Introduction to Rome and the Roman Empire

Rome and the Roman Empire, the most powerful state of the ancient world. It grew from an Italian village to a city-state and into an organization that ruled the shores of the Mediterranean and much of western Europe. The Roman state began as a kingdom (753 B.C. is the traditional date), continued as a republic (509–27 B.C.), and then as an empire (27 B.C.-476 A.D.). In 395 an administrative division of the empire into eastern and western parts was made permanent. The eastern division, later called the Byzantine Empire, lasted until 1453.

Roman Empire, A.D. 117.Roman Empire, A.D. 117. This map shows the Roman Empire at the height of its power in A.D. 117. The empire included parts of Western Europe, Northern Africa, and Southwest Asia.

The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent in the early second century A.D. Rome ruled Europe west of the Rhine River and south of the Danube, as well as present-day Romania. To the east, Rome ruled Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Biblical lands; to the south, it ruled Egypt and the entire northern coast of Africa.

Roman occupation of these lands was accomplished by military conquest. Once the empire was established, Rome gave it two centuries of peace. Roman civilization spread throughout the empire, and the language of Rome—Latin—and the legal system established by the Romans remain important parts of Western culture.


Ancient Rome lay on the Tiber River, about 17 miles (27 km) northeast of the river's mouth at the Tyrrhenian Sea. An important north-south trade route ran through Rome, and the city was close enough to the sea to take an important part in maritime trade. Its central position helped the Romans conquer the Italian peninsula, and the peninsula's dominating position in the Mediterranean Sea helped the city win its empire.

Rome At Work

The Romans earned their living by farming, fishing, mining, and simple manufacturing. The government owned natural resources, such as mines, and spent large sums on roads, buildings, and other public works. Manufacturing and trade were generally financed by individuals. Rome carried on trade throughout the empire, from Britain to Egypt, and with independent countries, such as India and even China.

Some workingmen were organized by trade into collegia , or guilds. These guilds were primarily social clubs and burial associations, but often they took an active part in politics. Slaves were numerous throughout Roman times. Slaves worked in construction, in mines, in factories, in households, in agriculture, and in businesses. Some were highly skilled, and worked as artisans, chefs, teachers, and entertainers. The large number of slaves made labor comparatively cheap and discouraged the development of labor-saving devices and advances in technology.

Agriculture was the basis of Rome's economy. Good soil and a mild climate led to rich harvests of grain, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. With extensive crops of olives and grapes, Rome developed a large export market in olive oil and wine. Manufacturing was not highly developed. Bread, wine, and olive oil were practically the only foodstuffs mass-produced. Most goods, such as shoes, cutlery, and baskets, were manufactured in small artisan workshops, employing a few skilled slaves. A few products, particularly bricks, pottery, copper and bronze utensils, and glassware, were made in large factories.

Mining was important to Rome. From mines in many parts of the empire, Rome obtained metals for tools, utensils, and weapons, and stone for building. Small amounts of coal were mined for use in the forges of metalworkers.

Transportation and communications in the empire were aided by the magnificent roads that Rome built in all provinces. These highways were among Rome's greatest achievements. Rome's merchant fleet was of major importance. At the height of the empire, ships were built that carried more than 1,000 passengers or immense cargoes.

The Appian WayThe Appian Way is an ancient Roman highway that was named for Appius Claudius Caecus, who began its construction in 312 B.C. The highway, which runs from Rome to Brundisium, is lined with the ruins of the tombs of prominent Romans. It is still in use.

The People

The Romans of the early republic were orderly, practical people, disciplined by parents, teachers, and the state, and hardened by almost constant warfare. Luxuries did not come to Rome until the second century B.C., when money and slaves from conquered lands began to pour into the city.

Rome, especially in its years as a republic, had two distinct social classes among its citizens. Patricians belonged to wealthy families that had long held the best lands. The plebeians included farmers and city workers, and freedmen with citizenship. Eventually an intermediate class of rich, powerful businessmen, called equites (or equestrians ), arose. Non-citizens were either slaves or aliens.

