The greatest and most influential multicultural empire in world history to date. It is of particular importance for Christianity, because Christ was born under the reign of Augustus, and the early Church developed in the milieu of Greco-Roman civilization within the Roman Empire and was subject to its government. Indeed, the New Testament is an important source for the life of the common people in the first century of the Empire. In Late Antiquity, the Roman Empire collapsed in Western Europe, and the year 476, when the last emperor of Rome was dethroned, has become a date of convenience for the fall of the Roman Empire. In the eastern Mediterranean, however, the Roman Empire continued, developing seamlessly into the Byzantine Empire which lasted until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Up into the nineteenth century, Greeks still called themselves 'Romaioi ' (Romans).
The Establishment of the Principate
Gaius Octavius, b. in Rome, Sept. 23, 63 b.c., was the son of Gaius Octavius, who was born into the equestrian order but who achieved senatorial rank, reaching the praetorship. His second wife, Atia, was the daughter of Julius Caesar's sister. Julius Caesar, who had no son of his own (he never acknowledged his son by Cleopatra, Caesarion, who would in any case have been illegitimate under Roman law) showed a marked liking for the young Octavius. He enrolled him among the patricians, and at the time of his assassination he was about to add Octavius to his staff for a campaign aimed first against the Dacians and then the Parthians. Julius Caesar's will left Octavius three-quarters of his estate and adopted him as his son, thereby giving him the name "Gaius Julius Caesar d(ivi) f(ilius) Octavianus."
It was, however, nearly a decade and a half before Octavian became master of the Roman world. Mark Antony and Cleopatra were defeated at the naval battle of Actium (31 b.c.) and the following year Octavian annexed Egypt. The royal treasury of Egypt made him rich enough to discharge the claims of his soldiers and veterans; 120,000 veterans were settled in colonies, each with a donative of 1,000 sesterces. Some two years after the victory at Actium, he returned to Italy and celebrated his triumph (Aug. 13, 29 b.c.). It now remained for him to regularize his position.
It is hardly correct to say, as many historians do, that he set about fulfilling a promise to restore the pre-Civil War "Roman Republic." In the first place, the term respublica he claimed to restore, which is translated as "Republic," does not have quite the same connotations as the English word, "republic." It is a more equivocal word, meaning something like "state" or "commonwealth." Second, the authority which Octavian possessed had two main bases. One was the charisma he enjoyed as the heir of Julius Caesar, reinforced by a personal oath of loyalty taken by the cities of Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia to himself and his descendants (late 33 or early 32 b.c.). The other was the consulship; Octavian took up his third consulship (Jan. 1, 31 b.c.) in the year of Actium, and until his sixth consulship (28 b.c.) he had all 24 lictors attend himself, leaving none for his colleague. The symbolism was pointed. In Octavian's sixth consulship with his colleague the able general and his friend from his schooldays, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the former custom of having 12 lictors to attend each consul was restored, but Octavian got the powers of a censor for himself and Agrippa. The census they conducted registered 4,063,000 citizens. He also tried to reduce the numbers in the Senate which had ballooned to over a thousand, and expelled some 150, but he failed to bring the number down to the Sullan figure of 600.
The following year (27 b.c.) Octavian, who had just begun his seventh consulship, again with Agrippa as colleague, met the Senate on the Ides of January (January 13) and resigned his extraordinary powers, placing his provinces at the Senate's disposal, though he remained consul with imperium : an office he continued to hold every year until 23 b.c. However the senate demurred; Octavian was promptly offered Spain (except Baetica), Syria, Cilicia, Cyprus and Gaul, and he accepted them with apparent reluctance. Egypt he also kept, and a prefect appointed by him administered it as a successor of the Ptolemaic kings. The Senate also voted him new honors, chief of them the appellation "Augustus" (the revered one). Octavian took a new name: "Imperator Caesar Augustus."
Halfway through his term as consul in 23 b.c., however, Augustus resigned the consulship and from this time on held the office only twice. He was granted, instead, tribunician power (tribunicia potestas ), which henceforth became so important an element of imperial control that emperors dated their rule by the number of years they held it. The tribunician power gave him a tribune's
right to convene the Senate and the popular assembly, submit proposals, as well as veto any item of public business or action of a magistrate, and the right to compel obedience to his demands. As well, he was granted proconsular imperium maius for life, valid even within the boundaries of the city of Rome, and superior to the imperium held by any other proconsul. This made up a bundle of powers which gave Augustus extraordinary authority, although at the same time the machinery of constitutional government did not cease to operate. Elections continued to be held; Rome continued to have consuls, praetors, tribunes, aediles, and quaestors. One could argue that the Augustan settlement was a façade: autocracy masked by precedents borrowed from the republican constitution as it had existed before the Civil Wars. Yet Augustus respected Roman traditions. He avoided any suggestion of monarchy where it might grate on Roman sensibilities, and preferred the informal title of princeps which had Roman precedents, whence the term "principate" which we apply to his constitutional settlement. In the East, however, which was accustomed to Hellenistic monarchy, he was called autokrator (autocrat).
In 12 b.c. Augustus was elected to another honor. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, who was pontifex maximus, the triumvir Marcus Aemilius Lepidus had acquired the office and held it until his death in 13 b.c. Augustus had made no move to shove Lepidus aside. Yet no doubt he wanted the office and now he acquired it. Emperors continued to hold the office of pontifex maximus until the emperor Gratian (375–383 a.d.), who declined it as unbecoming a Christian ruler.
There was an aura of ambiguity about the principate. Augustus was both princeps (first citizen) and imperator (generalissimo); the first title denoted prestige and influence within the customary constitution of Rome, and the second denoted military power. He enjoyed the confidence of the masses; when there were floods, a food shortage, and an epidemic in 22 b.c., they rioted to make him accept a dictatorship. The army was loyal. The commanders Augustus appointed were men whom he could trust; when he could, he chose members of the imperial family. The provinces were better governed, and had no reason to regret the passing of the old republic. The people accepted peace after a generation of civil war with relief and gratitude.
One of Augustus' most striking achievements was the organization of a professional military force which was efficient and economical. It was to last with little change for two centuries. The great army which had defeated Mark Antony was demobilized, and what Augustus kept was a force of 28 legions of 6,000 men each, if at full strength, made up of Roman citizens, supplemented by auxilia of about the same number, and recruited from non-citizen provincials. In 9 a.d., three legions were destroyed in a disaster in Germany when Arminius, chief of a German tribe known as the Cherusci, ambushed the Roman commander Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest, and the legions remained at 25 until the end of the emperor Tiberius' reign (37 a.d.). Under the emperor Vespasian (69–79 a.d.) there were still only 29.
It was the 60 centurions in every legion who maintained discipline. The centurions were professional officers who rose through the ranks, and they might rise as high as centurion of the first rank (primipilus ), but no higher. The higher officers belonged to the senatorial order. Legionary soldiers served for 20 years and received 225 denarii a year, from which rations and equipment were deducted. Until Septimius Severus (193–211), legal marriage was disallowed until discharge, when they received land grants in colonies in Italy or in the provinces. This was the general practice until 6 a.d., when Augustus established a bonus fund for the soldiers (aerarium militare ) financed by an initial grant of 170 million from his personal fortune, and the revenue from a one percent sales tax (centesima venalium ) and a five percent inheritance tax (vicesima hereditatium ). Thereafter a veteran generally received a cash gratuity on discharge, set at 3,000 denarii, though veterans' colonies were still occasionally founded. Auxiliary troops were commanded by Roman citizens of the equestrian order; they served 25 years and were given Roman citizenship when they were discharged. A diploma (a certificate inscribed on bronze, of which a number have been found) was given to an auxiliary on discharge. It conferred citizenship on him, his children and descendants, and the wife he had at the time of discharge, or whom he might marry later, if he were single. Presumably auxiliaries also received a bonus but at a much more modest level than the legionaries received. The Romans relied on the auxiliaries for their cavalry and light infantry, and they provided specialties that the Roman arsenal lacked, such as archers, especially mounted archers.
In Italy, the only regular army corps was the Praetorian Guard of nine cohorts, each of 1,000 troops. It was an elite force commanded by two praetorian prefects and received special treatment: guardsmen served for only 16 years, their pay scale was triple that of the legionaries, and when they retired they received more generous gratuities. Augustus never allowed more than three praetorian cohorts to remain in Rome at one time, and even they lacked a permanent camp; the remainder he quartered in neighboring towns. It was Tiberius who established the Praetorian Camp (Castra Praetoria ) on the Via Tiburtina, within a built-up part of the city, though outside the pomoerium, and thereafter the praetorian prefects came to exercise ominous authority in the imperial government.
The Administrative Corps of the Empire
The Senate. Augustus' accomplishment displays a nice balance between respect for senatorial traditions and eagerness to harness the abilities and loyalty of new blood. He chose his highest civil and military officers from among the senators, and three times (29/8, 18, 13 b.c.) he purged the rolls of the senate to rid it of undesirable members. For the first time he set a property qualification: either 800 thousand sesterces, according to Suetonius or 400 thousand (Cassius Dio) but he raised it periodically and at the start of Tiberius' reign it stood at one million. The republican magistrates continued to be elected. The consuls had little to do except preside over the Senate, but the consulship was still prestigious, and it opened the door for military commands and the governorship of senatorial provinces. Competition for the consulship was keen, and c. 5 b.c. the number chosen each year was doubled by introducing suffect consuls: the two consuls would resign office after six months and their places would be taken by two suffects. The praetors, eight until 23 b.c. then ten, and in Augustus' last years, 12, still had judicial duties; two of them became treasury officials after 23, managing the aerarium, and the next year they took over from the aediles the attractive duty of giving public games. The tribunes had nothing left to do, and the office became so unattractive to senators that in a.d. 12, Augustus opened it to the equites. Aediles had little to do except to repair streets and act as a small claims court in commercial cases, so there was, understandably, a dearth of candidates. The quaestorship gave admission to the Senate. Twenty quaestors were elected each year and about half served in the provinces. Elections in the Centuriate Assembly for the praetors and consuls were lively, and Augustus had to take steps to control corruption. He had another control as well: by virtue of his proconsular imperium he could reject nominees, and present his own preferred list of candidates for the consulship and the praetorship. Other consuls could also commend nominees, and Roman politicians regularly canvassed for their candidates, but when Augustus canvassed, his commendation carried particular weight. It would be too much to say that the elections in the Centuriate Assembly were entirely free. The emperor Tiberius abolished them, and henceforth magistrates were elected in the Senate.
The term "equestrian order" (ordo equestris ) is used in two senses. Strictly speaking, it was the 18 centuries of equites equo publico which once made up the cavalry of the Roman army, but their military function had been lost long ago and now they were only voting units in the Centuriate Assembly. Augustus tried to revitalize the equites equo publico, enlarging its number from 1,800 to 5,000 and reviving the annual march past, where the consuls inspected them. But in popular parlance and, in due time, officially as well, all freeborn citizens assessed at a minimum of 400,000 sesterces were equites, enjoying equestrian privileges such as the equestrian gold ring and the first 14 rows of seats in the theater. Augustus drew a number of his officials from their ranks. Augustus recruited his prefects from the equites with the exception of the urban prefect, the chief constable of Rome and commander of the three urban cohorts of security police, who was a senator and ex-consul. There were the two prefects of the Praetorian Guard, the prefect of Egypt, which Augustus ruled directly, the prefects of the Roman fleets, one based at Misenum on the Gulf of Naples and the other at Ravenna, the prefect of the night patrol (vigiles ), and the prefect of the grain supply (praefectus annonae ). Also recruited from the equites were Augustus' deputies, the procuratores, who might act as his private financial agents or govern small provinces. Small provinces in Alpine districts or Judaea were governed initially first by prefects but later by procurators. Pontius Pilate is designated a procurator in the Gospels, but in fact his title is proved to have been "prefect" by an inscription found in Jerusalem. It can hardly be true, however, that Augustus established a cursus honorum for the equites which paralleled that of the senators, for we can discern no regular path of promotion.
Beneath the equestrians in the Roman social hierarchy was the plebs urbanus, "the common people of city of Rome" who were entitled to a free distribution of grain every month until 2 b.c., when this privilege was restricted to a fixed group, the plebs frumentaria numbering eventually about 150,000. But beyond the city, the population of the empire was made up of freeborn citizens, freedmen, and provincials. All Italians were now citizens and increasing numbers of provincials were beginning to acquire it as well. Freedmen, that is, manumitted slaves who bore the family names of their former masters, were citizens with qualifications: they were, for instance, excluded from public office and military service. Augustus retained the disabilities for freedmen; yet the corps of 7,000 night watchmen (vigiles ) which he instituted in a.d. 6 were all freedmen, and in the crises of Pannonian revolt of a.d. 6 and the disaster in the Teutoberg forest in a.d. 9, he recruited them into special cohorts in the army. But they did not become legionary soldiers. However, he allowed many Italian towns to institute the seviri Augustales, an annual board of six freedmen who looked after the cult of the Lares Augusti ; contributions from them for public works and spectacles were expected in return. Later, under the emperor Claudius (81–54) freedmen were to capture positions of great power in the imperial bureaucracy, but under Claudius' successors, a shift in favor of equestrians began again, culminating with the emperor Hadrian.
Government in Italy and the Empire
1. Rome and Italy. In Rome, the three urban cohorts of 1,000 men each under the urban prefect's command kept law and order. The city was divided into 14 regions (regiones ) which were subdivided into precincts (vici ). There were 265 vici. Seven cohorts of vigiles, established in a.d. 6, combined the duties of a night watch and a fire brigade. Augustus also found that the people expected him to ensure adequate supplies of water and food and eventually he appointed a prefect of the grain supply.
Italy, which now included Cisalpine Gaul, was divided into 11 administrative regions, but these remained more important geographically than politically. Begun by Julius Caesar, the reform of the municipal constitutions—there were 474 municipalities in the peninsula—was completed by Augustus, and it set the model for new foundations and for incorporated towns in the provinces. The municipal governments were modeled roughly on Rome's; there were chief magistrates (duoviri or quattuorviri ) and a senate (curia ). A large number of young men of the leading families in the Italian municipalities were incorporated into the senatorial and equestrian orders at Rome and furnished a supply of new recruits for administrative careers. Augustus wanted Rome and Italy to enjoy a favored position in the empire, and unlike Caesar, he granted the franchise citizenship to provincials.
