The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Roman Empire

Roman Empire between AD and with major cities. During this time only and were added to the Empire but were lost before .
Roman Empire between AD 60 and 400 with major cities. During this time only Dacia and Mesopotamia were added to the Empire but were lost before 300.

The Roman Empire is the term conventionally used to describe the Roman state in the centuries following its reorganization under the leadership of Caesar Augustus. Although Rome possessed a collection of tribute-states for centuries before the autocracy of Augustus, the pre-Augustan state is conventionally described as the Roman Republic. The difference between the Roman Empire and the Roman Republic lies primarily in the governing bodies and their relationship to each other.

For many years historians made a distinction between the Principate, the period from Augustus until the Crisis of the Third Century, and the Dominate, the period from Diocletian until the end of the Empire in the West. According to this theory, during the Principate (from the Latin word princeps, meaning "the first", the only title Augustus would permit himself) the realities of dictatorship were concealed behind Republican forms; while during the Dominate (from the word dominus, meaning "Master") imperial power showed its naked face, with golden crowns and ornate imperial ritual. We now know that the situation was far more nuanced: certain historical forms continued until the Byzantine period, more than one thousand years after they were created, and displays of imperial majesty were common from the earliest days of the Empire.

Over the course of its history the Roman Empire controlled all of the Hellenized states that bordered the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the Celtic regions of Western Europe. The administration of the Roman Empire eventually evolved into separate Eastern and Western halves, more or less following this cultural division. They are respectively known as the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. By the time that Odoacer took power of the West in 476 the Western half was clearly evolving in new directions, with the Church absorbing much of the administrative and charitable roles previously filled by the secular government. The Eastern half of the Empire, centered around Constantinople, the city of Constantine the Great, remained the heartland of the Roman state until 1453 when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks.

The Roman Empire's influence on government, law, and monumental architecture, as well as many other aspects of Western life remains inescapable. Roman titles of power were adopted by successor states and other entities with imperial pretensions, including the Frankish kingdom, the Holy Roman Empire, the first and second Bulgarian empires (see List of Bulgarian monarchs), the Russian/Kiev dynasties (see czars), and the German Empire (see Kaiser). See Roman culture


Age of Augustus (31 BC-AD 14)

Political Developments

As a matter of convenience, the Roman Empire is held to have begun with the constitutional settlement following the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. In fact the Republican institutions at Rome had been destroyed over the preceding century and Rome had been effectively under one-man rule since the time of Sulla.

The reign of Augustus marks an important turning point, though. By the time of Actium, there was no one left alive who could recall functional Republican institutions or a time when there was no civil war in Rome. Forty-five years later, at Augustus's death, there would have been few living who could recall a time before Augustus himself. The average Roman had a life expectancy of only forty years. The long, peaceful and consensual reign of Augustus allowed a generation to live and die knowing no other form of rule, or indeed no other ruler. This was critically important to creating a mindset that would allow hereditary monarchy to exist in a Rome that had killed Julius Caesar for his regal pretensions. Whether or not the people of Rome welcomed one-man rule, in the Age of Augustus, it was all they knew, and so it would remain for many centuries.

Augustus's reign was notable for several long-lasting achievements that would define the Empire:

  • Creation of a hereditary office, which we refer to as Emperor of Rome.
  • Fixation of the payscale. Duration of Roman military service marked the final step in the evolution of the Roman Army from a citizen army to a professional one.
  • Creation of the Praetorian Guard, which would make and unmake emperors for centuries.
  • Expansion to the natural borders of the Empire. The borders reached upon Augustus's death remained the limits of Empire, with minimal exceptions, for the next four hundred years.
  • Development of trade links with regions as far as India and China.
  • Creation of a civil service outside of the Senatorial structure, leading to a continuous weakening of Senatorial authority.
  • Enactment of the lex Julia of 18 BC and the lex Papia Poppaea of AD 9, which rewarded childbearing and penalized celibacy.
  • Promulgation of the cult of the Deified Julius Caesar throughout the Empire, and the encouragement of a quasi-godlike status for himself in his own lifetime in the Hellenist East. This tradition lasted until the time of Constantine, who was made both a Roman god and "the Thirteenth Apostle" upon his death.

Cultural developments

Main article: Roman culture

The Augustan period saw a tremendous outpouring of cultural achievement in the areas of poetry, history, sculpture and architecture.


The Age of Augustus is paradoxically far more poorly documented than the Late Republican period that preceded it. While Livy wrote his magisterial history during Augustus's reign and his work covered all of Roman history through 9 BC, only epitomes survive of his coverage of the Late Republican and Augustan periods. Our important primary sources for this period include the:

Though primary accounts of this period are few, works of poetry, legislation and engineering from this period provide important insights into Roman life. Archeology, including maritime archeology, aerial surveys , epigraphic inscriptions on buildings, and Augustan coinage, has also provided valuable evidence about economic, social and military conditions.

Secondary sources on the Augustan Age include Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Plutarch and Suetonius. Josephus's Jewish Antiquities is the important source for Judea in this period, which became a province during Augustus's reign.

