Latin Learning Scenario:
The Multicultural Roman Empire

Authors: Randy Thompson & Laura Veal
Level: Advanced

In this scenario, students investigate selected provinces of the Roman Empire using primary sources, inscriptional and monumental evidence, coins, and modern descriptions. They use journal entries to narrow their selection of a particular province to research in depth. As they share their discoveries with each other, they develop an appreciation of the enormous variety of cultures in the ancient Mediterranean Basin. They identify similarities and differences among these ancient cultures and develop an appreciation for multiculturalism and Roman attempts to deal with these variations, both successes and failures. Finally, students have a chance to draw conclusions about multiculturalism in the modern world.

ACTIVITY SET 1: Governing in Ancient Rome
To motivate them in their research on selected Roman provinces, students are provided the following situation:

You are a politically active member of the Equites during the height of the Roman Empire. The Imperator wants to make you, a trusted ally, the governor of one of his provinces. You may choose from any area in the Roman World. As you make your critical decision, consider the province’s history of wars and conflicts (especially with Rome), trade relations around the Mediterranean, as well as cultural, educational and religious struggles. You should also think about how you are likely to be perceived as a representative of Rome, and the incoming governor of that province.

To get an overview of the ancient world, students create an instant wall map using an overhead transparency projecting a map of the Roman world on a white shower curtain or several pieces of butcher paper taped together. One person per group traces their province as the rest of the group begins its investigation by studying maps of the Roman Empire to identify provinces, peoples that inhabit the provinces, and major geographical features. They also examine modern summaries and historical atlases covering these provinces to find out about such factors as geographical advantages (trade routes, ports, defensibility) or isolation, key cities, climate extremes, religious beliefs, agriculture, exports and raw materials, wars and other seminal events. (Duplication can be avoided by having groups draw for sections of the map to investigate.) Once group research is completed, the instant wall map is filled in, one province at a time, as groups give reports and classmates follow along and fill in their copy of the map. Essentially the students are creating rudimentary, provincial reference notebooks for their own use. Finally, in a personal journal, students write about three provinces that interest them and why, or about what life must have been like and what made life in those three provinces unique or different than life elsewhere. (See Expansion Ideas for suggestions for provinces and major geographical features.)

ACTIVITY SET 2: Learning More About the Provinces
The following game is a quick, motivational review and drill of the basics of the class map in which students can earn extra credit or other rewards. To play, students get into groups of three. Students A and B get yellow maps with the major provinces and/or geographical features simply numbered; student C gets a blue map which includes the same numbered features and a key. Student C calls out either a number from the map or a name; the first of the other students to identify the answer gets a point. For example, if student C calls out “#22”, the first student, A or B, to call out “Gallia” receives the point. (Ties require the point to be played again.) Student C calls out five such questions then rotates the key to the next student. The game is over when all three students have asked five questions (or at least an equal number of questions) and ties are broken. The scorecard with players’ names ranked 1st, 2nd, 3rd are then handed over along with the maps to the teacher.

Next, students work independently creating a KWL chart on the three provinces selected from their first journal entry (Activity Set 1), including at least three points per province. To avoid having too many students focus on the same provinces, a preliminary sign-up begins with the first-place winners in the map game (then 2nd place, then 3rd) tagging their three provinces. The teacher determines the maximum number of students considering the same province. Learners now begin more in-depth research in the library or on the Internet with an additional emphasis on monuments and descriptions by Roman authors, and where particularly relevant, leading historical figures. At the conclusion, students create a mind map, displaying information learned about their three preferred provinces. For the second entry in the personal journal, students are to give pros and cons about each of the three provinces and promising goals for a new governor’s term. They conclude by selecting their single, favorite province for further research.

ACTIVITY SET 3: Creating a Coin
In this activity set, students create a coin for their favorite province that depicts some of what they have learned about it and that includes some of the goals they intend to pursue as its governor. As a preface to that activity, the class watches “What have the Romans ever done for us?” — a five-minute clip selected from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, in which clumsy, rebel wanna-be’s struggle to convince themselves to rally against the evil Roman overlords. This clip should help the students understand the mindset of the ancient world and see that just because they are becoming governors, they cannot assume their provincials will understand their intentions. A clever ruler will use all means to promote a peaceful transition including, perhaps, a new coin.

