Chapter 7 The Roman World
While Alexander laid the foundations for Hellenistic civilization by carrying Greek culture and ideas into the heartland of the Persian Empire, further west the interplay of different cultures and civilizations also gave rise to a new variation on the theme of civilization. Phoenician cities had flourished in northern Africa and Spain since the late 2nd millennium B.C., while Greek cities dotted southern Italy and eastern Sicily in such profusion after the great period of Greek colonization that the region became known as Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece. These city-dwelling immigrants came into contact with various tribal peoples speaking Indo-European languages such as Celtic and Italic. In northern Italy the rather mysterious Etruscans, who may have migrated there from Asia Minor in several waves, had established their own highly structured and sophisticated kingdoms. As all these groups began to interact, a new civilization began to emerge in the western Mediterranean. The center of this new civilization was a small group of villages along the Tiber River not far from the western coast of Italy. Sometime in the early years of the 1st millennium B.C., these villages came together and organized themselves around a common market place, or forum. From this central forum grew the great imperial capital, Rome.
Under Alexander the Great, Greek culture expanded
eastward into the ruins of the old Persian Empire. In many areas, the
new Hellenistic, or Greek-like culture that emerged under Alexander’s
successors remained little more than an artificial overlay, a culture of
the Greek-speaking elite that had little influence on the local cultures
and traditions of most people. This was particularly true in Egypt and
Mesopotamia, as well as among the Jews of Palestine. In other places,
however, such as Asia Minor, Syria, and far to the east in Bactria and
northern India, Greek civilization and culture did filter down to the
local level where it interacted with older traditions to produce a
blending of cultures. To the west too, Greek culture significantly
influenced emerging cultures and civilizations—particularly that of
Rome, which would soon conquer not only Greece itself but most of the
rest of the Hellenistic world around the Mediterranean Sea.
Geography and History
At even a first glance, the Italian peninsula would seem a logical place for the emergence of an imperial power that would dominate the Mediterranean region. The boot-shaped Italian peninsula juts south from Europe into the Mediterranean Sea nearly half way to Africa. It also lies almost halfway between the eastern and western boundaries of the Mediterranean world. In short, Italy provides the perfect land base from which people might be able to dominate the entire Mediterranean world.
To the north, the peninsula is protected, though not isolated, by
the high mountain range of the Alps. South, east, and west the sea
provides both protection and a means of rapid transportation. Up the
center of the peninsula, the Apennine Mountains divide the eastern and
western coasts. From north to south, Italy stretches some 750 miles,
with an average width of about 120 miles across. Much of the peninsula
is relatively rich country with a pleasant
climate, able to feed a large population. Compared to Greece, for
example, the interior of Italy provided much better soil, trees, and a
better balance between agriculture and the livelihood to be gained from
Greeks, Carthaginians and Etruscans
Civilization came late to the western Mediterranean. Mesopotamia and Egypt had reached a sophisticated level of civilization long before anything occurred in the west. The first great civilization to emerge in Italy was established in Etruria, north of Latium, in modern-day Tuscany.
Etruria, from http://historyfacebook.wikispaces.com/file/view/etruscans.gif/30589536/etruscans.gif
Scholars disagree about whether the Etruscans came from Lydia, in Asia Minor, or were native Italians. What little we know about their original civilization is drawn from their cemeteries and the tombs they decorated and furnished for their dead. Judging from such evidence, they seem to have had a great zest for life. They danced, played hard at games, and feasted at great banquets. Women apparently played a much greater role in Etruscan society than in Greek or later Roman civilization.
The Etruscans never established any single political entity in Etruria but organized themselves in a collection of independent cities. During their “Golden Age” in the 6th century B.C., however, the Etruscans dominated central Italy from the Po river to the bay of Naples. In the 5th century, pressure from Greeks and Celts, and revolts of the Latins forced them to retreat to Etruria proper, between the Arno and Tiber rivers. They greatly influenced Rome, which they controlled throughout the 500s.
From the middle of the 8th century Greek colonists settled in southern Italy and eastern Sicily. The region took the name of Greater Greece (Magna Graecia) because of the importance of Greek emigration in this region. Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, on the North African coast, Carthage, a Phoenician colony founded in 814 B.C., headed a trading empire in the western Mediterranean, controlling the coasts of North Africa, Spain, western Sicily, as well as the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. Led by an aristocracy of merchants and possessing a powerful navy, Carthage could claim the title of "Queen of the western Mediterranean" in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.
Surrounded by such influences, near the western coast in the
middle of the Italian peninsula, the city of Rome grew up from several
small villages grouped together around a central market, or forum.
According to tradition, Romulus and Remus, twin brothers who were raised
by a she-wolf, founded the city of Rome in 753 B.C. Whether such figures
actually existed or not, the city prospered at least partly from its
location. Located on the banks of the Tiber River
and only about 18 miles inland from the western coast of Italy, Rome was a
bridge-city, controlling access across the river, as well as any traffic
that might be travelling up- or down-river. Consequently, it not only lay
across valuable trade routes between northern and southern Italy, it
also had convenient access to the sea while at the same time being
protected from pirate attacks. Early Romans themselves appreciated the
strategic nature of the city's location, as the later Roman statesman, Cicero, acknowledged
in his explanation for the development of Rome’s empire:
“It seems to me that Romulus must at
the very beginning have [had] a divine intimation that the city would
one day be the site and hearthstone of a mighty empire; for scarcely
could a city placed upon any other site in Italy have more easily
maintained our present widespread dominion.” [Cicero (De Re Publica
The Romans. The people who established Rome were members of an Indo-European speaking group of peoples, known as Latins, who had migrated into the Italian peninsula from the northeast sometime around the beginning of the 1st millennium B.C. They were thus related to the Greeks, at least culturally if not ethnically, and spoke an Italic language that was relatively close to Greek. In Italy, the Latins came under the influence of the Greek city-states of the south, as well as the Etruscan civilization of northern Italy. Sometime after the founding of Rome, the city came under the rule of Etruscan kings, much as many Greek cities began life as small kingdoms.
In 509, however, the Romans threw out the last of their Etruscan monarchs, Tarquinius, and established a republic, in which representatives of the people, at first usually the wealthy landed nobles, but eventually including ordinary people called plebs, ruled the state. They remained at war with the Etruscans further north, as well as with their surrounding neighbors. Like the early Athenians, the Romans were a tribal people who yet learned how to organize themselves for city-life. Around them, meanwhile, the other Latin peoples continued to live a basically rural tribal existence as farmers and herders. Gradually, the Romans extended their control over these rural neighbors and incorporated them into a kind of Latin League.
Eventually, the Romans began to prevail over the Etruscans, partly because of their greater manpower and partly because of their development of a citizen army. In addition, although the Romans began to expand their city, they remained at heart a rural community. Roman citizens, both commoners and aristocrats called patricians, prided themselves on their connection with the soil. One famous story of early Rome for example, tells how the city was threatened by enemies; in their time of need, the people turned to their greatest general, Cincinnatus, who was plowing his own fields at the time. Leaving his plow, Cincinnatus defeated the Romans’ enemies—then promptly returned to his fields.
As the Roman population began to grow, so too did the need for more and more land. Soon, Rome had begun to conquer its neighbors and to settle its own surplus population on the newly-acquired land. Although, like the Greek cities, Rome too suffered from internal strife between aristocrats and commoners, in times of danger they could put these quarrels behind them and unite to confront their common foes. Moreover, much as had happened with the hoplites in Greece, Roman military victories not only provided more and more land for the peasants, thus alleviating their land-hunger, it also gave them a greater stake in the survival and growth of the city.
Although the rate of Roman expansion suffered a setback in 390
B.C., when a band of Celtic warriors swept down from the north, sacking
and burning the city, the Romans recovered quickly and Roman expansion
became even more rapid after the raid. By about 265 B.C., the Romans had
not only defeated the Etruscans of the north, conquering many of their
cities, they had also made themselves the masters of southern Italy,
which they conquered from the Greeks.
The foundation of Rome and the Royal period (753-509 B.C.).
Romulus and Remus. The Romans dated the foundation of their city to 753 B.C., when, according to tradition, twin sons born to a Vestal Virgin by the war god Mars established the city. Legend relates that the twins, grandchildren of king Numitor of Alba Longa, were condemned to death by their grand uncle who had usurped the throne. But the soldier charged with the deed could not bring himself to do it and abandoned the babies for wild beasts to devour. Instead, a she-wolf adopted them into her own litter and saved them by feeding them. Thereafter, the she-wolf became the symbol of Rome. Later the twins, Romulus and Remus, after giving back to their grandfather the throne of Alba Longa, left the city to found a new one, Rome.
"Capitoline Wolf, traditionally believed to be Etruscan, 5th century BC, with figures of Romulus and Remus added in the 15th century by Antonio Pollaiuolo. Recent studies suggest that it may be medieval, dating from the 13th century. " From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romulus_and_Remus.
The legend of the foundation of Rome by Romulus and Remus was later associated with the Greek epic of the Trojan war. Aeneas, a Trojan prince, so the story went, had survived the final Greek assault on Troy and had fled the burning city leading a band of refugees. After long travels, the refugees eventually settled in Latium where Aeneas’s son founded Alba Longa, establishing himself as the first of a long dynasty of kings that culminated in Numitor, the grandfather of Romulus and Remus. In the 1st century A.D., the great poet Virgil immortalized this story of the Trojan origins of the Romans in his epic poem, the Aeneid.
Latin and Etruscan Kings. From 753 to 509 B.C. Rome was ruled by kings—at first Latin kings, then Etruscan kings (in the 6th century). The Etruscans were interested in Rome because of its strategic location: it was of crucial importance for their lines of communications between Etruria and Campania.
Under Etruscan rule, Rome began to prosper. The Etruscans transformed the dispersed villages into a city by paving the plain in the middle of the hills, by surrounding the city by a wall, by creating a solid political organization, and by strengthening the economy. From the Etruscans, the Romans learned and adopted many elements of civilization and culture: the alphabet; engineering expertise in irrigation and construction; the art of divination; and many others. Above all, perhaps, the Romans learned the art of social organization from the Etruscans.
The expulsion of the kings (509 B.C.). In 509, however, the Roman nobles expelled their last king, Tarquinius Superbus, as part of a general movement of liberation from Etruscan rule that was happening throughout Latium. The nobles proclaimed that Rome was now a republic in the Latin sense of the term res publica, or public property rather than the private property of a king. (see section iii)
Roman Conquest of the Mediterranean World
The conquest of Italy (509-272 B.C.). The Roman conquest of Italy should be considered in two phases divided by the sack of Rome by a raiding party of Gauls in 390 B.C. Before this disaster, the Romans had been able to take control over the neighboring tribes in Latium and the surrounding regions. They were starting the conquest of Etruria when a band of Gauls invaded from northern Italy. The Gauls defeated the Roman army on the field of battle, then sacked and burned Rome to the ground.
This set-back cancelled all the progress the Romans had achieved since 509 B.C. But it did not destroy the Romans’ spirit. As soon as the Gauls left, the Romans rebuilt their city and resumed their yearly campaigns against the tribes of central Italy. From that moment on the Romans would never stop expanding until they had established their dominion first over Italy, and then throughout the Mediterranean. By 338 B.C., Rome had gained control of the Latins and neighboring tribes (by 338 B.C.), and opened hostilities against the fierce tribally organized Samnites south east of Latium. It took three difficult wars to subjugate the Samnites (343-341; 316-304; 298-290 B.C.). In the process, the Romans established the predominance of an urban society throughout Italy that replaced the loose social structure of the tribal peoples.
Once in control of central Italy, the Roman legions moved south toward Magna Graecia. Rightly worried by Roman expansion, the city of Tarentum decided to appeal for help to Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. Pyrrhus, a relative of Alexander the Great, was one of the most brilliant generals of his time. He came to Italy with a well trained professional army of 35,000 men. The first two battles against Pyrrhus ended in outright defeats for Rome (279 and 278 B.C.). Nevertheless, the Romans stubbornly refused to acknowledge the superiority of their enemies or to negotiate with them as the normal rules of warfare between civilized countries suggested they should. Both the Romans’ stubborn refusal to negotiate and the casualties they inflicted on the Greek forces caused Pyrrhus to remark to one of his officers that with another such victory he would end up without an army! (Ever since, costly victories have been known as Pyrrhic victories.) In 276, the Romans faced Pyrrhus once more and finally were victorious.
The Pyrrhic War from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pyrrhic_War_Italy_en.svg
The Pyrrhic war made clear to everybody that the Romans could stand to lose battles but would end by winning the wars. The lesson was not forgotten. In 273, the king of Egypt, Ptolemy II, sent an embassy to seek a treaty of friendship with Rome. The great Hellenistic power of Egypt thus acknowledged the rising western power of Rome. Rome was now a power to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean world. The following year, the capture of the Greek city of Tarentum sealed the fate of southern Italy.
Roman Italy. It may be useful to interrupt here the history of the Roman conquest to reflect on the political organization of the conquest of Italy. The Romans proved extremely wise in their treatment of defeated enemies, preferring to transform them into “allies” rather than enslaved peoples. They imposed only two strict conditions: the defeated states must forfeit any independent foreign policy; and they had to provide a contingent of troops, known as auxiliaries, for service with the Roman army. Apart from these two requirements, Rome did not interfere in the domestic affairs, customs, or religion of their "allies".
By neither imposing a tribute nor interfering with the internal
affairs of the conquered cities, Rome avoided creating strong
resentments among the defeated Italians. In addition, by imposing her
own order on the Peninsula, Rome brought peace and security, two
advantages that many of the Italians appreciated. Before the Roman
conquest, the Italian tribes had been constantly fighting among
themselves. Now, under Roman hegemony they enjoyed a new era of peace
and stability at a minimum cost. At the same time, the Romans proved
exceedingly adept at practicing a policy known as “divide et impera,”
or “divide and rule.” By systematically negotiating separate
treaties with the different cities and tribes of Italy they deliberately
avoided creating an “Italian” consciousness, and lessoned the risk
that the new allies might join together against Roman rule. The
incorporation of Italian auxiliaries into the Roman military system
underpinned Roman authority and gave the Romans an immense reservoir of
potential military manpower. Roman armies were soon composed of equal
numbers of legions, made up of Roman citizens, and auxiliaries, drawn
from the Italian allies. From a military point of view, the Roman
conquest of the Mediterranean was actually a Romano-Italian achievement.
Conquest of the Western Mediterranean (264-146 B.C.). Once in control of southern Italy, Rome soon decided to intervene outside of the peninsula, in Sicily. In agreeing to help the city of Messena against her enemy Syracuse, Rome came into conflict with Carthage. The Carthaginians controlled eastern Sicily and had no desire to see Rome in control of the straits between Italy and the island. Such a strategic position would pose a potential threat to their commercial ambitions. The first war between Rome and Carthage was fought in Sicily for 25 tears. It was a long and frustrating conflict since Rome was superior on land but the Carthaginian navy dominated at sea.
Only when the Romans realized that the war had to be won at sea and decided to build a navy could they win the conflict. The Romans did not challenge the Carthaginians at sea without difficulty. This new form of fighting had to be mastered and it cost them dearly: they lost more than 600 ships (and their crews and marines) during the war, most of them through lack of naval experience and competent leaders. Aware of their limitations as sailors, the Romans found an ingenious device to transform sea battle into land battle. They equipped their ships with boarding-bridges that were thrown on the enemies' ships and thus made it possible for Roman marines to board and fight as if they were on land. With this new technique of fighting, the Romans eventually not only prevailed on land but also overcame the Carthaginians at sea.
The results of this first Punic War were important for Rome. Carthage was forced to pay a heavy war indemnity and to abandon Sicily. The indemnity made it clear to the Romans that warfare might actually become a paying proposition. Control of Sicily reinforced this lesson. The Romans, for the first time faced with governing overseas territories, did not treat Sicily as they had conquered territories in Italy. Instead, they created their first province - that is, they ruled it directly with a governor and troops of occupation, and the imposition of a regular tribute. A few years later, in 238 B.C., taking advantage of a revolt among Carthage's mercenaries in North Africa, the Romans seized the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, which they transformed into their second province. The seizure of the two islands was contrary to all legal and moral principles but Carthage was in no condition to resist the aggression.
This act of brutal imperialism, however, generated hatred of Rome in Carthage. Some Carthaginians dreamed of revenge. Among them were the Barcids, a Carthaginian family who had emigrated to Spain after the loss of Sicily. They hoped to use Spain’s manpower to create an army. The son of Hamilcar Barca, the great general Hannibal, in 218 B.C. was to be the heir of this strategy when he departed from Spain at the head of a well trained army to invade Italy during the Second Punic War.
The second Punic war was one of the most tragic wars in Roman history. During its first three years Hannibal defeated the Romans in three great battles (Trebia in 218; Lake Trasimene in 217; Cannae in 216). By 215 Rome seemed on the verge of being destroyed. She had lost some 100,000 soldiers (either dead or prisoners), her southern Italian allies had defected to Hannibal, Sicily was no longer on her side, and the powerful king of Macedonia, Philip V, had made a military alliance with Hannibal. Nevertheless, Rome faced these trying times with all her energy and resources: the Senate took total control of the war effort and the whole Roman population stood behind their leaders. Eventually, Rome managed to regroup and finally to defeat the Carthaginians.
Carthage was severely punished. She lost her navy and Spain, as well as her independence in matters of foreign policy. As for Rome, the defeat of Carthage made her the leading power in the western Mediterranean. But the trauma of the second Punic war left indelible scars in the Roman psyche. Thereafter, for example, one Roman orator ended every speech he made in the Senate with the phrase, “Carthago delenda est!” meaning “Carthage must be destroyed.” Eventually, in 149 B.C. under arguable pretexts, the Romans declared war for the third time. After a siege of three years they finally took the city by force. They enslaved and evicted the remaining inhabitants and leveled Carthage itself. They even spread salt on the remains of the ancient city, as a symbolic dedication of the site to the gods of the underworld. In the meantime, the Romans secured their rule over northern Italy and Spain.
Conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean (215-133 B.C.). During the
Second Punic War, Macedonia
had been allied with the Carthaginians. As soon as the war was over, the
Romans declared war on Macedonia. They were victorious (197 B.C.). But
in intervening directly in the East, Rome quickly became involved in the
Hellenistic world – especially the Greek leagues and Syria. By 146
B.C., Rome was in control of the eastern Mediterranean.
Conclusion: The nature of Roman imperialism.
The Romans did not acquire their empire by following a rational plan of world domination. They acquired it piecemeal and for a variety of reasons - among them self-defense, fascination with military glory, responses to their allies' requests for help, a desire for military spoils and the riches of empire, and not least the militaristic character of the Roman people.
In addition to their success in defeating their enemies the Romans were remarkably successful in keeping their acquisitions. In addition to their military superiority, and their willingness to use force against any signs of revolt, the Romans owed their imperial successes to their treatment of their new subjects. They were not interested in direct exploitation nor in direct intervention in the domestic affairs of subjugated countries. They left the vanquished nations to enjoy their own customs, religions and cultures - as long as they abandoned all independence in foreign and military matters and paid a regular tribute. As in Italy, the Romans generally brought a greater peace and order than their new overseas provinces had previously known.
Early Roman Society (5TH-2ND CENTURIES B.C.)
Roman Republican Institutions
The expulsion of the last king in 509 B.C. left Roman society divided between the patricians (aristocrats by birth) and the plebeians (approximately 90% of the rest of the population). The patricians controlled every aspect of society: politics, religion, economy, military commands. They did not enjoy this absolute control for long, however. In fact, from the very beginning of the new Republic, plebeians challenged the patrician monopoly of power in what became known as the Conflict of the Orders (509 to 287 B.C.).
Much as in Greece during the same period, poor plebeians allied with a growing number of rich plebeians in the fight for economic reforms. They especially hoped to settle problems of debts and distribution of land. Rich plebeians were interested in political equality, access to public offices and priesthoods. It took them nearly two centuries to share political power on equal terms with the patricians. In the end, a new aristocracy emerged from this conflict, a patricio-plebeian aristocracy that was no longer based on birth but based on the holding of public offices. This new aristocracy, known as the nobilitas, consisted of those families whose ancestors had been elected to the highest office of the state, the consulship. This new kind of oligarchy reflected the strong feeling for serving the state in Roman society. Although restricted in numbers and access, the Roman oligarchy was not completely closed. New members could join by being elected to the consulship. After 287 B.C., however, Roman society was no longer divided between patricians and plebeians but between an oligarchy and the rest of the citizenry.
The new constitutional order that emerged out of the Conflict of the Orders consisted of three elements: the public offices, or magistracies; the Senate; and the popular assemblies. Access to public offices was limited to the richest members of the society. A high property qualification was required to follow a public career. After completing ten years of military service, a Roman politician would pursue his career by soliciting popular votes for a series of offices leading ultimately to the highest political office, the consulship. This career, known as the cursus honorum, was strictly regulated: there were minimum age requirements, mandatory progression from one office to another, delays between periods of holding office, and a prohibition against holding the same office more than once (except the consulship under certain emergency conditions.) Such rules insured that participants would become familiar with all aspects of the art of government: securing and distributing food supplies, organizing public games, accepting financial responsibilities, carrying out legal duties, and of course fulfilling military functions.
The magistrates were elected by the people either in the Centuriate Assembly for the highest offices (praetors, consuls, and censors) or by the assembly of the tribes for the minor magistracies. Wealthy citizens controlled the Centuriate Assembly by monopolizing the majority of the voting units. In the tribal assembly, citizens were distributed in 35 voting units based on where they lived, without considering their property qualifications. And yet, this assembly was controlled by the oligarchy mostly because of the lack of secret ballots and the importance of patronage. If successful in all stages of the cursus honorum, a candidate might be elected to the consulship. There were always two consuls, and the office controlled the highest power in civil and military matters. The most prestigious office, the censorship, could crown an already successful career. Two censors were elected every five years for 18 months to conduct the census of the whole population and to nominate new senators. Only the richest and best connected people could hope to become censors.