The Romans cherished the family unit and attached great importance in law and custom to its maintenance. The important events in a family, such as births, engagements, marriages, and deaths, were celebrated by ritual, and the wealthier the people the more elaborate and formal were the ceremonies.

Parents arranged all marriages, and the engagement would usually take place a number of years prior to the actual marriage. Usually the bride-to-be would be in her early teens at the time of her engagement; her future husband, a few years older. Under Roman law, there were three kinds of marriage contracts. Under the most formal contract, used by patricians, the husband's power was absolute. The wife was legally his property; she had no legal or property rights of her own. In actual practice, however, the wife often exercised much power and influence in such a marriage. There were less formal, as well as less restrictive, marriage contracts for lower classes; the wife was given more freedom and could own property.


The Romans spoke Latin, one of the Indo-European languages. Latin is flexible, yet precise. These qualities made it the language of government and law in many European countries for hundreds of years after the fall of Rome. Latin was used for centuries in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church, and the modern Romance languages—French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish, and Portuguese—are descended from Latin. Latin also had a strong influence on English.


Worship in ancient Rome was a family affair. The head of the house led his wife and children in offerings of flowers and grain to the many family gods. These included the lares of the household and fields, the penates of the storeroom, and Vesta, goddess of the hearth. (The Romans associated gods with all familiar objects.)

The early Romans thought of their gods as abstract, impersonal spirits, not as the warm superhumans the Greeks believed their gods to be. Gradually, however, the Romans developed a pantheon of gods, many adopted from the Greeks, who had the character and personality of humans. It included Jupiter, the supreme god; Juno, the queen of heaven; Minerva, the goddess of wisdom; and Mercury, the god of commerce.

Roman religion was sponsored by the government, which built temples to the various gods and which employed the priests and oracles. Eventually, the emperor came to be worshiped as a deity.

Many festival days during the year added color to the state religion. During the Saturnalia, which was celebrated during late December, slaves were set free for a few days and people exchanged gifts. The Lupercalia, Feburary 15th, was a fertility festival. The Floralia, dedicated to the goddess of flowers, celebrated the coming of spring.

During the second and first centuries B.C., Roman faith in the old state religion weakened. As the wealth of Rome's empire poured into the city, many turned to lives of pleasure-seeking. The number of slaves and other non-citizens increased greatly, and these people introduced the religions of the East, which soon became popular with the Romans. They worshiped Isis, the Great Mother of Egypt; or the god Baal of Syria; or Mithras, a Persian god. The new religions made no distinction between classes, gave hope of a glorious life after death, and contained appealing exotic, often mysterious, rituals. Men of culture studied Greek philosophy, which discouraged fear of the gods, and many leaders of Rome became Stoics or Epicureans.

The emperors generally tolerated the many religions of Rome, requiring only that everyone join in rites for former emperors and the city's patron goddess, Roma. The Jews and the growing number of Christians refused, and these groups were often persecuted. The Christians, however, grew in number and strength, and in the fourth century the emperor Constantine himself became a Christian. Christianity became the predominant faith, and the old Roman state religion died out.


Reading, writing, and arithmetic formed the basis of the education of Roman children. Patriotism and obedience were taught by reciting stories of Roman heroes in prose and poetry.

During the early republic, neighboring families usually combined to pay a tutor for their children. When Greeks began settling at Rome in great numbers during the second century B.C., many became teachers and some established schools.

Under the emperors, children of free parents attended elementary school from age 7 to 13. Boys then went on to secondary school, where they studied Greek and Latin literature, history, astronomy, and music. Secondary education was completed at the age of 16. Girls were tutored at home, and often received a better education than the boys. For the most part, tuition was paid by the parents, although scholarships and other financial aid were provided by some of the emperors.

There were universities at Athens, Alexandria, and other great cities of the empire. Rhetorical schools, conducted by teachers called rhetores, gave training in speech-making and law, and some instruction in geometry, astronomy, and philosophy.

The Arts

The early Romans believed that the arts were frivolous and interfered with the serious work of life. Architecture, however, was an exception, and it and the related field of civil engineering were important throughout Rome's history.

Roman architects adapted earlier forms and made much use of the arch. The Romans excelled at large structures, such as the Circus Maximus, which seated 180,000, and the Baths of Caracalla, which covered 260,000 square feet (24,155 m2). Some ancient aqueducts, bridges, and roads are usable to this day. The plan of the Roman basilica, designed as a law court, was adopted by early Christian architects for churches.

Contact with Greek civilization stimulated Roman interest in the other arts. In sculpture, painting, drama, and literature, the Romans usually followed Greek models. They took classical myths for their subjects and worked in the styles of the Greeks. Roman sculptors created statues and busts of gods and famous men, designed friezes to ornament buildings, and told the stories of military campaigns in reliefs on arches and columns. Roman painters decorated walls in the homes of the well-to-do with paintings. Music was usually played as an accompaniment to lyric poetry. With dancing, it became very popular under the empire. The chief instruments were flutes and lyres; trumpets and cymbals were also used.


The earliest Roman amusements were organized as part of the religious festivals. During the livelier festivals, the strict customs of everyday life were relaxed and there was much drinking and dancing. The state organized entertainment, including horse and chariot races and athletic exhibitions. As Rome expanded, animals were brought from all over the world and shown in the arenas.

Much was brutal in the public entertainment of Rome. Condemned criminals and slaves were trained as gladiators and made to fight one another in the arenas. The games were especially brutal under the emperors. The public demanded exhibitions where hundreds of gladiators fought to the death. Men were often pitted against wild beasts. The most elaborate Roman spectacles were sham naval battles fought on artificial lakes.

The large public baths provided relaxation and some exercise for both men and women.


Rome developed an army that enabled it to conquer the Mediterranean world, and governments that enabled it to rule for more than five centuries. Rome's system of law is one of its most important contributions to civilization. Today, Roman law forms one of the two major legal systems of the Western world.

The Republic

The republic was governed by the Senate, various assemblies, and a number of officials. The Senate was an aristocratic body with many powers, the most important of which were the management of religious affairs, the conduct of foreign policy, and the supervision of revenue collection and expenditures. The Senate was open at first only to patricians, and throughout the history of the republic was controlled by great landowners.

The assemblies were intended to represent citizens other than the rich landowners. Only adult males were full citizens and could vote in assemblies. The earliest assemblies were the comitia curiata, which never held real power, and the comitia centuriata, which elected officials and enacted legislation. Both assemblies were controlled by patricians, and this fact led the plebeians to establish another assembly, the comitia plebis tributa; by 287 B.C. it had become the principal legislative body.

Officials of the Roman Republic had wide authority, but there were legal safeguards designed to prevent them from gaining too much personal power. The duties and authority of each office were divided among at least two men. Except for censors, they held office for one year only. A retiring official had to spend at least one year as a private citizen before holding another office. He could not hold the same office again for 10 years. However, during the last century of the republic, the laws on tenure and reelection were generally ignored.

The Empire

The Roman emperors kept the forms of the republic for 200 years. Senate and assemblies continued to meet, and officials were regularly elected. For a while, the Senate ruled Italy and some of the provinces. The Senate was constitutionally responsible for selecting the emperor, but in most cases it, in effect, ratified a selection made by others, usually the army or the previous emperor. The emperor, backed by the army and assisted by a small group of senators and other advisers, ran the government.

Under the emperors, the army became immensely powerful. Augustus began the practice of stationing personal troops—the Praetorian Guard—in and around Rome. In 41 A.D. the Guard made Claudius emperor. Nero fell in 68 when Galba, the Roman commander in Spain, marched his army on Rome. New emperors began to reward the Praetorians with a donative, a sum of money to be given each soldier. At the death of Pertinax in 193 the troops were so sure of their power that they auctioned off the empire to the highest bidder. The Roman Empire had become a military monarchy.

The emperor Diocletian (284-305) made basic changes in the government. He took absolute command of all political and economic activities and had himself worshiped during his lifetime as a god. Diocletian ruled the eastern provinces and appointed a coemperor, Maximian, to rule the West. A divided government for the empire proved practical, and the separation into Eastern (Byzantine) and Western (Roman) division later became permanent.

History of Rome

Beginnings of Rome

An ancient Roman legend tells how the twin babies Romulus and Remus were abandoned by their mother and raised by a female wolf. When they grew up, they set off to found Rome, and Romulus became the city's first king. The traditional date for the founding is 753 B.C. Actually, almost nothing is known of the origins and early history of Rome.

It is probable that sometime during the eighth century B.C. Latin settlements on seven of Rome's hills united to form the city. In the next century, Etruscan nobles from the north of Rome founded the Roman monarchy. Under the Etruscan kings, the Romans drained the marshes, developed agriculture, stimulated trade, extended the city, and subjected other Latin settlements to their rule. According to tradition, the patrician landowners led a revolt while the king was out of the city in 509 B.C. and deposed him. This marked the beginning of the republic.

Plebeian Against Patrician

Throughout the early years of the Republic, the patricians held all high government posts and all seats in the Senate. By dominating the machinery of government, the patricians were able to pass and enforce laws in their favor. Because of such laws, plebeians were often deprived of land and sometimes forced into bondage to pay off debts. In addition, plebeians were forbidden to marry patricians.

The plebeians carried on a long resistance to patrician domination. While Rome was at war in 494 B.C., great numbers of plebeians threatened to secede and form a separate city. The Senate, in panic, agreed to let the plebeians elect tribunes to defend their interests. In 450 B.C., the plebeians succeeded in having the laws of Rome codified and written down in a compilation called the Twelve Tables. The existence of written law helped to prevent patrician abuse of the law. In 445 B.C., intermarriage between plebeians and patricians was allowed by law.

In 367 B.C., the Licinio-Sextian laws set a limit on the amount of land any one person could own, eased the penalties on debt, and provided that one of the two consuls be a plebeian. Gradually the distinction between patrician and plebeian disappeared.

Unification of Ancient Italy

After Rome had deposed its last king, the surrounding cities proclaimed their freedom. For the next two centuries Rome was almost continuously at war, first to protect itself from neighboring city-states, mainly Etruscan and Latin, and then to conquer central Italy.

An important early victory was the conquest of the Etruscan city-state of Veii, 10 miles (16 km) north of Rome. In 390 B.C. Rome was defeated by the Gauls, barbarians from the north who swarmed through central Italy and burned much of Rome. The city quickly recovered and gradually conquered the remaining Etruscan city-states to the north and the neighboring Latin states. Following Rome's victory in the Latin War (340–338 B.C.), several Latin states were annexed by Rome and the remainder were forced to become compliant allies.

The Romans subdued other peoples as well, notably the Samnites, the Umbrians, and the Gauls. As territory was acquired, garrisons of soldiers and colonies of citizens were established to ensure permanent control. By 290 B.C., Rome ruled all of central Italy.

At that time, a number of Greek cities were flourishing in southern Italy and Sicily. Early in the third century B.C. they found themselves threatened by Rome. Tarentum, one of the cities in Italy, requested aid from Epirus, a kingdom in Greece. Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, led a powerful army into southern Italy, and defeated the Romans at Heraclea (280 B.C.) and Ausculum (279). But his losses were so great that he decided not to fight on toward Rome. Instead, he went to the aid of the Greek cities in Sicily, which were threatened by Carthage, a wealthy city on the northern coast of Africa. Pyrrhus returned home when the Greek cities refused to give him fresh troops, and in 272 Tarentum fell to Rome. Within a few years, Rome conquered all southern Italy.

