This article deals with the government and society of the Roman Empire when it was at its height, from 31 BCE to 217 CE. This was the period when traditional Roman government reached its climax, having evolved by adapting to changing conditions, as Rome grew from being a single city-state to great empire.
The influence of Roman government and politics is still with us today. This is illustrated in words still in current use, such as “emperor”, “senate”, “proconsul”, “delegate” and so on. It had an immense influence on later Western civilization, and hence on world history.
31 BCE – the Battle of Actium leaves Octavian as the master of the Roman world
27 BCE – Augustus establishes himself as the first of the Roman emperors
6 CE – a Roman army is destroyed at the Battle of the Teutenborg Forest
14 – Tiberius succeeds Augustus as emperor, the first transmission of imperial powers down the generations
37 – Gaius (“Caligula”) becomes emperor – the empire survives the brief reign of a mad man
43 – Under the emperor Claudius the Romans begin the conquest of Britain
73 – a major Jewish rebellion in Palestine is finally crushed by a Roman army; in the process the temple of Jerusalem has been demolished
117 – Under the emperor Trajan the empire reaches its greatest extent
123 – The emperor Hadrian begins to build his famous defense system across northern Britain, known as Hadrian’s Wall.
152 – Under the emperor Antoninus Pius a great plague sweeps through the empire, killing perhaps a third of its population
160 – Marcus Aurelius, the last of the five good emperors, comes to the throne; he spends his reign dealing with major invasions
192 – The assassination of the mad emperor Commodus leads to civil war
196 – the emperor Septimius Severus restores stability
217 – the assassination of the emperor Caracalla starts years of trouble for the Roman Empire
The first Roman emperor, Augustus, claimed to be restoring the Republic to stability. Most of the institutions of the Republic – senate, magistrates, priesthoods and so on – were kept, but remodeled around a new institution, the emperor.
The office of emperor was not a single royal office; rather, it was a collection of Republican offices, titles and powers, all held by one person the emperor (although, to complicate matters, sometimes there were two co-emperors) and which together gave him overwhelming authority within the Roman state.
The most obvious titles which the emperors had was “Caesar Augustus”. The word Caesar maintained the fiction that all emperors were the adopted heirs of Julius Caesar; and the term Augustus harked back to the first emperor, Augustus, and emphasized the prestige and authority of the position.
It should be emphasized that these titles masked the fact that the imperial office never properly succeeded in becoming hereditary – very few emperors were able to pass on their offices to their biological (as opposed to adopted) sons. In the first two centuries only three did so: Vespasian, whose sons Titus and Domitian took the purple, Marcus Aurelius, who passed on the throne to the dreadful Commodus; and Septemius Severus, who was succeeded by his son Caracalla. The failure by the others to do so was, more than anything else, a result of their somewhat mysterious failure to bear sons – a feature common to the senatorial aristocracy as a whole.
The title which gives us the word “emperor” was the Latin imperator, which all emperors had. This was a title which had previously been held by powerful generals in the Republic, such as Pompey in the east, or Julius Caesar in Gaul.
A key office which the emperors held was proconsul (governor and commander-in-chief) of a huge provincia which covered a third to a half of the entire empire (the exact boundaries changed from time to time). This territory included most of the frontier provinces, and since the bulk of the Roman army was stationed along the frontiers, this effectively gave him overwhelming military power.
This provincia could not of course be governed by one man, and was divided into sub-provinces, or “imperial provinces” (provincial Augustae), which were under officials directly appointed by the emperor. Most of these were members of the senate, but a handful of these imperial provinces (for example Egypt and, at times, Judaea) were governed by equestrians.
A roughly equal number of provinces came under the control of the senate. These were mostly in the interior of the empire, in secure and peaceful areas where few troops were stationed. The governors of all these senatorial provinces were chosen by the senate, and (unsurprisingly) all were senators. They had the title of “proconsul” (even though most were ex-praetors rather than ex-consuls).
These senatorial provinces did not escape imperial control. One of the powers which the emperors possessed was a superior proconsular authority over all other proconsuls. They were thus able to exercise authority, not only within their imperial provinces, but over senatorial provinces as well – in fact, throughout the entire empire.
