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     The Phoenicians

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

At the dawn of the First Punic War, in 264 B.C., Rome was master of Italy, but controlled no colonies or provinces outside of the Peninsula. Although many coastal towns in Italy had significant fleets and trading networks, Rome, the capital city, did not command a significant navy and its economy was not dominated by merchants. One hundred and twenty years later, Rome 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 time Rome finally vanquished, she was in command of a vast empire and the only question that remained was how it was to be governed.

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. The Phoenicians were a fascinating but perfidious people, who had dominated trade in the Mediterranean nearly a thousand years. They were however, a merchant rather than a military power, and they relied on bribery and mercenaries rather than citizen soldiers for their defense. As long as Rome could resist the allurements of gold, and maintain its martial virtues, it was well-matched against Carthage. But the Phoenicians were Canaanites; they worshiped vile gods and had a decadent influence on most cultures in which they came in contact. (see unit 8: The Phoenicians for more info.)

Punic Wars: 264-145 B.C.—There were three Punic Wars, but the second was by far the greatest threat to Rome and the most transformative. The first Punic War lasted 24 years, and forced Rome to establish itself as a permanent Naval power. It was won primarily by perseverance: Rome gained some Carthaginian territory during the conflict but failed to achieved a decisive victory. Carthage capitulated as much because of internal troubles as due to pressure from Rome. 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 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. Although Carthage had been eliminated as a military threat, the ruling classes in Rome desired to exterminate it, 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 Romans correctly saw Carthage as an existential threat, but destroying the capital of the Carthaginian trading network failed to eliminate its influence. Phoenician colonies, mines, trading stations, and merchant alliances were spread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. When their capital city was destroyed many Carthaginians simply migrated to other towns and colonies where they continued to oppose the Roman government through bribery, corruption, and duplicity.

Roman Macedonian Wars: 209-146 B.C.—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 despised. 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 against 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 campaigns fought over the next thirty years 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, or Hellenistic era.

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 and Sulla, Cinna and Sertorius, Cicero and Catiline, Pompey and Crassus, 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 prosperous and decadent, the crises of the Roman republic in its final years were due more to corruption, treachery, and civil war, than to outside enemies.

Marian Reforms of the Army—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. In previous years, external threats were met with a patriotic, unified resistance. In the final years of the republic, Rome's enemies did not pose an existential threat, and the wars against them became occasions of political aggrandizement and maneuvering rather than patriotic service. To a large degree this was do to the "Reforms of Marius" (107 B.C.) which fundamentally transformed Rome's army from a citizen militia to a corps of professional soldiers. Once can lament the loss of traditional Roman patriotism and the corruption of those who sought to seize political power by nefarious means, but once the Roman army changed from citizen soldiers to salaried professionals and the purpose of military service changed from home defense to foreign wars, the essential basis of a military dictatorship was in place.

Marius in Carthage
Populares vs Optimates—The final century of the republic saw an increasingly bitter struggle between the traditional aristocratic party based in the city of Rome (or optimates), and the Marian party (or populares) party, which is usually represented as promoting the interests of the commons, but in reality, served the interests of certain merchant and moneyed interests outside of Rome. The basis of authority and power of the optimates was the senate and consulship, whereas the populares depended on the tribune and tribal assemblies. It is true that the populares often put forth legislation that appeared to benefit plebeians and the lower classes, but this was invariably done as a cynical attempt to gain political power. Once the traditional aristocracy was removed from power, the new oligarchy—which was even wealthier and more exclusive than the Roman Senatorial class—was prepared to step in.

In other words, the civil disturbances that plagued Rome during the first century B.C. were not so much 'elites' vs. 'commons' as the attempt of wealthy families outside of Rome take over the levers of power. As long as Rome was merely the dominant city in Italy and allowed its allied cities a great deal of self-rule, a republican governement that enforced strict limits on individul power could be maintained. Once Rome established a full-time, professional army, dedicated to expanding Roman influence, the opportunity for political graft and exploitation was too great to resist.

Treason—Unfortunately, many of the political shenanigans that characterized the first century B.C. cannot be explained by mere ambition. From the time of the Social War (91-87 B.C.) to the rise of the Caesars (49-45 B.C.) a network of treason and subversion not seen since the age of Tarquin is too apparent. It is easier to understand the 'politics' of the period if one assumes perfidy and bad faith among most of the prominent populares statesmen of the age rather than genuine desire for reform. The clear goal of the populares was always to overthrow the republic and establish a military dictatorship and all of their actions are best understood with that outcome in mind. The following quote, sometimes attributed to Cicero, sums up the situation.

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and he carries his banners openly against the city. But the traitor moves among those within the gates freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears no traitor; he speaks in the accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their garments, and he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation; he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city; he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared.

The Social War and Sulpician Laws—The civil war that ended the Roman Republic really began in 91 B.C. when a proposition to grant full Roman citizenship to all Italians was defeated. This provoked the Roman Social War , a rebellion of some of the 'Italian Allies' against Rome. Although Rome was victorious, most of the rights of Roman citizenship were granted to all towns in Italy, but in such a way that native Romans would still control the senate, and therefore, the foreign policy of Italy. This was not, however, good enough for those who had fomented the war, and as soon as Sulla, Rome's greatest military commander, was no longer consul, key Roman politicians, most notably Marius, Sulpicius, and Cinna, began to advance the interests of the Italian allies over that of Roman citizens. The first effort to pass laws granting full, unrestricted Roman citizenship (and thus control of the government) to the Italian allies was put forth by the tribune Sulpicius, with the help of Marius, while Sulla was with the army in the east. However, when Sulla heard of these developments he returned to Rome, drove Sulpicius and Marius into exile, and oversaw the election of Octavius and Cinna as Consuls before returning to the front.

Cinna and the Marian Massacre—Although Cinna had previously shown no proclivity to support the cause of the Italian allies, once consul he proceeded to use his influence to resurrect the Sulpician laws, and raised a band of armed supporters. When the laws were brought before the senate for a vote, a great riot occurred, and Cinna was driven into exile. It was Cinna and his supporters, more so than Marius, who raised a vast army from certain Italian cities to threaten Rome, but the two commanders were in contact and their forces were coordinated. During this critical period Sulla and his legions were far in the east, and Octavius, the remaining consul, did not have the resources to defend the city. On the promise from Cinna that there would be no bloodshed, he permitted the exiles to enter the city. But Marius had made no such promise, and his slave soldiers massacred many of the Senate leaders without mercy. At first Cinna did nothing to stop these outrageous but he eventually brought them to an end. Soon after, he and Marius were elected consul without opposition. Marius died shortly thereafter and Cinna reigned supreme for three years. It would appear that Cinna, rather than Marius was the primary architect of the rebellion and it is no coincidence that Julius Caesar, though a young man during this time, was married to Cinna's daughter.

