An Analysis of a Good Unit:
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.
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
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.
I divide the unit of Rome, like
Caesar did Gaul, into three parts: the Republic, the Breakdown of the Republic,
and the Roman Empire.
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
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
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
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
9. Explain how
these dynasts really were presaging imperial rule of the next century.
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.
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.
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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