Julio-Claudian dynasty: Augustus' heirs

Augustus's strategy of intermarriage between the Julii and Claudii resulted in a combination of family and political relationships known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Tiberius (AD 14-37)

The early years of Tiberius' reign were peaceful and relatively benign. Tiberius secured the power of Rome and enriched the treasury. However, Tiberius's reign soon became characterized by paranoia and slander. In 19, he was blamed for the death of his nephew, the popular Germanicus. In 23 his own son Drusus died. More and more, Tiberius retreated into himself. He began a series of treason trials and executions. He left power in the hands of the commander of the guard, Aelius Sejanus. Tiberius himself retired to live at his villa on the island of Capri in 26, leaving Sejanus in charge. Sejanus carried on the persecutions with relish. He also began to consolidate his own power; in 31 he was named co-consul with Tiberius and married Livilla, the emperor's niece. At this point he was hoist by his own petard; the Emperor's paranoia, which he had so ably exploited for his own gain, was turned against him. Sejanus was put to death, along with many of his cronies, the same year. The persecutions continued apace until Tiberius's death in 37.

Caligula (AD 37 - 41)

At the time of Tiberius's death most of the people who might have succeeded him had been brutally murdered. The logical successor (and Tiberius's own choice) was his grandnephew, Germanicus's son Gaius (better known as Caligula). Caligula started out well, by putting an end to the persecutions and burning his uncle's records. Unfortunately, he quickly lapsed into illness. The Caligula that emerged in late 37 may have suffered from epilepsy, and was more probably insane. He ordered his soldiers to invade Britain, but changed his mind at the last minute and had them pick sea shells on the northern end of France instead. It is believed he carried on incestuous relations with his sisters. He had ordered a statue of himself to be erected in the Temple at Jerusalem, which would have undoubtedly led to revolt had he not been dissuaded. In 41, Caligula was assassinated by the commander of the guard Cassius Chaerea. The only member left of the imperial family to take charge was another nephew of Tiberius's, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, better known as the emperor Claudius.

Claudius (AD 41 - 54)

Claudius had long been considered a weakling and a fool by the rest of his family. He was, however, neither paranoid like his uncle Tiberius, nor insane like his nephew Caligula, and was therefore able to administer the empire with reasonable ability. He improved the bureaucracy and streamlined the citizenship and senatorial rolls. He also proceeded with the conquest and colonization of Britain (in 43), and incorporated more Eastern provinces into the empire. In Italy, he constructed a winter port at Ostia, thereby providing a place for grain from other parts of the Empire to be brought in inclement weather.

On the home front, Claudius was less successful. His wife Messalina cuckolded him; when he found out, he had her executed and married his niece, Agrippina the younger. She, along with several of his freedmen, held an inordinate amount of power over him, and very probably killed him in 54. Claudius was deified later that year. The death of Claudius paved the way for Agrippina's own son, the 16-year-old Lucius Domitius, or, as he was known by this time, Nero.

Nero (AD 54 - 69)

Initially, Nero left the rule of Rome to his mother and his tutors, particularly Lucius Annaeus Seneca. However, as he grew older, his desire for power increased; he had his mother and tutors executed. During Nero's reign, there were a series of riots and rebellions throughout the Empire: in Britain, Armenia, Parthia, and Judaea. Nero's inability to manage the rebellions and his basic incompetence became evident quickly and in 68, even the Imperial guard renounced him. Nero is best remembered for playing his fiddle while the city of Rome burned, though this story is apocryphal, as the fiddle had yet to be invented. Nero committed suicide, and the year 69 (known as the Year of the Four Emperors) was a year of civil war, with the emperors Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian ruling in quick succession. By the end of the year, Vespasian was able to solidify his power as emperor of Rome.

Flavian Dynasty

The Flavians, although a relatively short lived dynasty, helped restore stability in an empire on its knees. Although there are criticism of all three, especially based on their more centralized style of rule, it was through the reforms and good rule of the three that helped create a stable empire that would last well into the 3rd Century.

Vespasian (AD 69 - 79)

Vespasian was a remarkably successful Roman general who had been given rule over much of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. He had supported the imperial claims of Galba; however, on his death, Vespasian became a major contender for the throne. After the suicide of Otho, Vespasian was able to hijack Rome's winter grain supply in Egypt, placing him in a good position to defeat his remaining rival, Vitellius. On December 20, 69, some of Vespasian's partisans were able to occupy Rome. Vitellius was murdered by his own troops, and the next day, Vespasian was confirmed as Emperor by the Senate. At the age of 60 and battle hardened he was hardly a charismatic emperor, but he turned out to be an excellent ruler none the less.

Although Vespasian was considered quite the autocrat by the senate, he mostly continued the weakening of that body that had been going since the reign of Tiberius. This was typified by his dating his accession to power from July 1, when his troops proclaimed him emperor, instead of December 21, when the Senate confirmed his appointment. Another example was his assumption of the censorship in 73, giving him power over who exactly made up the senate. He used that power to expel dissident senators. At the same time, he increased the number of senators from 200, at that low level due to the actions of Nero and the year of crisis that followed, to 1000, most of the new senators coming not from Rome but from Italy and the urban centers within the western provinces.

