The continent of Europe is a large peninsula of Eurasia. Europe is sometimes called a
“peninsula of peninsulas.” The Ural Mountains of Russia are considered to be the dividing line
between Europe and Asia. Western civilization originated in southern Europe - in ancient Greece and
Rome - and our culture in the United States is based largely on European culture.
Rome is the present day capital of Italy, seat of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the
world’s great centers of art, history and religion. According to legend, Rome was founded in 753
B.C. by two orphan brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she wolf. Rome was only a
small town when Athens was at the height of its glory, but Rome became a strong city-state at about
the time of Alexander the Great. Rome was the capital of the Roman Republic (4th to 1st century
B.C.) and the Roman Empire (1st century B.C. to 5th century A.D.). The empire completely
encircled the Mediterranean Sea, extending from the Middle East to the British Isles.
Rome is centrally located in Italy and Italy is centrally located in the Mediterranean, making
it a good location from which to build a Mediterranean empire. Due to Rome’s position at the center
of the empire, it was said, “All roads lead to Rome” Because of its geography, Rome is referred to as
the “City of Seven Hills.” Its most famous landmark is the Colosseum. A thousand years after the
fall of the Roman Empire, Rome again became important as a leading center of the Renaissance
which helped Rome to earn the title of “The Eternal City.”
Covering territory of 40 modern countries, the Roman Empire was the first Western
superpower. It began as a small settlement on the Tiber River, grew to include the Italian peninsula,
then spread to all lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and to much of Europe. At first, Rome
was ruled by kings; then, about 500 B.C., the Roman Republic was established with a Senate which
every year chose two of its members to serve as co-rulers, or consuls. Later, during a time of turmoil
in the republic, Julius Caesar took control of the government and was proclaimed dictator for life.
His successors took the title of emperor.
Rome grew to its greatest size during the first two centuries of the empire when Rome was
mostly at peace. Conquered peoples were not made slaves, but were welcomed as trading partners
and contributing members of the empire. The Roman Empire was known for its extensive
international trade and for its organizational genius including a well-developed legal system and a
strong central government that produced massive public works such as roads, government buildings
and aqueducts (water transport structures). Romans adopted Hellenistic culture; their gods resembled
those of the Greeks and their artists copied the work of Greek sculptors. Christianity was born in the
Roman Empire, eventually becoming the official religion.
As the years passed, the Roman Empire weakened, was divided into two parts, and eventually
fell to barbarian invaders. Perhaps the two greatest contributions of the Roman Empire were its legal
system and Christianity.
Carthage was an ancient city in north Africa and a powerful rival of Rome. From 264-146
B.C., Carthage and the Roman Republic fought three Punic Wars. Cato, a Roman politician ended
all of his speeches in the Senate with the words, “Carthage must be destroyed.” In the third and final
Punic War, Roman armies took Cato’s advice and burned Carthage to the ground, plowed under the
remains and salted the furrows so nothing would grow there again.
Hannibal was a brilliant general from Carthage who attempted to conquer Rome during the
second Punic War by invading Italy from the north. Hannibal led an army of 100,000 men,
supported by war elephants, from Spain through the Alps into Italy, a troop movement considered
one of the greatest in history. Hannibal won several victories and was threatening Rome when Roman
armies attacked Carthage, forcing Hannibal to return to protect his homeland. Following a later
defeat in a battle at sea, Hannibal poisoned himself rather than become a prisoner of the Romans.
Julius Caesar is one of the best-known historical figures of all time. He was a successful
general who gained power from military victories that extended Roman rule over the province of
Gaul (present-day France). Fearing his growing strength, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his
army, but Caesar refused. Civil war broke out when Caesar boldly crossed the Rubicon River in
northern Italy with his Roman legion (a large military unit) and headed toward Rome. Caesar won
the civil war and made himself dictator for life in 48 B.C., thus ending the Roman Republic which
had lasted for over 400 years. “Crossing the Rubicon” is now an expression which means taking a
dangerous and irreversible step. On a later campaign in Asia, Caesar reported his victory to the
Senate with the few words, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” In Latin the words are “veni, vidi, vici.”
Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March (March 15th) in 44 B.C. by his friend Brutus
and other senators opposed to Caesar’s dictatorship. As Brutus stabbed him, Caesar is said to have
uttered the words, “Et tu Brute?” (“Even you, Brutus?”). This phrase was later made famous in
Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. Brutus and his fellow assassins wanted to end Caesar’s
dictatorship so Rome could return to being a republic. It didn’t. Although Shakespeare portrayed
Caesar as an arrogant tyrant, others give Caesar credit for trying to restore order at a time when
Rome’s republican government was no longer functioning effectively. Julius Caesar was responsible
for adoption of the 12-month calendar we use today, and the month of July is named after him.
Cleopatra is famous as the last pharaoh of Egypt and for her love affairs with two of the most
powerful men of the Roman world. Descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals,
Cleopatra became queen of Egypt when she was seventeen years old, sharing power with her younger
brother. Later, her brother took control and drove Cleopatra from Egypt. When Julius Caesar met
Cleopatra, he fell in love with her and helped her overthrow her brother to become sole ruler of
Egypt. She went with Caesar to Rome and became his mistress before returning to Egypt.
