Roman Empire

period of ancient Rome following the Republic

The Roman Empire (Latin: Imperium Romanum, Greek: Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων) was the post-Republican period of ancient Rome. As a polity it included large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia ruled by emperors. From the accession of Caesar Augustus to the military anarchy of the 3rd century, it was a principate with Italy as metropole of the provinces and the city of Rome as sole capital (27 BC - AD 286). The adoption of Christianity as the state church of the Roman Empire in AD 380 and the fall of the Western Roman Empire to Germanic kings conventionally marks the end of Classical antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. The eastern half of the empire survived as the Byzantine Empire until being occupied and heavily weakened after the Fourth Crusade of 1204, and then completely overthrown by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

The Roman empire at its greatest extent

Due to the Roman Empire's vast extent and long endurance, the institutions and culture of Rome had a profound and lasting influence on the development of language, religion, art, architecture, literature, philosophy, law, and forms of government in the territory it governed, and far beyond.


Your task, Roman, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud. —Virgil
  • It was this transition from republic to principate, and later naked empire, that laid the seeds of the decline of Rome. The partially inclusive political institutions, which had formed the basis for the economic success, were gradually undermined. Even if the Roman Republic created a tilted playing field in favor of the senatorial class and other wealthy Romans, it was not an absolutist regime and had never before concentrated so much power in one position. The changes unleashed by Augustus, as with the Venetian Serrata, were at first political but then would have significant economic consequences. As a result of these changes, by the fifth century AD the Western Roman Empire, as the West was called after it split from the East, had declined economically and militarily, and was on the brink of collapse.
    • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Poverty, and Prosperity (2012)
  • Looking back on Rome's success, it is all too easy to conclude that its victories were preordained. It is almost as if Rome arose with consummate certainty from the seven hills, gaining such a height that seemingly it could not be challenged. But in almost every phase of Rome's history there were crises.
  • By the time of Augustine (354-430 AD), the Roman Empire had become an Empire of lies. It still pretended to uphold the rule of law, to protect the people from the Barbarian invaders, to maintain the social order. But all that had become a bad joke for the citizens of an empire by then reduced to nothing more than a giant military machine dedicated to oppressing the poor in order to maintain the privileges of the rich. The Empire itself had become a lie: that it existed because of the favor of the Gods who rewarded the Romans because of their moral virtues. Nobody could believe in that anymore: it was the breakdown of the very fabric of society; the loss of what the ancient called the auctoritas, the trust that citizens had toward their leaders and the institutions of their state.
  • [Aeneas] is the symbol of Rome; and, as Aeneas is to Rome, so is ancient Rome to Europe. Thus Virgil acquires the centrality of the unique classic; he is at the centre of European civilisation, in a position which no other poet can share or usurp. The Roman Empire and the Latin language were not any empire and any language, but an empire and a language with a unique destiny in relation to ourselves, and the poet in whom that Empire and that language came to consciousness and expression is a poet of unique destiny. [...] No modern language can hope to produce a classic, in the sense in which I have called Virgil a classic. Our classic, the classic of all Europe, is Virgil.
  • Few empires in history have achieved either the geographical size or the integrative capacities of the Roman commonwealth. None have combined scale and unity like the Romans—not to mention longevity. No empire could peer back over so many centuries of unbroken greatness, advertised everywhere the eye wandered in the forum.
    • Kyle Harper, Prologue to The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the Fate of an Empire] (2017), p. 2 of 2019 pbk edition
  • What an awful book the Corpus Juris is, this Bible of selfishness! I've always found the Roman code as detestable as the Romans themselves. These robbers want to safeguard their swag, and they seek to protect by law what they have plundered with the sword; hence the robber became a combination of the most odious kind, soldier and lawyer in one. Truly, we owe the theory of property, which was formerly a fact only, to these Roman thieves.
    • Heinrich Heine, Memoiren, 1884 in the magazine Die Gartenlaube. Translated in Max Brod, Heinrich Heine: The Artist in Revolt, New York University Press, 1957 (p.77).
  • When the Germans invaded the Roman Empire they did not intend to destroy it. They were coming for plunder, to get the best lands and to settle down and enjoy the good things of life. They were happy to acknowledge the emperor’s rule. But the trouble was that in the 400s so many Germans came, and took so much land, there was nothing left for the emperor to control. In effect the Roman Empire came to an end because there was nothing left to rule.
  • The history of the Roman Empire is also the history of the uprising of the Empire of the Masses, who absorb and annul the directing minorities and put themselves in their place. Then, also, is produced the phenomenon of agglomeration, of "the full." For that reason, as Spengler has very well observed, it was necessary, just as in our day, to construct enormous buildings. The epoch of the masses is the epoch of the colossal.
  • The terror of the Roman arms added weight and dignity to the moderation of the emperors. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war; and while justice regulated their conduct, they announced to the nations on their confines, that they were as little disposed to endure, as to offer an injury.
