But make the gift of empire without end."note
The Roman Empire succeeded The Roman Republic in the first century BC. The precise starting date is a subject for debate. It is generally thought to coincide with Octavian Caesar defeating Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium, in 31 BC, or otherwise when he declared himself Princeps in 27 B.C and was granted the honorific cognomen "Augustus". Augustus was keen to maintain the illusion that he was a conservative restorer of public order who was ending the polarization, factionalism and violence of the Late Republican era, and as such he and his successors maintained the pretense of The Republic, with many institutions such as the Senate, Consul and other offices transferring from the Republic to the Imperial period but with much of its power reduced and its appointments carefully controlled. One-Man-Rule became the name of the game and attempts by his successors, such as Tiberius, to devolve to the Senate, only confirmed it since it led to further chaos and bad governance that only an actual tyrant could solve.
At its peak the Empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Tigris, and from the Highlands of Scotland to the deserts of North Africa. Its territorial extent covered dozens of contemporary nations and the entire Mediterranean which the Romans called "Mare Nostrum" (Our Sea). Within Europe, it failed to penetrate north into the Germanic speaking lands as well as Scandinavia, the Baltic coasts and Russia. In Asia, it never quite got further than the Levant, with its advance blocked by the Persian Empires (Parthians and Sassanids), a conflict that lasted 683 yearsnote which despite several storied successes proved to be insurmountable for the Romans, and would provide it with its most humiliating defeats, including the capture of the Roman Emperor Valerian (who died in captivity with the Romans claiming murder and the Persians fervently denying), with another Emperor, Julian, being killed in a skirmish on Persian soil, leading his successor to negotiate a peace on very humiliating terms in exchange for safe passage.
Rome, as city and empire, continued to exist for quite a long time, even after Rome stopped being the capital of the Empire in 330 AD, when Constantine nominated Constantinople as the capital. But by the end of the 3rd century and beginning of the 4th century the empire had gotten so unwieldy that it needed co-emperors to handle everything; in 395, not long after Constantine embraced Christianity, the empire split into the Eastern and Western halvesnote . The Eastern side, which medieval to modern historians re-named the Byzantine Empire for conveniencenote , toiled on almost a thousand years longer, until Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. In popular consciousness, the Roman Empire is largely the beginning, decline and fall of the Western Empire. The Western side collapsed in 476, during The Migration Period (the time between 4th and 5th century where Germanic people from Northern Europe would migrate into the empire), ushering in (supposedly) The Dark Ages and The Middle Ages.
The Empire differed from the much later feudal notion of succession, in that it did not really have primogeniture, but carried the idea of Hereditary Republic by means of client-patronage relations, and the concept of titles passing to the blood descendant came much later, with Marcus Aurelius, and became much more of a constant in the still later Eastern Roman Empire. Under Augustus, the Emperor's reign was primarily civilian and judicial rather than military, and indeed Augustus actually reduced the size of the army and devalued many of its honors and substituted it with other institutions, including the Praetorian Guard. But this arrangement decayed under his successors and the Julio-Claudian Dynasty in time would be toppled by commanders in the army, and later Roman dynasties were likewise built from the successes of military strongmen, and by the time of Septimus Severus, the pretense that the office of the Empire was independent of the Army was dispensed with, marking the final decay of The Remnant of the republican norms that had survived until then.
In the West, the key successor organization of Rome until the Early Modern Era was the Roman Catholic Church, the world's oldest running institution, and the only one existing today to actually trace its origin to the Roman era. As important as the Empire was when it was alive, in its death it became valuable intellectual real estate, with many great families and other nobility claiming origins (real or imagined) from the Roman era. Around a quarter of Europe's capitals, and many other cities besides, claim to be built on seven hills as Rome was. Titles such as "Emperor" (derived from the Latin word imperator, a title given to victorious generals but eventually reserved solely for the ruler of the Empire) and later Kaiser and Tsar (both derived from the word Caesar) were adopted by later European rulers. One of the Pope's titles, Pontifex Maximus (chief priest) was originally held by the head of the college of priests in ancient Rome. A famous example is the Frankish King Charlemagne who was granted the title of Emperor by the Church and he likewise named his Kingdom the "Holy Roman Empire" in 800 AD. The title of dominus ("master", instituted as an imperial title by Diocletian) led to the Portuguese honorific "Dom" and the Spanish and Italian "Don", and in a roundabout way also spawned the English honorific "Sir".
For Western Europe as a whole, the Roman Republic and Empire were seen as their Precursors. Settlements built by the Romans became the cities known today as London and Paris. They built roads and other infrastructure projects, a lot of which still exist today, and of course they crushed, defeated, colonized and assimilated the original tribes who lived there. As important as it was during its height, it became positively legendary after its decline — even in the medieval era — with Nostalgia Filter, and that nostalgia to a large extent continues to colour our perceptions of this era well into the 20th and 21st Century. The extent to which this nostalgia runs can range in both quantity and quality, from the quaint wistfulness of historians to the dark Novus Romae vision of fascist Italy.
Rome was not built in a day, as the saying goes, and the Empire itself had a long and tumultuous history before ultimately becoming a reality under the first Caesar, Augustus. To understand how Rome became an empire, one must look back to the time of the late Roman Republic. The Republic, despite its name, was not a true democracy by modern standards, being more oligarchic than anything. Having broken away from the traditionally despotic Etruscans sometime in the 6th century BCE, the Romans derided the notion of a kingship or single-man rule. Instead, the Roman Republic operated under a system of governance whereby the Senate, initially made up of the patrician class, would be the main legislative body. Each year, the senate would elect two consuls to serve a one-year term as the executive branch. Various reforms would occur that further democratized the practices of the Roman Republic, introducing various councils and the position of Tribune of the Plebs solely for the plebeians, or the non-noble citizens of Rome.
What is essential to understanding how the Empire came to be is knowing how militarized this system was. Most of the positions in the Roman government were gated behind military service as a pre-requisite. Prior to the reforms of Gauis Marius, the military was almost entirely comprised of nobles and levies from various tributary states around Italy, and even after the reforms, many military positions were still reserved for people of nobility, and there was no quicker way to earn fame and glory than to serve in the Legions. Because of this, the Republic would find itself under the influence of a handful of military strongmen, who used their glory and military prowess to dominate the politics of this militarized Empire.
Long before the more well known Julius Caesar, a man by the name of Lucius Cornelius Sulla would effectively make himself the one man ruler of Rome. He had taken power during a political squabble between his party, which largely favored the nobility, and the party of Gauis Marius, who largely favored the commoners. Marius was re-elected to the consulship in violation of Roman tradition, prompting Sulla to march his armies on Rome. He would fight with Marius and eventually succeed, placing himself as dictator and instituting a series of reactionary reforms to cripple Marius' party.note Sulla would die before more of his ambitions were realized, but it codified the idea that the "Republic" was easily dominated by one powerful influence. Power was increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.
This came to a head about a decade after Sulla's death. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, a prominent general who had won significant victories throughout the Mediterranean, found himself backing the wrong horse when he sided with populares, the same party that had backed Gauis Marius. The populares got involved in a plot to overthrow the consul Marcus Tullius Cicero and repeal Sulla's reactionary reforms, but the conspiracy was discovered and quickly collapsed, leaving Pompey powerless to get through any senatorial reforms. Down on his luck, he found allies in two other famous military leaders: Gauis Julius Caesar, former governor of Spain, and Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had just put down Spartacus' revolt. The three formed the Triumvirate, a group dedicated to increasing each others influence.
When they had common enemies in the Senate, the group excelled. While they gradually hammered away at their enemies on the home front, Pompey was appointed governor of Spain, and Julius Caesar would conquer Gaul note . The Triumvirate was effectively shattered when Crassus marched east against the Parthians, hoping to secure fortune and glory and instead meeting his end at the Battle of Carrhae. With one member dead, Pompey and Caesar slowly drifted apart.
Caesar intended to run for consul again, having secured great wealth and fame in his conquest of Gaul. However, the Senate had grown wise to Caesar's ambitions, and ordered him to surrender his forces to the state before entering Italy. Caesar ignored them,note and thus civil war began. Pompey was chosen to lead the armies of the Senate, but they had little time to rally the defense of Italy. Instead, the Senatorial forces fled for Greece and allowed Caesar to take Rome unopposed. Caesar followed Pompey to Greece and soundly bested him at the Battle of Pharsalus. Pompey fled to Egypt, which was a client state of Rome and embroiled in its own civil war. There he was murdered on the orders of King Ptolemy of Egypt, who thought that it would please Caesar. The opposite occurred: Caesar was deeply angered by Pompey's death and sided with Ptolemy's sister, Cleopatra, in the civil war for the Egyptian crown.
Caesar would go on to make himself the sole ruler of Rome, eliminating any remaining opposition. He would institute sweeping reforms that made his position as the executive permanent and filled the Senate with supporters. While this drew the ire of his enemies, Caesar was too popular to move against. It wouldn't be until he tried to pass a reform that would allow him to appoint the magistrates, consuls, and tribunes -effectively voiding what little democratic process was left in the Republic- that a group of Senators famously murdered him on the floor of the Senate in March 44, BC.
Shortly after his death, a Second Triumvirate formed between two of his lieutenants, Marcus Antonius and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and his adopted heir Gauis Octavianus. The three would wage war against Caesar's assassins and eventually succeed. However, their alliance would quickly break down. Lepidus had invaded Sicily to dislodge Pompey's son, who had continued to fight against the Triumvirate. After succeeding in Sicily, Lepidus threatened Octavian, claiming that he should be allowed to annex Sicily as Octavian had been treating him unfairly. Octavian declared Lepidus a traitor, and Lepidus was betrayed by his own legions. Lepidus was forced to submit to Octavian and would forever be marginalized in Roman politics. Not long afterwards, things became strained between Octavian and Marc Antony. Antony had left Octavian's sister for Cleopatra, the very same who had supposedly wooed Julius Caesar. Feeling threatened by Antony's increasing devotion to the Egyptian queen, Octavian waged war against them. After losing the Battle of Actium, the couple committed suicide.
Octavian, having defeated his political opponents, consolidated power into various titles. The one from which the term Emperor is derived is Imperator, which is a title roughly equivalent to "conqueror" but in this context meant a military commander. He was also granted the title of princeps, or "First Citizen", which effectively marginalized the roles of previous executive titles by consolidating their abilities and responsibilities into one position. He was also the religious leader of Rome, as pontifex maximus. He became known as Augustus, or "the venerated". Thus, the Roman Empire was born, with the first Caesar at its helm.
During its heyday, the Roman Empire maintained a level of peace and stability within its borders not often known to people living in those times, or so its leaders liked to believe. With its legions, a relatively enlightened ruling system, religious freedom (i.e. tolerance and syncreticism, at least), the Roman Empire held well enough (and people considered themselves sufficiently part of it) that an American would probably be quite at home there, assuming of course they were okay with being a slave, being poor, proto-serfs bound to Indentured Servitude on latifundias, since those categories comprised the majority of the subject peoples. Later empires would use Pax Romana as a model and influence for enlightened despotism and hegemony. It was based, to a large degree, upon the political nature of the empire. A great deal was direct empire: Rome had immediate authority over the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. However, Rome's peace was the result of its Hegemonic Empire. Technically independent client nations surrounded it and participated in trade of goods, wealth, and (Roman) culture. In order to maintain control over these client states, Rome regularly sent lavish gifts to their rulers. In return, those rulers did everything they could to keep from antagonizing Rome. Not only did these client states not make war with Rome, they also served as buffers.
On the far side of the client states were so-called (by the Romans, borrowing a word from the Greeks) "barbarian" tribes who, being nomadic (the horsemen of the desert) or seminomadic (the Germanic people to the North moved between different permanent sites depending on the season) and lacking such features of civilization as money and stone monuments, were indifferent to Romanization. They liked Rome's wealth but wanted nothing of its culture. The client states surrounding Rome absorbed the repeated incursions of barbarian raiders so that Rome wouldn't have to. This is why Augustus, after expanding the empire, told his successor to stop doing that: eliminate the clients and Rome has to deal with the barbarians herself. Barbarians weren't the only problem. In the East, Rome had a potent enemy in the Iranian empires of Arsacid Parthia (247 BC — AD 224) and Sassanid Persia (224 — 651). The client states to the east were essentially shuffled back and forth between Rome and Parthia/Persia in a kind of hegemonic great game, with each side more or less understanding that direct conflict between the two would be disastrous for both. Hence, the Kingdom of Armenia became a buffer kingdom in which the Persians chose who'd be king of Armenia, and that king would travel to Rome to gain the Emperor's approval and be crowned. This kept conflict at a minimum between the two empires for some time.
Although the Pax Romana specifically refers to a phenomenon in the Mediterranean world, the fact is that the period was marked by unusual peace across a solid belt across the Eurasian civilized world from the Atlantic to the Pacific, controlled by four great empires: Rome in the west; with Persia to its east; and then to Persia's east the Kushan and Gupta empires in Afghanistan and northern India; and to the east of both of those the Han Dynasty held not only the Chinese heartland but also the Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang. This is arguably the first period of "proto-globalization,"note as in this time, the influence of the four large empires (Rome, Persia, India, and China) made regular cross-Eurasian trade not merely a reality, but big business. Although restricted to luxuries — nothing else was worth shipping that far — there was unquestionably regular trade, with the Romans developing a taste for Eastern silk and spices, the Chinese developing an interest in Roman glassware, and everything in between. (The Han, by the way, sent an explorer to Rome, who didn't quite reach Rome at the insistence of the Parthians, who were justifiably terrified of the two imperial juggernauts to their East and West deciding to meet in the middle. Nevertheless, he left a fairly detailed report, if one coloured by Chinese mythological views of the West; the Han seem to have greatly respected Rome, seeing it as a Western mirror to themselves and calling it Daqin: Great China.) Ideas also travelled: Christianity made its way to India and Central Asia in this time, finding moderate purchase; late in the period, the Persian-origin Mithraism and Manichaeism spread to Rome and China, becoming for a time serious rivals to Christianity (with one of its saints, Augustine, being a former Manichean). At the same time, fighting was restricted to proxy wars at the fringes of the great empires. This period of peace ended, however, after plagues swept Rome and China in the third century. The Western Roman Empire managed to hang on for another two centuries, but only just (see below), while the East held on for another 1200 years; the Han met their fate quicker.
The Pax Romana was not all fun and games. The emperors who succeeded Augustus were, by all accounts, pretty bad. The most notorious of these were Caligula and Nero, but their notoriety may have been played up significantly due to the bias of the available sources. There was also the Year of Four Emperors, basically the first Imperial Civil War, which resulted in Vespasian becoming Caesar. After that, succession was chosen largely based on merit, resulting in a peace of incredible stability and prosperity. The Empire's borders reached their height under the reign of Trajan, and internally the economic activity of the era was astounding. The reign of the so-called Five Good Emperors is long thought to be the apex of the Roman Empire.
The hegemonic empire was built as much on luck, chance and geography as it was on the political structure and codes of Rome. Rome's tribute to her client states paid for the necessary military service of facing barbarian incursions, but it couldn't pay for the human cost of warfare. Further, as each client became more Romanized, the citizens thereof became increasingly vocal in their desire to become part of Rome and receive the benefits of Roman civilization. Eventually each client state was absorbed into the Roman empire and Rome had to bear the burden of defending her borders herself. As is often the case with a stable, growing population and economy, Rome faced the difficulties of inflation and, sometimes, too much economic growth, leading to cycles of boom and bust, which could have been managed had intellectual capabilities and political culture evolved to meet the growing demands and changes of society. Intellectual advancement within Rome more or less remained what it had been at the time the Republic conquered Greece and Egypt, and its socio-political system of aristocrat client-patronage system was not adequate to meet large crises. The environmental factors fueling Rome's population growth also fueled the populations of outsiders surrounding the empire, and increased the costs of the client states and other mercenaries to defend themselves, and moreover only increased their righteous demands and just influence, which the Roman hegemony was unwilling to respect and absorb. This led to a perfect storm that gradually ate away at Rome and led to her downfall.
The reasons for the crumbling of the Western half of the Empirenote are still hotly debated to this day, but a few common things are agreed upon. The ultimate end of the Empire was really due more to its internal struggles than to outside threats like the Germanics or Persians. In truth, those groups merely capitalized on the failure of the Roman state. They were an effect — not a cause — of the Fall of Rome. The decline started in the 3rd Century, with the aptly named Crisis of the Third Century. This was the most pivotal event in the history of Rome, and by all accounts should've destroyed it. The Crisis was a series of internal civil wars compounded by disease, climate change, piracy, banditry, ruralization, and invasions from outside peoples. To make a long story short: in 235 Emperor Severus Alexander was assassinated by his own troops, leading to a power vacuum that lasted for five decades. This is mostly because the Empire lacked any good way to determine succession, or indeed to determine who was emperor at all. Technically the Emperor chose their successor and the Senate ratified the choice, but many times it simply proved to be the person with the biggest army that succeeded. This can effectively be seen even in the founding of the Empire, which was won by the conquests of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. Founding an Empire on "might makes right" thinking is a terrible precedent, and was doubly so given how militarized the Roman government was.
The end result of all this is that nearly any asshole with a big enough army proclaimed themselves Emperor, and then proceeded to duke it out with the other claimants. This left frontier regions of the Empire undefended, allowing the Germans and Persians to take advantage and launch crippling invasions. This also caused an increase of banditry and piracy, which all culminated in trade breaking down internally. This resulted in massive food shortages, as the heavily urbanized Empire depended on an efficient trade network note to sustain its urban population. This led to many people setting out from the cities to farm for themselves, but most of the land was already owned, resulting in a dramatic increase in tenant farming through the Latifunda system. This system is considered by some to be a precursor to the Medieval agrarian version of feudalism. Urban populations left to the countryside and found work on these massive plantations as Coloni, who were basically serfs in all but name. They were tenants bound to land that they did not own, and owed their rents to the owner of the plantation. These plantations would transition into the manor houses of the Medieval world, which became the fortified castles we know of today.
