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Era Summaries of Ancient Rome

Kingdom of Rome     Early Republic     Punic Wars     Decline of the Republic     Early Empire     Fall of the West     Byzantine Empire    


(753 to 510 B.C.)

Founding of Rome to Exile of Tarquins

The stories surrounding the earliest years of the kingdom of Rome are steeped in legend, but they add much romance and interest to the history of the city that grew to be the capital of the western world. According to legend, the founder of Rome was Romulus, son of Mars and descended from Venus on his mother's side. After a dramatic childhood, during which they were raised by humble shepherds, Romulus and his twin brother Remus discovered they were of royal descent and decided to found a city on the hill on which they spent their youth. In order to attract citizens to come and live in his city, Romulus declared Rome a sanctuary. Men in debt; slaves ill-treated by their masters, criminals on the lam, all were granted citizenship and protected from their enemies. In this manner, Rome grew quickly. Romulus solved the problem of a severe shortage of women by kidnapping maidens from the surrounding villages. This, unsurprisingly, caused wars with many of Rome's neighbors, most importantly the Sabines. The happy outcome of the War with the Sabines, however, proved to be the joining of the two nations into one. The Sabines were given one of the hills of Rome to settle, and after the rule of Romulus the well-respected Sabine philosopher, Numa Pompilius, became king.

Numa's reign was long and prosperous for Rome. The city had already established itself as a warlike nation, always ready to defend and expand its territory. Numa, however, sought peace with Rome's neighbors and improved general piety and morals. He was responsible for creating the calendar, declaring early Roman holidays, and establishing worship customs, including the roles of priests and the vestal virgins. However, the king who followed Numa was the warlike Tullus Hostilius, who declared war on Alba and established Rome's predominance over Alba as the foremost city in Latium. Hostilius was followed by Ancus Marcius, son of the peaceful Numa Pompilius, who like his father sought peace with the surrounding kingdoms.

Ancus died in 616 B.C., and for the following century, the throne was held by the Tarquin family, who were not native Romans but rather of Greek and Etruscan heritage. The first two Tarquin kings, Tarquin the Elder, and Servius Tullius were worthy kings who did much good for the city. Under their reigns the swamp in the center of Rome was drained and the Forum was built. They constructed many public building surrounding the Forum, which became the market-place and seat of city government. The Tarquins also built the Circus Maximus for chariot racing and sporting events, and Servius built the Servian wall, which encompassed all seven hills of Rome. Servius was known for passing laws that favored the poor, which made him unpopular with many of the wealthier citizens. He was ultimately murdered by his own daughter and her husband, a son of the Elder Tarquin. This younger Tarquin, known as Tarquin Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, then seized the throne. After an oppressive reign of twenty-five years, he was exiled by a group of outraged citizens after his son was accused of assaulting Lucretia, a Roman noblewoman. The Tarquins fought to reclaim their throne for nearly fifteen years by making alliances with surrounding cities, but were finally defeated, and the government of Rome was left securely in the hands of the Senate.

Early Republic

(510 to 275 B.C.)

Establishment of Republic to Conquest of Italy

The early years of the republic lasted from the overthrow of Tarquin Superbus in 510 B.C. to the conquest of southern Italy in 275 B.C. During this time, Rome fought wars against the Gauls, Etruscans, Latins, and Samnites, eventually bringing all of Italy, from the Arno River north of Tuscany to the Grecian dominated southern coast, into an alliance with Rome at its head. It is from this vigorous period that many of Rome's romantic legends and hero stories spring. The city of Rome was at this time still largely uninfluenced by eastern decadence and the corruptions of wealth; and the Republican virtues of courage, patriotism, and piety were at their peak. The most important historian of this era, is Livy, and most of his writings pertaining to this period are still extant.

The Roman republican government was composed of a group of three hundred senators. Each year, two consuls were selected, usually from among the senators, to administer the state and lead the army in times of war. By selecting two consuls and limiting their service to a single year, the Romans hoped to avoid the emergence of a single powerful tyrant. Junius Brutus and Publicola were early consuls and heroes of the republic. Their courageous leadership helped foster unity during the first rocky years, and both made great personal sacrifices for the good of the state. During these first few critical years, Rome's enemies allied themselves with the exiled Tarquin Superbus and marched against Rome, with the object of restoring him to the throne. Horatius and Mucius Scaevola were both heroes of the war against Lars Porsena, an Etruscan general who was allied with Tarquin. After many years of struggle, the Tarquin's family was finally defeated at the Battle of Regillus.

Once the threat from Tarquin was resolved, Rome was still surrounded by enemies. Rome was a cosmopolitan town, with citizens from throughout Italy, but its primary population and language was Latin, and by the time of the republic Rome was the foremost city in Latium. It had not yet, however, established dominance over the surrounding tribes of Etruscans, Volscians, and Aequilians. Coriolanus and Cincinnatus were both patrician heroes of early wars against these enemies during the first century of the republic. The second century produced Camillus, an even greater hero. In addition to conquering Rome's perennial enemy, Veii, he reorganized the army into its famous legions and was instrumental in rebuilding Rome after it was Gallic Invasion of Italy in 390 B.C. The Gauls were a tribe of war-like barbarians from the north, who threatened Rome for the next three centuries. Their first encounter at the disastrous Battle of Allia, which resulted in the sack of the city, was long remembered as the worst defeat in Roman history. The year 390 B.C. marked that last time that the city of Rome was invaded by barbarians for 800 years.

