Roman Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire

| | April 13, 2024

The Roman Empire, a colossal entity that once sprawled across three continents, stands as one of the greatest empires in history.

From its humble beginnings as a small settlement along the Tiber River, Rome’s dominion expanded to encompass vast territories, influencing the course of history with its military conquests, governance, and cultural achievements.

Yet, the very factors that propelled its ascent — political ambition, military might, and complex governance — also sowed the seeds of its decline.

The Roman Empire at a Glance

The Roman Empire was founded by Augustus Caesar, who was the first emperor. It officially began in 27 BCE when Octavian (later Augustus) was granted the title Augustus by the Roman Senate. At its height, the Roman Empire covered over 5 million square kilometers, encompassing territories in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

READ MORE: Roman Emperors in Order: The Complete List from Caesar to the Fall of Rome

The Roman Empire is known for its remarkable achievements in engineering, architecture, law, and the military, which have had a lasting impact on Western civilization.

The Western Roman Empire lasted until 476 CE, when it fell to the Germanic king Odoacer, marking almost 500 years of dominance, while the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, lasted until 1453 CE, bringing the total duration to nearly 1,500 years.

Perhaps no civilization has had such a profound effect on the modern world as Rome. Over the course of its some 1229 years of existence, Rome went from Monarchy, to Republic, to Empire, and expanded from an insignificant little war-like city-state on the Italian Peninsula to the largest and most thoroughly dominant power in the ancient world.

READ MORE: Roman Republic and The Complete Roman Empire Timeline: Dates of Battles, Emperors, and Events

Like most characters and powers throughout history, Rome was neither exclusively good or bad. Constantly eager for conquest, it caused the death and enslavement of countless individuals, yet annexed provinces did indeed enjoy the city’s protection, and often very low tax rates. In fact, many rural provinces operated at a loss, with Rome still feeling obliged to provide military protection.

The highly efficient and innovative Romans also greatly improved ancient lifestyles, and introduced numerous ideas that we take for granted today, including such things as organized highways and roads, apartment buildings, the postal service, basic sanitation and sewer design, and the development of indoor plumbing and heating.

The individuals that shaped this civilization were themselves often larger than life figures, just like the great empire they inhabited. Charismatic generals and politicians, they took their city from a footnote in the history books to the driving force which shaped the future of the western world.

From Republic to Empire

The journey of the Romans going from the Republic to the Empire is immense and spans across centuries. But that doesn’t stop one from seeing it in a nutshell.

Roman Kings and the Tarquins

In the early days, Rome was ruled by kings. The Tarquins, a powerful family, were especially notable. The last three kings of Rome came from the Tarquin family. They were known for their strong leadership but also for their harsh rule. Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king, greatly expanded Rome’s power. However, it was his successors, especially the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, whose actions led to the end of the monarchy. The Tarquins are remembered for their contributions to Rome’s development and their ultimate downfall, which led to a significant change in Rome’s government.

READ MORE: Kings of Rome: The First Seven Roman Kings

The Murder of the Last King; The Establishment of the Republic

The murder of the last Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, marked a turning point in Roman history. This event led to the establishment of the Republic. The people of Rome were tired of the cruel rule of the Tarquins. After the king’s son committed a terrible crime, the Romans decided they had enough. They expelled the Tarquins from Rome. This led to the creation of a new system of government where two consuls, elected by the people, would rule instead of a king. This change aimed to prevent any single person from having too much power.

The Government of the Republic

The government of the Republic was structured to balance power among different parts of Roman society. It included the Senate, which was made up of Rome’s elite, and the Assembly, which represented the common people. Two consuls were elected each year to lead the government and military. This system ensured that no single individual could hold too much power. The Republic’s complex system of checks and balances was revolutionary at the time and influenced many future governments.

Rome Conquers Italy

Over several centuries, Rome gradually conquered all of Italy. This was not an easy task. Rome faced fierce resistance from other Italian tribes and cities. Through a mix of military might, strategic alliances, and the offer of Roman citizenship to conquered peoples, Rome expanded its territory. The conquest of Italy provided Rome with the resources and manpower to become a dominant power in the Mediterranean world. It was a crucial step in Rome’s rise to empire.

Roman-Etruscan Wars, Samnite and Latin Wars, and the Invasion of Pyrrhus

The Roman-Etruscan Wars, Samnite and Latin Wars, and the invasion of Pyrrhus were key conflicts that showed Rome’s military might and strategic skills. Rome fought with the Etruscans and neighboring Latin and Samnite peoples for control of Italy. These wars were tough, with Rome facing serious defeats, especially during the early Samnite Wars. The invasion of Pyrrhus from Greece tested Rome’s resilience. Despite initial losses, Rome bounced back and eventually defeated Pyrrhus.

READ MORE: The Most Important Roman Wars and Battles: Civil and External

The First and Second Punic Wars

The First and Second Punic Wars were monumental conflicts between Rome and Carthage, two of the strongest powers in the Mediterranean. The First Punic War was primarily a naval conflict, while the Second saw dramatic land battles, including Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps. These wars were marked by massive battles, brilliant military strategies, and significant losses on both sides. Rome’s victories expanded its territory and influence, signaling its emergence as a dominant Mediterranean power.

Hannibal and the Third Punic War

Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general, became Rome’s most formidable foe during the Second Punic War. His crossing of the Alps with elephants is legendary. Despite winning several battles, Hannibal could not secure a final victory. The Third Punic War ended with Rome’s complete destruction of Carthage. This war made Rome solidify her control over the western Mediterranean.

Overpowering the Hellenistic Empires

After conquering Italy and defeating Carthage, Rome turned its attention to the Hellenistic Empires of the eastern Mediterranean. These empires, successors to Alexander the Great, were rich and powerful. Through a series of wars, Rome systematically overpowered these empires, including Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt. Rome’s victories in the east expanded its empire, wealth, and influence, making it the dominant power in the Mediterranean world.

READ MORE: How Did Alexander the Great Die: Illness or Not?

The Gracchi Brothers and Land Reform

Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, known as the Gracchi brothers, were Roman tribunes who pushed for land reform to help Rome’s poor. They saw the growing inequality between Rome’s rich and poor as a threat to the republic. The Gracchi proposed laws to redistribute public land to the poor, but they faced fierce opposition from the Senate and Rome’s elite. Their efforts led to social unrest and their eventual deaths, marking the beginning of a period of instability in Roman politics.

READ MORE: Tiberius Gracchus: Life, Work, Death, and More! and Gaius Gracchus

The First and The Second Civil War

The First and Second Civil War were devastating conflicts that arose from political and social tensions within Rome. The First Civil War was primarily between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, two of Rome’s most powerful generals, each supported by different factions. The Second saw the rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. These wars were characterized by massive armies, battles across the Roman world, and the march of armies on Rome itself.

First Triumvirate

The First Triumvirate was a political alliance between Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and Crassus. This informal alliance was formed to overcome the political opposition and control the Roman Republic. Each member had his own ambitions and resources, making the triumvirate a powerful but unstable alliance. Their cooperation led to significant political and military successes, but rivalries eventually led to its downfall and set the stage for the end of the Republic.

Rise of Caesar

Julius Caesar’s rise to power was marked by his incredible military successes, political savvy, and charisma. His conquest of Gaul expanded Rome’s territories and brought him immense wealth and military power. Caesar’s popularity with the people and his army posed a threat to the Senate and his political rivals. His crossing of the Rubicon River was a declaration of war against Pompey and the Senate, leading to his dictatorship and the dramatic transformation of the Roman Republic.

Second Triumvirate

Following Caesar’s assassination, the Second Triumvirate was formed by his adopted heir Octavian (later Augustus), Mark Antony, and Lepidus. This alliance was made to defeat Caesar’s assassins and to control the Roman Republic. However, like the First Triumvirate, this alliance was marked by internal conflicts and power struggles. The eventual fallout between Octavian and Antony set the stage for the final conflict that would end the Republic.

Octavian vs. Antony and Cleopatra

The conflict between Octavian and Mark Antony, complicated by Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, was a defining moment in Roman history. Their rivalry culminated in the Battle of Actium, where Octavian’s forces defeated Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet. This victory marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of Octavian’s rule as the first Roman Emperor, under the name Augustus.

READ MORE: How Did Cleopatra Die? Bitten by an Egyptian Cobra

Establishing an Empire

Though Julius Caesar is often called the first emperor of Rome, the title is largely a misnomer. That honor goes instead to Octavian, who, after reorganizing Egypt into a Roman province, returned to the city.

He held the power of the entire Roman army and could have established himself quickly as the supreme ruler, but he was an excellent politician and had learned from the mistakes made by Caesar. Instead of a sudden change to the long-standing traditions and policies of the republic, Octavian took power incrementally and in nominally legal ways, all the while continuing to outwardly show respect for the Senate and all the principles of the government.

His quest was also not simply an ambitious desire for power, but a necessary one. Years of corruption and civil wars had left Rome unstable and violent. Had Octavian simply walked away, power struggles would have immediately begun again between the highest ranking generals and politicians.

By the end of his life, Octavian had reorganized the republic into an empire, though contemporary Romans would not have used that term. In fact, the word “emperor” — derived from the Latin imperator, which translates to “commander” — did not originally mean the sole ruler of an empire. Instead, it was an honorary military title that could only be bestowed upon a commander by the popular acclaim of his own soldiers.

Octavian had been hailed as imperator by his soldiers, and was now named Augustus — a religious title loosely translated to “illustrious one” — and princeps (meaning first citizen) by the Senate, making him the leading member of that political body, and giving him the powers of the ultimate general and high priest.

He also received unprecedented power and magisterial positions at their hands, which he proceeded to bestow on Agrippa, who was an integral part of his success.

Augustus ruled for forty years, instituting important reforms to the legal and financial realms, engaging in numerous public building projects, and returning stability to Rome. Unfortunately, it was the kind of stability that would not be seen for over eighty years following his death.

The Early Empire and Early Emperors

The first Roman Emperor was Augustus Caesar, originally named Octavian. He became emperor after the assassination of his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, and after a period of civil war.

The reign of Augustus established the groundwork for the empire going forward, and rearranged the Roman government in a number of important ways.

In the Augustan Settlement of 27 B.C., Augustus re-organized the Roman provinces into two categories — the Senatorial and the Imperial. The former were operated by the Senate, and their governors appointed by that body. The princeps personally ran the latter, which included some of the most wealthy and powerful provinces, bringing income into the Imperial treasury.

Though the princeps appointed governors to his provinces to oversee day to day operations, they were still under his direct authority. He also directly appointed generals in the Roman army, but — due to the dangers of being a popular general — in cases where a large military operation was underway, the princeps would often choose to take command himself.

Capable military emperors received significantly higher respect from the people of Rome, as well as maintaining the loyalty and love of the army — a critical component to remaining alive.

Power shifted frequently throughout the coming centuries in Rome. Early in the imperial period, the princeps would still consult with the Senate before acting, with the Senate giving nominal power to that office while continuing to operate as a legislative body.

The position of princeps was very rarely a stable one, and during some of the turmoil and civil wars that erupted, the Senate was able to sway public opinion by declaring men emperors or enemies of the state. But, over time, the Senate’s power slowly decreased more and more, to the point where it became mainly that of being a figurehead.

Another important player in the Roman government was the Praetorian Guard. As the personal guards of the emperor, they were the only soldiers legally allowed to carry weapons within the city itself.

Although initially instituted for the emperor’s protection, they slowly became aware of their own power as emperor-makers or destroyers, eventually becoming more of a threat to the emperors than their salvation.

The Julio-Claudian Dynasty

Toward the end of Augustus’s reign, Rome suffered a defeat that would never be forgotten. In the Teutoburg Forest, in the hills of lower Germania, the region of Europe to the north of Italy and centered around what is now modern day Germany, three Roman legions and their auxiliaries faced off against the Cherusci tribe.

READ MORE: Roman Legion Names and Roman Auxiliary Equipment

The Cherusci were led by Arminius — a chieftain who had been raised as a political hostage in Rome and thus grew up learning Roman military tactics. Armed with this knowledge, he was able to string out the Roman line, maneuver them into a trap, and then anticipate the Roman commander’s decisions and effectively counter them. When the dust and chaos of the battle settled, the entire Roman force was demolished; between 16,000 and 20,000 dead, with more enslaved.

Augustus was so distraught at the news that he smashed his head into the wall, crying out, “Varus, give me back my legions!” 

Sadly for Augustus, though, he died before he could avenge his force. But his successor Tiberius sent his adopted son, Germanicus, into Germania to conduct a retributive campaign. Germanicus inflicted heavy losses on the Germanic tribes, defeated Arminius, and recovered two of the three legionary eagles lost in Teutoburg.

These eagles served as the standards of the different legions, and the capture of one by enemy soldiers was a terrible disgrace to all of Rome — but particularly to the legion that had lost it. By the same token, any commander that could recover a lost eagle was given high honors, and several campaigns throughout Roman history were launched merely to recapture legionary eagles.

READ MORE: Roman Standards

Tiberius

The following years were dominated by the Julio-Claudian Dynasty — the direct descendants of Caesar and Augustus — for better or for worse.

Augustus had not produced a son, and therefore had no natural heir. He instead doted upon his grandsons — who were the children of his daughter Julia and his close friend Marcus Agrippa — adopting both of them as his own sons and heirs. But tragically, they both died of illness before their grandfather’s own demise.

A third grandson, Agrippa Postumus, had proven too unruly and rowdy and Augustus disowned his adoption, settling his hopes instead on his stepson, Tiberius.

When Tiberius became emperor, he was already fifty-six years old. He was overall a competent leader, though suspicion fell on him for possible involvement in the death of Germanicus, who was a popular general and married to one of Agrippa’s daughters. He grew further unpopular by the horrible treatment of Germanicus’s family under his reign — even though the actual perpetrator very well may have been Sejanus, Tiberius’s right hand man.

Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina the Elder, openly accused Tiberius of killing her husband so as to promote his own son, Drusus, as heir. She and two of her sons were then arrested, exiled, and died mysteriously; most believing that they had been deliberately starved to death.

The only surviving son was Gaius Julius Caesar, better known by his nickname — Caligula.

Tiberius eventually completely removed himself from Rome, and concluded his days at his luxurious villa on Capri, apparently indulging in all kinds of wild sexual escapades.

It was also in the final days of Tiberius’s rule that an incident occurred which would change the course of history — far off in the Roman province of Judea, Jesus of Nazareth was executed under the authority of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

His followers — though of Jewish origins — soon became known as Christians, and their rising religious influence was something that Rome would have to face throughout her remaining years.

READ MORE: Christian Heresy in Ancient Rome and How Did Christianity Spread: Origins, Expansion, and Impact 

Caligula and Claudius 

Imperial rule then passed to Caligula — the son of Germanicus, and Tiberius’s nephew and adopted son.

Rumors flourished that Caligula had killed Tiberius — though nothing could be proven — and that Tiberius himself had expressed concern for the future of Rome should Caligula become emperor.

As the son of Germanicus, Caligula had grown up in army camps and was a favorite of the Roman legions, and, after the cruelties shown toward his family, he was welcomed with open arms. In fact, the first seven months of his rule were exemplary, and Rome looked forward to a kind, competent, and moral ruler. The people even gave him a number of new nicknames, referring to him by such endearments as “star,” “chicken,” “baby,” and “pet.”

Unfortunately, something ended up drastically changing — perhaps related to a serious illness that he suffered in the eighth month of his rule — and Caligula became petty, violent, and brutal.

According to the ancient historians, he prosecuted many men of high standing, some of the worst punishments including confining a number in small cages, or even sawing them in half.

He held frequent trials by torture in his dining room during dinner and kept an expert headsman by his side to perform decapitations at any given time, though his preference for executions was to frequently tell his man to “make him feel that he is dying,” inflicting many small wounds to kill the victim more slowly.

He also revelled in forcing parents to attend their children’s executions, and on top of all this watched the manager of his gladiatorial and wild-beast shows being flogged with chains for several days running, killing him only when the smell of suppurating brains became too awful to continue.

READ MORE: The Roman Gladiators: Soldiers and Superheroes

Eventually, his cruelty and excesses became so horrific that even the officers of his own Praetorian Guard couldn’t handle it anymore — no matter how much he was paying them — and they assassinated him as he walked from the arena to his pre-dinner bath.

With the childless emperor now dead, there was again no heir to take the throne — a situation that threatened more civil war and chaos if allowed to drag out. Thinking quickly, the Praetorians found Claudius, uncle to Caligula.

When the chaos had begun following Caligula’s assasination, Claudius had snuck out of his bedroom to an adjoining apartment in the palace and hid. One of the soldiers wandering by saw his sandals sticking out from beneath the curtains of the balcony door and pulled him out, asking who he was.

Terrified, Claudius fell at the soldier’s feet — but the man recognized him, took him to his comrades, and they all hailed him as princeps.

Claudius had been largely ignored by his family due to his limp and slight deafness, but he proved to be an intelligent and capable man for the job. He was interested in law, administration, and public building projects, and successfully returned Rome to financial stability — something damaged by Caligula’s excessive spending.

However, like many emperors, Claudius felt his position was a vulnerable one, and ordered the deaths of a number of senators and high ranking nobles in order to assure his position.

Nero

It was widely believed that Claudius was killed by his own wife — the ingenious, ambitious, and conniving Agrippina the Younger, daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder — in order to ensure the ascension of Nero, her son from a previous marriage.

Like Caligula, Nero’s early reign was moderate and successful. In an early speech to the Senate, he paid deference to their importance to government, distanced himself from several unpopular decisions, and praised the structure of the republic. Flattered and pleased, the Senate ordered the speech inscribed on a silver column and read annually — perhaps partly as praise for the speech and partly as a reminder to Nero of his promises.

Nero did keep them — at least for the first five years. He showed mercy to opponents, established strong colonies, and took on many civic projects. And when the Senate offered him an official vote of thanks, he refused, saying “wait until I have earned them.” During that time, he made most decisions with the input of his mother and two top advisors.

Yet, as it had been with Caligula, the honeymoon was short lived.

Nero became increasingly suspicious, eventually executing those two advisors and falling out with his mother. Later, he even went so far as to arrange for her murder.

First it was a failed attempt to poison her, and then it was the more extensive plan of commissioning a self-collapsing boat that Agrippina yet again managed to survive.

Finally, Nero sent assassins to finish the job — the more conventional method. When they arrived, Agrippina knew exactly why they had come, and she leapt up, tearing open the clothes over her abdomen and saying, “Strike me in my womb — this was what bore Nero.” 

Soon, Nero felt the guilt of his deed. He spent many sleepless nights, terrified of any noises coming from the direction of his mother’s tomb, and admitted that he felt forever pursued by her ghost.

He fell into paranoia and tyranny, executing any that he found at all suspicious or that displeased him — at one point he even ordered the death of a woman who refused his proposal of marriage.

On top of his frequent enjoyment of having people executed, he enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, and poured money into his greatest passion — art, theatre, and the Roman games. And, much to the horror of the Roman citizenry, he even joined in as a performer and athlete himself, something shameful for a man of his standing.

Soon he was entirely devoted to his pastimes, and paid little attention to any of the needs of his empire.

The Revolt of Boudicca

From the reign of Claudius through to Nero, Rome had been busily occupied with a full scale invasion of Britain.

There, they encountered a number of British tribes, some friendly and some resentful, one of which were the Iceni — a group of Celts on the eastern coast of the island. The woman who would soon threaten Rome’s conquest of Britain — Boudicca — was there and married to the Iceni king, Prasutagus.

READ MORE: Warrior Women from Around the World: The Amazonians, Queen Zenobia, and More!

Initially allied with Rome, Prasutagus had, in his will, jointly left his kingdom to his daughters and to the Roman emperor, hoping to preserve his lands in peace. Yet after his death, his kingdom was treated as spoils of war by the Romans — Iceni nobles were deprived of their property, the king’s relatives were treated as slaves, Boudicca was publicly flogged, and her daughters were raped.

In 60 or 61 A.D., the tribe decided to revolt. Acclaiming Boudicca as their leader, they took the Roman colony of Camulodunum, systematically destroying it and massacring the inhabitants.

Eventually, Roman forces managed to gather their full strength professional army and choose an advantageous site for battle. The rebels arrived with massive numbers, and they were so confident in their coming victory that many even brought their wives along to watch the battle. Yet, against the organized strength of the trained and disciplined Roman soldiers, they never stood a chance, superior numbers or no.

