Roman Empire

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology; British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain); General history

Res publica Romana
Roman Empire

27 BC – 476

Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR)  (Latin)
"The Senate and the Roman People"
Location of Roman Empire
The Roman Empire at its greatest extent in 117 AD
Capital Rome
(44 BC – 286 AD)

(From 330)

Language(s) Latin (imperial), Greek (administrative)
Religion Roman paganism, later Christianity
Government Monarchy
 - 27 BC – AD 14 Augustus
 - 475–476 Romulus Augustus
 - 27–23 BC Augustus
 - 476 Basiliscus
Legislature Roman Senate
Historical era Classical antiquity
 - Augustus Caesar proclaimed princeps 27 BC
 -  Battle of Actium September 2, 31 BC
 - Octavian proclaimed Augustus 16 January 27 BC
 -  Diocletian splits imperial administration between east and west 285
 - Constantine I declares Constantinople new imperial capital 330
 -  Romulus Augustus deposed by Odoacer September 4, 476
 - 25 BC 2,750,000 km² (1,061,781 sq mi)
 - 50 4,200,000 km² (1,621,629 sq mi)
 - 117 5,000,000 km² (1,930,511 sq mi)
 - 390 4,400,000 km² (1,698,849 sq mi)
 - 25 BC est. 56,800,000 
     Density 20.7 /km²  (53.5 /sq mi)
 - 117 est. 88,000,000 
     Density 17.6 /km²  (45.6 /sq mi)
Currency Solidus, Aureus, Denarius, Sestertius, As

The Roman Empire is the phase of the ancient Roman civilization characterized by an autocratic form of government. The Roman Empire succeeded the 500-year-old Roman Republic (510 BC – 1st century BC), which had been weakened by the conflict between Gaius Marius and Sulla and the civil war of Julius Caesar against Pompey the Great. Several dates are commonly proposed to mark the transition from Republic to Empire, including the date of Julius Caesar's appointment as perpetual dictator (44 BC), the victory of Caesar's heir Octavian at the Battle of Actium ( September 2, 31 BC), and the Roman Senate's granting to Octavian the honorific Augustus. ( January 16, 27 BC).

The Latin term Imperium Romanum (Roman Empire), probably the best-known Latin expression where the word imperium denotes a territory, indicates the part of the world under Roman rule. From the time of Augustus to the Fall of the Western Empire, Rome's dominion covered all of the following: England and Wales; most of Europe (west of the Rhine and south of the Alps); coastal northern Africa, together with the adjacent province of Egypt; the Balkans, the Black Sea, and Asia Minor; and also much of the Levant. Hence the Imperium Romanum subsumed, west-to-east, modern-day Portugal, Spain, England and France, Italy, Albania and Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, and parts of eastern, and southern Germany; southward it embraced parts of the Middle East: present day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and more; thence southwestward it included the whole of ancient Egypt, then swept westward to contain the coastal regions of what are today Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, out to the longitudes just west of Gibraltar. Most of the people living there called themselves Romans, and lived under law">Roman law. Roman expansion began long before the state was changed into a monarchy and reached its zenith under Emperor Trajan with the conquest of Dacia (i.e., modern Romania and Moldova, as well as parts of Hungary, Bulgaria and Ukraine), in AD 106, and Mesopotamia in 116 (subsequently returned by Hadrian). At this territorial peak, the Roman Empire controlled approximately 5,900,000 km² (2,300,000 sq mi) of land surface, and so encompassed the Mediterranean Sea that the Romans called it mare nostrum - "our sea". Rome's influence upon the language, religion, architecture, philosophy, law and government of nations around the world continues to this day.

The end of the Roman Empire is sometimes placed at 4 September 476 AD, when the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus, was deposed and not replaced. Before this date, however, the Empire had been divided into Western and Eastern halves, Emperor Diocletian, who retired in 305, having been the last sole Emperor of an undivided Empire. The Western Roman Empire declined and fell apart (see Decline of the Roman Empire) in the course of the 5th century. The Eastern Roman Empire, known today as the Byzantine Empire, preserved Greco-Roman legal and cultural traditions along with Hellenic and Orthodox Christian elements for another millennium, until its eventual collapse with the conquest of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

Evolution of Imperial Rome

The extent of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in 218 BC (dark red), 133 BC (light red), 44 BC (orange), AD 14 (yellow), after AD 14 (green), and maximum extension under Trajan, AD 117 (light green).
The extent of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in 218 BC (dark red), 133 BC (light red), 44 BC (orange), AD 14 (yellow), after AD 14 (green), and maximum extension under Trajan, AD 117 (light green).

Traditionally, historians make a distinction between the Principate, the period following 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 distinction, during the Principate (from the Latin word princeps, meaning "first citizen") the realities of absolutism were formally concealed behind republican forms; while during the Dominate (from the word dominus, meaning "master" or "owner") imperial power was clearly shown, with golden crowns and ornate imperial ritual. More recently, historians have established 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.

The first emperor

No definitive answer exists regarding the identity of the first emperor of Rome. Under a purely technical point of view there is no clear "first emperor", as the title itself was not an official post in the Roman constitutional system—rather, it was an amalgam of separate roles.

A diabase bust of Julius Caesar
A diabase bust of Julius Caesar


Julius Caesar was a Dictator Perpetuus ( dictator for life), which was a highly irregular form of dictator, an official position in the Roman Republic. By law, the rule of a dictator would normally never exceed six months. The form created by Caesar was therefore quite contrary to the basic principles of the Roman Republic. Nevertheless, officially his authority rested upon this republican title, however irregular it might have been, and therefore he is considered a republican official. Several senators, among them many former enemies who had been "graciously" pardoned by him, grew fearful that he would crown himself and try to establish a monarchy. Accordingly, they conspired to assassinate him, and on the Ides of March, 44 BC, the life-long dictator perished under the blades of his assassins.

Octavian, his grand-nephew, adopted son and political heir, learned from the mistake of his predecessor and never claimed the widely feared title dictator, disguising his power under republican forms much more carefully. All this was intended to foster the illusion of a restoration of the Republic. He received several titles like Augustus—"the elevated one", and Princeps—translated as "first citizen of the Roman republic" or as "first leader of the Roman Senate". The latter had been a title awarded for those who had served the state well; Pompey had held that title.

In addition, Augustus (as he was named thereafter) was granted the right to wear the Civic Crown of laurel and oak. Officially, however, none of these titles or the Civic Crown granted Augustus any additional powers or authority; he was simply a highly honored Roman citizen who held the consulship. Augustus also became Pontifex Maximus after the death of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in 13 BC. He also received several additional and extraordinary powers without claiming too many titles. In the end, he only needed the authority itself, not all the titles.

From the Republic to the Principate: Augustus (27 BC – AD 14)

The Battle of Actium, by Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672.
The Battle of Actium, by Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672.

The Battle of Actium resulted in the defeat and subsequent suicides of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian had also executed Cleopatra's young son and co-ruler, Caesarion. Caesarion may have been the (only) son of Julius Caesar. Therefore, by killing Caesarion, Octavian removed any possibility of a male rival emerging with closer blood ties to Julius Caesar. Octavian, now sole ruler of Rome, began a full-scale reformation of military, fiscal and political matters. These were intended to stabilize and pacify the Roman world and also to cement acceptance of the new regime.

Upon Octavian's accession as ruler of the Roman world, the Roman Senate gave Octavian the name Augustus. He had already adopted the title imperator, "commander-in-chief", as his first name. It was a term that dated back to the days of the Republic and later evolved into emperor.

As adopted heir of Caesar, Augustus preferred to be called by this name. Caesar was a component of his family name. Julio-Claudian rule lasted for almost a century (from Julius Caesar in the mid-1st century BC to the emperor Nero in the mid-1st century AD). By the time of the Flavian Dynasty, and the reign of Vespasian, and that of his two sons, Titus and Domitian, the term Caesar had evolved, almost de facto, from a family name into a formal title. Derivatives of this title (such as czar and kaiser) endure to this day.

The Roman legions, which had reached an unprecedented number (around 50) because of the civil wars, were reduced to 28. Several legions, particularly those with members of doubtful loyalties, were simply disbanded. Other legions were amalgamated, a fact hinted by the title Gemina (Twin). Augustus also created nine special cohorts, ostensibly to maintain the peace in Italy, keeping at least three of them stationed at Rome. These cohorts became known as the Praetorian Guard.

Octavian realized that autocracy and kingship were things that Romans had not experienced for centuries, and were wary of. Octavian did not want to be viewed as a tyrant and sought to retain the illusion of the constitutional republic. He attempted to make it seem as though the constitution of the Roman Republic was still functional. Even Rome's past dictators, such as the brutal Lucius Cornelius Sulla, had only ruled Rome for short spans of time, never more than a year or two (with the exception of Julius Caesar). In 27 BC, Octavian officially tried to relinquish all his extraordinary powers to the Roman Senate. In a carefully staged way, the senators, who by this time were mostly his partisans, refused and begged him to keep them for the sake of the republic and the people of Rome. Reportedly, the suggestion of Octavian stepping down as consul led to rioting amongst the Plebeians in Rome. A compromise was reached between the Senate and Octavian, known as the First Settlement. This agreement gave Augustus legitimacy as an autocrat of the people, and ensured that he would not be considered a tyrant, starting the long period that would be known as Pax Romana.

Octavian split with the Senate the governorships of the provinces. The unruly provinces at the borders, where the vast majority of the legions were stationed, were administrated by imperial legates, chosen by the emperor himself. These provinces were classified as imperial provinces. The governors of the peaceful senatorial provinces were chosen by the Senate. These provinces were usually peaceful and only a single legion was stationed in the senatorial province of Africa.

The famous Augustus of Prima Porta.
The famous Augustus of Prima Porta.

Before the Senate controlled the treasury, Augustus had mandated that the taxes of the Imperial provinces be destined to the Fiscus, which was administrated by persons chosen by, and answerable only to, Augustus. The revenue of the senatorial provinces continued to be sent to the Aerarium, under the supervision of the Senate. This effectively made Augustus richer than the Senate, and more than able to pay the salarium (salary) of the legionaries, ensuring their continued loyalty. This was ensured by the Imperial province of Roman Egypt, which was incredibly wealthy and also the most important grain supplier for the whole empire. Senators were forbidden to even visit this province, as it was largely considered the personal fiefdom of the emperor himself.

Augustus renounced his consulship in 23 BC, but retained his consular imperium, leading to a second compromise between Augustus and the Senate known as the Second Settlement. Augustus was granted the authority of a tribune (tribunicia potestas), though not the title, which allowed him to convene the Senate and people at will and lay business before it, veto the actions of either the Assembly or the Senate, preside over elections, and gave him the right to speak first at any meeting. Also included in Augustus's tribunician authority were powers usually reserved for the Roman censor; these included the right to supervise public morals and scrutinize laws to ensure they were in the public interest, as well as the ability to hold a census and determine the membership of the Senate. No tribune of Rome ever had these powers, and there was no precedent within the Roman system for consolidating the powers of the tribune and the censor into a single position, nor was Augustus ever elected to the office of Censor. Whether censorial powers were granted to Augustus as part of his tribunician authority, or he simply assumed these responsibilities, is still a matter of debate.

In addition to tribunician authority, Augustus was granted sole imperium within the city of Rome itself; all armed forces in the city, formerly under the control of the praefects, were now under the sole authority of Augustus. Additionally, Augustus was granted imperium proconsulare maius (power over all proconsuls), the right to interfere in any province and override the decisions of any governor. With maius imperium, Augustus was the only individual able to grant a triumph to a successful general as he was ostensibly the leader of the entire Roman army.

