Empires come and go, but for some, their legacy leaves an indelible footprint on the lands over which they ruled. Our story today concerns one such empire, an empire that grew from just a few scattered villages on the banks of the River Tiber to one of the largest and most powerful empires of the ancient world.
The Roman Empire at its peak was colossal, stretching from the English/Scottish border in the North, Portugal in the west, Egypt to the south and modern Syria and Turkey to the east. It encompassed the entirety of the Mediterranean Sea and at its largest was home to some 70 million people – not a huge number by today’s standard, but 2,000 years ago, it was enormous.
Over the years its size has been eclipsed by much larger empires, and in fact, several Chinese empires rivalled it in terms of size during the same period, but over 1,500 years after its collapse, the memory of the Roman Empire remains vivid.
But how, and why, did a small state in Italy – of which there were many by the way – end up controlling land of such proportions? Why did the Romans succeed in building such a vast empire, while so many others around them failed?
The rise and fall of the Roman Empire is a tale of ferocious imperialism and at times acts of violence that would be considered nothing short of genocidal by modern standards. But the story is much more than just utter domination by the feared legionnaires. The spread of the empire brought technological and social enhancements the likes of which had never been seen. And it’s no coincidence that the fall of the Roman Empire coincided with a period in Europe known as the Dark Ages.
The Romans may have spread much of their culture and way of living out across their empire, but much of it was learnt from the group who dominated the area before the era of Rome – the Etruscans.
It would be far too simplistic to simply label the Etruscans as the forefathers of the Romans, they were in effect one of many groups of people at the time vying for power on the boot-shaped piece of land that we know today as Italy. But they were certainly one of the most powerful and evidence suggests that significant parts of Roman culture, such as the alphabet and numerals, along with architecture, art, religion, and dress (the toga was, in fact, an Etruscan invention) first came from them.
At its peak, the Etruscan’s land stretched from close to Venice in the north to the coastal region of Campania in the south and included the area that is modern Rome. But if the Etruscans were the major players on the Italian mainland, the powerful city-states of ancient Greece dominated the region. By the 6th Century BC, Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes had emerged as the most significant, but apart from the odd foray west to establish colonies, much of their expansion remained close to the shores of the Mediterranean and eventually headed east all the way to India with Alexander the Great in the 3rd Century BC.
A Young Upstart
If we start somewhere around the 8th Century BC, Rome was little more than a series of small villages spread along the Tiber River. If the legend is anything to go by, the city that we call Rome today was founded in 753 BC by Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Mars the god of war, who had been found floating in a basket in the river as babies by a wolf who nursed them both into adulthood.
After killing his brother in 752 BC – again if we go with the legend this was down to a disagreement over where exactly Rome should be built, which sounds a little minor for an act of fratricide, but OK – Romulus became Rome’s first king and the settlement was named after him.
Slowly, these villages began to form into a much more cohesive unit and soon marketplaces, bridges and other community projects were being built. But this was just one of the dozens of competing groups in the area, and while they may have shared a common language in Latin and indeed many cultural aspects, it wasn’t exactly all peace and love.
In the early days, small scale fighting was common, but a far cry from all-out warfare. Much of the fighting was tic for tac raids to gain lands and slaves but it didn’t take long for the Romans to begin flexing their muscles.
The first town to fall was Caenina a few kilometres to the west, followed by Antemnae to the north. The defeated were typically granted full Roman citizenship – which sounds great but also meant you were then liable for military service. Over the next few decades, Rome’s sphere of influence grew slowly but steadily and by the 5th Century BC, the Romans held sway over roughly half of the Latin communities in the area, thought to total around 35,000 people.
Rome had had a series of kings up until this point, all of which were chosen by the senate rather than through succession, but a concept that had originated in ancient Greece now found its way into the young Roman dominion.
resentmentRome’s seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown in 509 BC. The exact details are a little hazy and considering the Romans had a habit of whitewashing or manipulating the past to fit with their own growing prestige, the story of the rape of a virtuous woman by one of the king’s sons which instigated the revolt, sounds perhaps a little too convenient. But without question, there had been decades of resentment against the ruling class.
