History of Rome made simple
History of Ancient Rome
The Romans were the undisputed masters of one of the largest and most famous empires in world history. At its height in 117 AD, Roman territory stretched across a staggering five million square kilometers, from Babylon in the Middle East to the British Isles in the Atlantic – encompassing the entire Mediterranean along with parts of North Africa and most of modern Europe.
In this piece, we'll chart the entire history of Ancient Rome, from the cluster of Latin tribes that founded Rome through the transitions into both Republic and Empire. Finally, we'll discover how the mighty Roman Empire finally fell in 476 AD.
Roman Kingdom – 753 BC to 509 BC
Rome's mythical origins are well documented. Romulus was said to have founded the city next to the River Tiber in 753 BC after murdering his brother Remus. But in reality, the area around Rome had been inhabited for centuries already. Starting as a small town, Rome gradually expanded to envelop the surrounding villages.
For nearly 250 years, Rome was ruled by a succession of seven kings, beginning with Romulus, who founded many of Rome's key institutions. He formed the first Senate from 100 of Rome's most prominent male aristocrats – creating a divide between the patricians (aristocrats) and the plebeians (ordinary civilians).
The kings that succeeded Romulus were elected by the Senate and expanded Rome's influence by wrestling territory from rival Latin tribes. However, Rome's seventh and final king - Tarquin the Proud – appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner of Rome and routinely ignored the Senate throughout a brutal reign.
After Tarquin's son raped an innocent noblewoman, the Romans had had enough. Lucius Junius Brutus – Tarquin's chief bodyguard – led the Senate and the Roman Army in an uprising against Tarquin in 509 BC. The Senate assumed control and Tarquin was exiled. Brutus was appointed as one of Rome's first consuls, an office that distributed the former monarch's power between two magistrates.
The Roman Kingdom was no more, and the Roman Republic had emerged.
Roman Republic – 509 BC to 27 BC
Although the reign of tyrannical kings was over, the fledgling Republic experienced its share of growing pains. Almost immediately after the Republic began, tensions were high between the aristocratic patricians and the common plebeians. This became known as the “Conflict of the Orders” and occurred from 494 BC to 287 BC.
Without any real chance to influence the aristocrats politically, the plebs – farmers, craftsmen, and soldiers – staged a series of strikes. Centuries of compromise between both sides eventually resulted in an assembly for the plebs and the appointment of Tribunes to protect their rights. Plebs were allowed to become senators and campaign for a consulship. This formed the basis of the governing constitution of the Republic.
At the same time, the Republic sought to protect itself from other Latin tribes and the Etruscan city-states. Over the next few decades, Rome waged a series of wars across Italy and eventually subjugated the entire peninsula in 264 BC.
Punic Wars: 264 BC to 146 BC
Now that Italy was under Rome's control, the Republic began turning its attention to the rest of the Mediterranean. The main heavyweight in the region was Carthage – a maritime empire that controlled the coast of North Africa and parts of Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia.
Rome invaded Sicily, capturing the city of Messina and launching an attack on a Carthaginian base. Carthage responded with a relief force, but the Romans emerged victorious. The First Punic War (264 BC to 241 BC) had begun.
A stalemate descended on the Mediterranean for almost 20 years until Rome attacked Carthaginian territories in North Africa. The conflict drained the resources of both powers until a peace treaty was agreed. The Romans claimed Sicily, while Carthage had to pay immense reparations.
Nearly 25 years later, the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Roman territory to begin the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC). In a daring assault, he led his army over the Alps and attacked Italy itself. Despite their overwhelming numbers, the Romans couldn't overcome Hannibal's tactic and lost decisive battles at Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae.
Hannibal's army rampaged through Italy, and the general had an opportunity to raze Rome itself. But inexplicably, Hannibal moved south instead. Eventually, the Carthaginian senate ordered Hannibal to return when the Roman general Scipio assaulted North Africa.
