Civilization based in Rome, which lasted for about 800 years. Traditionally founded 753 BC, Rome became a republic 510 BC. From then, its history is one of almost continual expansion until the murder of Julius Caesar and foundation of the empire under Augustus and his successors. At its peak under Trajan, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain to Mesopotamia and the Caspian Sea. A long train of emperors ruling by virtue of military, rather than civil, power marked the beginning of Rome's long decline; under Diocletian, the empire was divided into two parts—East and West—although temporarily reunited under Constantine, the first emperor formally to adopt Christianity. The end of the Roman Empire is generally dated by the deposition of the last emperor in the west AD 476. The Eastern Empire continued until 1453 at Constantinople.
The civilization of ancient Rome occupied first the Italian peninsula, then most of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. It influenced the whole of western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond, in the fields of art and architecture, literature, law, and engineering, and through continued use by scholars of its language, Latin.
The Latins were a branch of the Indo-European peoples who migrated to Italy from across the Alps toward the end of the second millennium BC. Their numerous hilltop settlements gradually coalesced into larger city states, one of which was Rome. Rome's later dominance was aided by its geographical situation within easy reach of the sea and the center of the peninsula, and by its command of the Tiber ford which gave it control of an important salt route between the mount of the river and the Apennines.
The earliest period of Rome is shrouded in legend, the most famous of which is the Roman tradition that their city was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus about 753 BC and the Romans dated all events in reference to this, using the notation AUC (ab urbe condite, from the [time of] foundation of the city), much as AD is used in Western dating. The early Rome was governed by kings, probably Etruscan. They were advised by a senate representing the noblest patrician clans while the less privileged orders were divided into 30 curiae and, for military purposes into centuriae, upon a property basis. The people were divided into tribes of which there were 35 by the 3rd century BC. Rome prospered under the Etruscan kings and became established as a civilized locally powerful city-state.
The last king of Rome was the despot Tarquinius Superbus (the Proud) 534–510 BC who, according to tradition, was so disliked by the Romans that he was driven out and the monarchy abolished. In its stead, an aristocratic republican constitution was established, governed by two annually elected magistrates known as consuls.
c 509–265 BC
The young republic was engaged in a constant series of battles for dominance with its neighbors, the Etruscans, Samnites, Aequi, and Volsci. The Romans spent much of the 5th century BC fighting off the Aequi and Volsci, with the aid of a series of alliances with neighboring Latin tribes eventually going over to the offensive in the later part of the century and absorbing both tribes. By 406 BC, the expansion of Roman influence brought them into conflict with Etruria, sparking a fresh war with the Etruscans. The Romans won with the capture of Veii 396 BC and the whole of southern Etruria was annexed.
Much of the Roman success in this area was due to the preoccupation of the northern Etruscans with the Gauls who were invading from the Alps. In 390 these tribes entered Roman territory, defeated the Roman Army on the banks of the Allia, sacked the city, but withdrew after a fruitless siege of the Capitol. The Romans never forgot this disaster (dies Alliensis), which was a severe blow to their prestige, although it did little harm to the city’s internal structure or power. On a more immediate front, it sparked a series of risings by “allied” tribes which Rome not only successfully put down but also managed to absorb new lands.
The 4th century BC saw Rome expand throughout most of Italy, with those areas not directly conquered still under Roman control by a complex series of imbalanced “alliances” and colonies. Many of Rome’s allies in the Latin League resented Rome’s dominance and rebelled, leading to the Latin Wars 340 BC, after which the League was dissolved and the Latin states subjugated. There followed a long period of clashes with Samnium, the Samnite Wars 327–290 BC. Despite suffering a humiliating defeat at the Caudine Forks 321 BC, Rome had entirely crushed the Samnites by 290 BC. After further clashes with the Greek cities of southeast Italy, aided by Pyrrhus of Epirus, the Romans absorbed much of this area as well and by 270 BC controlled or directly ruled most of Italy except Cisalpine Gaul.
Rome's triumph had been achieved not only by force of arms, but also by the policy of colonization and the building of roads which helped to assimilate newly conquered territories. Much of the peninsula now enjoyed Roman citizenship, and those areas which did not were bound to Rome by alliances of various grades. While direct taxation fell exclusively upon Roman citizens, all citizens and allies were bound to do military service. Most important, a common culture superseded local languages, cults, and customs.
