The Roman Empire was one of the most successful and important empires in world history. It covered a huge amount of territory. At its height it reached from today’s English/Scottish border in the north to the Egyptian/Sudanese border in the South, and from the Atlantic coast of Portugal in the west to the Syrian/Iraqi border in the east.
This huge state endured a long time. From the time of the first emperor, Augustus, in the first century BCE, to the barbarian invasions of the fourth century CE, the Roman Empire lasted more than four hundred years.
Its legacy to later Western civilization, and therefore to the modern world, was immense. Culturally, the Romans were heirs of the Greeks. However, they added their own very distinctive contribution which has left a lasting imprint. This can be seen in Western art and architecture, literature, philosophy, engineering, and government. Above all, the great body of law which the Roman Empire developed has had a huge influence on modern legal systems.
The roots of the Roman Empire go back to the origins of the city of Rome. The traditional date for this was 753 BCE, and archaeological evidence indeed points to an origin around the Eighth century.
The city was located in central Italy. Early Rome grew up in a Mediterranean world in which city-states were an increasingly prevalent type of state, especially under the growing influence of the Greeks.
In its early centuries, Rome was ruled by a succession of kings. Sometime during this time the city fell under the influence – probably political and certainly cultural, of the Etruscans. This was a people with a more advanced urban culture than the Romans’ own.
In the sixth and fifth centuries BCE the city-states of central Italy were moving towards republican forms of government (again inspired by Greek examples). Rome itself became a republic around 500 BCE. It soon acquired local leadership of the neighboring Latin towns. In the early fourth century, however, the Romans experienced a major set-back when a band of Gauls invaded northern Italy, got as far south as Rome and sacked it.
In the decades which followed, the Romans rebuilt their local power and more. Within a century they had become the dominant power in Italy. As their reach grew, they consolidated their position of leadership through a system of treaties, plus a network of colonies and roads. During this time, the Roman army took on an aspect which would be recognizable for centuries to come: organized around legions of five or six thousand men, each of which was made up of many centuries (units of, very roughly, one hundred men each, under that famous embodiment of Roman military discipline, the centurion).
The third century saw Rome’s activities spread out beyond Italy, with two major wars with the wealthy trading city of Carthage. In the first of these, the Romans won command of the seas around Italy. In the second, Rome faced one of her most dangerous enemies in her history, the brilliant Carthaginian general Hannibal. He almost brought Rome to its knees, but in the end, wise leadership and sheer weight of manpower won the day. Rome ended these wars as the leading sea power in the western Mediterranean, and with overseas provinces in Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Spain.
The Romans were beginning to acquire an overseas empire, and in the following century and a half, Roman power spread right across the Mediterranean. It expanded in Spain and Gaul (France), grabbed North Africa, swallowed the Greek homeland whole, and swamped all the Greek-speaking states in the Middle East. These were home to what modern scholars call the Hellenistic (“Greek-like”) civilization, created in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests: Macedonia, the Seleucid kingdom, and the Egypt of the Ptolemies.
This never-ending succession of conquests brought wealth flooding into Rome. This had a huge and disrupting effect on Roman society. Social inequality undermined stability. At the same time the governing institutions of the Roman Republic, designed for a small city state, proved incapable of maintaining control of the huge and growing empire. The senate, which up to now had steered the ship of state with uncanny shrewdness, was now gripped by bitter factionalism. Sound government suffered, effective measures were still-born, and the state lost control of the over-mighty generals who commanded its huge armies far from Rome.
The last decades of the Republic saw vast conquests – Pompey the Great in the eastern Mediterranean, Julius Caesar in Gaul. They also witnessed civil war after civil war, as Roman generals led rival armies against one another – and on Rome itself.
This last civil war ended (31 BCE) with the emergence one of the greatest statesmen in Western history to sole power. This was Octavian, soon to become known as Augustus.