2. The Provinces. The agreement between Augustus and the Senate in 27 b.c. instituted a sort of dual governance for the provinces: some, generally those not threatened by enemies or internal disturbance, would be ruled by the senate, and Augustus governed the remainder, appointing legates to administer them. Governors of senatorial provinces would be chosen from the ranks of exconsuls or ex-praetors; their term was one year, and they were accompanied by quaestors as financial officials. For the imperial provinces, Augustus chose his legates from senators who were ex-consuls or ex-praetors, and they held office at his pleasure. They could be moved from one province to another without any interruption in their career. Therefore, senatorial provinces were theoretically governed in the same way as they were in the Roman republic before the Civil Wars, and Augustus had republican precedent for this procedure as well. Although Pompey had become governor in Spain in 53 b.c., he remained in Rome and ruled through legates in his provinces. However, Augustus could use his maius imperium to lay down rules in senatorial provinces if he wished. This is made dramatically clear by the Cyrene Edicts (SEG ix, 8). An inscription found in Cyrene in 1927 gives us four edicts of Augustus, (7/6 b.c.), which set forth regulations relating to friction between Greeks and Romans: the first specifically gives instructions to the provincial governor in the senatorial province of Crete and Cyrene and his successors.
The borders of the Augustan empire were not clearly marked, and beyond the provinces were the client states. In Germany beyond the Rhine, the Roman government manipulated the German tribes by tying friendly chiefs to them, rewarding them with Roman citizenship and subsidies, and fostering divisions where it was to Rome's advantage. Until the disaster of the Teutoberg Forest in a.d. 9, Rome intended to subdue the territory between the Rhine and the Elbe rivers, and after that objective had to be abandoned, Rome still sought to establish a control mechanism over the German chiefs. In the east, client kings were manipulated ruthlessly. Unsatisfactory kings were removed. Even generally satisfactory ones could fall at the whim of an emperor. Gaius Caligula (37–41) who was free-handed at bestowing kingdoms on his friends, deposed and executed Ptolemy of Mauretania, a descendant of Antony and Cleopatra, and annexed his kingdom. It is hard to discover a rational reason for his action. Client kingdoms had advantages: they masked the reality of the Roman yoke, and they conserved the army's manpower by relieving it of police duties in border areas. But the client-state system was in full decline by the end of the first century.
Succession was to present the gravest problem for the well-being of the empire. How could one emperor succeed another peacefully? Augustus was in theory a magistrate and hence could not have a successor in a formal, dynastic sense. Nonetheless, it is clear that he wanted to transfer his charisma to a successor chosen by himself, and it was equally clear that he wanted an heir who would carry the genes of the Julian family. Though the principate was not a hereditary monarchy, still there was a certain ambivalence about it from the beginning. Augustus, like any Roman noble, took pride in his family and wanted to secure the position he had won for his descendants.
1. The Julio-Claudians. Augustus sired only one child, Julia, a daughter by his third wife, Scribonia, whom he had married for political advantage and divorced quickly. His last marriage was for love. Livia was a scion of one of the great Romans families, the Livii, and she had already been married once, to Tiberius Claudius Nero by whom she already had a son, and she was pregnant with another, Drusus, when she married Octavian in 38 b.c. They were to introduce the blood line of the Claudian gens, and hence the ruling family is labeled the Julio-Claudians in history books. But Livia had no more children. Augustus was left with Julia.
He married her to his nephew Marcellus, and, after Marcellus' death, to his right-hand man, Marcus Agrippa, whose military talent had served Augustus well in the Civil Wars. Agrippa sired five children in less than ten years, three of them sons, Gaius, Lucius, and finally Agrippa Postumus, born after his father's death and mentally unsound. But Gaius and Lucius died young, and Augustus was left with his stepson, Tiberius. In a.d. 4, Augustus adopted him and gave him tribunician power for a ten-year term, which was renewed when the term was up and the imperium proconsulare was added to it. But at the same time as Augustus adopted him, he made him adopt Germanicus, the grandson of Augustus' sister who was married to Julia's daughter, Agrippina. When Augustus died, it was clear that if Augustus was to have a successor, it would have to be Tiberius, a Claudian, but on his death the succession would revert to Augustus' own descendants.
In fact, it did, but not as Augustus intended. Germanicus died young, leaving three sons, and Tiberius' own son, Drusus, died not long afterwards. When Tiberius died in a.d. 37, it was Germanicus' youngest son, Gaius Caligula, who succeeded, and he was the great-grandson of Augustus. When Caligula was killed Jan. 24, 41, after four years of misrule, his uncle Claudius was found hiding behind an arras. Claudius had been considered feeble-minded and harmless, and his reputation had saved his life under Caligula. He was rushed off to the praetorian camp and proclaimed emperor, while the Senate was still deliberating the succession, and some spoke for "liberty," that is, government by the Senate without an emperor. But they reached no decision. The people demonstrated for Claudius, and the Senate had little choice but to accept him. He owed the imperial office to the praetorian guard, and acknowledged his debt by giving the guardsmen handsome gratuities: a prudent move under the circumstances, but it set a hurtful example that later emperors had to follow. It made brief reigns profitable. On Claudius' death, his successor was Nero (54–68). Whatever his failings, and they were many, he was a descendant of Julia though his mother, Agrippina the Younger, and the rank-and-file of the army was loyal. When Nero died, the Julio-Claudian family became extinct.
2. The Flavian. Who should succeed? The army decided. The year 68 was the year of the four emperors. The emperor who emerged victorious was Titus Flavius Vespasianus (69–79), the commander of the legions who were suppressing a Jewish revolt in Judea that had broken out in 66. With Vespasian, the family name of the Julio-Claudians, "Caesar," became an official title and was used as such by the emperors who followed him. Vespasian's ambitions were dynastic. He determined to found an imperial family, and the succession did pass smoothly to his two sons, first the elder, the much-liked Titus (79–81), and then Domitian (81–96), a truculent despot to the Senate, but admired by the soldiers, whose pay he raised by one-third, and whom he led personally on five campaigns on the Rhine and Danube. Domitian lost his life to a plot (Sept. 18, 96) by members of his household, including his wife, Domitia and one of the praetorian prefects. Having no candidate of their own, the assassins left the selection of a successor to the Senate. The Senate made a cautious choice: an elderly senator named Marcus Cocceius Nerva (96–98).
3. The Five Good Emperors (96–180) and Commodus (180–192). Within a year, Nerva found himself facing an insubordinate Praetorian Guard and swiftly adopted as his son and successor Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan), an experienced soldier who was governor of Upper Germany. He became co-emperor immediately (October of 97), and on Nerva's death three months later he peacefully became emperor.
Nerva had found a method of peaceful succession. Trajan (98–117), who was adopted by Nerva, in turn adopted Hadrian (117–138) on his deathbed, and Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius (138–161) and insisted at the same time that Antoninus adopt Marcus Aurelius (161–180) and Lucius Verus (161–169) as co-emperors. Marcus Aurelius, however, had a son, Commodus, and thus faced a dilemma. If he were to pass him over and adopt someone better qualified as his heir, the new emperor would regard Commodus as a threat and almost certainly put him to death. Thus he made Commodus coemperor in 178, and in 180, when he died, Commodus (180–192) became sole emperor at the age of 18. His reign was disastrous.
The successful conspirators who murdered Commodus nominated Publius Helvius Pertinax, the urban prefect, as emperor, and he was taken to the Praetorian Camp where he received a half-hearted endorsement. But in less than three months, the praetorians killed him and auctioned the office to the man who gave the guardsmen the largest donative. The winner was a senator, Didius Julianus (March–June of 193). Rival candidates rapidly emerged: Decimus Clodius Albinus, put forward by the army in Britain, Gaius Pescennius Niger, backed by the Syrian legions, and Lucius Septimius Severus, supported by the legions on the Rhine and the Danube. Severus (193–211) reached Rome in early June of 193 and was confirmed as princeps by the Senate. In 193 and 194 he campaigned against Niger, who was defeated and killed. Albinus and Severus at first made a pact to cooperate, but after Severus disposed of Niger, he designated his own son to succeed him, thus making it clear that there would be no place for Albinus in his future plans. Albinus put up a fight, but Severus moved quickly against Albinus' forces, which were based in Lugdunum (Lyon) and defeated them in two battles. Albinus killed himself and Severus had his body thrown into the Rhine, his wife and children killed, and his supporters hunted down. With Severus the emperor emerges as autocrat. His power was rooted in the army's loyalty and he knew it: he increased the pay of the soldiers by half. When he died in 211, his last words to his sons Caracalla and Geta were "Do not quarrel with each other, enrich the soldiers and scorn everyone else."
Life under the Pax Romana
The expansion of the empire continued under Augustus though at a more measured pace than hitherto. The conquest of Spain, which had taken 200 years, was finally completed, the Balkan peninsula right up to the Danube was brought under Roman control, and by 9 b.c. Roman troops had reached as far as the Elbe River. Except for the unforeseen debacle of Varus in the Teutoberg Forest in a.d. 9, Augustus would have brought the region between the Rhine and the Elbe into the Empire. The accepted view is that he intended to make the Elbe and the Danube the imperial frontier, but an alternative view has been suggested recently that he was not thinking in terms of delimited frontiers, which, given the maps available, was not a concept that a contemporary Roman could easily grasp, but rather was pursuing the dream of world conquest. The idea of the "frontier" as a line to be defended arrived with Domitian. However, Tiberius abandoned the conquest of Germany, and except for the addition of Britain under the emperor Claudius and Dacia by Trajan, the great period of expansion was over.
The empire covered a vast area, and in the first two centuries, it was a generally peaceful and prosperous area. Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79, coined the phrase: "the immeasurable majesty of the Roman peace," and the "Roman peace" (pax Romana ) became almost a cliché, but not an inaccurate one. There were military operations and rebellions, but the Roman army dealt with them efficiently and the even tenor of life was undisturbed. The pay scale of the legionary soldiers remained unchanged until the emperor Domitian raised it by one-third, but even so the treasury found it a burden, and Nero started an evil practice of adulterating the silver denarius with ten percent base metal, thereby stretching the available silver bullion to cover the payroll. Yet emperors felt it necessary to spend lavishly on public buildings that affirmed the power and majesty of Rome and advertised their own magnanimity.
Various calculations have been made of the number of people living in Rome, Italy, or the empire in general, but most scholars still generally accept the estimates made by K. J. Beloch in 1886: between 750,000 and 1 million for the city of Rome in the early empire, between five and eight million for Italy, and between 50 and 60 million for the empire as a whole.
The Cities. The empire was made up of civitates (or, in the Greek-speaking east, poleis ), that is, territories with their political and administrative centers in their chief town. In the east, Rome found poleis or "city-states" already well established with their own laws and customs, and Rome allowed these to continue. Life in the Hellenistic cities in the east continued with little change. Rome continued to foster cities as the Hellenistic kings had done before they were overtaken by Roman imperialism. In the west, cities and Romanization went hand in hand, and the Italian municipality provided the model for new city foundations. The city was responsible for administering its own territory. Egypt was the exception: except for Alexandria, the old capital of the Ptolemaic kingdom, cities were foreign to Egypt. The prefect ruled as the Ptolemaic kings had done before him until the Severan period, when municipalities were established there, too.
The members of the city councils (curiae ) were chosen from the wealthy notables of the city, and during the great period of the pax Romana they considered it an honor to serve. The curiae were responsible for collecting the taxes, the tributum soli, a tax on land, and the tributum capitis, a poll tax. These were the empire's chief source of revenue, though in addition there were customs dues at the frontiers and at provincial boundaries as well as the aurum coronarium, which began as a voluntary offering of a gold crown by a city to an emperor on his accession and evolved into a supplementary tax that was demanded with increased frequency. Wealthy notables were also generous donors and paid for many of the public amenities out of their own pockets. The ruined cities of Roman Africa in particular bear mute witness to the euergetism of their citizens, who grew rich from the production of wheat and olive oil for export. However, most of the population lived in the countryside, in the territories belonging to the cities, and earned their livelihood from agriculture. The cities lived off the profits of the countryside. The great aqueducts that supplied the cities are indicative of the situation: they carried in water for baths and fountains from the countryside, where in many cases it might better have been used for farming.
It is convenient to classify farms as smallholdings, consisting of 10-80 iugera (a iugerum is a parcel 240' x 120'), medium-sized estates (80–500 iugera ) and latifundia (over 500 iugera ). Smallholdings were particularly common in central and south Italy in the fourth and third centuries b.c., and these small landholders had been the backbone of the Roman republican army. From the late Republican period on, latifundia grew in importance. They varied from ranches to large mixed farms. The small freeholder would probably work his own land with his family's help, but land was considered the best of all investments: hence the rise of large estates which might be worked by slaves with a slave overseer (vilicus ), or by sharecropping, or by leasing to tenants (coloni ) for a rent in cash. Sharecroppers on the large imperial estates in Africa in the second century a.d. normally paid one-third of their produce, but elsewhere the proportion might vary. Leasing to coloni for cash rent was the simplest method, and it lingered on in Italy until the sixth century a.d. But it involved problems, for in bad years a colonus might be unable to pay his rent, and if a landlord seized his goods in lieu of rent, the colonus would become even less able to pay in the future.
Commerce. Cities had markets on regular market days, and a farm close to a city (fundus suburbanus ) would gear its production to the market. Timber, firewood, orchard fruit, dessert grapes, flowers, poultry and eggs were all in demand. Vineyards and olive orchards were profitable, and so was sheep ranching, which produced wool, hides, meat, and cheese. Cities were centers of small-scale manufacturing and service industries, and commerce was lively: we find shoemakers, weavers, fullers, silver workers who might combine their trade with some money-lending, millers, and bakers, and a whole host of other tradesmen, who generally passed on their trades from father to son. In the imperial period, however, we find that large estates would often set up their own workshops and produce their own jars, iron implements, cordage, tiles, and pots. This must have had an inhibiting effect on commerce in the cities.
