Are you looking for a quick overview of the history of Ancient Rome? The Roman civilization lasted from around 753 BC to 476 AD, encompassing the founding of Rome, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire.
While it’s tough to condense so much history into a short summary, I’ve done my best to provide a concise history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
The history of Ancient Rome can be divided into three parts. Rome began as a monarchy, transitioned to a republic, and then became a vast and powerful empire until it came crashing down.
Along the way, you’ll encounter fascinating stories of myths, legends, rivalries, civil wars, and some truly outrageous emperors. There were both conquests and defeats, battles and butchery, brutality and debauchery. All in all, Ancient Rome was a fascinating period in history.
Ready to step back in time?
History of Ancient Rome
1. Foundation Myth of Rome
So how did Rome begin? Like all great empires, Rome needed a foundation, or creation, myth.
People like to know where they come from. It’s akin to the huge popularity of 23 & Me or other ancestry services.
Rome’s foundation myth was codified in the 1st century A.D. during the apex of the empire. The empire had stretched to cover half the known world. This led to the cliche phrase that “all roads lead to Rome.”
Once its society became this powerful, Rome needed an official origin story of who they were and where they came from. How did an ordinary town become a great power that dominated the world? What set them apart?
The Romans came up with a fairytale explanation, one which became canonical. Rome was a gift of the gods themselves.
Legend holds that Romans are descended from Venus and Mars, the gods of Love and War. They’re the perfect combination for a city with a push-and-pull history of peace and war, beauty and tumult.
Romans believed this was the true story of the birth of their nation. But the foundation myth has no real historical basis in fact.
It’s a mostly operatic myth involving gods, twins, wolves, murder, and other fascinating drama. But, as with any myth, there’s a kernel of truth. Let’s break it down.
Rome’s origin story begins in the great ancient city of Troy with the Roman author Virgil. In 19 B.C., Virgil published a famous work called the Aeneid.
The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem. It ties together the various strands of legend relating to the 8th century B.C. character of Aeneas and his family.
Aeneas & Ascanius
The poem tells the legendary story of the Trojan Aeneas, who fled Troy after it fell to Greece. Aeneas is the son of Anchises, a Trojan prince, and Venus, the goddess of love.
Looking for a place to create a new Troy, Aeneas and his family traveled to Italy. After scouting locations, Aeneas eventually settled in the Alban Hills just outside Rome.
He and his son Ascanius fought for dominance to establish their fiefdom. Ascanius becomes the first king of the Alban Hills.
He was followed by a series of successors, including one named Numitor. Numitor was deposed by his ambitious and treacherous brother Amulius.
Numitor had a daughter named Rhea Silvia. To prevent the birth of any potential claimants to the throne, Amulius forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin. The Vestal Virgins were the priestesses of the goddess Vesta and had the duty of protecting her hearth.
But Amulius’ plans were thwarted. Rhea was beloved by Mars, the Roman god of war.
Romulus and Remus
Despite being a virgin, Rhea gave birth to his twin sons Romulus and Remus around 771 B.C. They would go on to become the founders of Rome.
So, at bottom, the ancestry of Rome is based on love and war. Venus’ blood ran through the veins of Romulus and Remus via Aeneas. Mar’s blood ran through the veins of the twins via Rhea.
Naturally, Amulius was fearful that the newborn twins would one day seek revenge for their deposed grandfather.
So nasty uncle Amulius decided to rid himself of any potential threat. He put the twins in a basket and set them afloat on the Tiber River, a fate similar to Moses in the Bible.
The boys were meant to die. Instead, they came to shore on Tiber island. They were discovered by a ferocious beast, a she-wolf named Lupa. She suckled the boys as her own until they were discovered by a shepherd.
When Romulus and Remus were grown, it was time to go found their own city. The twins made their way to a future Rome.
The brothers wanted to found the city on different hills. Romulus liked Palatine Hill. Remus preferred Aventine Hill.
In ancient societies, the rule of primogeniture (or first born) governed. The first born inherits everything and takes control.
But it wasn’t clear who should prevail in the standoff. Since they born twins, Romulus and Remus didn’t know who had been born first.
So the twins went to their separate spots and waited for an augury, or sign from the gods, as to who was born first.
One day, around 754 B.C., Remus looked up and saw a flock of 6 birds. He ran to tell Romulus, jumping over the walls of Palatine Hill. But Romulus had simultaneously seen a flock of 12 vultures fly over his head.
A massive row ensued. It degenerated into a physical confrontation. Romulus slew Remus and won the fight. To honor his victory, the city of Rome was named Roma instead of Rema.
