Ancient Rome’s power spanned a period of over a millennium, moving from kingdom to republic to empire as the centuries progressed. One of the most enduringly fascinating times in history, the story of Ancient Rome is rich and varied. Here are 8 of the key dates which will help you make sense of this fascinating and tumultuous period.
The foundation of Rome: 753 BC
Rome’s history begins, as legend has it, in 753 BC, with Romulus and Remus, twin sons of the god Mars. Said to have been suckled by a wolf and raised by a shepherd, Romulus founded the city that would be known as Rome on the Palatine Hill in 753 BC, killing his brother Remus over a dispute to do with the new city.
Exactly how true this founding myth is remains to be seen, but excavations on the Palatine Hill suggest that the city dates back to somewhere around this point, if not back to 1000 BC.
Rome becomes a republic: 509 BC
The kingdom of Rome had seven kings in total: these monarchs were elected for life by the Roman senate. In 509 BC, the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was deposed and expelled from Rome.
The Senate then agreed to abolish the monarchy, installing elected two consuls in its place: the idea being that they could act as a way of balancing each other and had the power to veto one another. Exactly how the republic came into being is still debated by historians, but most believe this version has been quasi-mythologised.
The Punic Wars: 264-146 BC
The three Punic Wars were fought against the North African city of Carthage: Rome’s main rival at the time. The first Punic War was fought over Sicily, the second saw Italy invaded by Hannibal, Carthage’s most famous son, and the third Punic War saw Rome crush her rival once and for all.
Rome’s victory over Carthage in 146 BC was regarded by many as the pinnacle of the city’s achievements, ushering a new age of peace, prosperity and, in the eyes of some, stagnation.
Murder of Julius Caesar: 44 BC
Julius Caesar is one of ancient Rome’s most famous figures. Rising from military success in the Gallic Wars to become dictator of the Roman Republic, Caesar was extremely popular with his subjects and enacted ambitious reforms.
However, he curried little favour with the ruling classes, and was assassinated by disgruntled members of the Senate in 44 BC. Caesar’s grisly fate showed that no matter how invincible, powerful or popular those in power thought they were, they could be removed by force where necessary.
Caesar’s death precipitated the end of the Roman republic and the transition into empire, via civil war.
Augustus becomes the first emperor of Rome: 27 BC
The great-nephew of Caesar, Augustus fought in the vicious civil wars that followed Caesar’s assassination and emerged victorious. Rather than returning to the system of the Republic, which involved a system of checks and balances, Augustus introduced one-man rule, becoming Rome’s first emperor.
Unlike his predecessors, Augustus never attempted to hide his desire for power: he understood that those who had made up the senate would need to find a place in the new order and much of his reign was teasing out and smoothing over any potential struggles or tensions between his new imperial role and the previous blend of offices and powers.
The Year of Four Emperors: 69 AD
As the saying goes, absolute power corrupts: Rome’s emperors were far from all benign rulers and whilst they were in theory all powerful, they still relied on the support of the ruling classes to keep them in their place. Nero, one of Rome’s more infamous emperors, committed suicide after being tried and found guilty of being a public enemy, leaving something of a power vacuum.
In 69 AD, four emperors, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian, ruled in quick succession. The first three failed to secure backing and support from enough people to keep them in power and successfully combat any potential challenges. The accession of Vespasian ended the power struggle in Rome, but it highlighted the potential fragility of imperial power and the turmoil in Rome had repercussions throughout the empire.
Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity: 312 AD
Christianity became increasingly widespread in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and for many years, was perceived as a threat by Rome and Christians were often persecuted. The conversion of Constantine in 312 AD transformed Christianity from a fringe religion into a widespread and powerful force.
Constantine’s mother, the Empress Helena, was Christian and travelled throughout Syria, Palaestinia and Jerusalem in her final years, reportedly discovering the true cross on her journeys. Many believe Constantine’s conversion in 312 AD was politically motivated, but he was baptised on his deathbed in 337.
The introduction of Christianity as a mainstream religion by Constantine marked the start of its rapid rise to become one of the most powerful forces in the world, and one which would dominate Western history for millennia.
The fall of Rome: 410 AD
The Roman Empire had grown too big for its own good by the 5th century. Spanning across modern day Europe, Asia and North Africa, it became too large for power to be centralised just in Rome. Constantine moved the seat of the empire to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in the 4th century, but emperors struggled to rule such vast tracts of land effectively.
The Goths began to enter the empire from the east in the 4th century, fleeing from the Huns. They grew in numbers and encroached further into Rome’s territory, eventually sacking Rome in 410 AD. For the first time in over eight centuries, Rome fell to the enemy.
Unsurprisingly, this seriously weakened imperial power and damaged morale within the empire. In 476 AD, the Roman Empire, in the west at least, formally came to an end with the deposition of emperor Romulus Augustulus by the Germanic king Odovacer, ushering in a new chapter in European history.