As a senator in his own right, an emperor had the right to initiate legislation in the senate. One other power which the emperor also enjoyed was the power of a tribune. Tribunes were Republican officials whose job it had been to defend the interests of the common people, the Plebeians. To enable them to do this, while in office their persons were sacrosanct – in other words, to kill them was not just an act of murder, but of treason; and they could veto any decision made by the senate. Having this power, therefore, made the emperor’s person sacrosanct, and gave them a veto over senatorial decisions.
These various offices and titles thus gave the emperor a legal basis for his monarchical authority within a theoretically Republican framework. However, his power was also based on some realities of everyday political life which were far from theoretical. For a start, he had at his immediate disposal the 12,000 troops of the Praetorian Guard, based in a barracks just outside the city walls of Rome. Other units under his control were the Urban cohorts, which acted as a police force for Rome, and the cohorts of Vigiles, which formed a quasi-military fire brigade for the city. The number of these troops amounted to some 25,000 men in all, forming by far the largest concentration of troops away from the frontiers.
The emperor and his family lived in a growing complex of mansions located on the Palatine hill in Rome (hence they were called the Palatine buildings, from which we get the word “Palace”). The emperor was advised by a small council of important officials, including senior senators and equestrians, who formed a kind of council of state. Most emperors also had their favorites, sometimes even slaves and freedmen, in whom they confided; and members of the imperial family were often very influential.
Alongside the provincial administration was an empire-wide organization which administered the private estates of the emperor. These were scattered throughout most (if not all) provinces, and consisted of estates which had been granted to him in wealthy people’s wills or confiscated from them as punishments for treason or other crimes, either real or imagined. These blocks of land were managed by educated imperial slaves and freedmen, and all the estates in a province came under a supervisor, also an imperial slave or freedman, called a procurator – not to be confused with the procurators who were the financial administrators of imperial provinces.
This organization was known as the “Imperial Household”, as it was considered an extension of the emperor’s private household staff.
Just as at the provincial level, the central administration serving the emperor himself was tiny, given the size of the empire that it governed.
There were two imperial treasuries, one for tax receipts and one for the emperor’s personal income from his empire-wide properties. Each of these was administered by a treasurer (prefect) of, at first equestrian, later senatorial rank. The emperor himself had a small secretariat to handle the mass of correspondence that flowed his way; one secretariat was for Latin correspondence, another for Greek. These secretariats were staffed by highly trained imperial slaves and freedmen. Later, equestrian officials were appointed to head them.
The emperor had to deal with an increasing number of legal appeals from all over the empire, and for this he was assisted by legally-trained advisors. As time went by, for various reasons the Praetorian Prefect came to handle more and more legal cases; by the third century this official had become the chief law officer of the empire, and they were regularly distinguished lawyers.
Other important officials based in the city of Rome were the Prefect of the City, who was essentially the governor of Rome and its environs, and who as part of his duties commanded the Urban Cohorts (the police force of Rome); the Prefect of the Annona, who had administrative responsibility for the vast system of grain supply to Rome; and the Prefect of the Vigiles, the fire brigade of Rome.
The senate continued to meet under the empire. Indeed, most emperors regularly attended meetings of the senate, and treated senators with great respect. However, the senate was no longer the seat of power that it had been under the Republic. With his powers of a tribune (see above) the emperor had the legal power to block senatorial decisions, and with his proconsular authority he had the final say in all military matters, and over all administrative matters to do with the provinces. And with the Praetorian troops at his back, the emperor could threaten the senate with force.
On a day-to-day basis, however, most emperors were able to dominate the senators through the great patronage they possessed. Any senator who wanted to reach high government position had no choice but to curry favor with the emperor. In his gift were most of the best posts available for a senator, the command of legions, the governorship of provinces, the consulship, the most important frontier commands and the prefecture of the city of Rome. He could block any senator from holding the governorship of a senatorial province; and he had a decisive say in who held the historic magistracies, including the consulship (see below). Any ambitious senator needed to have the backing of successive emperors to reach high office; and since it was exactly such senators who led the proceedings of the senate, it is hardly surprising that, most of the time, emperor and senate jogged along quite well.
There were exceptions. Some emperors, notably Gaius (nicknamed Calligula, or “little boots”), Nero, Domitian and Commodus exhibited a high degree of paranoia and saw conspiracy wherever they looked. They carried out a campaign of persecution against senators and others. On the other hand, some senators hankered after the old days of the Republic when the senate ruled the roost. They set themselves up in opposition to the emperors, irritating them by their words and actions. These almost invariably met a sticky end. Even in times of tension, however, most senators survived. After all, the emperors could not rule alone; they needed senators to help them govern the empire.
