy, a son of Venus, and his quest to find a new home for his people after the Trojan War.

This leads him first to Carthage, where he has a brief romance with Queen Dido, who commits suicide after Aeneas leaves.

The Trojans eventually arrive in Italy, where Aeneas defeats Prince Turnus of the Rutuli and marries Princess Lavinia of the Latins. His descendants include Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. Modern historians thus consider the Aeneid as not just a classic of epic poetry, but the first historical propaganda piece ever made.

The 7 Hills of Rome made up the heart of the Roman state.

All 7 hills lie east of the River Tiber, and in ancient times, behind a series of walls that served to protect the city. The 7 hills include Aventine Hill, Caelian Hill, Capitoline Hill, Esquiline Hill, Palatine Hill, Quirinal Hill, and Viminal Hill.

Other hills historically associated with Rome include Vatican Hill, Pincian Hill, Janiculan Hill, and the Sacred Mount. However, the traditional 7 hills have never included those hills, and they lay outside of Rome’s city limits in ancient times.

Caelian Hill, one of the Seven Hills
Caelian Hill; Image from Adobe Stock

The old Roman kings had near-absolute power.

For one thing, the king had complete authority over the Roman Army, which answered directly to him. The king’s authority also made him exempt from the judicial process, essentially putting him above the law.

Only the king could appoint and dismiss public officials, and also had religious authority as the chief augur, who interpreted omens as the will of the gods. And while the Senate already existed in the Roman Kingdom, it could only advise the king when it came to making new laws, and couldn’t stop him from passing them even if the Senate disagreed.

As chief judge, the king also had the final say when it came to court cases. Only the king’s inability to simply appoint his successor limited his power. Instead, the Senate nominated a possible successor, who would then have to submit to the approval of all citizens through the Curiate assembly.

All modern republics trace their roots back to the Roman Republic.

Even the word republic itself comes from the Latin word “respublica,” meaning public affairs. This referenced how the kings’ abuses led the Romans to believe that the people should govern themselves, and that the government should answer to the people.

The Roman Republic first came up with the idea of checks and balances, as well as separation of powers. All executive power lay in the two annually elected consuls, who needed to agree with each other to make any binding decision. The Senate at first served as only an advisory council in the kingdom but eventually gained power, to the point no laws could pass without the Senate’s approval.

All public offices now needed election for any man to hold office, via the military assembly for major offices, and the tribal assembly for minor offices. The military assembly also reserved the authority to declare war or make peace.

The Roman Republic had Cincinnatus as one of their greatest role models.

This came from his appointment to a unique office in the Roman Republic, that of a dictator. Dictators had all the powers and privileges of a king to fulfill an extraordinary task given to them by the Senate. They also had the expectation of resigning their post after finishing their task, or after a term limit of six months.

The Senate appointed Cincinnatus, a Roman conservative, an aristocrat, and a dictator, to deal with an invasion from the Aequi. Cincinnatus defeated the Aequi in just 15 days and immediately left his post to return to his farm.

Cincinnatus not only quickly finished the task given to him by the Senate, but also didn’t hold onto power any longer than he needed to. This turned him into a living legend in his lifetime, a reputation which endured over the millennia. In particular, George Washington saw him as a role model, inspiring the two-term limit for modern Republican Presidents.

Class struggles bitterly divided the early Roman Republic.

The division lay between the aristocratic landowners, or patricians, and the commoners who made up the majority of Roman citizens, the plebeians. At the time, only patricians could hold high offices in the Roman Republic and frequently took advantage of the lack of written laws. The patricians also banned marriages between patricians and plebeians, denying the latter any chances of moving up the social ladder.

This led to decades of internal struggles, with the first plebeian triumph involving the laying down of written laws. Then they formed the Tribunate of the Plebs, formed by tribunes who sat in on Senate meetings. Tribunes had no authority to pass or propose laws, but could block any laws that threatened the plebeians, to whom the tribunes solely answered. Soon after, plebeians gained the right to become consuls, as well as to marry patricians.

The Twelve Tables provided the foundation for all Roman Law.

They became the first-ever Roman legal code, with all succeeding legal codes based on the tables. All rights guaranteed to Roman citizens came from the Twelve Tables, which also set down the basic principles for the judicial process in Ancient Rome.

Other issues covered by the Twelve Tables include family law, as well as land ownership. The Romans placed the Twelve Tables in the forum at the heart of the city, where all citizens could freely see and read them. This ensured that no one could claim ignorance of the law when accused of breaking them.

Gallic tribes actually attacked Rome in the 4th century BC.

This took place in 390 BC when Gauls led by Brennus defeated the Romans at the Allia River. They then marched to Rome, with many citizens abandoning the city, while others barricaded themselves on the Capitoline Hill. Defenseless, most of Rome lay helpless as the Gauls looted and burned the city, before laying siege to the Capitoline Hill.

After 7 months, the Romans finally managed to bribe the Gauls into leaving, with 450 kg of gold. This experience scarred the Roman psyche, leading to a constant fear of barbarian invasion from the north, and eventually the Gallic Wars centuries in the future.

Greek colonists in Southern Italy fought Rome in the 3rd century BC.

By that time, Rome had either made allies or had conquered other Italian people. Only the Greek colonists in Southern Italy lay outside of Roman control, and they resented Roman attempts at expansion.

This eventually led the Greek colony of Tarentum to ask for help from King Pyrrhus of Epirus. At Heraclea, Pyrrhus defeated the Romans while losing 11,000 men, while the Romans lost 15,000 men. Later on, he again defeated the Romans at Ascalum, losing 4,000 men while the Romans lost 6,000 men.

In both cases, though, the Greeks couldn’t afford the losses, as Rome had a bigger population to replace lost soldiers with. This led to the concept of pyrrhic victory, where victory comes at a cost it might as well count as a defeat.

Finally, the Romans defeated Pyrrhus at Beneventum, forcing him to return home and leaving Southern Italy under Roman control.

Rome found itself at a disadvantage when the Punic Wars began.

All of Rome’s military experience up to this point involved fighting on land. In contrast, Carthage had dominated the Mediterranean Sea for centuries, with even the Greeks unwilling to challenge their power. This meant that, when the First Punic War began in 264 BC, Rome couldn’t bring the fight to the Carthaginians, while the Carthaginians could attack anywhere they wanted across Italy.