In 202 BC, Scipio and Hannibal met at the Battle of Zama in modern-day Tunisia. The Carthaginians were routed and sued for peace. Rome confiscated all of Carthage's Mediterranean colonies and imposed more reparations. The Second Punic War had ended, and Hannibal fled into exile.
The Third Punic War (149 to 146 BC) was short and brutal. The Republic didn't want Carthage challenging Rome any further and launched an invasion. Carthage itself was besieged and fell after three years of resistance. Over 50,000 Carthaginians were sold as slaves and the Romans took control of North Africa.
Hellenistic Conquests: 200 to 146 BC
During the Second Punic War, Philip V of Macedon had sided with Carthage. To prevent an attack, Rome engineered the First Macedonian War (214 to 205 BC). Although simply a series of small skirmishes designed to distract Philip from reinforcing Hannibal, the conflict sparked three later wars with Macedonia.
The Romans emerged victorious in each of the conflicts, despite having to divert resources to the Roman-Seleucid War between 192 and 188 BC. Turning their attention back to the troublesome Macedonians, the Romans divided the territory into smaller republics after the Third Macedonian War before conquering the region for good in 148 BC.
But the Romans didn't stop there and marched against the Greek city-states as well. Roman forces obliterated the city of Corinth in 146 BC and established control over the rest of Greece.
The First Civil War: 88 BC to 78 BC
Having defeated most of their external rivals across the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, problems began to arise within the Republic itself.
In 88 BC, two of Rome's most prominent generals – Gaius Marius and Lucius Sulla – squared off when Marius had Sulla's command of a military campaign in Asia dissolved. Sulla reacted by aiming his army at Rome itself and crushing Marius's forces. Satisfied, Sulla resumed his Asian campaign.
But Marius had been the head of another political movement aiming to reduce the power of the Senate, and his supporters took control of Rome. When Sulla returned, he invaded Rome again and purged the populists. Sulla declared himself Dictator and reestablished the power of the Senate before dying in 78 BC.
This set the trend for powerful Roman statesmen to gain influence and loyal followers via military campaigns before cashing that prestige in for more political power. This dangerous precedent would bring about the fall of the Republic.
The Two Triumvirates and the Fall of the Republic: 49 to 27 BC
To further their political ambitions, three Roman statesmen – Pompey the Great, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Julies Caesar – formed a private political alliance known as the First Triumvirate in 61. The three men helped each other gain higher offices, with Caesar elected as consul. Pompey married Julia, Caesar's daughter, to cement the pact.
But when Crassus and Julia both died, Pompey and Caesar became bitter rivals. After Caesar's successful Gallic campaigns had captured huge swathes of territory for the Republic, the Senate ordered him to hand over his forces and give up his office. Pompey, intimidated by Caesar's growing power, sided with the Senate.
Caesar refused, and when he crossed the Rubicon River with his returning army in 49 BC, he symbolically declared civil war on the Republic. Pompey and his supporters fled Rome, ceding the city to Caesar. The two sides clashed in Greece, with Caesar winning a crucial victory at Pharsalus. Pompey escaped but was assassinated in Egypt.
Caesar eventually defeated Pompey's remaining followers and declared himself Dictator for Life, claiming veto powers over the Senate. But his opponents banded together in secret and planned Caesar's demise. A coven of senators, led by Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, stabbed Caesar to death during a meeting on the 15th March 44 BC.
Caesar's supporters formed a Second Triumvirate consisting of the general Marc Anthony, Caesar's nephew Octavian, and the statesman Lepidus. The triumvirate cornered and defeated Brutus and Cassius in Macedonia, who both committed suicide.
The ensuing power struggle between Anthony and Octavian was the death knell for the Republic. Anthony allied with Queen Cleopatra in Egypt and took control of the Eastern provinces. Octavian garnered support from the Senate and pursued Anthony, winning a decisive victory at Actium in 31 BC. A year later, Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide, leaving Octavian in complete control.
Octavian absorbed all of Caesar's former powers and added even more, being awarded the title “Augustus” before declaring himself Emperor of Rome in 27 BC – naming the office after his uncle. After standing for nearly 500 years, the Roman Republic had become the Roman Empire.
