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Ancient Rome: From Romulus to Justinian

Ancient Rome: From Romulus to Justinian

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by Thomas R. Martin

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With commanding skill, Thomas R. Martin tells the remarkable and dramatic story of how a tiny, poor, and threatened settlement grew to become, during its height, the dominant power in the Mediterranean world for five hundred years. Encompassing the period from Rome's founding in the eighth century B.C. through Justinian's rule in the sixth century A.D., he offers a


With commanding skill, Thomas R. Martin tells the remarkable and dramatic story of how a tiny, poor, and threatened settlement grew to become, during its height, the dominant power in the Mediterranean world for five hundred years. Encompassing the period from Rome's founding in the eighth century B.C. through Justinian's rule in the sixth century A.D., he offers a distinctive perspective on the Romans and their civilization by employing fundamental Roman values as a lens through which to view both their rise and spectacular fall.

Interweaving social, political, religious, and cultural history, Martin interprets the successes and failures of the Romans in war, political organization, quest for personal status, and in the integration of religious beliefs and practices with government. He focuses on the central role of social and moral values in determining individual conduct as well as decisions of state, from monarchy to republic to empire. Striving to reconstruct ancient history from the ground up, he includes frequent references to ancient texts and authors, encouraging readers to return to the primary sources. Comprehensive, concise, and accessible, this masterful account provides a unique window into Rome and its changing fortune.


Editorial Reviews

Midwest Book Review - Praise for Ancient Greece
“This comprehensive coverage of ancient Greece begins with Stone Age prehistory and moves to coverage of Greek society and politics. It can easily appeal to any general reader with a cursory interest in Greek history, exploring how the people lived and developed their society.”—Midwest Book Review
Minerva - Geoff Lowsley
"Some 20 years after the success of his Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times (Yale UP), Thomas R Martin gives the same treatment to a potted history fo Rome, with great success. [...] It is to the credit of the author that, even in a few pages, there seem to be no omissions of events, incidents or figures who helped shape the history of Rome. [...] It remains ... an immensely readable and enagaging history, which shows incredible breadth, given its brevity." —Geoff Lowsley, Minerva

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Yale University Press
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Ancient Rome

From Romulus to Justinian
By Thomas R. Martin


Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-16004-8

Chapter One

Introduction and Background

This overview of the history of ancient Rome covers the period from the foundation of Rome by Romulus (so legend said) in the eighth century B.C., through the Roman Republic, to the establishment of what we today call the Roman Empire, finishing with the rule of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century A.D. Roman history emphatically did not come to an end with Justinian's reign, but that period will provide the chronological stopping point for this book. This reflects the (for Romans) regrettable circumstances that made Justinian the last ruler to try to restore the territorial extent and glory of the later Roman Empire, which had shrunk by that emperor's time to a fraction of the size and might that it had reached at the height of Roman power nearly half a millennium before Justinian's time. Geographically, the narrative covers the enormous territory in Europe, North Africa, and western Asia (the Middle East) that the Romans ruled at that earlier high point in their power.

As a brief survey, this book necessarily omits a great deal of information about ancient Rome and pays more attention to some topics than others. For example, a fuller survey would describe in more detail the history of the Italian peoples before the traditional date of Rome's foundation in 753 B.C., whose deeds and thoughts greatly influenced the Romans themselves. Likewise, a longer book would explore the history of the Roman world after Justinian, when the emergence of Islam changed forever the political, cultural, and religious circumstances of the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire once dominated. The books listed in the Suggested Readings section provide further discussion and guidance on many topics that receive little or no coverage here.

In my experience teaching Roman history for nearly forty years, if readers are willing to do the hard work required to participate in the fascinating and still-ongoing conversation about interpreting what Romans did and said and thought, the best thing that they can do for themselves is to read the ancient sources—more than once! For this reason, citations in parentheses direct readers to ancient sources quoted in the text, most of which also appear in the Suggested Readings section. In this way I hope to encourage readers to read the primary sources for themselves, so that they can experience the contexts of the evidence, discover what in particular interests them in the ancient texts, and on the basis of their further reading arrive at independent judgments on the significance of events and persons and ideas in Roman history. In the service of this same goal, the first two sections in the Suggested Readings are devoted to currently available translations of ancient sources that are either explicitly mentioned in the text or lie behind discussions in the text, even if the particular sources are not mentioned there.

In any case, to follow the rest of the story the reader needs to know in advance some basic facts of Rome's history: its main chronological divisions;, the main sources on which our knowledge of it is based; long-term themes with which we will be concerned; and something of the Romans' "prehistory"—the Romans' Italian forerunners, and the neighbors whose early influence helped set the direction of Rome's cultural development, the Etruscans and the Greeks.


