In this part . . .
The idea behind this part is to provide you with meaty but digestibly-sized chunks of facts about the key events, people, and places that made Roman history happen the way it did. I’ll freely admit it’s a purely personal selection, and if someone else had written this book, he or she might have chosen a different list, but hopefully not that different!
What you’ll find here is a list of ten crucial moments in Roman history when everything changed - for better or worse; ten Romans who were good or interesting people; ten award-winning villains; as well as ten anti-Romans whose opposition to Roman power made them legendary in their own time and afterwards. And finally, because I know you’ll be itching to go out and see the Roman world for yourself, I’ve listed my top ten (actually, I’ve sneaked an extra one in, so make that eleven) places to start looking.
In This Chapter
● Key events that changed the shape of the Roman world
● Wars, conquest, and social revolutions
Turning points are those moments in history when everything changes for a civilisation forever. The significance isn’t always obvious at the time, but it is to historians, and that included Roman historians who could look back and see some of the decisive moments in Rome’s past.
Kicking out the Kings (509 BC)
When the Romans turfed out Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BC, they established a principle that would last for centuries: no more kings. The Roman Republic that was created as a result defined the whole Roman system for the next five centuries, and even when Augustus became emperor, he had to make it look as though he’d done so within the Republican system. You can find the chucking out of the kings in Chapter 10, and how Augustus solved the problem of being a monarch without looking like one in Chapter 15.
Creating the Twelve Tables (450 BC)
When the plebs forced the patricians into accepting a written code of law that protected the plebs’ interests, the Romans created something they’d all be immensely proud of in the long run: the idea of the rule of law, a principle most modern countries have inherited. For the Romans, it was also the opening skirmish in the Conflict of the Orders, which saw the plebs exert more and more political control through their tribunes. You’ll find the Conflict of the Orders at the end of Chapter 10 and its next phase in Chapter 11.
Winning the Second Punic War (218-202 BC)
Rome’s rivalry with Carthage was the greatest conflict of the age. The First Punic War (covered in Chapter 12) had nearly put pay to Carthage’s ambitions and put Rome on the map. In the Second Punic War, the struggle became truly international with much higher stakes. The catastrophic defeats at Lake Trasimene (217 BC) and Cannae (216 BC) ought to have wiped Rome off the map. The fact that Rome held onto her allies, came back for more, and ended up defeating Carthage at Zama in 202 BC convinced Rome even more of her destiny and showed the world what she was capable of. The Second Punic War is discussed in Chapter 12.
The year 146 BC
This is a critical year for the Romans because it settled them as the supreme power in the Mediterranean. It marked the permanent destruction of Carthage as a rival, wiped out in a bitter and petty war of revenge that did Rome no great credit but showed what she could do if she wanted. The year also saw the end of Greece as an independent nation of any sort. With so much power, the Romans now did what so many successful states do: started falling apart as men squabbled over the riches. For more than a century, Rome was torn apart in a series of social struggles and the age of the imperators. Chapters 12 and 13 cover the climactic events that led to 146 BC, and Part III picks up what happened afterwards.
Augustus's settlements with the Senate in 27 and 19 BC
Augustus’s proudest boast was that he had restored the Roman Republic. He gave up all his powers so that the Senate could give them back to him. It was the greatest political spin in Roman history and one of the greatest in all world history. Augustus clearly was a de facto emperor, but he created the brilliant fiction that he merely held positions within the Republican system and defined how Roman emperors ruled for centuries to come. The genius was that by doing this, Augustus made it possible for the Republic to survive at all. Turn to Chapter 16 to find out how he did it.
Breaking the link between the emperor and Rome (AD 68-69)
The historian Tacitus spotted the key significance of the Civil War of 68-69:
Emperors did not have to be made at Rome. They could declare themselves anywhere so long as they had an army to back them. From then on, the Roman Empire was always going to fall prey to ambitious men who had the men and resources at their disposal. It’s frankly amazing, then, that the next 120 years were so stable, but from the death of Commodus in 192, the revelation of 68-69 came back to define much of the rest of Roman history. The civil war of 68-69 is discussed in Chapter 16, and the chaos of 192 and later starts in Chapter 18.
Ending the tradition of conquest (AD 117-138)
Hadrian was one of Rome’s most interesting emperors. An aesthete, architect, and inveterate traveller, he created some of the Roman Empire’s most remarkable buildings, like the Pantheon in Rome. But he made a key decision that flew in the face of everything the Empire stood for and was based on: Realising that the Empire was too big to manage and defend itself, he pulled back and fortified the frontiers and said ‘that’s that’. From his reign on, the Roman Empire trod water and then went on the defensive, fighting sometimes desperately for its very existence. Hadrian comes in Chapter 17.
Dividing the Roman World (AD 284-305)
Diocletian was the last in a line of soldier emperors in the third century. But unlike so many of his predecessors, he knew the Roman Empire was going to have to change to face the challenges of the future. It had grown too big and had too many border problems for one man to rule. So Diocletian split the Empire in two: East and West. At the time, the devastating significance wasn’t too obvious, but he’d created the division down which the Empire would split in the fifth century. The West would crumble, while the East would go on for another thousand years. Diocletian’s radical step comes in Chapter 20.
The Edict of Milan (AD 313)
Rome’s destiny had been ‘preordained’ by the pagan gods - a story which plays a central part in Virgil’s Aeneid - yet the genius of Constantine I (AD 307-337) was to realise that Christianity might help to hold the Empire together. His Edict of Milan started the process that turned the Roman Empire into a Christian state by declaring that all religions would be tolerated - it was a way of letting the Christians in. The change brought its own problems, but it took Roman history into a completely new direction and defined not just the fourth century but the whole nature of power and the identity of the Eastern Roman Empire, which would last for another 1,100 years. See Chapter 20 for how he did it.
The fall of Rome (AD 410)
When Rome fell to Alaric the Goth in 410, the psychological impact was colossal. It’s almost impossible for us to imagine just how devastating this event was. It wasn’t just the practical implications of an assault on a city, but the mind-numbing sense that the whole foundation of the known world had turned out to be so vulnerable. The Roman world had been unnerved by decades of warfare, but once Rome fell, even though the end wouldn’t come until 476, everyone no doubt knew that nothing would ever be the same again. Chapter 21 tells the story.