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Main article: Roman Empire

In 27 BC, Octavian was the sole Roman leader. His leadership brought the zenith of the Roman civilization, that lasted for two centuries. In that year, he took the name Augustus. That event is usually taken by historians as the beginning of Roman Empire - although Rome was an "imperial" state since 146 BC, when Carthage was razed by Scipio Aemilianus and Greece was conquered by Lucius Mummius. Officially, the government was republican, but Augustus assumed absolute powers.[1][2] Besides that, the Empire was safer, happier and more glorious than the Roman Republic.[2]

Julio-Claudian dynasty[edit]

The Julio-Claudian dynasty was established by Augustus. The emperors of this dynasty were: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. The dynasty is so-called due to the gens Julia, family of Augustus, and the gens Claudia, family of Tiberius. The Julio-Claudians started the destruction of republican values, but in the other hand, they boosted Rome's status as the central power in the world.[3]

While Caligula and Nero are usually remembered as mad or mean emperors in popular culture, Augustus and Claudius were great emperors in politics and military. This dynasty instituted imperial tradition in Rome and frustrated any attempt to reestablish Republic.


Augustus gathered almost all the republican powers under his official title, princeps: he had powers of consul, princeps senatus, aedile, censor and tribune - including tribunician sacrosanctity.[4] This was the base of an emperor's power. Augustus also styled himself as Imperator Gaius Julius Caesar divi filius, "Commander Gaius Julius Caesar, son of the deified one". With this title he not only boasted his familial link to deified Julius Caesar, but the use of Imperator signified a permanent link to the Roman tradition of victory.

He also diminished the Senatorial class influence in politics by boosting the equestrian class. The senators lost their right to rule certain provinces, like Egypt; since the governor of that province was directly nominated by the emperor. The creation of the Praetorian Guard and his reforms in military, setting the number of legions in 28, ensured his total control over the army.[5]

Statue of Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

Comparing with Second Triumvirate’s epoch, Augustus' reign as princeps was very peaceful, while in the Triumvirate, his actions were too dreadful. This peace and richness (that was granted by the agrarian province of Egypt)[6] led people and nobles to believe that Rome needed of Augustus and his strength at politic affairs.

In military, Augustus was absent at battles. His generals were responsible for the field command; gaining much respect from people and legions, such as Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Nero Claudius Drusus and Germanicus. Augustus intended to extend the Roman Empire to the whole known world, and in his reign, Rome had conquered Cantabria Aquitania, Raetia, Dalmatia, Illyricum and Pannonia.[7]

Under his reign, Roman literature grew steadily in the Golden Age of Latin Literature. Poets like Vergil, Horace, Ovid and Rufus developed a rich literature, and were close friends of Augustus. Along with Maecenas, he stimulated patriotic poems, as Vergil's epic Aeneid and also historiographical works, like those of Livy. The works of this literary age are the most preserved of Roman times, and are regarded as classics of major importance by modern scholars.

He also continued the shifts on calendar promoted by Caesar, and the month of August is named after him.[8] Augustus brought a peaceful and thriving era to Rome, that is known as Pax Augusta or Pax Romana. Augustus died in 14 AD, but the empire’s glory continued after his era.

From Tiberius to Nero[edit]
Extent of the Roman Empire under Augustus. The yellow legend represents the extent of the Republic in 31 BC, the shades of green represent gradually conquered territories under the reign of Augustus, and pink areas on the map represent client states; however, areas under Roman control shown here were subject to change even during Augustus' reign, especially in Germania.

The Julio-Claudians continued to rule Rome after Augustus' death and they lasted until the death of Nero in 68 AD.[9] Augustus' favorites for succeeding him were already dead in at his senescence: his nephew Marcellus died in 23 BC, his friend and military commander Agrippa in 12 BC and his grandson Gaius Caesar in 4 AD. Influenced by his wife, Livia Drusilla, Augustus took Tiberius, her son from another marriage, as his heir.[10]

The Senate consented with the succession, and granted to Tiberius the same titles and honors once granted to Augustus: the title of princeps and Pater patriae, and the Civic Crown. However, Tiberius was not an enthusiast of politic affairs: after attrition with the Senate, he retired to Capri in 26 AD[11], and left control of the city of Rome in the hands of the praetorian prefect Sejanus (until 31 AD) and Macro (from 31 to 37 AD). Tiberius was regarded as an evil and melancholic man, that probably ordered the murder of his relatives, the popular general Germanicus in 19 AD, and his own son Drusus Julius Caesar in 23 AD.

