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The Roman Empire

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Written by   166
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-THE LEGENDARY BEGINNING

The early Romans had a legend about their beginnings. They believed that twin brothers named Romulus and Remus founded their city. According to the legend, Romulus and Remus were born to the princess of a small city on the Italian peninsula . The twins' cruel uncle wanted to rule the city, so he placed the infants in a basket in the Tiber River. Left to drown, the twins floated down the river until the basket drifted ashore.

According to the legend:

As the helpless infants lay crying, a kindly she-wolf came by and, taking pity on them, carried them back to her lair, where she tended them as if they were to her own cubs. . . . The two royal babies. . . grew up tall and strong, and were adopted by a shepherd and his wife. . . . Born with a natural gift of leadership, they placed themselves at the head of a band of young shepherds, and after a time drove their uncle from the throne which he had seized. . . .

Romulus and Remus built a city on the site where they had washed ashore. The city was called Rome, after Romulus, its first king. This was the legendary beginning of Rome. Read on. A new civilization was beginning to grow.

-THE BIRTH OF A REPUBLIC

Like ancient Greece, Rome was ruled by kings in its early years. Between about 600 and 509 B.C., seven different kings governed the Romans. The seventh king, an Etruscan, was so cruel that the Romans rose up against him.

In 509 B.C. Rome set up a republic. A republic is a government in which citizens have the right to choose their leaders. The word republic comes from the Latin phrase res publica, which means "public things."

For the Romans, a republic was not a democracy. You may remember that in ancient Greece, all male citizens could vote and participate in the Assembly. But in the Roman Republic, only male citizens with money and property could vote. In addition, the more wealth a citizen had, the greater was his power.

Like the Athenian Assembly, the Romans had a lawmaking council which they called the Senate. Senators elected two people to serve as consuls, who shared power equally over all of Rome. The consuls also commanded Rome's army. By shouting "Veto!" one consul could stop the actions of the other. Veto is a Latin word meaning "I forbid."

-PATRICIANS AND PLEBEIANS

As you have read, all people did not share the same rights in the Roman Republic. The Senate was made up of members of rich, powerful families, called patricians. There were only about 200 patrician families in Rome, and they had all the power. In the early Republic, only patricians were allowed to become senators.

Most people in Rome were plebeians. Plebeians were farmers, artisans, and merchants. Though plebeians were free citizens, they could not participate in goverment.

Not long after the Roman Republic was founded in 509 B.C., the plebeians demanded more rights. In 494 B.C. thousands of unhappy plebeians marched out of Rome. They threatened to build their own unless they got more rights. Their actions frightened the patricians, who were afraid of losing the labor of the plebeians. Rome could not run without its farmers, artisans, and merchants.

The plebeians proved that they were important citizens and deserved equal rights. Their walkout led to the creation of tribunes. Tribunes were officials who were elected to protect plebeian interests. Ten tribunes held office and were elected each year by the plebeians.

-THE TWELVE TABLES

From 494 to 287 B.C., the plebeians protested many times. Each time, they won new rights. Among the greatest of victories for the plebeians was the creation of a written law code.

From its earliest history, Roman law had rested on custom. Because laws were unwritten, patrician officials could act unfairly.

In 451 B.C. a special group of patrician and plebeian officials were given the job of writing down Roman laws. The laws were carved on 12 bronze tablets, or tables, and placed on the walls of republic buildings. The Twelve Tables became the foundation of Roman law. Even Roman schoolboys had to memorize the Twelve Tables.

This painting shows the Roman government in action - a trial by a jury.

-ROME BEGINS TO EXPAND

By 264 B.C . the Roman Republic ruled all of the Italian peninsula south of the Po Basin. But the Romans were not the only power in the Mediterranean region.

By this time, there were three important centers of power in the Mediterranean region. One was Rome, which was the center of a growing republic. The second was Alexandria, in Egypt, which had been built by Alexander the Great. The third was Carthage, located on the northern coast of Africa.

Carthage had first been built as a Phoenician colony. By the third century B.C., however, Carthage was a rich trading center. Like Rome, Carthage had the advantage of a location in the middle of the Mediterranean region.

-WAR WITH CARTHAGE

In 264 B.C., Carthage and Rome went to war for control of Sicily. This began a period of harsh struggle known as the Punic Wars. Punic comes from the Latin word for Phoenicia.

Rome won the first battles of the Punic Wars. Victory brought it control of the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. Victory also earned Rome the hatred of the Carthaginians. Their defeated general vowed to get revenge and gave his son, Hannibal, the duty to stop the rise of Rome.

-HANNIBAL CROSSES THE ALPS

In 218 B.C., when Hannibal was 29 years old, he built an army of 60,000 soldiers and 60 elephants. Hannibal had decided that it was time to fulfill his father's wish for revenge.

Hannibal led his soldiers on a long trek from Spain across Gaul and up the dizzying heights of the Alps. The heights, cold, and fierce blizzards caused the deaths of more than half his men and most of the elephants. But why do you think Hannibal wanted to enter the lands of the Roman Republic from the north? What other route might he have taken?

When Hannibal's army reached the Po Basin south of the Alps, the Romans were indeed surprised. But the Romans still believed they did not have much to fear. One Roman writer said of the Carthaginians:

They are mere shadows of men, half-dead with hunger, cold filth and . . . bruised on the rocks and cliffs. . . . Their weapons are shattered and broken, their horses are weak and lame.

Although Hannibal had fewer soldiers than the Romans, his army won three battles against Rome. With each battle, Rome was closer to defeat. In 202 B.C., however, a shrewd Roman general name Scipio led his fleets across the Mediterranean to attack Carthage. Hannibal was at last forced to leave Roman lands and rush home to the rescue. But the mighty Hannibal, unbeaten on European soil, was badly defeated by Scipio at the Battle of Zama.

-THE GLORY OF ROME

Zama was a battle that truly changed the course of history. Had Hannibal been the victor, Carthage and not Rome would probably have become the greatest empire in the world. But because Rome was victorious, Roman laws and government began to spread throughout the Mediterranean region. As one Roman historian wrote after the Battle of Zama:

Areas geographically remote, shores divided by the sea, now merge in allegiance to a single government.

But Rome was only beginning to grow. Foreign treasures poured into the city of Rome as it conquered many new lands. Soon Rome would be the center of a new empire.


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