The Roman Empire (Imperium Romanum) was a civilization which was based out of the Italian City of Rome. It was notable for unifying half of Europe and all of the Mediterranean under their rule and being one of the most advanced civilizations of Classical Antiquity, with only the Chinese Han Dynasty, Indian Satavahana Empire, and the Parthian Empire (Persia) rivaling it....
Roman History 101
The Early days
According to the legends, Rome originated from a group of butthurt Trojans who escaped the Trojan Wars under the leadership of Prince Aeneas, we roughly know where Troy is so that means they had to sail all the way from Turkey, not too unlikely however given that the Greeks had colonies all over the Mediterranean. Aeneas' lineage would eventually give birth to Romulus and Remus who formally founded the city of Rome in 753 BCE... by enticing Sabine women to come to their little city, and while everyone was drunk, Romulus would then signal to rape (meaning abduct) every Sabine woman in sight, which naturally pissed off the Sabine men. Luckily however, Stockholm Syndrome prevented war from breaking out and Rome got to live on. What we actually know of that time period was that Rome was one of several minor city states in that area and was ruled by Kings. Somewhere down the line the Roman kingdom is no longer ruled by a Roman, but by an Etruscan, whose son named Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (yes, his name was Superbus) rapes (meaning rapes) a girl named Lucretia. The Romans decide that kings are bad, and reforms as a Republic.
The Punic Wars
Meanwhile, in what is now Tunisia there was another power on the rise, a city called Carthage. Eventually there began to be some friction between the two groups as Carthage moved into Sicily and Sardinia, compromising Roman trade in the Mediterranean. This led to three wars called the Punic Wars where Rome and Carthage clashed.
The first Punic War (264 BCE to 241 BCE) involved the Romans fighting the Carthaginians over Sicily and Sardinia. The Romans begin to take to the sea for the first time. Rome got its ass handed to it at first, then reverse-engineered a Carthaginian ship and started pushing back. Instead of letting the war draw out, Carthage sued for peace, and gave Rome very generous terms and conditions, which Rome broke constantly over the next decade or two. This lead to resentment in Carthage, and set the stage for part two.
Eventually shit happened involving a Greek colony and war sparks again. A guy named Hannibal, whose father commanded the Carthaginian forces last time, swears revenge on the Romans. He invades Spain, brings elephants over the Alps and into Italy (at heavy cost), and generally starts wrecking shit. The only thing holding him back is Fabius "The Delayer" Maximus, who used hit-and-run tactics to keep the army away from Rome, intending to starve him out rather than risk a direct fight.. Meanwhile, Roman general Scipio Africanus leads his army to Carthage, Hannibal is called back to defend his home, and gets defeated. Carthage then becomes a dependent "ally" to the Republic, basically being sucked dry of its resources. Eventually around 149 BC Carthage was rebelling and pissing off the Romans again thus resulting in the Third Punic War. A few years later Carthage itself was destroyed, the earth around the city was salted, and the surviving population was sold into slavery...or so the legend goes, as there isn't really any good evidence for the Romans having salted the land but there's evidence against it (Rome rebuilt and recolonized the area later, and salt was probably too valuable in those times for that to happen).
The Height of the Roman Republic
While Rome's citizen-armies were quite successful militarily, there was a minor crisis brewing; many of these citizens found themselves homeless upon returning from campaign, their land having been sold off in their absence. To deal with this growing problem came the Marian reforms, in which the Roman state (through its generals) would instead raise armies of dedicated professional soldiers ala Sparta: the Legions. While this solved the immediate problem of soldiers having nowhere to go back to, this created a new one; generals, particularly the emergency military position of Dictator, became quite powerful as a result; especially the change of upkeep. The old field-tending citizen soldiers' upkeep was land and they bought their own weapons; now the new, state-funded army needed cold cash, and more taxes during their service AND needed land for retirement. In short, the end of the Republic had become an inevitability, and Rome needed to constantly fight, enslave and plunder to keep the Warmachine going.
By the end of the Republic, the real power was held by the so-called "Triumvirate" of Rome's three most powerful men: Gaius Julius Caesar, Pompeius Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. After Crassus died in Persia (Hilariously, his captor poured molten gold down his throat after seeing his insane greed for gold), tensions between Caesar and Pompey grew. With Carthage destroyed, there was nothing left that could stop Rome from taking over the Mediterranean world. When Rome wanted to conquer an area they gave the local rulers two choices: Surrender and pay taxes to Rome, or resist and be purged. Either way, Rome got more territory, more wealth, and more slaves, and expanded more or less uncontested until they got to Gaul. These uncivilized brutes continued to resist until the Romans got sick of their bullshit and sent in Caesar with a few legions to deal with it. He did just that, and became very popular as a result.
Too popular for the liking of Pompey and the Senate, not to mention now possessing an enormous army complemented with Germanic (Ubian) cavalry and allied tribes: They ordered him to disband his armies or be labeled an enemy of the state. Caesar's response was "you first"; thus embroiling Rome in a civil war, which he won by Zerg Rushing the city and scaring the fuck out of his rivals. He uses this popularity to become Dictator for life, essentially restoring Rome back into an absolute monarchy. As a result his close friend Brutus and his former allies in the Roman Senate stabbed him to death. This caused another Civil War, now between Octavian, Caesar's nephew out for revenge, and the Senators, led by Mark Antony and allied with Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra lost and committed suicide, while Octavian was proclaimed Augustus, the revered one, and establishing the Imperial cult; due to Caesar's supposed descent from the gods (specifically Venus), he was therefore venerated as the God-Emperor of Romankind, and marking the transition from the Roman Republic to the Imperium of Rome.
Just go and watch the 2-season TV Series Rome, which is quite historically accurate.
For next two hundred years the Imperium ruled the Mediterranean and Europe as one of the ancient world's most influential superpowers, with many states either conquered or offered Protectorate Status under the Pax Romana (they'll allow you independence, as long as you pay taxes and venerate the God-Emperor in some way). It sees a few bad emperors like Nero, some good philosopher-kings like Marcus Aurelius, and a lot of stability, wars of succession notwithstanding. Then it goes to the shithouse from there, because...
The Collapse of the Imperium
Rome's fall can be attributed to any number of reasons, and any self-styled amateur historian would be more than happy to explain to you his opinions on the subject, but it's widely agreed that there were a number of contributing forces, including but not limited to:
- Increased logistical sluggishness of maintaining a sprawling empire
- The various Legions becoming more loyal to their generals than the Imperium; This basically laid the foundations for Feudalism. The Roman legions trusted their allegiance more to the their local generals than the will of the Senate. They have become disillusioned that, while they are fighting in the frontiers, the Roman government and Senate are too busy partying hard with lots of wine and hookers, all from the wealth of their plunder.
- Economic and famine crises as Roman farmers were outpriced by foreign imports; Egypt and Carthage completely shifted the wheat production to the east, and fields in the west were converted to fruit and vegetable orchards, which were quite perishable.
- Germanic barbarian hordes, who wanted in to the Imperium
- Game of Thrones: Emperors killing emperors, perpetual backstabbing between dynasties, trading places like it's fucking musical chairs. At least the Praetorians were ready to off an aspiring Emperor if they found out he's too insane to hold office...or if they felt they weren't getting paid enough or getting more benefits.
- Lead poisoning from Roman sewage systems.
- Terminus, God of Borders asking Dream to speak to Caesar Augustus in a vision, to let the empire die so he may live on. The alternative was to let Rome conquer the world and the universe, effectively destroying Terminus. (Yes we are comic nerds)
Heck, even the cooling solar cycle that made the Huns break out in two, one to Europe, another to India, is said to be the driving force in its collapse since before them came every other tribe that wanted to get the fuck away from the teaser trailer of a certain swell guy's antics. The East splitting off didn't do the Western lands any favors either, especially when said wheat and exotic produce was utterly cut off. Eventually, the barbarians got all the way to Rome, sacked it, and made one of their own Emperor. This is the part where most experts say the twitching corpse is well and truly dead.
