Roman History

Here are some additional readings we'd like you to do to gain background in Roman History. They feature works by some of the writers of the ancient Roman times. These readings can be done later in the course, when we get to the period of the later Roman Republic down around 100 BCE.

The Ascendancy of the Generals (100-45 BCE)

The Wrath of Sulla (82 B.C.)  By the opening of the first century B.C., Roman armies were no longer recruited from the free land-holding farmers, but rather from those displaced veterans and unemployed who had migrated to Rome. A successful general named Marius offered them employment in the army without the requirement of property ownership. Marius thus created a professional army of soldiers who were promised land, booty, and glory; in return, they gave loyalty to their general. Competition for commands against important foreign enemies became intense and sometimes resulted in civil war. The following selection recounts the vengeance of the general Sulla against Marius' troops in 82 B.C. Blood-letting was becoming epidemic in its proportions.

APPIAN (c. 95 – c. 165), of Alexandria was a Greek historian with Roman citizenship who flourished during the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. In Greek his name is Αππιανος. He came from Alexandria, Egypt where is held major provincial offices, then went to Rome as a lawyer pleading cases to the emperors. He was of equestrian class and became Roman procurator of Egypt. He wrote a famous Roman History in 24 books of Greek, finished shortly before his death and it's very important as a Roman history source. So below is a little excerpt from it about Sulla's terrifying actions as dictator of Rome about 80 B.C.

Appian- "Absolute Tyranny"

Sulla himself called the Roman people together in an assembly and made them a speech, vaunting his own exploits and making other menacing statements in order to inspire terror. He finished by saying that he would bring about a change which would be beneficial to the people if they would obey him, but of his enemies he would spare none, but would visit them with the utmost severity. He would take vengeance by strong measures on. . . everybody... who had committed any hostile act [against] him. . . . After saying this, he forthwith proscribed about forty senators and 1,600 equites. He seems to have been the first to make such a formal list of those whom he condemned to death, to offer prizes to assassins and rewards to informers, and to threaten with punishment those who concealed the proscribed. Shortly afterward he added the names of other senators to the proscription. Some of these, taken unawares, were killed where they were caught, in their homes, in the streets, or in the temples. Others were hurled through mid-air and thrown at Sulla's feet. Others were dragged through the city and trampled on, none of the spectators daring to utter a word of remonstrance against these horrors. Banishment was inflicted upon some, and confiscation upon others. Spies were searching everywhere for those who had fled from the city, and those whom they caught they killed . . . .

Thus Sulla became a king, or tyrant, de facto- not elected but holding power by force and violence . . . . There had been autocratic rule before- that of the dictators- but it was limited to short periods; under Sulla it first became unlimited, and so an absolute tyranny. But this much was added for propriety's sake, that they chose him dictator for the enactment of such laws as he himself might deem best and for the settlement of the commonwealth . . . .

Marcus Licinius Crassus

One of Sulla's commanders, Marcus Crassus, became known in antiquity as the richest man in Rome. He argued that one could not be considered wealthy unless one could maintain an army at personal expense. Wealth became a major factor in achieving political influence in the late Republic, and Crassus was a master at bribery. His methods of gaining his fortune are recounted below.

PLUTARCH -(in Greek Πλούταρχος; ca. A.D. 46-120) Better known in English as Plutarch, he was a Greek who grew up near Delphi. He wrote a series of important biographies called the Parallel Lives, about famous Greeks and Romans. The surviving Lives contain twenty-three pairs of biographies, each pair containing one Greek Life and one Roman Life, as well as four unpaired single Lives. Here's a little of what he wrote about Crassus who was, in the opinion of Dr. Soren, one of the most disgusting of all the Romans!

The Richest Man in Rome

People [said] that the many virtues of Crassus were darkened by the one vice of avarice, and indeed he seemed to have no other but that; for it, being the most predominant, obscured others to which he was inclined. For when Sulla seized the city, and exposed to sale the goods of those that he had caused to be slain, accounting them booty and spoils, and, indeed, calling them so too, and was desirous of making as many, and as eminent men as he could, partakers in the crime, Crassus never was the man that refused to accept, or give money for them. Moreover, observing how extremely subject the city was to fire, and to the falling down of houses, by reason of their height and their standing so near together, he bought slaves that were builders and architects, and when he had collected these to the number of more then five hundred, he made it his practice to buy houses that were on fire, and those in the neighborhood which, in the immediate danger and uncertainty, the proprietors were willing to part with for little or nothing; so that the greatest part of Rome, at one time or other, came into his hands. Yet though he had so many workmen, he never built anything but his own house, and used to say that those that were addicted to building would undo themselves soon enough without the help of other enemies. And though he had many silver mines, and much valuable land, and laborers to work in it, yet all this was nothing in comparison to his slaves, such a number and variety did he possess of excellent readers, amanuenses, silversmiths, stewards, and table waiters . . . .

Pompey the Great  

A major figure of the first century B.C., Pompey was considered by many to be the greatest general of his age. He earned a reputation for efficiency: when given the two-year assignment to rid the Mediterranean of pirates, a problem that had gone unsolved for decades, Pompey accomplished the feat in three months. Some of his other victories are recorded in the first selection. He was accorded a magnificent triumph over Rome's persistent enemy, Mithradates, in 61 B.C., similar to the one described in the second excerpt.

PLINY - Gaius or Caius Plinius Secundus (A.D. 23 -79)  Better known as Pliny the Elder, he was an ancient author and naturalist as well as the naval and military commander of the Roman fleet near Pompeii and he died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius at nearby Stabiae. He is famous for writing his Natural History in which he praised Pompey the Great as we see below.

A Glorious Record

But it concerns the glory of the Roman Empire, and not that of one man, to mention in this place all the records of the victories of Pompey the Great and all his triumphs, which equal the brilliance of the exploits not only of Alexander the Great but even almost of Hercules .... After the recovery of Sicily,... and after the conquest of the whole of Africa and its reduction under our sway and the acquirement . . . of the title of the Great, he rode back in a triumphal chariot .... Subsequently he was dispatched to the whole of the seas and them to the far East, and he brought back titles without limit for his country .... Consequently he bestowed . . . horrors on the city in the shrine of Minerva that he was dedicating out of the proceeds of the spoils of war: "Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, commander-in-chief, having completed a thirty years' war, routed, scattered, slain, or received the surrender of 12,183,000 people sank or taken 846 ships, received the capitulation of 1,538 towns and forts subdued . . . lands . . . to the Red Sea, duly dedicates his offering vowed to Minerva."

This is his summary of his exploits in the East. But the announcement of the triumphal procession that he led ..  was as follows: "After having rescued the seacoast from pirates and restored to the Roman people the command of the sea, he celebrated a triumph over Asia, Pontus, Armenia, Paphlagonia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Syria, the Scythians, Jews and Albanians, Iberia, the Island of Crete, the Bastarnians, and, in addition to these, over King Mithridates and Tigranes."

The crowning pinnacle of this glorious record was (as he himself declared in assembly when discoursing on his achievements) to have found Asia, the remotest of the provinces, and then to have made her a central dominion of his country. If anybody on the other side desires to review in similar manner the achievements of Caesar, who showed himself greater than Pompey, he must assuredly roll off the entire world, and this it will be agreed is a task without limit.

The Fall of the Roman Republic and Death of Julius Caesar (44-31 B.C.)

Dictatorship and Assassination

Caesar managed to defeat Pompey in a major battle at Pharsalus in 48 B.C. Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered on orders of the young pharaoh who thereby hoped to ingratiate himself with Caesar. When Caesar arrived in Egypt, he mourned Pompey as a noble warrior and former son-in-law. Caesar was able, in the next years, to defeat the rest of Pompey's supporters, and he arrived in Rome amidst acclamations of joy from the people. But a fraction of about sixty senators saw in Caesar's reforms and imperial manner the makings of a king. They planned his murder and assassinated him on March 15, 44 B.C.

The Civil War (49-45 B.C.)

The most famous Roman of them all, Julius Caesar, had a difficult time achieving the kind of military glory or wealth needed to compete with Pompey and Crassus. When he finally got a major command in Gaul (58 B.C.), he conquered and consolidated the area, gaining wealth and the loyalty of his troops. After first cooperating with Pompey and Crassus, Caesar realized he would have to fight a senatorial aristocracy that distrusted him and championed Pompey. The first selection recounts Caesar's famous decision to cross the Rubicon River, thus beginning the civil war. Cicero, a supporter of Pompey and the senate, also gives his perspective in letters written in the midst of this crisis.

SUETONIUS-  Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 69/75 - after 130), also known as Suetonius, was a prominent Roman historian and biographer who wrote his Lives of the 12 Caesars. Here is his account of Julius Caesar's rise to power.