After Caesar was assassinated, and civil war broke out again, two of Caesar’s supporters took
control of the Roman Empire, Octavian in the west and Mark Antony in the east. When Antony met
Cleopatra, he too fell in love with her and went to live with her in Egypt. Back in Rome, Octavian (the
adopted son of Julius Caesar) declared war on Antony and Cleopatra, and he eventually defeated their
combined military forces. Hearing a false report that Cleopatra had committed suicide, Antony
killed himself. After his death, Cleopatra killed herself, reportedly by letting an asp - a poisonous
snake - bite her (although some say she took poison). After her death, Egypt became a province of
the Roman Empire, ending the 3,000 year reign of the pharaohs. Much later, the romance between
Antony and Cleopatra became the basis for Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra.
After he defeated the combined armies and navies of Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian became
sole ruler of Rome. He took the name Augustus, which means “Exalted One,” and he proclaimed
himself Rome’s first emperor. He and later emperors viewed themselves as gods and required their
subjects to do the same. Augustus quietly stripped the Senate of much of its power, turning Rome
into an empire disguised as a republic.
The rule of Augustus ended nearly a century of political unrest in the Roman world, and the
empire enjoyed peace, prosperity and a golden age of literature. The month of August is named
after Augustus, and Jesus was born during his reign.
Pax Romana is Latin for “the Roman Peace,” a period which began with Augustus and
lasted for 200 years, when Roman rule brought peace, order, and prosperity to an empire stretching
from the Euphrates River in the east to Britain in the west, an area equal in size to the continental
United States. From one end of the empire to the other, Romans were protected by a uniform system
of law. Roman judges were required to weigh the evidence fairly, and accused persons were
considered innocent until proven guilty, principles later adopted by our legal system in the United
States. Roman law was one of the greatest achievements of the empire.
Latin was the language of ancient Rome which spread throughout the empire. Later, during
the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Latin was the language of the Roman Catholic Church and the
universal language of educated people. Even in modern English, many scientific and legal terms are
derived from Latin, such as habeas corpus, Homo Sapiens and Tyrannosaurus Rex. The modern
languages of Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese are called Romance languages because they are
derived from the Latin language of the Roman Empire.
Carthage in North Africa was one of the colonies established by brave sea traders from the
ancient country of Phoenicia, located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. From their travels,
the Phoenicians learned about Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Phoenicians
developed an alphabet of 22 letters, with no vowels, which they used to record their business
transactions. The alphabet differed from all other known writing systems in that the letters stood for
individual sounds, not for whole words or syllables like cuneiform or hieroglyphics. Because the
alphabet was simpler and more precise than picture writing, it spread to many cultures. The
Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the Greeks who added vowels, and then by the Romans who
modified the letters to become the alphabet we use today.
An arch is a curved opening that spans a doorway, window or other space. The arch was a
great architectural achievement which made it possible to span much greater distances than the
column-and-beam architecture of the Egyptians and Greeks. The arch was adopted on a large scale
by the Romans who used it to build impressive structures such as palaces, arenas and baths. Arches
built side-by-side could create aqueducts; arches placed in front of one another could form large
“vaulted” ceilings, and arches arranged in a circular pattern created domes.
The Romans also developed the use of concrete as a construction material. With large interior
spaces made possible by the arch and concrete, public buildings could now be used for practical
purposes, not just as shrines and temples. The type of arch is sometimes used to distinguish one style
of architecture from another. For example, Romanesque buildings usually have round arches while
the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages used pointed arches.
Christianity is a major world religion based on the teachings of Judaism from the Old
Testament of the Bible and on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ who was a Jewish holy man born
in the Middle East during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Jesus encouraged his followers to be kind to
others and to prepare for a day of judgment by giving up sin. Christians believe that all those who
accept Jesus may attain everlasting life in God’s kingdom in heaven.
Jesus’s followers believed he was the Messiah (leader and savior) sent by God. Jewish leaders
disagreed and placed Jesus on trial for claiming to be the son of God. Roman officials ordered Jesus
to be executed by nailing his body to a cross.
Jesus had said, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things
that are God’s.” Nonetheless, Christianity was declared illegal, and Christians were persecuted in the
Roman Empire because they refused to worship the Roman emperors as gods.
Our calender is based on the birth of Christ; all years before the Christian era are designated
B.C. (before Christ) and those after the birth of Christ are designated A.D., an abbreviation for the
Latin term anno Domini which means “in the year of the Lord.” Some historians now refer to B.C.
as B.C.E. (before the common era) and refer to A.D. as C.E. (common era).
Born to the family of the Caesars, Nero and Caligula are considered to be two of Rome’s
“bad emperors.” Cruel and insane, Caligula murdered many of his relatives, had people tortured
and killed while he ate dinner and appointed his favorite horse to the Roman Senate to humiliate the
senators. After being assassinated by his own guard, Caligula was succeeded by Nero, the great great
grandson of Augustus.
Although historians have their doubts, legend says that Nero caused a great fire which
destroyed two-thirds of the city of Rome. It is said Nero played a stringed instrument while watching
Rome burn. To say that someone is “fiddling while Rome burns” means that the person is
unconcerned in the midst of disaster. Historians believe it is true that Nero persecuted Christians,
blaming them for the great fire in Rome, that he had his wife and mother killed, and that he kicked
his pregnant mistress to death. Nero died by taking his own life. Nero and Caligula illustrate the
kinds of problems which can result when leaders are chosen based on royal birth.
Pompeii, on the western coast of Italy, was a resort city for wealthy citizens of the Roman
Empire until 79 A.D. when it was buried in ash and cinders by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a
nearby volcano. Although most inhabitants fled the city before it was buried, the remains of more
than 2,000 people have been found in the ruins. The city lay undisturbed for more than 1500 years
until excavations in the mid-1700s uncovered the public buildings, temples, shops, and private homes
of Pompeii. Pompeii provides an unequaled glimpse into daily life during the Roman Empire.
The Colosseum is a great arena of ancient Rome which seated 50,000 spectators. Bloody
contests were staged in the Colosseum for the entertainment of Roman citizens. Using a variety of
weapons, gladiators fought wild beasts and each other to the death. Although the Colosseum is now
in ruins, it remains impressive. It is the best-known structure of the Roman Empire and the symbol of
the present day city of Rome. The Colosseum also symbolizes the decadence, or moral decay, of the
later years of the Roman Empire.
“Bread and circuses” is a phrase that describes the policy used by Roman emperors to keep
their people happy by providing free food (bread, wine, bacon, etc.) and entertainment such as the
bloodthirsty spectacles held at the Colosseum. The phrase has come to mean government policies
that seek to divert attention from problems which might cause public unrest.
Constantine the Great
By the fourth century A.D., the Roman Empire was in a state of confusion; it was running
short of money and facing increasing pressure from barbarians pushing in from the borders. In one
50-year period, 26 emperors reigned and only one of them died of natural causes. At about this time
a strong general named Constantine took control of the empire and tried to stop its deterioration. He
is remembered as Constantine the Great, one of Rome’s “good emperors.” Although Christianity
had long been outlawed and Christians persecuted, Constantine legalized Christianity and made it the
official religion of the Roman Empire in place of the pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses. Thus,
the Christian church became the Roman Catholic Church. The Romans spread Christianity
throughout the empire thereby making Christianity a central feature of Western civilization.
Constantine also ended the blood sports in the Colosseum, and he established
Constantinople as the capital of the stronger eastern part of the Roman Empire, while Rome remained
capital of the weakened western part of the empire. Constantine ruled over both parts of the empire
from Constantinople which was strategically located on the Bosporus, the strait that connects the
Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Today, Constantinople is called Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city.
Despite the best efforts of Constantine, the Roman Empire continued to decline after his death
as barbarians made repeated attacks against the empire. Barbarians were nomadic warrior tribes
considered by the Romans to be ignorant and culturally inferior. They included the Huns who
invaded Europe from western Asia, pushing other barbarian tribes ahead of them. Their infamous
leader, Atilla the Hun, was called the “Scourge of God.” The Goths from central Europe sacked
Rome in 410 A.D. The Vandals from northern Europe plundered Rome in 455; they were so
destructive that the term vandalism comes from their name. Near the end, the Roman Empire was in
chaos, hiring barbarians to fight other barbarians.
Fall of Rome
The collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century (400s) is considered to be the end of
ancient times and the beginning of the Middle Ages. With the fall of Rome, civilization came to an
end in Europe for several centuries.
Although the Roman Empire had been in decline for a very long time, the year 476 A.D. is
usually given as the date for the Fall of Rome; this is when the last emperor of the western Roman
Empire gave up power to the barbarians. It should be remembered, however, that the eastern Roman
Empire - later called the Byzantine Empire - lived on for another thousand years. Historians have
long debated the causes of the Fall of Rome. Factors leading to the Fall included the decline of
agriculture, reliance on mercenary soldiers, heavy taxes needed to maintain the empire, weak and
corrupt emperors, a decadent upper class devoted to luxury and greed and probably boredom.
Perhaps the more important question is not why Rome fell, but why it lasted so long.
Georg Hegel was a modern German philosopher of the 1800s who believed that history is
constantly involved in a process of change, and that these changes gradually move toward greater
freedom. Hegel said historical progress is the result of a “dialectic,” or the conflict of opposite
ideas. Examples include freedom versus slavery and civilization versus barbarism.
Hegel saw a pattern in history which has been described as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
According to Hegel, any existing historical condition, called the thesis, is always imperfect and gives
rise to its opposite idea, the antithesis. As a result of conflict between the two, a third condition arises,
the synthesis, which combines the most useful parts of the thesis and antithesis. This synthesis
becomes the new historical condition or thesis, which will generate a new antithesis, and so on. In this