|What makes empires rise and fall?|
Ancient Rome lasted for more than 1,000 years. Up to that time, no empire (except perhaps ancient China) had ever occupied as much land or ruled as many people as the Roman Empire did 2,000 years ago. The story of the Roman Empire still captivates students of history. Many ask, “How did the city of Rome rise to become an empire with influence on three continents, then decline but still remain one of the world’s great cities? The political history of Rome is relevant to leading nation-states today because they too worry about the dangers of over-expansion.
What Primary Sources Can Tell Us about the Rise and Fall of Rome
Ancient Rome conquered ancient Greece and then absorbed parts of its culture. In turn, ancient Rome influenced later Western civilizations. Many words in the English language and current architectural styles and political ideas have their origins in the Roman Empire.
The Trajan Column
Trajan's Pillar, Rome, Italy
Trajan—one of ancient Rome’s five “good emperors”-- ruled between a.d. 80 and 180. He is credited with expanding the Roman Empire to its largest size and building many public structures. He first conquered the Dacians in southeastern Europe. By a.d. 106 their area had become the Roman province of Dacia (present-day central Romania). The Romans commemorated this victory by building the famous Trajan Column in the Forum of Trajan in Rome. The monument, erected circa a.d. 106-113, is a 120-foot tall marble column. A spiral staircase winds through the inside and a spiral frieze is carved on the exterior. The frieze contains more than 2,000 figures. Because of the artists’ attention to detail and accuracy, we know how costumes, forts, ships, weapons, rivers, walls, towns, and other scenery of that time looked. After Trajan’s death, the Roman Senate voted to have Trajan’s ashes buried in the base of the Column. Though the Column still stands in Rome, the ashes are no longer there. Later, a statue of Saint Peter was placed on top of the Column.
Trajan, Emperor of Rome
A Mini-Lesson in Art History: What is a Spiral Relief Frieze?
The Trajan Column is an example of a spiral relief frieze. A relief is a work of art with figures or shapes raised above the surface, as on a sculpture. Relief is used in paintings, too, but there the artist uses light, shading, and perspective to give the illusion of relief. Tell students that the coins in their pockets have relief on them. However, these coins have very low relief (called bas-relief) so that they can be stacked on top of one another. A frieze is a sculptured or richly ornamented band. The Trajan Column is circular. Therefore, its frieze is a spiral.
Telling the Story of the Roman Empire with a Classroom “Relief Frieze”
1. Have students turn to page 515 in their textbook. Review what the class knows about the emperor Trajan. (You may wish to use the information above to help you.) Tell the class that after Trajan made his first major conquest, a big monument was constructed in his honor. Print out and share with students some details from the Trajan Column. Analyze these with the class, encouraging students to point out specific images that they notice. Point out how detailed the images on the Column are. Then, distribute copies of pages 58 and 59 from your Primary Sources Handbook.Tell students they can complete the worksheet on their own.
2. Review with the class some of the major events related to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. As a class, make a list of these on your classroom board. If necessary, add to the list. Some topics and events that you may wish to include in the list are below:
3. Assign individuals or pairs of students one of the above topics. After students research their topics, have them design a scene for a “frieze” that would offer more information than is in their textbook. When students are finished, have them share their work with the class. At that point you may wish to hang their scenes along the perimeter of your classroom in chronological order. Or, if you prefer, have the students use their designs to create a more elaborate relief sculpture. To do this, students should create their designs on 9” x 12” sheets of paper (which will all be taped together), or a roll of white paper the same length as you expect the finished frieze to be. Then follow the directions found at the link under Additional Professional Development Sources for Grade 6, Unit 5, below.
Additional Primary Sources
Image credits: a. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: LC-DIG-ppmsc-06608; b. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-127029