A SHORT HISTORY OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

By Tim Lambert

The Roman Republic

There was a settlement at Rome by the mid-8th century BC. In the 6th century BC it was ruled by Etruscan kings. The kings were advised by the senate, a body that consisted of Roman aristocrats or patricians. However in 510 BC the Romans rebelled and expelled the last king Tarquinius Superbus.

Afterwards Rome was ruled by two officials called consuls who were elected from among the Senators. The consuls served for a period of one year.

Middle and working class Romans were called plebeians. In the 6th century there was antagonism between the two classes. Finally in 494 BC the plebeians left Rome and founded their own settlement on the Aventine Hill. The patricians were forced to make concessions to win them back.

From the beginning Rome was an aggressive and expansionist state. At first the Romans conquered central Italy. In 396 they conquered the important Etruscan city of Veii. However in 390 the Gauls captured and sacked Rome.

Yet Rome recovered and conquered southern Italy. By 272 BC almost all the south of Italy was in Roman hands.

Rome then came into conflict with Carthage. The Phoenicians from Lebanon founded a colony in North Africa, which they called Carthage. In time Carthage became very powerful, ruling North Africa, Sardinia, Corsica and part of Spain.

The wars between Rome and Carthage are called the Punic wars. The first lasted from 264 to 241 BC and it was mainly a naval war. It ended with the Romans capturing Sicily. Shortly afterwards they also occupied Sardinia and Corsica.

The second Punic War lasted from 218 to 202 BC. In 218 Hannibal marched a great army including elephants from Spain, through southern France and over the Alps into Italy. He defeated the Romans in several battles, Ticinus and Trebia in 218 BC, Lake Trasimeno in 217 and at Cannae in 216.

However Hannibal did not have the resources to completely destroy Rome and the Romans sent an army to North Africa. Led by Scipio the Romans won a decisive battle at Zama in 202 BC.

Meanwhile the Romans expanded northwards. North Italy was inhabited by Celts but the Romans conquered them piecemeal. By 90 BC all of northern Italy was in Roman hands.

Furthermore the Romans fought a series of wars with the Macedonians. The wars ended in 148 BC when Macedon became a Roman province.

Some Romans became very rich as a result of these successful wars. Furthermore prisoners of war were made slaves and so there was a huge influx of slaves into Roman territory. Some wealthy Romans made fortunes by using slave labor on large estates. However many peasants were forced to leave the land and move to the cities. Fortunately there were plenty of jobs for them. As Rome grew more and more prosperous many public were built such as roads and temples. However the dramatic social changes caused much unrest in Rome.

Meanwhile the slaves sometimes rose in rebellion. The first rebellion or servile war lasted from 135 to 132 BC when slaves in Sicily rebelled. Sicilian slaves rebelled again in 103 BC but they were crushed in 99 BC. Finally Spartacus led a rebellion of Italian slaves in 73 BC. However the rebellion was crushed in 71 BC.

Then non-Roman Italians rose against Rome in the Social War of 91-89 BC. They demanded certain rights and privileges. Roman troops under Cornelius Sulla crushed the revolt. Nevertheless in 89 BC all free Italians were granted Roman citizenship.

In the first century BC the Roman republic slowly broke down and power was increasingly in the hands of successful generals. In times of emergency the Romans sometimes appointed a temporary dictator to take charge. In 83 BC Sulla made himself dictator. He ruled until 80 BC.

Then, in 67 BC another powerful general, Gnaius Pompey waged a successful campaign against pirates in the Mediterranean. In 66-62 BC he added parts of Turkey, Syria and the surrounding area to the Roman empire.

In 60 AD he formed a triumvirate with two other men Crassus and Julius Caesar. The triumvirate only lasted about one year but it was renewed in 56 BC. However Crassus died in 52 BC and Pompey was made sole Consul.

Meanwhile the third member of the triumvirate, Julius Caesar conquered Gaul. His military victories made him very popular with his men. However in 49 BC the Senate voted that Caesar should give up command of the army and return to Rome without his troops. Caesar refused and instead marched on Rome. Lacking troops to defend the city Pompey fled to Greece to raise an army. Caesar followed and defeated him. Pompey fled to Egypt where he was murdered.

Julius Caesar was dictator of Rome until 44 BC when he was assassinated.

After his death another triumvirate took power. It was made up of Marcus Antonius (Mark Anthony), Marcus Lepidus and Gaius Octavius (Octavian), the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. Lepidus was deposed in 36 BC and Octavian and Mark Anthony soon fell out. Octavian defeated mark Anthony at the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC. Octavian became the first Roman emperor (in all but name). In 27 BC he was granted the title 'Augustus'. The Roman republic was at an end.

The Roman Empire

Augustus kept the senate but he held the real power. He controlled the army and the civil service. Augustus managed to restore order to the Roman empire and when he died in 14 AD it was peaceful and prosperous.

He was followed by his stepson Tiberius (14-37 AD). The next emperor was Gaius or Caligula (37-41 AD), who ruled so badly he was assassinated by his bodyguard, the praetorian guard. He was succeeded by his uncle Claudius (41-54 AD). During his reign the Romans conquered Britain. Next came Nero (54-68).

Vespasian (69-79) built the coliseum and under Trajan (98-117) and Hadrian (177-138) the Roman empire was at its peak.

Marcus Aurelius 169-180 followed the philosophy of stoicism and he wrote a famous book Meditations. However he died in 180 in a terrible plague that killed many people throughout the empire. He was succeeded by his unworthy son Commodus (180-192).

In 212 the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free people in the empire. By then the Roman empire was beginning to decline. When the emperor Severus Alexander was murdered in 325 there were decades of political instability. Between 235 and 284 there were 22 emperors.

Order and prosperity were temporarily restored by Diocletian (284-305). He abdicated in 305 and there was a struggle for the succession. Constantine was proclaimed emperor in 306 but he was not in complete control of the empire until 324.

Crucially Constantine introduced a policy of tolerating Christianity. He was baptized on his deathbed in 337.

Diocletian split the empire into two halves, western and eastern. Constantine united them in 324 but they split again after his death. Gradually there was less and less co-operation between the two halves. In the western Roman empire there was a relentless economic decline with raging inflation. Meanwhile the Germanic tribes beyond the border were growing stronger and stronger.

In the 5th century the Roman empire collapsed piecemeal. In 406-407 Germanic people invaded Gaul and in 407 the Roman army left Britain. Then in 410 Alaric the Goth captured Rome. Nevertheless the Roman empire survived for some time afterwards. However in 429-430 a people called the Vandals crossed from Spain to North Africa. That had serious consequences for the Romans because they imported much of their grain from there. Worse in 455 the Vandals sacked Rome. Finally in 476 the last Roman emperor was deposed and a German called Odoacer made himself king of Italy. That is usually regarded as the end of the Roman empire.

Life in Rome

The Assyrian Empire

The Persian Empire

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