Meanwhile, all those claimants had to find a way to secure the loyalty of their troops so they wouldn't get murdered by ambitious subordinates. Thus, they instituted massive pay increases for the Legions, causing runaway inflation that further ruined the Roman economy. Compounding all of this were chronic outbreaks of disease and climate change reducing harvests. Entire areas of the Empire became lawless for a time as the Legions were off duking it out with each other, and even the safer parts saw a marked decrease in the quality of life. Starving peasants took up arms as bagaudae in an effort to find food for themselves, raiding trade routes and even neighboring communities just to stay alive.
Yet this did not destroy the Empire. Somehow, things managed to stay together. Aurelian would succeed in re-uniting the fractured empire by defeating rival dynasties in Gaul and Syria, and his successor Diocletian would be in charge of repairing all of the damage. Diocletian repelled the invaders and began reforming the Empire to try and keep it from splintering again. He decided that the Empire had become far too big for one ruler, and he split it in two. This was further expanded with "Co-Emperors", making the ruling of Rome a four-man job. Constantine was one of those co-emperors, and he is most well known for making Christianity the primary religion of the Empire.
The later Germanic invasions were simply the final nail in the coffin. The Crisis had put such a damper on Rome that not even the revitalizing reign of Constantine could reverse the Empire's decline. What is certain, however, is that Rome was largely the one responsible for its own downfall. Constatine's reign furthermore introduced a new layer of problems that would continue to hamper the Eastern Empire centuries after the fall of the Western Empire — by de facto replacing the various cults in the old Roman Empire with Christianity, religious disputes became political disputes and heterodoxy in religious matters became treason in political matters. Thus the Empire had to spend enormous resources on keeping religious cohesion. Some scholars argue that Egypt and the Levant fell as easily as they did when the Arab armies came knocking because being a dhimmi under Muslim rule seemed preferable to being an apostate under Byzantine rule. And Egypt in particular was a center of all kinds of heterodox Christianity. It wasn't until the 5th Century that the Western Empire actually fell, though. In that time, Rome was not even the capital, that was Ravenna (and before it had been Mediolaum). Germanic tribes migrated southward as the climate grew colder. The Empire had to accommodate these tribes, so the decision was made to allow them to settle the depopulated lands of the Empire, sometimes in exchange for military service. Tribes like the Vandals and Suebi were settled in Hispania, for example. However, tensions were always high between the two. The Germanic tribesmen were often looked down upon and derided as barbarians, and the Germanics obviously did not take kindly to this, despite assimilating into Roman traditions and adopting much of its military and legal precepts. Fighting inevitably broke out, and that fighting spiraled into war. However, things wouldn't get really bad until Attila the Hun showed up.
In the 420s the Huns started to make incursions into Europe. The origin of the Hunnic people isn't fully known, but they appear to be an Altaic people, possibly related to a group described in Chinese sources from a few centuries prior. They may have been forced westward from the steppes due to a drought or climate change, but this is uncertain. In 434, Attila and his brother Bleda took joint command of the Hunnic tribes and started raiding the lands of the Eastern Roman Empire and parts of Germania. The Germanic tribes underwent a mass exodus to flee from the Huns, and wound up running straight into Roman territory. Over the course of the century, the Germanics would gradually bite off slices of the Western Empire for themselves while the Huns and other groups sacked and raided the ever-loving crap out of the Empire. The Huns tore through the Balkans and Greece, attacking one of the wealthiest and most urban parts of the Empire, but falling short of sacking Constantinople itself. They defeated the Romans twice and forced Theodosius to pay them a massive sum in tribute. Then they set their sights on Gaul. Attila raided and pillaged his way through Germania and Gaul until finally an army of Roman and Visigothic troops managed to defeat note him at the Battle of Catalaunian Plains (also known as the Battle of Chalons). Attila was forced to withdraw, but he continued his raiding and pillaging until 453, when he died at a feast due to internal hemorrhaging. By that point, it was too late. The Western Roman Empire was pretty much beyond the point of no return. By the time Attila died, the Empire had lost territory in Aquitania, Gallicia, and Africa. Rome itself was sacked in 410, for the first time in nearly a thousand years, by the Visigoths. It was sacked again in 455, this time by the Vandals in one of their many raids across the Mediterranean. However, the official end of the Empire came in 476 AD, when Odoacer, a soldier of Germanic descent, took Rome and became the de facto ruler. He nominally claimed to rule in the stead of the emperor Julius Nepos, but Nepos died in 480 AD, which is what some consider to be the actual final date of the Western Roman Empire. The Domain of Soissons meanwhile, which could arguably be considered "Roman" in some sense (though it had no pretensions to the West Roman Imperial Throne) fell in 486 to the Frankish king Clovis, who would end up establishing a realm that would some three hundred years later be governed by a "West Roman Emperor" in Charlemagne
However, the Empire survived in the East for almost a thousand years more as the Byzantine Empire, until Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. Some historians consider that to be the actual final date of the Empire, for real this time. Others such as historian Fernand Braudel consider the Roman Catholic Church to be the true Spiritual Successor of the Empire, and it's still running in the 21st Century. It is without question the only active institution that can be traced to the Western Empire, that more or less still occupies the same space and territory that it did at the end of the Empire. Considering the increasing vacuousness of the office of Caesar by the end of the empire, and the highly decentralized nature of the empire as a whole, it is entirely possible to say that the Pope was the Middle Ages equivalent of Caesar, effectively being an incredibly decentralized leader of Christian Europenote .
This has done much, especially in The Renaissance and The Enlightenment to lend Rome with a halo of a Golden Age of wisdom, philosophy and genius. However, the actual record on this front is not as impressive. The Roman education system, even the ones given to the elite, left much to be desired and it cannot be denied that there was no Roman scientist or mathematician to match the glories of Greece and Egypt, leave alone the work done by contemporaries in China and India. The Romans were skilled synthesizers of pre-existing technology, ideas, and concepts but they were not innovators and creators. Their famous engineering was borrowed from the Etruscans, and unlike the Ptolemaic dynasty who helpfully left behind a Rosetta Stone to decipher the older Egyptian hieroglyphics, no such record made by the Romans survives to help us understand their predecessors. The Julian calendar was devised after Caesar met and interacted with Egyptian astronomers and even that achievement is tempered by the fact that Caesar's invasion resulted in the accidental burning of the Library of Alexandria, one of several such incidents, but perhaps the most damaging. Likewise, Archimedes was a partisan of Syracuse, who were partisans of Hannibal Barca and, despite orders forbidding it, he died at the hands of a Roman legionnaire. The Glory That Was Rome, their army and military triumphs, which provided so much inspiration for later European monarchs and conquerors, came at an irreplaceable price. The great technologies of antiquity, the Antikythera Mechanism, the Baghdad Battery and others, come from outside the Roman periphery. The birth of modern science began with the rise of the Arab civilization which also originated outside of Rome, and they were the first to step outside the Graeco-Roman orthodoxy of Aristotle that froze Roman physics and philosophy. As later revisionist scholars of The Middle Ages have pointed out, there was greater scientific development and advancement in The Dark Ages than in the Roman Empire, as a result of the Arab conquest and The Viking Age, with the Vikings exploring further than the Romans did, spreading its influence in areas (such as Russia and Eastern Europe) that the Romans had never penetrated. The Catholic Church under Pope Sylvester and other friars also played a part in bringing in fresh knowledge from the East to the West, while the Italian mathematician Fibonacci finally replaced the cumbersome Roman numerals with the far more useful Hindu-Arabic numeralsnote . It is called the Dark Ages because we have more written material and textual sources from the Roman era than we do in this time (in Western Europe that is).
Still, the Roman Empire at its highest virtues represented a model for what we understand as the contemporary world. It is the most urban of ancient civilizations and in the remains and archives of the Roman world, one can recognize a world of commerce, class, ideology and ambition that is closer to modern sensibilities. Such things as consumerism, mass entertainment (in the Colosseum), a regular police force and fire department existed in the Roman world, as did supermarkets, rest-over inns and entrepreneurs who profited from such regular movement and traffic. As Mary Beard has noted, until the end of the Roman Empire and the Crisis, there was free movement across the Empire, and after Caracalla's selfishly driven edict, common citizenship for every subject of the Roman Empire. The idea of the Roman citizen was truly multicultural. Roman Emperors included Latins, Greeks, Berbers and Arabs and its military was similarly diverse. The civic nationalism of Rome was never a completely unified concept and never truly superseded regional, linguistic and religious identities, but it was by no means fictional or without substance. It was often the case that the Romans at the colonial outposts, such as Odenathus in Palmyra, despite being so far away from the metropole, defended the Empire with greater patriotism than existed at the center. If the Republic fell to the Empire because its city-state institutions and attendant civic patriotic ideology was insufficient for Rome's expanding domains in Italy, Gaul, Iberia and Egypt, the Empire failed because it failed to renew its institutions and ideologies to meet the newer challenges.