The old magistracies of the republican cursus honorum – with the quaestorship as the lowest rung (usually after a stint as a staff officer in a legion), then the the tribunate or aedileship, then the praetorship, then the consulship – continued under the empire. However, these offices were shorn of real power. The consuls continued to preside over meetings of the senate, and praetors continued to try minor cases; however, most of the administration of the city of Rome was now in the hands of imperial officials, with the Prefect of the City, a post answerable directly to the emperor and filled by a senior senator, as the effective governor of the capital.
The cursus honorum under the empire
Under the empire, the old magistracies mainly served as stepping stones to important positions in the army and provinces, most of which were in the emperor’s service. An ex-praetor mostly went on the hold the command of a legion, and then governorship of one of the less important provinces, either as an imperial legate (in an imperial province) or a proconsul (in a senatorial one). Ex-consuls could go on to govern one of the important frontier provinces, such as Syria or Britain. To ensure a sufficient pool of suitable senior senators to hold these key posts, there were more than one pair of consuls selected each year: by the mid-second century consuls held office for no more than two months each, so that twelve senators held the consulate each year.
The more successful of ex-consuls went on to hold the proconsulates of Africa or Asia, and, at the top of the tree, the prefecture of the city of Rome itself.
All these historic magistracies were now selected, not by the popular assemblies, as in Republican times, but by the senate. In fact, the emperor had a decisive say in who was chosen, and indeed could officially put forward his own candidates (who, one can surmise, were never voted down by the other senators). In this way the emperor could control the flow of senators up the ladder to senior posts in the empire.
Of all the Republican political institutions, the popular assemblies fared worst of all. The emperors transferred most of their powers to the senate, and where they continued it was as purely ceremonial relics.
The Roman empire was divided into thirty of so provinces. These all lay outside Italy, which continued to be regarded as the “home country” of the Roman Empire and therefore not under provincial administration.
The provinces came in different categories, divided by type and status. In terms of type, there were “imperial” and “senatorial” provinces (see above); in terms of status, some provinces were governed by ex-praetors, and some by ex-consuls (as we saw just now, above).
The governors of imperial provinces were appointed by the emperor. A steady stream of correspondence flowed between governors and emperor, with reports and requests flowing one way, and orders or advice flowing the other. The senatorial provinces had governors appointed by the senate (though as we have seen the emperor had a large say in these appointments).
In all provinces, the governors were in command of the troops stationed within them. This could vary in number from a few auxiliary troops in the more peaceful provinces, acting more or less as a police force, to two or three legions plus an equal number of auxiliary troops in frontier provinces, some 24,000 to 36,000 men in all. Governors also acted as the appeal judges within their provinces (though referring some cases on to the emperor), and as administrators, responsible for ensuring that the roads, aqueducts and so on were properly maintained.
A small handful of provinces stood out from the others. These were a few imperial provinces governed by equestrians rather than senators. The majority of these were small, such as the four small Alpine provinces which fringed northern Italy, Noricum, Rhaetia, the Maritime Alps and the Cottian Alps. These were governed by equestrian officials called “procurators”. Famously, the province of Judaea was also governed by equestrian procurators (such as Pontius Pilate, before whom Jesus of Nazareth appeared just before his execution) at times in the first century.
One equestrian-governed province, however, was large and crucially important. This was Egypt, which at times had two legions stationed in it (also commanded by equestrian officers. This province was a main source of the capital’s grain, and was treated as a private estate of the emperor’s. The governors, or Prefects, were the second most important equestrian officials in the empire after the Praetorian Prefects.
In imperial provinces, tax collection was under the control of equestrian officials called procurators. These officials were directly appointed by the emperor, and were answerable to him, not the governor. Relations between governor and procurator were not always amicable, especially as procurators answered directly to the emperor.
In senatorial provinces, the financial administration was the responsibility of the governors’ deputies, the quaestor.
At the local level, in all provinces except Egypt, local affairs were run by the town authorities (see below). This enabled governors and procurators to get by with very small staffs. Most governors used their own private household slaves and freedmen as secretaries, and had a small number of soldiers seconded to administrative duties to act as couriers, escorts and other roles. This was a continuation from early Republican days when provincial governors had primarily been army commanders.
