The Roman Empire (27 BC - 1453 AD)

Updated on: 07 May 2023
Reading time: 2 minutes

The Roman Empire (Imperium Romanum in Latin) is divided into three periods: the Principate, the Dominate, and the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire). Although the Roman Empire tried to present itself as a democratic form of government, it was, in reality, autocratic. Consuls continued to be elected, the tribunes continued to put forth new legislation (on behalf of the people), and senators would still have debates in the curia. However, all final decisions would be made by the Emperor, who had full control of the military.

Despite its autocratic nature, the Roman Empire was a prosperous period in history. While the Roman Republic experienced many civil wars and revolts, life during the Empire was generally stable for the average Roman citizen. The first two centuries of the Empire were extremely stable, with very few revolts in the provinces, apart from the Jewish-Roman wars. The economy was thriving, and trade in the Mediterranean was flourishing. The Empire’s territory stretched from Northern Europe to North Africa and the Middle East.

roman forum then and now

Roman Forum today and during the Empire

The third century saw civil wars breaking out throughout the Empire, foreign invasions, hyperinflation, economic depression, and even pandemics. This led to the end of the Principate and the beginning of the Dominate. The Dominate was initially a true republic and more democratic than the Principate ever was. The capital moved from Rome to Mediolanum (today's Milan).

In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople (initially named Nova Roma) and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Later in the Dominate, Theodosius (reign: 379-395 AD) built massive, impenetrable walls around Constantinople and divided the Empire between a Latin-speaking West and a Greek-speaking East.

The central government of the Latin West collapsed in the 5th century when barbarian forces invaded Ravenna, the then capital of the Western Empire. However, the East remained in what would be known as Eastern Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire had a profound impact on European culture and traditions as the barbarians adopted many of the Roman customs. However, the former Western Empire became highly fragmented. Multiple kingdoms emerged, commerce declined, roads were left unmaintained, and walls were erected around cities. Aqueducts fell into disrepair or were destroyed, resulting in reduced access to water (and consequently, less frequent washing). Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman Empire retained its Roman identity albeit with a significant Christian influence, even after the 5th century.

You can click on any of the links below to read about each period of the Roman Empire:

The Roman Principate (27 B.C. – 284 A.D.)

The Roman Dominate (284 - 476 A.D.)

The Eastern Roman Empire (476 - 1453 A.D.)

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