Tiberius died (or was killed) in 37 BC. The male line of the Julio-Claudians was limited to Tiberius' nephew Claudius, his grandson Tiberius Gemellus and his grand-nephew Caligula (Nero would be born just few months after Tiberius' death). As Gemellus was still a child, Caligula was chosen to rule the Empire. Being a popular leader in the first half of his reign, Caligula became a crude and insane tyrant in his last two years of government. Suetonius states that he committed incest with his sisters, killed some men just for amusement and indicated a horse to a consulship.[12]

The Praetorian Guard murdered Caligula in 41 AD, with support from the senators. The soldiers proclaimed his uncle Claudius as the new emperor. Claudius was not as authoritarian as Tiberius and Caligula were. Claudius conquered Lycia and Thrace; his most important deed was the beginning of the conquest of Britain.[13]

Claudius was poisoned by his wife, Agrippina the Younger in 54 AD. His heir was Nero, son of Agrippina and her former husband, since Claudius' son, Britannicus, had not reached manhood upon his father death. Nero is widely known as the first persecutor of Christians and for the Great Fire of Rome, started by the emperor himself.[14][15] Nero faced many revolts during his reign, like the Pisonian conspiracy and the First Jewish-Roman War. Although Nero defeated these rebels, he could not overthrow the revolt led by Servius Sulpicius Galba. The Senate soon declared Nero public enemy, and he committed suicide.[16]

Flavian dynasty[edit]

The Flavians were the second dynasty to rule Rome.[17] In 68 AD, year of Nero's death, there was no chance of return to the old and traditional Roman Republic. Thus, a new emperor had to rise. After the turmoil in the Year of the Four Emperors, Titus Flavius Vespasianus (anglicized as Vespasian) took control of the Empire and established a new dynasty. Under the Flavians, Rome continued its expansion, and the state remained secure.[18][19]


Vespasian was a great general under Claudius and Nero. He fought as a commander in the First Jewish-Roman War along with his son Titus. Following the turmoil of the Year of the Four Emperors - In 69 AD, four emperors were enthroned: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and finally, Vespasian -, he crushed Vitellius' forces and became emperor.[20]

Bust of Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty

He reconstructed many buildings that were uncompleted, like a statue of Apollo and the temple of Divus Claudius ("the deified Claudius"), both initiated by Nero. Buildings once destroyed by the Great Fire of Rome were rebuilt, and he revitalized the Capitol. Vespasian also started the construction of the Flavian Amphitheater, more known as the Colosseum.[21]

The historians Josephus and Pliny the Elder wrote their works during Vespasian's reign. Vespasian was Josephus' sponsor and Pliny dedicated his Naturalis Historia to Titus, son of Vespasian.

Vespasian sent legions to defend the eastern frontier in Cappadocia, extended the occupation in Britain and renewed the tax system, but died in 79 AD.

Titus and Domitian[edit]

Titus had a short-lived rule: he was emperor from 79-81 AD. He finished the Flavian Amphitheater, which was constructed with war spoils from the First Jewish-Roman War, and promoted games that lasted for a hundred days. These games were for celebrating the victory over Jews and included gladiatorial combats, chariot races and a sensational mock naval battle that flooded the grounds of the Colosseum.[22][23]

Titus died of fever in 81 AD, being succeeded by his brother Domitian. As emperor, Domitian assumed totalitarian characteristics[24]: he thought he could be a new Augustus, and tried to make a personal cult for himself.

He constructed a line of roads and fortifications on the borders of modern-day Germany; and his general Gnaeus Julius Agricola conquered much of Britain, leading the Roman world so far as Scotland. In other hand, his failed war against Dacia was a humiliating defeat.[25]

Domitian ruled for fifteen years, and his reign was marked by his attempts of comparing himself to the gods. He constructed at least two temples in honour of Jupiter, the greatest deity in Roman religion. He also liked to be called "Dominus et Deus" ("Master and God").[26] The nobles disliked his rule, and he was murdered by a conspiracy involving his own wife, Domitia Longina, in 96 AD.

Nerva-Antonine dynasty[edit]

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan in AD 117

During the rule of the Nerva-Antonine, Rome reached its territorial and economical apogee.[27] This time was a peaceful one for Rome: the criteria for choosing an emperor were the qualities of the candidate and not anymore the kinship; additionally there were no civil wars or military defeats in that time.

Following Domitian's murder, the Senate rapidly appointed Nerva to hold imperial dignity - this was the first time that senators chose the emperor since Octavian was honored with the titles of princeps and Augustus. Nerva had a noble ancestry, and he served as an advisor to Nero and the Flavians. His rule restored many of the liberties once took by Domitian[28] and started the last golden era of Rome.


