The World of the Ancient Romans
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican phase of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean. The term is used to describe the Roman state during and after the time of the first emperor, Augustus. The nearly 500-year-old Roman Republic, which preceded it, had been weakened by several civil wars. Several events are commonly proposed to mark the transition from Republic to Empire, including Julius Caesar's appointment as perpetual dictator (44 BC), the victory of Octavian at the Battle of Actium (2 September 31 BC), and the Roman Senate's granting to Octavian the honorific Augustus (4 January 27 BC).
The Latin term Imperium Romanum (Roman Empire), probably the best-known Latin expression where the word imperium denotes a territory, indicates any part of the world under Roman rule. Roman expansion began in the days of the Republic, but reached its zenith under Emperor Trajan. At this territorial peak, the Roman Empire controlled approximately 6,500,000 km² of land surface. Because of the Empire's vast extent and long endurance, Roman influence upon the language, religion, architecture, philosophy, law, and government of nations around the world lasts to this day.
In the late 3rd century AD, Diocletian established the practice of dividing authority between two emperors, one in the western part of the empire and one in the east, in order to better administer the vast territory. For the next century this practice continued, with occasional periods in which one emperor assumed complete control. However, after the death of Theodosius in 395, no single emperor would ever again hold genuine supremacy over a united Roman Empire.
The Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 as Romulus Augustus was forced to abdicate by Odoacer. The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire endured until 1453 with the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks led by Mehmed II. Therefore, it is difficult to give an exact date when the Roman Empire ceased to exist.
The powers of an emperor, (his imperium) existed, in theory at least, by virtue of his "tribunician powers" (potestas tribunicia) and his "proconsular powers" (imperium proconsulare). In theory, the tribunician powers (which were similar to those of the Plebeian Tribunes under the old republic) made the emperor's person and office sacrosanct, and gave the emperor authority over Rome's civil government, including the power to preside over and to control the Senate.
The proconsular powers (similar to those of military governors, or Proconsuls, under the old republic) gave him authority over the Roman army. He was also given powers that, under the republic, had been reserved for the Senate and the assemblies, including the right to declare war, to ratify treaties, and to negotiate with foreign leaders.
The emperor also had the authority to carry out a range of duties that had been performed by the censors, including the power to control senate membership. In addition, the emperor controlled the religious institutions, since, as emperor, he was always Pontifex Maximus and a member of each of the four major priesthoods. While these distinctions were clearly defined during the early empire, eventually they were lost, and the emperor's powers became less constitutional and more monarchical.
Realistically, the main support of an emperor's power and authority was the military. Being paid by the imperial treasury, the legionaries also swore an annual military oath of loyalty towards him, called the Sacramentum.
The death of an emperor led to a crucial period of uncertainty and crisis. In theory the senate was entitled to choose the new emperor, but most emperors chose their own successors, usually a close family member. The new emperor had to seek a swift acknowledgement of his new status and authority in order to stabilize the political landscape. No emperor could hope to survive, much less to reign, without the allegiance and loyalty of the Praetorian Guard and of the legions. To secure their loyalty, several emperors paid the donativum, a monetary reward.
Senators and equestrians
No emperor could rule the empire without the Senatorial order and the Equestrian order. Most of the more important posts and offices of the government were reserved for the members of these two aristocratic orders. It was from among their ranks that the provincial governors, legion commanders, and similar officials were chosen.
These two classes were hereditary and mostly closed to outsiders. Very successful and favoured individuals could enter, but this was a rare occurrence. The careers of the young aristocrats was influenced by their family connections and the favour of patrons. As important as ability, knowledge, skill, or competence; patronage was considered vital for a successful career and the highest posts and offices required the emperor's favour and trust.
Augustus (27 BC–AD 14)
The Battle of Actium resulted in the defeat and subsequent suicides of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian, now sole ruler of Rome, began a full-scale reformation of military, fiscal and political matters. The powers that he secured for himself were identical in form, if not in name, to those that his predecessor Julius Caesar had secured years earlier as Roman Dictator.