The Three Punic Wars

The conquest of Italy left Rome with one major rival in the western Mediterranean, Carthage, in North Africa. The two powers clashed in a series of three wars, called the Punic Wars, that ended with the destruction of Carthage. The First Punic War (264–241 B.C.) began when Carthage and Rome vied for control of the city of Messana (Messina), Sicily. Carthage occupied the city first and the Roman Senate, fearing a further Carthaginian advance into Italy, sent an army to Messana and ordered a fleet built.

Roman legions defeated the Carthaginians in Sicily, and in a great sea battle off Cape Ecnomus in 256 B.C., the Romans defeated a Carthaginian fleet. However, the war dragged on, with enormous losses on both sides, until Carthage sued for peace in 241 B.C. Rome won Sicily and a large indemnity. In 238 B.C., Rome seized Sardinia and Corsica from Carthage.

Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian general, planned revenge, and in 237 B.C., crossed into Spain and began building and training an army. In 219 B.C., Hannibal, Hamilcar's son, seized a city in Spain allied to Rome. The Romans declared war, and the Second Punic War (218–201 B.C.) began.

Hannibal entered Italy by crossing the Alps, a feat that caught the Romans by surprise. He won brilliant victories at Lake Trasimeno (217 B.C.) and Cannae (216 B.C.), destroying two Roman armies. For 10 years the Roman general Fabius led damaging raids against Hannibal's army while preserving his own weak forces by carefully avoiding a major battle.

The turning point came in 207 B.C., when Hannibal's brother, Hasdrubal, led an army of reinforcements from Spain. His troops were crushed by the Romans at the Battle of the Metaurus River. A Roman invasion of Africa in 204 forced Carthage to recall Hannibal. In 202 B.C. Hannibal's army was destroyed at the battle of Zama, near Carthage, by Publius Cornelius Scipio (Scipio the Elder). The Second Punic War ended with Rome annexing Spain and taking the Carthaginian war fleet and a very large indemnity.

The Third Punic War began in 149 B.C. and ended in 146 when Rome wiped out Carthage. In 150 Numidia, an ally of Rome, had invaded Carthaginian territory. Carthage resisted, and a Roman army laid siege to the city. Finally, Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio the Younger), adopted grandson of Scipio the Elder, broke the city's defenses. The Romans enslaved the survivors, burned Carthage to the ground, and sowed salt to make the soil unproductive.

The Macedonian Wars

Macedonia and Greece were conquered in a series of conflicts called the Macedonian Wars. The first war (215–205), in which Macedonia allied itself with Carthage, was inconclusive. The second war (200–196) was a partial victory for Rome, forcing Macedonia to give up its claim to Greece. In the third war (172–167), Rome reduced Macedonia and Greece to virtual vassal states. Following a revolt by the Macedonians (152–146), all of Greece and Macedonia were made Roman provinces.


At the end of the Third Punic War, Rome ruled Spain, Italy, Greece, and the large islands of the western Mediterranean Sea. But the city that had won this empire had changed. Great landowners bought up even more land. Rich businessmen became even richer through graft and plunder. Soldiers, now fighting far from home, stayed with the armies and were rewarded wih the booty of far-off provinces.

The class of small landowners, which had formed the backbone of early Rome, became less and less significant. A number of leaders attempted to reverse these conditions.

The first prominent reform leader was Tiberius Gracchus, who was elected tribune in 133 B.C. Tiberius secured passage of a law to recover public land, which had been illegally taken by the wealthy, and to distribute it to the poor. By increasing the number of landowners, who alone were subject to conscription, Tiberius hoped to strengthen the Roman army. The land reform and Tiberius' decision to seek reelection, which at that time was contrary to Roman practice, raised intense opposition. Tiberius was killed by a mob sent by his enemies in the Senate.

Ten years later his brother, Gaius, was elected tribune, and he succeeded in securing passage of laws providing for land reform. Gaius' attempt to extend Roman citizenship to other Latin communities in Italy aroused much opposition, and in 121 B.C. he was killed by soldiers sent by the Senate.

