Author Insights Podcasts


How did the institutions and values of Rome change as its empire grew?

Download this video for playback on your computer or iPod

Right-click (Ctrl-click for Mac users) the above link and select "Save Link As...". Take this lecture to go!

How did the institutions and values of Rome change as its empire grew?

Rome began as a settlement of farmers and essentially the beginnings of Roman imperialism were really just an expansion of the Roman settlement. As these farmers were looking for more and more fertile land, they moved into what the Romans called the countryside, the "campaƱa" which is still the name of that region in Italy today, and they annexed other territories. But because the Romans were willing to extend rights of citizenship to the peoples they absorbed who were also settled on these lands, people were usually pretty happy to ally themselves with the Romans. So there was an organic process of growth and opening up of new lands.

What starts changing is the Roman army, for example, is fed by Roman citizens, so one of the things that happens is if you agree to become a citizen of Rome, as a man, you have to fight in the Roman army. And so the Roman army expands exponentially and there came a point at which Rome might have had to imperialize more aggressively in order to provide activity and resources for this Roman army. The bigger your army is and the more you have to feed it and clothe it and promise these men lands of their own, the more you have to expand. So we start seeing Roman expansion all the way up and down the Italian peninsula and then we also begin to see Rome also starting to expand out into the Mediterranean, into Sicily. The problem there is that they have a rival empire much more well-established, that of Carthage, so the Romans start to become the enemies of Carthage and in fact start to launch a series of preemptive strikes against Carthaginian territory. In other words, they perceive that the Carthaginians, just by existing, are threats to their imperial power.

Historian are still arguing, though, about whether this was intentional on the part of the Romans or whether it was accidental, that they didn't really intend to build an empire but is just sort of happened that way. Whatever the answer to that question, the fact remains that Romans go from being farmers who are self-sufficient, who don't even have a monetary system or portable currency, to becoming this vast empire.

As a result, all of those values of self-sufficiency and humility start changing. Moreover, Roman conquests flood Rome with millions and millions of cheap slaves. Whereas you used to do all of the work yourself with your family, you now have this vast gang of slaves to do the work for you. Your wife, who would normally spend all of her time spinning or taking care of the children, can just go gadding about Rome doing whatever she wants because she no longer has any of these duties. And so the very structures that had under-girded Roman identity start to change.

Of course, Rome also has to start exporting its identity to its new colonies. In some sense, Rome invites her colonial subjects to become Roman but, on the other hand, Romans themselves start absorbing these exotic influences from their colonies. This is something that the ancient republican values of Rome would have frowned on very strongly; Romans were meant to be home-loving people who didn't mix with other peoples and who, in fact, worshipped their own ancestors as gods - they worshipped their own traditions. But now we have Romans inculcating, absorbing these foreign influences and being more apt to worship exotic gods like Isis or Mithras than they would their own ancestors. So once again, we see what a republican Roman of the old school would have seen as the fundamental erosion of what it meant to be Roman as a result of these imperial conquests.