The ancient Romans are one of the most important, transformational, and well-known civilizations in world history.
They created a hugely successful republic from 509 to 27 BCE. This became an empire and ruled, in various forms, until 1453.
The length of power, as well as the developments and progress achieved, is remarkable. The Romans were innovative in their military, architecture, administration, and law. Many of their techniques and findings have formed the basis of western civilization that we enjoy today.
But what makes an empire so successful and long-lasting? Keep reading to find out more about the history of the Roman Empire, which Turkey was a pivotal part of.
The area of Istanbul may have been inhabited as early as 3,000 BCE. But it wasn’t until the 7th century BCE that the area became a city.
This happened when Greek colonists arrived, led by King Byzas. He named the city after himself and established Byzantium, the first city in Turkey.
Byzantium was in an area known as Anatolia, which today constitutes the Asian portion of Turkey. This land formed a natural bridge across the Black and Mediterranean seas, therefore a bridge between the East and West. It was an extremely strategical area for trade, agricultural development, and cultural exploration.
The Roman republic was created in 509 BCE when the people of Rome replaced their monarchy with elected magistrates; they created the Senate of Rome. It was a democratic society that centered on the city of Rome.
Foreign policy focused on aggressive expansionism, so Rome was quickly expanding and captured neighboring states. As Rome reached ever further, it dominated Italy before becoming the dominant force in the Mediterranean.
As the republic’s power and territory increased, so too did its military power. The success of its armies allowed the republic to rule over areas of Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Anatolia had been conquered by the Greek king Alexander the Great in 334 BCE. By 190 BCE, Anatolia was ruled by King Antiochus III of Seleucia.
At this point, the Romans attacked and captured Anatolia, killing King Antiochus III in Magnesia. This was the beginning of the long Roman rule of Anatolia, which would continue for over 14 centuries.
However, the Romans left the government in the hands of the kings of Pergamum. 57 years later, in 133 BCE, the last Pergamum king – Attalos III – died without any heirs. He bequeathed his kingdom back to Rome.
In 129 BCE, the Roman republic claimed Anatolia as its own. They established Asia Minor, made up of Anatolia and the surrounding area. Ephesus, a west Turkey city, was declared as Asia Minor’s capital.
The Roman Republic had begun in 509 BCE and ended in 27 BCE. As enemies threatened the republic, the Senate chose three co-rulers to command military campaigns and forces.
In 60 BCE, Magnus, Crassus, and Caesar formed the First Triumvirate. However, this alliance was not an easy one; Caesar quickly rose to prominence due to his natural leadership characteristics, securing significant power over the army.
He had taken control of the republic by 45 BCE, declaring himself ‘dictator for life.’ Other senators became concerned that Caesar was becoming a tyrant and jealous of the power that he was consolidating; such leadership was a threat to the Roman Republic.
On 15 March 44 BCE, Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators. This led to a civil war, culminating in the two men deemed responsible for the murder being banished from Rome.
The men of the Second Triumvirate were Caesar’s allies. Octavius was Caesar’s foster son, while Antonius and Aemilius had been his generals. Yet again, there was tension and rivalry between the members of the Triumvirate.
In 31 BCE, Octavius seized Rome when he defeated Marcus Antonius (and Cleopatra, his ally) at the Battle of Actium. The republic came to an end four years later, when Octavius was made the ‘first citizen.’
In reality, he had become Rome’s autocratic ruler. He adopted the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus and became the first emperor of the Roman Empire.
During this time, Anatolia had developed enormously.
There were hundreds of Roman cities across the area, with excellent road connections allowing individuals, goods, and ideas to travel across the region more efficiently.
Trade and culture exploded and flourished. Spectacular temples, buildings, and public services were invented and developed, including libraries, fountains, and sewage systems.
Turkey was influential in the development of the Christian religion, which you can still see today.
Christianity began to spread throughout Anatolia. Early Christians escaped persecution by fleeing to the region, settling in the cities that had been established throughout Anatolia.
From 47 to 57 CE, Paul of Tarsus made his journeys around Anatolia to spread the word of Christianity and teach the gospel of Christ. Paul of Tarsus became Saint Paul, one of the twelve apostles.
In 313, Christianity was granted official toleration under the Edict of Milan. This was signed by Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius and meant that Christians could not be punished or persecuted. This was a crucial moment in the development of Christianity.
In 380, emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, declaring Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Since 129 BCE, the Roman Republic had also ruled over Anatolia, but from a distance. In 333, the area officially became part of the Roman Empire, and Anatolia was at the center of it.
Emperor Constantine selected a small city to be the new imperial capital. It was henceforth to be called Constantinople and is modern-day Istanbul.