Sulla Restores the Roman Senate—During the following years, many Roman leaders who had survived the massacre of Marius fled the city for Sulla's camp in the east. Cinna recognized that Sulla was a threat, and sent a legion to attempt to negotiate peace with Mithridates, in order to isolate Sulla. This effort failed, and many of Cinna's troops deserted or joined Sulla. Cinna tried to raise a new army to meet Sulla in the east, but his officers mutinied and killed him. The remaining populares leaders were unable to prevent Sulla's return, and had to depend mainly on their Italian allies, especially the Samnites (the historic enemies of Rome), to defend the city. Just outside the gates of Rome, Sulla's forces met with the Samnite army and after a brutal battle, the Samnite army was destroyed. By Sulla's orders, Roman prisoners of war were spared but all foriegn prisoners were brutally executed. By the savage destruction of the Samnite army, Sulla made it known that interference by the "Italian Allies" in the affairs of Rome would not be tolerated, a necessary condition for restoring power to the Senate class.

Once he assumed power in Rome Sulla dealt with his political enemies by 'proscribing' them. In this way he declared them 'public enemies', withdrew civic protections, confiscated their property, and provided rewards for their execuion. This caused many of his enemies to be murdered by their own slaves, or forced them into suicide or exile. Sulla's proscriptions targeted not only citizens of Rome, but known conspirators throughout Italy. The "Equestrian" class of wealthy merchants and tax-farmers (publicans) was hit the hardest since they were assumed to be allied with the populares program. Sulla made himself dictator, and in this position made changes to the Roman government that decreased the influence of the tribunes and equestrians, and increased the number of Senators and magistrates. He then resigned his dictatorship, released his body guards and retired to his villa to write his memoirs. However, he died unexpectedly soon after, and his history of the period has been lost. Sulla's "reforms" had put the government squarely in the hands of the citizens of Rome, and for over twenty years following, Rome was again governed according to Republican principles.

Populares in Exile—What happened to the populares who survived Sulla's proscriptions? Many escaped to Hispania and Africa. Sertorius, one of Cinna's closest advisors, established a safe haven in Hispania that remained independent from Rome until 73 B.C. Others laid low in Italy waiting for new leadership to arise. In the mean time there was enough conflict in Italy and abroad to keep the legions occupied. No sooner had the Romans put down the Sertorian rebellion in Spain, than a slave rebellion lead by the escaped gladiator Spartacus, broke out in Italy. In the east, Mithridates again made trouble, and a network of well-connected pirates roamed the Mediterranean with impunity. These crises were put down by a new generation of generals who rose to leadership positions after the death of Sulla and Marius. They were Crassus, a speculator who made a great deal of money as a result of Sulla's proscriptions, Lucullus, who brought the Mithridatic War in the east to a close, and Pompey , who put down the pirates who had been plaguing the Mediterranean for decades.

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

First Triumvirate to Death of Augustus

Populares and Despotism—The terms populares and optimates are often used to describe political alignments in Rome during the late Republican period, but this can be misleading. The populares are usually presented as favoring policies benefitting the landless classes whereas the optimates are presented as looking after the 'rich'. However, to understand the transition of Rome from a Republican to an Imperial govenment, it is necessary to recognize that in spite of its 'liberal' political program, many of the leaders of the populares, or "party of Marius", were intentionally working to replace the republican government of Rome with a military dictatorship. Under Julius Caesar and his successor Augustus, they succeeded.

The leaders of both political parties were powerful and wealthy. The important difference was not in their policies or political philosophies, but in the manner in which they intended to assume power and rule. For over 400 years Roman magistrates had been elected, served limited terms, and had been granted explicit powers associated with particular offices. From the age of Julius Caesar, the nominal rulers were emperors and generals, appointed rather than unelected; and the real rulers were behind-the-scenes prefects, ministers and and money-changers, accountable to no one. The population, stripped of all real political power, was kept pacified by "bread and circuses", while the ruling class, no longer Roman by birth or allegience, conspired against them. The critical conflict was never rich vs. poor, or patrician vs. plebeian; it was always democracy vs despotism.

After Sulla—In the years following the Marius-Sulla wars, the Marian loyalists suffered severe setbacks. Not only were many of their leaders dead or exiled, but Sulla's reforms had put political power squarely back into the hands of the Senate. The optimates were supported by most Romans and the party could not be dislodge by popular appeal. On the other hand, the changes that Marius had made to the military, which transformed Rome's army from citizen soldiers into professional forces, opened another path to power. Now that Rome was surrounded by enemies, war was almost constant and the loyalty of career soldiers was to military leaders rather than politicians. It was natural, therefore, for ambitious power-seekers to look to the military for a career.

The two most noteable generals in the years before Julius Caesar rose to power were Crassus and Pompey , both Sulla loyalists, but of signficantly different character. Pompey was highly respected, popular with the people, and ruled as consul three times (non-consecutively), yet he deferred to the senate, and retired from public life several times. Crassus gained enormous wealth by dubious means and used his wealth to purchase political power and military offices. The military adventures that were most prominant in the two decades following Sulla were the Mithriatic War in the east, the Sertorian War in Spain, the Slave Revolt of Spartacus, and the Cilician Pirates in the Mediterranean. Either Pompey or Crassus, and sometimes both, were involved in putting down all of these crises.

Conspiracies of Catiline and Lepidus— In addition to these external threats, at least two political conspiracies that menaced the government of Rome were put down. The Catiline Conspiracy, a plan to overthrow the Senate by murdering senators and staging riots, was exposed by Cicero. A great many politicans associated with the party of Marius, including Julius Caesar, were implicaed in the Catiline conspiracy but never punished. Another dangerous rebellion occurred in 77 B.C. when Lepidus, a leading populares general was relieved of his command and turned his army back toward Rome, exactly as Julus Caesar did 27 years later. The Lepidus rebellion was put down by Pompey, the same general who had supported him in his bid for consul a year earlier. This Lepidus was the father of the general who formed the Second Triumvirate with Anthony and Octavio in 43 B.C.

Julius Caesar—Julius Caesar's political career was not a spontaneous development. He had had been groomed as a promising leader of the populares faction from a young age. His aunt was the wife of Marius and his second wife was the daughter of Cinna, but he was also closely related by family marriages to Sulla, Mark Antony, and many other prominant leaders of the age. Julius Caesar was promoted to an important office as a priest of Jupiter when only 18, and was well-positioned to assume other offices until the proscriptions of Sulla devastated his patrons. Caesar survived Sulla's purges, but his political prospects were temporarily stymied. He progressed through the usual political offices, but his career did not flourish until he made an alliance with Crassus, the richest man in Rome. It was Crassus who funded Julius Caesar's political campaigns from his election as Pontifex Maximus to his five-year appointment to a military office in Gaul.

Most Biographies of Julius Caesar emphasize his extraordinary personal qualities, but in fact he did not act alone. Caesar was promoted and patronized by many of the prominant political leaders of his age, and he had unlimited funds available for bribery, military provisions, or anything else needed to advance his objectives. Until the death of Crassus in 53 B.C., Caesar was largely under the influence of his financial network. When he marched on Rome, he was following the exact playbook of Lepidus, who had attempted a military take over a generation priviously. Far from being a political or military genuis, Julius Caesar was extraordinarily well-connected and had every advantage and opportunity to succeed, and had he failed, another military leader would have arisen to pave the way for despotism.


The First Triumvirate—In 60 B.C. Crassus, Pompey , and Caesar put aside their political differences and formed the First Triumvirate, an informal arrangement in which which the three leaders maintained effective control, while preserving the forms and appearance of Republican They divided the empire into three regions of influence: Crassus held power in the east, Caesar in Hispania and later Gaul, and Pompey in Rome. It is important that Crassus and Caesar, who represented the political interests that sought to replace the republic with a military dictatorship, took charge of foreign commands and commanded most of the Roman legions, while Pompey, who represented the senators, was left to govern the largely peaceful regions of Italy.

Seven years later, Crassus perished on an ill-fated campaign in Parthia, while Caesar's Conquest of Gaul was very successful. In the six years 58-52 B.C., Caesar brought the entire region of Gaul (modern France, Belgium, and Switzerland), under his sway. He shared his wealth with the army and with key allies in Italy, and his generosity brought him unbounded prestige and popularity. Caesar's enemies, who were aware of the danger he posed to the republic tried to deprive him of his legions and bring him back under control. But Caesar had already broken numerous Roman laws, and acted against the will of the sentate. Had he submitted to the request to lay down arms he could have been stripped of his honors and tried for war crimes. The die was, indeed, was cast long before he crossed the Rubicon.

The Caesarean Civl War—In 49 B.C. Caesar marched into Roman territory with his army, thereby provoking the Caesarean Civil War. At the time, Pompey had limited military resources to defend Rome so he and many senators withdrew to the south and tried to recruit an army to meet Caesar. But Caesar was able to rally even more forces, both among legions stationed in Gaul and new recruits in Italy. After a minor skirmish, Pompey withdrew to the east, leaving Caesar the master of Italy.

After setting up his agents in Rome, Caesar spent most of 49 B.C. in Spain and Africa, where he had many allies. He consolidated his control of the legions in the west and bestowed Roman citizenship to the citizens of Cadiz, the wealthiest city in Hispania, before returning to Rome and elecing himself consul. In the following year he defeated Pompey at Pharsalus, and brought Egypt and much of the east under Roman control. He granted Roman citizenship to selected foreign allies, and in Rome spent money lavishly to appease the masses. By packing the senate with loyalists, and controling the "Roman Mob", Caesar made the return to tradition Republican government virtually impossible, so even when he was assassinated, the senatorial party was unable to resume normal government.

Augustus and his Associates—Who exacly whould assume control of the Roman Empire after the death of Julius Caesar was a problem that took at least fifteen years to resolve, and the 'official story' emphasizes the conflict between Augustus, the Nephew of Caesar, and Mark Anthony, one of his leading generals. However, many of the "behind the scenes" characters, seem to have interesting relations among each other, and their actual influence on events may be under-appreciated. There are many unasked and unanswered questions. For example, Augustus was married in quick succession to Clodia, the daughter of Mark Antony's wife Fulvia, then Scribonia, the daughter of a wealthy plebian family also connected to Mark Antony, then Livia, the daughter of yet another wealthy plebian family who was already married and eight months pregnant. Yet he stayed married to Livia for over fifty yearsin spite of the fact that they had no children together and she was accused of plotting the deaths of several of his biological nephews and grandsons.

Livia is thought to have exercised far more direct power that a normal Roman wife, but she was by no means the only curious influence on Augustus. Little is known of of Marcus Agrippa, his close friend and favorite general other than that he came from a wealthy but obscure family. Yet Aggrippa married the only biological daughter of Augustus and essentially ruled with imperial powers in the east after the death of Mark Antony. His grandson was Caligula.

Another mysterious, but very powerful ruler during the reign of Augustus was Maecenas. Like Agrippa, he came from obscure origins, but was extremely wealthy and had enormous influence in both diplomatic and financial matters. Maecenas is known as a great patron of the arts and literature, but the most extraordinary and ominous thing about him was that he held no offical office in Rome whatsoever, but controlled enormous wealth, both public and private. His diplomatic services were used to resolve both foreign and domestic conflicts, and he had great influence over Augustus in all matters. Maecenas perfectly represents the real rulers of the Roman Empire: wealthy, unelected, behind-the-scenes, luxurious, decadent, and utterly unaccountable to the Roman people.

Height of Empire—14 to 235 A.D.

Reign of Tiberius to Last Severan Emperor

The Praetorian Guard—In the early Republican age consuls had only a few lictors assigned to guard them, but over time certain generals (aka praetors) began forming specialized cohorts for this purpose. As Emperor, Augustus increased the number of these hand-picked cohorts and stationed them inside the city. There, the praetorian guard became the eyes, ears, and enforcers of the imperial regime and their rise boded-ill for the people of Rome.

For most of the reign of the Julio-Claudian emperors (14-69 A.D.) the praetorian guards were the real rulers of Rome. Sejanus, a nephew of Maecenas, was the prefect of the guards during the reign of Tiberius. He built the Castra Praetoria barracks just outside the walls of Rome to house the elite guard and came very close to deposing the emperor altogether. Once his schemes were exposed, however, he was executed along with thousands of his followers. The murder of Sejanus however, did not diminish the power of the guards and for the next forty years the praetorians selected and deposed all subsequent emperors. Their preference was for weak, easily controlled leaders, and their mischief continued until they were permanently dissolved by Constantine.

Julio-Claudians—For fifty years following the reign of Augustus Caesar, descendants of Livia and Augustus held the imperial throne. Without exception, the Julio-Claudians were prone to murder, insanity, debauchery, sodomy, and perversions which in previous ages would have disqualified them from any magisterial office. Especially notable was the promiscuity of the women. The wives of Claudius were especially notorious, but other noblewomen including the daughter of Augustus, the wife of Maecenas, and the mistress of Nero, were involved in scandalous affairs. And this debauchery prevailed only a few generations after Julius had insisted that "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion".

This rapid change in the morality of Roman noblewomen is powerful evidence that Phoenician influences were afoot. Whereas traditional Roman matrons were morally upright, the Phoenician women (i.e. Jezebel) were known as femme fatales and courtesans. They were also known to marry into noble families. Although Julius Caesar himself was a patrician, both he and Augustus surrounded themselves with "wealthy plebeians" and granted Roman citizenship to well-connected foreigners, so it seems likely that the imperial family was infiltrated.

