In order to make sense of Roman history, and the enormous changes that occurred in Roman society over two thousand years, its history can be viewed in successive periods.
- 8th to 5th Centuries BC: Foundation of Rome and Kings of Rome
- 5th to 1st Centuries BC: Roman Republic
- 1st Century BC to 3rd Century AD: Early Empire
- 3rd to 4th Centuries AD: Middle Empire
- 4th to 5th Centuries AD: Late Empire
After the 5th Century, the Roman World continued in a divided sense: the Byzantine Empire in the East (until 1453) and in the Medieval Kingdoms in the West.
Historical Shadows: Foundation of Rome and Kings of Rome (8th to 5th Centuries BC)
The origins of Rome are shrouded in myth. These myths provided a historical basis (for the Romans) for the foundation of their city and its key institutions and religious beliefs. The myths provided the necessary heroes and villains to inspire the Romans of the late Republic and Early Empire as they built their Empire and dominated much of the then known world.
According to legend, Rome was founded in 753BC with the uniting of villages on the seven-hills of Rome – the Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal Hills. Modern archaeology has pushed the origins of these settlements much further back in time. Notable amongst the foundation stories was the story of Aeneas, who fled the destruction of Troy, and the brothers Romulus and Remus. The Aeneas story provided the Romans with a lineage even greater than their own city, stretching its history back further into myth, and connected them with the wider (and the then more dominant) Greek classical world. In contrast, the brothers Romulus and Remus came from more humble origins. Yet in each case, communities were founded through the leadership of charismatic men aided by the gods.
The Roman legends record that early Rome was ruled by a succession of seven Kings – from 753BC until 509BC. Romulus was the first king (753BC – 717BC). Abandoned as infants, Romulus and his brother Remus were found by a she-wolf before being raised by a shepherd’s family. The motif of the two infant boys being suckled by a she-wolf became an enduring motif for the city of Rome. Later the brothers quarrelled during the building of the city, culminating with Romulus killing Remus. Romulus was succeeded by Numa Pompilius (716BC – 673BC), during whose reign some of Rome’s most important religious and political institutions were established. Tullus Hostilius (673BC – 642BC) waged war with some of Rome’s neighbours, destroying the city of Alba Longa. Ancus Marcius (640BC – 616BC) completed the subordination of the neighbouring Latin cities by largely diplomatic means. Tarquinius Priscus (616BC – 579BC) was the first of three Etruscan kings of Rome, and built the Circus Maximus. Servius Tullius (578BC – 535 BC) established major festivals and introduced coinage into the city’s economy. The last king of Rome was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (535BC – 509BC), who was remembered as a tyrant and the source of the long-standing Roman hatred for the symbolism of kingship. A republic was proclaimed which survived continuing wars with neighbouring Etruscan, Latin and other cities.
Making of Rome: Roman Republic (5th to 1st Centuries BC)
The era of the Republic was notable for the growth of Rome from a minor city in central Italy to a major city-state ruling a major Empire. With the passing of the monarchy, the Republic was governed by a hierarchy of magistrates (Consuls, Praetors, Tribunes) and a senate with enhanced powers and social prestige. With the progressive domination of the Italian peninsula into the Latin league and other alliances, Rome’s concerns expanded and clashed with Carthage, the North African power that dominated the Western Mediterranean world. Rome’s eventual triumph over Carthage after a long series of mutually destructive wars assured Rome’s imperial future.
The final decades of the Republic were shaped by barbarian wars, the growing centralisation of political power in the hands of a small number of magnates, and the destructive civil wars that ensured. Each round of barbarian wars gave rise to a new generation of military and political leaders, each embolden by the magnitude of their successes, financed by the great wealth extracted from their defeated enemies, and supported by armies loyal to their general and not the Republic. Notable rounds of civil war included: Marius and Sulla (80sBC); Pompey and Caesar (50BC); Mark Antony and Octavian versus Brutus and Cassius (43-42); and finally, Octavian against Mark Antony (32-30). Octavian, ably supported by his general Marcus Agrippa, emerged as the sole claimant of Republican power throughout the Roman World – which stretched from the North Sea to Egypt. And the title voted to Octavian by the Senate (Augustus, ‘Exalted’) became the title and position most highly prized during the era that followed – the Roman Empire.
Grandeur of Rome: Early Empire (1st Century BC to 3rd Century AD)
The first centuries that followed the reign of Augustus were notable for the consolidation of Roman authority throughout the Roman World that stretched from Scotland to Egypt, and from Morocco to the Near East and Romania. Rome’s territorial expansion reached its total extent during this period, Roman culture supplanted other cultures, and Roman Citizenship – with its rights and privileges – became the prized goal of ordinary people under Roman rule. However, the hyper-intense competition for political power that had characterised the late Republic did not vanish with the ascendancy of Augustus – instead, the imperial throne became the tangible focus for political energies.
In the pursuit of political stability, successive emperors sought to establish ruling dynasties – in which imperial authority passed from the incumbent emperor to his nominated heir. Where the inheritance was unchallenged, the transition of power was relatively smooth. In cases where it was challenged – often involving assassination and bloody massacres – Rome was always a short step away from civil war. Augustus’ own dynasty – the Julio-Claudians – survived several generations before it was destroyed by assassination and civil war – the dynasty ended with the assassination of Nero in 79. In the year that followed, three other men claimed the throne. Vespasian was the sole claimant to survive this struggle for power. However, by Roman standards, relatively stability prevailed until the third century.