The Senate was the third element of the Roman republican political system and probably the most important one. It controlled foreign policy, military operations, and public finances. It was made up of 300 members chosen from among the elected magistrates, and the tenure was for life. The Senate was the most experienced council of Rome and enjoyed prestige and authority among both the current magistrates and the people. The Senate was not a legislative body—it only gave advice—but its opinion was usually followed.
The Roman republican system was neither democratic nor despotic. The Romans were a deferential people and did not challenge the control of the oligarchy. In addition, the Roman system of patronage, that is the division among citizens between patrons, rich and powerful citizens, and their clients, the common people who looked to them for protection and help in exchange for support in political matters, insured the control of the elite.
133 B.C., the system worked well and the success of the Roman legions
year after year may have been partially responsible for this. Roman
citizens were proud of the achievement of their city and attributed it
to the excellence and common-sense practicality of its institutions. As
one Roman statesman explained Rome’s success:
“The reason of the superiority of the constitution of our city to that of other states is that the latter almost always had their laws and institutions from one legislator. But our republic was not made by the genius of one man, but of many, nor in the life of one, but through many centuries and generations.” [Cato (apud Cicero De Re Pub. II,1,2)]
The Roman Army
Rome’s successful expansion from a city-state into a major empire was due largely to its military superiority. The manpower of Italy sustained the Roman military machine. Roman armies were made up of Roman citizens and Italian allies in equal proportions. The citizens were organized into legions, while the allies acted as auxiliaries. Between the ages of 17 and 46, Roman citizens were liable for military service: 10 years in the cavalry or 16 years in the infantry. The time need not be served consecutively, and in cases of emergency a citizen might have to serve longer. Military service required a minimum property qualification since the Romans believed that one would only fight bravely if he had some property to protect at home.
At first the Romans used the phalanx formation but soon replaced it with a more elastic formation. They divided the phalanx into 30 units called maniples. Eventually, at the end of the 2nd century B.C., the Roman general Marius achieved a synthesis of the best elements of the phalanx system and that of the manipular system by reorganizing the legions into 10 cohorts. This system of cohorts provided both the flexibility for fighting in mountainous and broken terrain provided by the smaller maniples, as well as the power of the phalanx’s mass formation for fighting on open, flat terrain. The new cohort system remained the basic military organization of Rome until nearly the end of its imperial history.
Well disciplined and superbly trained, the Roman army was an army of foot soldiers rather than cavalrymen. Roman strategy was based on caution, organization, resilience, and high morale, rather than dashing and inspiring tactics. Until the reforms of Marius, the army reflected the make-up of Roman society—it was made up of citizen-soldiers. Indeed, all citizens were expected to be soldiers, and military glory was a major part of the Roman ethos, both among officers and men in the ranks. Republican Rome, in short, was very much a military society.
At the heart of Rome’s social structure was the family. Even the state reflected the basic structure and importance of the family in Roman life. The family in turn was like the state in small. Like other tribal peoples, the Romans were patriarchal. The head of the family, the paterfamilias, or family father, the oldest living male, had extensive powers over other members of the extended family. This included his wife, his sons with their wives and children, unmarried daughters, and the family slaves. One of the paterfamilias’s most important duties was to ensure the proper worship of the spirits of the family’s ancestors, on whom depended the family’s continuing prosperity—just as the prosperity of the state depended on the proper worship of the official gods of the state.
Families were grouped into gentes or clans, whose members claimed descent from a common, though often mythical ancestor. Within this basic family structure, Romans emphasized the virtues of the farmer-soldier—a stubborn breed, they valued above all authority, simplicity, and piety. Most families sustained themselves more or less independently on small farms which they managed themselves.
Roman women generally could not do anything without the intervention of a male guardian (the father, husband, son, or nearest male relative, as might be the case). Guardianship was an important legal question, even determining the kind of marriage a woman could engage in. In a marriage cum manu, for example, the guardianship passed from father to husband. However, the marriage contract might only provide for marriage sine manu, in which case the guardianship remained with the father (in which case, once her father died, the woman was actually free of guardianship and could act for herself (sui iuris) . The minimum legal marriage age was normally 12 for girls. In contrast to upper-class Athenian women, however, upper-class Roman women were not segregated from males in the home. They were free to go outside the home without escort.
Children were accepted in the family only if they were recognized and accepted by the father. As in Greece, the early Romans often exposed unwanted children. Adoption was an important aspect of Roman society, and adopted children, usually brought into a family to establish political alliances between families, or for the pupose of providing a strong heir to act as paterfamilias, were considered the full equals of natural children.
Education was carried on primarily at home. For boys it consisted mostly of military training, but also included basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Under Greek influence, during the 2nd century a more literary education became popular, particularly in rhetoric and philosophy. Rome’s eventual conquest of Greece and the Hellenistic world brought many Greek tutors into rich households as slaves. As Rome adopted Greek culture, the upper classes of Roman society became largely bi-lingual, learning both Latin and Greek.
As Rome expanded, growing numbers of war captives became an important feature of society as slaves. As in Greece, slavery had always existed in Roman society, whether as a result of military conquest or because people had to sell themselves or their children to pay off debts. Romans were very liberal in giving freedom to their slaves, however, and freedmen also constituted a growing part of society.
Economically, Rome remained primarily dependent on agriculture.
At first, trade was marginal and industry nearly non existent. The
Romans had no independent coinage before the 3rd century. Although some
wealthy aristocrats began to accumulate large estates, in the early
years of the republic the economy was made up mostly of small farms
managed by a family and more or less auto-subsistent. Of far more
importance was the military nature of society—particularly once the
Romans discovered that conquests could be profitable.
Before the 2nd century, Rome was too involved in military matters to devote much energy to the arts and literature. By the second century, however, the process of Hellenization had begun to transform Rome into a Hellenistic city. Drawing on a common Indo-European religious tradition, the Romans adopted Greek mythology and identified their own gods with those of Olympus.
Also like the Greeks, Romans viewed religion largely as a matter of state. Morality was less important than the exact performance of rituals through which both individuals and the state established the proper relationship with the gods. In fact, the Romans seem to have had a kind of contractual relationship with the gods—in exchange for the proper rituals, the gods would sustain the pax deorum, or “peace of the gods.” As one Roman statesman, Cicero, put it, “We have overcome all the nations of the world, because we have realized that the world is directed and governed by the gods.” To insure that the religious observances were done properly, the Romans established the posts of pontiffs, or priests, headed by the Pontifex Maximus, or Highest Priest, to act on behalf of the state in religious matters.
Believing also that the gods sent signs and warnings to human beings, the Romans also paid particular respect to the priests known as augurs, who specialized in interpreting these signs. Nothing important, in either family or public life, was undertaken without first consulting the augurs to see whether the gods approved or disapproved of an action. The signs, or auspices, came from observing the flight of birds, lightning, or the behavior of certain animals.
The Crises and
Fall of the Republic (133-27 B.C.)
As Rome grew from
a city-state in Italy to a world empire throughout the Mediterranean,
the character of Roman
society began to change. Under Hellenistic influences from the east,
individualism began to replace the old Roman commitment to duty to the
state. New wealth also bred growing competition within the ruling
classes, as aristocratic Romans competed for the offices and military
commands that might bring them even more fame and fortune. Under the
pressures of such rapid imperial expansion, Roman society began to
crumble, and people looked for a new balance of power within the state.
The challenges of finding this new balance would transform Rome once and
for all from a city-state to a great world empire, even as it forced the
old Roman sense of identity to expand and encompass even people beyond
the limits of the city of Rome itself.
of the Conquests
in the middle of the second century B.C. had no rival in the
Mediterranean world and yet she was still basically ruled by the
institutions of a small Italian city-state. A few elected magistrates
governed the empire without the help of any organized administrative
structure. Corruption of governors in the provinces
was a standard feature of Roman rule: competition for offices had
become so difficult that politicians were spending fortunes to get
elected, both legally and illegally. They had to make up for their
losses and they did so either through the booty they captured in war, or
the taxes they collected while governing the provinces.
Meanwhile, others were busy trying to take advantage of the
conquests to make their fortunes without feeling the need to participate
actively in politics: the equites , or knights, as they were known, were now too many and too
rich to ignore the importance of having access to political decision
making. As a result, the wealthy elite in Rome eventually divided into two competing
orders, the senators and the knights. As for the common people who
filled the legions, the conquests were now becoming a burden. After
serving long years away from Italy, many veterans were discharged only
to find that their farms had been sold or were in such financial trouble
that they must be abandoned. The farmer-citizen-soldiers who had built a
world empire increasingly found themselves condemned to join the growing masses of the
At the same time, foreign ideologies and religions began to
undermine the original fabric of Roman society. The traditional Roman
ideals of piety, faithfulness, duty and honor no longer satisfied a growing
number of citizens. Influenced by Greek political philosophy, many began
to question the selfishness of the Roman oligarchy. As Hellenistic
influences grew, individualism also began to conflict with the old Roman
emphasis on duty to the state.
the pressures of world empire grew, during the late 2nd and early 1st
century B.C. a revolution occurred in Roman political and social
institutions. As had happened earlier in Athens, the heart of this
revolution lay in the growing dissatisfaction of the plebs with the rule
of the Roman oligarchy.
In 133 B.C., Tiberius Gracchus, the tribune of the Plebs, pointed out to
the Roman people the tragic irony with which the old
farmer-citizen-soldier had been transformed into the urban unemployed
wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens and holes to lurk in,
but the men who fight and die for our country enjoy the common air and
light and nothing else... They fight and die to protect the wealth and
luxury of others. They are called the masters of the world, but they do
not possess a single clod of earth which is truly their own “
(Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus
own ambition was to restore the dignity of his unhappy fellow citizens.
He presented a bill to limit access to public land and to redistribute
the land in the form of small farms to dispossessed farmers.
At first the bill was well received even by the senatorial
aristocracy which was also concerned about the growing poverty of the
Roman plebeians, a poverty that not
only undermined their morals but also kept a growing number of them out
of the draft since they could no longer afford the property
qualifications for the army. However, the tribune's motivation was soon
questioned by his cavalier attitude toward the traditional Roman
political system. Not only did Gracchus bypass the Senate and go
directly to the people but he forced the impeachment of a fellow tribune
who had vetoed his bill. He also infringed the Senate’s rights in
foreign matters, and took the unprecedent step of running for the
tribuneship a second time.
Eventually, fearing that he was planning to establish a tyranny,
the senators incited a lynch mob to kill Gracchus along with three
hundred of his followers. For the first time in Roman history the blood
of citizens was shed in the forum. Tiberius’s “crime” was that he
had undermined the traditional political order of Republican Rome by
questioning its oligarchic control. In effect, he had broken the social
consensus that had so far characterized Roman society, and thus began
the so-called Roman revolution. From 133 to 27 B.C., a series of reforms
and revolutionary steps led inexorably to the destruction of the
republican order. It was a period of disturbances that would end only
with the establishment of a new political order—the empire.
The revolution continued under Gaius Graccchus, Tiberius's
younger brother, who was elected tribune in 123 B.C. Gaius went much
farther than his brother in trying to reform the state. In addition to
accelerating the land law of his brother, he also gave enough political
power to the Equites to challenge the senators, thereby dividing the
Roman elite into two competing factions. He also took care of the common
people by regulating the grain supply of the city, a first step toward
what would soon become the distribution of free food to the people. In
the end, Gaius and his followers too were murdered by order of the
Senate. The oligarchy would not give up its control over Roman society
without a fight.
107 B.C., however, a social outsider named Marius was elected to the
consulship. Marius had become popular because of his military talents.
He was indeed a good general and had defeated King Jugurtha in Numidia
(modern Algeria) and Germanic invaders in southern France and northern
Italy. Marius carried the revolution begun by the Gracchi even
farther—not by attempting political reform, but by instituting
military reforms. Anxious to improve recruitment for the army, Marius
dispensed with the property qualifications for military service and
accepted in his army all who wanted to join. With these reforms, Marius
unintentionally changed the nature of the military from a civic-minded
force to a professional army.
Poor people now joined the army and attached themselves to a
general in hopes of sharing the booty of the campaigns and rewards of
land at the end of the war. To a large extant, armies became private
armies devoted to their general who held their economic future in his
hand. Marius had only tried to resolve a crisis in recruitment. His
successors, however, soon realized the political potential of such
professional armies. As usual, the occasion was a military crisis that
threatened Rome’s very survival.
The Social War.
In 90 B.C., the Italian allies of Rome rebelled. They had been trying to
gain Roman citizenship since the 120s but stubbornly both the Roman
Senate and the people’s assemblies had refused to share the privileges
of citizenship. The war between Rome and her Italian allies (known as
the "Social War", from the Latin socius, meaning
'ally') was one of the bloodiest conflicts in Roman history.
Italians had served side by side with the legionaries and were as good
soldiers as the Romans. In fact, the Social War resembled a civil war.
In the end, the rebels were defeated militarily – but they obtained
what they had been asking for: Roman citizenship. This was an important
step in the evolution of the Roman identity as well as the Roman empire.
With the extension of citizenship, Rome was no longer just one city –
it had become all of Italy.
The Social War had revealed the talent of one general in particular,
Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who as a result rose to the consulship in 88
B.C. Although Sulla had served under Marius, the two eventually
quarreled over who should receive the command of a war against
Mithridates, the king of Pontus in Asia Minor. Sulla saw the war as a
chance to revive the fortunes of his family, which although aristocratic
had become poor. As Marius and his faction tried to prevent Sulla from
taking command of the campaign against Mithridates (such campaigns were
potentially enormously lucrative and would certainly have restored
Sulla’s family fortunes), Sulla made the fateful decision to march on
Rome itself with his legions. In the civil war that followed, Sulla
emerged victorious in both Asia Minor and Italy, and established a
dictatorship in Rome.
Sulla seems to have been genuinely concerned about the growing
decay of the old Roman virtues and institutions. As dictator, he
implemented a comprehensive program of reform aimed at restoring the old
power of the Senate and the traditional oligarchy over the Republic.
After implementing these reforms, Sulla then voluntarily retired and
died peacefully on his own estate. His reactionary program did not long
survive him, however. It was soon challenged and overthrown by two
ambitious generals, Pompey and Julius Caesar.
The end of the
a generation of Sulla’s death, the old republic was practically dead.
The Republic fell largely because of the ambitions of three generals:
Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus. Combining themselves in a private alliance,
these three men conspired to control the Roman state through what came
to be known as the First Triumvirate, or rule of three men, in 60
B.C.. When Crassus died, however, Pompey and Caesar quarreled and civil
war once again wracked the empire. Eventually, Caesar defeated Pompey
and made himself master of Rome. In 44 B.C., the Senate declared Caesar
perpetual dictator and he was now king in all but name. Nevertheless, in
a last attempt to save the Republican constitution, a group of senators
led by Brutus and Cassius murdered Caesar in the Senate chamber itself
on the Ides of March—March 15— in 44 B.C.
Caesar's murder did not solve anything, however. In 43 B.C., a second triumvirate composed of Caesar’s heir and adopted son, Octavius, Mark Antony, Caesar’s loyal officer, and Lepidus, the Pontifex Maximus, was empowered by the Senate to take control of the affairs of the Republic. The Roman people had effectively abandoned the Republican principle. But this arrangement worked no better than that of 60 B.C. Soon Lepidus was pushed aside and civil war broke out between Mark Antony and Octavius. Eventually, Octavius defeated Antony and his ally, Cleopatra of Egypt, at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. The common suicide of Antony and Cleopatra the following year marked the end of an epoch. Rome was now under the sole control of Octavius. The Republic was dead and a new period in Roman history was beginning.
The Pax Romana (27
B.C. - A.D. 180)
With the fall of
the Republic, a new phase of Roman development began under the
leadership of the so-called Julio-Claudian family. From a city-state,
the Republic had now emerged as a full-fledged empire. As the Julio-Claudians
sought to rationalize the empire’s government, republicanism was swept
away and replaced with a centralized imperial bureaucratic
administration. Under this strong, central government, Rome established
a period of peace, stability, and prosperity throughout the
Mediterranean world that would be remembered for generations.
Augustus and the
in Rome in 29 B.C. Octavian faced the task of restoring order in the
empire. He had no intention of establishing a dictatorship but he had
come to realize that it was impossible to return to the old republican
system. A very astute politician, Octavian under the pretense of
"restoring the Republic" succeeded in establishing a new
political order which we call the empire. Octavian himself, however, was
very careful to avoid the title of king or emperor (the modern term came
from the Latin imperator, a title
given by soldiers to victorious generals). Instead, he presented himself
as princeps, the first citizen. He made clear that he had no more superior
powers than other magistrates and that his leadership came from his
higher moral authority (auctoritas).
In 27 B.C., the Senate gave him the honorific title of Augustus,
“the revered one”. In total control of the army, Augustus brought to
the Roman people what they were craving for: peace. After so many years
of anarchy, civil wars, and devastation the Romans wanted order and
stability. Augustus gave it to them and they praised him for that. For
more than forty years, Augustus remained at the head of the state, until
his death in A.D. 14, and this very long reign made possible a smooth
transition toward the new regime. Augustus wanted to be the guide but to
rule the empire in collaboration with the senators.
Augustus’s reign was a turning point in the history of Rome
since it concluded a century of disorder and create the foundation of a
new order, two centuries of peace and prosperity. Augustus divided the
administration of Rome and her empire between himself and the Senate
but, contrary to the latter, Augustus surrounded himself with a
professional, well-trained administration. Little by little the imperial
administration increased its field and at the end of the reign most
financial and administrative matters, as well as the military, was under
In foreign affairs, Augustus initially hoped to put an end to
military adventures. But soon, once the army reorganized he started a
vast program of pacification in the West, especially in Gaul and Spain,
and a series of conquests that pushed the border of the empire to the
Danube river. His ultimate ambition was to push the border of the empire
from the Rhine to the Elbe river in order to shorten the length of his
northern frontier and so make it more defensible. When German tribes
under their war leader Arminius wiped out three Roman legions in 9 A.D.,
however, Augustus decided to retreat to the Rhine. He came to realize
that further conquests might overextend the resources of the empire in
finances and manpower. In the east he was more cautious and preferred to
use diplomacy to settle problems with the Parthian empire in Persia.
In domestic matters, the legacy of what became known as the
“Augustan Age” was even more impressive. Augustus initiated a vast
building program. He took special care of the city of Rome, organizing
its police force, fire brigades, and food and water supplies. He boasted
that he had found Rome a city of brick and had left it a city of marble.
Augustus also presided over moral and religious reforms. The gods
had made possible the empire, he argued, so it was just and wise to
praise them for it and show them respect. Temples were restored, new
ones were built, and many half-neglected cults were reorganized.
Preoccupied with what he saw as a growing moral decadence, Augustus
legislated against adultery and encouraged people to marry and have lots
Literature in the
literature, the Augustan period is known as the Golden Age of Latin
literature, and includes many late-Republican writers such as the poet
Catullus, the philosopher Epicurus, the
orator-politician-lawyer-philosopher Cicero, and Julius Caesar himself,
whose mastery of the Latin language (especially in his war commentaries)
made him required reading for students of Latin prose. Realizing that
literature and the arts could enhance his fame, Augustus patronized the
arts. Literature flourished under his reign: the poets Horace and Ovid;
the historian Livy; and above all the poet Virgil who in his epic poem the
Aeneid tried to imitate
Homer by offering Rome a national epic that tied its origins to the
ancient city of Troy.
and the Flavians
successors of Augustus are known as the Julio-Claudians. They
consolidated imperial rule at the expense of the power of the Senate.
Consequently, our contemporary and later Roman sources are not always
very kind to them. They depict Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) as a suspicious and
cruel tyrant, Caligula (A.D. 37-41) as a monster, Claudius (A.D. 41-54)
as an old fool under the spell of his wives and freedmen, and Nero (A.D.
54-68) as an unpredictable and cruel tyrant. Such characterizations,
however, are rather unfair to them and overlook their contributions to
the Roman world.
Tiberius was a good soldier and a competent administrator despite
his difficult situation as the direct successor of the great Augustus.
Caligula was probably not a very balanced man but he was the first to
make the senators realize who now held the real power in
Rome. His reported announcement that he intended to have his favorite
serve as a consul was certainly a symbolic gesture intended to make them
understand the unlimited nature of the imperial power.
Claudius, perhaps even more than Augustus, should be remembered
as the founder of Roman imperial administration, the system that
presided over more than a century and a half of provincial prosperity
and stability. Claudius also did much to further extend Roman
citizenship to people in the provinces of the empire.
As for Nero, his passion for art and spectacles was not
understood by the senators. In addition his decision to build an
extravagant palace in Rome on land expropriated after the great fire of
A.D. 64 was unwise since many were convinced that he was responsible for
the fire in the first place. In an effort to exonerate himself, Nero
used the small Christian community as scapegoat, and thereby became the
first to begin the persecutions. The Christian tradition did not pardon
him for it and this has not helped his reputation. As revolt broke out,
Nero was forced to commit suicide, but soon the Romans were brutally
reminded of the fragility of the order of the Julio-Claudian emperors.
After Nero’s death in A.D. 69, civil war raged in the Roman
world. The Praetorian Guard, an imperial bodyguard first formed by Augustus, had already
times in succession disputes, notably when they had forced Claudius to
accept the throne. As they once again interfered chaos ruled in Rome.
Eventually, four generals claimed the throne in turn. The last one,
Vespasian, finally managed to re-establish order.
During the reigns of Vespasian (69-79) and his two sons, Titus
(79-81) and Domitian (81-96), order, peace and prosperity returned to
the Roman world. These Flavians, as they are known, were not from
the old Roman aristocracy
like their predecessors, but from Italy. In fact, they had only recently
been admitted to the senatorial order. Despite such socially
questionable origins, however, they proved to be good
administrators, especially in financial matters.
96 a new dynasty established itself on the throne: the Antonines.
