The Roman Empire and Its Decline


Conflicts at home

As Rome expanded, many wealthy Romans neglected their civic duties. They thought only about gaining even more power and wealth. This increased the differences between rich and poor. As a result, the threat of uprisings grew.

Reform fails. Reformers tried to relieve these problems. They wanted to break the huge estates and give land to the poor. But the wealthy landowners in the Senate felt threatened. They opposed the reforms and had the reformers killed.

Civil War. At the same time, generals who had conqueredRoman civil war other lands became ambitious for power at home. They hired poor farmers to serve under them as soldiers. Increasingly, these soldiers shifted their loyalty from the Republic to their general. The general’s desire for power led to conflict.
Eventually, civil war broke out. A civil war is an armed conflict between groups within the same country. On one side were the generals who supported the cause of the generals. On the other were generals who were backed by patricians and senators.
A general named Marius fought for the plebeians. While a general named Sulla fought for the patricians. The struggle went on for years. Finally, in 82 B.C., the patricians won. Sulla took power and became a dictator.

Question 1. What led to conflict in Rome?
Question 2. Who fought in the civil war and why?

Julius Caesar

After Sulla died, other generals rose to power. One of them was Julius Caesar. Caesar was born around 100 B.C. into an old noble family. He was a man of many talents and great ambition. But to achieve real power, he knew he had to win in the battlefield.

Military leader. Caesar first saw military action in Asia Minor – part of present- day Julius CaesarTurkey – and Spain. But he proved himself to be a great general in Gaul, the area known as France.
The Gauls were fierce fighters. But in a brilliant military campaign, Caesar defeated the Gauls and captured the entire region. His conquests won new lands and great wealth for Rome. The victories also won fame and fortune for Caesar.

Dictator for life. In addition to his military skills, Caesar was also a good politician. He gained a reputation as a reformer who supported the common people. This, plus, his military fame, made him popular with the plebeians. When Caesar returned for Gaul, the Senate ordered him to break up his army. Instead, he led his soldiers into Italy and began fighting for control of Rome. After several years, Caesar emerged victorious. In 46 B.C. he returned to Rome, where he had the support of the people and the army. That same year, the Senate appointed him the sole ruler. In 44 B.C., Caesar was named dictator for life.

Caesar´s reform. Caesar governed as an absolute ruler, but started a number of reforms. He expanded the Senate by including supporters from Italy and other regions. He also enforced laws against crime and created jobs for the poor. Despite these reforms, some Romans feared that Caesar would make himself king. Not only would he rule for a lifetime, but his family members would also rule after him.

Assasination and legacy. Concern over Caesar’s growingDeath of Caesar power led to his downfall. Caesar was assassinated in 44B.C. by a group of senators. The leaders of the conspiracy were eventually killed or committed suicide. Caesar’s rule and his death would bring an end to the Republic.

Question 3. Who was Julius Caesar and how did he get to power in Rome?

Question 4. What were some of the reforms made by Caesar?

Question 5. Why was Caesar killed?


After Caesar’s death, several leaders struggled to gain power. One of these men was Caesar’s great nephew and adopted son, Octavian.
This struggle led to civil war, which lasted for years. The war destroyed what was left of the Roman Republic. Eventually, Octavian defeated his enemies. In 27 B.C., he became the unchallenged ruler of Rome. In time, he took the name of Augustus, which means “exalted one”, or person of great rank and authority.

Augustus rebuilds Rome. Augustus was the first emperor of Rome, but he didn’t useAugustus that title. He preferred to be called “first citizen”. He restored some aspects of the republican government. Senators, consuls, and tribunes once again held office. But Augustus held power over all of them.
Augustus governed well. He brought the provinces under control and strengthened the empire’s defenses. He also began a civil service. A civil service is a group of officials employed by the government. The Roman civil service collected taxes, oversaw the postal system, and managed the grain supply.
Augustus also rebuilt and beautified Rome. He built grand temples, theaters and monuments. He replaced many old brick buildings with structures in marble. Under Augustus, Rome became a magnificent imperial capital.

