Roman life and culture
Who were the Romans?
The ancient Romans lived in a city called Rome. Rome still exists today, and it is the capital of Italy.
The Romans and their culture had a big impact on how we live our lives today, and gave us things like ways to get clean water, ways to build roads and even the basis of our language. Britain was part of the Roman Empire for amost 400 years, so a lot of the things that Romans did stuck with us and influenced modern life.
Top 10 facts
- Legend has it that Rome was founded by Romulus, the son of a god, in 753 BC.
- The Romans spoke Latin, a language that is the basis for other languages spoken today – even English!
- Romans decorated floors and walls in mosaics, which were pictures made from small pieces of coloured tiles.
- The calendar that we use today was based on a system Julius Caesar established.
- We have the Romans to thank for sanitation – they created aqueducts that kept water clean as it got to peoples’ homes.
- As a way to relax and have fun, the Romans would to go the Colosseum to see plays and watch gladiator fights.
- The Romans were so good at building roads that some Roman roads still exist today!
- Romans wore togas, which were long pieces of cloth that they draped around their waist and shoulders.
- Bath houses were used by everyone to take a bath, have a massage and chat to friends.
- The Romans used different letters to represent numbers – we call these Roman numerals, and we still use them sometimes today.
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Did you know?
- The Romans had quite a story to explain how the city began. They said that the god Mars or Hercules had twin boys named Romulus and Remus, but that these boys were raised by a mummy wolf. When they were older, they wanted to create their own city but couldn’t agree where. They ended up fighting so badly that Romulus killed Remus, which meant that only Romulus went on to rule the city, which he named Rome (which sounds a bit like Romulus).
- Rome was built near the Tiber River, which is the third longest river in Italy.
- If you wanted to look your best in Rome, you’d need to wear a toga. A toga was a long piece of cloth that men would wrap around themselves. Underneath the toga, people just wore plain tunics.
- The numbers that Romans used look very different from the numbers we use. They counted using a sort of code of letters – I stands for 1, II stands for 2 and III stands for three. It gets more complicated after that – V stands for 5, and the number 4 in Roman numerals is IV. This means 5 minus 1, which equals 4.
- The way we set up our calendar is like the calendar that the Romans used. Julius Caesar made a calendar based on 365 days in a year, and 366 days in leap years.
- The Romans spoke a language called Latin. While nobody speaks Latin anymore, lots of languages we speak today are at least partly based on Latin words – even English!
- The Romans all went to the same place to take baths – these were called bath houses. They would be decorated in pretty mosaics, and have hot and cold water so people could wash properly. People could get a massage there if they wanted, play sports, and even stay a while to chat with friends.
- In 79 AD, a volcano called Mount Vesuvius erupted in one of the most famous explosions in history. The ash that came out of the volcano buried two cities – Pompeii and Herculaneum. These cities weren’t uncovered until 1,700 years later!
- There were three main groups of people in Rome (called orders) – the plebeians (plebs), equestrians and patricians.
- plebs – people who weren’t slaves, and who owned shops, land or had a certain kind of trade (like being a blacksmith)
- equestrians – people who were rich and successful, but weren’t born into patrician families. You had to own a certain amount of property to become an equestrian.
- patricians – people who were part of families that had been in the first ever group of senators that governed Rome
Roman image gallery:
- The Colosseum in Rome
- A Roman statue
- The Roman road, Via Appia Antica
- A Roman toga
- A gladiator
- Inside the Colosseum
- A recreation of a Roman chariot race
- Roman ruins in Jordan
- A road in Pompeii
- A Roman aqueduct in France
- A Roman theatre in Syria
- Rome today
- Remains of a Roman temple in Turkey
- A Roman tombstone
The Roman empire dominated Europe and the lands around the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years.
The city of Rome started as a farming village near the river Tiber in present-day Italy. The city grew and was initially governed by kinds; around 509 BC Rome became a republic ruled by Senators, men from the wealthiest families. Over time the Roman republic took over all of Italy and in 49 BC a general called Julius Caesar seized power. His great-nephew Octavian became the first emperor of Rome in 31 BC. Over the next 150 years Rome conquered lands all around the Mediterranean Sea; the Empire was at its largest in 117 AD when Trajan was emperor.
The Romans' success was due to their powerful army. Once they had conquered a new place (which they called a province), the Romans established their way of life there and the people they conquered had to pay taxes to Rome, follow Roman laws and worship Roman gods and goddesses. The Romans built a huge network of roads around their lands, as well as aqueducts to supply water to cities and public buildings like temples and bath houses.
If you had to make a road, what would you do? The Romans knew exactly what to do. they made sure their roads were straight and even. In fact, Roman roads were so good that some are still around today! When they built roads, they started by digging a long hole that they’d fill up with different layers of rocks and dirt. They also made sure that water had a place to go when it rained, which kept the road in good condition.
When the Romans wanted to have fun, they’d go to the Colosseum to watch gladiators fight or to see plays. You can still see the Colosseum in Rome – it’s not exactly like it was back in Roman times, but you can get an idea of how impressive it would have been back then. The Colosseum was first called the Flavian Amphitheatre. It is shaped like an oval, and is called an amphitheatre because it doesn’t have a roof. Chariot races weren’t held at the Colosseum – people would go to the Circus Maximus for that. It was as long as about six football pitches put together, and it had two rounded ends where the chariots would turn to complete another lap.
In big cities, sometimes there isn’t enough water in nearby lakes and rivers for everyone to get what they need to cook and clean. The Romans solved this problem by inventing aqueducts that carried water from sources that were farther away from the city, making sure that everyone in the city was able to get fresh water delivered straight to them. Aqueducts are long lines of grooves that water could run along, and they were built high in the air to make sure the water stayed clean. You can still see some Roman aqueducts around today.
By around 200 AD Rome was becoming less powerful. In 395 AD the Empire was permanently split in two parts; in 476 AD the Western Empire ended after the city of Rome was destroyed by the Visigoths, called "barbarians" by the Romans.
Roman names to know:
Virgil (70-19 BC) – Virgil was a famous Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid, an epic poem about a prince called Aeneas.
Claudius (10 BC-54 AD) – Claudius was the fourth Roman Emperor and led the Roman army that conquered Britain.
Cicero (106-43 BC) – Cicero was a famous Roman orator, which means he was known for giving good speeches. He could write well, and could also speak well in public. He is also known for being a philosopher.
Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) – Pliny the Younger wrote many letters about the life and times he lived in, which have helped us understand more about Rome and the things that happened then. Pliny lived during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which killed his uncle, Pliny the Elder.
Just for fun...
- Quiz yourself on your knowledge of Ancient Rome
- Make lots of Roman artefacts, from coin hoards to Legionary swords and helmets
- Go to the Baths in Roman times
- Discover the people of Roman Britain by digging for clues with archaeologists from Reading University
- Celebrate Saturnalia, the ancient Roman winter celebration held in honour of the god Saturn. Did you know that lots of today's Christmas traditions are adapted from Saturnalia traditions?
- Explore Minecraft versions of a Roman fortress and the Roman city of Exeter
- Join historian Greg Jenner for a BBC Sounds kids' homeschool history lesson about Roman gladiators
- Reassemble a Legionary's armour
- Make a model Roman villa
- Play QED: Cosmo's Casebook, a game set in Ancient Rome during the final decades of the mighty Republic, in which you play a public advocate with a heart of gold who must defend his clients by investigating a crime and battling it out in court with a rival prosecutor, Gracchus
- Colour in pictures of Romans
- Make your own paper model of the Colosseum
- Read a kids' comic set in the Colosseum
- Find out how to decipher a Roman tombstone
- Solve the archaeological mystery of an amazing Roman/Anglo-Saxon burial
- Make a Roman mosaic
- Explore the Romans in Britain by listening to short dramas, comic sketches and monologues about Roman life on BBC Schools Radio
- Make some Roman food by watching step-by-step videos and then having a go yourself: how about lentil pottage or libum (a sacrificial cake)
- Make your own Roman mosaic (with step-by-step instructions) and Roman shield (with video instructions) with Hobbycraft's tutorials
- Read adventure stories set in ancient Rome; three recommended series are Roman Brit, Dorkius Maximus and Jeremy Strong's Romans on the Rampage, or look through our complete list of great kids' fiction books about Ancient Rome
Best children's books about ancient Rome
Find out more about ancient Rome:
- Watch BBC animated videos and clips about life in Roman times
- Romus and Remus were the legendary founders of Rome
- Videos about growing up in Ancient Rome
- Read the BBC Bitesize guide to Roman life
- 10 facts about ancient Rome for kids
- Detailed information guide to life in Rome, from the army and rulers to food, entertainment and status
- Learn about the jewellery, emperors and animals of imperial Rome and see coins, busts and sculptures of Roman emperors
- Look at the floorplan of a typical Roman villa
- Examine a Roman mosaic
- Find out more about Roman gods and goddesses
- Take a virtual tour through a Roman bath house
- Read about the Roman Forum and see inside the Colosseum where gladiators fought
- All about chariot races
- Cook some Ancient Roman recipes
- Look through a list of rulers of the Roman Empire and see some of the coins they were pictured on
- Read 10 facts about the Colosseum
- See what a Roman banquet would have looked like
- Watch clips of classicist Mary Beard explaining what a gladiator's helmet looks like and introducing an ancient Roman
- Can you guess what a vomitarium was in ancient Rome?
- See animated maps explaining Rome's history
See for yourself
- See the spas of the ancient world – visit real Roman baths!
- The Museum of London has exhibits about the time when Britain was a part of Rome, and when the Romans lived in London.
- Go to the British Museum to see some Roman mosaics from the time when Britain was part of the Roman Empire.
- Walk around a Roman villa.
- Explore the Roman city of Verulamium on the site of the modern city of St Albans, in Hertfordshire
- See a reconstruction of a Roman bedroom