In addition to the on-going wars with its Italian neighbors, Rome needed to resolve several internal disturbances that threatened it during the early years. From the beginning of the Republic, there was continual strife between the patrician class, who held all of the political power, and the plebeians, who were far more numerous, but without a hand in government. The trouble between them was resolved after a peaceful "walk-out" by the plebeians during one of Rome's wars. The patricians, led by Menenius, submitted to the idea of establishing a tribune to represent the interests of the plebeians. Eventually, there were six tribunes, elected from among the plebeians, who had the power to veto all legislations proposed by the patrician senate.

In 452 BC, ten Decemvirs were selected to write and promulgate the laws of Rome. Their leader was Appius Claudius, but he abused his power and tried to enslave Virginia, resulting in the overthrow of the Decemvirs. However, the laws of Rome written on the twelve tablets did become the foundation of Roman jurisprudence.

By time the republic was 200 years old, its armies had acquired a reputation for bravery and discipline thanks to the notable deeds of such heroes as Marcus Curtius, Valerius Corvus, Decius Mus, and Manlius Torquatus. The latter were heroes of the Latin and Wars, which dominated the period 340 to 290 B.C. Caius Pontius was a Samnite general who trapped the Roman army but did not use his victory wisely and was eventually defeated. Fabius was the hero of the Battle of Sentium, which was a decisive victory for the Romans over the Samnites and brought the Samnite wars, which had lasted for nearly fifty years, to a close.

The last unsubdued region of Italy was the southern coast, called Magna Graecia, (Greater Greece) because it was populated with Greek colonies. In 280 B.C. the city of Tarentine brought in Pyrrhus, the most famous general of the age, to oppose the Romans. Though he met with early success, at the Battles of Heraclea and Asculum, his fortune turned for the worse at the Battles of Beneventum and the Pyrrhic Wars in Italy ended in victory for Rome.

As Rome dominated more and more of Italy, its own security was greatly enhanced, and it began a series of building projects including roads and aqueducts. Appius Claudius, an important peacetime administrator, was responsible for much of this planning, and the famous Roman road, Via Appia, bears his name. In addition to roads, Appius Claudius initiated the building of Rome's first aqueduct, and several important public buildings. By the time Rome conquered all of Italy, it was at its height of civic rectitude, and public morality. Enemies who had attempted to gain the influence of various senators found all of their bribes returned. Enemies who encountered the army found a disciplined and relentless foe. The city of Rome was prosperous, but had not given in to the luxurious vices.

Punic Wars

(274 to 146 B.C.)

First Punic War to Destruction of Carthage

The period of the Punic and Macedonian Wars was a critical one in Rome's history. At the dawn of the Punic Wars, in 264 B.C., Rome was master of Italy, but controlled no colonies or provinces outside of the Peninsula. She had neither a navy nor a merchant based economy. One hundred and twenty years later, she had entirely subdued both the Carthaginian empire in the west and the Macedonian empire in the east. She had provinces and allies throughout the Mediterranean and was the undisputed master of the seas. Although it took another century to expand and consolidate her power, by the end of the Punic Wars Rome had laid the foundation of an empire.

The Punic Wars, which raged between the city of Carthage and Rome for over a century, were so named because the Carthaginians were of the Phoenician (or Punic) race. There were three Punic Wars, but the second was by far the most critical. The first Punic War lasted 24 years, involved many skirmishes, and was won primarily by perseverance. Rome gained a small amount of Carthaginian territory but never achieved a decisive victory. Carthage capitulated as much because of internal troubles as due to pressure from Rome. However, this war did much to establish Rome as a naval power. The best known Roman hero of the first Punic War was Regulus, and the best known Carthaginian heroes were Xanthippus and Hamilcar.

The second Punic War was a great catastrophe for Rome and all of Italy. The early part of the war was fought entirely on Italian soil at great cost to Rome and its allies. The Battle of Cannae was the worst loss in Roman history, yet it was only one of several disastrous defeats inflicted on Rome by its implacable Carthaginian foes. Eventually the tide of war turned when Rome attacked Carthaginian strongholds in Spain and Africa. Again, perseverance through great difficulties changed the fortunes of Rome from great peril to ultimate victory. This time Rome continued the fight until it won a decisive victory against Carthage and eliminated its threat as a military power. The outstanding character of the Second Punic War was undoubtedly the Carthaginian Hannibal, who is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest generals in all history. Some of the Roman generals who opposed him over the years included Cornelius Scipio, Fabius , Aemilius Paulus, Varro, and Marcellus, but it was Scipio Africanus, who drove Hannibal out of Italy, defeated him on Carthaginian soil, and brought the bloody war to a final close.

