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Did the Roman Empire extend as far north as the Romans could grow wine?

Did the Roman Empire extend as far north as the Romans could grow wine?

I've heard (in an interview with German biologist Josef Reichholf) the argument that the Romans extended their empire as far north as they could grow their wine. A first glimpse at the map suggests that this could be true at least as a general rule. (The climate in Britain was warmer at the time.)

Would this then be a coincidence or could it be something that indeed had influence on the expansion strategies of the Roman empire? In particular, are there any relevant traces in contemporary (Roman) sources that point towards an answer?


This looks more than a coincidence than anything else. Romans did conquer lands which could not grow wine, e.g. the British Isles: the climate of Atlantic-facing areas of Europe is reputed to have been somewhat warmer than usual in Roman times, but this does not mean that winegrowing was actually possible, let alone done by Roman colonists. In fact, archaeological evidence points at massive imports of wine rather than local production. Conversely, Romans did not conquer some neighbouring lands where winegrowing could be done, e.g. what is now Ukraine.

According to Edward Luttwak, the pattern of Roman conquest is best explained through strategic and economic reasons, of which winegrowing is not a significant part. In his analysis, Rome first had an expansionist phase which was building an Empire (in fact, though not in name): to the core group of Roman provinciae was adjoined a vast number of client states, who were subservient to Rome and served as buffer against hostile foreigners, especially raiders from Germanic people. In the client state system, that state is responsible for its own policing, and Roman citizens are safe; the cohesion of the Empire can be maintained with a relatively small number of highly mobile legions.

This expansionist phase mostly ended after Augustus' reign. Afterwards begins a phase where external boundaries do not move much; there were some external campaigns but only in some places, and conquests in Parthia and Dacia proved too expensive to be maintained in the long term. During that phase, client states were gradually converted into provinciae, which allowed for direct taxation and thus a large increase in revenues for Rome; however, it also implied ensuring the safety of these new taxpayers, hence the limes: a linear, static defence system at the boundary. This process was mostly complete by the third century AD. The abandoning of the "mobile legion" system implied also a stop to expansionism.

Wine does not appear anywhere in this analysis of Roman strategy. It seems unlikely to serve as a primary motive for expansion. Instead, Rome conquered the neghbouring tracts of land that were already, at that time, harbouring large chiefdoms or states, and thus could be conquered and turned into client states with minimal post-conquest occupation cost. What is true, though, is that Romans were great consumers of wine and tried to grow grapes wherever they could; this can go a long way toward explaining the approximate overlap of Empire and winegrowing areas.


Some people said that wine is not grown in Britain but I have read of contemporary British wine growing. the climate of Britain was warmer during the Roman Era than in some later eras, and there is evidence of wine growing in Britain in the Roman era and in the medieval era.

Lord Bute grew grapes and made wine at his castle in Cardiff, Wales, about 1900.

Obviously it made economic sense to grown wine, if possible, for drinking and for Christian sacraental use in Britain to save the expense of importing it, and equally obviously the vast majority of wine wine in Britain in the last 2,000 years has been imported.

Since the Romans, and even the Post Roman Britons in Cornwall and Wales imported wine from as far away as the Eastern Mediterranean, The Romans wee obviously willing to conquer countries where they had to import wine.

This is a website which details all the current vineyards and wineries in Britain, including in Scotland


Maybe it is a classic case of mixing up causation and correlation.

First if all, correlation vs causation. It make sense that climate correlate (and limits) the geography of an empire. Romans had a certain diet and technology for agriculture, certain technology for building houses etc that was optimal to Mediterranean climate. They couldn't grow wheat and your vegetables in the north, because the soil is different, it also frozen in the winter, the climate is colder etc. Just like for grape, all the same arguments are true for basic food. You cannot build houses optimal for winter, because you use to build houses to protect yourself from hot summer. Many small nuances that makes a successful civilization far less capable when goes to far north. From that perspective, the wine-line is just the approximate border where the climate is "close enough" to the Italian one.

Second, mixing up cause and result. For example: Coca-cola and pizza was much more wide spread on the western side of Iron Curtain than on the eastern side. Does it mean American influence is limited by the pizza supply? Making wine is at least a cultural phenomena as making beer. You can argue that there is wine in these territories, because Romans introduced there and it became popular. Other drinks, esp beer was already known and popular in many areas. Maybe they just stayed popular, if no one were pushing it enough, and nobody experimented enough with some super cold-resistant grape. From technology point of view, it is much more easy to make beer or whisky in UK (even in France).


The only barrier to the Romans marching all the way to the top of England was imperial will. Agricola was recalled by the jealous Domitian when he was in the midst of conquering Caledonia, modern Scotland, after his victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 CE. But even though they put the Wall up the Romans did come back, notably under Septimus Severus, whose early death in 211 CE prevented the extermination of the Caledonian tribes, again because of imperial will, when his son Caracalla withdrew the Legions.

Wine growing didn't figure into these military decisions, though the Romans certainly did import it after conquest, both the product and the vines, which they introduced and tried to grow as far north as Lincolnshire.


No, the roman Empire extended into parts of Russia and Egypt. Russia was too cold (Russia was called the Balklands back then) and Egypt's weather was to hot. Instead of grapes they got raisins.


No, that sounds like a popular myth. The Roman empire went wherever it could for many reasons; prestige or simply to just to get valuable goods and riches (Egyptian grain was one of these, especially important since so much of the ancient Roman diet was bread).


The answer is no. The Romans did conquer many North European regions that either had centuries old tradition of wine growing, or had vineyards planted by the Romans; however, there was one major exception… Britannia.

The Roman Empire expanded into the North of England-(in close proximity to present-day Scotland). As far as I know, the Romans did not introduce wine growing techniques or plant vineyards on British soil.

The Romans, did, however, build various towns and cities across England, including a small riverside town called, "Londonium". The Roman Emperor Hadrian commissioned the construction of a massive wall which stretched miles across the Northern British frontier, as a way of distancing themselves from the Scots-(whom they viewed as, "barbarians").