Nerva died in 98 AD and the successor had to be his heir, the general Trajan. Trajan was born in a non-patrician family from Hispania and his preeminence emerged in the army, under Domitian. He is the second of the Five Good Emperors, the first being Nerva.

Trajan was greeted by the people of Rome with great enthusiasm, which he justified by governing well and without the bloodiness that had marked Domitian's reign. He freed many people who had been unjustly imprisoned by Domitian and returned a great deal of private property that Domitian had confiscated; a process begun by Nerva before his death. [29]

Trajan conquered Dacia, and defeated the king Decebalus, the same that defeated Domitian's forces. In the First Dacian War (101-102), the defeated Dacia became a client kingdom; in the Second Dacian War (105-106), Trajan completely devastated the enemy's resistance and annexed Dacia to the Empire. Trajan also annexed the client state of Nabatea to form the province of Arabia Petraea, which included the lands of southern Syria and northwestern Arabia.[30]

He erected many buildings that still survive to our days, such as Trajan's Forum, Trajan's Market and Trajan's Column. His main architect was Apollodorus of Damascus; Apollodorus made the project of the Forum and of the Column, and also reformed the Pantheon. Trajan's triumphal archs in Ancona and Beneventum are other constructions projected by him. In Dacian War, Apollodorus made a great bridge over the Danube for Trajan.[31]

His final war was against Parthia. When Parthia appointed a king for Armenia that was unacceptable (Parthia and Rome shared dominance over Armenia) to Rome, he declared war. He probably wanted to be the first Roman leader to conquer Parthia, and repeat the glory of Alexander the Great, conqueror of Asia, whom Trajan admired. In 113 he marched to Armenia and deposed the local king. In 115 Trajan turned south into the core of Parthian hegemony, taking the Northern Mesopotamian cities of Nisibis and Batnae and organizing a province of Mesopotamia in the beginning of 116, when coins were issued announcing that Armenia and Mesopotamia had been put under the authority of the Roman people.[32]

Eugène Delacroix. The Justice of Trajan (fragment).

In that same year, he captured Seleucia and the Parthian capital Ctesiphon. After defeating a Parthian revolt and a Jewish revolt, he withdrew due to health issues. In 117, his illness grew and he died of edema. He nominated Hadrian as his heir. Under Trajan's leadership the Roman Empire reached the peak of its territorial expansion; Rome's dominion now spanned 2.5 million square miles (6.5 million km²).[33]

From Hadrian to Commodus[edit]

The prosperity brought by Nerva and Trajan continued in the reigns of subsequent emperors, from Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian withdrew all the troops stationed in Parthia and Mesopotamia, abandoning Trajan's conquests. Hadrian's government was very peaceful, since he avoided wars: he constructed fortifications and walls, like the famous Hadrian's Wall between Roman Britain and the barbarians of modern-day Scotland.

A famous philhellenist, he promoted culture, specially the Greek culture. He also forbade torture and humanized the laws. Hadrian built many aqueducts, baths, libraries and theaters; additionally, he traveled nearly every single province in the Empire to check the military and infrastructural conditions.[34]

After Hadrian's death at 138, his successor Antoninus Pius built temples, theaters, and mausoleums, promoted the arts and sciences, and bestowed honours and financial rewards upon the teachers of rhetoric and philosophy. Antoninus made few initial changes when he became emperor, leaving intact as far as possible the arrangements instituted by Hadrian. Antoninus expanded the Roman Britain by invading southern Scotland and building the Antonine Wall. He also continued Hadrian's policy of humanizing the laws. He died in 161 AD.

Marcus Aurelius, known as the Philosopher, was the last of the Five Good Emperors. He was a stoic philosopher and wrote a book called Meditations. He defeated barbarian tribes in the Marcomannic Wars as well as the Parthian Empire.[35] His co-emperor, Lucius Verus died in 169 AD, probably victim of the Antonine Plague, a pandemic that swept nearly five thousand people through the Empire in 165–180 AD.[36]

From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius, the empire achieved an unprecedented happy and glorious status. The powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. All the citizens enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. The Five Good Emperors’ rule is considered the greatest era of the Empire.[37]

Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius, became emperor after his father's death. He is not counted in the Five Good Emperors group. Firstly, because he had direct kinship with the latter emperor; in addition, he was not like his predecessors in personality and acts. Commodus usually took part on gladiatorial combats - a symbol of brutality and roughness , since a gladiator was always a slave -, and was a cruel, lewd and narcissist man. He killed many citizens and his reign is the beginning of Roman decadence, as stated Cassius Dio: "(Rome has transformed) from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust".[38]

Severan dynasty[edit]

Commodus was killed by a conspiracy involving Quintus Aemilius Laetus and his wife Marcia in late 192 AD. The following year is known as the Year of the Five Emperors. Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus fought for the imperial dignity. After many battles against the other generals, Severus established himself as the new emperor. He and his successors governed with legions support – and they paid money for this support. The changes on coinage and military expenditures were the root of the financial crisis that marked the Crisis of the 3rd Century.

