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.
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.
These are their stories.
Table of Contents
Section One: Founding
When you hear the word “Rome” it likely conjures up images of grand, pillared marble buildings, imperial splendor, extravagant parades, unstoppable armies and wild, bloody games in the enormous Colosseum.
Yet, Rome existed in some form for over 1,000 years, and its earliest people — though bearing some basic similarities to their descendents — were unique, living and working in a Rome that was vastly different to our immediate picture of the city.
So, who were those first Romans, where did they come from, and how did they live?
To attempt to answer some of those questions, we will have to delve into the realm of myth and legend.
Myths were deeply important to the ancient world, and in many places they blur the lines between fact and fiction, making a delightful challenge for the reader. A perfect example of this is in Homer’s Iliad — the epic poetic account of the great Trojan War.
Homer’s descriptions of the gods and goddesses meddling in mortal affairs led generations of historians to dismiss the entire tale. Yet the discovery of the city of Troy and evidence of a great war have caused re-evaluation and the realization that — though the Iliad is certainly no historical document — it contains some factual information hidden within its tales.
The Roman epic the Aeneid, by Virgil, is a literary and cultural descendant of the Iliad. The Romans revered classical Greece, its culture, art, and literature. Intentionally modeled on that of its Greek predecessor, the Aeneid shares that same thin line between fact and myth.
Read More: Roman Wars and Battles
Tales of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, and his role in the founding of Rome were widespread attempts to tie Rome to the legacy of the Greeks, but it wasn’t until around 29 to 19 B.C. that they were published in an organized fashion in Virgil’s Aeneid.
The epic poem, intended as another component of the stories behind Homer’s great Iliad and Odyssey, is still considered amongst the greatest works of literature to come out of the Roman era.
Aeneas was present in Troy — a city on the northwest coast of modern day Turkey — when the Greeks began their siege, and he fought bravely to defend the city. In the many skirmishes that followed, Aeneas was rescued several times by various gods and goddesses, including his mother, Aphrodite, as well as Apollo, and even Poseidon (who generally preferred the Greeks).
All of them knew that Aeneas was destined to become king of a great nation.
But despite the hard fought battle, the Greeks were unable to break into the city. They withdrew their forces to the shoreline, leaving only a large wooden horse before the gates. But as the tale famously relates, when the Trojans brought the horse inside the walls as spoils of war, Greeks concealed within it jumped out to open the gates for their comrades and the great city of Troy fell in blood and flames.
Aeneas barely escaped, carrying his father Anchises on his back, and leading a small band of desperate survivors from the city. Soon, they took to the seas in search of a new home.
Dido, Carthage, and the Spark of Hostility
After wandering the seas for six years, a violent storm washed the group onto the shores of Africa. There, they met Dido, the Queen of Carthage, who welcomed them to her shores and entertained the wanderers with a great feast.
She quickly became entranced by Aeneas’s honor and bravery, and he by her beauty and quiet strength. While on a hunting expedition, a sudden, god-induced storm forced the two to shelter together in a cave, and nature took its course. By morning, they were lovers.
Aeneas and Dido spent the following year together, before she suggested that his people settle in Carthage and that they marry and jointly rule over all. But — thanks to the interference of the gods once again — Aeneas was convinced that his destiny lay onward. And so, he secretly left Carthage.
When Dido discovered him gone, she fell into utter despair. With a fervent prayer that her death should haunt Aeneas and his descendants, she fell on her own sword, leaving her sister cradling her bloodstained body. Her death sealed the fates of Carthage and Rome, destined to remain bitter enemies until the last.
Meanwhile, Aeneas and his followers had landed in Italy where the king of the Latin people welcomed them, even breaking off the engagement between his daughter and Turnus — king of the neighboring Rutuli people — in order to offer her hand to Aeneas.
Turnus went to war against Aeneas but lost — fatally. At the culmination of the conflict, he challenged Aeneas to end the bloodshed in a single combat duel to the death, just the two of them. After a long, fierce fight, it was Aeneas that emerged alive.
It would be Aeneas’s young son, Ascanius, who founded the city of Alba Longa just southeast of Rome and subsequently the line of Alban royalty — the last member of which was the mother of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.
Romulus and Remus
It is somewhere around this time that myth and fact begin to blur — it’s not even certain whether Romulus and Remus ever actually existed. Though some historians fiercely defend the historical pair while others discount them, no definite proof has been found either way.
Livy’s History of Rome tells us that, shortly after the birth of the twins, a prophecy declared that they would overthrow their great-uncle. The uncle, unsurprisingly, panicked, and ordered that the boys be killed. Yet, as typically happens in such tales, the servants given the task could not bring themselves to murder the two infants, and instead abandoned them by the Tiber River.
Romulus and Remus were discovered by a mother wolf who then nursed them until a shepherd stumbled by and adopted them as his own. When they grew up, they did indeed kill their great uncle, and made plans to establish a new city.
Though they chose the location and officially founded the city on the 21st of April, 753 B.C., they argued over which hill they should occupy — Romulus insisted on the Palatine Hill, whereas Remus supported the Aventine Hill.
The two hadn’t come to an agreement, but when Romulus began building the walls around his chosen hill anway, Remus fell to mocking him — a mockery that went quite far, apparently, as Romulus’s response was to kill his brother, thus steeping the foundation of Rome in bloodshed and turmoil.
Rape of the Sabine Women
Romulus and his followers soon realized that they had a problem — they were almost entirely made up of men. Their new city was doomed to fail if they could not find wives.
They attempted to bargain with a neighboring tribe, the Sabines, for the hands of some of their young women in marriage. However, they were denied by the Sabine king, who feared that Rome would become too powerful if allowed to flourish.
Read More: Roman Marriage
Undeterred, the Romans planned a massive festival to celebrate Neptune — the Roman god of the seas — and invited the people of the neighboring towns to attend. At a pre-planned signal, the Romans grabbed the Sabine women and made off with them.
(There’s an interesting by-product of this myth that still remains a tradition today: the act of a husband carrying his new bride over the threshold on their wedding night.)
The modern word “rape” derives from the Latin rapere, which translates to “snatch,” “grab,” or “carry off.” So, though the event is called the “Rape of the Sabines,” there is no indication to whether or not any sexual assault occurred.
In fact, it very well may not have, and been more strictly referring to the abduction — Livy records that the Romans first made an impassioned speech imploring the Sabines to accept them as husbands, offering them civic and property rights in the emerging state should they accept. The young women were apparently appeased by the arguments made, but their parents were not.
At their urging, the king of the Sabines led a force against the Romans and even managed to take the citadel of the city, thanks to the betrayal of a woman named Tarpeia.
On promise of rich reward, she opened the gates to the Sabines and handed over her city. However, the Sabines killed her and threw her body from the southern cliffs off the Capitoline Hill, known afterwards as the “Tarpeian Rock.” It would become the place of executions for years to come.
Just before the beginning of a final, bloody battle, the Sabine wives marched bravely between the two lines of battle and successfully talked their husbands and fathers out of fighting. The Sabines agreed to unite with the Romans as one people, and the Sabine king ruled jointly with Romulus until his death five years later.
The traditional date for the founding of Rome rests upon April 21, 753 B.C.
Evidence suggests that humans were settling in the region from as far back as the Neolithic Era, a time that spanned from about 10,000 – 4,500 B.C., and were certainly beginning to form into tribes from at least the Bronze Age (which followed), onward.
However, the first indications of a permanent settlement on the hills of Rome have been dated to the mid 8th century B.C., when villages on the Palatine and Quirinal Hills combined into one.
The Romans also do appear to be a combination of two tribal peoples — the Latins and the Sabines, as indicated in their founding myths. The neighboring Etruscan civilization also heavily influenced the developing Roman city, as well as mingling with the Romans in marriage — although they would eventually become a rival to growing Roman power rather than an ally.
The Culture and Government of Early Romans
The Romans were an agrarian society — meaning their economy was based largely in agricultural pursuits.
From their earliest inception, they displayed a talent for incorporating the best successes of the various cultures they encountered. Though Rome later became known for its military expansion, in its earliest generations it grew prosperous on the basis of trade down the Tiber River — from the Etruscans, they learned techniques of trade and the uses of luxury items in the economy, and the subsequent trade and interaction with the Greeks provided them a basis for their culture and architecture.
Roman society was deeply hierarchical. The earliest families of Rome formed the higher Patrician class, and the patriarch of each family, or gens, served in the earliest Senate. The word “Senate” derives from the Latin, senex, or “old man.”
The Senate was very literally the council of family elders, and the kingship was granted by that body through acclamation.
Although the king’s sons were considered high contenders for the throne, kingship was not a hereditary right, and thus passed between the important families in the early days of Rome. The kings served as priests, defining the Roman religious traditions with organized cults and priestly orders to oversee proper devotions to the many gods, goddesses, and spirits of Roman tradition.
Section Two: The Age of Kings
Roman tradition, as recorded in Livy’s massive History of Rome, wrote that seven kings held power in the first two centuries of Rome’s development, from 753 to 509 B.C.
Questions arise due to the fact that seven kings seems like too few to have covered the length of time supposedly spanned — historians generally agree that there must have been more kings to fill the period before the start of the republic.
But there is little reason to doubt the basic existence of those named seven; they have been remembered, and even elevated to a mythical status in many of their recorded exploits.
The rule of — the possibly mythical — Romulus passed to the peaceful and well-loved Numa Pompilius, who is credited with establishing much of Rome’s early cults and religious practices.
Onwards it went to Numa’s successor, Tullus Hostilius, who is said to have destroyed the city of Alba Longa and dispersed its people. Though the archeological record has not been able to confirm a catastrophic razing, the city did fade away at about this time and its disappearance may have been worked into the legend of this early king.
Following Hostilius was Ancus Marcius, who moves even more firmly out of legend and into historicity. Marcius expanded Roman influence to the port city of Ostia — a major move for economic development — took control of the salt flats outside of Rome, and built what was likely the first bridge over the Tiber.
The final three kings of Rome appear to have been of Etruscan descent, and — though they do not seem to have been a part of an organized attempt to establish an Etruscan Dynasty — the events that led to the deposition of the monarchy, and the perception of overthrowing a foreign power, increased the resentment of kings. Something that would characterize Rome for the remainder of its existence.
Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, also known as Tarquin the Elder, moved to Rome at the suggestion of his wife, Tanaquil, when he became frustrated by his inability to climb the Etruscan political ladder.
There, he gained popularity in the Senate, and — upon the death of Ancus Marcius — convinced the senators to acclaim him king.
In his time as king, Tarquin successfully conducted hostilities with neighboring Latin tribes, Sabines, and even five Etruscan cities. He also added one hundred new senators from the lower class plebeian families to the governing body, and built the Circus Maximus — the chariot racing stadium in the heart of Rome — and the city’s largest sewer, the Cloaca Maxima.
Tarquin the Elder ruled for around thirty-eight years before being injured in a coup staged by the now adult sons of Marcius. They hoped to seize control, but his wife, Tanaquil, successfully established Servius Tullius — the son of her Latin slave woman and her favorite protege — as regent, marrying him to her daughter before the sons could act. By the time Tarquin’s death was confirmed, Servius was in position to be acclaimed king.
Servius ruled for forty-four years, and in that time successfully fought the Etruscans and the Veii, expanding the city of Rome to another three hills. He improved the welfare and political voice of the less powerful citizens of Rome, and possibly established the city’s first coinage system.
Servius Tullius married his two daughters — Tullia the Elder and Tullia the Younger — to the two grandsons of his predecessor.
However, Lucius Tarquinius and Tullia the Younger weren’t content with the spouses they had received., and she murdered her sister while he murdered his brother. The bodies were barely cold before they married one another and began conspiring against Tullius.
Eventually, after denouncing Tullius before the Senate, Lucius’s men murdered him, and Tullia the Newly-Only-Child drove her chariot over her father’s broken body. Lucius refused to allow his father-in-law — the former king — a proper burial, and the street where the murder rook place became known as Vicus Sceleratus, meaning the “street of shame.”
Lucius, also known as Tarquin the Proud, ruled as Rome’s first tyrant. He claimed powers from the Senate and executed a number of senators that he feared were loyal to Tullius, reserving the right of capital punishment for himself and thus cowing the remaining senators. He also commissioned lavish building projects that put a heavy strain on the Roman citizenry.
Tarquin responded brutally to any who criticized him. When a member of the Latin nobility by the name of Turnus Herdonius spoke out against his tyranny, Tarquin planted weapons in the man’s house and accused him of plotting an assasination. Turnus was thrown into a pool of water with a wooden frame weighed down by stones placed over his head to drown him. It was an unprecedented punishment.
Tarquin also had no honor in war, and engaged in conquest through trickery and deceit. On one occasion, his son appeared before the gates of an enemy city with whip marks on his back and shoulders, pretending that he had been ill-treated by his father. When they took pity and let him in, even placing him in charge of their army, he executed the leading citizens and handed the city over to his father.
All of these misdeeds destroyed Tarquin’s reputation and popularity in Rome, but it was one final heinous act by that same son that sealed the king’s fate.
Rape of Lucretia
While stationed outside the city of Ardea, just south of Rome, for a siege, a group of young military commanders, bored from inaction, began to drink and boast. One Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus — the king’s nephew — insisted that his wife, Lucretia, was the most beautiful and virtuous wife in all of Rome.
To prove who was the most dedicated, they decided to pay a visit to all the men’s wives. They found each of them relaxing and enjoying themselves — all except Lucretia, engaged diligently in her household duties, the very picture of an ideal Roman wife.
She invited all the men in as guests, and conducted herself with such grace and charm that the king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, became obsessed with her. He returned a few days later, begging her to sleep with him. When she — very sensibly — refused, he threatened to kill her and accuse her of adultery with her slave.
Lucretia, desperate not to shame her husband by such an accusation, agreed to sleep with Sextus. Afterward, she called for her husband and her father, and asked each one to bring with them a trusted friend as witnesses. After revealing the whole story to them and begging them to avenge her death, she finally — despite their pleas that she was innocent — commited suicide to preserve her honor.
While Lucretia’s father and husband were distracted with grief, her husband’s accompanying friend, Lucius Junius Brutus, took the bloody knife from Lucretia’s body and declared “By this blood — most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son — I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.”
Her husband Collatinus, father Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus, and the other friend, Publius Valerius followed, each taking the knife in turn and swearing the same oath.
The Murder of the Last King; The Establishment of the Republic
Brutus held the office of “Tribune of the Celeres” — the leader of the king’s bodyguard — and in such capacity possessed significant authority. Numerous young men joined their cause, and they marched through the streets of Rome, with the people flooding out of their homes to see what had started the commotion.
In the center of the city, Brutus stood up and gave an impassioned speech outlining all of the offenses of Tarquin — his disgusting treatment of his father and the shameful behavior of his sons. He finished by telling the pitiful story of Lucretia’s rape and death, exhorting Rome to join him in marching on the king.
The public was equally as outraged. They barred the gates against their returning king — who was encamped to the south — even as Brutus marched to the army’s camp where he was greeted enthusiastically by all the soldiers.
They joined his cause, and the Senate revoked the king’s powers and exiled him, instead electing two senators — one of whom was Brutus — to a year long office as consul, now the highest executive position in Rome.
Sextus Tarquinius ran to Gabii, east of Rome — the same city that he had treacherously helped deliver to his father — but was assassinated there, and Tarquin attempted to raise support from his Etruscan allies. Up to his old tricks, he hoped to win back the city without war, and instigated a conspiracy to kill several leading senators; a plot in which Brutus’s own sons, Titus and Tiberius, took part.
Discussing their plans, the conspirators were overheard by a slave at dinner, who reported the plot. Titus and Tiberius were sentenced to death as traitors, and their execution arose great pity for Brutus, who, by virtue of his position as consul, had to both pass judgement and watch the whole of the proceedings.
Titus and Tiberius were bound to poles in full view of the public, whipped, and then beheaded. Livy writes that, “during the whole time, the father’s countenance betrayed his feelings, but his stern resolution was still more apparent as he superintended the public execution.”
With that unpleasant business concluded, Brutus turned his attention back to dealing with Tarquin and his Etruscan forces. He eventually won the day, though he himself was killed — as was Tarquin’s other son, Arruns Tarquinius.
Horatius at the Bridge
Tarquin organized another assault on Rome with the help of his Etruscan allies, and he almost succeeded. The Roman defenders broke and ran, but a man named Publius Horatius Cocles rushed to the bridge across the Tiber — known as the Pons Sublicius — which led directly to the foot of Rome’s Aventine hill.
Standing alone in desperate defense of the crossing, he yelled back over his shoulder to his men, imploring them to destroy the bridge behind him and stop the enemy from entering into Rome.
Using a pile of bodies as a shield, Horatius faced down the enemy while taking many wounds from spears and arrows. When he saw that the bridge had been successfully dismantled, he hurled himself into the river and managed to swim safely to the Roman side without dropping any of his weapons.
His noble stand enabled Rome to prepare for the arrival of the enemy force; he was carried with honor into the city and given public land, a statue of bronze in the Forum — the central point of Rome containing temples, important government buildings, and a major marketplace — and a daily ration of food from every citizen.
Though Rome’s attempt to force a protracted siege eventually failed, the story of his sacrifice became a legendary rallying cry for Roman bravery for generations.
Read More: Prayer and Sacrifice
Tarquin the Proud made one final attempt to reclaim Rome, gathering an army of Latin allies under his and Octavius Mamilius’s —his son-in-law’s — command. After a bloody battle at Lake Regillus near modern Frascati, southeast of Rome, Mamilius lay dead and the Latin forces routed,
And with that, the last king of Rome was finally defeated for good.
Tarquin spent the remainder of his days at the court of Aristodemus in Cumae, a coastal city west of modern day Naples, while Rome developed a republican government that devoted itself to independent rule by the Senate, never again to admit a king.
Section Three: The Early Republic
Rome remained fairly self-contained as she tested her new governmental system and dealt with disagreements between the patrician and plebeian classes. But Romans had an ingrained desire for expansion and conquest, and soon began to look beyond their own borders.
The Government of the Republic
Rome’s republican government was carefully designed to avoid handing too much power to a single individual.
Initially, the only citizens with a say in the government were the patricians — members of Rome’s old and aristocratic families. However, the lower classes, known as plebeians, grew frustrated with their lack of any voice, and eventually, in 494 B.C., organized a strike.
They gathered outside the city and refused to move until they were given a hand in governing the city. The patricians reluctantly agreed, and established the Concilium Plebis — the “Council of the Plebs.”
Most of the governing power rested in the hands of the two consuls of Rome, who were chosen by the senators and held the highest level of executive power in the republic for the length of one year. The position was one of great honor — political power and authority were culturally very important to Romans, and so achieving the rank of consul subsequently became the primary goal of every Roman statesman for generations to come.
The Senate — along with several other councils — held the ability to propose laws as well as oversee foreign policy, civic administration, and finances. Other popular committees were responsible for enacting those laws, and various magisterial offices held the responsibility for unique sections of Roman life, including urban maintenance, organization of festivals and games, taking a census of the citizens of Rome, overseeing moral concerns, and much more.
These positions afforded young Romans the opportunities they desired for political offices and advancement, as they worked their way through the ranks and toward the ultimate desired position as consul.
Rome Conquers Italy
Tension had been building between the Romans and Etruscans for generations, and were sparked even further by Etrucan support for the deposed Roman monarchs.
From 508 B.C. — when Tarquin was ejected from power — to 264 B.C., the two civilizations were frequently engaged in battle.
In two major battles — one in 310 B.C. and one in 283 B.C. — at Lake Vadimo, north of Rome near modern Orte, Rome enjoyed two major victories and finally rid themselves of their troublesome neighbors, taking control of all the Etruscan cities and absorbing the Etruscan people into the ever-growing Roman Republic.
Though the Etruscan language survived for another 300 years, the civilization was effectively dead after the final fall of the city of Volsinii in 264 B.C.
Samnite and Latin Wars
During the same period, Rome had also been engaged in the First, Second, and Third Samnite Wars.
The Samnites occupied a region in the Apennine mountains south of Rome, and as Rome’s power and influence grew, conflict became inevitable. The First Samnite War was sparked when Rome came to the defense of a Campanian tribe under Samnite attack; after three consecutive victories in 343 B.C., Rome emerged triumphant.
Conflict never truly ceased after that point, and even during the peaceful interludes between the wars, relations between the Romans and the Samnites remained strained.
Rome emerged the victor in the Second and Third Samnite Wars as well, putting down their Samnite enemies around the same time as the final subjugation of both the Etruscans and the Sabines took place.
After defeating all of their enemies, Rome was successfully established as the one and only dominant power on the Italian Peninsula.
Invasion of Pyrrhus
In 297 B.C., Pyrrhus — the dethroned king of the northwestern Grecian kingdom of Epirus — regained his rule with the help of Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt.
Pyrrhus was the second cousin of the Macedonian conqueror, Alexander the Great, and he possessed similar genius for warfare. In fact, the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal, named Pyrrhus as the second greatest general to have ever lived, behind only Alexander himself. Few foreign powers represented as grave a threat to Rome as Pyrrhus of Epirus did in the beginning of the third century B.C.
Having recently regained his throne, Pyrrhus was eager to expand his kingdom and extend his power. The perfect opportunity presented itself when a southern Italian city, Tarentum, begged for Epirus’s aid in fighting against the Romans. Certain that he could cow the upstart Italian tribe, Pyrrhus agreed, and set sail for Italy with 20,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers, 500 slingers, and 20 war elephants.
After a series of small victories, Pyrrhus met the Romans in a pitched battle at Heraclea and then again, the following year, at Asculum. Though Pyrrhus won both, they were brutal affairs — at Asculum, alone, both sides together lost 15,000 men.
After the battle, as he stood surveying the bloody field, one of Pyrrhus’s commanders approached to congratulate him on his victory. Pyrrhus replied, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
This gave rise to the modern phrase “a Pyrrhic victory,” meaning a win where the losses are so great that it’s almost not worth it.
After Asculum, Pyrrhus withdrew from the Italian Peninsula and returned to Epirus, much to the relief of the beleaguered Romans.
Section Four: The Punic Wars
The Punic Wars, fought between Rome and her traditional enemy, Carthage, were a defining moment in Roman history.
Despite coming closer to total annihilation than ever before during Hannibal’s Italian campaign in the Second Punic War, Rome eventually prevailed, expanding her territory far beyond the borders of the Italian Peninsula with the acquisition of allies and territory in both the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain) and in Northern Africa.
Additionally, Carthaginian war indemnities helped fatten Roman coffers, and Rome’s victory in the Punic Wars could be considered the tipping point between it as a successful Italian city-state and it as a growing world power.
The First Punic War
With dominance of Italy firmly established, Rome set her sights on Sicily. In 264 B.C., the republic came to the aid of the Mamertines, a mercenary group who had expelled the Carthaginian garrison at Messalina, kicking off the First Punic War and over one hundred years of hostility between the two kingdoms — fulfilling Dido’s mythic curse against Aeneas made before even the founding of Rome.
The First Punic War itself lasted twenty-three years, and cost hundreds of thousands of lives during the largest naval conflict of the ancient world.
Though Roman land forces easily landed on Sicily, they struggled with supply deficiencies in the early years of the war due to Carthaginian superiority at sea. Eventually though, the Romans managed to build up their own navy, and began to break Carthage’s hold on the sea routes.
Rome’s slow ascendancy was largely due to their engineering ingenuity, a mainstay of Roman military success throughout the civilization’s long history. Prior naval warfare relied exclusively on the two sides ramming one another, which gave the greatest advantage to the nation with superior seamanship — in this case, Carthage.
The Romans invented what they called a corvus, a heavy ramp-like structure equipped with pulleys that could be lowered onto the enemy ship. A heavy spike would grip the opposing vessel, and then became a bridge over which the Roman infantry could pass to board the Carthaginian ships.
The Treaty of Lutatius
With this new advancement, the Romans began to win major sea battles against the Carthaginians, and decided to take the fight to Carthage itself. Under the command of Marcus Atilius Regulus, the Romans began to harass Carthaginian territory in Northern Africa and dominate the Carthaginians at sea.
Eventually Carthage asked for peace, but Regulus offered terrible terms — insisting that Carthage give up Sicily and Sardinia, release all Roman prisoners but pay ransoms for their own, pay an annual war indemnity to Rome, request Roman approval before engaging in war with any state, and maintain only one warship for their own use but provide fifty to serve under Rome anytime that the city requested their use.
Shockingly, the Carthaginians made the decision to keep fighting.
They hired a Spartan mercenary, named Xanthuppus, who made reforms to the Carthaginian army and finally won a major victory at the Battle of Tunis, capturing Regulus and forcing the remaining Romans out of Northern Africa.
Despite the losses in Africa, the war in Sicily had been advancing successfully, especially with Carthage occupied in defending its homeland. By 248 B.C., Rome held all Sicilian cities but two — Lilybaeum and Drepana. In a final attempt to win the war, both nations put all their remaining, and much depleted, resources into rebuilding their fleets.
When the Romans won a hard-fought victory and destroyed much of the new Carthaginian navy, the Senate of Carthage decided that they’d had enough. They refused to fund yet another naval fleet and ordered their general to negotiate a peace.
Carthage evacuated their remaining forces from Sicily, returned their Roman prisoners, and agreed to pay 3,200 talents to Rome over the next ten years — the equivalent of almost 78,000 kilograms of gold.
The Second Punic War
As if the devastating, twenty-three year First Punic War wasn’t horrible enough, the Second Punic War was even worse. Historians estimate that about 770,000 soldiers were killed over the course of the seventeen year war, making it one of the deadliest conflicts to take place in ancient times.
Carthage struggled economically under the indemnity they were compelled to pay to Rome as a result of the First Punic War. And this was on top of the large sums they still owed foreign mercenaries for their service under Carthage during the conflict.
In 237 B.C., Hamilcar Barca and his sons — Hannibal, Hasdrubal, and Mago — took command of Carthaginian operations in the Iberian Peninsula, which is today’s modern Spain. Conquests in the south gave them access to desperately needed resources, including silver mines, abundant agriculture, and manpower.
According to Livy, during this time, Rome made a treaty with Hasdrubal. They agreed that the Iber River transecting Spain would be the boundary between the two nations, and that Carthage would not move north of the Iber into the territory of the Saguntines, who were diplomatic allies of Rome.
However, in 219 B.C. Hannibal decided that he was tired of all those little restrictions on his movements, and besieged the capital city of Saguntum. After a bloody eight month struggle, the Carthaginians captured the city, many of the citizens of which commited suicide rather than face their rule.
Rome quickly declared war on Carthage on behalf of their allies, and their forces — under the command of Gnaeus Scipio — initially enjoyed some success on the main Iberian Peninsula.
But Rome would soon be in desperate straits.
Hannibal Crosses the Alps
Determined to keep the war away from mainland Carthage, Hannibal pushed north by inland routes to avoid the Roman navy, and made for Italy itself.
His crossing of the mountains is considered an incredible military achievement, but it was one that was both trying and deadly.
Eager to arrive, he marched late in the season, reaching the height of the Alps in the cold and snows of October. Although Hannibal had managed to negotiate alliances with many Gallic tribes, he had not made contact with those of the Alpine region and so faced several loyal to Rome that harassed his soldiers with guerilla tactics throughout the mountainous march.
READ MORE: The Gallic Empire
The upper Alpine regions provided little to no food for the men and animals (including some thirty seven war elephants), and on the far side of the terrain, the snow would melt and refreeze daily — making for treacherous footing that claimed the lives of many of his soldiers.
During the descent, the army encountered an impassable section of road that was almost its undoing, but Hannibal encouraged and exhorted his men — both the sick and the healthy — into hard work to clear the road.
It took days of work for the path to be sufficient to pass, and another three days of marching to bring the army to the plains of the Po valley. There, they camped for some time while Hannibal focused on rebuilding the strength and morale of his exhausted soldiers.
Battle of Cannae
Despite the difficulty of the crossing, the strategy was ultimately a successful one — the Romans were caught by surprise. Many of their soldiers were still in the Iberian Peninsula, and those in Italy were in winter quarters and so unprepared for a large-scale defense.
Hannibal marched into Etruria in early Spring of 217 B.C. When he was unable to draw the main bulk of the Roman army into the pitched battle that he sought, he circled around and placed his force between the Romans and Rome itself.
Cut off from the capital, the Romans were forced to pursue him without the time for proper scouting and intel, and Hannibal successfully ambushed them at Lake Trasimenus.
In a devastating defeat, Hannibal destroyed nearly the entire Roman army, throwing the city into an utter panic.
The Senate appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator, who engaged Hannibal with what is now known as the “Fabian strategy” — avoiding direct battle, only entering into skirmishes when he could isolate a small detachment from the Carthaginian army, and generally delaying the enemy.
The tactic grew increasingly unpopular with the Romans, and Fabius was replaced in 216 B.C. by consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus. The two moved against Hannibal with superior numbers, but Hannibal chose ground that minimized their advantage and drew the Romans into a trap.
The center of his line staged a theatrical retreat, and the excited Romans drove home their “advantage.” Meanwhile, he had his best cavalry soldiers stationed on both flanks, who charged in as soon as the Romans committed to the attack.
The Romans ended up completely surrounded, and only a small number of them escaped.
Cannae was a staggering defeat for Rome. Many of their allies, steadfast until that point, abandoned them in fear and declared allegiance with Carthage. At around the same time, Roman held cities in Sicily began to revolt, and Philip V of Macedonia negotiated a treaty with Carthage — initiating the First Macedonian War with Rome.
Not too long after, the Scipio brothers — commanders in Spain — were both killed in battle. Rome’s situation was utterly desperate, yet for some reason, Hannibal did not press his attack on the capital city itself. His decision is still hotly debated by historians to this day, and the Romans themselves believed that his failure to attack is the only reason for the continued survival of their home.
Scipio Africanus, Masinissa, and Hannibal
The mood in Rome was quite subdued in 211 B.C., when the Senate held elections for the position of proconsul of Iberia — the man who would be responsible for taking over command of the war there.
Not a single candidate presented himself, until Publius Cornelius Scipio — son of the recently killed general — stepped forward and offered his candidacy.
Though initially ecstatic, the Romans soon began to doubt their choice on account of his youth. However, their fears were utterly unfounded. Scipio arrived in Spain with his soldiers, circled the Carthaginian forces by sea, and successfully took the major Carthaginian base at Carthago Nova.
In the campaigns that followed, Scipio proved his tactical genius, slowly dividing and conquering the Carthaginian forces that faced him and eventually completely reconquering Spain. While fighting there, he made contact with Masinissa — king of the Massyli Numidian tribe, who had initially been allied with Carthage.
The two men came to greatly respect one another, and with Carthage undermining Masinissa’s interests at home, he switched his allegiance to Rome.
Meanwhile, Scipio had, begrudgingly, been given permission by the Roman Senate to raise troops in Sicily for his plan to invade Africa. Though delayed in his departure, Scipio was finally able to launch his attack, and with the support of Masinissa and his Numidian forces, they took several major cities and defeated Syphax — king of the rival Numidian tribe, the Masaesyli.
With Scipio and his allies directly threatening Carthage itself, the Carthaginian Senate recalled Hannibal from Italy to defend them, and the major threat to Rome was averted.
The Battle of Zama
In 202 B.C., Scipio and Hannibal met to discuss peace terms, but though the two men admired one another personally, Rome deeply distrusted Carthaginian promises and so the negotiations failed.
The final battle of the war took place at the city of Zama Regia to the west of Carthage — modern day Tunis.
Through skillful tactics, Scipio was able to neutralize the threat of Carthaginian elephants, send his Numidian cavalry under Masinissa to draw the Carthaginian cavalry from the battlefield, and then engage in a hard fought infantry battle in the center of the field.
Read More: Roman Army Tactics
Hannibal almost gained the advantage in the infantry encounter, but just as the Romans began to struggle, their cavalry returned and slammed into the Carthaginian rear.
Hannibal’s line collapsed and fled, and Carthage was utterly defeated.
Shortly after the battle, the Senate of Carthage sued for peace. The terms devastated them, bankrupting their empire and subverting any chance of ever again rising to military supremacy. The agreement even prohibited Carthage from ever going to war against any other nation without Rome giving its consent.
Meanwhile, Masinissa received great sections of territory in Northern Africa and was established as the first king of the Numidians. He remained a personal friend of Scipio Africanus — named for his success during his campaign — and his family, and a staunch ally of Rome, for the rest of his life.
The Third Punic War
Compared to the first two, the Third Punic War was a relatively mild affair, brought on by the political situation left in North Africa at the end of the Second Punic War.
Carthage paid annual war indemnities to Rome for fifty years following the war; during that time period, Carthage and the neighboring kingdom of Numidia had frequent territory-squabbles that Carthage was forced, by the terms of its treaty, to take to Rome for arbitration.
Rome unsurprisingly decided these almost entirely in favor of their Numidian allies, and Carthage was forced to stand down.
Finally, in 151 B.C., Carthage had paid off their debt to Rome and subsequently considered the treaty complete. But Rome believed that the treaty subjugated Carthage permanently, and that, indemnities or not, the rest of the rules held.
As a result, when Numidia raided the border with Carthage in that same year, the Carthaginians dispatched their army to deal with the problem themselves with no consultation with Rome. They were badly defeated and forced into further indemnities to Numidia, but Rome still declared war on Carthage in response to their perceived treaty violations.
The Romans sent a large force into North Africa and eventually laid siege to Carthage itself. After a terrible three year assault which lost many citizens to starvation, Scipio Aemilianus — the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus — overwhelmed the Carthaginian defenses and took the city.
The surviving 50,000 Carthaginians were sold into slavery, the city was burned to the ground over the course of seventeen days of fires, and the remaining Carthaginian territory formed into the Roman province of Africa.
According to legend, the Romans then salted the ground at Carthage to ensure that nothing could grow and that the city would never rise again. But if there’s any truth to this, the salting must have taken place in a very small locality — the area surrounding the city was declared public land of Rome and shared between immigrant Roman farmers and local farmers, eventually becoming a vital source of grain reserves.
Section Five: The Late Republic
By the latter years of the Roman Republic, the little Italian city-state had proven her worth on the world stage, and the other kingdoms began to take note.
Though Rome would continue her rapid expansion throughout this period and beyond, internally, the republic was on shaky ground. The marriage of political and military leadership in the government laid immense influence in the hands of successful and well-loved generals, and politics became the battleground — first figuratively and then literally — of a smaller and smaller number of powerful men.
Overpowering the Hellenistic Empires
Before the rise of Rome, the Mediterranean world had been dominated by two major powers — the city-states of Ancient Greece and the vast Persian Empire.
The two were frequently at odds with one another, generally with Persia on the offensive and Greece desperately defending their homeland.
And then, during the 4th century B.C. — as Rome was establishing itself as a republic, decades before its first encounter with Carthage — all of that changed.
Under the leadership of their new king, Philip II, the outlying Greek state of Macedonia reformed her armies and battle tactics, swept through the Grecian Peninsula, and forcibly took control over the administration of the Greek city-states.
After Philip was unexpectedly assassinated, his son Alexander — better known as Alexander the Great — took over his father’s plans to attack Persia, and in only ten years of campaigning, had defeated the last Achaemenid king of Persia and established the largest empire in the world up to that point in time.
But Alexander’s kingdom would not manage to survive him. In the wake of his unexpected death in 323 B.C., and with no clear heir established, the conqueror’s Macedonian generals split his kingdom and fought for control.
After decades of fighting known as the “Wars of the Diadochi,” four main empires emerged — the Antigonid Empire holding Macedonia and Greece; Pergamon under the Attalid kings holding the western half of modern day Turkey; the Seleucid Empire which controlled the eastern half of Turkey, Syria, Mesopotamia, and into modern day Iran; and finally the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt.
These four, known as the Hellenistic kingdoms, were the strongest Mediterranean nations — until the steady emergence of Rome and Carthage. And each one of them had to decide how to handle the upstart Roman Republic.
Pergamon, Macedonia, and the Seleucids
The kingdom of Pergamon became a staunch ally of Rome, supporting the city in her battles with Macedonia and the Seleucids. The ruling dynasty of Pergamon, the Attalids, remained uncharacteristically stable, and when the final Attalid king — Attalus III — died in 133 B.C., he bequeathed his entire kingdom to Rome in his will.
They first did this during the First Macedonian War, when Philip V declared his allegiance to Carthage in the midst of the Second Punic War. Rome sent a small detachment of soldiers to Macedonia, simply to occupy Philip’s forces and prevent him from causing them any further trouble while the republic dealt with Carthage.
This they succeeded in doing, and the war ended with fairly neutral peace negotiations. The First Macedonian War occurred largely independently of the following three wars, with its only lasting influence being the establishment of a Roman toehold in Greece.
During the next fifty years, Rome and Macedonia rarely remained at peace. The Second Macedonian War broke out when Pergamon and Rhodes appealed to Rome for aid against the new allegiance between Macedonia and Seleucia, and Rome agreed to intervene.
Philip was defeated, and, as a part of the peace negotiations, he was forced to give up his territories in Greece.
The Seleucids, however, were far from finished. They became increasingly aggressive in their campaigns until the city-states of Greece, and even the Seleucids’ old ally — Philip in Macedonia — changed their tune and sought the protection of the Romans.
Rome was only too happy to comply, especially since the Seleucid forces were under the command of Rome’s old nemesis, Hannibal, who had fled to the Seleucid court after the Second Punic War. Rome called on Scipio Africanus once again, and he and his brother successfully drove the invaders from Greece.
After the death of Philip V, his son, Perseus, attempted to re-establish Macedonian influence. Already fiercely anti-Roman, Perseus also deeply hated King Eumenes II of Pergamon, Rome’s staunchest ally. After Perseus was implicated in the attempted assasination of Eumenes, Rome declared war — the Third Macedonian War.
Macedonia was again cowed, but this time Rome left an occupying force in Greece, thinking that would retain peace. But, in 150 B.C., they were once again on the offensive under the leadership of a pretender to the throne — a man by the name of Andriscus, who hoped to re-establish the old kingdom.
When Rome once again emerged victorious against both Macedonia and the hastily established Greek league that had gone to aid Andriscus, the republic decided that Macedonia and Greece were too much trouble to leave independent, and finally annexed the entire Grecian Peninsula as provinces of Rome.
The Gracchi Brothers and Land Reform
Roman politics had long included two schools of thought — the optimates were traditional Roman aristocracy who sought power through wealth and status, while the populares appealed to the common people and their needs in order to win support and climb the political ladder.
However, in the 2nd century B.C., Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus’s work as populares — holding the position of “tribune of the plebs,” the leader of the people’s council and largest check on the power of the Senate and consuls — led to violence, even though previous tribunes had been considered sacrosanct.
The events carved a deep rift between the two paths of political advancement and created a precedent for violent politics that would haunt Rome for the rest of its existence.
The eldest of those two brothers, Tiberius Gracchus, took the political stage first.
He made a proposal, suggesting the confiscation of excess public land won in wars and its redistribution to poor and homeless Romans, particularly former military veterans. The problem with this was the fact that the majority of the Roman Senators had managed to illegally gain control of these lands by cleverly playing loopholes.
Unwilling to give up their — by now quite lucrative — ill-gotten gains, they vigorously opposed Gracchus’s reforms.
In the midst of the debate, King Attalus of Pergamon died, leaving his kingdom to Rome and complicating matters even more.
Tiberius wanted to confiscate the land and wealth that Rome thus inherited in order to fund his planned land reform. However, his term as tribune was almost up, and he wouldn’t have a chance to push it through before the end.
Ignoring all legal precedent, he decided to run a second time. There was outcry in the Senate, and accusations flew that Tiberius hoped to set himself up as a tyrant.
On the day of the election, a fight broke out between TIberius and his supporters, and the opposing senators who feared he wished to become king. The senators pulled apart their benches in the Senate hall to make clubs, and beat Tiberius and three hundred of his followers to death.
Their bodies were thrown into the Tiber River, denying them the honor of a proper funeral. Those that survived the initial confrontation were either sent into exile or arrested and executed, with some even meeting their deaths by being sewn up in a sack with a poisonous snake.
Despite this violent turn of events, Tiberius’s land reform dreams never died, and ten years later, in 123 B.C., Tiberius’s younger brother — Gaius — stepped into his brother’s shoes, becoming tribune of the plebs himself.
He re-instituted Tiberius’s land reforms and made other steps to protect the poorer classes, including funding military equipment for the Roman army — previously the responsibility of each individual member to purchase — and put state funds toward subsidizing grain imports.
Perhaps most dangerously, he moved for laws that seemed aimed to avenge his brother’s death, and unlike his brother, successfully ran and won an unconstitutional second term as tribune. Yet he undermined his own popularity by suggesting that Roman citizenship be extended to all Italians — a right and honor that Romans jealously guarded for themselves and remained highly reluctant to share.
By 121 B.C., Gaius’s opponents in the Senate had successfully wooed away his senatorial supporters, though he still had his fair share of loyal followers among the people. When a member of the faction of consul Lucius Opimius — Gaius’s chief rival — was killed in the streets of Rome, Opimius jumped on the opportunity.
He cried passionately for vengeance, and managed to convince the Senate to institute the first official declaration of a Roman as an enemy of the state.
As the two sides geared up for a fight, Gaius fled to the temple of Diana on the Aventine, distraught over the imminent violence. He wanted to commit suicide then and there, but his friends dissuaded him and convinced him to run for it. He didn’t get far, and was killed just outside the city.
With Gaius’s death, his reforms were largely overturned, and three thousand of his supporters were killed by order of the Senate.
Read More: Emperor Gaius Gracchus
The Jugurthine War
In 149 B.C., Masinissa — now over the age of ninety, and apparently still fathering children while leading the Numidian army personally — realized that he was dying.
He sent for Scipio Aemilianus and entrusted the disposition of the kingdom to his old friend’s adopted grandson. Masinissa’s eldest son — Micipsa — inherited the throne and maintained Numidia’s good relations with Rome, though he was less committed to actively supporting Roman military efforts than his father had been.
Micipsa had two sons of his own, and also adopted his illegitimate nephew, Jugurtha. When he died, he split control of Numidia between the three in his will.
Unfortunately, though, Jugurtha was far more ambitious and ruthless than his two cousins.
He arranged the assasination of the younger brother, while the elder, Adherbal, fled to Rome and pleaded for support. The Senate negotiated a solution, but Jugurtha violated the terms, declaring war on and eventually executing Adherbal, along with a number of Roman citizens who had fought for him.
The treachery and death of Roman citizens finally mobilized the Senate into decisive action, and they declared war on Jugurtha in 111 B.C.
After several years of broken peace treaties and struggling militarily, a man named Gaius Marius finally stole command of the war in Numidia through the Tribal Assembly of Rome — who usurped powers traditionally reserved to the Senate to send him.
Due to popular support for Marius, the Senate capitulated and let it go, setting a dangerous precedent and opening the door for Marius’s rise to power.
Marius took personal command in Numidia in 107 B.C., and after about two years of battles, managed to convince King Bocchus of Mauretania to hand Jugurtha into Roman custody.
Jugurtha was taken back to Rome, and held in the underground hole of a prison known as the Tullianum; marched through the streets of the city in chains as an exhibition in Marius’s great triumphal parade. Eventually, in 104 B.C., he died of starvation while still in prison.
Numidia passed into the hands of Bocchus of Mauretania, now declared a friend and ally of Rome for his services in handing over Jugurtha.
Sulla and Marius
The First Civil War
The two big names of the Late Republic — Sulla and Marius — took the hints of violence already at play in Roman politics and inflamed them into a full out civil war.
Marius had earned his popularity through his successful generalship in the wars in Numidia, but much to his disappointment, his junior officer Sulla was given the direct credit for Jugurtha’s capture. Both men served in the early battles of the Social War, which was Rome’s conflict with several of their former allies in Southern Italy.
While the Social War raged on, King Mithridates of Pontus began to make some trouble, attacking Roman held territory to the east. Faced with a decision as to which general to send, the Senate picked Sulla, who had just recently been elected consul.
Marius did not take the news well. He convinced Sulpicius, who was tribune of the plebs, to veto the Senate’s appointment of Sulla and give him the command instead.
In the violence that ensued, Sulla obviously considered discretion the better part of valor, and he fled from Rome. He made his way south to the city of Nola where his loyal veterans of the Social Wars were encamped, and there they welcomed their commander with open arms.
When military tribunes came from Marius to demand that the legions join him, the soldiers stoned and killed them. Instead of marching to Rome for Marius, they marched to Rome against him under the command of Sulla.
Marius’s forces could not stop the onslaught.
This time it was Marius who fled, eventually taking refuge in Africa. Sulla coerced the Senate into declaring him and his supporters to be enemies of the state, before he headed to Pontus as planned.
However, with Sulla and his soldiers out of the city, Marius saw a chance to return. On top of that, disagreement had broken out between the two consuls, Cinna and Octavius, which quickly escalated into the largest political street fight in Roman history.
Octavius used the fight to justify stripping Cinna of his office and exile him from Rome, but the man did not take this lying down and joined with Marius and his soldiers to move against them.
The Second Civil War
When Cinna and Marius reached Rome with their soldiers, they forcibly took control and brutally killed the main supporters of Sulla, displaying their heads in the market. The laws instituted by him were nullified, he was officially exiled, and Marius got himself and Cinna named consuls for 86 B.C.
This triumph was short lived, however. Seventeen days after the rigged “election” Marius died of illness and old age at seventy.
Soldiers mutinied and murdered Cinna when they learned that Sulla was headed back to Rome with his 40,000 veterans and after having successfully won the First Mithridatic War. Marius’s son tried a brief, desperate resistance that ended in his defeat and suicide in 82 B.C.
The Senate named Sulla dictator with no term limit, and he executed thousands of Marius’s supporters as well as any others who did things like merely criticize him. He used his unchecked power to institute numerous reforms, but — at heart — he was still a republican.
After only about a year of office as dictator, Sulla resigned the position and instead stood for election for his second consulship, which he served in 80 B.C. Afterwards, he retired completely from public life, and went to live in the country near Puteoli — modern day Pozzuoli, a resort town in the Bay of Naples — until his death two years later.
Spartacus and the Third Servile War
The name “Spartacus” is far from unfamiliar. Made famous by the 1960 film of that name starring Kirk Douglas, it gives an epic portrayal of the historical slave uprising that originated in Capua, north of modern day Naples.
Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator, and in 73 B.C., he inspired his fellow gladiators to a rebellion. Seizing knives and utensils from the dining area and kitchens, they overthrew their guards and escaped. Spartacus’s forces quickly grew to between 70,000 and 120,000 escaped slaves, many of them gladiators and former soldiers with plenty of experience.
Much to the consternation of Rome, the uprising went on for three years, during which four major Roman towns were sacked and at least nine battles against Roman forces were won.
Finally, Marcus Licinius Crassus — an important politician and the richest man in Rome — volunteered to lead the Roman forces. He managed to cut off an attempted escape to Sicily, and won several victories in engagements with Spartacus’s army.
At about this time, another rising star, politician and general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus — better known as Pompey — and his legions returned from Spain and were ordered south to aid in the war. Fearing that credit would go to Pompey, Crassus pushed for a quick end to the war before the reinforcements could arrive. His men chased down and killed a detachment of about 12,300 slaves who attempted to break and flee to the mountains.
Read More: Roman Legion Names
Meanwhile, Spartacus was losing control over his men, who broke into their own groups and attacked the Romans independently, much to their own disadvantage. Spartacus gathered his remaining forces for a desperate last stand at the Battle of Silarius River — and failed.
The conflict was a long and bloody one, with Spartacus’s forces fighting out of utter desperation. Spartacus himself made a determined effort to get to Crassus, pushing past flying weapons and killing two centurions as he sought to reach the general.
Finally, however, he was wounded in the thigh and forced to his knees. But even still, he held his shield out and continued to fight until he was overwhelmed.
The remainder of Spartacus’s forces were routed. Most of them — including Spartacus himself, whose body was never found — were killed on the battlefield or as they attempted to take refuge in the mountains following the conflict. Over 6000 were captured and crucified along the Appian Way, the main road leading into Rome from Capua.
Siege of Jerusalem
Around 70 – 60 B.C., another name was rising to prominence in Rome: Pompey.
Later to be known as Pompey the Great — apparently a self-bestowed title — the young general had served in Africa, the Servile War, and the civil wars of Sulla and Marius. He commanded the Roman Legions in Parthia for the Third Mithridatic War, and shortly after its conclusion in 63 B.C. was asked to intervene in an inheritance dispute between the princes of Judea.
Pompey aligned himself with Hyrcanus II, the elder brother, and laid siege to the younger — Aristobulus — who had taken refuge in the city of Jerusalem. It proved a poor refuge, for supporters of Hyrcanus opened the upper gates for the Roman army, and after a three month siege the attackers broke into the temple district and took the remainder of the city.
12,000 Jews were killed while defending Jerusalem, and Pompey only increased resentment to Roman rule when he broke sacred Jewish laws and entered the Temple’s Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was allowed to go.
Though Pompey reinstated Hyrcanus as high priest and ruler of Judea, he retained only a portion of the former power of the Hasmonean kings, and was directly under the supervision and oversight of Rome.
Judea remained a troublesome thorn for Rome for sometime. Even though the elite and wealthy Jewish political leaders embraced the Roman rule and lifestyle, the religious factions and lower class citizens held onto their hatred for them. Frequent rebellions and uprisings plagued the area for decades to come.
Section Six: Civil Wars
The power struggles of charismatic and influential men came to a head in the 1st century B.C.
Following the rise and fall of Sulla and Marius, three more figureheads united for mutual gain and seized greater than ordinary powers in Rome. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, their alliance could not contain their innate competition, and Rome soon found herself in the midst of the first of several major upheavals in power and structure.
In 60 B.C., three powerful Romans — disgruntled with the political system — formed an alliance for mutual advantages.
Young Julius Caesar and Pompey came together first. Caesar wanted to be elected consul, and Pompey was looking to push through legislation to distribute public land, particularly for his own veterans.
Although Pompey and Crassus remained at odds, Caesar managed to smooth over their disagreements and bring Crassus into the alliance as well. As the richest man in Rome, Crassus had a vital role to play. Their triumvirate was further sealed by the marriage of Caesar’s daughter, Julia, to Pompey.
With the support of Pompey and Crassus, Caesar was elected to the highest political position in Rome, taking on his first consulship. He pushed Pompey’s pet laws through the legislative process as well as many populares bills — those that were popular with the people of Rome — and afterwards was given an unprecedented five year governorship in the northern provinces.
At the head of the highly competent Roman legions, Caesar quickly proved his abilities as a general. Despite heavy resistance — led by the Gallic chief, Vercingetorix — Caesar won a number of brilliant and innovative sieges, culminating in the massive Siege of Alesia where he finally captured the man.
Caesar’s conquests greatly expanded Roman territory to the north, and the region was heavily influenced by Roman culture in the centuries to come.
In 56 B.C., the triumvirs renewed their allegiance for a second time, agreeing to split control of Roman territory between them. Caesar would keep Gaul for another five years, Pompey would take control of Hispania, and Crassus would be dispatched to take command in Syria.
The triumvirate was shaken only two years later though, in 54 B.C., with the unexpected death of Julia, severing an important bond between Caesar and Pompey. And only a year after that, the alliance would lose one of its own members.
Desirous of matching Caesar’s military success in Gaul, Crassus had begun a campaign against the Parthians, but, in 53 B.C., his forces were crushed at the Battle of Carrhae. Crassus lost his son in the conflict, and, shortly after, his own life.
The Parthians poured molten gold into Crassus’s mouth after he was dead in mockery of his greed, and even used the head as a prop in a theater performance of Euripides’ Greek tragedy, The Bacchae.
Caesar vs. Pompey
Without the mitigating influence of marital relationships and Crassus’s moderate position in politics to keep things civil, the tension between Caesar and Pompey grew out of control.
Caesar had always been a beloved populares, and now Pompey had aligned himself with the opposition — the optimates — actively working against Caesar in the Senate.
Caesar himself was still absent from Rome, pursuing his conquests in Gaul and his invasion of Britain. The Senate, meanwhile, threw its support behind Pompey as the sole consul of Rome for 52 B.C. Both Pompey and the Senate feared the power that Caesar could harness — rightly, as it would later prove — due to his immense popularity with the Roman people as both a “people’s politician” and a war hero.
Knowing that he would run for consulship upon his return, they ordered that he resign his military command.
He responded that he would — as long as Pompey would resign his. The Senate then illegally tried to demand that he resign or be declared an enemy of Rome. The two tribunes, Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius Longinus, were friends and supporters of Caesar and they vetoed the bill, but then only found themselves forcibly expelled from the Senate.
In 50 B.C., when Caesar’s term as proconsul expired, the Senate again ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome, at the same time denying him permission to run for consul in absentia — without personally returning.
Caesar felt that their motives were only too clear — if he was elected consul, he could not be prosecuted, but if he returned to Rome for the election, the Senate would immediately press charges. And, if he disbanded his army, he made himself vulnerable.
The Senate was attempting to box him in.
Never one to accept defeat, Caesar chose option “C.”
With the support of his completely loyal legions, he marched south, crossing the Rubicon River on January 10, 49 B.C. and entering into Italy. To do so — to cross the Rubicon in command of an army — was entirely forbidden, and by doing so, Caesar effectively declared war. He famously commented at the crossing, “The die is cast.”
Pompey and his optimates concluded that they could do nothing to stop Caesar’s advance, and they fled to Epirus in northwest Greece, leaving Caesar free to consolidate his power in Italy while Pompey gathered soldiers on the Grecian Peninsula.
In the first major clash between the two men at the Battle of Dyrrhachium, Pompey emerged victorious and Caesar’s forces were forced to retreat. Pompey could possibly have ended the war at that moment, but, convinced that Caesar was faking his retreat in order to draw him in, he halted the pursuit.
Caesar’s army took up position near Pharsalus, in central Greece, and when Pompey finally pursued and attacked, he was badly defeated, largely due to problems of communication. Pompey’s army was scattered and lost, and Pompey himself fled to Egypt, expecting to be welcomed there. However, the young King Ptolemy XIII, hoping to win favor with Caesar, ordered Pompey’s murder
He had him killed before he could even reach the shore, in full view of his wife and children.
His plan backfired though — Caesar was infuriated at the treacherous murder of a noble Roman, and he aided Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra VII, in overthrowing her little brother and taking sole rule over Egypt.
After cleaning up the remainder of the Pompeian forces, Caesar returned to Rome, and in an unprecedented decision — comparable only to the powers granted to Sulla — he was named “dictator for life” by the Senate.
Caesar began to institute reforms in the Roman government, and, in an odd incident in the Forum, his friend Mark Antony approached and offered a golden crown three times. Caesar declined — he always claimed that he intended to step down when Rome was ready as Sulla had. But the Senate feared it was a stunt to gauge the public reaction if Caesar was to declare himself king.
Senators dedicated to the republican style of government formed a conspiracy to rid themselves of Caesar, seeking out Marcus Brutus — the descendent of the Brutus who had killed the last king of Rome — as their figurehead.
On the appointed date, March 15th of 44 B.C., the conspirators enacted their plan. One of them detained Mark Antony in conversation by the entrance to the Senate hall, knowing that he would not calmly accept the death of his general.
They slowly surrounded Caesar, as if they were only discussing the political questions of the day, until one of them gave the signal by grabbing the man’s toga over his shoulder and pulling it down.
Their cue clearly understood, they all then rushed Caesar together, stabbing him repeatedly. He attempted to fight them off until the moment that he spotted Brutus among his attackers. Brutus was the son of his mistress, and Caesar had loved him as his own. In despair at the betrayal, he said to him, “Thou too, my son?” Then he pulled his toga over his head and fell to the ground, resisting no more.
Unfortunately for the conspirators, they had made little provision for what came after the death of Caesar.
In a passionate speech at Caesar’s funeral, Mark Antony was able to whip the public into a frenzy of rage over their murdered war hero and champion; an angry mob rampaged through the streets of Rome, killing some of the conspirators and forcing the rest to flee.
After some shaky beginnings, Antony formed an alliance with Octavian — the nephew and adopted son of Caesar — and Lepidus, another of the man’s close allies. This “Second Triumvirate” was actually legally sanctioned and granted powers by the Senate, unlike the agreement of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus.
In effect, the three functioned as joint dictators of Rome, and with this legal authority, they were able to reinstate proscriptions — the killing of wealthy Romans on flimsy charges, and the confiscation of their money and lands for the state — and use the money to conduct a massive campaign against the murderers of Caesar, led by Brutus and Cassius.
The conspirators had fled to Greece, and Antony and Octavian, leaving Lepidus in charge of Italy, followed with their best legions. They met at Philippi in the first week of October, 42 B.C., for two engagements. In the first, Brutus’s army fought Octavian’s, and Antony’s fought Cassius’s.
The battle was essentially even — although Antony pushed back Cassius, Brutus managed to do the same to Octavian. Yet in the midst of the chaos, a soldier brought a false report to Cassius that Brutus’s army was also in flight. Despairing, he comitted suicide.
It was a hard blow to Brutus, who had less experience as a military commander than Cassius did, and also less respect from the soldiers. After several weeks of a standoff, the two armies clashed again — Brutus’s soldiers had begun to desert him, and he was forced to initiate a battle against his better judgment.
It was a brutal, close-fought conflict between two experienced armies, but in the end, Antony and Octavian emerged victorious, and Brutus followed Cassius — committing suicide rather than face the shame of returning to Rome as a prisoner.
Octavian vs. Antony and Cleopatra
Octavian and Antony now held the majority of Roman power, with Lepidus quietly shuffled to the side. They split control of their territory between them, Octavian taking the western half and Antony the eastern.
Antony embraced his new provinces a little too eagerly, basing himself out of Alexandria in Egypt and engaging in a passionate affair with Cleopatra, despite being married to Octavian’s sister. As tension grew between the two men, Octavian used Antony’s fascination with Egypt to his advantage.
He smeared Antony in the Senate, insinuating that he had sold out to a foreign queen and pointing out the betrayal of Antony’s good Roman wife — who further helped Octavian’s cause by remaining steadfastly loyal to her errant husband while working extra hard to raise their children alone. In 41 B.C., Antony’s wife and brother tried to militarily take the city of Rome in the Perusine War, and this only strengthened Octavian’s case even more.
The final straw came when Antony married Cleopatra — without actually divorcing Octavia — and Octavian illegally opened and read Antony’s will. In it, it was suggested that Caesar’s illegitimate son by Cleopatra was the man’s true heir, and that Antony planned on leaving all of his possessions to his own illegitimate children by Cleopatra while making provisions to be buried in Alexandria instead of Rome.
On the strength of this, Octavian convinced the Senate that Antony intended to abandon the traditional heartland of Rome in an attempt to set up a capital in Alexandria. However, he blamed Cleopatra, and led the Senate into declaring war on her — knowing that Antony would remain loyal to his lover and join her cause.
The subsequent war raged on for eight years, with engagements taking place both on land and at sea. The final battle was a naval one at Actium, off the west coast of Greece, and Octavian’s forces — under the command of his exceptional right-hand man, Marcus Agrippa — won the day.
The lovers fled back to Egypt and waited fearfully in Alexandria for the arrival of Octavius. When all of their ships and soldiers promptly deserted to him, Antony — believing that Cleopatra was already dead — commited suicide.
Cleopatra briefly attempted to charm Octavius as she had both Caesar and Antony, but found him decidedly uninterested. She then chose to follow Antony, taking her own life via poisonous snake.
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.
Section Seven: The Early Empire
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
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 Year of Four Emperors
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 Flavian Amphitheatre
Though the Romans had long held a fondness for combative games, rough competitions, and their own more dangerous version of the Greek athletic games, these were originally fought in smaller venues — temporary seating arranged around open spaces.
As the games grew more popular and also became woven into the political structure of Rome, with wealthy Romans sponsoring them to earn the votes of the people, better venues were needed. For a time, they had used the Circus Maximus, the huge track built for the other favorite Roman sporting event — chariot racing.
But this structure was not ideal, as the long sides and barrier down the center blocked the views of the spectators. Soon enough, the Romans designed a better structure — the circular amphitheatre — and versions of this, first in wood and later in stone, went up around the empire.
The most famous of these was left by the Flavian Dynasty and has become a beloved symbol of ancient Rome: the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known now simply as “The Colosseum,” a name derived from the colossal statue of Nero — 30 meters in height — later reformed into Apollo, that loomed nearby.
Yet the massive arena was also well deserving of the name. A free-standing structure covering an area of 24,000 square meters, the walls of the Colosseum stood at a towering 48 meters high.
Emperor Vespasian initiated the construction around 72 A.D., using wealth brought in from the spoils of the Jewish War two years earlier. He did not live to see it completed.
The final stones were placed during the reign of Titus in 80 or 81 A.D., and he held massive games to commemorate the completion. Between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators packed into the stands to watch gladiators, criminals, and over 9,000 animals lose their lives in the bloodthirsty events.
Later, Domitian added additional seating galleries and a series of subterranean tunnels to house the gladiators, animals, slaves, and prisoners destined to compete. The Colosseum remained active throughout the remaining years of the Roman Empire, and remains an important visual remnant of the glory of Rome to this day.
The games that took place in the Colosseum are among the most iconic traditions of ancient Rome, made even more famous by the 2005 movie Gladiator. But they did not begin as a common event — they were initially held only at funeral ceremonies, with the first recorded example being the funeral of Junius Brutus in 264 B.C.
Over time though, the games evolved into regular entertainment, as well as a tool by which politicians could buy the support of the people through lavish spectacles. Actual gladiator fights, however, were less bloody than we might believe.
Most gladiators were slaves or war prisoners, and those that were successful were worth a significant amount of money — they could often choose to submit in a fight before the killing blow. Sometimes being a gladiator was a way to earn freedom, or an extreme way to escape debt. And, as shown through Roman graffiti, the best gladiators even often became national celebrities like modern sports stars.
Of course, to reach that status, a gladiator first needed to survive, which could be difficult. Even though the more technical, higher level gladiator fights may have resulted in less deaths than generally believed, that’s not to say that the arena did not see its fair share of blood.
Exotic animals were frequently pitted against one another, and another popular use was the execution of criminals — a punishment made all the more grave by coupling a painful death with public humiliation.
It might have been a straightforward death or a spectacle; some of those condemned were thrown to dangerous animals, others were forced to act out gruesome mythological tales and actually die as the hero of the story, and other times large numbers of criminals were set to fight to the death in reenactments of famous battles.
On at least one occasion, the Colosseum was actually flooded to accommodate two full size boats in a live performance of a sea battle — with deadly stakes of course.
Read More: Roman Boats
Slavery During the Roman Empire
Slavery was a constant in many ancient societies, and things were no different during the times of the Roman Empire.
Slaves formed an important level of society; in fact, it was commonly believed that it was only through some men and women being enslaved that others could enjoy societal freedoms.
Roman slavery was not decided racially, however, as later eras’ typically would be — the vast majority of Roman slaves were captives taken as the spoils of war. Slaves employed in agriculture and construction fared the worst, living in squalid conditions and working to exhaustion. Modern day excavations at Pompeii have even revealed some slaves that died still chained together.
If you were a slave, you would have considered yourself lucky to be employed in the home of a wealthy Roman, though of course some were kinder than others. Slaves were seen as an important status symbol, so many rich Romans kept large numbers of slaves to run their household. Slaves with special talents were particularly favored — those that could tutor the family children, play music, function as scribes, and any number of other specific skills.
Roman slaves could even earn their own freedom, either being granted as a gift by their master or saving up enough money to purchase it. Known as “freedmen,” these former slaves were yet another caste in society, higher than a slave but lower than the upper classes. But even freedmen could become Roman citizens, and sometimes respected members of the elite — one freedman named Gaius Caecilius Isidorus ended up owning 4000 slaves of his own.
Although there were some conditions that were better than others, to be a slave in ancient Rome was to be the absolute lowest of the low. Slaves had absolutely no rights and were considered property in every way, and the children born to a slave woman — no matter who the father was — would also live their lives as slaves.
Women in the Roman Empire
The exact status, rights, and opportunities of women in the Roman Empire changed throughout the history of the nation and can be difficult to understand from time to time.
Rome was certainly a patriarchal society, with the senior male member of the family acting as the head. The function of women was primarily to run the household and to produce children, and most were thus married off as soon as they were physically capable of reproduction — which was usually in their early teens, contributing to the high rate of deaths in childbirth.
Even Roman law was designed so that property would always pass through a male inheritance line. And yet, written records indicate that many Romans either ignored or sidestepped this law, with women being mentioned as business and estate owners, and running their own financial affairs.
In the case of a divorce, the woman had no claim over the man for custody of the children, but could retain the rights to any wealth and property that she had owned prior to marriage and reclaim it during the divorce. They were also far more likely to own property in the first place, and sometimes family members even bequeathed part of an inheritance to them, as in the case of Marcus Aurelius and his sister.
Despite the view of women belonging in the home, lower class Roman women almost always worked out of necessity, frequently dealing in crafts, agriculture, and functioning as midwives and wet nurses. Prostitution was also common, though it irreparably damaged a woman’s reputation.
Upper class women had significantly more rights and opportunities. Many were educated when young, studying philosophy and literature, and sometimes even oration. A woman named Hortensia even gave a speech of high skill in the Forum during the Second Triumvirate, winning acclaim from her contemporaries.
Most interesting of all, though, is that several noble women are known to have wielded major power behind their husbands and sons, including Fulvia, Agrippina the Younger, and Julia Domna — to name only a few.
Eruption of Vesuvius
Around noon on a fateful day in 79 A.D., a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius threw the citizens of Pompeii, in the Gulf of Naples south of Rome, to the ground. It was followed by a rain of ash and rocks, and then finally by deadly gas and heat.
This type of eruption, called pyroclastic, occurs when a blast is powerful enough to create a massive cloud above the volcano. When that cloud collapses, it forces the hot gas down at speeds of 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour and temperatures over 704 degrees Celsius (1300 degrees Fahrenheit).
The small town of Herculaneum was actually the first to suffer. Closer to the mountain than Pompeii, the first two pyroclastic surges — which never even reached Pompeii — devastated Herculaneum and killed any who had not fled when the mountain had thrown out warning rumbles and small clouds of ash earlier that morning.
Early the following day, the third pyroclastic surge barreled down the mountainside, reaching the northern edge of Pompeii. Some citizens, believing the ordeal almost over, had begun to venture out of their shelter, only to be knocked over and killed almost instantly by the choking, burning gas.
The fourth and fifth surges rushed through the remainder of the city. By the time the sixth surge hit, it whipped through lifeless streets — no one still in Pompeii had survived the fifth.
Other cities around Vesuvius suffered from the eruption, though none so thoroughly as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Falling ash buried the two cities, creating a unique moment frozen in time. Archeological excavations — though still only having scratched the surface — have revealed Pompeii and Herculaneum to modern visitors.
Even more haunting are the plaster casts of the victims of Vesuvius — showing what they looked like during their final moments — which provide a beautiful, eerie, and intimately tragic window to the past.
Section Seven: The Golden Age
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: Decline of the Roman Empire
READ MORE: Fall of the Roman Empire
Five Good Emperors
Despite the hatred for Emperor Domitian, and the longing for his brother Titus, his assasination 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Section Eight: The Late Empire
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
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.
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 assasination.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, the gods really were not having it with this new Carian Dynasty, apparently.
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.
Diocletian’s other legacy is… less appealing, however.
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.
Section Nine: A Christian Rome
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.
Fall of the Western Roman Empire
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.
Reading this article, it’s probably become clear that 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.
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.
Why Does it Matter?
Rome Shapes the World
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.
All originally Roman concepts, and the list goes on.
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.
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.