Roman Empire: Principate and Pax Romana – 27 BC to 284 AD
Now ruling as Emperor Augustus, Octavian ushered in Rome's Golden Age. His successors enlarged Rome's territory to its greatest extent in 117 AD, before a long period of gradual decline weakened the Empire until it finally collapsed centuries later.
Augustus's reign lasted for around 40 years, bringing in a series of economic reforms, monumental building projects, and military conquests. Egypt and parts of Eastern Europe, Africa, and Spain were all conquered during his rule. Augustus also brought about administrative change, establishing emergency services in Rome along with a standing army and an empire-wide courier network.
Augustus and his successors presided over the greatest period of Ancient Rome, known as the Principate – named after Augustus's title of princeps, meaning “first citizen”. This period also incorporates the “Pax Romana”, two centuries of almost unchallenged Roman dominance over much of the known world.
This period was fueled by Rome's thriving economy, which was boosted and maintained by Augustus's reforms to the tax system, making Rome richer than ever before. All of the provinces were taxed and had to pay these sums directly to Rome. Augustus also formally united Italy as a single province under his rule – Italia.
Augustus's next four successors were all descendants of Julius Caesar, but none could emulate Augustus's achievements. Octavian's stepson Tiberius was followed by the allegedly mad Emperor Caligula, who tried to have his favorite horse declared as a senator. After Caligula came Claudius, who ruled from 41 to 54 AD. Claudius increased Roman territory even further, conquering Thrace in northern Macedonia along with Judea before invading the British Isles in AD 43.
Claudius was succeeded by his adopted son, Nero, who became one of Rome's most notorious emperors. Nero is frequently depicted as a sadistic tyrant. Rumors persist that Nero started the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, despite the destruction of nearly two-thirds of the city. There were several conspiracies against Nero and attempts on his life, and he committed suicide in 68 AD after the Senate had declared him a public enemy.
Year of the Four Emperors: 68 to 68 AD
After Nero's death, the Empire erupted into a year of civil war as four would-be emperors fought for control. After one contender - the general Galba – was murdered, two more rivals fought for the throne. These were Vitellius, a governor of Germania, and Otho, a nobleman. While Otho was recognized as Emperor by the Senate, he was defeated by Vitellius and committed suicide.
Vitellius inherited Otho's senatorial support. However, he nearly bankrupted the Empire's treasury during his extravagant celebrations. Word then reached his ears of another contender for the throne – the general Vespasian, who was campaigning in the East and had been declared Emperor by his own men and former supporters of Otho.
Vespasian mobilized his troops from the Eastern legions, sending a force towards Rome while he took control of Egypt. Vespasian's army defeated Vitellius's forces, and the panicked incumbent was murdered by Vespasian's supporters in the capital. Vespasian claimed the throne and established his own dynasty. During his rule, the Empire managed to regain a stable economic footing.
The Five Good Emperors: 96 to 180 AD
After Vespasian's dynasty had ended, a series of stable rulers known as the "Five Good Emperors" ruled Rome for the next century. The most famous of these were Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Each of these emperors was appointed by their predecessors, despite not being blood-related.
Under Trajan, the Empire reached its greatest extent in 117 AD. The Emperor presided over a successful military campaign in Dacia, an area of Eastern Europe. To celebrate the victory, one of Rome's most famous landmarks – Trajan's Column – was erected. But Trajan's conquests continued, subjugating Armenia before capturing Mesopotamia.
Trajan's successor, Hadrian, retreated from some of these new conquests and established definitive borders at the edges of Roman territory – including the famous Hadrian's Wall in northern Britain. The last of the Five Good Emperors was Marcus Aurelius, who fought against the Germanic tribes of Gaul and Rome's Eastern rival – the Parthian Empire.
Aurelius was also one of Rome's most famous philosophers, and his Stoic musings are recorded in his Meditations. After Aurelius died in 180 AD, he was succeeded by his son, Commodus, and another period of unrest unfolded.
