<< Back to Lessons Index

7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 3 - From Republic to Empire

What will we be learning in this unit?
  • How did Rome win an empire?
  • Why did the Roman republic decline?
  • How did Roman emperors promote peace and stability in the empire?


 Winning an Empire
  • Rome's conquest of the Italian peninsula brought it into contact with Carthage, a city-state on the northern coast of Africa. Settled by North Africans and Phoenician traders, Carthage ruled over an empire that stretched across North Africa and the western Mediterranean. As Rome expanded westward, conflict between these two powers became inevitable.


Winning an Empire
  • Between 264 b.c. and 146 b.c., Rome fought three wars against Carthage. They are called the Punic Wars, from Punicus, the Latin word for Phoenician. In the First Punic War, Rome defeated Carthage and won Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia. 
  • The Carthaginians sought revenge in the Second Punic War. In 218 b.c., the Carthaginian general Hannibal led his army, including dozens of war elephants, on an epic march across the Pyrenees, through France, and over the Alps into Italy. The trek cost Hannibal nearly half his army. However, the Carthaginian general had surprised the Romans who had expected an invasion from the south. For 15 years, Hannibal and his army moved across Italy, winning battle after battle.


Winning an Empire
  • The Carthaginians, however, failed to capture Rome itself. In the end, the Romans outflanked Hannibal by sending an army to attack Carthage. Hannibal returned to defend his homeland, where the Romans defeated him at last. Carthage gave up all its lands except those in Africa. 
  • Nevertheless, many Romans still saw Carthage as a rival and wanted revenge for the terrible destruction that Hannibal's army had brought to Italy. For years, Cato, a wealthy senator, ended every speech he made with the words "Carthage must be destroyed." 
  • Finally, in the Third Punic War, Rome completely destroyed Carthage. Survivors were killed or sold into slavery. The Romans poured salt over the earth so that nothing would grow there again. The Romans were now masters of the western Mediterranean.


Winning an Empire

  • The Carthaginians fought for their own preservation and the sovereignty of Africa, observed a Greek witness to the fall of Carthage; "the Romans, for supremacy and world domination." The Romans were committed to a policy of imperialism, or establishing control over foreign lands and peoples. While Rome fought Carthage in the west, it was also expanding into the eastern Mediterranean. There, Romans confronted the Hellenistic rulers who had divided up the empire of Alexander the Great. 
  • Sometimes to defend Roman interests, sometimes simply for plunder, Rome launched a series of wars in the area. One by one, Macedonia, Greece, and parts of Asia Minor surrendered and became Roman provinces, that is, lands under Roman rule. Other regions, like Egypt, allied with Rome. By 133 b.c., Roman power extended from Spain to Egypt. Truly, the Romans were justified in calling the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum, or "Our Sea."

 


  Winning an Empire
  • Conquests and control of busy trade routes brought incredible riches into Rome. Generals, officials, and traders amassed fortunes from loot, taxes, and commerce. A new class of wealthy Romans emerged. They built lavish mansions and filled them with luxuries imported from the east. Wealthy families bought up huge estates, called latifundia. As the Romans conquered more and more lands, they forced people captured in war to work as slaves on the latifundia.


Winning an Empire
  • The widespread use of slave labor hurt small farmers, who were unable to produce food as cheaply as the latifundia could. The farmers' problems were compounded when huge quantities of grain pouring in from the conquered lands drove down grain prices. Many farmers fell into debt and had to sell their land. 
  • In despair, landless farmers flocked to Rome and other cities looking for jobs. There, they joined a restless class of unemployed people. As the gap between rich and poor widened, angry mobs began to riot. 
  • The new wealth also increased corruption. Greed and self-interest replaced virtues such as simplicity, hard work, and devotion to duty so prized in the early republic.


Winning an Empire
  • Two young patricians, brothers named Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, were among the first to attempt reform. Tiberius, who was elected a tribune in 133 b.c., called on the state to distribute land to poor farmers. Gaius, elected tribune 10 years later, sought a wider range of reforms, including the use of public funds to buy grain to feed the poor. 
  • The reforms of the Gracchus brothers angered the senate, which saw them as a threat to its power. The brothers, along with thousands of their followers, were killed in waves of street violence set off by senators and their hired thugs.


Decline of the Republic

  • Unable to resolve its problems peacefully, Rome was plunged into a series of civil wars. At issue was who should hold power - the senate, which wanted to govern as it had in the past, or popular political leaders, who wanted to weaken the senate and enact reforms. 
  • The turmoil sparked slave uprisings and revolts among Rome's allies. Meanwhile, the old legions of Roman citizen-soldiers became professional armies whose first loyalty was to their commanders. Rival generals marched their armies into Rome to advance their ambitions.

 


 Decline of the Republic

  • Out of this chaos emerged Julius Caesar, an ambitious military commander. For a time, Caesar dominated Roman politics with Pompey, another brilliant general. Then, in 59 b.c., Caesar set out with his army to make new conquests. After nine years of fighting, he completed the conquest of Gaul - the area that is now France.
  • Fearful of Caesar's rising fame, Pompey persuaded the senate to order Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Caesar defied the order. Swiftly and secretly, he led his army across the Rubicon River into northern Italy and then headed toward Rome. Once again, civil war erupted across the Roman world. 
  • Caesar crushed Pompey and his supporters. He then swept around the Mediterranean, suppressing rebellions. "Veni, vidi, vici" - "I came, I saw, I conquered" -he announced after one victory. Later, returning to Rome, he forced the senate to make him dictator. Although he kept the senate and other features of the republic, he was in fact the absolute ruler of Rome.

