THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Roman Empire, political system established by Rome that lasted for nearly five centuries. Historians usually date the beginning of the Roman Empire from 27 BC when the Roman Senate gave Gaius Octavius the name Augustus and he became the undisputed emperor after years of bitter civil war. At its peak the empire included lands throughout the Mediterranean world. Rome had first expanded into other parts of Italy and neighboring territories during the Roman Republic (509-27 BC), but made wider conquests and solidified political control of these lands during the empire. The empire lasted until Germanic invasions, economic decline, and internal unrest in the 4th and 5th centuries AD ended Rome’s ability to dominate such a huge territory. The Romans and their empire gave cultural and political shape to the subsequent history of Europe from the middle Ages and the Renaissance to the present day.
In 44 BC Gaius Julius Caesar, the Roman leader who ruled the Roman Republic as a dictator, was assassinated. Rome descended into more than ten years of civil war and political upheaval. After Caesar’s heir Gaius Octavius (also known as Octavian) defeated his last rivals, the Senate in 27 BC proclaimed him Augustus, meaning the exalted or holy one. In this way Augustus established the monarchy that became known as the Roman Empire. The Roman Republic, which had lasted nearly 500 years, was dead, never to be revived. The empire would endure for another 500 years until AD 476
The emperor Augustus reigned from 27 BC to AD 14 and ruled with absolute power. He reestablished political and social stability and launched two centuries of prosperity called the Roman Peace (Pax Romana). Under his rule the Roman state began its transformation into the greatest and most influential political institution in European history. During the first two centuries AD the empire flourished and added new territories, notably ancient Britain, Arabia, and Dacia (present-day Romania). People from the Roman provinces streamed to Rome, where they became soldiers, bureaucrats, senators, and even emperors. Rome developed into the social, economic, and cultural capital of the Mediterranean world. Despite the attention given to tyrannical and often vicious leaders like the emperors Caligula and Nero, most emperors ruled sensibly and competently until military and economic disasters brought on the political instability of the 3rd century AD
The Roman Empire encompassed a huge amount of territory, but also allowed people of many different cultures to retain their heritage into modern times. The empire helped to perpetuate the art, literature, and philosophy of the Greeks, the religious and ethical system of the Jews, the new religion of the Christians, Babylonian astronomy and astrology, and cultural elements from Persia, Egypt, and other eastern civilizations. The Romans supplied their own peculiar talents for government, law, and architecture and also spread their Latin language. In this way they created the Greco-Roman synthesis, the rich combination of cultural elements that for two millennia has shaped what we call the Western tradition.
The Romans formed that synthesis during the longest continuous period of peaceful prosperity that the Mediterranean world has ever known. Even after a German invader in AD 476 deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor residing in Rome, emperors who called themselves
―Roman‖ (although they are known historically as Byzantine) continued to rule in Constantinople until AD 1453 (See Byzantine Empire). The impact of the Roman people endures until the present day.
THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE EMPIRE
After the founding of Rome in 753 BC, powerful kings ruled until, according to patriotic legend, the Romans expelled the last foreign monarch in 509 BC and established a more representative form of government known as the Roman Republic. In the five centuries the republic existed, Rome expanded from a small community on the hills beside the Tiber River into the major power of the Mediterranean world. After centuries of warfare the Romans conquered other peoples who lived in the surrounding regions and by 266 BC controlled the entire Italian Peninsula.
The Romans then embarked on their conquest of the rest of the Mediterranean basin. First they defeated their great rival, Carthage, whose possessions, including Sicily, Spain, and North Africa, became Roman provinces. During the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, Rome’s military forces, known as legions, fought against kings and city-states in the eastern Mediterranean to bring Greece, Asia Minor (roughly modern Turkey), Syria, Judea, and Egypt under Roman control. In the west, Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, which included all of modern France, so that the Roman frontiers extended from the Sahara to the North Sea and from Spain to the Near East.
This remarkable military achievement transformed the Romans themselves. Roman imperialism introduced extremes of wealth and poverty that sharpened social and economic conflict within the Roman state. The flood of military plunder and captured slaves dramatically changed the countryside as small farms gave way to large plantations, and landless peasants migrated to Rome and other cities. Immense wealth inflamed the ambitions of Roman nobles who struggled for personal domination rather than collective rule. The historian Sallust expressed the view of later Romans who believed that the wealth of empire corrupted the once noble Roman people. Nearly a century of intermittent civil war, which extended from the rule of the Gracchi, beginning about 133 BC, to the death of Gaius Julius Caesar in 44 BC, threatened to destroy the unity and prosperity of Rome itself.
In 49 BC Caesar, who had held many of the highest political offices in Rome, marched into Italy to challenge the leaders of the republic. After defeating his enemies, he ruled as dictator until his murder on the Ides of March (March 15 by the Roman calendar) in 44 BC. Caesar’s assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, hoped to restore the republic, but it was no longer possible. Neither the urban masses nor the military would allow the old aristocracy to regain control.
Rome needed a strong hand to administer the state and control the army, since the old system of government was unsuitable to rule an empire of 50 million subjects. If Rome wanted to maintain its dominance, the government needed to create new administrative and military institutions. Caesar planned to transform the Roman state, but his few years in power were insufficient. His followers included his longtime military deputy, Mark Antony, and his great-nephew (and
adopted son), Octavian. They first defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, a city of ancient Macedonia, in 42 BC before turning on each other. By 30 BC Octavian was the unchallenged successor to Caesar and the master of Rome. Three years later the Senate proclaimed him Augustus, the supreme ruler.
THE EMPIRE UNDER AUGUSTUS
Octavian’s victory over Antony made him master of Rome, but it did not resolve the conflicts that had destroyed the Roman Republic. His most pressing tasks included demobilizing the huge armies, safeguarding their future loyalty, and ensuring the safety of the European frontiers that Rome had neglected during long civil wars in the east. He also needed to make the Italians an integral part of Roman social, cultural and political life. Rome had conquered people of various cultural and linguistic backgrounds who inhabited the Italian Peninsula and had only granted citizenship sparingly, causing some bitter feelings. Augustus worked to reduce class hostility and civil unrest in the capital and established an administrative apparatus to govern the empire. To accomplish these changes, he devised a new form of monarchy.
His first step was to repair the bitter wounds of civil war. On January 13 of 27 BC, Octavian, in his own words, ―transferred the Republic from my own power to the authority of the Senate and the Roman people.‖ This action showed shrewd political planning, as Augustus used it purely for public show. The Senate awarded him the name of Augustus, and mobs demanded that he retain power. Augustus carefully retained the titles of traditional offices to disguise his absolute power. He kept only the offices of consul and proconsul and claimed that he held no more power than his colleagues. Some Romans complained that the loss of liberty was too great a price to pay for peace, but most recognized that under the so-called liberty of the Roman Republic, a few hundred men had divided the spoils of empire while the workers and the provincials suffered. The majority of Romans welcomed the peace and stability of the Augustan Age.
