Ancient Rome


Ancient Rome left a high watermark on ancient civilization with its scrappy pragmatism and administrative prowess, dominating with its efficient military, engineering, and administration (watch 101). At least 50 million people—a quarter of the world population—inhabited the empire, covering 5 million square miles at its height.


The ancient settlement of Rome stood at the heart of both the Italian peninsula and the Mediterranean Sea, an ideal location to create networks of migration, trade, and conquest within a vast empire (see interactive map).

Rome's seven defensible hills rose above the fertile river valley of the Tiber and allowed early settlers to produce surpluses and feed a growing population. Watch a virtual tour of the ancient city here.


Roman writers claimed the founding twins of Rome, Romulus and Remus, descended from both Ares, the god of war, as well as Aeneas, the former Trojan who escaped the burning Troy amid the war recounted in Homer's epics.

Archaeological evidence suggests farmers and shepherds formed the earliest settlements. The Etruscans, an early, Greek-like confederation of city-states in Latium (ancient Italy), likely turned the settlement into a proper city.

The Republic

Ancient Rome is divided into two political epochs: the Republic (509 to 27 BCE) and the Empire (27 BCE to 395 CE) (see timeline in maps). Prior to the Republic, Etruscan kings led the city-state with absolute power.

In 509 BCE, this monarchy gave way to a constitutional form of government that came to be known as a republic, from the Latin words "res publica" or public affairs.

The early Republic was dominated by aristocrats in the Senate, but the growing territory allotted to these so-called "patricians" gave rise to class conflict with the working "plebeians." Continuing clashes between populists and elites led to the consolidation of power under Julius Caesar in the mid-first century BCE.

The Empire

Ceasar's adopted son, Augustus, assumed absolute power in 27 BCE, ending the Republic and ushering in a nearly two-century era of stability known as the "Pax Romana."

As its territory grew and became difficult to administer, the empire was split into western and eastern halves in 395 CE. Within a century, the western empire would collapse amid invasion from Germanic tribes, while the eastern Byzantine Empire would endure for another millennium.


Fifty thousand miles of durable roads connected a vast continent for the first time, a system still shaping modern maps. Nearly a billion people today speak one of 50 Romance languages originating in Latin.

The Romans innovated or popularized the arch, barrel vault, and dome, entirely transforming building design, while its original recipe for concrete remains stronger than contemporary versions.

Over 150 countries around the world describe themselves as republics, including the US, and Rome's precedent of applying the law equally has defined modern rights movements.

Dive Deeper

Relevant articles, podcasts, videos, and more from around the internet - curated and summarized by our team

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The Roman Empire became one of antiquity's most expansive powers as a result of its effective use of terror to subdue would-be opponents. This in-depth essay explores ancient primary resources showcasing the horrifying extent of Rome's use of terror. Historians record Rome's violent tactics in detail, including the enslavement of entire populations and the mass killing of whole cities. Even as terror and violence proved effective in war, many Romans came to view the tactics with skepticism.

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Bread in ancient Rome was much more than a pre-dinner snack or garlic-covered side dish, with wheat and grains making up about 70% of the Roman diet. The word for "cereal" even stems from the goddess Ceres—the Roman equivalent of Greece's Demeter—to whom they prayed for good harvests. This article details the importance of bread to the average ancient Roman and includes instructions on how to make a Roman loaf at home.

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Ever wonder how long it would take to cross the Roman Empire? This interactive map created by Stanford University does the math for you. The tool can calculate the time and finances necessary to cross the empire during antiquity, specifically at about 200 CE. This model allows users to chart their course across the ancient civilization using 14 modes of road travel, from ox cart to army march, and two types of boat travel.

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The Roman Empire's capital city was home to about one million people at its peak and managed to provide running water to many of its homes, fountains, and public baths. Such a feat was made possible by the 11 aqueducts that poured into ancient Rome from the countryside. This article explains the science and labor behind Rome's aqueducts.

A watercolor painting of what an ancient Roman road looked like as it wound through a city.
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Known for their almost absurd straightness, Roman roads connected the empire's armies, messengers, and traders as imperial administrators sought to keep down rebellion and build up Roman wealth. Rome's highways are more durable than those developed today, and many are still in use. Learn how Rome used roads to govern in this brief list.

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Constructed on land cleared by the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, Emperor Nero's large "Golden House" was intended to allow at least some access to the public. The palace included gilded rooms, multiple gardens, zoo-like enclosures, an artificial lake large enough to house a boat, and a giant statue of Nero himself. The palace was short-lived and was dismantled and destroyed after Nero's death in 68 CE.

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