Roman doesn't mean one thing

SigniferTraditionally, ancient Rome was founded in 753 BC. It grew into one of the largest empires in the ancient world with roughly 20% of the world’s population and an area of 6.5 million square kilometres at its height.

Plagued by internal instability and attacked by various migrating peoples, the western part of the empire broke up in the 5th century, giving way to the pre-mediaeval “Dark Ages” of Europe. The last western emperor Romulus Augustulus abdicated in AD 476.

Using basic maths, the western Roman state existed for 1229 years; although development has moved at rocket speed in recent years, a simple comparison would be from AD 680 to AD 1909 – what a lot of history that covers!

So over more than a millennium, what does “Roman” mean?

Romulus and Remus on carved altar at Ostia

Romulus and Remus on carved altar at Ostia



Do we mean Romulus, founder and first king of Rome 753-717 BC?
From an altar found at Ostia Antica – The discovery of Romulus and Remus


Pre-Roman pottery heads of gods



Or these pottery heads dating from the 6th century BC tribal societies found on the Capitoline Hill in Rome?





Perhaps Cornelia Africana, the daughter of Scipio Africanus, mother of the political reforming brothers, the Gracchi. She died at age 90 in 100 BC, and was remembered by the Romans as an exemplar of virtue. (Painting by Angelica Kaufmann)




Or this soldier from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, known as the “Census frieze”, circa 122 BC?





Maybe Augustus 63 BC – AD 14, the first Roman emperor, founder of the Julio-Claudians and the great reformer?

Livia in the Rome Nat Museum



Or his influential and clever wife, Livia?



Constantine I, Capitoline



Or perhaps Constantine I, called ‘the Great’
AD 272 – 337, the first emperor to convert to Christianity?






And there’s Stilichio, the half Vandal general who was magister utriusque militiae (commander-in-chief) of West Roman forces AD 395–408.





Perhaps Galla Placidia (AD 392 –  450), daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, Regent for Emperor Valentinian III from 423 until his majority in 437, and a major force in Roman politics for most of her life. She was consort to Ataulf, King of the Goths from 414 until his death in 415, and Empress consort to Constantius III from 417 until his death in 422.




And near the end, Emperor Majorian AD 457-461 who was one of the last emperors to make a concerted effort to restore the Western Roman Empire. Possessing little more than Italy, Dalmatia, and some territory in northern Gaul, Majorian campaigned rigorously for three years against the Empire’s enemies.

What does the word “Roman” conjure up for you?


UPDATE 2024: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

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