Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion, and fall

All roads lead to Rome. Have you ever heard this saying without knowing exactly its origin and meaning?

Ancient Rome is well-known for its engineering talent. It turns out that many ancient Roman structures stay still intact, and they include aqueducts, public baths, walls, palaces, temples, coliseums, and roads.

Portions of many of these Roman roads, such as the Appian Way, Via Augusta, or Via Appia, provided a route for a strong Roman economy and for rapid deployment of the Roman army. Every Roman road was considered to begin at the Milliarium Aureum or Golden Milestone, installed by Emperor Caesar Augustus in the Roman Forum in the City of Rome.

Guess now the meaning of the phrase all roads lead to Rome?

It means that there are various ways to reach a conclusion, many ways to achieve a goal, and many routes to arrive at a decision. The idea is that there are many methods to accomplish something, all leading to the same result.

And the fact is that a teeny-tiny rural spot in the center of Italy accomplished its goal of becoming one of the most powerful empires in history, and its influence has reached our present-day society.

Let me explain why.

What were the origins of Rome?

According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 B.C. by Romulus and Remus, twin sons of the god Mars and a Latin princess. The twins were abandoned on the Tiber River as infants and raised by a she-wolf, and years later, they decided to build a city near the spot.

Actually, it was men and women, not immortals, who built the city, and they chose the spot mainly for its strategic location and fertile soil.

How was Rome’s Geography?

Rome was built on seven rolling hills at a bend on the Tiber River, near the center of the Italian peninsula. Midway between the Alps and Italy’s southern tip, Rome also was near the midpoint of the Mediterranean Sea.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
The seven hills of Rome

Who were the first Romans?

The earliest settlers on the Italian peninsula arrived in prehistoric times. From about 1000 to 500 B.C., three groups inhabited the region and eventually battled for control: the Latins, the Greeks, and the Etruscans.

The Latins built the original settlement at Rome, a cluster of wooden huts atop one of its seven hills, the Palatine Hill. These settlers were considered to be the first Romans.

Between 750 and 600 B.C., the Greeks established colonies along with southern Italy and Sicily. The cities became prosperous and commercially active. They brought all of Italy, including Rome, into closer contact with Greek civilization.

The Etruscans were native to northern Italy. Skilled metalworkers and engineers, the Etruscans strongly influenced the development of Roman civilization. In addition, they boasted a system of writing, for example, and the Romans adopted their alphabet. They also influenced Rome’s architecture, especially the use of the arch.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Etruscan tomb painting

How was the early republic?

Around 600 B.C., an Etruscan became king of Rome. In the decades that followed, Rome grew from a collection of hilltop villages to a city that covered nearly 500 square miles. Various kings ordered the construction of Rome’s first temples and public centers—the most famous of which was the Forum, the heart of Roman political life.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Government in Ancient Rome

The last king of Rome was Tarquin the Proud. A harsh tyrant, he was driven from power in 509 B.C. and then the Romans declared they would never again be ruled by a king. Instead, they established a republic, a word from the Latin phrase res publica, which means “public affairs.”

A republic is a form of government in which power rests with citizens who have the right to vote for their leaders. In Rome, citizenship with voting rights was granted only to freeborn male citizens.

In the early republic, different groups of Romans struggled for power. One group was the patricians, the wealthy landowners who held most of the power. The other important group was the plebeians, the common farmers, artisans, and merchants who made up the majority of the population.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Social groups in Ancient Rome: Patricians, Plebeians and Slaves

The patricians inherited their power and social status and above all, they claimed that their ancestry gave them the authority to make laws for Rome.

The plebeians, on the other hand, were citizens of Rome with the right to vote. However, they were barred by law from holding the most important government positions. In time, Rome’s leaders allowed the plebeians to form their own assembly and elect representatives called tribunes. Tribunes protected the rights of the plebeians from unfair acts of patrician officials.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
The Cursus Honorum in Ancient Rome

How was Rome governed?

