An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: the Roman Empire

As an aid to students, teachers and parents, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. We’ve shared bite size introductions to historical figures, events and periods – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. R is for the Roman Empire.


The Roman Empire

E. H. Gombrich: It would never have occurred to the Romans to do what Alexander the Great had done. They had no wish to turn the lands they conquered into a single, vast empire in which everyone was treated equally. Certainly not. All the lands the Roman legions conquered – and their conquests came thick and fast – became Roman provinces, their towns occupied by Roman troops and Roman officials. These occupiers looked down on the native inhabitants, even when they were Phoenicians, Jews and Greeks – all peoples of very ancient culture. In the eyes of the Romans they were good for just one thing: paying up. They were subject to crushing taxes and had to keep sending grain to Rome – as much and as often as possible.

Provided they did so, they were left more or less in peace. They could practise their own religion and speak their own language, and in many ways they benefited from all the good things the Romans brought, such as roads. Many of these, splendidly paved, led out from Rome across the plains and over distant mountain passes to remote and inaccessible parts of the empire. It must be said that the Romans didn’t build these roads out of consideration for the people living there. On the contrary, their aim was to send news and troops to all parts of the empire in the shortest possible time. The Romans were superb engineers.

Most impressive of all their works were their magnificent aqueducts. These brought water from distant mountains and carried it down through valleys and into the towns – clear, fresh water to fill innumerable fountains and bathhouses – so that Rome’s provincial officials could enjoy all the comforts they were used to having at home.

A Roman citizen living abroad always retained his separate status, for he lived according to Roman law. Wherever he happened to be in that vast empire, he could turn to a Roman official and say: ‘I am a citizen of Rome! ’These words had the effect of a magic formula. If until then no one had paid him much attention, everyone would instantly become polite and obliging.

In those days, however, the true rulers of the world were the Roman soldiers. It was they who held the gigantic empire together, suppressing revolts where necessary and ferociously punishing all who dared oppose them. Courageous, experienced and ambitious, they conquered a new land – to the north, to the south or to the east – almost every decade. People who saw the tight columns of well-drilled soldiers, marching slowly in their metal-plated tunics, with their shields and javelins, their slings and swords and their catapults for hurling rocks and arrows, knew that it was useless to resist. War was their favourite pastime. After each victory they returned in triumph to Rome, led by their generals, with all their captives and their loot. To the sound of trumpets they would march past the cheering crowds, through gates of honour and triumphal arches. Above their heads they held pictures and placards, like billboards to advertise their victories. The general would stand tall in his chariot, a crown of laurel on his head and wearing the sacred cape worn by the statue of Jupiter, God of Gods, in his temple. Like a second Jupiter, he would climb the steep path to the Capitol, the citadel of Rome. And there in the temple, high above the city, he would make his solemn sacrifice of thanksgiving to that god, while below him the leaders of the vanquished were put to death.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about the Roman Empire

BBC Bitesize (KS2)

Roman Empire

Roman Britain

BBC Bitesize (KS3)

The Roman Empire

BBC Meet the Romans with Mary Beard

All Roads Lead to Rome (video)

BBC History

Rome’s Pivotal Emperors – Pat Southern

The Fall of the Roman Republic – Mary Beard

Romanisation: The Process of Becoming Roman – Dr Neil Faulkner

Romans (multiple resources)

BBC In Our Time

Ancient Rome (multiple episodes)

Especially for younger students

The Civilization of Ancient Rome—maps and timeline

The School Run

Roman Britain and the Roman Empire

Khan Academy

Multiple resources


Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City

Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World

Know the Romans

Ancient Rome

The Yale Blog

Guy de la Bedoyere on The Real Lives of Roman Britain

Praetorian by Guy de la Bedoyere – an extract

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.

A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

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Following in the footsteps of E. H. Gombrich’s worldwide bestseller A Little History of the World, the books in our Little Histories series explore the history of the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas. With engaging personal insights, our authors will take you on a whistle-stop journey from ancient times to the present – exploring all of life’s big subjects from archaeology to science. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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