The Roman empire. Who does not know it? It ruled the lands around the Mediterranean for centuries, almost two full millennia if you adopt a wide view, and made a lasting impression on European culture, law, architecture, technology and many other matters. Yet it started out as a small village on the river Tiber. This essay concerns itself with three questions:
- How could it grow from such small beginnings to such a great empire?
- Why did it outlast so many other empires?
- Why did it, after many centuries of prospering, eventually fall?
The answers to these questions are still under hot debate from historians. The text below builds upon their theories, supplemented by the views of the author.
From village to Italia Romana
Rome was traditionally founded in 753 BCE, though historians think that the actual date may have been a few years earlier or later.
It was positioned well, on the south bank of the Tiber.
The river provided drinking water and an easy trade route.
The hills on which it was built kept malaria at bay and gave a defensive advantage.
It was also far enough from the coast to be safe from pirate raids.
Yet the early Rome was far from the military superpower that it was to become. In the early centuries it had lots of trouble with neighboring cities and later tribes. Sometimes the Romans won, sometimes they were defeated. As late as 387 BCE, the entire city was pillaged by Celts from the Po valley.
But early on the Romans already displayed some of their qualities and vices. They were stubborn; a defeat was regarded as a temporary setback rather than an incentive to refrain from further fighting. The Roman armies were also particularly ferocious and bloodthirsty, making more kills and less prisoners than other armies of the time. Once conquered however, defeated city states and tribes retained substantial political freedom, though they had to pay tribute in the form of goods, money and soldiers to Rome. The Romans exploited them to some degree, but did not tax heavily and provided security from enemies in a time when wars were all too common. Client states were gradually absorbed into the Roman republic, over time moving up from allies and colonies via half citizens to full citizens. This helped to form a stable, slowly widening base for the fledgeling state.
The people of early Rome were a rather primitive lot: courageous and loyal to their family and family gods, but not very sophisticated. But they were willing to learn and adopted a lot of craft, art, religion, philosophy and science from neighboring civilizations, which they first traded with and later conquered. Especially the Etruscans to the north (in modern Tuscany) and Greeks to the south and east (the Magna Graecia and Greece proper) boosted Roman capabilities. The great Bertrand Russel derided the Romans for their barbarism, but they were keen enough to adopt the ways of others when these proved superior.
On the political front too the Romans displayed flexibility. Rome started out as a monarchy, though its kingship was not hereditary. Kings were elected by the senate and the comitia curiata, a kind of ancient parliament. When one of them tried to make himself tyrant, he was murdered in 508 BCE and replaced by two consuls. These were chosen every year by the senate and ruled side-by-side. That senate was made up from the upper class, the patricians. But the lower class, the plebeians, over the course of roughly two centuries gradually gained a minority share of the power, creating a balance that remained stable until about 50 BCE.
The Roman society was hierarchical. Patricians enjoyed the lion share of wealth and political power. They acted as masters to groups of plebeians, their clients, who depended on them for favors but gave political support in return. Slaves had almost no rights, but on the whole were not treated badly and could buy freedom for themselves or their children over time. Eventually Rome gained so many slaves through war, that it came heavily to rely on their manpower and there was a fear of insurrections. Slave revolts did happen, some of them quite severe, but they were nothing like the revolutionary movements of the 20th century. The slaves never tried to topple the system; they just tried to gain a better position within it.
Over the centuries the Romans built a combination of political organization, trading dependencies and military might that proved very durable. Even capable generals like Pyrrhos and Hannibal, who managed to inflict severe military defeats on the Roman army, were unable to fragment the political unity of the Roman confederacy. Apparently the system of gradual romanization worked well in forging conquered peoples into a single state.
Ascendancy to superpower
By 275 BCE, the expanding Roman territory roughly encompassed central and southern Italy.
In the center of the Mediterranean, it was ideally positioned to take charge of trade through the entire sea.
But so too was a rival power, Carthago, on the coast of modern day Tunisia.
Though their conflicts of interest could have been resolved peacefully, the two powers clashed in three wars between 264 and 146 BCE,
in which Rome progressively annihilated its enemy - again showing its ruthlessness - eventually razing the African city.
The Punic wars, together with fights against the Celts, gained Rome territory in north Africa, Iberia, southern France and northern Italy
and made them masters of the western Mediterranean.
The eastern half of the sea soon followed. Rome became embroiled in Greek - Macedonian conflicts and after some decades of intermittent fighting conquered it as yet another province. The Romans conquered Greece militarily and politically, but the Greeks invaded Roman life culturally, creating a legacy that would outlast the empire itself. Meanwhile the armies pushed into Asia Minor, the Levant and Egypt, completing the encirclement of the Mediterranean. Rome had become an imperialistic power.
It is difficult to discern the Roman expansion between the securing its borders on one hand and booty and glory on the other. Likely it was both. The Roman army, already a competent force because of its many campaigns and backbone of experienced centurions, was transformed from a militia force to a professional standing army by the reforms of Gaius Marius, who allowed the lower classes to enlist. This was a necessary development, as the empire grew too large and its campaigns too long to be run by militiamen.
Rome's success became increasingly tied to its armies, who brought not only security from attacks, but also booty, slaves and territory. Generals who were able enough to combine their ambition with victories and popular support from the plebeians, started to erode the power of the senate. First Sulla made himself dictator in 81 BCE, then a triumvirate, a reign of three powerful men, ruled Rome. Finally, in 47 BCE, Gaius Julius Caesar grasped all power and established himself as the first emperor of Rome. His reign and inheritance were troubled by a second triumvirate and civil wars, before Gaius Octavius cemented a stable emperor's throne as Augustus. From that point on Rome was ruled by emperors, some capable, some less so and a few dangerously mad. The personal bodyguard of the emperor, the praetorians, deposed or assassinated several of them and supplanted them with their own puppets, equally variable. Later, provincial armies occasionally did the same.
One would think that decadency, corruption and randomness of the upper class might be able to crash the empire, but it survived all rigors. The secret of success was a stable bureaucracy, which despite substantial corruption, ran the empire with great efficiency. The Pax Romana also provided merchants with safety, so trade flourished and most citizens were relatively safe and wealthy.
Despite the terrific Roman roads and naval routes, the empire stretched its organization to it limits. Brittannia was conquered, after Caesar had taken Gaul and parts of eastern Europe and Persia were also added to the territory, but then the expansion stopped. Further conquest was made difficult by water (the Atlantic), harsh terrain with limited resources (northern Europe, the Sahara) or by strong neighbors (Persia), so from about 120 CE onward emperors focused on consolidation instead.
The end of Rome
During four centuries the fortunes of the emperors went up and down.
There were periods of stability with long-reigning leaders and also periods of disorder in which one pretender to the throne tripped over the other.
During this time, the army, the pride of the Roman empire, was reformed into mostly a border-defending force.
Its quality gradually eroded and finally the western half of the empire succumbed to invasion by barbarians.
This can be seen as both the cause and the effect of the collapse of Rome.
The prime cause of the decline of the Roman empire was a result of its success. The strong and internally largely peaceful empire housed a large population, which exploited the land heavily - too heavily. Over the time of many generations, the country around the Mediterranean was slowly but steadily deforested, leading to soil erosion and desertification. This undermined its ability to support the people, just as had happened in the Middle East during earlier millennia.
The Romans compensated for that by expanding their empire, gaining loot, fresh lands and slaves from abroad. But when the empire had reached its physical and logistical limits, this solution ground to a halt. Almost immediately decline set in. In the 2nd century CE population levels started slowly to fall. Epidemics and possibly climate change accelerated this process. This reduced the government's tax base, though the cost of administration, infrastructure and especially the army, remained high. After all, the barbarians had to be kept at bay and there was always a war going on with Persia, as both empires tried to gain exclusive control over the eastern trade routes.
The government responded by debasing the currency, which led to inflation, only postponed the setback and made it more sudden and severe. Eventually the empire could no longer make ends meet, despite increased taxes, and the quality of its apparatus started to deteriorate. Education levels declined and roads fell into disrepair. The power of the army waned as its equipment and pay deteriorated and it came to rely more and more on foreign auxiliaries. Civil wars further undermined its strength. In the 3rd century all contributing factors led to a general crisis that nearly toppled the empire, but it persevered. It took the Romans some decades to implement political and financial reforms that allowed it to recover, but some damage was permanent: depopulation of some major cities; weakening of the trade network and central power. People started to rely less on Rome and more on local power structures. This was the first of many small steps towards the feudal society of the Middle Ages.
The emperors meanwhile clung to power where they probably should have relinquished some, but which politician is willing to do that? Eventually the decision was forced upon them when the barbarians migrated into the lands of the empire en masse, the army no longer able to stop them. The newcomers set up their own states, first as client kingdoms, but quickly fully independent. The western Roman empire effectively came to an end in the 5th century CE.
Rome's fall was not sudden, but very gradual. The barbarians did not overrun the empire, but slowly walked in, taking almost a full century to complete their venture. This process actually continued for three more centuries after Rome's demise. The invaders did not try to destroy, but instead appropriate Roman organization, culture and of course wealth. They mixed with the existing Roman population, who for a large part were themselves not ethnically Roman, as far as something like that existed at all. The barbarian successor states were smaller and less powerful than the Roman empire, but this made the burden of government also less heavy, resulting in lower taxes. Thus they could meet the lower availability of resources like agricultural land, wood, minerals and weaker industry and trade. In the end, the early medieval peasant was better off without the empire than with it.
The Byzantine empire
After the western Roman empire had collapsed, the eastern half continued on for almost a full millennium.
This was the carrier of a fusion of Greek and Latin culture, with orthodox Christianity thrown in to boot.
Therefore, and also because its capital was not Rome but the former Byzantium,
it was not called the Roman but the Byzantine empire.
However its laws, institutions, organization and heritage were at least half Roman.
Both the Frankish Carolingian empire, consecrated in 800 CE, and the Holy Roman Empire, acknowledged in 962 CE,
were officially recognized by the Catholic pope as successors of the Roman empire.
But considering the makeup of these states, the Byzantine empire could lay more claim to that title.
In the 6th century CE the Byzantines recovered some former Roman territory in Italy, but had to fight hard to keep it. The Justinian plague cut short the expansion efforts of the emperor whom it was named after. The real trouble lay in the east, where the Persian empire was the arch-enemy of the Byzantines. They engaged each other in many wars and the border shifted back and forth many times. Trouble increased in the 7th century, when Islamic Arabians surged up from the south and took the whole southern half of the empire. They conquered with extraordinary speed, helped by high desert mobility and especially religious zeal. The Arabs were so successful not only because of their own strengths, but also because of their enemies' weakness. Both the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian empire were spent by warfare and plague. The Sassanid empire collapsed completely, but the Byzantines hung on, though the attacks weakened and sobered the empire, which was forced to react to survive. Cultural diversity gave way to theological stylism and iconoclasm raged two times. The army came to rely less on mercenaries and more on militia troops and the tax system was reorganized too.
These reforms ensured the survival of the empire, but one must not forget another important factor: the city of Constantinople. Situated ideally on a crossroads of trade routes and protected by mighty walls, the sea and its fleet, it proved impossible to take for the Arabs. The city was a wonderful stronghold, not only in a military sense, but also in a financial and cultural one. It allowed the Byzantine empire to keep functioning even when it lost ground on a massive scale. In the 8th century CE Byzantium stabilized and recovered some strength and territory. For three centuries the empire prospered.
Then it went into decline again. Financial mismanagement and again too much reliance on expensive mercenaries emptied the treasury, while ambitious newcomers like the Normans started to advance in southern Italy. Worse, Islamic aggression was reinforced by the arrival of Seljuk Turks from inner Asia, who invaded and quickly conquered most of Asia Minor. The emperors sought help in the west and got it in the form of crusades. They proved a mixed blessing. Initially the efforts of the crusaders allowed Byzantium to retake a lot of territory in their wake. But the Muslims rallied and the Catholic advance started to falter. Byzantium itself suffered a series of weak emperors. Then the Venetians used money to divert the fourth crusade away from the Holy Land and on to Constantinople. The city was sacked in 1204 CE, from which it never full recovered. With hindsight, it can be said that this event was the beginning of the end.
The empire fragmented in two separate successor states, which were reunited later on, though remained divided internally. Constantinople was retaken in 1261 CE, but the empire was reduced to little more than the city and a handful of surrounding provinces. In Anatolia, Ottoman Turks took over the flag from the Seljuks and steadily enlarged their own empire, eventually surrounding the tiny rump of Byzantium completely. It was only a matter of time before the last remnant of the Roman empire would fall. That happend in 1453 CE, when the guns of the Turks bombarded the city and it was stormed by the Janissaries.
A short timeline of the Roman and Byzantine empires:
- 753 BCE: Traditional foundation of Rome
- 508 BCE: Monarchy is replaced by republic
- 450 BCE: Roman law is codified into the Twelve Tables and made public
- 387 BCE: Gauls plunder Rome
- 376 BCE: Plebeians gain admittance to consulship
- 290 BCE: Samnites finally beaten in third Samnite war
- 287 BCE: Plebeians gain the power to pass laws
- 280 - 272 BCE: War with Pyrrhos of Epiros
- 264 - 146 BCE: Punic wars between Rome and Carthago
- 200 - 146 BCE: Conquest of Greece
- 133 - 121 BCE: Gracchian land reforms
- 107 BCE: Marian reforms open up the army for commoners
- 81 - 79 BCE: Sulla is dictator
- 73 - 71 BCE: Slave revolt by Spartacus
- 60 - 49 BCE: First triumvirate
- 58 - 52 BCE: Julius Caesar conquers Gaul
- 47 - 44 BCE: Reign of Julius Caesar
- 27 - 14 BCE: Reign of Augustus
- 271 - 275 CE: Aurelian walls the city of Rome
- 287 CE: Diocletian institutes the first co-ruler
- 312 CE: Constantine converts to Christianity
- 330 CE: Constantinople (Byzantium) becomes capital of the eastern Roman empire
- 340 CE: Christianity becomes official state religion
- 376 CE: Emperor Valens allows the Visigoths to cross the Danube
- 395 CE: Roman empire effectively split in two separate states
- 405 CE: Several Germanic tribes cross the river Rhine
- 410 CE: Alaric's army sacks the city of Rome
- 451 CE: The Huns are beaten back at Catalaunum
- 476 CE: Romulus, last emperor in the west, deposed
- 491 CE: Anastasius recognized as first Byzantine emperor
- 529 - 533 CE: Roman law is revised and recodified
- 541 - 542 CE: Plague rages the land
- 620 CE: Heraclitus changes official language from Latin to Greek
- 634 CE: First attacks of the Arabs
- 1054 CE: Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches formally split apart
- 1204 CE: Sack of Constantinople by crusaders
- 1453 CE: Ottoman Turks conquer Constantinople and rename it Istanbul