Roman generals extending Roman conquest increased their personal power. In 105 B.C., the plebeian general Gaius Marius won glory in a war in North Africa. As leader of the populares (people's party), who opposed the aristocratic Senate, Marius was elected consul six times during 107–100 B.C. He created Rome's first professional army by recruiting landless citizens and rewarding them with land upon their discharge. Marius thus put an end to the militia system, which depended on conscription solely from the class of landowners.

In the Social War (91–89 B.C.), some of Rome's Italian allies revolted because of Rome's refusal to extend them Roman citizenship. Marius and Sulla, a leader of the aristocrats, ruthlessly put down the revolt, but the Italian allies won their point and citizenship was extended to them in 90 B.C. After the war, Sulla defeated Marius in a struggle for power, and reestablished aristrocratic rule.

Still there was no peace. In 71 B.C. the Senate had to put down a bloody slave revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus. In 61 the Senate, led by Cicero, destroyed a conspiracy, led by Catiline, to seize the government.

The Triumvirates

In 60 B.C. Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar formed the First Triumvirate, a joint dictatorship. They worked together in an attempt to restore order to Rome and the empire. Crassus was killed fighting the Parthians in 53 B.C., and Pompey and Caesar soon quarreled. Caesar defeated Pompey in 48 B.C. and become sole dictator in 46 B.C.

Caesar began work on a far-reaching program that included most of the reforms proposed during the previous century. Before he could carry them out, however, Caesar was murdered, in 44 B.C. The Second Triumvirate—Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus—was then formed. Antony and Octavian quarreled and Octavian defeated Antony and his ally, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Octavian's victory brought peace after 20 years of civil warfare.

Establishment of the Empire

In 27 B.C. the Roman Senate conferred the title Augustus (majestic) on Octavian for ending the civil strife. Although Augustus retained the forms of republican government and never took the title of emperor, he is considered Rome's first emperor because he held supreme power and passed his authority on to an heir. Augustus' firm and orderly rule brought growth and prosperity to the empire. The Mediterranean Sea was made safe for an expanding trade. His rule was the beginning of the pax Romana (Roman peace), which lasted two centuries. Augustus established an efficient system of government, which survived misrule by later emperors.

Augustus was succeeded by his stepson, Tiberius (reigned 14–37 A.D.), who was an able but unpopular ruler. He was succeeded by Caligula (37–41), who became noted for his acts of cruelty and was assassinated by his own guards. Under Claudius I (41–54), Britain was conquered and many public works were built. He was followed by the cruel and inept Nero (54–68). In 64, much of Rome was destroyed by fire.

After Nero, the empire was torn by civil wars; during one year, 69, four different emperors ruled. The last of them, Vespasian (69–79), returned the empire to stable and responsible rule. He and his sons Titus (79–81) and Domitian (81–96)—the Flavian Dynasty—were good managers and increased prosperity in the empire.

Domitian was succeeded by Nerva (96–98); his reign began the era of the “five good emperors." From 96 to 180, these emperors extended the boundaries of the empire, improved the administration of justice, and built many beautiful and useful public buildings. The Roman Empire was at the height of its power and prosperity.

The empire reached its fullest extent under Trajan (98–117), with the conquest of Dacia in 106. His successor, Hadrian (117–38), built many cities, public works, and fortifications. His best-known building project, Hadrian's Wall, was erected in the north of Britain to keep out the warlike Caledonians (later known as Picts). Hadrian was succeeded by Antoninus Pius (138–61), whose reign was peaceful and prosperous.

Marcus Aurelius (161–80), the last of the “five good emperors," was a wise and benevolent ruler. During his reign, however, the empire began to experience troubles. Barbarian attacks endangered the frontiers along the Rhine, Danube, and Euphrates, and Aurelius was forced to spend much of his time on military campaigns. A plague, which entered the empire from the east in 165, swept through the provinces and Italy, depopulating large areas.

The wars and plague drained the treasury and caused a manpower shortage in the army. To fill the ranks of the army, Gauls and other barbarian peoples were recruited, and in provinces where agricultural workers were in short supply barbarian peoples were invited to settle.

