Historical Eras of Ancient Rome

    Kingdom of Rome     Early Republic     Punic Wars     Decline of Republic     Age of the Caesars     Height of Empire     Fall of Empire     Rise of Christianity

Kingdom of Rome—753 to 510 B.C.

Founding of Rome to Exile of Tarquins

The stories surrounding the earliest years of the kingdom of Rome are steeped in legend, but they add much romance and interest to the history of the city that grew to be the capital of the western world. According to legend, the founder of Rome was Romulus, son of Mars and descended from Venus on his mother's side. After a dramatic childhood, during which they were raised by humble shepherds, Romulus and his twin brother Remus discovered they were of royal descent and decided to found a city on the hill on which they spent their youth.


In order to attract citizens to come and live in his city, Romulus declared Rome a sanctuary. Men in debt; slaves ill-treated by their masters, criminals on the lam, all were granted citizenship and protected from their enemies. In this manner, Rome grew quickly. Romulus solved the problem of a severe shortage of women by kidnapping maidens from the surrounding villages. This, unsurprisingly, caused wars with many of Rome's neighbors, most importantly the Sabines. The happy outcome of the War with the Sabines, however, proved to be the joining of the two nations into one. The Sabines were given one of the hills of Rome to settle, and after the rule of Romulus the well-respected Sabine philosopher, Numa Pompilius, became king.

Numa's reign was long and prosperous for Rome. The city had already established itself as a warlike nation, always ready to defend and expand its territory. Numa, however, sought peace with Rome's neighbors and improved general piety and morals. He was responsible for creating the calendar, declaring early Roman holidays, and establishing worship customs, including the roles of priests and the vestal virgins. However, the king who followed Numa was the warlike Tullus Hostilius, who declared war on Alba and established Rome's predominance over Alba as the foremost city in Latium. Hostilius was followed by Ancus Marcius, son of the peaceful Numa Pompilius, who like his father sought peace with the surrounding kingdoms.

Ancus died in 616 B.C., and for the following century, the throne was held by the Tarquin family, who were not native Romans but rather of Greek and Etruscan heritage. The first two Tarquin kings, Tarquin the Elder, and Servius Tullius were worthy kings who did much good for the city. Under their reigns the swamp in the center of Rome was drained and the Forum was built. They constructed many public building surrounding the Forum, which became the market-place and seat of city government. The Tarquins also built the Circus Maximus for chariot racing and sporting events, and Servius built the Servian wall, which encompassed all seven hills of Rome. Servius was known for passing laws that favored the poor, which made him unpopular with many of the wealthier citizens. He was ultimately murdered by his own daughter and her husband, a son of the Elder Tarquin. This younger Tarquin, known as Tarquin Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, then seized the throne. After an oppressive reign of twenty-five years, he was exiled by a group of outraged citizens after his son was accused of assaulting Lucretia, a Roman noblewoman.

Junius Brutus and Publicola led the effort to oust the Tarquins, and were early consuls and heroes of the republic. Their courageous leadership helped foster unity during the first rocky years, and both made great personal sacrifices for the good of the state. During these first critical years, Rome's enemies allied themselves with the exiled Tarquin Superbus and marched against Rome, with the object of restoring him to the throne. Horatius and Mucius Scaevola were both heroes of the war against Lars Porsena, an Etruscan general who was allied with Tarquin. The first phase of the War against the Tarquii was brought to a quick close, leaving the government of Rome securely in the hands of the Senate. But the Tarquin family continued to make alliances with other enemies of Rome, and it was not until the Battle of Lake Regillus, nearly ten years later, that the the last of Tarquins were finally defeated.

Early Republic—510 to 275 B.C.

Defeat of Tarquins to Unification of Italy

The early years of the republic lasted from the overthrow of Tarquin Superbus to the conquest of southern Italy in 275 B.C. During this time, Rome fought wars against the Gauls, Etruscans, Latins, and Samnites, eventually bringing all of Italy, from northern Tuscany to the Grecian dominated southern coast, into an alliance with Rome. It is this period that produced many of Rome's most romantic legends and hero stories. During this time the Republican virtues of courage, patriotism, and piety were at their peak, and Rome was still largely uneffected by its exposure to eastern decadence and the corruptions of wealth. The most important historian of this era, is Livy, and most of his writings pertaining to this period still exist.


