Caesar Augustus died two thousand years ago, on August 19, 14 AD. He was Rome’s first emperor, having won a civil war more than 40 years earlier that transformed the dysfunctional Roman Republic into an empire. Under Augustus and his successors, the empire experienced 200 years of relative peace and prosperity. Here are 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire — its rise and fall, its culture and economy, and how it laid the foundations of the modern world.
The rise and fall of Rome
In 500 BC, Rome was a minor city-state on the Italian peninsula. By 200 BC, the Roman Republic had conquered Italy, and over the following two centuries it conquered Greece and Spain, the North African coast, much of the Middle East, modern-day France, and even the remote island of Britain. In 27 BC, the republic became an empire, which endured for another 400 years. Finally, the costs of holding such a vast area together become too great. Rome gradually split into Eastern and Western halves, and by 476 AD the Western half of the empire had been destroyed by invasions from Germanic tribes. The Eastern half of the empire, based in Constantinople, continued for many centuries after that.
The Roman empire was vast
At its height around 100 AD, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain in the Northwest to Egypt in the Southeast. To get a sense for how big that is, it’s helpful to compare it to the contemporary United States. The Roman provinces of Britain and Egypt were about as far apart as the American states of Florida and Washington. One obvious difference is that the Roman empire had the Mediterranean in the middle of it, which helped to move people and supplies over vast distances. Still, it’s remarkable that emperors operating many centuries before the railroad and the telegraph — to say nothing of airplanes and the internet — were able to hold together such a vast domain for so long.
Traveling around the empire was excruciatingly slow
This map provides some perspective on just how big Roman territory was relative to the transportation technologies of the day. Created by researchers at Stanford, it estimates how long it took for someone leaving Rome to reach various locations around the empire. The Mediterranean was a big help in getting around — most coastal locations in the Western Mediterranean could be reached in under a week, and even far-flung coastal cities like Alexandria and Jerusalem could be reached in two weeks. But traveling to the interior was more difficult. Reaching the most distant points in the empire, such as Britain, could take close to a month. And of course, going from one end of the empire to the other could take even longer. The researchers estimate that it took 7 weeks to travel from Constantinople (at the eastern end of the empire) to London (in the far west).
The provinces of Rome in 117
The Roman Empire reached its greatest size under the reign of Trajan in 117 AD. To aid in administration, it was divided into provinces. The number of provinces changed over time as territories were gained or lost, and as larger provinces were divided into smaller ones. There were 46 provinces under Trajan, a figure that would grow to 96 by the reign of Diocletian (285-305). In Trajan’s time, provinces in the interior of the country were run by governors chosen by the Senate, a legislative body run by leading aristocrats. In contrast, border provinces were run by governors named directly by the emperor. This was a security measure. Border provinces needed armies to defend against invasion, and emperors worried that if these troops were put under the control of someone not personally loyal to the emperor, that person could try to seize power and proclaim himself emperor. This wasn’t an idle concern — coups and civil wars were a recurrent problem for the empire.
The rise of Rome
Italy before Roman conquest
In its early years, the Romans shared Italy with several other peoples. The dominant power in the neighborhood of Rome was the Etruscans. We don’t know very much about these people, in part because we haven’t figured out how to read their distinctive language. But the evidence suggests that Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings until the Romans revolted and established a republic — an event that is traditionally dated to 509 BC. East of Rome were other tribes speaking languages related to the Romans’ native Latin. And by 400 BC, the prosperous and technologically sophisticated Greeks had established colonies at Italy’s southern tip.
Rome conquers Italy
Rome went from being one of many city-states in 340 BC to being master of the entire peninsula by 264. The conquest occurred in three phases. In 340, Rome came into conflict with their former allies, the neighboring Latins, and subdued them by 338. Beginning in 326, Rome fought the Samnites to their East, a conflict that would continue sporadically until Roman victory in 282. Rome also fought sporadic battles with Etruscans and Gauls to their North during this period. Rome then turned its attention to the Greeks in the south of Italy, fighting a war with the Greek king Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus won two major battles against the Romans in 280 and 279, respectively. But he took such heavy casualties in those battles that he would eventually lose the war — giving rise to the term “Pyrrhic victory.”