Eventually, however, the Romans managed to capture a quinquereme, a five-banked warship that had run aground. They copied the ship’s design, and finally managed to build a fleet of their own. They also developed boarding tactics, adding boarding ramps to their ships so their soldiers could cross over and attack the Carthaginian sailors. Finally, after 23 years of war, Rome defeated Carthage in 241 BC and gained complete control of Sicily.

Hannibal became the greatest threat to Rome in all its history.

When the Second Punic War began in 218 BC, Hannibal led his army from Spain, which Carthage controlled at the time. He led them across what would become Southern France, then over the Alps, which cost him the lives of his war elephants. From there, he marched into Italy, completely catching the Romans by surprise.

Modern map with the route of Hannibal crossing of the Alps
Image from Adobe Stock

Hannibal proved his talents as a commander even further, defeating the Romans at Ticinus, then at Trebia, and at Trasimene. Trebia proved especially devastating for the Romans, as Hannibal managed to kill or capture an estimated 32,000 Roman soldiers.

Hannibal’s series of victories humiliated the Romans, as they saw their army as superior to Carthage’s. Only now, Hannibal proved it otherwise and threatened Rome on its own soil.

The Romans appointed Fabius Maximus as dictator to stop Hannibal.

Fabius realized that Hannibal could not actually threaten Rome itself, safe behind its walls and with a connection to the sea via the River Tiber. Fabius thus ordered the Roman Army to avoid Hannibal’s army and to focus on cutting off his supply lines. In this way, the Carthaginians would eventually have to surrender or fight on Rome’s terms. This strategy required patience, however, and proved unpopular with the public.

The Senate decided not to reappoint Fabius, and sent out an army of 86,000 men. And at Cannae, Hannibal defeated them, killing or capturing 67,500 Roman soldiers. The shocked Romans adopted Fabius’ strategy once again, conquering Spain, while Hannibal stayed in Italy.

Then they attacked Carthage itself, forcing Hannibal to defend it, and ending in his defeat by Scipio Africanus in 202 BC. So ended the Second Punic War, and the concept of Fabian strategy earned its place in history.

Rome became increasingly obsessed with destroying Carthage.

After the Second Punic War, many Romans believed that unless they destroyed Carthage once and for all, it would always threaten Rome’s power. That said, most politicians didn’t want to start a war, out of concern for the cost in money and manpower.

Other politicians constantly pushed for it, with Senator Cato the Censor especially famous for ending his speeches with the phrase “Carthago delenda est.” In English, it means Carthage must be destroyed.

A legend claims that Rome poisoned the ground Carthage stood on.

The Romans finally had their chance to crush Carthage once and for all, during the Third Punic War of 149 to 146 BC. Carthage had never truly recovered from the Second Punic War, leading to a quick Roman victory. The Romans looted and burned Carthage, leaving it in ruins. The legend then claims the Romans plowed the ground and sowed it with salt, so no plants or animals could live there.

Historians consider this a 19th-century invention, however, as records and archaeological evidence proves otherwise. Carthage would lie in ruins for over a century, until the reign of Emperor Augustus, who had the city rebuilt and resettled. Today, the modern Tunisian capital city of Tunis stands partly on where Carthage once stood.

Class struggles again divided the late republic.

This time the divisions lay between the optimates and the populares, with patricians and plebeians present on both sides. The optimates stood for the dominance of the traditional elite, with power concentrated in the Senate.

In contrast, the populares argued the Senate had become too powerful and pushed for more power for the citizen assemblies. The populares also championed land reform, with the Gracchi brothers pushing the agenda between 133 and 121 BC, only to get murdered by the optimates.

A third social class also gained influence at this time, the equestrians, originally referring to the elite Roman cavalry. By the late republic, however, equestrians referred to just military officers in general, and even anyone with wealth normally associated with the patricians.

Both the optimates and the populares tried to gain the support of the equestrians in their struggles for power over the republic.

The rivalry between Marius and Sulla set the stage for the end of the republic.

Gaius Marius built his power base by reforming the Roman Army, recruiting poor and landless men, and even handing out Roman citizenships to potential recruits. This made his troops loyal to him personally, for giving them livelihoods or Roman citizenship.

Other generals followed his example, earning the loyalty of their troops with similar incentives. This, however, weakened the republic, as it made the military more loyal to their commanders than to the Republic itself. Sulla further weakened the republic after Marius illegally took command of troops meant for Sulla.

Specifically, Sulla marched his troops into Rome and killed all of Marius’ followers he could find. This also allowed him to take control of the Republic as dictator after Marius’ death from old age, Sulla spending his last years enforcing the optimates’ agenda with his army backing him and the Senate’s power.

The First Triumvirate dominated Roman politics after Sulla’s death.

The republic returned to normal after Sulla’s death, but two powerful generals soon followed in his footsteps, using military resources to enforce their power. These were Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar, both of whom felt their achievements were unrecognized by the Senate.

Together with Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, they formed the First Triumvirate, their combined influence allowing them to dominate Roman politics. All three men knew their alliance existed out of convenience, leading Caesar to allow Pompey to marry his daughter, Julia, to strengthen their alliance.

Caesar’s conquests became the biggest expansion for Rome in a single period.

The Gallic Wars began in 58 BC and ended in 50 BC. In just 8 years, Caesar brought all the lands west of the Rhine, and north of the Alps and Pyrenees under Roman control. Today, said land make up modern FranceBelgium, and parts of Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Caesar also attacked Britain at this time, and forced the Britons to regularly pay tribute to Rome. Caesar recorded his experiences in the war in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. This was his first-hand documented account of the Gallic Wars. Modern historians, however, agree with Caesar’s critics, that Caesar started the Gallic Wars to strengthen his political power with military victories, taking advantage of Roman fears of barbarian invasions from the north. By conquering Gaul, Caesar would not only claim a conqueror’s fame, but would also remove the Gallic threat to Rome once and for all.

Gallic Wars
Image from Wikipedia

Roman attempts to expand into Asia became limited by the Parthians.

Jealous of Caesar’s victories in Gaul, Crassus led an army of his own deeper into Asia. At the time, the Parthians controlled Mesopotamia and parts of Persia, modern-day Iraq and Iran.

Rome already controlled the Mediterranean coast of Asia, but Crassus planned to add more of the interior to Rome’s territories. Instead, his lack of military experience, and the superior Parthian cavalry, resulted in disaster.

At the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, the Parthians defeated the Romans with only minimal losses. In contrast, the Romans lost 30,000 men dead or taken prisoner, with Crassus among those killed in the battle.