The third Punic War was fought purely for the purpose of destroying Carthage altogether. Having eliminated Carthage as a military threat, Rome desired to exterminate it, partly out of vengeance, partly out of envy from its continuing commercial success, and partly out of contempt for its culture (which did involve some heinous elements, such as human sacrifice.) The most notable characters of the third Punic War were Scipio the Younger, of Rome, and the Carthaginian Hasdrubal. Name duplication is a problem throughout Roman history, but nowhere is it quite as confusing as during the Punic Wars. There were a number of Carthaginian generals throughout the Punic Wars named Hasdrubal, just as there were at least four Roman generals named Scipio.

The Roman Macedonian Wars in the east were not as protracted or ruinous as the Punic Wars, but resulted in territory and plunder for the Romans. The Romans valued many elements of Greek civilization, unlike the Carthaginian civilization, which they hated. Therefore, they preserved or imitated much of Greek culture rather than destroying it. Captured Greeks were the most valuable of all slaves and were frequently employed as teachers, tutors, or household servants rather than laborers. The first Macedonian War was fought during the second Punic War, after king Philip V of Macedonia took advantage of the disruptions in Italy to seize some contested territory on the North Adriatic. The two subsequent Macedonian Wars were fought between the second and third Punic Wars, and resulted in a great deal of wealth and plunder, which helped to re-invigorate Rome after its losses in the second Punic War. The Battle of Pydna in 168 B.C. destroyed the power of the Macedonian kingdom in Greece, and the subsequent destruction of Corinth, following a rebellion of some Greek city states, ushered in the Greco-Roman era. The most important Roman generals of the Macedonian War era were Flamininus, and Aemilius Paulus.

The famous characters of these ages were almost invariably military leaders. Polybius, a Greek writer who wrote the histories of the Punic Wars, and Cato (the censor), who ardently resisted the extravagance and luxury that went along with the increasing influence of Greek culture in Rome, are two of the only characters of this age who are famous primarily for their cultural contributions. In fact, Rome's culture did undergo a great change during this period, partly due to the dislocations of war, but partly due to the increasing influence of Greek learning and sophistication. The earliest historians of Rome were all Greeks, since Latin had not yet evolved into a language of literature and scholarship.

Decline of Republic

(146 to 44 B.C.)

Age of Gracchi to Death of Julius Caesar

Only one hundred years passed from Rome's devastating triumph over both Carthage and Macedonia to the end of the Roman Republic. The fall of Carthage and Corinth occurred in 146 B.C. The fall of the Republic was not a specific event, but rather a transition from an oligarchical form of government to a dictatorship. One could say the end of the republic occurred when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and began the Caesarean Civil War or that it perished at the Battle of Philippi, which occurred after Caesar's death, but at any rate Caesar was the pivotal figure in the transition. His assassination in 44 B.C., which accelerated rather than halted the trend toward dictatorship, is therefore sometimes held up as a landmark in Roman history, marking the boundary between republic and empire.

The last century of the Roman Republic is one of the most eventful periods in Roman history and produced many of the best-known Roman statesmen: the Gracchii, Marius, Sulla, Pompey , Cicero, Cato (the younger) , and, of course, Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, many of these "events" were tragic and regrettable rather than glorious or laudable, as is often the case when a civilization goes from being frugal, patriotic, and industrious to wealthy, powerful, and sophisticated. The crises of the Roman republic were more due to internal corruption and infighting rather than reactions to outside enemies. There were several dangerous enemies that Rome dealt with during this period, including Jugurtha in Africa, Mithridates in the east, and the Cimbri and Teutonic Gauls in northern Italy. It was not these enemies, however, that caused the collapse of the republican government, but rather, Rome's own vices. As a notorious enemy of Rome once said, on the occasion of his bribery-secured acquittal, "Rome is a city for sale, and doomed to perish as soon as it finds a purchaser!"

The final century of the republic saw an increasingly bitter struggle between the aristocratic (or optimate) party, which controlled the senate, and the popular (or Marian) party, which insisted on greater influence for the masses. It is important to note, however, that both parties were led by wealthy, powerful, and often corrupt individuals, whose own interests lay in elevating themselves to political power. Both parties had the backing of many poor and disenfranchised citizens, who often chose their leaders based on patronage rather than political philosophy, and both parties were plagued by bribery, demagogues, and villainous power-seekers. Likewise, both parties had a defensible political philosophy and a program of reform, but as it became increasingly clear that a strong central government was necessary to hold the provinces together, both embraced dictators and strongmen as leaders. The transition to empire was less a victory of one party over another than the collapse of republican pretenses altogether.

The decline of the republic began with bickering over the distribution of newly acquired land, resulting from Roman conquests in Spain, Africa, and the east. The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius Gracchus, and Gaius Gracchus initiated land reforms that would distribute more territory to landless Romans rather than wealthy barons, but these, naturally, were unpopular with the ruling classes. Both Gracchi were eventually murdered, but only after giving rise to a powerful party dedicated to wealth redistribution and supported by the "Roman Mob", as well as members of the deserving poor.