The first war with Carthage
Firm control over Italy made Rome one of the Mediterranean’s major powers. The Romans began to come into conflict with another rising power located just across the water: Carthage. Located in North Africa near modern-day Tunis, Carthage was the capital of a seafaring empire, shown here in red, that dominated commerce in the Western Mediterranean. Rome fought three conflicts with Carthage, known as the Punic Wars, between 264 and 146 BC. The first conflict occurred after Carthage intervened in a dispute on the island of Sicily, just off the southern tip of Italy. While Sicily wasn’t Roman territory at the time, the Romans felt this was a little too close to home. They sent an army to expel the Carthaginian troops. The result was the First Punic War, which lasted for more than 20 years. This map shows the situation after the war: Rome gained control of the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia making it a significant naval power for the first time.
Hannibal attacks Rome with elephants
One of the greatest military minds of the ancient world was Hannibal. A Carthaginian born during the First Punic War, he bore a lifelong grudge against Rome. In 218 BC, he led an army — including, famously, a few dozen elephants — from Carthaginian-controlled Spain across the Alps to Northern Italy, starting the second war between Rome and Carthage. Hannibal believed Italians were chafing under the Roman yoke; he hoped his arrival would trigger a broad rebellion that would break Rome’s control of Italy. Hannibal enjoyed an unbroken string of victories on the battlefield, including the total destruction of a Roman army at Cannae in 216. And after Cannae, a few Italian cities did revolt. But Hannibal didn’t attract enough Italian allies to bring about Rome’s defeat. The Romans were able to raise a new army to replace the one Hannibal had destroyed, and Hannibal’s army wasn’t powerful enough to capture Rome. So Hannibal spent 15 years skirmishing inconclusively with the Romans. Finally, Hannibal was called home to deal with a Roman counterattack on Carthage. He lost at the Battle of Zama in 202. Rome imposed harsh terms, seizing Carthage’s overseas possessions and dismantling Carthage’s navy. Then in 149 the paranoid Romans provoked a Third Punic War against the helpless Carthaginians that led to the total destruction of their civilization.
Rome’s powerful maniple formation
In the early years of the republic, the Roman infantry used a version of the Greek phalanx. In this formation, soldiers stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight-packed formation that can be more than a dozen soldiers deep. Soldiers in the front were protected by a wall of large shields, and they tried to reach around their shields with long spears to stab the enemy. While this formation worked well on level ground, the Romans found it was too brittle for the hilly terrain where they did much of their fighting. It became extremely vulnerable if a gap opened up in the ranks. To address this weakness, the Romans developed the maniple formation illustrated here, sometimes described as a “phalanx with joints.” Instead of a single line of men, the Romans divided their infantry into groups of about 120 men, each of which could maneuver independently, and arranged them in a checkerboard pattern. Maniples behind the front line can step into any gaps that open up in the front line. The Romans put their least experienced soldiers in the front line (the bottom in this picture), in hopes that the enemy would waste energy fighting them, making them too exhausted to put up a fight when they reached more experienced (and better armed) soldiers further back.
The changing culture of the Roman army
Between 200 BC and 14 AD, Rome conquered most of Western Europe, Greece and the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa. One result was profound changes to Rome’s military. Previously, military service had been limited to Romans with property holdings, who would serve for a few seasons and then return to their farms. But in 107 BC, to cope with growing demands for military manpower, the Roman commander Marius opened the army to landless peasants and extended the length of military service. Over the next century, the Roman army was transformed into a full-time, professional fighting force. Marius also re-organized the Romans’ fighting formations, moving away from staggered maniples in favor of 10 larger formations called cohorts. Fighting effectively in this formation required greater skill, but the professionalized Roman legions had time to learn the necessary maneuvers.
How Augustus tamed the Roman legions
After the Marian reforms, Roman generals had to promise rewards — either booty captured abroad or land awarded to them on their return — to attract soldiers to their banners. Because commanders were responsible for making sure these promises were kept, the troops increasingly felt personal loyalty to these generals rather than abstract loyalty to the Roman state. As a result, in the late Republican period (107 BC to 27 BC), it became increasingly common for victorious commanders to march their armies back into Rome and seize power to ensure their troops received the land they had been promised. This led to recurrent civil wars, eventually transforming Rome from a moderately democratic republic into an autocratic empire. This map depicts the deployment of Rome’s legions when Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, died in 14 AD. Augustus and his successors distributed the Roman army along the frontier, ensuring that no single general had command of more than a small fraction of Rome’s troops at any one time. And emperors reduced the soldiers’ dependence on their commanders by paying them salaries from the imperial treasury.