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Government organization during the Republic

An important victory for the plebeians was to force the creation of a written law code because, with laws unwritten, patrician officials often interpreted the law to suit themselves. In 451 B.C., a group of ten officials began writing down Rome’s laws.

The laws were carved on twelve tablets, or tables, and hung in the Forum, and they became the basis for later Roman law. The Twelve Tables established the idea that all free citizens had a right to the protection of the law.

Rome had two officials called consuls. Like kings, they commanded the army and directed the government. However, their power was limited. A consul’s term was only one year long. The same person could not be elected consul again for ten years. Also, one consul could always overrule, or veto, the other’s decisions.

The senate was the aristocratic branch of Rome’s government, with both legislative and administrative functions in the republic. Its 300 members were chosen from the upper class of Roman society. Later, plebeians were allowed in the senate. The senate exercised great influence over both foreign and domestic policy.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Cicero at the Senate

The assemblies represented the more democratic side of the government. For example, an assembly organized by the plebeians, the Tribal Assembly, elected the tribunes and made laws for the common people—and later for the republic itself.

In times of crisis, the republic could appoint a dictator—a leader who had absolute power to make laws and command the army. A dictator’s power lasted for only six months and they were chosen by the consuls and then elected by the senate.

How was the Roman Army?

In addition to their government, the Romans placed great value on their military. All citizens who owned land were required to serve in the army. So, seekers of certain public offices had to perform ten years of military service.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Roman roads were essential to the army

Roman soldiers were organized into large military units called legions. The Roman legion was made up of some 5,000 heavily armed foot soldiers (infantry). A group of soldiers on horseback (cavalry) supported each legion, and these legions were divided into smaller groups of 80 men, each of which was called a century.

The military organization and fighting skills of the Roman army were key factors in Rome’s rise to greatness.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Roman century
Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Hoplite kit

How did Rome spread its power?

For hundreds of years after the founding of the republic, Rome sought to expand its territories through trade and conquest.

Roman power grew slowly but steadily as the legions battled for control of the Italian peninsula. By the fourth century B.C., the Romans dominated central Italy. Eventually, they defeated the Etruscans to the north and the Greek city-states to the south. By 265 B.C., the Romans were masters of nearly all Italy.

Rome had different laws and treatment for different parts of its conquered territory.

The first group, the neighboring Latins on the Tiber, became full citizens of Rome. In a second group, in territories farther from Rome, conquered peoples enjoyed all the rights of Roman citizenship except the vote. Finally, all other conquered groups fell into a third category, allies of Rome. Rome did not interfere with its allies, as long as they supplied troops for the Roman army and did not make treaties of friendship with any other state.

The new citizens and allies became partners in Rome’s growth. This policy toward defeated enemies helped Rome to succeed in building a long-lasting empire. For more than two centuries after 265 B.C., Roman power spread far beyond Italy.

How was Rome’s Commercial Network?

Rome’s location gave it easy access to the riches of the lands ringing the Mediterranean Sea. Consequently, Roman merchants moved by land and sea. They traded Roman wine and olive oil for a variety of foods, raw materials, and manufactured goods from other lands. However, other large and powerful cities interfered with Roman access to the Mediterranean. One such city was Carthage.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Trade goods in Ancient Rome

Once a colony of Phoenicia, Carthage was located on a peninsula on the North African coast, and its rise to power soon put it in direct opposition with Rome.

In 264 B.C., Rome and Carthage went to war, the beginning of the long struggle known as the Punic Wars. Between 264 and 146 B.C., Rome and Carthage fought three wars. The first, for control of Sicily and the western Mediterranean, lasted 23 years (264–241 B.C.) and ended in the defeat of Carthage.

The Second Punic War began in 218 B.C. and the mastermind behind the war was a 29-year-old Carthaginian general named Hannibal, a brilliant military strategist who wanted to avenge Carthage’s earlier defeat.