the Punic Wars
Rome became the leading power in Italy almost unintentionally by responding first to one threat and then to another, until eventually there were no more threats. To some extent the same is true of the way in which the Romans expanded outside mainland Italy to become the leading power in the Mediterranean. The First Punic War (264–241 BC) arose out of Rome's concern for the protection of her allies in southern Italy, and ended with the acquisition of the first overseas province, Sicily, 241 BC. This was quickly followed by the acquisition of Corsica and Sardinia 238 BC as Rome took advantage of Carthage's weakness. The Second Punic War (218–201 BC) was potentially far more serious. The Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy and inflicted several serious defeats on the Romans, spending 15 years on Italian soil. Although he remained undefeated, the Roman victories elsewhere, particularly the conquest of Spain 206 BC, and their attack on Carthage itself led to Hannibal being recalled from Italy. Rome emerged
victorious after the battle of Zama 202 BC and Carthage ceased to be a significant military power in the Mediterranean. Carthage was not annexed however and regained much of its previous commercial prosperity. This rankled with many Romans, who felt that Carthage had been such a serious threat it should have been destroyed outright and Rome engineered the Third Punic War 149 BC. The Carthaginians were ready to surrender and accept Roman terms until it was revealed that one of these terms was the destruction of their city. They held out until 146 BC when the Romans destroyed the city and turned the area into a Roman province.
Rome was also active in the north and the east during the same period. In the north, defensive operations against the Gauls and the barbarians living in present-day Austria and Yugoslavia led to the acquisition of Cisalpine Gaul, and the extension of Roman control along the coast to Marseilles in the west, and down the Dalmatian coast in the east.
Rome was drawn into several wars in the east, and took control of much of Greece in the Macedonian Wars. The first (214–205 BC) was against Philip V, an ally of Hannibal, and ended somewhat inconclusively. Philip V also sparked the second war (200–196 BC) and this time was defeated, leading the Roman consul Flaminius to announce at the Isthmian games that Greece was free from Macedonian domination. After the third Macedonian war against Perseus (172–168 BC), Macedonia was broken up and when attempts were made to reunite the kingdom 20 years later, Macedonia was made 146 BC. In the same year the Achaean League attempted to assert its independence and Rome made Achaea a province. Corinth was destroyed after a similar attempt to resist Roman rule, and Greece became a Roman protectorate, with those cities who had proved friendly as nominal allies and those who had resisted made subjects.
The Senate emerged from the war against Hannibal in as strong a position internally as Rome was in the world at large. However, there were two outstanding defects in its administration of the empire. The loyalty of the Senate to its own members made it virtually impossible for a provincial governor to be convicted of misgovernment (except for reasons connected with domestic politics). It therefore became common, and even normal, for the governor and his staff to regard provincial administration as a quick way of making a fortune. The Senate also failed to work out any system for a standing army loyal to the state, so allowed provincial governors and generals to tie their armies' loyalty more closely to them personally than to Rome. When these individuals fell out with one another, each had a ready-made following, and recourse to civil war was more or less inevitable. At the same time, the authority of the Senate came under attack from demagogues using the limited power allowed the people in the Roman constitu
tion to try and displace the Senate as the sovereign body of Rome.
During 100 years of disorder, the Republic increasingly broke down and came to depend on the protection of the very powerbrokers who were threatening its existence. After bitter struggle with the Senate, Julius Caesar finally shattered the Republic after a brief civil war 46 BC. His assassination 44 BC sparked off a period of further civil war between his heirs, Octavian (his adopted son) and Mark Anthony (his political heir), and the conspirators who had assassinated him. After an uneasy period of power-sharing, Octavian and Anthony also fell out, leading to renewed civil war 32–30 BC. Anthony had taken up with Cleopatra, enabling Octavian to depict the civil war as a battle for Roman values against the sinister power of the East. Octavian emerged supreme, and effectively became Emperor.
Augustus to Marcus Aurelius
Octavian managed to find constitutional forms with which to disguise his autocratic powers, and succeeded in restoring peace in the Mediterranean after a century of turmoil and civil war. He was granted the title Augustus in recognition of his achievement in bringing peace to Rome, albeit at the cost of the Republic. He also stabilized the Empire, which by now spread from the Middle East to Gaul, and dictated that it should not be expanded further after a series of disasters in Germany. His successors, the Julio-Claudians, ruled until Nero was deposed AD 68. Civil war broke out anew but after the chaos of the year of the four emperors AD 69 (when four successive generals briefly seized the throne, only to be deposed by the next), order was restored by Vespasian who established the Flavian dynasty, based on direct lineal descent.
After the death of Domitian 96 AD, Nerva was elected Emperor by the Senate. Then followed a period of 83 years when, as chance would have it, none of the emperors had a direct male heir and so adopted as heirs the men they considered the most suitable to rule. As a result Rome and the Mediterranean world enjoyed nearly a century of uninterrupted good government. The system broke down when Marcus Aurelius made the disastrous choice of his son Commodus to succeed him 180 AD.
In this period, with the conquests of Trajan, the Roman Empire reached its broadest extent. However, it is possible to discern behind the security and prosperity of the 2nd century AD the weaknesses which were to lead to the chaos of the 3rd. First, there was the problem of the army. Augustus had gone some way toward solving the problems of the Republican era by creating a permanent army of about 300,000 troops, which was paid by the emperor, and therefore in theory loyal to him. However, his strategic dispositions, albeit necessary, went some way to undermine this loyalty. The armies were stationed on the frontiers where they were most frequently engaged, and their loyalty thus still tended to be directed toward their own district and commander, a fact dramatically demonstrated in the “year of the four emperors” 68–69 AD. Moreover, their absence from Rome gave undue political influence to the troops stationed in Italy, especially the Praetorian Guard.
The second problem was financial. The maintenance of the armies, and the feeding and entertainment of the Rome's urban population, were a great drain on resources. The Empire could meet these demands under normal circumstances, but any abnormal expenditure (such as a profligate emperor, or an expensive foreign war) created problems. This led to the abuse of the system of liturgies. Voluntary contributions by wealthy citizens were replaced by compulsory contributions. These were a precedent for the much more severe levies enforced in the 3rd century, which eventually destroyed much of the wealth of the Empire, and thus made worse the difficulty they were intended to surmount. When the great wave of barbarian attacks came in the 3rd century, the Empire had no resources in reserve with which to meet them.
Marcus Aurelius to Diocletian
During the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161–80 AD) the weakness of the frontiers first became apparent. The legions were largely composed of recruits from conquered peoples who, with no natural loyalty to Rome, were as great a danger as their kinsmen without. There was a succession of soldier-emperors placed on the throne by their respective armies and despite periods of intermittent stability much of this time is characterized by internal military upheavals. Two of the soldier-emperors, however, Claudius II, an Illyrian, and Aurelian, a Pannonian, managed to stem the tide of invasion and for a time to restore the luster of the fading Empire.
Diocletian to Romulus Augustulus
Diocletian finally abandoned the last pretence of a diarchy of Emperor and senate, even assuming the trappings of oriental despotism and the style of “Dominus”. However, he instituted a series of reforms, both economic and political, which helped stabilize Rome’s internal affairs and a period of peace and prosperity ensued. He also began the process of splitting the imperial command. While he retained supreme command, he took as his special province Asia and Egypt and co-opted a fellow “Augustus”, Maximian, who took Italy and Africa. Two subordinate sovereigns were also adopted with the title of Caesar, Galerius in Thrace and Illyria, and Constantius Chlorus (Constantius I) in Gaul and Spain.
The system worked well as a sensible administrative reform while Diocletian remained in control but on his abdication AD 305 fierce struggles inevitably broke out among the subordinate “mini-emperors” and there was intermittent civil war until Constantine (I) the Great emerged as sole emperor.
Constantine began the process of the acceptance of Christianity across the Empire with his decree of toleration, the Edict of Milan 312 AD and summoned the first of a long series of general councils of the Church at Nicaea 325 AD. These councils had enormous power in the political as well as the theological sphere for the next millennium. Even more significantly for Rome, he divided the Empire into East and West by founding his new capital, Constantinople, at Byzantium, with a new senate and a new nobility. This Eastern Empire was Greek in culture and developed into the Byzantine Empire which endured through many vicissitudes but with unvarying splendor until 1453.Once again, on the death of Constantine 337 AD, the rival Caesars fought for power while barbarian tribes swept across the frontiers of the west. In 364 AD Valens was appointed Western emperor by his brother, Valentinian I, of the Byzantine. For a time he succeeded in holding the Goths at bay but was defeated 378. Byzantium itself was now threatened
but the Emperor Theodosius by astute diplomacy managed to save his own dominions and the throne of his Western colleague Gratian. From the death of Theodosius 395 AD, the remaining history of the Western Empire is chaotic. Waves of Goths, Huns, and Vandals followed. Honorius (384–423 AD), with the aid of his general Stilicho (a Vandal), defeated the Goths; but after Stilicho's death Alaric, the Visigoth king, having ravaged Macedonia and Illyria, captured and sacked the city of Rome. Gaul and Italy were overrun by the Huns, while the Vandals conquered North Africa. The Vandal king Genseric again sacked Rome 451 and finally the Emperor Romulus Augustulus resigned his throne to Odoacer 476. Odoacer reached an agreement with Zeno, the Eastern Emperor, that there was no longer need for a division of the Empire: Zeno should rule a united empire while Odoacer governed as patrician of Italy. This brought the Roman Empire to an end, although it was continued in the East by the Byzantine Empire.