The rebels suffered a crushing defeat; the Romans apparently didn’t even spare the wives, killing all within their reach.

Although the rebellion was unsuccessful, Boudicca — who, according to different sources, took her own life via poison or died of illness shortly after the battle — has become an important British symbol. A statue of her, resplendent in her war chariot, still stands near Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament in the heart of London.

The Great Fire of Rome

Only a few years later, Nero had to contend with another catastrophe, though many claimed that he was actually the one responsible for it.

On July 19, 64 A.D., a fire began in the shops that surrounded the Circus Maximus — the great chariot racetrack and stadium of Rome. The area was amongst the oldest in the city, lying between the Palatine and Caelian Hills, and the fire raged through the old, dry, tightly packed wooden buildings.

Nothing was able to slow it — for six days and seven nights it devoured the city, sending inhabitants fleeing in panicked desperation.

Many that escaped the first march of flames even threw themselves back into the inferno, choosing death rather than facing the loss of their livelihood or beloved relatives that they were unable to rescue.

During the famous Great Fire of Rome, Nero wasn’t even in the city, but was instead visiting Antium — modern day Anzio, south of Rome on the coast — when the fire began.

Though he did return, and even opened up the Campus Martius, a publicly owned section of central Rome, to house the fugitives, rumors flew that — entranced by the beauty of the flames — he put on stage costumes and sang the entire ballad of the fall of Troy, leading to the famous saying that has survived even to this day, “Nero fiddles while Rome burns.” 

Nero tried to shift blame for the fire onto the Christians, whose mysterious rites and rumored rituals had begun to cause the Romans concern. The emperor took advantage of public suspicion, and executed many in the deadly games, but his cruelty did more to raise sympathy for the Christians than to absolve him.

Rather inevitably, a revolt finally broke out, led by popular generals who marched on Rome. Nero fled the city, was declared an enemy of the state by the Senate, and finally commited suicide. His final words really do well to demonstrate the melodramatic nature that still makes him such a charismatic and interesting character, even to this day: “What an artist the world is losing!”

The Flavians

Nero’s death threw the Roman Empire into chaos, and 69 A.D. became known as “The Year of the Four Emperors” as power passed between the hands of powerful men seeking imperial rule.

Galba, governor of Hispania, was the first candidate. He entered Rome with the support of the Praetorians and received the position from the Senate. Yet he quickly incurred the hatred of all Roman factions, dealing brutally with those who did not instantly accept him and canceling all of Nero’s reforms — even those that had been greatly beneficial.

The legions of the Rhine declared their own general, Vitellius, as emperor, and another nobleman, Otho, won the allegiance of the Praetorian Guard through bribery. They killed Galba in the streets, and the Senate made Otho the new emperor. Vitellius, however, did not back down from his own claim.

After a serious defeat at the Battle of Brundisium, Otho committed suicide. The father of Roman history, Suetonius, had served under him, and he reported that it was not from despair of victory that Otho did so, but a genuine horror of civil war and the deaths of good soldiers that had occurred with his orders.

Shortly after learning of Otho’s death, the Senate accepted Vitellius as emperor.

Back in Rome, he practically bankrupted the imperial treasury by indulging in lavish banquets, while down in Egypt the legions elected yet another general, Vespasian, as their contender for power. They were backed by the soldiers and governor of Syria as well, and this massive force marched on Rome.

Vitellius could find no supporters willing to fight for him, and Vespasian’s men captured him in the palace, dragging him — tightly bound and with his clothes mostly torn off — by a noose through the streets and to the Forum. There, he was made to stand, half-naked, as the citizens hurled insults, dirt, and even manure at him.

They took him to the Gemonian Stairs — the steps leading from the Capitoline Hill down to the Forum — and tortured him slowly, making small shallow cuts all over his body until he finally died. His body was then dragged by a hook through the streets and thrown into the Tiber.

Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian

Rome certainly had reason to fear that the bloodshed would not end there, and that another long and brutal power play between high ranking men was sure to start. But, luckily, Vespasian had large armies loyal to his cause, and finally set himself up successfully as the new princeps.

He proved an excellent choice — tough but fair, generally moderate and humble, and thoughtfully instituting reforms for the betterment of Rome.

In fact, Vespasian likely repaired Roman trust in the imperial system as a whole. When he died of natural causes after ten years in power, the nation breathed a sigh of relief when his eldest son, Titus, assumed the role with no dissent. Titus was the image of his father — moderate and capable, and of a generally kind disposition.

Even though he dealt with several disasters in the empire during his short rule — including the explosion of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and other surrounding cities, a three day fire in Rome, and a devastating plague — his exemplary conduct during and after these events only endeared himself further to his people.

Unfortunately, Titus contracted a serious fever two years in that eventually took his life. When his passing was announced, “the entire population went into mourning as if they had suffered a personal loss.” 

Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian, smoothly took power, and initially seemed like a promising emperor despite his jealous resentment of his deceased brother which did nothing to impress the people still mourning Titus’s death. However, after a while, Domitian would also descend into greed, cruelty, and paranoia — earning both the fear and hatred of most of Rome.

On the afternoon of September 18, 96 A.D., a freedman named Stephanus drew Domitian aside into the emperor’s private chambers, telling him he knew of a plot against his life. Stephanus had wrapped a bandage around his arm several days before, pretending that he had injured himself, but in reality was concealing a dagger wrapped beneath.

As Domitian read the paper Stephanus handed him, the freedman stabbed him first in the groin, and then fatally as several more conspirators rushed in to aid the attack.

The High Point

The Roman Empire reached its peak when she was finally in the dominion of her five good emperors.

In 1776, Edward Gibbon published his massive six book History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, he popularized Niccolò Machiavelli’s classification of the “Five Good Emperors.” 

Though it’s a subjective opinion, the five emperors who took power via adoption during this time stand out as wise and just rulers; their reigns marked the Golden Age of Rome.

READ MORE: The Fall of Rome: When, Why, and How Did Rome Fall?

Five Good Emperors

This is a term used by later historians to refer to a succession of Roman emperors starting with Nerva, who ruled during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE and were known for their relatively peaceful and prosperous reigns.

Nerva

Despite the hatred for Emperor Domitian, and the longing for his brother Titus, his assassination still created a dangerous instability and the possibility of deadly civil wars and power struggles.

Desperate to avoid this, the senators involved in plotting his death were ready with a placeholder, and they quickly acclaimed Senator Marcus Cocceius Nerva as the new emperor.

Though many modern historians have disparaged Nerva as a weak and useless committee man, Nerva was, in fact, the ideal candidate for the role he was given. Elderly and prone to illness, there was little concern that he would last for many more years. He was also a respected senator with a deep reverence for the governing body, and had successfully navigated the political quagmire of Roman politics from the days of Nero — emerging not only alive, but prominent.

And, to sweeten the pot even more, he was childless. In short, he was the perfect man to temporarily hold the office until the right replacement could be found, and so he did.

The senators and people embraced Nerva, with the Roman army remaining indifferent and the Praetorian Guard still smarting from their failure to protect Domitian (who had fully understood the importance of keeping the Praetorians happy and well-paid).

Though the early days of Nerva’s reign were fraught with peril, the solution was found in Nerva’s successor.

Trajan

Nerva began the Golden Age of Rome by instituting adoptive succession — in other words, choosing the best possible heir based on their proven abilities rather than by family ties.

Marcus Ulpius Traianus, better known as Trajan, had already shown himself to be of outstanding character and ability. Shrewd, intelligent, politically smooth, able to make tough decisions — but also fair and not prone to cruelty or arrogance — he held ties to aristocratic families, provincial administrations, military power, and was prone to none of the excesses that would make him an unpopular figure with the common people of Rome.

He had also proven himself a successful general, and earned the adoration of the Roman army by his sincere care and concern for the soldiers under his command. During his campaigns in Dacia, north of Rome, he spent hours after each battle with his wounded men, and when the army medics ran out of bandages, he would cut his own clothing into strips to be used instead.

In short, he could rally the support of all of the important factions of Rome.

The exception, perhaps, was the Praetorians, with whom he had no prior personal connection and who had appreciated Domitian’s open handed policy with them. However, Trajan had supported Domitian during his reign, and with the power of the Roman army behind him, the Praetorians soon fell in line and gave him their support.

Trajan was an interesting, unique, and dynamic character. A heavy drinker and an energetic outdoorsman, he was passionately fond of hunting, and seems to have had an interest in mountain climbing and bouldering.

Despite these less traditional and practical pursuits, Trajan was still a “Roman’s Roman” — an embodiment of the ideals that the people had always loved. Humble, friendly, studious, and tireless in his duties as the head of the state, as well as an aggressive soldier and conqueror.

Perhaps this is a less than desirable trait in the modern world, but it was a very popular one in ancient Rome. He led the greatest military expansion in Rome’s history, and left the empire at its peak size upon his death. He was also a champion of philanthropic legislation, social welfare programs, and public building projects.

Though some continued Nerva’s work, much of it was his own brainchild and passion. After surviving a horrible earthquake in the city of Antiochia (modern day Antakya, in Turkey) in 115 A.D., both Trajan and future emperor, Hadrian, invested massive amounts of their own private funds into the reconstruction of the city.

It was at the age of sixty-three, while traveling back from campaigns in Parthia to Rome, that Trajan suffered a stroke and fell ill. He never recovered.

Hadrian

Imperial power passed to Hadrian — Trajan’s younger cousin — in an odd and somewhat uncertain ascension.

Hadrian had been orphaned at age ten, and his mother chose two powerful men to be his guardians — one of whom was the dashing young Trajan, thirty-two years old at the time and working towards his first consulship. Though not officially adopted, Trajan had always treated his young ward as his own; something noted by the political players of the era.

In his earlier years, Trajan found himself disappointed by Hadrian, who had a shaky and inconsistent career in the beginning — but Hadrian slowly matured. There were whispers that Trajan had never officially adopted and made Hadrian his heir, yet all of Trajan’s actions seem to suggest that it was his plan, as well as the fact that he had no other younger associates who appeared to be alternative candidates.

The army acclaimed Hadrian emperor immediately upon Trajan’s death, much to the irritation of the Senate. From Trajan, he had learned how to earn the sincere love of the military, and though his career as emperor was plagued by ongoing disagreements with the Senate, the Roman army maintained a deep affection for him.

Hadrian continued Trajan’s welfare works and amped up his building projects, always a keen lover of architecture. But, though a competent military commander, Hadrian did not share in his cousin’s thirst for expansion. Instead, he retracted some of Trajan’s gains and built walls — including the well-known Hadrian’s Wall of Northern England — to mark the edges of Roman territory.

Hadrian’s personal character was a complex and interesting one. He possessed a certain arrogance and confidence in his own abilities, but it never pushed him into retributive cruelty towards those that criticized him. And, though intimate and caring in his circle of friends, he also dropped some of them quite suddenly, unlike the steadfast loyalty that characterized Trajan before him — something that worsened with his health in his later years.

Indeed, Hadrian was something of an introvert with a need for seclusion, despite his ability to play the self-assured leader for the public. At his grand villa at Tibur, his personal chambers were on an island in the middle of a man-made pool, only accessible by rowboat.

Sadly, at the very end of his life, he was almost entirely alone, attended only by his adopted son and successor, Antoninus Pius, who stayed with the sickly emperor faithfully until the end.

Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius was, himself, something of a placeholder, though a far longer lasting one than Nerva had been.

Hadrian had become immensely fond of young Marcus Annius Verus — later Marcus Aurelius — and wanted to ensure that the boy would be in line for succession.

He adopted Antoninus, an already middle-aged senator, on the condition that he would in turn adopt Marcus, as well as young Lucius Verus — the son of one of Hadrian’s close friends, then deceased.

In the final months of his life, Hadrian endured great pain, and even attempted suicide on a number of occasions. But Antoninus took his adoption quite seriously, and would halt his administrative duties in Rome to spend time with Hadrian, dissuading the unhappy emperor from killing himself and remaining by his side until the end.

Upon Hadrian’s death, Antoninus took power smoothly, with one slight hiccup. Still smarting from their contentious relationship with Hadrian, the Senate tried to refuse to deify him. Antoninus would not have it, and threatened to resign as emperor if they would not honor his adoptive father.

They finally capitulated, approving Antoninus’s adoption of the young Marcus and Lucius, and even giving him the name “Pius” for his steadfast loyalty to Hadrian.

Antoninus Pius was, by all accounts, an exemplary leader, and in many ways he and Marcus Aurelius were quite alike. Sharing a love of philosophy, intellectual endeavors, and the pursuit of virtue — as well as a tender-hearted care for others — they were exceedingly compatible as father and son. Despite Marcus’s initial dismay at being named imperial heir, he and Antoninus became extraordinarily close.

Antoninus’s reign was a time of unprecedented peace and stability within Rome, with Marcus and Lucius slowly taking on more responsibility as Antoninus grew older. By the time he passed away, his two adopted sons were highly experienced and power passed easily to them.

Marcus Aurelius

Although a co-emperorship was somewhat new to Roman politics, Marcus and Lucius seemed to function fairly well together. Lucius had a wild streak that concerned his partner in leadership, but overall, Marcus — who disliked war and frequently struggled with ill health — took charge of administering the empire from Rome. Lucius, meanwhile — with good health and high energy — took over command of the legions in the field.

It was an excellent arrangement, but came to a premature end after only eight years in 169 A.D., when Lucius died on the way home from Pannonia, possibly from the Antonine Plague that had been brought back by Roman soldiers from Parthia. Marcus was with Lucius when he died, and despite all their differences, deeply mourned the loss of his adopted younger brother.

Marcus himself ruled for another eleven years, dealing with an uprising in Syria and the subsequent death of his wife.

Soon after, the Germanic tribes to the north began another rebellion, and Marcus headed back to oversee the campaign, this time without Lucius. Though the Roman army enjoyed great success, Marcus’s health was failing fast. On March 17th of 180 A.D., in the military camp at Vindobona, Marcus commended the care of his son Commodus to his soldiers and assigned the watchword for the day, “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting” before closing his eyes for the last time.

Marcus Aurelius is perhaps the most universally praised of all the emperors of Rome. Generous, lenient, merciful, gentle, frugal, intelligent, and a skilled administrator, the ancient historians have nothing bad to say of him — except for the fact that he made the grave error of having a natural born son, thus ending the line of adoptive succession and leaving Rome in the hands of a man of poor character, ill-equipped to lead.

The Decline

With the end of the line of five good emperors, Rome never again reached the same level of power, grandeur, and — more importantly — stability.

Though several men made attempts to establish new, lasting dynasties, one by one they fell apart in murder, overthrow, and chaos.

Stability to Chaos

After the five good emperors, nothing was the same and stability and prosperity gave way to chaos.

Commodus, Pertinax, and the Sale of the Roman Empire

With the death of his father, Commodus took the Roman Empire — according to contemporary author, Cassius Dio — “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.” 

Fond of luxury and leisure, Commodus quickly made detrimental peace agreements with the opposing Germanic tribes and raced back to Rome. There, he devoted himself to the games, but not only to spectating — to participating; enjoying chariot racing and combat with animals and gladiators.

As his popularity fell, he became increasingly paranoid, executing many Romans of high standing that he considered to be a threat. After ruling for twelve years and nine months, Commodus’s chamberlain, mistress, and Praetorian prefect conspired together to assassinate him, sending an athlete named Narcissus to strangle him while he lounged in his bath.

READ MORE: Roman Baths: Ancient Hygiene, Healing, and Socialization 

The murder kicked off another year of instability for Rome.

Commodus’s successor, Pertinax, had the makings of a good emperor and was highly respected by the Senate. However, he tried to change too much, too fast, angered the Praetorian Guard, and himself fell victim to assassination.

Hearing of Pertinax’s death, an ambitious and wealthy man named Didius Julianus hurried to the camp of the Praetorians, eager to gain their support as the next emperor. Finding them already in conversation with Pertinax’s father-in-law, Sulpicianus, he stood outside the gates and began to offer the soldiers large sums of money if they would make him princeps.

Sulpicianus countered, and soon the two were engaged in a furious bidding war as the Praetorians auctioned off the rule of the empire. Julianus prevailed, but barely managed to rule for even two months before he too was killed.

The Severan Dynasty

The Severan Dynasty was a ruling imperial dynasty of the Roman Empire that lasted from 193 to 235 CE. It was founded by Septimius Severus and included several emperors who ruled during a period of significant political, military, and social upheaval.

Septimius Severus

Julianus lasted a scant nine weeks, as — shortly into his reign — the soldiers of successful general Septimius Severus declared him emperor.

He led a rebellion against Julianus, picking up support and deserters along the way. By the time he reached Rome, all of Julianus’s friends had abandoned him, and one of Severus’s soldiers stabbed him to death in the palace. The Senate proclaimed Severus emperor, and he is generally well remembered.

Although he could be ruthless when needed, he was decidedly fair, and a devotedly hard worker. Even on his deathbed, he gasped, “Come, give it to us, if we have anything to do!” 

Severus died from disease in Eboracum in Britain, and his last words were advice to his two sons — “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, scorn everybody else.”

Caracalla and Geta; Fratricide

The first piece of advice proved too difficult for those two sons, Caracalla and Geta — though they became joint emperors, the former immediately began scheming against his brother.

Eventually, under the guise of making amends, Caracalla invited Geta to meet with him at the home of their mother, Julia Domna. When Geta realized that his murder had been arranged, he ran to his mother, clinging to her neck and begging her to help him.

He was only twenty-two years old, and was slain in her arms. Julia didn’t have time to mourn her youngest, though — she had to pretend that the slaughter was a great victory.

With the exception of this one terrible event, Caracalla was devoted to his mother. She could frequently give him advice or reign him in where others would be killed for the mere suggestion, and he granted her more and more administrative duties throughout his reign.

He despised even the thought of Geta, and killed men just for speaking and writing his name — but not only when they directly referred to his brother. He killed them for mentioning “Geta” at all.

And, seeing as the name was a popular one — particularly in theatrical circles — this caused no little consternation in Rome.

But Caracalla’s weird fixation on names could also be a benefit to some. The emperor held an obsessive love for Alexander the Great, and was known to shower riches on or promote men just for having the name “Alexander” or the names of the great conqueror’s family, friends, and generals — no doubt obviously an extremely effective way to determine leadership potential.

The one piece of advice that Caracalla did listen closely to was that of what his father told him regarding the soldiers; he lavished money on them, keeping them fiercely loyal to him. Yet, as time went on, he also became increasingly paranoid — executing untold numbers of Romans — and had no particular redeeming qualities in his position.

After six years of reign, while on the way to Carrhae, Caracalla stopped to relieve himself, and while he was exposed on the ground a member of his own Praetorian Guard killed him over a private grudge.

The Year of Six Emperors

The end of the Severan Dynasty plunged Rome back into instability — in just the year following Caracalla’s death, six emperors rose to power in succession before being murdered, and over the next ten years, another three men would hold power.

Finally, a brief moment of stability came with Emperor Valerian and his sons. But even this wouldn’t last long, as, in 260 A.D., Valerian attempted to retake Antiochia on the Orontes — which lies on the border between Turkey and Syria — from the Sassanid king, Shapur I.

He lost a devastating battle and was captured, living the remainder of his life as a prisoner of the king, dragged around in chains and forced to be a stool for him when he mounted his horse.

Valerian’s son, Gallienus, was already established as co-emperor and enjoyed the longest reign since Septimius Severus, before conspirators killed him in the midst of a siege.

More infighting and short-lived emperors finally resolved temporarily with Aurelian, a competent soldier who managed to settle barbarian incursions on the border and reunite a fractured Roman Empire, re-conquering the renegade Gallic and Palmyrene provinces.

But although his success gained him the title “Restorer of the World,” he too was murdered after only five years in power.

Zenobia of Palmyra

One of the “restoration” projects undertaken by Aurelian was the re-conquest of the errant province of Syria, which had declared independence under its fearless and charismatic ruler, Zenobia of Palmyra.

READ MORE: Queen Zenobia: The Charismatic Empress of Ancient Syria

Zenobia was a noblewoman who married Odaenathus — the ruler of Palmyra, located in what is still known as Syria, today. After her husband’s assassination, she became regent of her young son Vaballathus, holding the majority of power throughout his supposed reign.

She was a reasonable ruler, fond of philosophers and intellectuals, and led a stable and overall successful government. In 270 A.D., she launched an invasion of Roman held territories in Northern Africa and the Middle East, eventually conquering much of Ancyra, Anatolia, and Egypt.

Two years later she declared independence from Rome, naming herself empress and her son the emperor. She was defeated in heavy fighting against forces sent by Emperor Aurelian, and brought back to Rome to parade in his triumph.

He ultimately spared her life, however, giving her a villa to live in with her children, and it’s possible she may even have married a Roman nobleman.

The Carian Dynasty

Some decades after the Severan Dynasty came to an end, a man named Carus made a concerted effort to establish a new dynasty, but a series of strange accidents and a final uprising foiled his plans.

Carus was a general at heart, named emperor after the Roman legions had risen up and killed the previous ruler, Probus. Though apparently a fair man, the Senate was not fond of Carus, as he had little interest in courting their favor. He did not even appear before them, but sent a letter announcing his imperial rule by military acclamation, before departing to campaign against the Quadi, Sarmatians, and finally a revived Persia.

His youngest son, Numerian, accompanied him, and he left his eldest, Carinus, in charge of Gaul. Carus achieved great success against Persia, but just as he was about to return to Rome, a thunderstorm rolled over the camp. A stray bolt of lightning struck his tent and he was killed — probably indicative of the continued lack of favor from the gods that these emperors had been feeling.

READ MORE: Roman Gods and Goddesses: The Names and Stories of 29 Ancient Roman Gods

The army immediately declared Numerian emperor, who was widely praised as intelligent, skilled in both military and administration, and possessing high character.

But while marching back to Rome through Hemesa, Numerian developed a painful infection in his eyes. He asked to travel in a closed litter and requested to remain undisturbed as he recovered. The requests were granted, and the army continued the march for a few days until they began to smell a hint of decay.

Concerned for their young emperor (one would hope) they went to check on him, and found him dead.

Back in the west, Carinus had also declared himself emperor, but he was the opposite of his young brother — cruel and less than competent. The Roman legions declared one of their own, Diocletian, as the next emperor.

When the two met for battle, most of Carinus’s men deserted him and joined Diocletian, and he suffered a humiliating defeat.

Diocletian and Persecutions of the Christians

Under Diocletian, the first hints of a split empire began to become apparent.

Diocletian appointed Maximian as his co-emperor, with Maximian ruling the western half of the empire and Diocletian the eastern. Later, they each picked a lieutenant, forming a system called the Tetrarchy, with each of them taking charge of one quarter of the massive territory governed by Rome.

Though the tetrarch system failed after Diocletian’s death, his major reform programs did manage to re-stabilize the once again failing empire.

Christianity had been slowly growing since the days of Augustus, and though Christians had been the scapegoats of a few other situations, Diocletian took that to the next level. With his command, Christians endured the last, but the most vicious, series of persecutions they were to endure under Roman rule.

While the emperor was staying in Nicomedia, numerous Christians were brutally tortured and then executed by decapitation and even being boiled alive. Later, Diocletian ordered Christian churches burned, priests killed, and citizens enslaved.

Yet in the end, all this destruction only had the effect of raising the sympathy of pagans towards the Christians, and many sheltered their Christian neighbors from persecution.

In later life, Diocletian began to struggle to continue his imperial duties, and on May 1, 305 A.D. he became the first ever Roman emperor to voluntarily step down from office.

He spent the rest of his days in his ornate palace in Croatia, caring for his vegetable gardens.

Two Empires: East and West

The Roman Empire, at its height, was the most powerful entity in the ancient world. Yet, its vast territory, sprawling from the misty shores of Britain to the sun-baked sands of Egypt, proved difficult to govern as a single entity.

The solution, conceived during the reign of Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century, was to divide the empire into two: the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire. This division was initially intended as an administrative measure, but it gradually evolved into a permanent split that shaped the course of European and Middle Eastern history.

The Division and Its Reasons

The Roman Empire faced numerous challenges by the third century, including military pressures from outside invasions, economic difficulties, and internal political instability.

Diocletian’s decision to divide the empire was a strategic move to address these issues more effectively.

By creating a Tetrarchy, or rule of four, with two senior emperors (Augusti) and two junior co-emperors (Caesares), Diocletian aimed to ensure that the vast territories of the empire could be managed more efficiently and protected more effectively against external threats.

Constantine, Christianity, and Constantinople

The spread of Christianity from its humble beginnings in Judea to its rule over the powerful Roman Empire caused major changes to the course of history.

Over the next several hundred years, Christianity inadvertently brought about the fall of the Roman Empire as we consider it, and profoundly shaped the path of European development.

Constantine Legalizes Christianity

Maximian had also abdicated at the same time as Diocletian, leaving the empire in the hands of two men named Galerius and Constantius, who appointed new caesars under them — the title now being used to indicate the presumptive heir of the current princeps.

They passed over their sons, though, upon Constantius’s death, his son Constantine was elevated to caesar. The Tetrarchy soon dissolved into civil wars, which ended with Constantine emerging victorious as the single emperor of both Western and Eastern Rome.

With a preference for the Eastern, Constantine established a new capital at Byzantium in 330 A.D., renaming the city Constantinople. His reign was highly successful, reinstituting dynastic succession as the route to imperial power, and also marking an important shift in Roman history and subsequently the trajectory of world history — the acceptance of Christian religion.

Though not yet officially a Christian himself, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., legislating tolerance for Christianity. Later he called the First Council of Nicea to organize the religion and its doctrinal beliefs, sanctioned the building of important Christian churches, and otherwise favored the religion.

He was officially baptized into Christianity on his deathbed by bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. Scholars still debate whether he was truly a believer of Christianity or if he simply recognized the religion’s rapid growth and the advantages of embracing it. Whichever is the case, his actions changed Rome forever.

The Official Religion of Rome

Constantine’s three sons maintained his friendly attitude toward Christianity, but after their deaths, their cousin Julian completely reversed this, bringing Rome back to traditional pagan gods and Hellenistic values.

Though he did not engage in violent persecutions, he attempted to make life difficult for Christians in pettier ways, including undermining their sources of financing, supporting a Jewish resurrengence, and regulating teachers in the empire to minimize Christian influences. Before he could fully suppress the spread of Christianity, however, he was mortally wounded while campaigning against the Persians.

The next several emperors returned to a sympathetic view of Christianity, which eventually grew to enthusiastic endorsement under Emperor Theodosius I, who issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., making Christianity the official state religion.

The next several emperors are still acknowledged as saints by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some — such as Justinian and his wife Theodora, who massacred 30,000 unarmed citizens in the Nika Riots of 532 A.D. — hold somewhat checkered claims to that title.

West vs. East

Theodosius was also the last emperor to rule over the entirety of the Roman Empire. Following his death, Rome was forever split into the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire.

Though the Eastern Empire held nominal superiority and the administrations remained somewhat linked, the two halves grew gradually apart. Eventually they became so seperate that modern historians refer to the Eastern Empire as the Byzantine Empire, though its inhabitants would have still considered themselves Romans.

The Byzantines continued to flourish into the Middle Ages — unlike Western Rome, which came to an end in the 5th century A.D. — and, though the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade severely crippled its power, it still endured until it was annexed slowly into the Ottoman Empire, eventually being completely conquered by 1461.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

The Western Roman Empire fell due to a combination of internal weaknesses, including political instability and economic troubles, and external pressures from invading barbarian tribes. Rome officially fell in 476 AD when the Germanic leader Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus.

The Western Empire wasn’t quite so lucky, and though there was no single moment when it fell as we are sometimes led to believe, the Hellenistic Rome of pillars and marble, emperors and arena games, faded into the past.

The last Roman Emperor — Romulus Augustulus — became princeps at the age of fourteen or fifteen, nominally ruling over an empire that was a mere shadow of its former glory. In September of 476 A.D., he was deposed by Odoacer, chieftain of a federation of Germanic tribes.

Odoacer became the first king of Italy, much of the empire was divided amongst his allies, and with the loss of Romulus Augustulus, the Western Roman Empire was effectively finished.

So, Why Did Rome Fall? 

The question is a complex one that has consumed historians for generations, but there is no single answer to explain the collapse.

The Roman Imperial system was far from stable, and in the later years of the empire it’s government was always on the verge of crumbling.

The Roman Senate lost most of its power to the emperor, but those emperors in turn became almost merely figureheads as the Praetorian Guards recognized the power that they held at the tip of their swords.

Economic Failures

Another major factor was the slow, but steady, collapse of the Roman economic system. As the Roman Empire grew in power and wealth, its prosperous citizens sought expensive commodities and status symbols.

Imports from outside kingdoms exploded, with Rome sending massive amounts of gold and silver out of the country for the purchase of largely expendable and impractical items — like teak, tortoiseshell, ivory, and ebony. Exotic pets like monkeys, tigers, and leopards were seen as symbols of wealth and status, as were precious Eastern gemstones and exotic perfumes.

Before long, gold was devalued below all of these luxury items — a fact noted by natural historian Pliny the Elder, who perished in the eruption of Vesuvius — with the declining production of Rome’s gold and silver mines only exacerbating the problem.

Meanwhile, the Roman government kept taxes exceedingly low within its own provinces, and instead depended heavily on import taxes to fund its infrastructure, and — more importantly — its large military.

Many of its outlying provinces, such as Gaul and Britannia, supplied little in the way of income but required multiple legions to keep the peace. These provinces operated at a deficit, putting an even greater importance on import taxes; when outside kingdoms suffered from economic declines, Rome took heavy hits.

Ongoing Barbarian Invasions

With dwindling resources to pay its legions, the outlying borders of Rome grew more and more vulnerable to attacks from surrounding tribes, finally culminating in multiple sacks of the city itself.

First the Gauls, then the Visigoths, Vandals, and Ostrogoths.

Each attack crumbled Roman power a little further, and — even as the Eastern Empire arose — the Western Empire fell into obscurity and occupation.

Legacy of the Roman Empire

Although the glorious Rome of pillars and marble was gone, her influence remained in Europe and indeed the world for generations to come, and remains even to this day.

Roman provinces provided the earliest blueprint for national divisions in Europe, and many of their Latin provincial names form the basis of the modern equivalents — including Germania, Britannica, Aegyptus, Norvegia, Polonia, Finnia, Dania, Hispania, and Italia.

Following the gradual collapse of Rome, Europe reorganized into a group of territories that eventually named themselves The Holy Roman Empire, and whose emperor, chosen by the Pope, was a callback to the days of the great Roman Empire — though he maintained little of the same power. Most of the actual political influence was in the hands of the nobles, barons, and bishops that controlled smaller territories in feudal systems.

This new empire was eventually dissolved by Emperor Francis II on the 6th of August, 1806, one month after Napoleon established his Confederation of the Rhine in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire.

Yet, even though Europe reverted to largely feudal and monarchical systems of government following Rome, the Renaissance changed all that.

It was the influence of Greek democratic tradition and the glorified days of the early republic of Rome that became the template for many political reforms after their re-emergence during the Renaissance — the governments of most major countries today contain elements of the Greek democracy and Roman Republic, with over 46% percent of the world’s nations operating specifically as a form of republic.

Even the founders of the United States explicitly stated the influence of the Roman Republic on their design for the country’s government. And on top of that, the Roman form of government also exerts heavy influence in the many nations with a parliamentary system.

Rome even exists in the mechanics of everyday life, as many of the inventions of the ever-innovative Romans are staples of modern existence.

Interconnected and efficient highways and roads, apartment buildings to maximize use of space in urban locations, an organized postal service, basic sanitation and sewer design, aqueducts, the predecessors to modern indoor plumbing systems, indoor heating and furnace systems, cities laid out as a grid for better flow, the use of arches to improve stability in architecture, newspapers, bound books, concrete, and precision surgical tools.

On a larger scale, even such ideas as government welfare systems and the very calendar that we use to organize our daily lives were all products of the great Roman Republic and Empire.

Modern Parallels

Yet there is also a darker side to our parallels and inheritances from the past.

Modern society — enjoying the benefits of relative peace and stability compared with the past — bears some uncanny similarities to that of the ancient Romans. Many countries today operate with heavy consumerism, enjoyment of many perishable commodities, demand for more and more luxury items, and the desire of the elite classes for products that can become visible symbols of their wealth and status.

The amazing technological advances that have occurred, even just in the last century, have opened up a world economy the likes of which has not been seen since ancient Rome spread across the majority of the known world, operating massive trade exchanges with its neighboring kingdoms.

Just like Rome, many modern countries rely heavily on this world economy, and can be badly damaged by declines in other important economic nations.

Many modern governmental systems, in various manners, are inching closer and closer to centralizing the government on a single individual or group of people — the most visible examples of which would be the formation of the European Union, as well as the United States’ progression towards investing more power in the overarching federal government rather than in the individual states.

The history of Rome demonstrates that this change is, in many ways, a double edged sword, and though it can lead to many benefits, it must also be closely monitored to avoid disaster — the study of Rome might just be a valuable tool in avoiding the same decline that ended one of the greatest empires in history within our own civilization.

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McGiffert, Arthur Cushman. “The Influence of Christianity upon the Roman Empire.” The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 2, no. 1, 1909, pp. 28–49. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1507353. Accessed 3 Apr. 2024.

Heather, Peter. “The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe.” The English Historical Review, vol. 110, no. 435, 1995, pp. 4–41. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/573374. Accessed 3 Apr. 2024.

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Piganiol, André. “THE CAUSES OF THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.” The Journal of General Education, vol. 5, no. 1, 1950, pp. 62–69. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27795332. Accessed 3 Apr. 2024.

Potter, David. “Measuring the Power of the Roman Empire.” East and West in the Roman Empire of the Fourth Century: An End to Unity?, edited by Roald Dijkstra et al., Brill, 2015, pp. 26–48. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctt1w8h14q.7. Accessed 3 Apr. 2024.

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