Civil Engineering and imperial Urban planning were the main areas of focus for the Romans in Britannia, though the art and science of wine growing was non-existent within Roman Britannia.


Ancient Roman Food and Cooking

The Roman diet today, as in Ancient Roman times, depended on four staples: cereals or grains, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and wine.

If the Roman family was of the upper class and wealthy, their diet also included seafood, cheese, eggs, meat, and a variety of fruit.

Of course, the poorest people had a very restricted diet of porridge, very coarse breads, and whatever vegetables they could grow or find growing wild.

Grains and Cereals

Wheat and other grains like barley, oats, rye, and mullet were imported from outlying Roman territories in England, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

The grain was milled and bags of flour in varying degrees of fineness and quality were distributed to the upper class and sold to the public.

Poor people could only afford the cheapest and coarsest flours. They could use these flours to make gruel, or unleavened dark bread.

The lighter the flour, the more expensive it was, and it would be made into loaves of bread, cakes, and other pasta-based foods to grace the tables of the government members and the elite.

Fruit, Wine, and Vegetables

The most common fruits bought and traded in Ancient Rome were apples, figs, dates, and grapes. Other fruits were pears, plums, cherries, and peaches.

They would be eaten fresh or they could be dried. They perfected winemaking and could use any fruit to ferment with honey, but the most favourite was wine.

Ancient Rome shipped wine and olive oil across the Mediterranean Sea to distant countries and some was even transported to Asia.

Almost every vegetable was available to the Ancient Romans. Every estate, small home, and farm had a garden of some sort. A lot of the vegetables were cooked in bread or were pickled in wine or honey.

Meat and Fowl

Hunting was a national sport of the upper class, and the poor were well-known to resort to poaching. The rich could hire people to hunt for them or use slaves to do the hunting.

Homes of the elite had no problem getting wild game, such as rabbit, wild boar, goat, and deer for their dining pleasure.

A variety of wild birds, such as partridge, pheasant, ducks, quail, magpies were also trapped or shot with bow and arrow. Meat could be preserved by salting, drying, smoking, and pickling.

A great many people were fishermen and they took advantage of the fact that much of the Roman Empire was near an ocean or a sea.

Fish of every description were caught and sold in the open markets. In times of plenty, the Ancient Romans preserved the fish by drying, salting, smoking, or pickling.

One product of the fishing industry was fish sauce made from whole small fish. This fish sauce was a favourite seasoning and it was shipped from Rome to other outlying territories.

Because the Ancient Romans imported spices from far away countries, especially from Asia, they were able to concoct delectable sauces with herbs and spices.

Food was cooked on a brazier, and either roasted, broiled or boiled.

Wines and spices were added liberally in upper class homes. Bakeries had large ovens that the people could use if they brought their own dough.


The Extent of the Roman Empire

Time has seen the rise and fall of a number of great empires - the Babylonian, the Assyrian, the Egyptian, and lastly, the Persian. Regardless of the size or skill of their army or the capabilities of their leaders, all of these empires fell into ruin. History has demonstrated that one of the many reasons for this ultimate decline was the empire's vast size - they simply grew too large to manage, falling susceptible to external, as well as internal, forces. One of the greatest of these empires was, of course, the Roman Empire. Over the centuries it grew from a small Italian city to control land throughout Europe across the Balkans to the Middle East and into North Africa.

Population & Spread

It is, unfortunately, difficult to obtain precise figures on the number of people living at any one time in the Roman Empire. Any calculation of the population would be garnered from the census, but the Roman census may or may not have included women and children below a certain age. The census was used not only to ascertain the population but also to levy taxes and feed the populace, but since the census was based on property and citizenship, one must question who was included in the final tally. Also, slaves were probably not included but according to one estimate there were between 1,500,000 and 2,000,000 slaves in Italy in the 1st century BCE.

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In the beginning, before the Republic, the city of Rome had an estimated population of only a few thousand. By the 6th century BCE and the exile of the kings, the city had grown to between 20,000 and 30,000 inhabitants (again this may or may not have included women and children). As the city grew along with the empire, Rome became a magnet for artists, merchants, and people of all walks of life - especially those looking for work. At the beginning of the imperial period the city had close to 1,000,000 residents. The empire during this same time had grown from 4,063,000 inhabitants in 28 BCE to 4,937,000 inhabitants in 14 CE. The latter was a point of great pride for the emperor, or so Augustus wrote in his Res Gestae. Augustus is quoted to have said, “I found Rome built of sun-dried bricks I leave her clothed in marble.” This quote might also reflect the empire's growth in people as well as land.

From a small city on the western edge of Italy, Rome - or the empire - had grown to include territory from the North Sea to most of the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. To the north were Britannia, Germania, and Gaul. To the west and southward along North Africa, the empire included Hispania, Mauretania, and Numidia. Eastward and into the Middle East were Egypt, Judea, Syria, Parthia and Asia Minor. Closer to Italy and to the east were Macedon, Greece, Moesia, and Dacia. Add to this the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. Throughout the empire there were cities of 100,000 to 300,000 inhabitants - Alexandria, Carthage, Antioch, Pergamum, Ephesus, and Lyons. However, like all of those before it, the Roman Empire could not endure and finally fell in 476 CE to an invasion from the north. To understand the extent of this great empire one must return to the beginning in the early sixth century BCE.

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The Justification for expansion

In 510 BCE the monarchy that controlled Rome was overthrown, and the king Tarquin Superbus was expelled. From that time onward- for the next several centuries - Rome continued to grow and spread its sphere of influence throughout the Mediterranean region. Despite both inside and outside forces, the sea became what has been termed a Roman lake. This astonishing growth through the early Republic extended into the age of the empire, culminating in the period of the Pax Romana - its version of peace and stability.

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However, to achieve this immense expansion Rome became what one historian has called a warrior state. This constant state of war made Rome not only rich but also helped mold Roman society. Its conquest of the Balkans and Greece influenced Roman art, architecture, literature and philosophy, but the growth would not continue, and in the end the empire became less a force of conquest and more one of pacification and management. Throughout their wars of expansion the Romans never considered themselves the aggressor. According to one historian, in their mind, wars were fought only to subdue enemies that they believed to be a viable threat to “Roman integrity.” The Roman statesman and author Cicero believed the only reason for war was so Rome could live in peace.

