The Rise of the Roman Empire

Essential Question

How did Julius Caesar, and later Augustus, help transform Rome from a republic to an empire?

The Call for Change

Rome in the 70s BC was a dangerous place. Politicians and generals went to war to increase their power even as political order broke down in Rome. Unemployed Romans rioted in the streets because they couldn't get enough food. All the while more and more people from all around the republic flooded into the city, further adding to the confusion.

Some Romans tried to stop the chaos in Rome's government. One such person was Cicero (SIS-uh-roh), a gifted philosopher and orator, or public speaker. In his speeches Cicero called on Romans to make Rome a better place. One way to do this, he argued, was to· limit the power of generals. Cicero wanted the Romans to give more support to the Senate and to restore the checks and balances on government.

But Cicero was unsuccessful. Many Romans didn't agree with him. Others were too caught up in their own affairs to pay any attention. Rome's government did not change.

Julius Caesar

As Cicero was calling on the Romans to take power away from the generals, a new group of generals was working to take over the government. The most powerful of these generals was Julius Caesar OOOL-yuhs SEE-zuhr).

Caesar was probably the greatest general in Roman history. Other Romans admired him for his bravery and skill in battle. At the same time, his soldiers respected him because he treated them well.

Between 58 and SO BC Caesar conquered nearly all of Gaul a region that included much of modern France, Germany, and northern Italy-and part of Britain. He wrote a description of this conquest, describing in great detail how he defeated each of the tribes he faced.

Here he describes how he defeated a group called the Menapii. Notice how he refers to himself as Caesar:

"Caesar, having divided his forces ... and having hastily [quickly] constructed some bridges, enters their country in three divisions, burns their houses and villages, and gets possession of a large number of cattle and men. Constrained [forced] by these circumstances the Menapii send ambassadors to him for the purpose of suing [asking] for peace."

- Julius Caesar, from The Gallic Wars

Caesar's military successes made him a major figure in Roman politics. In addition to being a good leader, Caesar was an excellent speaker. He won many people to his side with his speeches in the forum.

Caesar also had powerful friends. Before he went to Gaul he made an agreement with two of the most powerful men in Rome, Pompey and Crassus. The three agreed to work together to fight against the Senate. Together, Caesar and his allies changed the course of Roman history.

At the end of the fighting in Gaul, Caesar was one of the most powerful men in the Roman Republic. He was so powerful that even his friends were jealous and afraid of him. This jealousy and fear changed Caesar's relationship with Pompey.

In 50 BC Pompey's allies in the Senate ordered Caesar to give up command of his armies and return to Rome. Caesar refused. He knew that Pompey was trying to take power away from him and would arrest him if he gave up his command. As a result, Caesar led his army into Italy. In 49 BC Caesar and his troops crossed the Rubicon River, the boundary between Gaul and Italy.

Because Roman law said that no general could enter Italy with his army, Pompey and the Senate considered Caesar's return to Italy a sign of war. Afraid that Caesar would attack him, Pompey and his allies fled Italy. They didn't think they had enough troops to defeat Caesar.

Caesar and his army chased Pompey's forces around the Mediterranean for a year. Eventually they drove Pompey into Egypt, where he was killed. There Caesar met Cleopatra, whom he made queen. As queen, Cleopatra became his new ally.

Finally, Caesar returned to Rome. When he got there, he forced the Senate to name him dictator for 10 years. Later this term was extended and Caesar became dictator for life.

Although Caesar wanted to improve Roman society, some people resented the way he had gained power. They feared that Caesar was trying to make himself the king of Rome. The Romans certainly didn't want a king.

Some Senators were especially angry with Caesar. On March 15 44 BC a date the Romans called the Ides of March, a group of Senators attacked Caesar in the Senate house and stabbed him to death.

Among the attackers was a young Senator named Brutus (BROOT-uhs), who had been a friend and ally of Caesar's. Some Romans even believed that Brutus may have been Caesar's son but didn't know it.

According to Roman historians, Caesar was shocked by Brutus's betrayal and stopped fighting against his attackers when he recognized him.

Rather than becoming heroes, Caesar's murderers were forced to flee for their lives. Rome was shocked by Caesar's murder, and many people were furious about it. He had been loved by many common people, and many of these people rioted after his death. From the chaos that followed Caesar's assassination, the Senate had to act quickly to restore order.

Augustus the Emperor

Two leaders emerged to take control of Roman politics. One was Caesar's former assistant, Marc Antony. The other was Caesar's adopted son Octavian (ahk-TAY-vee-uhn), later called Augustus (aw-GUHS-tuhs).

Antony and Octavian worked to punish the people who had killed Caesar. At Caesar's funeral, Antony delivered a famous speech that turned even more Romans against the killers. Shortly afterward, he and Octavian set out with an army to try to avenge Caesar's death.

Their army caught up to the killers near Philippi (FI-luh-py) in northern Greece. In 42 BC Antony and Octavian soundly defeated their opponents. After the battle the leaders of the plot to kill Caesar, including Brutus, killed themselves.

After the Battle of Philippi, Octavian returned to Italy while Antony went east to fight Rome's enemies. In Turkey, Antony met Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, and the two fell in love. Antony divorced his wife, Octavian's sister, to be with Cleopatra.

Octavian saw this divorce as an insult to his sister and to himself. Antony's behavior led to civil war in Rome. In 31 BC Octavian sent a fleet to attack Antony. Antony sailed out to meet it, and the two forces met just west of Greece in the Battle of Actium (AK-shee-uhm). Antony's fleet was defeated, but he escaped back to Egypt with Cleopatra.

There the two committed suicide so they wouldn't be taken prisoner by Octavian. With Antony's death, Octavian became Rome's sole ruler. Over the next few years he gained power. In 27 BC Octavian announced that he was giving up all his power to the Senate, but, in reality, he kept much power. He took the title princeps (PRIN-seps), or first citizen. The Senate gave him a new name-Augustus, which means "revered one." Modern historians consider the naming of Augustus to mark the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

In many cases these peoples had goods that the Romans wanted. Thinking that there would be a market for these products in Rome, merchants began to travel all over the empire, as you can see on the map.

People in the city of Rome needed raw materials that they couldn't produce themselves. Many of the materials could be found, though, in Rome's provinces, the areas outside of Italy that the Romans controlled. Traders brought metals, cloth, and food from the provinces to the city. They also brought more exotic goods, like spices from Asia and animals from Africa. In return the Romans sent goods made by artisans to the provinces. These goods included jewelry, glass, and clothing.

Some Roman traders also traveled beyond the empire's borders. They sailed as far as eastern Africa, India, and what is now Vietnam to find goods they couldn't get in the empire. Others traveled overland into Asia to meet merchants bringing goods from China on the Silk Road. Silk was especially popular in Rome. Wealthy Romans were willing to pay high prices for it.

To pay for their trade goods, Romans used currency, or money. They traded coins made of gold and silver for the items they wanted. These coins allowed the Romans to trade with people even if they had no items their trade partners wanted. Nearly everyone accepted Roman coins, which helped trade grow even more. Roman coins began to appear in markets all around the Mediterranean.

Discussion Questions

  • What were the events that led to Caesar's gaining power in Rome?

  • Why did many Senators consider Caesar a threat?

  • How did Octavian take power from Marc Antony?

  • How did the Roman Republic become an empire?

Activity 1: What were the main events in transitioning Rome from a Republic to an Empire?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities