Why did the Romans want an Empire? The Paulinus Activity
This single lesson activity identifies a range of reasons why the Romans conquered their empire. In essence it’s a card-sort activity, turned into something more memorable because you play the part of Paulinus, the Roman governor of Britannia and get kitted out in a toga. As Paulinus you explain to your slaves (sorry, class) why you have conquered Britain and they have to organize your motives into three categories – reasons that will please the Emperor, reasons that might appease the Britons and reasons that are personal to Paulinus.
Most importantly, this is not a one-off lesson but has been developed to link to later work on reasons why other nations built empires. Did the British, for example, have the same reasons as the Romans? This is why the activity has to be memorable –so you can ask ‘Do you remember when we investigated why the Romans built their Empire – and I got dressed up in a toga?’
This activity will help students
a) understand that the Romans had a range of motives for building their empire
b) categorise these motives – benefits for the Empire, benefits for individual Romans and, perhaps, benefits for people within the Empire.
c) re-use these understandings later when they study other empires
a) Your role is as Paulinus, Governor of Britain at the time of Boudica’s rebellion. To play the part you could wear a toga or a plastic military helmet (English Heritage do cheap and expensive ones but the cheap helmets are plenty good enough.)
For togas and how to make and wear them (beware using a sheet – they’re the wrong shape) see
Add any other props that will make the activity memorable and help weaker students to make the connection between what Paulinus is discussing and the summary reasons on the motive cards (e.g. gold chocolate coins for the taxes that will go back to Rome or slices of bread to represent food.)
b) A piece of parchment tied with a piece of ribbon would also be useful – especially if you want to have your script on it – lining paper is good for this.
c) You need to decide exactly how the activity works (see below) in terms of sorting motives – so you will need to print off and organize the motive cards listed above in Support
d) You need to put the table below on your whiteboard or have labels across the room so pupils can place the motive cards in the correct category.
The core of the activity is a speech (provided below) made by you in role as Paulinus. Each paragraph of the speech has a separate reason for Paulinus wanting Britannia to be part of the Roman Empire. As the speech is delivered, students have to identify the reasons as they are ‘discussed’ by Paulinus and categorise them into the columns overleaf:
Reasons to persuade Emperor
Reasons to persuade British leaders
Reasons for Paulinus to keep to himself
There are different ways of managing this activity.
a) Each student or pair of students can have a set of motive cards on the desk and hold up the correct one whenever Paulinus pauses.
b) Or divide the motive cards so that each group of 5 or 6 students has one card, which they have to bring to the front when they think Paulinus has explored that reason, sticking it into the correct place on the table (see below) on the board.
Distribute the cards before becoming Paulinus.
Your script can be along these lines:
‘My name is Paulinus, Governor of this terrible island of Britannia. I am proud to tell you that Boudica has been beaten, thank the Gods! Boudica is dead. But now there’s paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork. I have to write a report to the Emperor telling him why we need to keep Britannia. I need to talk to the leaders of the Britons and explain to them why Roman rule is good for them. And here is my scroll of notes, left in a mess by my clerk. It’s full of reasons but which ones should I use in the letter to the Emperor and which ones should I use for the British leaders? And I must be careful – there may be things here that are my business alone. And you are my slaves – the people who must get this right. If you do this task well you will be richly rewarded – but if you are slow, or worse, get it wrong, I will send you to do hard labour in the silver mines!’
Now, are you ready?
We will collect taxes from everyone in Britannia and this will make Rome even wealthier. Britannia will pay high taxes because we can dig silver out of the mines here.
[Pause to get the right motive card – taxes, a good one for your letter to the Emperor]
People in Britannia will have good lives as part of the great Roman Empire. We will help them build towns and better houses with fresh water supplies. They can buy luxuries from every part of the empire.
[Pause to get the right motive card – one that might keep the Britons quiet]
Rome is a huge city, full of people who need food. Britannia has lots of rich farming land so it will send lots of food to Rome.
[Pause to get the right motive card – food, another good one for the Emperor]
Winning new lands for the Empire makes a soldier famous. I will be given a victory march through the cheering crowds in Rome and become a wealthy man with lots of land and slaves. Soon I might be as powerful as the Emperor!
[Pause to get the right motive card – this one is to be kept secret, for Paulinus alone]
We Romans love magnificent buildings. The rebels we have captured after Boudica’s rebellion will become slaves, work on our fine buildings and in the homes of the Romans to make our lives easier.
[Pause to get the right motive card – slaves, another one for the Emperor]
We bring peace and order to every part of our empire. Our army makes sure everyone obeys the laws.
[Pause for final motive card – another that might keep the Britons quiet.]
Now you’ve quickly and actively built up a range of reasons why the Romans built their empire. Save this list, perhaps as a whiteboard screen, for use the next time you look at why an empire was built up. Recap the categories and ask pupils which of the categories were most important to the Emperor – do they think he was as interested in the welfare of the Britons as in the benefits to Rome? You could then use these motives to predict the impact of the Romans – do they think the Romans would have done more good than harm to people in Britannia?
Notes & Variations
For a similar activity on a different topic see ‘Why did William want to conquer England?’ [ click here ]
When you then come to another Empire you can not only revisit the Roman motives for comparison but you can also recycle the method, playing the part of one or (perhaps team-teaching with a colleague) two British empire builders – perhaps Cecil Rhodes and for contrast someone with more humanitarian motives, Lord Curzon perhaps. Thus the method has gone straight to the heart of a comparison of motives.
1. What have pupils learned from this activity [e.g. about why wars happen or about cause and motive] that means you will refer back to this activity later in Key Stage 3? [If you won’t refer back to it why have you done it?]
2. If you repeat this activity next year will you handle it differently to get more out of the activity or clarify its purposes?
3. Where else in your courses could you use this kind of activity, including at GCSE or A level?