A Guide To Ancient Rome & The Romans, Plus 9 Fascinating Facts - HistoryExtra

A brief guide to ancient Rome and the Romans, plus 9 fascinating facts

We bring you the everything you need to know about ancient Rome, with answers from expert historians including Miles Russell, Harry Sidebottom and Mary Beard…

Despite popular belief, Gladiatorial fighting was not the most popular entertainment in Ancient Rome. (Photo by Alamy)

The Romans are remembered for conquering vast territories, inventing underfloor heating and developing a vast network of roads. But how much do you know about them? What language did they speak? How were slaves treated throughout the empire? And was gladiator fighting really as popular as modern movies and novels portray it to be? Read on for your guide to ancient Rome

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Q: Who founded ancient Rome?

A: Like all ancient societies, the Romans possessed a heroic foundation story. What made the Romans different, however, is that they created two distinct creation myths for themselves.

In the first it was claimed that they were descended from the royal Trojan refugee Aeneas (himself the son of the goddess Venus). In the second it was stated that the city of Rome was founded by, and ultimately named after, Romulus, son of a union between an earthly princess and the god Mars.

Both myths helped establish the Romans as a divinely chosen people whose ancestry could be traced back to Troy and the Hellenistic world. Roman tradition had Romulus’ foundling city established on the Palatine Hill in what became, for Rome, ‘Year One’ (or 753 BC in the Christian calendar of the West). Archaeological excavation on the hill has found settlement here dating back to at least 1000 BC.

Romulus, founder and first king of Rome
A depiction of Romulus, the legendary founder and first king of Rome, c753 BC. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Romulus and Remus story tells of two babies, royal twins ousted by their great-uncle, found and suckled by a wolf then brought up by an honest shepherd. As men, they returned to found the city of Rome – and then Romulus murdered his brother.

How Romans saw this story tells us a great deal about the way they perceived themselves, says Mary Beard when talking about the Roman republic. Civil war and fratricide were embedded in their history; they were never going to escape civil war because right at the very beginning – the first moment in Roman history – a brother killed a brother.

Answered by Miles Russell, a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology

Timeline of ancient Rome

Dr Harry Sidebottom shares 10 key dates

753 BC: The “foundation of Rome

509 BC: The creation of the Roman Republic

338 BC: The settlement of the Latin War

264–146 BC: The Punic Wars

The second and first centuries BC: the Hellenisation of Rome

67–62 BC: Pompey in the East

31 BC–AD 14: Augustus reintroduces monarchy to Rome

AD 235–284: the third century crisis

AD 312: Constantine converts to Christianity

AD 410: The fall of Rome

Read more details about each date in our timeline of Roman history

Q: Who ruled in ancient Rome?

A: Rome made much of the fact that it was a republic, ruled by the people and not by kings.

Rome had overthrown its monarchy in 509 BC, and legislative power was thereafter vested in the people’s assemblies: political power in the senate, and military power with two annually elected magistrates known as consuls.

The acronym ‘SPQR’, for Senatus Populusque Romanus (‘the Senate and People of Rome’) was proudly emblazoned across inscriptions and military standards throughout the Mediterranean – a reminder that Rome’s people (theoretically) had the last word.

A depiction of the senate. (Image by Getty Images)
A depiction of the senate. (Image by Getty Images)

By the late 1st century BC, the combination of power-hungry politicians and large overseas territories resulted in the breakdown of traditional systems of government. Even after the rise of the Roman emperors – kings in all but name, who ‘guided’ the Roman political system in the 1st century AD – ‘SPQR’ continued to be used in order to sustain the fiction that Rome was a state governed by purely republican principles.

Answered by Miles Russell


Q: What was the senate in ancient Rome?

A: Under the Roman republican constitution, the monarchy was abolished, but the king’s former advisory council of elders survived in the form of the senate (senex being Latin for ‘old man’).

Originally comprising the heads of each leading family in Rome, the senate became the key component in Roman politics, with responsibilities in finance and expenditure, foreign policy, the appointment of provincial governors, and military strategy, although legislative power was ultimately vested in the various people’s assemblies.

In order that decisive action could be taken in the field of domestic politics, the senate was guided by two annually elected consuls of equal authority, who, for the duration of their posts, possessed supreme power. Consuls needed to be in agreement if action could be taken, and each could veto the decisions of the other. In times of extreme emergency, a dictator (who ‘spoke’ for the people), was appointed to deal with the crisis.

Answered by Miles Russell


Q: What was life like in ancient Rome?

A: Most wealthy Romans were able to afford both a town house (domus) and an out of town rural retreat (villa). The best town houses possessed private spaces for family use, grouped around and facing an internal courtyard or garden. They also featured public rooms for the receiving of business visitors, clients and official guests.

The more well-to-do possessed dining rooms for winter and summer use, featuring brightly coloured wall plaster often depicting scenes from Roman mythology. Their homes boasted multiple bedrooms, separate kitchens, underfloor heating and decorative mosaics.

A Roman mosaic
Most wealthy Romans were able to afford both a town house (domus) and an out of town rural retreat (villa), says Miles Russell. (Image by Getty Images)

The less well-off city dwellers lived simply in either rooms above their shop or place of employment, or rented flats in crowded and less well-built apartment blocks of varying design and scale – sometimes seven or eight storeys high. Slaves were usually accommodated within discrete areas of wealthy family homes.

There were also insulae, the forerunner of modern apartment buildings. Each insula consisted of around half a dozen living spaces for Rome’s middle class and poorer citizens, the plebs, as well as shops and businesses on the ground floor.

We know much about life in the ancient Roman period due to archaeological sites including the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was lost for centuries, after the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Today, it is one of the world’s most famous – and fascinating – archaeological sites.

As for more intimate history, how did Romans wipe their bottoms? They used a sponge on a stick called a xylospongium…

Answered by Miles Russell

The ancient city of Rome had a darker side; it was a hotbed of class hatred, racial animosity, religious intolerance and sexual exploitation, as Harry Sidebottom reveals…

Q: What did people eat in ancient Rome?

A: As for food in ancient Rome, the Romans ate pretty much everything they could lay their hands on. Meat, especially pork and fish, however, were expensive commodities, and so the bulk of the population survived on cereals (wheat, emmer and barley) mixed with chickpeas, lentils, turnips, lettuce, leek, cabbage and fenugreek.

Olives, grapes, apples, plums and figs provided welcome relief from the traditional forms of thick, cereal-based porridge (tomatoes and potatoes were a much later introduction to the Mediterranean), while milk, cheese, eggs and bread were also daily staples.

The Romans liked to vary their cooking with sweet (honey) and sour (fermented fish) sauces, which often helpfully disguised the taste of rotten meat.

Dining as entertainment was practised within elite society – lavish dinner parties were the ideal way to show off wealth and status. Recipes compiled in the 4th century supply us with details of tasty treats such as pickled sow’s udders and stuffed dormice.

Answered by Miles Russell


Q: Who were gladiators in ancient Rome?

A: Gladiatorial games were organised by the elite throughout the Roman empire in order to distract the population from the reality of daily life.

Most gladiators were purchased from slave markets, being chosen for their strength, stamina and good looks. Although taken from the lowest elements of society, the gladiator was a breed apart from the ‘normal’ slave or prisoner of war, being well-trained combatants whose one role in life was to fight and occasionally to kill for the amusement of the Roman mob.

A relief portraying a Gladiator fight. (Photo By DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
A relief portraying a Gladiator fight. (Photo By DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Whatever their reasons for ending up in the arena, gladiators were adored by the Roman public for their bravery and spirit. Their images appeared frequently in mosaics, wall paintings and on glassware and pottery.

Answered by Miles Russell


Q: Why did the Romans build straight roads?

A: While some Roman roads might have bends or corners, the vast majority are distinctively straight as they march for mile after mile across Britain and Europe. Unlike modern roads, the via munita were not intended for the use of ordinary people. Only army units, government officials and those with a special pass were allowed to use them. When moving armies, or officials to deal with emergencies, speed was paramount.
Everyone else had to make do with using local dirt tracks.

An old Roman road in Sardinia, Italy.
An old Roman road in Sardinia, Italy. (Photo by Getty Images)

Of course, you would think certain natural features – steep hills and valleys – of the landscape could affect the straightness of the via munita. Not so, Roman roads went straight up the most precipitous of slopes without winding back and forth in hairpin bends like modern roads. This is because a marching man on foot can go straight up a steep hill and then rest to recover before moving on much quicker than if he wound around a gently rising slope.

Army supplies were carried on mules who could likewise go up a steep slope without much trouble. Draught animals pulling wagons needed the gentler slope, but the via munita were not built for merchants who used wagons.

Answered by Rupert Matthews

The Romans get the credit for a lot of inventions, but things are more complicated than that. Historian Jem Duducu investigates what the Romans really did for us

Q: Why did ancient Rome fall?

A: A whole variety of reasons can be suggested to explain the fall of the Roman empire in the west: disease, invasion, civil war, social unrest, inflation, economic collapse. In fact all were contributory factors, although key to the collapse of Roman authority was the prolonged period of imperial in-fighting during the 3rd and 4th century.

Conflict between multiple emperors severely weakened the military, eroded the economy and put a huge strain upon local populations. When Germanic migrants arrived, many western landowners threw their support behind the new ‘barbarian’ elite rather than continuing to back the emperor. 

Reduced income from the provinces meant that Rome could no longer pay or feed its military and civil administration, making the imperial system of government redundant. The western half of the Roman empire mutated into a variety of discrete kingdoms while the east, which largely avoided both the in-fighting and barbarian migrations, survived until the 15th century.

Answered by Miles Russell


Here, Oxford historian Harry Sidebottom shares 9 surprising facts about the Romans…

1

Roman warships were not rowed by slaves

In almost all ‘swords and sandals’ movies and novels, when a galley [a large ship propelled primarily by rowing] appears, we hear the clank of slaves’ chains and the crack of the overseer’s whip. Both are completely anachronistic: the Romans, like the Greeks, had an ideology that we call ‘civic militarism’. It was believed that if you were a citizen you had a duty to fight for your state, and conversely if you fought you were entitled to political rights.

This excluded the use of slave rowers, or slave soldiers like those of medieval Islam. In the handful of exceptional times when slaves were admitted to the armed forces, they were either freed before enlistment, or promised manumission if they performed well in battle.

2

They did not all die young

The average life expectancy – although all such figures are uncertain – was only about 25. However, this did not mean that no one lived into their thirties or on into old age. The average was skewed by the number of women who died giving birth, and by high infant mortality. If a Roman made it to maturity, they were likely to live as long as people in the modern western world.

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Read on for more fascinating facts…