It would be hard to overstate how influential ancient Rome was to world history. At its height the Roman Empire stretched across much of Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. But it was far more than just an area of land! The Romans built roads throughout Europe, were a major part of the rise of Christianity, created the Western alphabet and Romance languages, maintained a culture that was a worldwide hub for art and learning, and set an example for future republics (though Rome itself became an empire)!
And all of this started as a tiny settlement in Italy. Talk about small beginnings!
Roman Innovations and Inventions
“All roads lead to Rome.” Today, we use this phrase when we want to say that there are many ways to reach the same goal. But in the Roman Empire, they meant it literally! All roads, more or less, really did lead to Rome. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, focused heavily on building and renovating roads to connect the various parts of his empire, attempting to make the city of Rome not just the central hub of Italy, but of the entire world. Industrious in their establishment of roads, Rome also innovated with a huge assortment of other inventions and public works.
The Roman leaders deeply cared about a few things: Conquering other places, getting those places connected to Rome, and maintaining their control of these new places. They created many modern essentials of architecture (from archways to concrete) as well as methods to keep the populace clean and happy (notably aqueducts and sewers). They were also fans of standardizing scholarship, inventing Roman numerals (surprise!), coming up with the Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar when he tweaked the previous calendar), writing ‘newspapers’ on metal or stone, making bound books, and innovating in philosophical systems like Stoicism and Skepticism that were inspired by Greek philosophers.
Still, don’t get too bogged down in individual inventions. There’s a simple, main thing that you should remember: Rome wanted to expand and preserve their empire. To that end, they sought to increase trade (aiding and connecting each place), build roads (increasing communication and making army movement easier), and build aqueducts (which, from 312 BC on, fed water from rivers and other sources to the populace, allowing cities to grow and prosper).
All of these innovations made Rome rather popular with the people they conquered. We can’t blame them! The Romans were tolerant of local populaces keeping their own cultures; all that really mattered was that they were ultimately loyal to Rome (and, perhaps most importantly, that they paid their taxes). So for many of those who found themselves suddenly a part of the Roman Empire, life was generally good. Under the control of Rome, these people had roads and aqueducts to connect and sustain their populations, a rich network of trade to engage with, and the might of the Roman military to stay safe from potential invaders.
Of course, these are only a few examples of what people in the Roman Empire invented. In their hundreds of years, they did more things than could be entirely summarized here. There is another popular phrase, after all: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Let’s return to the beginning of the story to see how Rome came to be.
The Origin of Rome
The origin myth of the Roman Empire is bizarre and intriguing. Twin brothers Romulus and Remus were said to be abandoned as babies and raised by wolves. In returning to human civilization Remus was killed by Romulus, and Romulus then founded the city of Rome by the Tiber River in central Italy. Romulus became its king.
Of course, the story of Romulus and Remus is fictional. But early Rome, from its founding in around 753 BC, really was a monarchy. The line of kings came to a halt when the Roman people rose up in 509 BC and overthrew King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. Rome became a republic, a kind of government in which the leaders were elected. This was all established and then cemented in Rome’s first code of law in 450 BC. One thing to remember is that a republic is different from a democracy. The Roman leaders all still belonged to the upper class (called patricians), including the Senate. The rest of the Romans (called plebeians) had relatively little power over how their government operated, and by 300 BC almost all true power rested in the Senate.
The republic itself was ruled over by two consuls, elected each year, who commanded Rome and its army. The army was especially important because Rome had a habit of invading neighboring territories, first conquering what is now Italy, then doing the same for much of northern Africa. Rome then spread west, to what is now Spain and Portugal, and east, to today’s Greece and western Turkey. Defeated peoples were enslaved or assimilated into the burgeoning empire. The Romans also sometimes adopted aspects of the cultures they conquered, embracing in particular much of Greek culture, religion, and philosophy.
But the republican system would gradually falter. The bureaucracy became large and unwieldy, and attempts to promote populist policies in the second century BC were violently rejected by the elite leadership. Meanwhile, unrest was biting at their heels as the common people became more and more disenfranchised while the wealth and power of the upper classes grew. Most of the plebeians (the common people) barely had a say in the government, which was filled with corruption.
The First Triumvirate and Julius Caesar
All of this led to the breakdown of the Roman Republic. Several individuals tried to take advantage of this chaotic situation by attempting to take power for themselves.
Enter Julius Caesar. Following his consulship, Caesar became Governor of Gaul, holding this position from 59 BC to 49 BC. He was instrumental in conquering or retaining much of Gaul (approximately modern-day France and Belgium). Yet his relationship with large portions of the Roman senate became even more strained, especially when he drove his armies into what are now Germany and Britain in displays of power in the Gallic Wars. Still, these battles, as well as his suppression of major revolts in Gaul in 54 and 52 BC, proved his strength of leadership to the Roman public. Because of Caesar’s conquests, the Roman Republic soon stretched to the Atlantic Ocean.
A few years earlier, the true rupture of the Roman republic came with the First Triumvirate (a triumvirate is an alliance of three people). This partnership of Pompey, Marcus Licinus Crassus, and Gaius Julius Caesar was able to boost Caesar into the governorship of Gaul. The alliance broke soon after, in 53 BC, when Pompey became the sole consul of Rome (Crassus had been killed, and Caesar was popular but still in Gaul). The senate’s anger with Caesar had led them to remove him from his governing position. But Caesar retaliated: in 49 BC, he invaded Rome with his army and overthrew Pompey. It was on his way to Rome that he famously crossed the Rubicon River. By 45 BC, Caesar’s legion had taken over Italy and he had declared himself dictator of Rome–for life. But his reign would end a year later when he was infamously killed in the Senate chambers. Almost equally infamous is one of his assassins, Brutus.
Marcus Junius Brutus (around 85 BC-42 BC) was a politician and had been an ally of Caesar for a number of years. Brutus supported his policies through most of Caesar’s rise to power. Yet Brutus was appalled when Caesar made himself dictator for life and joined a group of senators to plot against him. On March 15, 44 BC (known as the Ides of March), these senators assassinated Julius Caesar. William Shakespeare famously dramatized this scene in his play Julius Caesar in which Caesar, seeing that he has been betrayed by Brutus, says, “Et tu, Brutus?” In English, that means: “And you, Brutus?” or “Even you, Brutus?”
Octavian through Hadrian
But the empire did not end. In the wake of Caesar’s death, a Second Triumvirate formed (in 43 BC). This time the three people sharing power were Mark Antony, Caesar’s nephew Octavian, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. They split the vast Roman Empire among the three of them, but who controlled which part varied over time. Still, like the First Triumvirate, this one would shatter. By 31 BC Octavian had taken Egypt and defeated Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra, who then killed themselves. Incredibly, by 29 BC Octavian had gained control of the entire Roman Empire! He declared himself the first Emperor of Rome (Julius Caesar had only been “dictator”), and took the name Augustus. (The month of August is named after him.) Augustus was careful to appease both the patricians and the plebeians while rooting out corruption, so he was very popular. He introduced tax reform which helped to normalize Rome’s rule over the provinces, and he was proud of his many construction projects in Rome itself. This was the start of the 200-year Pax Romana (“Roman peace”), generally a period of stability and peaceful trade throughout the Empire, although there were some military incursions too.
What followed Augustus’ rule was a line of disappointing or outright insane emperors in the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. Many of them had short reigns, such as the infamous Caligula and Nero. But the situation became even worse, as these short reigns were followed by ‘The Year of the Four Emperors’ and all-out civil war! Luckily, the following Flavian dynasty attempted to restore the prosperity of old Rome. This period also saw the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum by Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.
The years AD 96 to 161 saw a series of successful emperors in the Nervan-Antonin Dynasty, all of whom were non-hereditary successors, but who followed each other peacefully. Under the emperors Trajan (98-117) and Hadrian (117-138), military victories expanded the Roman Empire to the biggest that it would ever be. Meanwhile, the domestic social order was sound and consistent. It was the peak of the Romans!
How to Break an Empire
Yet Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180), still famous and widely-read for his writing on Stoic philosophy, appointed his son Commodus as his successor. This decision would ultimately cause the end of the Pax Romana, the 200-year era of peace and prosperity for the Roman Empire. Commodus’ 12-year reign became increasingly dictatorial, and he encouraged an intense personality cult around himself. He even performed as a gladiator at the Colosseum! But he was assassinated in 192, and the power vacuum after his death spurred the beginning of the Severan Dynasty and the “Year of the Five Emperors.” By the end of the 2nd century things had dissolved into a civil war (the Imperial Crisis), which saw the quick rise and fall of 22 different emperors! Military coups were commonplace, as were emperors being killed by the military or mysteriously assassinated. On top of this domestic chaos, outside provocation from ‘barbarians’ battered Rome’s door. The empire had simply become too large to be ruled from one city in Italy.
Emperors Diocletian and Constantine
Emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305) met this strife with a huge decision: He divided the Roman Empire into western and eastern parts, with four people ruling over them (two in each section). This separation worked to calm things down until Diocletian’s death, when the fighting over power rose up yet again. But then, after Emperor Constantine defeated his enemies in battles, he ruled over a once-again united Rome from AD 306-337.
Constantine is well-known for the Edict of Milan, which called for religious toleration. His rule was also notable for seeing Byzantium (in what is now Turkey) become the new Roman capital. The name of the city was changed to Constantinople (‘city of Constantine’); it is now called Istanbul. Finally, in AD 325, Constantine oversaw the First Council of Nicaea, which formulated the Nicene Creed, which were intended to officially declare and settle the basics of Christian theology. Constantine also made Christianity the official religion of Rome. That was a big change from Christians being persecuted in the Roman Empire, which happened intermittently from AD 64 to 313! A few decades after Constantine’s death, Western and Eastern Rome separated again, largely because of the fighting among his three sons. A prominent issue was religious conflict between Christianity and the old pagan religion of Rome.
The Fall of Rome and the Byzantine Empire
At the same time as religious debates heated up the home front in the Western Roman Empire, the Gothic Wars (AD 376-382) threatened their borders. The invaders’ victory over Roman Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 was the final straw. The end of the Western Roman Empire was a long process, but the date of the Fall of Rome is often said to have been 476, when King Odoacer, of a Germanic tribe, overthrew Emperor Romulus Augustus and became the first non-Roman king of Italy. Western Rome would break up into small cities and states that would form the foundation for the European Middle Ages.
The Eastern Empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire, would prove to be far more stable. The Byzantine Empire lasted centuries after its western half, only coming to an end in AD 1453!