Augustus did not derive his power from any single office, but from the authority of his name and his victory. In fact, he carefully pieced together a patchwork of powers that allowed him to be an absolute ruler and yet avoid the hatred Caesar aroused as dictator. In Latin, the name Augustus implies both political authority and religious respect. The Romans had for some time called Octavian imperator, a title once awarded to victorious generals that soon became associated with the ruler and thus led to the English word emperor. In 27 BC he was first called princeps (leading man of the state), which later became the official title of the Roman emperors. His imperium, or military authority, extended throughout the empire and was greater than the power of any other governor or general.
Augustus, in reality, held as much power as any absolute dictator, but wisely disguised it with traditional names so that the other Roman officials, and particularly senators, would still feel pride in their positions. The Senate was not an elected body; it drew its membership from the Roman aristocratic classes, primarily former magistrates who had served in important administrative posts. To be a senator was a matter of status, not a formal job. Under the republic, the Senate held great authority as the institution that preserved Roman knowledge and tradition
and became the dominant force in religion, public policy, and foreign affairs. Senators jealously guarded the power and the wealth that resulted from their role in Roman government.
Augustus resigned the consulship in 23 BC as a gesture to satisfy senators who were anxious to receive consular honors themselves. He rarely held that title again. Augustus instead assumed the powers of a tribune, the republican official who represented the people and had the power to propose or veto legislation. The Romans heaped other honors upon him, including the office of censor, which enabled him to control the membership of the Senate. They also made him pontifex maximus, the head of the state religion, and finally pater patriae or ―father of the country.‖ These offices and titles gave Augustus no real additional power, for he already controlled every aspect of religious, civil, and military life.
Augustus’s main task was to create and staff new administrative structures for the empire. During the republic, the government had ruled the provinces ineffectively. Provincial governorships were seen as opportunities for enrichment or as stepping-stones to higher office. Augustus was determined to improve imperial administration by making senators managers rather than politicians. He focused primarily on the talents of the individual senators who became policy advisors, provincial governors, military commanders, and senior administrators. An advisory council of senators set the legislative agenda and made recommendations to the emperor. This system allowed him to work with many senators whom he might later select for high office.
Augustus worked to reinvigorate the senatorial order, whose membership had declined as a result of political persecutions and civil war. Like any politician, he turned first to supporters who had proved their loyalty. During the civil wars, the Italians were his most devoted followers, and he generously included them in the new regime. Gaius Maecenas, who was descended from an Etruscan noble family, became the emperor’s closest domestic advisor, and the general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who was also of Italian descent, married the emperor’s daughter, Julia. Augustus even brought talented but landless Italians into the Senate by giving them the land or money necessary to meet the minimum property qualification for senators, which was 1 million sesterces (small silver coins used by the Romans).
An empire of 50 million people needed more administrators than the Senate could provide. Augustus turned to the equestrian order—those citizens with a high level of property or wealth (over 400,000 sesterces)—and asked them to perform a wide range of administrative tasks. The members of the order, known as equites, filled financial positions in Rome and abroad. They even acted as governors in some smaller provinces such as Judea, where the equestrian Pontius Pilate ruled. The highest equestrian offices commanded so much power that Augustus preferred not to entrust them to ambitious senators. These posts included the prefect, or commander, of the grain supply, the prefect of Egypt, and the praetorian prefect, who controlled troops in Rome and Italy.
In addition to establishing a basic administrative structure, Augustus also had to monitor the everyday issues of taxation and local services. As a result of the civil war, the state treasury was empty. Augustus, after his conquest of Egypt, had personally received the accumulated treasure of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and her predecessors as well as a vast ongoing income from
Egyptian production, trade, and taxes. He contributed large amounts of this income to the treasury, which he carefully recorded in his public memoirs. He also replaced the corrupt private tax collectors with state employees and managed to balance Rome’s budget. For the first time, he established public police and fire protection for Rome and kept close control over grain distribution and the water supply.
People in the provinces outside of Rome welcomed the new regime of Augustus with enthusiasm. Augustus planned to integrate the Italians into all aspects of Roman life. When he came to power, the people of Italy remained a mixture of different cultures. Many southern Italians still used Greek, people in the mountain areas spoke different Italic languages, and the Etruscan language had only recently died out. The economic growth that followed the long period of civil war enriched the towns and drew Italy together, but Augustus truly unified ancient Italy culturally, politically, and economically. Under his rule the provinces fared better than they had under the corrupt governors and greedy tax collectors of the republic.
In the east, Augustus initially followed the republican tradition of allowing the rulers of conquered peoples, often called subject kings, to remain in power and to administer their own territories. This policy allowed Rome to send her legions elsewhere. Eventually, however, local squabbles over royal succession led the emperors to turn kingdoms like Judea, Armenia, and Galatia into Roman provinces. In those areas the former royal estates then became the emperor’s personal property, while the province as a whole was regarded as territory of the Roman state. The emperor governed the provinces that had a large military presence—western Asia, Africa, and Gaul —through his deputies. Egypt became the most reliable source of food for Italy because it was so agriculturally productive. As a result, the Roman emperors kept Egypt as personal property, governed by a prefect, and the Egyptians worshiped the emperors as successors to their own great kings, the pharaohs. See also Thematic Essay: Roman Political and Social Thought.
The Romans believed that political corruption in the late republic was connected to moral decline. Immoral sexual behavior and the pursuit of political advancement led members of the upper classes to avoid marriage, divorce more frequently, and have fewer traditional relationships. As result, the Roman population, already greatly diminished by the civil wars, experienced a noticeable decline in the birth rate. In response Augustus added an important moral dimension to his political program. He passed legislation to encourage marriage and childbearing. The unmarried and the childless suffered political and financial penalties while those with three or more children received special privileges. Augustus also made adultery a criminal offense, sending his own daughter, Julia, into exile for having illicit sexual affairs.
The emperor made other efforts to be identified with the traditional Roman values typical of a conservative agrarian society with strong family networks. The Romans were hardworking and frugal, self-reliant and cautious, serious about their responsibilities and steadfast in the face of adversity. The stress on family responsibility was evident in the idea of pietas, the belief that all Romans owed loyalty to family authority and to the gods of Rome. The emperor’s Italian supporters outside of the senatorial elite were devoted to traditional religion as well as conventional morality, so Augustus revived neglected ceremonies and restored 82 temples that had fallen into ruins. In commemoration of his victory at Philippi over Caesar’s murderers,
Augustus built a new temple to the war god, Mars, and gave him the additional title of ―the Avenger.‖ Augustus also held splendid celebrations to mark the anniversary of the founding of Rome.
