A thematic unit on Julius Caesar is a great way to study ancient Rome.
While July is typically reserved for lazing by the pool instead of planning for the next school year, I couldn’t help but think of this month’s namesake, Julius Caesar. Of course, Caesar accomplished much more than reforming the calendar, and thus wrote himself a lasting page in the history books.
Studying ancient Rome is an enormous undertaking, especially with the elementary-age set. Since many children have heard of Caesar, this is a jumping-in point for ancient Rome’s 1,000 years of history. Between his military conquests, his alliance with Cleopatra, and his famous last words, few historical figures inspire the fascination that Julius Caesar does. Because there are so many aspects of his life that warrant attention, a unit on this period would be time well spent.
Resources to Lay a Solid Foundation
Every study of this scope must begin with some background information. One of the better websites I found about ancient Rome in general was from the BBC's Primary History. While the information is succinct enough for young readers, it provides a variety of details on topics ranging from leisure activities to the routines of Roman soldiers. The Life of Julius Caesar, by Nicholas Saunders, is a graphic novel that kids will love while learning important biographical facts. Before joining the Roman Senate, Caesar was a brilliant general. The Roman Legions Recreated in Color Photographs, by Daniel Peterson, is a worthwhile classroom resource especially for those interested in Caesar’s military background. Lots of full-color photos balance the abundant text. Another option is to view Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. The running time is about one hour, but it clearly lays out Caesar’s ambitions and the Senate’s fears about him. Since there are lots of battle scenes, you will need to consider the age of your viewers.
After spending some time reading about Caesar, students should be able to answer a few key questions that may include:
- When and where did he live?
- What positions in the government did he hold?
- What did he accomplish?
- Who were his friends? Enemies?
- Why was he killed?
If desired, have your class break into pairs, or small groups, to create PowerPoint presentations or posters with this information.
Don’t Forget Shakespeare
With the many versions available of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, there is sure to be one right for your age group. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for Kids: 3 Short Melodramatic Plays for 3 Group Sizes by Brendan P. Kelso, offers three versions in the same book which adapt to various size groups. Although written in modern language, slang included, it will get children interested in the story line of Julius Caesar. The Arden version of the play is a condensed adaptation for fifth grade and up. It remains very faithful to the original and leaves the most famous lines intact.
If your class is young, it’s not necessary to slog through the entire play. Pick a few meaningful scenes to whet their palates for the Bard’s language. Another idea is to have them draw a scene as they listen to an audio play. To help kids connect to a character that lived so long ago and far away is to have them each create a scrapbook page. Offer your class magazines to cut up, have them bring in items from home, or provide supplies to make their own items. The gist is to help your class think about things that the character might have kept. For example, Caesar might have treasured a lock of hair from his wife since he was so far away from her when at battle; or he may have kept a scrap of fabric from something an enemy wore. Writing captions for each item will help them justify their choices.
Activities for Science and Math
It’s not difficult to incorporate Caesar into other subjects. Roman technological advances peaked at the time of the Republic. What examples of Ancient Roman innovation can your science students find? Arches, reinforced concrete, aqueducts, city planning, bridges and roads are a few of the possibilities. It’s said that Caesar’s army built a bridge over the Rhine River in just three days. After researching Roman bridge design, your class can build their own bridges. For added drama, create a water feature that the bridges must span. Toy horses and chariots can be placed upon a completed bridge to test it for strength.
During math class, children can calculate the size of a Roman army legion and century. They can figure the time it took to march from point A to point B based on an average of twenty miles per day. How many miles per hour is that? Another idea is to investigate the history of calendars and Julius Caesar’s role in correcting a flaw in the previous system. Children could also research for whom Caesar named each of the twelve months and write a poem or rap about one of them.
Et Tu, Brute? Putting the Assassins on Trial
Students may wonder about the reasons behind Caesar’s assassination. This is a great opportunity to have them consider multiple perspectives of various historical figures and their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes, and fears. Just as Caesar believed that a stronger Rome would only come through autocratic power, his opponents in the Senate feared the power that Caesar was amassing. The more well-known names from the Ides of March – Casca, Cassius, and Brutus – provide an interesting exercise for seeing an event from both sides. Staging a courtroom trial, complete with prosecutors, defendants, and jury, provides learners the chance to study motives for the assassination and whether or not it might have been justified.
More Ideas from Lesson Planet:
If you still need more lesson ideas, try one from the list below.
This Lesson Planet article is packed with ideas for teaching about Imperial Rome. These would be a natural way to follow up a study on Caesar and the end of the Roman Republic.
Dictator for a Day
This lesson for intermediate grades helps children grasp the concept of a dictatorship. One pupil is chosen to be the dictator and is given the power to make all of the decisions for the class for one day. A discussion about the pros and cons closes the lesson.
Who's Who in Roman History
Although intended for a study of Imperial Rome, this lesson could just as easily be adapted to the time of Julius Caesar. Pupils research an important person, create a poster which summarizes their findings, and then write an original scene for a class documentary about their historical characters.