A Roman warship
Rome wasn’t initially a major naval power, but when they came into conflict with the Carthaginians, the Romans realized they needed to play catch-up. They immediately built 20 triremes — so named because it had 3 banks of oars — and 100 quinqueremes — heavier ships with 5 rowers for each bank of oars. Beginning with the triumph over the Carthaginians in 201, Rome began to demand that defeated foes give up their naval forces, giving Rome undisputed mastery over the Mediterranean. For the first two centuries of the imperial era (beginning in 27 BC), Rome controlled the Mediterranean so completely that it wiped out piracy and didn’t have to fight any major naval battles.
The republic becomes an empire
Julius Caesar conquers Gaul
In 58 BC, Julius Caesar took command of Rome’s northern frontier and set out to conquer Gaul, which corresponds roughly to modern-day France. He was following in the footsteps of other ambitious Roman politicians who had led foreign conquests as a way to bolster their reputation at home. This map shows Caesar’s exploits, which took almost a decade and brought him to almost every part of modern-day France. Caesar wrote an account of this campaign that, remarkably, still survives today. While he was on campaign, Caesar’s enemies gained the upper hand in Rome and declared martial law. If Caesar had returned to Rome as a private citizen — without his army for backup — he would have faced trial for alleged misdeeds prior to his departure (the charges had some merit, but he was far from the first Roman politician to bend the rules). But Roman law forbade a general on campaign to enter Italy at the head of an army. In 49 BC, Caesar took the fateful step of crossing the Rubicon, the river that marked the northern border of Italy, with his army. That triggered the civil war that would destroy the Roman Republic.
Caesar wins the civil war
The forces opposing Caesar in the civil war were led by Pompey, a former political ally of Caesar’s who had once enjoyed a string of military victories in the East. This map shows Caesar’s movements as he defeated Pompey and then dealt with Pompey’s allies. Pompey initially fled to the east; Caesar consolidated control of Spain and Italy before following him. The decisive battle came on August 10, 48 BC, when Caesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Parsalus, in the north of modern-day Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt, but officials there betrayed him and sent Caesar his head. At this point, Caesar’s rule over Rome was a foregone conclusion, but it took him another three years to mop up resistance from Pompeian forces. He returned to Rome for the final time in 45 BC.
Julius Caesar is assassinated
Julius Caesar wasn’t the first Roman military commander to march on the capital and take it by force, but he was the first one who didn’t even pretend that he was preserving the constitutional structure of the old republic. He had himself declared dictator for life and flirted with kingship. This ran afoul of a deep taboo in Roman culture. After all, Rome’s founding legend was about the citizens of Rome rising up to depose a despotic king. So on March 15, 44 BC, in perhaps the most famous murder in world history, a group of disgruntled senators surrounded Caesar and stabbed him to death. Brutus, one of the assassins, supposedly shouted “sic semper tyrannis” — “thus always to tyrants” — as he delivered the fatal blow, though this is probably apocryphal. Unfortunately, while the conspirators saw themselves as defenders of Rome’s republican system of government, they didn’t actually have a plan for bringing the republic back. Instead, Caesar’s death plunged the Roman world into yet another civil war.
The Battle of Actium makes Augustus Rome’s first emperor
Julius Caesar’s death would lead to a war between the two men who had the strongest claims to be his heir. One was Caesar’s longtime deputy, Marc Antony. The other was Caesar’s teenaged grand-nephew, Octavian, whom Caesar adopted posthumously in his will. Antony and Octavian initially fought side by side to avenge the death of Julius Caesar. But after Antony went east and became romantically involved with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, he and Octavian had a falling out, leading to war. This map shows the war’s decisive battle, the Battle of Actium, in 31 BC. Antony and Cleopatra tried to flee from Octavian’s advancing army by sea, but he was intercepted by a navy commanded by Octavian’s deputy, Agrippa. Octavian’s ships won the battle, and although Antony and Cleopatra escaped, they no longer had enough forces to pose a serious theat to Octavian. Antony and Cleopatra died a year later, leaving Octavian the sole ruler of the Roman world. Octavian changed his name to Augustus in 27; historians treat this as the year when the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.
