The History of Rome: ORIGINS and downfall of the EMPIRE (summary)

In this lesson we will talk about the history of Rome: a city, a republic and an empire, whose history left a permanent mark in the Italian culture and beyond! We will quickly go through the history of Rome since its legendary origins to the peak of its power, when it became the widest empire of antiquity.

The Roman Empire: founding, development and decline

Romance languages

The history of the Roman Empire is fundamental not only for the development of Italian culture, but also for the establishment of European languages, because it allowed latin to spread to many territories, like Spain, France, Portugal, Romania etc.

In short, the expansion of the Roman Empire laid the foundation for what today we call “Romance languages”: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and so on.

The three periods of ancient Rome

Historians divided the history of Rome in three main periods:

1) The Roman Kingdom: from 753 B.C, year of the foundation of Rome, to 509 B.C., year of the exile of the Tarquinii (the last kings of Rome) from the city.

2) The Roman Republic: from 509 B.C. to 27 B.C., when the Roman Senate granted full powers and the title of “Augustus” to Octavius.

3) The Roman Empire: from 27 B.C. to 476 B.C., year of the downfall of the Western Roman Empire.

Well, now that we made this chronological division, let’s get to the heart of the Roman history!

The Roman Kingdom

According to the legend, Rome was founded in the middle of the VIII century B.C. by two brothers raised by a she-wolf: Romulus and Remus, descendants of Aeneas.

Actually, modern archeological studies and historical research believe that the city of Rome was born when the communities that inhabited the seven hills of Rome, on the left side of the Tiber river, merged together.

During the first period, called the Roman Kindom, Rome was a monarchical city-state, similar to Greek poleis: the power was in the hands of a monarch, who received the title of rex. The king did not only detain political power, but also military and religious power; moreover, he was assisted by a Senate, composed of patricians (the elite class of the ancient Roman society).

The monarchy in Rome lasted for about two and a half centuries, during which time, according to tradition, 7 kings reigned one after another:

1 – Romulus, who became the first king of Rome after killing his brother Remus, as claimed by the legend;

2 – Numa Pompilius;

3 – Tullus Hostilius;

4 – Ancus Marcius;

5 – Tarquinius Priscus;

6 – Servius Tullius;

7 – Tarquinius Superbus.

The Roman Republic

The 7th king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, made a lot of enemies, and was eventually exiled from Rome in 509 B.C., becoming the last king of the city.

This marked the beginning of the Roman Republic, a phase characterised by the leading role of the Senate in the government of the city.

During this period, Rome exapanded in Italy and in the Mediterranean after winning the Samnite Wars, against the Samnites and their allies (IV-III centuries B.C.) and the Punic Wars against Carthage (III-II centuries B.C.).

Nonetheless, in the I century B.C. the Republic suffered a terrible crisis, mainly because of the conflict between those who supported the faction of the populares (the political party that supported the people’s requests) and those who supported the optimates (the conservative aristocrat party) in the Senate.

The civil wars

Between the years 83 and 82 B.C., the first civil war in Rome was fought between the factions of the populares, guided by Gaius Marius, and tha faction of the optimates, guided by Sulla. The latter won and became emperor for life after taking out all of his enemies.

In any case, internal problems had not been solved, as proven by the conspiracy against the Republic organised by the Roman senator Catiline and exposed by the lawyer Cicero in 63 B.C.

In 60 B.C. commanders Pompey, Crassus e Caesar, despite party differences, joined forces in the First Triumvirate to try and solve the period of instability and crisis that Rome was suffering.

This alliance did not last long: after Crassus’ death, in 49 B.C., while returning from Gaul, Caesar led his legions across the Rubicon river, in which occasion he pronounced the famous words «alea iacta est» (“the die has been cast”), and triggered the second civil war, fought between his legions and Pompey’s optimates.

Caesar defeated Pompey in Pharsalus (48 B.C.), and then the other optimates, becoming the undisputed chief and dictator of Rome.

After carrying out a series of reforms, Caesar was stabbed to death on the 15th March 44 B.C. (the “Ides of March”) from a conspiracy organised by a group of conservatives and republicans, headed by Marcus Junius Brutus, Gaius Cassius Longinus and Decimus Brutus.

Caesar’s death marked the beginning of a phase of instability in Rome. Octavius, his adopted son, Mark Anthony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus created the Second Triumvirate in 43 B.C., brought order back to the Republic and divided Rome’s territories among them.

After Lepidus was expelled from the triumvirate, Octavius became the ruler of the West and Anthony of the East. The latter married the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and started drifting away from Roman customs. Octavius took advantage of the Senate’s disappointment towards Anthony and declared war to him.

In 31 B.C. Octavius defeated Mark Anthony in Actium and in 27 B.C. the Senate granted him full powers and the title of “Augustus”. This is how the Empire was born.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire began when the Senate put all of the power in the hands of a single person: the emperor.

The Roman Empire can be divided into two phases:

1 – A phase of prosperity and glory (until the II century A.D.).

2 – A phase of deep crisis (beginning in the III century A.D.).

Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, had full political and military powers and brought peace and stability after years of civil wars. He was the first of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which ruled until 68 A.D. with emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

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One thing worth mentioning is that the maximum expansion of the Empire was achieved between 98 and 117 A.D. with emperor Trajan, covering an area that ranged from Spain to Asia Minor and from England to Northern Africa.

Crisis and downfall of the Empire

The main causes of the Empire’s deep crisis in the III century A.D. were: (1) the immense power of the army, which organised many coup d’etats, (2) the economic crisis, (3) the threat of the populations across the borders and (4) the spreading of Christianity.

Moreover, because of the difficulty of managing such a huge empire, in the IV century A.D. emperor Diocletian decided to opt for the Tetrarchy (the administrative subdivision of Roman holdings in four different territories): this is how the partition of the empire began, and it became final in 395 A.D. with the death of emperor Theodosius I, who split the Empire in two (Eastern and Western Empire).

In the IV century, the Western Roman Empire, wrecked by the deep political and economical crisis, was unable to oppose the attacks from nearby populations: in 476 A.D commander Odoacer deposed the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, marking the downfall of the Western Empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire survived for a very long time in Constantinople, until 1453, when the imperial city, conquered by Mehmed II, became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

This was the history of ancient Rome in a nutshell, filled with events and fundamental for the development of Europe as we know it today.

And you, have you ever been to Rome? Have you visited the Roman Hills or the Colosseum?

Well, don’t worry if you haven’t visited Rome, Italy is full of stunning places and amazing monuments: if you want to know more about them, watch our video about the best Italian monuments!

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