All of these reforms were highly unusual in the eyes of Roman republican tradition, but the Senate was no longer composed of the republican patricians who had the courage to murder Caesar. Most of these senators had died in the Civil Wars, and the leaders of the conservative Republicans in the senate, such as Cato and Cicero, had long since died. Octavian had purged the Senate of any remaining suspect elements and planted the body with his own partisans. How free a hand the Senate had in all these transactions, and what backroom deals were made, remains unknown.

Attempting to secure the borders of the empire upon the rivers Danube and Elbe, Octavian ordered the invasions of Illyria, Moesia, and Pannonia (south of the Danube), and Germania (west of the Elbe). At first everything went as planned, but then disaster struck. The Illyrian tribes revolted and had to be crushed, and three full legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were ambushed and destroyed at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 by German barbarians under the leadership of Arminius. Being cautious, Augustus secured all territories west of Rhine and contented himself with retaliatory raids. The rivers Rhine and Danube became the permanent borders of the Roman empire in the North.

Julio-Claudian Dynasty (14–68)

Augustus had three grandsons by his daughter Julia. None of the three lived long enough to succeed him. He therefore was succeeded by his stepson Tiberius, the son of his wife Livia from her first marriage. Augustus was a scion of the gens Julia (the Julian family), one of the most ancient patrician clans of Rome, while Tiberius was a scion of the gens Claudia, only slightly less ancient than the Julians. Their three immediate successors were all descended both from the gens Claudia, through Tiberius's brother Nero Claudius Drusus, and from gens Julia, either through Julia the Elder, Augustus's daughter from his first marriage ( Caligula and Nero), or through Augustus's sister Octavia Minor (Claudius). Historians thus refer to their dynasty as "Julio-Claudian".

Tiberius (14–37)

The early years of Tiberius's reign were peaceful and relatively benign. Tiberius secured the overall power of Rome and enriched its treasury. However, Tiberius's reign soon became characterized by paranoia and slander. In 19, he was widely 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, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Tiberius himself retired to live at his villa on the island of Capri in 26, leaving administration in the hands of Sejanus, who carried on the persecutions with relish. Sejanus 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 "hoisted 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 associates, the same year. The persecutions continued until Tiberius's death in 37.

Caligula (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" or "little boots"). 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 demonstrated features of mental instability that led modern commentators to diagnose him with such illnesses as encephalitis, which can cause mental derangement, hyperthyroidism, or even a nervous breakdown (perhaps brought on by the stress of his position). Whatever the cause, there was an obvious shift in his reign from this point on, leading his biographers to think he was insane.

Most of what history remembers of Caligula comes from Suetonius, in his book Lives of the Twelve Caesars. According to Seutonius, Caligula once planned to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate. He ordered his soldiers to invade Britain to fight the Sea God Neptune, 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 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 from this plan by his friend king Herod. He ordered people to be secretly killed, and then called them to his palace. When they did not appear, he would jokingly remark that they must have committed suicide. In 41, Caligula was assassinated by the commander of the guard Cassius Chaerea. The only member of the imperial family left to take charge was his uncle, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus.

Claudius (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. He ordered the construction of a winter port for Rome, at Ostia, thereby providing a place for grain from other parts of the Empire to be brought in inclement weather.

In his own family life, 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 although there are conflicting accounts about his death, she may very well have poisoned him in 54. Claudius was deified later that year. The death of Claudius paved the way for Agrippina's own son, the 17-year-old Lucius Domitius Nero.

Nero (54–68)

Nero ruled from 54 to 68. During his rule, Nero focused much of his attention on diplomacy, trade, and increasing the cultural capital of the empire. He ordered the building of theatres and promoted athletic games. His reign included a successful war and negotiated peace with the Parthian Empire (58–63), the suppression of the Brython revolt (60–61) and improving cultural ties with Greece. Nero, though, is remembered as a tyrant and the emperor who "fiddled while Rome burned" in 64. A military coup drove Nero into hiding. Facing execution at the hands of the Roman Senate, he reportedly committed suicide in 68. His last words were, "What an artist dies in me."


In peacetime it was relatively easy to manage the empire from its capital city, Rome. Rebellions were expected to occur from time to time: a general or a governor would gain the loyalty of his officers through a mixture of personal charisma, promises and simple bribes. A conquered tribe would rebel, or a conquered city would revolt. This would be a bad, but not a catastrophic, event. The Roman legions were spread around the borders, and the rebel leader would—in normal circumstances—have only one or two legions under his command. Loyal legions would be detached from other points of the empire, and would eventually drown the rebellion in blood. This happened even more easily in cases of a small local native uprising, as the rebels would normally have no great military experience. Unless the emperor was weak, incompetent, hated, and/or universally despised, these rebellions would be a local and isolated event.

During real wartime however, which could develop from a rebellion or an uprising, like the massive Jewish rebellion, this was totally and dangerously different. In a full-blown military campaign, the legions under the command of the generals like Vespasian were of a much greater number. Therefore a paranoid or wise emperor would hold some members of the general's family as hostages, to make certain of the latter's loyalty. In effect, Nero held Domitian and Quintus Petillius Cerialis the governor of Ostia, who were respectively the younger son and the brother-in-law of Vespasian. In normal circumstances this would be quite enough. In fact, the rule of Nero ended with the revolt of the Praetorian Guard who had been bribed in the name of Galba. It became all too obvious that the Praetorian Guard was a sword of Damocles, whose loyalty was all too often bought and who became increasingly greedy. Following their example the legions at the borders would also increasingly participate in the civil wars. This was a dangerous development as this would weaken the whole Roman Army.