Year of the Five Emperors: 180 to 193 AD
Commodus had a troubled reign and was assassinated in 192 AD. Once again, there were multiple contenders for the imperial throne, including those who had engineered Commodus's murder. Pertinax, the proconsul of Africa, was the initial ruler but was murdered by the Praetorian Guard.
Senator Didus Julianus then bribed the Praetorians to his side but didn't have popular support. Another contender, Septimius Severus, declared himself Emperor and enjoyed the support of the Senate. He ordered the execution of Julianus before fighting his rival Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, for control of the Eastern provinces.
To buy himself some time, Severus entered an uneasy alliance with the fifth contender, the general Clobdius Albinus. The commander of the British legions when Pertinax was killed, Albinus was declared Emperor by his soldiers. He supported Severus as consul until Niger was defeated in 194 AD. Two years later, Severus turned on Albinus, who responded by declaring himself Emperor as well.
Severus defeated Albinus in 197 AD, becoming undisputed Emperor. During his rule, he launched a successful campaign against the Parthians before attempting to push Roman influence past Hadrian's Wall. Unsuccessful, he died of illness in 211 AD.
Crisis of the Third Century: 235 to 284 AD
Severus's successors had short reigns as the Empire's problems continued to grow, and his last descendant was assassinated in 235 AD. This kicked off the "Crisis of the Third Century", where Rome began its decline amid a series of civil wars and enemy assaults.
Germanic and Gothic tribes harassed the Empire's borders, raiding and pillaging. Several prominent generals fought each other for control, ignoring the violent expansion of the emerging Sassanid Empire from Persia. A plague broke out in 251 AD, crippling the Empire even more.
Rome began to fracture, devolving into three separate territories – the Empire itself remained in Italy, with one breakaway state in Gaul and another in the East. Emperor Aurelian, who reigned from 270 to 275 AD, succeeded in repelling the invading tribes and reuniting the Empire once more.
But despite this reprieve, the Roman Empire continued to crumble from within, suffering from squabbling factions and administrative difficulties.
The Fall of the Roman Empire – 284 to 476 AD
In 284 AD, Diocletian claimed the throne and set about solidifying the Empire. He quelled rebellions, eliminated his opponents, and defeated raiding tribes before launching another campaign against the Sassanids and establishing a strong peace treaty.
To ease the burden of ruling so much land, Diocletian engineered a series of administrative and economic reforms. He overhauled the tax system, creating parity among the provinces but with higher levies. A devoted pagan, he also persecuted the growing Christian populace within the empire.
It was Diocletian who first partitioned the Empire into East and West in 286 AD. He chose the Eastern half for himself and left the West in the hands of his lieutenant, Maximian. A few years later, Diocletian instituted the Tetrarchy – the “Rule of Four” - by devolved power over both halves of the Empire between a senior and junior emperor. This lasted until 306 AD, when Constantine the Great ascended to the throne.
Constantine saw off competition from various rivals in yet another civil war. He introduced more sweeping reforms, further stabilizing the economy. Constantine also became a devout Christian in 312 AD and effectively established Christianity as the state religion by the end of his rule.
Constantine's sons fought over the empire after his death, with Constantius emerging as the victor. However, he was still engaged in a civil war with Magnus Magnentius between 350 and 353 AD. Magnentius was a general who had led a revolt against Constantius's brother, Constans. With the troops of the Eastern Empire at his back, Constantius finally defeated the usurper after three years of war.
More civil wars and unrest followed over the next century. The devolution of the Empire between East and West went through various stages, gradually weakening the Western half. The ideological battle between Christianity and pagan beliefs also continued, with emperors like Julian demanding tolerance of the old pagan faiths.
Barbarian tribes continued assaulting the empires, and the ruling emperors gradually lost most of their power as military commanders became de-facto warlords. In 476 AD, a Germanic chieftain called Odoacer deposed the final Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus. The Western Empire fractured, and more unrest followed until Italy was conquered by the Ostrogoths in 493 AD.
The great Roman Empire was no more, bringing almost a thousand years of Roman domination to an end.