Five emperors presided over the destiny of the Roman empire for nearly a
century: Nerva (96-98), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus
(138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). They are known as the five
With the exception of Nerva, the Antonines were all of provincial
rather than Roman origins. Consequently, they continued the opening up
of Roman imperial society by admitting more and more members of the
provincial elites, particularly in the western provinces like Gaul and
Spain, into the Senate and the imperial administration. The Roman Empire
was no longer ruled solely by a small oligarchy drawn from the old Roman
The Five Good Emperors were especially interested in providing
their subjects with a good, honest, and efficient administration, as
well as a sound imperial financial policy. Hadrian in particular spent
most of his time touring the provinces of the empire inspecting their
administration. The Antonine emperors managed to get along reasonably
well with the Senate, but they progressively increased the scope of
imperial administration. For example, they instituted a state program to
help poor parents raise and educate their children. To insure the
continuation of good government, all but Marcus Aurelius refused to
choose family members as successors, preferring instead to name the most
able successor possible as their heirs to the throne.
The Antonines also saw the Roman Empire reach the limits of its
territorial expansion. Trajan added Dacia (modern Rumania), Armenia,
Mesopotamia, and large parts of Arabia to the empire. His successor
Hadrian followed Augustus’s example, however, and to prevent the
empire from becoming overextended, he withdrew from all these eastern
additions except Dacia, which had valuable gold mines. Hadrian also
followed a policy of building defensive fortifications along the
empire’s frontiers, particularly on the Rhine and Danube Rivers and in
northern Britain, where he built a wall some 80 miles long to guard
against incursions into the Roman provinces by
“barbarian” tribal peoples.
essential characteristics helped the Romans build their empire and
maintain its peace. The Romans had a talent for ruling others and
maintained their authority through an efficient government both at home
and abroad. Law, military organization, and widespread trade and
transportation held the empire together and brought peace for more than
200 years. The period from the beginning of Augustus’s reign in 27
B.C. until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D. is known as the time
of the pax Romana, or Roman Peace.
The Roman government provided the strongest unifying force in the
empire. The government maintained order, enforced the laws, and defended
the frontiers. By the 2nd century A.D. the position of the emperor had
been well-established. He ruled without real opposition and was able to
insure the goodwill and cooperation of the elite in governing. Both in
the central administration and in the provinces, members of the
aristocracy participated in government, but all important decisions were
made by the emperors, most of whom were competent and conscious of their
responsibilities. From 27 B.C. to 180 A.D., only two short periods of
civil war disrupted the imperial government. In general, the system
initiated by Augustus proved successful and advantageous for the vast
majority of the inhabitants of the empire.
The Roman Empire was divided into provinces, territorial units governed
by a representative of Rome. During the Pax Romana, provincial
administration was both more efficient and fair than it had been under
the republic, largely because the government in Rome now kept a closer
check on provincial governors than before. Moreover, any citizen in the
provinces could appeal a governor’s decision directly to the emperor.
Through this provincial organization, the Roman Empire brought a
certain uniformity to the Mediterranean world. Cities were governed in
imitation of Rome, complete with their own local Senates and
magistrates. Local elites took pride in governing and embellishing their
cities. Theaters, amphitheaters, public baths, and temples could be seen
all over the empire from Britain to North Africa to Syria. Cities were
in fact the main beneficiaries of the empire’s prosperity. Wealth was
concentrated in the hands of the urban elites, who did everything
possible to improve the lives of the urban population and to entertain
On the other hand, the vast majority of the population living in
the countryside saw little improvement in their living conditions.
Indeed, Roman civilization was primarily urban—for those living far
from the cities it had a limited impact, if any at all. Although the
Roman authorities maintained a level of peace never before known, they
were never able to eradicate brigandage and thievery in the countryside
altogether. Traveling outside the main centers of the Roman world was a
dangerous enterprise and, for most of the population, a luxury they
could not afford. For most people in the provinces, the only way to get
away from their native villages was to join the Roman army.
Augustus had reorganized the Roman army. It was divided almost evenly
between citizen legionaries and non-citizen auxiliaries. A legion had
approximately 5,500 men, and auxiliary units were roughly similar.
Legionaries served for 20 years, and auxiliaries for 25 years, at the
end of which service they would receive citizenship. An estimated
250,000 to 300,000 soldiers guarded the empire at the time of
Augustus’s death. Although this number rose under later emperors, the
total number of Roman soldiers probably never exceeded about
500,000—hardly an adequate number to defend some 6,000 miles of
The troops were stationed in great fortified camps at strategic
locations throughout the empire. However, there was no central, mobile
army in the empire that could be dispatched on short notice to a trouble
spot. In emergencies, the emperors had to move units from their own
areas to the threatened location. Thus, although the system was
efficient for low-intensity threats to security, it was not suited
coping with simultaneous threats at many different locations.
The Roman legal system combined two different approaches to law.
Stability in the system was achieved by laws, or statutes, passed by
popular assemblies or the Senate, which specified exactly what could or
could not be done and what the penalties were for breaking the law. In
addition, Roman law also tried to address questions of equity, or
fairness, by allowing magistrates, including provincial governors, to
decide at the beginning of their tenures what legal actions they would
hear. In judging such cases, the magistrates took into account new
social and economic circumstances that might require a modification or
adaptation of the law.
Roman law also unified the empire. The Romans distinguished
between two legal systems. The ius civile, or civil law, applied
between citizens. The ius gentium, or law of peoples, applied
between a citizen and a foreigner. In the ius gentium,
magistrates were not tied to traditional interpretations of the law but
were allowed to innovate as necessary to achieve fairness and justice.
Over time, however, these two approaches blended, and eventually Roman
law became a single, universal system. Even so, the Romans never imposed
their legal system on the provinces. They allowed local customs to
continue to guide the lives of provincials. Nevertheless, although such
local customs never fully disappeared, over time more and more peoples
adopted the Roman system because of its greater technical flexibility
and intellectual value. The extension of Roman citizenship also helped
the spread of the Roman legal system since citizens were by definition
subject to Roman laws.
The magistrates and the Senate were helped in legal matters by
professional jurists, the jurisconsults. These jurists were interested
in developing general legal principles that could be applied regardless
of the locale or the historical background of a problem. They wanted
above all to find legal principles that could apply to all human
beings—the ius naturale, or natural law. In later years, the
Roman system of law became the foundation for the laws of all the
European countries that had once been part of the Roman Empire, as well
as the laws of the Christian Church.
Throughout the time of the Pax Romana, agriculture remained the primary
occupation of people in the empire. A new type of agricultural worker, a
tenant farmer known as the colonus, began to replace
slaves on the large estates. Each of these farmers received a small plot
of land from the owner. In return, the colonus had to remain on the land
for a certain period of time and to pay the owner with a certain amount
of the crops. Most agricultural activities, however, continued to be
performed by independent farmers who were mostly interested in feeding
their families and had very little surplus to sell.
The Roman Empire provided enormous opportunities for commerce,
and the exchange of goods was relatively easy. Taxes on trade remained
low, and people everywhere used Roman currency. Rome and Alexandria
became the empire’s greatest commercial centers. Alexandria was
particularly important since Egypt was the granary of the empire,
producing the grain surpluses with which the emperors fed the urban
population of Rome itself. From the provinces, Italy imported grain and
raw materials such as meat, wool, and hides. From Asia came silks,
linens, glassware, jewelry, and furniture to satisfy the tastes of the
wealthy. India exported many products such as spices, cotton, and other
luxury products that Romans had never known before.
Manufacturing also increased throughout the empire during the Pax
Romana. Italy, Gaul, and Spain made inexpensive pottery and textiles. As
in Greece, most work was done by hand in small shops. To a considerable
extent, what made all this commercial activity possible was an elaborate
and extensive network of roads combined with safe sea lanes throughout
Transportation greatly improved during the early period of the
empire as the Romans built up a great network of roads linking the
cities. Ultimately there were about 50,000 miles of roads binding the
empire together. Most roads, however, were built and maintained for
military purposes. Local roads were not paved and bad weather conditions
often made travel overland impossible. Although individual merchants
might travel the roads, giving way when necessary to the legions or the
imperial post riders, most goods were carried more cheaply and quickly
by sea. It was cheaper, for example, to transport grain by ship from one
end of the Mediterranean to the other than to send it 75 miles overland.
Consequently, one Roman priority was the suppression of piracy
throughout the Mediterranean.
Life in the Empire
Pax Romana provided prosperity to many people, but citizens did not
share equally in this wealth. Extreme differences separated the lives of
the wealthy from those of the poor. Rich citizens usually had both a
city home and a country home. Their residences included such
conveniences as running water and baths. Many of the nearly one million
residents of Rome, on the other hand, lived in crowded three and
four-storied tenement houses. Fire posed a constant threat in such
residences because of the torches the poor had to use for light and the
charcoal they used for cooking. In part to keep the poor of the cities
from rebelling against such conditions, public entertainments became a
major feature of civic life throughout much of the empire.
The Roman satirical poet, Juvenal, once noted with great disdain
that the Roman masses were interested in only two things: “panem et
circenses,” or bread and games. He was referring to the imperial
policy of providing free food and public entertainments to the
population of the city. In fact, a large part of being a public official
even in the days of the republic had been giving games and distributing
food for the people to enjoy. This was one reason public office was so
Under Augustus 77 days were devoted to such public spectacles and
festivals every year. By the end of the 2nd century the number was up to
nearly 200 days. These games, originally to honor the gods, included
three main types of entertainment: drama and other performances in the
theaters: horse and chariot races in the Circus: and gladiatorial shows,
live fights to the death between individual warriors, in the
Romans enjoyed the theater, especially light comedies and
satires. Performers such as mimes, jugglers, dancers, acrobats, and
clowns also became quite popular. Nothing, however, was more popular
than chariot racing. In Rome, the races were held in the Circus Maximus,
a racetrack that could accommodate 250,000 spectators. The races pitted
four professional teams, the Red, White, Blue, and Green, against each
other. Spectators bet heavily on the races, and especially enjoyed the
sometimes spectacular crashes that frequently occurred.
Romans were a violent people. They did not object to bloody
spectacles in the amphitheater, where wild animals were brought to fight
each other or professional fighters. Often, condemned criminals were
thrown into the arena to be torn to pieces by beasts. But the most
popular entertainment offered in the amphitheaters were gladiatorial
combats. Such shows could and often did end with the death of one or
both of the fighters, who were usually slaves. In Rome, these spectacles
were performed in the Coliseum, built under the emperors Vespasian and
Titus in the second half of the 1st century, which seated some 50,000
The games were so popular that while they were in progress the
city could seem deserted—a situation that led the Stoic philosopher
Seneca to complain bitterly:
“Who respects a philosopher or any liberal
study except when the games are called off for a time or there is some
rainy day which he is willing to waste?”
Engineering, and Architecture
Romans were less interested in scientific research to increase knowledge
than in collecting and organizing information. Galen, a physician who
lived in Rome during the 100s A.D., for example, wrote several volumes
that summarized all the medical knowledge of his day. For centuries,
people regarded him as the greatest authority in medicine. Similarly,
people accepted the theories of Ptolemy in astronomy, partly because he
brought the knowledge and opinions of others into a coherent system.
