How Far Did Ancient Rome Spread?

How Far Did Ancient Rome Spread?

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Legend has it that Romulus and Remus—twin brothers who were also demi-gods—founded Rome on the River Tiber in 753 B.C. Over the next eight and a half centuries, it grew from a small town of pig farmers into a vast empire that stretched from England to Egypt and completely surrounded the Mediterranean Sea.

The Roman Empire conquered these lands by attacking them with unmatched military strength, and it held onto them by letting them govern themselves.

Rome’s desire to expand had deep historical roots, says Edward J. Watts, a professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny.

“There’s a tradition going back to basically Roman prehistory, mythological history, where they talk about the expansion of the city under the kings,” he says. “Marcius is one of the early Roman kings [from 642 to 617 B.C.], and he’s said to actually have engaged in expansion and extended the city to incorporate other hills. So the idea of them expanding is always deep in the historical DNA of the republic, and even the monarchy before the republic.”

Rome Expands With Capture of Etruscan City

Even so, Rome was still relatively small by the time it transitioned from a kingdom to a republic in 509 B.C. The republic’s first significant expansion came in 396 B.C., when Rome defeated and captured the Etruscan city of Veii. Instead of destroying Veii, the classicist Mary Beard argues the Romans largely let the city continue operating as it had before, only under Roman control and with the understanding that Rome could conscript free men for the Roman army.

The conquest of Veii was “a big turning point for [the Romans] because they take over a territory that’s half the size of the territory they already have,” Watts says. Over the next two-and-a-half centuries, Rome spread throughout the Italian Peninsula by conquering territories and either making them independent allies or extending Roman citizenship.

“The absorption of Italy was actually an absorption; it wasn’t supposed to be a colonial regime,” he says. Later, in the first century B.C., it extended Roman citizenship to all free people. Still, it never extended citizenship to the many enslaved people in Italy obtained through trade, piracy, wars and other means.

READ MORE: Why Ancient Rome Needed Immigrants to Become Powerful

Roman Conquests Reach Overseas

This strategy of absorption changed as Rome conquered its first overseas territories. During the Punic Wars with Carthage between 264 B.C. to 146 B.C., Rome spread over multiple Mediterranean islands and onto the east coast of modern-day Spain. Yet instead of extending its republic into these territories or forming alliances, Rome designated these new territories as provinces and appointed Roman governors to oversee them.

Taking this new territory wasn’t something Rome had initially intended to do. “The First Punic War is something that they kind of stumble into, but they’re happy to take territory as a result of it,” Watts says.

After Rome pushed Carthage out of Sicily in the first war, the Italian island became Rome’s first foreign province. During the Second Punic War, Rome found itself on the defense as the Carthagian general Hannibal and his elephants marched over the Alps and south into Italy. Again, Rome defeated Carthage and conquered some of its territory, this time in Spain.

Yet by the time it entered the Third Punic War, “Rome has definitely decided that it is just going to take territory,” he says. “And that’s very different from what they were doing even in the third century.”

Conquering Territory in North Africa

This time, Rome destroyed the capital city of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia and enslaved the city’s inhabitants. It also conquered all of Carthage’s territory in North Africa and made it a Roman province. Rome was now the major hegemonic power in the Mediterranean region. Over the next century, it cemented its status by conquering coastal territory in the modern-day countries of Greece, Turkey, Egypt and others until it completely surrounded the Mediterranean Sea.

After that, Rome used its impressively large army to extend outward in various bursts, sometimes just taking advantage of neighboring states and kingdoms as they fell. In the 60s B.C.E., Rome extended into the Middle East and captured Jerusalem. These eastern territories had old and complex political systems that Rome largely left in place.

Julius Caesar Pushes Rome’s Reach Across Europe

The next decade, General Julius Caesar led Roman soldiers into northwest Europe, “basically because Caesar decided he wanted to do it, and he had troops that were capable of doing it,” Watts says. “It’s the way Caesar kind of made his career.” The Roman approach to these western territories was slightly different, because they didn’t have old, complex political systems. When Rome took over, it introduced some Roman systems, while still trying to keep power in the hands of local leaders to ensure a smooth transition.

In addition to pushing Rome’s reach across Europe, Caesar also heralded the end of the republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. After unconstitutionally declaring himself dictator for life, senators murdered him in 44 B.C. The republic fell for good when his great-nephew, Augustus Caesar, declared himself emperor in 27 B.C. Now, the sprawling state of Rome was officially the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire’s Peak, Then Collapse

The empire reached its peak in 117 A.C. when it fortified its borders and reached all the way into England. But after that, it stopped expanding, because leaders didn’t think it was worth the time and energy. The bare-bones imperial structure that let provinces govern themselves made the whole thing manageable until 212, when the Roman Empire extended citizenship to all free people (free women were still citizens even though they had fewer rights than men).

But the extension of imperial bureaucracy made the empire much harder to manage; and this was one of the reasons that the empire began to divide itself. The year 395 was the last time that the whole empire was united under one emperor. After that, the western half split off and collapsed within a century. In the east, the Roman Empire—also known as the Byzantine Empire—continued on for over a millennium.

READ MORE: 8 Reasons Why Rome Fell

The story of Romulus and Remus is just a legend, but Rome’s mighty empire did grow from what was little more than a village in the 8th century BC or even earlier.