  • By the time Augustus died on 19 August AD 14, at the grand old age of seventy-five, the Roman Empire had been vastly and dramatically expanded, pacified and extensively reformed. Although Britain was still an untapped wilderness (Caesar had blanched at the prospect of a full invasion when he visited in 55-54 BC, and his son left the Britons alone too), the early Roman Empire included the entire Italian and Iberian peninsulas, Gaul (modern France), transalpine Europe as far as the Danube, most of the Balkans and Asia Minor, a thick slice of the Levantine coast from Antioch in the north to Gaza in the south, the vastly wealthy province of Egypt (Aegyptus), won by Augustus in a famous war against the last Ptolemaic pharaoh, Cleopatra, and her lover Mark Antony, and a continuous stretch of north Africa as far as Numidia (modern Algeria). And the stage was set for even greater expansion during the century that followed. Rome was the only power in history to rule every shore of the Mediterranean basin, and it added to this an exceptionally deep fringe of territory reaching many miles inland. At its peak under Trajan (r. AD 98-117), who conquered Dacia (modern Romania) the empire covered some 5 million square kilometers, from Hadrian’s Wall to the banks of the river Tigris. A quarter of earth’s human population lived under Roman rule. This huge conglomerate of imperial territory was not just seized, but reorganized and imprinted with the defining features of Roman civilization. Colossal, centrally commanded, fiercely defended at the fringes and closely governed (if not exactly free and tolerant) within its borders, technologically advanced and efficiently connected to itself and the world beyond, Rome’s imperial apogee had arrived.
    • Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (2021), p. 16
  • The Romans introduced into all their provinces a system of law so fair and so strong, that almost all the best laws of modern Europe have been founded on it. Everywhere the weak were protected against the strong; castles were built on the coast with powerful garrisons in them; fleets patrolled the Channel and the North Sea. Great roads crossed the island from east to west and from north to south.
    • Rudyard Kipling and C. R. L. Fletcher, School History of England, 1911. Quoted in Butler, Sarah J., Britain and Its Empire in the Shadow of Rome, A&C Black, 2012, (p.56).
  • But history also tells us that wherever incest, perversion, or martial unfaithfulness have become rampant, and whenever sex becomes, as we would say today, “value-free,” the family structure is invariably weakened; crimes of all sorts increase, especially among the neglected young; and then more or less rapidly all other social institutions begin to disintegrate, until finally the State itself collapses. Rome is perhaps the most famous example. In the time of Christ, when Imperial Rome was at the very height of its wealth and power, when the brick structures of the old Roman Republic had all come to be faced with gleaming marble, Rome had become a city obsessed with the pursuit of sensual pleasures. The Emperor Augustus Caesar, seeing the breakdown of the Roman family that was consequently taking place, tried to shore up the institution of marriage by passing laws making divorce more difficult and increasing punishments for adulterers, rapists, and abortionists. It was already too late. Those monsters of inequity, perversion, and violence, Caligula and Nero were already in the wings, impatiently waiting to succeed him, and to hasten the decline and fall of the Empire.
  • Great powers are not necessarily nice ones – why should they be? – but they do provide a minimum of security and stability for their own people. Those powers that last use military force to sustain themselves, but their longevity has rested on providing reasonably effective government which has helped to win the acquiescence and even loyalty of their peoples. The Romans understood very well that they had used war to create peace for themselves but that they had other tools worth using too. As Virgil has it in the Aeneid, ‘Remember, Roman, it is for you to rule the nations with your power (that will be your skill), to crown peace with law, to spare the conquered and subdue the proud.’ Power alone without some support from the people cannot ensure the survival of Leviathans. The Roman Empire lasted as long as it did because it replaced a collection of often-quarrelling states and because, within its borders, peoples, foods and goods could travel freely along its well-built roads or across the Mediterranean, which had been cleared of pirates. Within the empire economic prosperity grew and people lived longer. Indeed foreigners moved into the Roman Empire rather than Romans moving away. Roman subjects were not held down by force, although that threat was always there. Most of the fighting Roman soldiers did was along Rome’s frontiers. The better Leviathans have consistent laws, reasonable taxes and security of property, and sometimes even, as in the Roman Empire, a tolerance of different customs and religions.
  • The backdrop of the story of Jesus is the Roman Empire, the latest in a succession of conquerors of Judah. Though the first centuries of Christianity took place during the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace), the alleged peacefulness has to be understood in relative terms. It was a time of ruthless imperial expansion, including the conquest of Britain and the deportation of the Jewish population of Judah following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The preeminent symbol of the empire was the Colosseum, visited today by millions of tourists and emblazoned on pizza boxes all over the world. In this stadium, Super Bowl–sized audiences consumed spectacles of mass cruelty. Naked women were tied to stakes and raped or torn apart by animals. Armies of captives massacred each other in mock battles. Slaves carried out literal enactments of mythological tales of mutilation and death—for example, a man playing Prometheus would be chained to a rock, and a trained eagle would pull out his liver. Gladiators fought each other to the death; our thumbs-up and thumbs-down gestures may have come from the signals flashed by the crowd to a victorious gladiator telling him whether to administer the coup de grâce to his opponent. About half a million people died these agonizing deaths to provide Roman citizens with their bread and circuses. The grandeur that was Rome casts our violent entertainment in a different light (to say nothing of our “extreme sports” and “sudden-death overtime”). The most famous means of Roman death, of course, was crucifixion, the source of the word excruciating. Anyone who has ever looked up at the front of a church must have given at least a moment’s thought to the unspeakable agony of being nailed to a cross.
  • My opinion is that the development of the world community is in accordance with the inherent laws, and those laws are what they are. It's always been this way in the history of mankind. Some nations and countries rose, became stronger and more numerous, and then left the international stage, losing the status they were accustomed to. There is probably no need for me to give examples, but we could start with Genghis Khan and the Horde conquerors, the Golden Horde, and then end with the Roman Empire. It seems that there has never been anything like the Roman Empire in the history of mankind. Nevertheless, the potential of the barbarians gradually grew, as did their population. In general, the barbarians were getting stronger and began to develop economically, as we would say today. This eventually led to the collapse of the Roman Empire and the regime imposed by the Romans. However, it took five centuries for the Roman Empire to fall apart. The difference with what is happening now is that all the processes of change are happening at a much faster pace than in Roman times.
  • For all its material impressiveness and occasional grossness, the core of the explanation of the Roman achievement was the idea of Rome itself, the values it embodied and imposed, the notion of what was one day to be called Romanitas.
  • Latin philosophers took over Greek theories. To the end, Rome was culturally parasitic on Greece. The Romans invented no art forms, constructed no original system of philosophy, and made no scientific discoveries. They made good roads, systematic legal codes, and efficient armies; for the rest they looked to Greece.
  • In the heyday of Roman power, a certain Lauricius, otherwise unknown but probably a Roman soldier, carved a graffito on a rock in a desolate corner of what is now southern Jordan: “The Romans always win.” This sentiment, which curtly echoed Virgil’s famous and more eloquent vision that Jupiter had given the Romans “empire without end,” held true for a very long time, well beyond actual Roman history. Empires in general did tend to win, at least for a while, before they fell apart only to be succeeded by others: in that sense, they were indeed without end. For untold generations, they imposed tributary rule and prevented stable state systems from forming and building a dif­ferent world. Our lives today are dif­ferent only because in the end, “the Romans”—the empire builders—did not, as it happened, always win, even if they came close. Their failure to do so may well have been our biggest lucky break since an errant asteroid cleared away the dinosaurs 66 million years earlier: there was no way to “get to Denmark”—to build societies that enjoy freedom, prosperity, and general welfare—without “escaping from Rome” first.
    • Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (2019), p. 19
  • Still others think that war should be organised by a "superior race," say, the German "race," against an "inferior race," primarily against the Slavs; that only such a war can provide a way out of the situation, for it is the mission of the "superior race" to render the "inferior race" fruitful and to rule over it. Let us assume that this queer theory, which is as far removed from science as the sky from the earth, let us assume that this queer theory is put into practice. What may be the result of that? It is well known that ancient Rome looked upon the ancestors of the present-day Germans and French in the same way as the representatives of the "superior race" now look upon the Slav races. It is well known that ancient Rome treated them as an "inferior race," as "barbarians," destined to live in eternal subordination to the "superior race," to "great Rome", and, between ourselves be it said, ancient Rome had some grounds for this, which cannot be said of the representatives of the "superior race" of today. (Thunderous applause.) But what was the upshot of this? The upshot was that the non-Romans, i.e., all the "barbarians," united against the common enemy and brought Rome down with a crash. The question arises: What guarantee is there that the claims of the representatives of the "superior race" of today will not lead to the same lamentable results? What guarantee is there that the fascist literary politicians in Berlin will be more fortunate than the old and experienced conquerors in Rome? Would it not be more correct to assume that the opposite will be the case?
  • That calm temper of the old state-builders, their love for law and order, their persistence in liberal and equitable dealings, in patient and untiring effort, their deliberation in reaching decisions, their distrust of emotions and intuitions, their unswerving devotion to liberty, their loyalty to tradition and to the state are the things one expects to find so long as the old Roman families are the dominant element in the Republic. By contrast the people of the Empire seem subservient and listless, caloric and unsteady, soft of fiber, weak of will, mentally fatigued, wont to abandon the guidance of reason for a crepuscular mysticism. The change is so marked that it is impossible to speak of the "spirit of Rome" or the "culture of Rome," without defining whether the reference is to the Rome of 200 B.C. or of 200 A.D. History must take cognizance of this change, and in doing so it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the change is primarily due to the fact that the Romans partly gave way before and partly merged their inheritance in a new brood which came largely from Asia Minor and Syria. According to this view the decline of Rome had begun in the last decades of the Republic.
  • The Hellenization of Rome was, of course, the most important cultural conquest that the Hellenes ever achieved at any stage of their history.
  • Your task, Roman, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud.
    • Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 6.850-3. Quoted in Simon Baker, Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. Random House, 2010 (pg. 7)
  • The Roman Empire was a world-wide confederation of aristocracies for the perpetuation of human servitude.

See also


  Encyclopedic article on Roman Empire on Wikipedia