Rome was suddenly transformed into a Republic, the word taken from Res Publica, meaning for the people. The new political situation called for two annually elected magistrates called consuls to hold the majority of the power. But before you start thinking of this as some kind of socialist utopia, the magistrates were almost exclusively chosen from the Senate, which was itself dominated by the patricians, the rich, powerful descendants from the early days of Rome. Yes, the everyday citizens of Rome now had a say in who ran Rome, but their position in society remained rooted near the bottom.
The early years of the Republic were fraught as the plebeians (common people) demanded a great role in society, leading to several concessions and in 450 B.C the first Roman law code was inscribed on 12 bronze tablets and placed on display in the Forum. These codes, which covered a range of issues including legal procedure, civil rights and property rights, are considered the very basis of all future Roman laws.
The early years of the Roman Republic saw a rapid expansion of territory, first with the remaining Latin lands followed by a decade-long battle to take the well-defended Etruscan city of Veii. This led to a huge increase in size and cemented Rome’s place as the dominant force in Central Italy.
But the danger of any lavish expansion is that it often stirs the greed within others and in 390 BC that greed brought Rome to its knees. An army of 300,000 Gaulish warriors, led by King Brennus, swept down through northern Italy, wiping out all before them. It was at a spot on the River Allia, north of Rome, that the Roman legions, and every able-bodied warrior in the area, marched out to face the massive Gaul army.
The Roman army was crushed on the battlefield, but worse was soon to come. The Gauls then turned their attention on Rome itself, mercilessly sacking the city and leaving it a burning ruin. Most of the city’s inhabitants had either managed to flee beforehand or had barricaded themselves inside the citadel. Eventually, as food ran out, the Romans were forced to negotiate with the Gauls and a ransom of 450 kg (1000 lbs) of gold was agreed upon.
As the Gauls departed north once again, loaded with more gold and wealth than they would have ever imagined, they left a city, and a people, horribly scarred. Had things gone slightly different at this point, the glorious tale of the Romans may well have not even existed.
Control of Italy
If Rome had been brought to the brink after the sacking of 390 BC, what came next was truly remarkable. Under the guidance of military hero Camillus, Rome not only weathered several uprisings within the traditional Latin region but grew even stronger than it had been before the sacking.
It’s almost miraculous that by 264 BC, 126 years after its near annihilation, Rome had effectively expanded across almost all of modern Italy. Their legions fought a long, bloody campaign against the Samnite tribes to the south, spread across three major conflicts and a period of around 50 years, before turning north and in a matter of decades had brought much of mainland Italy to heel.
The Romans were now the undisputed rulers of the Italian peninsula but in the grand scheme of things, they were still small fish within the large and dangerous pond that was the Meditteranean Sea.
The Punic Wars
Between 264 BC and 146 BC, three wars were fought that would redefine the political landscape of the Mediterranean. Not only would one Empire emerge as a true heavyweight, but it would also mean the complete extermination of the other.
If Rome was a small fish at this point, the sharks were the Cathegians. Based out of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, the Carthaginians had built a considerable empire around the Medittarean, including almost all of northern Africa, southern Spain as well as Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily. Their naval expertise was second to none and they were very much considered the preeminent naval power at the time.
Rome on the other hand had almost no navy to speak of, but things changed quickly after they were able to retrieve a beached Carthaginian warship, at the time the equivalent of finding a Ferrari with the keys left in the ignition. It got even better for the Romans when they disassembled the ship and found that each piece had been carefully coded. The mighty Carthaginian ships were early examples of mass-produced vessels that IKEA would have been proud of, and once the Romans reversed engineered the design, they began building ships like there was no tomorrow.
