Periods of History in Ancient Rome

Sunrise, Roman Forum, Rome, Italy
Roman Forum, Rome, Italy. joe daniel price / Getty Images

A look at each of the major periods of Roman history, Regal Rome, Republican Rome, the Roman Empire, and the Byzantine Empire.

The Regal Period of Ancient Rome

Servian Wall Segment
A portion of the Servian wall of Rome, near Temini railway station. Flickr User Panairjdde

The Regal Period lasted from 753–509 BCE and was the time during which kings (beginning with Romulus) ruled over Rome. It is an ancient era, mired in legends, only bits and pieces of of which are considered  factual.

These kingly rulers were not like the despots of Europe or the East. A group of the people known as the curia elected the king, so the position wasn't hereditary. There was also a senate of elders who advised the kings.

It was in the Regal Period that the Romans forged their identity. This was the time when the descendants of the legendary Trojan prince Aeneas, a son of the goddess Venus, married, after forcibly abducting, their neighbors, the Sabine women. Also at this time, other neighbors, including the mysterious Etruscans wore the Roman crown. In the end, the Romans decided they were better off with Roman rule, and even that, preferably not concentrated in the hands of any single individual.

More Information on the power structure of early Rome.

Republican Rome

Sulla. Glyptothek, Munich, Germany
Sulla. Glyptothek, Munich, Germany. Bibi Saint-Pol

The second period in Roman history is the period of the Roman Republic. The word Republic refers to both the time period and the political system [Roman Republics, by Harriet I. Flower (2009)]. Its dates vary with the scholar, but are typically the four and a half centuries from 509-49, 509-43, or 509-27 BCE As you can see, even though the Republic begins in the legendary period, when historical evidence is in short supply, it's the end date for the period of the Republic that causes trouble.

  • Did it end with Caesar as dictator?
  • With Caesar's assassination?
  • With Caesar's great-nephew Octavian (Augustus) assuming a position at the top of the political pyramid?

The Republic can be divided into:

  • an early period, when Rome was expanding, to the start of the Punic Wars (to c. 261 BCE),
  • a second period, from the Punic Wars until the Gracchi and civil war during which Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean (to 134), and
  • a third period, from the Gracchi to the fall of the Republic (to c. 30 BCE.).

In the Republican era, Rome elected its governors. To prevent abuse of power, the Romans allowed the comitia centuriata to elect a pair of top officials, known as consuls, whose term in office was limited to one year. In times of national turmoil there were occasionally one-man dictators. There were also times when one consul couldn't carry out his term. By the time of the emperors, when surprisingly, there were still such elected officials, consuls were sometimes selected as often as four times a year.

Rome was a military power. It could have been a peaceful, cultural nation, but that was not its essence and we probably wouldn't know much about it had it been. So its rulers, the consuls, were primarily commanders of the military forces. They also presided over the senate. Until 153 BCE, consuls started their years on the Ides of March, the month of the war god, Mars. From then on consul terms started at the beginning of January. Because the year was named for its consuls, we have retained the names and dates of the consuls throughout most of the Republic even when many other records were destroyed.

In the earlier period, consuls were at least 36 years old. By the first century BCE they had to be 42.

In the last century of the Republic, individual figures, including Marius, Sulla, and Julius Caesar, began to dominate the political scene. Again, as at the end of the regal period, this created problems for the proud Romans. This time, the resolution led to the next form of government, the principate.​

Imperial Rome and the Roman Empire

Hadrian's Wall, Wallsend
Hadrian's Wall, Wallsend: The timbers may mark the sites of ancient booby traps. CC Flickr User Alun Salt

The end of Republican Rome & beginning of Imperial Rome, on the one hand, and the fall of Rome & dominance of the Roman court at Byzantium, on the other, have few clear lines of demarcation. It is customary, however, to divide the roughly half a millennium-long period of the Roman Empire into an earlier period known as the Principate and a later period known as the Dominate. The division of the empire into the four-man rule known as the 'tetrarchy' and the dominance of Christianity are characteristic of the latter period. In the former period, there was an attempt to pretend the Republic was still in existence.

During the late Republican period, generations of class conflict led to changes in the way Rome was governed and the way the people looked at their elected representatives. By the time of Julius Caesar or his successor Octavian (Augustus), the Republic had been replaced by a principate. This is the beginning of the period of Imperial Rome. Augustus was the first princeps. Many consider Julius Caesar the start of the Principate. Since Suetonius wrote a collection of biographies known as The Twelve Caesars and since Julius rather than Augustus comes first in his series, it is reasonable to think that, but Julius Caesar was a dictator, not an emperor.

For almost 500 years, emperors passed on the mantle to their chosen successors, except when the army or the praetorian guards staged one of their frequent coups. Originally, Romans or Italians ruled, but as time and the Empire spread, as barbarian settlers supplied more and more manpower for the legions, men from throughout the Empire came to be named emperor.

At its most powerful, the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Turkey, the modern areas of the Netherlands, southern Germany, France, Switzerland, and England. The Empire traded as far as Finland going north, to the Sahara to the south in Africa, and to the east to India and China, via the Silk Roads.

Emperor Diocletian divided the Empire into 4 sections controlled by 4 individuals, with two overlord emperors and two subordinate ones. One of the top emperors was stationed in Italy; the other, in Byzantium. Although the borders of their areas changed, the two-headed empire gradually took hold, being firmly established by 395. By the time Rome "fell", in A.D. 476, to the so-called barbarian Odoacer, the Roman Empire was still going strong in its eastern capital, which had been created by Emperor Constantine and renamed Constantinople.

Byzantine Empire

Belisarius as a Beggar, by François-André Vincent, 1776.
Legend-based painting of Belisarius as a Beggar, by François-André Vincent, 1776. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Rome is said to have fallen in A.D. 476, but this is a simplification. You could say it lasted until A.D. 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire.

Constantine had set a new capital for the Roman Empire in the Greek-speaking area of Constantinople, in 330. When Odoacer seized Rome in 476, he did not destroy the Roman Empire in the East -- what we now call the Byzantine Empire. The people there might speak Greek or Latin. They were citizens of the Roman Empire.

Even though the western Roman territory was divided into various kingdoms at the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth century, the idea of the old, united Roman Empire wasn't lost. Emperor Justinian (r.527-565) is the last of the Byzantine emperors to try reconquering the West.

By the time of the Byzantine Empire, the emperor wore insignia of eastern monarchs, a diadem or crown. He also wore an imperial cloak (chlamys) and people prostrated themselves before him. He was nothing like the original emperor, the princeps, a "first among equals". The bureaucrats and court set a buffer between the emperor and the ordinary people.

Members of the Roman Empire who lived in the East considered themselves Romans, although their culture was more Greek than Roman. This is an important point to remember even when talking about the residents of mainland Greece during the roughly thousand years of the Byzantine Empire.

Although we discuss Byzantine history and the Byzantine Empire, this is a name that was not in use by the people living in Byzantium. As mentioned, they thought they were Romans. The name Byzantine for them was invented in the 18th century.