The afterlife of Rome is such that periodically many Kings and Emperors invoked it to see glory, fame and prestige. This often came at the expense of the land, property and lives of the people residing in Italy and Rome. Justinian and Belisarius' famed campaigns against the succeeding Ostragoths, as well as sacks by Arabs and other Kings, led to Rome becoming a shell of itself, such that it would not revive until The Renaissance, at one point being reduced to more or less a collection of villages interspersed with ruins and vegetation with less than 10,000 inhabitants. The end of Rome, led to the rise of competing city-states across the Peninsula, some of which such as Florence and Venice, became major European powers in their own right. But Italy itself for the next thousand years or more would remain without unification, vulnerable to the machinations of rival powers and periodically subject to sacks, looting and conquest until the Risorgimento. But even after that, Italy would never regain the political and military muscle of its ancient forbears, with its biggest influence being in the realm of science, commerce, art, literature, music and culture. The only time it would become a major political force in Europe again, was the era of Fascist Italy which grounded itself on much Roman glory and nostalgia, proving once and for all, as Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico would put it, the divide and changes in values between the ancient and the modern era, and that there is such a thing as too much nostalgia for the days of imperial unity.
The most famous person that this happened to was of course Jesus Christ, but it happened to quite a lot of other people too. Another well-known example would be Spartacus. Everyone in his army that was taken prisoner after finally being defeated (about 6,000 people) were crucified at the same time, spread over about 200 km of the Via Appia (the Appian Way). Kinda similar to Jesus, there are claims that Spartacus either escaped, survived, or had a son that survived.
In terms of sheer nastiness, little matches crucifixion in the capital punishment field. It was designed to be as painful and humiliating as possible. The Romans themselves considered it so barbaric that Roman citizens usually couldn't be sentenced to crucifixion.
To go into further detail about crucifixion: five- to-seven-inch-long nails were driven into the wrists and ankles. How the nails were driven in depended on the shape of the cross, which was I, T, X, Y or the traditional cross shape. Then ropes are tied, so the Romans can pull up the cross. The ropes cut into the skin as the cross is raised. Then the person is essentially left to die. Times passes on, the person literally gets baked by the sun. Crows start to come and peck on the eyes on the hung, if that person has no family or friends to fend them off. The hung man must struggle with all of his might to get one tiny breath in, as his lungs are constricted. If he's lucky, he'll get a bitter tasting wine as a painkiller. In terms of waste removal, there was none. This further adds to the humiliation and infects any wounds below the waist. After that, there's not much left as the prisoner gets no food nor drink. Jesus lasted the good part of a day before passing on, but there are cases of men who lasted THREE DAYS of this. It's also where we get the word "excruciating", literally "from the cross."
Quite where the nails went (or if they were even used) and what the person was supposed to die of are debated by historians (The Bible isn't too clear on the subject either, due to translation issues from the original Greek). The usual theory has been suffocation, but some experiments concluded otherwise- certainly exhaustion and dehydration would have occurred too. Jesus' seven traditional sayings on the cross i.e. "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" ("My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" in Aramaic) would have been very hard, though not impossible, to get out in these circumstances. In order to speed things up, the legs of the condemned might be broken. How long it took to die varied widely and there are cases of people surviving due to a reprieve.Victims were crucified completely naked to add to the humiliation factor. Though it is perfectly understandable that religious art wouldn't depict it visually (especially given that it was done to disgrace the victims), there is no reason to believe Jesus was spared this token of humiliation. Some have said that humiliation and shame was the main issue Jesus dealt with, as part of the separation from God. All that is what happened if you got to the cross- you had to carry it there yourself and you were flogged with a rather nasty whip (with iron balls or sharpened sheep bones in) beforehand. There are cases of the flogging killing people. In fact, the flogging was actually intended as a mercy — the worse you were beaten before crucifixion, the sooner you would die on the cross.
This incidentally only makes Christianity's ultimate triumph as the faith of the Empire more remarkable. To the eyes of Rome, a man who was crucified was an Outlaw, lower than the lowest pond scum. Many Romans deprecated Christianity as a religion for outlaws and criminals. Many Romans, precisely for this reason, considered Christianity's transformation of crucifixion from an act intended to torture and humiliate its victims into something glorious and even magnificent highly perverse. Nonetheless that transform in aesthetics, values and sensibilities, finally did take hold, befitting the Christian tenet of extending compassion to the lowest and most downtrodden.
The centerpiece of the Roman army, the Legion was and is justifiably famous. They were incredibly disciplined, on pain of death. Perhaps what they are most lauded for is not their ability to kill, but for their engineering.
The early imperial army was a two-tier institution, with citizen volunteers making up the legions, which fought as heavy infantry, and non-citizens recruited into the auxilia, which consisted of archers, cavalry, light infantry, and any other type of unit that could help the legions achieve their mission.
As time went on, the legions became smaller and more numerous, so that they could be deployed more easily. The quality of the equipment also deteriorated, but the legions remained a very effective fighting force almost until the very end of the western Empire. Units were classified as limitanei, or border units, and comitatenses, or mobile units.
In the east, the army was reorganized and was focused on heavy cavalry, emulating the Persians. Following the Arab invasions, the military was divided into an elite standing army, the tagmata, and local units raised from military districts, or themata, similar to the limitanei and comitatenses mentioned above. In the high middle ages, some troops were raised in a semi-feudal manner, and the Empire relied a lot more on mercenaries.
The empire was rife with symbolism and iconography that has truly stood the test of time. Unfortunately, some are virtually never used because, almost without exception, Hitler co-opted them for his Nazi regime, tainting them perhaps beyond redemption. Roman symbols include:
- The Aquila — An eagle with wings outstretched, a rallying standard for the armies. Also found on a great deal of stonework.
- The double-headed eagle — Dating to the splitting of the empire, though the symbol is much older.
- Eagles in general — As they are associated with Jupiter/Zeus and are a symbol of strength. Their status as "King of the Birds", combined with the special Roman relationship with birds in general (avian activity was the primary form of state omen-reading), gave them particular importance to the Romans.
- The laurels and S.P.Q.R. — As seen at the top of the page, it stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome. Still used as the municipal logo by the modern city of Rome.
- The fasces — An axe, handle thrust through a bundle of reeds or sticks, the fasces was a symbol of authority. Originally a republican symbol of strength in unity (one reed or stick breaks, a bundle doesn't). It was resurrected by the fascists, specifically Benito Mussolini. So not everything was ruined by Hitler.
- Not even Mussolini could ruin this one: the French and American republics, which intentionally attempted to recall Rome, used the fasces in their symbolism long before Mussolini. The French Fifth Republic still uses the fasces with an axe in its semi-official emblem, and the fasces are still found in many American symbols: the Seal of the Senate has crossed fasces with axes, while the Mace of the House and the armrests in the Lincoln Memorial are axeless fasces.
- The fasces is also found in the symbol for the Swedish police◊ and related agencies, as well as in many other nations.
- Not even Mussolini could ruin this one: the French and American republics, which intentionally attempted to recall Rome, used the fasces in their symbolism long before Mussolini. The French Fifth Republic still uses the fasces with an axe in its semi-official emblem, and the fasces are still found in many American symbols: the Seal of the Senate has crossed fasces with axes, while the Mace of the House and the armrests in the Lincoln Memorial are axeless fasces.
- The swastika — The symbol most indelibly associated with the Nazis (in the West), it is very ancient, going back to the neolithic, and global, having been found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It is related to the sun, as are most cross symbols. Outside of the Nazi co-opting of the symbol, the swastika is now (as it has always been in these regions) most associated with Buddhism and is commonly seen in and around Buddhist temples across Asia, from India to Japan.
- Roman Salute — There is little evidence that actual Romans actually saluted each other by raising their right hands above their heads, palm facing downward. Nevertheless, the image was associated with Roman Republicanism (via paintings by J-L David, among others) and became popularized during the French Revolution and thereafter. It was adopted by many Americans (as Bellamy Salute), by Fascist Italy (the Roman Salute), Nazi Germany (the Nazi salute), and many other political movements, although, after World War 2, its popularity receded drastically.
While the image of The Caligula may linger in the popular imagination, Roman emperors varied from good and competent to ineffectual to monsters. The early emperors, starting with Augustus, largely kept republican institutions in place, cultivating the image of what we would call a constitutional monarchy. However, all real power lay with the emperor, as he had the personal loyalty of the legionsnote . Later on, during the third century, the emperors dropped the pretense of being Just the First Citizen and openly embraced autocratic rule. Their personal force of bodyguards, the Praetorian Guard, had a large role in both selecting and displacing them.