In the aftermath of the civil wars, he pretended to restore the old republic. In reality, he turned the republic into a monarchy. He became the first of the long line of Roman emperors.
Modern scholars often call the early Roman empire the Principate. This is because Augustus referred to himself as the Princeps, the “First Citizen”.
Augustus’ settlement gave peace to the Roman world for more than two hundred years. Under good emperors and bad, the imperial government ran smoothly on, providing not just peace (the famous Pax Romana) , but prosperity and (by pre-modern standards) good administration for the fifty million or so inhabitants of the empire.
Augustus was succeeded by members of his own Julian family (to which Julius Caesar had belonged), and their relatives the Claudian family (hence they make up the so-called “Julio-Claudian” dynasty). The rulers of this group were amongst the best-know (and most notorious) of all Roman emperors: Tiberius, Gaius (better-known as the mad emperor Caligula), Claudius and Nero.
Nero’s reign ended in a brief but sharp civil war (in the “Year of the Four Emperors”, 69 CE). This ended with the triumph of the emperor Vespasian, and he and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, formed the Flavian dynasty.
The last of the Flavian emperors, Domitian, was assassinated in 96, the senate chose Nerva as his successor. He ushered in a period of Roman history called the “Five Good Emperors”: the emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Under these rulers, the Roman Empire reached its peak.
By the end of the century, however, clouds were gathering. Barbarians from beyond the empire’s frontiers were gaining in strength, and had already mounted deep raids into Roman territory. At the same time, political instability was beginning to set in.
After the appalling reign of the emperor Commodus, a three-year civil war (193-6) was a warning of much worse to come. The victor in this war, Septimius Severus, restored stability, and was able to pass on the throne to his son Caracalla. Problems were mounting, however, and after Caracalla’s death the situation rapidly deteriorated.
Except for the brief civil war in 69 CE noted above, millions of people experienced a high measure of peace during the first two centuries of the Roman Empire. The empire was, by pre-modern standards, well run, with a highly sophisticated government machinery which balanced central control with a high degree of local responsibility. Peace led to prosperity. Trade flourished, helped by the empire-wide network of well-built roads. Cities expanded, and luxurious villas dotted the landscape in increasing numbers. Roman citizenship spread rapidly through the provinces, and members of leading provincial families joined the empire’s ruling classes as imperial officials, senators, and even emperors.
By the end of the second century, the Romans had long been making their own cultural contributions to the civilization of the Western world. In literature and thought, writers and thinkers such as Cicero, Ovid, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and many more were adding to the vast stock of Greek writings. In painting and sculpture, artists were applying a new “warts and all” realism to their work. In architecture, grand buildings were erected, with many examples still to be seen today: the Pantheon and Coliseum in Rome, for example, and Atticus’ theatre in Athens.
In the field of technology, civil engineering made great strides, as seen in the valley-spanning aqueducts which brought fresh water from distant hills to thirsty cities, and in the well-built roads which spanned the empire.
Most notably, perhaps, the Romans took law to a completely new level, enshrining such concepts which (in the West, at least) we take for granted, such as the protection of private property and citizens rights to trial in court.
Perhaps the most extraordinary development during these centuries was one which had nothing to do with the Roman authorities, except in so far as they opposed it. This was the spread of a radically new belief system throughout out the length and breadth of the Roman empire. Christianity spread from city to city, establishing small communities of believers in every province.
The mid-third century was a terrible time for the Roman Empire. The rise of an aggressive new state in the East, when the Parthian empire was replaced by the Sasanian empire, meant that large numbers of troops had now to be switched from the European frontiers to protect the empire’s eastern flank.
For about fifty years in the mid-century, the Roman empire experienced near-complete anarchy, as emperor after emperor fought his way to the throne, only to be killed within a few years, often less. Barbarian invasions penetrated deep into Roman territory, leaving many cities ruined. Desperate imperial officials tried to extract extortionate taxes from their unhappy subjects. Extreme inflation gripped the economy. Together with the disruptions of invasion and civil war, this undermined central control of armies and provinces. Large parts of the empire broke away under separatist regimes.