In 36 BC, he was given the power of a Plebeian Tribune, which gave him veto power over the senate, the ability to control the principle legislative assembly (the Plebeian Council), and made his person and office sacrosanct. Up until 32 BC, his status as a Triumvir gave him the powers of an autocrat, but when he deposed Mark Antony that year, he resigned from the Triumvirate, and was then given powers identical to those that he had given up. In 29 BC, Octavian was given the authority of a Roman Censor, and thus the power to appoint new senators.
The senate granted Octavian a unique grade of Proconsular imperium, which gave him authority over all Proconsuls (military governors). The unruly provinces at the borders, where the vast majority of the legions were stationed, were under the control of Augustus. These provinces were classified as imperial provinces. The peaceful senatorial provinces were under the control of the Senate. The Roman legions, which had reached an unprecedented number (around 50) because of the civil wars, were reduced to 28.
Augustus also created nine special cohorts, ostensibly to maintain the peace in Italy, keeping at least three of them stationed at Rome. These cohorts became known as the Praetorian Guard. In 27 BC, Octavian transferred control of the state back to the Senate and the People of Rome. The Senate refused the offer, which, in effect, functioned as a popular ratification of his position within the state. Octavian was also granted the title of "Augustus" by the senate, and took the title of Princeps, or "first citizen".
As the adopted heir of Caesar, Augustus preferred to be called by this name. Caesar was a component of his family name. Julio-Claudian rule lasted for almost a century (from Julius Caesar in the mid-1st century BC to the emperor Nero in the mid-1st century AD). By the time of the Flavian Dynasty, and the reign of Vespasian, and that of his two sons, Titus and Domitian, the term Caesar had evolved, almost de facto, from a family name into a formal title.
Augustus' final goal was to figure out a method to ensure an orderly succession. In 6 BC Augustus granted tribunician powers to his stepson Tiberius, and before long Augustus realized that he had no choice but to recognize Tiberius as his heir. In AD 13, the point was settled beyond question. A law was passed which linked Augustus' powers over the provinces to those of Tiberius, so that now Tiberius' legal powers were equivalent to, and independent from, those of Augustus. Within a year, Augustus was dead.
Tiberius to Alexander Severus (14–235)
Augustus was succeeded by his stepson Tiberius, the son of his wife Livia from her first marriage. Augustus was a scion of the gens Julia (the Julian family), one of the most ancient patrician clans of Rome, while Tiberius was a scion of the gens Claudia, only slightly less ancient than the Julians. Their three immediate successors were all descended both from the gens Claudia, through Tiberius's brother Nero Claudius Drusus, and from gens Julia, either through Julia the Elder, Augustus's daughter from his first marriage (Caligula and Nero), or through Augustus's sister Octavia Minor (Claudius). Historians thus refer to their dynasty as "Julio-Claudian Dynasty".
The early years of Tiberius's reign were peaceful and relatively benign. However, Tiberius's reign soon became characterised by paranoia and slander. He began a series of treason trials and executions, which continued until his death in 37. The logical successor to the hated Tiberius was his grandnephew, Gaius (better known as "Caligula" or "little boots"). Caligula started out well, but quickly became insane. In 41 Caligula was assassinated, and for two days following his assassination, the senate debated the merits of restoring the republic.
Due to the demands of the army, however, Claudius was ultimately declared emperor. Claudius was neither paranoid like his uncle Tiberius, nor insane like his nephew Caligula, and was therefore able to administer the empire with reasonable ability. In his own family life he was less successful, as he married his niece, who may very well have poisoned him in 54. Nero, who succeeded Claudius, focused much of his attention on diplomacy, trade, and increasing the cultural capital of the empire. Nero, though, is remembered as a tyrant, and committed suicide in 68.
The forced suicide of Nero was followed by a brief period of civil war, known as the "Year of the Four Emperors". Augustus had established a standing army, where individual soldiers served under the same military governors over an extended period of time. The consequence was that the soldiers in the provinces developed a degree of loyalty to their commanders, which they did not have for the emperor. Thus the empire was, in a sense, a union of inchoate principalities, which could have disintegrated at any time. Between June 68 and December 69, Rome witnessed the successive rise and fall of Galba, Otho and Vitellius until the final accession of Vespasian, first ruler of the Flavian dynasty. These events showed that any successful general could legitimately claim a right to the throne.