In the 6th century BC Rome was subservient to the Etruscans, part of a Latin League of city states that operated as loose federation, cooperating on some matters, independent on others.

By the end of the next century, Rome was flexing its muscles, fighting its first wars against its Etruscan neighbours and cementing their dominance over their former allies in the Latin War of 340 – 338 BC.

From central Italy the Romans expanded north and south, defeating the Samnites (290 BC) and Greek settlers (the Pyrrhic War 280 – 275 BC) in the South to take control of the Italian peninsular.

History of the Roman Numerals

The Roman numerals are symbols from the ancient Roman Empire that were commonly used to represent small numbers. The system could also incorporate larger numbers. And for centuries, they were the typical way of writing numbers in the empire. This numerical system was also widespread across Europe up until the Middle Ages. The question on most historians’ minds about this topic is that how far did the Roman numeral system go? Detailed answer will be provided to the above question as well as the modern usage of the Roman numerals.

Brief Overview of the System

Broadly speaking, the Roman numeral uses 7 main letters of the Latin alphabet to represent numbers. The symbols are as follows:

Roman numeral symbols along with their corresponding values

To form numbers with the Roman numerals, the subtractive or additive notation is deployed. Whenever a symbol is placed after another symbol, the resultant value is the sum of the two symbols.

For example, II means I+I (1+1) = II (2). Similarly, MM= M+M=1,000+1000=2,000. And VIII= V+I+I+I= 8

However, if the symbol comes before another symbol of greater value, the result is obtained by subtracting the two values. IV means V-I= 4. Similarly, XL= L-X= 40, and XC= C-X= 90.

Original Forms of the Roman Numerals

As mentioned above, the Roman numeral is a form of numeric system that owes it origins to ancient Rome. Unlike its current form of 7 symbols, only three symbols were used: I, V, and X (1, 5, and 10 respectively) in the original forms. What the ancient Romans then did was to add 1(I) as the number progressed. So for example the integer 4 will be represented as IIII. Then 7 will have VII. 9 will be VIIII. These three symbols (I, V, and X) were like tally marks. Therefore, numbers 1 to 10 was:


Evolved Version of the Roman Numerals

The above Roman numerals (without the notation or additive principle) can get a bit confusing to eyes. For example IIII could easily be mistaken for III at a quick glance. Therefore, and over the centuries, the Roman numeral system witnessed slight changes. The revised version employed what is called the subtractive and additive notation. So instead of having IIII, 4 will now be IV. And the “I” before a V means one less than V (5). And instead of having VIIII for 9, the subtractive notation means that 9 will be IX. So the first 10 integers under the subtractive and additive notation will go like this:


For numbers above 10, X, L and C are used very much. In this regard, the subtractive and additive notations are applied here as well. That is, when a symbol appears to the left of another symbol, it means they should be deducted. Conversely, when the symbol appears to the right of the symbol, it means they should be added (the additive notation). Numbers 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, and 100 will be written as follows in roman numerals:


In a similar fashion as the above, the numbers hundred to one thousand (100 to 1000) will be as follows:


D and M, as stated above, represent 500 and 1000 respectively. Symbols CD (400) and CM (900) use the same subtractive and additive notation made mention above.

How are Large Numbers Represented in Roman Numerals?

You must have been wondering by now that after 3,999, the Roman numbering system will become a bit unpleasantly long. Yes, you are right! The problem of excessive repetition comes to fore when dealing with larger numbers in their thousands. In the ancient Roman Empire, this problem was taken care of using several ways. They had special numbers for such cases. The mirrored C (Ↄ) was the commonest symbol for large numbers back then.

As the empire progressed, an altered version of the 3 symbols (I, V and X) started gaining popular usage for numbers in the thousands. The Romans placed a line above the symbols. Also, Roman numerals in the hundreds of thousands had additional lines on their sides.

Roman numerals with larger numbers

In modern times, numbers greater than 3,999 are rarely represented by Roman numerals. And considering the century that we are in, it will take a very long time before we started struggling with representing the years in roman numerals. For now, a typical 21 st century year can be represented very cleanly using the Roman numeral system. For example, the year 2018 can be written as MMXIII. The year 2299 can have a rather longer numeral: MMCCXCIX. But years or numbers of those sorts are still very much manageable as compared to numbers greater than 3999.

Let’s look at how the Roman numerals will look like with the following famous landmark years of our modern era:

  • For example, the date of the Declaration of Independence can be neatly written as: IV, July, MDCCLXXVI
  • Another interesting date that comes out perfectly nice using the Roman numeral is the coronation date of Queen Elizabeth II (6 February, 1952): VI February, MCMLII (The very day Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne).
  • The Rio Olympics of 2016 will be written as MMXI
  • The Beatles first album titled “My Bonnie/The Saints” was released in MCMLXII (1962)
  • For a much sadder date, say the World Trade Center Twin attacks occurred in MMI (2001)
  • NASA’s interplanetary space probe, New Horizons, made a close-up flyby of Pluto in MMXV (2015).

Classical Usage and Modern Variations

The Roman numerals feature extensively on the faces of clocks and watches these days. The Westminster Palace has a huge clock (Big Ben) with the Roman numeral system. And it sticks to the subtractive or additive notation rule.