The Roman Empire Reached its HeightThe Roman Empire Reached its Height during the 2nd century (the AD 100's), extending into Asia as well as Europe and Africa. Two other great empires, the Han in East Asia and the Gupta in South Asia, coexisted with The Roman Empire.
Decline and Fall

Marcus Aurelius died in the midst of a war on the Danube frontier and left the empire in the hands of his son, Commodus (180–92), who neglected the affairs of state to attend chariot races, circuses, and gladiatorial contests. His assassination by his courtiers was greeted with public acclaim. Rival claimants competed for the emperorship and after a year of disarray, Septimius Severus, a general in the Danube region, marched on Rome and deposed a rival, Didius Julianus, who had the support of the Praetorian Guard.

Severus (193–211) was a strong ruler and a competent administrator. He greatly raised the soldiers' pay, enlarged the army, and successfully defended the empire. For the next quarter century Rome was ruled by the Severan Dynasty—Severus' sons and other relatives. The last rule of the dynasty was Alexander Severus (222–35). He restored to the Senate some of the authority it had lost in the previous centuries. He was killed by his troops, who opposed his attempts to negotiate a peace with the Goths on the German frontier.

The troops replaced Severus with Maximinus (235–38), a peasant soldier who had risen in the ranks. The army had taken control of the empire and from this point on made and broke emperors at will. Often there were competing emperors when the troops in different armies would raise their commanders to the emperorship. For the next 50 years there was chaos and civil war; some 20 emperors and many usurpers held parts of the empire for short times. Communications within the empire were damaged, and powerful commanders often ruled provinces with little direction from Rome.

Barbarians along the frontiers poured into the empire, driven by waves of other barbarian groups advancing into Europe from Asia. Many of the newly arrived barbarians entered the Roman army and gradually changed its character. Italy suffered a critical decline in population from repeated epidemics, and land lay idle for want of people to till it.

Emperor Diocletian (284–305) restored order and brought peace to the empire. He won wars on the frontiers and secured the borders with strings of fortifications. In 286, he appointed a coemperor, Maximian, to rule the West while he ruled the East. The two took the title augustus. In 293 he named two subordinate emperors, called caesars, who were officially designated successors. Diocletian established an equitable system of taxation and inaugurated a complete census throughout the empire, which was repeated every five years (later every 15 years).

Diocletian ended all pretense of constitutional rule and established the doctrine that the emperorship was divine in status. Christians refused to recognize his divinity and during his rule were severely persecuted.

The system of coemperorship broke down after Diocletian. The empire by 308 was ruled by six coemperors, four augusti and two caesars, all involved in civil war against each other. The conflict was ended in 314 when the two remaining coemperors made peace-Constantine the Great (308–37), who ruled the West, and Licinius (307–24), who ruled the East. In 324 Constantine defeated Licinius in a short war and became sole emperor.

Constantine began converting to Christianity in 312, and the following year ended persecution of the Christians and made Christianity the favored faith in the empire. He founded Constantinople and made it the capital of the empire.

Constantine partitioned the empire among his three sons and two nephews. Within a few years of his death, however, the empire was divided between two of his sons. It was sometimes reunited under their successors, but was permanently divided upon the death of Theodosius the Great in 395. The Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire from then until its fall in 1453 was ruled from Constantinople.

The Western Empire of Italy, Gaul, Spain, Britain, and western North Africa was raided by Goths and Vandals during the fourth and fifth centuries. In 410 Alaric, a Visigoth, plundered Rome. From the mid-440's to 453 Attila, leader of the Huns, terrorized the Balkans, Italy, and Gaul. In 455 the Vandal chief Genseric (Gaiseric) raided Rome. Finally, in 476 the last Roman emperor, 15-year-old Romulus Augustulus, was desposed by Odoacer, a German mercenary. The Western Empire was ended.

The title of Roman emperor was revived 324 years later when Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo III. But Charlemagne's empire and the Holy Roman Empire that followed were related to the earlier Roman Empire in name only.