The Augustan Age sparked a major economic revival. The emperor directly controlled coinage, taxation, and his own enormous estates, but otherwise allowed the economy to operate freely, with demand dictating prices and profits. Above all it was the end of civil war that encouraged economic growth. Roman armies could control piracy and allow maritime trade across the Mediterranean as never before.
Farming was the basis of the Roman economy. Republican senators traditionally invested their wealth in Italian land, but the imperial peace also encouraged them to invest abroad. The Romans began to cultivate more land when they brought Mediterranean plants and more sophisticated farming methods farther north into Gaul, the Rhine River valley, and the Balkan Peninsula. Vineyards spread throughout Gaul, and olive groves were planted in North Africa. The Romans learned new techniques for farming in wet climates that allowed them to open new lands for agriculture in northern Gaul and Britain, where increasing demands for timber transformed native forests into agricultural estates.
Landowners lived in the cities or, in the case of the truly wealthy, in Rome itself. A foreman managed each estate separately. Some individual estates, called villas, were huge operations. One villa, the Boscatrecase, which was located near the Italian city of Pompeii, had 100,000 jugs of wine in storage. Large estates in the provinces had lower labor costs, which gradually undermined traditional Italian agriculture. As a result, Rome imported wheat from Egypt and Africa, wine from Gaul, and oil from Spain and Africa.
Roman industry did not include mass production, and small workshops manufactured pottery, metalwork, and glass. A successful brickmaker might have owned dozens of workshops rather than one large factory. Manufacturers dispersed or decentralized their production because it was expensive to transport goods. Bricks for construction were made at the building site, or terra-cotta figurines were fashioned at the temple where they were sold. Unlike independent artisans who had their own shops, wage laborers were treated with contempt in the ancient world and worked alongside slaves.
The eastern Mediterranean was initially the manufacturing center of the Roman world, but under the empire, Gaul also experienced great industrial growth. A number of factors combined to encourage manufacturing in Gaul, including the availability of ample raw materials, the Celtic tradition of exquisite metalworking, good river transportation, and the enormous market created by the military along the northern borders of the empire. The Roman soldiers needed weapons, pottery, boots, clothing, and building materials, and they bought them from local craftspeople.
EXPANSION AND CONSOLIDATION
The rule of Augustus brought social stability, economic revival, and efficient administration to Rome, but it was unable to ensure the future. Augustus seemingly owed his power to the Senate
and Roman people; in fact, his power came from his personal authority, and there was a real possibility his death might trigger a renewed civil war. For decades, Augustus watched his chosen successors die until only his stepson, Tiberius, remained. His selection of an heir outside of his immediate bloodline set the precedent for the future; struggles for power once fought on the battlefield were now waged in the imperial palace.
Augustus hoped to retain power within the Julian family, while disguising the fact that he had established a monarchy. He had only one child, a daughter Julia by his first wife, and his 51-year marriage to his third wife, Livia, brought him much personal happiness and a remarkable political partnership, but no further children. Livia had two sons, Tiberius and Drusus, from a previous marriage to Tiberius Claudius Nero. Tiberius and later Drusus’s son Claudius became emperors of the Claudian line. Julia’s grandson Gaius-Caligula and her great-grandson Nero eventually reached the imperial throne. Together these rulers made up what came to be known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Tiberius (AD 14-37 ) was a successful general in Germany and a fine imperial administrator. He lacked the charisma of Augustus and alienated senators with his personal moodiness. He finally withdrew to his villa in Capri and placed the Roman government in the hands of his praetorian prefect, Aelius Sejanus. Despite his weaknesses, Tiberius left the empire with secure boundaries and a healthy treasury.
The great-nephew of Tiberius and his chosen successor, Gaius (AD 37-41), grew up on the German frontier where his father’s soldiers nicknamed him Caligula (―Little Boot‖ in Latin) because of his tiny military boots. A great-grandson of both Augustus and Mark Antony, Caligula was a popular choice for the imperial throne. He abolished the sales tax and sponsored frequent public athletic games and spectacles, but a severe illness transformed him into a vicious tyrant. Caligula murdered senators for their property and their wives, gave away Rome’s provinces to his boyhood playmates, considered making his horse consul, and demanded to be worshiped as Jupiter. Not surprisingly, one of his own guards murdered him.
In the confusion following Caligula’s assassination, some senators decided they might dispense with emperors and debated the return of the republic. The praetorian soldiers, who had profited under imperial rule, wanted a new emperor. The traditional story is that they found the only plausible candidate, Caligula’s uncle, hiding fearfully in the palace and gave him the imperial throne. Polio in childhood had left Claudius I (AD 41-54) with a limp and a stammer, but he ruled well and added Britain to the Roman Empire. He showed both intelligence and compassion in his grants of citizenship, his admission of Gauls to the Senate, and his humanitarian legislation on debt and the treatment of slaves. His fourth wife Agrippina (known as Agrippina the Younger) poisoned him to ensure that her son Nero would inherit the throne.
The 15-year-old Nero (AD 54-68) began his reign amid predictions of a new Golden Age for Rome, but fawning courtiers encouraged his despotic tendencies. He murdered both his mother and his wife at the urging of his mistress. In AD 64 a fire devastated much of Rome. The historian Tacitus suggests in his writings that Nero blamed the fledgling Christian community for the blaze. According to some sources, his persecution of Christians resulted in the deaths of two of Christianity’s most influential apostles, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Nero had a childish need for
applause, and he gave vocal concerts at Greek festivals. The spectacle of a singing emperor disgusted the Romans. The neglected legions became restless, and rebellions erupted throughout the empire. All four Julio-Claudian emperors lived in the shadow of Augustus, and none felt secure on his throne. Insecurity brought tyranny, which then provoked conspiracies in the Senate and in the palace. Finally, even the army turned away from the dynasty that had created the empire.
Civil war returned to Rome as one person after another claimed the throne and marched on the capital. In AD 69, known as the Year of the Four Emperors, a savage contest for power exploded the myths adopted by Augustus to hide his dictatorship. The secret of the empire was now clear. Augustus had pretended to follow Roman republican tradition by seeking the Senate’s confirmation of his actions, but in reality the emperor’s authority derived solely from his control of the army.
