Teaching the Romans – Part 1

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One reason I was excited to join my new school in September was the way their KS3 history curriculum was being rebuilt. The school was moving from 1 lesson a week, for 2 years, to 2 lessons a week for 3. That sort of contact time for a humanities subject is getting more and more rare, and the chance to see Year 7, 8 and 9 students twice a week and give them access to a detailed curriculum was one that really motivated me. The chance to help design that curriculum, even more so.

Previously, Year 7 had begun with the Romans (once a skills unit was out of the way), and we decided to keep it. However as I was the only teacher who taught every year 7 class (2 of which were split), and since we had more contact time, it made sense for me to take more control over what a ‘redesigned’ Romans unit might include. I also had just read SPQR by Mary Beard and so was pretty enthusiastic about getting to work on it. With the unit coming to a close and the holidays coming up, I’m going to put together a couple of posts about what I aimed for, what we taught and whether or not it worked.

Firstly, the aims. I wanted the students to learn about specific concepts – Republic, Citizen, Dictator and Empire – not just for their importance in Roman history but for their links to future units we will study, such as the British Empire, French Revolution, rise of the Dictators, etc. My thinking had been prompted by others, especially Michael Fordham and Christine Counsell, who reference the ways that our knowledge of concepts and ideas is strengthened as we cover them in different contexts, over different time periods, etc.

With the concepts in mind, I focused on what is I suppose to most famous period in Roman history – the decline of the Republic and the establishment of the principate/empire. This period is so incredibly rich with individuals and events that I wanted them to share in it. A focus on this period introduced another concept to cover – tyranny. The main assessment that students would complete was titled ‘Were the Liberatores justified in assassinating Julius Caesar?’ This brought together the republic, the Roman idea of dictatorship and fear of tyranny, and following this question we would move onto Empire, exploring what one actually is, how it is different to a Republic, and a smaller assessment point would ask the question of whether or not Rome was already an Empire before 27BC. This would enable them to use the knowledge of the unit so far and apply it to a new concept.

With that rough plan, I began to think about what I needed to teach to make sure they could do it well. For example, they can’t explain what the Republic was and why some felt so strongly about it needing saving, unless they knew a little about the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and what replaced it. This helped them to understand the Roman fear of kings and why Caesar, wearing purple and minting his face on coins, would have made some uncomfortable. Similarly, Caesar being dictator for life and wanting to choose consuls himself makes little sense on its own, but understanding the role of Dictator more, through the story of Cincinnatus, helps to understand what an overreach this was. Finally, judging whether Caesar was destroying the Republic isn’t fair if he’s presented in isolation, and so the story of gradual change/decline has to be told, with a small focus on the impact of Marius and Sulla and their breaking down of Roman conventions. This gives a base of comparison for analysing Caesar.

So a plan came together, roughly along these lines:

  1. Romulus and Remus – introduction to Romans and foundation myth.
  2. Who were the Romans? The creation of the Republic and overthrow of the Kings, how the republic was structured, who the citizens were, senate, consuls, patricians, plebeians, etc.
  3. Why was the Roman Army so effective? Beneath the general points here of discipline, tactics, training etc., I wanted to establish two things: the growing power of generals and why soldiers would be loyal to them first, and Rome second (land gifts, shared wealth, etc); and the fact that Roman soldiers were supposed to stay out of Rome itself. This sets up…
  4. What can be learned from Roman Wars? Development of Rome from Cincinnatus, Samnite Wars, Punic Wars, Social War and Marius/Sulla. A certain amount of information on each (varying by class as we have sets), but to get across a narrative of Rome’s growth, and some key points: role of Dictator, destruction of competition, ruthlessness and start of Civil Wars. Sulla/Marius especially focused on with top 2 sets to give them context – soldiers marching on Rome (despite what they learned previously), Dictatorship changing (despite what they learned previously), growing power of generals, decline of Republic’s values, etc. By this point there’s lots of layers going on.
  5. Were the Liberatores justified in assassinating Julius Caesar? The story of Caesar, the events of 49BC to 44BC, the arguments for each side and an essay assessment.
  6. How did Rome become an Empire? Story of Octavian transforming into Augustus, what is an Empire and was Rome already and Empire before Augustus?

The numbers above aren’t lessons, but general topics/knowledge that I wanted to cover before I moved on. Point 5 for example, on Caesar, took 4 lessons to do. Point 2, about the Republic, took 1.

What I’ve Learned

Before I do a further post about what they learned and how they did on this redesigned unit, a little about what I learned in planning and teaching it. Firstly, about how important subject knowledge is. I’ve always known it, but it was hard to explain why. Being more knowledgeable about history seemed to be its own justification. Now I feel better able to articulate it. Simply, less knowledge = more genericism. I didn’t want the unit to wallow in the general, and I wanted it specifically to be more challenging and more content heavy than a Romans unit might include at primary school, even though it’s their first unit of Year 7. If I don’t know enough about the Republic, Cincinnatus, Sulla, Brutus and more, then I won’t teach it, and trying to get across those concepts – about Dictatorship and Tyranny and Citizenship and Empire – becomes much harder, or doesn’t happen at all.

Secondly, students have been very positive. The top 2 sets have soared, and while the arguments being made by the third are weaker, they are showing so much interest in class and able to argue about the merits of each argument with each other in a way that really encourages me. However it has to be said, for some it has been hard to access. It has been a challenging unit with lots of concepts and knowledge to retain. I’ve tried to lower the burden with constant reference to previous learning, showing where connections are, scaffolding and so on, but some – mainly the weakest set – have struggled. More needs to be done next year to ensure they are able to sink their teeth into it in the same way most did.

Finally, because of the focus I have set, there’s a lot which I haven’t covered. Again, this is partly a conscious decision to try and avoid things that might have come up at primary, but there’s a whiff of ‘great man’ history to the unit and we’re focusing on the narrative and the historic figures, leaving other voices unheard. We’ve not spent much time focusing on day to day life in Rome or Roman Britain, the impact of the Empire on its subjects, the decline of the Roman Empire, etc. There’s gaps, and that needs to be addressed when we move on to the Norman conquest, to show how the Romans fit into the big picture rather than leaving them like an island at the start.

With all this in mind, in the next post I’ll put up some examples of how the lessons were taught, how I tried to scaffold difficult concepts and ideas and how the students actually did at the written assessments. I was trying to help develop writing skills and I’m really not sure if I had any success at all on that. So that’s to come.