This marked the end of Roman attempts to expand east for centuries, until the reign of Emperor Trajan.

The First Triumvirate’s collapse triggered a civil war.

Crassus’ death imbalanced the triumvirate, as now Pompey and Caesar directly opposed each other. The triumvirate ended with Julia’s death in childbirth, and Pompey’s remarriage with the daughter of one of Caesar’s rivals.

Soon after, the Senate stripped Caesar of his command, and ordered him to return to Rome. Unwilling to become a political criminal, Caesar instead marched his army on Rome.

Pompey and the Senate ran to Greece, where Caesar eventually defeated them in 48 BC. Pompey ran again, this time to Egypt, where Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII had him murdered as a gift to Caesar. With Pompey’s death, the Senate appointed Caesar dictator for life.

Caesar made many changes to Rome.

The greatest change of them all involved the introduction of the Julian Calendar, the direct predecessor of the modern Gregorian Calendar. Based on the Egyptian solar calendar, the Julian Calendar made Rome’s dates more accurate with the seasons. It also introduced the concept of the leap year.

Caesar also reformed Rome’s tax system and introduced land and judicial reforms, as well. He also expanded Rome’s existing public infrastructure, increased the regulation of professional guilds, and introduced new term limits for provincial governors.

Caesar made many people afraid that he might want to become King of Rome.

His status as dictator for life already made many Romans nervous, as no precedent existed for such a status. That it also violated the republic’s principle of no single man having too much power made the problem even worse. That said, the Romans could have put up with it, except three actions by Caesar made the issue intolerable.

First, in either December of 45 BC or January 44 BC, Caesar failed to rise on the Senate’s arrival. Worse, he also refused the honors the Senate planned to confer on him. This gave the perception that Caesar no longer respected the Senate’s authority.

Later on, in 44 BC, one of Caesar’s followers crowned his statue in the Roman forum. Caesar condemned the act, but then he allowed Mark Antony to crown him after Antony’s election as co-consul. This only confirmed other Romans’ fears that Caesar wanted to become king.

Brutus and Longinus led the conspiracy to kill Caesar.

They made sure to include as many senators in the conspiracy as possible, to show they acted, not out of ambition, but based on how many of the republic’s leaders opposed Caesar. Brutus also opposed killing Caesar’s allies, such as Mark Antony, again for the same reason they didn’t want to appear ambitious.

Brutus even made it clear that he still respected Caesar, and had no plans of reversing Caesar’s reforms. He just couldn’t stand by and watch as Caesar became a tyrant and destroyed the republic.

The conspirators killed Caesar on the Ides of March.

On March 15, 44 BC, the conspirators ambushed Caesar at the Theater of Pompey, where the Senate held its meetings at the time. Caesar blocked the first blow by Lucius Tillius Cimber, but the other conspirators rushed Caesar. He continued to fight back, but became overwhelmed by the number of conspirators, who stabbed him to death.

After Caesar’s death, Brutus and his allies proclaimed the Republic’s salvation from tyranny. Instead of celebrating, however, the people of Rome hid in their homes out of fear. This fear turned to rage at Caesar’s public funeral, resulting in a riot that set the Roman forum on fire. The mobs also assaulted the homes of Brutus and his allies, who fled the city for Greece.

Civil war again divided Rome after Caesar’s death.

Caesar’s grand-nephew and heir Octavian formed an alliance with Caesar’s ally and fellow general, Mark Antony. They then led their combined armies towards Greece, where they faced and defeated Brutus and Longinus’ forces at Philippi. Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide after the battle, with their allies surrendering afterward.

The Second Triumvirate again dominated Roman politics after the civil war’s end.

Octavian and Mark Antony recruited another one of Caesar’s generals, Lepidus, to join them in the Second Triumvirate. Their first order of business involved purging their enemies, with the triumvirs deciding not to repeat Caesar’s mistake of showing mercy.

Afterward, they divided Rome between them, with Octavian governing the western provinces, Mark Antony the eastern provinces, and Lepidus governing North Africa. Italy became an exception to this division of influence, with the triumvirs jointly governing the peninsula. To strengthen their alliance, Mark Antony also married Octavian’s sister, Octavia.

Octavian and Mark Antony’s rivalry ultimately destroyed the Second Triumvirate.

Mark Antony resented Octavian’s status as heir, while Octavian distrusted Mark Antony, especially after he took Cleopatra as his mistress. In particular, this put Mark Antony in a position where he could support Caesar’s illegitimate son by Cleopatra, Caesarion.

Octavian saw this as unacceptable and made a confrontation with Mark Antony and Cleopatra inevitable. Octavian began his preparations by first expanding his power at Lepidus’ expense, forcing him into exile, and then taking control of North Africa.

He then did the same to Italy. While in the east, Mark Antony divorced Octavia before marrying Cleopatra. This scandalized Rome while angering Octavian, but then Octavian gained a copy of Mark Antony’s will.

He read it before the Senate, which learned that Antony had named Cleopatra heir to Rome’s eastern provinces. Enraged, the Senate backed Octavian when he named Mark Antony a traitor and declared war on Egypt.

Octavian had two powerful allies in his quest for power.

Unlike many men in his position, Octavian admitted his limits and that he needed the help of others to achieve his ambitions. For one thing, he only had limited experience and skill in military matters, in contrast to his childhood friend.

That childhood friend became Octavian’s right-hand man, Admiral Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. He and Octavian also had another childhood friend, Gaius Maecenas, a talented politician like Octavian, but lacking his friend’s ambition. But where he lacked ambition, he had an eye for detail, which led Octavian to easily divide responsibility between them. Octavian gave them all a direction to follow, Maecenas handled the political details, and Agrippa commanded the fleet and armies to enforce Octavian’s power.

Rome’s victory at Actium wasn’t as important as most people think.

On September 2, 31 BC, the Romans defeated the Egyptians in the Ionian Sea off the town of Actium in Western Greece. Both Roman historians and modern popular culture play up the battle at the war’s end, which ensured Octavian’s ascension.

At that time, Mark Antony and Cleopatra still had a chance to win. Mark Antony still had plenty of troops under his command, and Rome’s client kingdoms in the east supported him as well. Unfortunately, they expected Octavian to sail across the Mediterranean Sea and attack Egypt directly.

They planned to trap him when he did so, only for Octavian to march his army east, into Asia, and then south, along the Mediterranean coast. Along the way, he forced Rome’s client kingdoms to support him instead. When he reached Egypt, his army had grown massively, leading many of Mark Antony’s troops to desert out of fear.

Ancient Rome Facts, Battle of Actium
Image from Wikipedia Commons

The Fall of Egypt completed Octavian’s ascension to absolute power.

Mark Antony made one last attempt to defeat Octavian, only to find himself defeated. He then committed suicide out of shame. Cleopatra tried to negotiate, but Octavian made it clear he planned to parade her through Rome as a defeated enemy.

Cleopatra then also committed suicide, allowing Octavian to take complete control of Egypt, before returning to Rome. The Senate, realizing Octavian had gained absolute power, decided to acknowledge him instead of risking a confrontation. They gave him the honorary title of Princeps, First Citizen, and a new name, Augustus, the Revered One.

So ended the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire began, under the First Emperor of Rome, Augustus.

The early Roman Empire kept up the appearances of a republican state.

Augustus recognized Caesar’s mistake of appearing to disregard Rome’s Republican traditions and decided against repeating that mistake. Augustus thus kept the Senate, and even regularly consulted with the senators on his policies and decisions. He also retained the republic’s other offices and bodies, such as the assemblies and the tribunes. That said, he made sure they all knew he held the last say in everything, and in particular, made sure to keep complete control of the military.

Augustus also organized a new civil service, separate from the old republic offices, which answered directly to him. This new civil service handled the day-to-day affairs of the empire and gave it all the real power that the traditional positions only appeared to have.

The deception worked perfectly, so much so that when Augustus died, no one wanted to reverse all the changes he’d made to the government.

Augustus decided to stop Roman expansion.

Augustus had various reasons for doing so. For one thing, the empire in his reign had already become so big, too big for him to handle. At that time, he remembered how generals like Caesar could use foreign wars to become popular before making a power play.

These all led him to fix the Roman Empire’s borders in order to defend geographical features. In Western Europe, Augustus fixed the border on the Rhine River, while in Eastern Europe, he fixed the border on the Danube River. In Asia, he fixed the border of the Euphrates River, and in Africa, along the interior of the Sahara Desert. Augustus then advised all his future successors to focus on preserving the empire within the borders he had set.

The Germans won a major victory against the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest.

Originally, Augustus wanted to set the Roman border in Western Europe along the River Elbe, thus bringing what Rome called Magna Germania, Great Germany, into the empire. This led him to send the XVII, XVIII, and XVIX Legions across the Rhine, under the command of Publius Quinctillius Varus.

Varus, however, had gained his command through political connections, while also having a tendency to underestimate the Germans. In contrast, the German commander, Arminius, had plenty of experience fighting the Romans in small battles along the frontier.

And also unlike Varus, despite seeing Rome as an enemy, Arminius had a healthy respect for the Romans. This led to the disastrous Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where the overconfident Varus lost all 3 legions under his command. The defeat led Augustus to cancel all plans to expand east of the Rhine. The Romans also never used the lost legions’ numbers ever again.

Augustus’ successors Tiberius and Caligula proved themselves poor rulers.

Augustus’ stepson and successor, Tiberius, quickly became unpopular with his severe policies after he succeeded Augustus in 14 AD. The Romans could have put up with that, though, but in 26 AD, Tiberius retired to Capri. He left behind the commanders of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus, and Macro, to oversee Rome in his absence.

Both proved themselves cruel, persecuting and killing political enemies outside the judicial process. Tiberius’ death in 37 AD led to celebrations, even more so when his grand-nephew and successor, Caligula, began his reign with a series of pardons.

But Caligula soon proved himself insane, and worse than Tiberius in every way. He married his own sisters, appointed his horse a Roman consul, and even killed people on a whim. Caligula also forced the senators to prostitute their wives and publicly engaged in homosexual affairs. This eventually led the Praetorian Guard to murder the deranged Emperor.

Claudius conquered Britain during his reign.

Ironically, the Praetorian Guard had only crowned Claudius out of convenience. Caligula had died childless, leaving Claudius, his uncle, and Augustus’ grandson, as the last of his family. Also ironically, no one had taken him seriously before, not even Augustus, because of his limp and speech impediment.

Claudius thus proved to be a good ruler, restoring the stability of the Roman government and society alike. He also proved himself a skilled military commander, personally leading the Roman Navy and Army to Britain.

By that time, Britain had stopped paying tribute to Rome and had provided sanctuary for Celts leaving Roman Gaul. From Britain, they would then raid Roman territories. This finally led Claudius to invade and conquer what would become modern England to stop the Celtic attacks.

Claudius, roman emperor
Image from Adobe Stock

Nero became even worse than Caligula.

He started off by murdering his stepfather, the popular Emperor Claudius. During the Welsh Conquest, Nero’s men committed mass murder and destroyed Celtic holy places. He also became the first Roman Emperor to persecute Christians after they refused to worship previous Emperors as gods. Then came the Great Fire in 64 AD, which Nero sat out in the countryside, playing the lyre and singing poetry.

Accusations soon erupted that Nero had deliberately started the fire when he called it an opportunity to rebuild Rome in his image. He continued to scandalize Rome by acting on the stage, a taboo for a patrician like him, and even murdering his mother, and then his wife. Rome finally rose up against him, and Nero fled, committing suicide after the Senate issued a death warrant for him. As he died, he lamented how the world would lose a great artist with his death.

Rome briefly fell into chaos after Nero’s death.

Historians call 69 AD the Year of the Four Emperors. The Praetorian Guard first appointed the Governor of Spain, Galba, as the Emperor. They murdered him soon after, though, after Galba refused to live up to his promises to them.

They then appointed Otho, the Governor of Southern Portugal, Emperor. But then the Roman troops on the Rhine River proclaimed their General Vitellius Emperor. Vitellius marched on Rome, and defeated Otho’s forces, with Otho committing suicide.

However, Roman troops on the Danube River now declared General Vespasian the Emperor and marched to Rome. They defeated Vitellius’ forces, killed Vitellius himself, and forced the Senate to accept Vespasian as Emperor.

Ironically, Vespasian had nothing to do with his ascension, as he busied himself putting down a Jewish revolt in Palestine at the time. He could only react with surprised acceptance when learned that he’d become Emperor of Rome.

The Flavian Dynasty lasted only for a short time.

Vespasian reigned for 10 years, from 69 to 79 AD, in which time he repaired the damage from both the Year of the Four Emperors and Nero’s reign before it.