The savage civil war of the Year of the Four Emperors concluded with the triumph of Vespasian (AD 69-79 ), a plainspoken and practical soldier from the Italian middle class whose style contrasted with the eccentricity of the noble Julio-Claudians. As commander of the Roman armies in the East, Vespasian crushed the Jewish rebellion in Palestine. He then returned to Rome and left his son to destroy both the city of Jerusalem and in AD 73 to conquer Masada, the hilltop fortress near the Dead Sea where the Jews made their last stand. Vespasian’s thriftiness restored the economy after the lavish expenditures of Nero. He recruited senators from among western provinces and also carefully ensured the loyalty of the military to the new dynasty he created, called the Flavians.
Ancient sources provide very different pictures of Vespasian’s sons. The brief reign of Titus (AD 79-81) was extremely popular, while the Roman people only remembered his brother Domitian (AD 81-96) as a tyrant. Domitian conducted successful military campaigns in which he established a network of forts and palisades (defensive barriers) between the Rhine and Danube rivers. However, he distrusted the Senate and persecuted his opponents in a reign of terror. Historians describe the reign of Domitian as an age of spies, secret denunciations, and executions. Domitian himself was murdered in a palace conspiracy that included his wife Domitia.
In AD 96 the Senate proclaimed Nerva (AD 96–98), who had no children, as emperor. He adopted Trajan, the respected governor of Germany, as his successor and began a new imperial line known historically as the Antonines. During this time, Roman rulers did not rely on heredity to determine which family members would succeed them, but instead adopted successors. Generally these adopted emperors governed the empire far more effectively than their predecessors.
Trajan (98-117) was a distinguished soldier who became one of Rome’s most beloved monarchs. He was the first emperor born in the provinces and was of Spanish origin. He devoted much of his energy to aggressive wars that extended Roman rule across the Danube River to Dacia (present-day Romania) and into Mesopotamia. Conquering Dacia was important economically,
since its rich gold mines accounted for much of Roman wealth in the 2nd century AD. Trajan’s other great campaign, an invasion of the east, was less successful. Although he conquered Arabia, Armenia and Parthia (now part of Iran and Afghanistan) on his way to the Persian Gulf, Trajan overextended himself, and the recently conquered Parthians rebelled and forced him to withdraw.
Trajan made other contributions that show his common sense, administrative skill, and genuine human compassion. He initiated an impressive building program throughout the empire. Both public monuments and private documents reflect Trajan’s concern for social welfare programs, like the distribution of food to poor children. In letters to his special agent Pliny the Younger, he discussed topics such as local finances and dissident Christians in a fair and open-minded way. Trajan was a man with few personal pretensions who treated senators as equals and earned the title of Optimus Princeps (Best of Emperors).
Trajan’s cousin and successor Hadrian (117-138) was a restless traveler whose passion for Greek culture and prickly aloofness greatly displeased the Senate. Despite these traits, he administered the empire well. Hadrian reformed the civil service, suppressed a Jewish revolt, and continued the construction of military highways that enabled troops to march quickly towards the walls or palisades marking the empire’s frontiers. The most famous of the emperor’s building projects, known as Hadrian’s Wall, stretched across 117 km (73 mi) of northern England.
Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius (138–161), had a peaceful reign, but the inactivity of the legions during this prolonged peace caused trouble for his successor as they were ill prepared for fighting. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), who followed his uncle Antoninus Pius to the imperial throne, was a humane and energetic leader, but war dominated his reign. He fought hard against the German tribes who crossed into the empire when a devastating plague weakened Rome’s western provinces. Marcus Aurelius was also a philosopher who followed the ethical principles of Stoicism, which taught that good is determined by the state of the soul. While Marcus Aurelius led Roman forces on the northern frontier, he wrote part of his famous work, Meditations, which included his Stoic reflections on the virtuous life. When he chose his successor, Marcus Aurelius relied on family ties and designated his son Commodus, known for his vicious behavior, as heir to the throne.
Historians have called the five emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius the ―good emperors,‖ and many feel their reigns represented the high point of the Roman Empire. However, during this same time millions of slaves were denied human rights, and women received no political ones. Plague killed one-third of the population of the western provinces, and the Romans executed Christians and drove the Jewish people from their homeland. Nonetheless, the emperors during this period were effective administrators who promoted prosperity, avoided civil war, respected senators, and supported intellectuals and the arts.
Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus (180-192) was a startling change for the Romans after the series of good emperors. The historian Dio Cassius wrote that Commodus, dressed as a gladiator in the arena, once killed an ostrich and held up its head to the senators ―to show that he had the same fate in store for us.‖ Commodus liked to exhibit his strength and found the games more interesting than the business of empire. Commodus survived many attempts on his life, but eventually his wrestling partner strangled him. Soon after his death, the praetorian guard
auctioned off the imperial throne to the highest bidder, and the outraged legions began the first civil war in more than a century.
The Roman Empire was composed of many ethnic groups, who spoke dozens of languages. Celts, Italians, Berbers, Jews, Egyptians, and Greeks could all become citizens of the Roman Empire if the emperor chose to grant that status. The term Roman was not an ethnic description but a political one. Rome successfully assimilated many different groups and gradually extended Roman citizenship to conquered peoples. In AD 14 there were about 5 million citizens among the 50 million inhabitants of the empire, and that number grew continually through the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Citizenship did not include the right to vote except at the local level, but people highly valued the legal and economic privileges of being a citizen.
The Romans insisted that ―barbaric‖ peoples learn Latin before they became citizens, but they freely extended citizenship to Greeks, whom they considered civilized, although they knew no Latin. Three centuries earlier, Roman statesmen like Cato the Elder had scorned Greek culture, but the Roman elite during the empire spoke fluent Greek and directed their contempt toward other eastern peoples, like Jews and Syrians. Greek philosophers, Asian orators, African religious scholars, Syrian satirists, and Saint Paul himself all boasted Roman citizenship, although they all wrote in Greek. It is not easy to generalize about the Roman influence; it can best be seen in the effects of conquest on specific peoples.
The warlike Celts spread from central Europe to northern Italy, Spain, Britain, and Ireland. Since they left no written documents, their history is recorded only by Greek and Roman writers and in archaeological remains. The Romans in the west absorbed the Celts so thoroughly that Celtic languages survive today only where Romanization failed: Ireland, Wales, the highlands of Scotland, and Brittany (or Britanny) in northwest France. The Romans called the Celts of northern Italy and France Gauls, and they became the most Romanized people of the provinces. In the 2nd century BC Rome moved across the Alps into southern Gaul; by 50 BC Julius Caesar completed the conquest of all Gaul, which included all of modern France. Roman roads and cities appeared everywhere, and southern Gaul was so strongly influenced by the Romans that its residents called it ―The Province,‖ and it is today still known as Provence.
