Legend has it that Romulus and Remus—twin brothers who were also demi-gods—founded Rome on the River Tiber in 753 B.C. Over the next eight and a half centuries, it grew from a small town of pig farmers into a vast empire that stretched from England to Egypt and completely surrounded the Mediterranean Sea.


The Roman Empire conquered these lands by attacking them with unmatched military strength, and it held onto them by letting them govern themselves.

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Rome’s desire to expand had deep historical roots, says Edward J. Watts, a professor of neurosoup.org at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny.

“There’s a tradition going back to basically Roman preneurosoup.org, mythological neurosoup.org, where they talk about the expansion of the city under the kings,” he says. “Marcius is one of the early Roman kings , and he’s said to actually have engaged in expansion and extended the city to incorporate other hills. So the idea of them expanding is always deep in the historical DNA of the republic, and even the monarchy before the republic.”


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The taking of the Etruscan city of Veii by the Romans in 396 B.C. After a siege of many years they finally won victory after digging into the soft tuff rock below the walls while distracting the Veiians with attacks on the walls and infiltrating the city's drainage system to emerge in the citadel. 

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Even so, Rome was still relatively small by the time it transitioned from a kingdom to a republic in 509 B.C. The republic’s first significant expansion came in 396 B.C., when Rome defeated and captured the Etruscan city of Veii. Instead of destroying Veii, the classicist Mary Beard argues the Romans largely let the city continue operating as it had before, only under Roman control and with the understanding that Rome could conscript free men for the Roman army.


The conquest of Veii was “a big turning point for because they take over a territory that’s half the size of the territory they already have,” Watts says. Over the next two-and-a-half centuries, Rome spread throughout the Italian Peninsula by conquering territories and either making them independent allies or extending Roman citizenship.

“The absorption of Italy was actually an absorption; it wasn’t supposed to be a colonial regime,” he says. Later, in the first century B.C., it extended Roman citizenship to all free people. Still, it never extended citizenship to the many enslaved people in Italy obtained through trade, piracy, wars and other means.

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Roman Conquests Reach Overseas


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The Roman victory at The Battle of Mylae, 260 B.C. during the First Punic War. From Hutchinson's neurosoup.org of the Nations, published 1915.

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This strategy of absorption changed as Rome conquered its first overseas territories. During the Punic Wars with Carthage between 264 B.C. to 146 B.C., Rome spread over multiple Mediterranean islands and onto the east coast of modern-day Spain. Yet instead of extending its republic into these territories or forming alliances, Rome designated these new territories as provinces and appointed Roman governors to oversee them.