The Republic Expands In Italy

The best place to start is at the beginning: the conquest of the peninsula of Italy. After the fall of the monarchy and the creation of the Republic, the city of Rome, for whatever reason, wanted to grow beyond its seven hills, and this growth meant, first of all, conquering all of Italy. This desire did not go unnoticed by the surrounding communities, and to forestall any possible war, they formed what became known as the Latin League. Their fears came to fruition when war broke out near the city of Tusculum at Lake Regillus. During a well-fought battle the Romans troops were supposedly rallied to victory - according the legend - by the appearance on horseback of Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers of Helen of Troy. According to the treaty negotiated by Spurius Cassius Vecellinus in 393 BCE, the victory resulted in the confiscation and plunder of the Latium lands. And, as an additional condition, the Latium people had to provide Rome with soldiers for any future conflicts. This latter condition would be an addendum to all future Roman treaties. The Latin alliance with Rome helped defeat many of their closer neighbors, neighbors who had often raided Roman lands - the Sabines, Aequi and Volsci. Over time Rome took to the offense again, defeating and destroying Veli.

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Despite an invasion of the Gauls from the north in 390 BCE and the near fall of the city, Rome was able to quickly rebuild - fortifying its walls - and continue it conquest of the peninsula. In the 4th century BCE the Samnites, a group of people to the southeast of Rome, captured Capua, a city located in the Campania, a province just to the south of Rome. Due to a treaty with Rome, the people of Capua appealed to the city for help. So, from 343 to 341 BCE, a series of short skirmishes occurred between Rome and the Samnites. As a result Rome gained control of Campania. However, the conflicts, known as the the Samnite Wars, would not end there.

During the second series of conflicts from 327 to 304 BCE the Samnite forces defeated the Romans at Caudine Forks in 321 BCE however, they were unable to get Rome to back down. Afterwards, the Samnites made alliances with the Gauls, Etruscans and Umbrians, but during the third Samnite War (298 to 290 BCE) Rome crushed the Samnites and their allies. Next, they made alliances with Apulia and Umbria. They crushed the Hernici and Aequi as well as the Marsi, Paeligini, Marrucini, Frentani and Vestini, former allies of the Samnites. Rome was now the major power of the peninsula and to secure this power they established colonies throughout Italy. The Romans now turned their eyes to the south.

The city of Tarentum, fearing Rome and realizing they were next, appealed to Pyrrhus, king of the western Balkan province of Epirus. Since the city had helped him in the past, the king answered their appeal and sent his army of 21,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 20 elephants to southern Italy. The king proved victorious over Rome twice - at Heraclea in 280 BCE and Asculum in 279 BCE. However, as during the early wars with the Samnites, the Romans would not admit defeat and soon recovered, and at Beneventium Rome was victorious. By 270 BCE all of Magna Graecea - the areas along the southern boot of Italy - was annexed by the Roman legions. However, this expansion eventually brought them in conflict with another great city across the sea, Carthage.

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The Punic Wars - Expanding South

With an increase in revenue from the conquest of the peninsula, Rome was able to turn its focus further southward and across the Mediterranean Sea to the ancient Phoenician city of Carthage, and from 264 BCE to 146 BCE the two powers would fight a series of three wars – the so-called Punic Wars. Punic was the Roman name for Carthage. The wars began innocently enough when Rome was pulled into the affair by the Sicilian city of Messina, a city, together with neighboring Syracuse, soon to become its ally. The Romans disliked the presence of Carthage on the island, and when Rome reacted to Messina's appeal, war began. Carthage, likewise, resented Roman ambitions in Sicily and with the hopes of driving the “invaders” off the island began a series of raids along the Italian coast.

Since Rome was more of a land power - while Carthage was far more a naval power - the city quickly realized its limitations and began to build a large fleet of ships to counter the Carthaginian advantage. Wisely though, the Romans added a corvus or boarding ramp to each of their ships. The device enabled the Romans to pull alongside their opponent's ships, board them, and convert a sea battle to a land battle. After trading victories - Rome at Mylae and Carthage at Despana - attempts to negotiate a treaty failed. Following further Roman victories, in 241 BCE Carthage sued for peace. Not only did the defeated city have to pay tribute, but Rome also gained the island of Sicily this was its first province outside the peninsula. Rome would later seize the islands of Sardinia and Corsica.

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The Second Punic War began as Carthage expanded its presence in Spain – something that would ultimately alarm the Roman Senate. An earlier treaty between Rome and Carthage had fixed a border between the two cities at the River Ebro, but an invasion of the city of Saguntum by Hannibal, son of the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, would change this. Earlier, at the age of nine, Hannibal had promised his father that he would seek revenge against the Romans for the Carthaginian loss in the first war. Because of their focus on the Illyrians and Philip V, Rome initially failed to come to the aid of the city. Hannibal used it as a power base for further incursions throughout Spain and his eventual crossing of the Alps and into Roman territory in 218 BCE. This latter move finally pushed the city into action and a war began. Hannibal had accumulated a number of allies as he had crossed the mountains and onto the peninsula - especially the Roman-hating Gauls.

Hannibal and his army caused panic throughout Italy, but despite the Carthaginian threat, Rome's allies remained loyal and did not join Hannibal. However, although Hannibal achieved victory after victory, the general did not, for reasons unknown, attack the city of Rome. At the Battle of Cannae the Romans would suffer one of their greatest defeats, but regardless of the loss, the legions would still not submit. Hannibal remained in Italy for over fifteen years. Under the leadership of Fabius Maximus, the Romans avoided further damaging conflicts by using a scorched earth policy —- raiding parties were used and crops were burned. Hannibal and his men grew desperate but heard little in the way of assistance from Carthage.

