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CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans


Lecture 4 Classical Antiquity: The Romans

Table of Contents
Who were the Romans? ................................................................................................................ 3
Roman Expansion ......................................................................................................................... 4
The Roman Empire ....................................................................................................................... 6
Roman Culture ..............................................................................................................................8
Religion/Mythology .................................................................................................................. 9
Politics ..................................................................................................................................... 10
The Arts, Architecture and Engineering ................................................................................. 12
The problem of Christianity ........................................................................................................ 15
Concluding remarks .................................................................................................................... 16

This lecture surveys the main historical shifts from the period of the beginning of the
Roman republic (from about 500BC) to the rise of the Byzantine Empire (from around
the fourth century). We begin with a description of who the Romans were and what their
connections to ancient Greece were. Then we examine the establishment of the Roman
Empire and its spreading of political organisation and technology throughout its
conquered territories. We also look at the role that Christianity played, firstly in
opposition to Roman imperialism and later as a central feature of the empire, especially
under Constantine.

CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans


Lecture 4 Classical Antiquity: The Romans

Last week we looked at the innovative culture of the ancient Greeks. Driven by its democratic
political system, Athens emerged as the leading cultural centre in Greece by the time of its
Golden Age in the fifth century BCE. However, democracy was swept away by the Macedoni-
an empire, which took over most of Greece. Under the leadership of Alexander the Great,
though, the empire expanded to become the biggest the world had ever known to that point,
and Alexander spread the best parts of Greek culture around the huge empire. Alexander the
Great didnt live long enough to see the fruits of his empire, but Greek civilisation continued
to be very influential from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, North Africa and the edge of

However, by the time of Jesus (just over 2000 years ago) there was an additional factor at
play in this traditional geographical sphere of the civilised world. That factor was the political
rule of the Roman Empire, which united the old Middle Eastern world with another and more
foreign geographical area altogether, Western Europe. And this new expanded geopolitical re-
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

ality was about to become further complicated by the historical appearance of the already-
mentioned Jesus of Nazareth.
This weeks lecture looks at how Rome overtook and adapted the older traditions of Greek civ-
ilisation, and how in turn Roman civilisation took shape as its empire overtook the earlier
Greek one and spread into Western Europe.
Who were the Romans?
Even experts disagree when Rome was founded. Our best guess is that the town was estab-
lished by a crossing point on the Tiber River about 900 BCE. For centuries it was a small city
about halfway down the west coast of Italy where nothing much happened.
In the area we now know as Italy lived the Latin people (inhabitants of Latium), who were
small farmers divided into many small city states. Rome was one of these. Originally Rome
was a kingdom ruled by elected kings, but by about 500 BCE the aristocrats (wealthy land-
owners) became sick of kings acting in outrageous ways, and (under the influence of Greek
ideas) they proclaimed a res publica (the Latin word for a democracy, or government of the
people, hence our word republic). As well see, the Romans borrowed a lot of ideas from the
Greeks especially political, religious and creative ideas. They also borrowed many ideas
from the neighbouring Etruscans, whose civilisation overlapped with the Greeks.
It was the founding of the republic which kick-started the growth of Rome. This republic was
initially based, like the Greek democracies, on a direct participatory form of government, in
which all the citizens voted directly to make laws. Two important facts about the Romans had
a lot to do with their later success. First, as in Greece, the right to be a citizen depended on
landownership and willingness to bear arms to defend the city. In fact the Romans made vic-
tory in war into pretty much a religious duty. War became their business.
But second, unlike the Greeks, the Romans were happy to extend citizenship to foreigners of
proven loyalty who would obey Roman law. It would be fair to say that for the Romans being a
citizen was a matter of law, not of race. The Romans would even allow freed slaves to become
citizens, which the Greeks never allowed. This meant that Rome grew by forming alliances, by
conquering and by actually absorbing other people and making them Roman.
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans


Roman Expansion
Although Rome started small, they expanded quickly in response to pressure from other peo-
ples in central Italy seeking to annex Rome. Once the republic was established, and all Roman
citizens were armed and in a position to benefit from conquest of other states, the whole of
Roman society was permanently on a war footing. By 250 BCE they controlled all of central
and southern Italy.
The Romans rivalry with Carthage showed how ruthless they were. Carthage was a major na-
val power in the region but Rome built its own navy to take them on. After beating Carthage in
two wars, Rome decided to destroy the city. Not only this, but Romans also sowed salt into
Carthages fields to ensure nothing could grow there again. This was a lesson to all in the Med-
iterranean world, and marked the point where Rome became fully a world power. The les-
son was that no one challenged Rome and got away with it.
A map of Roman lands about 200 BCE. The city of Carthage is shown in North Africa.

Roman Empire in 200 CE
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

The Romans made a policy of fighting their wars without mercy, but then being quite liberal
once peace was declared. So opponents would give in quickly out of fear of the consequences,
and in the certainty that they would receive good treatment in the peace. In particular the lo-
cal leaders would have an incentive to make peace, because it was Roman policy to leave the
original aristocrats in power in a sort of partnership arrangement. In effect they sub-let local
power to local rulers. The exception was people who had once submitted to Rome but then re-
belled; they were shown no mercy at all.
The state offered many privileges to those who fought for Rome victors were pretty much
made for life. Successful generals could also keep anything they could carry away in wartime,
which made Rome as a whole very rich. The Romans ability to conquer, and then to gain the
support of the conquered enabled them to build an empire bigger than Alexanders (from Iraq
to Scotland; Germany to Egypt) and keep it together for five hundred years.
A scene from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian makes the point that even people
who regarded the Romans as foreign conquerors (like the Jewish freedom fighters
seen here) had to admit that there were benefits to Roman rule. To see it, click here.
From 196 BCE until the time of Christ (two hundred years
later) Roman rule gradually expanded, eventually covering
all the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt and North
Africa, having 75-100 million subjects at its peak. The
Greeks, however, took a long time to warm to Roman rule.
Although it must have been flattering to be so widely and
obviously copied by Roman artists and intellectuals, it
would be fair to say that many Greeks felt rather snob-
bishly towards the relatively uncultured Romans. Alt-
hough most of the Roman Empire adopted Roman culture
like the Latin language and Roman dress, the eastern em-
pire remained very Greek, which became significant much
later, when the empire began to unravel and break into an
eastern and a western half that were culturally very differ-
Hellenistic funeral painting of an Egyptian
woman, from about the time of Christ.
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans


The Roman Empire
Around 50 BCE the Roman world was split by a civil war. The republic collapsed as the in-
creasingly rich Roman citizens at home failed to select good leaders. There was a collapse of
the old Republican values of loyalty, honesty and lack of self-interest. Personal wealth and
love of power proved to be corrupting factors. Eventually, one of Romes most successful gen-
erals, Julius Caesar (who had put down a rebellion in Spain and then conquered France), got
sick of poor government at home and marched his army to Rome.
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

The so-called Tusculum portrait, this
bust is thought to be the only image of
Julius Caesar made from life.

He fought and defeated his rival Pompey, then had himself declared dicta-
tor, an official but usually temporary post. When it became clear he in-
tended to rule permanently, a group of assassins stabbed him to death in
44 BCE. But it turned out that there was no hope of restoring the ancient
republic, because the citizens of Rome were unable to make disinterested
and often difficult governing decisions wealth and success had spoiled
them. After more civil war an emperor called Augustus emerged
in 31 BCE.
Historians usually date the
end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Ro-
man Empire at this point: 31 BCE. From that date Rome
became a personal monarchy with just a few democratic
trappings; democracy became increasingly irrelevant.
Roman citizens came to have less and less power over po-
litical decision-making.
Augustus was the first emperor to have himself deified
(ie. regarded as a god). The emperors after him followed
suit and established a state religion, which wasnt taken
seriously in Rome but was in distant parts of the empire.
We can see this god-like appearance in the famous statue
of Augustus. He is presented in the manner of the Greek
gods as an idealised physically perfect specimen, poised
and calm, and depicted as younger than he really was. He
also has cupid at his side to suggest that he is descended
from the gods, as well as having the gods of the sky and
the earth carved on his breastplate. So this is political propaganda to elevate Augustus and
make him untouchable in Roman society, a cut above everybody else. From this point on,
much of Roman public art was made for explicitly political reasons, namely to glorify the em-
peror. (One of the legacies of the deification of Augustus is the month of August; if youve ever
wondered why the consecutive months of July and August are both 31 days long, thats be-
cause the Roman Senate named August after Augustus and wanted his month to be at least as
The statue is Augustus, from the
first century CE
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

