Gladiator contests were even more popular. Many gladiators were slaves who had been trained to fight. In the arena, they battled one another, either singly or in groups. Crowds cheered a skilled gladiator, and a good fighter might even win his freedom. But if a gladiator made a poor showing, sometimes the crowd turned thumbs down, a signal that he should be killed.

During the Pax Romana, the general prosperity hid underlying social and economic problems. To the emperors who paid for them with taxes they collected, these amusements were a way to distract the city's restless mobs. In much the same spirit, the government provided free grain to feed the poor. Critics warned against this policy of “bread and circuses,” but few listened. Later Roman emperors, however, would face problems that could not be brushed away with “bread and circuses.”

The Roman Empire Splits

After ruling the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, the Roman empire faced threats from inside and outside. Political and economic problems, along with foreign invasions, shook the empire. In fact, these problems had existed since the late republic. Roman greatness did not end overnight. As decay set in, some emperors tried to halt the decline. But no ruler was able to reverse the long, slow collapse.

Political Violence

Political turmoil rocked the Roman empire. The long Roman Peace ended when power struggles led to a new pattern in politics. Violence replaced the orderly succession to power. One after another, ambitious generals seized power with the support of their legions. The successful general ruled for a few months or years and then was overthrown or assassinated by a rival, who then made himself emperor. In one 50-year period, at least 26 emperors reigned. Political violence and instability had become the rule.

Economic and Social Issues

At the same time, the empire was shaken by disturbing economic and social trends. High taxes to support the army and the bureaucracy placed heavy burdens on business people and small farmers. Some farmlands had been over-cultivated and lost their productivity.

As a result, many poor farmers left their land and sought protection from wealthy landowners. Living on large estates, they worked for the landowners and farmed small plots for themselves. Although technically free, they were not allowed to leave the land.

Infographic titled the Roman empire declines.
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Analyze Information

There were many factors that led to the decline of the Roman empire. What were some of the effects of over-cultivated farmland and slave labor?


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments