Marble head from a statue of Bacchus, who has a beard and long hair.

Introduction to ancient Rome

Exhibitions

Room 70

See more objects in the Roman Empire gallery.

Current exhibitions

Nero: the man behind the myth (London)
Rome: city and empire (Tongeren, Belgium)

For books and gifts inspired by ancient Rome, visit the British Museum Shop.

From statues and coins to intricate engravings and more, take a closer look at the culture of ancient Rome through eight objects in the Museum's collection. 

Despite its humble beginnings in 8th century BC as a series of small villages on the Seven Hills of Rome, by AD 100, the Roman Empire comprised up to 100 million people spread across 50 different modern-day countries. 

Yet, following a series of crises from the later 2nd century AD, ancient Rome's decline began. The western empire fragmented rapidly before the final emperor was deposed in AD 476. However, the Eastern Roman Empire – later known as the Byzantine Empire – continued to thrive with its capital at Constantinople, surviving until AD 1453.

While this story of ancient Rome is well told, our intrigue and curiosity in it never fades – and by looking closely at the objects with us today there are always further insights to be found. Below are eight objects from the British Museum's Roman collection exploring this enduring culture. 

The birth of Rome

According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by Romulus, son of the Roman god of war, Mars. The myth states a threatened local King ordered Romulus, and his twin brother Remus, to be abandoned on the bank of the river Tiber. Although infants, the pair survived on the site that would become Rome, thanks to the kindness from locals, the god Tiberinus and most famously, care from a she-wolf who provided shelter and milk for the youngsters. 

Romans strongly identified with this myth and the 'Wolf and Twins' became a powerful symbol throughout the Empire. Seen here, this bronze figurine (figure 1) shows the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. It's believed this ornament was created in Italy around 100 BC to AD 100 over 700 years after the birth of the myth, highlighting the power this myth continued to hold centuries later. At just over 6cm in width, it's possible that this small statuette sat in a household shrine, or lararium

In reality, around the same time – the 8th century BC – a collection of hilltop hamlets steadily grew into an important town because of its strategic location on the river Tiber, an important trade route. The early material culture of Rome and surrounding cities was heavily influenced by the culture of neighbouring people including the Etruscans, who in turn took much inspiration from the Greeks, with whom they traded extensively. Alongside the objects, stories, myths and religious ideas were exchanged and adopted, and so the same heroes and gods occur among the three different civilisations.

In 616 BC, Tarquinius Priscus became the first of three Etruscan Kings of Rome. The scattered villages of Rome now developed into one city, with stone buildings replacing wooden huts. It was under the Etruscan kings that a marshy central area at the foot of the Palatine was properly drained and became the heart of the city, known as the Roman Forum.  

Founding the Republic

Etruscan rule of Rome ended in 510 BC, to be replaced by the Roman Republic. Now, Roman magistrates and officials, such as the two consuls, were elected from wealthy Roman families by assemblies of Roman citizens. One of the earliest examples of representative democracy, the magistrates would make decisions for Rome on behalf of its people. Core to the new government was the Senate with 300 or more senators who held most of the important government positions in Rome. The senators came from the wealthiest families and were known as patricians, as opposed to the bulk of the Roman citizens who were less wealthy plebeians. 

This ruling elite of senior Roman magistrates held great authority, including having the power to impose corporal and capital punishment on Rome's citizens. The fasces, a bundle of wooden rods and an axe used for beatings and executions, graphically represent the power and authority the Roman state held over its people. The fasces are seen in this bronze statuette (figure 2), which are being carried by a junior official called a lictor on behalf of a magistrate. Shown is the axe (for execution) wrapped within wooden rods (for beating). Today, the word fascism derives from the fasces.

Conquering Italy and beyond

Gradually, the Romans set out to defeat and conquer the other peoples of Italy, and by 272 BC the entire Italian peninsula was effectively under their control. It's not known whether the Romans ever made a clear decision to expand and conquer but the first conquest beyond the Italian mainland – of the island of Sicily in 241 BC – was later described as being to 'show the Roman people what a good thing it was to rule over other people' [1].

In fact, the conquest of Sicily came at the end of the first Punic War, a conflict between the two superpowers of the western Mediterranean at the time: the Romans and the Carthaginians, who dominated North Africa, Spain and parts of southern France. After almost a century of war, Rome emerged victorious in 146 BC.

Conquering Italy and beyond

This coin (figure 3) was struck in Spain around the time when the North African city of Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) was fighting Rome in the second of three wars (218–201 BC). Fighting for almost a century starting in 264 BC, Rome was the dominant power in the Italian peninsula and Carthage the leading maritime force in the western Mediterranean. The coin shows a war elephant, which formed part of the Carthaginian general Hannibal's army which crossed the Alps into Italy in 218 BC, defeating Roman armies at the battles of Ticinus, Trebia and Lake Trasimene in northern Italy, before the humiliating Roman defeat at Cannae in 216 BC.

The Punic Wars finally ended in 146 BC with the complete destruction of the city of Carthage. All the surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery by the Romans and Carthaginian territory was taken into the Roman Empire. Carthage was later rebuilt as a Roman city, to be an important centre for the export of grain to Rome.

Challenges to republican rule

During the last century of the Republic, from 100 BC, clashes between increasingly ambitious Roman leaders (imperatores), their armies and supporters produced the first cracks in the republican system. One successful and popular general was Julius Caesar, who had much support among the plebeians (lower classes) and had achieved significant victories in Gaul (modern-day France), Egypt and North Africa. He was given the power to overhaul the corrupt political system but was later perceived to have abused his own power. Because he was titled Dictator Perpetuus ('Dictator forever'), he was himself accused of aspiring to kingship, an office the majority of Romans despised after overthrowing the last Etruscan king in 509 BC. 

This coin (figure 4) was struck by Junius Brutus who, with Gaius Cassius, led the rebel faction against Julius Caesar. The reverse shows the 'cap of liberty' between two daggers and an inscription EID MAR (Ides of March – the Roman calendar equivalent to 15 March) celebrating the assassination of Caesar on that day in 44 BC. Brutus and Cassius fled to Greece after Caesar's murder and were finally defeated at the Battle of Philippi, by Mark Antony and Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, in 42 BC. 

Writers such as Cicero documented the struggle to maintain the Roman Republic in the face of ruthless men, but even the assassination of Caesar could not turn Rome back from one-man rule.

The age of Emperors

Another round of civil war saw Octavian (the future Augustus) in the west pitted against Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the east. It was a fight for the soul of the Roman world – either it would become a Greek-style kingdom centred upon Alexandria in Egypt or it would be an empire run from Rome in Italy.  The defeat of Antony and Cleopatra by Octavian and his general Agrippa at Actium in 31 BC ensured it would be the latter, and Octavian effectively became the first emperor of Rome in 27 BC, being honoured with the title Augustus.

Statues relating to emperors were erected throughout the Roman provinces to provide recognisable likenesses, publicly reinforcing the character each wished to project. The images underlined their position as head of state and emphasised the peace and prosperity of the empire, the Pax Romana. It was what today we'd call propaganda, but there is no doubt that Augusts brought peace and prosperity to the Roman world.

This bronze head of emperor Nero (figure 5) is from a life-size equestrian statue believed to have stood in Colchester as a mark of Roman power, before possibly, in an act of defiance, being hacked down and taken as booty during Boudica's sacking in AD 61. The head dates to the years after Nero's accession in AD 54 – the decade after the emperor Claudius had successfully invaded Britain – and may have been made locally, or imported from Gaul. Found in the River Alde at Rendham, Suffolk, in 1907, it was perhaps deposited as an offering on the boundary between Iceni and Trinovantes tribal land. Britain's Iron Age people often made offerings of metal objects in rivers.

The last male descendant of the emperor Augustus, Nero succeeded to the throne in AD 54 aged just 16. His turbulent rule saw momentous events including the Great Fire of Rome, Boudica's rebellion in Britain, the execution of his own mother and first wife, grand projects, extravagant excesses and his suicide at the age of only 30.

An empire of 100 million people

Today, our understanding of the Roman Empire, which reached its greatest extent under the emperor Trajan (ruled AD 98–117) is often displayed by maps and diagrams showing the size of the territory that it covered and the nations and regions that it conquered. 

What it is easy to forget in this story of battles, treaties and political manoeuvring is that the empire created by the emperors, their armies and administrators was one that contained around 100 million inhabitants –  people who lived as far apart from each other as Britain in the north, Morocco in the south and Iraq in the east; people with homes, families and jobs, religious beliefs, interests in fashion, politics and sports as diverse and varied as ours are today, yet all living under one empire governed for centuries from Rome. Consequently, expressions of culture across the empire evoked various and distinctive styles influenced by both local traditions and Roman rule. 

At the time that this tombstone (figure 6) was made in the 2nd century AD, Carthage, once Rome's most feared and hated enemy, had been under Roman control for several centuries. As seen in other objects from across the Roman Empire, it shows a mixture of Roman and native elements and designs. The female figure is dressed in a Roman-style tunic with a double-stranded necklace. Around her, the shrine is supported by columns with spiral capitals, above which the architrave has the standard mouldings and details of a Roman temple or public building. However, the rest of the detail is very much of a Carthaginian, or Punic, style. 

Strengthening the Empire

Trajan was followed by Hadrian (ruled AD 117–138) who left his mark on nearly every part of the Empire. Where Trajan had espoused a policy of expansion, Hadrian was more cautious and spent much time defining and strengthening the frontiers of the Roman Empire. He withdrew from Trajan's new conquests in Mesopotamia and built frontier walls in Africa (Fossatum Africae), in Germany (Limes Germanicus) and in Britain – Hadrian's Wall (possibly Vallum Aelium). He also initiated a campaign of instilling strict discipline in the Roman army, himself enduring the hardships of soldiers when visiting them. For many later scholars, the reigns of Hadrian (AD 117–138) and his successor, Antoninus Pius (ruled AD 138–161), represented the high point of the Roman Empire.

This torso (figure 7) was part of a statue of Hadrian (ruled AD 117–138) dressed as a general which stood in Cyrene (in modern-day Libya). It shows the Palladium, the cult statue of Athena, which was supposedly taken from Troy to Rome, standing between two representations of the Roman goddess Victory. Below them are the wolf and twins, Romulus and Remus. The heads of Jupiter Ammon and the elephants are distinctive North African motifs. There had been a major Jewish rebellion in Cyrene in AD 116 –117 and Hadrian was responsible for much rebuilding in the city, and therefore honoured with this statue.

The fall of Rome

There are many significant events and dates in what the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon famously described as the 'decline and fall of the Roman Empire'. There were a number of crises during the 3rd century AD, among the most important of which was the loss of the province of Dacia (modern-day Romania) in AD 271. There were on-going struggles to deal with the rise of the Sassanid Empire, centred upon modern-day Iran, in the east, and invasions by Germanic tribes across the rivers Rhine and Danube in the west. As leaders were needed simultaneously in different parts of the Empire, rule was often shared by emperors in the west and east, a system first formalised by the emperor Diocletian (ruled AD 284–305). However, the two imperial powers often fought each other for overall control, resulting in several episodes of civil war.

At the end of the 4th century AD, the Roman Empire formally divided when Emperor Theodosius I (ruled AD 379–395) split it between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. The western empire had its capital at Ravenna in Italy rather than Rome, while the eastern empire's capital was Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey. In AD 409, the Roman government was ejected from the province of Britain, and on 24 August 410, Rome was sacked by the Germanic Visigothic people. This was the first time in nearly 800 years that Rome had fallen to a foreign foe and both symbolically, and in reality, it was the beginning of the end for the western Roman Empire.

The fall of Rome

The western empire quickly fell under the control of a succession of Germanic peoples and by the late 5th century AD the Romans had effectively lost control of this territory. The east, however, continued to flourish and gradually evolved into what is now known as the Byzantine Empire. From the 5th century AD, those people around the eastern Mediterranean who had once been Romans formed a Byzantine Greek culture while Romans in the west were subsumed by Goths, Vandals, Franks, Burgundians, Angles and Saxons.

The Arch of Constantine (figure 8) was the city's last major traditional ancient Roman monument, although its inscription alludes to the new Christian world with a reference to 'the divinity' rather than to any gods of the Roman pagan pantheon. It did boast new relief carvings depicting the Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the main religion, and his victories as well as an inscription to him. It also re-used sculpture and masonry from earlier monuments made by the emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

The legacy of ancient Rome

Lasting almost 2,000 years, at its peak ancient Rome ruled the largest empire the western world had ever seen. Why it became so great is a question that continues to challenge us, and we have to consider numerous factors. Its military might under-pinned its expansion and control of conquered peoples and frontiers; its ability to absorb most other cultures and religions generally showed a pragmatic tolerance; the universal application of Latin, Roman law and the Pax Romana brought peace and stability to millions of people, while a universal currency eased trade and commerce; however, there's no doubt that Rome benefited from an economy largely based on slavery. The more we investigate and explore ancient Rome the closer we get to answer this question, and through the objects highlighted (and others in the collection) we can build a picture of its rise, fall and legacy. 

Find out more

The British Museum is currently exhibiting two shows on ancient Rome, Nero: the man behind the myth in London (27 May to 24 October 2021) and Rome: city and empire on international tour at the Gallo-Romeins Museum in Tongeren, Belgium (6 February to 1 August 2021).

Footnotes

[1] Cicero in Against Verres, II.2.2, 1st century BC.