Murder and Insanity—Almost as shocking as the licentiousness of the Julio-Claudians, was their proclivity to murder. Many family members died violent deaths, often at the hands of close friends or relatives. And the cycle of betrayal, murder, vengeance, and paranoia was self-perpetuating. A kill or be-killed ethic caused emperors, including Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero to justify purges of their political opponents and/or often family members. But this type of indiscriminant murder, which appears 'normal' during the imperial age, had been unthinkable during the Republican era. Romans took pride in their orderly legal system and deplore the massacres of Marius and Sulla. As recently as 60 B.C., the consul Cicero had been exiled for sentencing the Catiline conspirators to death without a trial. The prohibition against extrajudicial killing was another taboo from the Republican age that was upended by imperial rule and provides more evidence of noxious foreign influence at the highest levels of imperial society.

Year of Four Emperors: 69 A.D.—Nero was the last member of the fratricidal Julio-Claudian dynasty and he left no heir, so when the praetorians deposed him, they declared for Galba, an elderly patrician favored because he was respectable but weak. Galba was in turn overthrown by a faction that favored the much younger Otho. Meanwhile the German legions declared for their commander Vitellius, whom his subordinates favored because of his weak will and easy discipline. Vitellius's forces defeated Otho and he became the third emperor to in less than a year. Soon the eastern legions were disgusted by the weak and vacillating Vitellius, so they declared for Vespasian, a competent general who was then besieging Jerusalem. A civil war within Rome followed in which a number of buildings were destroyed, but by the time Vespasian marched to the city, Vitellius was dead and the issue was settled.

Flavian Dynasty: 70-96 A.D.—Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty, was the first Roman emperor of equestrian rank, and he had attained his leadership position among the legions largely by merit. He had risen through the ranks with credit, and as emperor exhibited competent and independent. Emperor Vespasian reformed finances, brought the praetorian guard under control, replaced corrupt senators and restored discipline. Compared to previous emperors, he ruled relatively justly, but he rarely consulted with the senate and put his own men in all positions of importance. 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 Jewish War after his father was called to Rome. Titus had proven himself a great general, and was popular with the people as well as the army so there was much lamenting when he died unexpectedly. At his death the throne then passed to his younger brother Domitian, who is portrayed as tyrannical by several of the historians of the age, especially those from the senatorial class. In religious matters Domitian promoted worship of traditional Roman deities and permitted cults dedicated to foreign gods. Christians, however, were not protected and some of the earliest known persecutions occurred under Domintan. It is said that he became murderous and paranoid after a failed assassination attempt, but his paranoia appears to have been justified, since a few years later he was murdered by members of his own court.

Five Good Emperors: 96-180 A.D.—Immediately after the death of Domitian, who died without an heir, the Senate declared in favor of Nerva, an elderly minister. As Nerva also had no heir, he adopted Trajan, an influential general born in Hispania, who was then assigned to the German legions. At the news of Nerva's death, Trajan consolidated his power among the foreign legions throughout the empire before approaching Rome. As emperor, Trajan ruled in consultation with the senate and his care in winning over potential rivals led to a long and peaceful reign. Hadrian, the successor of Trajan, was a nephew who was supposedly adopted on Trajan's deathbed, but in any case his succession was peaceful and he continued many of Trajan's policies.

During the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, the maximum extent of the empire was reached, the borders were secured, imperial finances were competently managed, and infrastructure, including walls, aqueducts, public buildings, and roads, were maintained. Hadrian especially, was a patron of the arts and literature, and promoted 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.

Both Trajan and Hadrian, like many Roman leaders of the imperial age, had homosexual tendencies, so their domestic relations were complicated. Trajan's wife Plotnia, however, portrayed herself as a traditional Roman matron, which, however, fraudulent, was a welcome relief from the scandals of previous empresses. She was an influential power behind the throne during both reigns and remains one of the few empresses whom history has portrayed in a favorable light.

When Hadrian was near death he insisted that his successor, Antoninus Pius adopt Marcus Aurelius as a condition of his own adoption by Hadrian. Marcus Aurelius was a relative of Hadrian and Trajan, so three of the 'Five Good Emperors' were part of the same Italo-Hispanic clan. Both Antoninus and Aurelius are treated kindly by historians, and Marcus Aurelius is often noted as a stoic philosopher, whose personal character was considered admirable. Unfortunately, his biological son, Commodus, was a disastrous choice as a successor and 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 and coming after a century of good leadership, shocked the empire. He was eventually dispatched by one of his courtiers, but since no successor was named, the government of Rome fell into confusion, with five generals claiming the imperial title. A year-long civil war ensued but eventually Septimus Severus prevailed. To assure his undisputed rule, he began his reign by executing many of his opponents' supporters, the first of many purges over the forty year Severan dynasty.

While many other Roman emperors appear to have been under the influence of Phoenician agents, the Severans were the first openly Canaanite imperial family. Septimius spoke the Punic language as his native tongue and his wife Julia Domna was the wealthy daughter of a Syrian high-priest of Baal. The family openly engaged in Canaanite rituals and the boy-emperor Elagabalus, one of the last Severan kings, was the head-priest of the Syrian sun-god.

Septimus Severus, was a politically skilled general with supporters in Africa and Syria. He spent much of his reign traveling in order to keep the legions in line and to put down rebellions. Meanwhile his wife Julia Domna and the prefect of the praetorians ruled in Rome. His son, Caracalla was badly influenced by the decadence of the imperial court but took the advice of his father to heart. "Tend to the soldiers and ignore everyone else." With this background it is unsurprising that Caracalla ruled as a vicious tyrant, and opened his reign by killing his brother. Like his father, Caracalla spent all his time in camp and left his mother to to handle affairs in Rome. For the remainder of the Severan dynasty, the empire was ruled by Julia Domna and her nieces, serving as regents for boy emperors. They were unpopular and constantly engaged in scandals, but the family was so wealthy they persisted in power for decades. Eventually, however, all of the later Severan emperors—Caracalla, Egalabalus, and Alexander—were murdered by members of their own guard, and the Empire was plunged into fifty years of anarchy.

Fall of Empire—235 to 565 A.D.

Military Anarchy to Reign of Justinian I

Military Anarchy—The 43-year Severan dynasty 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 when he suddenly murdered Alexander Severus, seized the throne, and plunged the imperial government into chaos. He killed his enemies, which included virtually anyone from the ruling classes without mercy. He was murdered by his own troops after 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 fifty 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 and ConstantineDiocletian, who came to the throne in 284, finally brought 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 in peace and die a natural death, 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.

Fall of the Western Empire—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.

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.

Christianity and Church Fathers—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.

Eastern Empire—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.

