Lasting more than 500 years, the Roman Empire was, at its peak, the most extensive political and social structure in all of western civilization. Its has shaped almost every aspect of our western culture, and its influence can still be felt strongly to this very day. How and when then, did this mighty empire begin, and what was its ultimate undoing?
In 43 BC the then Dictator of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar, was assassinated. In Caesar's will his great nephew Octavian was named as his successor. Instead of following Caesar's example and making himself the next Dictator however, Octavian founded the principate: a system of monarchy headed by an emperor who held power for the duration of his life.
The Roman Empire therefore, officially began in 31 BC when when Octavian – taking the title Augustus Caesar – became The First Emperor Of Rome. Augustus wrote that he "found Rome a city of clay but left it a city of marble". The Pax Romana which he initiated, was a period of peace and prosperity lasting more than two centuries.
Emperors Tiberius (called "the gloomiest of men" by Pliny the Elder), Caligula (who claimed to be a living God), Claudius (during whose reign the conquest of Britain began in earnest), and Nero followed. Each, despite the continuing rise of the empire, less successful and beloved than their predecessor. These first five Emperors are now referred to as The Julio-Claudian Dynasty. When the self-indulgent, vicious, and egotistical Emperor Nero committed (assisted) suicide in 64 AD (with the final words “What a talent dies in me!”) he ended the Dynasty and initiated the period of social unrest known as The Year of the Four Emperors.
In 96 AD Nerva became the first of what we now know as The Five Good Emperors of Rome. He was followed by Trajan (most famous for his military campaign against Dacia, a powerful kingdom north of the Danube in modern Romania), Hadrian (who constructed Hadrian's Wall, marking the northern limit of Britannia), Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius (who was also co-emperor Lucius Verus afterwards). Under their rule the Roman Empire grew and flourished.
Emperor Septimus Severus (a Romanised African, and Rome's first black Emperor) ruled between 193-211 AD, founding The Severan Dynasty which lasted until the death of Alexander Severus in 235 AD. This was followed by a fifty year period of chaos known as The Crisis of the Third Century.
By 285 AD the empire had grown so vast and difficult to govern that it was divided into a Western and an Eastern Empire by Emperor Diocletian (the first Emperor to take voluntary abdication, and to die of natural causes in his retirement).
The western empire officially ended when the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer in 476 AD. The Eastern empire – which became the Byzantine Empire – endured up until the death of Constantine XI and The Fall Of Constantinople in 1453 AD.
Romulus and Remus – The Founding of Rome
According to Roman myth, the city of Rome was founded on the 21 st of April, 753 BC after Romulus killed his twin brother Remus. The brothers (sons of princess Rhea Silvia and God of war Mars – or sometimes Hercules) had been abandoned in a basket on the Tiber River as infants, their mother's husband fearing they posed too greater threat to be allowed to live.
There at the riverside, Romulus and Remus were found by a she-wolf (in some versions of the tale it is the Wolf-Goddess Lupa or Luperca) who protected and suckled the infants. Eventually the boys were found by a shepherd named Faustulus who adopted them. While tending their flocks one day, the brothers came into conflict with the shepherds of King Amulius – the uncle of their true mother. Remus was captured and brought before King Amulius, who discovered his identity. Romulus then mounted a daring rescue with some other shepherds and Amulius was killed. The brothers were offered the right to rule together over the kingdom but they refused, preferring to found their own city. While they both agreed on the general region where the city should be founded (the area where the she-wolf had found and raised them), the brothers could not agree on a specific location.
After each claiming he had the right to choose, they began to construct city walls in two separate locations. Remus leapt over his brother;s wall in an attempt to show him how easily done this was. Romulus took such offence that he slew his brother. So it was that Rome was named after Romulus – its founder and first king.