The early history of Rome was set against a background of cultural change, when the simple way of life of the peoples of central Italy were beginning to be affected by influences from the eastern Mediterranean.
Latins, Greeks and Etruscans
In central Italy there is a plain on the west coast called Latium , which takes its name from the Latin people who lived there in the first millennium BC. They had come down into Italy from the north, like other Italic peoples, and had settled in small villages of thatched huts, sometime in the second millennium.
In the eighth century BC their rural way of life began to be effected by influences coming in from outside. Greek colonies were established in the plain of Campania, just south of Latium, and they introduced a new way of life based on towns and trade. Within a century or so of their coming they had also brought such innovations as the alphabet and coinage to the Italian peoples amongst whom they lived and traded. Meanwhile, to the north of the Latins another civilization arose, that of the Etruscans. They developed an advanced material culture which, like that of the Greeks, owed a great deal to contacts with the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. They too lived in towns and cities rather than in small villages, and developed a sophisticated urban culture. They had close commercial contacts with Greeks, Carthaginians and other civilized peoples of the region.
The Latins could not but help feel the influences radiating from north and south, and slowly they merged their farming villages into urban settlements. Many of them came under the political domination of Etruscan lords.
From Village Cluster to City-State
One such community affected by these changes was that of the Romans. They originally inhabited a cluster of villages on a group of hills in northern Latium, at a well-trodden crossing pint of the river Tiber. The Romans were not in fact typical of the usual Latin communities, in that from an early date they seem to have been a mix of Latins and Sabines, a more pastoral people who lived in the hills east of Latium. Sometime in the centuries after 700 BC these farmers merged their villages together to form a city-state; and very soon their location at a strategic crossing point on the river Tiber, twelve miles or so from its mouth, attracted the attention of their powerful Etruscan neighbours to the north. Etruscan lords came down and took control of the city, probably shortly after 600 BC, and gave the city a line of kings. These Kings, the Tarquinii (who, according to legend, were descended from the kings of Corinth in Greece) embellished the city with walls, a central forum (public square), an efficient drainage system, a wooden bridge across the Tiber, and temples – the accoutrements, in fact, of a city-state of the ancient Mediterranean.
By the time of the later Tarquin kings, another Greek innovation was spreading through Italy – republicanism. In Rome’s case the move towards the expulsion of the kings was also probably something of an independence movement. Around 500 BC the Etruscan kings were expelled and in their place the patricians, the heads of the leading clans in Rome, chose consuls from amongst their own numbers.
The early history of the Roman Republic was one of fierce external pressure accompanied by sharp internal tensions. The Romans’ triumph over both these challenges laid the foundations for future greatness.
With the expulsion of the last king, Tarquin the Proud, the Romans immediately found themselves fighting for their lives. Tarquin and his Etruscan allies organized a co-ordinated attack on them, and hill-tribes such as the Sabines and Volsci raided their territory. The Romans beat off these attacks, but from now on they were continually at war with their neighbours – Latin, Sabine, Volscian and Etruscan.
Tarquinius Superbus was the seventh King of Rome,
reigning from 535 until the Roman revolt in 509 B.C.
Published by Guillaume Rouille
What made matters worse was that there were grave tensions within the Roman community itself, of precisely the kind that we meet with in Greek city-states. As the traditions recorded by later Roman historians have it, the mass of the people, the Plebs, resented the way in which the Patricians, the small group of leading families, ruled. The former felt that the latter were, through their dominance of the law courts, interpreting customs to their own advantage, allowing them (powerful, Patrician and wealthy) to act towards their debtors (poor, Plebeian and powerless) in a harsh and arbitrary way. Unlike in many Greek states, however, the plebeians did not call for a re-distribution of land, nor did they violently attack the patricians and try to seize power. Instead, they went on strike (or “secessio” – technically they temporarily “seceded” from the state under their own chosen leaders, called tribunes) and refused to pay their taxes or fight in the army.
They did this for several years before the patricians, realizing that something had to give, agreed to set out the laws in a written form. A commission of both plebeians and patricians duly produced twelve tables of laws to be set up in public in the forum (c. 450 BC). These twelve tables set out a fairly harsh code of law, but Romans of all stripes felt it was fair, and they won the support of the community as a whole. The orginal Twelve Tables formed the basis of all subsequent Roman law, possibly the greatest distinctive contribution to future history that the Romans made.
Rome gradually prevailed over her Latin neighbours, and became recognized as the leading city-state within Latium.