important as July [named after his predecessor Julius Caesar], so they took a day off February
and gave it to August, which is why February is only 28 days long and August is 31 days.)

Roman Culture

Traditionally the Romans prided themselves on their plain ways. Wealth and luxury were
distrusted, and the republic honoured men who fought hard and did not seek personal profit.
But gradually as conquests expanded, Rome was decorated with grander buildings and suc-
cessful generals became richer and richer. Traditional values were kept up, but increasingly
people began to love luxury and ease. In particular, Romans started to own many slaves (like
the Greeks), and eventually by 200 BCE, about 40% of the population of Italy consisted of
slaves. The Romans themselves did less and less actual work. And the gulf between rich and
poor got larger and larger. It was more or less the reverse of what happened to Athenian socie-
400 BCE 1 CE
Reign of
the Great
31 BCE: First
313 CE: Roman
Christian; 324:
creates second
capital in east
200 BCE 200 CCE
404 BCE:
Hellenistic World Roman Expansion Roman Empire
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

Mars, Roman god of war,
1st century statue
Unlike the Greeks, the Romans didnt have a distinctive culture of their own that they spread
across their empire. Rather, somewhat unusually in the history of imperialism, they were
more likely to copy and assimilate the cultures of those who they conquered, especially early
in their empire building. In other words, the Romans didnt develop their own distinctive ar-
tistic practices or even their own religious traditions, but instead copied those of other cul-
tures, especially Greek. This isnt to say that the Roman Empire didnt produce any notewor-
thy art, music or architecture, just that what they did produce often wasnt very original.
The Romans were greatly impressed by tradition, and thus they became huge fans of Greece:
the senior culture. The Roman gods were quite deliberately associated with their Greek coun-
terparts. Like in Greece, the gods were represented in state rituals with large temples. To the
Romans, victory in war meant that the gods were favouring Rome, and the more
they won, the more the gods liked them. And as wealth began to flow into
Rome, it was taken as a sign of divine pleasure (that is, a sign that the gods liked
them very much). In order to show their gratitude to the gods, the Romans en-
gaged in a program of building and erecting monuments, and it was to Greek
models of architecture and art that they turned.
In general Romans tended to copy the best bits from other cultures. When they
conquered new people, they not only gave them the chance to become Roman,
they also took their gods and added them to the existing pantheon or family of
gods. There is little evidence that the Romans were as a whole very reli-
gious, or emotionally invested in their official religion. They certainly didnt
insist on their gods at the expense of anyone elses. Mainly they seemed to see religion in
terms of a business contract. You have certain obligations to the other party (the gods, in this
case), such as paying your debts. Beyond that, nothing much is required.
In saying that, however, the Romans didnt take anything for chance. There were a lot of dif-
ferent cultures out there with very different gods, so in about 27 BCE the Romans decided to
gather them all together in one place. The Pantheon, meaning all the gods, was erected but
soon destroyed, and restored in 126 CE by Hadrian to house statues to all the known gods, as
a temple in which the power of all the gods could be harnessed.
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

As weve seen, early in the Roman Republic they aspired to a democratic political system, but
once the emperors cast themselves as gods there was much less involvement for ordinary Ro-
mans in the affairs of the empire.
To keep control of the population, the emperors (in addition to promoting themselves as
gods) typically practiced a policy known as bread and circuses. What this means is that as
long as the masses of Roman citizens were fed and entertained, then they wouldnt stage
demonstrations, riots or revolutions against the emperor. And this was rather literally bread
and circuses; bread constituted the main staple of the Roman diet (huge bakeries often
formed the centre of towns, and monuments still exist to prominent ancient Roman bakers).
The circuses part of this policy included chariot races (from Greece) and one of the most ste-
reotypical aspects of ancient Rome: the gladiatorial arena. For those of you who have never
seen a Russell Crowe movie, the gladiatorial contests comprised warriors fighting in large pits
against either other warriors or exotic animals to serious injury, if not death. These combat-
ants were typically from the lower strata of Roman society: slaves, foreign prisoners, or the
poor. For the poor, the gladiator pit represented an opportunity out of poverty and obscurity,
for successful gladiators often became famous, even though they were never regarded as
proper Romans.

Russell Crowe played a gladiator in Roman times in the film Gladiator
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

Originally, these contests began as funeral rites. That is, the events were designed to honour
the dead, and drew on a Roman tradition where just two gladiators would fight it out at a fu-
neral to honour the spirit of the dead. However, as Rome grew, so the gladiators evolved into
huge spectacular events staged in massive amphitheatres.
They also became entangled with politics. In the days of the Republic, politicians often staged
gladiatorial events prior to elections to gain favour with the people. For instance, Julius Cae-
sar trained a stable of 320 gladiator pairs and staged a huge event in 65 BCE shortly after he
was elected to a minor office to increase his popularity and therefore his political influence. In
those days, gladiatorial events could only be staged as part of funeral rites, so Julius Caesar
claimed that he was holding the events in honour of his father, even though his father had
died twenty years earlier. This was possibly the first outright use of gladiatorial events for po-
litical purposes, but it wouldnt be the last.
When the emperors took charge of the Roman Empire after 31 BCE, they also took charge of
the gladiator events. They were staged as ways of keeping the public distracted from the issues
of the day; the idea was that if the masses preoccupied themselves with gladiatorial contests,
and if the emperors associated themselves with these events, then the people would think bet-
ter of the emperor and be less likely to riot or rebel against him (cf. John Key turning up at the
rugby world cup final just a few weeks before the 2011 election).
You might think that the popularity of the
gladiator events indicated that the Romans
were keen sports fans, but this is not the
case. This is a clear difference from Greece
and highlights some key contrasts between
the two cultures. For Greeks, athletic com-
petition was a way of honouring the gods.
It was through participation, not spectator-
ship, that a person expressed their piety,
and Olympic events were only open to
Greek citizens. By contrast, the Romans
never competed at the gladiator games;
Vaspasian & Titus, The Coliseum, Rome, 72-80 CE, home of
gladiator events
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

Relief of a Fallen Warrior, a Roman copy, made about
2nd century CE, of a Greek original made about 5th
century BCE
instead, they were only ever spectators watching slaves, the poor or other undesirable sections
of society like foreign prisoners fight in blood sport. And all this seemed rather unrelated to
The popularity of these events caused the first sports stadia to be built, as enormous amphi-
theatres were created to seat spectators. The most famous of these is the Coliseum in Rome,
built from 72-80 CE, which was capable of seating around 50,000, and staged not only gladia-
tor events but also animal hunts, battle re-enactments, chariot races and dramatic perfor-
The Arts, Architecture and Engineering
While their art was less original than that of Greece, the Romans were talented copyists, and
did much to develop styles that they borrowed. In fact, many areas of artistic production were
almost industrialised by the Romans, and factories were established to put out large numbers
of high quality copies of Greek-style products. And in literature and philosophy they were less
original than the Greeks, but they did develop strong traditions in areas of special interest to
them, such as law, history and rhetoric (the art
of public speaking and persuasion).
Many Greek artworks and books are only
known today through copies made by Romans
(Latin translations from Greek, in the case of
books). They also spread many important ideas
through the ancient world by this process of
adopting and copying. This process is evident
from excavations of Roman cities in England,
which reveal traces of religions and trade
goods from all over the vast Empire, as far as
Persia in the east.
One thing we do know is that by the years of
the Roman Empire, art and imported goods became ways for the rich to show off their wealth
to one another. And one way of showing wealth was to buy exotic goods. Because Rome was
the centre of a vast empire, goods from all over the empire flowed into Rome, like exotic ani-
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

mals, foods and clothes from North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Asia. This relates to
art because some substances used in painting came from exotic places.
This clip from the documentary series Meet the Romans discusses the significance of the
colour red used in painting.
Again, this shows us a contrast between Roman and Greek society. While in Greek society art
was for the many, in the days of the Roman Empire it was a way for the rich to show off to
each other. This shows us how important social status was for Romans.
Its a bit more difficult to tell about Roman
music, as there is no evidence of Roman sheet
music, suggesting that they didnt have any.
We know the kinds of instruments they had,
mainly from depictions in Roman art; again,
most of the instruments are copies of Greek
instruments, and we can assume their music
probably builds on that of the Greeks.
One important arena for music was, like
Greece, the theatre. Vast amphitheatres were
used not only for viewing slayings of live animals, slaves and the poor, but also for dramatic
performances. And the most popular forms of theatre you guessed it came from Greece.
The most popular plays tended to be written by Greeks and tended to be about Greek society.
This suggests to us that the Roman theatre was nowhere near the hotbed of political commen-
tary that the Greek theatre could be; instead, the Roman theatre seemed to be an escapist pur-
suit, for aficionados of Greek culture who wanted to be entertained by superior cultural forms
and light entertainment that steered clear of topical Roman issues (again, its about the dis-
tracting circus, rather than the open political debate of the Greeks).
Amphitheatre at Pompeii
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

Roman architecture could also be deriva-
tive, but in this field the Romans made the
most important contributions. Again, the
Romans borrowed heavily from the Greeks
and the Etruscans. Its believed, for in-
stance, that arches, an architectural feature
synonymous with the Romans, was derived
from the Etruscans. The Romans, though,
developed this form and perfected it, using
it especially for war memorials.
In fact, the Romans improved on many of the architectural designs they inherited, at least
partly due to their perfecting of concrete. Although it had been known about for centuries, on-
ly in the second century BCE did the Romans develop concrete to a sufficient standard, and
from that point were able to construct colossal buildings like the Coliseum that we mentioned
Like Roman art, Roman architecture was also used to show off the power of the rich. As in to-
days society, the richer you were, the bigger and more opulent your house was, while the poor
often lived in cramped and dangerous apartments, with the poorest living on the highest
floors, which made things more inconvenient for them, as well as more dangerous in case of
As we can see in this clip from Meet the Romans, emperors used architecture to glorify
themselves. This clip discusses the Forum of Augustus, which Augustus made to hon-
our Mars, the god of war. But its design also acted as a barrier to stop the poor entering
the posh parts of town. To see it,
click here.
The Romans were even more proficient
in engineering. They produced huge
amounts of paved roads to make it easi-
er and quicker for their vast armies to
move between towns in their vast em-
Zenon, Aspendos Theatre, Turkey, 155 CE. This was an
Amphitheatre in Roman style, although its architect was Greek
Pont du Gard Acqueduct, France, c. 40-60 CE, shows off both
Roman engineering skills and their use of arches
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

Mosaic of the Good Shepherd, eastern Mediterranean, 5

pire; many of these roads still exist today. They also built impressive bridges that are still
standing, as well as pioneering urban water schemes, building vast aqueducts and sewer sys-
tems. Their ability to build big as well as their political system that enlarged the amount of
citizens within a city allowed their cities to cater to much larger populations and achieve a
generally higher standard of living than the ancient Greeks.

The problem of Christianity
As weve already mentioned, the establishment of the Roman Empire happened around the
same time as the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, a small town near the eastern end of the Em-
pire. We have no contemporary records of his life, the Gospels being written 50-100 years af-
ter his death. But the history of the church founded by his disciples is reasonably clear.
Initially, Christianity and its adherents werent popular with Roman authorities for several
reasons: because it was a religious sect that promoted a monotheistic (ie. a single god)
worldview that ran against prevailing Roman polytheism; because it worshipped a person (Je-
sus) who had been crucified by the Romans for attempted rebellion; because Christians
clashes with orthodox Jews often caused civil disorder; and because Christians not only re-
fused to recognise the emperor as a god, but being pacifists also refused to serve in the Roman
army, which was of course the key way to become a Roman citizen.
But, to cut a long story short, Christianity very quickly stopped being a radical Jewish sect. In-
stead, it became a religion more associated with Greek language and culture. This is why the
Bible contains many letters
by early leaders to communi-
ties in various Greek cities
(such as the Corinthians,
Philippians, Ephesians, etc).
The Romans enthusiasm for
Greek ideas actually paved
the way for Christianity to
become accepted in Rome
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

Emperor Constantine the Great as
depicted in a mosaic in the
Church of Hagia Sophia,

itself. While the Romans really had no respect for Middle
Eastern people, such as the Jews, they were already used to
adopting Greek customs wherever possible, which considera-
bly helped spread this new religion.
Late in the Roman Empire, a very important Emperor, Con-
stantine the Great (d. 337 CE), managed to claim the throne
with the support of the Christians, to whom he offered official
toleration. This reflected the fact that Christians had by then
become a powerful element in the Empire. Very shortly after,
in 313 CE (three hundred years after the life of Jesus, remem-
ber) Christianity became an official religion of the Empire, and
quickly thereafter the religion of the emperors themselves.
Constantine was baptised on his deathbed, perhaps as a form of after-life insurance.
The coming of Christianity had a significant impact on Roman culture. A lot of the old Greek
and Roman religious traditions were deemed pagan by the Christians, who moved to wipe
them out. The many gods gathered at the Pantheon, for instance, were thrown out. Similarly,
the impressive library at Alexandria, which had traditionally been a seat of learning that
tolerated people of different religions and held a range of religious artifacts, was destroyed by
the newly-ascendant Christians in 391 CE. Gladiator events were also banned for their
connection with pagan funeral rituals, although the fact that they were banned several times
over the fourth and fifth centuries suggests that they took a while to die out completely.

Another consequence of the rise of Christianity, though, as well explore in the next few
lectures, is that art, architecture and music became increasingly dominated by the
monotheistic church. That is, creativity in the western world was increasingly devoted to
glorifying the single god over the next millennium.

Concluding remarks
As weve mentioned, although as a culture they werent as inventive or expressive as the
Greeks, the vastness and endurance of the Roman Empire means that it left a huge legacy for
CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans

the western world. From the incredible network of roads to its grand architecture, the Romans
have left a significant imprint on the history of many parts of Europe and beyond.
Reflecting on the dominance of the Romans, their history divides into two rather distinct
parts. The first was the republic, from around 250 BCE to 31 BCE, a period during which the
Romans pursued democratic ideals and integrated many different cultures and cultural tradi-
tions into its empire. It would be fair to say that as the stakes rose and Rome increased its
wealth, power and reach towards the end of this period, it also became increasingly politically
dysfunctional. Hence, after the ascent of Augustus in 31 BCE Rome entered the period of the
Roman Empire, which was more politically stable and peaceful, but less open to differing po-
litical opinions and democracy. It also eventually became Christian in the 300sCE, which also
created a culture in which religion was taken much more seriously and where there was much
less tolerance for different religious beliefs and practices.
Next week, well examine the factors that led to the decline of the Roman Empire, and also see
how Christianity spread throughout Europe, which entered the Dark Ages, and how Islam
developed in the east. As well explore in coming weeks, these events had tremendously signif-
icant consequences for the development of art and creativity.

CONTEXTUAL STUDIES 500 Lecture 4: Classical Antiquity The Romans


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