Westminster Palace’s huge clock (Big Ben) with the Roman numeral system.

Roman numerals featuring prominently on the Wells Cathedral Clock

What is most interesting is that some post-Roman Empire structures hardly followed the subtractive notation rule. The Admiralty Arch in London is dated as MDCCCX instead of MCMX. The Latin inscription atop reads:


The Admiralty Arch in London with its Roman numerals and Latin inscription that reads in English as: “In the tenth year of King Edward VII, to Queen Victoria, from most grateful citizens, 1910”

The clock at Grand Central uses IIII, instead of IV. This is pretty much common on dials and faces of clocks, pocket watches and wristwatches.

Clock at Grand Central, New York, with IIII representing 4

The Colosseum’s gates had several cases of where the subtractive notation was not applied. Instead of IV, IIII was the much preferred option. In retrospect, the ancient Romans did not stick to this rule much often. Historians attribute this to a number of reasons. Firstly, it was because of the IV symbol resembling the Roman’s supreme deity’s name, Jupiter. In Latin, Jupiter is spelt as IVPPITER. The Romans did not want to commit heresy by putting a symbol that was similar to their god of the sky and king of the gods, Jupiter.

The second reason has to do with the slight mathematical calculation that comes with “IV”. With IIII not obeying the subtractive notation, the common folks and less educated Romans could easily have read it. An even in the Middle ages, the clocks that were mounted atop churches or in town centers would have factored in the average non-educated folk. Therefore, IIII was a much easier option to read or even write than IV.

A typical modern day clock that uses the Roman numerals

Today, majority of the watch manufacturers prefer using IIII (instead of IV) as a matter of maintaining tradition rather than for reasons above.

How did the Romans come up with this system?

The answer is simple. Tallying! As the Romans counted, every 5 th count was struck with special symbol. And every tenth count was struck with another special symbol. Those special symbols vary sharply from place to place. What is interesting however is that for numbers 1 to 4, sticks or stick-like shapes were used. Numbers 1 to 10 back then may have looked like this:

Roman numerals without the substractive notation

Note how these symbols, ʌ and x, appear like the modern versions of V and X. Back then, many Romans used an inverted V in place of 5. Other symbols such as ⃝ and ↑ were very much common back then.

Before the Romans, what numeral system was used for numbering?

Prior to the Romans, a similar system during the Etruscan Civilization was used. The Etruscan were a very vibrant 8th to 3rd century BCE culture prior to the Romans conquering them. Historians believe that the Roman numeral system as well as a host of other Etruscan cultural and historical artifacts and belief systems were assimilated into the burgeoning Roman Empire. With regards to the origins of those Etruscan counting and numbering system, we can safely assume that they must have come from a simple act such as tallying.

Alternatively, some historians hold the view that the Roman numeral system is the product of hand gestures. Numbers 1 to 4 correspond to the four fingers. The thumb that is shaped like a V represents 5.

For numbers 6 to 10, the two hands were used. When the counting got to 10, the two thumbs were crossed to make an X sign.

Usage in the Modern Era

Historical documents show that the Roman numerals were gradually replaced by the Arabic numerals (that is 1,2,3,…) which were more convenient. The Arabic numerals were first introduced into Europe around about the 11 th century. It was popular among Arabic merchants and traders. As time went on, their numerals gained wide spread in all of Europe. Regardless of this, the Roman numeral system is still commonly preferred dealing with the following (till date):

Regnal numbers of monarchs, rulers and Popes to this date still deploy the Roman numerals. The tradition first began in the Middle Ages. During the reign of Henry VIII (pronounced as Henry the eight), the usage started picking up momentum. Prior to this, the monarchs used epithet to distinguish one from another. An example of such epithet will be: Edward the Confessor, Charles the Simple of France, and Joan the mad of Spain. With the help of Roman numerals, epithets were not so necessary in their titles. This is evident in the titles of some European monarchs and popes. Examples of such titles with Roman numerals are Louis XIV (Louis the fourteenth), King George II, Charles IV of Spain, King Edward VII,

Louis XIV of France preferred using his regnal number on his coinage.

In modern times, we can make mention of these titles Pope John Paul II (Pope John Paul the second), Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Benedict XVI and Felipe VI.

Post the French Revolution, the French resorted to using the Roman numerals to write down the years. For example Napoleon conquest of Egypt that took place in the years 1798 and 1799 can be written as MDCCXCVIII and MDCCXCIX

In the U.S., the Roman numeral system started being deployed to distinguish two people in a family who shared the same names across generations. Example can be John Doe III (that is the third John Doe in the family tree).

In our modern era, it is not uncommon to see shows, films, and art works dated using the Roman numerals. The release year of the Shawshank Redemption movie can be written as MCMXCIV.

Some people believe that artist and production companies employ its usage as subterfuge. It is to mask or hide the date of the production. The jury is still out on that one for sure.

Buildings and cornerstones till this day still prefer using the Roman numerals.

It is not uncommon to find page numbering of prefaces and book introductions as well as appendices and annexes using Roman numerals. Book volumes and chapters are also not exempt from using this numeral.

Examples include: Final Fantasy XV (game), Adobe Reader XI (pdf reader), and Age of Empire III (game)

Scientists often name natural satellites and moons of planets using roman numerals. Notable examples are Saturn VI (Titan), Jupiter II (Europa), Uranus I (Ariel), Neptune XIV (Hippocamp) and Pluto I (Charon).