Rome and her Neighbours
In c. 406 BC, after a fierce ten-year war with Veii, her nearest Etruscan neighbour (only ten miles away), she was victorious, and destroyed the city. At one stroke Roman territory had almost doubled in size. They settling their own citizens on the land that had belonged to the enemy. This put her in an even stronger position with her neighbours.
Then disaster struck. A powerful raiding party of Gauls, coming down the Italian peninsula from northern Italy, defeated the Roman army and burnt the city, narrowly failing to take the Citadel and destroy the city altogether (c. 390 BC).
It took many years for Rome to regain her leading position within Latium. Tensions between patricians and plebeians continued, gradually taking on a different character. Some plebeians had, over the years, become wealthy landowners, and they were becoming increasingly resentful about having no share in the leadership of the state. These rich plebeians used the massed power of their poorer fellows not only to guarantee the rights of the plebeians, but also to gain power for themselves.
They succeeded in both these aims (mostly in two “packages” of measures, in 366 and 287 BC), with all Roman citizens enjoying the protection of law against oppression, and with the office of tribune recognized as an official magistracy within the Roman political system. The office had wide-ranging powers to act against abuses of power by other magistrates. They also won seats in the senate, the ruling council of Rome; and finally, they won the right to be elected consul, or chief magistrate of Rome (two of these being elected each year to act as joint chiefs of state).
From this time forward, the leading plebeian families gradually merged with those of the patricians to form a single ruling class of Rome, and the tension between the patrician and plebeian orders faded (though it by no means vanished). The comparatively successful resolution of this conflict gave Roman society a stability and cohesion that stood it in good stead for the next century and a half.
Having overcome severe early challenges and set-backs, the Romans went on to defeat many tough enemies to conquer Italy. They did this not only by dogged determination in war, but also by judicious and far-sighted treatment of beaten opponents.
Latium and Campania
Other leading cities in Latium, such as Praeneste and Tibur, used the Gallic disaster to gain leadership of the Latin cities for themselves. Over about a generation, however, the Romans regained their strength. In 381 BC they conquered the neighbouring city of Tusculum. This was a landmark in Roman history because instead of destroying it, or laying it under tribute, they incorporated the defeated inhabitants into their own state: its leaders were welcomed into the Roman senate, its leading families become members of the Roman ruling class (Rome’s famous statesman Cato, who lived about a century and a half after this time, was a native of Tusculum), and ordinary inhabitants of Tusculum becoming full Roman citizens.
By the mid-4th century Rome’s field of activity was spreading beyond Latium and its surrounding hills. The Samnites, a confederation of hill tribes in southern central Italy, were pressing in on the cities in the fertile coastal plain of Campania, to the south of Latium. The Campanians appealed to Roman for help, and reluctantly, realising that a Samnite takeover of this productive area of Italy was not in their interests, the Romans agreed to do so.
The Romans were victorious against the Samnites in battle in the First Samnite War (343-41), but a more immediate danger to Rome was becoming apparent: the Latin cities were planning to turn on Rome, supported by the Campanian cities whom the Romans were helping (who had clearly come to feel, with the Latins, that Rome was becoming rather too powerful). The Romans hurriedly made peace with the Samnites, and almost immediately found themselves at war with the Latin and Campanian cities.
In the following war (340-338 BC) the Latins and Campanians were defeated. The Romans then tried a similar peace formula to the one which they had concluded with Tusculum, forty years before by incorporating the smaller cities nearest to Rome into their state, giving their inhabitants full Roman citizenship. To the larger cities, or the ones further away in Campania, they gave a form of “commonwealth citizenship” (called “Latin right”). Citizens of these cities had equal rights with Roman citizens in Roman courts, but did not have voting rights in the people’s assemblies of Rome, nor were they able to stand for election as Roman magistrates or become members of the Roman senate.
These measures – together with the establishment of a number of small colonies of Roman citizens at strategic locations throughout Latium and Campania – bound the people of Latium and Campania together in a network of shared interests under firm Roman leadership. The arrangements proved enduring, and, with rare exceptions, the Latins and Campanians remained staunch allies of Rome for the next three centuries.
Rome was now able to call on a large pool of military manpower, which she was to need over the next few decades. As we have seen, her new allies in the fertile coastal plain of Campania had been coming under pressure from the hill tribes of the interior, the Samnites and their allies. These had a reputation as tough fighters. The Romans were obliged to come to the assistance of their allies and had to endure long years of warfare in the hills and mountains of central and southern Italy (326-290 BC). They experienced some disastrous defeats, but eventually they were able to prevail. Whilst dealing with these difficult foes they also secured their rear in the north by subduing the Etruscan cities.
Once again, in victory the Romans used a modified version of the measures they had adopted with the Latins and Campanians in 338. In this case, however, there was no great extension of either Roman or Latin citizenship; this was not appropriate given the variety of communities brought under their sway (and indeed, one of the secrets of this policy was not to be too generous with Roman or Latin citizenship, and so devalue it). Instead, the Etruscan city-states, Samnite hill tribes and others were made allies of Rome. Several small Roman colonies were planted amongst these newly new allies, along with a handful of large colonies whose people were drawn from Rome’s longer-standing Latin and Campanian allies. These were called Latin colonies, and acted as a formidable bulwark to Roman power in potentially hostile territory, as well as a channel via which Roman law and customs, as well as the Latin language, were transmitted throughout the Italian peoples. A network of roads was built along which troops could be hurried to if needed.
In this way the Romans constructed a federation of Italian states with varying degrees of “closeness” to her, from those brought lock-stock-and-barrel into her fold, to those who were merely her “allies”. All states had their place, their own individual relationship to the leading city; and, as time was to prove, all were content with this situation. The system was to prove a resilient and enduring one, providing Rome with the manpower to defend herself and her allies against new formidable opponents and extend her sway.
The next opponent was indeed formidable. The Greek cities of southern Italy, alarmed at the growing power of Rome, called Pyrrhus, king of the northern Greek kingdom of Epirus (reigned 307-272 BC), to come to their aid and safeguard their independence (280 BC). Pyrrhus was one of the most famous Greek generals since Alexander the Great. He answered the call, and with one of the finest armies of the time (which, incidentally, included 20 elephants), he defeated the Romans in a number of battles. The cost to his army, however, was so great, and their manpower so apparently inexhaustible, that he came to realize that he could never overcome them. After a defeat at Rome’s hands in 275 he left Italy for home, counselling the Greek cities to come to terms with Rome. This they duly did.
After her conquest of Italy, Rome faced two great wars with the international maritime power of Carthage. These almost brought her to her knees, but Rome’s eventual triumph left her in control of the western Mediterranean.
By 270 BC Rome led a confederation of allies which covered all Italy south of the river Po. She now encountered the most formidable foe in her history.
Carthage was at this time the leading maritime power in the western Mediterranean. She was determined to keep this position, so when tensions arose in Sicily which drew the Romans in a clash between the two powers became inevitable. What followed was two conflicts which were the ancient world’s equivalents of two world wars of the 20th century.
In the First Punic War (264-241 BC – called Punic because the Romans knew the Carthaginians as Phoenicians).
Carthage started by dominating the seas around Italy. Whilst this situation lasted, Rome could do little to get at her enemy. So she built a large fleet and armed her warships with a new device, a bridge with a hook on it to grappling an enemy ship and allow the Roman soldiers to stream across and attack at close quarters. After a series of discouraging defeats the Romans at last began to win victories at sea, and so eventually gained the upper hand.
At length the Carthaginians came to terms. As a result of the war, Carthage ceded some cities in Sicily to Rome; paid a huge indemnity and shortly after the war’s end, a mutiny amongst Carthage’s mercenary troops handed Corsica and Sardinia over to Rome.
To replace their lost overseas territories, the Carthaginians built up their power in Spain, making a network of alliances with the local tribes there. This was to a great extent the work of one of their leading families, the Barcids. As chance would have it, this family produced a commander whom historians have ever since regarded as one of the greatest generals in history. His name was Hannibal.
Marble Bust of Hannibal
He built up his family’s authority in Spain into a personal power-base, from which he was able to recruit a large, well-trained army (again with elephants). The inevitable war broke out with Rome again in 218 BC, and Hannibal led his army on one of the most audacious marches in history, over the high Alps (elephants and all – or to begin with, at any rate; there weren’t any left by the end) and down into the broad Po plains of Northern Italy. His strategy was to raise the people of Italy against their Roman masters, and thus destroy Rome’s power.
In North Italy Hannibal was able to recuperate his army and recruit many more troops from the Gauls who lived there at that time. With the approach of Hannibal, these had massacred a couple of Roman colonies established in their territory, so throwing their lot firmly in with the Carthaginians.
The Second Punic War
The Romans were suddenly confronted with the main Carthaginian army in their own backyard. This did not stop them from sending an army to Spain to fight the Barcids on their own territory, and they were well able to raise an army to send against Hannibal. This he destroyed at the battle of Trebia. They raised another one. This he led into an ambush at Lake Trasimene, and destroyed. They raised a third. At the great battle of Cannae (216 BC) this third Roman army was also wiped out. The way was now clear for Hannibal to march on Rome, and to send out a call for her subject to shake themselves free from Rome’s dominion.
Only one city answered this call, Capua. The rest remained firmly loyal to Rome for the next eleven years whilst Hannibal marched up and down central and southern Italy, devastating the land to try and bring the Romans to battle. Under their veteran general, Fabius “the delayer”, the Romans shadowed Hannibal’s army but avoided battle. A Carthaginian army under Hannibal’s brother Habsdrubal, which repeated Hannibal’s feat by marching over the Alps into northern Italy, was brought to battle and soundly defeated.
In Spain, meanwhile, the Roman armies had met with total defeat. The Romans then appointed a young general called Scipio to take command (another family affair – it was his father and uncle who had led the Roman armies to defeat), and he gradually retrieved the situation and gained the upper hand. By 205 BC he had established Roman control in Spain.
The Romans then invaded the Carthaginian home territory in North Africa in 205 BC, under the command of Scipio (later nicknamed “Africanus”). Hannibal was recalled from Italy to lead the defence of the city. The manoeuvring between the two sides lasted until 202 BC, when they met each other at the battle of Zama. Here, Hannibal was finally defeated by the Romans. The war was over.
After her life-and-death struggle with Carthage, Rome’s armies went on to conquer countries to West and East, so that by the end of the second century BC she dominated the entire Mediterranean Sea.
The victory over Carthage left the Romans as the dominant power in the western Mediterranean. Soon her armies were involved in trying to hold their positions in Spain, and then expanding it. The tough Iberian tribesmen, together with the difficult terrain of the peninsula, made the task of conquering what are today modern Spain and Portugal an extremely difficult one, and it took the Romans two hundred years to complete. As a by-product of this struggle, the Romans secured a stretch of southern Gaul in 133 BC and planted Roman colonies on it to safeguard the overland route to Spain.
Meanwhile Roman armies had become involved in the eastern Mediterranean. The conflicts between the Greek and Hellenistic states drew the new power inexorably into their tangled affairs. Macedonia, which dominated Greece, had sided with Carthage in the Second Punic War, and a Roman army had become involved in the Balkans before the war’s end.
After Zama, Roman involvement was expanded to the point where, after defeating the Macedonian army at the battle of Cynoscephalae (197), Rome restricted Macedonia’s hold to the south by “liberating” the Greek city states from her interference. Antiochus, king of the Seleucid kingdom, then invaded Greece to prevent further Roman involvement – which of course had exactly the opposite effect by bringing the Romans to the region again and driving him back into Asia (Battle of Magnesia, 190). A new king of Macedonia, Perseus, then decided to try his luck against the Romans, but, after some initial successes he too was defeated at the Battle of Pydna (168) and his kingdom divided into four weak republics, all allied to Rome. Again Roman forces withdrew. Finally, a widespread revolt against the Roman-sponsored regimes in Macedonia and Greece resulted in the destruction of the historic city of Corinth and the establishment of permanent Roman rule in the region (146).
Carthage had ended the Second Punic War with her overseas territories stripped from her, and having to pay a massive indemnity to Rome for the following 50 years. Furthermore, her neighbours, the Numidians, had played a significant role in the war as Rome’s allies, and so the Romans had also stipulated that Carthage not go to war with the Numidians except with Rome’s agreement. Despite numerous provocations from the Numidians, Rome never granted this permission.
In the half century following the war, the Carthaginians focussed on trade, and, despite the indemnity, were soon thriving again. Scarred by their near-extinction in the war, the Romans had acquired an irrational fear of Carthage, and seeing her growing prosperity did nothing to allay these fears. One of their leading statesmen, Porcius Cato, apparently began to end all his speeches in the senate with the words, “Carthago delendo est” (“Carthage must be destroyed”).
So called patrician Torlonia
After paying off her indemnity, Carthage felt that she was now free to pursue her own quarrels with the Numidians. The Romans, however, regarded the requirement for Carthage to seek Rome’s agreement before going to war with Numidia as permanent. In 149, therefore, when Carthaginian forces invaded Numidia, the Romans went to war with their old enemy. The was was a one-sided affair, basically involving a three-year siege of Carthage. When the city fell (in 146), it was levelled to the ground and its inhabitants sold off into slavery; its territory was annexed to Rome as the province of Africa.
In the later second century BC two rulers of kingdoms in Asia Minor, Pergamum and Bithynia, having no heirs, actually bequeathed their states to Rome, laying the foundations of Roman expansion further east.
While the Romans were conquering all around the Mediterranean, things had been going from bad to worse within the society and body-politic of Rome itself.
A Sickness in Society
The influx of booty and tribute from the conquests created a class of extremely rich Romans – senators who were sent to the wars as generals and governors, and business men (knights) who farmed the taxes of the new provinces and provisioned the armies. Above all, each new victory brought in thousands of slaves: during the last two centuries BC the Mediterranean slave trade became an enormous business, with Rome and Italy being the main destination markets. During this period Roman society became a more slave-based society than any other before or since in history.
Many slaves were set to work on the land of the senators and other wealthy men, who set about developing their estates along new, much more businesslike lines. The ordinary farmers could not compete with these new estates, and more and more small farmers lost their lands to their rich neighbours. The estates grew larger, and more small farmers left the land. Many of them headed for Rome, where they swelled the ranks of a growing class of landless and rootless people.
The combination of great wealth and mass poverty in Rome itself poisoned the political climate there. Political gang-masters put votes and mobs up for sale, corruption spread, and Roman politics became dominated by feuding factions. These were not modern political parties representing broadly different ideologies, but there were ideas around which different factions grouped. One set of ideas was taken up by those (a minority in the senate) who wished to see land redistribution – estates limited in size and the balance of land distributed to the landless poor – and the opposing groups (the majority) wished to preserve the interests of the “best people” (i.e. themselves) intact.
In 133 a famous incident led to the death of a reformist politician, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the first murder in Roman politics for centuries. The death of his brother, Gaius, in similar circumstances followed ten years later. Factionalism and strife steadily increased thereafter.
The decline of the smallholder in the Italian countryside had another profound effect on the Roman state. He was the traditional mainstay of the Roman army, buying his own weapons and taking his turn with the troops. This system had already come under strain with Rome’s armies spending years abroad on foreign campaigns; indeed it was the lack of menfolk at home that often undermined a smallholding family’s ability to keep its farm. With the expansion of Rome’s overseas military commitments and the declining pool of smallholders, the recruitment of the armies from this class became harder and harder.
The decline of the smallholder in the Italian countryside had another profound effect on Roman politics. He was the traditional mainstay of the Roman army, buying his own weapons and taking his turn with the troops. This system had already come under strain with Rome’s armies spending years abroad on foreign campaigns; indeed it was the lack of menfolk at home that often undermined a smallholding family’s ability to keep its farm. With the expansion of Rome’s overseas military commitments and the declining pool of smallholders, the recruitment of the armies from this class became harder and harder.
This problem became apparent with the war against the Numidian king, Jugurtha (112-106), and against the Germans (112-101). The Roman armies sent to North Africa to deal with Jugurtha simply could not do so, and the war was only ended when Jugurtha’s ally the king of Mauritania betrayed him into Roman hands. If Roman armies could not even overcome a second-tier power such as Numidia, something had gone badly wrong.
In 112 the Romans began to encounter a new enemy, the Germans. Two German tribes, the Cimbri and Teutones, probably with other tribes in tow (or gathering them along the way), moved out of their homeland in north Germany and headed southward, first into Switzerland and then into France. There they invaded the strip of territory which the Romans had occupied in 133. All Roman armies sent against them were destroyed, culminating in the shocking defeat at the battle of Arausio (105). This ranks alongside Cannae as one of the Romans’ greatest military disasters in their history.
Luckily for the Romans, the Germans did not then invade Italy, but continued to ravage across France and into Spain.
Luckily for the Romans, the Germans did not then invade Italy, but continued to ravage across France and into Spain. This gave the Romans time to take stock of their perilous situation and do something about it. They placed their armies under the command of that veteran general, Marius.
Holding the consulship for five years in a row (105-101; he had also been consul in 107), Marious brought in a series of reforms which transformed the Roman army. Apart from some long-overdue organisational reforms, he opened recruitment to the landless classes. From now on, Roman armies would increasingly be manned by long-term professional soldiers. As a result, their effectiveness began to rise again.
After training his “new model army”, Marius moved against the Germans, In 102 he annihilated the Teutones in southern France, and in 101 he did the same to the Cimbri, who had invaded northern Italy. In gratitude the Romans elected Marius to an unprecedented seventh consulship in 100.