Next, students assemble in groups of three to five. The Latin word pecunia (money) came from pecus (cattle) when barter predated coinage. In the West, coins were first invented in Asia Minor, and the idea was spread around the Mediterranean by traders. The earliest Roman money was a crude bronze ingot, called aes rudes. Coins tell a great deal about a nation. With this in mind, and with a wink, groups are told that they are about to receive a coin from a “recently discovered” ancient culture. Each group receives a penny! They brainstorm on paper for five to ten minutes all of the conclusions they think could safely be drawn about the “ancient” culture that produced this coin. Once students buy into the idea that coins hold some keys to a culture, they come up with an amazing range of ideas from sophistication of technology to writing and architecture to ideas of deities or heroes. When time is up, groups announce their findings.

As a prelude to designing a coin for their province, this is a great opportunity to investigate the Latin phrases on the dollar bill, since every Latin student should know them and have a basic understanding of the symbolism involved. Students receive a copy of a dollar bill enlarged to 200% on 8.5" x 14" paper, front and back. They consider a series of questions related to those symbols. For the front, they consider the laurel leaves that decorate this side and what they represent, as well as where the stylized acanthus leaves from Corinthian columns appear. For the back of the bill, students should know that the Founding Fathers spent many months designing the Great Seal and rejected many proposed versions. This side is much more complex than the front and provides innumerable details for reflection. The pyramid represents stability, unfinished because the great American “experiment” in democracy is still a work in progress. Whose is the overseeing, beneficent eye? Which Latin phrase refers to it? Why an eagle? Count the laurels in its talon. Count the arrows. To which of these does the eagle face and why? What is the number of stars in the glory above the eagle? The number of layers of stone in the pyramid? The three Latin phrases also offer a tempting number of activities, but translation at least is essential. Novus ordo seclorum: “a new world order” or “a new order of the ages” — what view of world history is implied? In what company does this phrase put the colonies? Annuit Coeptis - “He (the eye, the divine being) has favored our undertaking.” And of course e pluribus unum could be applied to immigrations, historical foundations of the new nation, federalism, and even to an individual’s family heritage.

An opportune alternative (or additional) assignment is also possible. The U.S. Treasury department is minting a quarter for each state, and students may have very strong ideas about what the Texas quarter should include. Is the Alamo too controversial? Are oil derricks and armadillos too stereotypical? What would capture the essence of Texas, both traditionally and what it is becoming? How successful have other states’ designs been? What should Texas’s look like? A simple discussion of these issues primes students for creating a coin for their selected Roman province. If students get involved in particularly vigorous discussion, you may capitalize on their interest by assigning them to submit their own design for a Texas quarter.

After considering American currency, students examine a few Roman coins and monument inscriptions before beginning their designs. They will discover that some coins were made for the province, others for the folks back at Rome. An excellent coin for consideration is the one minted by the assassins of Julius Caesar: it simply has a freedman’s cap with a dagger on either side. Is the propaganda clear enough? How about Augustus’s coin produced after the civil war between himself and Mark Antony and his Egyptian consort: a crocodile (representing the province) and vic for victa (conquered)? Selected monuments make the same point. Students may also find examples of existing coins and/or monuments from their selected province and use a T-chart to assess and compare the images and inscriptions. With numerous examples and ideas now in mind, learners create large, construction paper coins appropriate for their chosen province, especially depicting the way they want their governorship to be portrayed. There may be beloved local icons, impressive Roman monuments; there may be painful or delicate historical conflicts to soothe, competing factions to balance, or (un)popular Romanization to enforce. Of course, the Emperor who is so generously making this governorship possible must also be considered!

When the completed coins are introduced to the class and briefly explained, celebrate by taking snapshots of each smiling culprit using a Polaroid or digital camera. Make a group photo of students holding their coins and standing together arranged to form a living map of the Mediterranean. Then, attach the “governors’” pictures to their coins and place them on the appropriate province on the increasingly colorful class map.

ACTIVITY SET 4: Understanding Cultural Conflict
This set of activities is designed to help students get one last crack at understanding cultural conflict and assimilation in the Roman world and to connect some of these issues to the modern world before they turn in their final province project. To prepare students for some of the complexities and subtleties involved in imperial rule, the class watches selections from the video Roman City, by David Macaulay. The animated portion chronicles both the noble and the greedy, corrupt Roman leadership, and resolutions of religious and cultural conflicts. In the narrated sections, the general principles involved in planning a typical Roman town are revealed. (Since students see examples of both good and bad Romans, it is also appropriate to show this film before students create provincial coins in Activity Set 3 or as a concluding activity.)