Vespasian, though a successful emperor, continued the weakening of the Senate which had been going on since the reign of Tiberius. Through his sound fiscal policy, he was able to build up a surplus in the treasury, and began construction on the Colosseum. Titus, Vespasian's successor, quickly proved his merit, although his short reign was marked by disaster, including the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii. He held the opening ceremonies in the still unfinished Colosseum, but died in 81. He was succeeded by his brother, Domitian, who had exceedingly poor relations with the senate. Domitian, ultimately, was a tyrant with the character which always makes tyranny repulsive, and this derived in part from the fact that he had no son, and thus was constantly in danger of being overthrown. In September of 96, he was murdered.
The next century came to be known as the period of the "Five Good Emperors", in which the successions were peaceful and the Empire was prosperous. Each emperor of this period was adopted by his predecessor. The last 2 of the "Five Good Emperors" and Commodus are also called Antonines. After his accession, Nerva, who succeeded Domitian, set a new tone: he restored much confiscated property and involved the Roman Senate in his rule.
In 112, Trajan marched on Armenia and annexed it to the Roman Empire. Then he turned south into Parthia, taking several cities before declaring Mesopotamia a new province of the empire, and lamenting that he was too old to follow in the steps of Alexander the Great. During his rule, the Roman Empire was to its largest extent, and would never again advance so far to the east. Hadrian's reign was marked by a general lack of major military conflicts, but he had to defend the vast territories that Trajan had acquired.
Antoninus Pius's reign was comparatively peaceful. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Germanic tribes launched many raids along the northern border. The period of the "Five Good Emperors" also commonly described as the Pax Romana, or "Roman Peace" was brought to an end by the reign of Commodus. Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius, breaking the scheme of adoptive successors that had turned out so well. Commodus became paranoid and slipped into insanity before being murdered in 192.
The Severan Dynasty, which lasted from 193 until 235, included several increasingly troubled reigns. A generally successful ruler, Septimius Severus, the first of the dynasty, cultivated the army's support and substituted equestrian officers for senators in key administrative positions. His son, Caracalla, extended full Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. Increasingly unstable and autocratic, Caracalla was assassinated by Macrinus, who succeeded him, before being assassinated and succeeded by Elagabalus. Alexander Severus, the last of the dynasty, was increasing unable to control the army, and was assassinated in 235.
Crisis of the Third Century and the later emperors (235–395)
The Crisis of the Third Century is a commonly applied name for the crumbling and near collapse of the Roman Empire between 235 and 284. During this time, 25 emperors reigned, and the empire experienced extreme military, political, and economic crises. Additionally, in 251, the Plague of Cyprian broke out, causing large-scale mortality which may have seriously affected the ability of the Empire to defend itself. This period ended with the accession of Diocletian, who reigned from 284 until 305, and who solved many of the acute problems experienced during this crisis.
However, the core problems would remain and cause the eventual destruction of the western empire. Diocletian saw the vast empire as ungovernable, and therefore split the empire in half and created two equal emperors to rule under the title of Augustus. In doing so, he effectively created what would become the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. In 293 authority was further divided, as each Augustus took a junior Emperor called a Caesar to provide a line of succession. This constituted what is now known as the Tetrarchy ("rule of four"). The transitions of this period mark the beginnings of Late Antiquity.
The Tetrarchy would effectively collapse with the death of Constantius Chlorus, the first of the Constantinian dynasty, in 306. Constantius's troops immediately proclaimed his son Constantine the Great as Augustus. A series of civil wars broke, which ended with the entire empire being united under Constantine, who legalised Christianity definitively in 313 through the Edict of Milan.
In 361, after decades of further civil war, Julian became emperor. His edict of toleration in 362 ordered the reopening of pagan temples, and, more problematically for the Christian Church, the recalling of previously exiled Christian bishops. Julian eventually resumed the war against Shapur II of Persia, although he received a mortal wound in battle and died in 363. His officers then elected Jovian emperor. Jovian is remembered for ceding terrorities won from the Persians, dating back to Trajan, and for restoring the privileges of Christianity, before dying in 364.
Upon Jovian's death, Valentinian I, the first of the Valentinian dynasty, was elected Augustus, and chose his brother Valens to serve as his co-emperor. In 365, Procopius managed to bribe two legions, who then proclaimed him Augustus. War between the two rival Eastern Roman Emperors continued until Procopius was defeated, although in 367, eight-year-old Gratian was proclaimed emperor by the other two. In 375 Valentinian I led his army in a campaign against a Germanic tribe, but died shortly thereafter. Succession did not go as planned. Gratian was then a 16-year-old and arguably ready to act as Emperor, but the troops proclaimed his infant half-brother emperor under the title Valentinian II, and Gratian acquiesced.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman Empire faced its own problems with Germanic tribes. One tribe fled their former lands and sought refuge in the Eastern Roman Empire. Valens let them settle on the southern bank of the Danube in 376, but they soon revolted against their Roman hosts. Valens personally led a campaign against them in 378. However this campaign proved disastrous for the Romans. The two armies approached each other near Adrianople, but Valens was apparently overconfident of the numerical superiority of his own forces over the enemy. Valens, eager to have all of the glory for himself, rushed into battle, and on 9 August 378, the Battle of Adrianople resulted in a crushing defeat for the Romans, and the death of Valens.
Contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus estimated that two thirds of the Roman army were lost in the battle. The battle had far-reaching consequences, as veteran soldiers and valuable administrators were among the heavy casualties, which left the Empire with the problem of finding suitable leadership. Gratian was now effectively responsible for the whole of the Empire. He sought however a replacement Augustus for the Eastern Roman Empire, and in 379 choose Theodosius I.
Theodosius, the founder of the Theodosian dynasty, proclaimed his five year old son Arcadius an Augustus in 383 in an attempt to secure succession. Hispanic Celt general Magnus Maximus, stationed in Roman Britain, was proclaimed Augustus by his troops in 383 and rebelled against Gratian when he invaded Gaul. Gratian fled, but was assassinated. Following Gratian's death, Maximus had to deal with Valentinian II, at the time only twelve years old, as the senior Augustus. Maximus soon entered negotiations with Valentinian II and Theodosius, attempting to gain their official recognition, although Negotiations were unfruitful. Theodosius campaigned west in 388 and was victorious against Maximus, who was then captured and executed. In 392 Valentinian II was murdered, and shortly thereafter Arbogast arranged for the appointment of Eugenius as emperor.
However, the eastern emperor Theodosius I refused to recognise Eugenius as emperor and invaded the West, defeating and killing Arbogast and Eugenius. He thus reunited the entire Roman Empire under his rule. Theodosius was the last Emperor who ruled over the whole Empire. As emperor, he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. After his death in 395, he gave the two halves of the Empire to his two sons Arcadius and Honorius. The Roman state would continue to have two different emperors with different seats of power throughout the 5th century, though the Eastern Romans considered themselves Roman in full. The two halves were nominally, culturally and historically, if not politically, the same state.
Decline of the Western Roman Empire (395–476)
After 395, the emperors in the Western Roman Empire were usually figureheads, while the actual rulers were military strongmen. The year 476 is generally accepted as the formal end of the Western Roman Empire. That year, Orestes refused the request of Germanic mercenaries in his service for lands in Italy. The dissatisfied mercenaries, led by Odoacer, revolted, and deposed the last western emperor, Romulus Augustus. This event has traditionally been considered the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Odoacer quickly conquered the remaining provinces of Italy, and then sent the Imperial Regalia back to the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno. Zeno soon received two deputations. One was from Odoacer, requesting that his control of Italy be formally recognised by the Empire, in which case he would acknowledge Zeno's supremacy. The other deputation was from Nepos, the emperor before Romulus Augustus, asking for support to regain the throne. Zeno granted Odoacer's request. Upon Nepos's death in 480, Zeno claimed Dalmatia for the East. Odoacer attacked Dalmatia, and the ensuing war ended with Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths, conquering Italy.
The Empire became gradually less Romanised and increasingly Germanic in nature: although the Empire buckled under Visigothic assault, the overthrow of the last Emperor Romulus Augustus was carried out by federated Germanic troops from within the Roman army rather than by foreign troops. In this sense had Odoacer not renounced the title of Emperor and named himself "King of Italy" instead, the Empire might have continued in name. Its identity, however, was no longer Roman—it was increasingly populated and governed by Germanic peoples long before 476.
