Overview of Ancient Rome

History of the Roman Empire

The Roman Roots of Western Culture—The Roman civilization which first arose over twenty-five hundred years ago in central Italy is one of the longest lasting and most fascinating civilizations in human history. It is proper to give Ancient Greece the credit for first establishing many of our most cherished western institutions, but it was Rome which assimilated these ideas and made them into a permanent bedrock of Western Culture. The middle ages are often considered to be an age of relative ignorance and superstition, but the Roman civilization that pre-dated it by 1000 years was astonishingly sophisticated and in many ways eerily similar to our own.

Roman Empire
In addition to preserving and building upon Greek ideas of art and literature, philosophy, theatre, and political freedom, Rome made many of its own invaluable contributions to western civilization. Roman engineering of roads, aqueducts, canals, bridges, buildings, baths, sewer systems and fortifications was on a scale unprecedented in human history. The Roman civil service and legal system was developed so that Roman citizens in far flung provinces could be assured that they would be treated fairly and protected from arbitrary judgments. The Empire even extended the benefits of citizenship to leaders of the conquered territories so that they could govern on equal footing with native Romans.

The Latin language evolved to become a universal language of trade and government throughout western Europe and was the basis for many modern European languages. The Roman legions that were created to protect the borders of Roman territory served not only as border guards, but as policemen and officers of public works. Finally the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace allowed imperial civilization to flourish in terms of trade, commerce, arts, and engineering for hundreds of years without substantial interruption. Notwithstanding the numerous civil wars and border skirmishes of the Imperial age, the long-term peace and security afforded by the Roman government was unprecedented in human history.

Divisions of Roman History—The history of Rome began in 753 B. C. when the city was founded by Romulus and Remus, favored sons of Mars. The end of Roman history is harder to pinpoint but is often given as 476 A.D. when a barbarian king became ruler of Italy. During these twelve centuries the Roman government evolved from a Kingdom to a Republic and finally to an Empire, while its territory expanded from a single village in central Italy to encompass all of Northern Africa, Western Europe, and the Middle East.

The Kingdom of Rome lasted for 200 years during which time Rome was ruled by seven kings. During this legendary period many iconic landmarks of Rome were built and many memorable events became part of Roman folklore. Among these famous incidents were the kidnapping of the Sabine women, the building of the Temple of Jupiter and the acquisition of the Sibylline Books. The Kingdom came to an end when the abusive king Tarquin Superbus was exiled, and the citizens resolved to have no more kings. The Republic era which followed lasted for over five hundred years is undoubtly the most Romantic period of Roman history.

Roman Soldier
During the Early years of the Republic, Rome was little more than a village, surrounded by hostile enemies, and scarcely able to defend itself against its own exiled king. Most of the heroes from this period, including Cinncinnatus, Coriolonaus, and Camillus, led Rome during wars against neighboring tribes and villages, but even during this era Rome's characteric virtues of courage, loyalty, and industry were apparent. It took over 200 years for Rome to grow from the leading town in the region of Latium to dominion of the Italian peninsula, but by 275 B.C., all of Italy was in alliance with Rome either by affinity or by force.

Once Rome became master of Italy she had to contend with Carthage, the other great power in the Western Mediterranean. The Phoenicians, who founded Carthage in the 9th century B.C., had dominated trade in the region for five hundred years, and in order to compete with her Rome had to become a naval power. For over 100 years, Rome fought an epic war epic against Carthage for domination of the west, and when she finally prevailed, she was master of all the Mediterranean. The Punic Wars ended in 146 and for the next 100 years, Rome prospered materially, but declined politically. The Republican government that had sustained Rome through the Punic Wars was strengthened by conflict and adversity, but corrupted by wealth.

The Decline of the Republic and the establishment of an empire in its place was not a sudden occurrence, but rather a gradual process. The territory controlled by Rome by the first century B.C. was simply too vast to be governed by a senate where accountability was dispersed and luxury had dissipated the high standards of conduct once exhibited by Roman statesmen. The Civil War of Marius and Sulla, the first triumvirate, and finally the Caesarean Civil War broke down the old senatorial system beyond repair and the Republican ideal of Roman government gave way to the Imperial Era.

A great deal of the long term success of the Imperial Roman government over time was due to the reforms made during the early years of the empire, or the Age of the Caesars. This division of responsibility allowed the Senate to save face, by retaining control of the "peaceful" provinces, while the emperor controlled the troublesome provinces, where border wars or rebellions might be expected. In effect, this gave the emperor control of the vast majority of the legions. It also gave him control of most of the richest provinces, and even more importantly, nearly complete control of the military. The Height of the Empire was during the 2nd century A.D., empire was so well organized and the military structure that upheld it was so resiliant that the empire survived for over 200 years, even after imperial leadership fell into chaos and Rome began its long decline.

By the 5th century A.D. the long delayed Fall of the Empire began in earnest. Much Roman territory was overtaken by barbarian leaders and the central government lost all influence. The process was gradual however, and most of the Germanic leaders who came to govern former Roman provinces sought to maintain many aspects of the former government. In later years most men looked back on the peace and prosperity of the Roman empire as a golden age, and sought to restore its glory. The "Holy Roman Empire", that arose in the middle ages was far less imposing than its predecessor, but was at least a testimony to the ideals of the lost civilization. The Rise of Christianity during imperial era was also of enormous importance to the survival of Roman culture in the west. The Christian Church adopted many of the Roman habits of organization, record keeping, and canon law, and helped imbue mediaeval Europe with this legacy. It was through Roman and Christian influence that Europe evolved from a primitive culture to the foremost position among world civilizations.

Historical Divisions of Ancient Rome

Kingdom of Rome Founding of Rome Exile of Tarquins753 510 B.C.
Early Republic Defeat of Tarquins Unification of Italy510 275 B.C.
Punic Wars First Punic War Destruction of Carthage274 146 B.C.
Decline of Republic Age of Gracchi Pompey Defeats Pirates146 60 B.C.
Age of the Caesars First Triumvirate Death of Augustus60 B. C. 14 A.D.
Height of Empire Reign of Tiberius Last Severan Emperor14 235 A.D.
Fall of Empire Military Anarchy Reign of Justinian I235 565 A.D.
Rise of Christianity Death of Apostles Gregory the Great50 600 A.D.