History#039;s first empire: The rise of the Romans

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Roman Empire is the name given to Rome and also the corresponding phase of that civilization, characterized by an autocratic form of government.

It succeeded the 500 year-old Roman Republic (510 BC – 1st century BC), which had been weakened by the conflict between Gaius Marius and Sulla and the civil war of Julius Caesar against Pompey and Marcus Brutus.

Several dates are commonly proposed to mark the transition from Republic to Empire, including the date of Julius Caesar’s appointment as perpetual dictator (44 BC), the victory of Caesar’s heir Octavian at the Battle of Actium (September 2, 31 BC), and the Roman Senate’s granting to Octavian the honorific Augustus. (January 16, 27 BC).

The Latin term Imperium Romanum (&uot;Roman Empire&uot;), probably the best-known Latin expression where the word &uot;imperium&uot; denotes a territory, indicates the part of the world under Roman rule.

From the time of Augustus to the Fall of the Western Empire, Rome dominated Western Eurasia, comprising the majority of its population. Roman expansion began long before the state was changed into an Empire and reached its zenith under emperor Trajan with the conquest of Dacia in AD 116. During this territorial peak the Roman Empire controlled approximately 2,300,000 square miles of land surface. Rome’s influence upon the culture, law, technology, arts, language, religion, government, military, and architecture of Western civilization continues to this day.

The end of the Roman Empire is traditionally placed on 4 September 476 AD, when the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus, was deposed and not replaced. However this view neglects the Eastern Roman Empire, known today as the Byzantine Empire, which survived. It protected Roman legal and cultural traditions combining them with Greek and Christian elements, for another thousand years.

First emperor

The question about who was the first emperor has never found a definitive answer. Under a purely technical point of view there is no clear first emperor, as the title itself was not an official post in the Roman constitutional system-rather, it was an amalgam of separate roles.

Julius Caesar was a Dictator Perpetuus (&uot;life-long dictator&uot;), which was a highly irregular form of dictator, an official position in the Roman republic.

According to law, the rule of a dictator would normally never exceed 6 months. The form created by Caesar was therefore quite contrary to the basic principles of the Roman Republic. Nevertheless, officially his authority rested upon this republican title, however irregular it might have been, and therefore he is considered a republican official. At the very least he pretended to be one. Several senators, among them many former enemies who had been &uot;graciously&uot; pardoned by him, grew fearful that he would crown himself and try to establish a monarchy. Accordingly, they conspired to assassinate him, and on the Ides of March, on the 15 March 44 BC, the life-long dictator perished under the blades of his assassins before he could be crowned.

Octavian, his grand-nephew, adopted son and political heir, is widely accepted as the first emperor. He had learned from the mistake of his predecessor and never claimed the widely feared title dictator, disguising his power under republican forms much more carefully.

All this was intended to foster the illusion of a restoration of the Republic. He received several titles like Augustus-the honorable one, and Princeps-translated as first citizen of the Roman republic or as first leader of the Roman Senate. The latter had been a title awarded for those who had served the state well; Pompey had held that title.

In addition, Augustus (as he is named thereafter) was granted the right to wear the Civic Crown of laurel and oak. However, it must be noted that officially, none of these titles or the Civic Crown, granted Augustus any additional powers or authority; officially he was simply a highly-honored Roman citizen, holding the consulship. Augustus also became Pontifex Maximus after the death of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in 13 BC. He also received several additional and extraordinary powers without claiming too many titles. In the end he only needed the authority itself, not necessarily all the respective titles.


Augustus , known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus for the period of his life prior to 27 BC, was the first and among the most important of the Roman Emperors.

Although he preserved the outward form of the Roman Republic, he ruled as an autocrat for 41 years, longer than any subsequent Emperor; and his rule is the dividing line between the Republic and the Roman Empire.

He ended a century of civil wars and gave Rome an era of peace, prosperity, and imperial greatness, known as the Pax Romana, or Roman peace, which lasted for over 200 years.

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