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ESL 86 - Intensive ESL Writing and Language - Textbook

OER- Textbook for ESL 86


In this unit you will study the development of the city as it came to form the idea of the "citizen", its role in Athens, a city state and first "democracy". You will learn and reflect on Rome as the heart and center of an empire, and explore the lost cities of the Mayans. In this unit there will be many questions to ask: what made these cities so powerful? How were they organized and sustained? How did the level of knowledge and technology rise to such unprecedented heights during the rule of the Athenians and Romans? What was their global impact and legacy to the world we live in today?

Phoenician Trade

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The Phoenicians, based on a narrow coastal strip of the Levant, put their excellent seafaring skills to good use and created a network of colonies and trade centres across the ancient Mediterranean. Their major trade routes were by sea to the Greek islands, across southern Europe, down the Atlantic coast of Africa, and up to ancient Britain. In addition, Arabia and India were reached via the Red Sea, and vast areas of Western Asia were connected to the homeland via land routes where goods were transported by caravan. By the 9th century BCE, the Phoenicians had established themselves as one of the greatest trading powers in the ancient world.

A Phoenician-Punic ship from a relief carving on a 2nd century CE sarcophagus

Original image by NMB. Uploaded by , published on 31 March 2016 under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike from

Geographical Extent
Trade and the search for valuable commodities necessitated the establishment of permanent trading posts and, as the Phoenician ships generally sailed close to the coast and only in daytime, regular way-stations too. These outposts became more firmly established in order to control the trade in specific commodities available at that specific site. In time, these developed further to become full colonies so that a permanent Phoenician influence eventually extended around the whole coastline of the ancient Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Their broad-bottomed single-sail cargo ships transported goods from Lebanon to the Atlantic coast of Africa, Britain, and even the Canary Islands, and brought goods back in the opposite direction, stopping at trade centres anywhere else between. Nor was trade restricted to sea routes as Phoenician caravans also operated throughout Western Asia tapping into well-established trading zones such as Mesopotamia and India.

Phoenician sea trade can, therefore, be divided into that for its colonies and that with fellow trading civilizations. Consequently, the Phoenicians not only imported what they needed and exported what they themselves cultivated and manufactured but they could also act as middlemen traders transporting goods such as papyrus, textiles, metals, and spices between the many civilizations with whom they had contact. They could thus make enormous gains by selling a commodity with a low value such as oil or pottery for another such as tin or silver which was not itself valued by its producers but could fetch enormous prices elsewhere. Trading Phoenicians appear in all manner of ancient sources, from Mesopotamian reliefs to the works of Homer and Herodotus, from Egyptian tomb art to the Book of Ezekiel in the Bible. The Phoenicians were the equivalent of the international haulage trucks of today, and just as ubiquitous.

Original image by Akigka. Uploaded by , published on 26 April 2012 under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike from

Methods of Exchange
As with many other ancient civilizations the Phoenicians traded goods using a variety of methods. Prestige goods could be exchanged as reciprocal gifts but these could be more than mutual tokens of goodwill as, by bestowing on the receiver an obligation, they were a method to initiate trade partnerships. Luxury goods given as gifts may also have been a deliberate attempt by the Phoenicians to create a demand for more such items and help the Phoenicians acquire the local resources they coveted.

Goods could be collected as a form of tribute in return for military protection or under compulsion. These were then stored in large quantities and then redistributed either locally or traded elsewhere. Goods could be bartered for and exchanged in kind on the spot. Alternatively, and perhaps the most common method employed by the Phoenicians, goods could be bought or sold in a relatively controlled manner where quantities and prices were fixed beforehand through the drawing up of trade agreements and treaties controlled by the state. The exchange value of goods was, therefore, fixed and so coinage was unnecessary, which is not to say there was no system of written arbitrary values and credit arrangements. The Phoenicians may not have produced coinage precisely because their trade was truly international and they had no use for coins which could not be used far from the place of their mint.

Completely free trade where prices fluctuate due to supply and demand is a mechanism thought by some historians not to have been in operation prior to the 4th century BCE but the view is much debated amongst scholars. Phoenician trade was likely, then, carried out by state officials working on commission but also by consortiums of traders closely associated with royal households. These latter would have been high-ranking nobles, as described in Isaiah 23:8, "Tyre, the crowning city, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth." Perhaps from around the 8th century BCE the quantity of trade carried out by private merchants increased and the direct intervention of the state was reduced, again, the point is still subject to academic debate. The trading of goods most often took place in state-sanctioned trade centres which were generally recognised as neutral by the different regional states. The Phoenician city of Tyre is a classic example.

Exported Goods - Wood
Phoenicia was a mere coastal strip backed by mountains. Despite the paucity of land available they did manage to produce cereals through irrigation of the arable terrain and cultivate on a limited scale such foodstuffs as olives, figs, dates, walnuts, almonds, pomegranates, plums, apricots, melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, and wine. However, the Phoenicians were most noted as exporters of wood. This commodity came from their abundant cedar and fir forests and had been traded since the beginning of recorded history. The cedar is a tall tree with a thick girth, making it ideal for timber. It also has the additional benefit of possessing an aromatic odour. Mesopotamia and Egypt were the most notable customers, the former receiving their trunks via caravan up to the Euphrates River while ships carried the wood to the African coast. The trade is recorded in reliefs of Sargon II and an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar. According to the historian George Rawlinson, Phoenician cedar wood was used by King Solomon for his celebrated temple, by Herod in Zerubbabel's Temple, and by the Ephesians for the roof of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The other famous Phoenician export was textiles which used wool, linen yarn, cotton, and later, silk. Wool (sheep and goat) probably dominated and came from Damascus and Arabia. Linen yarn was imported from Egypt while silk came from Persia. Taking these raw materials, the Phoenicians transformed them into uniquely colourful items, especially clothes and carpets. Fine multi-coloured clothing from Phoenicia is referenced both in Homer - where Paris gives Helen a gift of the cloth prior to whisking her off to Troy - and in Egyptian art when depicting Phoenicians from Sidon. The dyed fabrics were then exported back again, for example, to Memphis where the Phoenicians even had their own quarter in the city.