At the other end of the scale, local government was in the hands of city councils and magistrates.
In the eastern provinces, which had been the home to Hellenistic civilization and where cities had been established for centuries, the Romans had more or less left the old city governments in place. These mostly consisted of town councils and elected magistrates. In some cases, where the constitution of a city had been too democratic for the Romans’ taste (democratic states were hard to control), they adjusted it in favor of more oligarchic government.
Where cities had existed in pre-Roman times in the western provinces, the same policy was applied as in the east. However, the majority of the lands of Gaul, Spain and Africa had been tribal territories. These the Romans simply had turned into civitates, and gave them a similar local government structure to the towns. The tribal aristocrats were turned into town councillors!
When the Romans gave a town a constitution, this followed a general model, a sort of simplified form of Rome’s constitution. Local councils usually consisted of about 100 of the leading members of the community. Three pairs of annually-elected magistrates, called duoviri, aediles and quaestors, managed the day-to-day business of the community.
City governments enjoyed wide powers, in taxation, administration and law; and the leading men of the community took their responsibilities very seriously. There was a degree of sanction in this: if disorder broke out, or taxes could not be collected properly, the councillors were held personally responsible. Nevertheless, plenty of evidence to suggests that local elites took great pride in their communities and in their responsibilities. The system ensured that they exercised a large measure of self-government for local communities, which enabled higher administration to be in the hands of a comparatively tiny number of officials.
In Egypt, the Romans had inherited the centralized administrative machine of the Ptolemies, which consisted of a hierarchy of centrally-appointed officials which reached down into the localities. This was kept in place until the third century, when the local government units were given locally-recruited councils and magistrates to govern them.
By the time of the empire, the Romans had developed a huge body of law, dealing with every aspect of public and private life. This developed further under the empire.
Roman law guaranteed all citizens a fair trial. There were several courts, each presided over by different magistrates and each dealing with different kinds of cases, some civil, some criminal. In some courts, juries, made up of ordinary citizens, could by 100-strong. In criminal cases, it was up to the victim to bring an accusation of wrongdoing, there being no public prosecutor. Punishments for the most serious crimes were execution, and for lesser ones, flogging.
The law protected a whole range of basic rights for citizens. The Romans developed the principle that all citizens were equal in the eyes of the law, and that their persons and property were protected from arbitrary demands by the state.
These rights had not not taken away under the emperors, at least for the majority of the population who were not within the personal reach of the emperor. Indeed, the emperor himself was the highest court in the empire. Even a Jew (the Apostle Paul) in a far away province who happened to possess Roman citizenship, could cry, “I appeal to Caesar”, and to Caesar he was taken. As time went by the ever-increasing inflow of appeals meant that the emperor’s legal officials handled most of these cases, but this did not alter the fact that the imperial court, which was often the place were the law was most blatantly flouted, was also the place which acted as the final guarantor of citizens’ legal rights.
Under the empire the bulk of the Roman army, including almost all the famous legions, was distributed along the frontiers of the empire in a long, defensive chain.
The main type of units in the Roman army were legions and auxiliary cohorts.
In the early empire, legions formed the backbone of the army, as they had done under the Republic (. In the first two centuries of the empire there were about 30 of them, almost all stationed in a thin line along the frontiers of the empire.
They were recruited from Roman citizens, and whereas under the Republic their strength had been about 4,000 men each, under the empire it was raised to 6,000 men.
A legionary signed up for 21 years service with the legion, and on his retirement was granted a lump sum of money with which he could buy a farm or set himself up in business.
All legions were originally recruited in Italy. However, once they had been stationed in a particular area for a long time (some legions spent more than a hundred years in the same location), many of their veterans settled down in the area after their period of service, and a growing pool of Roman citizens built up, from which succeeding generations of legionaries could be recruited. During the second century, therefore, the majority of legionary soldiers came to be recruited from outside Italy.
Legions were divided into 60 centuries, each of 100 men, and each under an officer called a centurion. Centurions were often men of long military experience who had been promoted from the ranks of the legionaries; but many were ex-Praetorian guardsmen, and some, from higher social backgrounds, seem to have been directly appointed to their posts, to spend their career as centurions in different legions, and in different grades. The centuries each had a different rank in the legion, and their centurions were graded accordingly. The centurion commanding the most senior century was called the primus pillus (“chief spear”), and was one of the topmost officers in the legion.