The main enemy in the West were, arguably, the "barbarian tribes" beyond the Rhine and the Danube. Augustus had tried to conquer them, but ultimately failed and these "barbarians" were greatly feared. But by and large they were left in peace, in order to fight amongst themselves, and were simply too divided to pose a serious threat.

The empire of Parthia, the arch-rival of Rome, at its greatest extent (c. 60 BC), superimposed over modern borders.
The empire of Parthia, the arch-rival of Rome, at its greatest extent (c. 60 BC), superimposed over modern borders.

In the East lay the empire of Parthia (Persia). Crassus, a member of the First Triumvirate during the late republic, attempted an invasion in 53 BC, but was defeated by Persian forces led by Surena in the Battle of Carrhae. Any Parthian invasion was confronted and usually defeated, but the threat itself was ultimately impossible to destroy. Parthia would eventually become Rome's greatest rival and foremost enemy.

In the case of a Roman civil war these two enemies would seize the opportunity to invade Roman territory in order to raid and plunder. The two respective military frontiers became a matter of major political importance because of the high number of legions stationed there. All too often the local generals would rebel, starting a new civil war. To control the western border from Rome was easy, as it was relatively close. To control both frontiers, at the same time, during wartime, was somewhat more difficult. If the emperor was near the border in the East, chances were high that an ambitious general would rebel in the West and vice versa. It was no longer enough to be a good administrator; emperors were increasingly near the troops in order to control them and no single Emperor could be at the two frontiers at the same time. This problem would plague the ruling emperors time and time again and many future emperors would follow this path to power.

Year of the Four Emperors (68–69)

The forced suicide of emperor Nero, in 68, was followed by a brief period of civil war (the first Roman civil war since Antony's death in 31 BC) known as the "year of the four emperors". Between June 68 and December 69, Rome witnessed the successive rise and fall of Galba, Otho and Vitellius until the final accession of Vespasian, first ruler of the Flavian dynasty. This period of civil war has become emblematic of the cyclic political disturbances in the history of the Roman Empire. The military and political anarchy created by this civil war had serious implications, such as the outbreak of the Batavian rebellion.

Flavian dynasty (69–96)

Roman trade with India according to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 1st century AD.
Roman trade with India according to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 1st century AD.

The Flavians, although a relatively short-lived dynasty, helped restore stability to an empire on its knees. Although all three have been criticized, especially based on their more centralized style of rule, they issued reforms that created a stable enough empire to last well into the 3rd century. However, their background as a military dynasty led to further marginalization of the senate, and a conclusive move away from princeps, or first citizen, and toward imperator, or emperor.

Vespasian (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, after whose death Vespasian became a major contender for the throne. Following the suicide of Otho, Vespasian was able to take control of 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, then sixty years old, was confirmed as Emperor by the Senate.

Although Vespasian was considered an autocrat by the senate, he mostly continued the weakening of that body that had been going since the reign of Tiberius. The degree of the Senate's subservience can be seen from the post-dating of his accession to power, by the Senate, to 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 the make 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 because of the actions of Nero and the year of crisis that followed, to 1,000; 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 Amphitheatrum Flavium (Colosseum); he also built a forum whose centerpiece was a temple to Peace. In addition, he allotted sizable subsidies 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 Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula, comprising modern Spain and Portugal) in which he granted Latin rights to over three hundred towns and cities, promoting a new era of urbanization throughout the western (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, mostly 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 reduce further 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 Hispania, in line with the Romanization of those areas.

Titus (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 Iudaea, quelling the significant Jewish revolt going on at the time. He shared the consul for several years with his father and received the best tutelage. Although there was some trepidation when he took office because of 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, Mount Vesuvius erupted in Pompeii, and in 80, a fire destroyed 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 of what is presumed to be illness; 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 (81–96)

All of the Flavians had rather poor relations with the Senate, because of their autocratic rule, however Domitian was the only one who encountered significant problems. His continuous control as consul and censor throughout his rule; the former his father having shared in much the same way as his Julio-Claudian forerunners, the latter presenting difficulty even to obtain, 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, towards 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 repercussions following the short-lived rebellion in 89 of Antonius Saturninus, a governor and commander in Germany. Domitian's 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 advisers and family members lived in fear, leading them to his murder in 96 orchestrated by his enemies in the Senate, Stephanus (the steward of the deceased Julia Flavia), members of the Praetorian Guard and empress Domitia Longina.

Antonine dynasty (96–180)

The next century came to be known as the period of the " Five Good Emperors", in which the succession was peaceful though not dynastic and the Empire was prosperous. The emperors of this period were Nerva (96–98), Trajan (98–117), Hadrian (117–138), Antoninus Pius (138–161) and Marcus Aurelius (161–180), each being adopted by his predecessor as his successor during the former's lifetime. While their respective choices of successor were based upon the merits of the individual men they selected, it has been argued that the real reason for the lasting success of the adoptive scheme of succession lay more with the fact that none but the last had a natural heir.

Nerva (96–98)

After his accession, Nerva set a new tone: he released those imprisoned for treason, banned future prosecutions for treason, restored much confiscated property, and involved the Roman Senate in his rule. He probably did so as a means to remain relatively popular (and therefore alive), but this did not completely aid him. Support for Domitian in the army remained strong, and in October 97 the Praetorian Guard laid siege to the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill and took Nerva hostage. He was forced to submit to their demands, agreeing to hand over those responsible for Domitian's death and even giving a speech thanking the rebellious Praetorians. Nerva then adopted Trajan, a commander of the armies on the German frontier, as his successor shortly thereafter in order to bolster his own rule. Casperius Aelianus, the Guard Prefect responsible for the mutiny against Nerva, was later executed under Trajan.

