From a backwater kingdom to a thriving republic to a world dominating empire, and finally back to oblivion – the Roman scope epitomizes the cycle of history in all its glory, innovations and misfortune. In fact, the Roman history aptly showcases the multifaceted capacity of determined humans, ranging from courage, fortitude, ingenuity to downright viciousness and brutality. And this 1,200 years of the ‘dance with destiny’ is aptly presented by YouTuber Arzamas in a 20-minute video filled with facts, events and its fair share of comic timings.
The Beginnings (circa 8th century – 6th century BC) –
While it may come as a surprise to many, but the Roman army equipment’s archaeological evidence ranges far back to even 9th century BC, mostly from the warrior tombs on the Capitoline Hill. As for the literary evidence, they mention how the earliest Roman armies were recruited from the three main ‘tribes’ of Rome. This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock (for those who are used to reading about the ‘civilized’ nature of Rome) since the settlement of Rome itself started out as a backwater which was inhabited by cattle rustlers who made their camps and rudimentary dwellings among the hills and the swamplands.
The transition of the Roman army from ‘tribal’ warriors to citizen militia was achieved in part due to the Roman society and its intrinsic representation (with voting rights) in the Roman assembly. To that end, the early Romans were almost entirely depended on their citizen militia for the protection and extension of the burgeoning faction’s borders. These militiamen were simply raised as levy or legio – which in turn gives way to the term ‘legion’. In essence, the so-called legions of early Rome were ‘poor’ predecessors to the uniformly-equipped and disciplined soldiers of the later centuries.
In fact, the legions of early Rome were conscripted only as part-time soldiers and had their main occupation as farmers and herders. This stringent economic system prevented them from taking part in extended campaigns (that hardly went beyond a month), thus keeping military actions short and decisive. Moreover, these legions had to pay for their own arms and armaments – which at times was compensated only by a small payment from the state.
The Testing Times (circa 5th century – late 3rd century BC) –
As per historical tradition, the very adoption of the hoplite tactics was fueled by the sweeping military reforms undertaken by the penultimate Roman ruler Servius Tullius, who probably reigned in 6th century BC. He made a departure from the ‘tribal’ institutions of curia and gentes, and instead divided the military based on the individual soldier’s possession of a property. In that regard, the Roman army and its mirroring peace-time society were segregated into classes (classis).
In any case, the Roman Republic (with its transition being mentioned in the video) faced its first major military test when the Gauls invaded Italy in 390 BC and defeated the Romans. Their chieftain Brennus and his warband comprising Cisalphine Gauls (from northern Italy) even managed to sack the ‘eternal city’ in 387 BC. In spite of such reversals, the Romans began their expansion in Italy by challenging the mighty Samnites – and in two successive wars established their hegemony in the central part of the Italian peninsula (by 301 BC). After 20 years, came the disastrous Pyrrhic War, and the Romans managed to weather the storm in spite of many defeats dealt by Pyrrhus, the ruler of Greek Epirus.
By 264 BC, the Romans gained control of most of the Italian peninsula and went to war with the Carthaginians over control of Sicily. By 238 BC, they not only defeated Carthage in the First Punic War and took control of (most of) Sicily but also wrested ruler-ship of Sardinia and Corsica. But after just 20 years, Rome faced its greatest enemy in the form of Hannibal Barca, and for fifteen long years (218-203 BC) suffered a succession of defeats in its main stronghold of Italy. This included the Battle of Cannae – an encounter which had resulted in the highest loss of human life in a single day in any battle recorded in history. In terms of sheer numbers, the bloody day probably accounted for over 40,000 Roman deaths (the figure is put at 55,000 by Livy; 70,000 by Polybius), which equated to over 80 percent of the Roman army fielded in the battle!
The Emergence (circa 2nd century BC – 2nd century AD) –
But as became the ‘trademark’ of Rome for years to come, the true power of the Romans laid in their unflinching capacity to bounce back from disastrous circumstances. Even Hannibal was defeated in Africa (in 202 BC), and thus Carthage was relegated to a mere shadow of its extensive maritime empire. Finally, the Romans looked forth to their east – towards the Greek lands. In a space of just 52 years, they managed to successively defeat the Macedonians, Seleucids and the Greek Achaean League. This concluded a chaotic period of war and turmoil in mainland Greece, with the upper Macedonian lands now divided into two provinces Achaea and Epirus. Almost concurrently, the Romans were also able to subjugate most of Spain (by 133 BC), though only after suffering tremendous losses in the Second Celt-Iberian War.
After achieving the dismantling of the Carthaginian power, the ‘Peace of the Greeks’, and then emerging as the winner in the Servile Wars (slave revolts) and the Mithridatic Wars, the late Roman Republic was surely the sole superpower of the western world, with its territories stretching all the way from Spain to western Anatolia, while also making gains in northern Italy and the expansive coast of North Africa (from Egypt to Numidia). Then came the ascendancy of the great Julius Caesar, one of the greatest generals of his time, who was responsible for bringing Gaul (present-day France) into the Roman dominion by 50 BC. These signs of progress were matched by the conquering of eastern Anatolia and Armenia proper (in the preceding decade), thus bringing the Romans to the very edge of the Caspian Sea.
But then came the chaotic times, with the assassination of Caesar, the subsequent Triumvirate troubles, and civil wars, and ultimately the eclipse of the Roman Republic – thus making way for the rise of the Roman Empire in 27 BC, under the helm of Augustus. This set the trend for almost 200 years of economic peace and prosperity – a scope known as Pax Romana, though sometimes offset by brief civil wars and revolts. From the territorial perspective, by mid 1st century AD, the empire was able to bring almost half of Britain (especially the regions of England) under Roman control. And after more than 50 years, the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent in 117 AD, when its legions were able to sack Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire (the successor to the Achaemenids and Seleucids) and also wrest control of Armenia and Mesopotamia.
The Crisis (circa 3rd century – 5th century AD) –
However, by the 3rd century AD, political turmoils once again reared their ugly heads, leading up to the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’, a helter-skelter period during which 26 men were declared emperor by the Roman Senate in just five decades! The subsequent reign of Diocletian stabilized some of these mercurial affairs while making way for the odd arrangement of Tetrarchy, which pertained to the rule of four emperors in a simultaneous manner. Suffice it to say, the arrangement was ultimately unsuccessful, finally leading to a civil war which established Constantine I as the sole emperor of the Romans.
It should also be noted that Christianity had already begun to take its roots inside the Roman Empire, in spite of vehement persecution in the long years between 1st and 4th century AD. It was Constantine who also adopted Christianity as his religion, thus paving the way for it to become the official state religion of the empire. Furthermore, the period of Constantine is crucial for history because that was the time when Rome (the city) possibly reached the peak of its population (that easily crossed the threshold of a million people) and urban development. Even from the perspective of architectural triumphs, this period mirrored the rise of major Christian churches, while the post era (after 320 AD) defined the unfortunate abandonment of major engineering or constructional undertakings. Simply put, most of what we know about Rome in our modern age comes from this age, along with the glorious preceding years before the rise of Constantine (check out this incredible video that aptly showcases the rendering of Rome at its arguably apical state in 320 AD).
In the post-Constantine period, momentous political upheavals shook the very core of the Roman Empire, finally leading to its division into the Western and Eastern realms. By the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire was beset by a range of political and social predicaments, including civil wars, corruption and abuses of power in higher offices, a total economic meltdown, and at last but not the least – migrations undertaken by the ‘barbarian’ tribes across the empire. The latter of these issues boiled down to full-scale wars and invasions, with the Visigoths sacking the ‘eternal city ‘of Rome in 410 AD and the Vandals following up the cycle of destruction in 455 AD. The end of the century unsurprisingly marked the total eclipse of the Western Roman Empire, with the advent of Odoacer as the sole ruler of Italy in 476 AD. It should, however, be noted that the eastern territories were still held in a firm grip by their Eastern Roman counterparts.
Featured Image Illustration by Angus McBride