This book follows the usual three-part chronological division of Roman history—Monarchy, Republic, and Empire (on which terms see below). It is important to make clear, however, that categorizing Rome's history under these three periods is an anachronistic practice. For the Romans, there was only one significant dividing point in their history: the elimination of the rule of kings at the end of the sixth century B.C. After the monarchy was abolished, the Romans themselves never stopped referring to their political system as a Republic (res publica, "the people's thing, the people's business"), even during the period that we call the Empire, which begins at the end of the first century B.C. with the career of Augustus. Today, Augustus is called the first Roman emperor; the Romans, however, referred to him as the princeps, the "First Man" (of the restored and continuing Republic). This is the political system that is usually called the Principate. The Romans certainly realized that Augustus's restructuring of the Roman state represented a turning point in their history, but all the "emperors" (in our terms) who followed him continued to insist that their government remained "the Republic."

The three time periods do not receive equal treatment in this book. The history of the Monarchy is presented much more briefly than the histories of the Republic and the Empire. This reflects above all the relative lack of reliable evidence for the time of the kings of Rome (although the evidence for the early Republic is hardly much better). The Republic and the Empire, on the other hand, receive roughly equal coverage. Only limited space is devoted to wide-ranging explanations of events and people in ancient Rome and judgments concerning the significance of Roman history for later times. This does not mean that I do not have strong opinions about these issues or that I believe the story "speaks for itself." Here, my goal is to present the story in such a way that it encourages readers to take on the difficult job of deciding for themselves why the Romans acted and thought as they did, and what meanings to attribute to the history of ancient Rome.

In the first of the three customary periods of Rome's political history, a series of seven kings ruled from 753 to 509 B.C., according to the traditionally accepted chronology. These dates are in fact only approximate, like most dates in Roman history until at least the third century B.C. (and in many cases for later centuries as well). The Republic, a new system of shared government replacing a sole ruler, extended from 509 to the second half of the first century B.C. In this overview, the end of the Republic is set in 27 B.C., the date when Augustus established the Principate (the government that modern historians call the Roman Empire).

The period of the Empire then follows. The last Roman emperor in the western half of the empire (roughly speaking, Europe west of Greece) was deposed in A.D. 476; this date has therefore sometimes been taken to mark "The Fall of the Roman Empire." However, the narrative here takes the history of the empire roughly a century beyond this "Fall," reaching the reign of Justinian (A.D. 527–565) in the eastern empire.

As far as the people of the eastern section of the empire were concerned, Roman imperial government continued for another thousand years, with Constantinople as the capital, the empire's "New Rome." The last eastern emperor was killed in A.D. 1453, when the Turkish commander Mehmet the Conqueror captured Constantinople and what little was left of the territory of the eastern Roman Empire. Historians today call the empire that Mehmet founded the Ottoman Empire. Since the Ottomans took over the remaining territory of the Eastern Roman Empire, this date might qualify as a better choice for the Roman Empire's "Fall" than A.D. 476. It is worth remembering, however, that Mehmet publicly announced that as a ruler he was building on (and aiming to outdo) the legacies of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror, Julius Caesar, and Augustus, whose accomplishments he had read about in Greek and Latin historical sources. Mehmet in fact proclaimed that his title was "Caesar of Rome." In other words, the first Turkish emperor was not seeking to end Roman history, but to redefine and extend it. In Russia, the idea soon began to be expressed that its empire was the "Third Rome." In the same spirit of emulation of the remembered glory of ancient Rome, around this time Frederick III proclaimed that he, too, was a Roman emperor, like his predecessors who had ruled the central European territories long known as the Holy Roman Empire. It is clear, then, that the memory of the glory of ancient Rome proved so seductive to later rulers that its history lived on in influential ways even after the empire's "Fall," regardless of how that concept is understood or what date historians give to it.


The sources of information for Roman history are varied. There are first of all the texts of ancient historical writers, supplemented by the texts of authors of other kinds of literature, from epic and lyric poetry to comic plays. Documentary evidence, both formal and informal, survives as inscriptions carved, inked, or painted on stone, metal, and papyri. Archaeological excavation reveals the physical remains of buildings and other structures, from walls to wells, as well as coins, manufactured objects from weapons to jewelry, and traces of organic materials such as textiles or food and wine preserved in storage containers. Roman art survives in sculptures, paintings, and mosaics. In sum, however, despite their variety, the sources that have survived are too limited to allow us a view of the events, ideas, and ways of life of ancient Rome that is anywhere near as full as the panoramic reconstruction of the past that historical research on more recent periods can achieve.

In addition, in Roman history (as in all ancient history), the exact dates of events and of the lifetimes even of important people are often not accurately recorded in our surviving sources. Readers should therefore recognize that many dates given here are imprecise, even if they are not qualified as "around such and such a year." Indeed, it is best to assume that most dates given here, especially for the opening centuries of Roman history, are likely to be approximations at best and subject to debate among professional historians.

For all these reasons, Roman history remains a story characterized by uncertainties and controversies. Readers should therefore understand that the limited interpretations and conclusions offered here should always be imagined to be followed by the thought that "we might someday discover new evidence, or use our historical imaginations to arrive at new interpretations of currently known evidence, and then change our minds about this particular interpretation or conclusion."