"The Die Is Cast": Caesar Crosses the Rubicon

When the news came to Ravenna, where Caesar was staying that [his compromise plan] had been utterly rejected .... he immediately sent forward some troops, yet secretly, to prevent any suspicion of his plan .... Coming up with his troops on the banks of the Rubicon, which was the frontier of his province, he halted for a while, and revolving in his mind the importance of the step he meditated, he turned to those about him, saying: "Still we can retreat! But once we pass this little bridge, nothing is left but to fight it out with arms!". . . Caesar cried out, "Let us go when the omens of the Gods and the crimes of our enemies summon us! THE DIE IS NOW CAST!" Accordingly he marched his army over the river.

Caesar's Reforms


Turning his attention to the reorganization of the state, [Caesar] reformed the calendar, which the pontiffs had long since so disordered by neglecting to order the necessary intercalations, that the harvest festivals did not come in summer nor those of the vintage in the autumn. He adjusted the year to the sun's course by making it consist of 365 days, abolishing the intercalary month and adding one day every fourth year ....

He filled the vacancies in the senate, enrolled additional patricians, and increased the number of praetors, aediles, and quaestors as well as of minor officials .... He shared the elections with the people on this basis: that except in the case of the consulship, half of the magistrates should be appointed by the people's choice while the rest should be those whom he personally had nominated .... He then reduced the number of those who received grain at public expense from 320,000 to 150,000 . . . . He conferred citizenship on all who practiced medicine at Rome, and on all teachers of the liberal arts, to make them more desirous of living in the city and to induce others to resort to it.

As to debts, he disappointed those who looked for their cancellation, which was often agitated, but finally decreed that the debtors should satisfy their creditors according to a valuation of their possessions at the price which they paid for them before the Civil War- an arrangement which wiped out about a fourth part of their indebtedness. He dissolved all associations, except those on ancient foundation. He increased the penalties for crimes .... He administered justice with the utmost conscientiousness and strictness. Those convicted of extortion he even expelled from the senatorial order .... In particular he enforced the law against extravagance . . . .

In particular, for the beautification and convenience of the city, as well as for guarding and extending the bounds of the empire, he formed more projects and more extensive ones every day: first of all, to raise a temple to Mars, greater than any in existence, filling up and leveling the pool in which he had exhibited the sea fight, and to build a theater of vast size over by the Tarpeian Rock; to reduce the civil law to fixed limits, and of the vast . . . mass of statues to include only the best and most essential in a limited number of volumes; to open to the public the greatest possible libraries of Greek and Latin books, assigning to Marcus Varro the charge of procuring and classifying them; to drain the Pomptine Marshes; to let out the water from Lake Fucinus; to make a highway from the Adriatic across the summit of the Apennines to the Tiber; to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth; to check the Dacians, who had poured into Pontus and Thrace; then to make war on the Parthians by way of Lesser Armenia, but not to risk a battle with them until he had first tested their mettle. All these enterprises and plans were cut short by his death.

"Antony's Greatest and Bitterest Enemy"


Cicero, who had held supreme power after Caesar's death as much as a public speaker could, was proscribed together with his son, his brother, his brother's son and all his household, faction, and friends. He fled in a small boat, but as he could not endure the seasickness he landed and went to a country place of his own . . . near Caieta, a town of Italy, and here he remained quiet .... Many soldiers were hurrying around in squads, inquiring if Cicero had been seen anywhere. Some people, moved by good will and pity, said that he had already put to sea. But a shoemaker . . . who had been a most bitter enemy of Cicero, pointed out the path to Laena, the centurion, who was pursuing with a small force.

Thereupon the slaves, thinking that more soldiers were coming, were terror-stricken and Laena, although he had once been saved by Cicero when under trial, drew [Cicero's] head out of the litter and cut it off, striking it three times, or rather sawing it off because of his inexperience. He also cut off the hand with which Cicero had written the speeches against Antony as tyrant, which he had entitled Philippics in imitation of Demosthenes. Then some of the soldiers hastened on horseback and others by ship to bring the good news quickly to Antony. The latter was sitting in front of the tribunal in the Forum when Laena, a long distance off, showed him the head and hand by lifting them up and shaking them. Antony was delighted beyond measure. He crowned the centurion and gave him 25,000 Attic drachmas in addition to the stipulated reward, for killing the man who had been his greatest and bitterest enemy. The head and hand of Cicero were suspended for a long time from the Rostra in the Forum where formerly he had been accustomed to make public speeches, and more people came together to behold this spectacle than had previously come to listen to him. It is said that even at his meals Antony placed Cicero's head before his table until he became satiated with the horrible sight. Thus was Cicero, a man famous for his eloquence and one who had rendered the greatest service to his country when he held the office of consul, slain and insulted after his death.