Oh, and, just in case you did not know, Julius Caesar was not an emperor. He died almost 20 years before Rome became an empire, for that matter. It is true, though, that he was a monarch in all but name by the time he died, and played a critical role in helping Rome transition into an empire.
In general, the Roman Emperors are divided into three sections : The Principate, The Crisis, The Dominate.
The Principate (27 BC 235 AD)Julio-Claudian dynasty
Augustus (27 BC — 14 AD)
The founder of the Roman Empire and its first emperor. Extremely ruthless and Machiavellian with his political rivals, he was benevolent with the general public. He began the Pax Romana and is widely revered for bringing peace to the Empire.
Tiberius (14 — 37)
The second emperor. Ruled the early Roman Empire competently enough, but was extremely passive-aggressive, insisting that the Senate debate issues of the day and come to the conclusion that he wanted, without his having to tell them what that conclusion was. This alienated him from the Senate, and he suffered many personal tragedies before dying at 78, one of the most popular things he ever did.
Caligula (37 — 41)
Tiberius' great-nephew. Insane and tyrannical, but just how much is still hotly debated by historians to this day. Was extremely hated by the Senate, though popular with the lower classes for his antics. Had a very short reign of four years, before he was killed by a Bodyguard Betrayal.
Claudius (41 — 54)
Caligula's uncle and Tiberius' nephew, already an older man when he became emperor. Is famous for a certain TV series, and for conquering Britain. Surviving his murderous family and eventually obtaining the imperial throne due to his Obfuscating Stupidity, he had a fairly successful reign. Poisoned by his wife (and niece) in 54.
Nero (54 — 68)
Claudius's grand-nephew and adopted son and the last descendant of Augustus' dynasty. Wrongly remembered as a fiddling Rome-burning lunatic, Nero was actually extremely popular during his lifetime. That said, his interest in good governance—if not his competence—did leave something to be desired, and he was perhaps inordinately obsessed with the arts, particularly the theatre (which was considered to be low-grade work; hence his lack of popularity with Rome's elite even in his time). Was overthrown after a mutiny by the armies in Spain and Gaul. The first emperor who persecuted Christians, he was given a massive Historical Villain Upgrade within a generation of his death.
"The Year of the Four Emperors"
Galba (68 — 69)
The first of the short-lived "four emperors". Former governor of Spain, and made emperor by the legions of Gaul and Spain during their mutiny against Nero.
- Bodyguard Betrayal: Died in the Forum Romanum when he was chopped to shreds by his bodyguards.
- The Butcher: Famous for his cruelty when he was governor of Spain. When he was elected to Roman emperor, his first act was to round up the legions who'd been loyal to Nero and decimate them.
- Grumpy Old Man: He was seventy years old when he became emperor.
- Hanging Judge: At least according to Suetonius.
"He sentenced a money-changer of questionable honesty to have both hands cut off and nailed to the counter; and crucified a man who had poisoned his ward. When this murderer complained that he was a Roman citizen, Galba recognized his status and ironically consoled him with: 'Put this citizen on a higher cross than the rest, and have his cross whitewashed'."
- Red Right Hand: Galba suffered from gout, which made his hands and feet swollen to a huge size. He also had another Red Right Hand on his body — an enormous tumor which grew out of his belly, and he supposedly needed to wear special armor to restrain this growing tentacle-like mass of flesh.
The second of the four. Once a close friend of Nero (and the ex-husband of Nero's wife), he enthusiastically supported Galba in hopes of being named Number Two and successor to the elderly and sick emperor. When Galba ended up choosing another he quickly orchestrated a coup with the Praetorian Guard and seized power.
- Heroic Sacrifice: After a few small battles against the forces of Vitellius, and despite the urging of his troops to continue fighting, Otho stabbed himself in the chest in order to prevent the empire from falling into further civil war.
- Hidden Depths: Although a metrosexual playboy and a party animal for most of his life, Otho showed a surprising competence and leadership skill when he became emperor.
- Replacement Goldfish: Was a friend of Nero's, and promoted himself as a second Nero when he rose to power. The memory of Nero was still majorly popular with the Roman lower classes, so this was pretty good PR. Otho reinstated most of Nero's reforms, and even signed papers as "Nero".
The third (and most consistently reviled) of the four. The governor of Germania, he launched his own rebellion against Galba and Otho. Was infamous for his gluttony and cruelty but initiated several popular and long lasting reforms and had a good administrative track record before the Civil War.
- Adipose Rex: Is described as this by Suetonius.
Vespasian (69 — 79)
Former governor of Judea and last of the "four emperors". A very competent administrator and military leader. Defeated the Jewish Revolts and built the Colosseum. According to some, the Messianic Archetype prophecy referred to him. He also left his mark on several modern European languages: Because he imposed a tax on the collection of urine,note urinals, especially public ones, are known by words derived from his name in several Continental languages (e.g. vespasienne in French and vespasiano in Italian).
- Colonel Badass: Before he became an emperor in his old age.
- Deadpan Snarker: His main trait. Well, that and Toilet Humor.
- Vespasian is said to have dealt the snark even when he was sick and about to die. As he lay in his deathbed with knowledge that his successor would have the Senate deify him, he declared: "Oh, dammit I think I'm becoming a god." (Ut puto, deus fio.)
- Another bit of snark related to the aforementioned urine tax: Vespasian's son Titus was expressing discomfort with raising Imperial funds with money from pee, and in response Vespasian gave Titus a coin from the day's haul and asked him, "Here. Does it stink?" Titus said, "No." Vespasian replied, "And yet it comes from piss." (This led to a proverb: "Pecunia non olet" — "Money does not stink.")
- Dying Moment of Awesome: Vespasian's exit was classy: aware that he was breathing his last, he got someone to help him out of bed — so that he could die standing up.
- Hereditary Republic: He was the first emperor to directly pass the throne down to his biological son, and would be the last to do so until Marcus Aurelius, more than a century later. Since this was in the 1st Century, when Rome was still pretending the Republic was alive, this first instance of primogeniture foreshadows the gradual shedding of republican norms in favor of monarchical ones.
- Human Resources: Again, the piss thing.
Titus (79 — 81)
Vespasian's eldest son, who waged a successful war against the Jews early in his life, which would have long-lasting consequences for Christianity and Judaism. He also organized relief efforts after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Died of a sudden illness two years into his reign. Often seen as (one of) the best emperors by Roman authors, mostly by virtue of him reigning too shortly to piss any important group off too much.
Domitian (81 — 96)
Vespasian's younger son. Was a very competent but authoritarian ruler, and deeply loathed by the Senate. One of the first emperors with a cult of personality. Had the tendency to catch and torture flies. He was assassinated.
Nerva (96 — 98)
An old childless Senator who was made emperor by the Senate but was unpopular with the army. Avoided Galba's mistake and adopted Trajan, the most successful and popular general of the time, as his successor. Was the first of the "Five Good Emperors."
Trajan (98 — 117)
Widely considered to be the greatest Roman emperor since Augustus, his conquests increased the Roman Empire to its greatest extent. Trajan conquered Dacia, or modern Romania (Traian is still a common name there), northwestern Arabia, Armenia, and Mesopotamia. Born in the town of Italica, near modern Seville in Spain, he is considered to be the first non-Italian emperor, though he descended from an old Italian family that settled in Spain.
- The Good King: Widely considered among the best of the Emperors for nearly 2000 years, with even medieval Christian writers such as Dante (yes, that Dante) placing him in Heaven, despite Trajan being pagan (Catholic tradition holds that Pope Gregory I raised him from the dead just to convert him).
Hadrian (117 — 138)
A peacemaker who pulled back from several areas conquered by Trajan. Travelled around the empire, and built the eponymous wall in Britain. Known for vehemently supporting Greek culture, almost to a bizarre degree. He is also remembered by Jews for being the Emperor who brutally crushed the Bar Kochba revolt, renaming Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and generally making things harder for them. His reign was obscure with relatively few historical depictions. One exception is Marguerite Yourcenar's classic Memoirs of Hadrian. Had a male favorite deified after said favorite died young (sources disagree as to whether it was an accident, illness, murder, human sacrifice or some combination thereof). One of the emperors called gay most often by modern commentators.
Antoninus Pius (138 — 161)
Famous for doing nothing at all besides ruling competently for 22 years. In fact, unlike Trajan and the other warrior-emperors that would follow him, Antonius Pius probably never left Italy on campaign and fought his wars entirely through intermediaries in the field. Rumour has it that he also sent a delegation to the Han Dynasty in China during his reign (well, him or Hadrian). Also built a second wall in Britain (after some victories he managed) which was soon abandoned. He received the cognomen Pius because he deified Hadrian in exchange for pardoning some Senators which Hadrian had sentenced to death.
