Roman soldiers march out of a fort. The Romans came from a province of Italy called Latium. They spoke a language called Latin. From the 3rd century BC, they started to build up a huge empire. At its peak in AD 117, the Roman Empire included France, Spain, Germany, southern Britain, and parts of eastern Europe and North Africa. At this time, about 60 million people lived under Roman rule. The secret of Rome’s success was its well-trained and organized army, which crushed all opposition. Once new land had been conquered, the Romans introduced their own lifestyle and language to the conquered people.
The rise of Rome
About 3000 years ago, a tribe of people, who spoke the Latin language, settled beside the River Tiber in Italy. This settlement became a town called Rome. Early Rome was ruled by kings, but in 510 BC the people decided to establish a republic (in which power is held by the people and the representatives they elect). Rome was now governed by a group of citizens called senators. Gradually, Rome became more powerful, taking over surrounding territories. By 264 BC, it controlled most of Italy.Hannibal crosses the Alps, in 218 BC.
The Romans started to look further afield, and fought the Carthaginians (from Carthage in North Africa) in the Punic Wars to win control of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. In 218 BC, Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, led his army of 35,000 men and 37 elephants across the Alps to invade Roman lands in Italy. Although he lost 10,000 of his men and all but one of his elephants, he won many battles against the Roman army.
Government of the republic
The republic was ruled by a government called the Senate. Members of the Senate, called senators, were exclusively men from noble Roman families. Each year, the senators and a section of the citizens elected two consuls from among the Senate. The consuls governed Rome for one year, in agreement with each other, and advised by the Senate. It was the consuls’ responsibility to appoint new senators. Once chosen, senators served for life.
Julius Caesar was a brilliant general who conquered many lands for Rome. He was elected consul in 59 BC, but it was not long before he wanted to govern Rome in his own way. He became governor of parts of southern Gaul (now France) and brought northern Gaul under Roman rule. He returned to Rome in triumph and began to rule it as a dictator (someone who has absolute power) in 49 BC. But some senators were jealous of Caesar and wanted to regain power for the senate. In 44 BC a group of senators stabbed him to death in the senate house in Rome.
After Caesar’s death, two prominent Romans began to struggle for power. One was a fellow consul of Caesar’s, Mark Antony, who became the lover of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. The other was Caesar’s great-nephew, Octavian. Octavian declared war on Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC and defeated them at the Battle of Actium. Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves. In 27 BC Octavian became the first imperator, or emperor, of Rome, under the name Augustus, which means “deeply respected”. He reigned from 27 BC to AD 14. He brought peace to the empire, but before his death he chose his own successor. From then on, the Romans could not choose their leader.
Not all Rome's later emperors ruled as wisely as Augustus. Nevertheless, emperors ruled over the Roman Empire for over 400 years. They were not kings but they had absolute power over their people. The emperor’s “crown” was a laurel wreath, a sign of military success.
Expansion of the empire
Ranks of the Roman armyOver the 150 years after Augustus became emperor, the Roman Empire grew even larger, bringing Rome wealth and slaves from other parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. Rome needed new lands in its empire to bring in wealth such as food and natural resources—copper, tin and iron—as well as slaves, goods and taxes. Expanding this empire depended largely on the strength of the Roman army. The army was sent to the farthest reaches of the empire to conquer new territories and establish settlements there.
The Romans faced opposition to their growing empire from the Celtic peoples who lived in Europe at the time. In Britain, Queen Boudicca and her tribe, the Iceni, recaptured many towns from the Romans before she was eventually defeated in about AD 60. Violent rebellion also broke out in Judaea, when thousands of Jews rebelled in AD 66. But for two centuries from the start of Augustus’s rule in 27 BC—a period known as Pax Romana (Latin for "Roman Peace")—there were no major wars in the empire.
The empire at its greatest extent
Julius Caesar had conquered Gaul, most of Spain and parts of eastern Europe and North Africa. New lands were also acquired under the later Roman emperors: Britain, the western parts of North Africa and lands in the Middle East.
The Roman Empire at its greatest extent (AD 117)The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent during the rule of Emperor Trajan. He led a series of military operations, capturing lands in the east: Armenia, Assyria and Mesopotamia. By AD 117 the Roman Empire stretched from Britain in the north to Egypt in the south, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea in the east, a region of some 6.5 million square kilometres (2.5 million square miles). It included all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. About 60 million people lived under Roman rule at this time.
Roman rule was forceful, but also respectful of local customs, language and religion. The language of Rome, Latin, was gradually introduced in the west, and eventually became the language of much of the empire, although Greek remained widespread in the east. In AD 212, every free inhabitant (those that were not slaves) living in the empire was granted citizenship.
For efficient government, the conquered territories were divided into provinces. Each province was ruled by a governor. Some vital provinces, including Aegyptus (present-day Egypt), the major food-producer of the empire, were ruled by a senior official called a legate, appointed by the emperor himself. All the provinces were linked by a network of new roads. They were used by the army, traders and messengers.
Christians prayed secretly in catacombs.When the emperors died, the Roman people worshipped them as gods. Christians refused to do this. So, from about AD 250, thousands of Christians were put in prison or thrown to fierce animals in front of watching crowds at an arena. In fear for their lives, Christians met in catacombs (undergound cemeteries) to pray in secret. In AD 313 emperor Constantine made Christianity legal.
Some Roman emperors were good rulers, like their first emperor, Augustus. Other emperors were brutal. Tiberius (ruled AD 14 to 37) strengthened the empire but became a tyrant feared by all. His successor Caligula (ruled AD 37 to 41) continued the reign of terror. Caligula was probably insane: it is said he once made his horse a consul and had a palace built for it. One of the cruellest of the Roman emperors was Nero, who was Caligula’s nephew. In AD 64 a great fire burned for a week and destroyed half of Rome. It was rumoured that Nero himself started the fire, although that was probably untrue.
The fall of Rome
In AD 117, the Roman Empire had reached its largest extent under the rule of Emperor Trajan (ruled AD 98 to 117). However, it was not long before plague, famine and Barbarian attacks began to weaken the empire. "Barbarians" was the name given by the Romans to the peoples from beyond its borders to the north and east: Huns, Goths, Vandals and others.The Vandals sack Rome in AD 455.In AD 260, Rome was defeated by Persia and had to abandon parts of eastern Europe. Then, in AD 370, the empire was invaded by Huns from Asia and Barbarians. This led Rome to withdraw from Gaul and Britain. In 395 the empire was split into two—East and West. The West was rapidly overrun by Barbarians, who sacked Rome in AD 455.
Consultant: Philip Parker