Ancient Mediterranean + Europe
- Introduction to ancient Rome
- Introduction to ancient Roman art
- City of Rome overview—origins to the archaic period
- Visualizing Imperial Rome
- Rome's history in four faces at The Met
- Damnatio memoriae—Roman sanctions against memory
- Roman funeral rituals and social status: the Amiternum tomb and the tomb of the Haterii
- The Modern Invention of Ancient White Marble
Introduction to ancient Rome
By The British Museum
Cameo with double portrait of the emperor Trajan and his wife Plotina, c. 117–138 C.E., sardonyx, 5 x 4.3 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)
From a republic to an empire
Legend has it that Rome was founded in 753 B.C.E. by Romulus, its first king. In 509 B.C.E. Rome became a republic ruled by the Senate (wealthy landowners and elders) and the Roman people. During the 450 years of the Republic, Rome conquered the rest of Italy and then expanded into France, Spain, Turkey, North Africa, and Greece.
Rome became very Greek-influenced or “Hellenized,” and the city was filled with Greek architecture, literature, statues, wall-paintings, mosaics, pottery, and glass. But with Greek culture came Greek gold, and generals and senators fought over this new wealth. The Republic collapsed in civil war and the Roman empire began.
In 31 B.C.E. Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony at Actium. This brought the last civil war of the Republic to an end. Although it was hoped by many that the Republic could be restored, it soon became clear that a new political system was forming: the emperor became the focus of the empire and its people. Although, in theory, Augustus (as Octavian became known) was only the first citizen and ruled by consent of the Senate, he was in fact the empire's supreme authority. As emperor he could pass his powers to the heir he decreed and was a king in all but name.
Portland Vase, c. 1–25 C.E., glass, 24 x 17 cm (© Trustees of the British Museum)
The empire, as it could now be called, enjoyed unparalleled prosperity as the network of cities boomed, and goods, people, and ideas moved freely by land and sea. Many of the masterpieces associated with Roman art, such as the mosaics and wall paintings of Pompeii, gold and silver tableware, and glass, including the Portland Vase, were created in this period. The empire ushered in an economic and social revolution that changed the face of the Roman world: service to the empire and the emperor, not just birth and social status, became the key to advancement.
Successive emperors, such as Tiberius and Claudius, expanded Rome's territory. By the time of the emperor Trajan, in the late first century C.E., the Roman empire, with about fifty million inhabitants, encompassed the whole of the Mediterranean, Britain, much of northern and central Europe, and the Near East.
Schematic map showing the territorial expansion of Rome from the Middle Republic to the death of the Emperor Trajan (map: Varana, CC BY-SA 3.0)
A vast empire
Starting with Augustus in 27 B.C.E., the emperors ruled for five hundred years. They expanded Rome’s territory and by about 200 C.E., their vast empire stretched from Syria to Spain and from Britain to Egypt. Networks of roads connected rich and vibrant cities, filled with beautiful public buildings. A shared Greco-Roman culture linked people, goods and ideas.
The imperial system of the Roman Empire depended heavily on the personality and standing of the emperor himself. The reigns of weak or unpopular emperors often ended in bloodshed at Rome and chaos throughout the empire as a whole. In the third century C.E. the very existence of the empire was threatened by a combination of economic crisis, weak and short-lived emperors and usurpers (and the violent civil wars between their rival supporting armies), and massive penetration into Roman territory.
Relative stability was re-established in the fourth century C.E., through the emperor Diocletian's division of the empire. The empire was divided into eastern and western halves and then into more easily administered units. Although some later emperors such as Constantine ruled the whole empire, the division between east and west became more marked as time passed. Financial pressures, urban decline, underpaid troops, and consequently overstretched frontiers—all of these finally caused the collapse of the western empire under waves of barbarian incursions in the early fifth century C.E. The last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476 C.E., though the empire in the east, centered on Byzantium (Constantinople), continued until the fifteenth century.
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Want to join the conversation?
- What happened to Greece during the Roman Supremacy?(12 votes)
- Greece was defeated by Rome when Rome was still a republic. The Romans adopted some of the Greek culture, but Greece was definitely under Rome's rule.(15 votes)
- How did the Roman Empire fall?(4 votes)
- barbarians mostly, along with other groups of people rebelling(1 vote)
- When did the Roman Empire fall?(2 votes)
- Romulus the last Roman emperor was overthrown in 476 A.D. by the Germanic leader Odoacer.(2 votes)
- I have never seen a cameo like that one before. Emperor Trajan and his wife? Wow, wouldn't that have been considered just a tad too progressive? Anyone know what the cameo was for? Ring? Broach? Clasp? Souvenir?(0 votes)
- It is quite common for the emperor to appear on cameos, coins, etc. with his wife, his mother, and other powerful females. By Trajan's time, this was common practice. Your statement about progressivism is rather an anachronistic reading of art, in that it is not advisable to assess one culture against another's social standards.(4 votes)
- Why did the barbarians invade?(1 vote)
- Population pressures from the east forced mass movements westward.(1 vote)
- if the people in ancient Rome after the civil war wanted Rome to be a republic again, why didn't they rebel to get what they wanted?(1 vote)
- When did the capital of Constantinople become Istanbul? Was the name change a heavy influence on Islamic culture?(1 vote)
- Your question is not especially clear. Constantinople became Istanbul after the Ottoman Turks took control of the city in 1453.(2 votes)
- I am researching the Cameo of the Emperor Trajan and his wife Plotina. Is there any other information on this art piece? I've read that it was created between 105 - 115AD, that it is carved on sardonyx stone, and that it is 5 x 4.3 cm, but is there any other actual information on the piece? Such as where it was found, a speculation on who might of created that cameo, did Emperor Trajan, or his wife wear the cameo?
Also, is this cameo in the British Museum, is it on display at the British Museum?(1 vote)
- How did Octavian defeat Marc Antony and Cleopatra if he was the adopted son of Julius Caeser? Wasn't Cleopatra a lover of Julius Caeser?(1 vote)
- Cleopatra was a lover of Julius Caesar, but that didn't mean that they had children. It is possible that one or both of them were infertile, or that Cleopatra just never got pregnant.(1 vote)
- How is it that some of the Roman architecture architects these days hundereds of years later can finally make only some of the things Romans made(1 vote)
- Can you suggest what kind of structures that Roman architects could make so long ago which have only been recently constructed through the work of engineers in recent centuries?(1 vote)