Notable examples can be found in the titles of advanced mathematics such as trigonometry, statistics and calculus.

How famous is the Roman numerals in today’s Greece?

Prior to the Romans conquest and movement into ancient Greece, the Greeks themselves had their own number system. Therefore, it is fair to say that in Greece today the Greek numerals are used in the places and situations where Roman numerals are used in other parts of the world.

The ‘urbanisation’ of Rome

The small Latin village that was Rome was urbanised by contact with the Etruscans, a people of unknown origin, who occupied and conquered much of the Italian peninsula in the years precluding the birth of Rome. Its urbanisation included development and utilisation of techniques such as draining and paving over marshland (which later became the Forum) and stone-building methods resulting in defensive walls, public squares and temples adorned with statues.

The Power of Latin in Ancient Rome

Students investigate how the geographic spread of an impactful human system&mdashlanguage&mdashinfluenced power in ancient Rome.

English Language Arts, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, World History

This lists the logos of programs or partners of NG Education which have provided or contributed the content on this page. Program

1. Activate students’ prior knowledge.  

Ask: Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t understand the language being spoken? Invite volunteers who are comfortable doing so to share their experiences with the class. As a class, discuss the common themes that are most likely to come up: feelings of discomfort, confusion, and not being understood (loss of power). Then ask:

  • What would it feel like to be heavily influenced to adopt a language other than English?
  • What would it feel like if the most popular activities and places in the United States today were conducted in or marked with the language of another, currently existing country?

Explain to students that, in this activity, they will learn about how the spread of Latin influenced power in ancient Rome and consider how it impacted people in the invaded cities and towns.

2. Have students read about the spread of Latin in ancient Rome.

Distribute a copy of the Latin in Ancient Rome worksheet to each student. Divide students into pairs and have pairs work together to read the passage and answer the questions in Part 1. Review the answers as a whole class. Ask:

  • In your own words, describe Romanization. (Romanization is the spread of Roman customs, dress, activities, and language.)
  • How was Latin different for different economic classes? (They had different versions of the language: Vulgar and Classical.)
  • How do you think the invaded cities and towns felt about switching to Roman customs and language? (Possible response: They probably felt pressured to do so, from both the government and the military, instead of a desire to do so on their own.)

3. Have students read a primary source about how the government engineered the spread of Latin.

Explain to students that next you will read aloud a primary source by Valerius Maximus, a Roman writer and historian. Have students follow along as you read the passage in Part 2 of the worksheet. Answer any questions students may have about the meanings of unfamiliar words. Then, have pairs work together to answer the two questions. Review the answers as a whole class. Ask:

  • How does Valerius think Latin influenced Roman power? (Valerius thinks that Latin was used as a tool to protect Roman power.)
  • Who does Valerius think is spreading Latin? Why does he think this is happening? (Valerius thinks that the magistrates, or elected judges in Rome, orchestrated the spread of Latin in order to maintain the power of the Roman people.)

4. Have a whole-class discussion about how language influenced power in ancient Rome.   

Ask each pair to discuss and then share with the class their ideas about how Latin influenced the power of Rome and/or certain Romans. Guide students to include ideas about how, as Rome conquered more cities and towns, Latin replaced local languages. They should also make a connection between the purposeful spread of Latin and the dissolution of other languages as a result, and the economic differentiation between Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin.

5. Have students write a reflection essay.

Ask each student to take out a blank piece of paper and write a two-paragraph response to the following prompt: How did the spread of Latin impact ancient Rome? Ask students to include why some people might want to maintain their local language and how influences from other cultures impact our own language. Remind them to support their statement using evidence from the reading.

Informal Assessment

Collect students&rsquo essays and use the following 3-point rubric to assess the essays:

3 &ndash The student&rsquos reflection essay includes all of the major ways the spread of Latin impacted Rome and he or she considers multiple perspectives and makes connections to his or her own life.

2 &ndash The student&rsquos reflection essay includes some of the major ways the spread of Latin impacted Rome. He or she makes minimal connections to other perspectives and his or her own life.

1 &ndash The student&rsquos reflection essay includes few of the major ways the spread of Latin impacted Rome. He or she does not make any connections to other perspectives or his or her own life.

Extending the Learning

Prompt students to respond to the following question either orally or in writing: Consider the availability of translation services today. Imagine you could go back in time and provide Romans and their conquered peoples with the instant translation technology that we have today. How, if at all, do you think this would change the influence that language had over power in ancient Rome? Explain your answer, using what you learned over the course of the activity in your reasoning.


Oscan was the most widely spoken Italic language before the spread of Latin, prominent in Bruttium, Lucania, Campania, Samnium, and elsewhere throughout central and southern Italy. Spread across such a vast expanse, many local variants of Oscan emerged, although it is somewhat difficult to clearly differentiate them given the fragmentary nature of surviving Oscan texts and inscriptions. There is evidence of Oscan/Latin bilingualism (the poet Ennius wrote in both languages, as well as Greek), and renowned linguistic scholar and Latinist Dr. Nicholas Ostler estimates that they were about as mutually intelligible as modern Spanish and Portuguese [6]. As a widespread and well-established language, it seems as though Oscan may have been poised, at some point, to take over where Latin was spoken, especially since it appears that Oscan was not difficult for speakers of Latin to pick up. But it would not be so.