Trajan (98–117)

The extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan, AD 117
The extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan, AD 117

In 112, provoked by Parthia's decision to put an unacceptable king on the throne of Armenia, a kingdom over which the two great empires had shared hegemony since the time of Nero some fifty years earlier, Trajan marched first on Armenia. He deposed the king and annexed it to the Roman Empire. Then he turned south into Parthia itself, taking the cities of Babylon, Seleucia and finally the capital of Ctesiphon in 116. He continued southward to the Persian Gulf, whence he declared Mesopotamia a new province of the empire and lamented that he was too old to follow in the steps of Alexander the Great. But he did not stop there. Later in 116, he captured the great city of Susa. He deposed the Parthian King Osroes I and put his own puppet ruler Parthamaspates on the throne. Never again would the Roman Empire advance so far to the east.

Hadrian (117–138)

Despite his own excellence as a military administrator, Hadrian's reign was marked by a general lack of major military conflicts but to defend the vast territories the empire had. He surrendered Trajan's conquests in Mesopotamia, considering them to be indefensible. There was almost a war with Parthia around 121, but the threat was averted when Hadrian succeeded in negotiating a peace. Hadrian's army crushed a massive Jewish uprising in Judea (132–135) led by Simon Bar Kokhba.

Hadrian was the first emperor to extensively tour the provinces, donating money for local construction projects as he went. In Britain, he ordered the construction of a wall, the famous Hadrian's Wall as well as various other such defenses in Germany and Northern Africa. His domestic policy was one of relative peace and prosperity.

Antoninus Pius (138–161)

Antoninus Pius's reign was comparatively peaceful; there were several military disturbances throughout the Empire in his time, in Mauretania, Judaea, and amongst the Brigantes in Britain, but none of them are considered serious. The unrest in Britain is believed to have led to the construction of the Antonine Wall from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde, although it was soon abandoned.

Marcus Aurelius (161–180)

Marcus Aurelius    
Marcus Aurelius
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Germanic tribes and other people launched many raids along the long north European border, particularly into Gaul and across the Danube—Germans, in turn, may have been under attack from more warlike tribes farther east. His campaigns against them are commemorated on the Column of Marcus Aurelius. In Asia, a revitalized Parthian Empire renewed its assault. Marcus Aurelius sent his joint emperor Verus to command the legions in the East to face it. He was authoritative enough to command the full loyalty of the troops, but already powerful enough that he had little incentive to overthrow Marcus. The plan succeeded—Verus remained loyal until his death on campaign in 169.

Commodus (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. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, it is noted that Commodus at first ruled the empire well. However, after an assassination attempt, involving a conspiracy by certain members of his family, Commodus became paranoid and slipped into insanity. The Pax Romana, or "Roman Peace", ended with the reign of Commodus. One could argue that the assassination attempt began the long decline of the Roman Empire.

Severan dynasty (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, also by abolishing the regular standing jury courts of Republican times.

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Septimius Severus's 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's 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. Thus the Pax Romana, which had started at the death of Octavian, ended after about 200 years.

Crisis of the Third Century (235–284)

The Crisis of the Third Century is a commonly applied name for the crumbling and near collapse of the Roman Empire between 235 and 284. It is also called the period of the "military anarchy".

After Augustus declared an end to the Civil Wars of the 1st century BC, the Empire had enjoyed a period of limited external invasion, internal peace and economic prosperity (the Pax Romana). In the 3rd century, however, the Empire underwent military, political and economic crises and began to collapse. There was constant barbarian invasion, civil war, and hyperinflation. Part of the problem had its origins in the nature of the Augustan settlement. Augustus, intending to downplay his position, had not established rules for the succession of emperors.

The Roman Empire by 271 AD with the breakaway empires of Palmyra and Gallia

Already in the 1st and 2nd century, disputes about the succession had led to short civil wars, but in the 3rd century these civil wars became a constant factor, as no single candidate succeeded in quickly overcoming his opponents or holding on to the Imperial position for very long. Between 235 and 284 no fewer than 25 different emperors ruled Rome (the Soldier-Emperors). All but two of these emperors were either murdered or killed in battle. The organization of the Roman military, concentrated on the borders, could provide no remedy against foreign invasions once the invaders had broken through. A decline in citizens' participation in local administration forced the Emperors to step in, gradually increasing the central government's responsibility.

This period ended with the accession of Diocletian. Diocletian, either by skill or sheer luck, solved many of the acute problems experienced during this crisis. However, the core problems would remain and cause the eventual destruction of the western empire. The transitions of this period mark the beginnings of Late Antiquity and the end of Classical Antiquity.

Diocletian and the Tetrarchy (284-301)

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.

The Tetrarchs, a porphyry sculpture sacked from a Byzantine palace in 1204, Treasury of St Mark's, Venice    
The Tetrarchs, a porphyry sculpture sacked from a Byzantine palace in 1204, Treasury of St Mark's, Venice
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Diocletian saw that the vast Roman Empire was ungovernable by a single emperor in the face of internal pressures and military threats on two fronts. He therefore split the Empire in half along a northwest axis just east of Italy, and created two equal Emperors to rule under the title of Augustus. Diocletian himself was the Augustus of the eastern half, and he made his long-time friend Maximian Augustus of the western half. In doing so, he effectively created what would become the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire.

In 293 authority was further divided, as each Augustus took a junior Emperor called a Caesar to aid him in administrative matters, and to provide a line of succession; Galerius became Caesar under Diocletian and Constantius Chlorus Caesar under Maximian. This constituted what is called the Tetrarchy (in Greek: "leadership of four") by modern scholars. After Rome had been plagued by bloody disputes about the supreme authority, this finally formalized a peaceful succession of the emperor: in each half a Caesar would rise up to replace the Augustus and select a new Caesar. On May 1, 305, Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in favour of their Caesars. Galerius named the two new Caesars: his nephew Maximinus for himself, and Flavius Valerius Severus for Constantius. The arrangement worked well under Diocletian and Maximian and shortly thereafter. The internal tensions within the Roman government were less acute than they had been. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon notes that this arrangement worked well because of the affinity the four rulers had for each other. Gibbon says that this arrangement has been compared to a "chorus of music". With the withdrawal of Diocletian and Maximian, this harmony disappeared.

After an initial period of tolerance, Diocletian, who was a fervent pagan and was worried about the ever-increasing numbers of Christians in the Empire, persecuted them with zeal unknown since the time of Nero; this was to be one of the greatest persecutions the Christians endured in history.

Constantinian dynasty (305-363)

Constantine and his sons

A map of Rome in 350
A map of Rome in 350

The Tetrarchy would effectively collapse with the death of Constantius Chlorus on July 25, 306. Constantius's troops in Eboracum immediately proclaimed his son Constantine 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 five rulers: four Augusti (Galerius, Constantine, Severus and Maxentius) and one Caesar (Maximinus).

The year 307 saw the return of Maximian to the rank of Augustus alongside his son Maxentius, creating a total of six rulers of the Empire. 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. At the end of 307, the Empire had four Augusti (Maximian, Galerius, Constantine and Maxentius) and a sole Caesar.

In 311 Galerius officially put an end to the persecution of Christians, and Constantine legalized Christianity definitively in 313 as evidenced in the so-called Edict of Milan.

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 the 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 until 353 while in conflict with Constantius. His eventual defeat and suicide left Constantius as sole Emperor.

Constantius's 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 sent 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's timely demise on November 3, 361 prevented this war from ever occurring.

Julian and Jovian (361–364)

Julian would serve as the sole Emperor for two years. He had received his baptism as a Christian years before, but 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 I and his cousins and brothers-in-law Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II. He instead placed similar restrictions and unofficial persecution of Christianity. His edict of toleration in 362 ordered the reopening of pagan temples and the reinstitution of alienated temple properties, and, more problematically 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 reputedly believed he was the reincarnation of Alexander the Great. 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. According to Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, upon being mortally wounded by a dart, he was carried back to his camp. He gave a farewell speech, in which he refused to name a successor. He then proceeded to debate the philosophical nature of the soul with his generals. He then requested a glass of water, and shortly after drinking it, died. He was considered a hero by pagan sources of his time and a villain by Christian ones. Gibbon wrote quite favorably about Julian. Contemporary 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 emperor. He is remembered for signing an unfavorable peace treaty with Persia, ceding terrorities won from the Persians, dating back to Trajan. He restored 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 (364–392)

Valentinian and Valens

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. However, the army had been left leaderless twice in less than a year, and the officers demanded Valentinian choose a co-ruler. On March 28 Valentinian chose his own younger brother Valens and the two new Augusti parted the Empire in the pattern established by Diocletian: Valentinian would administer the Western Roman Empire, while Valens took control over the Eastern Roman Empire.

Valens's election would soon be disputed. Procopius, a Cilician maternal cousin of Julian, had been considered a likely heir to his cousin but was never designated as such. He had been in hiding since the election of Jovian. In 365, while Valentinian was at Paris and then at Rheims to direct the operations of his generals against the Alamanni, Procopius managed to bribe two legions assigned to Constantinople and take control of the Eastern Roman capital. He was proclaimed Augustus on September 28 and soon extended his control to both Thrace and Bithynia. War between the two rival Eastern Roman Emperors continued until Procopius was defeated. Valens had him executed on May 27, 366.

On August 4, 367, a third Augustus was proclaimed by the other two. His father Valentinian and uncle Valens chose the eight-year-old Gratian as a nominal co-ruler, obviously as a means to secure succession.

In April 375 Valentinian I led his army in a campaign against the Quadi, a Germanic tribe which had invaded his native province of Pannonia. During an audience with an embassy from the Quadi at Brigetio on the Danube, a town now part of modern-day Komárno, Slovak republic, 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 16-year-old and arguably ready to act as Emperor, but the troops in Pannonia proclaimed his infant half-brother emperor under the title Valentinian II.

Gratian acquiesced in their choice and administered the Gallic part of the Western Roman Empire. Italy, Illyria and Africa were officially administrated by his brother and his stepmother Justina. However the division was merely nominal as the actual authority still rested with Gratian.

Battle of Adrianople (378)

Barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire, showing the Battle of Adrianople.
Barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire, showing the Battle of Adrianople.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman Empire faced its own problems with Germanic tribes. The Thervingi, an East Germanic tribe, fled their former lands following an invasion by the Huns. Their leaders Alavivus 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 the numerical superiority of his own forces over the Goths. Some of his officers advised caution and to await the arrival of Gratian, others urged an immediate attack and eventually prevailed over Valens, who, eager to have all of the glory for himself, rushed into 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 the 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.

Theodosian dynasty (379-457)

Disturbed peace in the West (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 favour with factions of the Roman Senate by prohibiting traditional paganism at Rome and relinquishing his title of Pontifex Maximus. The senior Augustus also became unpopular with his own Roman troops because of 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 an Augustus in January 383 in an obvious attempt to secure succession. The boy was still only 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 25.

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

Following Gratian's death, Maximus had to deal with Valentinian II, at the time only twelve years 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 found the Empire having five Augusti (Valentinian II, Theodosius I, Arcadius, Magnus Maximus and Flavius Victor) with relations between them yet to be determined.

Theodosius was left a widower in 385, following the sudden death of Aelia Flaccilla, his Augusta. He was remarried, to the sister of Valentinean II, Galla, and the marriage secured closer relations between the two legitimate Augusti.

In 386 Maximus and Victor finally received official recognition by Theodosius but not by 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 Arbogast 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.

