The Roman Empire

From the second century BC Rome began to expand outwards. When the Roman Army conquered a region, it expelled the defeated people from the best land and made preparations for Roman settlers to take over the area. These settlements were called colonies.

Land surveyors would arrive from Rome and divide the land into units. The size of the units would depend on the land available and the number of people needed to defend the territory.

Next to the farming area a town would be built with a protective wall round the outside. A start would also be made on a road that linked the colony with Rome and other colonies. As well as helping trade this would enable Rome to send extra troops quickly if a local rebellion took place.

Some of the land was given to wealthy Romans who had lent money to the government to pay for the military campaign. The rest was usually distributed free to retired members of the Roman Army. This strategy had two main purposes: it provided a reward for loyal service and ensured that the territory would be protected by experienced soldiers.

Soldiers in the Roman Army were not allowed to marry. Once they became settlers, they often married local women. Their children were brought up as Romans and therefore increased the number of people loyal to the empire. The fathers would also train their sons to be good soldiers.

After the Punic Wars Rome began forming colonies outside Italy. Some of these colonies were over a thousand miles away from Rome and so it was more important than ever to establish a good transport system. The building of roads linking Roman colonies was always given top priority.

Roman walled towns followed the same pattern wherever they were built. At the very centre would be the Forum. Close by would be public buildings such as a basilica (serving as a law court), a curia (where the local senate met) and a variety of Roman temples.

Aerial view of the remains of the Roman city of Timgad in Africa.
Aerial view of the remains of the Roman city of Timgad in Africa.

Roman colonies were linked together in groups to become a province. A senator would be sent from Rome to become governor of the province. The governor was responsible for protecting the province against foreign enemies, administering the law and making sure that the local taxes were collected.

With the rapid expansion of the Roman Empire in the first century BC it became more difficult to find enough retired soldiers or Roman citizens to populate the colonies. When Julius Caesar became leader of the Roman Empire he decided to grant land in the colonies to 100,000 poor people living in Rome. Caesar argued that as these people were receiving corn-dole (cheap bread) this move would save the government money. However, the granting of land to the poor was a controversial decision and came to an end after Caesar's death.

At first the local people (they were now classed as Roman subjects) were extremely hostile to the Roman settlers. Not only had the Romans taken the best land but they had also imposed taxes on the crops that the local people had produced. This led to unrest and occasionally revolt, such as the one led by Boudica in Britain. However, with the large number of troops available to the Romans, these revolts usually ended in failure.

As well as protecting territorial gains and stimulating trade, colonies also helped to introduce local people to Roman ideas. Latin was imposed as the official language for the area. In some cases the local languages completely disappeared.

Schools were also set up and these helped train young people to be loyal to the Roman Empire. If this process was successful, they were given the opportunity to become officials administering the province. They would also be granted the right to change their status from a Roman subject to a Roman citizen.

By the second century AD the territory of the Roman Empire covered the area occupied by the following modern-day countries: England, Wales, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Rumania, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia, Israel, Lebanon, Tunisia and parts of Germany, the Soviet Union, Morocco, Algeria, Syria and Egypt. It has been estimated that in the second century AD about 54 million people lived in the Roman Empire.

Primary Sources

(1) Sallust, The Jugurthine War (c. 40 BC)

The Romans, he (King Jugurtha) said, were men with no sense of justice and of insatiable greed, the common enemies of all mankind... their lust for empire, made them regard all kings as potential foes. "At the moment," he went on, "I am the object of their attack, as the Carthaginians were some time ago... So it will go on: they will always choose the richest victim they can find."

(2) Ovid, Metamorphoses (c. AD 8)

Above the stars; my name will be remembered

Wherever Roman power rules conquered lands,

I shall be read, and through all centuries.

(3) Calgacus, British leader, quoted by Tacitus in Agricola.(c. AD 98)

The Romans have exhausted the land by their plunder, and now they ransack the sea... Robbery, butchery... they create a wasteland and call it peace.

(4) Cerialis, Roman commander of Gaul, talking to the Treveri tribe after their defeat in AD 70.

There were always kings and wars throughout Gaul until you submitted to our laws... We have only charged you the cost of maintaining peace. For you cannot secure peace among nations without armies, nor maintain armies without pay, nor provide pay without taxes... Taxes are required to provide armies to keep out the Germans and Britons.

(5) Juvenal, Satires VIII (c. AD 115)

Those African labour-gangs sweating away in the wheat fields to supply a Rome whose onty concern now is racing and the stage... Take care not to victimise courageous, desperate men. You may strip them of all their gold and silver, they still possess swords and shields.

(6) Plutarch, Sertorius (c. AD 110)

Nothing appealed to the Spaniards more strongly that Sertorius' provision for their sons... They were

given a schooling by the teachers of Latin and Greek whom he had appointed, on the clear understanding that, when they reached manhood, they would receive Roman citizenship... The fathers were delighted by the sight of the son's dressed like Roman boys and going to school in an orderly way.

(7) Virgil, Aeneid (c. 19 BC)

Let it be your work, Roman, to rule the peoples with your power - these shall be your arts: to impose the habit of peace, to spare the conquered and put down the proud.


1. It has been estimated that during the Roman Empire a person on a horse could travel about 50 miles a day. A ship with the right conditions could travel about 125 miles a day. (a) How long would it have taken the Governor of Britannia to send a message to Rome? (b) How long would it have taken the Governor of Tarraconensis to send a message to Rome? (c) How does this information help to explain why the Romans had doubts about taking Britannia into the Roman Empire?

2. How does source 6 help to explain what Ovid is saying in source 2?