Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the cliché reminds us. Neither did the greatest power of the ancient world fall in one swift cataclysm as some past historians believed.
The history of Rome is long and complex: a village grew into the Eternal City that’s still a wonder today; a monarchy became a republic and then an empire; Italy was conquered before Europe, parts of Africa and the Near and Middle East were incorporated into an empire that had around a quarter of the world’s population under its governance.
This 1,000-year-and-more history is complex and fascinating, here are just 100 facts that help illuminate it.
1. The Romulus and Remus story is a myth
The name Romulus was probably invented to fit the name of the city he was said to have founded on the Palatine Hill before killing his twin.
2. By the fourth century BC, the story was accepted by Romans who were proud of their warrior founder
The story was included in the first history of the city, by the Greek writer Diocles of Peparethus, and the twins and their wolf step-mother were depicted on Rome’s first coins.
3. The new city’s first conflict was with the Sabine people
Packed with immigrating young men, the Romans needed female inhabitants and kidnapped Sabine women, sparking a war that ended with a truce and the two sides joining forces.
4. From the start Rome had an organised military
Regiments of 3,000 infantry and 300 cavalry were called legions and their foundation was ascribed to Romulus himself.
5. Almost the only source on this period of Roman history is Titus Livius or Livy (59 BC – 17 AD)
Some 200 years after the conquest of Italy had been completed, he wrote 142 books on Rome’s early history, but only 54 survive as complete volumes.
6. Tradition has it that Rome had seven kings before it became a republic
The last, Tarquin the Proud, was deposed in 509 BC in a revolt lead by Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic. Elected consuls would now rule.
7. After victory in the Latin War, Rome granted citizens’ rights, short of voting, to its conquered foes
This model for integrating vanquished peoples was followed for most of Roman history.
8. Victory in the Pyrrhic War in 275 BC made Rome dominant in Italy
Their defeated Greek opponents had been believed to be the best in the ancient world. By 264 BC all of Italy was under Roman control.
9. In the Pyrrhic War Rome allied with Carthage
The North African city state was soon to be its foe in over a century’s struggle for Mediterranean dominance.
10. Rome was already a deeply hierarchical society
Plebeians, small landowners and tradesmen, had few rights, while the aristocratic Patricians ruled the city, until the Conflict of the Orders between 494 BC and 287 BCE saw the Plebs win concessions by using withdrawal of labour and sometimes evacuation of the city.
The Punic Wars
11. 3 Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage were fought between 264 BC and 146 BC
12. Carthage was a Phoenician city
The Phoenicians, originally from Lebanon, were known as successful sea traders and naval warriors. They also spread the first alphabet. Their trade routes along the North African and European coasts of the Mediterranean made them a rival of Rome.
13. Carthage is about 10km from Tunis, capital of Tunisia
The well-preserved remains that are now a UNESCO World Heritage site include the Roman city that was established on the ruins of the original.
14. The flash point for the wars was the island of Sicily
A dispute between the cities of Syracuse and Messina in 264 BC saw the two powers taking sides and a small local conflict turn into a battle for dominance of the Mediterranean.
15. Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, commanded the city’s forces in the First Punic War
16. Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps took place in the Second Punic War in 218 BC
According to contemporary accounts, he took 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 38 elephants into the mountains and descended into Italy with about 20,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and a handful of elephants.
17. At the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal inflicted on Rome the worst defeat in its military history
Between 50,000 and 70,000 Roman soldiers were killed or captured by a much smaller force. It is considered one of the great military triumphs (and disasters) in history, the perfect ‘battle of annihilation’.
18. Hannibal so concerned the Romans that they demanded his personal surrender long after they had defeated Carthage’s armies
He went into exile to save Carthage from harm, but was still being hounded when he poisoned himself around 182 BC.
19. The Third Punic War (149 – 146 BC) saw Rome achieve total victory over its enemy
The final Siege of Carthage lasted around two years and the Romans completely destroyed the city, selling an estimated 50,000 people into slavery.
20. Carthage had become an obsession to some Romans, most famously Cato the Elder (234 BC – 149 BC)
The statesman would proclaim: ‘Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam, (‘By the way I think that Carthage must be destroyed,’) at the end of every speech he made, no matter what he was talking about.
Rome’s greatest battles
21. The Battle of Silva Arsia in 509 BC marks the violent birth of the Republic
Deposed king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus took up with Rome’s Etruscan enemies to try to retake his throne. Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Republic, was killed.
22. The Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC was the first of the Pyrrhic victories of King Pyrrhus of Epirus over Rome
Pyrrhus led an alliance of Greeks alarmed by Rome’s expansion into southern Italy. In military historical terms the battle is important as the first meeting of the Roman Legion and the Macedonian Phalanx. Pyrrhus won, but he lost so many of his best men that he was unable to fight on for long, giving us the term for a fruitless victory.
23. The Battle of Agrigentum in 261 BC was the first major engagement between Rome and Carthage
It was the start of the Punic Wars that would last well into the 2nd century BC. Rome won the day after a long siege, kicking the Carthaginians off Sicily. It was the first Roman victory off the Italian mainland.
24. The Battle of Cannae in 216 BC was a huge disaster for the Roman army
Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, surprised everyone by completing an almost impossible land journey to Italy. His brilliant tactics destroyed a Roman army of nearly 90,000 men. Hannibal could not capitalise on his victory with an assault on Rome though, and the massive military reforms the disaster precipitated only made Rome stronger.
25. The Battle of Carthage in around 149 BC saw Rome finally defeat their Carthaginian rivals
A two year siege ended with the destruction of the city and slavery or death for most of its inhabitants. The Roman general Scipio is considered one of the great military geniuses of the ancient world. He is said to have cried at the destruction his forces had brought to North Africa.
26. The Battle of Alesia in 52 BC was one of Julius Caesar’s greatest victories
It confirmed Roman domination over the Celtic Gauls and expanded Rome’s (still republican) territories over France, Belgium, Switzerland and northern Italy. Caesar constructed two rings of fortifications around the fort at Alesia before almost wiping out the Gaulish force inside.
27. The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD probably stopped Rome’s expansion at the River Rhine
A Germanic tribal alliance, led by a Roman-educated Roman citizen, Arminius, utterly destroyed three legions. Such was the shock of the defeat that the Romans retired the numbers of two of the destroyed legions and drew the Empire’s north-eastern frontier at the Rhine. The battle was an important event in German nationalism until World War II.
28. The Battle of Abritus in 251 AD saw two Roman Emperors killed
Influxes of people into the Empire from the east were making Rome unstable. A Gothic-led coalition of tribes crossed the Roman frontier, pillaging through what is now Bulgaria. Roman forces sent to recover what they had taken and kick them out for good were routed.
Emperor Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus were killed and a humiliating peace settlement was enforced by the Goths, who would be back.
29. The Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD is important for its role in the advance of Christianity
Two emperors, Constantine and Maxentius, were battling for power. Chronicles recount Constantine receiving a vision from the Christian god, offering victory if his men decorated their shields with Christian symbols. Whether true or not, the battle confirmed Constantine as sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire and a year later Christianity was legally recognised and tolerated by Rome.
30. The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (or of Chalons or of Maurica) in 451 AD stopped Attila the Hun
Atilla wanted to step into the space left by the decaying Roman state. An alliance of Romans and Visigoths decisively defeated the already-fleeing Huns, who were later wiped out by a Germanic alliance. Some historians believe the battle was of epochal significance, protecting Western, Christian civilisation for centuries to come.
31. Much of the Romans’ architectural mastery is due to their use of concrete
Mixing a dry aggregate with a mortar that would take up water and then harden gave the Romans a range of building materials of great flexibility and strength. Roman concrete is very similar to modern Portland cement.
32. The dome of the Pantheon in Rome is still the world’s largest unsupported concrete dome
33. The Colosseum was Rome’s great games arena
Starting at around 70 AD, it took around 10 years to build over the demolished palaces of Nero, and could hold anything up to 80,000 spectators.
34. The Circus Maximus, largely dedicated to chariot racing, was even larger
It held crowds of up to 250,000, according to some accounts (though 150,000 is probably more likely). Beginning around 50 BC, Julius Caesar and Augustus, the first Emperor, helped develop it from a simple racing track to the largest stadium in the world.
35. Romans didn’t invent either the arch or the vault, but they perfected both
This allowed them to build large roofed structures without forests of pillars, and great bridges and aqueducts.
36. Aqueducts carried water, allowing large cities to grow
Rome itself was served by 11 aqueducts by the end of the third century, with nearly 800 km of artificial water courses in total. Cities freed people from subsistence agriculture, allowing them to indulge in art, politics, engineering and specialised crafts and industries. Constructing these systems that used gravity to move water over long distances down tiny inclines was an astounding feat.