Two generals arose to take the lead of these two parties, during the subsequent Jugurthine War in Africa and Mithridatic Wars in the east. These were Marius, who led the popular party and Sulla, who led the optimates. Both leaders were popular with the army and each led an army to march on the city of Rome and seize power by force, always using the abuses of the other as an excuse for further outrages. Once in power, first Marius and then Sulla ordered proscriptions, or the systematic murder of all their enemies. Needless to say, these proscriptions, which were carried out on a large scale over several years, had a disastrous effect on civil politics. Not only were many of the most promising statesmen of the age killed, but political rivals became deadly enemies. Sulla, who last held sway in Rome, essentially obliterated the Marian party within Rome, but Marian sympathizers fled to the farthest outreaches of the empire. Sertorius, a well-respected general in exile from Sulla, set up a rival empire in Spain which was a haven for political refugees and other outcasts, and the Roman army was unable to subdue him for over eight years.

Other crises that arose for Rome as a result of these disruptions were a slave rebellion lead by the escaped gladiator Spartacus, a resumption of the Mithridatic war in the east, and the rise of pirates in the Mediterranean. These crises were put down by three new generals who had appeared on the scene after the death of Sulla and Marius. They were Crassus, a wealthy land speculator who put down the rebellion of Spartacus, Lucullus, a capable but notoriously luxuriant general who brought the Mithridatic War to a close, and Pompey , who in less than a year put down the pirates that had been plaguing traders of the Mediterranean for the last decade. Pompey eventually rose to great political power, favoring first the Marian party but later the optimates. However, it was less political philosophy than disgust with the worst of the populist demagogues, such as Clodius, that drove him into alliance with the aristocrats.

During this time several important political leaders also arose. Julius Caesar, who as a young man had fled from Sulla's proscriptions, was starting to gain great influence with the popular party. On the side of the aristocrats, Cicero and Cato (the younger) arose. Cicero is well known for putting down the Catiline conspiracy, which was an attempt to overthrow the republican government and for defending and prosecuting several well known cases in which he resisted bribery and bravely sought justice. Both Cicero and Cato were sincere republicans and articulate spokesmen for the best ideals of democratic power sharing and civic duty, but in spite of their sincere convictions and personal rectitude, they were unable to hold power long in an age of dictators and demagogues.

In 60 B.C. Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar put aside their political differences and formed the First Triumvirate, in which they divided the empire into regions to govern independently. Crassus soon perished on an ill-fated campaign in Parthia, leaving Pompey and Caesar in power in Rome. Caesar's enemies sought to send him far off to the western frontier to get him out of the way, but this proved a tremendous miscalculation. Caesar, who up to this time had no particular military experience, took this charge seriously and in the six years from 58 to 52 B.C., he led the Roman Conquest of Gaul, which brought the entire region of Gaul (modern France), under his sway. This was the greatest addition of Roman territory in over a century, and it brought him unbounded prestige and popularity within Rome and the army.

Caesar's enemies in Rome tried to deprive him of his legions and bring him back under control, but it was too late. In 49 B.C. Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and marched on Rome, thereby provoking the Caesarean Civil War. Yet so great was his popularity that no army rose against him, and his enemies, including Pompey, fled to the east. Unlike his predecessors, Caesar ordered no purge of his political enemies, and in many ways tried hard to win over and reconcile them. He had an all-encompassing vision for the administration of an empire that had animated his actions for many years, and as soon as he came to power, he started implementing many of his reforms.

Although Caesar controlled the west with very little opposition, Pompey and his legions still held sway in the east. Caesar eventually raised an army to meet Pompey and beat him decisively at the Battle of Pharsalia. He did not seek to kill Pompey but desired to conciliate him. Caesar pursued Pompey to Egypt, where Pompey was murdered by traitors. While in Egypt, Caesar became involved with Cleopatra and fought the Battle of Alexandria in order to secure her place on the Egyptian throne. He eventually returned to Rome, and began implementing his reforms in earnest, but in spite of all the effort he had put into reconciling with his enemies, a conspiracy formed against him. He was assassinated in the senate only five years after crossing the Rubicon, but his vision for a military based, accountable, centrally-administered empire survived him.

Early Empire

(44 B.C. to 180 A.D.)

Second Triumvirate to the Death of Marcus Aurelius

Octavius Caesar Augustus Augustus Caesar is considered the first Roman emperor because under his long reign Rome became reconciled to its new form of government. Rome had certainly seen several dictators in the previous years, and the ideals of republican government had already given way, but it was not until the reign of Augustus that stability, peace, and prosperity returned to the government, and active opposition to the new regime ceased. Augustus, then known as Octavius, came to power in 43 B.C., shortly after the death of his uncle Julius Caesar. Although a young man, he was Caesar's heir, and by patience and persistence he was able to wrest enough power from Antony to establish himself as a joint ruler of Rome, part of the second triumvirate.

Octavius spent the early years of his reign consolidating power. This involved using force when necessary, as when he and Antony crushed the Republican opposition lead by Marcus Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi, in 42 B.C. But whenever possible he followed the example of his uncle and mentor Julius Caesar, trying to reconcile his enemies rather than to conquer them. After Philippi, Octavius ruled jointly with Antony, but their relationship soured as a result of Antony's long and irresponsible dalliance with Cleopatra. Finally the two rulers, now bitter enemies, met at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. From this point until his death in 14 A.D., Octavius was sole ruler of the Roman Empire, although he was not declared Augustus for several more years. His power established, he followed through on many of Caesar's plans for the empire, including transferring administrative responsibility for most provinces to the army, tax reform, encouraging immigration, and investing in infrastructure and public works. Augustus and his advisor, Maecenas, were patrons of the arts, and under his reign literature flourished. The Latin poets Horace and Virgil, the historian Livy, and many other artists ushered in a great era of Latin literature and scholarship.