Constantine wanted Constantinople to become the new Rome, so he rebuilt and redeveloped the city to reflect the might of the empire.
Anatolia, therefore, became the center of the empire. Although the language and culture were primarily Greek, the Byzantine Empire was Roman in its laws, administration, and political and social structure.
The empire flourished and developed over the next 60 years, as the Roman rule over Anatolia was solidified, and the region integrated into the state of its Roman emperor.
In 285, Emperor Diocletian declared that the Roman Empire was too large to manage and divided it into two. He ruled over the east and made Maximian the Emperor of the west.
In 293, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus were named as subordinates of the emperors, known as caesars. This created the First Tetrarchy – power was divided between four people.
By 305, Diocletian and Maximian – the emperors – abdicated, and Galerius and Constantius – their caesars – became the new emperors. In turn, they appointed their caesars as their subordinates.
However, Constantius – one of the emperors – died unexpectedly in 306. His son, Constantine the Great, was determined to reunify the empire. He succeeded in 324. Constantine refounded the city of Byzantium and made it the capital of the Roman Empire.
After Constantine died in 337, the empire was partitioned once again, and political instability followed.
Finally, in 395, the empire was split into two for good. The Western Empire was ruled by Rome; the Eastern Empire was ruled by Constantinople.
In 395, the Roman emperor Theodosius I died and left the Roman Empire to his sons. They transformed it and divided it into east and west.
The west continued with Rome as the capital.
The east became known as the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as the capital.
Everything changed again less than 100 years later.
The Western Roman Empire had been in a steady decline since approximately 375. Germanic tribes and people had been an increasing threat as they moved into the territory.
Rome – the capital and symbolic heart of the Western Roman Empire – was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals in 455.
The final blow came in 476. The emperor – Romulus Augustulus – was deposed by a Germanic prince called Odovacar. Rome was defeated, and the Western Roman Empire collapsed.
The west was then ruled by many kings and princes, most of whom were not Roman in origin. Their power was based on the control of military forces in the area.
The Roman Empire lived on in the east Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as the sole capital.
But the empire didn’t collapse entirely. The Roman Empire was now the Byzantine Empire, as it was significantly smaller than it had been. Despite this, it flourished.
Emperor Justinian reigned from 527 to 565 BCE and is known as the greatest Byzantine emperor. The empire experienced a golden age.
Justinian was able to expand the empire’s reach and power, reaching Greece, the Balkans, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, eastern North Africa, and parts of Italy.
Justinian also oversaw significant cultural development and enrichment within the empire. The Hagia Sophia – the magnificent Church of the Holy Wisdom – was completed in 537 BCE. It was the largest, most beautiful and most impressive church in the world for almost a thousand years and became the center of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The empire continued to experience relative stability over the next five centuries.
From the 11th century, Seljuk Turks invaded Anatolia from the east. They build a powerful empire in central and eastern Anatolia. Although they quickly became troubled, they were a significant threat to the Roman-Byzantine Empire.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, European Crusaders battled the Seljuk Turks. This was part of the Fourth Crusade, a Christian military campaign to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim control.
However, in 1204, the Crusaders attacked and sacked Constantinople to collect money promised for their support against the Seljuk Turks. The emperor was forced to leave, and a Catholic Latin Empire was established with Constantinople at the center.
The Roman-Byzantine Empire had diminished significantly and was seriously threatened. For almost 60 years, Constantinople was caught between conflicts. The city decayed rapidly, losing all finance, trade, and much of its population. This weakened the city – and the Byzantine Empire – vulnerable.
In 1261, the Empire of Nicaea recaptured Constantinople and returned it to the Byzantine Empire. Finally, the Romans had their capital back again. However, the Byzantine power was irreparably reduced across Anatolia.
Turkish warlords on Anatolia’s eastern borders were becoming an ever-increasing threat. One of these warlord principalities was founded by a chieftain called Osman and developed into the famous Ottoman Empire.
The Byzantine Empire collapsed in 1453.
The Ottoman Empire attacked Constantinople, and a siege began to defend the city. During this, Constantine XI – the last Byzantine emperor – was killed.
After 53 days, the Ottoman Empire, led by Sultan Mehmet II, conquered Constantinople. The city was declared to be the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and its name was changed to Istanbul.
This marked the end of the Byzantine Empire, and so the end of the Roman Empire.
This story of survival is what makes an empire so successful. The Romans ruled for over 11 centuries, over 5.9 million square kilometers. The empire’s reach was enormous, extending over Europe, North Africa, and West Asia.
The empire was able to survive and thrive due to its successful military campaigns, political organization, and administration, enforcement of laws, and cultural and social enrichment, among many other things.
Want to explore the history of Turkey for yourself? Take a look at the tours you can join today.