Geography Pages

The Growth of Rome, from the Republic to the Empire


All boundaries, and borders of countries, are approximate

The territory controlled by a king or people varied from time to time, and was often disputed by other peoples. An approximation to the modern coast-line is generally used in the maps.

The Growth of Rome, from the Republic to the Empire at its greatest extent, during the rule of Trajan, AD 116
map of Rome from 270 BC to AD 116


270 BC The traditional date for the founding of Rome by Romulus is 750 BC.
Initially rule was by kings, but after the despotic tyrant Tarquin II (ca. 534-510 BC) was driven out and killed, the Romans decided to form a Republic, under the control of a select group of Patrician families.
Initially, Rome controlled only the land near the city. There were many other tribes and settlements in the Italian peninsular, and wars and raiding were common. Over the next few centuries Rome gained control of the Italian states by means of military and political power
130 BC Rome's first major clash with a nation outside Italy was with Carthage, resulting in the Punic Wars of 264-241, 218-201, and 149-146 BC. Rome eventually won the Punic wars, and gained territory on the coast of Africa, most of Spain, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
During the Punic wars Rome was forced to develop a navy and learn to fight on sea as well as on land. At the end of the Punic wars, Rome moved against the threat of the Gauls, and took northern Italy from them. Then Rome's attention turned to the East, and Illyria and then Macedonia were added as vassal states (196 BC)
44 BC The political structure of the Republic began to crumble, as the lower class Plebians and the members of subjugated Italian tribes started to compete with the Patricians for political power. The wars had also had the effect of encouraging military leaders to take control.
In 59 BC Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus made a pact with one another and seized control of Rome, forming the "First Triumvirate" (Latin "tri" = three; "vir" = man). Caesar had conquered Gaul, Pompey had taken control of the Mediterranean and the Levant (Palestine and Syria), and Crassus had put down the revolt of the slaves led by Spartacus (73-71 BC). To cement the agreement, Caesar married Calpurnia, the daughter of Calpunius Piso who had supported the Triumvirate, and Pompey married Caesar's daughter Julia, but that marriage only lasted until 54 BC, when Julia died. Crassus was killed in battle against the Parthians in 53 BC. By that time tension was building between Caesar and Pompey. Pompey held the city of Rome, while Caesar was in Gaul and northern Italy. The Senate tended to side with Pompey, and expelled Caesar's friend Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) from Rome. When Mark Antony joined him, Caesar led his army south to Rome, crossing the River Rubicon : it was against Roman law to bring armed men across the Rubicon, so this precipitated a civil war. Pompey withdrew to Greece, and Caesar went to Spain, where he defeated forces loyal to Pompey and returned to Italy, then continued on to Greece where he defeated Pompey's army. Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered.
Caesar followed to Egypt, where he met Cleopatra VII and started a sexual and political affair with her. They had at least two children, and intended that their son, Caesarion, should be ruler of both Rome and Egypt. In 46 BC Cleopatra went to Rome, and lived there with Caesar as his wife, although he already had a Roman wife, Calpurnia.
Returning to Rome, Caesar became an autocratic ruler, although he refused the title of king. Some of the other powerful Romans resented Caesar's control, and entered into a plot together. On the Ides of March, March 15, 44 BC, they assassinated Caesar in the forum of Rome. He fell at the foot of Pompey's statue. The Republic of Rome came to an end. Civil war broke out, and lasted for 13 years.
AD 14 The main contenders for power during the civil war were Mark Antony (Caesar's friend and assistant), Octavian (Caesar's grand-nephew, adopted son, and heir), and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. These formed the "Second Triumvirate" in 42 BC. They carved the territory up between them - Mark Antony took the eastern provinces, Octavian the western, and Lepidus was given the African coast. To seal the bargain, Antony married Octavian's sister Octavia. Lepidus was virtually ignored, and was eventually overthrown by Octavian.
In the East, Antony met Cleopatra, who had returned to Egypt when Caesar was assassinated, and went through some form of marriage with her (although he was still married to Octavia). He decided to challenge Octavian's claim to be Caesar's heir, by recognizing Caesarion (the son of Cleopatra and Caesar) as the rightful heir. Cleopatra also had twins (boy and girl) by Antony.
In 31 BC Antony and Cleopatra set sail with a fleet of ships to attack Octavian and Rome, but Octavian trapped their ships in the Bay of Actium in Greece. Cleopatra fled, and Antony, seeing her fleeing, deserted his men and followed her. Their army surrendered to Octavian.
Antony and Cleopatra fled to Alexandria, where, in 30 BC, they both committed suicide rather than be captured by Octavian. Cleopatra's children by her various lovers were killed, imprisoned, or sold into slavery; they disappeared from the historical record.
In 27 BC Octavian returned in triumph to Rome, and played his political cards so well that he engineered the Senate into offerring him sole authority and power. He was astute enough not to ask for the title of king, but he accepted the title of "Augustus", meaning something superhuman - "Superman"; his wife was given the title of "The Augusta". Another title which was used instead of king was "Imperator", from which the English word Emperor is derived. The Romans renamed two of their months July and August in honor of Julius Caesar and Augustus.
Augustus himself was not very active as a general and war-leader, but he appointed a number of able generals, including Tiberius, to establish and consolidate the frontiers of the Empire. The period of peace under the stable rule of Augustus is known as the "Rax Romana" (Roman Peace) - a Golden Age for Roman poets and writers. Virgil, Livy, Horace, and Ovid all flourished at this time.
Augustus died in AD 14, and bequeathed the Empire to his stepson Tiberius
AD 70C Tiberius annexed Cappadocia, and held the northern border against the Germanic tribes. His appointment of Pontius Pilatus as procurator of Judea (AD 26-36) was one of his few mistakes of judgment - Pilate was unable to keep the region peaceful, and was eventually demoted.
Towards the end of his reign Tiberius became increasingly autocratic, and minor actions could be interpreted as acts against the Emperor, punishable by death.
Suetonius (AD 69-140) wrote a "Life of Tiberius" in which he wrote :
"It became a capital offence to beat a slave near a statue of Augustus, to change clothes there, to carry a ring or coin with his image into a privy or brothel, or to express any adverse opinion of any utterance or act of hs. A man was executed for allowing an honor to be voted to him in his home town on the same day that honors had previously been voted to Augustus."
Tiberius died at the age of 83, in AD 37, and was succeeded by his grand-nephew Caligula "Little Boots", so-called by the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard because he liked to pose as a soldier and wear soldier's boots. During the reign of Tiberius the Praetorian Guard (the Emperor's Bodyguard) had become so powerful that it controlled Rome and the choice of who was to succeed as Emperor. Caligula was a bad choice. It soon became obvious that he was becoming increasingly sadistic and deranged - He demanded that he be regarded as a god, appointed his horse as a Senator, and ordered that his statue be set up in the Temple at Jerusalem (the local Roman legate did not obey that order, but took his time and caused delays until Caligula died and it was safe to forget the order)
In AD 41 the Praetorian Guard assassinated Caligula and forced the elderly and timid Claudius to become Emperor. Claudius administered the Empire efficiently; during his reign Britain, Thrace, and Mauretania were conquered and became Provinces of the Empire.
Claudius was very unfortunate in his choice of wives. When he became Emperor he was married to his third wife, Messalina, who specialized in sexual orgies. Claudius and Messalina had a son, Britannicus, and a daughter Octavia, who married Nero. In self-defense, the Imperial court eventually denounced Messalina's liaison and intrigues with a would-be emperor, and she was executed. Claudius then married his niece, Agrippina, who already had a son, Nero. Agrippina coerced Claudius into appointing Nero as the guardian of Claudius' son Britannicus, and then murdered Claudius by giving him poisonous mushrooms to eat, AD 54. Nero, at the age of 16, poisoned Britannicus and claimed the Empire.
The first years of Nero's reign were guided by the philosopher Seneca and Burrus the military Prefect. Under their guidance Nero became enthusiastic about literature and the arts. Effective military governors of Provinces were appointed, including Vespasian.
However, Burrus died, Seneca retired, and Nero came to sole power as Emperor. One of his first acts was to have his mother Agrippina murdered (as she was being killed she cursed her womb for bearing him). He then divorced and murdered his wife Octavia, and married his mistress Poppaea
In AD 64 a fire broke out in Rome. It may, or may not, have been set by Nero, but it is recorded that he used the occasion to perform an ode on the Fall of Troy while the fire was raging. Certainly, after the fire, it was Nero who profited in the rebuilding of the city, by commandeering some of the properties which he coveted for palaces and gardens. His high-handedness aroused resentment amongst the Romans, an abortive revolt, and a series of retaliatory executions by Nero. Amongst those condemned to death was Seneca, who committed suicide together with his wife.
As a means of deflecting blame for the fire from himself, Nero accused the Christian community in Rome of having caused it, and instigated a massive persecution.
Tacitus (AD 55-120) records in his Annals
"Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted extraordinary tortures upon a people hated for their wickedness, commonly called Christians. The name was derived from Christ, who was executed by Pontius Pilatus during the reign of Tiberius. Checked for a moment, the mischievous superstition broke out again, not only in Judea, the source of all evil, but also in Rome, into which everything infamous and abominable from all regions flows and flourishes.
First, some were seized and confessed, and on their information a huge multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of arson as for their hatred for the human race. Mockery was added to their deaths. They were covered in animal skins and torn to pieces by dogs; many were crucified or burned, and some were set on fire at nightfall to serve as torches. Nero opened his gardens for the spectacle. He added horse races to the event, and went among the crowd dressed as a charioteer and riding in his chariot. Though the victims were guilty, and deserved extreme punishment, nevertheless they aroused compassion, for they were being destroyed for one man's savagery, rather than for the public good."