The Phoenicians—1500 B.C. to 235 A.D.

Byblos, Sidon, Tyre to Sevaran Dynasty

Who Were The Phoenicians?

The Phoenician civilization was a sea-faring nation that thrived in the Mediterranean for over a 1000 years before its last major city, Carthage, was destroyed by the Romans. It was just as advanced as the Greek and Roman civilizations that followed it, and its influence on other ancient cultures was enormous. Yet very little is known about these amazing people. Partly this is because many of their buildings and records were lost when their great cities were destroyed. But it is also because their history has been intentionally obscured.

The Punic Wars were a disaster for the Phoenicians. Thousands perished during the siege of Carthage, and much Carthaginian territory was lost to Rome. The Phoenicians who survived, however, decided to live among other nations and maintain their community by means of an extended trading network rather than by attempting to rebuilding their ruined capital.. They recognized that Rome could destroy or conquer any territory they attempted to hold independently, but if they dispersed themselves among many nations, and kept their activities obscured they could continue to prosper.

Phoenician ships

For hundreds of years the Phoenician trading cities on the coast of Lebanon (mainly Tyre, Byblos, and Sidon) had worked to establish a network of colonies, and treasure stores throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Rome had seized Carthage’s main trading ports, but Phoenician allies controlled trade in dozens of port cities. Their forefathers had long-established marriage alliances with powerful families in dozens of trading centers. These resources made it possible for a network of Phoenicians to operate within the ancient world for hundreds of years after the fall of Carthage even after they lost their identity as an independent nation. This unit will explore both the historic city-states of Phoenicia, and the clandestine network that survived into the Roman era.

The Phoenician civilization was fascinating and complicated and it is impossible to understand the ancient world without a knowledge of its influence. Because the Phoenicians were explorers and traders, they established connections between nations and helped spread new ideas and technologies. Their influence, however, was both beneficial and harmful since their people possessed both admirable and deplorable traits. On the positive side, the Phoenicians were intelligent, industrious, courageous, sophisticated, and open to new ideas. To them we credit dozens of innovations in ship building, architecture, writing and map-making, industry, handicrafts, and especially commerce. At the same time, some of their habits and religious rites were atrocious. The Phoenicians were known for child-sacrifice and other perversions as well as treachery and secretiveness. It is not without reason that the God of the Israelites raged against them.

What We Know from the Bible—In ancient times the people we now refer to as Phoenicians were identified by the city-states from which they came. The Bible makes many references to Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos as the primary Canaanite cites on the coast of Lebanon. The word 'Phoenician' is derived from the Greek word for Purple and referred to all of the merchant nations who sold a rare purple dye. The term refers to an ethic group rather than a location, so it is a convenient way to describe the Canaanite sea-farers who dominated trade and commerce in the Ancient World for over a thousand years.

"Judge me Oh God, and distinguish my cause

from the nation that is not holy;

Deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man."

—Psalm 42.

The Old Testament is one of the best sources of information about these people. It not only provides a historical record of the activities of the Tyrians and Sidonians, but it also provides insights into the religious rites and character of the people.

The Phoenicians were Canaanites, like most of Israel's neighbors. According to the Bible, Canaan was the fourth son of Ham, cursed by Noah because of the transgression of his father. It has been inferred that Canaan's wife was descended from fallen angels and that the Canaanite gods were demons. The religious practices of the Canaanites were abhorrent to the God of the Israelites and he exhorted them to drive the Baal worshipers out of Canaan and to destroy their civilization. The Decalogue can be read as admonitions to avoid falling into characteristic Canaanite sins, since in addition to worshiping idols, the Canaanites were known for lies and treachery (8th commandment), adultery (6th commandment), covetousness (10th commandment), and murder (5th commandment).


The God of Abraham assisted the Israelites in their battles against the Canaanites and implored them to avoid making any alliances with them or marrying their women. Unfortunately many Israelites defied these warnings and from Old Testament times, the history of the Jews has been intertwined with that of the Canaanites, and with the Phoenicians in particular. Under the Judges and early kings of Israel, many Canaanite tribes were destroyed or subjugated by the Jews, but even under King David, when the kingdom of Israel reached its maximum extent, the Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos remained independent, and their wealth and sophistication provided a constant temptation to the Israelites. The Phoenician women were attractive and alluring, and the Canaanite Gods promised wealth and worldly pleasures.

From the time of David, the Chroniclers and prophets constantly warned against intercourse with the Phoenician nations yet they were ignored by many of kings, with great harm to the Israelite nation. The Tyrian king Hiram II was extremely generous with Solomon, and provided the wood and architects to build his temple. He also invited the Hebrews to participate in the highly profitable trade with Tarshish. Yet this munificence was but a lure, for in a single generation, the corruption of Solomon's sons led to the division of the Israelites, and the near total corruption of the northern kingdom.

As was common practice among Phoenicians, the Tyrians and Sidonians used their wealth and women to lure powerful men to their destruction. Jezebel was a Tyrian princess who brought the royal house of Israel to ruin, and her daughter Athaliah murdered all her own children and grandchildren so that she could rule unopposed in Judah. In a single generation both dynasties were destroyed by murder and civil war. Not only kings, but thousands of Israelite men became corrupted through marriage to Canaanite women and their children were raised to worship Canaanite gods and tolerate Canaanite abominations.

In spite of a series of prophets who warned against these evils, the Phoenician and Jewish nations continued to mix, and by the time Alexander and his armies subjugated both Jerusalem and Tyre, a covert Canaanite presence within Israel had become firmly established. In other words, as Phoenician cities came under the rule of foreign powers who destroyed their altars and condemned human sacrifice, communities of Baal worshipers embedded themselves within surrounding nations, including Israel. The existence of this evil presence within the Israelite nation becomes obvious when one reads accounts of the siege of Jerusalem, and other atrocities of ancient times attributed to the "Jews", and it is confirmed by John in Revelations 2:9 "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan."

What We Know from History—In spite of the enormous wealth and sophistication of the Phoenician civilization, and its tremendous contributions in cultural fields and commerce, little of detail is known of its history, except by indirect accounts. Supposedly the great written works of the Phoenicians were lost when their cities were destroyed, but this is highly unlikely. Given that the Phoenicians were an extremely wealthy and powerful maritime nation with colonies, ports, and alliances all over the Mediterranean, it is doubtful the information was entirely lost. It is far more likely, considering the secretive and deceptive nature of the Phoenician character, that their extensive knowledge of geography, architecture, metallurgy, medicinal potions and poisons, treasure stores, covert alliances, and national history was hidden and passed on privately to selected families, either orally or by secret texts. Such knowledge had already been successfully hidden from neighboring civilizations for centuries, and it would have been much too valuable to lose.

Nevertheless, a great deal of knowledge about the Phoenicians is provided indirectly by their supposed rivals, the Greeks and Romans, as well as by their Hebrew neighbors.

The first accounts of the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos appear in Egyptian records, and it seems that by about 2000 B.C. the Phoenicians had developed a mutually beneficial trading relationship with the Egyptians. One of the keys to the prosperity of these port cities lay in the "Cedars of Lebanon" which grew in the mountains above them. These forests were the best source of lumber in the Middle East and they were the main reason for the outstanding skills in ship-building and architecture for which the Phoenicians were famous. The Phoenicians developed these specialties while under the protection of the Egyptian Empire, so by the time they gained their independence, in about 1100 B.C., they were well positioned as the leading ship-builders and traders in the Mediterranean.

Carthage Harbors

Over hundreds of years, the Phoenicians developed other skills for which they became famous. Glass-working, metallurgy, navigation, map-making, ship-building, writing, dyes, herbs, luxurious furniture, bedding, and factory production of household items, were skills and goods associated with the Phoenicians, although it is unclear whether they invented these products, or merely perfected them. As the dominant trading nation of their age, they would have had exposure to inventions from throughout the known world and the opportunity to profit from them.

The height of the Phoenician dominance of commerce and trading was in the Biblical period, approximately 1200-800 A.D. During this period they had one of the most advanced civilizations in the west, and they were responsible for spreading knowledge of metallurgy, industrial, and commercial techniques to the less advanced regions of the west. The Phoenicians were very secretive, and sought to keep their 'technology' private but ultimately other more populous and virile civilizations, such as the Greeks, adopted such Phoenician innovations as a written language and ship building. In such a world it was difficult for the Phoenicians to maintain their dominance, but they used a variety of clever techniques to protect their trading network. (See the Phoenician Empire section for more details.)

Even more threatening to the Phoenicians than the Greeks was the rise of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires in the east. Although the Phoenicians were primarily a maritime nation, they depended on control of the coastal regions for many of their supplies and as a naval, rather than a land power, they could not defend their native territory from enormous armies of the east. In order to maintain their power they needed to change tactics. First, they submitted peacefully to the Eastern powers, paid generous tribute, and made key alliances with them. The Assyrians (from 875 B.C.), Babylonians (from 605 B.C.), and Persians (from 540 B.C.) all allowed the Phoenicians a great deal of autonomy in return for tribute and naval service. Secondly, they established trading colonies in regions far to the West. The most famous of these were Carthage in Africa and Cadiz in Spain, but by the 9th century B.C., there were Phoenician outposts on islands throughout the Mediterranean and all along the coast of Africa. Some of these were established long before the Assyrian conquest, but the western colonies grew in power and population after the subjugation of the Phoenician homeland.

The rise of the Greeks as a competing naval power began in the 9th century B.C. and but at first Greek merchant ships confined their activity to the Aegean sea. By about 500 B.C., however, military conflicts between the Greeks and Phoenicians arose in both the west (Sicily), and in the East (Greco-Persian war). In both fields the Phoenicians lost ground over time. They were terrifically competitive in commerce and naval warfare but their mercenary forces were not as reliable as the citizen soldiers of the Greeks. The most notable Greco-Punic wars were in Sicily and lasted for over 200 years (480-276 B.C.) By the 4th century B.C., when the capital city of Tyre was destroyed the Phoenician city-states were already weakened, and the African colony of Carthage became the primary Phoenician port in the Mediterranean.

Even after the loss of Tyre, the Phoenicians maintained a great deal of influence in the east. Alexander, the conqueror of Tyre, died suspiciously a few years after completing his conquests and several of the Diodochi kingdoms that arose from the ashes of his Empire showed signs of Canaanite influence. Both the Ptolemy kingdom in Egypt (305-30 B.C.) and the Seleucid Dynasty in Syria (312-63 B.C.) were hospitable to Phoenician merchants and under their protection Tyre was restored to a prosperous trading port with considerable independence. By 120 B.C. Tyre had completely regained its independence from and began minting its own coins. It maintained its sovereignty until the region came under Roman control.

The Phoenician Empire—The original Phoenician nation was based in a few important cities along the cost of Lebanon. These city states, especially Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre, became trading partners of Egypt and were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture, technology, symbolism, and secret knowledge. By the time the Egyptian Empire began to collapse, around 1200 B.C., the Phoenicians had become the best ship-builders, architects, and engineers in the ancient world, and they had already established a substantial trading network. Amazingly, this small group of tightly-knit people, who controlled very little territory directly, was able to maintain and expand a far-flung empire of colonies and trading ports throughout the known world for over a thousand years. How they managed to do this, involved both admirable traits of industry, courage, and inventiveness, and also far more sinister habits of secretiveness, deception, espionage, and treachery.

One of Phoenicia's earliest and most important exports was lumber. The large beams that could be obtained from the 'Cedars of Lebanon' were of great importance for construction of ships and large buildings, and the cedar is still the national emblem of Lebanon. Another product they were especially famous for was a purple dye derived from a sea creature. They were able to keep the source of the dye secret for hundreds of years, so they could maintain a monopoly on it. "Tyrian Purple" dye was a scarce luxury during ancient times, and came to be the distinctive color of 'royalty'.


Another extremely important Phoenician export was tin. Tin was in great demand because it was a rare metal that could be mixed with copper to produce Bronze, the hardest and most durable metal of the age. It was primarily due to the tin mines in southern Spain and on the Cornwall peninsula of England that the Phoenicians established colonies there, and trading posts all along both routes. The exact location of the mines was one of their most carefully guarded secrets and the Phoenician influence on ancient Iberia and Britain were very important. Some scholars believe that the Celtic religion and Druid priests may have been influenced by Phoenician traders.

The Phoenicians were known to trade in an enormous variety of wares. Besides the Lebanon Cedar, Purple dyes, and tin for which they are most famous, they traded in other precious metals, glassware, jewelry, manufactured goods, ivory, linens, housewares, hand-crafted furniture and other luxury items. They transported exotic animals and plants from distant regions, and since slaves were a profitable commodity in ancient times, they were likely involved in slave markets as well.

The Phoenicians did not confine their activities to trade alone. Instead of merely going from port to port, trading whatever natives of a particular region already produced for export, their traders would attempt to determine the most profitable items, and whenever possible manufacture them or in some other way create a monopoly or control the market. Some colonies were founded specifically to produce or manufacture items for sale. Cadiz and other settlements in Spain for example, were established as mining and metallurgy centers to produce tin, silver, and other metals for exports. By 1000 B.C. the Phoenicians had had established several colonies on the Iberian Peninsula, most notably Cadiz, but also along the Guadalquiver river, dedicated mainly to the trade in precious metals.

By the time the Assyrians conquered the Phoenician homeland in the 9th century B.C., a network of Phoenician trading stations and colonies already existed along the coast of Africa, and on many eastern islands such as Cyrus, Rhodes, and Crete. Shortly thereafter, Carthage was established as the leading city in the west. By that time there were Phoenician ports on Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, and other Islands throughout the Mediterranean. From its colonies is Spain and Morocco, the Phoenicians set sail to even more distant ports. It is not known exactly how far the Phoenician empire extended, but there were ports in Britain, along the coast of France, and political alliances with several kingdoms on the Black Sea. Some scholars even claim there is evidence of Phoenician relics in in the Americas.

The Phoenicians are thought to have traded with the Biblical kingdom of "Sheba" in southern Arabia so they certainly must have had trading colonies along the Red Sea. And Herodotus reports that a Phoenician sailor, "Hanno the Carthaginian" circumnavigated the entire coast of Africa in 500 B.C. And as the naval experts of the Persian empire, were undoubtedly involved in the trade in the Persian gulf, and throughout the Indian Ocean as well. Their trading network operated not only in seas and oceans, but inland, as far as they could ferry their wares along navigable rivers.

The Phoenician network was spread out most of the civilized world and it operated for centuries under many different rulers. Because the Phoenician nation existed as an interconnected web of semi-independent colonies, it could survive innumerable set-backs and conquests. Rome was a leading military power, and could crush any adversary whose power was confined to cities or territory. But the Phoenicians were very different type of foe, and thrived for centuries even under Roman rule.

Phoenician Stratagems and Tactics —The Phoenicians faced innumerable difficulties in maintaining their empire and protecting their monopolies over centuries. They were wealthy beyond measure and could hire mercenaries from all over the world when necessary, but their trading ports were far flung and they found that in most cases it was more productive to invest in developing local alliances than to win or hold territory by force. Mercenary forces were useful in subduing enemies, but were less useful in holding territory over time. It was the Phoenician experience that bribery, infiltration, espionage, and backdoor diplomacy, that is, reliance on clandestine agents and secret agreements, was more effective than combat and yielded far more profitable results.

Phoenician Merchants

The first practical technique used to maintaining control over trade routes was to establish ports, storage facilities, and treasure troves on islands and peninsulas in preference to mainland ports when possible. The Phoenicians were skilled in naval warfare so bases that were surrounded by water easier for them to defend. But even more effective than relying on their own resources for protection was to develop powerful alliances with those nations with whom they traded. Bribery and commercial incentives were useful for this purpose of course, but there were other, more effective methods.

One of the ways the Phoenicians gained strategic allegiances was to marry into the existing nobility of powerful kingdoms. Daughters of Phoenician merchants could provide attractive dowries and by marrying into numerous prominent families in certain regions, the traders could develop a network of allies that persisted over generations. Sometimes this meant infiltration of royal families, or the families of influential ministers. Phoenician advisors were skilled spies and diplomats, and it was imperative to have controllable agents at ports throughout the Empire. Everywhere the Phoenicians traveled, informers and middlemen existed who were practiced at the arts of infiltration, espionage, bribery, blackmail, procurement, poisoning, and harlotry. All were employed in a systematic way to maintain a reliable network of Phoenician operators and to assure a favorable environment for commerce.

The Cosmopolitan outlook of the Phoenician nation was far different from that of most other civilizations. The vast majority of peoples knew only their own language can customs, and did not concern themselves with matters far outside their own region. The Phoenicians studied and understood how people from a wide variety of cultures lived. They learned about foreign languages, customs, dress, and religion, used this knowledge to their advantage. Many Phoenician agents were bilingual and adept at communicating with native peoples and blending into foreign environments. Having knowledge of the circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses of many different peoples made them extraordinarily skillful spies, traders, and diplomats.

Probably the method for securing their fortunes that is most famously associated with the Phoenicians was their outstanding skill in the arts of secrecy, deception, espionage and treachery. In order to operate their trading networks and defend their monopolies, they required the use of hidden treasure stores, secret codes and symbols, and a code of conduct that put the protection of critical "trade secrets" above the protection of life or merchandise. There are numerous stories of Phoenicians dumping cargo or scuttling ships to avoid discoveries, and refusing to disclose secrets even on the pain of death. Some of these trade secrets included the location of certain mines, trading ports, and treasure stores; the identity of Phoenicians spies, agents and operators embedded with foreign governments; navigation techniques and technologies that were not known to other maritime powers; and recipes for certain potions, poisons, and dyes.

Likewise, many Phoenician agents were stilled in deception and treachery. They had operators in many countries who were born and raised in foreign nations, whose families had been acting as spies for generations. They employed such effective deceptions that in some cases their spies didn't even know for whom they were spying. Historians from almost every country that dealt with Phoenicians identify them as secretive, crafty, and duplicitous. Few cultures in known history have used techniques of systematic lying, false identities, spy-networks, and deception as artfully as the Phoenicians. In ancient Rome, the term "Punic Faith" was always used to mean perfidy, treachery, and bad faith. Lies and deception were part of their culture and cause celebration rather than shame.

The Phoenician Religion—The Phoenicians worshipped Canaanite Gods—who were said to be demons—and participated in rituals that were almost unimaginably grotesque. Human sacrifice is the most famous rite associated with the worship of Baal but this was only one of many abominable perversions. Not only Canaanites, but many other ancient cultures worshiped pagan Gods and engaged in debauched festivities. But the Phoenician practices were exceptionally depraved, so that even other Pagan cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans, were appalled. Like the Hebrews, the ancients tolerated degenerate behavior, but their philosophers and moral teachers had clear ideas of civic and personal virtues. In the moral universe of the Phoenicians, however, black was white, up was down, and all was shameless.


The Canaanite Gods went by many names but had similar characters. In general, Baal (or some variant) was the primary God, and Astarte (or some variant) was the primary Goddess, but specific rites and festivals varied among Canaanite nations. In Tyre, for example, child sacrifice was associated with Baal, but in Carthage, it was dedicated to Tanit (a female deity), and among the Hebrews, it was identified with Moloch*. Among various Canaanite nations, alternative names for Baal are: Molech, El, Zeus-Belos, Belus, and Baal-Hammon, and other names for Astarte were Ashteroth, Isis, Ishtar, Inanna, Tanit.

[* Note: Notice that in the Hebrew language Moloch is the phonetic opposite of Shalom, the word for peace.]

Besides child sacrifice and occasional cannibalism, most of the other grotesque rites of the Phoenicians involved some form of sexual perversion. Temple prostitutes were not uncommon in pagan worship, but the Phoenicians insisted that all women, even those who were unmarried, offer themselves as prostitutes on a regular basis in honor of Astarte. And as they used their women as prostitutes, they also visited the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah on their sons. Some boys were even made eunuchs and dressed as women to serve the goddess Astarte. These examples give a general idea of the twisted and demonic character of Canaanite worship, but are not a complete catalog of their vices.

Many Phoenician practices are so abhorrent to Christians that they have difficulty understanding how such a corrupt civilization could have survived, and in fact, thrived for centuries. But the fact is, some of these perverted rites had a specific psychological effect on those who practiced to them, and were a form of brain-washing that fostered a fanatical and cult-like devotion to the sect. In the same way that Sparta's unique way of life and upbringing of children produced an unusually cohesive and martial culture, Phoenician rites and worship were employed to undermine close family ties, break down inhibitions against all imaginable vices, and to increase dependency on the state. Phoenicians needed to possess an unshakable loyalty to their own kind, even in far flung colonies, and had to keep state secrets on pain of death. They had to be willing to live as spies, and to lie, deceive, betray, and even murder when needed. To the extent that malevolent activities were required of citizens, worship of malevolent Gods was necessary.

Children who grow up witnessing the sacrifice of their brothers and sisters become numbed to ritualized murder and come to see all human life as expendable. Parents who submit to sacrificing their children to Moloch may come to see themselves and their children as property of the state. Women who are forced into prostitution at an early age are likely to become accustomed to indignities, and to accept arranged marriage or even more degrading subjugation as normal. And men who were abused as boys are likely to become predators themselves. And all Phoenicians learned from an early age that deceit and murder were respected occupations, and that there was no such thing as personal freedom or dignity. Turning away from the cult was not an option: they existed at the mercy of the state, and they would be killed if they betrayed cult secrets.

Fall of Carthage and Afterward—By the 6th century B.C. Carthage had grown to be the largest Phoenician city, and it was the military and commercial center of activity in the Western Mediterranean and Atlantic. Many Phoenician colonies in Spain, Sicily, Britain, and North Africa were older than Carthage, and had been governed independently for centuries, but for the purpose of simplicity, are often considered part of the Carthaginian empire. It is true that the great general Hamilcar Barca (d. 228 B.C.) founded several new Carthaginian colonies in Southwest Spain, but they were far from the long established mining towns in the Guadalquivir river valley.

The first military struggle between Carthage and Rome did not begin until 264 B.C., almost 500 years after the city was founded. The struggle was primarily for naval but several important conventional battles did occur. The fact that Rome, a country with virtually no history of naval warfare was able to hold its own against Carthage during the First Punic War was one of the greatest upsets in military history. Hamilcar was so incensed at the audacity of Rome that he forced his son Hannibal to swear eternal enmity towards Rome. The Second Punic War lasted for over seventeen years but ended in a complete victory for Rome. The peace terms following the Second Punic War granted all Carthaginian colonies to Rome, but given that many towns were semi-autonomous, most treasure stores were hidden, and many Carthaginian loyalists had already (supposedly) surrendered to Rome, the amount of control Rome actually exercised in the region was limited, and it took Rome over 100 years to completely subdue Hispania.

Death of Agripinna

The third and final Punic War was fought fifty years after the conclusion of the second war. From the beginning Rome was determined to destroy Carthage altogether, so it accused the Carthaginians of violating the peace agreement with Rome, and made demands they knew would be unacceptable. Rome first insisted that Carthage turn over all its weapons of war and send hostages. It then informed the Carthaginians that they must abandon their city and build a new one at least ten miles away from the ocean. As a sea-faring merchant civilization, this was an impossibility. The Carthaginians prepared for a siege. Probably due to strategic bribery, the siege of Carthage lasted for at two years, during which time much of the citizenry was able to escape. However, in 146 B.C., the city walls of Carthage fell, and the Romans destroyed the city and subjugated the remaining population.

By the time the western capital city of the Phoenician Empire fell, Tyre, the eastern capital city, had been rebuilt and granted a great deal of independence from the Seleucid dynasty. By appearance, however, it was a Hellenized city and directed trade routes throughout the east. They Tyrians had already learned to adapt appearances to that of the conquering nation, while maintaining a secret network of Phoenician loyalists. This lesson was not lost on the Carthaginian refugees, many of whom settled in Roman territories.

The history of Rome, from the time of the fall of Carthage shows many signs of Phoenician bribery and corruption. A number of well-funded, well-organized enemies arose to resist the Romans, (Jugurtha, Mithridates, pirates, Sentorius, etc.), and a few wealthy 'Plebian' families and novus homines (new men) began to play a significant part in Roman government, especially Marius, whose seven consulships greatly changed the methods of government of Rome. The vicious, murderous, promiscuous, behavior of the Julio-Claudian Caesars, shows unmistakable Phoenician influence. Other Roman emperors as well, exhibited certain Phoenician tendencies, but the Severans (193-235 A.D.) were the only Roman emperors to openly practice the Canaanite religion. Septimius Severus was from a Carthaginian town in Africa, and his wife Julia Domna, was the daughter of a Canaanite priest. After the fall of the Severan dynasty the Roman Empire suffered a century of chaos and anarchy.

Phoenician Influence on other Cultures—Because the Phoenicians dominated trade in Western regions for hundreds of years, they were in a position to greatly influence a number of civilizations. We have We have already seen the morally corrupting influence the cities of Tyre and Sidon had on the Hebrews. On some other regions, however they appear to have had a more instructive influence. In remote regions, such as Spain and North Africa, the Phoenician were a far more technically advanced civilization than were the native inhabitants. They introduced many of the innovations of eastern lands to the Iberians and Berbers. In Spain, for example, they taught the natives the arts of mining and metalwork, and in Africa they brought advances in irrigation, agriculture, and animal husbandry. In Greece they helped advanced the arts of writing, ship-building, and architecture. In some of the primitive nations they traded with, they introduced unheard of luxuries and temptations, and in some cases appear to have facilitated the trade in slaves.


One of the most important legacies of the Phoenicians was first phonetic alphabet. Writing had existed in ancient civilizations since at least 3000 B.C. in the form of pictograms or hieroglyphics. The problem with pictograms was that they were complicated and that only certain words could be represented. The Phoenicians were the first civilization known to have adopted consonant based set of symbols that could be used to represent a large variety of words, using a simplified script. The 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet could be used as both pictograms to express concepts, and as phonetic symbols. The Phoenician alphabet was simple enough to be used effectively on papyrus paper which could then be rolled into scrolls. These scrolls were called 'books' or 'biblios' in Greek, taken from the name of the Phoenician town that was famous for the production of papyrus paper. The English word Bible is taken from the Greek word for Book.

The Phoenician alphabet is the basis of both the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, and most other modern alphabets trace back to one of these ancient scripts. The Phoenician use of their alphabet however, was somewhat complicated since the symbols could be used to represented numbers and pictograms as well as letters. They also used a variety of symbols along with the alphabet to represent confidential instructions when communicating with distant operators. Phoenician writing is therefore associating with secret codes and double meanings, and has been used by secret societies and mystery religions throughout history.