Vespasian was able to liberate Rome from the financial burdens placed upon it by Nero's excesses and the civil wars. To do this, he not only increased taxes, but created new forms of taxation. Also, through his power as censor he was able to carefully examine the fiscal status of every city and province, many paying taxes based upon information and structures more than a century old. Through this sound fiscal policy, he was able to build up a surplus in the treasury and embark on public works projects. It was he who first commissioned the Roman Colosseum; he also built a forum whose centerpiece was a temple to Peace. In addition, he alloted sizable subsedies to the arts, creating a chair of rhetoric at Rome.

Vespasian was also an effective emperor for the provinces in his decades of office, having posts all across the empire, both east and west. In the west he gave considerable favoritism to Spain in which he granted Latin rights to over three hundred towns and cities, promoting a new era of urbanization throughout the western (i.e. formerly barbarian) provinces. Through the additions he made to the Senate he allowed greater influence of the provinces in the Senate, helping to promote unity in the empire. He also extended the borders of the empire on every front, most of which was done to help strengthen the frontier defenses, one of Vespasian's main goals. The crisis of 69 had wrought havoc on the army. One of the most marked problems had been the support lent by provincial legions to men who supposedly represented the best will of their province. This was mostly caused by the placement of native auxiliary units in the areas they were recruited in, a practice Vespasian stopped. He mixed auxiliary units with men from other areas of the empire or moved the units away from where they were recruited to help stop this. Also, to further reduce the chances of another military coup he broke up the legions, and instead of placing them in singular concentrations broke them up along the border. Perhaps the most important military reform he undertook was the extension of legion recruitment from exclusively Italy to Gaul and Spain, in line with the Romanization of those areas.

Titus (AD 79 - 81)

Titus, the eldest son of Vespasian, had been groomed to rule. He had served as an effective general under his father, helping to secure the east and eventually taking over the command of Roman armies in Syria and Palestine, quelling the significant Jewish revolt going on at the time. Throughout his father's reign he had been tailored for rule, sharing the consul for several years with his father and receiving the best tutelage. Although there was some trepidation when he took office due to his known dealings with some of the less respectable elements of Roman society, he quickly proved his merit, even recalling many exiled by his father as a show of good faith. However, his short reign was marked by disaster: in 79, Vesuvius erupted in Pompeii, and in 80, a fire decimated much of Rome. His generosity in rebuilding after these tragedies made him very popular. Titus was very proud of his work on the vast amphitheater begun by his father. He held the opening ceremonies in the still unfinished edifice during the year 80, celebrating with a lavish show that featured 100 gladiators and lasted 100 days. Titus died in 81, at the age of 41; it was rumored that his brother Domitian murdered him in order to become his successor, although these claims have little merit. Whatever the case, he was greatly mourned and missed.

Domitian (AD 81 - 96)

The Flavians all had rather poor relations with the senate due to their more autocratic style, however Domitian was the only one who truly created significant problems. His continuous control as consul and censor throughout his rule, the former his father sharing in much the same way of his Julio-Claudian forerunners, the latter having difficulty even obtaining, were unheard of. In addition, he often appeared in full military regalia as an imperator, an affront to the idea of what the Principate-era emperor's power was based upon, the emperor as the princeps. His reputation in the Senate aside, he kept the people of Rome happy through various measures, including donations to every resident of Rome, wild spectacles in the newly finished Colosseum, and continuing the public works projects of his father and brother. He also apparently had the good fiscal sense of his father, because although he spent lavishly his successors came to power with a well endowed treasury.

However, during the end of his reign Domitian became extremely paranoid which probably had its initial roots in the treatment he received by his father. Although given significant responsibility, he was never trusted with anything important without supervision. This flowered into the severe and perhaps pathological following the short lived rebellion in 89 of Antonius Saturninus, a governor and commander in Germany. This paranoia led to a large number of arrests, executions, and seizure of property (which might help explain his ability to spend so lavishly). Eventually it got to the point where even his closest advisors and family members lived in fear, leading them to his murder in 96.

The Adoptive Emperors

"Five Good Emperors" (AD 96 - 180)

Roman empire at its maximal extent (AD 117)
Roman empire at its maximal extent (AD 117)
The next century came to be known as the period of the "Five Good Emperors", in which the successions were peaceful though not dynastic, and the Empire was prosperous. The emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. While the choices of their successors were based upon the merits, many argue the reasoning behind the adoptive scheme of succession under these five men was based more upon the fact that none of them had a real successor.

Under Trajan, the Empire's borders briefly achieved their maximum extension with provinces created in Mesopotamia.

From 166 AD, Roman embassies to China, first sent under the reign of Antonius Pius and probably traveling on the southern sea route, are recorded in Chinese historical sources such as the Later Han History.

Commodus (AD 180 - 192)

The period of the "five good emperors" was brought to an end by the reign of Commodus from 180 to 192. Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius, making him the first direct successor in a century, breaking the scheme of adoptive successors that had turned out so well. He was co-emperor with his father from 177. When he became sole emperor upon the death of his father in 180, it was at first seen as a hopeful sign by the people of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, as generous and magnanimous as his father was, Commodus turned out to be just the opposite.