Cloth dyed purple (actually shades ranging from pink to violet) using fluid from the Murex trunculus, Purpura lapillus, Helix ianthina, and especially the Murex brandaris shellfish brought the Phoenicians fame throughout the ancient world. Living in relatively deep water, these shell-fish were caught in baited traps suspended from floats. The dye was then extracted from thousands of putrefied shellfish left to bake in the sun. So popular were these textiles that vast deposits of the shells have been excavated on the outskirts of Sidon and Tyre and the species was all but driven to extinction along the coasts of Phoenicia. The highest quality cloth was known as Dibapha, meaning 'twice dipped' in the purple dye. The Phoenicians not only exported the dyed cloth but also the process of extracting the dye, as indicated by the shell deposits found at Phoenician colonies across the Mediterranean. Besides their vivid colours, Phoenician textiles were also famous for their fine embroidery. Popular designs included repeated motifs such as scarabs, rosettes, winged globes, lotus blossoms, and mythical monsters.

Original image by Remi Mathis. Uploaded by , published on 31 March 2016 under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike from

The Phoenicians also traded glassware. The Egyptians had already been long-time producers but from the 7th century BCE the Phoenicians began to produce transparent glass, as opposed to merely opaque glassware. Important centres of glass production were Sidon, Tyre, and Sarepta. Transparent glass was used to manufacture mirrors, plates, and drinking glasses but the Phoenicians seemed to have appreciated semi-transparent coloured glass (blue, yellow, green, and brown) for their more elaborate productions as well as for jewellery and small plaques which were sewn onto clothing. Phoenician glassware, especially in the form of small perfume bottles, has been found as far afield as Cyprus, Sardinia, and Rhodes.

Imported Goods
The Phoenicians imported metals, especially copper from Cyprus, silver and iron from Spain, and gold from Ethiopia (and possibly Anatolia). This raw material was transformed into ornate vessels and art objects in Phoenician workshops and then exported. Tin (from Britain), lead (Scilly Isles and Spain), and brassware were also traded, the latter principally coming from Spain. Ivory was imported from either Punt or India, as was ebony, both coming to Phoenicia via Arabia. Amber came either from the Baltic or Adriatic coast and was used in Phoenician jewellery. Embroidered linen and grain were imported from Egypt and fine, worked cloth from Mesopotamia. Grain, barley, honey, and oak timber used for oars on Phoenician ships, came from Palestine.

Phoenician markets also traded in slaves (from Cilicia and Phrygia but also captured by the Phoenicians themselves), sheep (Arabia), horses and mules (Armenia), goats, wool (Damascus and Arabia), coral, perfumes (Judah and Israel), agate, and precious stones such as emeralds (from Syria and Sheba). Spices came from the Arabian peninsula (some coming from distant India) and included cinnamon, calamus, cassia, ladanum, frankincense, and myrrh.

From the 7th century BCE the Phoenicians' trade network was eclipsed by the efforts of one of its most successful colonies - Carthage, by the Greeks, and then the Romans. But the Phoenicians had been the first Mediterranean trading superpower, and their early dominance led to those empires which followed adopting similar trading practices and even adopting Phoenician names for certain exotic goods from distant lands. The Phoenicians had dared to sail beyond the horizon and transport commodities to where they were most prized. As the prophet Isaiah (23:2) stated, "you merchants of Sidon, whose goods travelled over the sea, over wide oceans."


Ancient Greece

Law and Politics in the Athenian Agora: Ancient Democracy at Work- 

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The Agora was the central gathering place for all of Athens, where social and commercial dealings took place. Arguably, it's most important purpose was as the home base for all of the city-state's administrative, legal and political functions. Some of the most important, yet least acclaimed, buildings of ancient history and Classical Athens were located in the Agora.


Original image by Madmedea. Uploaded by , published on 26 April 2012 under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike on

The Tholos, a uniquely round structure similar in general appearance to the Mycenaean tholos tombs, was completed around 470 B.C. Also known as the Skias, it was the headquarters of the Prytaneis, or the Executive Committee of the Boule (the Athenian Senate). The Prytaneis was comprised of 50 men from each of the 10 Athenian tribes that rotated every 30 days. They ran the daily operations of the Senate. The Tholos building was used as their meeting place, a dining hall, and had sleeping areas to accommodate the necessary round-the-clock shifts of the committee members.

Near the Tholos was the New Bouleterion. This rectangular building, where the Boule met, was constructed near the end of the 5th century B.C. next to an older and less "contemporary" building that had served the same function. This large building accommodated the 500 member Athenian senate. The old Bouleterion building was given a new name, the Metroon, when the Senate moved to their new accommodations. The Metroon, used for archival storage even when the Boule met there, became a full-time library of important Athenian documents around 405 B.C. Those valuable records are unfortunately lost forever, as they were written on parchment and papyrus, which had a very limited shelf life, particularly in the arid Athens climate.

The Metroon also housed the cult of Rhea, who was known as the Mother of Zeus and some of the other Athenian gods. A cult statue was located inside the building.

Adjacent to the Metroon was the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes, which was a statuary monument that represented the 10 tribes of Athens. The names of each tribe were taken from 10 past Athenian heroes decided by the Oracle of Apollo during the time of Kleisthenes. Acting as not only a reminder to all Athenians of their ancestral roots, this monument also served as a public information station, where notices applicable to each tribe would have been posted, as well as any other general information important to the city as a whole.

A building similar in architecture to the painted Stoa, the Stoa Basileos was originally constructed in the 6th century B.C. After suffering greatly from the Persian attack on Athens in 480 B.C., it was reconstructed in the 5th century B.C. This stoa would have been home to the Archon Basileos, or the archon king. The archon king managed all religious aspects of the city-state, including Mysteries (religious festivals), sacrifices, and lawsuits pertaining to impious or "unholy" situations. Most notable about the Stoa Basileos was the limestone block located in front. This was known as the Oath Stone, where new magistrates would have taken their oaths of office.

