This video takes students on a virtual tour of the Roman Empire at its height during the 1st century A.D. Students learn that Romans were familiar with only three of the seven continents, and that they called the world a “circle of earth” that wrapped around the Mediterranean Sea. Students explore the impact of a geographical feature such as the Mediterranean Sea on Roman trade and war, and by extension, on the development of European history up to modern times.
A Roman’s-Eye View: The Circle of Earth
One challenge of studying history is the reality that ancient people often looked at the world very differently from the way people do today. In just five hundred years of scientific advancement, perspectives have changed regarding the shape of the earth, its position in the solar system, and the principles of physics which govern it. To better understand the Romans, then, we must attempt to forget these things and consider their perspective on the world.
The primary difference between the Romans’ view of the world and our own has to do with its shape. Thanks to Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation, we know today that the earth is round, but many ancient people, including the Romans, believed it was shaped like a flat disk. The Romans called this disk the orbis terrarum, or “circle of earth.” What’s more, because the Romans never sailed across the Atlantic to discover the Americas, they knew of only three of the seven continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. These three continents encircled a great sea, which they called the Mediterranean Sea—that is, the sea “in the middle of the world.”
These aspects of the geography of the Roman world had a large influence on the shaping of its empire. For example, Rome generally broadened it’s borders relative to the Mediterranean Sea. That is, they spread their empire around its perimeter. The reason for this was its usefulness for quickly transporting soldiers and supplies by their navy.
The Romans also traded extensively on the Mediterranean Sea. This body of water connected them to many other Mediterranean cultures, such as the Greeks, and also to traders from such remote regions as India and China. Not only did this make Rome a very wealthy nation, but it also mixed the cultures of all involved. Roman customs spread to the outer reaches of the empire, while the customs of the conquered people also seeped into Rome. The huge amount of land these conquered peoples inhabited made it a challenge for the Romans to maintain order and their rule. So they established military posts in remote regions, where they built forts and stationed soldiers. When Rome fell in the late fifth century, these military posts became disconnected from each other, and their languages evolved to the point of mutual unintelligibility. Towns grew up around the forts, and these towns eventually collected into modern countries such as France and Spain.
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