The Roman Empire (IMPERIVM ROMANVM, or as they called themselves SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS, (The Senate and People of Rome, aka SPQR) was a civilization 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. Even today, its system of Government, and its language of Latin, formed the basis of modern Law and Politics all throughout the World e.g. the United States of America. Its only rivals were the Chinese Han Dynasty and the Indian Satavahana Empire as well as its arch-nemesis the Parthian Empire (and its successor the Sassanid Empire), with the Roman-Persian wars spanning a period of six hundred years, each subsequent war doing almost nothing to shift the perpetual status quo, that is until the End Times inevitably came in the form of the emerging Muslim Caliphate.
Roman History 101
The Early days
According to the legends, the ancestry of the Romans can be traced back to the once-powerful city state of Troy. Initially, Troy was winning, but thanks to a tactical genius named Odysseus, they were tricked into accepting a gift horse statue... which contained Greek warriors who sacked and burned the city and all its inhabitants. Troy's salvation would only come when a Trojan aristocrat, Anchises, managed to impregnate nobody else but Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, herself. Aphrodite gave birth to whom the Romans consider their Saviour and Ancestor: the man, the myth, the legend, Prince Aeneas.
Aeneas and his surviving Trojans sailed from Asia Minor (Turkey) all throughout the Mediterranean, fighting monsters and disasters through the way, eventually landing in what is now Tunisia, ruled by a city called Carthage: Hera's favourite city, and dominion of the queen Dido. Hera hated the Trojans, doing in all her power to prevent them from accomplishing their destiny, and hence manipulated Dido and Aeneas to fall in love so that they could waste their time fucking each other for so many years. Zeus, realising what Hera had done, came down and bitched-slapped Aeneas to fulfilling his destiny of making a new Troy in the unknown lands of Italia. Aeneas came to his senses and left Carthage, but in doing so, Dido fell into a massive depression, killing herself in a pyre while cursing him and all his descendants.
One of Aeneas's descendants in Italia, Princess Rhea, would be impregnated by the God of War himself, Mars. Their children would be known as Romulus and Remus. After rebelling against the Etruscans, they formally founded the city of Rome in 753 BCE... unfortunately Romulus accidentally killed his brother over a dispute on where to place the Pomerium (i.e. city borders). Rome, as the city was known, was underpopulated, consisting mostly of refugees. In order to populate his new city, Romulus enticed 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, Carthage, the city once ruled by Dido, was the dominant superpower of the Western Mediterranean, unmatched in wealth and influence, able to bend the Greek kings to their will. 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 the descendants of Aeneas and Dido clashed.
The first Punic War (264 BCE to 241 BCE) involved the Romans fighting the Carthaginians and its Greek allies over Sicily and Sardinia. The Romans begin to take to the sea for the first time. Rome suffered massive casulaties at first, until they reverse-engineered a Carthaginian ship and started pushing back (with the incredible innovation of adding a ramp to the front). Instead of letting the war draw out, Carthage sued for peace, and gave Rome very generous terms and conditions. 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, obliterating every Roman army he comes across. The only thing stopping him from destroying Rome is his army is too small to lay siege properly so the Roman regroup under 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 through Carthagian Spanish colonies all the way through Africa to Carthage itself, 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 (who had complete control over the armies *and* power to rewrite the constitution), 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 arable farmland 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. Almost immediately, civil wars centered on factional power struggles started erupting, and the office of Dictator was revived when it had been unused since Hannibal's invasion.
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(who was a colossal dick that employed every dirty trick in history, to the point of starting fires with paid thugs and owning all the firefighters in Rome to literally seize entire districts). 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 hideously rich, 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 (the gens Julii from were Caesar was born were directly descended from both Venus and Mars, respectively through Aeneas and Romulus), 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 except Octavian's mom Atia, who was a religious prude IRL. (Fulvia, another character IRL would do the things she did)
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, such that it had to split itself into two because it had become too large for a single Emperor to rule on their own. This solution caused problems of its own as the Western and Eastern halves of the empire (which were ruled by separate emperors that rarely if ever got along) tended to go to war with each other over petty rivalries.
- The various Legions becoming more loyal to their generals than the Imperium; throughout Rome's history, the Empire had always struggled with the fact that the Roman legions trusted their allegiance more to the their local generals than the will of the Senate (although by the time the empire started to collapse, the senate had virtually no power anyway) or the Emperor. Said generals frequently followed Caesar's example and got it into their heads to make themselves Emperors; some of them turned out to be pretty good at the job, but far more tended to be better at leading armies than ruling over an empire.
- Said Legions being unable to adapt to new arts of warfare. Footslogging, fortification building, shortsword-and-javelin bearing turtles made of tower shields may have been enough for wild Gauls with no discipline. But when entire tribes of highly mobile horsemen and rapid-moving swarms of densely populated Eastern empires are fought against, it's an entirely different matter. Note that Byzantium, a.k.a Eastern Roman Empire survived for another millenium exactly because it adapted to its neighbors' arsenal, raised its own horse archers named Hippotoxotai after inviting a "barbarian" general or two on how do i shot web, heavy cavalry named Cataphracti (based on Persian Clibinarii), and lightened the legions into rapid deployment.
- 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 Western empire were converted to fruit and vegetable orchards, which were quite perishable. By contrast the Eastern half of the empire did just fine since they were the half with all the valuable land.
- A disastrous combination of heavy urbanization without understanding germ theory led to events like the Antonine Plague.
- Germanic barbarians, who were fleeing from the Huns and usually rebelled after being constantly treated like shit by the Romans. In hindsight, forcing the migrant Goths to sell their children into slavery for a bit of dog meat was a real dick move.
- Game of Thrones-style court intrigue: Emperors killing emperors, perpetual backstabbing between dynasties, trading places like it's fucking musical chairs, made even worse by the fact that the Empire never had any kind of consistent succession rules. At least the Praetorians were ready to off an aspiring Emperor if they believed he was too insane to hold office...or if they felt they weren't getting paid enough or thought they could get more benefits from someone else. On one occasion the Praetorians even sold the position of Emperor to the highest bidder; the "lucky" buyer didn't even last three months before getting overthrown and executed by a rival claimant. This had another side effect of letting the East Roman Empire (Byzantium) lose the recipe for a primitive flamethrower(royal family hid the instructions separately) and get dogpiled by Muslims.
- Lead poisoning from Roman sewage systems; however this is balanced against them having otherwise relatively clean water.
- 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.)
- The rise of the Christian faith to political dominance, which resulted in A: a mass transference of manpower from the military to the priesthood (this was LONG before Christian monks and priests were required to practice celibacy & austerity, so the average young Roman man decided that it was way easier, safer and more comfortable to join the clergy than the army), forcing an ever-increasing reliance on mercenaries (always a bad thing, for an empire), and B: the ever-increasing drain of funds away from infrastructure maintenance to pay this increasingly bloated priesthood to do nothing but sit around, give sermons, and hold councils arguing over theological trivia like "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" and "was Mary still a virgin after she gave birth to Jesus?" Note that this contribution is highly skubby, and people argue bitterly over whether it's true or not. Most people believe it's not true... but then, most people believe that the Christian church ended the gladiatorial games, when in fact they continued for 200 years after the Christians took charge - they were only canceled when the empire became too broke to pay for them any more.
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 the king of Italy. This is the part where most experts say the Western Roman Empire was well and truly dead.
The Byzantine Empire
Things were a bit better in the wealthier Eastern Roman Empire 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 much as it had before (including the palace intrigue, which if anything became even worse than ever before). On a couple occasions, they came close to recapturing the glory of the old Roman Empire, but this was foiled by the first known outbreak of the Black Death (the Plague of Justinian) the first time and the coming of the Seljuk Turks (and the rise of the Sultanate of Rum) the second time. The Byzantines' call for aid in the aftermath of the latter ended up leading to the First Crusade.
Fast-forward to the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Crusaders lacked the money to sail to the Ayyubid Sultanate as they had initially planned, and were deeply in debt to the Republic of Venice, whose doge (we swear, that was the title of their chief elected official) refused to let them disband or leave without paying their debts. The exiled Byzantine prince Alexios IV promised to pay the debt for the Crusaders in exchange for deposing the current emperor and placing him on the throne. While successful at gaining the throne, the new emperor quickly realized that he didn't actually have the funds to fulfill his promises. Anti-Crusader sentiment eventually led to his deposition and execution, which the Crusaders used as an excuse to sack the city for its wealth.
Following the sack, the Crusaders named one of their own as emperor of the new "Latin Empire" (torpedoing any hope of reconciliation between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in the process), with the old Byzantine state being dispersed between three smaller rump states- the Empire of Trebizond, the Nicene Empire, and the Despotate of Epirus. You probably never heard of them, and for good reason- they didn't accomplish much of interest while they were around. The next few decades were dominated by fighting between the Latins, the rump states, the Sultanate of Rum, and the nearby Bulgarian Empire.
1n 1261, the Nicene Empire was able to reclaim Constantinople and restore the Byzantine Empire, but the resources from the old Byzantine provinces had been bled dry from decades of war. The new emperors proved to be incompetent and alienated their people through heavy taxation and continued strife with the Latins, and after yet another civil war the Byzantines were forced to become vassals to the Ottoman sultan. However, their relationship with the Ottoman Turks was strained at best and when hostilities resumed the Byzantines were reduced to Constantinople alone. The city (the modern-day Istanbul) fell in 1453, and the Byzantine Empire collapsed with it. Trebizond and Epirus limped on for slightly longer, but both had fallen by 1479, 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 Unholy German Abomination called "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 the concept of the Roman Empire and office of the Emperor to the point that the majority of Christian kingdoms and empires had a persistent 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 of Christendom, as it is mentioned above).
While the military of Rome went through centuries of evolution in its equipment and tactics, as a whole the armies of Rome can be divided into three parts, one of which is the skirmishers, the cavalry another, and finally the infantry.
Roman infantry went through many iterations but the typical Legionary would take the field wearing a metal helmet with metal and leather armor, a broad, curved shield, a gladius (a short, heavy stabbing sword), and one or more pilum (a hybrid javelin-spear effective against armor). Legionaries would typically fight in a tight formation behind their shields, throw or stab with their pilum and then finish with the sword. The intense discipline of the Legionaries' training allowed them to pull off several maneuvers, the most famous being the Tetsudo, a tightly-packed shield wall that effectively protected against arrows.
Roman cavalry (equites) were, historically, useless, famous for a number of extremely high profile defeats. In equipment they were similar to Greek cavalry, using flat shields and spears with long swords and leather/maile armor. But for most of the history of Rome, cavalry were drawn from the richest echelons of society and were not known for being particularly disciplined or brave. While the other nations often fielded better cavalry, such as Hannibal's Numidians, Roman Cavalry was principally used to occupy the enemy cavalry and keep them away from the army; a strategy that sometimes shifted battles in the Romans' favor.
The skirmishers (velites) were mostly a Republic thing and largely vanished with the appearance of professional armies. In the Pre-Marian army, all new recruits began as Velites before joining the Infantry proper. Typically they were poor young people armed with javelins and slings, put out ahead of the line to soften up the enemy before contact with the infantry. Post-Marian, Skirmishers, as well as archers, were rarely ever used outside of the Auxilia, which consisted mainly of non-Roman support units.
Where Rome really outperformed its peers was in logistics, discipline and military engineering. Wherever the legions went, they build roads and networks of forts and courier stations. During Caesar's invasion of Gaul, his legion famously bridged the Rhine in 18 days (and again later in a week). After the defeat of Carthage, Rome burned the city for two weeks, tore down its walls and enslaved every survivor. In sieges, where other armies might try ladders, Rome would build a wall around the enemy's wall, and then a wall around THAT wall to protect them from forces trying to break the siege, and finally start slowly building a dirt ramp; in the siege of Alesia this amounted to 20 km worth of wall building. Roman legions do not fuck around. They'll go to any length, and they don't leave things half-done.
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.
- Pathfinder's Taldor is an empire that was once the center of human civilization but has been decaying and losing territory for centuries. Their founder, Taldarius, is unmistakably Roman looking. Like Rome, their breakaways (Andoran and Cheliax) are waxing while Taldor is waning.
- The Tevinter Imperium from Dragon Age is one of the more unsuble examples out there, being basically a copy-pasted fantasy version of Late Byzantine Empire, only with magical racism and a few iconic characteristics of the Roman Empire added in for good mesure, like the widespread use of slavery (slaves, though they did exist, were quite rare in Byzantine lands), and decadent elites more interested in backstabbing each other than safeguarding the Empire.
- The Mal’Zeelan Empire from the Chronicles of an Imperial Legionary Officer book series is a continuation of the Roman Empire after the Legio IX Hispana got themselves transported to a different world (and after that went through another world gate where they established the empire itself) with dwarves, elves, and all your other generic fantasy races.
Running a Game in the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire can make an excellent campaign setting. That being said, there are a few things that should be kept in mind when doing so.
- The Lex Iulia - The Lex Iulia was a very important law, and one of the things that allowed to Roman Empire to last so long. This law forbade normal citizens from owning martial weapons and armor unless you were serving in the military. While it allowed for things like bows and hunting knives, things like swords, spears, or actual armor were something reserved for the military. This means that unless your PCs are all members of the military or can loot something from one, they will have very little equipment.
- There was also a law that generals and governors from the provinces entering Rome lose all their authority. If a military commander leads an army into the old boundaries of Rome, they're declared a public enemy (unless it's a declared Triumph, where a general and army parade into the city for awards and victory orgies). This came up in the civil wars a lot, and basically meant that sorting out the corruption by going rogue was a win or die affair (and occasionally win AND THEN die).
- Another law required that businesses which set up shop alongside roads built by the army (ie, basically all the paved ones) had to post the prices for the services they offered, serve all paying customers if they can, and to give priority to military couriers. Wherever the army built roads a sprawling network of stables and small inns would quickly spring up where couriers could rest and swap horses.