 


Decline of the Republic
  • Between 48 b.c. and 44 b.c., Caesar pushed through a number of reforms intended to deal with Rome's many problems. He launched a program of public works to employ the jobless and gave public land to the poor. He also reorganized the government of the provinces and granted Roman citizenship to more people. Caesar's most lasting reform was the introduction of a new calendar based on Egyptian knowledge. The Julian calendar, as it was later called, was used in western Europe for over 1,600 years. With minor changes, it is still our calendar today.


Decline of the Republic
  • Caesar's enemies worried that he planned to make himself king of Rome. In order to save the republic, they plotted against him. In March 44 b.c., as Caesar arrived in the senate, his enemies stabbed him to death.
  • The death of Julius Caesar plunged Rome into a new round of civil wars. Mark Antony, Caesar's chief general, and Octavian, Caesar's grandnephew, joined forces to hunt down the murderers. The two men soon quarreled, however, setting off a bitter struggle for power. In 31 b.c., Octavian finally defeated Antony and his powerful ally Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.


Roman Empire and Roman Peace

  • The senate gave the triumphant Octavian the title of Augustus, or Exalted One, and declared him princeps, or first citizen. Although he was careful not to call himself king, a title that Romans had hated since Etruscan times, Augustus exercised absolute power and named his successor, just as a king would do.
  • Under Augustus, who ruled from 31 b.c. to a.d. 14, the 500-year-old republic came to an end. Romans did not know it at the time, but a new age had dawned - the age of the Roman empire.

 


   Roman Empire and Roman Peace
  • Through firm but moderate policies, Augustus laid the foundation for a stable government. Although he left the senate in place, Augustus created an efficient, well-trained civil service to enforce the laws. High-level jobs were open to men of talent, regardless of their class. In addition, he cemented the allegiance of cities and provinces to Rome by allowing them a large measure of self-government.


Roman Empire and Roman Peace
  • Augustus undertook economic reforms, too. To make the tax system more fair, he ordered a census, or population count, to be taken in the empire. He set up a postal service and issued new coins to make trade easier. He put the jobless to work building roads and temples and sent others to farm the land. 
  • The government that Augustus organized functioned well for 200 years. Still, a serious problem kept arising: Who would rule after an emperor died? Romans did not accept the idea of power passing automatically from father to son. As a result, the death of an emperor often led to intrigue and violence.


 Roman Empire and Roman Peace
  • Not all of Augustus' successors were great rulers. Indeed, some were weak and incompetent. Two early emperors, Caligula and Nero, were downright evil and perhaps insane. Caligula, for example, appointed his favorite horse as consul. Nero viciously persecuted Christians and was even blamed for setting a great fire that destroyed much of Rome.

 


  Roman Empire and Roman Peace

  • Between a.d. 96 and a.d. 180, the empire benefited from the rule of a series of "good emperors." The emperor Hadrian, for example, codified Roman law, making it the same for all provinces. He also had soldiers build a wall across Britain to hold back attackers from the non-Roman north. 
  • The emperor Marcus Aurelius, who read philosophy while on military campaigns, was close to Plato's ideal of a philosopher-king. His Meditations show his Stoic philosophy and commitment to duty: "Hour by hour resolve firmly ".. to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity."

 


Roman Empire and Roman Peace
  • The 200-year span that began with Augustus and ended with Marcus Aurelius is known as the period of the Pax Romana, or "Roman Peace." During that time, Roman rule brought peace, order, unity, and prosperity to lands stretching from the Euphrates River in the east to Britain in the west, an area approximately equal in size to the continental United States.


 Roman Empire and Roman Peace
  • During the Pax Romana, Roman legions maintained and protected the roads, and Roman fleets chased pirates from the seas. Trade flowed freely to and from distant lands in Africa and Asia. Egyptian farmers in the Nile Valley supplied Romans with grain. From other parts of Africa came ivory and gold, as well as lions and other wild animals that were used in public entertainments. From India came spices, cotton, and precious stones. Trade caravans traveled along the great Silk Road, bringing silk and other goods from China. 
  • People too, moved easily within the Roman empire, spreading ideas and knowledge, especially the advances of the Hellenistic east. As you will read, ideas from Greece and Judea would have tremendous impact on Rome and the western world.


Roman Empire and Roman Peace

  • Throughout the empire, rich and poor alike loved spectacular entertainments. At the Circus Maximus, Rome's largest racecourse, chariots thundered around an oval course, making dangerously tight turns at either end. Fans bet feverishly on their favorite teams - the Reds, Greens, Blues, or Whites" - and successful charioteers were hailed as heroes. 
  • Gladiator contests were even more popular. Many gladiators were slaves who had been trained to fight. In the arena, they battled one another, either singly or in groups. Crowds cheered a skilled gladiator, and a good fighter might even win his freedom. But if a gladiator made a poor showing, the crowd turned thumbs down, a signal that he should be killed.

 


Roman Empire and Roman Peace
  • To the emperors who paid for them with the taxes they collected from the empire, these amusements were a way to pacify the city's restless mobs. In much the same spirit, the government provided free grain to feed the poor. Critics warned against this policy of "bread and circuses, but few listened." 
  • During the Pax Romana, the general prosperity hid underlying social and economic problems. Later Roman emperors, however, would face problems that could not be solved with "bread and circuses."