Transport overland was slow and expensive. On sea it was cheap, but slow and risky in the winter. Yet bulky goods had to be carried by ship or riverboat, owned generally by a shipowner (navicularius ) who sailed his own vessel, carrying cargoes of such goods as marble, timber, produce, firewood, or jars (amphorae ) of wine or olive oil either on his own account or on consignment for others. Because the imperial government needed private shippers to carry supplies to Rome and to the army, the collegia of navicularii (leagues of shipowners) were the first trade alliances to be granted official recognition and privileges, for it was more efficient for the government to contract with them than with individual ship owners. Collegia of navicularii are first known in great numbers in the time of Hadrian, and they remained free agents until the third century, when they were brought under the aegis of the imperial service. The largest vessels belonged to the Alexandrian grain fleet, which brought wheat from Egypt to Rome. Lucian of Samosata (The Ship i-ix) describes one ship of between 1,200 and 1,300 tons that was blown off course and reached the harbor of Piraeus after 70 days at sea. Grain shipments had to be suspended in winter. St. Paul's voyage to Italy on a grain transport (Acts 27.1–28) illustrates vividly the danger of trying to sail too late in the sailing season on the Mediterranean.
Foreign trade was extensive. The Romans imported amber from the Baltic Sea, slaves, hides, timber for shipbuilding, hemp, wax and pitch from northern and eastern Black Sea ports, frankincense from Yemen, spices from India, and silk from China. Much of the silk was imported via India and followed a route from Indian ports up the Persian Gulf and from there by caravan to Mediterranean ports, but there was an alternative silk route from China to Black Sea ports in the Crimea. Roman mariners discovered the monsoons towards the end of the first century, and convoys of merchantmen began to sail directly from Red Sea ports to Sri Lanka and India. Fairs, both regional and local, assumed great importance in foreign trade, particularly in Late Antiquity, for merchants would come to these fairs, which were held periodically, to buy and sell their goods there. It has been argued that an unfavorable trade balance with the east drained the empire's gold supply, but the evidence is slight. Many Roman gold coins have been found in India; silver denarii up to the time of Nero have also been found, but after Nero debased the denarius it was no longer accepted in India.
The Importance of Slavery. Slaves were also an important item of trade. When the Romans captured a town, its inhabitants were considered part of the booty, and those unable to pay ransom would be sold to a slave dealer who would take them to market. A successful campaign could bring in a flood of slaves. After Vespasian's son, Titus, suppressed the revolt in Judea in a.d. 70, large numbers of Jewish slaves were brought to Rome, where they helped build the Flavian amphitheater (Colosseum). But as Rome's expansion ceased and the wars she fought became defensive, warfare provided the markets with fewer slaves. Piracy was another source of slavery, though the imperial fleet tried to keep it under control. Another source was unwanted children exposed by their parents. Slavers would pick them up, raise them, and then sell them as slaves. Slaves might also be bred: fertile slave women could be rewarded for bearing three or four children with exemption from work or freedom.
Slaves were an important item of foreign trade. The less civilized fringe regions of the empire sold surplus population to pay for merchandise from the empire. In particular, when Hadrian banned male castration within the empire, he created an import market for eunuchs, who were in demand particularly in the later period. Abasgia on the Black Sea became an important source of eunuchs until the emperor Justinian (527–56) put a stop to it; the king of Abasgia would seize handsome boys, castrate them and sell them to dealers.
Slaves were found in all areas of the Roman economy. They were used on farms, ranches, mines, and factories. Both the state and the imperial household owned slave crews to maintain the aqueducts. Slaves used in mining, which was an imperial monopoly, suffered terribly. Slaves had no rights; they could be flogged and subjected to physical or sexual abuse with impunity. If they ran away, they might be crucified if caught or sold to a producer of spectacles in the amphitheater where they would have to fight wild beasts. Household slaves generally got the best treatment, but even they were subject to harsh laws: if a slave killed his master, all the slaves in the house might be killed as punishment on the theory that protecting their master was their joint obligation and they had failed. The fear of slave revolt was always present, and harsh penalties were intended to enforce obedience.
One of the remarkable features of the Roman system of slavery was the frequency with which slaves were freed. It was not motivated simply by generosity. The prospect of freedom kept a slave docile and motivated him to serve his master faithfully. Manumission could also be profitable, for some owners would free their slaves only if they bought their freedom with their savings, thus allowing their owners to recoup the purchase price. A manumitted slave (libertus ) was given a freedman's cap, a felt cap shaped like half an egg that fit close to the head, as a sign of freedom; the slave took the family name of his former master, who was now his patron, and became a Roman citizen. But a freed person was not free of obligations to his or her former master. The system was not without advantages for the libertus, who became a member of his former owner's familia and could be buried in the family plot. Moreover, he might go into business with his patron's backing and become wealthy. The Satyricon of Petronius describes a banquet offered by a freedman, Trimalchio, which is a vulgar display of new wealth, and freedmen like him cannot have been too uncommon.
Slavery thus fed the citizen body with new blood; it brought in new immigrants and assimilated them. They made a significant contribution to Roman culture: the poet Horace was the son of a freedman, and Phaedrus was a Thracian slave who lived in Rome as a freedman in the house of Augustus, where he wrote his collection of fables. By the end of the second century, the great majority of Roman citizens must have had at least one slave in their family tree.
Literature and Art. The reign of Augustus was the Golden Age of Latin literature. Gaius Maecenas, Augustus' chief diplomatic agent during the Civil War with Mark Antony and his confidante until his wife's brother was involved in a conspiracy (c. 22 b.c.), gathered about him a circle of poets, chief of them vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70–17 b.c.). Vergil first published the Eclogues, a collection of pastoral poetry, and then the Georgics, four well-crafted books on farming, and finally his great epic, the Aeneid, which became the national epic of the empire. The chief archetypes of the Aeneid were the Iliad and the Odyssey attributed to Homer. The Aeneid told how Aeneas escaped the fall of Troy and wandered over the Mediterranean, visiting Carthage, where he had an ill-starred affair with the queen, Dido, and finally reaching Italy, where he had to fight to establish a settlement. It is a poem that celebrates Roman imperialism, but it is not without compassion for Rome's victims. horace was five years Vergil's junior and the son of a freedman. Vergil introduced him to Maecenas, who gave him his Sabine farm, which Horace made famous in his poetry. He wrote odes, epistles, satires and a didactic poem on the art of poetry, but he declined to try an epic. Tibullus (c. 54–19 b.c.) wrote graceful elegies on his love for Delia, as well as for peace and for country life. Propertius (c. 50–c. 16 b.c.) was a member of Maecenas' circle like Vergil, whom he admired, and Horace, whom he disliked. He left four books of elegies, whose chief theme is his love for Cynthia. Ovid (43 b.c. to c. a.d. 17) was an immensely talented and facile poet who wrote with wit and narrative skill and loved the fashionable society of Rome. His medley of myths of transformation called the Metamorphoses is his greatest work, but his Art of Love was his most notorious. For reasons that are unclear, in a.d. 8, Augustus banished him to Tomi on the Black Sea, where he spent the rest of his life. Livy (59 b.c.–a.d. 17) wrote an immense history of Rome which has partially survived. His style is mellifluent, but his accuracy is sometimes questionable.
The next generation produced authors such as Phaedrus (c. 15 b.c.–a.d. 50), who wrote a collection of fables in verse drawn from the Greek. Seneca the Younger (c. 4 b.c.–a.d. 65) was known chiefly as an essayist and playwright, Petronius (c. a.d. 20–66), the "Arbiter", socalled for having been the arbiter of taste for the emperor Nero, is the presumed author of a long picaresque novel, the Satyricon, which survives in fragments, the longest of which describes a banquet given by a rich freedman Trimalchio. Silius Italicus (a.d. 26–101) wrote an epic in the Vergilian style, the Punica, which is about the Second Punic War, the war with Hannibal. Lucan (39–65), was the nephew of Seneca the Younger, and his Pharsalia on the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey is the greatest Latin epic after the Aeneid. Persius (34–62) is the author of a slim volume of six satires that strike a high moral tone, but his Latin is the language of the streets. Statius (c. 45–c. 96) is the author of the Thebaid, an epic on the myths of Thebes, and the Silvae, occasional poems, which were much admired in the Middle Ages but are little read now. Martial (c. 40–c. 104) is the most famous of all writers of epigrams, and his friend Juvenal (c. 60–c. 140) is the author of satires that comment bitterly on Roman life, though it is noticeable that his attacks are on people who were dead by the time he wrote. A writer's life was not without perils; both Seneca and Lucan killed themselves at Nero's command, and Petronius did likewise in anticipation of Nero's order.
The same period produced a clutch of notable writers in Latin prose. Little is known about Vitruvius, but his Ten Books on Architecture, which were written about 27 b.c., served the Renaissance as an invaluable textbook. Pliny the Elder (24–79) was the prefect of the Roman fleet at Misenum when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, and he died investigating it. He was a prolific author but only one work survives: his Natural History, a great treasury of interesting information in thirty-seven books. His nephew Pliny the Younger (61–114) left a panegyric on the emperor Trajan and ten books of carefully crafted letters. Two from his tenth book are of great interest, for Pliny writes to Trajan from Bithynia, where Trajan sent him as curator, to ask for the correct legal procedures for the prosecution of a cell of Christians. Trajan assures him that Christianity is a capital crime, but he cautions against any witch-hunt. Tacitus (55–120) is the greatest of the Latin historians; he wrote Annales, covering the Julian-Claudian period, and History, covering the period to the death of Domitian in 96. He also wrote the Agricola, a laudatory biography of Julius Agricola, Tacitus' father-in-law, who had a successful career as governor of Roman Britain until he fell under Domitian's displeasure. Tacitus's Germania concerns the geography and ethnology of the Germans and was written, like the Agricola, in 98. His Dialogue on Orators was at one time considered Tacitus's earliest work, but now it is generally dated after the Germania and the Agricola. Of the Annales, the books dealing with Caligula's reign and the first six years of Claudius are lost, as well as the material dealing with the last two years of Nero's reign. The History breaks off in a.d. 70, and the remainder is lost. Tacitus claims in the proem of his Annales to be writing with neither bitterness nor partiality, but in fact he displays both. However, he consulted good sources and if his bias is separated from his evidence, he is a reliable historian. The rhetorician Quintilian (35–96), teacher of Pliny the Younger, Suetonius (75–150), and Apuleius (fl. 160) also deserve mention. The last wrote a novel, the Metamorphoses, popularly known as the Golden Ass, a ribald tale that turns out to have a pious intention: Lucius, who is turned by witchcraft into a donkey, is saved by the intervention of the goddess Isis and becomes a devotee. Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars is a gossipy source for the emperors of the first century.
During these first two centuries, Greek literature produced after the death of Augustus was more extensive than the Latin and included works on history, biography, geography, medicine, grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. This was the period of the Second Sophistic when writers favored the Attic style, consciously taking as models the great authors of the classical period. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (fl. 30–8 b.c.) came to Rome in 30 b.c. and worked there for 22 years. He produced works on literary criticism and an Ancient Roman History (Romaïke archaiologia ), published in 7 b.c., in twenty books, of which the first ten are completely preserved and there are fragments of the eleventh. He was an uncritical admirer of Roman virtus, a word which encompasses not only "virtue" but also hardihood. Flavius josephus (37–c. 95) wrote a History of the Jewish War against the Romans, describing the revolt of Judea (66–70). He wrote it first in Aramaic and then translated it into Greek. His next work was the Antiquities of the Jews, a history from Adam down to the eve of the revolt of Judea. The first half, which reaches the Babylonian Captivity of 587 b.c., merely summarizes the Biblical account. His last work, known popularly as the Contra Apionem, is an impassioned defense of the Jews against anti-Semitic detractors. The "Apion" of the title was an anti-Semitic scholar in Alexandria a generation earlier whose calumnies Josephus refutes in the first half of Book Two of his work. Plutarch of Charonea (c. 46–c. 120), who wrote the Parallel Lives, biographies of famous Greeks each coupled with a life of a famous Roman, was immensely admired in the eighteenth century; his other writings, collected under the unfortunate title Moralia, represent a wide range of interests. About one-third of his writings have survived. Aelius Aristides (129–189) was the star orator of the second century, a period when public orators received the homage that great opera singers do nowadays. His Roman Oration, a panegyric on Rome, is the best witness to how an educated provincial viewed the Empire in the second century. Appian of Alexandria, who was a lawyer in Rome under Hadrian and eventually secured the post of procurator, probably in Egypt, wrote a history of Rome in his old age, finishing it c. 160. Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100–178) produced a geocentric astronomy which was generally accepted until the Copernican system overthrew it; Galen (c. 129–199), who wrote on medicine, continued to be accepted as an authority until the Renaissance, and Lucian (c. 125–200) from Samosata on the upper Euphrates, a Syrian who learned Greek in school, made a reputation first as an orator and then turned to impudent dialogues and essays. Lucian laughs at human follies; popular philosophy and popular religion equally excited his amusement.
Flavius Arrianus of Nicomedea in Bithynia made his model Xenophon, who lived 500 years earlier. Like Xenophon he flirted with philosophy in his youth and associated with epictetus. After Epictetus' death, Arrian published the notes he made: the Diatribes in eight books, of which four survive, and a summary of Epictetus' ethics (Enchiridion ). They preserve all we know of Epictetus' philosophy. Then Arrian began a career in the imperial civil service and published works of a different kind: a Periplus Ponti Euxini (Mariner's Chart for the Voyage round the Black Sea), dedicated to the emperor Hadrian, a manual on tactics, and, after he retired to Athens, a treatise on hunting that was a commentary of sorts on Xenophon's essay on the same subject, and most important, his Anabasis of Alexander the Great, valuable because he relied on two reasonably reliable sources, now lost: Ptolemy Soter, who became king of Egypt, and Aristobulus, son of Aristobulus. Both men accompanied Alexander on his campaign.