37. Roman sewers are less celebrated but just as vital to urban life
The Cloaca Maxima was built from earlier open drains and canals, surviving through the entire Republic and Empire. Parts of it are still used as a drain today. The cleaner, healthier life of Roman cities was an attraction to people in the Empire to buy into the lifestyle of their conquerors.
38. The transport of people, goods and above all soldiers relied on Rome’s amazing network of roads
The first major paved road was the Appian Way, started in the mid-fourth century BC, linking Rome to Brindisi. They even built tunnels for their roads, the longest was 1 km long at Portus Julius, an important naval base.
39. Great structures were an important means of stating Roman power
Emperors cemented their reputations with grand public works. The largest surviving triumphal arch is the Arch of Constantine, completed in 315 AD to celebrate the Battle of Milvian Bridge. It is 21 metres high. Marble Arch in London was based on it.
40. Roman bridges still stand and are in use today
The Alcántara Bridge over the Tagus River in Spain is one of the most beautiful. It was completed in 106 AD under Emperor Trajan. ‘I have built a bridge which will last forever,’ reads an original inscription on the bridge.
41. Julius Caesar was born in 100 BC and named Gaius Julius Caesar
His name may have come from an ancestor being born by caesarean section.
42. When his father died suddenly in 85 BC the 16-year-old Caesar was forced to go into hiding
His family was caught up in another of one of Rome’s bloody power struggles and in order to stay away from the new top man, Sulla, and his possible revenge, Caesar joined the army.
43. Caesar was kidnapped by pirates around 78 BC while crossing the Aegean Sea
He told his captors the ransom they had demanded was not high enough and promised to crucify them when he was free, which they thought a joke. On his release he raised a fleet, captured them and did have them crucified, mercifully ordering their throats cut first.
44. Personal debt from lavish spending troubled Caesar throughout his political career
While governor of part of Spain he changed the laws on debt to protect himself. He often tried to remain in high political office in order to enjoy immunity from private prosecution.
45. Caesar ignited civil war by crossing the Rubicon River into northern Italy in 50 BC
He had been ordered to disband the armies that had successfully conquered Gaul by a Senate that wanted to support his great rival Pompey. Caesar finally won the war in 45 BC.
46. Caesar never married Cleopatra
Although their relationship lasted at least 14 years and may have produced a son – tellingly called Caesarion – Roman law only recognised marriages between two Roman citizens. He remained married to Calpurnia through this period, Romans would not have considered his relationship adulterous.
47. Caesar adopted a version of the Egyptian calendar, with its solar rather than lunar regulation, in 46 BC
The Julian Calendar was used in Europe and European colonies until the Gregorian Calendar reformed it in 1582.
48. At the Triumph to celebrate his victories, two armies of 2,000 people each fought to the death in the Circus Maximus
When rioting broke out in protest at the state’s extravagance and waste, Caesar had two rioters sacrificed.
49. Caesar was married three times, to Cornelia Cinnila, Pompeia and Calpurnia
He had one legitimate daughter, Julia, with his first wife and a probable illegitimate son with Cleopatra. He adopted the boy who was to become Emperor Augustus and believed Brutus, who helped kill him, was an illegitimate son.
50. Caesar was killed on 15th March (the Ides of March) by a group of as many as 60 men.
He was stabbed 23 times.
51. There were in fact two Roman Triumvirates
The first was an informal arrangement between Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey). The Second Triumvirate was legally recognised and consisted of Octavian (later Augustus), Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Mark Antony.
52. The First Triumvirate started in 60 BC
Caesar reconciled the feuding Crassus and Pompey. It ended with Crassus’ death in 53 BC.
53. Crassus was legendarily wealthy
He acquired at least some of his wealth by buying burning buildings at knock-down prices. Once bought, he would employ the 500 slaves he had bought especially for their architectural skills to save the buildings.
54. Pompey was a successful soldier and enormously popular
The third triumph to celebrate his victories was the then largest in Roman history – two days of feasting and games – and was said to signal Rome’s domination of the known world.
55. The agreement was at first a secret
It was revealed when Pompey and Crassus stood alongside Caesar as he spoke in favour of agrarian land reform that the senate had blocked.
56. In 56 BC the three met to renew their by then fragile alliance
At the Lucca Conference they divided much of the Empire into personal territories.
57. Crassus died after the disastrous Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC
He had gone to war against the Parthian Empire with no official backing, seeking military glory to match his wealth, and his force was crushed by a much smaller enemy. Crassus was killed during truce negotiations.
58. Pompey and Caesar were soon vying for power
The Great Roman Civil War between them and their supporters broke out in 49 BC and continued for four years.
59. Pompey could have won the war at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 48 BC
He refused to believe that he had beaten Caesar’s legions and insisted that their retreat was to lure him into a trap. He held off and Caesar was victorious in their next engagement.
60. Pompey was murdered in Egypt by Egyptian court officials
When his head and seal were presented to Caesar, the last standing member of the triumvirate is said to have wept. He had the conspirators executed.
The glory of Rome
61. In the 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire had an estimated population of around 65 million people
Probably around a quarter of the world’s population at the time.
62. The period from 96 AD to 180 AD has been labelled the time of the ‘Five Good Emperors’
Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius each chose his successor while in office. There was stability of succession but no hereditary dynasties were established.
63. During Trajan’s reign (98 – 117 AD) the Empire reached its greatest geographical extent
It was possible to travel from Britain to the Persian Gulf without leaving Roman territory.
64. Trajan’s Column was built to celebrate final victory in the Dacian Wars of 101 AD to 106 AD
It is one of the most important visual sources on Roman military life. About 2,500 individual figures are shown on its 20 round stone blocks, each of which weighs 32 tons.
65. In 122 AD Hadrian was able to order the building of a wall in Britain ‘to separate Romans from barbarians’
The wall was about 73 miles long and up to 10 feet high. Built of stone with regular forts and customs posts, it is an extraordinary achievement and parts of it still survive.
66. At its height the Roman Empire covered 40 modern nations and 5 million square km
67. The Empire built great cities
The three largest, Rome, Alexandria (in Egypt) and Antioch (in modern Syria), were each twice as large as the largest European cities at the start of the 17th century.
68. Under Hadrian the Roman army has been estimated to have been 375,000 men in strength
69. In order to fight the Dacians, Trajan built what was for 1,000 years the longest arched bridge in the world
The bridge across the Danube was 1,135m long and 15m wide.
70. The Pax Romana (Roman Peace) dates from 27 BC to 180 AD
There was almost total peace within the Empire, law and order was maintained and the Roman economy boomed.
A troubled empire
71. 69 AD has been named ‘the year of the four emperors’
After the death of Nero, emperors Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian all ruled between June 68 AD and December 69 AD. Galba was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard; Otho committed suicide as Vitellius seized power, only to be killed himself.
72. Nero himself was an appalling emperor
He may have killed his stepbrother to assume the throne. He certainly had his mother executed in one of many power struggles. He was the first emperor to commit suicide.
73. Commodus (ruled 161 – 192 AD) was famously stupid
He presented himself as Hercules in statues, fighting in rigged gladiatorial games and renaming Rome after himself. Many historians date the start of the fall of the Empire to Commodus’ reign. He was assassinated in 192 AD.
74. The period from 134 BC to 44 BC is called the Crises of the Roman Republic by historians
During this period Rome was often at war with its Italian neighbours. Internally there was strife too, as aristocrats tried to hang on to their exclusive rights and privileges against pressure from the rest of society.
75. There were multiple civil wars during the period of the crises
Caesar’s Civil War from 49 BC to 45 BC saw Roman armies fighting each other in Italy, Spain, Greece and Egypt.
76. 193 AD was the Year of the Five Emperors
Five claimants battled it out for power after the death of Commodus. Septimius Severus finally outlasted the others.
77. ‘The Year of the Six Emperors’ was in 238 AD
Six men were recognised as emperor in the messy ending of the terrible rule of Maximinus Thrax. Two of the emperors, Gordian I and II, a father and son ruling jointly, lasted just 20 days.
78. Diocletian (ruled 284 – 305 AD) tried to hold the Empire together with a four-man Tetrarchy
He thought the Empire was too big for one man to rule. It lasted while he lived, but collapsed into more bloody feuding and fighting upon his death.
79. Caligula (ruled 37 –41 AD) is generally accepted as Rome’s worst emperor
Most of the colourful horror stories about him are probably black propaganda, but he did cause a famine and drain the Roman treasury, building vast monuments to his own greatness, nonetheless. He was the first Roman emperor to be assassinated, killed to stop him relocating to Egypt to live as a sun god.
