By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
At its peak (c. A.D. 117), Rome ruled an empire of 54 million people, stretching from Scotland in the north to Egypt in the south, and from Spain in the west to the cradle of civilization (modern-day Iraq) in the east. As Rome's addiction to wealth and aggression suffocated its dream of democracy, the Republic died with Julius Caesar. Here's a who's who of emperors who followed (see if you can memorize them!):
Augustus Caesar (ruled 27 B.C.–A.D. 14): After eliminating his rival Marc Antony (and his lover Cleopatra), Augustus united Rome and became the first Roman emperor. His reign marks the start of 200 years of power and prosperity, the Pax Romana.
Tiberius (r. 14–37): Augustus' adopted son was the Caesar that Jesus Christ "rendered unto."
Caligula (r. 37–41): Caligula was not a nice person. He squandered Rome's money, had sex with his sisters, tortured his enemies, and parked his chariot in handicap spaces. Caligula has become the archetype of a man with enough power to act out his basest fantasies. To no one's regret, assassins ambushed him and ran a sword through his privates.
Nero (r. 54–68): Rome's most notorious emperor killed his mother, kicked his pregnant wife to death, and crucified St. Peter. When Rome burned in A.D. 64, Nero was accused of torching the city so that he could clear land to build an even bigger house.
Titus (r. 79–81): Titus completed the Colosseum and defeated the Jews in Palestine. His victory is commemorated by the Arch of Titus in the Forum. During his reign, Mount Vesuvius exploded, burying Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Trajan (r. 98–117): Rome's expansion peaked under Spanish-born Trajan, the first emperor to come from the provinces rather than Rome. This conquering hero stretched Rome's borders from Europe to North Africa to west Asia, creating a truly vast empire. The spoils of three continents funneled into Rome. His conquests are carved into the 120-foot Trajan's Column, a well-preserved monument in the center of Rome.
Hadrian (r. 117–138): A voracious tourist, Hadrian visited every corner of the enormous empire, from Britain (where he built Hadrian's Wall), to Egypt (where he sailed the Nile), to Jerusalem (where he suppressed a Jewish revolt), to Athens (where he soaked up classical culture and played backgammon). Back home, he beautified Rome with the Pantheon, his tomb (Castel Sant'Angelo), and his villa at Tivoli, a mini — theme park of famous places he'd visited.
Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180): Beset by barbarian attacks and an awful plague, the time of Marcus Aurelius' reign marks Rome's tipping point, as the empire began its slow, three-century decline. The famous philosopher was a multitasker, writing his Meditations while at war securing the Danube frontier. His Danube campaign was commemorated by a column decorated with battle scenes (on Rome's Piazza Colonna).
Commodus (r. 180–192): Marcus Aurelius broke with tradition and chose his blood son to succeed him. Commodus was a palace brat who ran around dressed in animal skins and wielding a club, pretending to be Hercules. As emperor, he ushered in a period of instability and decline.
Septimius Severus (r. 193–211): This African emperor-general's victories on the frontier earned him a grand triumphal arch in the Forum, but he couldn't stop the empire from starting to unravel.
Caracalla (r. 21 –217): To strengthen Rome, Caracalla extended citizenship to nearly all free men in the empire. But no amount of bathing at his huge Baths of Caracalla could wash away his dirty deed of murdering his brother and rival. Caracalla was one of a series of third-century emperors who were assassinated.
Aurelian (r. 270–275): Aurelian built a wall around Rome. The capital hadn't needed a wall for the previous six centuries, but now the crumbling, stumbling city feared barbarian attacks.
Diocletian (r. 285–305): To try to control Rome's decline, Diocletian split the sprawling empire into two administrative halves. He ruled the east from Asia Minor. The city of Split, Croatia, was later built in and around his retirement palace. Diocletian was an avid persecutor of Christians; it's poetic justice that his baths in Rome are now a church.
Constantine (r. 306–337): The first Christian emperor is known as Constantine the Great. In the belief that the Christian God helped him defeat his rival Maxentius in 312, he legalized Christianity. In 330, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), a decision that weakened Rome but built a solid foundation for the up-and-coming Byzantine Empire.
Romulus Augustulus (r. 475–476): Rome's last emperor, 14-year-old "Little Augustus" was forced to abdicate by a barbarian chieftain, and the reign of Rome's emperors was over.
Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves Rome guidebook.