Ancient Rome Background Information


For ancient Rome, you will not only have this packet to use for background, there is a second section of background information from Study Island,  there are also booklets in the classroom already prepared for your usage. 


Rome was and is located in Europe on the Italian Peninsula.  The culture started small and grew into an extensive empire which included land in Europe, Asia and Africa.  As Rome conquered new lands and added them to the empire it benefited from the diversity of land and people.



As with many ancient cultures, the Romans were polytheistic.  They believed in multiple gods/goddesses similar to the ancient Greeks.  However, during their powerful empire a new religion emerged.  Most, if not all Romans converted to this new monotheistic religion, known as Christianity.



The achievements of Rome are numerous.  They include: Their style of architecture which built on that of the Greeks – together they are considered to be the “classical” style.  The Romans also began using several styles of columns in much of their architecture. Two other major achievements of the Romans had to do with their infrastructure.  They had an extensive system of roads, which improved travel throughout the empire.  They also constructed aqueducts to carry clean water throughout the cities.  Remnants of some of these aqueducts still exist today.  The Romans also started another new form of government.  Since they were too large to continue the democracy that had been started in ancient Greece they had to find another manner of governing.  They did believe that some of the people should have a voice in government (mostly the wealthy males).  They began to elect people to meet and make decisions based on the wants/needs of the citizens.  Thus, the start of a republic (or representative democracy) -  which allowed the people to have a voice in government while not actually being the government.  Another achievement of the Roman empire is the wide-spread conversion to Christianity.  This religion is vastly different from their earlier polytheistic religion.  Two others include the mosaics they created, which were works of art and some still exist today – giving us further insight into their daily life; and the Pax Romana which was a 200 year period of peace throughout Rome.  These are not the only achievements of the Romans, but rather a brief look at some of the most noteworthy.


Political Characteristics

In 509 BCE the Romans overthrew the monarchy that had held the power – they then formed a republic (representative democracy).


Under the Republic, two (2) elected consuls shared the head of government. Consuls were members of the Senate, who had been elected to serve for a one year term in the position of Consul, the highest position in government under the Republic. The consuls’ most important power was that they controlled the army.

The Senate was composed of leaders from the patricians, the noble and wealthy families of ancient Rome. They were the law makers. They controlled spending. Members of the Senate were not elected. They were chosen by the Consuls. Once chosen, they served for life. There were 300 seats in the Senate. When a seat opened, a new Senator was selected by the current Consuls. 

The Assembly was composed of all the plebeian citizens of Rome, the common man. The Assembly did not have a building. It was the right of the common man to assemble in the Forum and vote. 

In the beginning, the Assembly had very limited power. They could vote for or suggest laws, but the Senate could block their decisions. The Assembly could vote to declare war, but again, the Senate could override them. 

However, the Assembly had one power that was very impressive - it was the Assembly who voted each year on which two members of the Senate would serve as Consuls. As a noble, if you wanted to rise to the level of Consul, the highest position in government under the Republic, you needed to gain the support of the plebeian class. Since it was the Consuls who filled empty seats in the Senate, if the Assembly chose their Consuls well, they could slowly gain power in government by putting people in charge who were sympathetic to their needs.

Some members of the Assembly became quite powerful in government in their own right. Some tradesmen were very wealthy. There is an old expression - money talks - which means the rich seem to be heard more easily than the poor. 

In ancient Rome, certainly money talked, but so did those who had the power of speech. The Romans loved a great orator. When the Assembly met, down at the Forum, many speeches were going on at the same time. One speaker might say, "Rome's roads need repair!" Another speaker might say, "We need to stop crime in the streets." If you wanted your speech to have an impact, it did not matter how rich or poor you were. What mattered was how persuasive you were as a speaker.


The Forum was the main marketplace and business center, where the ancient Romans went to do their banking, trading, shopping, and marketing. It was also a place for public speaking. The Forum was also used for festivals and religious ceremonies.

About 50 years after the Roman Republic was formed, the leaders of the Republic wrote down many of the old laws, to make sure everyone understood them. History refers to this group of laws as "The Twelve Tables" because the written laws were organized into 12 sections.

These laws talked about property, crime, family, theft, marriage and inheritance. It does not really matter what they said, although the laws did try to be fair. What matters is that these laws were written down. They were engraved on tablets of metal and put on display at the Forum in the city of Rome, so that everyone could see them. 

Each law applied to every Roman citizen, be he rich or poor.

 Structure of Government Under the Republic

2 Consuls
Head of Government

Senate (300 members)  







1 year term

Life term


Consuls chose the Senators


Elected the 2 Consuls

Ran the government, overseeing the work of other government officials.


Advised the consuls. Advised the Assembly.


Elected government officials including judges. 

Directed (commanded) the army


Directed spending, including tax dollars


Acted as judges

Approved or disapproved laws made by the Assembly

Voted on laws suggested by government officials


In an emergency, consuls could choose a dictator – a single ruler to make quick decisions.

Made decisions concerning relationships with foreign powers

Declared war or peace

Both consuls had to agree on their decisions. Each had the power to Veto the other. In Latin, veto means “I forbid.” 



A province
was a geographic area outside of Italy, ruled by Rome. Provinces were countries or regions that Rome had conquered.
Rome had many provinces. Each was valuable to Rome. Rome's provinces provided manpower, taxes, food and other resources. They also acted as a barrier between Rome and lands controlled by barbarians. The provinces were connected to Rome by a series of Roman roads.                                                                           


The climate in Ancient Rome was pretty much the same as it is now, and it didn’t seem to change much around the empire. The gentle climates of Rome encourage outdoor activities such as street markets and sidewalk cafés. In warm places, the farmers grew grapes and olives, but in cooler places they grew apples and turnips.

Another thing that would affect the economy would be the bodies of water that were in the Roman Empire. Those would provide transportation and water to drink for the Romans.

Since the Empire was so big some jobs would not be available in all areas. The kinds of jobs would depend on the resources they had. A lot of farm sites that produced food were in Europe and North Africa. Farmers and craftsmen sold goods from their shops or in the market. Goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewelers, potters, blacksmiths, carpenters, artists, sculptors, cobblers who made shoes, bakers, and leatherworkers were some of the jobs that Romans had. The jewelers, of course, needed jewels for their jobs. Jewels and precious stones, like emeralds and amethysts, came from China and India. Gold and silver came from Spain and Macedonia. Copper was mined in Italy, Cyprus, and Spain, Tin came from Britain (northwest), and iron was found almost everywhere. Farming was the most common job. Farmers were found everywhere.

The resources that were available to the Romans in certain areas would also affect the economy.  Some resources that were needed to make the things they sold and traded were not available in all areas. A lot of the poor people in the empire made jewelry. The Romans traded the pottery with people from all over. The people of Rome also needed gold, silver, iron and wood.

Another thing that would affect the Roman economy would be the things Romans in some areas had to trade with the Romans in other areas. The people in the northwest area of Rome would receive wine and pottery from France. They could then trade them with other Romans all over the empire. Those same people could get the things that the British had to trade them (hunting dogs, silver, and lead) and trade those with the rest of the empire. The people in the southern part of the empire would trade goods with Egypt for papyrus (material to make paper) and corn and then trade those new items with other Romans. The people in the east areas would trade with China for silks, spices, perfumes, and jewels so they could trade them with others.




Social Structure There were two main classes of people in ancient Rome - the Patricians and the Plebeians. 


Patricians: The patricians were the upper class, the nobility and wealthy land owners. 

Plebeians: The plebeians were the lower class. Nicknamed "plebs", the plebeians included everyone in ancient Rome (except for the nobility, the patricians) from well-to-do tradesmen all the way down to the very poor.

Things that were the same in both classes  

Pater Familias: The family was structured in the same way in both classes. The head of the family was the oldest male. That could be the father, the grandfather, or perhaps even an uncle. Everybody in one family lived under one roof. Women had no authority except in the home. Old age was honored.  

Atrium: Life in the home of wealthy tradesmen and patricians centered around the atrium, the central courtyard. 

Slaves: If they could afford it, both classes had slaves to do the work.

Citizenship: The citizens of Rome were adult freemen from both classes - plebs and patricians. Women, children, and slaves were not citizens. People from all classes considered themselves Romans. 

Religion: Both classes worshiped the same gods and attended religious festivals.

Language: Both classes spoke the same language, Latin.

Forum: Both classes enjoyed the activities in the Forum, including the many free activities such as jugglers. 

Things that were different  

Social Life: A wealthy plebeian family and a wealthy patrician family did not meet socially. Under the kings, it was illegal for a pleb and a patrician to marry. In 445 BCE, about 60 years after the Roman Republic was formed, a new law was written that said it was no longer illegal for plebs and patricians to marry.

Apartment Houses: Many plebeians lived in apartment houses called flats. Some the apartments were above or behind their shops. Even fairly well to do tradesmen might chose to live in an apartment-building compound over their store, with perhaps renters on the upper stories. Their own apartments might be quite roomy, sanitary and pleasant, occasionally with running water. But others were not that nice.


The Poor, Unsanitary Living Conditions: In the poorer apartment houses, an entire plebeian family (grandparents, parents, and children) might all be crowded into one room, without running water. They had to haul their water in from public facilities. Fire was a very real threat because people were cooking meals in crowded quarters, and many of the flats were made of wood. They did not have toilets. They had to use public latrines (toilets).  The lower class Romans (plebeians) might have a breakfast of bread, dry or dipped in wine, and water. Sometimes olives, cheese, or raisins were sprinkled on the bread.

Rich and Poor Life Style: The rich had beautiful mosaics on the floors of their home. They wore lots of jewelry made of gold and gemstones. They had beautiful clothing. They enjoyed a great deal of leisure time. The poor wore shabby clothing. Their jewelry was made of painted clay. They worked all the time.                                                                                                    Source:


Wars between Rome and Macedonia 215-205 BCE; 200-197 BCE; 171-163 BCE

Punic Wars (series of wars between Rome and Carthage)

264-241 BCE First Punic War

218-201 BCE  Second Punic War

149-146 BCE Third Punic War  (*Carthage is destroyed, Roman victory)

146 BCE Greece becomes part of Roman empire

45-44 BCE Caesar is Roman dictator, he is assassinated and civil war follows

31 BCE Octavian becomes ruler of Rome

27 BCE Octavian becomes 1st Roman Emperor, taking the title of Augustus

72-80 CE Colosseum is built

79 CE Volcano Vesuvius erupts in Italy

98-117 CE Reign of Emperor Trajan, Roman empire reaches its greatest extent

122-127 CE Hadrian’s Wall is built to mark northern border of Roman Empire in Britain

c. 200 CE Germanic tribes attack frontiers of Roman Empire

286 CE Roman Empire is split into Eastern and Western empires

312 CE Constantine becomes emperor of Western Roman Empire

313 CE Edict of Milan – Christians granted freedom to worship in Roman Empire

324-337 CE Roman empire unites under Constantine

c. 370-380 CE continued invasions, attacks by Barbarian tribes

391 CE Christianity is declared the official religion of the Roman Empire

395 CE Empire is permanently split into East and West

400s CE series of attacks by outside tribes, civil unrest and wars, economic recession and a succession of weak and corrupt rulers

476 CE Empire came to an end; outlying provinces fell to various Barbarian tribes


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