In about 1600 BC a tribe called the Latini formed a settlement on a group of hills by the River Tiber. They called this settlement Rome. It was strategically placed as it was the last crossing on the river before the sea through which north-south and east-west trade routes passed. Income from trade (charges on passing traders) became very important. In about 600 BC the area was invaded by a powerful group called the Etruscans that came from another part of Italy. They ruled Rome for about a hundred years before being forced out of the area. (1)
The Romans decided to establish a democratic republic. They borrowed the idea of democracy from Athens where this form of government had lasted for 200 years in an earlier period. Participation was not open to all residents in Athens. To vote one had to be an adult, male citizen who owned land and was not a slave, and the number of these "varied between 30,000 and 50,000 out of a total population of around 250,000 to 300,000." (2)
The word "democracy" means the "rule of the people". In reality it never referred to the whole people in Rome, since it excluded slaves, women and non-citizens. Nor did each citizen have one vote. Power in Rome was in the hands of a small group of rich families. The male heads of these families were called patriarchs. Three hundred of these patriarchs met in a place known as the Senate where they discussed government matters.
Every year the senators nominated two men to become joint leaders of Rome. These men were called consuls. The senators could advise but it was the consuls who made the decisions (they had to be in agreement before they did this). The consuls controlled government spending, foreign relations and the appointment of military commanders and provincial governors. In an effort to prevent foolish decisions being made, the two consuls had to be in agreement before decisions were taken.
Although the senators nominated them, the consuls were elected by the Public Assembly. In theory all Roman male citizens could attend the Public Assembly held in the Forum but it was organised in such a way that it was usually the patricians who controlled the decisions that were made. Sallust argued: "The Romans... introduced a new system in which authority was divided between two annually elected rulers; the limitation of their power, it was thought, would prevent them being tempted to abuse it." (3)
The Roman citizens who were not members of the ruling families were called plebeians. For hundreds of years the plebeians were not allowed to marry members of the patrician families so the two groups were kept very separate. The plebeians were in the vast majority but they were not free to elect who they wanted. This was because of a system called clientela. Every patriarch would have a large group of plebeians who were his clients. In exchange for financial and legal support, the plebeians supported the wishes of their patriarch. This included the way he voted in the Public Assembly.
In 494 BC the plebeians, inspired by what they had heard about democracy from the Greeks, had a meeting where they swore an oath of mutual support. They then informed the Senate that if it did not agree to their demands, they would form their own community outside Rome. As the plebeians provided labour for the fields and made up most of the army during warfare, the Senate was forced to accept their demands. (4)
It was agreed that the plebeians could each year elect two men to represent their interests. These men, who became known as tribunes, had the power to protect plebeians against the actions of the patriarchs. Tribunes were not paid and so they were nearly always fairly wealthy people. Following another campaign the Senate agreed that plebeians could also become consuls and praetors (officials who helped to govern Rome).
In 387 BC Rome was invaded again. This time it was the Celts (the Romans called them Gauls). Unlike the Etruscans, the Gauls did not occupy Rome. However, they did take all the valuables they could find. Before they left, the Gauls set fire to Rome.
The Romans were determined that this would not happen again. They decided to build a large stone wall round the outside of Rome. The wall was 2 metres wide, 8 metres high and 10 kilometres long. The Romans also improved their army. They borrowed a lot of ideas from the very successful Greek and Samnite armies. The Roman Army began wearing body armour made of metal and they also improved the quality of their weapons.
It was not long before the Romans had the best army in Italy. They were now in a position to take the territory of other groups who lived in the region. Gradually the Romans gained control over the whole of Italy. They managed to do this by learning from their enemies. As Julius Caesar pointed out: "Our ancestors... were never too proud to take over a good idea from another country." (5)
The Romans now began to look for other areas to conquer. At the beginning of the 3rd century BC the most powerful group in the Mediterranean area were the Carthaginians. This group controlled territory in North Africa, Western Europe and three large islands in the Mediterranean (Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia).
In the 3rd century BC there was a series of wars between the Romans and Carthaginians. The first battle between the two sides took place at Trebia in 218 BC. Although they had many more men, the Romans were heavily defeated by the Carthaginians. One of the reasons for this was that the Romans had trouble coping with Hannibal's elephants. The elephants were used at the front of the Carthaginian forces (similar to the way tanks were used in the First World War). Because of the elephants' size and trumpeting, the Romans had great difficulty in persuading their horses to charge Hannibal's forces.