Hannibal assembled an army of 50,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and 60 elephants with the intent of capturing Rome. Instead of a head-on attack, however, Hannibal sought to surprise the Romans with the most daring and risky move: he led his army on a long trek from Spain across France and through the Alps.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Hannibal crossing the Alps

Despite losing more than half his men and most of his elephants, the general’s move initially worked. For more than a decade, he marched his forces up and down the Italian peninsula at will. Hannibal won his greatest victory at Cannae, in 216 B.C. There his army inflicted enormous losses on the Romans. However, the Romans regrouped and with the aid of many allies stood firm and prevented Hannibal from capturing Rome.

Finally, the Romans found a daring military leader to match Hannibal’s boldness. A general named Scipio devised a plan to attack Carthage., which forced Hannibal to return to defend his native city.

In 202 B.C., at Zama near Carthage, the Romans finally defeated Hannibal. During the Third Punic War (149–146 B.C.), Rome laid siege to Carthage. In 146 B.C., the city was set afire and its 50,000 inhabitants sold into slavery. Its territory was made a Roman province.

Rome’s victories in the Punic Wars gave it dominance over the western Mediterranean. The Romans then went on to conquer the eastern half. By about 70 B.C., Rome’s Mediterranean empire stretched from Anatolia in the east to Spain in the west.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Roman Empire

Why did the Republic collapse?

As Rome enlarged its territory, its republican form of government grew increasingly unstable. Eventually, the Roman Republic gave way to the formation of a mighty dictator-ruled empire that continued to spread Rome’s influence far and wide.

Rome’s increasing wealth and expanding boundaries brought many problems. The most serious were growing discontent among the lower classes of society and a breakdown in military order. These problems led to a shakeup of the republic—and the emergence of a new political system.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Western Roman Empire collapse diagram

Why did economic turmoil take place?

As Rome grew, the gap between rich and poor grew wider. Many of Rome’s rich landowners lived on huge estates, and forced thousands of enslaved persons—captured peoples in various wars—to work on these estates. By 100 B.C., enslaved persons formed perhaps one-third of Rome’s population.

Small farmers found it difficult to compete with the large estates run by the labor of enslaved people. Many of these farmers were former soldiers. A large number of them sold their lands to wealthy landowners and became homeless and jobless. Most stayed in the countryside and worked as seasonal migrant laborers.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Countryside near Rome

Some headed to Rome and other cities looking for work. They joined the ranks of the urban poor, a group that totaled about one-fourth of Roman society.

Two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, attempted to help Rome’s poor. As tribunes, they proposed such reforms as limiting the size of estates and giving land to the poor.

The brothers made enemies of numerous senators, who felt threatened by their ideas. Both Gracchus brothers met violent deaths. A period of civil war, or conflict between groups within the same country, followed their deaths.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Graccus brothers

Adding to the growing turmoil within the republic was a breakdown of the once-loyal military. As the republic grew more unstable, generals began seizing greater power for themselves. They recruited soldiers from the landless poor by promising them land. These soldiers fought for pay and owed allegiance only to their commander.

They replaced the citizen-soldiers whose loyalty had been to the republic. It now was possible for a military leader supported by his own troops to take over by force. Eventually, one would do just that.

In 60 B.C., a military leader named Julius Caesar joined forces with Crassus, a wealthy Roman, and Pompey, a popular general. Pompey and Crassus helped Caesar to be elected consul in 59 B.C. For the next ten years, these men dominated Rome as a triumvirate, a group of three rulers.

Caesar was a strong leader and a genius at military strategy. Following tradition, he served only one year as consul. He then appointed himself governor of Gaul (now France). During 58–50 B.C., Caesar led his legions in a grueling but successful campaign to conquer all of Gaul.

Because he shared fully in the hardships of war, he won his men’s loyalty and devotion. The reports of Caesar’s successes in Gaul made him very popular with the people of Rome. Pompey, who had become his political rival, feared Caesar’s ambitions. In 50 B.C., the senate, at Pompey’s urgings, ordered Caesar to disband his legions and return home.

