The roman republic lasted about 500 years before the great Julius Caesar led ancient rome into the next system of rule known as the roman empire. The roman empire started only a few years before the birth of Christ and the visits of Saint Peter and Saint Paul to Rome. The empire lasted a further 450 years until its weakening economy was incapable of supporting its full weight.
The legacy of the Roman Empire
The fall of the roman empire heralded the middle ages during which period the many populations which had previously been influenced or subjected to the dominion of the roman empire tussled for land and wealth. The roman empire left a common inheritance to all of them: the Christianity of Roman Catholicism, a structured concept of Roman law and government, an idealistic memory of Rome “The eternal City” and a memory of “Caesar” the ideal and inspired leader. A number of these peoples were so deeply influenced that their very language remained romanised although romanisation never deleted local customs and character.
The birth of the Roman Empire
The roman empire was “invented” by the first emperor Augustus who had inherited the seedling planted by Julius Caesar. Not only did he bring a long period of peace but he also transformed Rome from a city of brick into one of marble in keeping with its standing as the chief city of the known world.
Augustus was the first roman leader to apply the military rank of “imperator” to himself as part of propaganda aimed at diverting public attention from the hated title of “king”. He was as good with his propaganda as he was with his reforms and so after his death he had the month of August named after him. This was pretty much in the same way the Julius Caesar had had the honour of the month of July which was quite befitting given that Caesar had reformed the roman calendar into something like the calendar we use to day.
Similarly to the days of the kings, the roman empire saw a close alignment of government, religion and military under a single divinely inspired emperor-god: “princeps”, “pontifex maximus” and “imperator” all rolled into one. The elected bureaucrats of the roman republican days and the Senate played an increasingly dim second act until by the end of the empire they were little more than a local council with a high head count.
Life during the Roman Empire
The roman empire was a time of great change so that not only the form of government changed but so too did the people of rome themselves and the every day lives they led. The austere Romans of old became the literary nostalgia of writers such as Horace.
Art and sculpture was mass produced, international tourism and travel became widely accessible to the upper middle class and even the roman food became increasingly exotic. As Juvenal put it, the peoples’ minds were distracted by “free bread and circus”, not to mention the “ludi” and gladiators at the Colosseum. The wealth production of the roman empire increasingly relied on conquest and cheap (slave) labour. Ancient Roman women became increasingly free to participate in state meddling, divorce, have lovers and manage their own private estates.
Good and Bad Emperors of the Roman Empire
The roman empire had the relatively good luck of having its good fair share of inspired emperors govern over it through the ages. Several of these roman emperors such as Diocletian and Constantine were sufficiently courageous to introduce and carry out heavy structural reforms in order to extend the lifetime of the sick empire by several decades.
Some emperors were brilliant some extended the boundaries of the roman empire whilst others were outright bad and paid the barbarians a ransom to stay away. Some were mad and others were simply dangerous paranoiacs obsessed with the murderous plotting behind their backs. Emperor Tiberius’ bizarre reaction was to throw women of a cliff at the island of Capri. He was murdered anyway and replaced with the even more deranged Caligula. Paranoia was not a surprising reaction, Caligula was murdered by the imperial Praetorian guards and replaced by Emperor Claudius. Claudius had a weakness for women and mushrooms and in the end he obviously had too much of a good thing. He was poisoned by his wife who fed him a plate of delicious mushrooms in order to make way for her divinely inspired son Emperor Nero.
Nero and Caligula are amongst the best known for their wild antics and yet their moments of lucidity seem to have been an example of healthy government. Trajan extended the empire to its furthest reaches and built libraries. The intellectual Hadrian traveled his roman empire far and wide. Emperor Constantine recognised the power of the Christians and set the foundations for the Middle ages. Each emperor of the roman empire left his personal, “divine” footprint in the history of the western world.
Fall of the Roman Empire
Slowly but surely the social, economic and geo-political pressures to which the empire was continuously exposed meant an increasing importance of the military and an increasing dependence on foreigner barbarians and mercenaries to keep the state machinery going. Eventually there was little remedy but to split the giant empire into two manageable halves.
The western half of the roman empire was eventually left to dissolve into the turmoils of the Middle Ages. The Eastern half, based at its capital Constantinople (now Istanbul) also known as “New Rome” acted as a defensive stronghold against the marauding Mohammedans well into the 15th Century and allowed Christian Europe to reorganise itself and progress through the Renaissance and into “the age of enlightenment”. The reasons and causes of the decline and fall of the Roman empire are complex and lengthy and have as a consequence been dedicated a separate discussion of their own.
A number of the salient aspects of the roman empire have been covered in the text above and linked to specific pages which go into greater depth. Should your interest not have been covered in this brief overview let me suggest a look at the general index or the menu below where your subject of interest is almost sure to be covered in one way or another.