Unlike the Greeks, who were primarily interested in knowledge for
its own sake, and preferred abstract reasoning to practical scientific
research, the Romans were eminently practical. They tried to apply the knowledge
they gained from the Greeks, for example, in planning their
cities, building water and sewage systems, and improving farming
methods. Roman engineers surpassed all other ancient peoples in their
ability to construct roads, bridges, aqueducts, amphitheaters, and
public buildings. Perhaps their most important contribution was the
development of a new type of concrete, which made such large
buildings possible in both financial and engineering terms.
Roman architects designed great public buildings—law courts,
palaces, temples, amphitheaters, and triumphal arches—for the
emperors, imperial officials, and the government. Although they often
based their buildings on Greek models, however, the Romans learned to
use the arch and the vaulted dome, features that allowed buildings to be
built much larger than the Greeks had been able to do. With such tools
and techniques, the Romans emphasized size as well as pleasing
proportions in their architecture.
The Crises of the
Empire and the Rise of Christianity
The end of the
reign of the Five Good Emperors showed signs of the troubles to come.
Military difficulties began on the Danube frontier, as Germanic tribes
began to press against the empire’s borders. Plague brought back by
the army from the east ravaged the empire. In Rome itself, famine
stalked the populace. Soon, the empire was best not only by challenges
from outside, but by a growing rot within.
The Crisis of the
Marcus Aurelius decided on his successor in 180 A.D., he failed to show
his usual wisdom and foresight. Although his four predecessors had all
chosen their successors based on ability rather than ties of kinship,
Marcus Aurelius decided on his weak, spoiled son Commodus. Commodus
proved to be a disaster for the empire. According to Dio Cassius, a
contemporary Greek historian, after Marcus Aurelius’s death the Roman
Empire degenerated from “a kingdom of gold into one of iron and
During most of the 200s, the empire experienced confusion,
economic decline, civil wars, and increasing military pressure on the
frontiers. Between 235 and 284, for example, 20 emperors reigned. All
but one died violently. From 226 onwards, the eastern borders of the
empire were threatened by the new Persian dynasty of the Sassanids.
Replacing the weak Arsacids, the Sassanids challenged Roman control of
the eastern provinces, adding a second front to the already restless
western frontier, where Germanic tribes continued to test the empire’s
defenses. From then on, military considerations became so increasingly
important for the empire that ultimately it became a kind of military
monarchy. The Emperor Septimius Severus, on his death bed in 211, had
only one piece of advice for his successor: “Enrich the soldiers and
scorn all other men.”
and reform. The
growing insecurity of civil wars and barbarian invasions affected many
aspects of Roman life. Brigandage and piracy reappeared and travel even
within the bounds of the empire became hazardous. Merchants hesitated to
send goods by land or by sea. It became difficult to collect taxes at a
time when military needs required them in ever increasing amopunts. In
212, the Emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free people
of the empire. This was a logical conclusion to the movement of
progressive inclusion of the inhabitants of the empire in the Roman
identity, but it also had a more practical affect—only citizens paid
inheritance taxes and the emperor needed more money.
taxes rose, however, the value of money declined. Since Rome had ceased
to expand, military conquests no longer brought in new sources of gold.
Indeed, gold was actually disappearing from the empire as it was paid
out to foreign merchants for the luxury goods of China and India. To
maintain the money supply, emperors minted new coins containing copper
and lead as well as gold. When people realized their coins had less gold
in them, they refused to accept them at their face value and merchants
raised their prices. The result was growing inflation in the empire. In
some regions of the empire inflation became so severe that people
stopped using money altogether and reverted to barter.
These conditions caused important changes in the social order.
The traditional hierarchy of authority, as well as the general values of
imperial society, changed. The Senatorial elite, for example, lost its
privileges and influence. Emperors filled the Senate with their own
followers, especially men from the army. Roman society now divided
between two orders: the honestiores,
senators, knights, soldiers, and members of the city aristocracies who
received legal privileges; and the humiliores,
or everyone else in the population, who held an inferior position in
society. Individual freedom and private initiative, whether in commerce
or politics, were subordinated to the needs of the state.
emotional responses. The
destruction of the old imperial order and prosperity generated an
important psychological crisis in the Roman Empire. In an increasingly
hostile world, many people took refuge in intellectual escapism,
embracing either intellectual idealism, mysticism, or more personal
forms of religion. The spiritual malaise that settled over the empire
could not be solved by the Romans’ own cultural values. For all its
achievements, the Pax Romana had presided over a cultural vacuum, while
spirituality had in a sense atrophied. The old civic religion was unable
to comfort people in this crisis since it cared little about emotions or
As people looked for comfort, they soon turned to new
philosophies and religions from the east. The philosophy of Plotinus
(ca. 205-270 A.D.), which mixed Platonism with mysticism in a new system
called Neo-Platonism, illustrated perfectly the intellectual mood
of the times. Rationalism, the great intellectual achievement of the
Greek world that Rome had embraced, lost its appeal in the prolonged
crisis of the 3rd century. Plotinus urged people to find fulfillment not
in this world, but in some transcendent world of the spirit. But
Neoplatonic philosophy was the recourse of the intellectual elite, above
all of the leisured classes of the empire. The mass of the people took
refuge in more emotional movements.
Magic, alchemy, the effort to transform common metals into gold,
and astrology had always been part of popular culture in the ancient
world. From the 3rd century onward, however, they became increasingly
prevalent with the majority of the population as people sought some
means to regain a sense of control over their lives. Magicians,
astrologers, and exorcists, who offered to cast out evil spirits from
peoples’ lives, particularly appealed to a population that had
remained largely rural and untouched by urban Greco-Roman culture.
The 3rd century also witnessed the resurgence of mystery cults,
eastern religions that promised personal salvation while at the same
time offering a sense of community and brotherhood among the members of
the cult. Hellenistic cults experienced a tremendous surge of
popularity, along with relatively new variations. Mithraism, for
example, a cult that developed out of Zoroastrianism in Persia, became
particularly popular among soldiers in the empire. It stressed masculine
virtues of comradeship and bravery. Other popular cults were those of
Isis, from Egypt, and Cybele, from Asia Minor, which both worshipped
mother goddesses and welcomed all devotees, whether women or men, free
or slave. Among these other sects, one in particular emerged as the most
resilient and adaptable—a cult that had sprung from Judaism and that
was called Christianity.
The Rise of
Roman Judea. As Rome had expanded into the Hellenistic kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean world, one of the territories the empire had absorbed was that occupied by the Jews - the regions that had once comprised the ancient Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Under the Persian Achaemenid empire, many Jews had returned from their exile in Babylon and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of their religion and their sense of identity as a people. With the overthrow of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great, however, things had begun to change.
By the end of the 4th century BC, Jerusalem and its surrounding territories had become caught up in the great power rivalries of the Seleucid dynasty, based in Syria to the north, and the dynasty of the Ptolemies, based in Egypt to the south. According to one scholar, for example, "between 319 and 302 BCE, Jerusalem changed hands seven times." As the two competing Hellenistic kingdoms fought over the region, life became increasingly insecure for the Jews. In addition to the physical challenge of being a battleground for contending armies, they also experienced increasing challenges to their traditional sense of religious and cultural identity from the forces of Hellenization.
As might be expected, as the local Jewish population tried to survive through this period of turmoil, some tried to insure their security by attaching themselves to one side or the other. As a result, two competing parties emerged among the Jews, one pro-Ptolemy and the other pro-Seleucid. The two factions soon fought each other as much as they fought the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.
In 198 B.C., the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III finally defeated the Ptolemies and firmly established Seleucid control over Jerusalem and the surrounding Jewish territories. In the aftermath of this victory, Antiochus and his successors increasingly pursued deliberate policies of Hellenization in the region in the hope that cultural assimilation of the local population would strengthen their rule. Even before the victory over Egypt, Hellenistic practices and ideas had begun to infiltrate the Jewish population from Antioch, the Seleucid capital. The pro-Seleucid party in particular had begun to embrace the culture of their patrons during the long struggle against the Egyptians. Hellenization, however, involved ideas and practices that traditional Jewish authorities viewed as abominations. In addition to polytheism, for example, the Greeks glorified the beauty of the naked human form. The center of Greek social life was the gymnasium, where men gathered to exercise, bathe, discuss politics and philosophy and generally to socialize - usually in the nude. Traditional Jewish teaching, on the other hand, expressly condemned the public exposure of the human body and in certain cases even forbade it on pain of death. Even more challenging, as a part of the general Greek reverence for the human body, Hellenistic culture found the ancient Hebrew and Jewish practice of circumcision to be equally abominable - seeing it as an act of willful self-mutilation of what should be respected as a perfect form. (Ironically, Jewish tradition itself recognized the sacred nature of the physical form and also objected to other forms of 'mutilation' such as tattooing and piercing of body parts. Circumcision was a unique exception because it represented the 'sacrifice' by which the covenant between God and the People had been ratified.)
As more and more Jews actually began to absorb Hellenistic thought and practices, a virtual civil war divided the Jewish community as each side struggled for control of the nation as a whole.
Judaism in the Hellenistic era. One of the most important areas in
which Greek and eastern conceptions of religion and philosophy came
together was in Judea, where many Jews had returned to Jerusalem under
the Persian empire and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon. Like other elites
in the Hellenistic world, the Jewish elite soon became fascinated by the
Greek culture of the Seleucids and Ptolemies. As they began to accept
Greek culture, however, Hellenized Jews also tried to transform the ancient
Jewish religion. Under King Antiochus IV for example, they obtained the
status of a Greek polis for Jerusalem and renamed it Antioch. According
to the First Book of Maccabees, written about 100B.C.:
“Lawless men arose in Israel and
seduced many with their plea, “Come, let us make a covenant with the
gentiles around us, because ever since we have kept ourselves separated
from them we have suffered many evils”. . . . Thereupon they built a
gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the customs of the gentiles. . . .
They joined themselves to the gentiles and became willing slaves to
Circumcision and celebration of the Sabbath were both prohibited, and even the Temple was for a time turned into a shrine to Zeus.
Such actions soon brought a reaction from more conservative and
traditional Jews. Eventually, the Jewish people rose in revolt and
established a conservative Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean (Maccabee)
dynasty. As the Hasmonean kings expanded their realm, they forcefully
converted surrounding peoples to Judaism. At the same time, however,
Judaism itself became increasingly diversified.As
Judaic traditions mingled with influences from other religious
traditions of the region, new doctrines concerning a final day of
judgment, resurrection of either the body or the spirit, heaven and
hell, and the coming of a Messiah, or “Annointed One” to save the
Jewish people from their enemies, all became a part of the increasingly
diverse body of Judaism.