To best counter Hannibal the Romans decided it would not be wise to attack him head-on. Instead, the Senate sent Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio and his brother Publius to attack Carthaginian possessions in Spain. Fortunately, after both were killed in battle, Publius's son (also Publius Cornelius Scipio) reorganized the tattered army and introduced a shorter sword, the gladus, and a newer, better spear, the pilium. He gathered his forces together and attacked the enemy at Nova Carthago (New Carthage). Fearing that Rome might attack their city, the Carthaginian leaders recalled Hannibal from Italy in 204 BCE. Regrettably, Carthage suffered a resounding defeat at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE, although Hannibal was able to escape with his life and later to resume his vendetta against Rome in the Third Macedonian War when he allied with Antiochus III.

The wars would finally end between the two great cities in the Third Punic War when Rome attacked Carthage for a second time in 146 BCE. The end of the city came when the Roman senator Cato the Elder stood before the Senate and said “Carthago delenda est.” or “Carthage must die.” In response to this challenge the city was razed, the land salted, and the people enslaved. The lands that had once belonged to Carthage - Spain and Northern Africa - were now part of the Roman Republic. Soon afterwards, Rome would add the provinces of Lusitania (modern day Portugal) in 133 BCE and Southern Gaul in 121 BCE. Rome was in control of the entire western Mediterranean Sea.

Rome Looks to the East

Next, Rome turned its attention eastward towards the Balkans and Greece - a longing that would bring about the four Macedonian or Illyrian Wars. Rome had always admired the Hellenistic culture - the culture inspired by Alexander the Great. However, much of the Greek peninsula had been in turmoil since the death of Alexander and the Wars of Succession. And, when the king of Macedon, Philip V (the former ally of Hannibal) began to expand his influence in Greece, then Rome, by invitation, entered into the fray. Rome had, of course, objected to the interference of the king after their loss at Cannae. Although the Senate was reluctant to declare war, they recognized the seriousness of the Macedonian aggression. The Greeks, on the other hand, welcomed the Romans and their subsequent victory over Macedonian forces at the Battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BCE. Afterwards, Greece fell underneath an umbrella of protection by Rome. Rome finally withdrew completely in 194 BCE, resorting to diplomacy instead of brute force.

Later, in 191 BCE Anticholus of Syria marched his army into Greece. His victory was short-lived, and he was defeated by Roman commander Lucius Cornelius Scipio at the Battle of Magnesia in 189 BCE. This battle would not end the fighting, for the war would later resumebut this time under the leadership of Philip's son, Perseus. The Third Macedonian War would end with his defeat at the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE. Finally, the conflicts would at long last end with the defeat of Anticholus IV and peace was finalized in 146 BCE, the same year as the Roman victory at Zama. After crushing several revolts throughout the peninsula, Rome was now in control of both the Balkans and Greece, and to demonstrate this, the city of Corinth was razed. Less than a decade later, Rome annexed Cilicia in Asia Minor and Cyrene in northern Africa.

Expanding West & Controlling the Mediterranean

From 219 BCE onward Rome had achieved dominance over the Mediterranean Sea - controlling parts of North Africa, Spain, Italy, and the Balkans. All of this brought great wealth to the Republic, and what remained soon came under their control. Pompey the Great would “redraw the map” in the eastern Mediterranean from the Black Sea to Syria and into Judea. Mithradates of Pontus posed a threat to the power of Rome in Asia Minor, attacking Roman provinces on the west coast of what is present-day Turkey - his death would bring both power to his son and peace with Rome. From 66 to 63 BCE Pompey marched from the Caucasus Mountains to the Red Sea. Many of the smaller kingdoms along the way became Roman client states or allies and all were obligated to supply reinforcements to the Roman army. Among these client states were Pontus, Cappadocia, Bithynia, Judea, Palestine, and, by 65 BCE, Armenia. In Africa Mauretania, Algeria and Morocco also became client states.

While Pompey was occupied in the east, Julius Caesar fought the Gallic Wars, annexing all of Gaul, reportedly killing a million and enslaving another million to accomplish it. Despite the failed attempt to invade Britain, the northern borders of the Republic now extended to the banks of the Rhine and Danube. After his conquests to the north, the future “dictator for life” crossed the Rubicon and into Rome. After his assassination, his adopted son and successor, Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium and- as a result Egypt became a Roman province. Augustus would become the new emperor and the Empire was borne and with it an era known as the Pax Romana or Roman peace emerged.

Maintaining The Empire

Despite the emperor's desire to expand the empire's borders further, its growth would come to an end in 9 CE in Germany when the commander Publius Quintilius Varus lost three Roman legions - ten percent of Rome's armed forces - at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Military victories were no longer about expansion and conquest but more defensive against internal and external forces such as riots, rebellions, and uprisings. Afterwards, there was limited expansion: Emperor Caligula (37 – 41 CE) tried to conquer Britain but failed while his uncle and successor Emperor Claudius (41 – 54 CE) actually accomplished it in 44CE. Emperor Trajan (98 – 117 CE) annexed Dacia in 101 BCE and Mesopotamia a decade later. This would be the furthest east the empire had ever been or would ever be. Emperor Hadrian (117 – 138 CE) understood the need for “borders” and would relinquish the lands conquered by Trajan. He even built a wall in northern England as a boundary between Britain and Scotland. To him and future emperors the empire needed borders - the empire now became one of pacification and Romanization, not conquest.

Splitting the Empire

The sheer size of the empire eventually became problematic - it was too large to manage and became more susceptible to barbaric invasions. In 284 CE a new emperor came to power. His name was Diocletian, and he understood the problems facing the empire. It had been under the watch for decades by poor leadership, so in order to restore unity, he divided the empire into a tetrarchy or rule of four. There was an emperor in the west - with Rome as its capital - and another emperor in the east - with his capital at Nicomedia (later Constantinople). After the fall of Rome in 476 CE this eastern half would remain and become, in time, the Byzantine Empire.


The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire included most of what would now be considered Western Europe. The empire was conquered by the Roman Army and a Roman way of life was established in these conquered countries. The main countries conquered were England/Wales (then known as Britannia), Spain (Hispania), France (Gaul or Gallia), Greece (Achaea), the Middle East (Judea) and the North African coastal region.

