We have got so much from the Roman Empire – our language, our roads, our law. But what exactly was this ancient civilization, what was its political system, and how did it become quite as influential as it did?
At its peak, the Roman Emperor ruled over five million square miles and about seven million people. If we say that was some 21% of the world’s population, that’s the second largest empire ever after the British Empire – and it stretched from as far as Britannia in the west to Syria and Arabia in the east.
Just by the way, the Romans also invented the term ‘Empire’ as we know it now – as it came from their word for Emperor, imperator, meaning commander.
When and Where was the Roman Empire?
The Roman emperors ruled in a period between 27BC, officially speaking, and 395CE. At this point, the Empire splits into two distinct parts – the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Empire. After a century, in 476, the emperor of the west is deposed, and the Eastern Empire continues under a different name – Byzantium.
As happens with all empires, the frontier of the Roman Empire fluctuated and changed as successive rulers lost and gained territory in battle. Yet the borders of the Empire spread to what is now Iran and the Persian Gulf in the east, through Asia Minor, Europe south of the Danube, to France, Spain, and what is now England. It also governed territories on the north coast of Africa – in modern Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya. It was centred around the Mediterranean.
The Origins of the Roman Empire
Rome was founded in 753BC, supposedly by brothers Romulus and Remus, and it becomes a republic in 509BC with the establishment of the Roman Senate. This brought about the leadership of magistrates, who collectively debated and made decisions about the governance of Roman society. Continually expanding its borders, it did not stretch outside of what is now Italy until 300BC – and, whilst it was not yet officially an empire, this behaviour was already vaguely imperial.
In 45BCE, after successes at war, a certain Julius Caesar was given the title of ‘dictator’ of Rome. Yet, just a year later, he was assassinated and, given his popularity amongst the lower classes of Romans, there was a revolt and, ultimately, a civil war.
Whilst this was pursued by Marc Anthony and Octavian – Caesar’s adopted son – against Caesar's assassins, the two ultimately turned against each other, and the resulting war ended in Marc Antony’s defeat in 31BC. Octavian is consequently given by the senate the title of ‘first citizen’ – and this is thought to be the first moment in properly imperial Rome.
Octavian became known as Augustus, and he came to dominate the senate which was, in name at least, still the highest authority in Rome. Augustus’s dynasty led the Romans through a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity.
The Golden Age of the Romans
Octavian, or Augustus, was the first emperor in what became known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty. His rule was hugely successful in expanding the territory over which the Empire ruled: he conquered parts of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria, as well as most of the northern Mediterranean. He also brought Roman control over the Iberian Peninsula, what is now modern Spain and Portugal, and made peace with the Parthian Empire in Iran to ensure a stable border on the eastern frontier.
The Julio-Claudian dynasty comprises Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Emperor Nero. Claudius began the conquest of Britannia, which continued through major expansions under the reign of Vespasian and with the famous wall across the Scottish border by Hadrian.
Nero’s famously capricious personality ruled unhappily through the year of the Great Fire of Rome of 64AD, and his suicide led to a civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors, of 69AD. This ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
The Flavian Dynasty starts in 69 with Emperor Vespasian, who was the last of the Year of the Four Emperors. He was the Emperor to build Rome’s famous Colosseum, which was completed and updated by his heirs Titus and Domitian (this is why the structure is also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre).
Whilst beset by a number of massive issues – the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the fire and plague of Rome in 80 – Titus is considered a very able ruler. However, he died young, and his younger brother, Domitian, replaced him in 81.
Domitian was assassinated in 96, as he was known as an autocratic and severe emperor. He was replaced by an advisor, Nerva.
Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, or The Five Good Emperors
The dynasty that Nerva founded is known as the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, and the five emperors included – Nerva himself, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius – are known as the Five Good Emperors.
Trajan, the only Roman emperor not to be born in the Italian peninsula, built the Empire into its most extensive form. He conquered Dacia – what is now Romania, Moldova, parts of Bulgaria, Hungary, Ukraine, Slovakia, Serbia, and Poland – as well as Syria.
The Nerva-Antonine Dynasty ruled between 96 and 192, and it is Commodus’s reign, the final in this dynasty, that is believed to signal the decline of the Roman Empire.
The Achievements of the Roman Empire
As with the British and the Mongolian Empires, the Roman Empire presided over a long period of peace – at least within the boundaries of its rule. This was known as the Pax Romana, which allowed a flourishing of trade that had never before been seen.
In very practical terms, a major legacy of the Roman Empire was in engineering – in the building of roads (famously very straight) and aqueducts. An aqueduct is used to move water and the Romans constructed and used them to bring water into cities, markets, and farms. The Aqueduct of Segovia, constructed during the reigns of Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan, is a famous example of this.
In the arts, Roman culture excelled in poetry, drama, and sculpture – and anyone who has studied Latin at school will know that we still study these achievements now, as they formed the way that we write, read, and are entertained, even today. Latin is, itself, what became the language of politics essentially across Europe for almost the next thousand years.
The later Roman Empire – after its split – made Christianity the official religion, starting with Constantine the Great’s conversion. This led to the spread of the religion, and Judaeo-Christian culture in general, from east to west across the empire.
The Roman Empire Splits: East and West
After the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus’s reign begins the decline of the empire. In 192 he was assassinated, beginning the Year of the Five Emperors. This introduced a massive political instability into the empire, culminating in the Crisis of the Third Century, beginning with Septimius Severus’s seizure of power in 193 which set a precedent for the rest of the century.
After a number of barbarian invasions throughout the century, and with plague and natural disasters ravishing the empire from within, Diocletian took over the empire in 284 and ended the crisis. His response was to split the huge empire into two.
The Eastern would be ruled by Diocletian in Constantinople, or Istanbul, and would be known as the Byzantine Empire, alongside the Western, which moved from Rome to Milan.
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Ultimately, both of the now independent empires collapsed, although the Eastern lasted much longer in the guise of the Byzantine Empire.
It was Odoacer, the barbarian King of Italy, who ultimately caused the collapse of a Western Empire severely weakened by incompetent leaders and by invasions by Vandals, Ostrogoths, and the Visigoths. Odoacer, a Goth based in northern Italy, overthrew the last Wester Emperor, Romulus Augustulus in 476.
The Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire, survives until its fall to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, reclaimed land lost during the Crisis of the Third Century, whilst Justinian (527-565) sought to reconquer the lands of the Western Empire.
Justinian’s contribution to law, his sort of massive building projects, and his presiding over a time of greater prosperity have made him known to history as Justinian the Great – and even as the last Roman Emperor.
After this, the Byzantine slowly declined, and Constantinople was finally conquered by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453, the Ottoman Emperor.