Other senior officers in the legion were the prefect of the camp, who was in charge of the day-to-day administration for the legion; and the tribunes. There were six of these staff officers, five of whom were equestrians spending several years serving in military posts. The sixth, the most senior, was a young man of senatorial rank, serving in this post before embarking on a career as a senator.
The commander of the legion was a man about half way up the senatorial career – an ex-praetor but not yet a governor. Usually his only previous military experience was a three-year stint as a military tribune. He therefore relied heavily on the experienced military officers of the legion, the senior centurions.
For the first two centuries, the only legions not to be commanded by a senator but by an equestrian were those stationed in Egypt (whose governor was also an equestrian). In the late second century a new legion was stationed in northern Italy, and this too was placed under equestrian command.
The number of legions varied over the two centuries of the early empire, but by the end of the second century stood at thirty-three. The great majority of legions were strung out to form a long defensive cordon along the frontiers of the empire.
At first they were stationed in wooden camps, but later, as their locations became more permanent, stone buildings were erected. These were all laid out in a similar pattern, a rectangle grid of streets surrounded by a wall. Four gates, one on each side, pierced the walls, at which traffic in and out of the camp could be controlled. The buildings included barracks, storehouses, armories, stables, workshops, public toilets, a bathhouse, a headquarters building, one or more temples, and a large house for the commanding officer.
As time went by a settlement grew up outside the walls, consisting of local tradespeople servicing the needs of the soldiers, and also the houses for wives and children of the soldiers, often local people who were not allowed to live within the camp. The whole community, camp and settlement, would be the size of a large town of the period.
Auxiliary cohorts were mostly recruited from non-citizens, though some were later composed of citizen troops. Auxiliary soldiers did not receive quite as high pay as legionaries, and served for longer period of time, 25 years. If not Roman citizens on enrollment, they were granted citizenship on retirement, as well as a lump sum (again, not as large as the legionaries’).
These auxiliary regiments were originally drawn from the different provinces of the empire, and often had specialists skills such as bowmen, slingmen and horsemen. As time went by, however, they came to be recruited from the local population amongst whom they were stationed.
Most cohorts were 500-strong, but a few were 1000 strong. Like the legions they were divided into centuries. They were commanded by prefects who, like most of the tribunes in the legions, were equestrian officers spending several years in military posts. In fact, the typical military career of an equestrian consisted of three posts in succession, each of about three years each: firstly, as a prefect of an infantry cohort, then a period as a legionary tribune, and finally the command of a cavalry cohort. Some went on to hold a fourth post, as prefect of a large (1000-strong) cohort.
Like the legions, most auxiliary cohorts were stationed along the frontiers: in fact, they were usually closer to the frontiers than the legions were. It was auxiliary troops who actually patrolled the frontier defenses, from forts which formed an integral part of the frontier system. The much larger legionary camps were located some distance behind the lines, so that they could send reinforcements quickly in case of emergencies. In Britain, after the time of the emperor Hadrian, the frontier was marked by a 70-mile stone wall, dotted with auxiliary forts. Elsewhere, the frontier lines consisted of a system of land cleared of trees (to prevent enemies from creeping up to the lines under cover of the woods), steep ditches, earth ramparts and auxiliary forts.
Units in the interior of the empire
Some auxiliary units were scattered in cities within the empire, to act as police forces in case of outbreaks of disorder. From the earliest days of the empire a legion had been stationed in northern Spain, whose mountainous area was long considered a difficult territory to control. In the early Third century a legion was stationed in northern Italy.
Apart from the units mentioned above, located in the interior of the empire , the only major troop formations behind the frontiers were the 12,000 Praetorian Guards, supplemented by the quasi-military Urban Cohorts, Rome’s police force, and the Vigiles, the city’s fire brigade.
The twelve Praetorian cohorts were the elite troops of the empire. They were usually stationed in barracks just outside Rome, but some of them always accompanied the emperor when he went on campaign or visited different parts of the empire.
Until the early Third century they were recruited in Italy; after that many were recruited from the Danube provinces (the emperor Septimius Severus had been governor of one of the Danubian provinces before becoming emperor and felt that he could trust these men more than Italians). Their pay and conditions were much better than that of other soldiers, they served only 16 years, and many of them went on to serve as centurions in the legions. Their senior officers, the tribunes of each Praetorian cohort, were on a fast track career to senior equestrian posts, with many of the Prefects of Egypt and Praetorian Prefects having served in these posts.