In Rome’s early years, the state lived in fear of its more powerful neighbour, Carthage. The Carthaginians were great traders in the Mediterranean Sea and as the Romans wanted to expand into this trading zone, a clash was inevitable. In 264 BC, the Romans and the Carthaginians had their first war. In a series of three wars, known as the Punic Wars, the Romans eventually defeated the Carthaginians. However, this took over 100 years to accomplish and the wars eventually ended in 146 BC. In the second Punic War, the Romans lost several important battles – the most famous being against the Carthaginian general Hannibal. However, by 146 BC, the Romans were strong enough to capture the city of Carthage in Northern Africa. Carthage was burned to the ground and all signs of the city were destroyed by the Romans as a sign that the power of the Carthaginians had disappeared forever.

With Carthage defeated, the Romans became the most powerful Mediterranean state. The victory over the Carthaginians gave the Romans all the opportunity they needed to expand their power in the Mediterranean. The more wealthy and powerful the Romans became, the more able they were to further expand their empire.

The Romans were not content with conquering land near to them. They realised that land further away might also have riches in them that would make Rome even more wealthy. Hence their drive to conquer Western Europe. At the height of its power, around AD 150, Rome controlled the greatest empire ever seen in Europe at that time. Many of the conquered nations benefited from Roman rule as the Roman way of life was imposed on those conquered societies. Roman public baths, roads, water supplies, housing etc. all appeared in Western Europe – though many fell into disuse after the Romans retreated back to Rome.

Ironically, the sheer size of the empire, which many marvelled at, was also a major reason for the collapse in the power of the Romans. The Romans had great difficulty in maintaining power in all of their empire and supplying their army was a major problem as their lines of communications were stretched to the limit. The power of the empire rested with the success of the Roman Army. When this success started to weaken, the empire could only start to collapse.


The Tiber as a Sewer

The Tiber was connected with the Cloaca Maxima, the sewer system of Rome, which was said to have been first built by the king Tarquinius Priscus (‎616–579 BCE) in the 6th century BCE. Tarquinius had the existing stream expanded and lined with stone in an attempt to control storm water—rain flowed downhill to the Tiber through the Cloaca, and it regularly flooded. In the third century BCE, the open channel was lined with stone and covered with a vaulted stone roof.

The Cloaca remained a water control system until the reign of Augustus Caesar (ruled 27 BCE–14 CE). Augustus had major repairs made to the system, and connected public baths and latrines, turning the Cloaca into a sewage management system.

"Cloare" means "to wash or purify" and it was a surname of the goddess Venus. Cloalia was a Roman virgin in the the early 6th century BCE who was given to the Etruscan king Lars Porsena and escaped his camp by swimming across the Tiber to Rome. The Romans (at the time under the rule of the Etruscans) sent her back to Porsena, but he was so impressed by her deed that he freed her and allowed her to take other of the hostages with her.

Today, the Cloaca is still visible and manages a small amount of Rome's water. Much of the original stonework has been replaced by concrete.


Mare Nostrum – ‘Our Sea’

The population of the city of Rome surpassed 1 million at its height and the network of roads and shipping routes were centred around the capital and its wealth. The Empire engulfed the entire Mediterranean, which the Romans used to their advantage.

Lighthouses and numerous docks helped the safe passage of ships, while the Roman Navy protected shipping routes from piracy.

The ships themselves were largely built by Greeks and Egyptians, who were more sea-faring peoples than the Romans.

From North Africa, the grain that fed the city and beyond arrived through the port of Ostia, mainly from Egyptian ports, which also brought silk from China and goods like spices and incense from the Indian subcontinent.

In the later states of the Empire, the capture of Ostia was key to Alaric’s victory over Rome in 409 AD. By controlling Ostia an enemy could effectively starve the city.

A gold Roman coin featuring the image of Emperor Trajan, found in a Buddhist monastery in Afghanistan, indicating the range of Roman trade. From the British Museum.


The Adoption of Poseidon as Neptune

Roman mythology was almost entirely borrowed from that of Greece. This seems particularly true in the case of Neptune.

In their own founding myths, the Romans described themselves as being descended from non-Italians who moved into the area. They most often attributed this ancestry to the Greeks, giving a justification for their adoption of Greek mythology and customs.

In truth, however, Rome was originally inhabited by the Latin people. Other Italian tribes were assimilated into their territory, so the first Roman gods were derived from these local cultures.

Historians have suggested, however, that these early Italian gods were incorporeal and impersonal. They had no human forms, no personalities, and little to no mythology.

When the early Romans encountered traders and colonists from Greece, they were introduced to a pantheon of gods that was much more engaging and relatable than their own. They adopted the rich mythology of the Greeks.

This practice may seem unusual to modern readers, but it was actually not unusual in the ancient world. The Greeks typically associated foreign gods with their own, a practice continued later by the Romans.

Most Roman gods, however, still had Italian origins even if their myths became almost entirely Greek. While they took on the personalities and myths of the Greek counterparts, they often retained elements of Latin worship that were slightly different.

In the case of Neptune, his mythology, personality, and relationships were virtually indistinguishable from those of the Greek Poseidon. His domain, however, was somewhat different.

In Greek mythology, Poseidon had very specifically been the god of the sea. A variety of river gods and nymphs had controlled other waters who were usually descended from Oceanus, the primordial god of the river that encircled the world.

The Romans, however, believed that Neptune was the god of all water. While he was still associated with the Mediterranean Sea, he was also the god of fresh water.

Historians generally believe that this is because the early Romans did not have a sea god to directly compare Poseidon to.

While many Indo-European religions share distinct archetypes, their sea gods are much more varied. Some historians believe that this is because the earliest Proto-Indo-Europeans did not live near the coast.

Instead, the cultures that descended from them created sea gods as the sea became more important in their lives. In Italy, this happened very late.

The precursor to Neptune had little connection to the sea. The Latins and their neighbors descended from people who had not lived near the coast and, as of the time of the adoption of Greece’s legends, were not heavily involved in seafaring.

Instead, the earliest form of Neptune was the god of the rivers and pools that the local people relied on. When Greek legends were incorporated into Roman belief he became the god of the sea, but he retained his connection to inland water as well.