The Romans tried several different tactics against elephants. They were extremely difficult to kill, so the main aim was to make them panic and run amok amongst the Carthaginians. They tried to do this by killing their driver or by stabbing them with javelins in the soft skin under the tail. The Romans also discovered that elephants were frightened of the sound of squealing pigs. Therefore pigs were covered in tar, set alight and let loose amongst the elephants. The Carthaginians attempted to counteract this tactic by giving wine to the elephants before battle and stabling them with pigs so that they would get used to the squealing.
Although Hannibal's elephants survived the Battle of Trebia, most of them died soon afterwards from the cold weather. However, the lack of elephants did not stop Hannibal inflicting a series of defeats on the Romans. The most important of these was at Cannae where over 50,000 Roman soldiers were killed and a further 19,000 were captured. Hannibal, on the other hand, lost less than 6,000 men.
The Battle of Zama took place in 202 BC. Hannibal had 40,000 men and 80 elephants while Scipio Africanus had 25,000 Romans and 11,000 Numidians. Hannibal started the battle by ordering an elephant charge. However, the Romans had learnt by bitter experience how to deal with elephants. Instead of pigs they now used men blowing trumpets. The noise frightened the elephants and many of them turned and stampeded, trampling to death large numbers of Carthaginians. Hannibal's troops were scattered and they were gradually hunted down by the Numidian cavalry. (6)
After this victory the Romans turned their attentions to the land governed by the Greeks. Gradually the Romans were able to take over the different parts of the Greek Empire. Wars produced a massive new labour force for the rich to exploit, as all captured soldiers were enslaved. These were sold to landowners to cultivate their estates at low cost. The slave population grew massively until, by the 1st century BC, there were two million slaves - compared with a free population of 3.25 million. The bulk of the slaves were adults, while the free population included many children. Also, one in eight male citizens were in the Roman Army. (7)
There were also several slave revolts. The most famous of these was led by a slave called Spartacus. He was a shepherd from Thrace who had been captured by the Romans and sent to Capua to become a gladiator. In 73 BC Spartacus and eighty companions escaped from the gladiatorial school. The group then ambushed a convoy of carts taking weapons to another town.
When other slaves in the area heard about the success of the revolt, they ran away from their masters and joined Spartacus' campaign for freedom. During the next two years Spartacus' slave army defeated four Roman armies. After two years Spartacus' army numbered 90,000 men and controlled most of southern Italy. However, they were unable to break out of Italy and reach their homelands.
In 71 BC the Roman senate sent a large army to deal with Spartacus. Outnumbered, Spartacus' army was defeated at a place called Apulia. The 6,000 slaves who were taken prisoner were crucified along the Appian Way (the main road into Rome). Their bodies were left to hang on the crosses for several months as a warning to other slaves who might consider the possibility of rebelling against their Roman masters. (8)
During this period the Romans began to take over western Europe. When the Roman army conquered a region, the best farming land was divided up into units. Some of this land was given to wealthy Romans who had helped pay for the military campaign. The rest of the land was given to retired members of the Roman army. These settlements were called colonies.
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 enabled Rome to send extra troops quickly if a local rebellion took place.
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 and making sure that the local taxes were collected.
At first the local people were extremely hostile to the Roman settlers for taking the best land. They also complained about having to pay Roman taxes. Sometimes the local people rebelled. However, with the large number of troops
available to the Romans, these revolts usually ended in failure.
Quintus Petillius Cerialis, the Roman commander of Gaul, explained to one defeated tribe: "There were always wars throughout Gaul until you submitted to our laws... we have only charged you the cost of maintaining peace. For you cannot secure peace without armies, nor maintain armies without pay, nor provide pay without taxes." (9) However, as one defeated tribal leader, Calgacus, pointed out: "The Romans have exhausted the land by their plunder... Robbery, butchery... they create a wasteland and call it peace. (10)
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. The fathers were also expected to train their sons to be good soldiers.
Schools were also set up in the provinces. The children were taught Latin and introduced to Roman ideas. If these children did well at school they were given the opportunity of working as Roman officials. Once they had proved their loyalty to the Roman Empire, these people were allowed to become Roman citizens.
In 59 BC Julius Caesar was elected consul. At the end of his term in office, Caesar became commander of the Roman Army in Narbonese Gaul. Caesar was confident that in the long term, his well-organised forces would be able to defeat the Gauls that controlled central and northern Europe. First he defeated the Helvetii that inhabit present day Switzerland. He followed this with victories over the Gauls that lived in northern Europe. After reaching the English Channel in 55 BC Caesar decided to invade Britain.