Commodus is often thought to have been insane, and he was certainly given to excess. He began his reign by making an unfavorable peace treaty with the Marcomanni, who had been at war with Marcus Aurelius. Commodus also had a passion for gladiatorial combat, which he took so far as to take to the arena himself, dressed as a gladiator. In 190, a part of the city of Rome burned, and Commodus took the opportunity to "re-found" the city of Rome in his own honor, as Colonia Commodiana. The months of the calendar were all renamed in his honor, and the senate was renamed as the Commodian Fortunate Senate. The army became known as the Commodian Army. Commodus was strangled in his sleep in 192, a day before he planned to march into the Senate dressed as a gladiator to take office as a consul. Upon his death, the Senate passed damnatio memoriae on him and restored the proper name to the city of Rome and its institutions. The popular movies The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Gladiator (2000) were loosely based on the career of the emperor Commodus, although they should not be taken as an accurate historical depictions of his life.

Why Commodus?

Many wonder why Marcus Aurelius decided to break the succesful scheme of adoptive succession. The real reasoning can be found in the other emperors before him. Trajan was chosen by Nerva more likely to appease the Senate than anything else. The other emperors did not have direct successors available, so had to adopt their successors. However, they attempted to keep it in the family as it were. Hadrian was a relative of Trajan, and although Antonius Pius was not related to Hadrian, the conditions of his being made heir included the adoption of Hadrian's young nephew Marcus Aurelius as heir to Pius. So, in fact, Aurelius' choice to make his son his successor was hardly out of place, and it's likely that had any of the previous emperors had available a suitable son as heir they would have taken the same course of action. It is then merely misfortune that placed such a ill-suited man on the thrown more than anything else.

Severan dynasty (AD 193 - 235)

The Severan dynasty includes the increasingly troubled reigns of Septimius Severus (193-211), Caracalla (211-217), Macrinus (217-218), Elagabalus (218-222), and Alexander Severus (222-235). The founder of the dynasty, Lucius Septimius Severus, belonged to a leading native family of Leptis Magna in Africa who allied himself with a prominent Syrian family by his marriage to Julia Domna. Their provincial background and cosmopolitan alliance, eventually giving rise to imperial rulers of Syrian background, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus, testifies to the broad political franchise and economic development of the Roman empire that had been achieved under the Antonines. A generally successful ruler, Septimius Severus cultivated the army's support with substantial remuneration in return for total loyalty to the emperor and substituted equestrian officers for senators in key administrative positions. In this way, he successfully broadened the power base of the imperial administration throughout the empire. Abolishing the regular standing jury courts of Republican times, Septimius Severus was likewise able to transfer additional power to the executive branch of the government, of which he was decidedly the chief representative.

Septimius Severus' son, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus - nicknamed Caracalla - removed all legal and political distinction between Italians and provincials, enacting the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 which extended full Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. Caracalla was also responsible for erecting the famous Baths of Caracalla in Rome, their design serving as an architectural model for many subsequent monumental public buildings. Increasingly unstable and autocratic, Caracalla was assassinated by the praetorian prefect Macrinus in 217, who succeeded him briefly as the first emperor not of senatorial rank. The imperial court, however, was dominated by formidable women who arranged the succession of Elagabalus in 218, and Alexander Severus, the last of the dynasty, in 222. In the last phase of the Severan principate, the power of the Senate was somewhat revived and a number of fiscal reforms were enacted. Despite early successes against the Sassanian Empire in the East, Alexander Severus' increasing inability to control the army led eventually to its mutiny and his assassination in 235. The death of Alexander Severus ushered in a subsequent period of soldier-emperors and almost a half-century of civil war and strife.

Crisis of the 3rd Century (AD 235 - 275)

The Crisis of the 3rd Century is a commonly applied name for the crumbling and near collapse of the Roman Empire between 235 and 275. During this period, Rome was ruled by more than 35 individuals, most of them prominent generals who assumed Imperial power over all or part of the empire, only to lose it by defeat in battle, murder, or death. After 35 years of this, the Empire was on the verge of death, and only the military skill of Aurelian, one of Rome's greatest emperors, restored the empire to its natural boundaries.

Tetrarchy (AD 285 - 324)

The transition from a single united empire to the later divided Western and Eastern empires was a gradual transformation. In July, 285, Diocletian defeated rival Emperor Carinus and briefly became sole emperor of the Roman Empire..

Diocletian felt that the system of Roman imperial government was unsustainable in the face of internal pressures and military threats on two fronts. He gave Maximian the title of Caesar, which was the traditional manner by which an emperor (Augustus) designated his successor. However Diocletian made Maximian an Augustus as well. Imperial power was therefore divided between two people. Diocletian's sphere of influence was the East, Maximian's the West.

In 293 authority was further divided when each Augustus took a Caesar to aid him in administrative matters; Diocletian was assisted by Galerius and Maximian by Constantius Chlorus. This constituted what was called in Latin a quadrumvirate and in Greek a Tetrarchy; the leadership of four. The system allowed the peaceful succession of the Augusti. On May 1, 305 Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in favor of their Caesars ; apparently choosing retirement to death in office. Galerius named the two new Caesars: his nephew Maximinus for himself and Flavius Valerius Severus for Constantius.

The Tetrarchy would effectively collapse with the death of Constantius Chlorus on July 25, 306. Constantius' troops in Eboracum immediately proclaimed his son Constantine the Great an Augustus. In August, 306, Galerius promoted Severus to the position of Augustus. A revolt in Rome supported another claimant to the same title: Maxentius, son of Maximian, who was proclaimed Augustus on October 28, 306. His election was supported by the Praetorian Guard. This left the Empire with four Augusti (Galerius, Constantine, Severus and Maxentius) and a sole Caesar (Maximinus).

The year 307 saw the return of Maximian to the role of Augustus alongside his son. Galerius and Severus campaigned against them in Italy. Severus was killed under command of Maxentius on September 16, 307. The two Augusti of Italy also managed to ally themselves with Constantine by having Constantine marry Fausta, the daughter of Maximian and sister of Maxentius. The end of 307 saw the Empire with four Augusti (Maximian, Galerius, Constantine and Maxentius) and a sole Caesar (Maximinus).

The five were briefly joined by another Augustus in 308, Domitius Alexander, vicarius of the Roman province of Africa under Maxentius, proclaimed himself Augustus. Before long he was captured by Rufus Volusianus and Zenas . Alexander ended his life in captivity in 309. The current situation of conflict between the various rivalrous Augusti was resolved in the Congress of Carnuntum with the participation of all four Augusti and the Caesar. The final decisions were taken on November 11, 308:

  • Galerius remained Augustus of the Eastern Roman Empire.
  • Maximinus remained Caesar of the Eastern Roman Empire.
  • Maximian was forced to abdicate.
  • Maxentius received official recognition as Augustus of the Western Roman Empire.
  • Constantine received official recognition but was demoted to Caesar of the Western Roman Empire.
  • Licinius replaced Maximian as Augustus of the Western Roman Empire.

Problems however continued. Maximinus demanded to be promoted to Augustus. He proclaimed himself to be one on May 1, 310. Maximian similarly proclaimed himself an Augustus for a third and final time. He was killed by his son-in-law Constantine in July, 310. The end of the year again found the Empire with four Augusti (Galerius, Maximinus, Maxentius and Licinius) and a sole Caesar (Constantine).

Galerius died in May 311 leaving Maximinus sole ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire. Meanwhile Maxentius declared a war on Constantine under the pretext of avenging his executed father. He was among the casualties of the Battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312. Constantine was promoted to Augustus.

This left the Empire in the hands of the three remaining Augusti, Maximinus, Constantine and Licinius. Licinius allied himself with Constantine, cementing the alliance by marriage to his younger half-sister Constantia in March 313 and joining open conflict with Maximinus. In August 313 Maximinus met his death at Tarsus in Cilicia. The two remaining Augusti divided the Empire again in the pattern established by Diocletian, Constantine becoming Augustus of the Western Roman Empire and Licinius Augustus of the Eastern Roman Empire.

This division continued until 324. A final war between the last two remaining Augusti ended with the deposition of Licinius and the elevation of Constantine to sole Emperor of the Roman Empire. Deciding that the empire needed a new capital, Constantine chose the site of Byzantium for the new city. He refounded it as Nova Roma, but it was popularly called Constantinople: Constantine's City.

Christian Empire (AD 324 - 395)

The beginning of the Roman Empire as a Christian empire lies in 313 AD, with the Edict of Milan. The edict was signed under the reigns of Constantine I and Licinius. The edict made Christianity one of the official religions of Rome.

Christianity became the single official religion of Rome under Theodosius (r. 379-395 AD). Initially the emperor had control over the church. While Christianity flourished, the Empire by no means became uniformly Christian; paganism remained significant. Theodosius massacred Thessalonica for rebelling against his new Christian policies condemning homosexuality, which was a common practice in both ancient Greece and Greece under Roman rule. Upon his return to Rome the Bishop Ambrose refused to let Theodosius enter the church until he made a public repentance. Theodosius did so, and from then on the church's powers grew. Eventually the church would gain enough power that it would outlast the empire in the west.

Late Antiquity in the West (AD 395 - 476)

In popular history, the year 476 is generally accepted as the end of the Western Roman Empire. In that year, Odoacer disposed of his puppet Romulus Augustus (475-476), and for the first time did not bother to induct a successor, choosing instead to rule as a representative of the Eastern Emperor (although Julius Nepos, the emperor deposed by Romulus Augustulus, continued to rule Illyricum until his death in 480, at which point Odoacer annexed the remainder of the Western Empire to his Italian kingdom). The last Emperor who ruled from Rome, however, had been Theodosius, who removed the seat of power to Mediolanum (Milan). Edward Gibbon, in writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire knew not to end his narrative at 476. The great corpse continued to twitch, into the 6th century.

On the other hand, in 409, with the Emperor of the West fled from Milan to Ravenna and all the provinces wavering in loyalties, the Goth Alaric I, in charge at Rome, came to terms with the senate, and with their consent set up a rival emperor and invested the prefect of the city, a Greek named Priscus Attalus, with the diadem and the purple robe. In the following year when the Goths rampaged in the City, local power was in the hands of the Bishop of Rome. The transfer of power to Christian pope and military dux had been effected: the Western Empire was effectively dead, though no contemporary knew it.

The next seven decades played out as aftermath. Theodoric the Great as King of the Goths, couched his legitimacy in diplomatic terms as being the representative of the Emperor of the East. Consuls were appointed regularly through his reign: a formula for the consular appointment is provided in Cassiodorus' Book VI. The post of consul was last filled in the west under Theodoric's successor, Athalaric, until he died in 534. Ironically the Gothic War in Italy, which was meant as the reconquest of a lost province for the Emperor of the East and a re-establishment of the continuity of power, actually caused more damage and cut more ties of continuity with the Antique world than the attempts of Theodoric and his minister Cassiodorus to meld Roman and Gothic culture within a Roman form.