Despite the fratricide, Romulus was acclaimed and revered by Romans. Historians tried to whitewash the fratricide.
One justified the murder by the fact that Remus trespassed on the walls of Romulus. Remus was portrayed as interfering with the founding of Rome. Some pitched it as a blood sacrifice to the gods.
Rape of the Sabines
King Romulus decided to establish a utopian society on Palatine Hill. To recruit more citizens, he granted asylum to all. He established an army and tapped 100 senators to govern.
But there was one problem. There was a severe shortage of women in the new city of Roma.
Obviously, one can’t build a tribe, and succeed and prosper, without women. Like most ancient Romans, Romulus decided just to take what he wanted.
Romulus began asking the neighboring tribes where the most beautiful and fertile women lived. The answer was the Sabine Hills.
Romulus hatched a plot. He threw a big party and invited the neighboring tribes, including the Sabines. When the Sabines were sufficiently drunk, the Romans drew their swords and slew the Sabine men.
They then kidnapped the Sabine women and took them as their wives. In history, this is known as the Rape of the Sabine Women. It’s a scene memorialized often in art.
The Seven Kings of Rome
Romulus ruled as the first king of Rome. He was succeeded by a series of six other kings. Each king brought concepts that would come to characterize ancient Rome — religion, military organization, the Circus Maximus, and public fora.
The last of these seven kings was the villainous Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. He contributed the concept of tyranny. He was a cruel king, who abused his power and governed by fear during the years 535-509 B.C.
His son was no better. Sextus Tarquinius raped the most virtuous woman in Rome, Lucretia.
She protested, exacted an oath of vengeance, and then knifed herself in the heart. There was such a public outcry that the outraged populace overthrew Tarquinius in 509 B.C., driving him from Rome.
That was the death of the Roman monarchy. The next phase of the history of Rome had begun.
2. The Roman Republic
For the next 500 years or so, Rome was a republic governed by senators. The Republic was established in 509 B.C. and then voted out in 27 B.C. The Republic was more of an oligarchy than a real democracy.
The power of the monarch passed to two annually elected magistrates called consuls. They also served as commanders in chief of the army. The magistrates, though elected by the people, were drawn largely from the Senate, which was dominated by the patricians.
Patricians (or aristocrats) dominated political discourse. Eventually, in 37 B.C., the plebeians (or middle class) gained more power and could be consuls.
During its early years, the Roman Republic grew exponentially in both size and power through military conquest.
The conquests and exposure to new societies led directly to Rome’s cultural flourishing. In particular, Romans would eventually adopt much of Greek art, philosophy, and religion.
The late Republic was a period of turmoil. It was the turning point in Rome’s evolution from republic to empire.
In the final years of the Republic, the government was split between two factions called the “optimates” and the “populares.” During these culture wars, it became increasingly difficult for leaders to share power.
The optimates sought to uphold the oligarchy and keep power in the hands of the “best men,” i.e., conservative patricians. The populares were on the side of the people. They used assemblies to win over the plebeians.
These two factions were reflected in two great leaders of the late republic, Gaius Marius (populare) and Lucius Cornelius Sulla (optimate). Both played roles in the collapse of the republic.
Marius was a legendary Roman general and statesman. With the Marian Reforms, he turned the Roman army into one of the most effective fighting and killing machines the world has ever seen. A power hungry Marius held the office of consul an unprecedented seven times.
In 88 B.C., Sulla was elected consul. Sulla set off to do battle against King Mithridates of Pontus. After back stabbing by Marius, however, the Senate revoked Sulla’s command of the army and reinstated Marius in the prize role.
Sulla shocked everyone by doing the previously unthinkable. He challenged the Senate edict. In an unprecedented coup d’etat, Sulla marched on Rome, seized power, and temporarily exiled Marius.
This led to a bloody civil war between Sulla and Marius. Sulla eventually prevailed and the Senate decreed him dictator. Sulla’s constitutional “reforms” placed even more power in the hands of the elite.
Historians generally revile Sulla as a maniacal dictator. He ruthlessly engaged in bloody purges of his political enemies in an indiscriminate way not seen since Tarquinius Superbus, the evil king I spoke of above.
Sulla eventually retired and Senate rule was restored. But the damage was done. Sulla’s self-serving tenure threatened the foundations of the Roman constitution.
After that, Rome would vacillate between triumvirates and dictatorships. Sulla set the precedent for Caesar’s takeover.
3. Rise Of Julius Caesar, The Dawn Of Empire
Caesar was largely responsible for Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. It’s a dramatic story, one of the most fascinating in the history of Ancient Rome.
Caesar’s rise to power began in adversity. He was born in 100 B.C. to a political family. He got a late start on politics.
His uncle was the infamous Marius, who was on the losing side of the social wars. Caesar himself was put on Sulla’s “black list” of enemies meant to be killed. But, somehow, Sulla spared his life.
Caesar rose through the ranks of the political system. In 63 B.C., Caesar was appointed to the role of aedile. Among other things, he was responsible for public spectacles and games. He embraced this task with ardor, helping to cement his fame and popularity.
In 60 B.C., Caesar formed a political alliance with Marcus Licinius Crassus and Pompey the Great. It was known as the First Triumvirate.
Crassus was the wealthiest man in Rome. Pompey was a great military leader. Caesar was the brains behind the extra-legal operation. Together, they were the unofficial rulers of Rome.
Of the three, Caesar was by far the most ambitious. But how to mark his path and gain the upper hand?
Romans admired achievement in battle. So Caesar decided to realize his ambitions through military conquest. He married his daughter off to Pompey. In return, he was given some legions.
Caesar advanced quickly, becoming general of the legendary 13th legion. He began the most successful military campaign in history. He defeated the great warrior Vercingetorix in Gaul and expanded the Roman Republic into Europe and Britain.
Caesar let everyone know about it too, writing lengthy memoirs of his battles. These victories and autobiographies made Caesar a living legend.
All of this made the power brokers in Rome nervous and agitated. Too much power and adulation in one person was a clear threat to the republic.
When Crassus died, the Senate declared Caesar an outlaw. The Senate claimed his military victories had been achieved without proper authorization of the Senate.
The Senate ordered Caesar to step down and disband his army. That would’ve meant the end of Caesar. He would either have been executed or exiled.
With his back against the wall, Caesar marched onward. In 49 B.C., he famously led his army across the Rubicon River to Rome, starting a civil war. Caesar said “the die is cast,” i.e., there was no turning back.
The Senate asked Pompey to go to battle against Caesar. But Pompey’s legions were stationed in Spain. So Rome didn’t have time to organize a proper defense.
The Senate appointed Caesar dictator for life. Caesar was now master of Rome. He didn’t waste any time. Caesar’s first order of business was to chase Pompey to Egypt.
At the time, there was a civil war going on in Egypt between Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra. To win Caesar’s favor, Ptolemy captured Pompey and put him to death, giving his head to Caesar.
This course of action disgusted Caesar. No foreign entity should put to death a revered Roman general.
Originally, Caesar had decided to fight on the side of Ptolemy. But Ptolemy’s gross miscalculation gave an opportunity to a young Cleopatra.
Legend holds that she contrived to deliver herself, UPS style, in a carpet to Caesar’s chambers. It worked and Caesar changed his mind, backing Cleopatra.
Caesar fought on Cleopatra’s behalf, ultimately winning the war. Cleopatra was established as Queen of Egypt. Enmeshed in an affair, Caesar and Cleopatra had a son named Caesarion in 47 B.C. (His lineage was later disputed.)
Caesar returned to Rome in 46 B.C. He imagined that the Romans would love a boy who carried the blood of the two great empires in the world. But the Romans were horrified. They didn’t want someone with Egyptian blood ruling Rome.
So Caesar essentially ditched Cleopatra and Caesarion. He put them in a villa outside Rome and marginalized them, so as not to displease the public.
Caesar still needed to convince the people that they could live under one ruler, himself. He began by forgiving the debt of Roman citizens. He put on public spectacles.
Caesar and Mark Antony played psychological games. Antony would hold a crown above Caesar’s head. Caesar would wave it off, saying, no, he didn’t want to be king.
This went on and on. Eventually it was the crowd that was chanting “King Caesar.” Caesar effectively got the public used to the idea of monarchy.
As dictator, Caesar instituted social and political reforms. He began public building projects. But his rivals were envious of his power.
Caesar had tipped the balance of power away from the Senate. He was a threat to any form of democracy. Senators feared he would crown himself king. So they plotted the most famous political assassination in history, carried out in the name of liberty.
They called Caesar to a Senate meeting at the Theater of Pompey on March 15 44 B.C. A month earlier, a soothsayer had told Caesar to “beware the Ides of March.”
Caesar ignored the warning, thinking himself untouchable. Caesar attended the meeting unarmed and without body guards.
60 conspirators stabbed Caesar 23 times. Caesar effectively took the part of the murdered Remus centuries before.
Caesar reputedly died at the feet of a statue of Pompey. So, from the grave, Pompey had revenge on Caesar.
Among the mutinous senators were some of Caesar’s friends, including Brutus and Cassius. Some historians claim that Brutus was Caesar’s illegitimate son. Caesar had a long term affair with his mother Servillia.