The prefect, or commander, of the Praetorian Guards was the most senior equestrian officer in the empire. Indeed, given the key part the Praetorians played in the imperial political system, which can be seen most clearly in the transfer of power from certain emperors to their successors (for example in the events after the deaths of Gaius and Commodus).
Roman society was, like all those before the 19th century, an agrarian society – the great majority of people worked on the land. Town dwellers – craftsmen, merchants, councillors – made up only a small minority.
Much of the land in the empire was owned by wealthy landowners; the actual farming was carried out by tenant farmers, landless laborers, or slaves.
We saw that in the later Republic large slave-run estates arose in Italy, especially in the south. This situation continued into the early Empire. With the stabilization of the frontiers, however, and the establishment of peace in the Mediterranean world and western Europe, the massive supply of slaves resulting from the continuous conquests began to dry up. Slaves became more expensive to buy, so that slave owners had to rely increasingly on natural reproduction to keep their stocks up. This implied treating slaves better than under the republic, and giving many of them some private space for families.
As a result, estate-owners tended to reduce their dependence on gangs of slaves and gave their slaves plots of land to cultivate, as sharecroppers and tenants. They were still slaves, tied to the estates, but their working and living conditions were significantly better than had been those of slaves working in chain gangs. They were now able to raise families of their own, and had some share in the produce they grew.
Great slave-run estates had never been a feature of most provincial societies, nor did they take root under the empire. In some parts, particularly in North Africa, great estates which had first grown in the later Republic continued to flourish, but these were farmed mostly by free tenants. Similarly in other provinces a villa economy was characterized by a slave-run farm surrounding a complex of buildings (the “villa”) in the center of the estate, with the majority of the land cultivated by tenant farmers.
Although not quite on the same scale as in the late Republic, slavery did of course continue to exist during the entire period of the empire. Large industrial enterprises such as mines continued to use slave gangs working in appalling conditions on a large scale, but slaves would have been found everywhere, in the cities and in the country, working in all kinds of businesses, and doing all kinds of work – from unskilled laboring through to high level professional jobs. And of course they were to be found in the home. Every household which had any pretensions at all to wealth had household slaves. In some of the houses of the rich a small army of slaves ran the house, some of whom were kept as footmen and attendants merely to show of the wealth of the householder.
Slaves had no legal rights – they were property, like cattle. But one thing they could, with luck, look forward to: freedom.
Millions of slaves were given their freedom over the years, and ex-slaves – freedmen and freedwomen, they were called – formed a significant proportion of the entire population of the empire. Some freedmen became very rich; many others made a moderate living in their trade. It seems clear that many freedmen were given a helping hand by their former masters, and so had a clear advantage in making their way in the world over many of those who had been born free.
Within the free population of the empire there were many divisions in wealth and status. The most obvious of these, as ever, was between the minority of rich, on the one hand, and the majority of poor on the other. Most of the poor worked on the land as peasant farmers or landless laborers; a minority worked in the towns and cities as craftsmen and laborers. The rich were mostly all landowners. In the cities, merchants and officials conducted their business, but they too would have been buying land as soon as they could, as in pre-industrial societies it is by far the safest and most socially-acceptable form of investment.
Side by side with large landed estates were many independent farms worked by free peasants. Sometimes these were tenant farmers cultivating land belonging to a landowner; sometimes they owned their own small farms.
Despite the rise of large slave-run estates, the free peasant farmers of Italy had never died out – in fact archaeology suggests that their numbers had never declined to the extent that the Roman sources suggest. However, this class hardly flourished under the Empire; cheaper food imports from overseas kept prices low. The government became increasingly concerned about the continued decline in their numbers, and instituted measures – by, for example, providing financial assistance to families looking after orphans – to maintain this class in Italy.
Though the rich almost all had estates in the country, they spent most of their time (and money) in the towns and cities. The wealth from their country estates supported an urban lifestyle, with their country villas usually acting as a retreat from the pressures of city life. In the city they spent their time as local magistrates and councillors, as lawyers, and some of them as merchants and bankers. They lived in large town houses, some of which took up an entire block of a city, their outsides containing many small shops.