The lost city of Pompeii
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
One of our richest sources of information about ancient Rome comes from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. It destroyed several Roman towns, most notably Pompeii and Herculaneum. The existence of these towns was forgotten for many centuries, but the thick layer of ash deposited by the eruption preserved them for modern archeologists. This has given us information about daily life in a Roman town that would have been difficult to obtain from other sources. Inscriptions, graffiti, and frescoes provide insight into how various buildings were used and what people did in the town. Interestingly, we have a contemporaneous account of Vesuvius’s eruption from the Roman author Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption first-hand, and whose uncle perished trying to rescue victims.
The excavation of Pompeii
The site of Pompeii was first re-discovered in 1599, but only a few artifacts were uncovered before interest in the site waned. Excavation began in earnest after the site was discovered a second time in 1748, and has continued to the present day. This map shows archaeologists’ progress. Some areas of the town have yet to be explored due to restrictions imposed by the authorities. In addition to archaeological teams, the site is visited by millions of tourists each year.
The erotic artwork of Pompeii
There is a surprising amount of erotic artwork on the walls of Pompeiian buildings, like this painting from a bedroom in the home of a wealthy Roman aristocrat. Similar artwork was found in buildings that archeologists believe were brothels. Prostitution in the Roman empire was legal and widespread. Paintings in Pompeii suggest that Romans enjoyed lively and varied sex lives, with illustrations of cunniligus and sex with multiple partners. Sex was a topic of political controversy in ancient times just as it is today, with the Emperor Augustus trying — without much success — to crack down on adultery.
Pompeii’s oldest public bath
Baths were an important part of Roman society, and all major towns and cities had at least one. Pompeii had three public baths, of which the the Stabian bath, depicted here, was the oldest. Men and women bathed separately. In large facilities like this one, there were separate sections for men and women. In smaller facilities, men and women would use the same facilities at different times. The Roman baths included a number of facilities that would be familiar at a modern spa: changing rooms, pools with different water temperatures, and saunas. There was also an excercise yard where men (but only men) could play sports. Roman baths were communal spaces; Romans would talk business and share gossip as they washed themselves. Roman aristocrats would sometimes try to win favor with the masses by building more elaborate baths, and baths became larger and more elaborate as Rome became a wealthier and more sophisticated society.
Pagan temples in Pompeii
For most of its history, Rome was a pagan society. Romans worshiped a pantheon of Roman and Greek deities, including Jupiter, Apollo, and Venus. From the early days of the republic, the Romans built temples to the Gods, made sacrifices to the Gods, and would consult religious leaders to determine which days were auspicious ones for a wedding, military offensive, or other major undertaking. This map shows the temples in Pompeii. Notice that in addition to temples to traditional pagan gods, the map shows a Temple of Vespasian. This is an unfinished structure that some historians speculate was intended to honor the emperor who was in power at the time Mt. Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city. Religion and state were closely intertwined in Roman society, and subjects were encouraged to think of their rulers as semi-divine figures.
The culture of Rome
The journey of Aeneas
Virgil, who lived from 70 BC to 19 BC, was one of Ancient Rome’s greatest poets. And his epic poem the Aeneid became one of the most important works of Roman literature. It focuses on Aeneas, a Trojan who played a minor role in the Greek poem the Illiad. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas leads a group of surviving Trojans around the Mediterranean looking for a new home. This map shows Aeneas’s journey, with stops in Greece, Sicily, and Carthage before he finally made his way to the Italian peninsula. There, Aeneas fought a successful war with the area’s native Latins. This story, written early in the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, became one of Rome’s most important founding myths. And it continues to influence Western culture. For example, near the beginning of the Aeneid tells the story of the Trojan horse, a subterfuge the Greeks used to take over Troy.