The God of the Wet Sky

A theory has emerged in the last thirty years that may shed light on Neptune’s role as a fresh water god.

The etymology of Neptune’s name has never been entirely certain, with a traditional interpretation being that it originated from a possible Proto-Indo-European word for moisture.

But some scholars have begun to assert that, rather than referring to moisture on Earth, this name may refer to water from the heavens.

In this interpretation, the water god would be a counterpart to the sky god. While the sky deity, who in Rome was Jupiter, represented the clear and sunny sky, the water god represented the cloudy sky and rain.

Over time, the cloud god was more closely connected to liquid water, which originated in his domain. A connection was maintained, however, in the belief that he caused storms.

This would explain, at least in part, why Neptune and Jupiter were so similar in both temperament and the way they were represented.

Historians have further asserted that the cloud god that Neptune was descended from was also a god of fertility.

While the clear sky was revered, clouds and rain were important for agriculture. By raining down on the Earth, the cloudy sky god made plants grow and sent the water humans and animals both needed to survive.

This would make Neptune, in his original form, closer to the Greek deity Uranus than Poseidon. Uranus also fertilized Gaia, the Mother Earth, with rain.

It is possible that this early Indo-European belief had already evolved to include all water by the time the Latins adopted Greek mythology. Neptune was no longer associated with the sky as the source of water, but with water itself.

Further evidence of this can be seen in Neptune’s wife, Salacia.

In Greek mythology, Poseidon had been married to a nymph named Amphitrite. She was the mother of all sea creatures but played little role in her husband’s overall mythology.

In Rome she was called Salacia. Her story was the same as Amphitrite’s had been, but her name had a very different meaning.

Salacia’s name comes from the Latin word salio. This is the same word that forms the basis of the English salacious.

Amphitrite had been a mother goddess, but Salacia’s very name connected her to fertility and sexuality. Historians have used this to further the theory that Neptune originated as a god of fertility himself.

Salacia was paired with Venilia. Neptune’s wife represented the calm and bountiful sea, while her sister represented the wilder wind and waves.

Venilia’s name shares its root with that of Venus, the goddess of beauty and desire. Neptune’s paradrae, or accompanying gods, as a pair represented aspects of attraction and fertility within his domain.

Neptune and Medusa

The Romans often added to the original myths of Greece.

These additional myths often created links between Greece and Rome to explain how the gods and their culture had come to Italy. Gods like Venus and Mars were linked to Rome and its surrounding territories through these founding myths.

Neptune, however, was not seen as instrumental in the founding myths of Rome. While he calms the seas so Aeneas can safely reach Italy, he is not a forefather of any of the major founding fathers of Italian mythology.

Instead, the most well-known addition to Neptune’s mythology comes to us from Ovid. Writing in the early 1st century AD, the Roman poet’s Metamorphoses collected over two hundred myths centered on themes of change, love, and the wrath of the gods.

Some of these stories were entirely unique. The story of Minerva and Arachne, for example, was an original tale that alluded to the poet’s own feud with Caesar Augustus rather than an older Greek legend.

In many cases, however, Ovid expanded on existing myths. His changes to the stories added drama and, in some cases, clarified confusing or contradictory elements of the older legends.

The story of Medusa, to some, had an obvious flaw. While a few Greek texts had hinted at the idea that she was once beautiful, there was no clear story to explain why a god had fathered two children with one of mythology’s most hideous monsters.

To rationalize this apparent contradiction in the mythology, Ovid included Medusa among his stories of metamorphosis brought on by the gods.

When he recounted the story of Perseus beheading the infamous Gorgon, Ovid included details of her origin story:

While deep sleep held fast Medusa and her snakes, he [Perseus] severed her head clean from her neck and from their mother’s blood swift-flying Pegasos and his brother [Khrysaor] sprang . . . She [Medousa], it’s said, was violated in Minerva’s [Athena’s] shrine by the Lord of the Sea (Rector Pelagi).

-Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 786 ff (trans. Melville)

According to Ovid, Medusa was not only the only Gorgon to be born mortal, but was also the only one to be born with a beautiful form. Medusa had been a lovely young woman in her youth.

In keeping with a standard trope of Greek and Roman mythology, however, the young woman’s beauty was soon noticed by a god. In this case, it was Neptune who took an interest in her.

The god assaulted Medusa in a temple of Minerva.

This was not only a desecration of Minerva’s sacred space. As a virgin goddess, it was also an affront to her own vows and values.

Ovid’s Minerva was an oftentimes vengeful and hot-headed goddess. As was often the case in mythology, she punished the victim of the assault rather than the god who had committed the offense.


The Roman Economy and the Fall of Rome

The explanations for the fall of Rome are innumerable. Part of the reason for the fall of Rome appears to be weaknesses in the Roman economy . One weakness may have been that the Roman Empire simply stopped expanding. The Roman Empire had to continually grow to increase access to grain and natural resources to support its economy. Once the Roman Empire stopped growing, it was probably inevitable that Rome would run out of resources.

Another reason appears to be that the Roman Empire was heavily dependent on long distance trade and supply chains. The majority of the grain produced to feed the population of the Roman Empire was grown either in modern-day Tunisia or Carthage, or in Egypt. Once the western Roman Empire lost control of Carthage to the Vandals in the early 5th century, the city of Rome was not able to feed its population. At one point the city was mostly abandoned due to the lack of food. The same could probably be said of other resources as well.

Once Rome began to lose control of critical provinces, the empire was not able to feed its population or even pay its armies. It could be said that outsourcing, particularly of grain production, made the Roman Empire vulnerable if the supply chains on which it depended ever became disrupted. The disruption of supply chains was not the only factor leading to the fall of Rome, but it definitely contributed to the collapse of an empire already dying due to civil wars, constant invasions, and declining birth rates, among other problems.

Likewise, one of the reasons that the eastern Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, was able to remain intact for almost a thousand years longer was because it was able to keep its economy together. The eastern Roman Empire still had control of Egypt, the other breadbasket of the Roman Empire, so it was able to continue to feed its population. By the time Egypt was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century, enough local agriculture had developed in Greece and Asia Minor that the Byzantine Empire was able to continue to sustain itself despite the loss of Egypt and most of its eastern lands.

Furthermore, the vast wealth of Rome was not evenly distributed. Most of the luxuries of Roman life were available only to the very wealthy. Most people lived in much poorer conditions. The average Roman apartment lacked plumbing and was overcrowded. Also, the widespread trade networks of Rome did not necessarily benefit the poor who were more vulnerable to the diseases which were also carried by trade.

The fall of the Roman Empire is used as a cautionary tale in many ways, particularly when it comes to the importance of maintaining a strong and balanced economy for the survival of a civilization. How similar is modern civilization’s economic situation to that of Ancient Rome? This may be an important question to consider.

Top image: The Roman economy represents an ancient economy that was large and powerful enough to create an empire that spanned the Mediterranean and lasted several centuries. Source: Manuel Gross / Adobe Stock


Wine in Roman Culture

Early Roman culture was sharply influenced by the ancient Greeks. Though early Rome was very “dry” by Greek standards, this view changed over the course of the empire. [45] Wine had religious, medicinal and social roles that set it apart from other Roman cuisine. Wine, like in Greek culture was mixed with water, and both cultures held banquets, where wine was used to show off wealth and prestige. [46] As Rome entered its golden age of winemaking and the era of expansion, a “democratic” approach to wine started to emerge. Wine was increasingly viewed as a necessity of everyday life rather than simply a luxury enjoyed by the elite. Cato believed that even slaves should have a weekly ration of 5 liters (over a gallon), nonetheless citing the dietary health of the slaves and the maintenance of their strength rather than personal enjoyment. Should a slave become sick and unavailable to work, Cato advised halving his rations to conserve wine for the workforce. [1] The widespread planting of grapes ensued from the need to serve all classes of society, but was also given impetus by the changing Roman diet. In the 2nd century BC, Romans began to shift from meals consisting of moist porridge and gruel to those more bread-based wine aided in eating the drier food. [43]

Religion and Festivals

Marble table support adorned by Dionysos, Pan and a Satyr Dionysos holds a rhyton (drinking vessel) in the shape of a panther, 170-180 AD. / Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, Wikimedia Commons

Wine played a major role in ancient Roman religion and Roman funerary practices, and was the preferred libation for most deities. The invention of wine was usually credited to Liber and his Greek equivalents, Bacchus (later Romanised) and Dionysus, who promoted the fertility of human and animal semen, and the “soft seed” of the vine. Ordinary, everyday, mixed wines were under the protection of Venus, but were considered profane (vinum spurcum), forbidden for use in official sacrifice to deities of the Roman State. A sample of pure, undilute strong wine from the first pressing was offered to Liber/Bacchus, in gratitude for his assistance in its production. The remainder, known as temetum, was customarily reserved for Roman men and Roman gods, particularly Jupiter, king of the gods. It was, however, also an essential element of the secretive, nocturnal and exclusively female Bona Dea festival, during which it was freely consumed but could only be referred to euphemistically, as “milk” or “honey”. [47][48]

The major public festivals concerning wine production were the two Vinalia. At the Vinalia prima (“first Vinalia”) of 23 April, ordinary men and women sampled the previous year’s vintage of ordinary wine in Venus’ name, while the Roman elite offered a generous libation of wine to Jupiter, in the hope of good weather for the next year’s growth. [49] The Vinalia Rustica of 19 August, originally a rustic Latin harvest festival, celebrated the grape harvest, and the growth and fertility of all garden crops its patron deity may have been Venus, or Jupiter, or both. [50]

Bacchic Cult

The Bacchanalia were private Roman mystery cults of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, freedom, intoxication and ecstasy. They were based on the Greek Dionysia and the Dionysian mysteries, and probably arrived in Rome c. 200 BC from Greek colonies in southern Italy, and Etruria, Rome’s northern neighbour. They were originally occasional, women-only affairs, but became increasingly popular and frequent, and were opened up to priests and initiates of both genders and all classes they may have briefly supplanted an existing, public cult to Liber. [51] Cult initiates employed music, dance and copious amounts of wine to achieve ecstatic religious possession. The Roman Senate perceived the cult as a threat to its own authority and Roman morality, and suppressed it with extreme ferocity in 186. Of some seven thousand initiates and their leaders, most were put to death. Thereafter the Bacchanalia continued in much diminished form, under the supervision of Rome’s religious authorities, and were probably absorbed into Liber’s cult. [52][53] Despite the ban, illicit Bacchanals persisted covertly for many years, particularly in Southern Italy, their likely place of origin. [54]

Wine’s use in the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist shares similarities with the pagan rites dedicated to Bacchus. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

As Rome assimilated more cultures, it encountered peoples from two religions that viewed wine in generally positive terms—Judaism and Christianity. Grapes and wine make frequent literal and allegorical appearances in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. In the Torah, grapevines were among the first crops planted after the Great Flood, and in exploring Canaan following the Exodus from Egypt, one of the positive reports about the land was that grapevines were abundant. The Jews under Roman rule accepted wine as part of their daily life, but regarded negatively the excesses that they associated with Roman impurities. [55]

Many of the Jewish views on wine were adopted by the new Christian sect that emerged in the 1st century AD. One of the first miracles performed by the sect’s founder, Jesus, was to have turned water into wine. In addition, the sacrament of the Eucharist prominently involved wine. The Romans drew some parallels between Bacchus and Christ. Both figures possessed narratives strongly featuring the symbolism of life after death: Bacchus in the yearly harvest and dormancy of the grape and Christ in the death and resurrection story. Eucharist’s act of drinking wine as a stand-in for consuming Christ, either metaphysically or metaphorically, echoes the rites performed in festivals dedicated to Bacchus. [55]

The influence and importance of wine in Christianity was undeniable, and soon the Church itself would take the mantle from ancient Rome as the dominant influence in the world of wine for the centuries leading to the Renaissance. [55]

Medical Uses

Romans believed that wine had the power to both heal and harm. Wine was a recommended cure for mental disorders such as depression, memory loss and grief, as well as bodily ailments, from bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gout, and halitosis to snakebites, tapeworms, urinary problems and vertigo.

Cato wrote extensively on the medical uses of wine, including a recipe for a laxative: wine made from grapevines treated with a mixture of ashes, manure and hellebore. He recommended that the flowers of certain plants, e.g. juniper and myrtle, be soaked in wine to help with snakebites and gout. He also believed that a mixture of old wine and juniper, boiled in a lead pot, could aid in urinary issues and that mixing wine with very acidic pomegranates could cure tapeworms. [55]

The 2nd-century CE Greco-Roman physician Galen provided several details concerning wine’s medicinal use in later Roman times. In Pergamon, Galen was responsible for the diet and care of the gladiators, and used wine liberally in his practice, boasting that not a single gladiator died in his care. Wine served as an antiseptic for wounds and an analgesic for surgery. When he became Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s physician, he developed pharmaceutical concoctions made from wine known as theriacs. Superstitious beliefs concerning theriacs’ “miraculous” ability to protect against poisons and cure everything from the plague to mouth sores lasted until the 18th century. In his work De Antidotis, Galen noted the trend in Romans’ tastes from thick, sweet wines to lighter, dry wines that were easier to digest. [31]

The Romans were also aware of the negative health effects of drinking wine, particularly the tendency towards “madness” if consumed immoderately. Lucretius warned that wine could provoke a fury in one’s soul and lead to quarrels. Seneca the Elder believed that drinking wine magnified the physical and psychological defects of the drinker. Drinking wine in excess was frowned upon and those who imbibed heavily were considered dangerous to society. The Roman politician Cicero frequently labeled his rivals drunkards and a danger to Rome—most notably Mark Antony, who apparently once drank to such excess that he vomited in the Senate. [55]

The ambivalent attitude of the Romans is summarized in an epitaph:

balnea vina Venus
corrumpunt corpora
nostra se<d> vitam faciunt
balnea vina Venus

“Baths, wine, and sex corrupt our bodies, but baths, wine, and sex make life worth living.”

Epitaph of Tiberius Claudius Secundus [56]

Rome’s legacy

36) The barbarian kingdoms of Europe in 526

This map looks dramatically different from the map of the Western Roman Empire as it existed a few decades earlier. But it’s important not to overstate the extent of the change. Western Europe was populated by largely the same ethnic groups in 526 as they had been a century earlier. Long before it finally collapsed, manpower shortages had forced the empire to incorporate barbarian peoples into the legions. So the barbarian tribes who carved up the old empire — the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, the Vandals, and so forth — were much more Romanized than the tribes that had menaced Rome centuries earlier. The rulers of these new kingdoms generally sought to co-opt Roman elites that still held significant wealth and power across the former Western Empire. So while Romans certainly found it jarring to be suddenly ruled by outsiders, Western Europe in 526 was not so different from how it had been in 426.

37) The East becomes the Byzantine Empire

Historians generally refer to the Eastern Roman Empire after 476 as the Byzantine Empire. But this is an arbitrary distinction invented for the convenience of historians it wouldn’t have made sense to people living in Constantinople, the Eastern Capital, at the time. People in the Byzantine Empire continued to think of themselves as Romans, and their empire as the Roman Empire, for centuries after 476. In 527, the Emperor Justinian took power in the Byzantine Empire and began a campaign to reconquer the Western half of the empire. By his death in 565, he had made significant progress, retaking Italy, most of Roman Africa, and even some parts of Spain. While his successors wouldn’t be able to hold these new territories, the Byzantine Empire would endure as a Christian empire for another thousand years, until it was finally overrun by the Ottomans in 1453.

38) The Holy Roman Empire

In 800 AD, Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, persuaded Pope Leo III to name him emperor, a title that hadn’t been held in the West in three centuries. Charlemagne’s successors built what came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire. Between 962 and 1806, it would control most of modern-day Germany and portions of modern-day France, Italy, and Central Europe. In practice, the Holy Roman Empire didn’t have very much to do with the original Roman Empire. The empire was ruled by Germans rather than Italians, lacked traditional Roman institutions such as the Senate, and was more decentralized than the Roman Empire had been at its height. Still, the enthusiasm with which some of Europe’s most powerful men claimed the mantle of the old Roman emperors is a sign of just how deep an impression Rome’s accomplishments had left on later generations.

39) The Papal States

After Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, religion and state were closely aligned — just as they had been under earlier pagan emperors. But that began to change after the Western Empire collapsed. Most of the barbarian kings who became the new masters of Western Europe were themselves Christians, and they recognized the authority of the church in Rome over religious matters. This set a precedent for the modern separation of church and state, and it allowed the church to thrive even as the Western Roman Empire crumbled. Indeed, popes began stepping into the power vacuum Rome had created. This map shows the papal states, sovereign territory that was governed by the popes from the 700s until secular Italian authorities annexed most of it in the 1800s. Today, the Catholic Church still operates in Latin from Vatican City, a tiny sovereign state inside the modern city of Rome.

40) Rome’s linguistic legacy

One of the most obvious ways Rome shaped the modern world is the languages people speak today. This map shows where people speak Romance languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian that are descended from Latin. Notice that the line between the French-speaking and German-speaking parts of Europe looks a lot like the line between those portions of Europe that were conquered by the Romans and those that remained beyond the Roman frontier. The other notable thing about the map is that most people in what used to be the Eastern half of the Roman Empire do not speak Romance languages. That’s because when Rome conquered the East, there was already a sophisticated civilization there based on the Greek language. While Latin became the language of government, commoners continued speaking Greek. And as the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Greek became the dominant tongue of the remaining Eastern provinces.

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Credits

Original developer Yuri Victor

Correction: The article originally stated that Constantinople fell in 1452. It actually fell in 1453. It originally stated that Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, but he only began the process of Christianization. And it originally stated that triremes have three rowers per oar, but in fact they have three banks of oars, with one rower per oar. I also tweaked my description of quinqueremes.

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