A Short History of the Roman Empire

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

      The empire which was to rule all of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, began as a farming community on the Tiber River in central Italy. This village and its surrounding areas was occupied in the 700 BC era by a people called the "Latins." By 500 BC the area was dominated by a people to the north of Rome known as the Etruscans. The Latins encouraged surrounding tribes to join them in opposing the Etruscans, and by 300 BC, after many encounters, the Latins ruled central and southern Italy.

      In 264 BC, the Latins, now centered at Rome and known as Romans, began to dispute the territorial ambitions of the Carthaginians, grown strong on the seacoast of present day Tunis as an original outpost of the Phoenicians. The encounters are known as the "Punic Wars" and include the famous episode of Hanibal crossing the Alps with elephants to attack Rome from the north. Carthage would finally be destroyed in 146 BC, adding Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia to the beginning Roman "empire".

      By 133 BC, Rome had added Spain, northern Italy as far as the Alps, Greece, and present day Turkey to its map. In 55 BC Julius Caesar invaded Britain. By 70 AD Rome ruled every country that touched the Mediterranean, all of Europe, Egypt and the rest of Africa above the Sahara, grabbing more land with every passing year. Although the Roman empire was not the largest empire in total territory in world history (that distinction goes to the Mongols and the offspring of Genghis Khan), it was the greatest in "square miles continuously occupied per year", and had an influence in language, law, education, government, architecture, and culture that has never been equaled.

      Roman history is dominated by the lives of its emperors and its generals. Until 27 BC, the Roman Empire was a Republic, ruled by a Senate of 300 (chosen for life), which elected two consuls every year to act as chief executives, who were typically military leaders. Warfare between leaders to achieve the upper hand was common, but the rule was that no general could lead his army close to Rome (the sacred border was a river called the Rubicon) to avoid bringing conflict to the capital. This rule was broken by Julius Caesar who, by "crossing the Rubicon" (49 BC) declared war on the Roman Senate itself. Defeating the other consul, Pompey, he became sole ruler, although he never claimed the title of "emperor". Soon thereafter he went to Egypt and hooked up with Cleopatra. (Egypt had, since the time of Alexander the Great (333 BC), been ruled by the Greek descendents of Ptolemy, a general of Alexander.)

      Fearing Caesar would declare himself emperor, generals Brutus, Cassius, and others assasinated Julius Caesar (Ides of March, 44 BC), creating a power vacuum leading to the defeat of Brutus and Cassius and rule by three consuls as a "Triumvirate" - Octavius (nephew and heir to Julius), Mark Antony (a considerable military figure) and Lepidus, who would essentially disappear. Mark Antony would likely have emerged the top dog save for his own infatuation with Cleopatra and a defeat at sea while directing the Egyptian navy against Octavius (Battle of Actium, 31 BC).

      With no strong leader to oppose him, Octavius, declared (27 BC) himself "Caesar Augustus" and first Emperor of Rome, initiating the great peace or "Pax Romana" which would last through 180 AD. Emperors to follow included (in order) Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, and Trajan, whose reign (98-117 AD) marked the maximum extent of the Roman Empire. Then emperors Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, completing 200 years of peace.

      What followed was 100 years of warfare, as emerging tribes and people challenged Rome at every border, adding considerable financial drains. In 284 AD, Diocletian, as emperor, divided the Roman empire into two halves, East and West, the better to rule and defend efficiently. In 306 Constantine I declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 401 the Visigoths could no longer be contained, invaded Italy, eventually sacking Rome and abandoning it for Gaul (France). In 455 it was the turn of another germanic tribe, the Vandals, to sack Rome, while still other german tribes (Angles and Saxons into England, Franks into Gaul, Visigoths into Spain, Ostrogoths into Italy) began carving up the European part of the empire. The last emperor in Rome was deposed in 476, while the Eastern empire at Constantinople (Istanbul) would survive until 1453, succumbing to the Turks.

That's as short as I can make it.

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