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Struggles for Power


Two class periods



Ancient History

George Cassutto, social studies teacher, North Hagerstown High School, Hagerstown, Maryland.


Students will understand the following:

1. Changes of leadership in the Roman Empire were marked by strife.

2. The first five Roman emperors were Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius I, and Nero.


For this lesson, you will need:

Reference materials about Julius Caesar and the beginning and first hundred years of the Roman Empire

1. Ask students to imagine that they are journalists during the Roman Empire and that they are called upon to write, over the years from 44 B.C. to A.D. 68, obituaries for Julius Caesar and then the first five emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius I, and Nero. Tell students to assume that the obituaries would be handwritten and posted on public buildings.

2. Either review with the class what they have learned about each leader, or assign one leader to each of six groups of students, who will study the leader in detail on their own. Stress that students should pay attention in particular to how the leader came to power and what struggles, if any, the leader had to engage in to stay in power.

3. Look at samples of contemporary obituaries of major political figures, and ask students to distill the main ingredients of such writing. They should analyze the samples to determine that they include most or all of the following elements:

- Headline announcing the death
- Introduction to the story: announcement of the death and its cause; statement about whether the death was expected or not at this time
- Indication of who is expected to succeed the dead leader—and why
- General statements about the leader's major accomplishments and contributions—and prediction of how history will treat the leader
- Details about each of the major accomplishments
- Acknowledgment of critics or detractors: their opinions and the reasons for their opinions
- Information about the personal life of the leader: family, friends, interests
- Direct or indirect quotations about the leader from other people in important places as well as from the person on the street

4. Obituaries today vary greatly in length from newspaper to newspaper and with the fame of the person who has died. Consider asking your students to write obituaries of about 500 words.

5. Unless the issue of freedom of the press has come up earlier in this project, raise the issue once students have handed in their work. That is, ask students if a writer during the Roman Empire would actually have been allowed to evaluate a deceased emperor objectively or whether all notices of an emperor's death would be “managed” by the remaining figures of power.


You may focus older students strictly on Julius Caesar and ask them to compare and contrast the obituaries they write for him with the responses to Caesar's death voiced in Shakespeare's Julius Caesarby Antony (act 3, scene 1), by Brutus (act 3, scene 2), then by Antony again (act 3, scene 2).

1. What is the meaning of the term rule of law? How did the rule of law break down during Sulla's “reign of terror”? How is the rule of law insured in American government today? Have there been occasions in American history during which the rule of law has been broken?
2. Describe Rome's social structure. How many layers (or strata) were there in Roman society, and what was the role that each layer played in the Roman government? What imbalances in power existed?
3. Evaluate the Roman Republic's level of democracy. In which ways was Rome a democratic society? In which ways was it not democratic? What elements of Roman government can we see in our own government today?
4. What is a republic? What is meant by the phrase “and to the republic, for which it stands” in the United States' Pledge of Allegiance? Discuss the ways in which the American republic and the Roman republic are similar or different?
5. What is an emperor? How is an emperor different from a king? From a president? Discuss the ways in which these three forms of leadership are similar or different.
6. The leadership of Rome engaged in outrageous behavior that is seen as “barbaric” today. How has Western society changed during the two thousand years since the Roman Empire? How has it remained the same? What systems exist today to keep our current leaders in check?

You can evaluate your students' obituaries using the following three-point rubric:

- Three points:clearly written obituary running 500 words and including most or all of the elements listed in Procedures; error-free grammar, usage, and mechanics

- Two points:adequately written obituary running 500 words and including some of the elements listed in Procedures; some errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
- One point:inadequately written obituary running shorter than 500 words and including only a few of the elements listed in Procedures; many errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics

Vote for the Emperor of Your Choice

Break students into small groups, and assign each group a different Roman leader: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius I, and Nero. Ask students to put aside the historical fact that these five men followed one another as emperor; instead, ask students to assume that the five of them are competing for the title of emperor at the same time. Ask the groups to research information about their leader for the purpose of developing a full-fledged election campaign for the position of emperor. Each group should develop posters, speeches, and signs that highlight the qualifications of their candidate. When the campaigns are complete, have each team choose one student to portray the leader, who will give a brief speech to the rest of the class or will participate in a moderated debate. Conclude the activity with a vote by the class on who should lead Rome.