80. The Sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in 410 AD greatly upset emperor Honorius for a moment or two
He reportedly mistook the news for a report of the death of his pet cockerel, Roma. He was said to have been relieved that it was just the old imperial capital that had fallen.
81. Roman games, called ludi, were probably instituted as an annual event in 366 BC
It was a single-day festival in honour of the god Jupiter. Soon there were as many as eight ludi each year, some religious, some to commemorate military victories.
82. The Romans probably took gladiatorial games from the Etruscans or Campanians
Like the two rival Italian powers, the Romans first used these combats as private funeral celebrations.
83. Trajan celebrated his final victory over the Dacians with games
10,000 gladiators and 11,000 animals were used over 123 days.
84. Chariot racing remained the most popular sport in Rome
Drivers, who usually started out as slaves, could earn adulation and huge sums. Gaius Appuleius Diocles, survivor of 4,257 races and winner of 1,462, is supposed to have earned the equivalent of $15 billion in his 24-year career.
85. There were four factiones racing, each in their own colour
The red, white, green and blue teams inspired great loyalty, building clubhouses for their fans. In 532 AD in Constantinople rioting that destroyed half the city was sparked by chariot fans’ disputes.
86. Spartacus (111 – 71 BC) was an escaped gladiator who led a slave revolt in 73 BC
His powerful forces threatened Rome during the Third Servile War. He was a Thracian, but little is known about him beyond his military skill. There is no evidence his forces had a social, anti-slavery agenda. The defeated slaves were crucified.
87. Emperor Commodus was famous for his almost-mad devotion to fighting in games himself
Caligula, Hadrian, Titus, Caracalla, Geta, Didius Julianus and Lucius Verus are all reported to have fought in games of some sort.
88. Gladiator fans formed factions too, favouring one type of fighter over others
Laws divided the gladiators into groups such as Secutors, with their large shields, or heavily-armed fighters with smaller shields called Thraex after their Thracian origin.
89. It’s not clear how often gladiatorial fights were to the death
The fact that fights were advertised as ‘sine missione’, or without mercy, suggests that often losers were allowed to live. Augustus banned fighting to the death to help tackle a shortage of gladiators.
90. It has been estimated that 500,000 people and more than 1 million animals died in the Coliseum, Rome’s great gladiatorial arena
The Fall of the Roman Empire
91. The date of the Fall of the Roman Empire is hard to pinpoint
When Emperor Romulus was deposed in 476 AD and replaced by Odoacer, the first King of Italy, many historians believe the Empire was over.
92. The ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ usually refers to just the Western Empire
The Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and called the Byzantine Empire, survived in one form or another until 1453.
93. The Empire was put under pressure during the Migration Period
From 376 AD large numbers of Germanic tribes were pushed into the Empire by the westward movement of the Huns.
94. In 378 AD Goths defeated and killed Emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople
Large parts of the east of the Empire were left open to attack. After this defeat ‘barbarians’ were an accepted part of the Empire, sometimes military allies and sometimes foes.
95. Alaric, the Visigothic leader who led the 410 AD Sack of Rome, wanted above all to be a Roman
He felt that promises of integration into the Empire, with land, money and office, had been broken and sacked the city in revenge for this perceived treachery.
96. The Sack of Rome, now the capital of the Christian religion, had enormous symbolic power
It inspired St Augustine, an African Roman, to write City of God, an important theological argument that Christians should focus on the heavenly rewards of their faith rather than earthly matters.
97. The Crossing of the Rhine in 405/6 AD brought around 100,000 barbarians into the Empire
Barbarian factions, tribes and war leaders were now a factor in the power struggles at the top of Roman politics and one of the once-strong boundaries of the Empire had proved to be permeable.
98. In 439 AD the Vandals captured Carthage
The loss of tax revenues and food supplies from North Africa was a terrible blow to the Western Empire.
99. After the death of Libius Severus in 465 AD, the Western Empire had no emperor for two years
The much more secure Eastern court installed Anthemius and sent him west with huge military backing.
100. Julius Nepos still claimed to be Western Roman Emperor until 480 AD
He controlled Dalmatia and was named Emperor by Leo I of the Eastern Empire. He was murdered in a factional dispute.
No serious claim to the throne of the Western Empire was to be made again until the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned ‘Imperator Romanorum’ by Pope Leo III in Rome in 800 AD, the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, a supposedly unified Catholic territory.