Rome's Republican government was composed of a group of three hundred senators. Each year, two consuls were selected, usually from among the senators, to administer the state and lead the army in times of war. By selecting two consuls and limiting their service to a single year, the Romans hoped to avoid the emergence of a single powerful tyrant.

By the beginning of the Republican era Rome was already the foremost city in the Latin-speaking region around the Tiber river, but it had not yet established dominance over its neighbors: the Etruscans, Volscians, and Aequilians. Coriolanus and Cincinnatus were both heroes of early wars against these enemies during the first hundred years of the republic. The second century produced Camillus, an even greater hero. In addition to conquering Rome's perennial enemy, Veii, he reorganized the army into its famous legions and was instrumental in rebuilding Rome after it was sacked by the Gauls.

The Gauls were a tribe of war-like barbarians from the north, who threatened Rome for over three centuries. Their first encounter at the disastrous Battle of Allia, which resulted in the sack of the city, was long remembered as the worst defeat in Roman history. The year 390 B.C. marked that last time that the city of Rome was invaded by barbarians for 800 years.

In addition to the on-going wars with its Italian neighbors, Rome needed to resolve several internal disturbances during the early years. From the beginning of the Republic there was continual strife between the patrician class, who held all of the political power, and the plebeians, who were far more numerous. The trouble between them was resolved after a peaceful "walk-out" by the plebeians during one of Rome's wars. The patricians, led by Menenius, submitted to the idea of establishing a tribune to represent the interests of the plebeians. Eventually, there were six tribunes, elected from among the plebeians, who had the power to veto all legislations proposed by the patrician senate.

In 452 BC, ten Decemvirs were selected to write and promulgate the laws of Rome. Their leader was Appius Claudius (Crassus), but he abused his power and tried to enslave Virginia, resulting in the overthrow of the Decemvirs. However, the laws of Rome were written on the twelve tablets did become the foundation of Roman jurisprudence.

By time the republic was 200 years old, its armies had acquired a reputation for bravery and discipline thanks to the notable deeds of such heroes as Marcus Curtius, Valerius Corvus, Decius Mus, and Manlius Torquatus. The latter were heroes of the Latin and Samnite Wars, which dominated the period 340 to 290 B.C. Caius Pontius was a Samnite general who trapped the Roman army but did not use his victory wisely and was eventually defeated. Fabius Rullianus was the hero of the Battle of Sentium, which was a decisive victory for the Romans over the Samnites and brought the Samnite wars, which had lasted for nearly fifty years, to a close.

The last unsubdued region of Italy was the southern coast, called Magna Graecia, (Greater Greece) because it was populated with Greek colonies. In 280 B.C. the city of Tarentine brought in Pyrrhus, the most famous general of the age, to oppose the Romans. Though he met with early success, his fortune turned for the worse at the Battle of Beneventum and the Pyrrhic Wars in Italy in Italy ended in victory for Rome.

As Rome dominated more and more of Italy, its own security was greatly enhanced, and it began a series of building projects including roads and aqueducts. Appius Claudius Caecus, an important peacetime administrator, was responsible for much of this planning, and the famous Roman road, Via Appia (Appian Way), bears his name. In addition to roads, Appius Claudius initiated the building of Rome's first aqueduct, and several important public buildings. By the time Rome conquered all of Italy, it was at its height of civic rectitude, and public morality. Enemies who had attempted to gain the influence of various senators found all of their bribes returned. Enemies who encountered the army found a disciplined and relentless foe. The city of Rome was prosperous, but had not given in to the luxurious vices. . . . yet.

Punic Wars—274 to 146 B.C.

First Punic War to Destruction of Carthage

The period of the Punic and Macedonian Wars was a critical one in Rome's history. At the dawn of the Punic Wars, in 264 B.C., Rome was master of Italy, but controlled no colonies or provinces outside of the Peninsula. She had neither a navy nor a merchant based economy. One hundred and twenty years later, she had entirely subdued both the Carthaginian empire in the west and the Macedonian empire in the east. She had provinces and allies throughout the Mediterranean and was the undisputed master of the seas. Although it took another century to expand and consolidate her power, by the end of the Punic Wars Rome had laid the foundation of an empire.

After Cannae

The Punic Wars, which raged between the city of Carthage and Rome for over a century, were so named because the Carthaginians were of the Phoenician (or Punic) race. There were three Punic Wars, but the second was by far the most critical. The first Punic War lasted 24 years, involved many skirmishes, and was won primarily by perseverance. Rome gained a small amount of Carthaginian territory but never achieved a decisive victory. Carthage capitulated as much because of internal troubles as due to pressure from Rome. However, this war did much to establish Rome as a naval power. The best known Roman hero of the first Punic War was Regulus, and the best known Carthaginian heroes were Xanthippus and Hamilcar.