The Middle Classes
As in most pre-industrial societies, there was only a small middle class. This was made up of the better-off peasant farmers or owners of small estates, and of the lesser merchants and more successful craftsmen and shopkeepers in the towns. Minor officials, publicly-funded teachers and retired soldiers would also have added to their numbers.
A major legal division within the empire was that between Roman citizens and others. Every free member of society was a citizen of one or other of the thousand or more cities which made up the empire, but a growing minority were also citizens of Rome.
Anyone who had served as a local magistrate or on a town council was automatically given Roman citizenship, as were those who had served in the auxiliary regiments of the Roman army.
Another major source of Roman citizens was former slaves. Generation by generation, millions of slaves were freed – and when they gained their freedom, they acquired the same citizenship as their master: so the ex-slave of a Roman citizen became a Roman citizen himself. The only restriction on a freedman was that he could not become a senator – but his son could.
Roman citizenship thus gradually spread throughout the length and breadth of the empire. In the provinces it tended to be the preserve of the wealthier members of society, but as time went by it penetrated down into the poorer sections. Finally, in 212, the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to every free person in the empire.
In the western provinces of the empire, in Gaul, Britain, Spain and North Africa, the spread of Roman citizenship went hand-in-hand with the increasing use of the Latin language. By the second century this was the lingua franca of the upper classes throughout this half of the empire. In the eastern provinces – Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt – Greek remained the lingua franca, and increasingly the language of government as well.
The upper echelons of the local elites throughout the empire increasingly joined the equestrian class. This class was second only in status to that of the senators.
Only the wealthier local families could join the equestrian class, as there was a strict property qualification for admission. The outward sign of equestrian rank was a gold ring on the finger and a narrow crimson stripe on the toga.
Another way to acquire equestrian status under the empire was to rise in a military career to be a primus plus (chief centurion) of a legion. These were automatically given an equestrian gold ring on retirement.
Membership of the equestrian class qualified a man to serve as a senior officer in the Roman army, which as time went by solidified into a regular military career of three posts: first the command of a 500-strong auxiliary infantry regiment; then a position as a staff officer in a legion; and finally the command of a 500-strong cavalry auxiliary regiment. Some went on to command a 1000-strong auxiliary regiment.
If such an equestrian officer was fortunate, he could then go on to hold important posts in the imperial administration, such as procurator (financial administrators) of a provinces, or a senior post in the central secretariat in Rome. These offices in turn were stepping stones to some of the most powerful positions in the empire, the prefecture of the grain supply for Rome (the annona), the prefecture of Egypt, and above all the Praetorian Prefecture.
The senatorial class was the highest group within the Roman Empire. Its leading member was of course the emperor himself, and beneath him most of the highest posts in the empire were held by senators.
The senate now consisted of upwards of a thousand members. Under the empire, senatorial rank became almost hereditary: the sons of senators automatically received the laticlavius, the broad stripe on the toga, which denoted senatorial status. The sons of important equestrian officials were also granted the laticlavius, and were thereby made eligible for a senatorial career.
At seventeen years of age such young men held one of twenty junior administrative posts in Rome (hence their name, the vigintiviri, the twenty men); then in their early twenties they served for a few years as a military tribune (staff officer) in one of the legions. At the age of twenty-five they were eligible to be appointed to the most junior of the Republican magistracies, the quaestorship. As such, they served as an assistant to a governor of a senatorial province. On their return to Rome, they became members of the senate and could pursue the cursus honorum which was open only to senators.
The senatorial class thus came to include an increasing number provincial families, firstly from the Latin-speaking west (Spain, Gaul and North Africa), later from the Greek-speaking east (especially Asia Minor and Syria). The provincialization of this ruling class can be seen in the origins of the emperors. In the early days of the empire, the emperors were drawn from the historic Patrician clans of the Julii and the Claudii. In the later first century the emperor Vespasian came from an Italian community near Rome. In the early second century Trajan and Hadrian came from Spanish families, while Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius had the blood of Gallic chieftains coursing through their veins. The later second century brought Septimius Severus, from a North African family, to the throne, whilst the later Severi came from Syria, on the eastern frontier.
Traditional Roman religion was very similar to that of the Greeks. Like the Greeks, the Romans worshiped a pantheon of gods and goddesses, headed by the chief of the gods, Jupiter. Other gods included Minerva, goddess of wisdom and learning; Mars, god of war; Venus, goddess of love; Ceres, goddess of the Earth; and Pluto, god of the underworld. As well as these major gods, numerous lesser deities, gods of hearth and home, and forest and field, populated the spirit world.
