When Augustus came to power, he reorganized the Roman state so that effective power – above all, military power – was concentrated in his own hands. He thereby became the first of a long chain of emperors. Under their rule, the Roman Empire was exceptionally well governed by pre-modern standards, and the inhabitants of the empire experienced more than two centuries of almost unbroken internal peace.
Rome the imperial capital, was the centre of the empire. It was a massive city, and, adorned by successive emperors with fora, magnificent monuments, great public baths, huge amphitheatres, parks, palaces, and temples, became the wonder of the world.
Interior of the ancient Roman Coliseum now a tourist attraction
Roman rule had an enormous impact on society in temperate Europe. We have seen that material advances had been taking place amongst the “barbarian” peoples of Europe, but by Roman and Greek standards their society was under-urbanized and therefore (according to them), uncivilized. Previously organized largely along tribal lines, it was now reorganized along lines based on the city-state model. The old tribes became “civitates” – or city-states, with proper urban centres at their core.
These were administered on a self-governing basis by elected magistrates, who, though mostly descended from tribal nobles, were now Roman-educated gentlemen, members of provincial elites whose members were part of an empire-wide network of patronage. As early as the 1st century AD, descendants of Gallic and Hispanic chiefs were members of the Roman senate, and during the 2ndcentury, the imperial throne itself was occupied by Spanish and Gallic families.
In the Greek-speaking east, Roman civilization had less impact, as this was an already heavily urbanized region with a culture which the Romans chose to emulate, rather than vice versa. Even here, however, Roman cultural influences were felt. In architecture, temples, amphitheatres and other public buildings took on a Roman form. In social life, Roman law and citizenship spread far and wide, and members of the provincial elites here joined their western colleagues in joining the senate during the 2nd century.
The old paganism of Greece and Rome had been losing the allegiance of many people over the past few centuries. Other faiths had been springing up to fill the gap. Mithraism, inspired by Persian spirituality, had won the loyalty of many soldiers over the past century or so. The worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis had also become popular throughout the empire. However, it was two faiths springing from the small Middle Eastern territory of Judaea, which would have the most enduring impact on European life and culture.
Depiction of Mithras killing the Bull by Serge Ottaviani.
Reproduced underCreative Commoms 3.0
Christianity would in later centuries become the almost-universal religion of Europe. By the end of the 2nd century, however, this faith was probably only held by a small minority of the population. By this time, though, populations of Jews, scattering outwards from their Judaean homeland after the ruthless suppression of two major revolts by the Romans, were to be found in all the larger cities of Roman Europe.
In northern Europe, the German peoples have continued their expansion, settling areas along the Roman frontier as far south as the Danube. Contact with Rome has had a number of consequences for German society. Trade has led to an upswing in material culture, and the rise of wealthy and powerful chiefs. Associated with this, and as a consequence of the frequent state of warfare along the frontier, is a militarization of society, making the Germans into more formidable foes than before.