Roman Confusions: Middle Empire (3rd to 4th Centuries AD)
The 3rd and 4th Centuries were notable for fundamental changes in Roman society. The rapid succession of emperors through this period (more than 20 emperors during the middle decades of the 3rd Century alone) and the scale and intensity of barbarian forces pressing on the frontiers, were obvious manifestations of these changes. Was the Empire in decline? Was society breaking down, inevitably bringing about the end of the Roman Empire? Historians have debated many explanations for these changes and their consequences. Was the Empire brought down by a moral decline of the Roman aristocracy? Possibly, but were Roman aristocrats any more moral or immoral in the 3rd and later centuries than any time in the past? Had the Empire lost its former vitality relative to the barbarians attempting to invade the Empire? Was the aristocracy weakened by disease, by lead poisoning (from water pipes made from lead) or had they simply become too affluent to consider the importance of raising children? More explanations have been offered for the end of the Roman Empire than can reasonably be listed here.
While all these factors are important when analysing later Roman history, at a more fundamental level Roman society was changed by its own success. Rome of its regal period was not the same society as it was during the middle years of its Republic; similarly, Roman society of the early Empire was not the same as Roman society of the later period. By the end of the Republic, Rome had become Italy – the extension of the Roman citizenship to the Italian cities was a legal recognition of this change. Therefore, it can be said that Italian Romans (not Roman Romans) governed and colonised the provinces of the Roman Empire during the reigns of the early emperors. By the time Britain was incorporated into the Empire following invasion of 43AD, Italian Romans were already giving way to Spanish and Gaulish Romans as administrators, soldiers and traders on the frontiers.
By the civil wars of the 3rd and 4th Centuries, Roman politics was not just about rival factions competing for political power – instead, control of entire geographical regions of the Empire was at stake. The Roman World – once representing a congruence of political and cultural reach of a unified Empire – became increasing a divided world. Rival imperial claimants ruled significant regions of the Empire whilst nominally claiming to be sharing rule of the entire Roman World. Emperor Diocletian institutionalised these underlying political trends by creating the Tetrarchy (i.e. College of Emperors) in 293, comprising two senior emperors (an Eastern and a Western Emperor) each assisted by a junior emperor who would become their respective heir. Constantine knew that the hyper-intensity of Roman politics was not sustainable and that the Empire needed stability. The Empire was simply too large for a single man to govern successfully; further, the energies of ambitious political leaders needed to be diverted from competing for control of the whole Roman World. However, Constantine’s political vision took time to become embedded in political reality – imperial claimants continued to seek for more than a century after his death sole control over the Empire. But the cultural and economic sphere that was the Roman World was now becoming divisible from the polity hitherto known as the Roman Empire.
Roman Transformations: Late Empire (4th to 5th Centuries AD)
The division of the Empire into Western and Eastern Empires became complete during the 4th and 5th Centuries. Some historians have argued that the political division of the Empire reflected underlying cultural differences between the Latin West and the Greek East. Others claim that the Eastern Empire, as the Empire that long outlasted the other, was inherently more united or wealthier. While these views have some merit, it should also be remembered that the notion of a Latin West and a Greek East became more apparent (and politically significant) in the Medieval period. Therefore, does this argument more reflect preoccupations of the Crusades compared to the Classical World?
The impact of Barbarian invasions during this period cannot be underestimated. In the Early Empire, Rome’s enemies had typically been counted in the thousands or tens of thousands. By the later Empire, Rome’s enemies were counted by chroniclers in the hundreds of thousands. It is difficult to say how reliable some of these figures may have been, as the relative size of an enemy is an important aspect of the story to be told – if a large enemy is destroyed, then the victory bestows greater glory on the victor; if an enemy is victorious, then descriptions of their vast numbers provides a partial explanation for the defeat (‘we were defeated because we were outnumbered’). And a barbarian enemy is made more barbarian in the re-telling by the depictions of vast hordes overrunning civilisation.
With the separation complete between Western and Eastern Empires, increasingly the successes and disasters experienced by both empire became separate successes and disasters. Many historians have tried to identify individual events as the turning point in which the end of Empire became inevitable. Some argue that the Battle of Adrianople (376) on the Danube frontier, in which a Roman army was destroyed and an emperor killed was the turning point. Others argue that more decisive was the barbarian invasion across the Rhine in the winter of 406-407 (which coincided with rival imperial claimants struggling for the imperial throne), in which barbarians not only overran Gaul, but reached Spain as well. Once across the Rhine, these barbarians remained and settled within the provinces where they were progressively granted political autonomy within the Empire.
The Battle of Chalons in 451 is important for indicating how much the Roman Empire had changed. Faced with yet another major barbarian invasion of the Western Empire (Attila and his alliance of Huns and Germanic tribes), an allied army was mustered to confront the invaders – an alliance of ‘Romans’, Visigoths (now settled in Aquitaine), Salian and Ripuarian Franks, Sarmatians, Armoricans, Liticians, Burgundians, Saxons, Librones and others. Whilst Attila was defeated, it was the last major battle fought by the Roman Army (as a separate entity) in Western Europe. By the 470s, the Western Empire had ceased (in effect) to exist. The overthrow of Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor (in 476), symbolised its end
In the east, the Eastern Empire continued to survive alternating cycles of success and crisis. For a time, in the 6th Century, the Eastern Empire expanded into former western territories in North Africa and Italy. However, the rise of militant Islam proved too much. Eastern territories were lost progressively. Determined to halt the decline, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos in 1096 requested the Pope in Rome (as the religious leader of the Latin West) for military aid. However, the Emperor got more than he requested – Pope Urban II proclaimed a crusade, sparking over two hundred years of wars by western armies against Muslim armies. The Eastern Empire quickly lost control of the military ‘assistance’ provided by the Latin Kingdoms of Western Europe. The Crusaders eventually occupied and looted Constantinople itself (1204). After a short-lived ‘Latin Empire’ was established on the bones of the former Eastern Empire, the Eastern Empire re-emerged and continued until finally overwhelmed in 1453 by the emerging Ottoman Empire.