The Roman Empire was the largest in the ancient world and at its height controlled the land around the Mediterranean and most of continental Europe, with the exception of modern-day Germany, Denmark, and Russia. The incipient Roman Empire led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the accession of Octavian (better known by his posthumous title Augustus Caesar).
The Punic War
The first lands occupied by the Romans were in the Italian peninsula. From the days of the creation of the Roman Republic with the expulsion of the Tarquin dynasty in 510 b.c.e., the Romans had started attacking and ruling lands held by rival cities in central Italy.
Rome’s being sacked by the Gauls in 390 b.c.e. significantly weakened it in the eyes of many. It rebuilt its military strength, and its defeat of Carthage in the First Punic War (264–241 b.c.e.) led to Rome gaining a foothold in Sicily. From 241 until 218 b.c.e. the Romans conquered Sardinia, Corcyra (modern-day Corfu), and Lombardy (northeastern Italy).
During the Second Punic War, when Hannibal invaded the Italian peninsula in 218 b.c.e., the Romans were able to stop his attack on Rome, but their hold over the Italian peninsula was tenuous. Hannibal exploited this by forming alliances with the Gauls in northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul) and also with predominantly Greek cities in the south, such as Capua and Tarentum.
When Hannibal was recalled to North Africa to defend Carthage and defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 b.c.e., the Romans expanded their landholdings, taking many areas that had sheltered Hannibal during his 15 years in the Italian peninsula. The defeat of Hannibal also gave them the confidence to attack and conquer other lands, initially parts of Spain, and then attack Syria in 191 b.c.e.
This came about over tensions between Rome and the Seleucid Empire, with Rome declaring war in 192 b.c.e. and attacking in the following year. Ptolemy V of Egypt allied himself with Rome against his neighbor. A Roman fleet commanded by Gaius Livius destroyed the Seleucid navy off the coast of Greece in 191 b.c.e. and again in the following year at Eurymedon where Hannibal was helping the Seleucids in his first (and last) naval battle.
At the same time a large Roman army advanced into Asia Minor and in December 190 b.c.e., at the Battle of Magnesia, destroyed the Syrians. In an agreement signed at Apameax, the Romans returned most of the land they had taken, only retaining the islands of Cephalonia and Zacynthus (modern-day Zante).
During the conflict of the Third Macedonian War (172–167 b.c.e.), the Romans defeated the Macedonians at the Battle of Pydne on June 22, 168 b.c.e. The following year the Romans took over Macedonian lands and divided them into four republics under Roman protection, establishing a protectorate over most of the Greek peninsula. Over the next 40 years the Seleucid Empire fell apart, and the power vacuum was exploited by Rome.
However, before the Romans were able to conquer the eastern Mediterranean, they had to deal with Carthage in the Third Punic War (149–146 b.c.e.). With the Romans preoccupied in North Africa, rebellions broke out on the Iberian Peninsula. Sparta, a city allied to Rome, was also attacked.
The Romans responded by sending soldiers to Spain and defeating the Lusitanians. They sent an army to help Sparta, which resulted in the annexation of Greece. By 146 b.c.e., Rome was in control of all of the Italian peninsula, modern-day Tunisia, modern-day Spain and Portugal, and the Greek peninsula.
Jugurthine and Mithridatic Wars
From 112 to 106 b.c.e. the Romans fought the Jugurthine War, sending soldiers back to North Africa and eventually capturing the Numidian king Jugurtha. The Cimbri and other Germanic tribes from modern-day Switzerland then moved into southern Gaul, destroyed a Roman army of 80,000 at the Battle of Arausio, and slaughtered 40,000 Roman noncombatants.
This led to war in Gaul, culminating with the Battle of Vercellae. The Roman commander Marius destroyed the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae, killing an estimated 140,000 tribesmen and their families and capturing another 60,000.
Although the Roman Empire had control over much of the Mediterranean and Rome became the wealthiest city in the region, problems were brewing in the Italian peninsula with the Social War (91–88 b.c.e.). Some cities on the peninsula were angered that their people were discriminated against for not being Roman citizens.
The Romans, with difficulty, overcame their opponents; the Roman soldiers had not shown the same brutality as they had in Gaul and other places. As the Seleucid Empire faltered, the Romans sought to expand into Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
This coincided with the emergence of Mithridates VI of Pontus, who was intent on capturing Bithynia and Cappadocia. The Roman commander and politician Sulla defeated the army of Pontus at the Battle of Chaeronea in 86 b.c.e. and the Battle of Orchomenus in the following year.
He then returned to the Italian peninsula for the Roman civil war in which Sulla had himself proclaimed dictator, later returning to Asia Minor in the Second Mithridatic War (83–81 b.c.e.).
The Third Mithridatic War (75–65 b.c.e.) saw the Romans under Lucullus defeat the army of Pontus at the Battle of Cabira in 72 b.c.e., essentially removing them as a threat to the Roman Empire in the East.
The Gallic Wars
With no further threat from the eastern Mediterranean, the Romans turned their attention to Spain. Julius Caesar fought there 61–60 b.c.e., taking the Iberian Peninsula ﬁ rmly under Roman control. From 58 to 51 b.c.e.
