Chapter 7 The Roman World

Section 4 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 Principate

Back 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 Augustus’s control.

            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 of children.

Literature in the Augustan Age

In 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. 

The Julio-Claudians and the Flavians

The 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 horse, Incitatus,  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 intervened several 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.

The "Golden Age"

In 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 good emperors.

            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 aristocracy.

            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.  

Roman Imperial Civilization

Several 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.

Government. 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 provinces. 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 them.

            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.

The 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 borders.

            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.

Law. 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.  

Trade and transportation. 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 the Mediterranean.

            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

The 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 expensive.

            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 amphitheater.

            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 spectators.

            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?” 

Science, Engineering, and Architecture

The 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.