The evidence for the early history of Rome is the most limited of all. The two most extensive narrative accounts of Roman history under the Monarchy and the Republic that have survived (at least in part) were not written until seven centuries after the city's foundation. In addition, the manuscripts on which we today depend for these texts are missing substantial parts of the original narratives. One of these primary ancient sources is the From the Foundation of the City by Livy (59 B.C.–A.D. 17), a Roman scholar with no career in war or politics who narrated Rome's history from its earliest days down to his own time.

The other extended narrative covering the early history of Rome is by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek scholar who lived in Rome as a foreigner making his living as a teacher. He wrote his history, Roman Antiquities, at about the same time as Livy, toward the end of the first century B.C. These authors tended to interpret the long-past era of early Rome as a golden age compared to what they saw as the moral decline of their own times, a period of civil war when the system of government known as the Roman Republic was being violently transformed into a disguised monarchy under the rule of Augustus, the system of government today known as the Roman Empire. When, for instance, Livy in the preface to his Roman history refers to this era—his own lifetime—he sadly calls it "these times in which we can withstand neither our vices nor the solutions for them."

The surviving textual sources become more numerous for the later history of the Republic; in addition to Livy and Dionysius (and to name only the best-known that are readily available in English translation), there are Polybius's Histories on the late third and early second centuries B.C., including famous descriptions of the Roman army and what modern scholars sometimes call the "mixed constitution" of the government of the Republic, seen as a combination of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. For the late second and first centuries, there are vivid narratives and personal reflections on and by major historical figures in Sallust's War with Jugurtha and Conspiracy of Catiline, Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War and Commentaries of the Civil War, Cicero's Orations and Letters, and Appian's Civil Wars. Plutarch's Parallel Lives offers numerous lively biographies of the most famous leaders of the Roman Republic, from Romulus to Julius Caesar.

The textual sources of our information about the Roman Empire, despite being more extensive than for earlier periods, are also incomplete. The best known ancient authors whose works provide much of what we know about this period of history include Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve Caesars (biographies of Julius Caesar and the Roman emperors from Augustus to Domitian); Tacitus's narratives of imperial history in the first century A.D., the Annals and the Histories; Josephus's The Jewish War, an eyewitness account of the rebellion of the Jews and of the Roman military action that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; Cassius Dio's Roman History, which narrates Roman history up to the early third century A.D.; Ammianus Marcellinus's Roman History, narrating the history of the fourth century A.D.; and Procopius's narratives of the reign of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora in the sixth century A.D., History of the Wars and Secret History, the former account full of praise and the latter fiercely critical. Orosius's Seven Books of History against the Pagans gives a Christian version of universal history, including the Roman Empire up to the early fifth century A.D.

By the time of the later Roman Empire, a great preponderance of the surviving evidence pertains to the history of Christianity. This salient fact reflects the overwhelming impact on the Roman (and later) world of the growth of the new faith, and it necessarily influences the content of any narrative of that period.

The ancient authors' points of views on Roman life and government during the period of the Empire vary too widely to be clearly summarized without distortion, but it is perhaps fair to say that over time a nostalgic sense of regret for the loss of the original Republic and its sense of liberty (at least for those in the upper class) gave way to a recognition that an empire under a sole and supreme ruler was the only possible permanent system of government for the Roman world. This acceptance of the return of monarchs as Rome's rulers nevertheless also reflected, for many Romans, anger and regret at the abuses and injustices committed by individual emperors.


In my experience, a preliminary "flyover" helps readers who are new to ancient history comprehend the more detailed narrative that follows. All the terms used here will be explained subsequently at the appropriate places.

The ethnic and cultural origins of the ancient Romans reflect both their roots in Italy and also contact with Greeks. The political history of Rome begins with the rule of kings in the eighth century B.C.; the Romans remembered them as founders of enduring traditions in society and religion, but the limited information available from the surviving sources makes it difficult to know much in detail about this period. The Romans also reported that the monarchy was abolished at the end of the sixth century B.C. in response to the violent rape of a prominent Roman woman by the king's son. The kingship was then replaced by the Republic, a complicated system of shared government dominated by the upper class.

The greatest challenge in studying the Roman Republic is to understand how a society based on a long tradition of ethical values linking people to one another in a patron-client system (a social hierarchy with mutual obligations between those of higher and lower status) and with a successful military could eventually fail so spectacularly. From its beginnings, the Republic had grown stronger because the small farmers of Italy could produce an agricultural surplus. This surplus supported a growth in population that produced the soldiers for a large army of citizens and allies. The Roman willingness to endure great losses of people and property helped to make this army invincible in prolonged conflicts. Rome might lose battles, but never wars. Because Rome's wars initially brought profits, peace seemed a wasted opportunity. Upper-class commanders especially desired military careers with plenty of combat because, if they could win victories, they could win also glory and riches to enhance their status in Rome's social hierarchy.


Excerpted from Ancient Rome by Thomas R. Martin Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas R. Martin is professor of Classics at the College of the Holy Cross. His publications include Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China, and, as co-author, The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures.  He lives in Sutton, MA.

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