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1. The Romans and their Empire

Rome, Roma to the Romans and still Roma today, is now the capital of Italy. In many parts of modern Rome you can see the remains of another great, but ancient city, which was founded over 2500 years ago!
The Arch of Constantine in Rome. Alan Bowman
Rome grew from a little village on the banks of the River Tiber into a city at the centre of a great empire. The Romans first conquered Italy and all the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. They then conquered most of western Europe, including Britain, which they called Britannia.
Map of the Roman empire in the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117) showing the principal provinces and some major cities. Roman Britain
The Roman empire was home to people of many different cultures and races, but they mostly spoke Latin - or Greek in the eastern part. All the peoples of the empire adopted Roman forms of government, Roman art and architecture styles, Roman engineering techniques and Roman methods of town planning.
Roman bridge over the River Guadiana at Merida (Emerita Augusta), Spain. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The Romans left a lasting impact on Britain. For example, there are important towns, like London, Lincoln and York, which were founded by the Romans. Many of our main roads still run along lines chosen by the Romans over 1500 years ago!
The surviving (southern) arch of the north gate of Roman Lincoln, now known as the Newport Arch. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The Romans still have an enormous influence on British and European life today in such areas as architecture, language and literature.
Tivoli Corner, part of the Bank of England, built in about 1800 to a design by Sir John Soane based on Emperor Hadrian's villa near Rome. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Did you know? The ancient Romans believed that Rome had been founded in 753BC by a man called Romulus. As a child he and his twin brother Remus had been cared for by a wolf. This is why you can see the wolf and twins on Roman coins, mosaics, sculpture and many other objects.
Mosaic showing the twins Romulus (who founded Rome) and Remus and the wolf who suckled them, found in the Roman town at Aldborough (North Yorkshire). Leeds Museums

The Roman Emperor

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The most powerful Roman was the emperor. He ruled the empire and the Romans treated him as though he was half man and half god.
Bronze head from a statue of the Emperor Claudius, found in the River Alde in Suffolk. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
Although the Roman emperors were powerful men, they had to be cunning, cruel, ruthless and suspicious of everyone, even their wives and families, if they wanted to stay alive. The Emperor Domitian shown on this coin was murdered in the year 96 by men helped by his wife!
Silver coin (denarius) of the Emperor Domitian (81-96). Reverse shows the goddess Minerva. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust
The emperor was supposed to govern Rome and her empire with the advice of the Senate, a council of the heads of leading families. In reality the emperor could do as he liked as long as he controlled the Roman army.
Roman legionaries shown on a stone monument from the fort at Croy Hill (Strathclyde) on the Antonine Wall, Scotland. National Museums of Scotland
An emperor inherited several ancient titles which gave him his power. He was usually one of the two consuls elected every year to lead the Senate. He took the title 'Tribune of the People' which meant that he was supposed to look after the poorer people in the Roman population. The emperor was also the chief priest of Rome.
Gold coin of the Emperor Nero (54-68), pierced for use as a pendant, from Exeter. Exeter City Museums and Art Gallery
Many of the emperor's titles appear in a shortened form on Roman coins. This is a silver coin the Emperor Domitian minted in the years 91-2. Look for the following letters:
IMPXXI:declared emperor - in Latin imperator - for the twenty first time
COSXV:declared consul for the fifteenth time
CENS:censor, an old fashioned title meaning he could tax the citizens according to their wealth
PPP:the first P stands for Pontifex Maximus meaning chief priest; the second and third P stand for Pater Patriae, meaning father of the homeland.
Silver coin (denarius) of the Emperor Domitian (81-96). Reverse shows the goddess Minerva. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust

Five Famous Emperors

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While Britain was a Roman province, the empire was ruled by almost 100 different emperors. Some of them are much more famous than the rest. Augustus was the first emperor. He ruled from 27BC to AD14. He was originally called Octavian but as he was the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar he took the names Augustus Caesar. Augustus in Latin means 'majestic'.
Bronze head, about 0.45m high, thought to be the Emperor Augustus from Meroe, Sudan, now in the British Museum. The eyes are made of alabaster and glass. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
Claudius ruled between the years 41 and 54. He was emperor when the Romans invaded Britain in the year 43. As a young man Claudius was thought to be weak and feeble minded, but he surprised everyone by becoming a good ruler. Claudius called his son Britannicus to celebrate the conquest of Britain.
Gold coin of the Emperor Claudius (41-54). The emperor wears a laurel wreath around his head. On the reverse is the arch built in Rome in 51 to mark the conquest of Britain. It is inscribed DE BRITTANN(IS) - 'for Britain'. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Hadrian ruled between the years 117 and 138. He came to Britain in 122 and ordered the construction of 'Hadrian's Wall' which formed Roman Britain's northern frontier. Hadrian spent most of his life making the frontiers of the Roman empire safe and spent little time in the city of Rome itself.
Bronze bust of Emperor Hadrian - part of a larger than life size statue found in the Thames at London. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
Septimius Severus ruled between the years 193 and 211. He is sometimes known as 'the African Emperor' as he was born in Lepcis Magna which is now in Libya. Septimius Severus came to Britain in 208 with his wife Julia Domna, and sons Caracalla and Geta. He campaigned against the tribes living north of Hadrian's Wall in what is now Scotland. Severus was an old and sick man when he came to Britain and he died in York in 211.
Silver coin (denarius) of the Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211). The reverse shows the god Jupiter with the words IOVI CONSERVATOR ('Jupiter the preserver'). Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust
Constantine I ruled between the years 306 and 337. He is usually known as 'Constantine the Great'. He was born in what is now Yugoslavia and was proclaimed emperor in York. He was the first Roman emperor to allow Christians in the empire to worship freely.
Bronze coin of the Emperor Constantine I when he was heir to the throne (Caesar) in 306-7. On the reverse is a dedication to the 'spirit of the Roman people' (genio populi Romani) The mint mark is PLN = London. Yorkshire Museum, York
Did you know? Two Roman emperors died in Britain, both of them in York. Septimius Severus died there in 211 and Constantius I (father of Constantine 'the Great') died there in 306.
Silver coin (denarius) of the Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211). Wording on the reverse reads VIRTUS AUG meaning 'bravery of the Emperor'. Photo: Simon I. Hill, Yorkshire Museum

The Roman Empress

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Officially Roman empresses had no real power, but in reality they often had great influence on the running of the empire. Images of the empress on coins and statues were closely examined by women of the empire eager to find out about court fashions.
Statue of a Roman empress shown as the goddess Juno with a cow beneath her feet. Found at Chesters fort on Hadrian's Wall. Photo Simon I. Hill with the kind permission of English Heritage.
Messalina was the wife of the Emperor Claudius who had her executed because she left him to live with another man.
Bone hairpin with a woman's head which has an elaborate hairstyle of the late 1st century AD. Found in London. Museum of London
Faustina, who lived in the first half of the 1st century, was the much-loved wife of the Emperor Antoninus Pius. After her death the emperor put up Faustina's statue at all the chariot racing tracks in Rome; this was considered a great honour!
Coin of the Empress Faustina (died 141), wife of Emperor Antoninus Pius; on the reverse is the fertility goddess Ceres. The letters SC stand for Senatus Consulto meaning 'on behalf of the Senate'. Photo: Simon I Hill, York Archaeological Trust
Julia Domna was the wife of Septimius Severus. She was from Emesa in Syria and a priestess of the goddess Isis. Pots made in the shape of a female head in the years around 200 are thought to be modelled on Julia Domna.
Pot in the form of a woman's head thought to be a portrait of the Empress Julia Domna (early 3rd century). Found at York. Yorkshire Museum, York
Fausta was the second wife of Constantine 'the Great'. He divorced his first wife soon after becoming emperor and married Fausta because she was the daughter of another emperor. Marrying her made him more powerful.
Coin of the Empress Fausta, second wife of the Emperor Constantine 'the Great'. The reverse shows Fausta holding her infant sons Constantine II and Constantius II. The wording is SPES REIPVBLICAE - meaning that the boys were 'the hope of the state'. York Archaeological Trust
This is a gilded silver model of a 4th century Roman empress designed for use as a pepper pot! You can see how splendid her jewellery and clothes are!
Model bust (about 10cm high) in gilded silver of a late Roman empress in the form of a pepper pot. Found in the late Roman hoard of treasure from Hoxne (Norfolk). Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum

Citizens and Slaves

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In the Roman world there was an important distinction between people who were citizens of Rome and those who were not. There was also an important distinction between people who were born free and those who were slaves.
Tombstones of Philus (left), a man from Gaul who was buried in Cirencester, and the cavalryman Rufus Sita (right) who was buried in Gloucester. Gloucester City Museum and Art Gallery.
As a citizen you would have had many privileges and rights denied to the rest of the population. Originally all Roman citizens lived in Rome, but as the empire expanded Rome created colonies of citizens in other places. By the time the Romans conquered Britain a Roman citizen could come from Egypt, Germany, Spain or any other part of the empire.
Illustration of a Roman wearing a toga by Sarah Hall, Roman Britain
A person who was not a Roman citizen could become one in a number of ways. For example, a man could serve as an auxiliary soldier in the army. He became a citizen when he retired, and any children he and his wife had afterwards would be citizens.
Tombstone of an auxiliary cavalry soldier from Ribchester Roman fort (Lancashire). Photo Simon I. Hill, Ribchester Museum Trust
Slaves were at the lowest level of society in the Roman world. They had no rights and no freedom. Slaves belonged entirely to their masters and mistresses, and had to follow their orders at all times. A slave could even be sold to a new master without being asked.
Relief of a Roman lady (left) with her maidservant from Chester. Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
Slaves often bought their freedom with their savings. After they had become freedmen or freedwomen they could inherit their old master's businesses and land, and sometimes became very wealthy.
Reconstruction of a Roman household shrine. Illustration by Michael Codd Hampshire County Council Museum Service

Roman Names and Roman People

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One of the first things you learn about the Romans is that they usually had names which seem pretty strange to us!
Inscription on an altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus (greatest) Maximus (best), shown as IOM, by the 1st Cohort, part cavalry, of Spaniards, commanded by Lucius Antistius Lupus Verianus from Africa at Maryport Roman fort (Cumbria). Photo Simon I. Hill, Senhouse Museum, Maryport.
Men who were Roman citizens usually had two or three names. Men who were either non-citizens or slaves were usually known by just one name. The Roman centurion on this tombstone is a citizen. Look for his names in the inscription: His first name, Marcus, is a personal name, the second, Favonius, is his family name (equivalent to our surname) and the third, Facilis, is a familiar name by which he would be known among friends and family.
Tombstone of the Roman centurion Marcus Favonius Facilis from Colchester. Colchester Museum
Women who were Roman citizens usually had two names. On this lady's tombstone we find her family name Julia followed by her familiar name Velva. Roman women did not usually change their family names when they were married as they often do today. Children took their father's family name.
Tombstone of a Roman lady named Julia Velva found in York. She is shown reclining on a couch at a family meal. Yorkshire Museum, York.
After the Romans conquered Britain it was not long before Roman names became popular, but native names often survived in a Romanised form. On this altar dedicated to the god Mithras is the name of a man called Simplicius Simplex who has kept his British name Simplex, but has also changed it into a Romanised family name Simplicius.
Altar dedicated to the god Mithras by Simplicius Simplex at Carrawburgh Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall. Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle upon Tyne
Although most Roman names seem a bit strange to us, many are still used today including Julius, Marcus and Titus for boys, and Antonia, Claudia and Julia for girls. You can probably think of some others.
Tombstone of Claudia Martina (written as CL MARTINAE in first and second lines) who married the slave Anencletus (his name is in the middle). Found in London.
Did you know? We do not know the names of most of the people who lived in Roman Britain, but sometimes we meet individual Romans in unusual ways. This is an actual Roman hand print made in a tile before it was made hard by firing.
Roman hand print on a tile at Brading Roman villa (Isle of Wight). Photo Simon I. Hill, Oglander Roman Trust

Roman Names and Roman Places

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In most cases we know the Latin names the Romans gave to the towns and forts of Roman Britain, although not usually the names given to villas or country villages. Many Latin names of regions, rivers and mountains are also known.
A column which originally formed part of the backdrop to the stage at the Roman theatre in St Albans (Verulamium). Photo Patrick Ottaway with kind permission of the Gorhambury Estate
We sometimes know the Latin names for places in Britain because they appear in inscriptions found in the place itself. For example, York was known as Eboracum. Sometimes names appear on Roman milestones telling us the distance to the nearest towns. There are also Roman documents, such as guides to the main roads in the empire, which we can use to find out the names of places.
Part of a Roman stone coffin from York bearing an inscription referring to a decurion (town councillor) of the colonia at York (Eboracum). Look for the shortened words: DEC COL EBOR. York Archaeological Trust.