One of the most fascinating personalities of this period was Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. She had bewitched Caesar when he arrived in Egypt on the trail of Pompey, and he brought her back to Rome. Mark Antony saw her there and, after Caesar's assassination, became romantically involved with her. As the first excerpt indicates, her beauty and ability were renowned; Antony fell under her spell. She fought with him at Actium in 31 B.C. against the forces of Octavian and, after their defeat, both committed suicide in Egypt. Years later, the poet Horace, writing in support of Octavian, gave an assessment of her, as recounted in the second excerpt.

Cleopatra's Influence over Mark Antony


On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good humor and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression ....

For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself.

"She was no weak-kneed woman" Horace

The Powers and Authority of the Emperor

CASSIUS DIO- Lucius Claudius Cassius Dio (Greek: Δίων Κάσσιος) (ca. A.D. 155-229) Dio published a history of Rome in 80 volumes, beginning with the arrival of Aeneas in Italy through the subsequent founding of Rome and ending at the end of his own life, a period of 983 years. Of the eighty books, written over twenty-two years, many survived into the modern age intact or as fragments, providing modern scholars with a detailed contemporary perspective on Roman history.

In this way the power of both people and senate passed entirely into the hands of Augustus, and from this time there was, strictly speaking, a monarchy; for monarchy would be the truest name for it .... Now, the Romans so detested the title "monarch" that they called their emperors neither dictators nor kings nor anything of this sort. Yet, since the final authority for government devolves upon them .... In order to preserve the appearance of having this authority not through their power but by virtue of the laws, the emperors have taken themselves all the offices (including the titles) which under the Republic possessed great power with the consent of the people .... Thus, they very often become consuls . . . instead of the . . . "king" or "dictator." These latter titles they have never assumed since they fell out of use in the constitution but the actuality of those offices is secured to them .... By virtue of the titles named, they secure the right to make levies, collect funds, declare war, make peace, and rule foreigners and citizens alike everywhere and always ....

Thus by virtue of these Republican titles they have clothed themselves with all the powers of the government, so that they actually possess all the prerogatives of kings without the usual title. For the appellation "Caesar" or "Augustus" confers upon them no actual power but merely shows in the one case that they are the successors of their family line, and in the other the splendor of their rank. The name "Father" perhaps gives them a certain authority over us all- the authority which fathers once had over their children; yet it did not signify this at first, but betokened honor and served as an admonition both to them to love their subjects as they would their children, and to their subjects to revere them as they would their fathers ....

Augustus did not enact all laws on his sole responsibility, but some of them he brought before the popular assembly in advance, in order that, if any features caused displeasure, he might learn it in time and correct them; for he encouraged everybody whatsoever to give him advice, in case anyone could think of any improvement in them, and he accorded them great freedom of speech; and he actually changed some provisions. Most important of all, he took as advisors . . . the consuls.... one of each of the other kinds of officials, and fifteen men chosen by lot from the remainder of the senatorial body, so that it was his custom to communicate proposed legislation after a fashion through these to all the other senators. For although he brought some matters before the whole senate, he generally followed this course, considering it better to take under preliminary advisement in a leisurely fashion most matters, and especially the most important ones, in consultation with a few; and sometimes he even sat with these men in trials.

The Establishment of the Augustan Principate

BY 27 B.C., Antony was dead and Octavian, by virtue of his military support, controlled the entire Roman Empire. At this point, he went to the senate and proclaimed that he had restored the Republic. Upon request of the senators, he decided to assume the advisory position of princeps or "first citizen" and the honorary title of "Augustus." The Republic was to function as it had in the past, with voting in the assemblies, election of magistrates, and traditional freedom. But as long as Augustus controlled the army, his "advice" could not be safely ignored. His system of government, called the principate, lasted in the same basic form until A.D. 180. The following accounts describe the powers of the princeps (or emperor as he was also called). Note especially the cynicism of the historian Tacitus, who saw through the facade of republicanism and decried the loss of liberty.

Roman Imperial Policy and the Triumph of Christianity

TACITUS - Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 56 – ca. 117) was a senator and historian of the Roman empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories —examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and  those that reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors. These two works span the history of the Roman empire from the death of Augustus in AD14 to the death of emperor Domitian in 96 AD. There are significant lacunae  in the surviving texts.