Contrasted with his successful public life, Augustus's private life was fraught with disappointments and tragedies. His long marriage to Livia produced no children, so his sole biological heir was his daughter Julia Caesara, born from a previous marriage. He arranged her marriage to his top general Agrippa, which produced several grandchildren, but all his male heirs preceded Augustus in death. He eventually adopted Drusus and Tiberius, Livia's two sons from a previous marriage, and Tiberius succeeded Augustus as emperor in 14 A.D. For the next fifty years, descendants of Julia and Livia held the imperial throne. Tragically, the royal family was prone to murder, treachery, insanity, debauchery, and every other imaginable vice, so that for nearly half a century, the Praetorian guard held most of the real power. The Praetorian guard, employed as the emperor's bodyguard, was responsible for the murder of Caligula, who followed Tiberius on the throne, and for elevating Claudius, who was thought to be easily controlled. On the death of Claudius, (who died by poison at the hands of his wife Agrippina the Younger), the Praetorians co-operated in the elevation of the boy Nero to the throne, again opting for a malleable youth over an experienced and competent ruler.

Nero's rule was one of the most notorious in Roman history. He was an immature and indulgent young man, who replaced Seneca and other competent ministers with scoundrels. He murdered his mother Agrippina, his brother Britannicus, and his first wife Octavia so that he would be free to marry his manipulative mistress Poppaea. It was rumored he intentionally set fire to the city of Rome and allowed it to burn in order to clear a space for a grand imperial palace. Shortly after the disastrous fire, he discovered a conspiracy against him, and executed dozens of Rome's most prominent citizens rumored to be behind it. At this point, the all-powerful Praetorian guard decided that he needed to be replaced and forced him to commit suicide.

Nero was the last member of the fratricidal Julio-Claudian dynasty, and he had left no heir, so the Praetorians declared for Galba, who was well-respected but old and infirm at the time of his appointment. Galba was no longer competent to run an empire, but he selected a successor, Piso, who he believed would have the integrity to best serve the state. When his choice became public, Otho, who had been conspiring for the position, raised an army, killed Galba, and took the throne by force, ushering in the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors. The German legions, however, declared for their commander Vitellius, a known glutton and bumbler, whom his subordinates favored because of his weak will and easy discipline. Otho made the astonishing and inexplicable decision to commit suicide rather than plunge the country into civil war, and effectively ceded the throne to Vitellius after a single, inconclusive battle.

By late A.D. 69, the imperial throne had changed hands three times in one year, but there were more changes yet to come. Disgusted by the weak leadership of Vitellius, the eastern legions declared for Vespasian, a competent and well-respected general who was then besieging the city of Jerusalem. At the news of this, the faint-hearted Vitellius attempted to resign the throne, but was prevented by his followers. In the civil battles that followed, the capitol buildings of Rome, including the temple of Jupiter, were unintentionally destroyed by fire. By the time Vespasian marched on Rome, the issue was settled and he was able to set about restoring integrity and competent leadership to the long corrupted imperial throne.

Augustus Caesar's long and prosperous reign, 31 B.C. to 14 A.D., firmly established the imperial form of government in Rome, and the personal failures, abuses and incompetence of subsequent members of the dynasty were not serious enough to shake the empire from its foundation. The crisis of 69 A.D., which portended problems to come, was fortunately resolved by the elevation of Vespasian to the imperial throne. He was the first Roman emperor of genuinely humble stock, who attained the throne purely by merit. He had risen through the ranks slowly and with great credit. By the time he assumed the throne, he had a thirty-year career of competent management behind him and continued his reign in the same vein. He reformed imperial finances, brought the Praetorian guard under sway, replaced corrupt senators, and restored discipline. In general he ruled justly and mercifully and was not prone to extravagant vice. Under Vespasian, the rebuilding of Rome proceeded apace, and the Roman Coliseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, was dedicated in 79 A.D., the last year of his reign.

Vespasian shared power with his eldest son Titus, who had successfully prosecuted the Roman Jewish Wars after his father was called to Rome. Titus had proven himself a great general, and had befriended Josephus, the famous historian of the Jewish Wars. Titus was popular with both the army and the general population, and there was much lamenting when he died only a few years after his father. The throne was then passed to Domitian, a younger and less experienced brother of Titus. Tacitus, probably the most important historian from this era, was highly critical of Domitian, likely because he favored his father-in-law, Agricola, who was a rival of Domitian. At any rate, some of the earliest persecutions of Christians occurred under the reign of Domitian, and he undeniably became murderous and paranoid late in his reign after discovering a conspiracy against himself.

Whatever his faults, Domitian should be credited for establishing a tradition, adhered to for nearly 100 prosperous years, of selecting a competent leader to replace himself rather than passing the empire to biological kin. Domitian's chosen successor was Nerva, the first of the "Five Good Emperors", who reigned in Rome from 96 to 180 A.D. This period was undoubtedly the golden age of the Roman Empire. The five good emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian , Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. During their peaceful and prosperous reigns, the maximum extent of the empire was reached, the borders were secured and defended, imperial finances were well managed, and infrastructure, including walls, aqueducts, public buildings, and roads, were maintained. Several of the emperors, and Hadrian in particular, were patrons of the arts and literature. The second century A.D. was the "Silver Age" of Latin literature, which produced such literary greats as Lucan, Pliny ( the Elder), Juvenal, Martial, and Quintilian, and the historians, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius.

The two emperors most notable for their virtuous lives as well as their extraordinary administrative skills were Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Both were humble and unimperious in manner and bearing but courageous in battle and uncomplaining in adversity. Marcus Aurelius was also noted as a stoic philosopher, and his life, which was full of tragedy, difficulties and disappointments gave a true test to his mettle. He is sometimes known as the "model pagan", and some of his meditations on philosophy are still extant. His greatest fault undoubtedly lay in his faith in his biological son Commodus, whom he selected as his heir, rather than sticking with the very successful formula of his predecessors, and leaving the empire in the hands of a man selected entirely on merit. Commodus proved to be a disastrous choice, who brought an abrupt end to nearly a century of peace, prosperity, and competent government.

Decline and Fall of Western Empire

(180 to 476 A.D.)

Reign of Commodus to Fall of Western Empire

The decline of the Roman Empire lasted over 200 years, from the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D. to the sack of Rome in the early fifth century. For years, historians have been debating why the most powerful and prosperous empire the world had ever known fell into thus nearly permanent decline, and why it was unable to reverse this course but these complications are beyond the scope of this summary. It is interesting to note, however, that although we have well-kept historical records of this period, very little is usually written about the final years of the empire in popular histories, and few of the characters other than Constantine and Attila the Hun, are widely known. In his history Historical tales of Rome, Charles Morris wrote:

"We have now reached the period in which began the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Its story is crowded with events, but lacks those dramatic and romantic incidents which give such interest to the history of early Rome. Now good emperors ruled, now bad ones followed, now peace prevailed, now war raged; the story grows monotonous as we advance. The reigns of virtuous emperors yield much to commend but little to describe; those of wicked emperors repel us by their enormities and disgust us by their follies. We must end our tales with a few selections from the long and somewhat dreary list."

The first dreary episode in the decline of Rome was the unfortunate reign of Commodus, son of the virtuous emperor Marcus Aurelius. He stands as an eternal reminder that good parents do not always produce promising children. His reign was as corrupt, murderous and extravagant as that of Nero or Caligula and coming after nearly a century of good leadership severely rocked the confidence of the empire. He was eventually dispatched by one of his courtiers in 192 A.D., but since no successor was named, the government of Rome fell into confusion. Eventually Septimus Severus, a politically skilled senator with connections in Africa and Syria, rose to the throne. He, unfortunately, spent much of his early reign putting down rebellions throughout the empire, leaving his wife, Julia Domna , and a trusted lieutenant in charge in Rome. His sons were nearly grown by the time he returned to reside in Rome, but he soon send them to Britain to get them away from bad influences and give them military experience. When he died, his eldest son Caracalla assumed the throne and murdered his brother Geta. Caracalla ruled for six years before being murdered himself, and was followed by two other very young emperors, Elagabalus, and Alexander Severus, from the extended Severan family. During the reigns of these two young men, from 218 to 235 A.D., the empire was largely in the hands of the Severan women, who ruled with reasonable competence.

The Severan dynasty, which had lasted for 43 years, was brought to an abrupt end, at the hands of Maximinus, a Thracian barbarian of enormous physical strength, who had risen to a very high position in the emperor's private guard. He had served the Severan family for over thirty years and was completely trusted when he murdered Alexander Severus, seized the throne, and plunged the imperial government into chaos. He killed his enemies, which included virtually anyone from the upper classes, without mercy. He was murdered by his own troops after less than three wretched years in power, but the empire never recovered from this upheaval. The ensuing military anarchy, which lasted from the death of Maximinus in 238 to the elevation of Diocletian in 284, saw over twenty emperors in the space of 45 years, only one of whom died a natural death. None were distinguished, and the only notable event of the period was the rebellion of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in Syria. She came close to conquering the eastern half of the Roman empire, but was repelled by the emperor Aurelian in 272.

Diocletian, who came to the throne in 284, did a masterful job of bringing a semblance of order to the empire. He divided the empire into four districts, two in the east and two in the west, and appointed a junior and senior governor of each division (called caesar and emperor respectively). Upon the death or retirement of the emperor, the caesar would be elevated to emperor and appoint another caesar. This system worked for exactly one generation, but it allowed Diocletian to retire, and live out his natural life unmolested, an accomplishment nearly unprecedented in imperial history.

One of the caesars appointed by Diocletian was Constantius, the father of Constantine. When Constantius died, his men elected Constantine to replace him. Constantine ruled for over thirty years, but the first half of his reign was spent consolidating power from the eastern and western emperors and fighting off rivals claimants. The second half was dedicated to civil reforms and building his new capital in the east at Constantinople. Most notably, Constantine was the first Christian emperor, and his edict of Milan in 313 A.D. made Christian worship legal throughout the empire. From this point on, with the exception only of Julian the Apostate, the imperial court was at least nominally Christian.