No center of law and politics would be complete without a place to uphold and demonstrate the democracy Athens and its leaders were so proud of. And so, a large set of Lawcourts was located in the Athenian Agora. Located on the west side of the Agora, this complex would have been very large, in order to accommodate the constant litigation going on (both publicly and privately).

Athenian juries were not the typical 12 peers we know in our courts today. The smallest jury seated in the Athenian lawcourt was around 200 men, and a jury could have gotten as large as 2000 Athenian citizens.

Unfortunately, there is little archaeological evidence to pinpoint the exact location of the Athenian lawcourts. There is, however, evidence to suggest where they were located in the form of a stone box excavated containing bronze discs. According to ancient Greek historians, jury members would have used these discs in order to cast their guilty or not guilty votes during trials.

The wheels of Athenian democracy were churning feverishly in the Classical Agora, with accommodations for all vital factions of the new form of government, helping to blaze a trail for our own modern political and legal structure.

Ancient Greek Government

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The government systems of ancient Greece were varied as the Greeks searched for the answers to such fundamental questions as who should rule and how? Should sovereignty (kyrion) lie in the rule of law (nomoi), the constitution (politea), officials, or the citizens? Not settling on a definitive answer to these questions, government in the ancient Greek world, therefore, took extraordinarily diverse forms and, across different city-states and over many centuries, political power could rest in the hands of a single individual, an elite or in every male citizen: democracy - widely regarded as the Greeks' greatest contribution to civilization.

The four most common systems of Greek government were:

Democracy - rule by the people (male citizens).
Monarchy - rule by an individual who had inherited his role.
Oligarchy - rule by a select group of individuals.
Tyranny - rule by an individual who had seized power by unconstitutional means.
Our knowledge of the political systems in the ancient Greek world comes from a wide range of sources. Whilst for Athens, it is possible to piece together a more complete history, we have only an incomplete picture of the systems in most city-states and many details of how the political apparatus actually functioned are missing. Surviving, though, are over 150 political speeches and 20,000 inscriptions which include 500 decrees and 10 laws. There are also two specifically political texts with the same title, The Constitution of the Athenians, one written by Aristotle or one of his pupils and the other attributed (by some) to Xenophon. Other sources which discuss politics and government include Aristotle’s Politics and the historical works of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. In addition, politics is often lampooned in the comedies of Aristophanes.   


The word democracy derives from the Greek dēmos which referred to the entire citizen body and although it is Athens which has become associated with the birth of democracy (demokratia) from around 460 BCE, other Greek states did establish a similar political system, notably, Argos, (briefly) Syracuse, Rhodes, and Erythrai. Athens is, however, the state we know most about. The assembly of Athens met at least once a month, perhaps two or three times, on the Pnyx hill in a dedicated space which could accommodate 6000 citizens. Any male citizen 18 years or over could speak (at least in theory) and vote in the assembly, usually with a simple show of hands. Attendance was even paid for in certain periods which was a measure to encourage citizens who lived far away and couldn’t afford the time-off to attend. 

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Citizens probably accounted for 10-20% of the polis population, and of these it has been estimated that only 3,000 or so people actively participated in politics. Of this group, perhaps as few as 100 citizens - the wealthiest, most influential, and the best speakers - dominated the political arena both in front of the assembly and behind the scenes in private conspiratorial political meetings (xynomosiai) and groups (hetaireiai). Critics of democracy, such as Thucydides and Aristophanes, also pointed out that the dēmos could be too easily swayed by a good orator or popular leaders (the demagogues) and get carried away with their emotions. Perhaps the most famous bad decision from the Athenian democracy was the death sentence given to the philosopher Socrates in 399 BCE.   

Issues discussed in the assembly ranged from deciding magistracies to organising and maintaining food supplies to debating military matters. There was in Athens (and also Elis, Tegea, and Thasos) a smaller body, the boulē, which decided or prioritised the topics which were discussed in the assembly. In addition, in times of crisis and war, this body could also take decisions without the assembly meeting. The boulē or council of 500 citizens was chosen by lot and had a limited term of office, which acted as a kind of executive committee of the assembly. The decrees of the Assembly could also be challenged by the law courts. Similar in function to the boulē was the council of elders (selected men over 60), the gerousia, of Sparta, which also had the two Spartan kings as members and had certain legal powers. Similar bodies of elders existed in Corinth and Stymphalos. In Athens, the Areopagus was a similar such council, where elders were made members for life.

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In other Greek states then, there were also democratic assemblies, sometimes, though, with a minimum property stipulation for attendees (as in the Boiotian federation 447-386 BCE). Some city-states also mixed democratic assemblies with a monarchy (for example, Macedonia and Molossia).

In the Greek world monarchies were rare and were often only distinguishable from a tyranny when the hereditary ruler was more benevolent and ruled in the genuine interest of his people. The most famous monarchies were those in the states of Macedonia and Epeiros, where the ruler shared power with an assembly, limited though these were in practice. Although Sparta also possessed a citizen assembly, it is most famous for its system of two kings. Not absolute monarchs, they did, however, hold great power when they led the Spartan army in times of war. During peacetime the kings were kept in check by ephors (ephoroi) who were themselves elected by the assembly. Clearly, a degree of political consensus was necessary for this overlapping apparatus to function. The kings were also members of the gerousia and were admitted from a young age, so that they must have had a significant advantage over the other members who couldn’t join until they were 60. Spartan kings could, however, be put on trial and even exiled.