Ancient Rome was a slave society
Slavery was deeply woven into the fabric of Roman society. There are several ways that people in Roman society could fall into slavery. When the Romans prevailed on the battlefield, they would often take their defeated enemies captive and sell them into slavery. People could also become slaves due to failure to pay debts, or as a punishment for crime. Roman slavery differed from American slavery in some important respects. Roman slaves could be of any race. And while American slaves generally performed manual labor, Roman slaves could sometimes be highly skilled. Educated slaves captured from the Greek world were highly sought after for tutoring children and performing clerical work. Of course, many slaves resented their subservient status, and some revolted. This map shows a portion of the most famous slave revolt in Roman history, in which the gladiator Spartacus led an army that eventually grew to 120,000 freed slaves. When the rebellion was finally crushed, 6000 surviving slaves were crucified along the Appian Way, a major road leading into Rome.
Herod the Great, King of the Jews and Roman client
As Rome expanded, the traditional homeland of the Jewish people at the eastern end of the Mediterranean came under Roman control. Roman troops first invaded the area under Pompey in 63 BC, and after 40 BC it was ruled as a Roman client state (shown here in green) by King Herod. Not long after Herod died, the Romans created the province of Judea, which was under Roman control for centuries thereafter. The Jews had an uneasy place in the Roman empire. Romans were suspicious of people who insisted on practicing minority religions, and between 63 AD and 135 AD, Jews staged three major revolts against Roman authority. The third rebellion led to a brutal crackdown by Emperor Hadrian. One ancient historian estimates that the Romans killed 580,000 Jews to put down the rebellion, and many more were sold into slavery.
Christianity spreads throughout the empire
Jesus Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem became part of the Roman province of Judea during Christ’s lifetime. As a result, Christianity emerged there and spread during the early Roman Empire, one of the most peaceful and prosperous eras of the ancient world. The early Christians, like the Jews, faced suspicion from Roman officials. The biggest problem was that, as the late historian Chester Starr put it, Christians were expected to “sacrifice to the emperor or to the gods for the emperor. To the Christan, this act was one of pagan worship; to the imperial bureaucrat, simply a profession of patriotism toward the figure who embodied the state.” So Christians faced persecution, off and on, from the reign of Emperor Nero in 64 AD until 313 AD. But as this map makes clear, persecution didn’t stop the spread of Christianity.
Roman Britain and the Roman economy
Roman conquest of Britain
Throughout the classical period, Britain was at the fringes of civilization. Caesar invaded in 55 BC, but didn’t establish a permanent Roman presence on the island. Conquest of Britain began in earnest under the emperor Claudius in 43 AD. Over the next four decades, Roman troops explored the entire island, including the northernmost parts of Scotland. But the Romans only conquered an area roughly corresponding to modern-day England and Wales. The Romans would govern this territory until 410, when the declining Western Roman Empire was forced to abandon the remote province.
Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138 AD, was one of Rome’s most interesting emperors. Most of his predecessors had sought glory by conquering new territory, steadily expanding the size of the empire. Hadrian had a different vision. He believed the empire was becoming overextended militarily, and immediately upon taking office he focused on consolidating Roman control of the territories that had already been conquered. He withdrew from a few Eastern territories conquered by his predecessor, Trajan, and he negotiated peace agreements with rivals such as the Parthians. One reflection of this shifting thinking was Hadrian’s wall, whose construction was begun in 122. Over time, similar fortifications would be built all around the edges of the empire, transforming what had been a fluid frontier into a clearly defined border. The wisdom of Hadrian’s decision became apparent after 142, when Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, conquered additional British territory and ordered a second wall built further North. The new wall was only manned for a few years before the Romans were forced to abandon the new territory and retreat to the border Hadrian had chosen.
Where Roman coins have been found in Britain
Protected behind Hadrian’s wall, Roman Britain flourished. The island’s economy became more specialized and more integrated with the continent. The Roman empire provided its subjects with a reliable and standardized system of currency. Uniform money brings major economic benefits because cash transactions are a lot more efficient than those done by barter. This map, drawn from a database of amateur archeological finds, shows where Roman coins were found between 1997 and 2010. The fact that coins are still being found all over England and Wales, centuries after the empire’s collapse, suggests just how thoroughly Romanized these territories became during four centuries of imperial rule.
Roman trade with India and China
As Rome was rising in the West, the Han dynasty was consolidating power in China. These two great empires were too far apart to have a direct relationship. But they became linked together indirectly through trade networks. This map, based on geographical data recorded by a Greek writer in the early years of the Roman Empire, shows the trade route from Rome to India. Elites in India and China prized Roman-made glass and rugs, while Roman aristocrats enjoyed purchasing silks made in the Far East. Some Roman writers saw the increasing sums Romans were spending on silks for their wives as a symbol of Rome’s decadence and moral decline.
The decline of Rome
The third century AD was a bad time to be a Roman emperor
For the first two centuries after Augustus became emperor in 27 BC, the Roman Empire experienced a period of unprecedented political stability and economic prosperity. But the situation deteriorated rapidly in the Third Century AD. Between 235 and 285, Rome had more than 20 emperors, and as this map shows, most died violent deaths. Some were murdered by their own armies. Others died in civil wars against rival claimants to the throne. One died in battle against foreign foe; another was captured in battle and died in captivity. It wouldn’t have been surprising if this cycle of bloodshed had led to the dissolution of the empire. But in 285, Emperor Diocletian took power and managed to get the empire out of its tailspin. In a 20-year reign, he (temporarily) ended the cycle of bloodshed and instituted reforms that allowed the empire to endure until the late 400s.
Constantine takes power and Christianizes the empire
Diocletian set up an imperial structure called a “tetrarchy,” in which power was shared among four emperors. He wanted to provide more localized leadership for an empire that had become too sprawling and complex for any one man to manage. But after Diocletian’s death in 311 AD, the tetrarchy became a bloody tournament bracket for choosing Rome’s next emperor. The winner was Constantine, who made some profound changes to the empire after he became Rome’s sole emperor in 324. He created a new imperial capital at Byzantium, and renamed it Constantinople, laying the foundations for an Eastern Roman Empire that would endure long after the West fell. Even more important, Constantine was Rome’s first Christian emperor. When he took the throne, he began the transformation of Rome into a Christian empire. While Christianity was initially resisted by some of his subjects, the change ultimately stuck. As a result, Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe for the next 1500 years.
The empire is divided between East and West
Constantine ruled over a unified Roman empire, but this would be increasingly rare. Upon Constantine’s death in 337, the empire was divided among Constantine’s three sons, who quickly began fighting among themselves. This cycle would repeat itself several times over the next half-century. It became clear that the empire was too big for any one man to rule. The last emperor to rule a united empire, Theodosius, died in 395. This map shows the result: an empire permanently divided between east and west. Why had the empire become too big to govern? The empire never fully recovered from the political crisis of the third century, or from a plague that began in 250 and killed millions of people. Rome’s economy was hit hard. By 400, it simply wasn’t possible for a single emperor to raise a large enough army to protect a domain that stretched from Spain to the Middle East.
As the empire’s financial health deteriorated, the empire became increasingly vulnerable to invasion. That started a vicious cycle. Rome’s wealthy and weakly defended interior became a juicy target for raiders. Frustrated provincials began fortifying their towns and organizing their own local militias for self-defense. People were increasingly forced to stay close to fortified towns for safety, making them less productive and more dependent on local lords. Provincials became less willing and able to pay taxes to a central government that wasn’t protecting them anyway. And so the Roman army grew weaker and the empire as a whole became more vulnerable to barbarian attack. A symbolic turning point came in 410, when Aleric, King of the barbarian Visigoth trive, sacked Rome for the first time in 800 years. It was a psychological blow from which the Western Empire would never really recover.
Attila the Hun
Probably the most famous of the barbarian invaders was Attila the Hun, who built an empire in Eastern Europe between 434 and 453. The Huns were a nomadic people who originated somewhere in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. Their style of warfare centered around mounted archers, who could fire arrows with deadly accuracy while on horseback. They prized speed and the advantage of surprise. The Romans proved unable to defeat Attila on the battlefield, and the Huns even forced the Romans to pay them tribute for several years. However, the Huns were unable to sustain prolonged seiges, which made them incapable of taking large cities such as Constantinople or Rome. Nor could they consolidate their gains and build a long-lived empire. When Attila died in 453, his sons squabbled over how to divide his empire, which quickly disintegrated.