Working in groups, students now undertake a task to relate the modern world with the ancient. Using a sheet of butcher paper, groups draw a line down the middle. On one side they list examples of products and historical and cultural events that occurred as Roman Imperial culture came into contact with another culture. Obvious successful contacts include infrastructure, education, sanitation, and the confluence of Greek and Roman mythology, philosophy, and literature. Failures or unsuccessful contacts include slavery, conquest, Roman arrogance, and setting up Roman gods in non-Roman sites. Virtually every province had special experiences becoming a part of the Roman world, so there should be a wide variety of items on the list. On the other side of the line, students list similar or corresponding events that have occurred recently (as defined by the teacher) or in modern history. Many classes can go beyond simply stating that “the Taliban is intolerant like the Romans” to a more precise understanding that contrasts the Roman inclination towards assimilation and general tolerance. Modern examples echoing Roman practices include the Hindu caste system (which is similar to stratified Roman society), Shinto ancestor worship, and Hawaiian colonization. The efforts to eliminate racial and gender barriers in today’s society reflect the struggles of those oppressed by Imperial Rome. And, of course, corporate raiding mirrors rapacious governors or Roman invasion at its “best.”

A variant of this ongoing project is for students to scan newspapers for articles about the kinds of items they have listed and add these to the posted list. Students are impressed to see that in a period of nascent globalism, an accumulation of headlines fills the modern column fairly quickly. Points are awarded per article, for most unique comparison, for the one most closely mirroring the ancient experience, etc. Another variant is to make three columns, the ancient event in the middle, “unsuccessful” modern cultural contacts on the left, “successful” contacts on the right. Movies or books highlighting comparable issues can also be included.

In a last journal entry, students write about a personal experience involving some aspect of multiculturalism or a summary of favorite examples of multiculturalism in the Roman world.

ACTIVITY SET 5: Speaking to “The People”
Most of the preceding activities are designed to provide a background for students to embark on their “career” as a provincial governor. The culminating experience is for students to write their inaugural speech to assembled leaders and prominent Romans of their province, which sets the tone for the new administration and reveals a certain comprehension of the history and most pressing issues in the area. Options for the format include a PowerPoint presentation to the class, performing the speech (in toga, of course), or simply composing the text. Several variants to the inaugural speech are possible: 1) the student is on the governor’s staff and must educate his boss and the staff to prevent disasters and promote opportunities, or 2) the student is the outgoing governor and must educate his successor.
With regards to historical events, monuments, and famous citizens in their chosen province, students have a variety of options for demonstrating what they’ve learned. They may choose to:

  • create a travel brochure for the chosen province, highlighting its cultural and historical elements;
  • list the personal pros and cons for being a governor of the province; or
  • write a “What if?” essay discussing how the people of the province would respond to them as ruler, given their “Roman” background.

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Targeted Standards

  • Communication: Interpersonal, Interpretative, & Presentational Modes
  • Cultures: Practices & Perspectives, Products & Perspectives
  • Connections: Access to Information, Other Subject Areas
  • Comparisons: Concept of Culture, Influence of Language & Culture
  • Communities: Within & Beyond the School Setting, Personal Enrichment & Career Development

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  • Carefully selected primary-source passages in Latin from authors discussing historical events or cultural struggles in history. Some examples are excerpts from Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Strabo, etc. (see Grant’s book in Resources)
  • Map of the Roman Empire (from the time of Trajan, for example) illustrating provinces by their historically accepted territorial borders
  • Art supplies for creating mind maps, a large class map, and newspapers, Venn Diagram templates, KWL charts, coins, and computers with publishing software and Powerpoint (or similar) for the final products
  • Internet access for research of provinces and numismatic/monument images
  • VCR and Videotape (see Resources)

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Reflections on How the Standards Are Met

Communication: Students use the interpersonal mode for group work and games, the interpretive mode in their research and watching videos, and the presentational mode for reporting on research and making their final speeches.

Cultures: Students demonstrate an understanding of practices using coins and monumental inscriptions for propaganda purposes, of products (the coins and monuments themselves), and of the perspectives associated with them as they read primary-source passages.

Connections: Students use target language resources including the Internet to gain access to information. They use their knowledge of Latin to expand their knowledge of geography, history, numismatics, and sociology.

