The Roman Empire began its long rise soon after the foundation of the city of Rome in the 8th century BCE. This article takes the story of Rome from its origins right up to the reign of the first emperor, Augustus, in the first century BCE.
For more on the society and culture of ancient Rome, go to the article on the Civilization of Ancient Rome.
The early history of Rome was set against a background of cultural change, when the simple way of life of the peoples of central Italy were beginning to be affected by influences from the eastern Mediterranean.
Latins, Greeks and Etruscans
In central Italy there is a plain on the west coast called Latium , which takes its name from the Latin people who lived there in the first millennium BC. They had come down into Italy from the north, like other Italic peoples, and had settled in small villages of thatched huts, sometime in the second millennium.
In the eighth century BC their rural way of life began to be effected by influences coming in from outside. Greek colonies were established in the plain of Campania, just south of Latium, and they introduced a new way of life based on towns and trade. Within a century or so of their coming they had also brought such innovations as the alphabet and coinage to the Italian peoples amongst whom they lived and traded. Meanwhile, to the north of the Latins another civilization arose, that of the Etruscans. They developed an advanced material culture which, like that of the Greeks, owed a great deal to contacts with the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. They too lived in towns and cities rather than in small villages, and developed a sophisticated urban culture. They had close commercial contacts with Greeks, Carthaginians and other civilized peoples of the region.
The Latins could not but help feel the influences radiating from north and south, and slowly they merged their farming villages into urban settlements. Many of them came under the political domination of Etruscan lords.
From Village Cluster to City-State
One such community affected by these changes was that of the Romans. They originally inhabited a cluster of villages on a group of hills in northern Latium, at a well-trodden crossing pint of the river Tiber. The Romans were not in fact typical of the usual Latin communities, in that from an early date they seem to have been a mix of Latins and Sabines, a more pastoral people who lived in the hills east of Latium. Sometime in the centuries after 700 BC these farmers merged their villages together to form a city-state; and very soon their location at a strategic crossing point on the river Tiber, twelve miles or so from its mouth, attracted the attention of their powerful Etruscan neighbours to the north. Etruscan lords came down and took control of the city, probably shortly after 600 BC, and gave the city a line of kings. These Kings, the Tarquinii (who, according to legend, were descended from the kings of Corinth in Greece) embellished the city with walls, a central forum (public square), an efficient drainage system, a wooden bridge across the Tiber, and temples – all the accoutrements, in fact, of a city-state of the ancient Mediterranean.
By the time of the later Tarquin kings, another Greek innovation was spreading through Italy – republicanism. In Rome’s case the move towards the expulsion of the kings was also probably something of an independence movement. Around 500 BC the Etruscan kings were expelled and in their place the Patricians, the heads of the leading clans in Rome, chose consuls from amongst their own numbers.
The early history of the Roman Republic was one of fierce external pressure accompanied by sharp internal tensions. The Romans’ triumph over both these challenges laid the foundations for future greatness.
With the expulsion of the last king, Tarquin the Proud, the Romans immediately found themselves fighting for their lives. Tarquin and his Etruscan allies organized a co-ordinated attack on them, and hill-tribes such as the Sabines and Volsci raided their territory. The Romans beat off these attacks, but from now on they were continually at war with their neighbours – Latin, Sabine, Volscian and Etruscan.
Tarquinius Superbus was the seventh King of Rome,
reigning from 535 until the Roman revolt in 509 B.C.
Published by Guillaume Rouille
What made matters worse was that there were grave tensions within the Roman community itself, of precisely the kind that we meet with in Greek city-states. As the traditions recorded by later Roman historians have it, the mass of the people, the Plebeians, resented the way in which the Patricians, the small group of leading families, ruled. The former felt that the latter were, through their dominance of the law courts, interpreting customs to their own advantage, allowing them (powerful, Patrician and wealthy) to act towards their debtors (poor, Plebeian and powerless) in a harsh and arbitrary way. Unlike in many Greek states, however, the Plebeians did not call for a re-distribution of land, nor did they violently attack the Patricians and try to seize power. Instead, they went on strike (or a “secessio” – technically they temporarily “seceded” from the state under their own chosen leaders, called tribunes) and refused to pay their taxes or fight in the army.
They did this for several years running before the Patricians, realizing that something had to give, agreed to set out the laws in a written form. A commission of both plebeians and patricians duly produced twelve tables of laws to be set up in public in the forum (c. 450 BC). These twelve tables set out a fairly harsh code of law, but Romans of all stripes felt it was fair, and they won the support of the community as a whole. The orginal Twelve Tables formed the basis of all subsequent Roman law, possibly the greatest distinctive contribution to future history that the Romans made.
Rome gradually prevailed over her Latin neighbours, and became recognized as the leading city-state within Latium.
Rome and her Neighbours
In c. 406 BC, after a fierce ten-year war with Veii, her nearest Etruscan neighbour (only ten miles away), she was victorious, and destroyed the city. At one stroke Roman territory almost doubled in size. The Romans settled their own citizens on the land that had belonged to the enemy. This put her in an even stronger position with her neighbours.
Then disaster struck. A powerful raiding party of Gauls, coming down the Italian peninsula from northern Italy, defeated the Roman army and burnt the city, narrowly failing to take the Citadel and destroy the city altogether (c. 390 BC).
It took many years for Rome to regain her leading position within Latium. Tensions between Patricians and Plebeians continued, gradually taking on a different character. Some plebeians had, over the years, become wealthy landowners, and they were becoming increasingly resentful about having no share in the leadership of the state. These rich plebeians used the massed power of their poorer fellows not only to guarantee the rights of the Plebeians, but also to gain access to high office for themselves.
They succeeded in both these aims (mostly in two “packages” of measures, in 366 and 287 BC), with all Roman citizens enjoying the protection of law against oppression, and with the office of tribune recognized as an official magistracy within the Roman political system. The office had wide-ranging powers to act against abuses of power by other magistrates. They also won seats in the senate, the ruling council of Rome; and finally, they won the right to be elected consul, or chief magistrate of Rome (two of these being elected each year to act as joint chiefs of state).
From this time forward, the leading Plebeian families gradually merged with those of the Patricians to form a single ruling class of Rome, and the tension between the Patrician and Plebeian orders faded (though it by no means vanished). The comparatively successful resolution of this conflict gave Roman society a stability and cohesion that stood it in good stead for the next century and a half.
Having overcome severe early challenges and set-backs, the Romans went on to defeat many tough enemies to conquer Italy. They did this not only by dogged determination in war, but also by judicious and far-sighted treatment of beaten opponents.
Latium and Campania
Other leading cities in Latium, such as Praeneste and Tibur, used the Gallic disaster to gain leadership of the Latin cities for themselves. Over about a generation, however, the Romans regained their strength. In 381 BC they conquered the neighbouring city of Tusculum. This was a landmark in Roman history because instead of destroying it, or laying it under tribute, they incorporated the defeated inhabitants into their own state: its leaders were welcomed into the Roman senate, its leading families become members of the Roman ruling class (Rome’s famous statesman Cato, who lived about a century and a half after this time, was a native of Tusculum), and ordinary inhabitants of Tusculum becoming full Roman citizens.
By the mid-4th century Rome’s field of activity was spreading beyond Latium and its surrounding hills. The Samnites, a confederation of hill tribes in southern central Italy, were pressing in on the cities in the fertile coastal plain of Campania, to the south of Latium. The Campanians appealed to Rome for help, and reluctantly, realising that a Samnite takeover of this productive area of Italy was not in their interests, the Romans agreed to do so.
The Romans were victorious against the Samnites in battle in the First Samnite War (343-41), but a more immediate danger to Rome was becoming apparent: the Latin cities were planning to turn on Rome, supported by the Campanian cities whom the Romans were helping (who had clearly come to feel, with the Latins, that Rome was becoming rather too powerful). The Romans hurriedly made peace with the Samnites, and almost immediately found themselves at war with the Latin and Campanian cities.
In the following war (340-338 BC) the Latins and Campanians were defeated. The Romans then tried a similar peace formula to the one which they had concluded with Tusculum, forty years before. They incorporated the smaller cities nearest to Rome into their state, giving their inhabitants full Roman citizenship and giving their leading families the opportunity to become Roman equestrians and senators. To the larger cities, or the ones further away in Campania, they gave a form of “half-citizenship” (called “Latin right”). Citizens of these cities had equal rights with Roman citizens in Roman courts, but did not have voting rights in the people’s assemblies of Rome, nor were they able to stand for election as Roman magistrates or become members of the Roman senate.
These measures – together with the establishment of a number of small colonies of Roman citizens at strategic locations throughout Latium and Campania – bound the people of Latium and Campania together in a network of shared interests under firm Roman leadership. The arrangements proved enduring, and, with rare exceptions, the Latins and Campanians remained staunch allies of Rome for the next three centuries.
Rome was now able to call on a large pool of military manpower, which she was to need over the next few decades. As we have seen, her new allies in the fertile coastal plain of Campania had been coming under pressure from the hill tribes of the interior, the Samnites and their allies. These had a reputation as tough fighters. The Romans were obliged to come to the assistance of their allies and had to endure long years of warfare in the hills and mountains of central and southern Italy (326-290 BC). They experienced some disastrous defeats, but eventually they were able to prevail. Whilst dealing with these difficult foes they also secured their rear in the north by subduing the Etruscan cities.
In the course of these long and difficult wars, the Romans introduced major changes in the way their military forces were organised. It was now that those distinctive Roman formations, the legion and the century (and that famous figure, the Roman centurion), emerged.
In victory the Romans again used a modified version of the measures they had adopted with the Latins and Campanians in 338. In this case, however, there was no great extension of either Roman or Latin citizenship; this was not appropriate given the variety of communities brought under their sway (and indeed, one of the secrets of this policy was not to be too generous with Roman or Latin citizenship, and so devalue it). Instead, the Etruscan city-states, Samnite hill tribes and others were made allies of Rome. Several small Roman colonies were planted amongst these newly new allies, along with a handful of large colonies whose people were drawn from Rome’s longer-standing Latin and Campanian allies. These were called Latin colonies, and acted as a formidable bulwark to Roman power in potentially hostile territory, as well as a channel via which Roman law and customs, as well as the Latin language, were transmitted throughout the Italian peoples. A network of roads was built along which troops could be hurried to if needed.
In this way the Romans constructed a federation of Italian states with varying degrees of “closeness” to her, from those brought lock-stock-and-barrel into her fold, to those who were merely her “Allies”. All states had their place, their own individual relationship to the leading city; and, as time was to prove, the system was to prove a resilient and enduring one. Her Allies provided Rome with the manpower to defend herself and her allies against new formidable opponents and extend her sway.
The next opponent was indeed formidable. The Greek cities of southern Italy, alarmed at the growing power of Rome, called Pyrrhus, king of the northern Greek kingdom of Epirus (reigned 307-272 BC), to come to their aid and safeguard their independence (280 BC). Pyrrhus was one of the most famous Greek generals since Alexander the Great. He answered the call, and with one of the finest armies of the time (which, incidentally, included 20 elephants), he defeated the Romans in a number of battles. The cost to his army, however, was so great, and their manpower so apparently inexhaustible, that he came to realize that he could never overcome them. After a defeat at Rome’s hands in 275 he left Italy for home, counselling the Greek cities to come to terms with Rome. This they duly did.
After her conquest of Italy, Rome faced two great wars with the international maritime power of Carthage. These almost brought her to her knees, but Rome’s eventual triumph left her in control of the western Mediterranean.
By 270 BC Rome led a confederation of allies which covered all Italy south of the river Po. She now encountered the most formidable foe in her history.
Carthage was at this time the leading maritime power in the western Mediterranean. She was determined to keep this position, so when tensions arose in Sicily which drew the Romans in a clash between the two powers became inevitable. What followed was two conflicts which were the ancient world’s equivalents of two world wars of the 20th century.
In the First Punic War (264-241 BC – called Punic because the Romans knew the Carthaginians as Phoenicians).
Carthage started by dominating the seas around Italy. Whilst this situation lasted, Rome could do little to get at her enemy. So she built a large fleet and armed her warships with a new device, a bridge with a hook on it to grappling an enemy ship and allow the Roman soldiers to stream across and attack at close quarters. After a series of discouraging defeats the Romans at last began to win victories at sea, and so eventually gained the upper hand.
At length the Carthaginians came to terms. As a result of the war, Carthage ceded some cities in Sicily to Rome; paid a huge indemnity and shortly after the war’s end, a mutiny amongst Carthage’s mercenary troops handed Corsica and Sardinia over to Rome. This was the beginnings of Rome’s overseas empire.
To replace their lost overseas territories, the Carthaginians built up their power in Spain, making a network of alliances with the local tribes there. This was to a great extent the work of one of their leading families, the Barcids. As chance would have it, this family produced a commander whom historians have ever since regarded as one of the greatest generals in history. His name was Hannibal.
Marble Bust of Hannibal
He built up his family’s authority in Spain into a personal power-base, from which he was able to recruit a large, well-trained army (again with elephants). The inevitable war broke out with Rome again in 218 BC, and Hannibal led his army on one of the most audacious marches in history, over the high Alps (elephants and all – or to begin with, at any rate; there weren’t any left by the end) and down into the broad Po plains of Northern Italy. His strategy was to raise the people of Italy against their Roman masters, and thus destroy Rome’s power.
In North Italy Hannibal was able to recuperate his army and recruit many more troops from the Gauls who lived there at that time. With the approach of Hannibal, these had massacred a couple of Roman colonies established in their territory, so throwing their lot firmly in with the Carthaginians.
The Second Punic War
The Romans were suddenly confronted with the main Carthaginian army in their own backyard. This did not stop them from sending an army to Spain to fight the Barcids on their own territory, and they were well able to raise an army to send against Hannibal. This he destroyed at the battle of Trebia. They raised another one. This he led into an ambush at Lake Trasimene, and destroyed. They raised a third. At the great battle of Cannae (216 BC) this third Roman army was also wiped out. The way was now clear for Hannibal to march on Rome, and to send out a call for her subject to shake themselves free from Rome’s dominion.
Only a few cities answered this call, the most important of which was Capua. The rest remained firmly loyal to Rome for the next eleven years whilst Hannibal marched up and down central and southern Italy, devastating the land to try and bring the Romans to battle. Under their veteran general, Fabius “the delayer”, the Romans shadowed Hannibal’s army but avoided battle. A Carthaginian army under Hannibal’s brother Habsdrubal, which repeated Hannibal’s feat by marching over the Alps into northern Italy, was brought to battle and soundly defeated.
In Spain, meanwhile, the Roman armies had met with total defeat. The Romans then appointed a young general called Scipio to take command (another family affair – it was his father and uncle who had led the Roman armies to defeat), and he gradually retrieved the situation and gained the upper hand. By 205 BC he had established Roman control in Spain.
The Romans then invaded the Carthaginian home territory in North Africa in 205 BC, under the command of Scipio (later nicknamed “Africanus”). Hannibal was recalled from Italy to lead the defence of the city. The manoeuvring between the two sides lasted until 202 BC, when they met each other at the battle of Zama. Here, Hannibal was finally defeated by the Romans. The war was over.
After her life-and-death struggle with Carthage, Rome’s armies went on to conquer countries to West and East, so that by the end of the second century BC she dominated the entire Mediterranean Sea.
The victory over Carthage left the Romans as the dominant power in the western Mediterranean. Soon her armies were involved in trying to hold their positions in Spain, and then expanding it. The tough Iberian tribesmen, together with the difficult terrain of the peninsula, made the task of conquering what are today modern Spain and Portugal an extremely difficult one, and it took the Romans two hundred years to complete. As a by-product of this struggle, the Romans secured a stretch of southern Gaul in 133 BC and planted Roman colonies on it to safeguard the overland route to Spain.
Meanwhile Roman armies had become involved in the eastern Mediterranean. The conflicts between the Greek and Hellenistic states drew the new power inexorably into their tangled affairs. Macedonia, which dominated Greece, had sided with Carthage in the Second Punic War, and a Roman army had become involved in the Balkans before the war’s end.
After Zama, Roman involvement was expanded to the point where, after defeating the Macedonian army at the battle of Cynoscephalae (197), Rome restricted Macedonia’s hold to the south by “liberating” the Greek city states from her interference. Antiochus, king of the Seleucid kingdom, then invaded Greece to prevent further Roman involvement – which of course had exactly the opposite effect by bringing the Romans to the region again and driving him back into Asia (Battle of Magnesia, 190). A new king of Macedonia, Perseus, then decided to try his luck against the Romans, but, after some initial successes he too was defeated at the Battle of Pydna (168) and his kingdom divided into four weak republics, all allied to Rome. Again Roman forces withdrew. Finally, a widespread revolt against the Roman-sponsored regimes in Macedonia and Greece resulted in the destruction of the historic city of Corinth and the establishment of permanent Roman rule in the region (146).
Carthage had ended the Second Punic War with her overseas territories stripped from her, and having to pay a massive indemnity to Rome for the following 50 years. Furthermore, her neighbours, the Numidians, had played a significant role in the war as Rome’s allies, and so the Romans had also stipulated that Carthage not go to war with the Numidians except with Rome’s agreement. Despite numerous provocations from the Numidians, Rome never granted this permission.
In the half century following the war, the Carthaginians focussed on trade, and, despite the indemnity, were soon thriving again. Scarred by their near-extinction in the war, the Romans had acquired an irrational fear of Carthage, and seeing her growing prosperity did nothing to allay these fears. One of their leading statesmen, Porcius Cato, apparently began to end all his speeches in the senate with the words, “Carthago delendo est” (“Carthage must be destroyed”).
So called patrician Torlonia
After paying off her indemnity, Carthage felt that she was now free to pursue her own quarrels with the Numidians. The Romans, however, regarded the requirement for Carthage to seek Rome’s agreement before going to war with Numidia as permanent. In 149, therefore, when Carthaginian forces invaded Numidia, the Romans went to war with their old enemy. The was was a one-sided affair, basically involving a three-year siege of Carthage. When the city fell (in 146), it was levelled to the ground and its inhabitants sold off into slavery; its territory was annexed to Rome as the province of Africa.
In the later second century BC two rulers of kingdoms in Asia Minor, Pergamum and Bithynia, having no heirs, actually bequeathed their states to Rome, laying the foundations of Roman expansion further east.
While the Romans were conquering all around the Mediterranean, things had been going from bad to worse within the society and body-politic of Rome itself.
A Sickness in Society
The influx of booty and tribute from the conquests created a class of extremely rich Romans – senators who were sent to the wars as generals and governors, and business men (equestrians) who farmed the taxes of the new provinces and provisioned the armies. Above all, each new victory brought in thousands of slaves: during the last two centuries BC the Mediterranean slave trade became an enormous business, with Rome and Italy being the main destination markets. During this period Roman society became a more slave-based society than any other before or since in history.
Many slaves were set to work on the land of the senators and other wealthy men, who set about developing their estates along new, much more businesslike lines. The ordinary farmers could not compete with these new estates, and more and more small farmers lost their lands to their rich neighbours. The estates grew larger, and more small farmers left the land. Many of them headed for Rome, where they swelled the ranks of a growing class of landless and rootless proletariat.
The combination of great wealth and mass poverty in Rome itself poisoned the political climate there. Political gang-masters put votes and mobs up for sale, corruption spread, and Roman politics became dominated by feuding factions. These were not modern political parties representing broadly different ideologies, but there were ideas around which different factions grouped. One set of ideas was taken up by those (a minority in the senate) who wished to see land redistribution – estates limited in size and the balance of land distributed to the landless poor – and the opposing groups (the majority) wished to preserve the interests of the “best people” (i.e. themselves) intact.
In 133 a famous incident led to the death of a reformist politician, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the first murder in Roman politics for centuries. The death of his brother, Gaius, in similar circumstances followed ten years later. Factionalism and strife steadily increased thereafter.
The decline of the smallholder in the Italian countryside had another profound effect on the Roman state. He was the traditional mainstay of the Roman army, buying his own weapons and taking his turn with the troops. This system had already come under strain with Rome’s armies spending years abroad on foreign campaigns; indeed it was the lack of menfolk at home that often undermined a smallholding family’s ability to keep its farm. With the expansion of Rome’s overseas military commitments and the declining pool of smallholders, the recruitment of the armies from this class became harder and harder.
This problem became apparent with the war against the Numidian king, Jugurtha (112-106), and against the Germans (112-101). The Roman armies sent to North Africa to deal with Jugurtha simply could not do so, and the war was only ended when Jugurtha’s ally the king of Mauritania betrayed him into Roman hands. If Roman armies could not even overcome a second-tier power such as Numidia, something had gone badly wrong.
In 112 the Romans began to encounter a new enemy, the Germans. Two German tribes, the Cimbri and Teutones, probably with other tribes in tow (or gathering them along the way), moved out of their homeland in north Germany and headed southward, first into Switzerland and then into France. There they invaded the strip of territory which the Romans had occupied in 133. All Roman armies sent against them were destroyed, culminating in the shocking defeat at the battle of Arausio (105). This ranks alongside Cannae as one of the Romans’ greatest military disasters in their history.
Luckily for the Romans, the Germans did not then invade Italy, but continued to ravage across France and into Spain. This gave the Romans time to take stock of their perilous situation and do something about it. They placed their armies under the command of that veteran general, Marius.
Holding the consulship for five years in a row (105-101; he had also been consul in 107), Marious brought in a series of reforms which transformed the Roman army. Apart from some long-overdue organisational reforms, he opened recruitment to the landless classes. From now on, Roman armies would increasingly be manned by long-term professional soldiers. As a result, their effectiveness began to rise again.
After training his “new model army”, Marius moved against the Germans, In 102 he annihilated the Teutones in southern France, and in 101 he did the same to the Cimbri, who had invaded northern Italy. In gratitude the Romans elected Marius to an unprecedented seventh consulship in 100.
Professional Armies, Ambitious Generals
The opening of recruitment to the landless classes of Roman society, as well as improving the military quality of Rome’s armies, had another hugely important result. It tied the interests of the soldiers much more closely to their generals. This was because they increasingly looked to their commanders to ensure that, when their period of service ended, they were provided with land (the one commodity in the pre-industrial world which provided a family with any economic security).
Commanders could now count on their soldiers putting their loyalty to him personally before their loyalty to the state. The great Roman armies being fielded from this time on behaved increasingly like generals’ private forces. Given that Roman leading generals were also leading politicians in the senate, this situation was bound to get entangled with the faction-ridden politics in Rome. The generals’ opponents in the senate would try to block their efforts to achieve land distribution in favour of their men, with the predictable result of throwing the generals and their men even more closely together. It is little wonder that on occasions the generals and their armies attempted to achieve their hopes by extra-constitutional means.
The last phase of the Republic, then, was dominated a succession of struggles between leading generals and their opponents in the senate on the one hand, and between the rival generals themselves on the other. But what set the stage for this phase was a fierce and entirely needless war between Rome and many of her longest-standing Italian allies, which broke out in 90 BC (The Latin word for allies is socii, so in English the war is called the “Social War”.)
This came about through the senate’s recent tendency to treat the allies with increasing arrogance, and exclude their citizens from the benefits of empire. The Allies’ frustrations boiled over into outright war, which belatedly prompted the senate to grant all Italians (south of the Po) full Roman citizenship. Many cities laid down their arms, but a few hill tribes were not defeated until 88 BC.
In the aftermath of the Social War, in which he had once again distinguished himself, the famous old general Marius attempted to have himself elected by the People’s Assembly to a new command in the East, where king Mithridates of Pontus had massacred thousands of Roman citizens. The senate had appointed another general, Cornelius Sulla, to the command, and he marched his army (which had been engaged in mopping up operations against recalcitrant Allies in southern Italy) to Rome and drove Marius into exile. This was Rome’s first civil war (88-87). Sulla then set off for the east.
Bust probably from the time of Augustus) after a portrait of an
important Roman from the 2nd century BC
As soon as Sulla was gone Marius (who by now seems to have been more or less unhinged) and his supporters returned, seized control of Rome and carried out a vicious purge of their enemies. Marius died shortly after this, but his supporters retained influence in Rome.
In 82 BC Sulla returned with his victorious army (though Mithridates had by no means been totally defeated). In a second civil war (82-81) Sulla agian seized control of Rome. He had himself appointed dictator, and embarked on a reign of terror against his real and perceived enemies. Much of the property confiscated was distributed to his veterans. Sulla also carried out a programme of reforms, aimed essentially at strengthening the power of the senate, and then, in 79 BC, retired from public life.
The middle years of the first century BC were dominated by the careers of two powerful generals, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. Their conquests and maneouverings set the stage for the final fall of the Republic.
The Rise of Pompey
By the time of Sulla’s retirement, another general was making his mark, Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey). After another civil war between Roman forces – but this time in Spain rather than in Italy – Pompey with difficulty defeated Sertorius, one of Marius’ supporters who had been governing Spain as a virtually independent ruler for several years.
Meanwhile, in 73 a slave revolt broke out in southern Italy. This was not the first of such revolts, but it was the first one to start on the Italian mainland rather than on the island of Sicily. The rise of great slave-run estates in southern Italy and Sicily, with chained gangs of men working in the most appalling conditions, had created conditions ripe for violent uprisings.
As well as being the first to break out on the mainland, this was by far the most dangerous of the slave revolts. Under the leadership of an energetic and charismatic gladiator called Spartacus, it posed a serious threat to ordered life in the area. Roman forces sent against the slaves were defeated, and the revolt spread over a wider and wider area. As the slave army marched northward, Rome itself began to feel threatened.
Pompey was appointed to the command against them, along with another rising politician, Licinius Crassus (who in fact bore the brunt of the campaigning). They were given a large army, and were able to defeat the slaves, putting down the rebellion with shocking brutality.
Pompey and Crassus then marched their armies near Rome and demanded the consulship for the coming year (70 BC – Pompey was by law far too young for this post). This they obtained.
A little later Pompey was given the supreme command against pirates who, in the chaos of the preceding decades, had established themselves throughout the eastern Mediterranean and had come to pose a grave menace to merchant shipping (on which Rome increasingly depended to feed its growing population). He achieved this in short order, and was appointed to the supreme command in the east, where he finally eliminated king Mithridates and brought the whole of Asia Minor, Syria and Judaea under Rome’s control. He divided the conquered territories between provinces under Rome’s direct rule, on the one hand, and client kingdoms under their own kings (the best-known being the family of Herod in Judaea).
Having done this, Pompey returned and spent several frustrating years trying to get the senate, which by now was in the hands of politicians deeply suspicous of his fame and power, to give land to his veterans, (having made the honourable mistake of disbanding his army first).
The Rise of Caesar
At Rome, domestic politics was coloured by the continual faction fighting between leading senators, spiced by gang warfare in support of one party or the other. These were also the years in which Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great orator, made his mark; he was consul in the year 63 BC, during which he defeated an attempt, called the Cataline conspiracy, by a group of impoverished nobles to carry out a coup.
Another rising politician and general was C. Julius Caesar, who was elected consul in 59 BC after a successful tour of duty as governor in Spain. During his term in office, he negotiated an informal alliance between himself, Pompey and Crassus: Crassus was to receive the eastern command, he was to receive the command in Gaul, and Pompey was to have the land distribution in favour of his veterans so long denied him. Their combined influence and wealth created an unstoppable political force, and they all got what they wanted from it. They renewed their compact in 56 BC.
In the next few years Caesar conquered the whole of Gaul and even invaded Britain twice (55 and 54 BC). During this he acquired an unparalleled reputation as a brilliant general, and great popularity with the ordinary people of Rome, but his opponents in the senate increasingly tried to have him recalled to face trial for various misdemeanours.
The Bust of Caesar
Crassus was killed in the east (along with most of his army) against the Parthians (53), at one of Rome’s biggest military disasters, the battle of Carrhae, and Pompey and Caesar soon fell out. Many senators were by now getting thoroughly alarmed at the rising popularity and power of Caesar, a feeling fully shared by Pompey.
In 49 BC, having been recalled from Gaul to face his enemies in the senate, Caesar chose instead to march on Rome with his army (the first time that a provincial army had “invaded” Italy in support of a Roman general). His enemies fled to Greece, where Pompey raised an army. Caesar followed with his army, and defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus (48). Pompey then fled to Egypt where he was assassinated on the orders of Ptolemy, king of Egypt.
Several more years of bloody fighting in Africa and Spain were needed to overcome up opposition to his rule, but by 45 BC Caesar was in complete control of the Roman state, like Sulla taking the office of dictator. He showed great clemency to his enemies, and carried out some reforms within Rome and the provinces. However, his time was short. His senatorial opponents were implacable, and he was assassinated by a group of them in 44 BC.
The assassination of Caesar set the stage for another civil war. The assassins of Caesar fled to Greece (43 BC), where they set about raising an army. Caesar’s former lieutenants, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and C. Octavianus (Octavian, Caesar’s grand nephew and adopted son), and Aemilius Lepidus, formed the Second Triumvirate (this time a formal one, with the specified aim of “Settling the Constitution”), and carried out a widespread purge of thousands of senators and knights in Rome and throughout Italy, distributing the confiscated lands amongst their followers. Antony and Octavian then took an army to Greece in pursuit of Caesar’s assassins, and defeated them at Philippi (42).
After Philippi, the triumvirs divided the Roman world between them: Octavian took Italy, Gaul and Spain, Lepidus took Africa, and Antony took all the eastern provinces.
The Triumvirate almost immediately began to break down. When Lepidus proved restive at his small share, Octavian crushed him and stripped him even of that. He then skilfully used Antony’s infatuation with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, to present him as an enemy of Rome’s true interests, and prepared for war.
This finally came in 31 BC, when the fleets of the two opposing sides met at Actium, off the Greek coast. Octavian won (thanks mainly to the generalship of his lieutenant, Vipsanius Agrippa), leaving Antony and Cleopatra to sail away and commit suicide in Egypt.
Octavian followed up his victory by occupying Egypt, which now became a part of the Roman empire – became, in fact, Octavian’s private estate.
Octavian was now sole master of the Roman world, and for a few years experimented with various ways of ruling in a manner that would be acceptable to all parties. Finally, in 27 BC he took the name Augustus, and remodelled the constitution in such a way that kept the traditional forms of the Republic (senate, historic magistracies and so on) in place, but concentrated effective power (especially overwhelming military force) in his own hands. This Augustan Settlement, as it has been called, provided the Roman world with a framework of government which lasted more than two hundred years. Octavian, or Augustus as we should now call him, was thus the first of the long line of Roman emperors who were to rule the Roman world for hundreds of years.
With his victory over Antony at Actium, in 31 BCE and his annexation of Cleopatra’s kingdom of Egypt the following year, Octavian became the sole master of the Roman world. But how was he to ensure stability in the Roman world? He knew that if he were to give up his control of his armies, rivalries between senatorial proconsuls would soon lead to warfare; but if he was also keenly aware that if he were to cling on to his powers he would soon gain the enmity of the senate, as his adopted father Julius Caesar had done. Given that the senate was the fount of the lawful exercise of power, his position would soon become untenable.
During a few years of experimentation with different arrangements, Augustus gradually developed the formula which would become the foundation for imperial rule in succeeding centuries. At the heart of this stood the arrangements for control of the provinces – and therefore armies – of the empire.
By this arrangement, the senate had responsibility for the more peaceful, civilized and wealthy of the provinces, such as Africa, Greece, Macedonia and Asia. It appointed governors to these provinces, and their taxes flowed into the senatorial treasury.
The great proconsulate
In return he had the senate appoint him proconsul (initially for a period of ten years, then in perpetuity) of a huge provincia whihc included most of the frontier territories of the empire (this followed a republican precedent whereby a general such as Pompey was given broad, multi-province powers to deal with a threat to Roman rule). It was in Octavian’s provincia that the bulk of the Roman legions were now stationed, so he kept in his hands an an overwhelming preponderance of military power. He appointed his own lieutenants (who were all senators except in the case of Egypt, to which he appointed an equestrian Prefect) to govern the different territories he controlled, and the revenues from them flowed into a treasury whose officials answered to him. Collecting the revenue from his provinces (known by modern scholars as the imperial provinces, to distinguish them from the senatorial provinces) was put into the hands of financial officials drawn from the equestrian class, not the senatorial. This was the first step in creating an equestrian public career to go alongside the senatorial career, and drew that class more closely into the running of the empire.
Augustus and Princeps
In 27 BC the senate voted him the titles Augustus and Princeps. He already had the title imperator (a title given previously to victorious generals, and which enabled him and his successors to wear the distinctive purple toga worn by such men in their triumphs). Henceforward he and all his successors always had the words Imperator Caesar Augustus within their nomenclatures.
A few years later Augustus gave up his practice of holding one of the two consulships each year, thus giving more room for ambitious senators to hold what was traditionally regarded as the most prestigious magistracy in the Roman state. However, he gained some additional powers, the most important of which was a proconsular imperium, which gave him a supervisory authority over all the provinces in the empire, senatorial as well as imperial (click here for a fuller tally of the various titles, powers and offices which the position of emperor embraced).
Apart from the legal foundation for his supreme position within the Roman state which this series of offices, titles and powers constituted, Augustus was able to supplement his power through a number of other factors. The first of these was the sheer wealth which he now controlled. The richest province on the empire, Egypt, was now virtually his private estate; and he also owned a growing number of estates which had been confiscated by defeated rivals. In his daily life Augustus lived frugally; but he was able to use his vast wealth as a way of winning support from groups such as army veterans, cities in different parts of the empire, and of course individual senators and equestrians.
A second factor was the establishment of the Praetorian Guard. In Augustus’ time this was garrisoned in towns near Rome, rather than in Rome itself: only one of its nine cohorts (some 500 men) was on duty guarding his house at any one time. From his successor Tiberius’ time, however, the Praetorian Guard were housed in its own huge barracks just outside the walls of Rome. It was increased in size to twelve cohorts, with each cohort being of one thousand men. The commander of the guards became probably the second most powerful man in the empire after the emperor himself, even though not a senator.
Summary of the Augustan settlement
The chief underpinning of the emperors power, however, was implicit in the legal arrangements that had emerged in the Augustan settlement. This was that he and his successors became by far the greatest fount of patronage for senators and equestrians. Directly or indirectly they controlled appointments to all the high offices of the Roman state – legionary commands, provincial governorships, and senior government posts in Rome itself.
This Augustan settlement provided the Roman world with a framework of government which lasted more than two hundred years. Augustus as we should now call him, was thus the first of the long line of Roman emperors who were to rule the Roman world for hundreds of years.
[Click here for more on the position of the emperor in the first two centuries of the empire]
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Ancient Europe, showing the rise and fall of the Roman empire in the context of European history
The Middle East, showing the impact of the Roman empire on that region
The World when ancient Roman civilization flourished