The Roman people were by the fifth century "bereft of their military ethos" and the Roman army itself a mere supplement to federated troops of Goths, Huns, Franks and others fighting on their behalf. Many theories have been advanced in explanation of the decline of the Roman Empire, and many dates given for its fall, from the onset of its decline in the third century to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Militarily, however, the Empire finally fell after first being overrun by various non-Roman peoples and then having its heart in Italy seized by Germanic troops in a revolt. The historicity and exact dates are uncertain, and some historians do not consider that the Empire fell at this point. Disagreement persists since the decline of the Empire had been a long and gradual process rather than a single event.
Eastern Roman Empire (476–1453)
As the Western Roman Empire declined during the 5th century, the richer Eastern Roman Empire would be relieved of much destruction, and in the mid 6th century the Eastern Roman Empire (known also as the Byzantine Empire) under the emperor Justinian I reconquered Italy and parts of Illyria from the Ostrogoths, North Africa from the Vandals, and southern Hispania from the Visigoths. The reconquest of southern Hispania was somewhat ephemeral, but North Africa served the Byzantines for another century, parts of Italy for another 5 centuries, and parts Illyria even longer.
The American magazine National Geographic described the legacy of the Roman Empire in The World According to Rome:
The enduring Roman influence is reflected pervasively in contemporary language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc. Much of it is so deeply inbedded that we barely notice our debt to ancient Rome. Consider language, for example. Fewer and fewer people today claim to know Latin - and yet, go back to the first sentence in this paragraph. If we removed all the words drawn directly from Latin, that sentence would read; "The."
Several states claimed to be the Roman Empire's successors after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire, an attempt to resurrect the Empire in the West, was established in 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Frankish King Charlemagne as Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, though the empire and the imperial office did not become formalised for some decades. After the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Tsardom, as inheritor of the Byzantine Empire's Orthodox Christian tradition, counted itself the third Rome (with Constantinople having been the second).
When the Ottomans, who based their state on the Byzantine model, took Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II established his capital there and claimed to sit on the throne of the Roman Empire, and he even went so far as to launch an invasion of Italy with the purpose of "re-uniting the Empire", although Papal and Neapolitan armies stopped his march on Rome at Otranto in 1480. Constantinople was not officially renamed Istanbul until 28 March 1930.
Excluding these states claiming its heritage, if the traditional date for the founding of Rome is accepted as fact, the Roman state can be said to have lasted in some form from 753 BC to the fall in 1461 of the Empire of Trebizond (a successor state and fragment of the Byzantine Empire which escaped conquest by the Ottomans in 1453), for a total of 2,214 years. The Roman impact on Western and Eastern civilisations lives on. In time most of the Roman achievements were duplicated by later civilisations. For example, the technology for cement was rediscovered 1755–1759 by John Smeaton.
The Empire contributed many things to the world, such as a calendar with leap years, the institutions of Christianity and aspects of modern neo-classicistic and Byzantine architecture. The extensive system of roads that was constructed by the Roman Army lasts to this day. Because of this network of roads, the time necessary to travel between destinations in Europe did not decrease until the 19th century, when steam power was invented. Even modern astrology comes to us directly from the Romans.
The Roman Empire also contributed its form of government, which influences various constitutions including those of most European countries and many former European colonies. In the United States, for example, the framers of the Constitution remarked, in creating the Presidency, that they wanted to inaugurate an "Augustan Age". The modern world also inherited legal thinking from Roman law, fully codified in Late Antiquity. Governing a vast territory, the Romans developed the science of public administration to an extent never before conceived or necessary, creating an extensive civil service and formalised methods of tax collection.
While in the West the term "Roman" acquired a new meaning in connection with the church and the Pope of Rome the Greek form Romaioi remained attached to the Greek-speaking Christian population of the Eastern Roman Empire and is still used by Greeks in addition to their common appellation.
The Roman Empire's territorial legacy of controlling the Italian peninsula would serve as an influence to Italian nationalism and the unification (Risorgimento) of Italy in 1861.