In 55 BC the Romans were fighting the Gauls in a land that is now known as France. When Caesar heard that the Gauls were receiving supplies from people living in a neighbouring island he decided they needed to be punished. Caesar's first attempt to take his soldiers to the island he called Britain was not very successful due to bad storms in the Channel. The following year Caesar tried again. This time he was able to capture large areas of southern Britain. Surveys were carried out to find out whether Britain had any natural resources that Romans might need.
Julius Caesar reported: "The population is extremely large, there are very many farm buildings, closely resembling those in Gaul, and the cattle are numerous. Tin is found in the midland area, and iron near the coast, but not in large quantities. The bronze they use is imported... By far the most civilised of the Britons are those who live in Kent... their way of life is very much like those of the Gauls. Most of the tribes living in the interior do not grow grain; they live on milk and meat and wear skins. All the Britons dye their bodies with woad, which produces a blue colour and gives them a wild appearance in battle. They wear their hair long; every other part of the body, except for the upper lip, they shave. Wives are shared between groups of ten or twelve men, especially between brothers and between fathers and sons." (11)
Strabo, was not impressed by the people living on the island: "Most of the island is low-lying and wooded, but there are many hilly areas. It produces corn, cattle, gold, silver and iron. These things are exported along with hides, slaves and dogs suitable for hunting. The men are taller than the Gauls and not so yellow-haired... I myself in Rome saw youths (slaves from Britain) standing half a foot taller than the tallest in the city although they were bandy-legged and ungainly in build. They live much like the Gauls but some of their customs are more primitive and barbarous. Thus for example some of them are well supplied with milk but do not know how to make cheese; they know nothing of planting crops or of farming in general... Their cities are the forests, as they fell trees and fence in large circular enclosures in which they build huts and pen in their cattle, but not for any length of time."
Strabo could see no advantage of turning the island into a colony: "We have nothing to fear from Britain, since they are not strong enough to cross over and attack us. No advantages would arise by taking over and holding the country. If we deduct the cost of maintaining an army to garrison the island from the taxes, we will find it unprofitable. It will require at least one legion and a force of cavalry to collect taxes from them, and the cost of such a force would offset the revenue gained." (12)
Caesar returned to Rome and appointed 300 of his supporters as members of the Senate. Although the Senate and Public Assembly still met, it was Caesar who now made all the important decisions. By 44 BC Caesar was powerful enough to declare himself dictator for life. Although in the past Roman leaders had become dictators in times of crisis, no one had taken this much power.
Rumours began to spread that Caesar planned to make himself king. Plutarch wrote: "What made Caesar hated was his passion to be king." Caesar denied these charges but the Roman people, who had a strong dislike of the kingship system, began to worry about the way Caesar made all the decisions. Even his friends complained that he was no longer willing to listen to advice.. (13)
Eventually a group of 60 men, including Marcus Brutus, rumoured to be one of Caesar's illegitimate sons, decided to assassinate Caesar. When Caesar arrived at the Senate a group of senators gathered round him. Publius Servilius Casca stabbed him from behind. Caesar looked round for help but now the rest of the group pulled out their daggers. One of the first men Caesar saw was Brutus and was reported to have declared, "You too, my son." Caesar knew it was useless to resist and pulled his toga over his head and waited for the final blows to arrive.
After the death of Caesar, Augustus and Mark Antony were involved in a struggle for power. When Augustus eventually became the leader of the Roman Empire he changed the method of government. In 27 BC he established the imperial system where one man, the emperor, made all the important decisions. Although the Senate still met, the senators were now advisers rather than rulers.
Roman emperors also had the power to decide who should succeed them when they died. They usually liked their eldest son to become the next emperor. However, the high death-rate amongst children made this difficult. For example, only three of the first twenty emperors had sons alive when they died.
The first time the Romans arrived in Britain they concluded that it would be difficult to make a profit out of the country. They therefore decided not to take Britain into the Roman Empire. Ninety years later the Romans changed their minds about Britain. In AD 43 Emperor Claudius ordered another invasion of Britain. At that time the people of Britain were ruled by several different kings. Most of these kings decided not to oppose the invasion. (14)
Caratacus was the leader of British resistance. No other ruler or war leader is mentioned as playing any part in military operations at that time. Eventually he was forced to retreat to the mountains of north Wales. After another long battle Caratacus was forced to retreat to northern Britain. However, he was captured by the Brigantes tribe who had accepted the rule of the Romans. The Brigantes handed Caratacus over to the Romans. The Romans respected Caratacus because he was a brave fighter and instead of executing him sent him to live in Rome. According to Malcolm Todd: "Caratacus is reported to have addressed the emperor, remarking that his resistance had contributed largely to the conqueror's glory. If killed now he would be quickly forgotten, but if spared would become a monument to the emperor's clemency. Caratacus and his family were granted their lives." (15)
The Romans were not very impressed with the people who they found in Britain: "For most part the Britons are naked... being unfamiliar with the use of clothing... They tattoo their bodies with various designs and pictures of all kinds of animals. This is the reason they do not wear clothes: so as not to cover up the designs on their bodies. They are extremely warlike and bloodthirsty, though their armament consists simply of a narrow shield, a spear, and a sword that hangs beside their naked bodies." (16)
Jordanes agreed: "They (the people of Britain) live in wattled huts, a shelter used in common with their flocks, and often the woods are their home. They paint their bodies with iron-red... They often wage war with one another, either because they desire power or to increase their possessions. They fight not only on horseback or on foot, but with a scythed two-horse chariots." (17)
King Prasutagus was the king of the Iceni tribe in Norfolk and Suffolk in about AD 45. When he died in in AD 60 he left his kingdom jointly to his two daughters and Nero, the Roman emperor. Nero refused to share power with Prasutagus' daughters and orders were given to the Roman army to take the kingdom by force. "Kingdom and household alike were plundered by the Roman army. His widow Boudica was flogged and their daughters raped." (18)
The historian, Cassius Dio, was impressed by the abilities of Boudica. "The rousing of the Britons, the persuading of them to fight against the Romans, the winning of the leadership and the command throughout the war - this was the work of Boudica, a woman of the British royal family who had uncommon intelligence for a woman... When she had collected an army about 120,000 strong, Boudica mounted a rostrum... She was very tall and grim... and her voice was harsh. She grew her long auburn hair to the hips. Taking a spear too to add to her effect upon the entire audience." (19)
It was claimed that Boudica told her troops: "I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom... Consider how many of you are fighting - and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do! - let the men live in slavery if they will." (20)
Boudica's army attacked Roman settlements at London, Colchester and St Albans. Roman historians claim that Boudica's army killed at least 70,000 people in these attacks. "They could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn and crucify." At the time the Roman soldiers were involved in a military campaign in Wales. As soon as Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman governor, heard about the rebellion he rushed his troops back to England.
We do not know where the battle between Boudica and Paulinus took place. Graham Webster, the author of Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome (1978) points out that Boudica's troops "lacked organisation, discipline and equipment" and that the "best body protection a man could acquire was a leather jerkin, heavily greased to turn a swordblade, with toughened strips or patches to the shoulders and other vulnerable parts". (21)
Roman historians tell us that Paulinus told his troops: "Disregard the empty threats of the natives! In their ranks, there are more women than fighting men... Just keep in close order. Throw your javelins, and then carry on: use shields to push them over, swords to kill them." (22)
Suetonius claims that the Romans had an army of about 10,000, while Boudica had 230,000 soldiers. "The Romans took up a position in a defile, with a plain in front and dense woodland behind. Boudica's tribesmen entered the plain, drawing up their wagons at the back, together with the women and children, as though in a grandstand. Lured into attack, the Britons were met first with a shower of javelins, and then by a disciplined assault. Hemmed in by the carts, there was a terrible slaughter of the tribes people." It is claimed that 80,000 Britons and 400 Romans were killed during the battle. (23)
Boudica managed to escape but according to Tacitus, when she realised that she would be unable to defeat the Romans, she committed suicide by taking poison. Cassius Dio suggested her death might have been caused by sickness. However, it has been pointed out that the sickness might have been caused by taking poison. (24)
The people of Britain continued to resist Roman rule. It took another 15 years to control Wales. Occupying Scotland was even more difficult. Emperor Hadrian came to Britain to study the situation. He decided that it would be too expensive to conquer Scotland and gave orders for a wall to be built right across England that would keep the Scottish tribes out of Roman Britain.
Hadrian's Wall was built between AD 122 and 126. The wall, made of stone and turf, is 117 km. long (73 miles). On the northern side of the wall is a deep ditch. On the southern side is a road that enabled Roman soldiers to be moved quickly to any part of the wall that was under attack.
Britain was never very profitable. They did find small deposits of gold (Wales) and silver (Mendip Hills). They also exported grain, lead, iron, copper, salt, oysters and some agricultural products. They imported far more than they exported as they had as many as 50,000 soldiers based on the island.
A large number of towns grew up along the Roman roads. London became the most important trading centre in Northern Europe. They also built villas, country houses of the Roman or British magnates. "The British upper classes became completely Romanised and were transformed from Celtic tribal chiefs into Roman landowners and officials." (25)
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, parts of Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Monaco, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Rumania, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Serbia, Israel, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Syria and Egypt.
Edward Gibbon argues in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): "In the 2nd century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth... The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces." Gibbon adds that "if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed between the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus (from AD 98-180)." (26)
Britain was the edge of the Roman Empire in the west and north. Its border in the south was northern Africa. These borders were very secure. However, it began to have problems as it pushed east. The Romans called the people who lived outside the Roman Empire, barbarians. In the 4th century AD the Roman army had considerable difficulty in stopping these barbarians from entering the empire from the east. These tribes were called Vandals, Goths and Huns.
Ammianus encountered the Goths in AD 385: "They all have compact, strong limbs and thick necks and are so monstrously ugly and misshapen that one might take them for two-legged beasts... They dress in linen cloth or in the skins of field-mice sewn together... when they have once put their necks into a faded tunic, it is not taken off or changed until it has been reduced to rags and fallen from them bit by bit. They cover their heads with round caps and protect their hairy legs with goat skins... They are not at all adapted to battles on foot, but they are almost glued to their horses, which are hardy, it is true, but ugly." (27)
The growth of Christianity also created problems for the Roman Empire. Early Christians argued that Jesus had preached non-violence. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you." Christians who interpreted the words of Jesus in this way often refused to join the Roman Army. Christians were often persecuted by the Romans and some were thrown to the lions as entertainment. As Christians believed that they would go to heaven after being executed by the Romans, they were willing to accept death. In fact some Christians actually encouraged pagans to kill them so they would become martyrs. By the 4th century it was the main religion of the urban poor. According to Karl Kautsky, the early Christians put forward "communist" ideas that appealed to the "proletariat" (Romans who did not own property). (28)
Emperor Constantine decided to take a different approach. In 313 he announced the end of the persecution of the Christians. In 323 he declared he was a Christian and that Christianity was now the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity was now used to justify violence. That by praying to God before battle gave them a better chance of winning. Constantine claimed that as Emperor, he was God's representative on earth. Some followers of Jesus Christ rejected this idea. This meant that Roman Catholics were now safe, Christian groups such as the Donatists and Arians continued to be persecuted.
The Roman Empire continued to have problems defending its eastern borders. By the end of the 4th century the Roman army had grown dramatically. What is more, the emperors became more reliant on the expensive mercenary armies that now numbered 650,000. Taxation had to be increased to pay for this large army. Taxation had accounted for only about 10% of the peasant family's produce under the republic, but by later states of the empire it reached nearly a third. (29)
These taxes were higher than most people could afford. Some Roman citizens formed themselves into an armed resistance group called the Bagaudae. Paulus Orosius wrote: "There are certain Romans who prefer to live in freedom among the barbarians than the constant oppression of taxation among the Romans." (30)
Short of soldiers, the Romans were forced to employ barbarian mercenaries to fight for them. This created long-term problems as the barbarians did not always remain loyal to their Roman paymasters. The Roman Army was not even strong enough to protect Rome and it constantly suffered from attacks. One monk wrote: "Rome has been taken by assault... The city has been conquered which had once controlled the entire world." (31)
In 407 it was decided to recall the Roman Army based in Britain in an attempt to protect its territory in mainland Europe. However, this was unsuccessful and by 419 they had lost Spain to the Vandals and large parts of France to the Franks. In 435 the Vandals took Rome's African provinces. As Rome relied heavily on food from Africa, this was a serious blow to the survival of the empire.
Salvian was a Christian living in Marseilles. He wrote: "The Romans were once the mightiest of men, now they are without strength; of old they were feared, but now they live in fear. Under the judgement of a just God we are paying what we owe." He then goes on to quote Jesus Christ: "What men have sowed, they shall also reap." (32)
In 476, Flavius Odoacer, the leader of the barbarian mercenaries in the Roman Empire, overthrew Emperor Romulus Augustulus, and installed himself as the King of Italy. However, the eastern empire, ruled from Constantinople, continued for another thousand years. It was not until 1453, when Mehmed II captured Constantinople, that the Byzantine Empire, as it became known, ceased to exist.