Roman Empire

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Part of the series on
Ancient Rome
Historical Periods

Regal period (753 – 509 B.C.)
Republic (509 – 27 B.C.)
Empire (27 B.C. – 395 A.D.)
Western Empire (395 – 476)
Eastern Empire (395 – 500)

Great Romans

Marius, Cato the Younger, Cicero,
Julius Caesar, Pompey, Augustus,
Trajan, Diocletian, Constantine,
Augustine, Justinian I

Roman Legacy

Ancient Rome in popular culture

Related Articles

Pax Romana
Five Good Emperors
Third-century crisis
Edict of Milan
Edict of Thessalonica

An empire started by the Romans that stretched from British Isles 44AD to Northern Africa 146 B.C., to Armenia 42 B.C. The Roman Empire was the direct successor to the Roman Republic.

Rome may be credited with creating the virtue of civic republicanism: that a citizen should give his life in battle or in work to the glory of the Republic.

Its greatest ruler was Caius Iulius Caesar Octavianus, or Augustus, although many others parallel his life in depth.

Rome contributed a great deal to the mythology of early Christianity. For example, the prophecy that "a savior would come out of Judea" was popular in the Roman Empire, so popular that the biographer Suetonious saw fit to include it in his De Vitae Caesarium. However, Suetonious identified the savior as Vespasian in his "Life of Vespasian," since Vespasian did, as it was said, "save the State."


The pre-imperial history of Rome is treated elsewhere. In brief,

Roman Engineering

The Roman Empire is known for its construction of roads that stretched throughout the Empire. These roads nurtured trade through the Empire and connected with other trade routes as far as the Silk Road to China. In addition to trade, the highways allowed for fast overland movement of military forces to areas that needed defense or suppression. This same spirit of military infrastructure has a modern descendant in the Eisenhower Interstate System.[Citation Needed] The Roman style of road construction was revolutionary at it's time, and has for the most part yet to be improved upon. Crowns allowed runoff of rainwater into gutters and sub-packing of peastone and gravel allowed for absorption of frost heaves where necessary. While not all Roman roads were built this way, this was nevertheless a milestone in road construction. Surveying methods of the time forced the Romans to build these roads arrow straight. During the reign of Diocletian 372 main roads were recorded, totaling 53,000 miles[1]. Many of the routes the roads followed are still in use today.

Aqueducts were built to supply water to cities by finding an aquifer or reservoir and channeling it along the route of the aqueduct with a slight reduction in grade to provide water pressure. Once the aqueduct arrived at destination city, lead pipes directed the flow of water to fountains and even the wealthier homes. Sewers were provided, as were large public latrines and often extravagant public and private baths.

These baths, known as thermae usually provided separate rooms for cold (frigidarium), warm (tepidarium), and hot (caldarium) bathing. Water and floors were heated using a hypocaust heating system; an under floor furnace. Tending these furnaces was a dangerous job, done by slaves. As bath complexes grew larger, they began to include saunas and gyms, along with other health and hygiene related buildings and areas. Roman baths were not merely salubrious, however. They also were an important social gathering point along with forums and curiae.

Much of Roman construction was poured concrete, made primarily from seashells. This concrete was able to cure underwater, vital to bridging rivers and bodies of water.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

The causes of the decline of the Roman Empire are controversial and are often considered to be a result of several events building over time. There was no one "cause". As Will Durant states, 'An Empire is not conquered from without, until it has fallen from within.'

1) Depopulation -- Plagues and low birth rate among Roman citizens led to depopulation in the Empire. In order to combat different times when this occurred, barbarian tribes were actually welcomed into the Empire and encouraged to "set up shop".

2) Economic stagnation -- Roman wealth, especially in the west, deteriorated over time so that by the 4th century the barbarian tribes outside the Empire were often just as wealthy as the Empire itself.

3) Barbarianism of the Roman military -- Roman legions were populated more and more by barbarians and less and less by Romans, including many of the generals. Over time the barbarians learned and were trained in Roman tactics as well so that the distinction between Romans and barbarian armies became blurred. Near the end of the Empire, barbarian and mercenary armies had become an integral part of Roman military protection.

4) Military despotism -- While the early Emperors still had to deal with the senate, later Emperors ruled through military strength alone. Civil wars were common, especially during the age of 30 tyrants when the Empire was in a constant state of internal warfare and chaos. That the Empire didn't fall during this time is a testament to the ongoing discipline of their legions at that point in their history.

5) Military advances -- Changes over centuries began to give cavalry a more prominent role than it had previously been capable of. In other words the Roman legion, the mainstay of Roman power, lost some of its dominance.

From a societal standpoint it has been posited that immorality and homosexuality so weakened the spirit of the Empire that it was unable to stand firm against the Barbarians. Certainly poets such as Catullus and Juvenal describe many unnatural practises that may well have contributed to the final collapse just four hundred years later. Well known British writer Edward Gibbon, who wrote the influential Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was an advocate of this view. Since the time of Gibbons, modern historians seek answers in other areas.

One influential writer theorized that the Roman Empire fell because it was never strong enough to resist the barbarian hordes. The hordes just didn't show up until 300 A.D.[2] Prior to this time, a system of "buffer states" and sedentary provincial legions could hold such a vast territory and defer the conflict - however, with the loss of the battle of Adrianople and the subsequent barbarian deluge, led by the Visigoths and Alaric, the reckoning had finally come. Similar to Gibbons view, this view also has a minority following.

After "the Fall"

Accounts of the Roman world's immediate descent into poverty have been greatly exaggerated. Rather, rulers such as Theoderic the Ostrogoth and his followers (the Amal clan) ruled from Ravenna in the Roman style, maintaining much of Roman life and infrastructure.[3] Theoderic even employed Romans to ensure this continuity and sense of Roman stability. One example was Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (or just Cassiodorus), who, writing as Theoderic, famously urged all Romans to "clothe themselves with the morals of the toga" - i.e., retain your Roman ways, in spite of the "barbarian" rule.

This twilight period was finally cut short by the reconquest campaign planned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, led by the general Belisarius. In a bloody war, both sides reduced the Italian countryside to nothing, with the Byzantines finally inheriting a ravaged husk.[4] Many Romans - Eastern and Western - blamed Justinian for this devastation.[5]


  1. Leslie and Roy Adkins, Life in Ancient Rome ISBN 0-19-512332-8
  2. Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire
  3. Peter Wolfram, The Goths
  4. Procopius, the Gothic Wars
  5. Procopius, the Secret Histories

See World History Lecture Four