This dire state of affairs was brought to an end in the later part of the century by a succession of soldier-emperors. They repelled the invaders and restored unity to the Roman Empire. Their work was consolidated by the emperors Diocletian (285-304) and Constantine the Great (311 to 337).
By the fourth century, the Roman Empire looked to all intense and purposes like a different state to that which had gone before. The army had been transformed out of all recognition; the provincial administration was now a huge, centralized bureaucracy; two, three or even four emperors ruled at the same time, with none now based in Rome. Socially, this seems to have been a much more rigid society than that of the early empire. Millions of Roman citizens had been reduced to the status of serfs on large estates, which would in time turn into the manors of medieval Europe; the third century crisis had left towns reduced in size and wealth, and trade diminished.
The reforms of Diocletian and his predecessors saved the Roman Empire from collapse in the third century. They were capped with two developments whose effects would long outlast the Roman Empire itself. The most important of these was the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity, and its change of status from persecuted faith to favored religion. All but one of Constantine’s successors were Christians, and by the end of the fourth century it was the official religion of the empire.
The second development was Constantine’s founding of a new capital, Constantinople. His “New Rome” was located on the shores of the narrow sea between today’s Greece and Turkey (it is the modern city of Istanbul).
This city, with its strategic position and immense walls, would repel every attempt by enemies to capture it until the mid-fifteenth century. It would this play a crucial part in enabling the empire to survive for a thousand years more.
At the end of the fourth century the Roman Empire looked much as it had done at the height of its power in the second century, in terms of territorial expanse. However, it was now effectively divided into two blocks. The more prosperous half, the east, was ruled from Constantinople. The west, with the longer frontiers to defend but less wealth to pay for its upkeep, was ruled from the northern Italian city of Ravenna.
A major invasion by the Goths, in 378, however, left a gaping hole in the empire’s defenses. Although temporarily patched up, the Goths remained within the empire itself, and in the early fifth century marched into Italy and sacked Rome in 410.
This shocking event was accompanied by a mass invasion of Roman territory from Germany into Gaul and Spain, and even as far as North Africa. Devastating raids by a people from Central Asia, the Huns, into the Balkans and Italy, added to the empire’s woes – but in the event the threat they posed died down in the 450s, after the death of their charismatic leader, Attila.
The western Roman government simply did not have the resources to cope with these catastrophes; and in any case was hampered by having to deal with rebellious generals as well as barbarian chieftains.
Britain was lost to the empire in 410. In the next decades the barbarian invaders of Gaul and Spain formed themselves into kingdoms, sometimes in alliance with, sometimes in hostility to, the emperors in Ravenna. Rome endured a second sack, this time by the Vandals, based in North Africa, in the mid-century, and in the following years all remaining Roman-controlled land in Gaul and Spain was taken over by the German kingdoms.
Finally, in 476, the last of the western Roman emperors, a young boy named Romulus Augustulus, was made to abdicate by the German general who now became king of Italy. The empire had been extinguished in the west.
The Eastern Roman Empire remained intact, as noted above. It would endure for another thousand years. In the process, it would face many dangers, and adapt and re-adapt itself as times changed. Such was the extent of the change that it experienced that modern historians call it the Byzantine Empire. It would last until 1453 – just as the Italian Renaissance was beginning to usher in the modern world.
Government, society and culture
Click here for an overview of Etruscan civilization.
Click here for an in-depth history of ancient Europe at the time when ancient Roman civilization flourished.
Click here for an in-depth history of the ancient Middle East, showing the role the Roman empire played in that region.
Click below for:
– of Ancient Europe, showing the rise and fall of the Roman empire in the context of European history
– of the Middle East, showing the impact of the Roman empire on that region
– of the World when ancient Roman civilization flourished
And a website on the Roman emperors