Septimius Severus[edit]
Septimius Severus at Glyptothek, Munich

Severus was enthroned after invading Rome and having Didius Julianus killed. His two other rivals, Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus, were both were hailed as Imperator. Severus quickly subdued Niger in Byzantium and promised to Albinus the title of Caesar (which meant he would be a co-emperor).[39] However, Severus betrayed Albinus by blaming him on a plot against his life. Severus marched to Gaul and defeated Albinus. For these acts, Machiavelli said that Severus was "a ferocious lion and a clever fox"[40]

Severus attempted to revive totalitarianism and in an address to people and the Senate, he praised the severity and cruelty of Marius and Sulla, what worried the senators.[41] When Parthia invaded Roman territory, Severus waged war against that country. He seized the cities of Nisibis, Babylon and Seleucia. Reaching Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, he ordered a great plunder and his army slew and captured many people. Albeit this military success, he failed in invading Hatra, a rich Arabian city. Severus killed his legate, for the latter was gaining respect from the legions; and his soldiers were hit by famine. After this disastrous campaign, he withdrew.[42]

Severus also intended to vanquish the whole Britain. In order to achieve this, he waged war against the Caledonians. After many casualties in the army due to the terrain and the barbarian's ambushes, Severus went himself to field. However, he became ill and died in 211 AD.

From Caracalla to Alexander Severus[edit]

Upon the death of Severus, his sons Caracalla and Geta were made emperors. Caracalla got rid of his brother in that same year. Like his father, Caracalla was a warlike man. He continued Severus' policy, and gained respect from the legions. Caracalla was a cruel man, and ordered several slayings during his reign. He ordered the death of people of his own circle, like his tutor, Cilo, and a friend of his father, Papinian.

Knowing that the citizens of Alexandria disliked him and were ill-speaking about his character, he slew almost the entire population of the city. Arriving there, he served a banquet for the notable citizens. After that, his soldiers killed all the guests, and he marched into the city with the army, slaying most of Alexandria's people.[43][44] In 212, he issued the Edict of Caracalla, that gave full Roman citizenship to all freedmen living in the Empire. Caracalla was murdered by one of his soldiers during a campaign in Parthia, in 217 AD.

The Praetorian prefect Macrinus, who ordered Caracalla's murder, assumed the power. His brief reign ended in 218, when the youngster Elagabalus, a relative of the Severi, gained support from the legionaries and fought against Macrinus. Elagabalus was an incompetent and lascivious ruler[45], that is well-known by extreme extravagance. Cassius Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augusta have many accounts on his extravagance.

Elagabalus was succeeded by his cousin Alexander Severus. Alexander waged war against many foes, like the revitalized Persia and German peoples that invaded Gaul. His losses made the soldiers unsatisfied with the emperor, and some of them killed him during his German campaign, in 235 AD.[46]

Crisis of the 3rd Century[edit]

The Roman Empire suffered internal schisms, forming the Palmyrene Empire and the Gallic Empire

A disastrous scenario emerged after the death of Alexander Severus: the Roman state was plagued by civil wars, external invasions, politic chaos, pandemics and economic depression.[47][48] The old Roman values had fallen, and Mithraism and Christianism begun to spread through the populace. Emperors were not men linked with nobility anymore; they usually were born in lower-classes of distant parts of the Empire. These men rose to prominence through military ranks, and became emperors by civil wars.

There were 26 emperors for a 49-years period, a signal of political instability. Maximinus Thrax was the first ruler of that time, governing for just three years. Others ruled just for a few months, like Gordian I, Gordian II, Balbinus and Hostilian. The population and the frontiers were abandoned, since the emperors were mostly concerned in defeating rivals and establishing their power.

Economy also suffered in that epoch. The massive military expenditures from the Severi caused a devaluation of Roman coins. Hyperinflation came at this time as well. The Plague of Cyprian broke out in 250 and killed a huge portion of population.[49]

In 260 AD, the provinces of Syria Palaestina, Asia Minor and Egypt separated from the rest of the Roman state to form the Palmyrene Empire, ruled by Queen Zenobia and centered on Palmyra. In that same year the Gallic Empire was created by Postumus, retaining Britain and Gaul.[50] These countries separated from Rome after the capture of emperor Valerian, who was the first Roman ruler to be captured by enemies; Valerian was captured and executed by the Sassanids of Persia - a humiliating fact for the Romans.[51]

The crisis just begun to recede during the reigns of Claudius Gothicus (268-270), that defeated the Goths invaders, and Aurelian (271-275), who reconquered both Gallic and Palmyrene Empire[52][53] Just during the reign of Diocletian, a more competent ruler, that the crisis was overcame.



In 284 AD, Diocletian was hailed as Imperator by the eastern legions. Diocletian healed the empire from the crisis, by political and economic shifts. A new form of government was established: the Tetrarchy. The Empire was divided between four emperors, two in the West and two in the East. The first tetrarchs were Diocletian (in the East), Maximian (in the West), and two junior emperors, Galerius (in the East) and Flavius Constantius (in the West). To adjust economy, he made several tax reforms.[54]

Diocletian expelled the Persians that plundered Syria and conquered some barbarian tribes with Maximian. He adopted many behaviors from Eastern monarchs, like wearing pearls and golden sandals and robes. Anyone in presence of the emperor had now to prostate himself[55] – a common act in the East, but never implanted in Rome before. Diocletian did not use a disguised form of Republic, as the others emperors did since Augustus.

He was also responsible for the largest Christian persecution ever. In 303 he and Galerius started the persecution. They ordered the destruction of all the Christian churches and scripts and forbade Christian worship.[56] However, the martyrdom of the persecuted just augmented the number of Christians. The persecution also failed because Maximian and Flavius Constantius did not persecute the Christians on the West.

Diocletian abdicated the throne in 305 AD together with Maximian, thus, he was the first Roman emperor to resign. His reign ended the traditional form of imperial rule, the Principate (from princeps) and started the Dominate (from Dominus, “Master”)

Constantine and the Christianity[edit]

Constantine assumed the empire as a tetrarch in 306. He conducted many wars against the others tetrarchs. Firstly he defeated Maxentius in 312. In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan, which granted liberty for Christians profess their religion.[57] Constantine was converted to Christianity, enforcing the Christian faith. Therefore, he started the depaganization of the Empire and of Europe – a process concluded by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

The Franks and the Alamanni were defeated by him during 306-308. In 324 he defeated another tetrarch, Licinius, and controlled alone all the empire, just as it was before Diocletian. To celebrate his victories and Christianity’s relevance, he rebuilt Byzantium and renamed it as Nova Roma (“New Rome”); but the city soon gained the informal name of Constantinople (“City of Constantine”).[58] The city served as a new capital for the Empire. In fact, Rome had lost its central importance since the Crisis of the 3rd CenturyMediolanum was the capital from 286 to 330, and continued to hold the imperial court of West until the reign of Honorius, when Ravenna was made capital, in the 5th century.

Constantine’s reforms dramatically changed the ancient world; and opened the road to the Middle Ages.

Germanic and Hunnic invasions of the Roman Empire, 100–500 AD

Fall of the Roman Empire[edit]

After Constantine’s rule, Empire’s deterioration became more evident and entered in a critical stage. Christian values, which were centered in a heaven on afterlife, were responsible for making Romans less warlike and to don’t risk their lives for the country – in total opposition to the old and traditional Roman values.[59] This anti-bellicosity forced the Army to accept barbarian mercenaries in its lines.[60]

Rome lost many decisive battles against the Persian and Germanic barbarians: in 363, emperor Julian the Apostate was killed in the Battle of Samarra, against the Persians; and the Battle of Adrianople resulted in a decisive victory for the Goths and cost the life of emperor Valens (364-378).[61] Theodosius (379-395) gave even more force to the Christian faith; after his death, the Empire was divided into the Eastern Roman Empire, ruled by Arcadius and the Western Roman Empire, commanded by Honorius; both were Theodosius’ sons.

The situation became more critical in 408, after the death of Stilicho, a general that impeded a larger barbarian invasion in the early years of the 5th century. In 410, the Visigoths sacked Rome. During the 5th century, the Western Empire saw an incredible reduction of its territory. The Vandals conquered North Africa, the Visigoths claimed Gaul, Hispania was took by the Suebi, Britain was just abandoned by the central government, and the Empire almost collapsed during the invasions of Attila, chieftain of the Huns.[62][63][64][65]

Fatally, general Orestes refused to have the barbarian “allies” serving the army, and tried to expel them from Italy. Unhappy with this resolution, the chieftain Odoacer, from the Heruli, defeated and killed Orestes, invaded Ravenna and dethroned Romulus Augustus, son of Orestes. This event happened in 476, and historians usually take it as the mark of the end of Antiquity and beginning of the Middle Ages.[66]


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