The First Punic War was fought almost exclusively at sea over 23 years, costing both sides hugely in terms of manpower and financial means. Eventually, the Romans prevailed and Sicily fell under their rule, followed by Sardinia and eventually Corsica.
But in 218 BC one of the most daring military strikes in history took place as Carthaginian General, Hannibal, led a force up from southern Spain, across France, over the Alps and into Italy – the very definition of sneaking quietly through the backdoor. No doubt you’ll have heard about the elephants that were within Hannibal’s army though their effect may have been slightly exaggerated as many died on the journey and the Romans eventually found a way of combating them by simply standing aside to let them charge through while pelting them with spears.
A series of major victories led Hannibal to the gates of Rome, but his decision to not attack the city immediately and instead chase several Roman armies throughout central Italy would go on to haunt him and the Cathegians. Slowly the tide turned and the Cathegians were eventually forced out of Italy but what was left was a level of hatred that would spell the end of Carthage in 147 BC.
The third, and final Punic War saw a complete role reversal from the first war. Now it was Rome’s turn to dominate Carthage, which had lost its entire empire. In 149 BC, 50,000 men set sail from Italy for the Carthaginian coast and so began a two-year siege where Rome slowly turned the screw. In 147 BC, the Roman legionaries entered Carthage and systematically began killing and destroying everything in their path. It took a week to fully subdue the city, but several months until their destruction was complete. Out of a population of 112,000, 60,000 were killed outright with the remainder rounded up as slaves.
The once glorious city of Carthage, quite simply, no longer existed.
The fallout from the three Punic Wars may have cemented Rome’s place as the major player in the Mediterranean, but it was far from a satisfied place. The gap between the wealthy and poor exploded and with it came internal struggles and attempted power grabs.
In 60 BC, three of the most powerful politicians and military leaders at the time, Julius Caesar, Marcus Crassus and Gnaeus Pompey formed the First Triumvirate, an informal alliance that appeared set to hold the Roman Republic together. If things were shaky in Rome, its legionaries were dominating further afield. First the Gauls, in modern France, were swept aside before Julius Caesar himself invaded Britain, twice, in 55 BC and 54 BC.
Caesar was an all-conquering champion, and some in Rome didn’t like that one bit. He was ordered to relinquish control of his army and return, but the man was having none of it. Instead, he marched his troops down through Italy, sparking a civil war that lasted 4 years. Once again, the conflict swung back and forth, until only one man remained and in 44 BC, Julius Caesar was given the title of Emperor for life.
The Roman Emperors
But such titles mean little when you still have so many enemies. Caesar was murdered less than a year after being bestowed the title that effectively eliminated the Roman Republic. It’s hardly surprising that what followed was the bitter infighting between those who backed the assassins and those who followed Mark Antony and Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir, Octavian. Though just to confuse the matter further, Mark Antony and Octavian eventually themselves fell out with Antony ultimately committing suicide along with his Egyptian lover, Queen Cleopatra.
Octavian had cleared the deck of any would-be rivals and set about establishing himself as the rightful ruler of Rome. But he wasn’t stupid about it. Many aspects from the Republic remained, including the Senate, but power was consolidated in such a way that once again there was only one ruler of Rome. In 27 BC, he changed his name to Augustus and officially became the second Emperor of Rome.
What came next was known as Pax Romana – Roman Peace – in which for the following two centuries Rome itself was relatively calm and stable. But that certainly didn’t mean the rest of the Empire was. With such a vast area now under their control, there was always a skirmish or revolt that needed to be put down and broadly speaking, the empire was almost always expanding. Under Augustus, Egypt was annexed, while his legionaries moved up into Spain, parts of Central Europe and even parts of the middle east. This was also the time when Rome’s massive trading network really took off, and eventually, an astonishing 400,000 kilometres (250,000 miles) of roads were built around the empire.
Augustus’ rule was a popular one and after his death in 14 AD, the Roman Senate elevated Augustus to the status of a god, but difficult years lay ahead. Augustus was followed by several deeply unpopular Emperors, Tiberius (14–37 AD), Caligula (37–41 AD) and Nero (54–68 AD). Things got significantly better with the next group and under Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98–117 AD, Rome expanded its border as far as it ever would.
This also sparked a golden age of Roman Emperors in which the four ‘good’ emperors succeeded one another peacefully. One of these you’ll probably already know. Emperor Hadrian, who came to power in 117 AD was of course responsible for the building of Hadrian’s Wall which essentially acted as the limit of the Roman Empire in modern-day Britain.
The last of these great Emperors, and perhaps the most hallowed, was Marcus Aurelius who ruled between 161 and 180 AD. Emperor Aurelius was a stoic philosopher whose works are still read to this day. His reign was fraught with difficulties ranging from numerous overseas wars to a plague that began spreading around the Empire in 165 AD, eventually killing five million people. Again, that number might not sound particularly huge to modern ears, but at the time it probably represented around 3-4% of the entire population across the Empire.
The Long Fall
Unfortunately, we don’t have anywhere near enough time to go through everything over the next three centuries, but it was certainly a long, drawn-out decline. To give you a good idea of the political instability that ensued, during the 1st Century, Rome had had 12 Emperors and in the 2nd, just nine. By the end of the 3rd Century, the Roman Empire had rattled through no fewer than 29 Emperors, many killed by their own ‘supporters’ or soldiers.
The demise of the greatest empire the world had ever seen took several centuries but the writing was on the wall for some time. The empire had grown so big it was becoming difficult to manage and in the late 3rd Century AD, Emperor Diocletian took the extraordinary decision to split it in two, with the eastern section ruling from Constantinople and the western from what is modern Milan. This new system also came with dual Emperors, with Maximian ruling the eastern empire for 19 years until his death in 305 AD, and Diocletian in the west.
The empires’ borders were also under threat and in 260 AD, Gaul (France), Britannica (Britain) and Hispania (Spain) formed an independent Gallic empire and by 273 AD, the Romans had been ejected from modern-day France. Though they did reclaim the territory, it was to be short-lived. Roman rule in Britain began crumbling around 388 AD and by 400 AD they had scarpered back across the English Channel.
After briefly reuniting as a single empire, the Roman Empire once again broke apart in 395 AD and this was to have two vastly differing outcomes for the two sections. While the eastern empire remained relatively strong, the western part began imploding under the relentless pressure from the barbarian tribes to the north. In 410 AD, Rome was once again sacked, this time by the Visigoth and again in 455 AD by the Vandals. In 476 AD, a large scale revolt led by the Germanic tribes led to the deposing of Emperor Romulus Augustulus and that was the last time an emperor remained in control over the western half of the empire.
But as I said, things were very different in the eastern half. What soon came to be known as the Byzantine Empire, continued for another thousand years or so before finally being defeated by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Under Justinian I, who ruled between 527 and 565 AD, the Byzantine Empire reached its zenith, even capturing Rome and parts of the old western empire. The empire’s borders were in constant flux over the coming centuries but generally speaking it was a slow shrinking until only the city of Constantinople was left. And if you’re interested in what happened in Constantinople, then you’re in luck because we have recently done a video on its famed walls which is worth a watch if you’re eager to see what came next.
All Roads Lead to Rome
The Roman Empire was far from simple bloody-minded military domination, though there was plenty of that. Culturally speaking, it was a high point for Europe that it wouldn’t truly get back to until it emerged wearily from the Dark Ages. From roads to sanitation, from art to language, we have an awful lot to thank the Romans for.
How an Empire that peaked at roughly 4.4 million km² (1.6 million sq miles) was able to grow from a group of simple villages on the River Tiber, is one of history’s greatest success stories and over 2,500 years after it all began, it’s an astonishing story we still can’t get enough of.