Art and architecture flourished. In the Roman Republic, the patrons had been private individuals, politicians vying for popular esteem, but with the principate the emperors used art and architecture to advertise their virtues. Augustus claimed that he found Rome brick and left it marble. His two greatest projects, his temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill and his great mausoleum, were planned before the Battle of Actium. Later emperors followed his example, and the cities of the first and second centuries were filled with public buildings in the classical style. Augustus borrowed the models he favored from the Greek Classical Period, and Hadrian, who was a fervent philhellene, sparked a second period of Classicism. Perhaps the most original Roman monument was the Column of Trajan, constructed a.d. 106–113, which presents 150 scenes from Trajan's Dacian War on a continuous scroll wound around the shaft of the column on top of which stood a statue of the emperor himself.
Religion and Public Morality. Religion was pervasive in Roman society. A visit to the remains of an ancient town like Pompeii makes us aware of it. At one end of the forum is the temple of Jupiter on its high podium, adjacent to west flank is the Temple of Apollo, and on the east side is the Temple of the Genius Augusti, the sanctuary of the imperial cult, which was built by the public priestess Mamia. Vitruvius recommends that a city should find an elevated site for the temple of the Divine Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, a site in the forum or the market place for Mercury, Apollo, and Bacchus near the theater, Isis and Serapis in the market, Hercules at the gymnasium or amphitheater if the city has one, or otherwise at the circus, Mars and Venus outside the city, Mars at the trooping ground, and Venus by the harbor if the city is on the sea. In the houses of Pompeii we find small shrines to the Lares and the Penates, and the Genius of the household where the householder might make a small sacrifice of salted meal. Paganism was a religion of sacrifices, performed with rituals that adhered to rigid formulas and festivals that marked the yearly calendar.
The gods and goddesses were numerous, and there was always room for new imports. Immigrants, whether freemen or slaves, brought their native gods with them. Paganism was tolerant, but there were limits. Judaism was a religio licita, that is, an "approved religion" which had been accorded certain rights and privileges by Julius Caesar, but Rome punished the Jewish rebellion (66–70) by destroying the temple in Jerusalem and bringing the temple treasure as loot to Rome, where it remained until the Vandals looted it once again when they sacked Rome in 451. Yet Rome was to protect the rabbinical school at Jamnia and later at Tiberias, and its head, the nasi, would be given the status of an honorary prefect. Anti-Judaism was not imperial policy. Christianity was different: it was a crime. The Druids whom the Romans found in Gaul and Britain were exterminated. Rome also frowned on self-mutilation: by the second century it was unlawful to practice self-castration with flint knives that was once a feature of the "Day of Blood" in the Attis festival. The Roman sense of propriety should not be offended, but Rome had a marked respect for piety, which might be defined as honoring one's divinities according to ancestral custom.
Among the cults imported into the pantheon was a number of "mystery religions," so called because they admitted worshippers by an initiation ceremony where they were revealed a "mystery". Examples are the cult of Isis and Serapis from Egypt, Mithras with Iranian roots, Attis and the Great Mother from Asia Minor, Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), Jupiter Dolichenus, and others. Mithraism centers on mithras, a deity borrowed from Persian Zorastrianism, but in Iran there was no such cult, which seems to have developed towards the end of the first century a.d. within the Roman Empire itself. It may have begun as the royal cult of the client kingdom of Commagene where Mithras was identified with Sol Invictus, and moved to Rome when the last king, Antiochus IV, was deposed in a.d. 72, perhaps with a group of devotees. It became popular in the Roman army, but how universal it was is hard to say. Women were not admitted. Yet in the later third century the Sol Invictus/Mithras cult emerged as a rival for Christianity, counting among its devotees the emperor Aurelian (a.d. 270–275). Paganism had many facets. Dream interpretation, oracles, and theurgy fascinated growing numbers. Yet for most of the pagan cults, eternal salvation does not seem to have been the ultimate goal.
The reforms of Augustus extended to public morality. One receives the impression from Ovid, whose racy Art of Love depicts a society where sexual conquest was the chief aim of life, and from Juvenal, whose satires portray an amoral Rome and declare that the old-fashioned morality once found in Roman society had broken down, but we should take this evidence with a grain of salt. The erotic poetry of Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid drew as much on literary convention as on real life situations. Still, Augustus attempted to regulate private life. To check the extravagance that was sapping the fortunes of the old Roman families, he passed a sumptuary law to limit the money spent on banquets, gold and silver plate, clothes, and the like. It failed. Roman law had always prescribed penalties for adultery, but it was not enforced; Augustus revised the law, making it less severe but trying to enforce compliance. He passed the lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus to encourage marriage and the bearing of children. It mulcted the unmarried and the childless, whether male or female, by making them ineligible for legacies except from close relations and gave various privileges to persons with children. The inheritance restriction of this law was greatly disliked by the upper classes, and in a.d. 9 Augustus modified it with the lex Papia Poppaea. Augustus placed limits on the manumission of slaves and was chary of granting citizenship to provincials, because, Suetonius claims, he did not want the Roman people contaminated by foreign or servile blood. Later emperors were more tolerant and Roman citizenship was steadily extended: the emperor Claudius intervened personally with the Senate to admit men from the Gallic provinces to the citizenship (Tacitus, Ann. xi, 24), and an inscription found in Lyon in 1528 preserves part of the speech Claudius gave in the Senate on this occasion.
The Majesty of Rome
The legacy of Augustus was a period of general peace and prosperity that lasted two centuries. The period was not completely free of rebellion in the provinces. There was a revolt in Pannonia in a.d. 6, which required the attention of Tiberius. There was the revolt in Judea at the end of Nero's reign, which is described by Josephus, and in 115–117 there was another Jewish revolt that started in Cyrene sparked by the appearance of a "Messiah." It spread to Egypt, Cyprus, and Mesopotamia and led to great loss of life. A third revolt, led by bar kokh ba, broke out in Judea in 132 that caused heavy losses to the Roman army and according to the historian Cassius Dio 580,000 Jews were slain. After the revolt was suppressed, Hadrian changed the name of the province from Judea to Syria Palaestina. There was a revolt in Roman Britain (60 a.d.) led by Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, which broke out when the Romans plundered the kingdom of the Iceni after its client king died and maltreated the queen and her two daughters. The northern regions of Roman Britain was a turbulent area in the Antonine period. There was also low-level resistance: brigands and robber bands, who fed on the discontent of the under classes, often made travel overland unsafe. Yet the revolts of Rome's subjects were relatively few. In general, we may agree with Edward Gibbon's appraisal in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (ch. 2): "But the firm edifice of Roman power was raised and preserved by the wisdom of the ages. The obedient provinces of Trajan and the Antonines were united by laws and adorned by arts. They might occasionally suffer from the partial abuse of delegated authority, but the general principle of government was wise, simple, and beneficent." Gibbon goes on (ch. 3) to make a judgment which is much quoted: "If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus."
Trajan was the last great conqueror. He reduced Dacia to a province in two wars, ending in 106: an exploit that is commemorated by Trajan's column, which still stands in Rome. Dacia's importance was strategic: as a province it was not worth having, but it sustained Rome's control over the German and Sarmatian tribes across the Danube. Trajan's Parthian War (a.d. 114–117) conquered Mesopotamia, but the province was in revolt at his death. Hadrian withdrew and consolidated. The empire switched to a new strategy of defending fixed frontiers. Hadrian's Wall in Britain, built 122/3–c. 133 between the estuary in the east and the Solway Firth in the west, is mute evidence of this strategy. It was built to control traffic over the northern frontier of Roman Britain, and Hadrian's successor, Antoninus Pius, considered it necessary to secure the frontier even more by building another wall further from the Firth of Forth to the Clyde. In Germany and Pannonia, the Rhine-Danube line was the frontier, but in the region between the two rivers, where the Neckar valley and the Black Forest offered an invasion route, Domitian had already a chain of small forts and watchtowers. Under the Antonines this system of fortification was completed with walls or palisades linking the forts, towers, and auxiliary bases.
The army was stretched thin. Moreover, the civil war after Nero's death, which ended with Vespasian's accession (69 a.d.), had revealed the dark secret of the empire: the army could make or unmake an emperor, and troops fighting to install an emperor could not defend the frontiers at the same time. When Clodius Albinus took most of the Roman army from Britain for his ill-starred contest with Septimius Severus, the northern tribes invaded, breaking down Hadrian's Wall. Severus spent the last years of his life (208–211) campaigning there, and after he died at York, Caracalla conducted another successful campaign and then reestablished Hadrian's Wall as the frontier. Yet the army also played a role in the transformation of Roman society. Its corps of engineers provided a pool of expertise for building roads and bridges and even purely civilian projects like amphitheaters. Until Severus' principate, legionaries could not marry, but they did form alliances with women living near their camps, and they might wed them when they retired with their gratuities and savings and settle into civilian life with their families. Their sons not infrequently followed the example of their fathers and became soldiers. Auxiliary troops received citizenship when they retired. Thus the army was constantly feeding the citizenship roll.
It was not alone. Provincials might acquire citizenship through the generosity of emperors or patrons. Leading families in provincial cities might have citizenship conferred on them. The allure of citizenship, and the upward mobility it made possible, was one of the instruments that kept the provincials loyal. Finally, the emperor Caracalla brought the process to an end in 212 a.d. with the Constitutio Antoniniana which conferred citizenship on everyone in the empire except the dediticii : probably barbarians who were settled on deserted land in the empire. How large this group was at this point in time is not known.
Roman society became less Roman, if we can identify citizens by their origins. By the time of the Severi, the proportion of senators of known Italian ancestry is less than half, and there was only one senatorial family that could trace its family tree back to the pre-Augustan republic. The writers Lucan, Martial, and the Senecas were all Spaniards; so were the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Africans become prominent in the senate from the time of Hadrian. Septimius Severus was born in Lepcis Magna in modern Libya and his unlucky rival, Clodius Albinus was also an African. Severus' wife, Julia Domna, was a Syrian. By the second century's end, the legions were recruited almost entirely from the provinces. The city of Rome was still the heart of the empire, but Italy was no longer its heartland.
The Third Century: A Time of Troubles
Septimius Severus (193–211). The Empire reached a nadir in the third century and came close to breaking up. That it did not do so shows the extent to which the idea of a Roman Empire had been accepted by the peoples of the Mediterranean. Septimius Severus felt no great reverence for Augustan tradition and determined to found a dynasty. He assumed the persona of Marcus Aurelius' son, and made the Senate deify his "brother" Commodus. He deliberately excluded the Senate from active participation in the government, and for that matter downgraded the importance of Italy. The old praetorian guard which was still mostly Italian was disbanded and replaced with a new guard recruited from Septimius' own legions, and he appointed two new Praetorian Prefects, one of them an African. He raised three new legions after he had disposed of Albinus and put equestrian prefects in command of them, thus breaking with the Augustan tradition of choosing legates to head the legions from the ranks of the senate. Then, when he left Rome for the East to wage war on the Parthians (a.d. 195), he left one of his new legions behind, stationed a mere 20 miles from Rome. When Severus, having defeated Parthia, annexed Upper Mesopotamia and set up a new province, he put an equestrian governor in charge of it.
The office of Praetorian Prefect acquired increased importance. One prefect was commander of the armed forces in Italy, and the other was given jurisdiction in all criminal cases in Italy beyond the 100-mile radius of Rome and deputized for the princeps in hearing appeals from provincial courts. He took over the more important duties of the prefect of the grain supply (praefectus annonae ) and chaired the Consilium Principis when the princeps was absent. Because of the judicial duties attached to the Praetorian Prefect's office, we find distinguished jurists like the great Papinian appointed to the prefecture, and after Papinian lost his life for criticizing Caracalla's murder of his brother Geta, Ulpian and Paul held the office successively. Once citizenship was made universal by the Constitutio Antoniniana, Roman law applied to everyone, but from the time of the Severi we find it recognizing a distinction between citizens of higher status (honestiores ) and those of lower status (inferiores ), with more severe penalties for the same offense imposed on the inferiores. The emperor became the source of law, not only in practice, for this had arguably been true earlier, but also in theory. Ulpian put it simply, "What the emperor decides is law."
Recruits for the army now came almost exclusively from the provinces. Poor administration by provincial governors, now called praesides, was sternly punished. Wars, the increased pay for the army, and the imperial building program all increased government outlays, and Severus depreciated the denarius by a further 20 percent. The ratio of silver to base metal in the silver denarius had been drifting downwards in the second century, but under the Severi the trend gathered pace. Severus also made sweeping confiscations of the property belonging to Albinus' supporters, which was assigned to a special treasury, the res privata.
Caracalla, Geta, Macrinus, Elagabulus and Severus Alexander. Septimius' sons, Geta (211–212) and Aurelius Antoninus, better known by his nickname "Caracalla," succeeded him, but their joint rule ended when Caracalla murdered his brother and obliterated his portraits and inscriptions. Edward Gibbon, influenced by the hostility to Caracalla of our main source, Cassius Dio, called him a "monster," and he may have deserved it. He gave the army generous donatives and increased pay, and he relaxed discipline in order to curry favor. While leading an offensive against Parthia, he was assassinated by his Praetorian Prefect, Opilius Macrinus, who became emperor himself to the dismay of the Senate, for he was only an equestrian. Macrinus recognized the need to relieve the stress on the economy, and though he did not dare revoke Caracalla's pay increases to the army, he recruited new soldiers on the old pay scale of Septimius Severus, which provoked discontent.
Meanwhile, Julia Maesa, the sister of Septimius' widow, Julia Domna, got the Syrian legions to support her grandson Varius Avitus Bassianus. He was a boy of 14, better known as Elagabal, for he was a priest and devotee of the sun god Elagabal that was worshipped at Emesa. Maesa launched a rumor that Bassianus had been sired by Caracalla, and he took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Macrinus marched out from his base at Antioch against the young pretender and was defeated. Elagabal, however, proved incapable and his devotion to his god, whose cult he tried to introduce into Rome, shocked Roman tradition so much that his grandmother transferred her support to another grandson, Marcus Aurelius Aurelianus Alexander, son of Julia Mamaea. Elagabal was killed and was succeeded by Alexander, who added "Severus" to his name.