According to Shakespeare, as he was dying, Caesar looked up and said “Et tu Brutus?” Caesar never actually said these words.
And Brutus was neither his closest friend nor his biggest betrayer, not by a long shot. The real mastermind behind the assassination was Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, a soldier who despised Caesar’s pardons.
What was the reaction to Caesar’s assassination? There was a collective shock in Rome. Should the citizens rejoice in the death of a tyrant or mourn a great leader?
Mark Antony made the first move in the game of chess. He brought the body of Caesar into the Roman Forum.
Antony gave a rousing funeral speech. You know the one made famous by Shakespeare — “Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears.” Antony read what he claimed was the last will of Caesar, which left “everything” to the people of Rome.
Antony’s actions essentially defied Caesar and threw Romans into a frenzy. A few days later, Caesar’s body was cremated on the spot of Antony’s speech. It became a cult site.
Antony was hoping that the Romans would turn to him, as Caesar’s right hand man, to be the next leader. But that wasn’t in the cards. In Caesar’s actual will, he had named his 19 year old nephew Octavian as his heir.
4. The Second Triumpherate & Victory of Octavian
Octavian’s rise was anything but amicable. After Caesar’s death, and despite the recalcitrance of Antony, Octavian became a senator and then consul.
In 43 B.C., Octavian became part of a second power-sharing triumvirate with Antony and Marcus Lepidus. Octavian was by far the shrewdest of the lot.
In 42 B.C., Octavian had Julius Caesar officially deified. Octavian thereby became the son of a god.
The Second Triumvirate split up governance of the empire. Octavian remained in Italy, Antony was in Egypt, and Lepidus was in Africa.
The truce didn’t last long. As history shows, it’s not easy to share power and decisions by committee rarely work.
Ambition divided them. Bloody internal conflict ensued. Eventually, Lepidus was eliminated and forced to retire from public life.
Octavian was then locked in a struggle with Antony for control of the empire. Octavian ruled the western empire. Antony ruled the eastern empire.
Antony was also locked in a passionate relationship with Cleopatra at the time. They even had twins. Antony recognized Caesarion as the “King of Kings” and as the legitimate son of Caesar.
That was a bridge too far. Octavian realized the power couple was a threat to his authority. So another civil war began.
In 31 B.C., Octavian cleverly declared war on Antony’s lover, Cleopatra, not on Antony himself. Cleopatra was easy pickings. She was having an affair with Antony, who was married to Octavian’s sister Octavia.
When Antony divorced Octavia for Cleopatra, Octavian went into full attack mode. He turned Rome against Antony. Octavian and his right hand man, Marcus Agrippa, outmaneuvered the pair in a great naval battle, the Battle of Actium.
When trapped, Antony and Cleopatra fled. They later committed suicide to avoid capture. Caesarion was executed, ending the dream of a Roman-Egyptian Pharaoh. Octavian stole Cleopatra’s loot to pay and settle his army.
5. Augustus Becomes The First Emperor
Octavian adopted the name Augustus, which means first or revered one. In 27 B.C., Augustus was declared the first emperor of Rome. He would rule until 14 A.D.
Augustus is generally considered Rome’s greatest emperor. Augustus was a savvy politician who ushered in a lasting peace known as the Pax Romana. It was a peace won by bloody battles, so perhaps Augustus really brought a pacification not a peace.
Augustus revived Republican traditions. At least on the surface, he sought to placate the Senators and distance himself from any perceived despotism.
Augustus used the power of images to cement his reputation as a peaceful man who saved Rome from chaos. During Augustus’ reign, there was a constant production of coins, monuments, and statues in his image. He also created images of Aeneas and Romulus and Remus.
Augustus was also a brilliant administrator. He overhauled the creaking bureaucracy of the empire. Art and literature flourished.
With Agrippa’s help, Augustus spent massive sums on the architectural adornment of Rome. The historian Suetonius wrote that Augustus “could justly boast” that he had “found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”
But Augustus had a bloody rise and was the ultimate opportunist. He ruthlessly took advantage of a fragile Rome to seize power. He was calculating and distasteful, probably like most emperors.
Augustus passed severe adultery laws, while he continually cheated on his wives. Sometimes the cheating wasn’t out of lust, but political machinations. He disowned and exiled his only daughter Julia.
He died at age 76 in 14 A.D., most likely of natural causes. The historian Suetonius tried to claim that Augustus’ wife Livia murdered him. Her son Tiberius was slated to inherit the empire, after all.
But this is likely pure gossip. Though probably a heartless power hungry empress, there’s really no evidence that Livia did this deed.