Tyrants were sole rulers of a state who had taken power in an unconstitutional manner, often murdering their predecessor. However, Greek tyrants were not necessarily evil rulers (as the word signifies today); they simply looked after their own interests. Syracuse in Sicily had a run of famous tyrants, for example, Dionysios from 405 BCE and his son Dionysios II, who took over in 367 BCE. Others include Peisistratos in Athens (from c. 560 BCE) - a typical benevolent tyrant who actually paved the way for democracy, Pheidon in Argos (c. 660 BCE), Lycophron in Thessaly, the Kypselidai, which included Periander, in Corinth (c. 657-585 BCE), and Polycrates in Samos (530-522 BCE). For Athenians, tyranny became the exact opposite of democracy, a position that allowed the citizens of Athens to feel a certain superiority. This feeling was especially evidenced in the demonizing of the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes, the tyrants par excellence.   

Original image by Jastrow. Uploaded by , published on 10 November 2016 under the following license: Public Domain on

An oligarchy is a system of political power controlled by a select group of individuals, sometimes small in number but it could also include large groups. For the Greeks (or more particularly the Athenians) any system which excluded power from the whole citizen-body and was not a tyranny or monarchy was described as an oligarchy. Oligarchies were perhaps the most common form of city-state government and they often occurred when democracy went wrong. Unfortunately, information concerning oligarchies in the Greek world is sparse. We know that in 411 BCE in Athens, ‘the oligarchy of the 400’ took power out of the hands of the Assembly and were themselves superseded by a more moderate oligarchy of 5000. In 404 BCE, following the defeat of the Athenian military forces in Sicily, there was an oligarchy of ‘the Thirty Tyrants’ in Athens which was a particularly brutal regime, noted for its summary executions. Megara and Thebes were other states which had an oligarchic system.

Public Officials
In Athens the law was devised and enforced by magistrates (archai). All citizens were eligible for the position, and indeed there may well have been a certain expectation that the honourable citizen would play his active part in civic life. For the Greeks, the state was not seen as an interfering entity which sought to limit one’s freedom but as an apparatus through which the individual could fully express his membership of the community.  The regular turnover of archai, due to limited terms of office and the prohibition of re-election, meant abuse of power was kept in check and the rulers would, in turn, become the ruled. Various boards of officials also existed to make administrative decisions; members of these were usually taken from each of the ten traditional tribes. Many civic positions were short-term and chosen by lot to ensure bribery was kept to a minimum. Importantly, positions of power often required not only free time but also financial layout to fund municipal projects such as shipbuilding and festivals. Therefore, it was probably the case that public positions were in reality dominated by the wealthier citizens.

Roman Empire

Roman Empire

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The Roman Empire, at its height (c. 117 CE), was the most extensive political and social structure in western civilization. By 285 CE the empirehad grown too vast to be ruled from the central government at Rome and so was divided by Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305 CE) into a Western and an Eastern Empire. The RomanEmpire began when Augustus Caesar (r. 27 BCE-14 CE) became the first emperor of Rome and ended, in the west, when the last Roman emperorRomulus Augustulus (r. 475-476 CE), was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer (r. 476-493 CE). In the east, it continued as the Byzantine Empire until the death of Constantine XI (r. 1449-1453 CE) and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. The influence of the Roman Empire on western civilization was profound in its lasting contributions to virtually every aspect of western culture.

Map of the Roman Empire in 125 CE (by Andrei Nacu, Public Domain)

Original image by Andrei Nacu. Uploaded by , published on 26 April 2012 under the following license: Public Domain, from

The Early Dynasties

Following the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, Gaius Octavian Thurinus, Julius Caesar's nephew and heir, became the first emperor of Rome and took the name Augustus Caesar. Although Julius Caesar is often regarded as the first emperor of Rome, this is incorrect; he never held the title `Emperor' but, rather, `Dictator', a title the Senate could not help but grant him, as Caesar held supreme military and political power at the time. In contrast, the Senate willingly granted Augustus the title of emperor, lavishing praise and power on him because he had destroyed Rome's enemies and brought much-needed stability.


Augustus ruled the empire from 31 BCE until 14 CE when he died. In that time, as he said himself, he "found Rome a city of clay but left it a city of marble." Augustus reformed the laws of the city and, by extension, the empire’s, secured Rome's borders, initiated vast building projects (carried out largely by his faithful general Agrippa(l. 63-12 BCE), who built the first Pantheon), and secured the empire a lasting name as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, political and cultural powers in history. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace), also known as the Pax Augusta, which he initiated, was a time of peace and prosperity hitherto unknown and would last over 200 years.

Following Augustus’ death, power passed to his heir, Tiberius (r. 14-37 CE), who continued many of the emperor’s policies but lacked the strength of character and vision which so defined Augustus. This trend would continue, more or less steadily, with the emperors who followed: Caligula (r. 37-41 CE), Claudius (r. 41-54 CE), and Nero (r. 54-68 CE). These first five rulers of the empire are referred to as the Julio-Claudian Dynasty for the two family names they descended from (either by birth or through adoption), Julius and Claudius. Although Caligula has become notorious for his depravity and apparent insanity, his early rule was commendable as was that of his successor, Claudius, who expanded Rome’s power and territory in Britain; less so was that of Nero. Caligula and Claudius were both assassinated in office (Caligula by his Praetorian Guard and Claudius, apparently, by his wife). Nero’s suicide ended the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and initiated the period of social unrest known as The Year of the Four Emperors.

These four rulers were GalbaOthoVitellius, and Vespasian. Following Nero’s suicide in 68 CE, Galba assumed rule (69 CE) and almost instantly proved unfit for the responsibility. He was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. Otho succeeded him swiftly on the very day of his death, and ancient records indicate he was expected to make a good emperor. General Vitellius, however, sought power for himself and so initiated the brief civil war which ended in Otho’s suicide and Vitellius’ ascent to the throne. 

Vitellius proved no more fit to rule than Galba had been, as he almost instantly engaged in luxurious entertainments and feasts at the expense of his duties. The legions declared for General Vespasian as emperor and marched on Rome. Vitellius was murdered by Vespasian’s men, and Vespasian (r. 69-79 CE) took power exactly one year from the day Galba had first ascended to the throne.