Severus Alexander emerges dimly from the sources, but he appears an attractive figure. Julia Maesa soon died, so his mother, Julia Mamaea, acted as his advisor. But he was faced with a difficult situation. In the east, the Parthian dynasty, the Arsacids, was overthrown in 226 by Ardashir, founder of a new Iranian dynasty, the Sassanids, and Ardashir, taking the name Artaxerxes, was crowned king of a revived Persian Empire. In 230, Ardashir invaded Mesopotamia and threatened Syria. Alexander apparently mounted a successful defense. He returned to Rome and then on to the Rhine to meet a German threat. There he was murdered by his troops who were, it seems, disgusted when Alexander tried to defend the frontier by diplomacy and paying indemnities to the Germans. His successor, Maximinus the Thracian (235–238), was a great brute of massive size and barbarity, who visited neither Rome nor Italy during his three-year reign and introduced a half century of anarchy.
Anarchy and Recovery (235–284). There followed a rapid succession of emperors: Gordian I, the elderly governor of Africa and his son Gordian II, who lasted only a little longer than a month, two appointees of the senate, Pupienus Maximus and Balbinus (assassinated July 29, 238), Gordian III (238–244), a boy of thirteen who was the grandson of Gordian I, and Philip the Arab (244–249). Philip and his brother Priscus, who came from a village in Roman Arabia some 55 miles south-southeast of Damascus, were praetorian prefects at Gordian's death, which Philip may have arranged, and he was proclaimed emperor by the army. He faced revolts in the East from Iotapianus, who claimed kinship with Severus Alexander, and on the Danube by Pacatianus. Both were suppressed, but when Philip sent Decius to restore order in the Danubian legions, they proclaimed him emperor. Once Decius defeated Philip, he had to face a massive invasion of the Goths, who crossed the Danube led by their king, Cniva, and lost his life in battle as he campaigned in modern Dobruja. Decius' successor, Trebonianus Gallus (251–253), negotiated the withdrawal of the Goths, who were allowed to take their loot with them. Valerian (253–260), who associated his son Gallienus (253–268) with him as co-emperor, was captured by Shapur I, shahanshah of Persia, outside was walls of Edessa. Valerian was the first emperor to be taken captive. His army decimated by plague, Valerian was trying to negotiate a peace when Shapur seized him and killed him. Gallienus ruled on alone until his murder in 268.
This was the nadir of the empire. In Syria, it was the sheik of the caravan city of Palmyra, Odenathus, who drove back the Persians and provided some law and order, and after his murder, his widow, Zenobia, continued to rule his empire independent of Rome. Spain and Gaul broke away under emperors of their own. In c. 263 a.d., a horde of Goths swept down from the Black Sea into Asia Minor as far south as Miletus, and the Milesians sought refuge behind the great walls of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma. Gallienus was left in secure control only of Italy, Africa, and Illyricum. The silver denarius was debased until it had only a trace of silver in it, and it appears that much of the economy was carried on by barter. The army had to be paid largely through requisitions in kind. German tribes invaded Gaul, and the goths raided the Balkans and Asia Minor. In 267 a barbarian tribe known as the Herulians took advantage of a Gothic invasion of the Balkans to sack Athens. There followed a plague epidemic which caused serious loss of life. The nature of the illness is not known, though it was probably not bubonic plague. In the cities of the empire the burden of taxation fell heavily on the curiae. The town councils, which were staffed by the well-to-do citizens (curiales ), who were responsible for collecting the taxes and serving on a council, which was once an honor, became something to be avoided by anyone who wanted to preserve his wealth. Pagan cults with expensive festivals could no longer rely on private euergetism. Private donors who had once built public buildings and kept them in repair became scarce. However, it is hard to generalize, since euergetism was largely a thing of the past in Britain, Gaul, and Italy by the end of the third century, though in Africa, which escaped the worst of the turmoil of the third century, it lasted to some degree up to the vandal conquest of the early fifth century.
Gallienus maintained control as best he could in the face of rebellion after rebellion. Senators were excluded from military commands, and an elite cavalry unit was created and based in Milan, under an equestrian commandant. Army generals could now rise from the ranks, and a cadre of new officers recruited in Illyricum emerged. After Gallienus was murdered in 268, they provided a series of able soldier-emperors. It is too easy to dismiss Gallienus as a failure. Without his tenacity in the face of disasters, the empire might have disintegrated.
Claudius Gothicus (268–270) was the first of the Illyrian emperors. He first defeated the Alamanni, who had invaded Italy. The Goths were again threatening the Balkans in spite of Gallienus' victories over them in 267, and Claudius moved against them with his general Aurelian and defeated them decisively at Naissus (268), whence his title "Gothicus." He died of plague at Sirmium, the only emperor in this period to die a natural death.
His successor, Aurelian, commander of the Balkan army, was a tough and able soldier who completed the restoration which Claudius had begun. His first challenge was an invasion of Italy by the Alemanni, who defeated Aurelian near Placentia, but Aurelian recovered to wipe out the Alemanni invaders. He then turned eastward, where Zenobia's empire extended over Syria, Egypt, and most of Asia Minor. He defeated the Palmyrene army in a pitched battle, took the city, and captured the queen, who had attempted flight. But news reached him as he left for Rome that the Palmyrenes had risen in his rear; he returned swiftly, recaptured Palmyra, and laid it waste. Zenobia was exhibited in Aurelian's triumph and ended her life in elegant detention in Rome. In the west, a brief campaign was enough to put an end to the "Gallic empire" under Tetricus and restore imperial rule in Gaul. It was a brilliant achievement. Yet two other actions of his are symptomatic of the times. He gave up the province of Dacia, which Trajan had conquered. Its defense was now too difficult. And he fortified the city of Rome with a circuit wall which still stands and is named after him: the "Aurelian Wall." Rome itself was no longer secure from attack.
Aurelian lost his life to a petty military plot. He was followed by the elderly Tacitus (275–276) and then by one of Aurelian's generals, Probus, who continued the work of restoration. His program included the settlement of large numbers of barbarians inside the frontiers and more extensive drafting of barbarian war captives into the Roman military forces. This policy, which later emperors also followed, was once considered a major cause of the Empire's decline, but barbarian recruits who were integrated into the army fought as well as recruits from the provinces, and the settlers were needed to bring land depopulated by pestilence and invasion back into production. Probus, a strict disciplinarian like Aurelian, was murdered by his troops. His successor, Carus (282–283), captured the Persian capital, Ctesiphon, but was killed ostensibly by a bolt of lightning, though conspiracy is not improbable. Carus' son, Numerian, led the retreat, but he died on the road under suspicious circumstances. In the rivalry for the imperial office that followed, Diocles was proclaimed emperor at Nicomedia by his soldiers (November of 284), and his first act was to slay the praetorian prefect, Aper, accusing him of murdering Numerian. He then took the name diocletian. There followed a struggle with Carus' surviving son, Carinus (283–285), but after his defeat and death, Diocletian became undisputed emperor and undertook a major reorganization of the empire.
Diocletian had risen from a modest background in Dalmatia to become commander of the domestici, the imperial guard. He was a competent soldier and a great organizer with an original mind, and in particular he was a dominant personality who knew how to assert his authority over his colleagues. He swept away what was left of the Augustan principate. He was no longer princeps (First Citizen) but Dominus Noster (our Lord and Master). The Senate had already been relegated to a minor role; Carus, for instance, had not bothered with the formality of having the Senate confer imperium on him. In Diocletian's reorganization, the Senate did not matter. Not that he excluded senators altogether from public administration: the evidence of inscriptions makes it clear that some senators were still to be found governing provinces, and they continued to be used as regional governors of Italy (correctores ), but for a career in public service, senatorial status did not matter much under Diocletian. The trend towards absolute monarchy, which started as far back as Augustus, reached it final development with Diocletian.
In 285 Diocletian appointed a colleague, another Illyrian soldier named Maximian, as Caesar, then adopted him as his son, and then the next year named him Augustus. He was made responsible for the west, where Carausius had just had himself proclaimed Augustus in Britain, where he reigned six years (287–293) before his chief financial officer murdered him. Then in March of 293, Diocletian took a second step in the creation of the Tetrarchy. He gave Maximian and himself assistants with the title "Caesar": Constantius Chlorus became Caesar for Maximian and Galerius for himself. Diocletian took the divine title Iovius and Maximian the title Herculius. The symbolism was clear: Jupiter was king of the gods and Hercules his muscular assistant. The basis of their power was still military, but Diocletian was seeking to cloak it with pomp and circumstance.
The size of the army was increased. How much is hard to judge, for although Diocletian created new legions, they were much smaller than they once were. Typically they were made up of 1,000 men, compared with 6,000 in the first century if they were at full strength, which was never the case. Special detachments (vexillationes ) would number about 500, give or take a few. The general consensus of scholars nowadays estimates the total size of the armed forces at not much more than 400,000. New forts were built on the frontiers; surviving examples look much the same, as if there was a standardized fort plan.
Diocletian's tax system did not represent a major break with the past. It was based as before on capitatio, that is, individual tax liability, and a land tax. However to calculate the land tax he introduced an elaborate system of tax units (iuga ) as a basis of assessment. A iugum varied with the fertility of the land. It might vary from five iugera (1 iugerum = 5/8th acre) of vineland in Syria, or as much as 40 iugera of poor quality land. Assessments were to be made by a regular census, organized by five-year periods known as indictions: the first was in 287 a.d., and indictions thereafter provided Late Antiquity with a gauge of chronology, with calendar years expressed as "Year x, Indiction y." Yet taxation consisted as before in munera (public services performed by the taxpayer for free) and payments in money or in kind. The collection of taxes continued to be a public service performed by the civitates, and the curiales (or decuriones ) were held responsible for it. Tax collection became the chief function of the municipal councils (curiae ); by the time of Constantine it was almost their only function, and personal liability for it was placed upon the decaproti, a council committee of the ten (sometimes twenty) wealthiest citizens. The burden became insupportable in the turmoil of the third century, and curiales attempted to escape it by any means possible. The imperial government tried to enforce fair distribution of the burdens but would not release the curiales from their duties. In the prosperous days of the early empire, the status of decurion had often been de facto hereditary; now in the grimmer economic climate of Late Antiquity, it was made hereditary by law.
The currency was in desperate need of reform, and in a.d. 296 Diocletian introduced new gold and silver coinage. It seems to have triggered a new wave of inflation, the root cause of which may have been the enormous government expenditures. Diocletian attempted to remedy the situation by setting price ceilings: he issued an Edict on Maximum Prices early in a.d. 301, which fixed price ceilings on a long list of merchandise and prescribed draconian penalties for noncompliance. The Edict was published throughout the empire; all of the numerous epigraphic fragments of it come from the East save one from Italy, but this does not necessarily mean that it was unevenly applied. However, it was a fruitless effort. Constantine was to reform the currency again with greater success.
Provinces were reduced in size, and they in turn were grouped into twelve dioceses, each headed by a deputy (vicarius ) who represented the praetorian prefect. Thus, for example, Roman Britain now had four provinces making up one diocese; the diocese of Spain had six provinces. Within these new, smaller provinces, civil and military government were separated; the military commander was a "duke" (dux ), and the praeses was in charge of civil affairs. The praetorian prefects, three in number for much of the fourth century and four after 395, were the emperor's second-in-command under Diocletian. They were in charge of administrative, financial, legislative, and military affairs, but under Constantine they were to lose their military duties to the "Masters of the Soldiers" (magistri militum ) to whom the dukes in the provinces were made answerable. A new bureaucracy blossomed that was to develop under Diocletian's successors to become on of the strengths, and curses, of Roman government in Late Antiquity.
The new masters of the empire lived in style. Each tetrarch had his own court and staff of officials who moved with him as he went from one residence to another. A typical tetrarchic residence had an impressive audience hall and a hippodrome for chariot-racing where the Augustus or the Caesar might show himself to his subjects in the imperial loge. Diocletian built palaces at Nicomedia (Izmir) and Antioch; Galerius built palaces at Thessaloniki (the Rotunda that survives there was probably intended as his mausoleum), and Serdica (Sophia), Maximin's headquarters was Milan and Constantius Chlorus built a palace at Trier. Rome was not on their circuits. The great palace built by the emperor Domitian on the Palatine Hill stood empty, and the city itself was becoming more and more a magnificent museum of historical monuments.
In February of 303 Diocletian initiated the last great persecution of the Christians. Persecutions had lapsed since the end of the emperor Valerian's reign, and for 40 years Christianity had enjoyed unofficial toleration. Christian tradition called this period the "Peace of the Church." Christians began to construct church buildings unmolested. Two years before his abdication, Diocletian brought this tolerance to an end.
The Christian Persecutions. The first evidence we have that the Roman state took notice of Christianity is an ambiguous reference in suetonius' Life of the emperor Claudius, which reports rioting in the Jewish community in Rome, the cause of which was "Chrestos." But by the reign of nero, Christians were clearly recognized as a sect separate from mainline Judaism, and after the Great Fire in Rome, Nero sought to deflect blame from himself by persecuting them. Some Romans suspected the Christians of setting the fire, and possibly some Christian millenarians were impolitic enough to rejoice at seeing Rome burn, thinking this was a sign of the Second Coming. The emperor Domitian executed a cousin, Flavius Clemens, for "atheism, for which offense a number of other also, who had been carried away into Jewish customs, were condemned …." (Cassius Dio, 67.14), andhistorians have suspected that Clemens may have been a Christian. However, it was not until the reign of trajan that Rome's official position was spelled out. pliny the younger addressed a letter (Epist. 10.96) to Trajan from Bithynia in 110 to report that he had found a cell of Christians in his province and asked what the proper legal procedure was. Specifically, he wanted to know if Christianity was a crime per se, or was it necessary to prove crimes attached to Christianity, for there were rumors of immoral rites practiced by Christian sects, but the worship Pliny unearthed was innocuous. Yet Trajan ruled that Christianity was a crime per se. But he would not sanction anonymous denunciations or witch-hunts.