Find out more

Rome in the Late Republic by M Beard and M Crawford, (2nd ed, Duckworth, 1999)

Et tu Brute? Caesar's Murder and Political Assassination by G. Woolf, (Profile Books, 2006)

Augustan Rome by A Wallace-Hadrill, (Bristol Classical Press, Duckworth, 1998)

Cambridge Companion to Republican Rome by H Flower (ed), (CUP, 2004)

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Select Letters (Penguin, 2005)

The End of the Past : Ancient Rome and the Modern West by Aldo Schiavone translated by Margery J. Schneider (Harvard University Press, 2000)

Underground Rome

A good way to study ancient Rome is to explore the cellars -- and subcellars -- of modern Rome.

BENEATH modern Rome is a hidden city, as still as Rome is chaotic, as dark as Rome is luminous, with its own peculiar animals, powerful odors, frigid waters, and spectacular ancient remains. Explorers will find theaters, baths, stadia, imperial villas, apartment buildings, fire stations, and pagan temples -- even an enormous sundial that used an Egyptian obelisk as a pointer. Millions of people come to Rome each year in search of antiquity, and walk unsuspectingly across these buried treasures during their tours of the celebrated surface ruins. Though structures like the Pantheon and the Coliseum are certainly impressive, they represent only a small fraction of the ancient city, and wind, rain, and air pollutants have not treated them kindly over the years. Wrapped in a thick protective blanket of earth, Rome's subterranean structures have endured the incessant chiseling of people and elements far better. With persistence and the occasional help of a guide, a visitor can explore this underground realm, to discover bright windows on Roman history and clues to the evolution of the modern city long vanished from the surface.

Ancient Rome slipped from sight gradually, in a 2,500-year process of natural silting and intentional burial that was already well advanced in classical times. Roman architects frequently tore the roofs from old buildings and filled their interiors with dirt, to make solid foundations for new structures. They embedded earlier buildings in tremendous landfills that raised the ground level of the entire site by several yards. Sometimes they entombed whole neighborhoods in this way. After the Great Fire of A.D. 64 devastated two thirds of the city, Nero spread the debris over the wreckage of republican Rome and then reshaped the city to his liking. Later, during Rome's long, bleak Middle Ages, nature continued the interment. The population shrank to tiny pockets within the broad ring of the imperial walls, abandoning the ancient city to relentless erosion that wore away the uplands and redistributed them over low-lying areas. Roman buildings that remained exposed contributed significantly to the landfill. Archaeologists have estimated that the collapse of a one-story Roman house produced detritus six feet deep over its entire plan. Considering that Rome once boasted 40,000 apartment buildings, 1,800 palaces, and numerous giant public buildings, of which almost nothing survives, it is clear that the ancient city is buried under its own remains.

By 1580, when Montaigne visited Rome, the classical city was all but invisible. He observed that when modern Romans dug into the ground, they frequently struck the capitals of tall columns still standing far below. "They do not seek any other foundations for their houses than old ruined buildings or vaults, such as are seen at the bottom of all the cellars." Impressed by the spectacle of the triumphal arches of the Forum rising from deep in the earth, he noted, "It is easy to see that many [ancient] streets are more than thirty feet below those of today." Even now the burial process continues. Each year an inch of dust falls on Rome, composed of leaves, pollution, sand from the nearby seacoast, and a stream of powder from hundreds of ruins dissolving steadily in the wind. In certain places we are more than ten yards farther from ancient Rome than Montaigne was.

A GOOD place to begin exploring Rome's layers is San Clemente, a twelfth-century basilica just east of the Coliseum. Descend the staircase in the sacristy and you find yourself in a rectangular hall decorated with fading frescoes and greenish marbles, lit by sparse bulbs strung up by the excavators. This is the original, fourth-century San Clemente, one of Rome's first churches. It was condemned around A.D. 1100 and packed full of earth, Roman-style, as a platform for the present basilica. A narrow stair near the apse of this lower church leads down to the first-century structures upon which it, in turn, was built: a Roman apartment house and a small temple. The light is thinner here cresses and fungi patch the dark brick and grow delicate halos on the walls behind the bare bulbs. Deeper still, on the fourth level, are several rooms from an enormous public building that was apparently destroyed in the Great Fire and then buried by Nero's architects. At about a dozen yards belowground the massive tufa blocks and herringbone brickwork are slick with humidity, and everywhere is the sound of water, flowing in original Roman pipes. No one has excavated below this level, but something is there, for the tufa walls run another twenty feet or so down into the earth. Something is buried beneath everything in Rome.

Most major landmarks, in fact, rest on construction that leads far back into the past. Tucked under Michelangelo's salmon-pink Senatorial Palace on the Capitoline Hill is a tidy little temple to Veiovis, a youthful Jove of the underworld, among the most ancient gods of the Roman pantheon. Beneath the sanctuary excavators have found traces of a still-earlier shrine. A small passageway in the south exterior wall of St. Peter's Basilica leads into an eerily intact Roman necropolis that underlies the entire center aisle. The passage becomes the main street of a miniature city of the dead, fronted by ornate two-story mausoleums on which Christ and the Apostles stand alongside Apollo, Isis, Bacchus, and rampaging satyrs. This necropolis first came to light in the Renaissance, when the basilica was rebuilt: pontiffs and architects watched in horror as an endless stream of pagan relics issued from the floor of Catholicism's most sacred church.

