One of the largest ancient empire states known, the Roman Empire began in central Italy in the middle of the 1st millennium bc. In the wake of collapsing Etruscan cultures, Rome expanded through a mixture of force and diplomacy so that by 250 bc it controlled the whole of peninsular Italy. This expansion inevitably led to conflicts with existing powers around the Mediterranean, especially Carthage, and Rome's struggle to control the western Mediterranean, the Punic Wars, lasted more than a century, Carthage finally being captured in 146 bc.
Until the mid 1st century bc the Roman world was a republic, governed from its centre by a senate and two annually elected consuls. Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 bc was followed by the development of imperial rule, headed by the first emperor, Augustus. Further expansion followed, and by the 2nd century ad the empire was at its largest, extending for more than 4000 km east to west and 3700 km north to south. Its population was more than 50 million, most living in self‐governing provinces. The army amounted to more than 300 000 soldiers, mainly concentrated around the fringes of the empire to defend its borders.
The main source of wealth was agriculture, although a vast and extensive trading economy based on luxury goods as well as staples developed around the Mediterranean, along the Atlantic seaways to the west, and eastwards into the Black Sea and beyond to India and China.
Culturally, the empire always had an eastern part in which Greek was the dominant language and a western part where Latin was dominant. The dividing line ran along the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia. Politically these two regions began to pull apart from the 3rd century ad onwards, and in the 4th century they were more formally divided. In the 5th century Rome's control over the western empire collapsed as barbarian groups broke down its borders; the eastern empire continued to flourish from its capital in Constantinople, eventually becoming the Christian Greek world of Byzantium.
http://www.roman-empire.net Illustrated history of the Roman Empire, with maps, video tours, pictures, information, and links to events.