For centuries, the Roman Empire stood as a formidable superpower, spanning vast territories, and leaving an indelible mark on Western civilization. The Roman Empire was a powerhouse of innovation, culture, and military might. Yet it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The Empire, and its citizens, did not just experience periods of great prosperity but also decline. These periods were often decided by the Empire’s rulers, some of them great, and some of them insane. Here is our overview of the Roman Empire. How it rose to greatness and ultimately fell to nothing.
We often think of Julius Caesar as being Rome’s first emperor but that isn’t really accurate. Caesar was actually a dictator (a title given to him by the senate since he’d basically seized power). Rome’s actual first emperor was Caesar’s nephew and adopted heir, Gaius Octavius Thurinus. Also known as, Augustus Caesar.
Augustus came to power following the Battle of Actium (during which Augustus beat the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra ). The title of Emperor was given to Augustus by the senate as a reward for his success in vanquishing Rome’s enemies and in the hopes that he would bring Rome some desperately needed stability (things had been a bit of a mess since Caesar’s assassination).
Augustus ruled from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD. His rule was a remarkably stable one. He reformed many of Rome’s laws, secured his empire’s borders, and started sweeping building initiatives like the first Pantheon. When we think of the Roman Empire today, usually as one of the greatest Empires in history, we largely have Augustus to thank.
The Pantheon, an ancient building of Rome, a popular tourist site. ( Public Domain )
After Augustus came his heir, Tiberius. Tiberius tried his best to continue much of what Augustus had started but he simply wasn’t as remarkable, lacking the vision and strength of character that Augustus had had.
At least he was better than the next handful of emperors. After Tiberius came Caligula. Caligula got off to a strong start, but things went downhill fast. Today he is mainly remembered for his depravity, cruelty, and (alleged) insanity.
After Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD he was replaced by Claudius. Claudius is largely remembered for his role in expanding Rome’s power across Europe, especially Britain. Like Caligula, he was also assassinated.
Nero replaced Claudius in 54 AD. There’s very little good to say about him or his rule. Today, he’s mostly remembered as a cruel and tyrannical ruler who had a soft spot for persecuting Christians. His cruelty and penchant for lavish spending along with his extravagant lifestyle ended up costing him dearly. In 68 AD he was declared a public enemy by the Senate and killed himself (rather than being assassinated).
The death of Nero ended the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and began a new era.
The Year of the Four Emperors
After the death of Nero things went from bad to worse. First came Emperor Galba in 69 AD, who proved himself an inept emperor from day one. He did such a poor job that he was swiftly assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard.
Before Galba’s body was even cold, he was replaced by Otho. By most ancient accounts hopes were high that Otho might have actually been an above average emperor. Unfortunately, one of his generals, Vitellius, disagreed and started a civil war to usurp Otho. This brief war ended with Otho killing himself and Vitellius on the throne.
Sadly, Vitellius wasn’t the answer. He had seized power for all the wrong reasons and soon started indulging in the kind of extravagances that had gotten Nero and Caligula in trouble. This led to the Roman legions deeming that General Vespasian would be a better fit.
They declared him the new emperor and marched on Rome. Vitellius was swiftly murdered by Vespasian’s men. Vespasian sat on the throne exactly a year to the day from when Galba had first done the same. Four emperors in exactly one year.
Painting titled: La mort de Vitellius. The death of Vitellius. (Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Flavian Dynasty
Thankfully, Vespasian was the right man for the job. His ten-year reign is remembered for massive building projects, economic growth and expansionism. It had taken quite a few years, but Rome was finally back on track.
When Vespasian died in 97 AD his son, Titus, came to the throne. Titus was dealt a bad hand as he had to deal with two massive disasters. First, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD devastated both Pompeii and Herculaneum, and then the great fire of Rome in 80AD, which destroyed much of the great city.
The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, painting by John Martin. ( Public domain )
Titus died in 81 AD from a fever, making his rule a short one. Ancient sources from the time praised his handling of both disasters and despite his short reign, he was fondly remembered.
Titus was succeeded by his brother, Domitian. Compared to his father and brother, Domitian’s rule was more of a mixed bag. On the positive side, he continued to expand and protect Rome’s borders and repaired the damage caused to the city by the great fire. He also continued his family’s legacy of building projects and improving the Roman Empire’s economy.
On the downside, his leadership style was far more autocratic. This made him many enemies in the Roman Senate, who had him killed in 96 AD.
Let the Good Times Roll
Things had been good under the Flavian dynasty but they were about to get even better. Domitian was replaced by his advisor, Nerva. Nerva founded the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty which lasted for nearly a hundred years.
And what a hundred years it was. The five emperors who ruled during this dynasty are remembered as “ The Five Good Emperors ” due to the fact their remarkable leadership arguably brought Ancient Rome to its highest point. Under Nerva (96-98), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antonius Pius (138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180) Rome grew stronger and more stable than it had ever been before.
Yet of course all good things must come to an end. When Marcus Aurelius’ life ended in 180 AD, so did Rome’s impressive winning streak. Just as Aurelius is remembered as one of Rome’s best, his son, Commodus, is remembered as one of its worst.
The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators, by American muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield . ( Public Domain )
Commodus was essentially convinced he was a god among men and acted like it. His time in power was tyrannical and extravagant. He was obsessed with gladiator games, and often participated in them himself, slaying both man and beast. This particularly annoyed the Senate, who felt he spent too little time actually ruling.
Commodus was also infamous for his cruelty towards his subjects, and he was responsible for numerous executions and persecutions. He was known to be paranoid and would often execute anyone he perceived as a threat to his rule, including his own sister and many members of the Senate.
He also worked to undo much of the good done by his predecessors. His financial mismanagement led to a significant downturn in the Roman economy. He was a leader who cared only for himself and extraordinarily little for his empire.
Which is why his empire killed him. After plotting the deaths of his mistress and closest advisors, Commodus was assassinated by his wrestling partner in 192 AD. Thus ended the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.
The Severan Dynasty
After the death of Commodus, history began to repeat itself. Commodus was succeeded by his prefect, Pertinax. Rome’s newest emperor only lasted for three months and then he too was assassinated.
What came next became known as “ The Year of the Five Emperors ”, breaking the record of 69 AD. None of these emperors lasted long enough to make much of a mark. They either seized power by literally buying it (Didius Julianus) or using their troops to try and take it (Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus).
The year of the five Emperors ended with the rise of Septimus Severus , who founded the Severan dynasty. Severus was a fighter at heart and spent his rule defeating the Parthians (a major rival from Iran and Mesopotamia) and expanding his empire in both Africa and Britain. While this helped expand Rome’s influence even further, these campaigns were hugely expensive, which later caused Rome some financial difficulties.
Severus died in 211 AD and was succeeded by his two sons, who became the co-emperors Caracalla and Geta. This arrangement didn’t last for long though. Caracalla was a hothead and a bully while Geta was more moderate. This clash in personalities led to Caracalla having his brother murdered in front of their mother and several members of the court in 211 AD.
Geta dying in his Mother’s arms at the hands of Carcalla by Jacques Pajou. ( Public domain )
Caracalla ruled single handed until he was assassinated in 217 AD by a bodyguard. His rule was remembered for his military campaigns, and the massacre he carried out at Alexandria in retaliation for a perceived insult. It was also under him that all free men in the empire were granted Roman citizenship. While this might sound like a positive step, in reality, it was a simple cash grab. More citizens meant more tax revenue. Tax revenue the Empire was in dire need of.
The Severan Dynasty continued until the assassination of Alexander Severus in 235 AD. His death began one of the darkest periods in the history of the Roman Empire (which is saying something) known as “The Crisis of the Third Century.”
The Crisis of the Third Century
What followed was a period of almost constant civil war as rival military leaders laid claim to the throne. These civil wars led to massive civil unrest and worsened the economic instability that had started with the Severans’ devaluation of the Roman currency. The period’s low point came when the Empire was split into three separate regions.
Things began to settle in 270 AD when Aurelian came to power. He ruled until 275 AD and during his rule managed to reunite the empire. This was relatively short-lived, however, and Rome didn’t truly begin to see peace again until the rise of Diocletian in 284 AD.