Marcus Aurelius (161 — 180)
Wisest of the emperors. Initially ruled the empire with Lucius Verus, the first time the Empire had more than one emperor. Tried to live up to the ideal of The Philosopher King, and the author of the well-known Meditations. The Meditations are significant because they are one of the relatively few works of Stoic philosophy that survived. They are also one of the most accessible works on Stoicism: as Marcus wrote them as a personal diary relating to his daily struggles to be a good person and a good ruler, they put the Stoic worldview in very concrete terms, and are recommended as a self-help book as much as an academic work on ethics.
A decent man and very competent ruler, though his reign was marked by wars against various barbarians in Germania and The Plague, which killed him too.
Commodus (177 — 192)
The son of Marcus Aurelius. Started the empire's long decline by being a spendthrift and useless ruler. May have gone slightly mad before the end, renaming Rome to "Colony of Commodus" and pretending he was Hercules reborn. He did like to fight in the Colosseumnote , but unlike his fictional portrayal he was murdered by a slave in his bath after ruling for 12 years. Portrayed by Christopher Plummer in The Fall of the Roman Empire and Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator.
"The Year of the Five Emperors"
An elderly man and accomplished general elected by the Senate. Was betrayed and murdered by the Praetorian Guard after he tried to impose some much-needed discipline to their ranks (Are we seeing a pattern here?). Septimius Severus deified him after taking the throne, then reaped vengeance upon the Praetorian Guard by executing the members who had carried out the deed, giving the rest of them a tongue-lashing for selling the throne to Julianus (see below), stripping them of their positions and weapons, and finally kicking them out of Rome.
- Bodyguard Betrayal: The victim of a particularly appalling example. The city's populace rose up in arms when they heard of it, but the Praetorians overpowered them.
- Bullying a Dragon: Cassius Dio (a contemporary and close friend), while acknowledging that the Praetorian Guard were brutally corrupt and needed to be reined in, also stresses that Pertinax should have taken steps to ensure that they wouldn't be able to retaliatenote . Failing to do so is what directly led to his death.
Didius Julianus (193)
Famous only for buying the empire from the Praetorians, who auctioned off the throne after they'd killed Pertinax. Needless to say, this made him very unpopular with everyone else, leading to him being executed after almost everyone had abandoned him.
- Did Not Think This Through: Everything that defined his time in power. He quickly was hated by the people and had to fight a war which he was drastically not ready or capable of fighting.
Pescennius Niger (193)
A general whose troops proclaimed him emperor in Syria, in response to the scandalous auction. Defeated by Septimius Severus in the next year.
Clodius Albinus (193)
A second general whose troops rebelled against Didius buying the throne, this time in Britain. He initially allied himself with Severus, who let him have the title "Caesar". He was eventually backstabbed by his "ally" Severus and killed in 197.
Septimius Severus (193 — 211)
Harsh but fair emperor and very competent general. Machiavellian master of the Xanatos Gambit. Since he was a military man who depended only on the army for support, the Senate finally slid into total irrelevance during his reign. He hailed from Leptis Magna in North Africa and had Punic as his first language.
Caracalla (198 — 217)
Severus' eldest son. Expanded the Roman citizenship to all free people throughout the empire. Whatever ruling ability he may have had was totally overwhelmed by his constant violent rage. Famously had his own brother, co-emperor Geta, murdered just so that he could reign alone, in front of their own mother.
- Cain and Abel: Murdered his own brother in front of their mother. Though most historians agree Geta would have done the same thing if he had the chance.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Did not like being mocked in a play, he responded by killing everyone in the city.
Macrinus (217 — 218)
Not a member of the Severan dynasty. The first emperor not to come from the senatorial class, he killed Caracalla before the other way round would've happened. Didn't last long before Severus' family took back the throne.
Elagabalus (218 — 222)
Caracalla's cousin. A flamboyant Camp Gay teenager, at a time when Straight Gay or bisexual was the norm (some even claim he may have been Transgender), he was so flamboyant that it led to extreme disapproval and his early demise. One famous incident had him throwing a banquet where rose petals fell through the roof via confetti but in such number and volume that some of the revellers were smothered to death. This made him a hit with the Decadent circles of the 19th and early 20th Century. Antonin Artaud wrote a book on him called, Elagabalus, or the Anarchist Crowned.
Alexander Severus (222 — 235)
Another young cousin of Caracalla and Elagabalus. Rather a Momma's Boy, but was shaping up to be a fair, wise, and competent emperor when he was unceremoniously murdered by his soldiers for trying to negotiate with the Germanic tribes as opposed to fighting them on the battlefield. His assassination marked the start of the Crisis of the Third Century and ended the Principate.
The Crisis of the Third Century (235CE284CE)
"The Soldier Emperors"
Maximinus Thrax (235 — 238)
The first of the so-called "Soldier Emperors", and also the first ruler who never set a foot into Rome. Started as a common barbarian soldier from Thrace, and never learned Latin properly. Also known by the nickname "Cyclops" because of his freakish size.
Philip the Arab (244 — 249)
Oversaw the celebration of the millennium since the foundation of Rome. As his cognomen implies, he was an ethnic Arab from the Syrian borderlands — a fact of which modern Syrians are quite proud; they put him on their 100-pound note. Very tolerant of Christians.
Decius (249 — 251)
Persecuted the Christians and became infamous for it. This came in the form of requiring every Roman to perform a ritual sacrifice to Jupiter on the Emperor's behalf, with refusing to do so being seen as treason. While this didn't specifically target Christians, they were the largest group in the Empire to outright reject the existence of the Roman gods and thus became the primary target.note Died in battle against the invading Goths.
Valerian (253 — 260)
The first emperor to be captured by the enemy. Valerian's reign was easily the lowest point of Rome in the third century. Was taken alive by the Sassanid Persians and allegedly skinned, stuffed and put on display. Other accounts have him being forced to be King Shapur's footstool or killed by being forced to drink molten gold, whilst the more credible ones simply have him stuck in a tower for the rest of his life.
Gallienus (260 — 268)
Valerian's son. Did everything in his power to prevent the total collapse of the Roman Empire. His reign saw the secession of multiple Roman provinces. All Gallienus could do was protect the Italian peninsula until his assassination.
Claudius Gothicus (268 — 270)
A military man from the Balkans and competent ass-kicker. Defeated and almost exterminated the Goths before dying of illness.
Aurelian (270 — 275)
Reconquered the breakaway provinces of Gaul, and crushed the Palmyrene Empire under Queen Zenobia. He probably extended the Roman Empire's lifespan by two hundred years. He obtained the title of Restitutor Orbis, or restorer of the world. Was assassinated by his soldiers after a 5-year reign, which makes his accomplishments all the more impressive. His wife Ulpia Severina may have ruled in the interregnum after Aurelian's death, being the only woman to have ever done so.
Probus (276 — 282)
Oversaw the Roman withdraw to the Rhine and Danube rivers. Despite a reasonable competent campaign of military restoration, he was deposed and murdered in a revolt begun by disloyal Praetorians (again). This marked the end of the Crisis.
The Dominate (284CE — 395CE)
Diocletian (284 — 305)
A true Chessmaster who split the empire into eastern and western halves, each ruled by a senior (Augustus) and junior (Caesar) emperor, creating the system known as the Tetrarchy. Declared himself a God-Emperor, marking the point when the emperor's authority was absolute in theory as well as in fact. Insisted on being referred to as dominus ("master"), traditionally the way slaves addressed their masters, with the implication being that all people were slaves to Diocletian.note Persecuted the Christians, because he considered them a threat to Rome's stability. After he felt he had done all he wanted to do, he retired to the countryside and became a gardener. Thus, he was the first emperor to give up the throne voluntarily and go into retirement. He lived long enough to see the collapse of the Tetrarchy.
Galerius (305 — 311)
Diocletian's Caesar and eventual successor in the east. Convinced Diocletian that Christianity was a threat. Despite this, he changed his mind shortly before his death and issued the Edict of Serdica, officially ending the persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Maximian (286 — 305), (306 — 310)Augustus in the west under Diocletian. Lead a failed rebellion against Constantine the Great in 310 and was forced to commit suicide.
Constantius Chlorus (306)
Maximian's Caesar. Father of an illegitimate son who would later become Constantine the Great. Best known for his tolerant stance towards Christians in his part of the empire.
Constantine the Great (306 — 337)
First tolerated, then favored Christianity. The first Christian emperor of Rome, being baptized just before his death. Moved the empire's capital away from Rome, to what would be called Constantinople. A massively capable soldier, both in terms of leadership and in martial skill. Admonished by an advisor on at least one occasion for leading a cavalry charge. He also disbanded the Praetorian Guard, replacing them with the Scholae Palatinae and destroyed the barracks of Castra Praetoria (whose ruins still exist) to much public cheer. Had his eldest son executed under false pretenses, followed by his wife who may have had a part in the whole thing. This would have terrible repercussions for his dynasty.
Constantine II (337 — 340)
Constantine's first (surviving) son. Squabbled with his brother Constans and died while fighting against him during a failed invasion of Italy.