Dear Diary

Invite students to think about ways in which they are like Roman soldiers in their daily lives. What sorts of causes do they have to fight for? To whom do they owe any allegiances? What hardships do they have to face along the way? What “wounds” do they receive? What losses do they incur? Ask students to write a personal journal entry about their own lives in which they think of themselves as soldiers fighting a variety of personal battles.

A History of Rome

Marcel Le Glay, et al. Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Reading this book will help you understand the political changes that occurred in Rome. The text is supplemented with maps, official documents, and information found in epigraphical sources. (Epigraphy is the study of text inscribed on durable materials such as stone, bronze, wood, and terra-cotta.)
Hadrian: The Restless Emperor

Anthony R. Birley. Routledge, 1997.

This scholarly biography of the emperor Hadrian details his life and times. His reign, A.D. 117-138, represented rising power and influence over the provinces. Read about his life to gain a perspective on the power of the Roman Empire.

Lacus Curtius: Into the Roman World

A comprehensive site with primary sources, maps and resources dealing with Ancient Rome.

Internet Classics Archive

In this site you can search for over 400 texts including those from Roman times.

The Hunterian Museum: Romans in Scotland

This exhibition tells the story of the Roman presence in Scotland with emphasis on the Antonine Wall and the life lived by the soldiers based in forts along its line.

Roma: History and Civilization of the Eternal City

Created by the Boys' Town of Rome, this site contains many images and topics such as Roman history, culture, legends, army and political powers, monuments, religion, a day in Rome, clothes, food, games, family and education.

A Visual Compendium of Roman Emperors

A nice visual list of Roman Emperors.



A decline in standards of behavior; overindulgence.


The Roman leadership redefined the meaning of decadence by leading extremely rich and extravagant lives.

dynastic succession

The rules that determine which family member will assume the throne when a monarch dies.


The dilemma of dynastic succession plagued Augustus for his entire life, since he had no male heir to the imperial throne.


The act of attempting to exterminate an entire group of people, usually an ethnic group or nationality.


The destruction of more than one million Gauls during Julius Caesar's rule was a flagrant act of genocide.


The practice of providing the poor with money or favors in return for political support.


The extreme social imbalance between rich and poor supported the practice of patronage, the most disruptive tradition in republican Rome.

Grade Level:

6-8, 9-12

Subject Area:

world history


Understands how major religious and large-scale empires arose in the Mediterranean basin, China, and India from 500 B.C. to A.D. 300.


Benchmark 6-8:

Understands the significant individuals and achievements of Roman society (e.g., the major legal, artistic, architectural, technological, and literary achievements of the Roman Republic; the influence of Hellenistic cultural traditions; and the accomplishments of famous Roman citizens [Cincinnatus, the Gracchi, Cicero, Constantine, Nero, Marcus Aurelius]).

Benchmark 9-12:

Understands shifts in the political framework of Roman society (e.g., major phases in the empire's expansion through the first century A.D.; how imperial rule over a vast area transformed Roman society, economy, and culture; the causes and consequences of the transition from republic to empire under Augustus in Rome; how Rome governed its provinces from the late republic to the empire; and how innovations in ancient military technology affected patterns of warfare and empire building).

Benchmark 9-12:

Understands the political legacy of Roman society (e.g., influences of the Roman constitution on the modern U.S. political system).

Grade Level:


Subject Area:

world history


Understands major global trends from 1000 B.C. to A.D. 300.


Knows the different forms of slavery or coerced labor in various empires (e.g., the Han Empire, the Maurya Empire, the Greek city-states, the Roman Empire).


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