Historians generally consider Vespasian’s greatest legacy his restoration of Imperial Rome’s Republican appearance. After Vespasian’s death, his son Titus succeeded him, and continued his policies. Titus reigned for only two years, however, from 79 to 81 AD, after his brother Domitian succeeded him.

Domitian quickly became unpopular, as unlike his father and brother, he resented having to consult with the Senate when it came to his policies and decisions. He also resumed the persecution of Christians under Nero. His inability to get along with the Senate eventually led to his assassination by several court officials.

With Domitian’s death, the Senate ordered the destruction of all monuments dedicated to him. They also ended the circulation of all coins with his image.

The Five Good Emperors ruled over Rome’s Golden Age.

With Domitian’s death, the Senate appointed the respected legal adviser Nerva as the next Emperor. Nerva reigned for only two years, from 96 to 98 AD, which he spent preparing his chosen successor, General Trajan.

Trajan succeeded Nerva on his death, and pushed the Roman Empire beyond the borders Augustus set. He also followed Nerva’s example in preparing a successor of his own, General Hadrian.

Hadrian proved a more cautious ruler than Trajan, even abandoning his conquests. He also built Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland, stretching coast to coast from east to west, to protect Rome’s territories in the south.

Hadrian’s greatest legacy, however, involved the standardization of all legal procedures across the entire empire. Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian in 138 AD, with Marcus Aurelius succeeding him in 161 AD. Marcus Aurelius’ death in 180 AD would mark the beginning of Rome’s decline.

Rome began to fail under the Severan Dynasty.

As early as 193 AD, when Septimius Severus became Emperor and founded the dynasty, the Roman Empire found itself under attack. Germanic tribes constantly attacked the borders along the Rhine and the Danube, while in the east, the Parthians raided Rome’s Asian provinces, and even Egypt. At the same time, Rome suffered from a failing economy, ironically caused by Septimius Severus and then his successor Caracalla.

Both had devalued Rome’s currency, reducing their coins’ gold and silver content, in order to mint more coins and put more money in circulation. Caracalla also granted Roman citizenship to all free men and women in the empire to increase tax revenue.

Repeated outbreaks of plague across the empire also worsened the issue. All this left Rome struggling to fend off foreign attackers while also facing problems on the inside.

The Crisis of the Third Century pushed the Roman Empire to the brink of destruction.

It began with the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander in 235 AD after he attempted to bribe attacking Germans. This angered the troops under his command, leading to his death. The troops then crowned one of their own, Maximinus, as Emperor.

This set off 50 years of civil war, foreign invasions, and economic collapse. Central authority vanished in the Roman Empire, as soldiers murdered and crowned their generals as Emperors.

Historians record no less than 26 Emperors during these 50 years, few of which succeeded in anything worthwhile. Those exceptions include Aurelian, who reigned from 270 to 275 AD.

Aurelian crushed Queen Zenobia’s attempt to create an independent Syrian kingdom and maintained Roman rule over the Empire’s eastern provinces. The crisis would only finally end with the rise of Diocletian in 284 AD.

Diocletian reorganized the Roman Empire during his reign.

Diocletian doubled the size of the civil service, and increased the regulation on businesses, from farms, to merchant and craftsmen’s guilds. These measures had the effect of restoring stability to an empire left in chaos for 50 years.

Diocletian also concluded that the empire had become too big for just one man to rule it. This led him to divide the empire into the Western and Eastern Empires. The West included Italy, the West European provinces, and most of North Africa. The East included the Asian and East European provinces, as well as Egypt.

Diocletian himself took the role of Eastern Emperor, ruling from Nicomedia, modern Izmit in Turkey. Diocletian also ended the pretense of republican tradition, ruling as an absolute monarch, with succeeding Emperors following his lead.

Constantine the Great reunited the Roman Empire.

After Diocletian’s death, powerful generals tried to seize power, leading to the rise of four different Emperors at the same time. One of them, Constantine, later claimed to have received a vision of a cross with a voice promising him victory in its name.

Constantine then added the Greek letters chi and rho, representing Christ’s name, to his men’s shields. After their victory at Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, Constantine made it his official policy to not simply tolerate Christianity, but to support it.

He then continued his campaign to reunite the empire, which ended in success with Licinius’ defeat in 324 AD. Constantine then relocated the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople, modern Istanbul in Turkey.

Constantine the Great
Image from Adobe Stock

Theodosius the Great divided the Roman Empire between his sons.

It became the second of two historic decisions he made during his reign as Emperor. He made the first in 380 AD, a year after his ascension to the throne. After Council of Antioch, Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

Then in 383 AD, he divided the Roman Empire between his sons. Arcadius would rule the east, and Honorius would rule the west. The division would not go into effect until after Theodosius’ death, but it marked the final division of the Roman Empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire would endure for another thousand years until the Ottoman Empire finally took Constantinople in 1453. In contrast, the Western Roman Empire would not last for much longer.

Barbarians sacked Rome twice in the 5th century AD.

The Visigoths first did it in 410 AD, when political power struggles between Emperor Honorius and General Stilicho ended with the latter’s murder. This caused the army to desert, leading Rome open to attack, especially after the Emperor retreated to Ravenna.

The Visigoths’ sack of Rome shocked the empire, as for the first time since the early republic, a foreign army managed to reach Rome. Then in 452 BC, Attila the Hun reached Rome and planned to sack the city. This led Pope Leo the Great to personally plead for mercy for the city before Attila.

Impressed by the Pope’s bravery, Attila agreed to spare Rome. Finally, in 476 AD, the Ostrogoths led by Odoacer sacked Rome again, an event that also marked the end for the Western Roman Empire.

Romulus Augustulus became the last Emperor of Rome.

The son of Emperor Orestes, Romulus Augustulus became Emperor at the age of 9 in 475 AD. He ruled for barely a year, in which he never actually stepped foot in Rome, instead reigning from Ravenna in Northern Italy.

At that time, his and his father’s claim to the throne found itself contested in the Eastern Roman Empire. Instead, Emperor Zeno in Constantinople backed Julius Nepos, a Roman exiled to what would become Albania.

His successor, Emperor Basiliscus, also backed Julius Nepos. However, in Italy, the Romans acknowledged Romulus Augustulus and Orestes before him. Romulus Augustulus’ reign ended in 476 AD when Odoacer and the Ostrogoths took Rome. He took Ravenna soon after, but decided against killing the young Emperor. Instead, after deposing the boy, Odoacer sent him to live out the rest of his life with his relatives in Campania.

