The Imperial Rome display consists of more than 400 artifacts that illustrate the daily lives of people at all levels of society in ancient Rome -- from emperors to common citizens. Curator Dirk Van Tuerenhout says it covers about 300 years of Roman history.
"We are looking at the very end of the Roman Republic. Everybody's heard of Julius Caesar, everybody knows what happened to him on March 15th. So when he dies the whole system collapses, there's civil war, and ultimately out of that civil war comes Augustus and a new system of government which is that of the Empire. So really the story starts with Augustus and then all the other guys up to about 250 AD."
The first thing you see as you enter this display is a long row of busts of Roman emperors, including three busts that were excavated just last year on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria, between Sicily and Tunisia. Van Tuerenhout says those three busts are in such demand that they'll go back to Italy early.
"We have three busts of, one is actually of Julius Caesar, and we have Emperor Titus as well, that were very recently excavated. They are in extremely well preserved state of conservation, so they are here on display, but unfortunately for us, luckily for people back in Italy, they have to go back May 15th to the various museums in Sicily and southern Italy."
Rome was the first great super-power. It ranged from Spain and the British Isles on the west across Europe to the Danube River on the east, and from Gibraltar across North Africa to present day Turkey. Rome collapsed at the end of the fifth century, but Van Tuerenhout says Roman culture didn't disappear -- it's still very much with us today.
"The Lincoln Memorial is Roman. You have the capital, it's Roman. You find the origins of all that back in Rome. You have the system of law and jurisdiction, a lot of that goes back to Rome. We have Christianity, which grew up within the Empire and survived the Empire, still with us, but Rome played an important role in that. Like I say, all roads lead to Rome."
Van Tuerenhout says the ancient Romans were some of the most interesting people in history, and even today they and the world they created and ruled hold an endless fascination for us, as evidenced by an endless stream of movies, television programs and books about Roman history, politics, art, and society. The special exhibition Imperial Rome will be at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through June. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.