The Roman Empire: Government and Society

This article deals with the period when the Roman empire was at its height, from 31 BCE to 217 CE. The later Roman empire will be dealt with in an article on Late Antiquity.

The reason for dividing the articles on the Roman empire up in this way is because the civilization in the two periods were very different from each other in virtually all aspects – government, economy, society, culture and religion.




The Emperor
The Senate
The traditional magistracies and the popular assemblies
Provincial administration
The Imperial household
Central administration
The capital’s administration
Local government in the provinces
Roman Law

The Army

The Legions
The Auxiliaries
The Praetorian Guard

Society in the Roman empire

The Free Population
Roman citizens
The Equestrian Class
The Senatorial Class

Religion under the Roman Empire

The Imperial cult
New religions


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 (“Calligula”) becomes emperor – the empire survives the brief reign of a mad man

43 – Under the emperor Claudius the Romans begin the conquest of Britain

54 – a great fire under the emperor Nero destroys a large part of the city and leads to the first official persecution of the Christians

68-9 – the Year of the Four Emperors leads to Vespasian becoming emperor and restoring peace

96 – the emperor Domitian is assassinated and Nerva, the first of the “Five Good Emperors”, comes to the throne

117 – Under the emperor Trajan the empire reaches its greatest extent

123 – The emperor Hadrian begins to build his famous defence system across northern Britain

152 – Under the emperor Antoninus Pius a great plagues 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

212 – the emperor Caracalla grants Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Roman empire

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 remodelled around a new institution, the emperor.

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) 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 they were all the adopted heirs of Julius Caesar; and Augustus harked back to the first emperor, and emphasised the prestige and authority of the position.

It should be emphasised 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.

To give this title teeth, 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.

The area under direct imperial rule was divided into provinces which were governed by officials directly appointed by the emperor. Most of these were senatorial legates, but a handful of imperial provinces were governed by equestrians (such as Pilate, procurator of Judaea, before whom Jesus of Nazareth appeared just before he was crucified).

In terms of provincial administration, the empire was thus divided into two kinds of province, those under governors of the emperor’s choice, and those chosen by the senate. These later 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 had the title of proconsul (even though most were ex-praetors rather than ex-consuls).

The 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 within the senatorial provinces as well – in fact, throughout the entire empire.

One other power which the emperor 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 large garrison 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 in the interior of the empire.

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. Most emperors also had their favourites, sometimes even slaves and freedmen, in whom they confided; and members of the imperial family were often very influential.

The Senate

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 tribunician powers 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.

Most emperors had no need to openly threaten the senate; on a day-to-day basis they were able to dominate the senators through the great patronage they possessed. Any senator who wanted to reach high positions had no choice but to curry favour with the emperor. In his gift were most of the best posts available to a senator, the most important frontier commands and the prefecture of the city of Rome itself. He could very effectively block any senator from holding the governorship of a senatorial province; and he had a decisive say in who held the historic magistracies of the cursus honorum, including the consulship. Any ambitious senator needed to have the backing of the emperor to have a good career; and since it was 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 traditional magistracies and the popular assemblies

The old Republican magistracies – the consulate at the top, then the praetorship, the tribunates and aedileships, and at the bottom the quaestorships – all continued under the empire. However, they were shorn of any 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 to the emperor and filled by a senior senator, as the effective governor of the capital. The only post-holders who continued with much the same functions as in the Republic were the quaestors, who continued to assist the governors (proconsuls) of senatorial provinces.

Under the empire, the magistracies mainly served as stepping stones to important positions in the army and provinces, mostly in the emperor’s service. Praetors mostly went on the hold the command of legions, and then governorships of the less important province, either as legate in the case of the imperial provinces or proconsul in senatorial ones. Consuls could go on to hold the governorships of the important frontier provinces, where they not only had administrative oversight over the civilian population but also command over the large bodies of troops in their sector of the frontier. In fact, to ensure a sufficient pool of senior senators to hold these key posts, there was 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.

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 the powers to the senate, and where they continued it was as purely ceremonial relics.

Provincial administration

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; in terms of status, some provinces were governed by ex-praetors, and some by ex-consuls.

Imperial provinces

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 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 from a few auxiliary troops in the more peaceful provinces, acting more or less as a police force, to the command of 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.

Senatorial provinces

In senatorial provinces, the financial administration was the responsibility of the governors’ deputies, the quaestor. In imperial provinces, finance was under the control of equestrian officials called procurators. These were directly appointed by the emperor, and often their sphere of authority took in more than one province. Relations between governor and procurator were not always amicable, especially as procurators answered directly to the emperor.

Equestrian provinces

A small handful of provinces stood out from the others. These were a few imperial provinces governed which were by equestrians rather than senators. The majority of these were small, such as the three or 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 governed by equestrian procurators such as Pontius Pilate at times in the first century.

One equestrian-governed province was large and crucially important, however. This was Egypt, which at times had two legions stationed in it. This 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.

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.

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.

The Imperial household

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, 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 in imperial provinces.

This organisation was known as the “Imperial Household”, as it was considered an extension of the emperor’s private household staff.

Central administration

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 for handing the flow of correspondence that flowed his way; one secretariat was for Latin correspondence, another for Greek correspondence. These secretariats were staffed by highly trained imperial slaves and freedmen, like the treasuries initially headed by imperial freedmen. Later, equestrian officials were appointed to these key posts.

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.

The capital’s administration

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.

Local government in the provinces

At the other end of the scale, local government was in the hands of city councils and magistrates.

In the eastern provinces, 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 (in any case, democratic states were hard to control), they adjusted it in favour 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.

Roman Law

The Greeks had developed legal codes, and the Romans followed their example. In the mid-fifth century BCE they published 12 tables of laws, which were put up for public display in the Forum. From these early laws there developed, over the centuries, a huge body of law, dealing with every aspect of public and private life.

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, originating and evolved within the Republic, were not taken away under the emperors, at least for the majority of the population who were not within the personal reach of the emperor. Even a Jew in a far away province who happened to possess Roman citizenship could cry, “I appeal to Caesar”, and to Caesar he was taken.

The great legal digests of the Late Empire enshrined these principles and passed them on to future European civilization.

The Army

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.

The Legions

The legions formed the backbone of the army. 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 some 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 was 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 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 legion was called the primuspillus (“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 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 his senatorial career ladder – 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 to be commanded not 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 chain along the frontiers of the empire. At first they were stationed in wooden camps, but later, as their locations became more permanent, stone camps were built. 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, armouries, 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.

The Auxiliaries

Auxiliary cohorts were mostly recruited from non-citizens, though some were in fact 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 enrolment, 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 lines, from forts which formed integral parts 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.

Some auxiliary units were scattered in cities around 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 pin down. In the early third century a legion was stationed in northern Italy.

The Praetorian Guard

Apart from the units mentioned above scattered 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 or all of them 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 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.

Society in the Roman empire

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 – 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, day labourers or slaves.


We saw that in later Republic, large slave-run estates arose in Italy, especially in the south. This situation continued into the early Empire, but with the stabilisation of the frontiers, and the establishment of peace in the Mediterranean world and western Europe, the massive supply of slaves which had resulted from the continuous conquests of the Republican period began to dry up. Slaves became more expensive to buy, so that slave owners had to rely increasingly on natural reproduction to keep up their stocks up. This implied treating slaves better than they had been under the later republic, and giving many of them some private space for families.

As a result, estates reduced their dependence on gangs of slaves and gave their slaves plots of land to cultivate themselves as sharecroppers and tenants. They were still slaves, tied to their estates, but their working and living conditions were immeasurably better than had been those of the slaves working in chains. 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, and did not 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 characterised by a large, slave-run farm surrounding a complex of buildings (the “villa”) in the centre of the estate, with the outlying areas under 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 and shipbuilding continued to use slaves on a large scale; and 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 to show of the wealth of the householder. These were among the less usefully employed members of society.

The Free Population

Within the free population of the empire there were many and various divisions. The most obvious of these, as ever, was between the minority of rich and the majority of poor. Most of the poor worked on the land as peasant farmers or landless labourers; a minority worked in the towns and cities as craftsmen and labourers. 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 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 farming land belonging to a landowner; sometimes they owned their own small farm.

The free peasant farmers of earlier times in Italy had never died out – in fact archaeology suggests that their numbers had never declined to the extent that our sources suggest. However, this class hardly flourished under the Empire; cheaper food imported 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.

The Rich

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 lawyers, magistrates, local politicians, working in the law courts and running the affairs of the city. Some of them were merchants and bankers. They lived in large town houses, the larger of which took up an entire block of a city and on the outside were surrounded by 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. Lesser officials, publicly-funded teachers and retired soldiers would also have added to their numbers.

Roman citizens

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. Roman citizenship thus gradually spread throughout the length and breadth of the empire; in the provinces at least it tended to be the preserve of the wealthier members of society, but as time went on 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 Equestrian Class

The upper echelons of the local elites throughout the empire increasingly joined the equestrian class. This class was second in status to that of the senators.

Only the wealthier of local families could join the equestrian class, as there was  strict property qualification. The outward sign of equestrian rank was a gold ring on their fingers and a narrow crimson stripe on their togas. This qualified them to serve as senior officers (prefects and tribunes) in the Roman army, and then to hold important posts in the imperial administration, such as procurators (financial administrators) n the provinces and chief secretaries and accountants in Rome. These in turn were stepping stones to some of the most powerful posts in the empire, the prefectures of the grain supply, of Egypt and above all the Praetorian Prefecture.

The Senatorial Class

Most of the highest posts in the empire were held by senators. Under the empire, senatorial rank  became hereditary, with the sons of senators being ear-marked for a senatorial career from an early age. At seventeen they held one of twenty junior administrative posts in Rome (hence their name, the vigintiviri, the twenty men); then in their early twenties they served a few years as a military tribune in one of the legions. At the age of twenty-five they were eligible to be appointed to the most junior of the historic Republican offices, 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.

Then came the tribunate of the Plebs or an aedileship; and at the age of thirty they could serve as a praetor, now a junior judgeship in Rome. This opened the way to major posts in the army and administration: command of a legion on the frontier, then a governorship of a senatorial or (better) an imperial province. At the age of 35 a senator could hold a consulship – usually a suffect consulship, that is, not one of the pair of consuls who held office at the start of the year and gave their names to the year (Romans often dated events to the “year when such and such were consuls”).

If he was in favour with the emperor and his advisors, he could now hold the truly important posts in the empire: the governorship of one of the frontier provinces, such as Pannonia, Syria or Britain, which involved command of a large army of two or more legions and their accompanying auxiliary troops. The most fortunate went on to hold the proconsulship of one of the two most senior provinces in the empire, Asia (the western area of Asia Minor) or Africa (the area of North Africa where the old historic city of Carthage was situated); and finally, at the top of the tree, the prefecture of the City of Rome. Such a senator was now one of the most senior of all, and might the consulship for a second time, this time as an “ordinary” consul, one of the pair of who started the year and gave their name to it.

Admission to the senatorial class

The senate now consisted of upwards of a thousand members, and admission to it was entirely in the emperor’s gift. The sons of important equestrian officials were granted the laticlavius, the broad stripe on the toga, which denoted senatorial status, and were then eligible for a senatorial career. Others were wealthy provincial families granted admission to the senate by the emperor. They were thus able to found senatorial families.

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 provincialisation of this ruling class can be clearly 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.


The peace which the Roman empire brought to millions of people during these first two centuries of its existence, in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, was an achievement which was only really matched in the history of the ancient world by the Chinese empire of the Han dynasty.

This peace allowed a high degree of Romanization to take place which could not be eradicated by later invasions. As a result, the whole of European and Western history has been deeply influenced by Rome. The importance of this lies not only in the influence of Roman politics, law and culture, but also in the influence of Christianity on European history, which, though of non-Roman origin, had, by the end of the Roman empire, become an integral element of Roman civilization.

The Roman empire vanished at different times in different places. The great barbarian invasions began at the beginning of the 5th century, but emperors continued to reign in the western part of the empire until 476. In the east, the empire survived for another thousand years. However, from around 500 the eastern Roman empire is generally labelled the “Byzantine” empire by modern scholars (but not by the inhabitants themselves, who continued to call themselves Romans until the very end).

Roman society changed enormously over time as Rome expanded from small city-state to huge empire Throughout almost all Roman history, however, the basic class distinctions of Roman society remained in place.

At the top stood the senators – members of the senate (the council of state) – and their families. In early Rome, these were probably all members of the class of Patricians, a group of hereditary aristocrats; as time went by, however, membership of the senate became more broadly based, as men from Plebeian families were enrolled.

Below the senatorial class came the equites. These were originally those in the army who could afford to own a horse (equus). Over time, however, they became a numerous “middle class” between senators and the rest of the citizen body.

Below them were the ordinary Roman citizens. Their numbers grew vastly over time, from a few thousand to many millions; and spread right around the empire.

An  ubiquitous feature of Roman society was slavery. In fact, as Rome’s conquests multiplied, she became the most slave-based society before the rise of Atlantic slavery in the 17th century.

Slaves would have been found everywhere, in the cities and in the country, and of course in the home. They worked in all kinds of businesses, and did all kinds of work – from unskilled laboring through to high level professional jobs. They had no legal rights – they were property, like cattle. But one thing they could, with luck, look forward to: freedom. Generation by generation, millions of slaves were freed and joined the main body of citizens, with all their rights. Some freedmen became very rich; many others made a moderate living in their trade. But all swelled the ranks of citizens.

Religion under the Roman Empire

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.

The Imperial cult

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.

New religions

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 was 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. In the Later Roman Empire it was made the official religion of the empire, a development which would have a huge impact on the future history of Europe.


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