The Roman alphabet became the greatest enduring legacy of Ancient Rome.

After all, you’re reading words and sentences written in the Roman alphabet. All modern Western languages use the Roman alphabet, with minor additions and changes for certain languages. Those include German, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese, among others.

And while other cultures have their own alphabets, such as the Cyrillic alphabet used in Eastern Europe, or Chinese characters in East Asia, Western civilization dominates the modern world. This, in turn, makes the Roman alphabet the main alphabet in the world.

Roman Law also influenced modern law.

Roman Law originally became lost in Western Europe with the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. In the Eastern Roman Empire, Emperor Justinian the Great ordered the compilation and modernization of all Roman laws dating back to the Republican Era. This resulted in what historians call the Code of Justinian, which eventually made its way to Western Europe after the crusades.

Renaissance Italy used the Code of Justinian to modernize their legal system, with most other European countries following suit. This made the Code of Justinian the direct predecessor of the Napoleonic Code introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte in the 19th Century. Only Britain and Nordic countries stayed exempt, instead following their own native common laws.

Romans placed great value on education.

In fact, Romans expected all citizens to have the ability to read and write, as well as do basic arithmetic. As no public schools existed in Ancient Rome, parents instead had the obligation of teaching their children what they needed to learn.

Other parents, usually the wealthy ones, had educated tutors teach their children in their place. Greek tutors, in particular, especially found themselves in high demand in high Roman society. That said, private schools did exist in Ancient Rome, meant for older children from rich families.

Boys and girls attended these private schools, usually around the age of 12, where they studied Greek and Roman literature. For girls, their education ended there, while boys could go on to rhetoric school at the age of 16, usually in preparation for a legal career.

The Roman legions became famous as the greatest army of the ancient world.

Popular fiction also gives us a number of 1,000 men for every legion, but historians have long discovered this as false. In fact, a legion at full strength numbered around 5,000 men, made up of around 4,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry.

During the early republic, only citizens who met certain property and income requirements could become legionaries. This came from the fact that legionaries at the time had to provide their own equipment, and in the case of horsemen, their own mounts. It wasn’t until Gaius Marius reformed the Roman Army that those requirements became waived. Now, any citizen could join the legions, with the Roman state providing them their requirement.

Not all Roman soldiers belonged to a legion.

During his reign, Augustus formed the auxilia, these are non-citizen soldiers meant to support the legions. Much like the legions, Roman auxiliaries received equipment from the state, with the added incentive of receiving Roman citizenship after completing 20 years of service.

Augustus also started the policy of sending legions into battle with at least an equal number of auxiliaries backing them up. The auxilia became obsolete during the reign of Emperor Caracalla, however, after he granted all free men in the empire, citizenship.

Even the legions themselves became obsolete over time, with many becoming reorganized into regiments during the Crisis of the Third Century. The legion system would meet its final abandonment in 7th century BC, under the Eastern Emperor Heraclius’ reforms.

Ancient Rome had a variety of coins for use in trade.

Out of them all, the denarius became the most common and famous, having set the minimum wage for workers in Ancient Rome at one denarius per day. The Romans would stop minting the denarius in the Crisis of the Third Century, but existing coins remained in circulation. It would eventually lead to dinar being the standard currency of the Islamic Caliphate, with the name of the coin outright derived from denarius.

In fact, the dinar remains in use among various Middle Eastern countries today, such as Iran and Kuwait, among others. Other Roman coins include the antoninianus, which replaced the denarius, and the bronze sestertius, which remained in use from the Republican Era to Diocletian’s reforms.

Diocletian also introduced the gold solidus, which remained in use in the Eastern Roman Empire, and also set the standard for medieval European currencies.

Ancient Roman gold solidus coin of Emperor Honorius
Image from Adobe Stock

Farming made up the most prestigious occupation in Ancient Rome.

Ancient Rome actually glorified the pastoral ideal of a farmer’s life, reflected in how landowners made up the patrician class. A social expectation also existed that retiring soldiers would receive farmland in return for their decades of service to the state. And in the early republic, the Romans did try to live up to that ideal. By the late republic, however, reality clashed with the ideal, as the traditional Roman farmer with his family plot had since disappeared.

Rome’s conquests had allowed the patricians to become absentee landlords, their properties tended to by tenant farmers. This actually contributed to the power struggles between the optimates supporters of the continued authority of the senate, and the populares, a political faction who favored the cause of the commoners.

Even with the rise of the Roman Empire, nothing changed, with the land situation of the old republic only becoming accepted as the new normal of the time.

Grains and legumes made up the staples of the Roman diet.

Most people ate either black bread or wheat bread, with white bread typically only eaten by the rich. Commoners usually ate their bread with a little salt, while the rich ate it with cheese, eggshoney, and even milk.

Alternatively, both commoners and the rich ate their bread after dipping it in wine, accompanied by olives. Bread became so important a part of the Roman diet, that at one point, Roman troops mutinied over a lack of bread. The Romans also knew several varieties of legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils, and split peas, among others. They either cooked them down as part of a broth or roasted them as snacks.

Olive oil also made up a major commodity in Ancient Rome.

So much so, that plantations of olive trees sprang up all around the Mediterranean Sea to keep up with the demand. More than that, olive oil’s status as a major part of the Roman diet meant that affordable prices for olive oil became a sign of prosperous times.

The Romans also developed many different kinds of presses to get as much oil out of olives as they could. Some models even remain in use today. They also didn’t limit themselves to ripe olives, but also pressed oil from unripe olives. In this case, though, the resulting oil had more use in medicine than in cooking.

Traditions dictated the order of meals in Ancient Rome.

In the early republic, Romans traditionally ate breakfast at dawn. A heavy lunch would then follow, either at noon, or in the early afternoon. They then finished their day with a light dinner at nightfall.

By the late republic and the Imperial Era, however, Romans tended to eat heavy dinners later in the evening. They also only ate a light lunch to keep them going until then. The rich also had an extravagant habit of extending their lunches into a feast that lasted from the afternoon late into the night. And even after they finished eating, they would continue to drink the night away with wine.

Meat stayed a luxury in Roman diets.

Pork proved especially popular in Roman cuisine, especially when preserved in the form of sausages. The Romans also ate various kinds of poultry, such as ducks and geese, along with different types of seafood.

In contrast, Romans rarely ate beef, instead valuing cows for their milk, with veal, as an exemption. Regional differences are also reflected in the Roman diet, as shown by the popularity of mutton in Gaul and Britain, as well as lamb in other places.