Provinces of the Empire

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Britain was just one province of a mighty empire which included all the countries around the Mediterranean Sea and much of western Europe. Click on the map for a quick trip to some of the parts of the empire. This will give you an idea of its size and splendour.
Map of the Roman empire in the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117) showing the principal provinces and some major cities. Roman Britain
Gaul, or Gallia in Latin, was what the Romans called the countries we know as France and Belgium. Gaul was divided into four provinces. Gallia Narbonensis was conquered by the Romans almost 200 years before they conquered Britain and it included many great cities such as Arles, Orange and the capital Narbonne.
Interior of the Roman theatre at Orange, France, showing the seating and stage with its elaborate backdrop (scena). Photo Patrick Ottaway
The countries we now call Spain and Portugal were divided into three Roman provinces. One of these was Lusitania which had a great capital city at Merida where you can still see some fantastic Roman buildings.
Roman bridge over the River Guadiana at Merida (Emerita Augusta), Spain. Photo Patrick Ottaway
The western part of modern Germany and the Netherlands was divided into two Roman provinces - Upper and Lower Germany. The River Rhine which ran through the provinces formed a vital trading route for goods travelling to Roman Britain. The great city of Cologne on the Rhine was the capital of Lower Germany.
Detail of stonework in a tower on the Roman town wall at Cologne, Germany. Photo Patrick Ottaway
Italia is now modern Italy. It was the oldest part of the empire and at its heart was Rome itself, but there were many other great cities including Milan in the north which became capital of the empire between the years 286 and 402.
Chapel of St Aquilino at the church of San Lorenzo, Milan, Italy, formerly a Roman imperial mausoleum of about the year 400. Photo Patrick Ottaway
We now think of Asia as a vast continent of many countries, but the Roman province of Asia covered only the western part of what is now Turkey. Ephesus, one of the greatest cities of the Roman world, was in Asia and you can still see the remains of many splendid buildings there.
Trajan's Fountain' at the Roman city of Ephesus (Turkey). Photo R.A. Hall

The Date of the Roman Empire

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The Romans thought that the city of Rome had been founded in a year which we call 753BC (BC means before the birth of Christ). This is over 2700 years ago. The Roman empire came to an end in western Europe in about the year 480; this is a bit more than 1500 years ago.
Drawing of a bronze plaque (80mm diameter) found in London showing the wolf and twins Romulus and Remus. The bird is a woodpecker and the tree a fig.
Today dates in Britain are usually reckoned from the year of Jesus Christ's birth which was once thought to have been at the beginning of AD1. AD stands for Anno Domini which is Latin for 'Year of the Lord', Lord meaning Jesus Christ. In fact no-one knows exactly when Jesus Christ was born. 'AD' and 'BC', which means before Christ, were not used to express dates until after Roman times.
The head of Jesus Christ on a mosaic from the villa at Hinton St Mary, Dorset. The round orange-coloured fruits are probably pomegranates which have many seeds and symbolise fertility. Licensed by the Trustees of the British Museum, The British Museum
The Romans, led by Julius Caesar, first came to Britain in the years 55 and 54BC, but the conquest of Britain began in the year AD43. Britain ceased to be part of the Roman empire in about the year 410 and so Roman Britain lasted for nearly 370 years.
Reconstruction of an interval tower on the south-west side of the Roman fortress defences at York. Illustration by Tracy Croft, English Heritage
On this website dates before Christ (BC) are given in the form 100BC, 500BC etc. All the dates AD are usually given without the letters AD in the form 1, 50, 200, 300 etc.
Bronze coin of the Emperor Trajan (98-117).
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