It is difficult to understand why the Christians were persecuted. The charge commonly made against them was atheism, for they denied the pagan gods, and atheism did arouse dread in pagan society. It was feared that if the gods were disregarded, they would take offense and might visit revenge on the community, thereby harming pagan and Christian alike. Judaism also denied the pagan gods and yet it remained a religio licita : a "permitted religion" with certain legal rights. The difference seems to have been that Judaism was an ancient religion and the Romans respected it as such, whereas the Christians worshipped a provincial crucified for maiestas (treason), for that seems to have been the indictment against Jesus for which Pontius Pilate put him to death. The Christians were also intransigent in their refusal to take part in the cult of the emperor which was an integral part of Roman state religion. Jews would not say prayers to the emperor either, but they were willing to say prayers for him. Christians, it seems, would not even do that. Christianity was also universal: it assembled congregations of believers without regard for different ethnicities, thus destroying the barriers that separated different national religions. The authorities seem to have perceived Christianity as a mass movement and found it threatening. Pliny, in his letter to Trajan about the Christian congregation he found in Bithynia, terms it a "hetaeria," that is, a political club.
Yet persecutions were sporadic, sparked often by local disasters, or even a shortage of criminals for the wild beast fights in the arena, until the time of the emperor decius (249–251). The empire was in peril, the Goths were invading, and Decius believed it necessary to make peace with the gods. He required all Roman citizens across the empire to make sacrifice and get a certificate to prove they had done so. Christians were dismayed, and the persecution might have done real damage to the faith, except that Decius was killed in battle in 251. valerian (253–260) renewed the persecution, but after Valerian's death, Gallienus addressed a rescript to the Christian bishops (261 a.d.) granting the Church liberty to perform its duties and ordered Christian places of worship and cemeteries left free for Christian use. In the "Peace of the Church" that followed, Christians openly erected purpose-built churches; hitherto they had worshipped in houses adapted for the purpose, an example of which has been excavated at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates. We find Christians serving on municipal councils. Christianity began to permeate all classes, including the Roman army. Then came the persecution of Diocletian.
Apparently there was an incident in 299 when diviners at an imperial sacrifice failed to find the right omens and blamed the presence of some Christians who, it was alleged, made the sign of the cross. The first step was a purge of Christians in the army. Then on Feb. 23, 303, as the emperor watched from his palace, the church at Nicomedia was destroyed by the praetorian prefect leading a group of officers. Then followed Diocletian's three edicts of increasing severity. The persecution was directed particularly against the clergy, though Christians in the imperial service were to be stripped of their rank and imperial freedmen would be reduced to slavery if they did not recant. But the decrees got uneven compliance. Maximian was a not unwilling persecutor, but he lacked enthusiasm for it, and Constantius gave nominal acquiescence. But Galerius was a convinced pagan, and after Diocletian abdicated in 305 he continued to persecute Christians until just before his own death in 311. His Caesar Severus administered the persecution in Italy and Africa until the revolt of Maxentius, and his other Caesar, Maximinus Daia, was particularly zealous. At last, in 311 Galerius, now seriously ill, issued an edict of toleration but restored no confiscated church property and imposed a rather vague limit of "discipline" on Christianity, by which he meant something like law and order.
The Empire of Constantine
The Struggle for Supremacy. Diocletian abdicated in 305, and Maximian followed suit, though with reluctance. In the east galerius inherited Diocletian's position as senior Augustus, and in the west Constantius Chlorus took over Maximian's position and title. As Caesars, Galerius appointed his nephew Maximinus Daia in the east and Severus in the west. Maximian's son Maxentius was passed over. Constantius Chlorus' eldest son, Constantine, was with Diocletian and Galerius when the abdications took place, but he soon rejoined his father in Gaul. There is a tradition that Galerius did not want to let him go, and when Constantine finally did get leave, he left speedily and killed the post horses along the road to prevent pursuit. He joined his father who was on the point of crossing the Channel to Britain. When Constantius died at York in 306, his troops proclaimed his son Augustus, and though Galerius refused to accept him as Augustus, he did accept him as Caesar. But constan tine's elevation moved Maximian's son, Maxentius, to imitation. He revolted, and when Severus tried to suppress him, his troops deserted him rather than fight the son of old Maximian for whom they still felt residual loyalty. Galerius fared no better himself when he invaded Italy to avenge Severus' death. He was forced to retreat.
But rather than recognize Maxentius, he appointed Licinius in Severus' place. The Tetrarchy had broken down. Diocletian was persuaded to come out of retirement and chair a conference at Carnuntum, where Licinius was made Augustus, and old Maximian, who had attempted a comeback, was persuaded to retire again, though only briefly (He died at Marseilles in May of 311, either by natural death or suicide forced on him by Constantine). On Galerius' death, Licinius and Maximinus Daia, who had been proclaimed Augustus by his troops, shared the eastern empire. In 312 Constantine decided it was time to strike. He moved swiftly into Italy, taking Turin, Milan, and Verona and marching south to Rome, where Maxentius met him outside the walls at the Milvian Bridge and was defeated and killed (October 28).
Constantine was now master of the west. In February of 313 he and Licinius met at Milan and made a pact, and Licinius sealed it by marrying Constantine's sister Constantia. They agreed on freedom for all religions. The socalled "Edict of Milan" (a.d. 313) that survives, which freed Christianity from persecution and restored confiscated Church property is, in fact, a rescript issued by Licinius from Nicomedia to a provincial governor, authorizing him to issue an edict of toleration in his province. But it expresses the agreement of both Augusti, and by convention it bears both their names. Licinius had to leave Milan quickly for word came that Maximinus Daia was making a power grab. But a few months later Daia was defeated and Licinius and Constantine shared the empire.
It was a fragile alliance. Constantine's ambitions were soon apparent. In 314–315 he wrested Pannonia from Licinius and moved his court to Sirmium and in 318 moved it again to Serdica. In 323 he defeated Licinius at Adrianople and forced him back to Byzantium, where Constantine's son, Crispus, defeated Licinius' fleet at the north entrance to the Hellespont. Licinius retreated to Asia Minor, where he was defeated again. In 324 Constantine was master of the Roman world, and though he granted clemency to his defeated rival whose wife, Constantia, pleaded for his life, he put him to death a few months later for reasons that are unknown.
Tradition has it that before the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine had a vision that resulted in his conversion to Christianity. The earlier and simpler version comes from Lactantius, writing within four years of the event, but in Eusebius' Life of Constantine, published shortly after Constantine's death, there is a more elaborate version, which Eusebius claims to have heard from Constantine himself. His account relates that "about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, 'Conquer by This."' (Vita Const. 1.28). That night, the figure of Christ bearing the same symbol visited him and told him to use it in the coming battle. Indeed Constantine may well have thought a divine power was guiding his fortune, for if Maxentius had stayed within the massive walls of Rome and forced Constantine to lay siege, the outcome of the contest could have been different. But Maxentius chose to do battle outside the walls. Constantine won, entered Rome a victor, and began a policy of generosity to the church. He gave Pope Melchiades the Lateran Palace, which had belonged to his wife, Fausta, and only a fortnight after the Battle at the Milvian Bridge, on November 9, we have the traditional dedication date of the first church he built in Rome, the Lateran Basilica. The Roman Senate, which was to be a stronghold of paganism until the century's end, dedicated an arch in Constantine's honor (315–316) and its attic bore an inscription attributing his victory neutrally to "instinctu divinitatis " (the prompting of divinity). By the same year, the basilica which Maxentius had been building for secular use, a massive fragment of which still stands in the Roman Forum, had been dedicated to Constantine and in it was a great statue of him holding a spear shaped like a cross. Constantine's Christianity can hardly be doubted, but he treated pagans with tact. The majority of the population was still pagan.
Constantine's Settlement. On May 11, 330, the Empire got a new capital city, constantinople, now modern Istanbul. The inauguration ceremonies lasted 40 days. There was a city on the site before Constantine's new foundation, Byzantium, which was founded by the Greek city-state of Megara in 659 b.c. according to tradition. Unlike Rome, it had few monuments of its pagan past. There were temples to Artemis, Aphrodite, and the sun god Helios on its acropolis, which survived until the emperor Theodosius I turned them to secular uses, but Constantinople was to be a Christian city filled with churches. The Great Palace that Constantine began in the southeast section of the city was to grow into an immense complex of pavilions, churches—at least 20 of them—residential quarters and reception halls, and it was joined by a private passageway to the imperial loge in the Hippodrome that flanked the palace. In the middle of the Forum, oval-shaped and markedly different from the traditional rectangular forum of a Roman town with a temple of Jupiter at one end, stood a great porphyry column 100 feet high, bearing a statue of Constantine with the radiate crown usually associated with the Sun God: indeed, it may have been a recycled statue of Apollo. This new foundation was to be a worthy capital. The grain ships which had carried their cargoes from Egypt to Rome were diverted gradually to Constantinople, and Rome was left to get its grain from Africa and Sicily.
For the patriarch, Constantine built a noble patriarchal church, Hagia Eirene, and his son constantius ii added a better one, hagia sophia, served by the same clergy. The bishop of Byzantium had been only a suffragan bishop of the see of Heraclea Pontica, but now he became the patriarch of Constantinople, with the prestige of the new capital behind him: the third canon of the Second Ecumenical Council of 381 which met at Constantinople was to state that the bishop possessed "prerogatives of honor after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome." The pope in old Rome heard the news without pleasure and would not recognize the patriarch's claims. Nor did they sit well with the see of St. Mark in Alexandria which claimed second place itself.
A few pagan temples were closed. A temple of Aphrodite at Efge in Lebanon, where transvestites and women prostituted themselves, was razed. At Heliopolis (Ba'albek) where there were only women prostitutes, Constantine urged restraint on the people and built a church, but otherwise did not interfere. The town of Hispellum in Italy petitioned him towards the end of his life to allow the building of a temple dedicated to his family, and he consented with the proviso that there be no sacrifices (C.I.L. xi, 5265). He confiscated treasure from temples, some of which housed a wealth of dedications, no doubt to the success of his currency reform. He issued a gold coin, the solidus, which was valued at 72 to a pound of gold, and which was used until the fall of the Byzantine empire. He may have banned pagan sacrifices, though the law has not survived. His son Constantius II did pass such a ban (Cod. Theod. 16.10.2) and refers to one his father passed. Sacrifices were at the core of paganism and the pagan cults would be severely damaged if they were prohibited.
Constantine's personal life was not unblemished, but it was no worse than that of many later Christian monarchs. In 326, two years after his son Crispus had defeated Licinius' fleet at the Hellespont, Constantine put him to death, and shortly afterwards he put to death his wife, Fausta, who was Maxentius' sister. The reason why has eluded researchers, but the question has used up a great deal of scholarly ink. There is a harsh tone to his social legislation, particularly on marriage. If a husband is a murderer, his wife may divorce him and keep her dowry; otherwise not. A slave nurse who helps abduct a girl with a view towards marriage is to be killed by pouring molten lead down her throat. But slaves were not to be branded on the forehead for they, too, were made in God's image. The laws penalizing celibacy which went back to Augustus were repealed, which no doubt conduced Christian asceticism.
The church enjoyed favor. Most clergy supported themselves partly by farming or crafts, and Constantine ruled that they should be exempt from compulsory labor (sordida munera ). (In 330, rabbis and heads of synagogues were also freed from compulsory public services involving physical labor). Constantius II extended the privileges of the clergy to their wives, children, and servants. But most of all Constantine shows his favor by building and endowing churches. In Rome his greatest church was St. Peter's, built over a necropolis where tradition had it that St. Peter was buried. In Jerusalem he built the church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Constantine's mother, St. helena, also built churches on the Mount of Olives and at Bethlehem. They set a pattern: in Late Antiquity private euergetism was to be directed towards building and endowing churches, and the secular public buildings it had once sustained were left to crumble.
Having accepted Christianity, Constantine found himself immersed without delay in the disputes of the Church. In Carthage, the Catholics were under attack by the followers of a certain donatus. In the persecution which had only recently ended, some clergy had surrendered the Scriptures, and the Donatists took a hard line, arguing that these traditores who had handed over sacred books should not be readmitted to he church. They appealed to Constantine, who referred the question to a caucus of bishops in Rome, and when the Donatists refused to accept its verdict, to a council with wider representation at Arles. The Donatist arguments failed again, whereupon the Donatists demanded to know what business the matter was of the emperor's. Constantine attempted a round of persecution to bring the Donatists to heel, but without success, and the Donatist schism endured well into the next century.
Once Constantine eliminated Licinius, he encountered a more serious contention centering on the doctrine of Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria who argued that in the Trinity the Son must be secondary to the Father. To solve this dispute, Constantine in a.d. 325 convened a council of bishops at nicaea, the first of seven recognized ecumenical councils of the church. The minutes of this council have not survived, and we are dependent on the eyewitness account of eusebius of caesarea in his Life of Constantine (3.7–14). Many of the bishops had experienced persecution less than a couple decades before, and it must have been a heady experience for them to meet with the emperor and have him defer to their opinions. Yet Constantine took an active role: he seems himself to have suggested the controversial nub of the Nicene Creed which emerges from the Council, that the Son was of joint substance (homoousios ) with the Father.
In Late Antiquity it was common for Christians to postpone baptism as long as possible for it was believed that baptism wiped away all stain of sin, and a believer who was baptized on his deathbed would approach the Last Judgment spotless. In 337, Constantine, even as he was planning an expedition against Persia, felt death approaching and was baptized at Nicomedia by its bishop, Eusebius, and died, May 22, 337.
The Age of Transition: From the Sons of Constantine to Theodosius the Great
After the massacre of all male family rivals, except for Gallus and Julian, the three sons of Constantine succeeded their father. constantine ii attempted to eliminate his youngest brother, constans i, in 340 and died in battle in Italy. Constans himself was murdered ten years later by his troops in Gaul, who acclaimed a barbarian officer, Magnentius, as his successor. Constantius II eliminated Magnentius in a costly battle at Mursa in modern Croatia and became sole Augustus. But having no children of his own, he turned first to Gallus and them to Julian, the son of Constantine I's half-brother, made him Caesar, and sent him to Gaul, where he fought with success against the Franks. In 360 Constantius II, who was preparing for war against Persia, demanded reinforcements from Julian's army. The result was an insurrection, and Julian's soldiers acclaimed him Augustus. Constantius treated the action as a rebellion and marched westwards to suppress it, but at Tarsus he took ill and died.
julian the apostate (361–363) was the last pagan emperor, and during his brief reign he attempted to breathe life into paganism. But the interrupted war against Persia called him to the eastern frontier, and Julian's strategic errors led to disaster. As he was retreating with his army, the Persians launched a sudden attack, and Julian was killed. The army chose a relative unknown, Jovian (363–364) to succeed him, and Jovian made a peace treaty with Persia by which he gave up Nisibis and Singara and agreed not to help the king of Armenia against any attack by Persia. In effect he negated the gains won by Galerius I in 297 while he was still Caesar. His victory was commemorated in the Arch of Galerius, a fragment of which still stands in Thessaloniki. Jovian headed back to Constantinople but died before he reached it.
The army chose a soldier from Pannonia, valentinian (364–375) as next emperor. He in turn chose his brother valens (364–378) as co-emperor to rule the east with his capital in Constantinople, while Valentinian ruled the west with his base in Milan. In 367 Valentinian made his seven-year-old son, gratian, co-emperor, and when he died the army made Gratian's four-year-old half-brother, Valentinian II, co-emperor (375–392) as well. Gratian was 16 at his father's death, and he and his half-brother reigned on in the west until Gratian was overthrown and killed by a usurper, Maximus, Aug. 25,383. In the east, however, Valens' reign ended in disaster. Visigoths, who had been driven out of the Russian steppe by the Huns, arrived at the Danube and sought new homes within the empire. Valens granted them entry, persuaded by the promise that they would supply recruits for the Roman auxiliaries. But local authorities in Thrace maltreated and robbed them, and in the summer of 377 they rose in rebellion. Valens went into battle without waiting for the reinforcements that Gratian was sending him and was crushed at Adrianople in August of 378: two-thirds of his army was destroyed and he himself was killed. It fell to Valens' widow, Domnica Augusta, to organize the defense of Constantinople and provide direction in the emergency.
Gratian turned to theodosius, who was living in retirement in his native Spain. His father, Count Theodosius, had been an able "Master of the Soldiers" in Britain, where he restored order after a concerted attack on the diocese (367) by the Picts, the Scots, and the Saxons, and rebuilt Hadrian's Wall for the third time. But he had fallen from favor for some reason and had been executed at Carthage (376). Theodosius I (379–395), whom Gratian proclaimed co-Augustus (January of 379), made Thessaloniki his headquarters while he restored order in Thrace. It was not until Nov. 24, 380, that he made a formal advent, or ceremonial entry (adventus ) into Constantinople. Theodosius made peace with the visigoths (382), granting them land across the Danube in Moesia in return for service as auxiliaries under the command of their own leaders. They were to be foederati, translated misleadingly as "federate troops." They served under terms of a treaty that exempted them from taxation and gave them a yearly subsidy, but they did not have the right of intermarriage with Roman citizens. They were not to be assimilated. Taking recruits for the Roman armed forces from foreign sources was by no means new, but these "barbarian" soldiers had been integrated into the army, where they would become familiar with Roman culture and loyal to the empire. These new federate troops owed their loyalty first and foremost to their tribal chiefs. But the settlement served as a stop-gap during Theodosius' lifetime. It was after his death in 395 that problems arose with the emergence of an aggressive Visigothic leader, Alaric.
Life and Society in Late Antiquity
Social Structure. After the division of the empire between the sons of Theodosius, east and west increasingly went their own ways, though in law the empire was still one, and the consulship which conferred great social prestige if nothing else, was divided: one consul would hold office in Rome and the other in Constantinople. In the west, society came to be dominated by a small group of great land-owning aristocrats. Their great estates were worked by unfree coloni (tenants), tied to the land by a law of Constantine, and landowners were reluctant to supply them as recruits for the army. They liked lives of cultivated leisure, but they were also eager to hold the high offices of the empire, such as the praetorian prefecture, the urban prefecture, or the powerful post of "Master of the Offices," which brought status and wealth. A senator bore the title "illustris "; lesser grades of order which now did not imply senate seats were "spectabilis " (distinguished), and "clarissimus " (honorable). The title "Patrician" indicated immense prestige.
Free peasants survived better in the eastern empire. Constantius II founded a Senate in Constantinople in the 350s, and it expanded rapidly from barely 300 to 3,000 members before he died. The attraction was that achieving senatorial status made a man a citizen of the capital, and thus he could escape the curial duties of his own civitas. High offices in the bureaucracy were coveted for they were a road to prestige and wealth, and since a good classical education was necessary for entry to the civil militia, schools flourished, and though elementary education was left to private enterprise in both East and West, higher education was subsidized. Knowledge of Latin was necessary for the study of law, but in everything else, the language of culture in the East was Greek. The linguistic divide sharpened: the Greek-speaking East had never shown much interest in Latin except for professional reasons, but since Greek had been widely taught in the west, the ruling class in the early empire had been largely bilingual. Now the West was turning its back on Greek. At the same time Syriac in the patriarchate of Antioch and Coptic in the patriarchate of Alexandria were emerging as written languages with literatures of their own.
Literature and Art. There was an apparent dearth of literature in the third century, though it produced one Greek historian of note, Cassius Dio, a Greek from Bithynia who wrote a Roman History under the Severi. With the fourth century there comes a blossoming. The last great Latin historian is Ammianus Marcellinus, a Greek from Antioch, who served as a soldier before he turned to history. Although his History began where Tacitus left off, the first 13 books which are lost must have moved through the years swiftly, and he begins to write in detail in 353, when he joined the staff of Ursicinus, the Master of Soldiers in the East. He ends with the Battle of Adrianople. His great hero was the emperor Julian the Apostate, though he remains aloof as he witnesses the last struggles of paganism. But we cannot say with certainty that he was not a Christian. We can have no doubt about the paganism of Zosimus, who wrote in Greek under Anastasius, and whose New History attempted to show that Rome had declined because it had abandoned the faith of its founders. The traditions of classical literature lived on, and authors working within them take various stances towards the Christian faith. Claudian, a poet and panegyrist at the court of Honorius, who came from Egypt but wrote in Latin, ignored Christianity; he wrote about mythological subjects as if it did not exist. On the other hand, Rutilius Namatianus, a member of the old Gallo-Roman aristocracy who was urban prefect of Rome in 414, was bitter. His On His Return, which describes his journey from Rome back to Gaul in 416, is vituperative on the subject of Christian ascetics. Yet as time went on artifice took over. Procopius of Caesarea, historian and panegyrist under Justinian, wrote as if he were addressing Greek readers of the classical period, even in his Anekdota or Secret History which purports to relate the scandals he could not reveal in his published work. Yet he was a Christian.
Macrobius in the late fourth century gives us a picture of the pagan aristocracy of Rome in the eve of Alaric's sack of 410. In his Saturnalia he represents their leading members as spending the pagan festival of the Saturnalia together with learned discussions in the morning and lighter conversation at dinner. They are elegant connoisseurs of recondite knowledge, unconcerned by the growing crisis of the state. Chief among them was Symmachus, whose paganism was rooted in a love of the past. His friend, Ausonius, (c. 310–c. 395) the tutor of the emperor Gratian, belonged to the Indian summer of Gallo-Roman civilization in southern Gaul, before the Visigoths moved in a established a Visigothic kingdom. He wrote charming Latin poems in his old age at Bordeaux. One feels he wore his Christianity lightly. He cannot understand his old pupil Paulinus (c. 353–431), who after a brilliant civil career left to live the ascetic life at Nola in Spain. Paulinus, who wrote Christian poetry in classical forms, tried to explain, but the mentalities of the two men had grown apart.
It was in historiography that Christianity left its mark. eusebius of caesarea, whose Life of Constantine is mentioned above, invented two new Christian genres: ecclesiastical history and chronicles. The subject of ecclesiastical history was the church. Whereas history written in the classical tradition avoided citing documents, and it invented speeches where the author could display his rhetorical skill, ecclesiastical history cited documents and excluded speeches. Eusebius' History of the Church was continued by Sokrates, who covered the years 309–439. He was followed by sozomen, who covered 324–425, and Evagrius Scholasticus, who discussed the years 431–594. rufinus of aquileia introduced the genre into Latin; he wrote a digest of Eusebius and added two books to cover the years 324–395.
The World Chronicle was not a completely new invention: Eusebius looked back to the work of Sextus Julius Africanus (c. 160–c. 240). The motive behind the chronicle was the belief that the world would last 6,000 years and that Christ was born 5,500 years after Creation. St. Jerome took over Eusebius' chronicle, and it is through St. Jerome's translation that we know it. The genre continued past the year 500 a.d.; one of the most useful is the chronicle of john malalas written under Justinian. For first centuries of Roman history it is evidence only of how indistinct early Rome had become, but for his own period, Malalas is valuable.
Late Antiquity is also the period when the submerged ethnic groups found a voice. Literature in Coptic and Syriac is available: mostly hymns and saint's lives, but also the works of one valuable ecclesiastical historian, John of Asia, who wrote Lives of the Eastern Saints, 58 chapters telling the stories of Monophysite ascetics in Syria and Mesopotamia, and a Church History in three parts which he wrote in prison at the end of his life. The third part survives almost in its entirety, as well as some of the second part, notably his description of the onslaught of bubonic plague in 542.
Art under the emperor Marcus Aurelius turned its back on the classicism of Hadrian. Marcus Aurelius' column imitates Trajan's, but the style of the sculpture is anti-classical Expressionism. War is shown as brutish and cruel, and the soldiers are degraded puppets. Gallienus favored classicism, but the portraits of the period fix their gaze in the distance, as if they seek something beyond the travails of the present. But with the Tetrarchy portrait sculpture is brutish, and figures in reliefs assume hieratic frontality. Classicism revives somewhat under Constantine, but the mood of the age devalued the human body and placed its emphasis on the life of the spirit.
The Last Days of Paganism. The pagans, known as the Hellenes in the Greek-speaking east and the pagani in the west, found themselves under increasing pressure. Constantius II outlawed pagan sacrifices (341), which his father may have done before him, and in 356 he ordered all temples closed and sacrifices to cease. In 359 he visited Rome for the first and last time, and while there removed the Altar of Victory from the Senate House. Julian the Apostate attempted a revival. He tried to give paganism a priestly hierarchy analogous to that of the Christian Church and to inject some theology taken from Neoplatonism, but his brand of paganism lacked popular appeal. Presumably he restored the Altar of Victory to the Roman Senate House for the emperor Gratian removed it again.
With Theodosius I paganism became an outlawed religion. Sacrifices and divination were forbidden again on pain of death (381), and Christians who converted to paganism were denied the right to make legal wills (383). A law of 392 again banned all sacrifices or even visiting a pagan temple. Yet paganism persisted into the reign of Justinian (527–565), and a few pockets survived even his vigorous effort to wipe it out. On the popular level, monks spearheaded the battle, and famous ascetics such as St. Symeon the Elder, who lived for 40 years (a.d. 419–459) on top of a pillar northeast of Antioch, were charismatic figures who attracted pilgrims by the thousands. The pagan gods lacked this popular appeal, once sacrifice was banned, and such festivals as remained were emasculated. Yet in rural areas there were still hallowed caves and sacred trees and springs that inspired religious awe. On the intellectual level as well, a modest revival took place: at the end of the fourth century the Neoplatonic Academy in Athens was re-founded as a kind of pagan monastery practicing theurgy, but at the same time continuing the intellectual heritage of Plato. It produced one brilliant philosopher, proclus (412–485), who wrote commentaries on Plato's dialogues as well as treatises, notably Platonic Theology and Elements of Theology. Emperor Justinian finally closed the school in 529; at least we hear no more of it, although it has been argued that it continued to exist a little longer.
The Fall in the West and Survival in the East
Theodosius died at Milan (Jan. 17, 395) and left his ten-year-old son, Honorius (395–423), as ruler of the western empire with Stilicho, a Vandal, as his guardian and "Master of the Soldiers," and his older brother, Arcadius (395–408), became emperor in Constantinople. The first threat was from Alaric, who rebelled (395) and ravaged Illyricum, where Stilicho's effort to mount a defense roused the hostility of Arcadius' court, which considered Illyricum under its jurisdiction. Alaric then invaded Greece and took Athens, where there is archaeological evidence for looting. There is evidence for the pillaging of Corinth as well. He was granted land in Epirus, but nonetheless invaded Italy (401–403) to then be expelled by Stilicho. On the last day of the year 406, a wave of Alans, Vandals, and Suevi under Vandal leadership crossed the frozen Rhine and ravaged Gaul for three years before moving to Spain. It was during this period of turmoil that the western court moved from Milan to Ravenna, which was easier to defend. Rome itself fell in 410. After Stilicho's death (408), Alaric and his Visigoths had Rome at his mercy. He sacked it in 410, and though Rome no longer had any military significance, the sack sent shock waves through the Empire. It was in the same year that the western emperor Honorius sent letters to the civitates of Roman Britain urging them to undertake their own defense, which marks the end of a Roman military presence in Britain.
Alaric died soon after the sack of Rome, and his brother Athaulf led the Visigoths into southern Gaul, taking with him Honorius' half-sister, Galla Placidia. A Visigothic kingdom lasted in southern France until it was overthrown by the king of the franks, clovis (486). In 414 the Visigoths invaded Spain and a Visigothic kingdom lasted there until it was overthrown by the Muslim Arabs.