Caesar defied the senate’s order. On the night of January 10, 49 B.C., he took his army across the Rubicon River in Italy, the southern limit of the area he commanded. He marched his army swiftly toward Rome, and Pompey fled.

Caesar’s troops defeated Pompey’s armies in Greece, Asia, Spain, and Egypt. In 46 B.C., Caesar returned to Rome, where he had the support of the army and the masses. That same year, the senate appointed him dictator. In 44 B.C., he was named dictator for life.

What were Caesar’s reforms?

Caesar governed as an absolute ruler, one who has total power. However, he started a number of reforms. He granted Roman citizenship to many people in the provinces. He expanded the senate, adding friends and supporters from Italy and other regions. Caesar also helped the poor by creating jobs, especially through the construction of new public buildings.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Roman aqueduct structure
Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Roman baths

He started colonies where people without land could own property, and he increased pay for soldiers. Many nobles and senators expressed concern over Caesar’s growing power, success, and popularity. Some feared losing their influence. Others considered him a tyrant.

A number of important senators, led by Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, plotted his assassination. On March 15, 44 B.C., they stabbed him to death in the senate chamber.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Caesar stabbed to death at the Senate
Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
How the Roman Empire started

How did the Empire begin?

After Caesar’s death, civil war broke out again and destroyed what was left of the Roman Republic. Three of Caesar’s supporters banded together to crush the assassins. Caesar’s 18-year-old grandnephew and adopted son Octavian joined with an experienced general named Mark Antony and a powerful politician named Lepidus.

In 43 B.C., they took control of Rome and ruled for ten years as the Second Triumvirate. Their alliance, however, ended in jealousy and violence. Octavian forced Lepidus to retire. He and Mark Antony then became rivals. While leading troops against Rome’s enemies in Anatolia, Mark Antony met Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. He fell in love with her and followed her to Egypt.

Octavian accused Antony of plotting to rule Rome from Egypt, and another civil war erupted. Octavian defeated the combined forces of Antony and Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Later, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Cleopatra, queen of Egypt

While he restored some aspects of the republic, Octavian became the unchallenged ruler of Rome. Eventually, he accepted the title of Augustus, or “exalted one.” He also kept the title imperator, or “supreme military commander,” a term from which emperor is derived. Rome was now an empire ruled by one man.

How did Roman Empire become vast and powerful?

Rome was at the peak of its power from the beginning of Augustus’s rule in 27 B.C. to A.D. 180. For 207 years, peace reigned throughout the empire, except for some fighting with tribes along the borders. This period of peace and prosperity is known as the Pax Romana— “Roman peace.”

During this time, the Roman Empire included more than 3 million square miles. Its population numbered between 60 and 80 million people. About 1 million people lived in the city of Rome itself.

 Why was it a sound government?

The Romans held their vast empire together in part through efficient government and able rulers. Augustus was Rome’s ablest emperor. He stabilized the frontier, glorified Rome with splendid public buildings, and created a system of government that survived for centuries.

He set up the civil service. That is, he paid workers to manage the affairs of government, such as the grain supply, tax collection, and the postal system. Although the senate still functioned, civil servants drawn from plebeians and even former slaves actually administered the empire.

After Augustus died in A.D. 14, the system of government that he established maintained the empire’s stability. This was due mainly to the effectiveness of the civil service in carrying out day-to-day operations. The Romans managed to control an empire that by the second century A.D. reached from Spain to Mesopotamia, from North Africa to Britain. Included in its provinces were people of many languages, cultures, and customs.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
The Five Good Emperors

What was the most important industry?

Agriculture was the most important industry in the empire. All else depended on it. About 90 percent of the people were engaged in farming. Most Romans survived on the produce from their local area. Additional food (when needed) and luxury items for the rich were obtained through trade.

In Augustus’s time, a silver coin called a denarius was in use throughout the empire. Common coinage made trade between different parts of the empire much easier.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Roman denarius

Rome had a vast trading network. Ships from the east traveled the Mediterranean protected by the Roman navy. Cities such as Corinth in Greece, Ephesus in Anatolia, and Antioch on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean grew wealthy. Rome also traded with China and India.

A complex network of roads linked the empire to such far-flung places as Persia and southern Russia. The Roman army originally built these roads for military purposes. Trade also brought Roman ways to the provinces and beyond.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Ancient Roman road, key and strategic to keep the Empire

What were the values of the Roman world?

Throughout its history, Rome emphasized the values of discipline, strength, and loyalty. A person with these qualities was said to have the important virtue of gravitas.

The Romans were practical people. They honored strength more than beauty, power more than grace, and usefulness more than elegance.

Most people in the Roman Empire lived in the countryside and worked on farms. In Rome and smaller cities, merchants, soldiers, slaves, foreigners, and philosophers all shared the crowded, noisy streets. Here, people from all walks of life came together to create a diverse society.

Slavery was a significant part of Roman life. It was widespread and important to the economy. The Romans made more use of slaves than any previous civilization. The numbers of slaves may have reached as high as one-third of the total population.

Most slaves were conquered peoples brought back by victorious Roman armies and included men, women, and children. Children born to slaves also became slaves. Slaves could be bought and sold. According to Roman law, slaves were the property of their owners. They could be punished, rewarded, set free, or put to death as their masters saw fit.

Slaves worked both in the city and on the farm. Many were treated cruelly and worked at hard labor all day long. Some—strong, healthy males—were forced to become gladiators, or professional fighters, who fought to the death in public contests.

Other slaves, particularly those who worked in wealthy households, were better treated. Occasionally, slaves would rebel. None of the slave revolts succeeded. More than a million slaves lost their lives attempting to gain their freedom.

Which gods and goddesses did the Romans worship?

The earliest Romans worshiped powerful spirits or divine forces, called numina, that they thought resided in everything around them. Closely related to these spirits were the Lares, who were the guardian spirits of each family. They gave names to these powerful gods and goddesses and honored them through various rituals, hoping to gain favor and avoid misfortune.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses

Romans linked government and religion. The deities were symbols of the state and the population honored them not only in private rituals at shrines in their homes but also in public worship ceremonies conducted by priests in temples.

Among the most important Roman gods and goddesses were Jupiter, father of the gods; Juno, his wife, who watched over women; and Minerva, goddess of wisdom and the arts and crafts. During the empire, worship of the emperor also became part of the official religion of Rome.

How was society and culture?

By the time of the empire, wealth and social status made huge differences in how people lived. Classes had little in common. The rich lived extravagantly. They spent large sums of money on homes, gardens, slaves, and luxuries. They gave banquets that lasted for many hours and included foods that were rare and costly, such as boiled ostrich and parrot-tongue pie.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Roman banquet party

However, most people in Rome barely had the necessities of life. During the time of the empire, much of the city’s population was unemployed. The government supported these people with daily rations of grain. In the shadow of Rome’s great temples and public buildings, poor people crowded into rickety, sprawling tenements. The fire was a constant danger.

To distract and control the masses of Romans, the government provided free games, races, mock battles, and gladiator contests. By A.D. 250, there were 150 holidays a year. On these days of celebration, the Colosseum, a huge arena that could hold 50,000, would fill with the rich and the poor alike. The spectacles they watched combined bravery and cruelty, honor, and violence. In the animal shows, wild creatures brought from distant lands, such as tigers, lions, and bears, fought to the death.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Colosseum in Rome

In other contests, gladiators engaged in combat with animals or with each other, often until one of them was killed.

During this time of Pax Romana, another activity slowly emerged in the Roman Empire—the practice of a new religion known as Christianity. The early followers of this new faith would meet with much brutality and hardship for their beliefs. But their religion would endure and spread throughout the empire, and eventually become one of the dominant faiths of the world.

Why did the Roman Empire fall?