In the cellar of the massive, foursquare Palazzo della Cancelleria, in the heart of Rome, is a stretch of the Euripus, an ornamental canal that traversed this area, once a garden district. Now far belowground, it still brims with water, clear and unearthly blue. Writing from exile, a homesick Ovid fondly recalled the Euripus flowing between elegant lawns and porticoes. Ancient graffiti still visible beside the canal express less-elevated sentiments. "Scummy Ready-for-Anything gives it to her lovers all the time," an anonymous Roman penned in careful letters. "Crap well," another wrote just beside, either in response or as a general exhortation to passers-by.

Striking subterranea underlie the most ordinary scenes. A trapdoor in the courtyard of a bustling apartment complex on Via Taranto, not far from San Giovanni in Laterno, opens upon two perfect Roman graves, festooned with fresco grapevines and pomegranates, bewailed by red and blue tragic masks, guarded by mosaic goddesses. The nondescript palazzo at Via della VII Coorte 9, in the Trastevere district across the river, sits atop a complete Roman fire station, with its broad internal courtyard and central fountain, sleeping quarters, latrine, and shrine to the divinity who protected firemen. The busy train tracks on the eastern border of Porta Maggiore conceal a mysterious hall known as the Underground Basilica, apparently the temple of a first-century neo-Pythagorean cult. Handsome mosaic floors, three aisles, and a semicircular apse give it the look of a church, but stucco friezes on the walls show Orpheus leading Eurydice back from Hades, Heracles rescuing Hesione from the sea monster, and other scenes of mythological deliverance.

The grandest of all Roman subterranea lies beneath the shabby gardens on the eastern slopes of the Esquiline Hill, where homeless immigrants sleep and children play roughneck soccer against the startlingly big backdrop of the Coliseum. An entrance of crumbling brickwork leads down into the Golden House, a vast, megalomaniacal residence that Nero built atop ruins from the Great Fire his successors, after damning Nero's memory, covered it with the Coliseum and other public buildings. An entire wing of the villa is buried here -- a labyrinth of corridors, vaulted chambers, and domed halls immersed in total darkness. Here and there a flashlight will illumine sections of the original Roman decoration: landscapes alive with mythological beasts and odd anthropomorphic figures. These frescoes attracted the greatest artists of the Renaissance, who clambered down with torches to sketch the drawings, hold merry picnics of apples, prosciutto, and wine, and scratch their names unselfconsciously into the plaster (many famous autographs, including Domenico Ghirlandaio, Martin van Heemskerck, and Filippino Lippi, are still visible). They emerged from these underground rooms -- "grottoes," as they called them -- to decorate Rome in a new, "grotesque" style.

Exploring Rome's subterranea, one learns certain rules of thumb. Low-lying areas like Trastevere, which millennia of floods have paved in heavy layers of silt, are rich in sites. Even better are zones that have been continuously inhabited since classical times (the Campo Marzio, for example, with the Pantheon at its center), where subterranea have escaped the violence of deep modern foundations. For much the same reason churches make excellent hunting. In many crypts and side chapels are shadowy locked doorways that the sacristan can often be persuaded to open, for a modest contribution. They lead down to Roman baths, taverns, prisons, military barracks, brothels, and other remains. Pagan temples are especially common, perhaps because Christian builders wanted to occupy and eradicate the sacred places of competing religions. Beneath the polished marble floors of San Clemente, Santa Prisca, Santo Stefano Rotondo, and several other churches are shrines to Mithras, an Iranian god of truth and salvation who was one of Jesus' main rivals during the later empire. These snug, low-roofed halls are flanked by benches where the worshippers reclined, with a niche at the far end for the cult statue: a heroic young Mithras in a flowing cape, plunging his sword into the neck of an enormous bull. By the warm light of torches all-male congregations once worshipped Mithras here in strange rites of water and blood, vaguely suggested in graffiti still visible beneath Santa Prisca: "Sweet are the livers of the birds, but worry reigns." "And you redeemed us by shedding the eternal blood."

FOR some Romans the hidden city beneath their feet has become an obsession. The photographer Carlo Pavia, lean and intense, has for the past twenty years rappelled down into ancient mines and apartment houses, scuba-dived in underground halls filled with icy groundwater, and pulled on hip waders and a gas mask and slogged back into the Cloaca Maxima, an ancient sewer that winds its way beneath much of Rome. He describes unearthly scenes: colonies of fat albino worms rats as big as lapdogs African and Arabian plants flourishing in the rooms beneath the Coliseum, grown from seeds fallen from the coats of exotic animals imported by the Romans for their entertainments. Packs of saltericchi, a kind of jumping spider, rove the deepest, most humid recesses. "At the first sign of light they panic and start hopping around," Pavia explains. "I have to move carefully, shooing them ahead of me with my lamp." Pavia recently founded a magazine, Forma Urbis, that each month illustrates selected sites with his outstanding photographs.