That said, Romans generally considered meat a delicacy, with most only eating them during public holidays and holy feast days. The rich, as usual, proved an exception, who commonly ate dormice, nocturnal, mouse-like rodents, as a status symbol. In fact, they even weighed dormice in front of their guests before having them cooked for dinner.

Romans loved wine.

Compared to modern brewers, Roman brewers typically made very strong wines, as a result of having limited control of the fermentation process. This led to a Roman tradition to water their wines down, to keep from getting drunk too quickly.

The Romans also developed ways to flavor their wines, with raisin flavoring proving especially popular. Other flavors include honey, as well as a mix of spices which the Romans would allow the wine to soak with for a time before drinking. Roman soldiers also typically flavored their wines with herbs.

Romans also ate a form of ice cream.

The trend started with Claudius, who had ice and snow from the Alps stored in special rooms in his country villa. When he wanted to eat something cold and flavorful, his servants would mix the snow with fruits and fruit juice, similar to modern-day sorbets. Nero continued his stepfather’s trend, and, during his reign, other Romans would also take up the trend. That said, the lack of refrigeration at the time meant it proved expensive, and so only the rich could afford to indulge in it.

Roman engineers built great structures for practical purposes.

When people talk about Roman architecture, they tend to see the great arena of the Colosseum or the sprawling public square and marketplace of the Roman forum. But the Romans also built their public works for more than just entertainment and commerce. For example, the aqueducts, wonders of ancient stonework that used gravity to move water across great distances.

The Roman aqueduct network in North Africa alone moved water over a distance of 178 kilometers to the city of Carthage. Rome and its population of over 3 million people depended on two aqueduct systems, the Aqua Claudia, and the Aqua Marcia.

Constantinople had an especially long-distance aqueduct system, stretching over 336 kilometers from the city. Modern engineers studying Roman aqueducts find they meet modern standards for waterworks. Some of them still work even today, like the Acqua Vergine, if needing regular maintenance, and originally built by Agrippa during Augustus’ reign.

Ancient Rome Facts, Aqueduct of Segovia
Image from Wikipedia Commons

They also built great structures for entertainment purposes.

Naturally, the Colosseum proves the most iconic of them all, hosting everything in its day: from gladiatorial matches, chariot races, and even mock naval battles. The Romans also built smaller arenas in other cities, but the Romans didn’t limit themselves to just arenas.

Public baths made up a common sight in Roman cities, with Rome alone having over 800 public baths even at the end of the empire in the 5th century AD. These places had both cold and hot tubs, steam saunas, swimming pools, and even gymnasiums. People flocked to them not just to enjoy themselves while washing up or exercising, but also to socialize. Some of the bigger public baths even had restaurants to cater to their patrons, who could either eat dine-in or take-out.

The forums made up the heart of all major Roman settlements.

This reflected the fact that the original Roman Forum served as the heart of Rome. The most important temples in the city surrounded the forum, making it the site of religious rites on feast days. The Senate met in a building near the forum, as did other public offices going back to the Roman Republic.

This, in turn, made the forum where Rome’s leaders could address the public. It also doubled as a marketplace, as the first and biggest of Rome’s many public squares. So, when the Romans expanded, it only seemed natural for them to build new forums with their new towns and cities, in Rome’s own image.

The Romans became the first people in the world to make and use concrete.

The knowledge became lost with the Fall of the Roman Empire, with concrete not making a comeback as a construction material until the Modern Era. Even then, most forms of modern concrete actually have lower quality than Roman concrete.

Modern concrete starts to degrade after 10 years, while many examples of Roman concrete have lasted for over 2,000 years. This proves especially the case in maritime structures, where scientists have discovered saltwater actually makes Roman concrete stronger.

In contrast, saltwater actually speeds up the destruction of modern concrete. Studies have since discovered the secret, however: the Romans used volcanic ash as an ingredient in their concrete. This made Roman concrete more resistant to water damage, and in the case of saltwater, actually bonded the salt with the concrete. Modern scientists have since used this discovery to develop newer and better recipes for hydraulic concrete.

They also had the most advanced plumbing systems in the world.

We’ve already mentioned how the Romans built aqueducts to bring water to their cities. But they didn’t stop there. The Romans also built complex networks of lead pipes to bring water to public fountains, and even inside homes.

They also lined the pipes’ insides with zinc to keep the lead from poisoning the water. Their toilets had working flushes and used a separate network of pipes to take sewage away for proper disposal. In fact, Europe would never meet Roman standards for plumbing until the Victorian Era. And even then, it would take until the late-20th century to surpass those same standards.

The concept of bread and circuses comes from Ancient Rome.

Simply put, bread and circuses involve using free food and entertainment to distract the public from the real issues. This proved especially the case in the Imperial Era when Emperors used their personal funds to hand out free food and hold public games.

This, in turn, boosted their popularity and strengthened their grip on power. In contrast, while the Roman Republic also handed out free food, its leaders framed it at the time as a civic duty by the state to its citizens.

The family lay at the heart of Roman society.

That said, in modern terms a Roman family had more equivalence to a clan instead of a modern family. Instead, a household made up the Roman equivalent to a modern family, led by a paterfamilias or male head of the house.

For most, a household included only the paterfamilias, his wife, and their children, with the rich including their slaves and servants. Multiple households then made up a family, or a gens, as the Romans called it. In the early republic, daughters left their families when they married, but things had changed by the late republic. Wives now had the option of staying as part of their birth families, but their children would belong with their husbands’ families.

Latin and Greek made up the main languages of Roman society.

By the time of the Roman Empire, the original Classical Latin had become reserved for use in literature and official documents. Instead, what modern linguists call Vulgar Latin had replaced it in day-to-day use. However, the rich and powerful of the Roman Empire spoke in Greek with each other, a trend that continued to the Fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, in the Eastern Roman Empire, Greek would eventually completely replace Latin not just for day-to-day use, but also in literature and official documents.

Romans had traditions when it came to the clothes they wore.

Romans traditionally wore a tunic, which reached down to the knees for men, and down to the ankles for women. Men also traditionally went sleeveless, while women’s tunics had long sleeves.

The Romans also expected men to wear belts, but young men could wear sleeved tunics with loose belts as a fashion statement. Only adult men wore togas and only on formal occasions. Married women instead wore a stola, a long, sleeveless gown, over their tunics, followed by a mantle called a palla on top.

patrician Family in ancient rome
Image source: Adobe Stock

Ancient Rome had strict rules when it came to wearing the toga.

For one thing, adult women could not wear togas, except for prostitutes. Meanwhile, children of both genders wore togas that were pure white in color, with a violet edge and two stripes of the same color.

Only consuls, dictators, and praetors could wear the same, symbolizing their protected status under Roman Law, which they shared with Roman children. Other government officials wore plain white togas. Election candidates wore the same, but rubbed with chalk to give it a brighter quality.

Black or other dark-colored togas also existed but were reserved for funerals, or as a sign of public protest. Roman generals holding victory parades wore violet togas with gold embroidery. During the Imperial Era, only Emperors could wear this kind of toga.

The original Roman religion had animistic traits.

They believed that the gods existed as a primal force called numen, which acted on the world invisibly and subtly. They also believed that everything, not just people, plants, and animals, but also objects, and places, had their own divine soul, which they called a genius. The Romans only began to see their gods as personified embodiments of their aspects after making contact with the Greeks. And even then, the traditional rites and customs of Roman folk beliefs kept their original religion alive.

They later made analogies between Roman and Greek gods.

They equated Jupiter with Zeus, for example, Juno with Hera, Mercury with Hermes, Mars with Ares, Neptune with Poseidon, and Pluto with Hades. Even the older Greek deities, like the Titans, also received Roman analogies. Zeus’ father Chronos, for example, became equated with Saturn. That said, the Romans also had gods of their own without a Greek equivalent. Janus, for example, the Roman god of beginnings, doorways, exits, endings, and just duality in general, had no real Greek equivalent. Some writers equate him with Apollo, but classical scholars generally do not see this as an accurate comparison.

Religion in Ancient Rome had political connections.

This came from the fact that with the rise of the Roman Republic, ranking priests also rose into their position via election. Roman politicians also frequently took advantage of traditional conservatism to support their political agendas.

In particular, the predictions of the augurs, who interpreted the will of the gods via various omens, allowed Roman politicians to gather public support or opposition.

Roman politicians also competed to hold priesthoods themselves, as it added weight to their political positions. Julius Caesar, for example, used his status as pontifex maximus to implement his Julian Calendar. The authority and position of the pontifex maximus would later become absorbed into the office of the Roman Emperor.

And after the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Pope retained that same authority. In fact, the Pope’s authority over the Roman Catholic Church today comes from his holding the office of pontifex maximus.

The Vestal Virgins held the highest authority in religious matters.

The Vestals watched over the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the home and hearth, and divine protector of Rome. In particular, they had to keep Vesta’s sacred fire burning, with disaster prophesied to strike should it ever go out. As Vesta had the status of a virgin goddess, only virgin women could become her priestesses.

At first, only two Vestals watched over the temple, but that number grew to six over time. Vestals became emancipated from their paterfamilias, male head of the family, and received state protection.

In fact, harming a Vestal deliberately or not, automatically counted as a capital crime. Similarly, a Vestal who broke her vow of chastity was punished by getting buried alive. Vestals served for 30 years, after which they received a pension and could start a family. The prestige of their past office proved so great that even patrician men competed to marry a plebeian former Vestal.

Legend claims that the Fall of Rome resulted from a curse by the last Vestal Virgin.

Two versions of the legend exist. The first involved the end of the Vestals’ public subsidy during the reign of the Christian Emperor Gratian, in 382 AD. Pagan Romans blamed the failed harvest and resulting famine of that year on divine displeasure against the Emperor. Then in 384 AD, Princess Serena, niece of Theodosius the Great, participated in the looting of the Temple of Vesta. The last Vestal prophesied Serena’s death, which took place the following year.

Pagan Romans blamed the Christians for this and every other disaster which recently struck the Western Roman Empire. They believed Christianity’s intolerance for pagan beliefs had the gods, which once protected Rome, to withdraw their protection.

The Romans generally tolerated foreign religions.

The Romans only concerned themselves with foreign religions if said religion deliberately threatened the state. As long as their conquered people paid their taxes and followed the law, the Romans usually left their beliefs alone.

In fact, Romans actually allowed temples and shrines of native gods to stand next to their own. They also extended tax exemptions to those temples, and even protection to their priests.

Judaism and Christianity held an exception when it came to Roman religious policy.

This resulted from Judaism and Christianity’s core teaching of a single god, and that all other gods existed as nothing more than idols. The prophecy of Christ’s return as a heavenly king who would then restore the Kingdom of Israel also proved problematic.

The Romans interpreted this as a threat to their continued rule over the province of Judea. Many Jews also refused to accept rule by someone outside of the Tribes of Israel. This, in turn, resulted in several revolts over the centuries as well as the emergence of the diaspora, when Emperor Hadrian expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and forbade their return.

Both Christians and Muslims maintained this ban even after the Fall of the Roman Empire. Only the end of WWII would see the Jews return to Jerusalem, as part of the new State of Israel.

Ancient Rome looked up to specific virtues.

To the point that they appear contradictory to modern eyes. Romans, for example, prized conviction, courage, fairness, loyalty, moderation, and sense of duty above everything else. They also saw forgiveness and modesty as admirable traits, so long as they did not interfere with other virtues.

But at the same time, they saw compassion as a weakness. They also considered what modern historians would call militarism as the only logical policy for their state. This has led modern historians to conclude that Ancient Rome’s virtues resulted from their early history of living under constant threat from their neighbors.

Roman art and literature had heavy Greek influences.

So much so, that Roman art and literature from before the 1st century BC might as well exist as carbon copies of Greek work.

From the 1st century BC onward, though, the Romans began to experiment with their own themes. In particular, Romans favored an idealized realism for their art. In contrast, the Greeks patterned their art after myths and legends. Augustus’ reign also saw Roman academics revolting against Greek influence in their literature. The Aeneid, for example, glorified Rome’s legendary past at Greek expense.

The Trojan War as originally written ended with a Greek victory, but in the Aeneid, Greece’s victory became hollow. Troy’s survivors not only started over in a new land but eventually rose to conquer their former enemies in Greece.

Ancient Rome Facts, Roman Painting from Pompeii
Image source: Wikipedia Commons

Romans had various ways to pass the time.

Gladiatorial combat counts as the most infamous form of Roman entertainment, but hardly the only one. Romans enjoyed various sports like boxing, racing, and wrestling, with young children having games like leapfrog to pass the time. They also had various board and dice games, and of course, gambling existed as a popular pastime in Ancient Rome.