Vespasian founded the Flavian Dynasty which was characterized by massive building projects, economic prosperity, and expansion of the empire. Vespasian reign was prosperous as evidenced by his building projects which included initial construction of the Flavian Amphitheatre (the famous Coliseum of Rome) which his son Titus(r. 79-81 CE) would complete. Titus’ early reign saw the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE which buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Roman Emperor Domitian, Louvre

Roman Emperor Domitian, Louvre by Mary Harrsch (Photographed at the Musée de Louvre) (CC BY-NC-SA)

Ancient sources are universal in their praise for his handling of this disaster as well as the great fire of Rome in 80 CE. Titus died of a fever in 81 CE and was succeeded by his brother Domitian (r. 81-96 CE). Domitian expanded and secured the boundaries of Rome, repaired the damage to the city caused by the great fire, continued the building projects initiated by his brother, and improved the economy of the empire. Even so, his autocratic methods and policies made him unpopular with the Roman Senate, and he was assassinated in 96 CE.

The Five Good Emperors

Domitian's successor was his advisor Nerva who founded the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty which ruled Rome 96-192 CE.  This period is marked by increased prosperity owing to the rulers known as The Five Good Emperors of Rome. Between 96 and 180 CE, five exceptional men ruled in sequence and brought the Roman Empire to its height:

Under their leadership, the Roman Empire grew stronger, more stable, and expanded in size and scope. Lucius Verus and Commodus are the last two of the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty. Verus was co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius until his death in 169 CE and seems to have been fairly ineffective. Commodus (r. 180-192 CE), Aurelius’ son and successor, was one of the most disgraceful emperors Rome ever saw and is universally depicted as indulging himself and his whims at the expense of the empire. He was strangled by his wrestling partner in his bath in 192 CE, ending the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty and raising the prefect Pertinax (who most likely engineered Commodus’ assassination) to power.

The Severan Dynasty

Pertinax governed for only three months before he was assassinated. He was followed, in rapid succession, by four others in the period known as The Year of the Five Emperors, which culminated in the rise of Septimus Severus to power. Severus (r. 193-211 CE), founded the Severan Dynasty, defeated the Parthians, and expanded the empire. His campaigns in Africa and Britain were extensive and costly and would contribute to Rome’s later financial difficulties. He was succeeded by his sons Caracalla and Geta, until Caracalla had his brother murdered.

Caracalla ruled until 217 CE, when he was assassinated by his bodyguard. It was under Caracalla’s reign that Roman citizenship was expanded to include all free men within the empire. This lawwas said to have been enacted as a means of raising tax revenue, simply because, after its passage, there were more people the central government could tax. The Severan Dynasty continued, largely under the guidance and manipulation of Julia Maesa (referred to as `empress’), until the assassination of Alexander Severus (r. 222-235 CE) in 235 CE which plunged the empire into the chaos known as The Crisis of the Third Century (lasting from 235-284 CE).

Two Empires: East & West

This period, also known as The Imperial Crisis, was characterized by constant civil war, as various military leaders fought for control of the empire. The crisis has been further noted by historians for widespread social unrest, economic instability (fostered, in part, by the devaluation of Roman currency by the Severans), and, finally, the dissolution of the empire which broke into three separate regions. The empire was reunited by Aurelian (270-275 CE) whose policies were further developed and improved upon by Diocletian who established the Tetrarchy (the rule of four) to maintain order throughout the empire.


Even so, the empire was still so vast that Diocletian divided it in half in c.285 CE to facilitate more efficient administration by elevating one of his officers, Maximian (r. 286-305 CE) to the position of co-emperor. In so doing, he created the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire). Since a leading cause of the Imperial Crisis was a lack of clarity in succession, Diocletian decreed that successors must be chosen and approved from the outset of an individual’s rule. Two of these successors were the generals Maxentius and Constantine. Diocletian voluntarily retired from rule in 305 CE, and the tetrarchy dissolved as rival regions of the empire vied with each other for dominance. Following Diocletian’s death in 311 CE, Maxentius and Constantine plunged the empire again into civil war.

Constantine & Christianity   

In 312 CE Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and became sole emperor of both the Western and Eastern Empires (ruling from 306-337 CE but holding supreme power 324-307 CE). Believing that Jesus Christ was responsible for his victory, Constantine initiated a series of laws such as the Edict of Milan (313 CE) which mandated religious tolerance throughout the empire and, specifically, tolerance for the faith which came to known as Christianity.


The Colossus of Constantine

The Colossus of Constantine by Dana Murray (CC BY-NC-SA)

In the same way that earlier Roman emperors had claimed a special relationship with a deity to augment their authority and standing (Caracalla with Serapis, for example, or Diocletian with Jupiter), Constantine chose the figure of Jesus Christ. At the First Council of Nicea (325 CE), he presided over the gathering to codify the faith and decide on important issues such as the divinity of Jesus and which manuscripts would be collected to form the book known today as The Bible. He stabilized the empire, revalued the currency, and reformed the military, as well as founding the city he called New Rome on the site of the former city of Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul) which came to be known as Constantinople.

He is known as Constantine the Great owing to later Christian writers who saw him as a mighty champion of their faith but, as has been noted by many historians, the honorific could as easily be attributed to his religious, cultural, and political reforms, as well as his skill in battle and his large-scale building projects. After his death, his sons inherited the empire and, fairly quickly, embarked on a series of conflicts with each other which threatened to undo all that Constantine had accomplished.

His three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans divided the Roman Empire between them but soon fell to fighting over which of them deserved more. In these conflicts, Constantine II and Constans were killed. Constantius II died later after naming his cousin Julian his successor and heir. Emperor Julian ruled for only two years (361-363 CE) and, in that time, tried to return Rome to her former glory through a series of reforms aimed at increasing efficiency in government.

