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The Roman empire

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At its height, the Roman empire stretched from Scotland to Syria. This module will introduce you to this empire, addressing questions such as how did this vast multicultural population of diverse ethnic, cultural and religious groups maintain itself? How was it viewed by those who ruled it? What forces held the empire together, and what happened when these came under pressure? You'll learn how to use written sources and archaeological remains to explore these fundamental questions about what the empire was, how it worked, what it meant to be Roman and the continuing legacy of the empire.

What you will study

The module consists of five main blocks and a conclusion. Each block emphasises a different aspect or way of thinking about the Roman empire.

The module begins by asking big questions about what we mean when we write about ‘the Roman empire’, introducing you to the different ways in which it can be investigated. Equipped with an understanding of the different types of sources that can be used to examine the empire, you will then begin to explore it from a number of alternative perspectives. This begins with the view from Rome, at the centre of empire, before moving on to consider the military, governmental and economic mechanisms and structures which enabled the empire to function successfully. After this, you'll explore the cultural forces that shaped what it meant to be ‘Roman’ before assessing the impact of changes that took place during the later empire, as well as the continued significance of the empire for later generations.

As the module progresses, you are expected to develop a degree of independence in learning to the extent that you are able to complete independent analyses using the skills you have learned in the course of your study.

The module makes use of a number of interactive resources, accessed via the module website, including an interactive map which will enable you to locate and explore a variety of different sites and regions across the empire. You'll also watch a series of videos presenting evidence from key sites in different parts of the empire, including Britain, Italy and Morocco. Audio discussions and features allow you to listen to experts debating the key issues raised in the written material as well as helping you to develop skills related to the evaluation of particular types of ancient source material. ICT is also used to give access to the range of specialist websites that comprise works of reference and scholarship in the field.

The module content is as follows:

Block 1: Framing the empire
You'll be introduced to the history and geography of the empire, considering the different narratives constructed to tell its story. Using Hadrian’s Wall as a case study, you'll learn how to evaluate a range of primary sources through which we construct our knowledge of the empire.

Block 2: The heart of empire: the city of Rome
In this block, you'll concentrate on the benefits and problems of empire from the perspective of its centre. You'll examine snapshots of Rome at key periods to investigate how the development of the empire impacted upon its monumental landscape. You'll study key sites within the city, the emperors who shaped them, and the community who lived there, before following in the footsteps of Hadrian to journey away from Rome towards the provinces.

Block 3: Structures of empire
The emphasis of this block is on the different mechanisms used by Roman emperors to govern, control and support such a vast empire. You'll evaluate the role of the army, examine the nature of local government and the importance of cities as focal points for Roman authority and law, before looking at how the empire’s economy not only allowed it to prosper but connected its disparate parts.

Block 4: A cultural empire
You'll examine the cultural influences which united the empire, focusing on issues of identity, religion, diversity and shared ideas about Roman urban life and leisure. As you explore how people lived and died in the empire, you will also be introduced to ongoing and dynamic debates about varied responses to Roman culture and the process of ‘Romanization’.

Block 5: Legacy of empire
Your attention turns to a series of case studies which consider the extent to which late antiquity was a period of continuity or change. How did the empire respond to the pressures of ‘barbarian’ incursions and economic crisis, and how did it draw upon its own history to create a new imperial focus at Constantinople? In what ways has the Roman empire continued to have an impact in the modern world?

Block 6: Conclusion
A short case study brings together the themes, materials, sources and debates that you have studied in order to consider what the empire was, the impact that it had on the people who lived within it, and why it was so important.

You will learn

By studying this module you will:

  • gain an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the history and archaeology of the Roman empire and learn to consider the different approaches that can be taken to its study 
  • study and analyse a variety of sources – such as historical texts, artefacts, architecture and monuments, inscriptions, archaeological plans, writing tablets, coins and art – evaluating the context of the evidence and its value for addressing specific questions about the empire
  • develop the ability to write a well-thought-out critical analysis of ancient primary sources and to construct and communicate a logical argument at an appropriate level
  • become familiar with a range of theoretical approaches and modern scholarship relating to the Roman empire and develop an awareness of the contested nature of our current knowledge 
  • develop a degree of independence in learning that will enable you to use the skills that you have learnt to complete source analyses and investigations of bibliography via the internet, libraries, etc.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on the skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably at the OU.

Although no particular modules are required before studying this one, we recommend that you should have taken at least two arts modules at OU levels 1 and 2. The OU level 1 modules Discovering the arts and humanities (A111), Cultures (A112), Revolutions (A113) or the discontinued module, The arts past and present (AA100),  as well as any OU level 2 arts module, would be ideal preparation. This is because the module has been designed to enable you to apply and develop skills in working with source material that you would get from an interdisciplinary or single-discipline OU level 2 module.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

 You’ll be provided with three printed module books, each covering two blocks of study, and have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assignment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access
  • primary and secondary sources as PDFs
  • interactive audio and visual material
  • a range of scholarly resources, journals and electronic versions of the books.

You will need

You will need a headset with a microphone and earphones to record the audio presentation component of the second tutor-marked assignment (TMA).

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Radice, B. (trans.) The Letters of the Younger Pliny Penguin £12.99 - ISBN 9780140441277
  • Tacitus: Mattingly, H. (trans.) Agricola and Germania Penguin £10.99 - ISBN 9780140455403
  • Woolf, G. Rome: An Empire's Story 2nd Edition Oxford University Press £12.99 - ISBN 9780192895172

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. Learning events will be held online throughout the module.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A340 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

The Roman empire starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2026.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment