Ancient Rome

Find out why this ancient civilization is still important more than 2,000 years after its fall. 

Tens of thousands of Romans take their seats in an enormous stadium made of stone and concrete. It’s the year 80, and these people are entering the newly built Colosseum for the first time. Men wearing togas and women in long dresses called stolas will spend the next hundred days watching gladiator games and wild animal fights to celebrate the opening of this amphitheater.

These ancient people were living in the center of a vast empire that spanned across Europe, northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East. Lasting over a thousand years, the ancient Roman civilization contributed to modern languages, government, architecture, and more.

History of ancient Rome

Around the 9th or 10th century B.C., Rome was just a small town on the Tiber River in what’s now central Italy. (One myth says that the town was founded by two brothers—Romulus and Remus—who were raised by a wolf.) For about 500 years, the area was ruled by a series of kings as it grew in strength and power.

But around the year 509 B.C., the last king was overthrown, and Rome became a republic. That meant that some citizens could vote for their leaders and other important matters. Only male Roman citizens could cast votes; women and enslaved people—often brought back as prisoners from military battles—could not.

Elected officials included two consuls who acted sort of like today’s U.S. presidents and kept each other from taking too much power. Both consuls worked with senators, who advised the consuls and helped create laws. Senators were appointed by other officials and could hold their positions for life.

The Roman army fought many wars during this period, first conquering all of what’s now Italy. In 146 B.C., they destroyed the city of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia, in northern Africa), which was Rome’s greatest rival for trade in the western Mediterranean Sea. Next they conquered Greece.

For 500 years, the republic system mostly worked. But then a series of civil wars divided the people. In 59 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar, a politician and military general, used the chaos to take power. Serving as consul, Caesar made new laws that benefitted his troops and other regular citizens. Then he conquered what’s now France and invaded Britain.

Even though his troops and many Roman citizens supported him, the Senate worried he was too powerful and wanted him gone. Knowing this, Caesar marched his loyal army into Rome. It was an illegal act that started a civil war, which Caesar would eventually win.

At first, he was named dictator for 10 years. (Before that, a dictator served during times of emergencies for only six months.) He canceled people’s debts and granted Roman citizenship to people outside of Italy so they could vote. Caesar also traveled to Egypt, making an alliance with the pharaoh Cleopatra.

In 44 B.C., Caesar named himself dictator for life. Fearing he was becoming a king, a group of senators killed him on the floor of the Senate. Caesar was gone, but his supporters chased down the assassins. His heir and nephew, Octavian, and general Mark Anthony battled for power.

Octavian eventually won and renamed himself Augustus Caesar. (The family name, Caesar, would become a title that future emperors would use to connect themselves back to Gaius Julius Caesar.) He convinced the Senate to give him absolute power and served successfully for 45 years. After his death, he was declared a god.

For the rest of its existence, Rome was ruled by emperors who were not elected—they reigned for life. The Senate was still part of the government, but it had very little power. Some emperors, like Claudius, were good at their jobs; others, like Nero and Caligula, were so cruel that even their guards turned against them. 

By A.D. 117, the Roman Empire included what’s now France, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, parts of northern Africa, England, Romania, and more. At one point, one out of every four people in the world lived under Rome’s control.

But emperors and the Senate found this vast empire difficult to rule from the city of Rome. In the year 285, it was split into a Western Roman Empire and an Eastern Roman Empire. Known as the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire was ruled from the city of Constantinople, now the modern-day city of Istanbul in Turkey.

The Byzantine Empire would last for almost another thousand years, but the Western Empire—Rome—began to fall apart. Civil wars, plagues, money troubles, and invasions from other groups made the empire unstable. In the year 476, a Germanic king overthrew Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor.

Life in ancient Rome

Most people in the city of Rome lived in crowded apartment buildings called insulae that were five to seven stories high. Wealthier Romans lived in houses called domus that had a dining room and an atrium—an open-air courtyard that often had a pool at the center. Some Romans even had vacation homes in Pompeii and Herculaneum, two Roman cities that were destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.

Rich or poor, Romans gathered to relax, socialize, and clean themselves at Roman baths. Like modern spas, these structures had exercise rooms, swimming pools, saunas, hot and cold plunge pools, and massage spaces. The people also gathered to watch plays, chariot races, and gladiator battles.

Roman citizens enjoyed relaxing, but enslaved people in ancient Rome had a much more difficult life. Many worked in fields, mines, and on ships. Others, like educated Greeks who tutored wealthy children, were forced to work in rich people’s homes. However, some enslaved people were able to buy or earn their freedom and eventually become Roman citizens.

Roman women sometimes worked as midwives—helping to deliver babies—or became priestesses. But in Roman society, women’s main role was to look after the home and family. Although Romans could easily get divorced, children legally belonged to the father (or a male relative if he was no longer living).

Romans believed in many gods, including the sky god Jupiter; Mars, a god who protected Romans in war; and Vesta, the goddess of the home. People would worship these gods and goddesses both at public temples and in their homes.

Why ancient Rome still matters

Today, the city of Rome is the capital of Italy, with around three million people. Visitors can still see many ancient Roman ruins, from the Colosseum to the Roman Forum, where much of ancient Roman politics took place.

But beyond the crumbling buildings, Rome’s impact is seen all over the world today, from huge sports stadiums inspired by the Colosseum to the way that we vote for politicians. The republic’s system of checks and balances on power even inspired the founders of the United States government.

If you drive in Europe or the Middle East today, you might be on a route created by the ancient Romans. Those engineers built a system of 50,000 miles of roads that connected the empire, allowing troops to easily conquer new land and traders to travel and bring back wealth. (It’s where we get the saying, “All roads lead to Rome.”)

You can also thank Roman engineers for perfecting a system for getting running water. They built aqueducts, which were long channels that delivered fresh water from up to 57 miles away for people’s baths, fountains, and even toilets. (Some ancient aqueducts still provide water to modern-day Rome!)

Julius Caesar even gave the world its 365-day calendar with an extra day every fourth year, or leap year. The month of July is named after him, and August is named after his successor, Augustus.