The Iron Age in the Roman Empire: History & Conquest

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Rome's imperial Iron Age was one of near-constant warfare. In this lesson, we'll examine some trends and major conquests of the Roman Empire's rise to dominance.

Rome's Imperial Iron Age

Iron is a useful metal, and you can do a lot with it. You can make cookware, nails, agricultural tools, and other handy things. Despite this, we tend to associate iron with one application in particular: warfare.

There's a reason for this. The Iron Age of Europe saw the expansion of several military powers, from the Athenian Empire to the empire of Alexander the Great. None, however, would reach the size or scale of the Roman Empire. The Roman Iron Age began long before Rome became an international empire, but it was partly thanks to iron weapons that the Roman military was so effective. Of course it was iron in the hands of Rome's enemies that led to its downfall. How's that for ironic?

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent in 117 CE.
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Conquests of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty

In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar, perpetual dictator of Rome, was assassinated. A civil war broke out between claimants to his power, and the victor to emerge from this was Caesar's adopted nephew, Octavian in 31 BCE. In 27 BCE, Octavian took the title Augustus Caesar, and became the first emperor of Rome. The title of emperor carried military connotations, defined largely by the responsibility to defend and expand Rome's borders. With the constant need for warfare to justify imperial power, the history of the Roman Empire is synonymous with the history of its conquests. So, that's how we're going to explore Roman history today, through it's conquests.

The first five emperors of Rome all claimed to fall within the Caesar's lineage (generally through adoption), so we call this the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. It wa a period of major expansion for Rome. Augustus quickly annexed North Africa, the Middle East, and most of Southern Europe into the Roman Empire, and launched a major military campaign into Germania, territory of the Germanic tribes in Northern Europe. Rome had been at war with the Germanic tribes for generations, but Augustus was determined to prove his worth as emperor by defeating them. He wasn't able to fully do so, but did set the stage for the next emperor, Tiberius, to defeat most of the Germanic tribes up to the Rhine in 16 CE. Romans crossed the Rhine around 39 CE under Emperor Caligula, but were unable to gain major territory. The Rhine became seen as the Roman border between Roman and Germanic territories for generations.

Map of Roman Londinium
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The other major campaign of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty was into what the Romans called Britannia, today Great Britain. Julius Caesar had first invaded Britain in the 1st century BCE, but accomplished little. In 43 CE, the emperor Claudius ordered the first substantial invasion of Britain, which resulted in the establishment of major Roman forts on the island, including Londinium (today London).

The Flavian Dynasty

Following the end of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, Rome fell into a brief period of turmoil known as the Year of Four Emperors. From this emerged the emperor Vespasian, who established the Flavian Dynasty.

The rulers of the Flavian Dynasty put a lot of effort into Rome's infrastructure, maintained the wars in Britannia and Germania, and quelled rebellions across the Middle East and other parts of the empire. Their new campaigns, however, were not as successful. The major Flavian campaigns were fought under Diocletian in the late 1st century, which included an unsuccessful push into Caledonia (Scotland) and Dacia, the region near the Carpathian Mountains north of Greece.

The Five Good Emperors

Diocletian was succeeded by Nerva, first of the so-called Five Good Emperors, remembered for their benevolence and military success, as well as the prosperity of Rome at this time. Like the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, the five Good Emperors gained lots of their popularity from securing the military borders of the empire and expanding where they could. Many of Rome's military borders were solidified in this time, perhaps most famously including the extant of Roman influence in Britannia. In 122 CE, the emperor Hadrian commissioned a wall separating Roman Britain from the Briton-controlled territories to the north, known now as Hadrian's Wall.

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