Things were a bit better in the wealthier East after the split. The Byzantine Empire, as it's now called though they still identified as Romans, drifted from Rome in culture and aesthetic to the Greek trend, and more or less carried on without doing much of anything besides being Orthodox(Mystical Oriental version of Christianity with love for saints), and getting its teeth kicked in during the later Crusades (apparently Rome did hold a grudge up to a fucking millenium). Eventually conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 with the Fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul), ending the last direct political rule of the Roman world.
Even after its fall, the Roman Empire left a mark on western civilization in terms of writing, language, military organization, architecture, legal systems and philosophy. Many major European cities like London or Milan started out as Roman Colonies. In certain fields (in particular medicine, sanitation and plumbing) the Romans were more advanced than their European counterparts up until fairly recently. The end of the middle ages is generally known as "the Renaissance", the rebirth of western civilization which did involve some attempts by the upper class to recreate the better aspects of the Empire. For this reason various subsequent western cultures attempted to try to recreate some of Rome's Grandeur. The most obvious of these was the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither Roman nor an empire (and was only "holy" because the current Pope said it was) but whatever. The Tsardom of Russia proclaimed itself as The Third Rome. Numerous other European monarchs as well as Ottoman Sultans declared themselves as being Emperors or Czars/Tsars/Kaisers/Kayzar-i-Rum (yup, Mehmed II named himself the real successor to Caesar after sacking the city of Constantinople for 3 days). Monarchs drew upon the idea of the authority and splendor of the Emperors, Republics drew on the roman concepts of rule of law, elected governments and civil rights.
Arguably its greatest legacy, in the sense of most significant cultural/historical impact, is Christianity and the relations between it and the Empire. Christianity formed and was developed in the Roman world, and was used to preserve various Roman traditions, particularly the military and the government. One of the largest sects of adherents in early Christian history was from the Army; the first non-Jewish Christian was a centurion, and Orthodox processions during the Liturgy are heavily derived from procession of the standards of the legions. On the other hand, Christianity basically divinized concept of the Roman Empire and office of the Emperor to the point that majority of Christian kingdoms and empires had autistic obsession with being the true heir of Rome (which would basically mean that the realm would head the Imperium and thus have a legitimacy to lead the entirety Christendom, as it is mentioned above.
Roman Empire Analogs in Fantasy
To save time, let's just say the Roman Empire is one of the most heavily copied Cultures in fiction, what with it being precisely what any given European would think of upon hearing the words "ancient empire" (not to mention much of it more or less remaining in use today, like its calendar, alphabet, military structure...it's not for nothing the Founding Fathers of the U.S.A. decided the Senate would be a part of the federal government). A certainly-incomplete list of fantastical models from them follows:
- Imperium of Man - While the Imperium also draws inspirations from other political systems and cultures, like Medieval Europe and the British Empire, its aesthetics and government are strongly based around Roman designs.
- Ultramar - Ultramar, Roboute Guilliman's home system, is heavily based around a Greek-Roman hybrid empire. With Guilliman's return he may or may not be setting himself up as a Roman style dictator: one who holds absolute power so that he can deal with a crisis. Given the fun times he's living in this can last quite a while.
- The Empire The human Empire of Warhammer Fantasy is an amalgamation of the14th-15th century Holy Roman Empire and Rome proper.
- Codex Alera - Romans end up in a fantasy world and learn how to train spirit Pokémon. That may sound odd but that's actually the literal origin of how the books were written in fact, the author Jim Butcher, was challenged to write a book using two "lame" ideas, the idea in question were "lost Rome legion" and "Pokémon", then went one further by throwing in the Zerg.
- The Galactic Empire of Star Wars fame, which also evolved from a Republic which gave one of its leaders supreme power. More of a combination of Rome and Nazi Germany than anything.