At his death, Augustus’ final words were “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”
6. Roman Empire
Augustus’ descendants were known as the Julio-Claudian emperors. They ruled for almost 100 years, ending with the reviled Emperor Nero.
Tiberius was Augustus’ adopted son and hair. He one of Rome’s greatest generals. But he was a lackluster and disinterested emperor. He hid out in his villa in Capri, with a harem of young boys and girls.
Caligula was the third of the Caesarian emperors, succeeding Tiberius. Caligula is known as one of the mad Roman emperors. His profligacy, and possible neuropsychopathic craziness, led to his murder.
After Caligula’s death, the Senate attempted and failed to restore the Republic. Caligula’s paternal uncle, Claudius, became emperor by the instigation of the Praetorian Guards.
Claudius was an able administrator and builder of public works. His reign saw an expansion of the empire into England.
The last of the Caesarian emperors was Nero. This bad boy was an infamous and profligate ruler. Nero was rumored to have killed his mother and two wives.
Legend holds that Nero set the great fire of Rome so that he could rebuild the city to his liking. Post fire, Nero erected the Golden House, his massive pleasure palace.
For his misdeeds and spendthrift ways that left an empty treasury, Nero was declared a public enemy. He committed suicide at age 30 in 68 A.D.
After Nero’s death, the Flavian Emperors — Vespasian, Titus, and and Domitian — reigned. Vespasian restored peace to Rome after the reign of Nero. The trio built the mighty Colosseum, the site of gladiatorial games.
The Roman Empire prospered and was at its zenith under Emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Trajan embarked on an ambitious public building program, creating landmarks that still stand today.
The wise Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius was the last of the “Five Good Emperors of Rome.” His reign marked the end of a period of internal tranquility and good government.
But he made the sentimental choice of his son Commodus as his heir and future emperor. Commodus was a paranoid megalomaniac. He thought he was Hercules and fought with gladiators in the Colosseum. He was quickly murdered off.
After Aurelius, the Empire started a downward spiral of decay. The last of the building emperors was Caracalla. He murdered his brother and left a legacy of brutality.
After Caracalla, his cousin Elagabalus inherited the title of emperor at age 14. Elagabalus was just a teenager and may have been transgender. His/her reign was marred by sex scandals, atrocities, and religious controversy.
By the 3rd century A.D., the idea that the man on the throne could be bonkers was set in stone. From then on, the military raised emperors to power. They would then be quickly assassinated by supporters of the next emperor.
Rome was built to last. But it didn’t. Why? It’s a complicated explanation, with all kinds of theories and centuries of speculation.
At bottom, there were multiple causes: barbarian incursions, military overspending, territorial over-expansion, political instability, social inequality, and over-dependence on slaves. These factors caused the Roman Empire to slowly crumble over time.
When Constantine came to power in 306 A.D., he accelerated the decline. He split the empire in two. Constantine ruled the eastern half from Constantinople, a city he named after himself.
Constantine also introduced Christianity. This further undercut the empire, weakening traditional Roman values.
Christianity shifted the focus from polytheism to monotheism. It substituted the divine right of emperors with the glory of a sole deity. The church gradually replaced the declining civil authority, and swiped the state’s money to buy land and build churches.
After Constantine, few emperors ruled the entire Roman Empire. It was simply too big and was under attack from every direction. Usually, there was an emperor of the Western Roman Empire ruling from Italy or Gaul and an emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire ruling from Constantinople.
Rome could no longer keep its grip on its far flung lands. Nor keep the barbarians at bay.
In the 5th century A.D., Rome was sacked twice: first by the Goths in 410 and then the Vandals in 455. The swarms of barbarians kept coming. The empire fell in 476 A.D.
After the western part of the Roman Empire fell, the eastern half continued to exist. It lived on as the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of years. Therefore, the “fall of Rome” really refers only to the fall of the western half of the Empire.
In 476 A.D., Romulus, the last of the Roman emperors in the west, was overthrown by the Germanic leader Odoacer. He became the first Barbarian to rule in Rome.
The glamor and glory of ancient Rome was replaced with the Dark Ages. But Rome rebounded from its medieval gloom. The city would go on to create some of the most spectacular art and architecture of the Renaissance.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my nutshell history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. You may enjoy these other Rome travel guides and resources:
- 3 day itinerary for Rome
- 5 day itinerary for Rome
- Hidden gems in Rome
- Best museums in Rome
- Archaeological sites in Rome
- Guide to the Borghese Gallery
- Rome’s secret palace museums
- Guide to the Capitoline Museums
- Guide to Palatine Hill
- Guide to the Roman Forum
- Guide to the Colosseum
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