In essence, the "fall" of the Roman Empire to a contemporary depended a great deal on where they were and their status in the world. On the great villas of the Italian Campagna, the seasons rolled on without a hitch. The local overseer may have been representing an Ostrogoth, then a Lombard duke, then a Christian bishop, but the rhythm of life and the horizons of the imagined world remained the same. Even in the decayed cities of Italy consuls were still elected. In Auvergne, at Clermont, the Gallo-Roman poet and diplomat Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of Clermont, realized that the local "fall of Rome" came in 475, with the fall of the city to the Visigoth Euric. In the north of Gaul the Franks could not be taken for Roman, but in Hispania the last Arian Visigothic king Leovigild considered himself the heir of Rome. In Alexandria, dreams of a "Christian Empire" with genuine continuity were shattered when a rampaging mob of Christians were encouraged to sack and destroy the Serapeum in 392. Hispania Baetica was still essentially Roman when the Moors came in 711, but in the northwest, the invasion of the Suevi broke the last frail links with Roman culture in 409. In Aquitania and Provence, cities like Arles were not abandoned, but Roman culture in Britain collapsed in waves of violence after the last legions evacuated: the final legionary probably left Britain in 409. In Athens the end came for some in 529, when the Emperor Justinian closed the Neoplatonic Academy and its remaining members fled east for protection under the rule of Sassanid king Khosrau I; for other Greeks it had come long before, in 396, when Christian monks led Alaric I to vandalize the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Finally to footnote, the Romans didn't share all their knowledge. An example is cement. (See Bridge: History.) After the "fall" of Rome the technology for cement was "lost."

From Roman to Byzantine in the East

Under Constantine (AD 330 - 337) and his sons (AD 337 - 361)

Constantinople would serve as the capital of Constantine the Great from May 11, 330 to his death on May 22, 337. The Empire was parted again among his three surviving sons.The Western Roman Empire was divided among the eldest son Constantine II and the youngest son Constans. The Eastern Roman Empire along with Constantinople were the share of middle son Constantius II.

Constantine II was killed in conflict with his youngest brother in 340. Constans was himself killed in conflict with army proclaimed Augustus Magnentius on January 18, 350. Magnentius was at first opposed in the city of Rome by self-proclaimed Augustus Nepotianus, a paternal first cousin of Constans. Nepotianus was killed alongside his mother Eutropia . His other first cousin Constantia convinced Vetriano to proclaim himself Caesar in opposition to Magnentius. Vetriano served a brief term from March 1 to December 25, 350. He was then forced to abdicate by the legitimate Augustus Constantius. The usurper Magnentius would continue to rule the Western Roman Empire till 353 while in conflict with Constantius. His eventual defeat and suicide left Constantius as sole Emperor.

Constantius rule would however be opposed again in 360. He had named his paternal half-cousin and brother-in-law Julian as his Caesar of the Western Roman Empire in 355. During the following five years, Julian had a series of victories against invading Germanic tribes, including the Alamanni. This allowed him to secure the Rhine frontier. His victorious Gallic troops thus ceased campaigning. Constantius send orders for the troops to be transferred to the east as reinforcements for his own currently unsuccessful campaign against Shapur II of Persia. This order led the Gallic troops to an insurrection. They proclaimed their commanding officer Julian to be an Augustus. Both Augusti were not ready to lead their troops to another Roman Civil War. Constantius' timely demise on November 3, 361 prevented this war from ever occurring.

Under Julian & Jovian (AD 361 - 364)

Julian would serve as the sole Emperor for two years. He had received his baptism as a Christian years before. But apparently no longer considered himself one. His reign would see the ending of restriction and persecution of paganism introduced by his uncle and father-in-law Constantine the Great and his cousins and brother-in-laws Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II. He instead placed similar restrictions and unofficial persecution of Christianism. His edict of tolerance in 362 ordered the reopening of pagan temples, the reinstitution of alienated temple properties. And more problematic for the Christian Church, the recalling of previously exiled Christian bishops. Returning Orthodox and Arian bishops resumed their conflicts thus further weakening the Church as a whole.

Julian himself was not a traditional pagan. His personal beliefs were largely influenced by Neoplatonism and Theurgy. He produced works of philosophy arguing his beliefs. His brief renaissance of paganism would however end with his death. Julian eventually resumed the war against Shapur II of Persia. He received a mortal wound in battle and died on June 26, 363. An ironic fate for someone who reportedly believed himself a reincarnation of Alexander the Great. He was considered a hero by pagan sources of his time and a villain by Christian ones. Later historians have treated him as a controversial figure.

Julian died childless and with no designated successor. The officers of his army elected the rather obscure officer Jovian as an Augustus. He is remembered for signing an unfavorable peace treaty with Persia and restoring the privileges of Christianity. He is considered a Christian himself though little is known of his beliefs. Jovian himself died on February 17, 364.

Valentinian Dynasty (AD 364 - 392)

The role of choosing a new Augustus fell again to army officers. On February 28, 364, Pannonian officer Valentinian I was elected Augustus in Nicaea, Bithynia. The army however had twice been left leaderless in less than a year. The officers demanded for Valentinian to choose a co-ruler. On March 28, 364, Valentinian chose his own younger brother Valens. The two new Augusti would part the Empire in the pattern established by Diocletian. Valentinian would administer the Western Roman Empire while Valens received the Eastern Roman Empire.

Valens' election would soon be disputed. Procopius, a Cilician maternal cousin of Julian, had been considered a likely heir to his cousin but never designated as one. He had been in hiding since the election of Jovian. He resurfaced in 365. He managed to bribe two legions assigned to Constantinople and then to take control of the Eastern Roman capital. He was proclaimed Augustus on September 28, 365. Procopius soon extended his control to both Thrace and Bithynia. War between the two rival Eastern Roman Emperorss continued until the capture and execution of Procopius on May 27, 366.

On August 4, 367, a 3rd Augustus was proclaimed. The 8 year-old Gratian was chosen as a nominal co-ruler by his father Valentinian and uncle Valens. This was obviously a way to secure succession.

In April 375 Valentinian I led his army in a campaign against the Quadi, a Germaning tribe which had invaded his native province of Pannonia. During an audience to an embassy from the Quadi at Brigetio on the Danube (near Komárom, Hungary), Valentinian suffered a burst blood vessel in the skull while angrily yelling at the people gathered. This injury resulted in his death on November 17, 375.

Succession did not go as planned. Gratian was then a sixteen-year-old and arguably ready to act as Emperor. However the troops in Pannonia declared his infant half-brother emperor under the title Valentinian II.

Gratian acquiesced in their choice and administrated the Gallic part of the Western Roman Empire. Italy, Illyria and Africa were officially administrated by his brother and his step-mother Justina . However the real authority still rested with Gratianus.

Battle of Adrianople (AD 378)

Meanwhile the Eastern Roman Empire faced its own problems with Germanic tribes. The East Germanic tribe known as the Goths were forced to flee their former lands following an invasion by the Huns. Their leaders Alavinus and Fritigern led them to seek refuge from the Eastern Roman Empire. Valens indeed let them settle as foederati on the southern bank of the Danube in 376. However the newcomers faced problems from allegedly corrupted provincial commanders and a series of hardships. Their dissatisfaction led them to revolt against their Roman hosts.

For the following two years conflicts continued. Valens personally led a campaign against them in 378. Gratian provided his uncle with reinforcements from the Western Roman army. However this campaign proved disastrous for the Romans. The two armies approached each other near Adrianople. Valens was apparently overconfident of his numerical superiority of his own forces over the Goths. His officers advised him to wait for the promised arrival of Gratian himself with further reinforcements. But Valens instead rushed to battle. On August 9, 378, the Battle of Adrianople resulted in the crushing defeat of the Romans and the death of Valens. Contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus estimated that two thirds of the Roman army were lost in the battle. The last third managed to retreat.

The battle had far reaching consequences. Veteran soldiers and valuable administrators were among the heavy casualties. There were few available replacements at the time. Leaving the Empire with problems of finding suitable leadership. The Roman army would also start facing recruiting problems. In the following century much of the Roman army would consist of Germanic mercenaries.

For the moment however there was another concern. The death of Valens left Gratian and Valentinian II as the sole two Augusti. Gratian was now effectively responsible for the whole of the Empire. He sought however, a replacement Augustus for the Eastern Roman Empire. His choice was Theodosius I, son of formerly distinguished general Count Theodosius. The elder Theodosius had been executed in early 375. for unclear reasons. The younger one was named Augustus of the Eastern Roman Empire on January 19, 379. His appointment would prove a deciding moment in the division of the Empire.

Disturbed peace in the West (AD 383)

Gratian governed the Western Roman Empire with energy and success for some years, but he gradually sank into indolence. He is considered to have become a figurehead while Frankish general Merobaudes and bishop Ambrose of Milan jointly acted as the power behind the throne. Gratian lost favor with factions of the Roman Senate by prohibiting traditional paganism at Rome and relinquishing his title and faction of Pontifex Maximus. The senior Augustus also became unpopular to his own Roman troops due to his close association with so-called barbarians. He reportedly recruited Alans to his personal service and adopted the guise of a Scythian warrior for public appearances.

Meanwhile Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius were joined by a fourth Augustus. Theodosius proclaimed his oldest son Arcadius to be an Augustus in January, 383 in an obvious attempt to secure succession. The boy was only still five or six years old and held no actual authority. Nevertheless he was recognized as a co-ruler by all three Augusti.

The increasing unpopularity of Gratian would cause the four Augusti problems later that same year. Spanish Celt general Magnus Maximus, stationed in Roman Britain, was proclaimed Augustus by his troops in 383 and rebelling against Gratian he invaded Gaul. Gratian fled from Lutetia (Paris) to Lugdunum (Lyon), where he was assassinated on August 25, 383 at the age of twenty-five.

Maximus was a firm believer of the Nicene Creed and introduced state persecution on charges of heresy, which brought him in conflict with Pope Siricius who argued that the Augustus had no authority over church matters. But he was an Emperor with popular support and his reputation survived in Romano-British tradition and gained him a place in the Mabinogion, compiled about a millennium after his death.