The peace and prosperity which took root during the reign of Constantine was short lived. He divided the empire among his three sons on his death, but they quarreled among themselves while the empire sunk slowly back into disorder. All of Constantine's sons died without heirs, and after the death of his nephew, Julian the Apostate, the empire was permanently divided into an eastern and a western half, governed by generals. The only remaining emperor of note was Theodosius, who governed in the east from 379 to 395, effectively put down barbarian invasions, and left the eastern empire in relatively good stead. He is best remembered for his willingness to do public penance for the slaughter of the Thessalonians, which was imposed on him by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. The idea that even emperors were subject to the laws of God was a radically new idea that made a permanent mark upon Western civilization.

Meanwhile, the empire of the west was already suffering from waves of German invaders that the government was powerless to put down. By the time that the city of Rome was overrun by the Visigoths in 410 A.D., most of Gaul had already been abandoned to the invading Franks, and the legions had been pulled from Britain in hopes of defending Italy. The waves of barbarians that descended upon Italy during the fifth century A.D. only finished off a process that was already under way. The Western empire had ceded much of its territory without a fight, most wealthy families had moved away from Rome and even the western emperor himself had moved his government to Ravenna. By the time the city of Rome was invaded there was not even an army to send in its defense, since the cowardly Honorius, who sought only to appease the Visigoths, had murdered Stilicho, his most capable general. Still, the Visigoth invasion of 410 was mild compared to that of the Vandals, who plundered the city to ruin in 455. The Visigoths were at least Christian, semi-civilized, and desired a treaty with the Western Empire that would allow them self-governing territories. This they eventually obtained, and a Visigoth empire was established in Spain shortly after the death of Alaric the Visigoth. The Visigoths were allies of the Western Empire as long as it lasted and helped to ward off Attila the Hun, who overran Western Europe in 450 A.D.

The final humiliation of Rome came in 455 A.D., when the wife of a deposed emperor invited Genseric and his Vandal hordes into Rome. She expected to be elevated again to her position as empress, but the Vandals had no political ambitions beyond rack and ruin. They sacked, destroyed, and burned the city, sparing nothing and disregarding those who sought sanctuary in Christian churches. By this time the area actually controlled by the so called Western emperor was reduced to only Italy, and when it passed from the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, to the barbarian chief Odoacer in 476, it caused hardly a ripple. Odoacer was soon overthrown by Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who ruled Italy for many years but made no pretense of being an emperor.

As the western empire collapsed, the power and influence of Christianity increased. Because of the fluid organization of the church, it was able to adapt and grow in an environment of political unrest. Kingdoms and empires might come and go, but the church provided a degree of continuity and civilization that was increasingly attractive to citizens of the collapsed empire. Many important leaders of the church arose during this time of chaos while political powers rose and fell. Some of the influential Christian leaders who lived during the decline of the Roman Empire were Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine , Saint Ambrose, Alban of Britain, Eusebius, and Saint Athanasius.

Eastern Rome and Byzantine Empires

(476 to 1453 A.D.)

Fall of the Western Empire to the Fall of Constantinople

The final phase of the Roman Empire lasted for nearly 1000 years, yet the history of the Eastern Roman Empire after fall of the West, is often covered very briefly, and sometimes excluded altogether from Roman history. There are several reasons for this: First of all, the government at Constantinople had long had a strong Greek influence, but in 620 A.D., use of the Latin language in administrative affairs was discontinued altogether, and from then on the dominion was known as the "Empire of the Greeks" or the "Byzantine Empire". (Byzantium was the Greek name for Constantinople.) It preserved Roman administration, military, and judicial customs, but was primarily Greek in culture.

Furthermore, less than twenty years after Heraclius reformed and reorganized the empire under Greek authority, a great portion of its holdings in Syria, Palestine and Egypt fell to the Moslems. The Byzantines were able to hold onto North Africa for another fifty years, and onto Asia Minor and Sicily for several hundred more years, but a great deal of the old Roman territory in the Balkans had already been overrun by barbarians, and by 800 A.D., the "empire" consisted mainly of Asia Minor and the Greek and Thracian sea coasts. The fact that in that same year the pope declared Charlemagne "Holy Roman Emperor" was indicative of both the decline of Byzantine fortunes and the emerging division between the Church of Rome and Eastern Church.

The Byzantine Empire did enjoy a few periods of expansion after it lost the greater portions of its domain, but none were long-lasting. During the middle ages, however, Constantinople was known for its thriving economy and luxury due to trade with the Middle East. It, alone in Europe, retained much of the classical scholarship of the Greeks, and ultimately its greatest contribution to the Western civilization may have been as a store-house for Greek philosophy and literature during the dark ages. The central government, particularly within Constantinople itself, was run largely by an entrenched aristocracy of civil servants, and the adjective "byzantine" has come to mean "excessively complicated, devious, and underhanded." The government was too luxurious to have produced many great leaders, but the following are some persons and events in Byzantine history worthy of note.

Several generations after the fall of the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire did enjoy a major resurgence. Between 530 and 560 A.D., under the rule of Justinian the Great, Constantinople won back a great deal of territory that had been lost to barbarians in the west. These included the reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals, the reconquest of Sicily and Italy from the Ostrogoths, and several important victories against the Sassanid Empire in Persia. These victories were almost all due to the efforts of Belisarius, one of the greatest generals in Roman history, and for a brief time it looked as if the Roman Empire would reemerge as a dominant power. But a long period of decline followed the brilliant career of Belisarius, and Northern Italy was overrun by the Lombards only a few years after his death.

The next notable ruler was Heraclius, an Armenian who came to power in 610 during a critical period of war with Persia. He reigned for thirty years and worked to reform and reorganize the empire and stave off attacks from both Persia and the Avars in the north. But near the end of his successful reign disaster struck. In 636 the Arab Moslems, who had already conquered much of the Sassanid empire, attacked the Byzantine domains and at battle of Battle of Yermuk, much of Palestine and Syria was lost. Byzantine was able to hold on to Asia Minor, but in 698 North Africa was lost. For the next 100 years, Byzantine suffered from incursions by the Moslems, and Constantinople itself was twice besieged.

In 717, Leo III the Isaurian, a Syrian general, assumed the throne in Constantinople while the city was under attack by the Umayyad Caliphate. Under his command the Moslems were driven away, and he spent the next few years undertaking important reforms, the most notorious of which was the banning of images in the worship of the eastern church. This was highly unpopular in the western regions, resulted in a war with the Pope, and was a permanent source of contention between the east and west churches. The feud between the two churches continued for 200 years, before a formal schism was declared in 1054. During this period the Byzantine Empire was very influential in spreading Christianity into Eastern Europe. Saints Cyril and Methodius lived during this era and were apostles to the Slavs. They were also were responsible for creating the Cyrillic alphabet so that the Bible could be translated into the Slavic languages.

The empire finally experienced a resurgence during the eleventh century when it briefly won back much of its territory in the Balkans from the Bulgers and gained back some parts of Syria and Armenia from the Abbasid caliphate. However, the weakness of the Abbasid empire, which had permitted the Byzantine encroachment, was a sign of greater problems afoot. A strong caliphate had held back the Turkish and Mongolian hordes from Central Asia, but a weakened empire could not do so. The Seljuk Turks invaded Byzantine territory and won a critical victory against the Byzantines at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. Over the next generation they pushed the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire far back towards the western shores. The same invasion of Seljuks that had conquered large areas of Asia Minor also took control of the holy lands and some of the atrocities they perpetrated on Christian pilgrims inspired the Crusades.

The Crusades lasted for 200 years, between 1095 and 1291, and they greatly affected the fortunes of Byzantium. The first two crusades actually enhanced the fortunes of Byzantine, but by the time of the fourth crusade, disaster struck. A long period of stability during the twelfth century within the Byzantine government was followed by a generation of infighting and usurpation. At one point the son of a deposed emperor bribed a crusading army gathered in Venice to help him retake the throne in Constantinople. So in 1204 the Latin crusaders took the city by storm, sacked and pillaged for weeks, and destroyed many invaluable icons and relics. Constantinople had not been seriously sacked since it was built by Constantine in the 4th century, some 800 years previously, and the city never fully recovered from this rout.

The Latins held the city of Constantinople for over fifty years, until 1264 when the city was finally retaken by the Byzantines, who installed the Palaeologus dynasty. This family held the imperial throne for nearly three centuries, but they presided over an ever declining empire. The Empire was now surrounded on all sides by enemies, and steadily lost ground. The Ottoman Empire was established in Asia Minor around the turn of the 14th century and steadily encroached on Byzantine territory. In 1354 the Ottomans crossed the Bosporous Strait and conquered much Byzantine territory in the Balkans. Soon after this two great Christian heroes arose, John Huniades in Hungary, and Scanderbeg in Albania. Although much of the Balkans ultimately fell to the Ottomans, they both manfully resisted the onslaught and held the Ottomans at bay, thereby preventing further Moslem encroachments on the rest of Eastern Europe.

By the time Mohammed II besieged Constantinople in 1452, almost all of the Byzantine territory surrounding the city had been lost. After a frightful siege, and great loss of life on both sides, the city was finally taken. When word of the fall of Constantinople reached the Christian West, it sent a shudder throughout Europe. The Byzantine Empire had not been "Roman" for hundreds of years, but it was the last vestige of an empire that had laid the entire foundation of Europe and its demise symbolized the fear that Christian Europe itself could fall to the Moslems.

The Byzantine Empire's most lasting contributions to western civilization were cultural rather than political. It was influential in the Christianization of Eastern Europe, and was a terrific storehouse of classical Greece art, literature, and learning. During the middle ages, virtually all of Western Europe had been overrun time and again by barbarians, and almost all classical scholarship was lost to the ages. The Roman church was able to instill some of the administrative and legal traditions of the lost empire, and preserved much of its Latin culture, but the classical Greek literary tradition that had been diffused throughout the Eastern Mediterranean for nearly 2000 years was utterly lost. It was not reintroduced to Western Europe until the Renaissance, and this occurred just as the last strongholds of the Byzantine Empire were being overrun by the Ottoman Turks. A great deal of the finest works of classical Greek philosophy and literature would likely have been lost forever without the care of Byzantine scholars.

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