Other subterraneophiles are less athletic but equally obsessed. Emanuele Gatti is a round, jovial retiree who has devoted much of his life to underground Rome. As a government archaeologist he oversaw more than thirty years' worth of construction projects in the historic center, and he has fleshed out his experiences with painstaking archival research to produce a detailed map of ancient remains -- a kind of x-ray that lays a faint modern city over the sharp, clear bones of its subterranea. He runs his hand over the sea of symbols and annotations that is his magnum opus, eagerly indicating points of contact between the two worlds. "See here how the façade of the Parliament building rests directly on the façade of Alexander's Baths? Ancient walls still support modern buildings like this throughout the city. They are still 'alive,' you might say." Gatti hopes that some of the billions of dollars to be spent beautifying Rome for the Great Jubilee in the year 2000, a twelve-month festival of the Catholic Church that may bring some 40 million additional visitors to the city, will help to preserve the underground city and make it more accessible.

A few people are working on accessibility already. Three years ago Bartolomeo Mazzotta, then a graduate student in archaeology, assembled a handful of fellow experts to form Itinera, one of several new tour services that specialize in underground Rome. These services provide the best way to explore many subterranea, presenting a detailed introduction to the history and archaeology of the sites and supplying government permits that are difficult for individuals to arrange. For a modest fee you join a group of ten to twenty on a visit that lasts about an hour. Though the commentary is normally in Italian, most guides can field questions in English as well. Veteran visitors bring a flashlight, wear sturdy shoes that will give good traction on wet ground, and drape a sweater or shawl over their shoulders, as subterranea are often chilly even in the summer.

Most of the tour services schedule their visits months in advance and have a devoted following, so it is a good idea to book by telephone at least two weeks ahead. The best ones, such as Itinera (011-396-275-7323) and LU.PA. (396-519-3570), are run by trained archaeologists with years of experience belowground. Other good choices include Genti e Paesi (396-8530-1755) and Città Nascosta (396-321-6059), which generally take a more historical or art-historical approach. All these will arrange custom tours of multiple sites for groups. A complete listing of scheduled visits appears each week in Romac'è, a booklet available at newsstands in Rome and on the World Wide Web (http://www. Beyond specific tours he leads, an expert like Mazzotta is a gold mine of information about the best parts of underground Rome to visit, which sites are closed for renovation, and which can be seen without a permit. Mazzotta explains that most tour participants are Romans, who are increasingly eager to explore the lower city. He says, "Roma sotterranea is becoming a real cult."

In fact it is a very old cult, though some of its most ardent believers prefer to remain anonymous. Houses and workshops in the older neighborhoods of Rome frequently perch atop ancient remains, which here and there jab stone fingers up through the surface, just as Montaigne witnessed four centuries ago: massive granite columns sprouting from basement floors, Roman brick archways ridging foundation walls. The inhabitants, often elderly Romans whose families have lived in the same buildings for generations, may guard their secret subterranea carefully, fearing eviction by government authorities if word gets out. Gain their trust, however, and they will show off their underground treasures with great pride. They tell of other subterranea -- deep tunnels that traverse the city, vast and mysterious sanctuaries and palaces, a realm of oral tradition somewhere between science and legend. These elderly Romans are acutely aware of the lower city beneath their surface lives. Rome, they say, is haunted by its subterranea.

Photographs by Carlo Pavia

The Atlantic Monthly April 1997 Underground Rome Volume 279, No. 4 pages 48-53.

1 Answer 1

the commercial and diplomatic influence of the Roman empire reached far beyond the borders of the empire. The Roman government also established various forms of over lordship over various states that were not part of any roman provinces. So the limits of Roman power are often hard to determine with certainty.

When Rome conquered Egypt in 30 BC, Egyptian trade with India became an important part of the Roman economy. Greek traders to India based on Egypt gradually become more and more Roman and all gained Roman citizenship in 211 AD.

An important stop on voyages to India, and a source of frankincense and myrrh, which were valuable products, was that "happy" place, Arabia Felix, or Yemen, South Arabia.

Emperor Augustus sent the Prefect of Egypt, Gaius Aeilius Gallus, on an unsuccessful expedition to Yemen in 26 BC.

The Romans also sometimes fought against various countries in the north of modern Sudan.

Emperor Nero sent an expedition to find the source of the Nile River, and it is uncertain how far south it got.

There were occasional wars with the Garamantes in the Sahara, and Emperor Septimius Severus captured their capital Garama.

Emperor Augustus also conquered a large part of modern Germany and established a province there, but the province was abandoned after a revolt.

In Britain, remains of Roman temporary marching camps and more or less permanent forts have been found far to the north in Scotland.

Tacitus says that a Roman fleet circled the north of Britain, proving it was an island, and reached the Orkney Islands, and perhaps even sighted Thule, wherever that was.

In the years 82 to 85, the Romans under Gnaeus Julius Agricola launched a campaign against the Caledonians in modern Scotland. In this context the Roman navy significantly escalated activities on the eastern Scottish coast.[52] Simultaneously multiple expeditions and reconnaissance trips were launched. During these the Romans would capture the Orkney Islands (Orcades) for a short period of time and obtained information about the Shetland Islands.[53] There is some speculation about a Roman landing in Ireland, based on Tacitus reports about Agricola contemplating the island's conquest,[54] but no conclusive evidence to support this theory has been found.

There is also the possibility of Roman military activity in Ireland.

