Trying to understand the complex history of ancient Rome is a little like learning advanced quantum theory: It’s nearly impossible to make sense of it all without learning a lot of background. It would be pretty difficult to learn all there is to know about ancient Rome, so in an effort to at least make a little sense of things I’m going to profile some of the key figures of Ancient Rome. Each of the Emperors launched lavish building projects around the city (and the empire) to boost their own egos and appease the people, and today you can walk the ruins of these buildings and get a sense of how beyond amazing Ancient Rome really was. More importantly, as citizens of the western world we follow a way of life that can be traced back to the Romans and the decisions of the emperors. Their story is also the craziest real-life soap opera of all time.
To understand the role of Roman Emperor, you have to start with JULIUS CAESAR. He was not an emperor, but his actions led to the enormous changes in Roman government that allowed for supreme dictators. Rome had been around for many centuries since its mythical founding by Romulus and had functioned as a republic for nearly 500 years, ruled by a senate and governed by the people (and by people, I mean Roman men, since everyone else was second class). By 50 BC, the republic was in civil war, torn apart by many different wars being fought on many fronts. Julius Caesar was a powerful general leading Roman legions through Gaul (France and Germany). Long story short, he was successful and very powerful with the control of a large army, and his power made for strained relations with the senate and other armies in Rome. He saw that the government was dysfunctional, and with an army at his back returned to Rome to take charge. He was granted powers in a time of crisis to unify the empire, which he did through defeating enemies and increasing his own authority. He made sweeping reforms of the system, and became more powerful over the next 3 years. As his power grew, so did resentment from those who viewed him as a tyrant. He was famously assassinated in the senate chamber by a group of senators on the “ides of March”, 44 BC. In his will, he named his nephew Octavian his heir. It was Octavian, who became Augustus, that would cement the role of Emperor and and forever change Roman government.
After the assassination, there was a long drawn-out struggle for power. Octavian was only 20, but he took every advantage he had in claiming his place as Caesar’s heir. He famously defeated general Mark Antony, who was in love with Cleopatra and living in Egypt. With the conquest, he added Egypt to the empire along with all of it’s food and other resources. After 500 years, Rome was no longer a republic but an empire. He became AUGUSTUS, and began a 50 year rule that brought about the pax romana, or peace of rome. Augustus was smart and savvy. He knew that if he grabbed all power for himself as his uncle did, he would be a target. Instead, he played the part of a peaceful ruler, gradually shaping government and increasing his own power in small increments over decades. He built a large temple in the forum, and set about rebuilding Rome. It is said that before Augustus, Rome was made of brick, but after of marble. He made many changes across the empire and increased its size even further. He also renamed the months of the calendar- July in honor of Julius Caesar and August in honor of himself. He is often seen as the greatest Roman emperor. Being that he reined for so long and in such good standing, there are many statues to be found of Augustus at museums around the world. His temple in the forum is in pretty bad shape, but is still visible in ruin. His Mausoleum is not far from Piazza Navona in the heart of old Rome. It’s also a ruin now, long since stripped of it’s stone, but at one time it held the cremated remains of Augustus and his family. Augustus is of course mentioned in the New Testament story of Christ’s birth. His rein was a significant time for the Roman Empire and indeed the history of the world. As for Rome, the power he managed to secure for future emperors led to occasional periods of prosperity but more often than not, chaos at the hands of some of the craziest power-hungry monsters the world has ever seen.