The end of the Western Empire
Historians generally date the end of the Western Empire to 476 AD. That’s the year that Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by the barbarian general Odoacer, who declared himself the King of Italy. But it’s misleading to focus too much on any specific date. The last few emperors before Romulus Augustulus were increasingly emperors in name only. Starved of the tax revenues they needed to raise a serious military, their control over nominally Roman territory was increasingly tenuous. When Odoacer and other barbarian generals carved the Roman empire up into kingdoms, they were largely just formalizing the de facto reality that the emperors had litle actual power over their distant domains.
The barbarian kingdoms of Europe in 526
This map looks dramatically different than the map of the Western Roman Empire as it existed a few decades earlier. But it’s important not to overstate the extent of the change. Western Europe was populated by largely the same ethnic groups in 526 as they had been a century earlier. Long before it finally collapsed, manpower shortages had forced the empire to incorporate barbarians peoples into the legions. So the barbarian tribes who carved up the old empire — the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, the Vandals, and so forth — were much more Romanized than the tribes that had menaced Rome centuries earlier. The rulers of these new kingdoms generally sought to co-opt Roman elites that still held significant wealth and power across the former Western Empire. So while Romans certainly found it jarring to be suddenly ruled by outsiders, Western Europe in 526 was not so different from it had been in 426.
The East becomes the Byzantine Empire
Historians generally refer to the Eastern Roman Empire after 476 as the Byzantine Empire. But this is an arbitrary distinction invented for the convenience of historians; it wouldn’t have made sense to people living in Constantinople, the Eastern Capital, at the time. People in the Byzantine Empire continued to think of themselves as Romans, and their empire as the Roman Empire, for centuries after 476. In 527, the Emperor Justinian took power in the Byzantine Empire and began a compaign to reconquer the Western half of the empire. By his death in 565, he had made significant progress, retaking Italy, most of Roman Africa, and even some parts of Spain. While his successors wouldn’t be able to hold these new territories, the Byzantine Empire would endure as a Christian empire for another 1000 years until it was finally overrun by the Ottomans in 1453.
The Holy Roman Empire
In 800 AD, Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, persuaded Pope Leo III to name him emperor, a title that hadn’t been held in the West in three centuries. Charlemagne’s successors built what came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire. Between 962 and 1806, it would control most of modern-day Germany, and portions of modern-day France, Italy, and Central Europe. In practice, the Holy Roman Empire didn’t have very much to do with the original Roman Empire. The empire was ruled by Germans rather than Italians, lacked traditional Roman institutions such as the Senate, and was more decentralized than the Roman Empire had been at its height. Still, the enthusiasm with which some of Europe’s most powerful men claimed the mantle of the old Roman Emperors is a sign of just how deep an impression Rome’s accomplishments had left on later generations.
The Papal States
After Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, religion and state were closely aligned — just as they had been under earlier Pagan emperors. But that began to change after the Western Empire collapsed. Most of the barbarian kings who became the new masters of Western Europe were themselves Christians, and they recognized the authority of the church in Rome over religious matters. This set a precedent for the modern separation of church and state, and it allowed the church to thrive even as the Western Roman Empire crumbled. Indeed, Popes began stepping into the power vaccuum Rome had created. This map shows the Papal states, sovereign territory that was governed by the Popes from the 700s until secular Italian authorities annexed most of it in the 1800s. Today, the Catholic Church still operates in Latin from Vatican City, a tiny soveriegn state inside the modern city of Rome.
Rome’s linguistic legacy
One of the most obvious ways that Rome shaped the modern world is the languages people speak today. This map shows where people speak Romance Languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian that are descended from Latin. Notice that the line between the French-speaking and German-speaking parts of Europe looks a lot like the line between those portions of Europe that were conquered by the Romans and those that remained beyond the Roman frontier. The other notable thing about the map is that most people in what used to be the Eastern half of the Roman empire do not speak Romance languages. That’s because when Rome conquered the East, there was already a sophisticated civilization there based on the Greek language. While Latin became the language of government, commoners continued speaking Greek. And as the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Greek became the dominant tongue of the remaining Eastern provinces.
Photo credit: PBS