Caesar waged the gallic wars, and the Gauls were defeated in a number of large battles culminating in the Battle of Alesia in 52 b.c.e. At this battle a massive Gallic force was annihilated while trying to relieve the Gallic chief Vercingetorix in Alesia, and Gaul was brought under Roman rule.
For the next 20 years there were large numbers of Roman civil wars with, initially, Caesar fighting and defeating Pompey; Mark Antony and Octavian defeating Brutus; and then Octavian defeating Mark Antony. Control of the empire was split into three sections, with Octavian controlling the Italian peninsula, Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula, Dalmatia, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily.
Mark Antony was in control of Greece and Macedonia, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Cyrenaica, and Cyprus. The third member of the triumvirate, Lepidus, was in control of North Africa west of Cyrenaica. The final defeat of Mark Antony saw Octavian invade and capture Egypt and establish Roman rule there.
Octavian never used the title emperor or the name Augustus—both were added to him posthumously. However, he is recognized by historians as being the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, and hence the Roman Empire officially dates from his rule, which began in 31 b.c.e. and ended with his death in 14 c.e.
Initially, Roman governors were politicians, eager to advance their political career by proving administrative ability. Octavian reformed the system by raising gubernatorial salaries and making appointments longer to encourage governors to become more familiar with the areas they controlled.
It also allowed some governors to mount challenges to central authority. Under a governor procurators were made responsible for raising revenue and for day-to-day administrative matters. The most famous procurator was Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judaea, Samaria, and Idumea from 26 to 36 c.e.
At the accession of Augustus the Roman Empire covered the entire Italian peninsula, Istria (in modern-day Slovenia and Croatia), the Greek peninsula, western Asia Minor, Syria, Cyrenaica (in modern-day Libya), the area around Carthage (modern-day Tunisia), the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal), Transalpine Gaul (modern-day France, Belgium, parts of western Germany, and southern Holland), and the islands of the Mediterranean (the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Malta, Crete, the Ionian and Dodecanese Islands, and Cyprus).
It also had protectorates over the rest of Asia Minor, Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula and southern Palestine, the eastern part of modern-day Libya, and Numidia (modern-day eastern Algeria).
Because of its immense size Octavian devoted much of his time and energies to maintaining, rather than enlarging, the territory under the control of Rome. There was conflict along the frontier with Germany, with a massive Roman loss at the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in September or October 9 c.e.
Although the Romans sent in forces to avenge the loss, they held back from a full-scale invasion of Germany, which Octavian judged would be a disaster. He was a cautious ruler, as was his adopted son and successor Tiberius (r. 14–37 c.e.).
Caligula, Nero, Vespatian, Titus, and Domitian
After Tiberius the emperor Caligula (r. 37–41 c.e.) saw no advances in the empire, but Caligula’s uncle and successor, Claudius (r. 41–54), invaded Britain under Aulus Plautius. Some British tribes chose to oppose the Romans, while others supported them.
Under the next emperor, Nero (r. 54–68), there was trouble with the Parthians, and a revolt broke out in 61 in Britain, led by Boudicca of the Iceni tribe. She was eventually defeated, but her rebellion put an end to Roman plans to send an expeditionary force to Ireland. Nero was overthrown in 68, and his three successors had brief rules before being overthrown.
The Roman army in Judaea, flushed with its victory—including sacking Jerusalem and the burning of the Jewish Temple—returned to Rome with their commander, Vespasian, at their head. He became emperor, to be following by his sons Titus and Domitian.
The rule of Vespasian (r. 68–79), Titus (r. 79–81), and Domitian (r. 81–96) saw a period of some internal peace in the Italian peninsula and a gradual expansion of some parts of the Roman Empire. The Romans eventually controlled all of England, Wales, and southern Scotland.
In central Europe parts of southern Germany were added to the Roman Empire, which had come to include the whole of the coast of northern Africa. Domitian’s assassination caused many to expect another Roman civil war, but the accession of Marcus Cocceius Nerva ensured that this did not occur. He nominated his son Marcus Ulpis Trajanus to succeed him.
Trajan and Hadrian
The emperor Trajan (r. 98–117) extended the empire further, in large part due to the Dacian Wars (101–107) in which Roman armies attacked the Dacian king Decebalus, a powerful force in east-central Europe (modern-day Romania).
With cruelty unparalleled since Caesar’s invasion of Gaul, the Romans pushed their frontier to the Carpathian Mountains and the river Dniester. After that Trajan added Arabia Petrea (modern-day Sinai and nearby regions) to the Roman Empire. Next Trajan waged war against the Parthians, with Osroes, king of Parthia, having placed a "puppet" ruler on the throne of Armenia.
The Romans felt this violated a long-standing treaty with the Parthians, and Trajan, aged 60, attacked and captured Armenia and Mesopotamia, taking over the remainder of the former Seleucid Empire, which the Romans had attacked 200 years earlier. This gave the Romans access to the Persian Gulf.