Roman religion placed great emphasis on proper rituals – it was important to do things right. Roman priests were, by and large, not professional, full-time religious practitioners. They tended rather to be the leading people in their community, magistrates and senators.
Unlike Greek religion, Roman religion had a strong moral dimension. This was to do with behaving in an honest and dignified way towards others, keeping oaths and agreements on the shake of a hand, and in displaying courage and fortitude when misfortune struck.
The Romans were very superstitious, always looking for good or bad omens before embarking on a course of action. Like the Greeks, they also consulted famous oracles – priests or priestesses at certain shrines who, in a trance, uttered messages from the gods.
One innovation that the emperors introduced was their own cult, “emperor-worship”. To what extent this was a real religion rather than an outward show of loyalty is difficult to say; however, in most Roman towns a temple to the emperor would be among the larger buildings.
In a polytheistic religious context such as that of the Greeks and the Romans, where gods and goddesses have human virtues and frailties, and in which new cults had a tendency to spring up now and then, real flesh and blood human beings could occasionally become objects of worship.
The clearest example of this before Roman times was Alexander the Great, who during his lifetime assumed divine status after his conquest of Egypt and his being recognized as Pharaoh, a god-king. After his death a widespread cult grew up around his personality, and he was worshipped as a god throughout the Middle East.
His successors, the Hellenistic kings of Egypt, Syria, Pergamum and so on, followed in his footsteps by claiming divine status, and when Roman power spread into the Hellenistic world Roman proconsuls also found themselves being accorded similar divine honors. It had become a natural way for people to express loyalty and respect to rulers. The practice spread to Rome’s western conquests, with successful generals in Spain, for example, being praised in quasi-religious terms (religious banquet, acclamation as “savior”, sacred shrines). Even in Rome itself, the Roman triumph may have had elements of divine worship attached to it (hence the necessity for a slave standing behind the general being honored, saying, “remember, sir, you are not a god”).
All these developments came to a crescendo immediately after Julius Caesar had defeated all his enemies in the civil wars and made himself the unchallenged master of he Roman world. Games were dedicated in his honor, statues set up to him, his image paraded with those of the other gods, his portrait put on coins – all things traditionally reserved for gods.
The outpouring of popular grief after Caesar’s assassination led to the rapid spread of a cult in his honor. Shrines were set up in Rome and in the provinces, with the senate’s (forced) approval. Thanks to his adoption as Caesar’s son, Augustus was able to call himself the “son of the divine Julius”. After Octavian’s victory at Actium, Asian cities requested that they might set up shrines to him as their “savior”.
A policy eventually emerged that shrines might be allowed if they were to “the goddess Roma” as well as the emperor, and that non-Roman citizens might worship a living emperor, but Roman citizens might only worship an emperor after he had died. Octavian presided over the dedication of the temple to the “divine Julius” in Rome, and in 27 BC he accepted the title of Augustus, which had strong religious connotations of awe and reverence.
Under Augustus and his successors, therefore, the veneration of the emperor became an official cult, with its own temples and priests in every city. For Roman citizens, only dead emperors were worshipped as gods, and this only if the senate voted for his deification. Non-citizens could and did worship the living emperor. This was an enormously powerful underpinning to the status and position of the emperor in the Roman world.
As with Greek religion, Roman religion was not aimed at meeting private spiritual needs – it was a public, outward thing. As time went by, new religions and cults became popular in the Roman world: the Eleusian Mysteries and cult of Orpheus from Greece; the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis; the religion of Mithras, from Iran (beyond the empire); and later, Christianity.
Despite (or because of?) often fierce persecution, Christianity spread around the empire, and by the Third century Christians probably made up a sizable minority of the population. However, it would be the conversion to Christianity of the emperor Constantine, and the favor bestowed on the Christian Church by succeeding emperors, that turned it into the most popular religion in the empire.
Articles on Ancient Rome and related topics:
History of Ancient Europe at the time when ancient Roman civilization flourished.
History of the ancient Middle East, showing the role the Roman empire played in that region.
Ancient Europe, showing the rise and fall of the Roman empire in the context of European history
The Middle East, showing the impact of the Roman empire on that region
The World when ancient Roman civilization flourished