Comparisons: Students demonstrate an understanding of the concept of culture as they compare Roman Imperial culture with those of the conquered provinces and events of the era with modern history. They understand the influence of one language on another as they study the symbolism on the dollar bill.

Communities: Students connect to the “target culture” as they read primary sources and investigate inscriptions on coins and monuments. By comparing modern and historical issues, they use the language for personal enrichment.

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Expansion Ideas

  • To pare down the number of provinces open for study to fit class size, eliminate provinces of lesser influence or those which are more difficult to investigate quickly. The list of provinces also can be tailored to foreign exchange students and the family background of students. A suggested list to begin with includes: Lusitania, Hispania: Tarraconenis, Baetica; Gallia: Aquitania, Narbonensis, Belgica, Lugdunensis; Africa/Numidia/Mauretania, Britannia (perhaps with Hibernia, Caledonia), Germania, Helvetia, Pannonia/Noricum/Raetia, Moesia, Dalmatia/Illyricum, Macedonia, Achaea, Thrace, Bithynia/Pontus, Asia, Galatia, Dacia, Cappadocia/Pamphylia/Cilicia, Syria, Armenia, Phoneicia/Judea, Aegyptus, Crete and Cyrene/Cyrenaica/Libya, Arabia/Mesopotamia, Sardinia and Corsica, and Sicilia.
  • Major geographical features include: Mare Nostrum/Mediterraneum (Mediterranean Sea), Mare Aegeum (Aegean Sea), Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea), Sinus Arabicus (Red Sea), Alpes (Alps), Pyrenes (Pyrenees), Rhenus (Rhein), Danuvius (Danube), Nilus (Nile), Roma (Rome), Carthago (Carthage), Athenis (Athens), Alexandria (Alexandria), Byzantium/Constantinopolis (Istanbul).
  • Many famous monuments and ruins, including one of the Seven Wonders, are/were located in former provinces of the Roman world. Have students find illustrations or photos of some of these to introduce to the class and add to the class map. Major historical figures (Alexander the Great, Jesus, Cleopatra) could also be incorporated. Finally, consider having students learn the modern approximations of the ancient provinces.
  • If space permits, the map game in Activity Set 2 may be modified by marking off a map of the provinces on the floor using masking tape. Mark landmarks or features with numbers. In this version of the game, one student will call out the name of one of the numbered locations, and players must move to and stand on the proper place on the map.
  • As an addition to Activity Set 4, students interview a Public Relations Manager of a local company, either in pairs outside of class or by inviting an individual to be a guest speaker. To prepare, students work in groups creating and practicing appropriate interview questions related to dealing with cultures different than their own. (How do you inform your company’s employees about important characteristics of non-American cultures, and how do you celebrate them? Do you ever have difficulties resolving confrontations between people of different cultures?) If the class hears a guest speaker, another option for Activity Set 5 is to write in their journal about what they learned or how modern multicultural issues sound similar to ancient ones.
  • Another alternative for Activity Set 4 involves capitalizing on exchange students and others from foreign countries who are already a part of the student body. These students are invited to speak for five to ten minutes about their countries and how American life is different. Other foreign language classes may want to join the Latin classes in these presentations period by period in an auditorium!
  • A final point that could be developed: Roman aristocrats were considered to be better than anyone else, but otherwise they were fairly broadminded, racially speaking. Anyone (except Roman citizens) could be slaves; and African, Scythian or Indian kings were all treated in Rome as royalty. Royalty matters, race does not. Class and civilization matters, DNA does not.

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Adkins, L. & Adkins, A. (1994). Handbook to life in ancient Rome. New York: Facts on File.

Cornell T. & Matthews, J. (1982). Atlas of the roman world. New York: Facts on File.

Finley, M. I. (1977). Atlas of classical archaeology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Grant, M. (1986). A guide to the ancient world. New York: Barnes and Noble Books.

Grant, M. (1971). Ancient history atlas. New York: S. J. Durst.

Grant, M. (1960). The world of Rome. New York: Penguin Books.

Graves, R. (1957). The twelve Caesars. (Translated from Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus). New York: Penguin Books.

Mattingly, H. (1948). The Agricola/the Germania. (Translated from C. Tacitus). New York: Penguin Books.

Scarre, C. (1995). The Penguin historical atlas of ancient Rome. New York: Penguin Books.


  • Life of Brian (Monty Python)
  • Roman City (David McCaulay)


NOTE: These Internet resources may have changed since publication or no longer be available. Active links should be carefully screened before recommending to students.





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