As a Neo-Platonic philosopher, Julian rejected Christianity and blamed the faith, and Constantine’s advocacy for it, for the decline of the empire. While officially proclaiming a policy of religious tolerance, Julian systematically removed Christians from influential government positions, banned the teaching and spread of the religion, and barred Christians from military service. His death, while on campaign against the Persians, ended the dynasty Constantine had begun. He was the last pagan emperor of Rome and came to be known as `Julian the Apostate’ for his opposition to Christianity.


Byzantine Empire c. 460 CE

Byzantine Empire c. 460 CE by Tataryn77 (CC BY-SA)

After the brief rule of Jovian, who re-established Christianity as the dominant faith of the empire and repealed Julian’s various edicts, the responsibility of emperor fell to Theodosius I. Theodosius I (r. 379-395 CE) took Constantine’s and Jovian’s religious reforms to their natural ends, outlawed pagan worship throughout the empire, closed the schools and universities, and converted pagan temples into Christian churches after proclaiming Christianity Rome's state religion in 380 CE. 


It was during this time that Plato’s famous Academy was closed by Theodosius’ decree. Many of his reforms were unpopular with both the Roman aristocracy and the common people who held to the traditional values of pagan practice. The unity of social duties and religious belief which paganism provided was severed by the institution of a religion which removed the gods from the earth and human society and proclaimed only one God who ruled from the heavens.

This new god, unlike the gods of old, had no special interest in Rome - he was the god of all people - and this distanced the religion of Rome from the state of Rome. Previously, Roman religious belief was state-sponsored and the rituals and festivals went to enhancing the status of the government. Theodosius I devoted so much effort to promoting Christianity that he seems to have neglected other duties as emperor and would be the last to rule both Eastern and Western Empires.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

From 376-382 CE, Rome fought a series of battles against invading Goths known today as the Gothic Wars. At the Battle of Adrianople, 9 August 378 CE, the Roman Emperor Valens (r. 364-378 CE) was defeated, and historians mark this event as pivotal in the decline of the Western Roman Empire. Various theories have been suggested as to the cause of the empire’s fall but, even today, there is no universal agreement on what those specific factors were. Edward Gibbon has famously argued in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Christianity played a pivotal role, in that the new religion undermined the social mores of the empire which paganism provided.

The theory that Christianity was a root cause in the empire’s fall was debated long before Gibbon, however, as the theologian Orosius (l. c. 5th century CE) argued Christianity’s innocence in Rome’s decline as early as 418 CE. Orosius claimed it was primarily paganism itself and pagan practices which brought about the fall of Rome. Other contributing factors to Rome's fall include: 

  • Political instability due to size of empire
  • The self-interest of the two halves of the empire
  • Invasion of barbarian tribes
  • Government corruption
  • Mercenary armies
  • Over-reliance on slave labor
  • Massive unemployment and inflation

The ungovernable vastness of the empire, even divided in two, made it difficult to manage. The Eastern Empire flourished while the Western Empire struggled and neither gave much thought to helping the other. Eastern and Western Rome saw each other more as competitors than teammates and worked primarily in their own self-interest. The growing strength of the Germanic tribes and their constant incursions into Rome could have been dealt with more effectively if not for government corruption, especially among provincial governors, and fair treatment of the Goths by the Romans overall.

The Roman military, manned largely with barbarian mercenaries who had no ethnic ties to Rome, could no longer safeguard the borders as efficiently as they once had nor could the government as easily collect taxes in the provinces. Further, the debasement of the currency, begun under the Severan Dynasty, had steadily encouraged inflation and slave labor, which was widespread, deprived lower-class citizens of jobs so unemployment levels soared. The arrival of the Visigoths in the empire in the third century CE, fleeing from the invading Huns, and their subsequent rebellions has also been cited a contributing factor in the decline.


Invasions of the Roman Empire

Invasions of the Roman Empire by MapMaster (CC BY-SA)

The Western Roman Empire officially ended 4 September 476 CE, when Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer (though some historians date the end as 480 CE with the death of Julius Nepos). The Eastern Roman Empire continued on as the Byzantine Empire until 1453 CE, and though known early on as simply `the Roman Empire’, it did not much resemble that entity at all. The Western Roman Empire would become re-invented later as The Holy Roman Empire (962-1806 CE), but that construct, also, was far removed from the Roman Empire of antiquity and was an `empire’ in name only.

Legacy of the Roman Empire

The inventions and innovations which were generated by the Roman Empire profoundly altered the lives of the ancient people and continue to be used in cultures around the world today. Advancements in the construction of roads and buildings, indoor plumbing, aqueducts, and even fast-drying cement were either invented or improved upon by the Romans. The calendar used in the West derives from the one created by Julius Caesar, and the names of the days of the week (in the romance languages) and months of the year also come from Rome. Even the practice of returning some purchase one finds one does not want comes from Rome whose laws made it legal for a consumer to bring back some defective or unwanted merchandise to the seller. 

Apartment complexes (known as `insula), public toilets, locks and keys, newspapers, even socks all were developed by the Romans as were shoes, a postal system (modeled after the Persians), cosmetics, the magnifying glass, and the concept of satire in literature. During the time of the empire, significant developments were also advanced in the fields of medicine, law, religion, government, and warfare. The Romans were adept at borrowing from, and improving upon, those inventions or concepts they found among the indigenous populace of the regions they conquered. It is therefore difficult to say what is an `original’ Roman invention and what is an innovation on a pre-existing concept, technique, or tool. It can safely be said, however, that the Roman Empire left an enduring legacy which continues to affect the way in which people live in the present day.


Gynaecological Instrument (by Mark Cartwright, CC BY-NC-SA)

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Roman Science

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The Romans assimilated earlier Greek science for their own purposes, evaluating and then accepting or rejecting that which was most useful, much as they did in other fields such as warfare, art, and theatre. This assimilation of Greek thought began in the 2nd century BCE, and ideas often came with their practitioners. For example, the first specialist architects and doctors in the Roman world were very often Greek. The Roman respect for ancient Greek scholars continued right up to the end of the empire, and so Roman scientists, even if their own innovations were largely more concerned with refinements than new ideas outright, managed to document and record a long, ancient tradition of scientific thought, so preserving it for posterity. The old approach of historians that the Romans had no significant science of their own has now been reassessed to reflect their practical contributions to the evolution of fields like architecture, engineering, and medicine, which were underpinned by progress in such sciences as geometry, physics, and biology. 

Attitudes to Science

One notable distinction of Roman scientists was their desire for authoritative answers to any questions they had about the world. In addition, for the practical Roman mind science had to provide useful information which could be used to ensure successful outcomes of real projects. Long and ultimately purposeless discussion and research on a purely theoretical level were not for the Roman scientist. Physics had to be of practical use to produce effective torsion catapults, biology must improve agricultural yields, and mathematics and geometry must combine to provide the best answers in order to build the most impressive domes and arches. This pursuit of scientific knowledge was very often sponsored by wealthy private individuals who sought the benefits of a reputation with the public as an active promoter of culture.

Roman Science Authors

A number of Roman authors stand out who attempted to study earlier Greek science and forge this body of knowledge with some new discoveries and theories into a corpus of practically useful ideas suitable for the Roman way of life:

  • Cato (b. 234 BCE) – the famous orator also wrote a valuable treatise (De agricultura) which gave advice on how to run a good estate with notes on wine and oil production and various remedies for crop diseases.  
  • Varro (b. 116 BCE) – was the most prolific scientific author, although very little of his work survives. One exception is the Res Rusticae, which describes the best ways to manage a large estate. His other works on mathematics, geography, biology, and more, live on through his immense influence on later authors such as Vitruvius, Pliny, Augustine, and Martianus Capella.
  • Cicero (b. 106 BCE) - famous as an orator and politician, his great contribution to science was putting the Greek corpus into Latin, and his works on philosophy proved especially influential in the field of cosmology and physics.
  • Julius Caesar (b. 100 BCE) - his Gallic Wars included much on geography, and he composed a lost work on the stars.
  • Lucretius (b. c. 94 BCE) - wrote De rerum natura on the major Greek works of atomist philosophy and was especially interested in optics and biology.
  • Nigidius (1st century BCE) - wrote works (which survive only in fragments) on astronomy, zoology, weather, and human nature.
  • Vitruvius (1st century BCE) - wrote an influential work on architecture (De architectura) which included surveying, town planning, mathematics, principles of proportion, materials, astronomy, and mechanics.
  • Seneca - his work on natural philosophy included studies of meteorology, earthquakes, volcanoes, comets, and meteors.
  • Columella (b. 50 CE) – wrote the most comprehensive manual on agricultural best practice. The 12 books, designed to advise large estate owners, covered such areas as viticulture, horticulture, animal husbandry, farm calendars, and the best layout for a villa.
  • Marcus Manilius (1st century CE) - wrote five volumes on astrology, his Astronomica.
  • Pomponius Mela (1st century CE) - composed an extensive survey of Mediterranean and north European geography published in his three-volume De chorographia.
  • Aulus Cornelius Celsus (1st century CE) - who compiled a vast encyclopedia, eight volumes of which, the De medicina, examined medical science (old and new) and such topics as diet, therapy, and surgery.
  • Scribonius Largus (b. c. 1 CE) - compiled a handbook, the Compositones (Prescriptions), of medical remedies especially useful for gladiators.
  • Pliny the Elder (b. c. 23 CE) - compiled a 36 volume encyclopedia, the Naturalis Historia, on the natural world – animal, vegetable, and mineral. He himself claimed that his work contained no fewer than 20,000 facts.
  • Frontinus (d. c. 103 CE) - composed works on military science, especially war machines, and wrote on the water systems of Rome in his De acquis urbis Romae.
  • Galen (b. 129 CE) – of Greek origin who became a physician to emperors after starting his career administering medical aid to gladiators. He is an invaluable source on earlier medical matters, notably Hippocrates, but was also a successful practitioner of complex surgeries himself. 

Late-Empire Attitudes to Science

In the mid-3rd century CE, scientific thought was transformed, along with religion and philosophy, by the Neoplatonist thinkers Plotinos of Egypt and Porphyry of Syria. One of the many subsequent Neoplatonist scholars, to illustrate the breadth of subjects they discussed, was Martianus Capella (c. 430 CE) who wrote on geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music theory, and geography. In addition to this new approach, the monotheism of Christianity had spread to become the official state religion by the 4th century CE. Christians were wary of any scientific theories contrary to their view of the universe, but the two positions were not necessarily antagonistic, and several important scientists were actually Christians, for example Calcidius (c. 375 CE) who wrote widely on cosmology.


Hemispherical Sundial

Hemispherical Sundial by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

Medical scientists continued to be prolific authors. Notable names from the period are Marcellus of Bordeaux (c. 400 CE), who wrote a vast collection of remedies, and Theodorus Priscianus, Caelius Aurelianus (c. 450 CE), and Vegetius, who all drew on earlier, often now lost, works. By the 5th century CE and the collapse of the Western empire, Roman science ceased to possess any identifiable character, but two authors who stand out from the period are Cassiodorus Senator (485 CE) and Boethius (c. 520 CE), who both, once again, displayed the Roman reverence for Greek sources and tradition.

Scientific Achievements


The Romans adopted the Greek architectural orders, added the composite capital and Tuscan column to the repertoire, and generally made their buildings much more intricately decorative. Ambitious in their monumental building projects, they were driven to use bricks in new ways, to build wide-spanning arches and supporting buttresses, even to invent a new type of concrete which was light-weight enough for large domes and water-resistant enough for harbour moles. New types of buildings appeared such as the basilica, triumphal arch, monumental aqueductamphitheatre, and granary building. There were also huge bath complexes with rooms of differing temperatures and under-heated floors and pools, and multistory residential housing blocks for the poorer classes. Such projects required complex designs using wide-ranging mathematical skills and the result was an emphasis no longer merely on the structure and blocks of the building but on the magnificence of the space these materials enclosed. 


Pont del Diable Aqueduct, Tarraco

Pont del Diable Aqueduct, Tarraco by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

Astronomy & Astrology

The Romans adopted much of what the Greeks and Ptolemaic Egypt had achieved previously in the field of astronomy. Measuring time using sundials did become more accurate in the Roman period when even portable sundials became popular, sometimes with changeable discs to compensate for changes in location. Public sundials were present in all major towns, and their popularity is evidenced in archaeological finds such as 35 from Pompeii alone. A seven-day astrological week was adopted during the reign of Augustus.


Astrology, also adopted from Ptolemaic Egypt, was popular with the Romans, and as in many other ancient cultures, the link between the movements of celestial bodies and the signs of the zodiac with the human experience was taken as certain (even if there were a few sceptics amongst scholars). Astrologists were often used by emperors to demonstrate to the populace that their decisions and policies were always the best ones, although Augustus prohibited them giving consultations to private citizens.   


The Romans were well aware, as documented in the work of Columella amongst others, of the importance of climate, soil type, and land formation in ensuring the best production results. Techniques familiar to 19th-century CE European farmers were used effectively by the Romans, such as crop rotation, pruning, grafting, seed selection, drainage, irrigation, and manuring. Some specialised industries such as viticulture easily matched the output of 20th-century CE producers. Tools were developed ranging from wheeled ploughs to oxen-drawn harvesting machines which dramatically improved efficiency. Grinding mills (and sieves) developed to produce finer flour for bread-making, and buildings were purpose-built to better store harvests. Farmers knew the value of greenhouses and even experimented with genetic modifications such as crossing apples with pumpkins.  


Rabbit, Roman Mosaic

Rabbit, Roman Mosaic by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

Animal husbandry skills developed too so that sheep, cows, goats, poultry, and pigs were reared with success. Their size and the quality of wool are evidence that the Romans were as expert as any animal breeders before or since. Game such as rabbit, hare, boar, and deer were successfully farmed in large enclosed areas of forest. Fish and sea life were similarly farmed in artificial and controlled environments, where water was changed regularly (sometimes even heated) and the best artificial feed developed. The Romans also became adept at preserving their food using all manner of techniques such as smoking, salting, drying, curing, pickling in brine or vinegar, and storing in honey.


The Romans were great engineers and constantly strived to master the natural environment and test the limits of physics. Not only were aqueducts huge building projects (built up to 50 metres in height when spanning valleys and bringing water up to 100 km from its source) but they also employed many engineering tricks to aid water flow and increase purity: inverted siphons, stopcocks, settling tanks, aerating cascades, and mesh filters. Tunnels were constructed to provide more direct routes for aqueducts and roads, and excavated with surveying precision to enter and exit a mountain at precisely the desired spot. Watermills harnessed water power from rivers using sophisticated systems of wheels and gears and used the energy gained to drive mills for flour production, for saws to cut marble, or as ore crushers in search of precious metals.  

Warfare and the fact that technological innovation very often guaranteed victory meant that the Romans sought to perfect such essentials of the ancient battlefield as siege engines and artillery weapons. Roman weapons fired bigger missiles, further and more accurately, than had ever been seen before. The mechanics of torsion machines was mastered, and they even devised ways to disassemble their artillery to easily move it to another place where it could be rebuilt and used again.



Roman Sawmill

Roman Sawmill by Chris (CC BY)

On the opposite side of human endeavour, the Romans also employed their engineering skills in the entertainment industry. Amphitheatres and circuses were architectural marvels in themselves, but they also contained all manner of mechanical devices to spice up public shows. Water organs played while chariots whizzed by, machines replicated thunderstorms, and hidden trapdoors appeared in arena floors to magically bring exotic and terrifying animals into the organised chaos of gladiator fights and battle re-enactments. 


The Romans did not add very much to the Greek tradition of geography as a theoretical subject, but it did become a staple entry in their encyclopedias. Military commanders on campaign and regional governors were perhaps the Romans' greatest geographers as they mapped the areas of practical relevance to their roles. Pomponius Mela did attempt an exhaustive catalogue of the people and places of the known world, including the seas and places of historic interest in his mid-1st century CE De chorographia.

Mathematics & Geometry

Roman mathematics, as with earlier Greek views on the discipline, maintained a strong link with philosophy. Always interested in the practical application of theory, mathematics tended to focus, too, on natural phenomena and astronomy. The Romans not only applied mathematics to problems of architecture but also to such essential administrative tasks as tax accounting and land surveys. In addition, the pure mathematical subjects treated by Pythagoras and others were studied as part of a standard Roman education.


Roman Abacus

Roman Abacus by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

Perhaps one of the most recognisable features of Roman culture, and still widely used in the modern world, is the Roman system of numerals.  Here I = 1, V = 5, X = 10, L = 50, and 1,000 was represented by M, an abbreviation of milla/mille (thousand). The system uses both addition and subtraction to represent figures (e.g. XX = 20 and IX = 9). The Romans also used fractions and certain numbers came to have special significance (e.g. 365) and even names could be translated into a representative number (famously that of Nero Caesar into 666)


Perhaps the greatest contribution the Romans made to the field of medicine was to spread knowledge of medical matters through the publication of treatises and a greater accessibility of ordinary citizens to a professional doctor. The army had its own designated physicians, as did larger private homes. Doctors also became more ambitious in their surgeries, better equipped as they were with a greater array of specialised instruments which ranged from forceps to wound-retractors. Doctors were also able to gain valuable experience from dealing with war-wounded and those injured in the arena. Another innovation was the creation of dedicated hospitals within each army camp.

Medicines were produced and more freely available than previously, with pills often using plants and herbs, which included the use of morphine via extracted poppy juice. Through the greater study of the body from dissection, such internal injuries as kidney damage and spinal dislocations could be diagnosed accurately too, even if their cure was unlikely. 


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