Constantius II (337 — 361)
Second (surviving) son of Constantine. Credited with masterminding the murder of his male relatives after his father's death. The first emperor to actively discourage pagan practices and promote Christiantiy.note
Julian "the Apostate" (360 — 363)
Officially, his name was Flavius Claudius Julianus. He was baptized a Christian but as a youth he became interested in Greek and Roman antiquities, philosophy and history. Eventually, he abjured his Christian upbringing and identified as a pagan. This led him to acquire his famous nicknames, Julian the Philosopher, and more notoriously, Julian "the Apostate". He was never exactly considered Emperor material in his youth, and his succession came as a surprise since he was known for being an eccentric, who started sporting beards (considered unfashionable among Roman elites). His early military career was inconsistent to say the least — he won as many battles as he lost, and was only saved from a likely defeat and execution at the hands of Constantius II by the latter's sudden death.
As an Emperor he reigned for a short while but began a number of large reforms. Most notably, he compiled several state polices to reinstate the traditional Roman pagan religion, including an attempt to make Hellenism into an organized Church compared to Christianity. While not outright hostile to Christianity, he did take steps to curb its influence. He also made promises to the Jewish community in Antioch to resettle them in Jerusalem and even to let them rebuild the temple.
He died in battle (one of 9 emperors to do so) during a poorly conceived invasion of the Persian Empire, being wounded by a spear (he had neglected to put on his armor) and dying shortly after. Almost all his plans were abandoned after his death. It's possible to compare him to the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten who also introduced a state sponsored religious cult, albeit Akhenaten was a monotheistic radical where Julian was a restorer of the Old Gods. He was the last non-Christian Emperor of Antiquity, and his life and death is often invoked as the Death of the Old Gods, the point at which Hellenism and any attempts to prolong it became Deader Than Disco. Indeed for a long time, it was rumoured that his Famous Last Words was "You have won, Galilean" (Julian referred to Christians as Galileans, as a way to remind them they were originally a minor Jewish sect) and this became much Memetic Mutation during the romantic era, but this is mostly a literary and cultural fantasy, originating from an account by Christian theologian Theodoret.
Despite his brief reign however, Julian is considerably popular as a Historical Domain Character and is probably the most well-represented of the Late Antiquity period. Henrik Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean is one very famous and respected artistic depiction, while more recently, he became well known as a result of Gore Vidal's Julian. Given his role as both the last member of Constantine's dynasty (talk about Irony and Book-Ends on the religious front) and the last Pagan Emperor, his life and rule is also one of the most susceptible to What Could Have Been and Alternate History speculation, with many seeing him as the last Emperor with true potential for greatness.
The Elected Non-Dynast
Jovian (363 — 364)
He was elected emperor in very dicey circumstances, and almost entirely by accident after Julian's death. You see, Julian was the Emperor and head of state, and he died in battle at the head of his army when all of them were in enemy territory. Jovian was hastily elected and his first order was getting the army out intact. To do so, he accepted a treaty with the Persians in exchange for safe passage. This made him supremely unpopular immediately because Romans don't quit, they don't surrender to barbarians and they don't back down. In this case, Jovian had no choice — or so he claimed. The Persians naturally extracted a treaty the Romans saw as humiliating.
On his way back to Constantinople, he stopped at Antioch and reversed Julian's policies. He was a Christian himself, and he restored Christianity to pride of place, eliminating the restrictions on Christians teaching Greek classics that Julian had put, and also ordered the destruction of the Library of Antioch. He did not promulgate any more anti-pagan policies however. He died under mysterious circumstances after only eight months on the throne while still on his way to Constantinople.
Valentinian I The Great (364-375)Ruled in the west, with his brother Valens ruling the east. Valentinian restored the empire's flagging fortunes with military victories against various invaders. His contemporaries seem to have respected him as a simple man — a tough soldiering type who would rather be on campaign with his troops than entertaining the nobility or attending to affairs of state. Ammianus Marcellinus calls him "...an able warrior, who hated the well-dressed and the educated." On the religious front, he continued the policies of his predecessor, showing preference for Christianity while tolerating paganism. Died from a stroke brought on by yelling at Germanic diplomats.
Valens (364 — 378)
Famous for losing the Battle of Adrianople, the most disastrous defeat in Rome's history, and getting himself killed.
Gratian (375 — 383)
Succeeded his father Valentinian. Ended the religious toleration of his predecessors, favoring Christianity and suppressing paganism. His hiring of Alan mercenaries earned the ire of the army, leading to his deposition and execution.
Theodosius I The Great (379 — 395)
Last emperor to rule over east and west (for barely over a year). Made Christianity the de jure state religion and banned all other faiths. Fought the Goths to a stalemate but was unable to win a conclusive victory. His Pyrrhic Victory in a civil war which won him control of both halves of the Empire may have devastated the Western military so far it couldn't recover. Split the Empire after his death for the final time, the west going to his younger son Honorius and the east going to his elder son Arcadius.
Western Empire (395CE — 476/480CE)
Honorius (395 — 423)
Emperor of the Western Empire. Another imperial idiot. Most notable moment of his reign was the Sack of Rome in 410, which he held some responsibility for, since he had his best general, Stilicho, put to death, along with the families of Gothic soldiers in Roman service. The Goths under Alaric revolted due to their mistreatment and sacked Rome for the first time since 390 BC. Honorius also reportedly lusted after his half-sister Galla Placidia .
Valentinian III (423 — 455)Nephew of Honorius. Ascended to the throne at the age of four, with his mother Galla Placidia as regent. As an adult, he was more concerned with women and partying than ruling the empire, leaving the general Flavius Aetius to do most of the actual governing. His reign saw the empire lose control of North Africa and most of Iberia and Gaul. Murdered Aetius in a fit of paranoia and was subsequently assassinated by troops loyal to the general.
Majorian (457 — 461)
General who became emperor after the overthrow of Avitus. Notable for spending nearly all of his reign campaigning to regain lands the Empire had lost and doing a fairly successful job, reconquering most of Gaul and Hispania; his attempt to kick the Vandals out of Africa was thwarted by traitorous soldiers however. Among the late 5th century Emperors his reign is comparatively well-documented, in part due to the newfound stability that his military victories ushered in. His reign saw a series of sweeping legal reforms, which seem to have been well-received by the common people but resented by the aristocracy. Among these were a return of the right for citizens to bear arms, a stipulation against coerced conversions to Christianity, and instating the death penalty as punishment for adultery. His attempts to curb practices putting a strain on the Empire drew the ire of both the aristocracy and magister militum Ricimer who had hoped to use Majorian as a puppet. As a result he was captured, tortured and finally executed by Ricimer with his death arguably ending any hope for the stability or survival of the Western Empire.
Anthemius (467 — 472)
A successful general under Majorian who won great victories over the Huns and Ostrogoths. As Emperor, however, he was not so lucky. A massive(ly expensive) effort to reclaim North Africa from the Vandals ended in failure, and with the Western Empire now nearly bankrupt because of it, Anthemius spent the rest of his reign on the defensive. Eventually, he was betrayed and killed by Ricimer after a few bitter months of civil war. His reign marks the effective end of the Western Empire as a political entity. After his death, the Eastern Roman government no longer conducted diplomacy with it in an official capacity.
Interestingly, Anthemius' reign also features the last major appearence of the Celts in Roman history. He recruited them to fight against the Visigoths, and despite some initial success, they were eventually betrayed by the Praetorian Prefect Arvandus, who Anthemius subsequently exiled.
Romulus Augustulus (475 — 476)
A kid who was the puppet of his father Flavius Orestes, who himself had violently supplanted the previous emperor Julius Nepos. When Orestes denied the barbarian troops that had helped him to dethrone Nepos the promised rewards — specifically to grant them a third of Italy for settlement — he was in turn overthrown by the Germanic general Odoacer, who deposed the puppet Romulus (but spared his life) and assumed the title "commander of Italy". Romulus is usually identified as the last emperor in the West, although some insist that Julius Nepos, who ruled in Dalmatia until 480, was the last one.note After Romulus was deposed, Odoacer sent him to live in Campania, after which he completely drops out of history. Nepos continued to rule a rump state in Dalmatia, only to be assassinated while planning to restore his authority in Italy.
(For Emperors of the Eastern Empire after the Western Empire's fall, see Byzantine Empire)
Trope Namer for:
- The Emperor (from imperator, a military title literally meaning "commander" and usually bestowed upon victorious generals)
- The Empire (and in the western tradition at least, also the Trope Codifier)
Depictions in fiction
- Thermae Romae, set in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (and in 21st century Japan).
- Highlander: The Search for Vengeance has the back story of Marcus being a general of Rome who while conquering England destroys the hero's village. Later on we see the sacking of Rome.
- Hetalia: Axis Powers has the character of Grandpa Rome, dressed as a Roman general.
- The Asterix series, is set in a kind of flat era between the Republic and the Empire but with several anachronistic elements, such as depicting Julius Caesar as an emperor, when he was in fact Dictator.
- Alix is one of the two comics (the other being Asterix) translated to Latin.
- Aquila is set in a Historical Fantasy version of the Roman Empire during the reign of Nero.
- Nero Fox (the "Jive-Jumping Emperor of Ancient Rome"), a Golden Age DC Comics Funny Animal character who was emperor of ancient Rome.
- The Sandman issue 20, "August", in which an old Augustus spends an afternoon disguised as a beggar in the streets of Rome
- A recent Abrafaxe arc, which ran from Mosaik No. 459 to 482, is set during the reign of Emperor Trajan. The Abrafaxe have to help bring two Germanic children (the son and the daughter of two chiefs who want to have good relations with Rome) from the Rhine to Rome. Which brought them to Carthage, where they found a statue of Bella (the Abrafaxe's distaff counterparts, Anna, Bella and Caramella had passed through the place in an adventure in 25 B.C., during the reign of Augustus).
- Agora, takes place in Roman Egypt during the early fifth century during the reign of Theodosius and shows the end of The Remnant of paganism.
- Ben-Hur (based on a novel by Lew Wallace).
- Centurion, set among the Ninth Legion in Scotland, right when Hadrian pulled back.
- Cleopatra by Joseph L. Mankiewicz depicts the end of the Republic and the conquest of Egypt by Augustus after victory at the Battle of Actium.
- Demetrius and the Gladiators, sequel to The Robe
- Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire, which inspired Gladiator, likewise is set during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (played by Alec Guinness) and his son Commodus (played by Christopher Plummer). A lot closer to the historical record than its more famous epigone.
- Ridley Scott's Gladiator is set in the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, but with much Artistic License History.
- King Arthur is set in Britain during the barbarian invasions of the late Roman Empire and reinterprets King Arthur himself and the Knights of the Round Table respectively as a Roman Legion officer and Sarmatian riders under his orders.
- Monty Python's Life of Brian parodies the life of Jesus Christ in Roman Judea.
- The second segment of History of the World Part I, the Mel Brooks movie.
- The Last Legion, set during the last days of the Empire and the reign of Romulus Augustus
- Fellini's Fellini Satyricon, loosely based on a work by the Ancient Roman author Petronius.
- Pompeii, about the Vesuvius eruption that obliterated the eponymous Roman city in 79 AD.
- Quo Vadis? (See Literature, below.)
- The Robe (based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas)
- The Sign of the Cross, based on a play by Wilson Barrett
The works written in Latin and Greek during the Empire by a range of authors have long inspired later authors (in fiction and non-fiction about the era) and serve as both primary sources as well as excellently readable works for edification.
- The Aeneid by Virgil was the epic poem about the Empire, and more or less a propaganda commissioned by Augustus himself to supplant Romus and Remulus, the popular founder of the Republican City-State with Aeneas, daughter of Venus, and do you know which Roman family at that time claimed descent from Aeneas and Venus (yep, Augustus' Julio-Claudian family). Much of the epic is Futureshadowing with Dido of Carthage representing an origin for the Punic Wars, as well as the Socii War, and likewise the career of Caesar.
- The Golden Ass by Apuleius is considered a precursor to the novel, though it's mostly a collection of stories stun around the picaresque misadventures of its unlucky hero who gets transformed into a donkey. Generally seen as one of the best glimpses of how the Roman provincial society was, as well as a truly amazing look at the cults and belief systems of the time. Its author Apuleius was in fact a Numidian born in what is now Algeria. Translated by Robert Graves who also used it as a source for his studies in classical myth.
- Satires by Horace, Juvenal and Lucian of Samosata are incredible glimpses of the morals, political, social and religious life of the Empire. Bread and Circuses was coined by Juvenal to describe and criticize the Roman view of politics. Lucian of Samosata's satires espouse Epicureanism and mostly spend much time attacking and mocking all cults in the Roman era whether it's belief systems by charlatans like Alexander of Abonoteichus, old pagans who still pine for Zeus and of course Christians.
- The Satyricon credited to Petronius, is one of two novels from the Empire, and even in fragmentary form it's admired for its resolute realism in showing the urban life of Rome as well as characters from the lower-classes such as newly freed slave turned Nouveau Riche Trimalchio.
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, which is seen as part history and part gossip, but is entertaining enough to be read for its own pleasure, with its style of writing greatly influencing the later genres of biography and fictional essays. Robert Graves, naturally, translated this (as well as The Golden Ass by Apuleius). It chronicles the famous Julio-Claudian dynasty but was written during the reign of its successors, so historiographically, it's a lot of fun to read.
- Cambridge Latin Course, the UK's counterpart to Ecce Romani.
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789) by Edward Gibbon was one of the most popular and influential histories of Rome, and one of the first to return itself to serious re-reading of primary sources from a secular perspective, and famous in its time for its controversial thesis that Christianity was the main cause for the titular decline and fall. Historians coming after Gibbon, from both a religious and secular perspective, have deprecated Gibbon's thesis, as well as his aristocratic biases and his contemptuous dismissal of the Byzantine Empire, but nonetheless its still a classic work for its literary value, its sardonic writing style and genuinely interesting ideas, that if nothing else gives a sense of the historiography of the Empire in the age of The Enlightenment.
- The Death of Virgil by Herrmann Broch is an experimental book that explores the final days of Virgil, him asking his friends to burn his work, his regret and guilt about serving a corrupt society and evil man, and even his final failure to resist Augustus. Written by the author in exile in America from Nazi Germany.
- Detectives in Togas (1953) by Henry Winterfeld, set in the reign of Emperor Tiberius.
- The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965), Frontier Wolf (1980) and various other novels by Rosemary Sutcliff set in the Empire times in Britain.
- Ecce Romani, the Latin textbook. First published in 1971.
- Robert Graves was both a classicist and a novelist, writing historical fiction: I, Claudius, Claudius the God, King Jesus and
- Julian by Gore Vidal documents the life and adventures of Julian the Apostate, being one of the most well-researched works of historical fiction in the latter half of the 20th Century.
- The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Adapted to film many times.
- The Silver Chalice (1952) by Thomas B. Costain. Made into an infamously bad movie in 1954.
- The Marcus Didius Falco series of detective novels. Started in 1989.
- Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar is a fictitious exploration of the Emperor Hadrian, dealing with his fascination for all things Greek, his homosexuality, his crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt and exile of the Jews. Most of the novel is about how the Empire was stagnating, not building on the works of past, and more or less living decadently contemplating works and ideas that were already classical to Hadrian.
- The Last Legion depicts the fall of the Western Empire in 476 AD. The protagonist and other soldiers of a destitute legion (the last, it seems) go on a Suicide mission to save the deposed emperor Romolus Augustus and smuggle him to safety...in a war-torn continent.
- The Kingdom and the Crown
- Quo Vadis? (1896) by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
- The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence. Started in 2001.
- I, Claudius, based on the novel by Robert Graves.
- The miniseries Masada about the siege of the titular fortress at the end of the Jewish Revolts.
- The Roman Mysteries: The TV adaptation of the book series.
- The Doctor Who episodes "The Romans", "The Fires of Pompeii" and "The Pandorica Opens".
- The BBC series of Horrible Histories has a 'Rotten Romans' segment every episode, sometimes focusing on Rome itself and other times on Roman Britain.
- The HBO/BBC series Rome is all about the founding days of the empire.
- Chelmsford 123 is a Britcom about the Roman occupation of Britain.
- Plebs, an ITV sitcom set early in the reign of Augustus.
- Attila is a miniseries that depicts the Hunnic king's wars against Rome and his rivalry with Flavius Aetius.
- Britannia, about the Roman invasion of what is now Great Britain in the first century AD.
- Barbarians (2020), about the rebellion of the Germanic tribes led by Arminius, culminating in the major defeat of the Roman Empire's forces at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD.
- Mike Duncan's The History of Rome details the history of Rome from the legendary founding by Romulus to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus by Odoacer in 476. Even though Duncan is partial to the middle Republican period, the bulk of the work is spent on the Imperial period, in part because it is more complex and in part because more sources are available for a longer period of time.
- Vampire: The Requiem: The Requiem for Rome/Fall of the Camarilla duology are set in a stylised fourth century Rome. Requiem for Rome is a setting book, with the default year being 360; Fall of the Camarilla is a campaign covering the period from 320 to 410.
- Call of Cthulhu historical setting Cthulhu Invictus takes place in the first century AD.
- Rome: Total War
- Assassin's Creed Origins: The Hidden Ones DLC has a Roman legion led by Gaius Julius Rufio as the main antagonists of the story. The base game is also about the fall of the Roman Republic and its transformation into a continent-spanning empire.
- Total War: Attila has the Empire split into the Western Roman Empire, and Eastern Roman Empire.
- Spartan: Total Warrior
- The Unbiased History of Rome, which for comedic purposes skews heavily pro-Roman.