An Analysis of a Good Unit:



Rome presents the historian and teacher with many questions, including: Why did it fall? Why was it so successful for such a long time? What made its government the strongest the world has yet seen? How could it extend its power over much of the known world more than 2000 years ago? What aspect of its civilization was it that threw up the most powerful set of personalities known to history? 

Even a quick study of Rome reveals moral and political lessons for our modern world. Simply put, Rome had it all: corruption of a stupefying nature, an evolution from a rough democracy to anarchy to tyranny to empire, the uses of invincible military force, an endless series of succession crises and civil wars, military involvement in politics, colonization, world wars, and an imperial ideal that has yet to die---recall that the European Union is merely a feeble attempt to recreate part of the pax romana. 

Why Rome?

If my first academic love was ancient history, then my first love in ancient history was Rome. I have yet to meet anyone without some knowledge of it, be that awareness gained from “sword and sandal” movies or some dim memory of a history class long, long ago. The recent film Gladiator has done nothing but increase this desire to become acquainted with the greatest civilization yet seen. Students especially, their minds filled with chariot racing and gladiatorial combats, or dumbstruck by the ferocity and nature of Roman discipline and warmaking, are possessed of some innate passion for the subject. 

There is more, of course. Even a cursory tour of Europe, the Middle East or northern Africa will reveal a vast and encompassing set of ruins, any one of which serves as mute testimony to power, military excellence, glory, literature, government, architecture and grandeur. So much of this has passed down to us that we have forgotten its source. It is the teacher’s job to bring all of this back into the light. 

So the question really is not whether to study Rome, but rather how much time should we spend on it. I have spent a quarter of a century walking its ruins and reading its books, and yet I feel as a novice. 

Development of Unit

I divide the unit of Rome, like Caesar did Gaul, into three parts: the Republic, the Breakdown of the Republic, and the Roman Empire. 

The Republic

1. Trace the beginnings of Rome, both those historical and mythological. Use Virgil as primary source material. 

2. Stress the reasons why Rome kicked out the Etruscans, and the concomitant hatred for the idea of a ‘rex’,  a king. 

3. Relate in detail elements of early Roman civilization: traditions, land ownership, dignitas, clientage and patronage, the legionary military system, the make-up of the Senate and the assemblies, the methods---both political and military---of bringing all of Italy into the Roman governing idea. 

4. Set the stage for the Punic Wars, which were (among other things) a true “clash of civilizations”. 

5. Fight the Punic Wars using the idea of ‘biography as history.’ Using Polybius and Livy, tell the stories of the great opposing families, the Punic Barcas and the Roman Cornelii. 

The Breakdown of the Republic

7. Show how success in war bred political and moral corruption and eventual defeat at the hands of the Germans. 

8. Show how political violence enters Rome with a vengeance after the senate refuses all attempts at reform. 

8. Detail the rise of the military dynasts---Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus and Caesar---while showing that this phenomenon was the result of the senate’s inability to govern. 

9. Explain how these dynasts really were presaging imperial rule of the next century. 

The Empire

10. Using Suetonius, Dio Cassius and Tacitus as more ‘biography as history’, relate the antics, buffoonery, competence and terror of the emperors of the first 200 years of empire. 

11. Discuss imperial rule and the formation of the Roman idea of civilization as suitable for the entire human race. 

12. Explain how the edifice of Roman rule began to crumble in the 3rd century. 

13. Study those emperors who put the thing all back together by AD 300, and the impact of Christianity on imperial rule. 

14. Give reasons for the fall of the Western Empire, and reasons why the eastern half lasted another 1000 years. 


I have found Rome easy and enjoyable to teach because of my passion for it and because of the interest most students have for at least some of its aspects. Also, by using Hollywood film as a resource---Spartacus, Ben Hur, Gladiator, Quo Vadis---I can trace the effect of Rome on American popular culture and so increase interest in its study. 

The results? As students progress in their high school education they often refer to Roman history to make an example of some aspect of the modern world. What more need be said?

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