The founding of Rome on the fertile Tibur River is obscured by myth and legend, but it is generally accepted that Rome was first settled in 753 BC and that the Republic was founded in 509 BC, following the overthrow of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last of Rome's seven kings.
Toward the end of the 5th century BC, the Romans, propelled by the pressures of unchecked population growth, began to expand at the expense of nearby city-states. In the process, the expanding Roman Republic found the Greek phalanx formation too unwieldy for fragmented fighting in the hills and valleys of central Italy; accordingly, Rome evolved a new tactical system based on flexible ranks of cohorts, organized into self-contained Legions, the means by which Imperial Rome conquered and ruled the ancient world.
By 264 BC all Italy south of the Alps was united under the leadership of Rome, its members either incorporated in or allied with the Republic. Rome's growing influence led it into conflict with Carthage, an established commercial power in northern Africa. The defeat and destruction of Carthage in the three Punic Wars (264-146 BC) sustained Rome's acquisitive momentum, and the Republic set its sights on dominating the entire Mediterranean area. In short order, the Romans overran Syria, Macedonia, Greece, and Egypt, all of which had until then been part of the decaying Hellenistic empire created by Alexander the Great.
But such expansion was not without costs; tensions grew and civil war erupted. The Late Republic witnessed the struggle between Marius and Sulla, the famous slave uprising under Spartacus, and saw the rise of figures such as the general Pompey, the orator Cicero, and the consul Julius Caesar. Caesar conquered Gaul between 58-50 BC, then crushed all of his opponents in a civil war that left him the undisputed master of Rome. After Caesar's assassination in 44 BC, it was not long before civil war again erupted; but following his victory at Actium (31 BC), Octavian, Caesar's nephew, was crowned Rome's first emperor, taking the name Augustus (27 BC-14 AD).
Although there were notable exceptions such as Caligula (37-41) and Nero (54-68), the Roman Empire was generally blessed with a series of able and brilliant leaders during its first two centuries who expanded the frontiers until Rome's empire reached from Britain to Egypt and from Spain to Persia. Imperial Rome was distinguished not only for its military - the foundation upon which the empire rested - but also for its accomplishments in engineering, law, art, architecture and statecraft. Roman science and culture became the foundations of the European world.
After the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD, the empire was plagued by a series of poor rulers. During the middle of the 3rd century, Rome suffered through more than 30 emperors in a span of 70 years, and the empire nearly collapsed under the pressure of internal revolts and barbarian invaders. During his reign the Emperor Constantine (306-337) accomplished two extremely noteworthy things; first, he founded the city of Constantinople to serve as the new capital of the empire, from which the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire would endure for another thousand years. Secondly, Constantine legalized Christianity as a religion, allowing it to spread much more rapidly throughout the Roman world.
After Constantine's death, the empire was split into an eastern and western half, the division becoming permanent in 395. When the empire again came under barbarian onslaught in the late 4th and 5th centuries, the weakened West collapsed but the East - where most of the empire's population and wealth was concentrated - managed to survive. The final emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476, although the Western Empire had become a fiction in all but name decades earlier. Although destroyed as a political entity, the Latin culture of the Roman Empire largely survived and can still be observed today throughout the Mediterranean.
The Pax Romana was a period of relative peace from 27 BC to 180 AD. Achieved in great part thanks to the conquests and machinations of the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, the Pax Romana represents the peak of Roman economy and culture.
Rome has become much romanticized in the 1500 years since its fall. Shakespeare wrote no fewer than four tragedies about Rome, including Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus.
The Roman way of life was one of the most luxurious of their era. Roman citizens - given they were of a high enough standing - could enjoy running water, indoor plumbing, ice, and hot and cold baths.