The same situation continued for a time under Alexander, after his conquest of the Persian Empire. Under Alexander's successors, however, the territory of the Jews became a source of contention between the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Seleucids, with their capital in Antioch, and the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt. of Judah, which had been re-established by Cyrus the Great at the time of the rise of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Based around the re-built Temple in Jerusalem, the kingdom had been absorbed by Alexander and subsequently by the Hellenistic kingdoms that succeeded him.
cult of the Christians had begun among the Jews in Judea during the
reign of the emperor Tiberius. Sometime during Tiberius’s reign, a
rabbi, or Jewish teacher, named Jesus was denounced by the leaders of
the Jewish Temple priesthood as a blasphemer and a danger to the
community. Turned over to the Roman authorities, Jesus was eventually
crucified and then buried. What followed the burial, however, became the
subject of not only endless dispute between Jesus' followers and his
critics, but also the beginning of a new religion.
For most in the Jewish community, Jesus was an impostor who had
not only claimed to be the Messiah, that is the redeemer chosen by God
to liberate Israel from foreign rule, but even more seriously the son of
God. Such claims not only threatened the traditional Jewish leadership,
but also the stability of what had been a particularly unruly Roman
province since 6 A.D. Both Romans and Jewish leaders could agree that
Jesus was too great a nuisance to be tolerated.
Jesus of Nazareth.
fact, we know little of Jesus' life. He wrote nothing that we know
of, and apparently nothing was written about him during his lifetime.
Our knowledge comes almost exclusively from the first four books of the
New Testament of the Bible—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and
According to these gospels, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, near
Jerusalem, and grew up in the town of Nazareth. His family traced its
roots to King David, the ancient king of Israel. Although he apparently
learned the trade of carpentry, he was also a student of the writings of
the Jewish prophets. In time he began to preach a message of religious
renewal and warning. As he traveled through the villages of Judea, he
gathered a small group of disciples, or followers. According to the
Biblical account, he created a great deal of excitement by performing
miracles of healing, and by defending the poor and the oppressed in
Jesus apparently had no intention of creating a new religion or
even breaking with Jewish tradition. Rather, he and his followers saw
him as a reformer whose coming had been prophesied by the Hebrew
prophets. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said “Don’t
misunderstand why I have come—it isn’t to cancel the laws of Moses
and the warnings of the prophets. No, I come to fulfill them, and to
make them all come true.” Judaism, he taught, had become too bogged
down in legalism and meaningless ritual. The spirit of the Mosaic law,
Jesus insisted, was more important than the letter of the law. At the
heart of this law, he argued, was a universal message of love and
Jesus laid down two primary rules for his followers: they must
love God above all else: and they must love others as they loved
themselves. In addition, he emphasized the values of humility and
charity. These Christian ideals were perhaps best expressed in the
Sermon on the Mount, as described in the Gospels:
are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be
are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
are the peacemakers: for they will be called sons of God.
are those who are persecuted because of righteousness: for theirs is the
to the Gospels, which reflected the beliefs of the Christian community
of the late 100s A.D., after being crucified Jesus rose from the dead,
spent another 40 days teaching his disciples on earth, and then ascended
bodily into Heaven. His followers believed that the resurrection and
ascension proved that Jesus was the Messiah and the son of God, indeed,
they believed he was God himself come to earth as a man in order to
redeem the sins of humanity. They called him Jesus Christ, after the
Greek word for Messiah—Christos.
The resurrection became the central message of Christianity. Through the
death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had died for the sins of
humanity, Christians taught, all people could achieve redemption and
salvation, the promise of everlasting life with Christ in Heaven. Jesus'
disciples soon set out to spread this message.
At first, however, the disciples worked mainly in the Jewish
communities of Palestine. They too were persecuted by the Jewish
authorities, and some were actually killed. With the promise of
everlasting life, however, such deaths were seen by the early christians
as martyrdom, a voluntary suffering of death for the sake of the faith;
such examples only inspired others to be strong in their own faith. As
martyrs calmly confronted death, even many non-believers were impressed
by their conviction that they would be resurrected and achieve
immortality as Jesus had promised. Still, had it not been for the work
of a Hellenized Jew named Saul of Tarsus, Christianity might have
remained a sect of Judaism.
Saint Paul. Born
in the town of Tarsus, as a young man Saul actually worked for the
Jewish leadership persecuting Christians. During a trip to Damascus,
however, he apparently had a conversion experience and actually became a
Christian himself. Taking the name of Paul, he convinced the original
disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem that Christ had given him a special
mission to convert not fellow Jews but the non-Jews, or gentiles.
With this mission in mind, Paul soon transformed Christianity into a
universal religion with a message that transcended any particular
people. Paul’s Epistles, or Letters, to the Christian churches he
helped establish throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and even in Rome
itself, later became an important part of the New Testament,
those writings which early Christians eventually accepted as inspired by
God for the teaching of the faith.
Finding that Mosaic regulations such as circumcision and food
prohibitions were hindering missionary work among non-Jews, Paul
eventually dispensed with them as requirements for Christians. In their
place he emphasized certain new doctrines that distinguished
Christianity from Judaism. Above all perhaps, Paul established the
doctrine of original sin—the idea that since Adam and Eve had first
disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, all human beings were born sinful.
It had been to redeem this sin that God had come to earth as Jesus. This
he had done by dying on the cross, acting as the ultimate sacrifice to
bring human beings back into a state of grace, or communication with God.
Since human beings were too full of sin to be an acceptable sacrifice,
only a sinless person could do so for them— this became known as the
doctrine of the vicarious atonement. Paul emphasized the uselessness of
human beings trying to achieve their own salvation alone—their only
hope, he taught, was Jesus. Nor were human beings deserving of
salvation. It was only God’s grace, or love, that saved them, even
though they were unworthy.
The Spread of
spread of Christianity was also served by a progressive decline in the
vitality of Hellenism. Stressing the intellect and self-reliance,
Greco-Roman thought did not provide for the emotional needs of the
people. This aspect was to become crucial in the eventual triumph of
Christianity in the 3rd
century, and even in the first two centuries A.D. it attracted many new
followers. Similarly, the Christian message of love on earth and eternal
life after death regardless of social position or wealth appealed to the
poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved. All were welcomed and many were
attracted by the sense of community the new cult offered. At the same
time, the emphasis on Jesus as the savior removed the need for elaborate
self-discipline, such as that taught by the Stoics, with their similar
philosophy of universal brotherhood.
The Roman tradition of religious toleration and the climate of
peace and stability in the early years of the empire also contributed to
the spread of Christianity. Missionaries , for example, benefited from
the easy communications within the empire. Moreover, during the first
several centuries after Jesus’ life, outright persecution by Roman
officials was rare. Most emperors were indifferent to the new religion,
although some saw the Christian refusal to worship the state gods in
addition to their own as a potential threat to civic order. Christians
might become the objects of scapegoating, as the Emperor Nero did when
he tried to deflect criticism from himself for the burning of Rome and
laid the blame on Christians instead. More usual, however, was the
attitude displayed by the Emperor Trajan in a letter of instructions to
Pliny, the governor of Bythinia-Pontus in 111-113:
[the Christians] are not to be sought out; or if they are denounced and
proved guilty [of refusing to offer sacrifices to the state gods], they
are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he
is a Christian and really proves it —that is, by worshipping our
gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain
pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to
have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of
precedent and out of keeping with [the spirit of] our age.”
and Greek philosophy.
Christianity, a religion that had its roots in the religious traditions
of southwest Asia, was based on revelation and faith. Such roots were
largely alien to Greek philosophy, which instead emphasized reason. Some
early Christian thinkers wanted to keep the two traditions completely
separate. Tertullian, for example, declared: “What has Athens to do
with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church? . . . With our faith, we
desire no further belief.” But many Christians thought otherwise, and
tried to reconcile the Christian ethical creed with the categories of
Greek philosophy and Greek rationalism. In doing so, they transformed Jesus'
teaching into a theology, or methodical formulation of knowledge about the nature of
God, his laws, and his requirements of human beings. This process of
transformation and amalgamation of Jewish religious traditions with
Greek philosophical traditions is often called the Hellenization of
The process of Hellenization in Christianity was facilitated by
the nature of two of the most popular philosophies of the time: Stoicism
and Platonism. The Stoic teaching that all people are fundamentally
equal because they share the universal spark of Divine Reason, the
Logos, could be formulated in Christian terms—that they are all united
in Christ. Even the language of Greek philosophy was borrowed by some
Christian writers, as in the opening passage of the Gospel of John:
“In the Beginning was the Word [Logos in the original Greek], and the
Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
For Christians, the Word referred to Jesus. For Stoics on the
other hand, the use of the term Logos in this context made equally good
sense. Similarly, Stoic ethics that stressed moderation, self-control,
and brotherhood could just as easily be seen in Christian revelation. In
Platonism too, which drew a distinction between a world perceived by the
physical senses and a higher order open only to the intellect, or
spirit, Christian thinkers often found a congenial vehicle for
expressing Christian beliefs. The perfect and universal forms, which
Plato had maintained were the true goals of knowledge and the source of
ethical standards, were held by Christians to exist in God’s mind.
The Hellenization of Christianity had two great advantages that
contributed to the new faith’s ability to adapt to changing
circumstances and so survive. For one thing, it made it easier for
Stoics and Platonists to accept Christianity. Perhaps even more
importantly, it allowed Christians to combine the strengths to be gained
from religious faith and spiritual comfort with those to be derived from
the Greek tradition of rational thought. With both strands embedded in
it, the new faith would appeal to a vast range of people under many
Later Roman Empire
crisis of the 200s shattered the Roman world in all its aspects. Drastic
reforms had to be implemented if the empire were to survive. This was
the goal of the Emperor Diocletian, who assumed the purple mantle of
imperial authority in 284. Diocletian succeeded in giving the empire
another two centuries of life, but in the process he completely
transformed it, particularly the western provinces. Neither the
political system, nor even the intellectual world of what we call the
Late Roman Empire can be compared with the Roman imperial civilization
of the first three centuries A.D.
In an effort to stem the
floodtide that was steadily undermining the empire’s foundations, in
the late 200s and early 300s the Emperor Diocletian transformed the
principate into an absolute and autocratic monarchy. The emperor was no
longer simply the princeps, or first citizen, but rather the dominus, or
master. Drawing on eastern traditions of monarchy, the emperor
surrounded himself with elaborate ceremony and pomp. No longer
continuing the idea of being a first among equals, he now placed himself
far above his subjects, and ruled over them with no accountability to
anyone. Soon, he became Dominus et Deus, Master and God, ruling
the empire from a state of divine grandeur and isolated splendor.
new social order. Diocletian’s reforms
transformed Roman imperial society into a bureaucratic and rigid
order that might best be compared to a prison camp. Every aspect of life
was regulated by the central imperial administration. Individual freedom
was a privilege of the past—under Diocletian’s decrees sons must
follow the trades and social positions of their fathers. Thus soldier's sons must become soldiers, while baker’s sons must become
bakers. Peasants were permanently tied to the land they farmed as coloni.