Following Gratian's death, Maximus had to deal with Valentinian II, actually only twelve year old, as the senior Augustus. The first few years the Alps would serve as the borders between the respective territories of the two rival Western Roman Emperors. Maximus controlled Britain, Gaul, Hispania and Africa. He chose Augusta Treverorum (Trier) as his capital.

Maximus soon entered negotiations with Valentinian II and Theodosius, attempting to gain their official recognition. By 384, negotiations were unfruitful and Maximus tried to press the matter by settling succession as only a legitimate Emperor could do: proclaiming his own infant son Flavius Victor an Augustus. The end of the year find the Empire having five Augusti (Valentinian II, Theodosius I, Arcadius, Magnus Maximus and Flavius Victor) with relations between them yet to be determined.

In 385 Theodosius was left a widower following the sudden death of Augusta Flacilla . He was remarried to Galla, sister of Valentinian II, and the marriage secured closer relations between the two legitimate Augusti.

In 386 Maximus and Victor finally received official recognition by Theodosius but not Valentinian. In 387, Maximus apparently decided to rid himself of his Italian rival. He crossed the Alps into the valley of the Po and threatened Milan. Valentinian and his mother fled to Thessaloniki from where they sought the support of Theodosius. Theodosius indeed campaigned west in 388 and was victorious against Maximus. Maximus himself was captured and executed in Aquileia on July 28, 388. Magister militum Arbogastes was sent to Trier with orders to also kill Flavius Victor. Theodosius restored Valentinian to power and through his influence had him converted to Orthodox Catholicism. Theodosius continued supporting Valentinian and protecting him from a variety of usurpations.

Theodosian Dynasty (AD 392 - 395)

In 392 Valentinian was murdered in Vienne. Theodosius succeeded him, ruling the entire Roman Empire.

Theodosius had two sons and a daughter, Pulcheria, from his first wife, Aelia Flacilla . His daughter and wife died in 385. By his second wife, Galla, he had a daughter, Galla Placidia, the mother of Valentinian III, who would be Emperor of the West.

After his death in 395 he gave the two halves of the Empire to his two sons Arcadius and Honorius; Arcadius became ruler in the East, with his capital in Constantinople, and Honorius became ruler in the west, with his capital in Milan. Though the Roman state would continue to have two emperors, the Eastern Romans considered themselves Roman in full. Latin was used in official writings as much as, if not more than, Greek. The two halves were nominally, culturally and historically, if not politically, the same state.

Later Eastern Empire (AD 476-1461)

The west would continue to decline during the 5th century. However, the richer east would be spared much of the destruction. The last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476 by Odoacer, the half Hunnish, half Scirian chieftain of the Germanic Heruli. The Eastern Empire counter-attacked in the 6th century under the eastern emperor Justinian, taking much of the west back. These gains were lost during subsequent reigns. Of the many accepted dates for the end of the Roman state, the latest is 610. This is when the Emperor Heraclius made sweeping reforms, forever changing the face of the empire. Greek was readopted as the language of government and Latin influence waned. By 610, the Classical Roman Empire had evolved into the Middle Age Byzantine Empire although it was never called this (rather it was called Romania or Basileia Romaion) and the Byzantines continued to consider themselves Roman until their fall in the 15th century.

Several states claiming to be the Roman Empire's successor arose, before as well as after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Holy Roman Empire, an attempt to resurrect the Empire in the West, was established in 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, though the empire and the imperial office did not become formalized for some decades. After the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Empire, as inheritor of the Byzantine Empire's Orthodox Christian tradition, counted itself as the third Rome (with Constantinople being the second). And when the Ottomans, who based their state around the Byzantine model, took Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul, Sultan Mehmed II established his capital there and assumed the title "Roman Emperor".

But excluding these states claiming their heritage, the Romans lasted, from the founding of Rome in 753 BC, to the fall in 1461 of the Empire of Trebizond (a successor state and fragment of the Byzantine Empire, which escaped destruction by the Ottomans in 1453), for a total of 2214 years. Their impact on Western and Eastern civilizations lives on. In time most of the Roman achievements have been duplicated by later civilizations. For example, the technology for cement was rediscovered [1755-1759] by John Smeaton.

Timeline of the Roman Empire

See also



Ancient Historians of the Empire

In Latin

In Greek

Latin Literature of the Empire

External links


18th & 19th century history

Modern histories of the Roman Empire

  • J. B. Bury, A History of the Roman Empire from its Foundation to the death of Marcus Aurelius, 1913
  • J. A. Crook , Law and Life of Rome, 90 BC-AD 212, 1967
  • S. Dixon , The Roman Family, 1992
  • Donald R. Dudley , The Civilization of Rome, 2nd ed., 1985
  • A.H.M. Jones , The Later Roman Empire, 284-602, 1964
  • A. Lintott , Imperium Romanum: Politics and administration, 1993
  • R. Macmullen , Roman Social Relations, 50 BC to AD 284, 1974
  • M.I. Rostovtzeff , Economic History of the Roman Empire 2nd ed., 1957
  • R. Syme, The Roman Revolution, 1939
  • C. Wells , The Roman Empire, 2nd ed., 1992

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