Final partition of the Empire

The division of the empire after the death of Theodosius I, c. 395, superimposed on modern borders.      Western Roman Empire      Eastern Roman Empire
The division of the empire after the death of Theodosius I, c. 395, superimposed on modern borders.      Western Roman Empire      Eastern Roman Empire

In 392 Valentinian II was murdered in Vienne. Arbogast arranged for the appointment of Eugenius as emperor. However, the eastern emperor Theodosius refused to recognise Eugenius as emperor and invaded the West, defeating and killing Arbogast and Eugenius at the Battle of the Frigidus. He thus reunited the entire Roman Empire under his rule.

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.

Theodosius was the last Emperor who ruled over the whole Empire. 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 and later Ravenna. The Roman state would continue to have two different emperors with different seats of power throughout the 5th century, though 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.

Decline and fall of the Empire in the West (395–476)

After 395, the emperors in the Western Roman Empire were usually figureheads. For most of the time, the actual rulers were military strongmen who took the title of magister militum, patrician or both— Stilicho from 395 to 408, Constantius from about 411 to 421, Aëtius from 433 to 454 and Ricimer from about 457 to 472.

The city of Rome itself was sacked in 410 by rebelled Visigoths (for three days), and again in 455 by the Vandals (for fourteen days), unprecedented events which shocked the contemporaries. (The last time the city had been sacked had been in 387 BC, by the Gauls.)

In June 474, Julius Nepos became Western Emperor. In 475, the Magister militum, Orestes, revolted and made his son Romulus Augustus the Roman emperor. Nepos fled to the province of Dalmatia. Romulus, however, was not recognized by the Eastern Emperor Zeno and so was technically an usurper, Nepos still being the legal Western Emperor. Nevertheless, Romulus Augustus is often known as the last Western Roman Emperor.

The Western and Eastern Roman Empires by 476
The Western and Eastern Roman Empires by 476

The year 476 is generally accepted as the formal end of the Western Roman Empire. That year, Orestes refused the request of Germanic mercenaries in his service for lands in Italy. The dissatisfied mercenaries, including the Heruli, revolted. The revolt was led by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer. Odoacer and his men captured and executed Orestes. Within weeks, Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed, the event that has been traditionally considered the fall of the Roman Empire, at least in the West. Odoacer quickly conquered the remaining provinces of Italy.

Odoacer then sent the Imperial Regalia back to the emperor Zeno. Zeno soon received two deputations. One was from Odoacer requesting that his control of Italy be formally recognized by the Empire, in which case he would acknowledge Zeno's supremacy. The other deputation was from Nepos, asking for support to regain the throne. Zeno granted Odoacer the title Patrician.

Zeno told Odoacer and the Roman Senate to take Nepos back; however, Nepos never returned from Dalmatia, even though Odoacer issued coins in his name. Upon Nepos's death in 480, Zeno claimed Dalmatia for the East; J. B. Bury considers this the real end of the Western Roman Empire. Odoacer attacked Dalmatia, and the ensuing war ended with Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths, conquering Italy under Zeno's authority.

The next seven decades played out as aftermath. Theodoric was King of the Ostrogoths, but couched his claim to Italy 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's Book VI. The post of consul was last filled in the west by 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.

The western empire though, was unable to support itself because of population concerns. As much as 80% of the population was estimated to live in the eastern realm. In addition, the Western Empire lacked sufficient military resources to maintain order and to secure borders. However, by AD 300, they only had an estimated 500,000 troops, which meant that they could not control the territory the empire possessed. Therefore, they became increasingly vulnerable to attacks from the outside of the imperial borders. Finally, an economic crisis later hit the empire, which arose from the lack of plunder of outlying territories and of slaves from Roman conquests.

The East Roman Empire and Barbaric Kingdoms in 480
The East Roman Empire and Barbaric Kingdoms in 480

In essence, the perception of the "fall" of the Roman Empire to a contemporary of that age 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, a Roman kingdom existed for some years and the Franks had their links to the Roman administration and military as well. In Hispania the last Arian Visigothic king Liuvigild considered himself the heir of Rome. 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, though depopulated and reduced to their fortified centers since previous centuries, were never completely abandoned. In Britain, however, Roman culture seems to have collapsed in waves of violence after the last legions evacuated it to go fight the barbarians in Gaul (probably in 409).

Survival in the East: from Eastern Roman Empire to Byzantine Empire (395–1453)

As the Western Roman Empire declined during the 5th century, the richer Eastern Roman Empire would be spared much of the destruction, and in the mid 6th century the Eastern Roman Empire (aka the Byzantine Empire) under the emperor Justinian I reconquered Italy and parts of Illyria from the Ostrogoths, North Africa from the Vandals, and southern Hispania from the Visigoths. The reconquest of southern Hispania was somewhat ephemeral, but North Africa served the Byzantines for another century, Italy for another 5 centuries, and Illyria almost a millennium.

Near East in 565 AD, showing the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire at its height.
Near East in 565 AD, showing the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire at its height.

Of the many accepted dates for the end of the classical 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 Eastern Roman Empire had come under Greek influence and became what many modern historians now call the Byzantine Empire, although the Empire was never called thus by its inhabitants (rather it was called Romania, Basileia Romaion or Pragmata Romaion, meaning "Land of the Romans", "Kingdom of the Romans"), who still saw themselves as Romans, and their state as the rightful successor to the ancient empire of Rome. The sack of Constantinople at the hands of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 is sometimes used to date the end of Eastern Roman Empire: the destruction of Constantinople and most of its ancient treasures, total discontinuity of leadership, and the division of its lands into rival states with a Catholic-controlled "Emperor" in Constantinople itself (see Latin Empire) was a blow from which the Empire never fully recovered. Nevertheless, the Byzantines continued to call themselves Romans until their fall to Ottoman Turks in 1453. That year the eastern part of the Roman Empire was ultimately ended by the Fall of Constantinople. Even though Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, declared himself the Emperor of the Roman Empire (Caesar of Rome / Kayser-i Rum), Constantine XI, emperor of the Byzantine Empire during 1453, is usually considered the last Roman Emperor. The Greek ethnic self-descriptive name Roman survives to this day.

Revival in the West: the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806)

On the Christmas Day of year 800, 324 years after Odoacer had made Romulus Augustulus abdicate, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish monarch Charlemagne " King of the Romans" and Imperator Augustus, a direct challenge to the Roman throne in Constantinople. This led to a conscious attempt to revive the Western Roman Empire, continuing the function of the Roman Emperors in defending, governing and supporting the Church. Although land divisions due to inheritance and rivalry between Charlemagne's successors soon fragmented this medieval state, which historians call the Carolingian Empire, it did have considerable cultural influence.

More than 150 years later the title of Emperor of the Romans passed to the German monarch Otto I, who founded the Holy Roman Empire, consisting of some of the territories of Charlemagne's ancient empire, along with all of modern-day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and some of modern-day Poland. Although most of the emperors were Germanic, the Holy Roman Emperors thought of themselves as being successors to those of the Roman Empire and called themselves Augusti.

The Empire was formally dissolved on August 6, 1806 when the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II abdicated, following a military defeat by the French under Napoleon, thus removing the last claim to the Roman throne in western Europe.


The language of Rome before its expansion was Latin and this became the Empire's official language. By the time of the imperial period Latin can be thought of as at least two languages: the written Classical Latin and the spoken Vulgar Latin. Classical Latin evolved along its own lines from an early stage of the spoken language and by this time was not exactly the same as spoken Latin of any period. It remained relatively stable throughout the imperial period and even through the Middle Ages, apart from stylistic changes. As with any spoken language Vulgar Latin was fluid, differing in various regions of the Empire and changing substantially over time. In the western provinces Vulgar Latin became the lingua franca and later evolved into the modern Romance languages: Italian, Spanish, French, etc.

Although Latin remained the official language of the Imperial administration through the fall of Rome and for some centuries after in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, the Greek language was always the primary language used in the eastern provinces for administration outside the Imperial court. In fact, Greek was the most widely spoken language in the Empire, mainly owing to the larger urban centers and Greek legacy in the East. Even in the city of Rome itself Greek became the language of the educated and the elite. By the 2nd century BC more than 15% of Rome's population spoke Greek, and that proportion continued to grow. Greek became the common language in the Church, the language of scholarship and the arts, and, to a large degree, the lingua franca for trade between provinces and with other nations. The language itself gained a dual nature, somewhat like Latin, with the primary spoken language, Koine Greek, existing alongside the literary language, a variant of the ancient Attic Greek dialect (the former later evolved into what became known as Medieval or Byzantine Greek).

By the 4th century Greek no longer held such dominance over Latin as it had, resulting to a great extent from the growth and development of the western provinces. This is reflected in the publication in the early 5th century of the Vulgate Bible, the first truly official Latin translation of the Bible (there had been previous unofficial Latin translations of non-uniform quality but the formally accepted translations were Greek). As the Western Empire declined, the number of people who spoke both Greek and Latin declined as well, contributing greatly to the future East– West, OrthodoxCatholic and ByzantineFrankish cultural divides in Europe. Important as both languages were, today the descendants of Latin are widely spoken in many parts of the world, while the Greek dialects are limited mostly to Greece, Cyprus, and small enclaves in Turkey. To some degree this can be attributed to the fact that the western provinces fell mainly to "Latinized", Christian tribes, whereas the eastern provinces fell to Muslim Arabs and Turks for whom Greek held less cultural significance.

Many other languages existed in the multi-ethnic Empire as well, and some of these were given limited official status in their provinces at various times. Notably, by the beginning of the Middle Ages, Syriac and Aramaic had become more widely used by the educated classes in the far eastern provinces. Similarly Coptic and Armenian became significant among the educated in Egypt and Armenia, respectively.


Several states claimed to be the Roman Empire's successor after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. First was the Byzantine Empire, the modern historiographical term used for later period of the Eastern Roman Empire. Then the Holy Roman Empire, an attempt to resurrect the Empire in the West, was established in 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Frankish King 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 Tsardom, as inheritor of the Byzantine Empire's Orthodox Christian tradition, counted itself the third Rome (with Constantinople having been the second). And when the Ottomans, who based their state on the Byzantine model, took Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II established his capital there and claimed to sit on the throne of the Roman Empire, and he even went so far as to launch an invasion of Italy with the purpose of "re-uniting the Empire", although Papal and Neapolitan armies stopped his march on Rome at Otranto in 1480. Constantinople was not officially renamed Istanbul until March 28, 1930.

Excluding these states claiming its heritage, the Roman state lasted (in some form) 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 conquest by the Ottomans in 1453), for a total of 2,214 years. The Roman impact on Western and Eastern civilizations lives on. In time most of the Roman achievements were duplicated by later civilizations. For example, the technology for cement was rediscovered 1755–1759 by John Smeaton.

The Empire contributed many things to the world, such as the (more-or-less) modern calendar, the institutions of Christianity and aspects of modern neo-classicistic and Byzantine architecture. The extensive system of roads that was constructed by the Roman Army lasts to this day. Because of this network of roads, the time necessary to travel between destinations in Europe did not decrease until the 19th century, when steam power was invented.

The Roman Empire also contributed its form of government, which influences various constitutions including those of most European countries and many former European colonies. In the United States, for example, the framers of the Constitution remarked, in creating the Presidency, that they wanted to inaugurate an "Augustan Age". The modern world also inherited legal thinking from Roman law, codified in Late Antiquity. Governing a vast territory, the Romans developed the science of public administration to an extent never before conceived nor necessary, creating an extensive civil service and formalized methods of tax collection. The western world today derives its intellectual history from the Greeks, but it derives its methods of living, ruling and governing from those of the Romans.

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