In the third century A.D., Rome faced many problems. They came both from within the empire and from outside. Only drastic economic, military, and political reforms, it seemed, could hold off collapse.

Historians generally agree that the end of the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161–180) marked the end of two centuries of peace and prosperity known as the Pax Romana. The rulers that followed in the next century had little or no idea of how to deal with the giant empire and its growing problems.

As a result, Rome began to decline and Rome’s economy weakened. During the third century A.D., several factors prompted this weakening of Rome’s economy.

  • Hostile tribes outside the boundaries of the empire and pirates on the Mediterranean Sea disrupted trade. Having reached their limit of expansion, the Romans lacked new sources of gold and silver. Desperate for revenue, the government raised taxes.
  • It also started minting coins that contained less and less silver. It hoped to create more money with the same amount of precious metal. However, the economy soon suffered from inflation, a drastic drop in the value of money coupled with a rise in prices.
  • Agriculture faced equally serious problems. Harvests in Italy and western Europe became increasingly meager because overworked soil had lost its fertility. What’s more, years of war had destroyed much farmland. Eventually, serious food shortages and disease spread, and the population declined.
  • There was military and political turmoil, too. By the third century A.D., the Roman military was also in disarray. Over time, Roman soldiers in general had become less disciplined and loyal. They gave their allegiance not to Rome but to their commanders, who fought among themselves for the throne.
  • To defend against the increasing threats to the empire, the government began to recruit mercenaries, foreign soldiers who fought for money. While mercenaries would accept lower pay than Romans, they felt little sense of loyalty to the empire.
  • Feelings of loyalty eventually weakened among average citizens as well. In the past, Romans cared so deeply about their republic that they willingly sacrificed their lives for it. Conditions in the later centuries of the empire caused citizens to lose their sense of patriotism. They became indifferent to the empire’s fate.
Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Reasons for the collapse of the Western Roman Empire
Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Know your uniforms? Soldier Legate Centurion

Remarkably, Rome survived intact for another 200 years. This was due largely to reform-minded emperors and the empire’s division into two parts.

In A.D. 284, Diocletian, a strong-willed army leader, became the new emperor. He ruled with an iron fist and severely limited personal freedoms. Nonetheless, he restored order to the empire and increased its strength. Diocletian doubled the size of the Roman army and sought to control inflation by setting fixed prices for goods.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Social turmoils

To restore the prestige of the office of emperor, he claimed descent from the ancient Roman gods and created elaborate ceremonies to present himself in a godlike aura.

Diocletian believed that the empire had grown too large and too complex for one ruler. In perhaps his most significant reform, he divided the empire into the Greek-speaking East (Greece, Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt) and the Latin-speaking West (Italy, Gaul, Britain, and Spain). He took the eastern half for himself and appointed a co-ruler for the West.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
East and West Roman Empire

While Diocletian shared authority, he kept overall control. His half of the empire, the East, included most of the empire’s great cities and trade centers and was far wealthier than the West.

Because of ill health, Diocletian retired in A.D. 305. However, his plans for orderly succession failed. Civil war broke out immediately. By 311, four rivals were competing for power. Among them was an ambitious young commander named Constantine, the same Constantine who would later end the persecution of Christians.

Constantine gained control of the western part of the empire in A.D. 312 and continued many of the social and economic policies of Diocletian. In 324 Constantine also secured control of the East, thus restoring the concept of a single ruler.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Constantine conversion to Christianity

In A.D. 330, Constantine took a step that would have great consequences for the empire. He moved the capital from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium, in what is now Istambul (Turkey). The new capital stood on the Bosporus Strait, strategically located for trade and defense purposes on a crossroads between West and East.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Emperor Constantine converts into Christianity

With Byzantium as its capital, the center of power in the empire shifted from Rome to the east. Soon the new capital stood protected by massive walls and filled with imperial buildings modeled after those in Rome. The city eventually took a new name—Constantinople, or the city of Constantine.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Bizantium became the capital city of the East Roman Empire

After Constantine’s death, the empire would again be divided. The East would survive; the West would fall.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Eastern Roman Empire Timeline

Why did the Western Empire crumble?

The decline of the Western Roman Empire took place over many years. Its final collapse was the result of worsening internal problems, the separation of the Western Empire from the wealthier Eastern part, and outside invasions.

Since the days of Julius Caesar, Germanic peoples had gathered on the northern borders of the empire and coexisted in relative peace with Rome. Around A.D. 370, all that changed when a fierce group of Mongol nomads from central Asia, the Huns, moved into the region and began destroying all in their path.

In an effort to flee from the Huns, the various Germanic people pushed into Roman lands. (Romans called all invaders “barbarians,” a term that they used to refer to non-Romans.) They kept moving through the Roman provinces of Gaul, Spain, and North Africa. The Western Empire was unable to field an army to stop them. In 410, hordes of Germans overran Rome itself and plundered it for three days.

Meanwhile, the Huns, who were indirectly responsible for the Germanic assault on the empire, became a direct threat. In 444, they united for the first time under a powerful chieftain named Attila. With his 100,000 soldiers, Attila terrorized both halves of the empire.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Attila, king of the Huns

In the East, his armies attacked and plundered 70 cities. (They failed, however, to scale the high walls of Constantinople.) The Huns then swept into the West. In A.D. 452, Attila’s forces advanced against Rome, but bouts of famine and disease kept them from conquering the city.

Although the Huns were no longer a threat to the empire after Attila’s death in 453, the Germanic invasions continued.

The last Roman emperor, a 14-year-old boy named Romulus Augustulus, was ousted by German forces in 476. After that, no emperor even pretended to rule Rome and its western provinces. Roman power in the western half of the empire had disappeared and Europe entered the Middle Ages.

The eastern half of the empire, which came to be called the Byzantine Empire, not only survived but flourished. It preserved the great heritage of Greek and Roman culture for another 1,000 years.

The Byzantine emperors ruled from Constantinople and saw themselves as heirs to the power of Augustus Caesar. The empire endured until 1453, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks. Even though Rome’s political power in the West ended, its cultural influence did not. Its ideas, customs, and institutions influenced the development of Western civilization—and still do so today.

Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
The Forum in Rome
Changes to Europe after the Fall of the Roman Empire

Names to know

Virgil (70-19 BC) – Virgil was a famous Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid, an epic poem about a prince called Aeneas.

Claudius (10 BC-54 AD) – Claudius was the fourth Roman Emperor and led the Roman army that conquered Britain.

Cicero (106-43 BC) – Cicero was a famous Roman philosopher and orator, which means he was known for giving good speeches. He could write well, and could also speak well in public.

Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) – Pliny the Younger wrote many letters about the life and times he lived in, which have helped us understand more about Rome and the things that happened then. Pliny lived during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which killed his uncle, Pliny the Elder.

Mount Vesuvius eruption destroyed the city of Pompei and Herculanus in the 79 AD

Fun Facts

  1. The legend goes that Rome was founded by Romulus, the son of a god, in 753 BC in an area surrounded by seven hills.
  2. The Romans spoke Latin, a language that is the basis for other languages spoken today – even English!
  3. Romans decorated floors and walls in mosaics, pictures made from small pieces of colored tiles.
  4. The calendar that we use today was based on a system Julius Caesar established.
  5. We have the Romans to thank for sanitation – they created aqueducts that kept water clean as it got to peoples’ homes.
  6. As a way to relax and have fun, the Romans would go to the Colosseum to see plays and watch gladiator fights.
  7. The Romans were so good at building roads that some Roman roads still exist today!
  8. Bathhouses were used by everyone to take a bath, have a massage and chat with friends.
  9. The Romans used different letters to represent numbers – we call these Roman numerals, and we still use them sometimes today.
Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Roman numerals
Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Roman mosaic

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Deep diving into Ancient Rome, its origins, expansion and fall
Clothes and hairstyle in Ancient Rome

Find out more about Ancient Rome

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