The Romans: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire

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The Romans and their empire at its height in 117 CE was the most extensive political and social structure in western civilization. By 285 CE the empire had grown too vast to be ruled by the central government at Rome and so was divided by Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE) into a Western and an Eastern Empire.


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The Legend of Rome: Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus were twin brothers. Their father was Mars, the God of War, their mother was Rhea Silvia, a vestal virgin and daughter of the King, Numitor. Numitor’s brother, Amulius, had taken the throne from him and had forced Rhea Silvia to become a vestal virgin so that she would not have any children who might try to take back the throne.

When the boys were born, Amulius seized them, put them into a basket and threw them into the river Tiber. He hoped that they would drown. However, the boys were rescued by a she-wolf who fed the babies with her own milk and cared for them.

romulus and remus with wolf and shepherd

They grew up and were found by the shepherd Faustulus, who took them home and looked after them until they were grown up.

The two young men discovered who they really were and decided to kill Amulius and put their grandfather back on the throne. After doing this they decided to build a city of their own but could not agree where to build it. Remus favoured the Aventine Hill but Romulus wanted to use the Palatine Hill. They could not reach an agreement and so each began to build his own city enclosed with walls.

One day, Remus visited Romulus and made fun of his wall by jumping over it and saying how easily it could be breached. Romulus was so annoyed that he killed Remus and said the he would kill anyone who mocked his city or tried to break through the walls of Rome.

The legend says that Romulus became the first King of Rome in 753BC and populated his new city with runaway slaves and convicted criminals. He stole women from the Sabine tribe to provide wives for the slaves and criminals and to populate his new city.

The Sabine tribe were not happy about this and declared war on Rome. The war went on for many years but eventually the Sabine tribe and Romulus reached an agreement and the Sabines became a part of Rome under the Kingship of Romulus.

The legend ends by telling how Romulus was carried up to the heavens by his father, Mars, and was worshipped as the God Quirinus.

* Romulus and Remus illustration by: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

When was Julius Caesar Born?

Julius Caesar | Biography, Conquests, Facts, & Death | Britannica

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The exact date of Julius Caesar’s birth is not known, but historians claim it to be on July 12 or 13, 100 or 102 BC in Rome. His parents were Gaius Julius Caesar (a praetor) and Aurelia and although he belonged to a noble family, they weren’t very influential or rich during this time. His aunt, Julia was the leader of the Popular faction, Gaius Marius’ wife.

Julius Caesar’s Youth

Caesar’s father died when he was only sixteen, leaving him as the head of the house. Rome at the time was very unstable, struggling to manage its influence and size. Caesar was already very ambitious and decided that his family would benefit most if he would become a  priest. He got himself nominated as Jupiter’s High Priest, but was required to not only be a patrician, but to also be married to one. This led him to break off his current engagement with a plebeian girl and to marry Cornelia, a patrician and daughter of a the influential Lucius Cinna (member of the Populares). Sulla, the Roman ruler at the time declared himself to be dictator of rome and started to purge his enemies systematically. He targeted Caesar, who fled Rome, but his mother’s family successfully convinced the ruler to lift his sentence. He was however no longer allowed to be a priest and Cornelia’s dowry was confiscated. With no other way to provide for his family, Caesar decided to join the army. From there he worked himself up until he, himself became dictator of Rome.

How Did Julius Caesar Die?

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How did Julius Caesar die? Julius Caesar died from being stabbed to death by a mob of conspirators in a place just next to the Theatre of Pompey, in 44 BC on the Roman Ides of March. At the time, Julius Caesar had been declared dictator by the Senate and had only served a year’s term. He has, however, already reformed the Senate in that short period and made changes in how local governments worked. He became very popular with the lower and middle-class Romans, but many senators despised him and were concerned about him having too much power as dictator. One of his biggest mistakes was to appoint two of his former enemies, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus who ended up leading the plot to assassinate him.

How Julius Caesar’s Assassination Took Place

Over 40 people were involved in the plot to murder Julius Caesar, or, as they called it, commit tyrannicide. They organized a gladiator game and a meeting of the Senate. During the meeting, Casca struck at Ceasar with a dagger, after which Caesar acted in surprise. Casca called for help and the whole group, Brutus included, stabbed him. He tried to get away but was surrounded by a mob of about 60 men. He was stabbed 23 times, although only one of the wounds was fatal.

What Caused the Fall of the Roman Empire?

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The main cause of the fall of the Roman Empire is still a topic of debate among historians, maybe because it is a symbol of what we fear about our own civilization. There are many different theories about why a superpower that ruled for 500 years crumbled and fell, but most scholars degree that it wasn’t one event, but a series of factors that caused a steady decline. Alexander Demandt, for example, had 210 different theories and even more emerged afterwards.

Possible Major Causes:

  • Conflict between the Emperor and the Senate
  • Weakening of the emperor’s authority (after Christianity the Emperor was no longer seen as a god)
  • Political Corruption – there was never a clear-cut system for choosing a new emperor, leading the ones in power to “sell” the position to the highest bidder.
  • Money wasting – the Romans were very fond of their prostitutes and orgies and wasted a lot of money on lavish parties, as well as their yearly “games”
  • Slave labor and price competition – Large, wealthy farm owners used slaves to work their farms, allowing them to farm cheaply, in contrast to smaller farmers who had to pay their workmen and could not compete price wise. Farmers had to sell their farms, leading to high unemployment figures.
  • Economical Decline – After Marcus Aurelius, the Romans stopped expanding their empire, causing in a decrease of gold coming into the empire. The Romans however kept spending, causing coinmakers to use less gold, decreasing the value of money.
  • Military spending – Because they wasted so much money and had to defend their borders all the time, the Government focused more on military spending than building houses or other public works, which enraged the people. Many stopped volunteering for the army, forcing the government to employ hired mercenaries, who were expensive, highly unreliable and ended up turning against the Roman Empire.
  • A stop in technological advancement – The Romans were great engineers, but did not focus on how to produce goods more effectively to provide to their growing population.
  • The Eastern Empire – The Roman Empire was divided in a Eastern and Western empire that drifted apart, making the empire easier to manage, but also weaker. Maybe the empire’s rapid expansion was its own downfall in the end.
  • Civil War and Barbarian Invasion – Civil war broke out in Italy and the smaller Roman army had to focus all of its attention there, leaving the borders wide open for the barbarians to attack and invade. Barbarian bandits made travel in the empire unsafe and merchants could not get goods to the cities anymore, leading to the total collapse of the empire

The Romans – Fall of the Empire

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The Fall of the Empire was a gradual process. The Romans did not wake up one day to find their Empire gone!

By AD369 the Empire was beginning to crumble for the following reasons:

The Government was running out of money.

The people had to pay very high taxes – up to a third of their money.

The rich were given grants of money and land which made them richer while the poor got poorer.

There was not enough money to pay for the army.

Barbarians from Germany called vandals were conquering parts of the Empire and there were not enough soldiers to fight back.

Although the outer edges of the Empire were well defended, there was no defence with in the Empire. This meant that once barbarians had broken through there was nothing to stop them marching to Rome.

The Roman network of roads allowed invaders an easy route to Rome.

No one had decided on a good way to choose an Emperor,. This meant that any general could march into Rome, kill the Emperor and make himself the next Emperor. In 73 years there were 23 Emperors and 20 of them were murdered.

Roman Society and Social Classes

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Roman society was clearly hierarchical, with legally defined privileges allotted to different classes and countless informal differences in attitudes toward the classes in everyday life.

In ancient Rome, the population was divided into two groups: patricians and plebeians.



The patrician class were the descendants of the most ancient and powerful noble families. They were landowners, lived in large houses and they had political power in the Senate.The patricians married and did business only with people of their own class. Plebeians were mainly artisans or peasants who worked the patricians’ land; they lived in apartments and they had no political rights.If they were lucky plebeians could become clients (obedient servants) of a patrician family. They offered their services in return received the protection of the head of the patrician family, who became their patron.


Roman Society in the Era of the Empire 27BC – 1453AD

Below is the pyramid of Roman society, with the emperor at top and slaves at the bottom. Multiple layers existed between them. While it was possible to move up and down this social latter, as the categories were not immutable, changing one’s social standing was extremely difficult and only possible through meritocratic institutions such as the military.

The Emperor
Head of Roman society and ruler of all Rome

Patrician Families
Wealthy influential landowning families

Served in the Senate and governed Rome

Wealthy property owners who chose business over politics

Working class. Men without substantial wealth who worked for their living at jobs such as artisans, craftsmen, bakers etc

Freed Slaves
Slaves who had either been given their freedom or had paid for their freedom and now worked for their living.

Generally prisoners of war but sometimes abandoned children who were owned by their master

This article is part of our larger resource on the Romans culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the Romans.

The Romans – Roman Government

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The Roman government took on my different forms from its centuries-long existence, back to its legendary founding. For the sake of brevity, this article will skip over its city-state and kingdom periods to focus on its republican and imperial periods. From the time of Julius Caesar, 48 BC, Rome and the Roman Empire was ruled by an Emperor. The Emperor was wise if he listened to the advice of the Senate but some chose to be dictators and do what they wanted rather than follow the Senate’s advice.

Before Julius Caesar took control in 48BC, the Roman Empire was not ruled by the Emperor but by two consuls who were elected by the citizens of Rome. Rome was then known as a Republic.

Roman Government in the Republic Period

People were divided into different classes. There were Patricians, Plebeians and Slaves.

Patricians were wealthy citizens of Rome. They usually lived in grand houses and had slaves to do their work for them. Because they were citizens of Rome they were allowed to go to the Assembly to vote.

Plebeians were not wealthy but they were citizens of Rome. They were usually craftsmen or tradesmen and they worked for a living. Because they were citizens of Rome they were allowed to go to the Assembly to vote.

Slaves had no money, no rights, no freedom and were not citizens of Rome. Because they were not citizens of Rome they were not allowed to go to the Assembly to vote.

Patricians and Plebeians met in the Assembly and voted for consuls, tribunes and magistrates. Women and slaves were not allowed in the Assembly and could not vote.

Roman Government: Consuls

The citizens of Rome voted for two consuls. They were elected to serve for one year. It was the Consuls job to govern Rome. They had to both agree on all decisions. After they had served their year they were replaced. They were not allowed to be consuls again for ten years.


The citizens of Rome voted for a number of magistrates. It was the magistrates job to keep law and order and also to manage Rome’s financial affairs. When magistrates retired they became senators and attended the Senate.


The citizens of Rome voted for tribunes. It was the tribunes job to make sure that the people were treated fairly.

Roman Senate

The Senate

Senators went to the Senate to discuss important government issues. Senators were retired magistrates and knew a lot about the government of Rome. It was the job of the senate to give advice to the two consuls. When Rome had an Emperor the senate still gave advice on governing Rome and the Empire.




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