In the east, the Roman Empire briefly annexed Iraq and Armenia, and there is an inscription by Roman Soldiers near Baku, Azerbaijan.

In the 1st century CE, the Romans organized two Caucasian campaigns and reached Baku. Near the city, in Gobustan, Roman inscriptions dating from 84–96 CE were discovered. This is one of the earliest written evidences for Baku.[15]

It has even been claimed that Roman Legionaries might have reached Uzbekistan:

The first Roman embassy to China was in 166 AD:

The first group of people claiming to be an ambassadorial mission of Romans to China was recorded as having arrived in 166 AD by the Book of the Later Han. The embassy came to Emperor Huan of Han China from "Andun" (Chinese: 安敦 Emperor Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), "king of Daqin" (Rome).[78][79]

And there were later embassies from the Roman and eastern Roman or "Byzantine" empire.

The final recorded embassy arrived in 1091 AD, during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1118 AD) this event is only mentioned in passing.[104]

Traces of Ancient Rome in the Modern World

The ideas and culture of ancient Rome influence the art, architecture, science, technology, literature, language, and law of today.

Anthropology, Archaeology, Social Studies, World History

Pont du Gard Aqueduct

This is the Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, which crosses the Gard River, France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Robert Harding Picture Library

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Ancient Rome had a large influence on the modern world. Though it has been thousands of years since the Roman Empire flourished, we can still see evidence of it in our art, architecture, technology, literature, language, and law. From bridges and stadiums to books and the words we hear every day, the ancient Romans have left their mark on our world.

Art and Architecture

Ancient Romans have had a tremendous impact on art and architecture. We can find traces of Roman influence in forms and structures throughout the development of Western culture.

Although the Romans were heavily influenced by ancient Greece, they were able to make improvements to certain borrowed Greek designs and inventions. For example, they continued the use of columns, but the form became more decorative and less structural in Roman buildings. Ancient Romans created curved roofs and large-scale arches, which were able to support more weight than the post-and-beam construction the Greeks used. These arches served as the foundation for the massive bridges and aqueducts the Romans created. The game-loving ancients also built large amphitheaters, including the Colosseum. The sports stadiums we see today, with their oval shapes and tiered seating, derive from the basic idea the Romans developed.

The arches of the Colosseum are made out of cement, a remarkably strong building material the Romans made with what they had at hand: volcanic ash and volcanic rock. Modern scientists believe that the use of this ash is the reason that structures like the Colosseum still stand today. Roman underwater structures proved to be even sturdier. Seawater reacting with the volcanic ash created crystals that filled in the cracks in the concrete. To make a concrete this durable, modern builders must reinforce it with steel. So today, scientists study Roman concrete, hoping to match the success of the ancient master builders.

Sculptural art of the period has proven to be fairly durable too. Romans made their statues out of marble, fashioning monuments to great human achievements and achievers. You can still see thousands of Roman artifacts today in museums all over the world.

Technology and Science

Ancient Romans pioneered advances in many areas of science and technology, establishing tools and methods that have ultimately shaped the way the world does certain things.

The Romans were extremely adept engineers. They understood the laws of physics well enough to develop aqueducts and better ways to aid water flow. They harnessed water as energy for powering mines and mills. They also built an expansive road network, a great achievement at that time. Their roads were built by laying gravel and then paving with rock slabs. The Roman road system was so large, it was said that "all roads lead to Rome."

Along with large-scale engineering projects, the Romans also developed tools and methods for use in agriculture. The Romans became successful farmers due to their knowledge of climate, soil, and other planting-related subjects. They developed or refined ways to effectively plant crops, and to irrigate and drain fields. Their techniques are still used by modern farmers, such as crop rotation, pruning, grafting, seed selection, and manuring. The Romans also used mills to process their grains from farming, which improved their efficiency and employed many people.

Literature and Language

Much of the literature of the world has been greatly influenced by the literature of the ancient Romans. During what is considered the "Golden Age of Roman Poetry," poets such as Virgil, Horace, and Ovid produced works that would have an everlasting impact. Ovid's Metamorphoses, for example, inspired authors such as Chaucer, Milton, Dante, and Shakespeare. Shakespeare, in particular, was fascinated by the ancient Romans, who served as the inspiration for some of his plays, including Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

While Roman literature had a deep impact on the rest of the world, it is important to note the impact that the Roman language has had on the Western world. Ancient Romans spoke Latin, which spread throughout the world with the increase of Roman political power. Latin became the basis for a group of languages referred to as the "Romance languages." These include French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan. Many Latin root words are also the foundation for many English words. The English alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet. Along with that, a lot of Latin is still used in the present-day justice system.

The use of Latin words is not the only way the ancient Romans have influenced the Western justice system. Although the Roman justice system was extremely harsh in its punishments, it did serve as a rough outline of how court proceedings happen today. For example, there was a preliminary hearing, much like there is today, where the magistrate decided whether or not there was actually a case. If there were grounds for a case, a prominent Roman citizen would try the case, and witnesses and evidence would be presented. Roman laws and their court system have served as the foundation for many countries' justice systems, such as the United States and much of Europe.

The ancient Romans helped lay the groundwork for many aspects of the modern world. It is no surprise that a once-booming empire was able to impact the world in so many ways and leave a lasting legacy behind.

This is the Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, which crosses the Gard River, France. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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