Introduction to Ancient Rome (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.1)

According to legend, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC. By 200 BC, the Romans had established their dominance on the Italian peninsula by the subduing the other tribes there. With this firm control of Italy, Rome then quickly expanded its power to encompass a vast empire surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. By the time of the birth of Jesus, the Roman Empire stretched from Spain in the west to Palestine in the east and from Britain in the far north to Egypt in the south. By extending their empire over this huge area of land and imposing their power on it, the Romans brought greater unity to the many peoples who lived around the Mediterranean Sea than they had ever had before.

Roman control of the entire Mediterranean world brought about a period of peace and stability that allowed people and things to move quicker from one place to another than they had before. The Romans used their military power to destroy piracy on the Mediterranean Sea. This made it much safer for boats to travel across the sea with people and goods. They also built long concrete roads that connected all of the cities of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Romans were the first people to use concrete, a material we still use in building projects today.

The Romans also helped to create a single culture all around the Mediterranean. Ironically, the culture the Romans spread was the culture of the Greeks, a civilization the Romans had conquered. When the Romans conquered the Greeks, they quickly began to admire the philosophy, science, literature, and art that the Greeks had produced.

Roman artists and writers started to imitate the Greek art and literature. The Roman author Virgil, for example, wrote an epic poem called the Aeneid. You may recall from the unit on the Greeks that Homer was the first person to write epic poetry. His Iliad and Odyssey are both about events the heroes and gods of the Greeks and the role they played in the Trojan War, an event in Greek history. Virgil imitated Homer’s style by writing the Aeneid. He also got the idea for his story from Homer. Virgil tries to link the Romans to the Greeks by telling a story about refugees from Troy who leave the city after it is destroyed and flee to Italy. Once there, he says, they became the ancestors of the Romans.

Other Roman thinkers also admired and imitated the Greeks who had come before them. People all around the Roman Empire began to read the writings of the Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle. The Romans even took many of the religious ideas of the Greeks. For each Greek god, they found a Roman equivalent. The Greek god Hades, god of the underworld, for example, became the Roman god Pluto. The Greek god Zeus, the father and king of the gods, became the Roman god Jupiter. The goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, became the Roman goddess Venus. Ideas that had started with the Greeks spread throughout the Roman Empire and had a very large influence on the way Romans thought.

By adopting Greek culture as their own at the same time they were spreading their empire over a huge area of land, the Romans helped Greek culture to spread as well. Soon, people were talking about Greek philosophers and reading the works of Greek poets in places as far away as Britain, which is more than 2000 miles from Greece. Greek language and culture became the language and culture of most of Europe and much of North Africa and the Middle East.

In addition to spreading the ideas of the Greeks, the Romans also made some unique contributions of their own. One piece of the heritage we still have from the Romans is an emphasis on law. Because their empire was so large and so diverse, the Romans were very concerned that everyone follows the same law, the law of the Roman Empire. The law codes of many of the countries of Europe date from time of the Roman Empire. Even in the United States, whose law code has a different origin, many of the most important words used by lawyers and judges are words in Latin, the language spoken by the Romans.

The Latin language is another very important aspect of the heritage we have received from the Romans. Even many years after the end of the Roman Empire, Latin remained the language used in churches and universities in Europe. The result was that educated people in Europe could speak to each other in the same language no matter which part of Europe they were from. In addition, many of the other languages of Europe came from Latin. French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, for example, are all called Romance languages because they come from Latin. Even about half of the words of the English language have Latin roots.

Although, as we will see, the western half of the Roman Empire was conquered more than 1500 years ago and the eastern half of the Roman Empire was destroyed more than 500 years ago, the heritage of the Romans is still alive and well today. The ideas, words, and customs that began with the Romans still can be found all around us. And all of this started with one small tribe on the Italian peninsula more than 2700 years ago.


Review Questions

 1. What civilization’s culture did the Romans admire and imitate?

2. What sea did the Roman Empire encircle?

3. Name one important aspect of our heritage from the Romans.

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