Trajan’s successor, Publius Aelius Hadrianus (r. 117–138), or Hadrian, decided to consolidate Roman rule over recently conquered areas and is best known for building a wall along the English-Scottish border, known as Hadrian’s Wall. Making peace with the Parthians, he gave up land east of the Euphrates and crushed a revolt in Mauretania and the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judaea.
This was the last large-scale Jewish revolt against the Romans and was destroyed with massive repercussions in Judaea. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. Jews were subsequently banned from entering Jerusalem.
Pius, Marcus Aerulius, and Commodus
Antoninus Pius (r. 138–161) succeeded Trajan, initiating a "forward movement", pushing Roman rule back into southern Scotland and building the Antonine Wall, which stretched from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth.
This meant that Hadrian’s Wall was no longer a barrier, and it brieﬂ y fell into disuse until the Romans discovered that they were unable to control southern Scotland. The Antonine Wall was abandoned in favor of Hadrian’s Wall.
The empire was approaching its greatest extent. At this point, the only places added to the empire were parts of Mesopotamia, which had been given to Parthia by Hadrian, and parts of Media (modern-day Iran). Of the next Roman emperors some are well known, but most had only a minor role in the history of the Roman Empire.
Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180) was known for his philosophical teachings encapsulating what many saw as the "golden age" of the Roman Empire; and Commodus (r. 180–193), for his brutality, decadence, misrule, and vanity.
The reign of Commodus led to infighting in the imperial court, with subsequent emperors becoming worried that regional commanders were becoming too powerful. In response they only gave them as many troops as were necessary. This in turn led to troop shortages in some areas and worry of invasion.
Trade and The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was a trading empire as well as a military empire, and Roman money was widely recognized throughout the region, and beyond. Latin became the language of the educated elite of the entire empire and of government officials and soldiers who settled in various parts of the empire. Gradually, Greek began to supplant Latin in the eastern Mediterranean, and it became the language of business and commerce in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
Surviving tombstones show that many Romans came from distant lands. Goods were traded extensively — Rome had to import large amounts of corn and wheat to feed its growing population. Ideas also traveled throughout the Roman Empire. Initially these were connected with the Pax Romana — the Roman legal system.
Under Antoninus Pius, Roman citizenship was extended in much of the eastern Mediterranean, and Roman citizens had to be tried in a Roman court, leading to Roman law becoming the standard in the eastern part of the empire. The Romans encouraged the spread of learning, philosophy, and religion.
Christianity and the belief in Mithras rapidly spread to all corners of the empire, with archaeological evidence for both religions stretching from Spain to northern England and to the Middle East. Since the founding of Rome, the citizenry had traded with other empires.
Roman goods found their way to the Kushan Empire in southern Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Sogdians, in Central Asia (modern-day Uzbekistan), traded with both the Romans and the Chinese, and Roman coins have been found in archaeological sites in some parts of the Far East.
Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius
Diocletian (r. 284–305) was an administrator rather than a soldier, even though he came from an army background, and sought to erode the inﬂ uence of the army on politics. When news was received in Rome that there was an uprising or an attack on the Romans, Diocletian complained that he needed a deputy who could dispatch armies efficiently but not want to claim the throne.
In 286 he appointed an Illyrian called Maximian, the son of a peasant farmer. Maximian was posted to Milan, where he could respond to attacks in the West, especially along the frontier with Germany. Diocletian then moved to Nicomedia, in modern-day Turkey, where he would supervise the empire and respond to attacks from Parthia or Persia.
Although the empire remained undivided, there were definite lines of demarcation. These would manifest themselves years later in the division of the Roman Empire. Diocletian, however, is probably best known for his persecution of the Christians. Soon after he abdicated, Christianity would become an important part of the Roman administration.
The emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) provided a unity to the empire, and his mother, Helena, greatly influenced her son in Christian ideas. However, under Theodosius I (r. 379–395) many felt that the western part of the empire was becoming a liability, with the eastern part being far more prosperous.
As a result, in 395 the Roman Empire split to form the Western Roman Empire, with Rome as its capital, and the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). Only 15 years after this split the Western Roman Empire suffered a major shock when Visigoths invaded the Italian peninsula and sacked Rome. The capital had been brieﬂ y moved to Ravenna, but the psychological damage was done.
Rome was retaken from the Visigoths, and authorities called back Roman legions guarding other parts of the western empire, withdrawing soldiers from Britain and the German frontier, to try to defend the Italian peninsula. In 476 the last Roman emperor of the West, Odovacar, the leader of the Ostrogoths, deposed Romulus Augustulus. The eastern empire continued as the Byzantine Empire, although gradually lost much territory.
The Roman Empire was founded on military glory, but its legacy was much more broad. Roman roads connected many cities and towns, most of which are still inhabited, and archaeological digs uncovered the remains of Roman walls, buildings, and lifestyle.
Roman aqueducts can be seen in many parts of the former empire, with Roman plumbing and sewage disposal being unmatched in western Europe until the Italian Renaissance. The Roman system of law is still followed by many parts of the former Roman Empire, and many other Roman customs survive.