Suetonius (AD 69-140) records Nero's building projects, which were instrumental in ruining the Roman economy :
"Prodigal as Nero was in other luxuries, his building was most ruinous of all. He had built a house from the Palatine to the Esquiline, (1), which he called the Passage House. When it was rebuilt after having been burned down, he called it the Golden House. . . Its entrance hall was large enough to contain a colossal statue of himself 120 feet high. It was so spacious that it had a colonnade three rows wide and a mile ling. There was a pond, more like a sea, surrounded by structures representing cities, and there were stretches of plowland, vineyards, pastures, woodland, and animals of all kinds, both wild and domesticated. In the rest of the house everything was overlaid with gold, encrusted with gems and mother-of-pearl. The dining rooms had ceilings covered with ivory panels; they revolved and scattered flowers and perfume. The main banquet hall was round, and revolved constantly, day and night, like the heavens. His baths had running sea water and sulphur water 2. When the building was finished and he dedicated it, he expressed his approval merely by remarking that at last his house was fit for a human being.

In AD 66 Queen Boudicca (whose daughters had been raped by Roman soldiers) led a revolt in Britain in which 70,000 Romans were killed and the Roman city of London was destroyed before the revolt was put down. Rather than be taken prisoner she poisoned herself and her family.
Also in AD 66 the Parthians and Armenians became restive, and the Jews revolted. Vespasian was sent to take control of Judea, and in AD 70 Jerusalem was burned to the ground.
In AD 69 the leaders of the Roman armies in Gaul, Spain, and Africa revolted and marched on Rome. The Praetorian Guard rose against Nero, and he committed suicide. His last words were "What an artist is lost !"
All members of the families of Caesar and Augustus had died or been murdered, and there was no heir to the Empire, so the military leaders took control. The period AD 69-70 is known as "The Year of the Four Emperors". Galba was the first - he was governor of Spain and marched quickly to Rome and gained the support of the Praetorian Guard for a brief period until they decided he was too strict. The Praetorian Guard killed Galba, and chose Otho, former husband of Poppaea, as Emperor - for three months. Vitelius was in command of the army on the Rhine, and he also marched on Rome; when he arrived he defeated Otho, who committed suicide. Vitellius was incompetent, and the Eastern armies rebelled and chose Vespasian as their Emperor. They were joined by the armies along the Danube, who marched on Rome and killed Vitellius. The Senate of Rome had no option but to invite Vespasian to become Emperor.
In AD 70 Vespasian entered Rome and accepted the appointment by the Senate. Vespasian was a tough old soldier who took no nonsense and reigned for nine years, restoring a measure of stability to the Empire.
AD 116 Vespasian was followed by his sons Titus (AD 79-81) and Domitian (AD 81-96). Titus completed the Judean campaign of his father, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem (AD 70) and brought its treasures to Rome. As Emperor, Titus' reign was marked by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 and the destruction of Pompeii.
Domitian showed signs of paranoia and ruthlessness. He liked to be addressed as "Lord and god" He was assassinated in AD 96. During the time of Titus and Domitian the frontiers of the Empire were strengthened, but there were no great conquests of new territories.
The Senate chose the 70-year-old Nerva as the next Emperor, a safe choice as he only ruled for two years. He is known as the first of "The Five Good Emperors". Nerva had no military experience, so to compensate for this he adopted as his heir and co-regent the military governor of the German Province, Trajan.
On the death of Nerva in AD 98, Trajan became Emperor. During his reign he conquered Dacia and annexed Armenia. He also invaded and captured parts of Mesopotamia, but revolts in Africa, Britain, and the lands along the Danube forced him to return West. He died on the way back to Rome, and the Parthians reclaimed Mesopotamia. The year AD 116 marks the greatest extent of the Roman Empire. After Trajan's death in AD 117 his adopted heir and second cousin Hadrian abandoned Mesopotamia and Armenia in order to strengthen the Western defences against revolts and invasions by Gauls, Britons, Germanic tribes, and Dacians. From then on, the Empire began to shrink, as it came more and more under external pressure and internal problems

Footnotes :

  1. The Palatine and the Esquiline were two of the seven hills of Rome
  2. The Romans were fond of bathing in mineral waters, recognizing that there was medicinal value in them. Roman baths were established at Aquae Sulis (Bath) in England, Baden and Marienbad in Germany, Carlsbad in what is now the Czech Republic, Spa in Belgium, and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee

Go here for the History of the period.

Copyright © 1999 Shirley J. Rollinson, all Rights Reserved

Dr. Rollinson

Station 19
Portales, NM 88130

Last Updated: June 16, 2017

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional   Valid CSS!