The Vandals were to deal the western empire a mortal blow by capturing Africa. The Asding Vandals were not numerous, but they were led by a leader of genius, Gaiseric, who crossed over from Spain to Africa in 429 and began the conquest. Galla Placidia, who provided what direction there was for the western empire from Ravenna as regent for her young son, Valentinian III, failed to coordinate an adequate defense. Carthage fell in 439. Africa was one part of the western empire that had remained prosperous and its wheat fields fed Rome. Now Vandal conquerors displaced Roman landlords, and since the Vandals adhered to the Arian heresy, Catholics were deprived of their churches after 454 and persecuted. Italy had its own problems. Attila, who made himself leader of the Hunnic horde in 446, ravaged Gaul until the Master of the Soldiers, Aetius, met him in 451 with a combined Roman-barbarian force and worsted him at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (Châlons). Driven from Gaul, Attila invaded Italy the next year and reached Rome, but he withdrew after a meeting with Pope Leo the Great. He was to die on his wedding night in 453, and after his death his horde disintegrated. Yet Rome was to endure another sack. In 455 Gaiseric and his Vandals took the city, and the looting that followed lasted two weeks, compared to which Alaric's sack had been comparatively mild.
Between 455 and 472 there was a series of short-lived weak emperors who were made and unmade by the "Patrician" Ricimer, who was the power behind the throne until his death in 472. Yet one of Ricimer's choices, Majorian (457–461), was able enough to show that with vigorous leadership something might still have been saved. The last emperor was Romulus Augustulus, the young son of the Master of the Soldiers, Orestes, and he was dethroned by Odoacer, a warlord leading a mixed group of barbarians whom he settled in Italy, seizing one-third of the large estates of the landowners for the purpose. Odoacer sent the imperial insignia to Constantinople with the message that the empire needed only one emperor. But the emperor Zeno regarded Odoacer as an illegitimate ruler and encouraged theodoric the Ostrogoth to invade Italy in 488. After defeating and killing Odoacer, he established an Ostrogothic kingdom.
The year 476, when Romulus Augustulus was dethroned, is the conventional date for the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact little changed that year. The great landowners were still rich, though they had lost one-third of their estates, and there were still consuls and prefects. But in Constantinople, the last emperor of Theodosius' family, Theodosius II (408–450), though he was anything but vigorous, did provide continuity and stability. The east still had a good recruiting ground for the army in Asia Minor, and Leo I (457–474) rid himself of Aspar, the "First of the Patricians" by counterbalancing his followers with loyal recruits from Isauria. He married his daughter to an Isaurian chief, Tarasis, who became emperor and took the name Zeno (474–491). Thus the eastern empire passed through its time of crisis and survived.
The reign of Anastasius (491–518) was a period of growth and recovery. The Danube frontier was reestablished. Anastasius was followed by Justin I (518–527) and then by Justin's nephew, Justinian (527–565) under whom Africa and Italy were recaptured, as well as a foot-hold in Spain. Nonetheless the past could not be restored. Italy was left prostrate by Justinian's war, which destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom. Moreover, bubonic plague visited Europe in the years following 542, when it first appeared in Constantinople, and it provides as good a date as any for the beginning of the so-called "Dark Ages."
Bibliography: c. wells, The Roman Empire (2nd ed. Cambridge 1992). e. a. judge, "Res Publica Restituta: A Modern Illusion?" in j. a. s. evans, ed., Polis and Imperium: Studies in Honour of Edward Togo Salmon (Toronto 1974) 279–311. a. h. m. jones, Augustus (London 1970). a. garzetti, trans. j. r. foster, From Tiberius to the Antonines. A History of the Roman Empire, A.D. 14–192 (London 1974). r. syme, The Roman Revolution, rev. ed., (Oxford 1952); The Augustan Aristocracy (Oxford 1986). k. r. bradley, Discovering the Roman Family (Oxford 1991). d. fishwick, The Imperial Cult in the Latin West (Leiden 1987). e. n. luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (Baltimore and London 1976). r. k. sherk, The Roman Empire: Augustus to Hadrian (Cambridge 1988). m. hammond, The Antonine Monarchy (Rome 1959). f. millar, The Roman Near East (Cambridge 1993). j. e. lendon, Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (Oxford 1997). f. millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (31 B.C.–A.D. 337) (Ithaca 1977). c. ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley 2000). r. l. fox, Pagans and Christians (New York 1989). a. watson, Aurelian and the Third Century (London 1999). p. heather, Goths and Romans 332–489 (Oxford 1991). g. friell and s. williams, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (London 1994). a. k. bowman, Egypt after the Pharaohs 332 B.C.–A.D. 642 (Berkeley 1989). t. f. carney, Bureaucracy in Traditional Society (Lawrence, Kansas 1971). a. lesky, A History of Greek Literature trans. j. willis and c. de heer (London 1966). a. cameron, The Later Roman Empire (Cambridge 1993); The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, A.D. 395–600 (London/New York 1993). a. h. m. jones, The Later Roman Empire. A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, 2 vols., (Norman, Oklahoma 1964).
[j. a. s. evans]
Type of Government
The Roman Empire was governed by an autocracy (government by one person) centered on the position of the emperor. The Senate, the dominant political institution of the Roman Republic, which preceded the empire, was retained by the emperor but lacked real political power. The hallmark of the Roman Empire was its extensive system of imperial administration, which included a hierarchy of magistrates and provincial governors.
The Roman Empire refers to the state that was centered in the city of Rome and included vast territories under Roman rule, dated from approximately 27 BC, when Augustus (63 BC–AD 14) was named the first emperor of Rome, to AD 476, when Romulus Augustulus (fifth century), the last ruler of the Western Roman Empire, was deposed. At its height, the empire stretched from Mesopotamia in the east to the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain) in the west, and from the Rhine and Danube rivers in the north to the coast of Africa in the south, and had a population of sixty to one hundred million people.
The Roman Empire was preceded by the Roman Republic, but the transition from the latter to the former was not simply a matter of installing an emperor; rather, it was an incremental process of change in which a republican government was replaced with an autocratic system.
The last century of the Republic left Rome in disarray: violence, lawlessness, and civil strife had destroyed the Republic’s political processes. Thus, as the first emperor of Rome, Augustus embarked on a massive reorganization of Roman systems with the aim of establishing law and order. Indeed, he ushered in what became known as the Pax Romana (Roman peace), a nearly two-hundred-year period of relative peace. Such calm would have been unthinkable only decades earlier.
Augustus built a foundation for his rule by consolidating political power in himself. At the same time, he maintained the veneer of the old republican political institutions by preserving the Senate, popular assemblies, and magisterial offices, though over time these bodies became more ceremonial than functional, merely rubber-stamping the decrees of the emperor. Augustus also reshaped the Senate, reducing its number from over one thousand to six hundred by weeding out senators he considered unworthy and handpicking its membership.
Augustus and his successors built a system of imperial government to administer the empire’s vast territories and link them to the capital. This system, which allowed the provinces some measure of independence while being subject to Roman taxation and military control—functions crucial for the maintenance of the empire—proved quite efficient. Augustus settled former soldiers in the provinces, thus spreading Roman political and cultural influence and securing his power in distant lands. In addition, the Senate was opened up to provincial membership, so that by the second century AD, nearly half the senators were non-Roman.
The period of peace and prosperity inaugurated by Augustus persisted until the end of the second century, the high-water mark of the Roman Empire. By this time, the empire had attained an unprecedented degree of organization and unity—a remarkable achievement for such a large and diverse set of territories. This unity was attributed directly to the emperor: whereas under the Republic Romans’ chief loyalty had been to the state and its institutions, under the empire the emperor himself became their primary allegiance. Throughout the empire, cults were formed to worship the emperor and his family.
The emperors from Augustus through Marcus Aurelius (121–180) continued to strengthen their position and prerogatives. Many emperors came up through the military, and they used the power of the army to secure their rule. By the second century the emperor was named in public documents as dominus noster (Our Master), and his decrees were legally binding—indeed, all laws came from the emperor in the form of edicts, judgments, and mandates, known collectively as constitutiones principium. Increasingly, imperial appointees took on the positions once held by magistrates under the Republic.
The turning point of the Roman Empire was the rule of Commodus (161–192), who was known for his dictatorial behavior and whose reign was plagued by conspiracies and political strife. During the third century the empire faced invasions from barbarian tribes, economic decline, and growing social unrest—indeed, it was near anarchy. Two rulers emerged from this chaos: Diocletian (c. 245–c. 316) and Constantine I (d. 337), both of whom increased the authoritarianism of the government to the point of totalitarianism (absolute authority).
Diocletian was notable for his innovation in the emperorship. Believing the empire was too large to be governed by a single person, he chose to share his rule with a colleague, the former soldier Maximian (d. 310). The change shifted the locus of imperial power—even though Rome remained the capital of the empire, Maximian was installed in Milan so as to counter German invasions, and Diocletian moved to Nicomedia in Anatolia (present-day Turkey). The duo added two junior colleagues, thus establishing a tetrarchy (government of four). The elders, both taking the title “Augustus,” had chief decision-making power, whereas the younger statesmen, both known as “Caesar,” took on executive roles. Ultimately, however, the tetrarchy proved too unstable—there were no clear lines of succession—and thus the emperorship was centralized once again under Constantine.
The idea that the empire was simply too large to be administered by a single ruler persisted. Consequently, in 395, following the death of Theodosius I (347–395), the empire was divided into two parts—the Western (Latin) Empire based in Rome and the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire based in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey)—to provide for better control. Over the next century the two empires developed distinct identities, though they remained ostensibly united.
The fifth century saw the decline of the Western Empire as bands of Huns (from Mongolia) and Germans (a long-feared enemy) invaded Europe. The city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, a Germanic people, in 410 and again by the Huns in 455. In 476 the young emperor Romulus Augustulus surrendered to the German warrior Odoacer (c. 433–493), who became the first Germanic king of Italy. This date marked the end of the Western Roman Empire and its dominance in the Western world.
The emperor was known as the princeps (first citizen) during the first two centuries of the empire. Under this system, called the principate, the emperor consolidated the political power of several offices that had existed under the Republic: He took on the executive functions and imperium (absolute authority) of the consul (chief magistrate) and the religious authority of the pontifex maximus (high priest). Additionally, the emperor was invested with two other types of absolute authority: imperium proconsulare, governorship and command of the provinces, and imperium proconsulare maius, the power to trump any magistrate anywhere in the empire. Over time, the emperor took on all lawmaking authority.
The emperor convened an imperial council (Consilium Principis) composed of the consuls, other magistrates, and fifteen senators chosen by lots every six months, as an advisory committee; however, this body had no policy-making authority.
The Senate acted as the governing council and dominant institution of government. It dealt with foreign embassies, made binding decrees, served as the state’s highest court, and elected urban magistrates; indeed, it even had the power to name the emperor. However, the Senate was stripped of any real political power; it served chiefly to preserve the veneer of the old republican institution. Under Augustus the membership of the Senate was reduced from more than one thousand to six hundred, and over time, its composition reflected the changing empire—the Senate began to include members of the equestrian (or equite) class (a sort of lower aristocracy), as well as representatives from Italy and the provinces. Senators were primarily appointed by the emperor.
One of the hallmarks of the Roman Empire was its extensive system of imperial administration. The progression of magistrates up the political career ladder was known as the cursus honorum. Entry-level officers served on the Vigintiviri (board of twenty) for a term of one year before moving on to higher positions. Officers who were elected quaestor, the next position up the line, were also granted membership in the Senate; these magistrates kept the treasury, maintained public records, or served as provincial governors. In the city of Rome municipal services (such as the grain dole) were handled by a trained professional civil service.
Finally, the vast territories of the Roman Empire were managed by provincial governors. The Senate supervised so-called public provinces, which were administered by governors called proconsuls who were chosen by lot and served for one year. Imperial provinces with significant military forces were considered to be under the direct supervision of the emperor, who hand-picked their governors. Still other imperial provinces were governed by prefects from the equestrian class.
Political Parties and Factions
Roman society under the empire was organized according to a hierarchy of social classes. Because these classes were not based solely on birth—wealth and political standing were also important considerations—there was some social mobility. At the top of the hierarchy, of course, was the emperor, his family, and the imperial court. Next came the senatorial elite, whose status was politically based and depended on the favor of the emperor. The status of the equestrian class was largely economically derived, though many equestrians gained social mobility through army service. The equestrians, a class that had emerged during the late Republic, were businessmen who had profited from manufacturing and trade; this class came to dominate the imperial bureaucracy.
On the lower end of the hierarchy were the plebeians, the ordinary citizens of Rome. Individually, the plebeians had little power, but as a group they could have great influence. Recognizing this, Augustus implemented a plan of “bread and circuses”—free grain and popular entertainment such as chariot races and gladiatorial contests—to keep them appeased. At the very bottom of the social order were slaves, freedmen (former slaves), and finally women.
The first great achievement of the Roman Empire, Pax Romana, was notable for what did not occur. From approximately 27 BC to AD 180—the reign of Augustus through that of Marcus Aurelius—the Roman Empire enjoyed relative peace, the longest such period in Western history before or since. During this period Rome prospered economically and culturally and witnessed the construction of several prominent buildings, such as the Colosseum, which was built between 70 and 82.
In 395 the vast empire was permanently split into two parts, one centered in Rome and one centered in Constantinople. The Western Empire disintegrated in 476, when Romulus Augustulus was deposed; the Eastern Empire persisted for nearly a thousand years after the demise of its Western counterpart.
The Romans left many legacies for future generations, including a rich body of Latin literature, impressive architecture, and a system of city planning and roads, to name a few. Equally important, modern Western civilization has been greatly influenced by Roman law and the science of public administration first developed under the Romans, who saw the need to manage diverse territories efficiently.
Levick, Barba. The Government of the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Mackey, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Millar, Fergus. The Emperor in the Roman World (31 BC–AD 337). Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Talbert, Richard J. A. The Senate of Imperial Rome. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Ro·man Em·pire the empire established by Augustus in 27 bc and divided by Theodosius in ad 395 into the Western or Latin and Eastern or Greek Empire.