The Roman Empire was one of the largest in history, with contiguous territories throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East
The Latin phrase imperium sine fine (“empire without end”) expressed the ideology that neither time nor space limited the Empire. In Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid, limitless empire is said to be granted to the Romans by their supreme deity Jupiter. This claim of universal dominion was renewed and perpetuated when the Empire came under Christian rule in the 4th century.
In reality, Roman expansion was mostly accomplished under the Republic, though parts of northern Europe were conquered in the 1st century AD, when Roman control in Europe, Africa and Asia was strengthened. During the reign of Augustus, a “global map of the known world” was displayed for the first time in public at Rome, coinciding with the composition of the most comprehensive work on political geography that survives from antiquity, the Geography of the Pontic Greek writer Strabo. When Augustus died, the commemorative account of his achievements (Res Gestae) prominently featured the geographical cataloguing of peoples and places within the Empire. Geography, the census, and the meticulous keeping of written records were central concerns of Roman Imperial administration.
The Empire reached its largest expanse under Trajan (reigned 98–117), encompassing an area of 5 million square kilometres that as of 2009 was divided among forty different modern countries. The traditional population estimate of 55–60 million inhabitants accounted for between one-sixth and one-fourth of the world’s total population and made it the largest population of any unified political entity in the West until the mid-19th century. Recent demographic studies have argued for a population peak ranging from 70 million to more than 100 million. Each of the three largest cities in the Empire—Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch— was almost twice the size of any European city at the beginning of the 17th century.
A period of increasing trouble and decline began with the reign of Commodus. Commodus’ assassination in 192 triggered the Year of the Five Emperors, of which Septimius Severus emerged victorious. The assassination of Alexander Severus in 235 led to the Crisis of the Third Century in which 26 men were declared Emperor by the Roman Senate over a fifty year period. It was not until the reign of Diocletian that the Empire was successfully stabilized with the introduction of the Tetrarchy, which saw four Emperors rule the Empire at once. This arrangement was ultimately unsuccessful, leading to a civil war that was finally ended by Constantine I, who defeated his rivals and became the sole ruler of the Empire. Constantine subsequently shifted the capital of the east to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople in his honor. It remained the capital of the east until its demise in 1453. Constantine also adopted Christianity which later became the official state religion of the Empire. Following the death of Theodosius I, the last Emperor to rule a united Empire, the dominion of the Empire was gradually eroded by abuses of power, civil wars, barbarian migrations and invasions, military reforms and economic depression. The Sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths and again in 455 by the Vandals accelerated the Western Empire’s decay, while the deposition of the Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 by Odoacer is generally accepted to mark the end of the Empire in the west. The Eastern Roman Empire endured for another thousand years, eventually falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
From the beginning of the 2nd century BC, the power was contended between two groups of aristocrats: the optimates, representing the conservative part of the Senate, and the populares, which relied on the help of the urban populace to gain the power. In the same period, the bankruptcy of the small farmers and the establishment of large slave estates provoked the migration to the city of a large number of people. The continuous warfare made necessary a professional army, which was more loyal to its chiefs than to the republic. Due to that, in the second half of the second century and during the first century BC saw fights abroad and at home: after the failed attempt of social reform of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, and the war against Jugurtha, there was a first civil war between Gaius Marius and Sulla. To this followed the slave revolt under Spartacus, and the establishment of a first Triumvirate with Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. The conquest of Gaul let rise the star of Caesar, who fought a second civil war against the Senate and Pompey and, after his victory, established a lifelong dictatorship. His assassination led to a second Triumvirate among Octavian (Caesar’s nephew and heir), Mark Antonyand Lepidus, and to another civil war between the Octavian and Antony. The former in 27 BC became princeps civitatis and got the title of Augustus, founding the principate, a diarchy between the princepsand the senate. Established de facto the empire, which reached its greatest expansion in the second century under the Emperor Trajan, Rome was confirmed as caput Mundi, i.e. the capital of the world, an expression which had already been given in the Republican period. During its first two centuries the empire saw as rulers, after Octavian Augustus, the emperors of the Julio-Claudian, Flavian (who also built eponymous amphitheater, known as the Colosseum) and Antonine dynasties. This time was also characterized by the spread of the Christian religion, preached by Jesus Christ in Judea in the first half of the century (under Tiberius) and popularized by his apostles through the empire. The Antonine age is considered the apogee of the Empire, whose territory ranged from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates, from the central-northern part of Britain to Egypt.
The Roman Empire began to disintegrate in the early 5th century
As Germanic migrations and invasions overwhelmed the capacity of the Empire to assimilate the migrants and fight off the invaders. The Romans were successful in fighting off all invaders, most famously Attila the Hun, though the Empire had assimilated so many Germanic peoples of dubious loyalty to Rome that the Empire started to dismember itself. Most chronologies place the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476, when Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate to the Germanic warlord Odoacer. By placing himself under the rule of the Eastern Emperor, rather than naming himself Emperor (as other Germanic chiefs had done after deposing past Emperors), Odoacer ended the Western Empire by ending the line of Western Emperors. The eastern Empire exercised diminishing control over the west over the course of the next century. The empire in the East—known today as the Byzantine Empire, but referred to in its time as the “Roman Empire” or by various other names—ended in 1453 with the death of Constantine XI and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.
There is archaeological evidence of human occupation of the Rome area from approximately 14,000 years ago, but the dense layer of much younger debris obscures Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites. Evidence of stone tools, pottery and stone weapons attest to about 10,000 years of human presence. Several excavations support the view that Rome grew from pastoral settlements on the Palatine Hill built above the area of the future Roman Forum. While some archaeologists argue that Rome was indeed founded in the middle of the 8th century BC (the date of the tradition), the date is subject to controversy. However, the power of the well known tale of Rome’s legendary foundation tends to deflect attention from its actual, and much more ancient, origins.
Rome, who had lost its central role in the administration of the empire, was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths led by Alaric I, but also embellished by the construction of sacred buildings by the popes (with the collaboration of the emperors). The city, impoverished and depopulated, suffered a new looting in 455, by Genseric, king of the Vandals. The weak emperors of the fifth century could not stop the decay, until the deposition of Romulus Augustus on August 22, 476 marked the end of the Western Roman Empire and, for many historians, the beginning of the Middle Ages.
The Roman Empire • Locations & Activities