Roman civilization grew at a hilly point on the Tiber River in the central part of the Italian peninsula. Founded by shepherds and traders, Rome began as a republican society with the government of the state shared by the citizens.
This state gradually expanded its control of the surrounding territory until it had conquered the entire peninsula of Italy. It then looked to other parts of the Mediterranean, always with the excuse that Rome was only protecting itself against potential invaders.
The essential characteristic of the Roman civilization was practicality: What would work in a given situation? While the Greeks had been thinkers and philosophers, the Romans were doers.
The Greeks built philosophies, and the Romans built roads. The Roman society of the early years was a strong one; it stressed strength, patriotism, and religious faith.
Character, or morals, also was stressed strongly. Women were more important and equal in the Roman society than they had been in Greece. During this time the education was received at home. The object of early Roman education was to produce children who would be true to the Roman ideals and religion.
Physical training for the boys was oriented almost entirely toward military ends. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans had no real interest in beauty, harmony, or the balanced development of the individual, though a strong sense of morals was considered important.
Much of the contact with literature came from the memorization of the Twelve Tables, Rome’s codification of the laws.
As the power and influence of the Romans grew and they gained control of more provinces in the eastern Mediterranean, they saw more need for the education that would enable them to administer their territories.
There also was a trend away from the military orientation of physical training as the old part-time army of citizens became more a full-time army of “mercenaries,” or noncitizens who were paid to serve in the army.
Education in the home had made early Rome strong, but as the Empire grew, schools were developed outside the home. Much of the instruction was done by Greek slaves, who had a broader education than the Romans.
They provided the grammar part of the traditional Greek education, but since the Romans saw no practical use for the gymnastics or music, these studies were not included in the program.
The educational program was unbalanced, for the Romans were interested primarily in education that had practical uses. Their contributions to civilization were notably in the practical areas of law and engineering.
The great wealth that came into the Roman Empire from the conquered nations and the many slaves who did much of the work previously done by the poorer Romans led to a breakdown of the societal morals of the roman people.
A Roman did not need to work to live, for the state provided free food. Political corruption grew with the luxury, and the old Roman ideals of patriotism and self-sacrifice died.
The Romans saw little reason for physical training. Rome became a nation of spectators. The people would go to the circus or the amphitheatre and watch chariot races or gladiatorial fights to the death.
As they demanded more variety in the death-struggles, they used fights between animals and men, between larger groups of men, and eventually even waged small sea battles by flooding the arena.
This emphasis on spectatorship and the growing professionalism in athletics destroyed much of the strength of Roman society, just as it had eventually destroyed the Olympic Games of the Greeks.
The moral and educational values of the Romans games disappeared. The Romans were more interested in the violent sports and only as spectators and they were little interested in personal competition or in personal excellence.
The Romans also were very interested in baths. Ruins of old Roman baths, many of which were built and operated by the government, can be found in areas of the Western world today. Some facilities were provided for exercise at the baths, but not on the scale of the Greek facilities.
Exercise was only a minor part of the experience at the Roman baths, for the emphasis was upon the sedentary pleasures of hot and cold baths and massage.
The wealth and sedentary decadence of the Romans eventually brought down the Empire. When the barbarians began to try to take it over, the Romans no longer had the internal strength to oppose a strong outside force.
Although the Romans had gained control over most of Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, the conquests began to reverse as the barbarians nibbled at the edges of the Empire.
By A.D. 400 the Romans were in full flight; they withdrew their outlying garrisons and came home to defend Rome, but to no avail. Riches and moral laxity had made Roman culture too weak for a successful defence.
Although the last true Roman emperor passed from the scene in A.D. 476, the Empire continued, controlled by the newcomers and split into two parts: the western empire, centred about Rome; and the eastern empire, centred at Constantinople.
Henceforth, there was little influence from the Roman Empire. Most of its former territories had fallen to various barbarian groups who had hoped to get a piece of the rich Roman life for themselves.