Even the provincial organization was reviewed and revised. Diocletian
made provinces smaller for better administrative control, and grouped
them together into four large divisions called prefectures. Local
aristocrats were subjected to the scrutiny of imperial civil servants
and lost all their independence and political power. The army was
increased to 500,000 men in all, as it became increasingly important and
received the full attention of the emperor himself.
new economic order. The economy also came under full state direction
and control. Prices of goods and services were rigidly controlled. A new
tax system raised more money than ever for the new administration and
for the army. Under the increasing pressures of maintaining security,
all aspects of the economy were regulated. Factories producing weapons
in the eastern cities of the empire, for example, were given quotas and
forbidden to shut down, even when they were losing money. Everywhere,
commercial and manufacturing activities were subordinated to the needs
of imperial defense.
Initially, these drastic reforms were successful. Diocletian did
save the empire from falling into anarchy or even disappearing. But the
price was enormous, particularly in the loss of individual freedom and
intellectual originality. Rome was no longer a civilization expanding
but a civilization on the defensive. The individualism of the
Hellenistic world and the early empire gave way to growing conformity.
People ceased to be citizens so much as subjects, anonymous parts of a
As part of his efforts to improve the efficiency of imperial
administration, Diocletian divided the empire in two. Ruling the eastern
half himself, he appointed a co-emperor to rule the western provinces.
In addition, both emperors named assistants, called Caesars, who were
supposed to help administer the empire and eventually succeed peacefully
to the imperial purple in their turn. So long as Diocletian remained
emperor, these arrangements worked reasonably well, and in 305 he
retired to “grow cabbages.” His co-emperor also retired so that the
two Caesars could assume the purple at the same time.
Soon, however, the two new emperors quarreled and the empire
plunged once more into civil war. Not until 312 did Constantine, the son
of one of the original Caesars, emerge victorious and restore peace
throughout the empire. Although at first he maintained the system of
divided rule, governing the western provinces himself, in 337
Constantine did away with the system and restored the unity of the
empire. In other respects, however, Constantine continued Diocletian’s
policies of rigid state control over society.
As emperor, Constantine made two personal decisions that would
profoundly affect the direction of the future empire. First, he made
Christianity legal and encouraged its development throughout the Empire
under the auspices of the state. Second, he established a second
imperial capital, named Constantinople, on the site of the tiny
village of Byzantium on the European shore of the Bosphorus, which
separated Asia Minor from Europe. While Constantine hoped to use
Christianity to revitalize the unity of the empire, like Diocletian, he
recognized that the balance of wealth and power in the empire had
shifted from the west to the east—it was for this reason that he
tacitly admitted a continuing division of the empire by creating
Constantinople as a second imperial capital.
conversion to Christianity. According to tradition,
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was triggered by a personal
experience that occurred just before the the last battle of the civil
wars that brought him uncontested power in 312. Before the battle the
emperor apparently saw a vision of the cross in the sky, and heard the
words, “In hoc signo vince,” “In this sign, conquer.” When he
did indeed conquer, Constantine decided to become a devotee of the
Christian faith. In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan, making
Christianity legal. Although Constantine did not go so far as to make
Christianity the state religion, he certainly favored it and under his
patronage the new religion began to flourish throughout the empire.
Triumph of Christianity
From a tiny religious
minority, Christians soon grew to constitute a majority of the
population. Constantine’s successors were raised in the doctrines of
the faith and further favored it. Finally, in 380, the Emperor
Theodosius the Great outlawed all religious worship in the empire except
that of Christianity. Paganism, which had once held sway throughout the
Greco-Roman world, soon all but disappeared from the territories of the
of the church. Early Christian congregations were not only
spiritual organizations, but also acted as closely knit families. They
provided all kinds of support for their members, such as nursing and
burial services, and provision of food and shelter for the poor. As
crisis rocked the foundations of the Roman world, Christianity provided
emotional and physical support and reassurance for its growing
patronage, however, Christianity itself began to change. Part of its
early success had been due to the development of special ceremonies and
rituals designed to inspire people’s faith and make them feel closer
to Christ. Those who organized and performed these ceremonies gradually
became a special class within Christianity. They derived their authority
from the apostles, or disciples of Jesus, who had passed on the
authority given them by Christ himself to their own followers and
helpers through a “laying on of hands.” Called priests, those who
were part of this apostolic
succession were soon distinguished from the laity, or general
congregation of the church.
Over time, distinctions also appeared even within the priesthood.
Christianity was primarily a urban religion. As the church expanded, and
particularly as it became the beneficiary of legacies left by its
members in gifts of property or money with which to carry on its
charitable and missionary activities, it also began to develop an
administrative structure. Soon, a single member of the clergy emerged in
most cities who had authority over all other members of the clergy
within the region. These officials were called bishops.
The adoption of Christianity as the state religion not only
reinforced such a hierarchical development but accelerated it. Bishops
in the large cities of the empire, for example, began to call themselves
metropolitans, and to claim jurisdiction over the clergy in entire
provinces. By the 300s, the heads of the oldest and largest Christian congregations in Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and
Constantinople, were being called patriarchs,
and claimed authority even over the metropolitans. Primarily
administrators, these bishops, metropolitans and patriarchs were also
the leaders in the development of Christian doctrine.
At first, questions concerning correct doctrine and church
organization were handled by general councils, with representatives from
all the major churches in attendance. Councils continued to be an
important part of the church government, but increasingly the position
of the bishops of Rome and of Constantinople, as the leading churchmen
in the imperial capitals, also became particularly influential and
authoritative. The Roman bishops in particular claimed primacy in the Christian
world, by arguing that the church in Rome had been founded by
Saints Peter and Paul, both of whom were martyred there.
Saint Peter was generally accepted by the Christian community as
having founded the Roman church and acting as its first bishop. Consequently, later bishops of Rome were seen as Peter’s
spiritual heirs. Reinforcing their claim to primacy, the bishops of Rome
interpreted a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Christ
apparently gave Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” to mean
that all subsequent Roman bishops would also inherit the keys—a
doctrine known as the Petrine
Succession. Although other metropolitans and patriarchs, as well as
many ordinary bishops, disputed the Petrine Succession for centuries, in
445 the Emperor Valentinian III decreed that all western bishops should
acknowledge the authority of the bishop of Rome, or pope
as he was now being called, after the Latin word for father.
Increasingly, the church organized itself along the same lines as the
In fact, such developments were probably in keeping with Constantine’s original decision to foster the church as a potential source of unity for binding the empire back together. Ironically, however, the more closely organized the church became, the greater became the dangers it faced from internal disputes over doctrine.
problem of heresy. Heresy, or beliefs that did not conform to the
accepted teachings of the main body of the church, seriously threatened
to destroy the unity of Christianity in its early years of imperial
patronage. During the first major crisis over doctrine, the so-called Arian
heresy, after the views of a priest named Arius, became the subject
of a church council summoned by Constantine to settle the doctrinal
controversy once and for all and to establish a uniform doctrine for all
of the Christian community.
Arius argued that Christ, being God’s son, could not be the
same as God himself and must therefore have been created by God the
Father. This entirely rational view was opposed by the followers of
Saint Athenasius, who argued that it was a matter of correct faith to
accept that the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all mentioned
in the Gospels, were co-eternal, co-equal, and made of the same
substance. Eventually, this view of the Christian Trinity prevailed and
Arianism was branded a heresy and swept out of the church.
Other heresies were dealt with in the same manner, usually
debated in a church council and then eventually declared beyond the
bounds of true Christianity. Although to the modern observer such
doctrinal questions might seem trivial, for Christians of the times they
were of absolute importance—since only the correct doctrine could
assure people of the chance for salvation and eternal life. Anyone who
threatened such certainty of salvation was simply asking for trouble.
As the church became increasingly involved in the daily affairs of
people’s lives after its recognition as the state religion, many
within its fold became concerned that it was losing sight of the
original message of Christ. In an effort to recapture the ascetic and
contemplative spirit they believed Jesus had wanted, such pious
individuals often turned toward monasticism, becoming monks and living
alone to practice a life of asceticism and self-denial in order to
prepare for the life to come. During the 300s, monasticism spread like
wildfire throughout the church, especially in the east, where the
monastic movement first emerged.
As the clergy became more and more involved in the affairs of
administration and the life of the flesh, more and more lay people
abandoned the world around them in favor of isolation in the deserts and
woods and mountains. Some went to extreme lengths to practice their
devotion to God by denying the needs of the flesh. St. Simeon Stylites,
for example, lived on a platform atop a tall pole for 37 years. Others
had themselves cemented into tiny cubby holes, with only small openings
through which they could be passed food and water. In such perfect
isolation they felt closer to God and better able to devote themselves
entirely to preparing for the next life rather than becoming caught in
the struggle for survival in the present life.
As monasticism reached new heights of self-torture, however,
eventually some in the church decided that a communal approach to
asceticism would be more productive. Perhaps the most influential of
these advocates of communal monasticism was Saint Basil. In a series of
writings, Basil developed plans and rules for monastic communities that
would replace the individual asceticism of the early monks. Instead of
self-denial, Basil suggested that hard work would better serve the needs
of both the individual ascetic and the Lord. Even with work to fill
their time, however, under Basil’s rule monks spent most of their time
in prayer and meditation, and monastic communities along this new model
preferred to establish themselves as far away from the “outer” world
on the Frontiers and the Fall of Rome
The history of the western
Roman empire after the death of Constantine in 337 was almost entirely
conditioned by the constant struggle to keep its borders safe from
Germanic invaders. Military considerations became the main preoccupation
of the emperors and all the resources of the empire were aimed at trying
to protect the integrity of its borders. The empire was besieged and
constantly threatened on its frontiers along the Rhine, the Danube, and
the Euphrates. Neither the economy nor the manpower of the empire could
withstand invasions on so many fronts. Consequently, at the end of the
300s, the Romans had to concede territory to the invaders and allow them
to settle inside the empire as autonomous groups. In exchange, they
hoped the tribes would act as frontier guards against the tribes still
pressing in behind them. At the same time, Diocletian’s division of
the empire into eastern and western parts was revived, with Rome as the
capital of the west and Constantinople as capital of the east. By the
time of the Emperor Theodosius’s death in 395, this division had
Progressively Germanized, the western empire survived until 476
A.D. when Odoacer, a German chieftain, deposed Romulus Augustulus, the
last western Roman emperor. The eastern empire resisted the invaders on
its borders, but it too was forced progressively to withdraw into
itself. Although Constantinople remained the capital of “Rome in the
East” for another thousand years, at the end of that time the only
thing left to the emperors was the city itself and its immediate
Meanwhile, in the western provinces, Germanic tribes began to
roam at will, attacking cities and establishing kingdoms of their own in
the ruins of the Roman provinces. As the imperial communications network
began to break down, cities could no longer obtain enough food from the
countryside to sustain many people. Gradually, most cities were
abandoned as people drifted back into the countryside to find food and
some kind of security.
Civilization did not cease, but it retreated increasingly to the
local level as a new culture began to emerge from the amalgamation of
Germanic, Roman, and Christian elements. Only the memory of a united
empire under a single emperor remained alive, fanned by an ever present church hierarchy that survived the transition and began to pick up the
pieces after the fall of Rome itself. Both the ideal of a universal
empire and a universal church to sustain it would remain embedded in the
imagination of Europeans for centuries to come.