The second Punic War was a great catastrophe for Rome and all of Italy. The early part of the war was fought entirely on Italian soil at great cost to Rome and its allies. The Battle of Cannae was the worst loss in Roman history, yet it was only one of several disastrous defeats inflicted on Rome by its implacable Carthaginian foes. Eventually the tide of war turned when Rome attacked Carthaginian strongholds in Spain and Africa. Again, perseverance through great difficulties changed the fortunes of Rome from great peril to ultimate victory. This time Rome continued the fight until it won a decisive victory against Carthage and eliminated its threat as a military power. The outstanding character of the Second Punic War was undoubtedly the Carthaginian Hannibal, who is universally acknowledged as one of history's greatest generals. Some of the Roman generals who opposed him over the years included Cornelius Scipio, Fabius Cunctator, Aemilius Paulus, Varro, and Marcellus, but it was Scipio Africanus, who drove Hannibal out of Italy, defeated him on Carthaginian soil, and brought the bloody war to a final close.

The third Punic War was fought without serious provocation, for the purpose of destroying Carthage altogether. Having eliminated Carthage as a military threat, Rome desired to exterminate it, partly out of vengeance, partly out of concern over its continuing commercial success, and partly out of contempt for its culture (which did involve some heinous elements, such as human sacrifice.)

The Roman Macedonian Wars in the east were not as protracted or ruinous as the Punic Wars, but resulted in territory and plunder for the Romans. The Romans valued many elements of Greek civilization, unlike the Carthaginian civilization, which they hated. Therefore, they preserved or imitated much of Greek culture rather than destroying it. Captured Greeks were the most valuable of all slaves and were frequently employed as teachers, tutors, or household servants rather than laborers.

The first Roman campaign againt Macedonia was fought during the second Punic War, after king Philip V of Macedonia took advantage of the disruptions in Italy to seize some contested territory on the North Adriatic. Two subsequent campains were fought over the next thirty years and resulted in much plunder, which helped re-invigorate Rome after its losses in the second Punic War. The Battle of Pydna in 168 B.C. destroyed the power of the Macedonian kingdom in Greece and the subsequent destruction of Corinth, following a rebellion of some Greek city states, ushered in the Greco-Roman era.

The famous characters of these ages were almost invariably military leaders. Polybius, a Greek writer who wrote the histories of the Punic Wars, and Cato (the censor), who ardently resisted the extravagance and luxury that went along with the increasing influence of Greek culture in Rome, are two of the only characters of this age who are famous mainly for their cultural contributions, rather than their martial feats.

Decline of Republic—146 to 60 B.C.

Age of Gracchi to Pompey Defeats Pirates

The last century of the Roman Republic is one of the most eventful periods in Roman history and produced many of the best-known Roman statesmen: the Gracchii, Marius, Sulla, Pompey , Cicero, and, of course, Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, many of these events were tragic and regrettable rather then glorious or laudable, as is often the case when a civilization goes from being frugal and industrious to wealthy and luxurious. The crises of the Roman republic were more due to internal corruption and infighting rather than reactions to outside enemies. There were several dangerous enemies that Rome dealt with during this period, including Jugurtha in Africa, Mithridates in the east, and the Cimbri and Teutonic Gauls in northern Italy. It was not these enemies, however, that caused the collapse of the republican government, but rather, Rome's internal conflicts. As a notorious enemy of Rome once said, on the occasion of his bribery-secured acquittal, "Rome is a city for sale, and doomed to perish as soon as it finds a purchaser!"

Marius in Carthage

The final century of the republic saw an increasingly bitter struggle between the aristocratic (or optimate) party, which controlled the senate, and the popular (or Marian) party, which insisted on greater influence for the masses. It is important to note, however, that both parties were lead by wealthy, powerful, and often corrupt individuals, whose own interests lay in elevating themselves to political power. Both parties had the backing of many poor and disenfranchised citizens, who often chose their leaders based on patronage rather than political philosophy, and both parties were plagued by bribery, demagogues, and villainous power-seekers. Likewise, both parties had a defensible political philosophy and a program of reform, but as it became increasingly clear that a strong central government was necessary to hold the provinces together, both embraced dictators and strongmen as leaders. The transition to empire was less a victory of one party over another than the collapse of republican pretenses altogether.

The decline of the republic began with bickering over the distribution of newly acquired land, resulting from Roman conquests in Spain, Africa, and the east. The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius Gracchus, and Gaius Gracchus initiated land reforms that would distribute more territory to landless Romans rather than wealthy barons, but these, naturally, were unpopular with the ruling classes. Both Gracchi were eventually murdered, but only after giving rise to a powerful party dedicated to wealth redistribution and supported by the "Roman Mob", as well as members of the deserving poor.

Two generals arose to take the lead of these two parties, during the subsequent Jugurthine War in Africa and Mithridatic Wars in the east. These were Marius, who lead the popular party and Sulla, who lead the optimates. Both leaders were popular with the army and each led an army to march on the city of Rome and seize power by force, always using the abuses of the other as an excuse for further outrages. Once in power, first Marius and then Sulla ordered proscriptions, or the systematic murder of all their enemies. Needless to say, these proscriptions, which were carried out on a large scale over several years, had a disastrous effect on civil society. Not only were many innocent people killed, but political rivals became deadly enemies, and the confiscation of property of "proscribed" citizens, ruined families and encouraged egregious corruption.

Sulla, who last held sway in Rome, essentially obliterated the Marian party within Rome, but when his murdrous work was done, he returned power to the senate and retire quietly. Marian sympathizers fled to the farthest outreaches of the empire. Sertorius, a well-respected general in exile from Sulla, set up a rival empire in Spain which was a haven for political refugees and other outcasts, and the Roman army was unable to subdue him for over eight years.

Other crises that arose for Rome as a result of these disruptions were a slave rebellion lead by the escaped gladiator Spartacus, a resumption of the Mithridatic war in the east, and the rise of pirates in the Mediterranean. These crises were put down by three new generals who had appeared on the scene after the death of Sulla and Marius. They were Crassus, a wealthy land speculator who put down the rebellion of Spartacus, Lucullus, a capable but notoriously luxuriant general who brought the Mithridatic War to a close, and Pompey , who in less than a year put down the pirates that had been plaguing traders of the Mediterranean for the last decade. Pompey eventually rose to great political power, favoring first the Marian party but later the optimates. However, it was less political philosophy than disgust with the worst of the populist demagogues that drove him into alliance with the aristocrats.

Age of the Caesars—60 B. C. to 14 A.D.

First Triumvirate to Death of Augustus

The transition of Rome from a Republic to an Empire was a gradual one. The transfer of political power from the Roman senate into the hands of the Emperor and the army began during the career of Julius Caesar and was complete during the life of Augustus Caesar, his heir. The period surrounding the career of the first two caesars is exceptionally dramatic and features several of the most famous characters and most consequential battles, in Roman history.

In the years following the Civil War of Marius and Sulla, several important political leaders arose. Julius Caesar, who as a young man had fled from Sulla's proscriptions, returned to Roman and gradually began to gain great influence with the populares party. On the side of the aristocrats, Cicero and Cato (the younger) arose. Cicero was an influential senator, known for putting down the Catiline conspiracy, an attempt by the populares to overthrow the republican government. Cicero was a prolific writer, and one of the best primary sources of this period of Roman history. Both Cicero and Cato were sincere republicans and well-versed spokesmen for the best ideals of republican government, but in spite of their sincere convictions and personal rectitude, they were unable to maintain power in an age of dictators and demagogues.


In 60 B.C. Crassus, Pompey , and Caesar put aside their political differences and formed the First Triumvirate, in which they divided the empire into three regions: Crassus help power in the east, Caesar in Hispania, and Pompey in Rome. Crassus soon perished on an ill-fated campaign in Parthia, leaving Pompey and Caesar in power. Caesar's enemies sought to send him far off to the western frontier to get him out of the way, but this proved a tremendous miscalculation. Caesar, who up to this time had no particular military experience, took this charge seriously and in the six years from 58 to 52 B.C., he led the Roman Conquest of Gaul, which brought the entire region of Gaul (modern France), under his sway. This was the greatest addition of Roman territory in over a century, and it brought him unbounded prestige and popularity within Rome and the army.

Caesar's enemies in Rome tried to deprive him of his legions and bring him back under control, but it was too late. In 49 B.C. Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and marched on Rome, thereby provoking the Caesarean Civil War. Yet so great was his popularity that no army rose against him, and his enemies, including Pompey, fled to the east. Unlike his predecessors, Caesar ordered no purge of his political enemies, and in many ways tried hard to win over and reconcile them. He had an all-encompassing vision for the administration of an empire that had animated his actions for many years, and as soon as he came to power, he started implementing many of his reforms.

Although Caesar controlled the west with very little opposition, Pompey and his legions still held sway in the east. Caesar eventually raised an army to meet Pompey and beat him decisively at the Battle of Pharsalia. He did not seek to kill Pompey but desired to reconcile with him. Caesar pursued Pompey to Egypt, where Pompey was murdered by traitors. While in Egypt, Caesar became involved with Cleopatra and fought the Battle of Alexandria in order to secure her place on the Egyptian throne. He eventually returned to Rome, and began implementing his reforms in earnest, but in spite of all the effort he had put into reconciling with his enemies, a conspiracy formed against him. He was assassinated in the senate only five years after crossing the Rubicon, but his vision for a military based, centrally-administered empire survived him.

Augustus Caesar is usually considered the first Roman emperor because under his long reign Rome became reconciled to its new form of government. Rome had seen several dictators in the previous years, and the ideals of republican government had already given way, but it was not until the reign of Augustus that stability, peace, and prosperity returned to the government, and active opposition to the new regime ceased. Augustus, then known as Octavius, came to power in 43 B.C., shortly after the death of his uncle Julius Caesar. Although a young man, he was Caesar's heir, and by patience and persistence he was able to wrest enough power from Antony to establish himself as a joint ruler of Rome, part of the Second Triumvirate.

Octavius spent the early years of his reign consolidating power. This involved using force when necessary, as when he and Antony crushed the Republican opposition lead by Marcus Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi. But most of the time he followed the example of his uncle Julius Caesar, trying to reconcile his enemies. After Philippi, Octavius ruled jointly with Antony, but their relationship soured as a result of Antony's long and irresponsible dalliance with Cleopatra. Finally the two rulers, now bitter enemies, met at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. From this point until his death in 14 A.D., Octavius was sole ruler of the Roman Empire, although he was not declared Augustus for several more years.

Once Octavius' power was established, he followed through on many of Caesar's plans for the empire, including transferring administrative responsibility for most provinces to the army, tax reform, encouraging immigration, and investing in infrastructure and public works. Augustus and his advisor, Maecenas, were patrons of the arts, and under his reign literature flourished. The Latin poets Horace and Virgil, the historian Livy, and many other artists ushered in a great era of Latin literature and scholarship.

Height of Empire—14 to 235 A.D.

Reign of Tiberius to Last Severan Emperor

Julio-Claudian Dynasty: 14-68 A.D.—For fifty years following the death of Augustus Caesar, descendents of Livia and Augustus held the imperial throne. Tragically, the royal family was prone to murder, insanity, debauchery, and every other imaginable vice, so that for nearly half a century, the Praetorian guard held most of the real power. The Praetorian guard, employed as the emperor's bodyguard, was responsible for the murder of Caligula, who followed Tiberius on the throne, and for elevating Claudius, who was thought to be easily controlled. On the death of Claudius, who was murdered by his wife Agrippina the Younger, the Praetorians arranged for the elevation of her son Nero to the throne, again opting for a malleable youth over an experienced and competent ruler.

Nero's rule was one of the most notorious in Roman history. He was an immature and indulgent young man, who replaced competent ministers with scoundrels, murdered his mother, brother, and wife, and intentionally set fire to the city of Rome in order to clear space for a grand imperial palace. Shortly afterward he discovered a conspiracy against him and executed dozens of Rome's most prominent citizens, he lost the support of the all-powerful Praetorian guard and was forced to commit suicide.

Year of Four Emperors: 69 A.D.—Nero was the last member of the fratricidal Julio-Claudian dynasty, and he left no heir, so the Praetorians declared for Galba, who was well-respected but old and infirm. Galba was in turn, overthrown by Otho, while the German legions declared for their commander Vitellius, whom his subordinates favored because of his weak will and easy discipline. Vitellius defeated Otho at the Battle of Bedriacum, and became the third emperor to in less than a year, but there were more changes to come. Disgusted by the weak leadership of Vitellius, the eastern legions declared for Vespasian, a competent and well-respected general who was then besieging Jerusalem. In the civil battles that followed, several capitol buildings in Rome were destroyed by fire, but by the time Vespasian marched on Rome, Vitellius was dead and the issue was settled.

Flavian Dynasty: 70-96 A.D.—Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian dynasty, was the first Roman emperor of genuinely humble parentage, who attained the throne purely by merit. He had risen through the ranks slowly and with great credit. By the time he assumed the throne, he had a thirty year career of competent management behind him and during his reign he reformed imperial finances, brought the Praetorian guard under sway, replaced corrupt senators, and restored discipline. In general, he ruled justly and was not prone to extravagant vice. Under Vespasian, the rebuilding of Rome proceeded apace, and the Roman Colosseum was dedicated in 79 A.D., the last year of his reign.

Roman chariots

Vespasian shared power with his eldest son Titus, who had successfully prosecuted the Roman Jewish Wars after his father was called to Rome. Titus had proven a great general, and was popular with both the army and the population, so there was much lamenting when he died only a few years after his father. The throne was then passed to Domitian, a younger and less talented brother of Titus. Tacitus, probably the most important historian from this era, was critical of Domitian, likely because he was related to his rival Agricola. It is certain that some of the earliest persecutions of Christians occurred under the reign of Domitian, and that he became murderous and paranoid after a failed assassination attempt.

Five Good Emperors: 96-180 A.D.—Whatever his faults, Domitian should be credited for establishing a tradition, adhered to for nearly 100 prosperous years, of selecting a competent leader to replace himself rather than passing the empire to biological kin. Domitian's chosen successor was Nerva, the first of the "Five Good Emperors", who reigned in Rome from 96 to 180 A.D. This period was undoubtedly the golden age of the Roman Empire. The five good emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian , Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. During their peaceful and prosperous reigns, the maximum extent of the empire was reached, the borders were secured and defended, imperial finances were well managed, and infrastructure, including walls, aqueducts, public buildings, and roads, were maintained. Several of the emperors, and Hadrian in particular, were patrons of the arts and literature. The second century A.D. was the "Silver Age" of Latin literature, which produced such literary greats as Lucan, Pliny ( the Elder), Juvenal, Martial, and Quintilian, and the historians, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius.

The two emperors most notable for their virtuous lives and excellent administrative skills were Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Both were gracious in bearing but courageous in battle and uncomplaining in adversity. Marcus Aurelius was also noted as a stoic philosopher, and his life, which was full of tragedy, difficulties and disappointments gave a true test to his mettle. He is sometimes known as the "model pagan", and some of his meditations on philosophy are still extant. His only fault was faith in his biological son Commodus, whom he selected as his heir. Commodus proved to be a disastrous choice, who brought an abrupt end to nearly a century of peace, prosperity, and competent government.

Severan Dynasty: 193-239 A.D.—The beginning of the "fall" of Rome is often associated with Commodus, the corrupt son of Marcus Aurelius. His reign was as murderous and extravagant as that of Nero or Caligula and coming after nearly a century of good leadership severely rocked the confidence of the empire. He was eventually dispatched by one of his courtiers, but since no successor was named, the government of Rome fell into confusion. Eventually Septimus Severus, a politically skilled senator with connections in Africa and Syria, rose to the throne. He spent much of his early reign putting down rebellions throughout the empire, and his sons, who were badly influence by the decadence of the imperial court, were nearly grown when he returned permanently to Rome. When Severan died, his eldest son Caracalla assumed the throne and murdered his brother Geta. Caracalla ruled for six years before being murdered himself, and was followed by two severan cousins, Elagabalus, and Alexander Severus. When Alexander was murdered by the leader of the Emperors private guard, the Empire was plunged into fifty years of anarchy.

Fall of Empire—235 to 565 A.D.

Military Anarchy to Reign of Justinian I

The Severan dynasty, which had lasted for 43 years, was brought to an abrupt end at the hands of Maximinus, a Thracian barbarian of enormous physical strength who had risen to a high position in the emperor's private guard. He had served the Severan family for over thirty years and was completely trusted when he murdered Alexander Severus, seized the throne, and plunged the imperial government into chaos. He killed his enemies, which included virtually anyone from the upper classes, without mercy. He was murdered by his own troops after less than three wretched years in power, but the empire never recovered from this upheaval. The military anarchy which followed lasted until the reign of Diocletian, saw over twenty emperors in the space of 50 years, only one of whom died a natural death. None were distinguished, and the only notable event of the period was the rebellion of Queen Zenobia in Syria. She came close to conquering the eastern half of the Roman empire, but was put down by the emperor Aurelian in 272.

Diocletian, who came to the throne in 284, did a masterful job of bringing order to an empire in chaos. He divided the empire into four districts, two in the east and two in the west, and appointed a junior and senior governor of each division (called caesar and emperor respectively). Upon the death or retirement of the emperor, the caesar would be elevated to emperor and appoint another caesar. This system worked for exactly one generation, but it allowed Diocletian to retire, and live out his natural life unmolested, an accomplishment nearly unprecedented in imperial history.

One of the caesars appointed by Diocletian was Constantius, the father of Constantine. When Constantius died, Constantine was elected to replace him. He spent the early part of his reign consolidating power by fighting off rivals from both the east and west. The second half of his reign was dedicated to civil reforms and building his new capital at Constantinople. Most notably, Constantine was the first Christian emperor, and his edict of Milan in 313 made Christian worship legal throughout the empire. From this point on, with the exception only of Julian the Apostate, the imperial court was at least nominally Christian.

The peace and prosperity which took root during the thirty year reign of Constantine was short lived. On his death the empire was divided among his three sons but they quarreled among themselves while the empire sunk slowly back into disorder. All of Constantine's sons died without heirs, and after the death of his nephew, Julian the Apostate, the empire was permanently divided into an eastern and a western half. The only remaining emperor of note was Theodosius, who ably governed the eastern empire from 379 to 395, and put down some of the early Visigoth invaders. He is remembered for his willingness to do public penance for the slaughter of the Thessalonians, which was imposed on him by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. The idea that even emperors were subject to the laws of God was a radically new idea that made a permanent mark upon Western civilization.

Meanwhile, the empire of the west was already suffering from waves of barbarian invaders that the government was powerless to put down. By the time that the city of Rome was overrun by the Visigoths in 410, most of Gaul had already been abandoned to the invading Franks and the legions had been pulled from Britain in hopes of defending Italy.

The waves of barbarians that descended upon Italy during the fifth century only finished off a process that was already under way. The Western empire had ceded much of its territory without a fight, most wealthy families had moved away from Rome and the emperor himself had moved to Ravenna. By the time the city of Rome was invaded there was not even an army to send in its defense, since the cowardly Honorius, who sought only to appease the Visigoths, had murdered Stilicho, his most capable general. Still, the Visigoth invasion of 410 was mild compared to that of the Vandals, who plundered the city to ruin in 455. The Visigoths were at least Christian, semi-civilized, and desired a treaty with the Western Empire that would allow them self-governing territories. This they eventually obtained, and a Visigoth empire was established in Spain shortly after the death of Alaric the Visigoth. The Visigoths were allies of the Western Empire as long as it lasted and helped to ward off Attila the Hun, who overran Western Europe in 450 A.D.

By this time the area actually controlled by the Western emperor was reduced to Italy, and when it passed from the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, to the barbarian chief Odoacer in 476, it caused hardly a ripple. Odoacer was soon overthrown by Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who ruled Italy for many years but made no pretense of being an emperor. Ten years later, the last Gallo-Roman province of France, was conquered by Clovis. At that point, all of the old Roman provinces in Gaul, Hispania, and Italy were controled by German chieftains, who preserved some of the old Roman customs, but governed as independent commanders.

As the western empire collapsed, the power and influence of Christianity increased. Because of the fluid organization of the church, it was able to adapt and grow in an environment of political unrest. Kingdoms, chieftains, and empires might come and go, but the church provided a degree of continuity and civilization that was increasingly attractive to citizens of the collapsed empire. Many important leaders of the church who arose during this time of chaos while political powers rose and fell. Some of the influential christian leaders who lived during the decline of the Roman Empire were St. Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose, Eusebius, Athanasius, and Benedict of Nursia.

Several generations after the fall of the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire enjoyed a brief resurgence. Between 530 and 560 A.D., under the rule of Justinian the Great, Constantinople won back much of the territory that had been lost to barbarians in the west. These included the reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals, the reconquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths, and several important victories against the Sassanid Empire in Persia. These victories were almost all due to the efforts of Belisarius, one of the greatest generals in Roman history, and for a brief time it looked as if the Roman Empire would reemerge as a dominant power. But a long period of decline followed the brilliant career of Belisarius, and Northern Italy was overrun by the Lombards only a few years after his death.