The Pax Romana. The reign of Augustus began a long period of peace and stability in the Roman empire. This period is called the “Pax Romana” or Roman peace. The Pax Romana lasted for about 200 years. During this time, the empire grew to its greatest size, about 2 million square miles (3.218.695 km2). Under Augustus, the Roman army also became the greatest fighting force in the world. Around 300000 men served in the army. They guarded the empire´s frontiers. They also built roads, bridges and tunnels that helped tie the empire together. In addition, Augustus created a strong Roman navy that patrolled the Mediterranean Sea.

A Strong economy. The Pax Romana continued long after Augustus dies in 14 A.D. Many other emperors ruled after Augustus. Some were good rulers, while others were not. But the government begun under Augustus was so effective that the empire continued to do well.

Roman trade

– Agriculture and trade. Agriculture and trade helped the empire prosper. Farming remained the basis of the Roman economy, but industry also grew. The manufacture of pottery, metal goods, and glass increased. So did the production of wine, olive oil, and other food products.
The empire fostered economic growth through the use of trade routes. Traders sailed across the Mediterranean Sea to Spain, Africa, and Western Asia. They also traveled by land to Gaul and other parts of Europe. Through trade, Rome acquired valuable goods not available at home. Traders brought back grain, ivory, silk, spices, gold and silver, and even wild animals. Much of this trade relied on the quality of Roman roads. It also relied on the security provided by the Roman military.

– Currency. The Roman economy was also united by a common currency, or money. In Augustus´ time, a silver coin called denarius was used throughout the empire. A common form of money made trade between different parts of the empire much easier. Traders could buy and sell without having to change their money into another currency.
Rome’s expanding economy largely benefited those who were already wealthy. As a result, the division between rich and poor deepened.

Question 6. What happened to Rome after Caesar´s death?
Question 7. Who was Augustus and how did he change Roman government?
Question 8. What is the Pax Romana?
Question 9. How did the following factors helped encourage economic growth during the Pax Romana:
a. Roman army
b. Roman navy
c. Farming and Trade
d. Use of a common currency


After the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D., a series of problems began to weaken the empire. These economic and political problems were difficult to solve.

Economic problems. The empire could no longer feed its many people. Some farmlands had been destroyed by warfare. Bu the biggest problem was improving farm production. With many slaves to do the work, plantation owners chose not to develop more-productive faming technology. As a result, the land wore out and harvests did not increase. Food shortages caused unrest.
The empire was low on money. Taxes were high, so many people did not pay them. Without tax money, the government could not pay the army or buy needed services.

Military problems. Rome was constantly at war with nomadic people in the north and northeast, as well as with the people who lived in its eastern borders. The empire needed large armies to respond to so many threats, so it hired foreign mercenaries. A mercenary is a soldier for hire.
Mercenaries often had no loyalty to the empire. They pledged their allegiance to an individual military leader. Having armies that were loyal to only one man created independent military powers within the empire. In addition, mercenaries were not as disciplined as Roman soldiers. This lack of discipline made the army less effective. The result was a weakened defense along the empire’s borders.

Political and Social problems. The sheer physical size of the Roman empire made it hard to govern. Government officials found it was not easy to obtain news about some regions of the empire. This made it more difficult to know where problems were developing. Also, many government officials were corrupt, seeking only to enrich themselves.
Finally, a rapidly changing series of emperors also weakened the government. During a 49- year period (from 235 to 248 A.D.), Rome had 37 emperors. Some of them were military leaders who used their armies to seize control. With emperors changing so often, the Roman people had little sense of orderly rule.
Other aspects of Roman society also suffered. Roman wealth had always been in the hands of a small part of the population. As the empire grew, the number of poor citizens increased. The division between the rich and poor contributed to social unrest. Most early Romans were stern, honest, hard- working, loyal and patriotic people who believed it was their duty to serve the government. Romans of the later empire lost their patriotism. Most took little interest in the government and lacked political honesty.

Question 10. What economic, military, political and social problems weakened the Roman empire?

Diocletian divides the empire. In 284 A.D., Diocletian took control of the RomanDiocletian Empire at a very difficult and chaotic time in the empire’s history. Diocletian realized that establishing order was necessary, and he was willing to take harsh measures to achieve that goal. For example, in an effort to unify the empire by stressing the practice of state religion, he began the persecution of Christians during his rule.
There were other reforms made by Diocletian to solve the empire’s problems. He changed the way the army operated by permanently placing troops at the empire’s borders. He also introduced economic reforms, including keeping prices low on goods such as bread, to help the poor.
During his reign, Diocletian no longer bothered to consult with the Senate. He issued laws on his own. Diocletian became an absolute ruler, one who has total power.

Splitting the empire. Diocletian soon realized that he could not effectively govern the huge empire. In 285 A.D. , he reorganized it in two, taking the eastern portion for himself. He chose this area for its greater wealth and trade, and its magnificent cities. He appointed Maximian to rule the Western half. The two men ruled for 20 years.Division of EmpireIn 306 A.D. a civil war broke out over control of the empire. Four military commanders – including Constantine- fought for control of the two- halves of the empire.Constantine continues reformsConstantineConstantine was a Western Roman military commander who fought to gain control of Italy during the civil war. In 312 A.D. he entered Rome as the new emperor of the empire’s western half. By 324 A.D., however, he had taken control of the Eastern empire as well. The empire was reunited and Constantine became the sole emperor.

A new capital. In a bold move, Constantine shifted the empire’s capital from Rome toConstantinople Byzantium. Byzantium was an ancient Greek city located in what is now Turkey. At a crossroads between East and West, the city was well placed for defense and trade. Constantine enlarged and beautified his new capital , which he renamed Constantinople. Today the city is called Istanbul.

Final Division. Constantine planned to have each of his three sons rule a portion of the empire after his death. His plan was unwise, for Constantius II, Constantine II, and Constans I created unrest by competing with one another. A period of conflict followed. In 395 A.D. the empire was permanently divided into east and west.

Question 11. What reforms did Diocletian and Constantine introduce to solve the empire’s problems?


Wealthy East. The Eastern Roman empire was much stronger than the Western Roman empire. The Eastern Empire´s capital Constantinople, bustled with traders from Asia, Africa and Europe. As a result, the eastern empire had more wealth. Also, the eastern cities were larger and better fortified. And the Black Sea was a natural barrier that discouraged invasions.

Weaker West. In contrast, cities in the Western empire were smaller and less prosperous. They were located farther away from the trade routes that provided both goods and wealth.

The cities of the west were more exposed to attack. Defense forces were widely scattered, they were often poorly paid, so they had little reason to risk their lives.

The Western Empire Crumbles

The decline of the Western empire took place over many years. Its final collapse was the result of worsening internal problems, the separation of the Western empire from the wealthier Eastern part, and outside invasions.

Germanic invasions. Since the days of Julius Caesar, Germanic people had gathered on the northern borders of the empire and coexisted in relative peace with Rome. Around 370 A.D. all that changed when a fierce group of Mongol nomads from Central Asia, the Huns, moved into the region and began destroying all in their path.

In an effort to flee from the Huns, the various Germanic people pushed into Roman lands. They kept moving and looting through the Roman provinces of Gaul, Spain and North Africa. The Western empire was unable to stop them. In 410, Germanic people overran Rome itself and plundered it for three days.

Barbarian invasions

Attila the Hun. Meanwhile, the Huns, who were indirectly responsible for the Germanic assault on the empire, became a direct threat. In 444, they united for the first time under a powerful chieftain named Attila. With his 100000 soldiers, Attila terrorized both halves of the empire. In the East, his armies attacked and plundered 70 cities. They failed, however, to scale the high walls of Constantinople.

The Huns then swept into the West. In 452, Attila’s forces advanced against Rome, but strains of famine and disease kept them from conquering the city. Although the Huns were no longer a threat to the empire after Attila’s death in 453, the Germanic invasions continued.

The Western Empire ends. The last Roman emperor, a 14 year- old boy named Romulus Augustulus, was taken from power by German forces in 476. After that, no emperor pretended to rule Rome and its western provinces. Roman power in the western half of the empire had disappeared.

The eastern half of the empire, which came to be called the Byzantine empire, not only survived but flourished. It preserved the great heritage of Greek and roman culture for another thousand years.

Question 12. In what ways was the Western empire weaker than the Eastern empire?

Question 13. Why did so many Germanic tribes began invading the Roman empire?


~ by on December 19, 2007.

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