The Gauls intermingled with the Romans and adopted Roman traits so quickly that it is difficult to identify which Romans actually had Gallic blood. The poets Catullus and Virgil and the noted historian Livy all came from northern Italy and were possibly Gauls. Southern Gaul produced the historian Tacitus and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Gallic elite built many amphitheaters, theaters, and temples in the Roman style. Autun, a city of 80,000, boasted a theater that was the fourth largest in the Roman world and held over 30,000 people. The amphitheater at Nîmes still survives and is used as an arena for bullfights.
Conquest by Rome cost the Gauls their freedom and the wild, warlike spirit that once so terrified their enemies. The Gauls first served as auxiliary cavalry for the Roman army and later were made soldiers in the legions. Rebellions in AD 21 and AD 68 were short-lived, and Gaul continued to prosper. As Roman subjects, the Gauls welcomed the art, religion, and literary culture of Italy. They turned their efforts to agriculture, metalwork, and pottery, which decorated and enriched their cities. Imports of Gallic glass, pottery, and wine replaced local production in Italy and brought great wealth to some Gauls. These wealthy merchants and landholders lived in large villas, one of which had 200 rooms. Such villas became self-sufficient communities during the
chaos that marked the last years of the empire. The Gauls became Romanized quickly and contributed their energy and spirit to Roman civilization rather than many specific Celtic traditions.
The North African city of Carthage had conquered the Celtic peoples of coastal Spain during the 3rd century BC. After Rome defeated the Carthaginian general Hannibal in 202 BC, it made Spain into two provinces. Almost two centuries later Augustus assembled seven legions in Spain to fight against rebels in the mountainous interior and in the Pyrenees. Augustus established new cities with Roman citizens (including retired veterans) and extended citizenship rights to existing cities. Banditry continued in the mountains, but the people of southern and eastern Spain were peaceful and highly urbanized during the two centuries after Augustus. All of Spain accepted the Latin language except the Basques, who lived in remote areas of the Pyrenees.
Peace also brought considerable prosperity to Spain, with its fertile agricultural lands and rich mines. One scholar estimates that 45 million quarts of Spanish olive oil reached Rome every year from AD 15 to AD 255. Spaniards went to Rome, where some served in the Senate or at the imperial court. There was also a Spanish intellectual circle, including the philosopher Seneca and the poets Martial and Lucan. One emperor, Trajan, and possibly another, Hadrian, were born in Spain, although they both traced their ancestry to Italians colonists who had settled in the province.
Only a century after Julius Caesar briefly invaded Britain, the emperor Claudius launched a major expedition in AD 43 and imposed Roman rule in southern England. The Britons were rebellious, and at first the Romans preferred to rule through subject kings. But the Britons resented Roman domination and especially Roman taxes. In AD 60 Boudicca, queen of the British tribe called the Iceni, led a major insurrection and destroyed Roman settlements at London, Saint Albans, and Colchester. The Romans later retook England, but only partially conquered Wales and parts of lowland Scotland. For a long time, Hadrian’s Wall, stretching across northern England, remained the frontier of the empire. New evidence also suggests a Roman presence on the coast of Ireland.
The native peoples in Britain were less urban than those in Gaul and were correspondingly less influenced by Roman culture. Stone inscriptions indicate that the Britons were also less literate than the Gauls. Latin did replace Celtic in most lowland areas of Britain, although the German invasions of Britain of the 5th century AD eliminated Latin there as a living language.
An indigenous or native people known as the Berbers originally populated the northern coast of Africa. However, colonists from the eastern Mediterranean kingdom of Phoenicia (most of modern Lebanon) established the city of Carthage on the Gulf of Tunis (present-day Tunisia). To the west of Carthage, native Berber kings ruled in Numidia and Mauritania (present-day Algeria and Morocco). After Rome defeated Carthage in 146 BC, it established its first province in Africa. Later, Rome also added Numidia and Mauritania as provinces. When the North African
general Lucius Septimius Severus became emperor in AD 193, he spoke Latin with a Punic accent.
The agricultural lands of North Africa provided grain to Rome, and many wealthy senators invested in them. Under the emperor Nero (AD 54-68), half of the Roman province of Africa belonged to six individuals, and the largest landholder was the emperor himself. Until the barbarian invasions of the 5th century AD, remarkable irrigation systems made lands that today seem barren enormously fertile. The African provinces had a vigorous cultural life, which included Latin writers like Lucius Apuleius and Fronto, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius. The urban population of North Africa was Romanized, although people in the villages continued to speak the Punic language of the Carthaginians until the 4th century AD. During the Christian era, North Africa produced some of the great intellectual figures of the early church, including Tertullian, Saint Cyprian, and Saint Augustine.
Although the Greeks had long treated Rome with condescension, they recognized that Roman power was unlikely to disappear. Greece yielded to Rome’s political authority in the 2nd century BC but maintained its cultural superiority. Greek cities acclaimed the Roman emperors as gods more eagerly than the Roman people did. Greek was the everyday language of the eastern Mediterranean, used in business, intellectual life, and even biblical writings like the New Testament. Roman aristocrats studied rhetoric (public speaking) and philosophy in Greece, while Latin poets used Greek models and myths as inspiration for their verse. Roman artists and architects also adapted Greek styles. The emperor Augustus spoke to his friends in Greek, Nero sang in Greek, Hadrian wrote poetry and Marcus Aurelius penned his Meditations in Greek. Emperors surrounded themselves with Greeks as astrologers, actors, doctors, or political advisers, while Greek artists converged on Rome. The poet Juvenal was typically sarcastic in his assessment of the role the Greeks played in Roman society when he wrote: ―Grammarian, orator, geometrist, painter, doctor, prophet, wrestling-master, acrobat, wizard—a penniless Greek can do anything!‖ But Horace, an earlier poet and satirist, possibly made a more accurate comment: ―Captive Greece overcame its fierce conqueror, and brought culture to rustic Latium.‖
In 63 BC Roman legions first entered Palestine, and Pompey the Great, the Roman general who led the conquering forces, placed the Jewish state under the control of the governor of Syria. Another Roman general and statesman, Mark Antony, later gave the throne to Herod the Great, who began his rule in 37 BC. Herod was born into a prominent military family of Idumaeans, converts to Judaism who were distrusted by native Jews. Herod, whose father was granted Roman citizenship by Julius Caesar, was determined to assimilate the Jews into Greco-Roman culture. He dedicated the new cities of Caesarea and Sebaste (the Roman name for Samaria) to Augustus and built temples for the worship of the emperor. The king also initiated public games and placed Greek words on his coinage. Deeply religious Jews despised the nudity required at the games and considered the use of Greek language blasphemous. Their views contributed to Herod’s unpopularity. Although Herod’s use of Greek culture made him hated in the region of Judea, he was popular with the Jewish population outside Judea, known as the Diaspora, on whom he lavished money as a benefactor. Herod, fearing mutiny and conspiracy, did not trust his own people and enrolled in his army only Greeks and Diaspora Jews.
Although Greeks and Romans usually distrusted religions that worshiped only one god, Roman leaders such as Julius Caesar and Augustus were sympathetic towards the Jews. Jews were exempt from Roman military service. The Romans permitted freedom of worship, and Diaspora Jews could send a tax to support the temple in Jerusalem. Augustus was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs and allowed their coinage to omit the traditional image of the emperor because it was seen as sacrilegious.
After the death of Herod, his kingdom was divided among his sons, who ruled as tetrarchs (leadership by four rulers), although Judea soon became a small Roman province under the administration of Pontius Pilate, a military governor, or procurator, chosen by the Romans. Dissent, so long repressed by Herod’s cruelty, burst forth, and the people in Palestine began to agitate for religious and political freedom. Messianic prophecy, the religious belief in the coming of a savior, was accompanied by bitter fighting between the political factions and religious sects among the Jewish people. The Zealots, a Jewish sect whose name later became a byword for political extremism, agitated for Judean independence, while inept Roman administrators were unable to control the situation. Under Nero a general rebellion erupted, and he dispatched four legions led by Vespasian to crush the uprising. The Romans destroyed the Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem and defeated the last Zealot holdouts at the fortress of Masada in AD 73. The Romans then abolished the priesthood, thus leaving no remnant of Jewish political organization.
From 132 to135 the charismatic figure of Simon Bar Kokhba led Jews who resisted an imperial ban on certain religious rites. They also opposed a Roman colony that was established on the site of Jerusalem, a holy city to the Jews. The Roman victory against Bar Kokhba’s army brought the final dispersion of the Jewish people. Although some Jews remained, Jewish culture and the Jewish people essentially survived through the communities of the Diaspora.
LIFE IN IMPERIAL ROME
The conquests of the empire gradually transformed the nature of Roman society. A principal reason for this transformation was that the very idea of ―Roman‖ had changed as Rome’s leaders extended citizenship to all Italians and to millions of provincials. It is hard to generalize about Roman society during the Roman Empire because the Roman population had become so diverse. People who valued Rome’s traditions were not at all happy to discover that they shared their city with Easterners who spoke different languages and observed different customs. Others recognized that provincials brought different blood and a new vitality to Roman society that allowed it to survive for centuries.
Rome was a highly hierarchical society in which different classes or groups had well-defined roles. Historical sources provide far more information about the elite or wealthy people than the poor. Writers of the day generally ignored the stories of those who made up the lower class. Modern historians and archaeologists have tried to reconstruct the lives of ordinary Romans from a variety of sources: occasional references in poems and histories, tombstone inscriptions, and everyday objects that survive from antiquity or that are uncovered in excavations at sites like the ancient cities of Pompeii and Ostia.
In Rome the imperial court was the center of aristocratic life with senators, equestrians, and assorted others—like actors and astrologers—eager to impress the emperor and his family. The
emperors used ties of patronage, rewarding elites who were loyal with offices and gifts. Senators, equestrians, and other wealthy courtiers had their own dependents who relied on their generosity.
The Roman elite had wealth, official position, and prestige. They did not have to work, except to manage their estates. Consequently, they often did public service. They owned large townhouses as well as villas in the countryside. They often held elegant banquets at their homes and served wild game and fish from specially stocked ponds. Aristocrats not only lived better than the poor, but they received privileged treatment from the imperial officials and the courts. Members of the elite could not be tortured or summarily punished, and if they were accused of a crime, the emperor could hear their cases. Even if they were convicted of a capital offense, these men and women could not be crucified, burned alive, or thrown to the beasts, which were the punishments faced by the lower classes. Aristocrats were executed only by the sword.
In other cities of the empire, local elites also assumed the traditional responsibilities of holding office, sponsoring games, erecting public buildings, and making charitable contributions. The groups who commanded special respect often varied from place to place. Local aristocratic families, individuals who inherited local priesthoods, or Roman settlers could hold the highest position on the social ladder in different cities, but invariably a hierarchical structure existed.
The lower classes included poor citizens, noncitizens, slaves, and former slaves called freedmen. The working masses who toiled with their hands in the fields and towns represented the largest segment of the population during the empire, but not all of the lower classes were manual laborers. Doctors, musicians, actors, teachers, and even philosophers fell into the lower classes, as did craftspeople.
Institutions called collegia, which were similar to fraternal lodges in modern society, provided the poor with an alternative community. Some were trade groups or guilds of craftspeople, but most were burial societies that enabled each member to receive a proper funeral. The societies, open to freedmen and slaves alike, had their own officials. Each collegium sought a wealthy patron to contribute to celebratory banquets at religious festivals as well as to provide some legal protection for the members who, in turn, gave respect and prayers to the patron. In a small city, people had opportunities for enrichment that did not exist in the countryside. People could improve their status in the hierarchy by serving in the army or by being successful in trade.
When the Romans conquered the Mediterranean, they took millions of slaves to Italy, where they toiled on the large plantations or in the houses and workplaces of wealthy citizens. The Italian economy depended on abundant slave labor, with slaves constituting 40 percent of the population. Enslaved people with talent, skill, or beauty commanded the highest prices, and many served as singers, scribes, jewelers, bartenders, and even doctors. One slave trained in medicine was worth the price of 50 agricultural slaves.
Roman law was inconsistent on slavery. Slaves were considered property; they had no rights and were subject to their owners’ whims. However, they had legal standing as witnesses in courtroom proceedings, and they could eventually gain freedom and citizenship. Masters often freed loyal slaves in gratitude for their faithful service, but slaves could also save money to purchase their freedom. Conditions for slaves in Rome gradually improved, although slaves were treated cruelly in the countryside. Some harsh masters believed in the old proverb ―Every slave is
an enemy,‖ so that while humane legislation prohibited the mutilation or murder of slaves, outrageous cruelty continued. Like the Stoic philosophers, Christians taught the brotherhood of humanity and urged kindness towards slaves, but they did not consider slaves equals in status. For example, Saint Augustine opposed the principle of slavery, but did not see how the practice could be abolished without endangering the social order. Thus he regarded it as another necessary evil resulting from humanity’s fall from divine grace. Other bishops were less troubled, and the early Christian church actually acquired its own slaves.
Slavery in the Roman Empire did not suddenly end, but it was slowly replaced when new economic forces introduced other forms of cheap labor. During the late empire, Roman farmers and traders were reluctant to pay large amounts of money for slaves because they did not wish to invest in a declining economy. The legal status of ―slave‖ continued for centuries, but slaves were gradually replaced by wage laborers in the towns and by land-bound peasants (later called serfs) in the countryside. These types of workers provided cheap labor without the initial cost that slave owners had to pay for slaves. Slavery did not disappear in Rome because of human reform or religious principle, but because the Romans found another, perhaps even harsher, system of labor.
The class of people known as freedmen consisted of former slaves who had gained their freedom. Masters became patrons to their freed slaves, who owed them respect and often performed specific duties for them. For example, former slaves often worked for their patrons, selling the produce of the estate. Some imperial freedmen became enormously wealthy; one freedman possessed 4,000 slaves of his own. Freedmen had limited political rights, but they could direct their ambitions to their sons. Roman freedmen did not encounter the racial prejudice that restricted the political and economic progress of the descendants of American slaves. In a single generation, a family might move from slavery to social prominence. In AD 193 Publius Helvius Pertinax, the son of a former slave, became emperor.
Men wrote nearly all the books during the Roman Empire, so they provide most of the views of women. Most of these ancient sources focus on empresses, princesses, and other aristocratic women and do not shed much light on the condition of ordinary Roman women. Only a few letters and poems actually written by Roman women survive.
Roman aristocratic women influenced politics, but they could not serve as magistrates, senators, or military commanders. During the empire, the wives of emperors began to wield more power than women had ever held before. Livia, the wife of Augustus, advised her husband for 51 years of marriage before living her last 15 years under the rule of her son, Tiberius. She was deeply devoted to her husband and family and only appeared in public to display the virtues of a Roman matron, which included chastity, modesty, frugality, loyalty, and dignity. Behind the scenes, Livia and Augustus were extremely close, and she played a part in his important decisions, although some sources unfairly portray her as the evil, manipulative power behind the throne. Roman society accepted senatorial advisors, but invariably regarded women close to power as grasping and devious.
Only archaeology provides much material about the lives of lower-class Roman women. Stone carvings and funeral inscriptions show that women worked as nurses, waitresses, midwives,
weavers, and food sellers. Women performed other jobs such as jewelry making, leather working, and ceramics alongside their husbands in family businesses, but this type of work was rarely recorded. The brief texts and crude images of working women do not provide much detail about their lives, although there is a similar lack of information about lower-class men.
Romans traditionally depicted the ideal woman as a virtuous daughter, brave wife, or devoted mother. Some women were cast into heroic roles in reaction to political persecution; they hid their families, or even followed banished husbands or children into exile. Like men, upper-class women also won praise through public generosity; they built public monuments and temples, subsidized games, and became patrons of their home cities. As a sign of their rank, aristocratic women were given seats with the senators at public games, where they could display fine clothing and jewelry.
Women had long played an important role in Roman religion. Vestal virgins, who were priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, kept the sacred fire burning at Vesta’s temple in the Roman Forum. They lived in an elaborate house near the temple and occupied a place of honor at public ceremonies. Some festivals and rites were reserved for women, but these ceremonies were usually private.
It is more difficult to assess how women were involved in cultural and intellectual life. Upper-class girls went to elementary school and often learned to read and write. Generally they were not permitted to pursue higher study with men of learning, although Stoic philosophers were sympathetic to women’s education. Even without higher education, Nero’s mother, known as Agrippina the Younger, wrote a biography of her mother. The empress Julia Domna, wife of emperor Lucius Septimius Severus (193-211), was a patron of learning and served as the primary advisor of her son, Caracalla (211-217), throughout much of his reign as emperor.
Roman society had long valued boys above girls. Poor families sometimes abandoned infant daughters in the countryside to avoid paying dowries, the gifts traditionally given by a girl’s parents to her husband’s family. The practice of allowing baby girls to die, called female infanticide, continued down to the Christian era and had an impact on the size of the female population. Childbearing was dangerous. Tombstones show that the life expectancy of women was 34 years as contrasted with 46 years for men because women often died in childbirth.
Some male writers attacked imperial women’s education, political power, and sexuality. Roman women did have one kind of real power—the wealth that came from their right to own and inherit property. Despite this wealth and prestige, no Roman woman actually ruled the empire in her own name, although some other countries did have women rulers: Egyptian queen Cleopatra, Queen Boudicca of the Britons, and Zenobia, who reigned over Palmyra in Syria. In Rome, men held political power and women could only exercise indirect power.
As the empire developed, the emperor stood at the top of the administrative system. He served as military commander in chief, high priest, court of appeal, and source of law. All this power was intensely personal: Soldiers swore their oath to the emperor, not to a constitution or a flag. Personal ties of patronage, friendship, and marriage had always bound together Roman society, but during the empire the emperor became the universal patron. Military loyalty, bureaucracy,
and imperial succession were all viewed in personal terms. This concentration of power produced a court in which government officials and the imperial family competed with poets, astrologers, doctors, slaves, and actors for the emperor’s attention and favor. The emperor’s own slaves and freedmen dominated the clerical and financial posts and formed the core of imperial administration just as they did in the household administration of any Roman aristocrat. Deep ties of loyalty bound Roman freedmen and slaves to their patrons so that they faithfully served even the most monstrous emperors.
The emperors took over the Senate’s political and legislative power, but they needed the help of senators who had experience in diplomacy, government, and military command. Since the emperor designated candidates for all government positions, senators had no other access to high office except through loyal service. A shrewd emperor could turn senatorial pride and loyalty to the advantage of the empire. By simply allowing senators to wear a broad purple stripe on their togas, for example, the emperor marked them as rulers of the Mediterranean and added to their prestige.
Only when emperors treated senators with contempt did the senators feel justified in conspiring against the emperor under the banner of freedom. Some ambitious senators dreamed of reaching supreme power and even of replacing the emperor. An occasional opportunity presented itself—Nero’s death brought four senators to the imperial throne in the single year of AD 69. However, most senators remained loyal to the emperor because the constant danger of displeasing suspicious emperors outweighed the remote chance of success. As the old noble families died out, the emperors found new blood among the local elite of Italy and the provinces. In the 2nd century AD more than half the senators were of provincial origin.
The emperor Augustus had first given the equestrian order increased responsibilities, and they continued to play an important role in the governance of the empire. Only a few of the equites actually worked for the emperor, some served as officers of Rome’s auxiliary forces, and others as civil administrators. Most members of this order remained in their home cities—there were 500 in the Spanish seaport of Cádiz alone—and formed the basis of a loyal elite that characterized the early empire. As the government expanded, the ―equestrian career‖ began to resemble a modern civil service with ranks, promotions, and a salary scale. While retired centurions occasionally advanced into the equestrian order and equestrians into the Senate, social mobility remained limited. The emperors tried to keep the equestrians loyal by permitting them signs of privilege similar to senators. Tens of thousands of equestrians across the empire marked their status by wearing togas with a narrow purple stripe and sitting in the front row at public games.
Senators and equestrians whom the emperor appointed as governors, generals, and prefects held substantial power in the provinces, although provincial administration was initially restricted to issues of taxation and law and order. The system grew increasingly complex, but it always remained rather small for such an expansive empire. Twelfth-century China had an elite government official for every 15,000 subjects, as compared to Rome, which had one for every 400,000 people in the empire. Such figures are crude, but they show that Roman administration was less intrusive than its counterparts in China and many other modern states. The empire, with
its limited administrative system, could not have functioned without local officials in the provinces or subject kings appointed by Rome, like Herod the Great in Judea.
Historians often focus on political leaders, but it is local grievances about high taxes, crime, or the price of bread that most often provoke people to revolt against a government. The Romans relied on civil laws to address a variety of these issues. Roman law in the republic was often based on custom. During the Roman Empire, however, the emperor became the final source of law. People in the provinces were well aware that the emperor sat atop the chain of command as recorded in the New Testament to the Bible. In regard to taxation, for example, a passage in Luke 2:1 notes: ―And it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled to be taxed.‖ However, popular anger over issues such as taxation was still directed toward the political officeholders who administered the laws.
Roman law was one of the most original products of the Roman mind. From the Law of the Twelve Tables, the first Roman code of law developed during the early republic, the Roman legal system was characterized by a formalism that lasted for more than 1,000 years. The basis for Roman law was the idea that the exact form, not the intention, of words or of actions produced legal consequences. To ignore intention may not seem fair from a modern perspective, but the Romans recognized that there are witnesses to actions and words, but not to intentions.
Roman civil law allowed great flexibility in adopting new ideas or extending legal principles in the complex environment of the empire. Without replacing older laws, the Romans developed alternative procedures that allowed greater fairness. For example, a Roman was entitled by law to make a will as he wished, but, if he did not leave his children at least 25 percent of his property, the magistrate would grant them an action to have the will declared invalid as an 'irresponsible testament.' Instead of simply changing the law to avoid confusion, the Romans preferred to humanize a rigid system by flexible adaptation.
Early Roman law derived from custom and statutes, but the emperor asserted his authority as the ultimate source of law. His edicts, judgments, administrative instructions, and responses to petitions were all collected with the comments of legal scholars. As one 3rd-century jurist said, 'What pleases the emperor has the force of law.' As the law and scholarly commentaries on it expanded, the need grew to codify and to regularize conflicting opinions. It was not until much later in the 6th century AD that the emperor Justinian I, who ruled over the Byzantine Empire in the east, began to publish a comprehensive code of laws, collectively known as the Corpus Juris Civilis, but more familiarly as the Justinian Code.
Ancient Rome was situated on seven hills and its monumental public buildings—the Colosseum, the Forum of Trajan, and the Pantheon—made the city the ―capital of the world‖ under the emperors. But in addition to the arenas, temples, and forums, Rome also had theaters, basilicas, gymnasiums, baths, taverns, and brothels. The first emperor, Augustus, had a modest house, but his successors progressively expanded it into an enormous imperial residence on the Palatine Hill from which all ―palaces‖ take their name. The rich preferred to live on the hills above the teeming crowds and animals of central Rome. Rome housed over 1 million inhabitants, so most of its buildings were not villas and splendid monuments. The poor lived packed into apartment houses near the center of the city since there was no public transport. The public spaces in Rome
resounded with such a din of hooves and clatter of iron chariot wheels that Julius Caesar proposed a ban on chariot traffic at night.
One Roman writer said that the imperial government kept the Romans contented by ―bread and circuses.‖ Other societies have relied on the same strategy, but never to the same degree. The Roman emperors provided free food to hundreds of thousands and sponsored an endless series of games. For two centuries the government managed to avoid food shortages or the discontent that would endanger the rule of the emperors.
The government gave high priority to acquiring, shipping, storing, and distributing food for Rome and other major urban areas. The Romans had a formidable logistical task to supply Rome’s 1 million inhabitants. The emperors organized convoys from Egypt, North Africa, and Sicily to carry food to urban areas. They generously distributed wheat, which was the staple food of the time. When the emperors improved facilities at Rome’s seaport, Ostia, for example, they wanted to ensure a steady supply of wheat to the capital. Italian farms provided fruit and vegetables, but meat and fish were luxuries in an urban society. The Romans built huge waterways called aqueducts to bring water to the cities and imported large jugs of wine and oil from Spain, Gaul, and Africa to fulfill the necessities of the Roman table.
The emperors used different forms of entertainment to pacify the urban masses, including chariot races, theatrical and musical performances, wild-beast hunts, mock sea battles, public executions, and gladiatorial combat. In the Colosseum, Rome’s huge amphitheater, 50,000 Romans could watch the games. Criminals and captives were sent to gladiatorial training schools so that they learned to entertain the crowds. If gladiators successfully performed in combat, they might earn the support of the crowd and an imperial ―thumbs-up,‖ meaning a reprieve and freedom. The crowd could also determine whether the fate of the battle’s loser was death. The games were important occasions during which the Roman people could see the emperor, and he could show his respect for them by following their desire to spare a gladiator.
The emperor Titus opened the Colosseum in AD 80 with 100 days of games in which 9,000 animals died. The crowds came to the games to see fighting and blood as well as the color and pageantry of public celebrations. The most popular events were the chariot races held in the Circus Maximus, an arena that held up to 300,000 spectators. Competing teams with brightly decorated horses attracted fierce loyalty, and up to a dozen four-horse chariots crowded together through the dangerous turns, lap after lap. Successful charioteers became so wealthy that even emperors envied their riches.
Historians estimate that about 10 percent of the empire’s population lived in the thousand cities that stretched from Britain to Syria: Colchester and London in Britain, Lyon and Arles in Gaul, Timgad and Lepcis Magna in North Africa, to the great eastern cities of Antioch in ancient Syria and Alexandria in Egypt. Most of these cities were rather small, with fewer than 10,000 residents, and only a handful had more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most of the larger urban populations were in the East, but new cities developed in the western provinces as an outgrowth of military settlement and trade. All of these urban centers had a forum and temples, and most also had the same kind of public buildings found in Rome, but on a smaller scale.