At the beginning of their movement, Christians had difficulty in achieving an identity distinct from the Jews. But by the middle of the first century A.D., Christian scholars note that the Christians had begun to spread Jesus' beliefs into the provinces. Christianity was not immediately popular, and many are said to have despised the missionaries for their zealous conversion methods.The first recorded persecution of Christians is said to have taken place in A.D. 64 when the emperor Nero supposedly blamed a great destructive fire in Rome on them in order to deflect suspicion from himself. It was in this persecution, confined to the city of Rome, that many but not all Christians believe that Saint Peter and Saint Paul were killed. However, many non-Christian scholars dispute the entire passage below saying that it was never written by Tacitus at all and is a Christian interpolation, in other words a later added text that never existed in antiquity. Nonetheless, it is still considered the cornerstone of the evidence that the early Christians were attacked in Rome by Nero. If you are a Christian you may accept it, and if you are a doubter, you might not. Heated arguments on both sides have raged for more than a century now! At the moment more accept it than reject the passage but, looking at the argument purely scientifically, both sides have their points. To be sure, there's no other passage in Tacitus quite like this one so read and decide! After that are some other pasages, less controversial, that most accept as being really from Tacitus!

The Persecution Under Nero (A.D. 64)

All human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the fire was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the death penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired .... Even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty that they were being destroyed.

The Life and Death of the City of Pompeii

One of the most famous incidents in antiquity was the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius on August 24, A.D. 79. The accompanying earthquakes destroyed several villages and the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Both these cities have yielded magnificent ruins that were well preserved because they were buried under rich, volcanic ash. In Pompeii, once a thriving port city of about 25,000 people, we can glimpse life as it was just before the tragedy occurred. The graffiti that adorned the walls of the city give testimony to a vibrant political life and a "service-oriented" community that catered to traders and sailors. A rare eyewitness account of the destruction of the city, given by Pliny the Younger, follows.

Wall Inscriptions

His neighbors urge you to elect Lucius Statius Receptus duovir with judicial power; he is worthy. Aemilius Celer, a neighbor, wrote this. May you take sick if you maliciously erase this!

To see examples of Roman wall painting, click here.

The Empire Becomes Christian

The Roman Empire in the first and second centuries A.D. was a model of administrative excellence. Aqueducts, sewers, and public baths contributed to the cleanliness and convenience of city dwellers, and a vast highway network linked the provinces to the city of Rome. Although a few incompetent emperors and a major civil war threatened the political stability of the state, the government of the principate, which Augustus had established functioned well. The frontiers of the empire were, for the most part, well-defended, and the Roman peace (Pax Romana) ensured the maintenance of Western Civilization. As the great eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon remarked, "The empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind."

One aspect of civilization that stabilized Roman society was religion. The Romans had traditionally considered religion an important part of the prosperity of the state. They had established an intricate system of worship that employed nature gods, pagan deities syncretized from the Greeks, and a priesthood that saw to it the state enjoyed a close relationship with the gods by divining the future through the reading of animal entrails and the interpretation of omens. The state religion during the first century A.D. also came to include the worship of the emperor. Sacrifices to his health, however, were primarily patriotic in nature and did not demand or even encourage the emotional involvement of the people. For such satisfaction, many turned to the consoling logic of philosophy or the emotional excitement of oriental mystery cults.

During the period of the Republic, the Roman state had come into contact with several religious cults, such as those worshiping Isis, Cybele, Mithras, and Dionysus, and had tolerated them so long as they did not disturb the peace or break Roman law. In fact, the cults provided an emotional outlet that the Roman state religion did not supply. Roman toleration of foreign customs and religions had helped to maintain the empire. The Jews, for example, were respected by the Romans and even accorded special protection and tax exemption. This toleration ended when the Jews, objecting to the Roman presence in their land, revolted in A.D. 66. The Romans methodically crushed the rebellion four years later, by overrunning the Jewish fortification at Masada. As a result, the Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Jews were required to pay taxes directly to the Romans. The lesson was clear: Religion would be tolerated so long as it did not serve as a basis for political action- especially rebellion.

The growth of Christianity from an obscure Jewish sect to the official religion of the Roman Empire during the first through fourth centuries is one of the most fascinating dramas in history. But success for Christianity did not come easily. In addition to facing competition from religious cults and philosophies, Christianity labored under misunderstandings fostered by anti-Christian propaganda. The Roman state was concerned not only with what was described as a morally dissolute religion, but perhaps most of all with the threat Christianity posed to the political stability of the state. Christians refused to worship the emperor (merely a token of political allegiance), and their talk of a "messiah" and a "kingdom" connoted political unrest and agitation. Rome tried to punish and even eradicate the religion in sporadic persecutions (Nero in 64, Decius in 250, Diocletian and Galerius from 303-311), but Roman policy was often confused and ambivalent. By 311, Christianity was tolerated and later endorsed by the Emperor Constantine. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The Julian House (note: names circled are, in order, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero)