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, Roman history aptly showcases the multifaceted capacity of determined humans, ranging from courage, fortitude, and ingenuity to downright viciousness and brutality.
Of course, beyond written words, one of the (objective) parameters that suggest such triumphs and tribulations, relate to the lands and territories conquered and administered by the Romans. Although not totally intrinsic in their scope, such ‘territorial’ factors did mirror in a broader sense the rise and fall of the Romans for over two millennia (including the Eastern Romans).
The Rise of the Romans (late 4th century to early 2nd century BC)
While it may come as a surprise to many, the Roman army equipment’s archaeological evidence ranges far back to even the 9th century BC, mostly from the warrior tombs on 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 dependent on their citizen militia for the protection and extension of the burgeoning faction’s borders.
These militiamen were simply raised as a 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 any case, the so-called Roman Republic 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 Cisalpine 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 the 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 that 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!
But as became the ‘trademark’ of Rome for years to come, the true power of the Romans lay 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.
The Domination Period (1st century BC to early 4th century AD)
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, 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 (read more about the Roman legionary in this article).
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 that 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 the 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. The above incredible video aptly showcases the rendering of Rome at its arguably apical state in 320 AD.
The Reversals (late 5th century AD to late 10th century AD)
In the post-Constantine period, huge 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 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.
In fact, a revival of sorts did happen during the reign of Eastern Roman emperor Justinian. A rule marked by ambition and political intrigue, Justinian was able to gain many disparate parts of the Western Roman lands (including the African Vandal kingdom and the Ostrogothic kingdom that encompassed Dalmatia, Sicily, and Rome) – thanks to the brilliant generalship of commanders like Belisarius and Narses.
Unfortunately, the brief ascendancy was cut short by the invading Lombards who took control of Italy after just three years of Justinian’s death in 568 AD. Distant Spain was also conquered after less than 60 years, by the Hispanian Visigoths in 624 AD. Finally, northern Africa and its proximate territories were overrun by the rising Islamic caliphates in the late 7th century AD.
However, in the 7th century AD, the Eastern Roman Empire was still the preeminent if not the dominant power in the world, along with its Persian adversary, the Sassanid Empire. And in spite of the Islamic onslaught in the coming years (that wiped off the Sassanid dynasty), the empire survived and held on to most of Anatolia, present-day Greece, and parts of coastal Balkans for over two centuries.
This extensive period with back-and-forth gains and numerous reversals partly reinforced the Roman ideal and stubbornness in face of overwhelming odds.
The Inevitable Fall (late 12th century AD to 15th century AD)
The trend of gains and reversals also continued in the epoch from the early 11th century to the 12th century, with the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) initially making strides and building upon the period known as the Macedonian Renaissance.
During this phase (before the 11th century), the empire was able to regain strategic territories like Crete and Cyprus, while also checking the advances of the rising kingdom of the Bulgarians from the north.
Flourishing art and culture consequently mirrored the encouraging mileage of the realm, with icon paintings reflecting the more classical and naturalistic influences of earlier eras. But as was the established tendency of back-and-forth political affairs, the late 11th century marked the disastrous loss of most of Anatolia after the Eastern Roman defeat at the hands of invading Seljuk Turks.
The proverbial ‘last hurrah’ of the Eastern Roman Empire occurred during the Komnenian restoration – a period roughly encompassing a hundred years, after the Romans were badly defeated at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 AD (by the Seljuks). By the mid 12th century, the empire was able to regain most parts of western Anatolia, while establishing itself once again as the preeminent power of the eastern Mediterranean. By this time, Constantinople also emerged as the largest (and possibly wealthiest) city in Eurasia.
But as is often the case in history, the irony of the Komnenian restoration was that such prestige and privileges were ‘bought’ at the expense of depleting gold reserves in the capital city. Moreover, the empire became over-reliant on mercenaries defending its core sectors, while the lands were threatened by the encroachments of the Normans.
Finally, the last nail in the coffin was brought on by a succession crisis that allowed the remarkably cruel Andronikos I (who also had equal disdain for corruption) to become the emperor. A domino effect led to baleful episodes like the massacre of the Latins and the consequent sack of Constantinople by the members of the Fourth Crusade (in 1204 AD).
For the next two centuries, the ’empire’ merely existed as an entity defined by only the parcel of lands around Constantinople (that too after surviving a partition for 57 years, from 1204-1261 AD). By the mid-14th century, the Eastern Romans lost their ‘traditional’ grip on even Greece itself.
And finally, a century later, the Ottoman Turks laid an incredible siege and captured Constantinople in 1453 AD (presented in the above video), thus marking the end of the ‘Romans’ as we know them – after over 2,000 years of political existence.
Visual Reconstruction Via Time-Lapse and Video
YouTuber EmperorTigerstar has taken up the challenge of concocting a time-lapse animation that aptly showcases such dynamic changes over an expansive period from 753 BC (the legendary founding date of Rome) to 1453 AD (when Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Romans, was captured by the Ottomans). Intriguingly enough, he has delivered fascinatingly on most levels, with the video detailing the map changes for (almost) every single year between the aforementioned dates.
It should be noted that the video initially jumps from 753 BC to 509 BC, given the lack of historical records from this ‘fabled’ epoch. In essence, in between these (over) 200 years, Rome probably started out as just a tribal confederation and ended up being a kingdom. The Roman Republic was then ‘traditionally’ founded in 509 BC. Also, note that nothing much happens in the 5th century BC.
Another video focusing on the History of Rome (presented below) from circa 8th century BC to 5th century AD comes from YouTuber Arzamas in a 20-minute clip filled with facts, events and its fair share of comic timings.