Diocletian had his head screwed on straight and attempted massive reforms to save the Roman Empire. He split the empire into two halves (Eastern and Western) and introduced the Tetrarchy (also known as the rule of four).
Under this system, each half of the empire had two co-emperors, making four in total. To put a stop to the never-ending succession disputes that had crippled the empire, Diocletian brought in a rule that potential successors had to be chosen and approved at the start of each co-emperor reign.
It all ran relatively smoothly until Diocletian stepped down and retired in 305 AD. The tetrarchy he had worked so hard to build swiftly dissolved as rival parts of the empire vied for control. After Diocletian died in 311, his successors, Maxentius and Constantine gave up any pretense of listening to the old man and plunged the empire back into yet another civil war.
The Rule of Constantine
Constantine defeated Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD and declared himself the sole Emperor of both halves of the Roman Empire. He believed that his great victory was thanks to his love of Jesus Christ and began a series of law changes that introduced religious tolerance to the empire, especially tolerance of Christianity.
Besides legalizing Christianity, Constantine also oversaw numerous reforms and infrastructure projects, including the construction of public works such as roads, aqueducts, and churches. He also instituted a new system of government and bureaucracy, which helped to centralize power and streamline governance.
Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine ( Public Domain )
In short, Constantine worked hard to undo all the damage done by years of Roman infighting. As such, after his death he became known as Constantine the Great , remembered for his military prowess, support of Christianity, and the great strides he made in returning Rome to its former glory.
And then history repeated itself, again. Constantine left his Empire in the not-so-worthy hands of his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans. These boys carved up the Roman Empire and then began fighting over who got the biggest pieces to rule over. In the conflicts that followed Constantine II and Constans were killed. Constantius II didn’t outlive his brothers by much, declaring their cousin, Justin, as his successor.
Justin is remembered for his attempts at bringing back the old glory of Rome through a series of reforms, and for his hostility to Christianity. He only ruled for two years but became remembered as Justin the Apostate, Rome’s last pagan emperor.
He was succeeded by Jovian and then Theodosius I. Both of these emperors concentrated on religious forms aimed at making the Roman Empire a Christian one. They banned pagan worship and closed many of the empire’s oldest, and greatest, schools and universities. Christianity became the state religion in 380 AD.
The Fall of the Roman Empire
It’s difficult to really put a pin in what caused the fall of the Roman Empire and to do so would take far more words than we have space for here. What follows is a quick overview of what happened.
Starting in 376 AD, a series of battles between Rome and the Goths (a Germanic people from Sweden/Denmark/ Germany) began. These battles lasted until 382, severely weakening the Empire. In particular, the defeat of Emperor Valens at the hands of the Goths in 378 is widely seen as a major turning point in the decline of Rome.
The vastness of the Roman Empire, despite being divided into Eastern and Western halves, posed a significant challenge to effective governance. The Eastern Empire thrived while the Western Empire struggled, with both entities operating independently with little concern for the other’s well-being.
There was also the problem of corruption. Many of the Empire’s officials were both bad at their jobs and corrupt. In the old days, the Romans would have had no problem defending their territories from the likes of the Germans. Yet the Germans, smelling blood in the water, reportedly raided Roman territories. Government officials were too busy filling their pockets to care much.
This mismanagement led to a reliance on foreign barbarians who acted as mercenaries. They had no ethnic loyalty to Rome and could not effectively protect the border or collect taxes from the provinces. Taxes that were needed to pay said barbarians.
Furthermore, the debasement of the currency that had begun under the Severan Dynasty, caused inflation, while the use of slave labor deprived lower-class citizens of employment opportunities and increased unemployment rates. Unhappy lower-class citizens led to yet more civil unrest.
The Western Roman Empire officially ended on September 4, 476 AD, when Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer. The Eastern Roman Empire continued as the Byzantine Empire until 1453, although it was quite distinct from the ancient Roman Empire. Of course, the Holy Roman Empire emerged later in history but was also different from the Roman Empire and existed only in name.
The history of the Roman Empire is a complex one, full of highs and lows. By the end, it had deteriorated to such a point that it was recognizable only by name. A startling reminder, that nothing, not even the greatest of empires, lasts forever.
Top image: Roman Empire in its splendor. Source: Artcuboy/Adobe Stock