Professional Armies, Ambitious Generals
The opening of recruitment to the landless classes of Roman society, as well as improving the military quality of Rome’s armies, had another hugely important result. It tied the interests of the soldiers much more closely to their generals. This was because they increasingly looked to their commanders to ensure that, when their period of service ended, they were provided with land (the one commodity in the pre-industrial world which provided a family with any economic security).
Commanders could now count on their soldiers putting their loyalty to him personally before their loyalty to the state. The great Roman armies being fielded from this time on behaved increasingly like generals’ private forces. Given that Roman leading generals were also leading politicians in the senate, this situation was bound to get entangled with the faction-ridden politics in Rome. The generals’ opponents in the senate would try to block their efforts to achieve land distribution in favour of their men, with the predictable result of throwing the generals and their men even more closely together. It is little wonder that on occasions the generals and their armies attempted to achieve their hopes by extra-constitutional means.
The last phase of the Republic, then, was dominated a succession of struggles between leading generals and their opponents in the senate on the one hand, and between the rival generals themselves on the other. But what set the stage for this phase was a fierce and entirely needless war between Rome and many of her longest-standing Italian allies, which broke out in 90 BC (The Latin word for allies is socii, so in English the war is called the “Social War”.)
This came about through the senate’s recent tendency to treat the allies with increasing arrogance, and exclude their citizens from the benefits of empire. The Allies’ frustrations boiled over into outright war, which belatedly prompted the senate to grant all Italians (south of the Po) full Roman citizenship. Many cities laid down their arms, but a few hill tribes were not defeated until 88 BC.
In the aftermath of the Social War, in which he had once again distinguished himself, the famous old general Marius attempted to have himself elected by the People’s Assembly to a new command in the East, where king Mithridates of Pontus had massacred thousands of Roman citizens. The senate had appointed another general, Cornelius Sulla, to the command, and he marched his army (which had been engaged in mopping up operations against recalcitrant Allies in southern Italy) to Rome and drove Marius into exile. This was Rome’s first civil war (88-87). Sulla then set off for the east.
Bust probably from the time of Augustus) after a portrait of an
important Roman from the 2nd century BC
As soon as Sulla was gone Marius (who by now seems to have been more or less unhinged) and his supporters returned, seized control of Rome and carried out a vicious purge of their enemies. Marius died shortly after this, but his supporters retained influence in Rome.
In 82 BC Sulla returned with his victorious army (though Mithridates had by no means been totally defeated). In a second civil war (82-81) Sulla agian seized control of Rome. He had himself appointed dictator, and embarked on a reign of terror against his real and perceived enemies. Much of the property confiscated was distributed to his veterans. Sulla also carried out a programme of reforms, aimed essentially at strengthening the power of the senate, and then, in 79 BC, retired from public life.
The middle years of the first century BC were dominated by the careers of two powerful generals, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. Their conquests and maneouverings set the stage for the final fall of the Republic.
The Rise of Pompey
By the time of Sulla’s retirement, another general was making his mark, Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey). After another civil war between Roman forces – but this time in Spain rather than in Italy – Pompey with difficulty defeated Sertorius, one of Marius’ supporters who had been governing Spain as a virtually independent ruler for several years.
Meanwhile, in 73 a slave revolt broke out in southern Italy. This was not the first of such revolts, but it was the first one to start on the Italian mainland rather than on the island of Sicily. The rise of great slave-run estates in southern Italy and Sicily, with chained gangs of men working in the most appalling conditions, had created conditions ripe for violent uprisings.
As well as being the first to break out on the mainland, this was by far the most dangerous of the slave revolts. Under the leadership of an energetic and charismatic gladiator called Spartacus, it posed a serious threat to ordered life in the area. Roman forces sent against the slaves were defeated, and the revolt spread over a wider and wider area. As the slave army marched northward, Rome itself began to feel threatened.
Pompey was appointed to the command against them, along with another rising politician, Licinius Crassus (who in fact bore the brunt of the campaigning). They were given a large army, and were able to defeat the slaves, putting down the rebellion with shocking brutality.
Pompey and Crassus then marched their armies near Rome and demanded the consulship for the coming year (70 BC – Pompey was by law far too young for this post). This they obtained.
A little later Pompey was given the supreme command against pirates who, in the chaos of the preceding decades, had established themselves throughout the eastern Mediterranean and had come to pose a grave menace to merchant shipping (on which Rome increasingly depended to feed its growing population). He achieved this in short order, and was appointed to the supreme command in the east, where he finally eliminated king Mithridates and brought the whole of Asia Minor, Syri and Judaea under Rome’s control. He divided the conquered territories between provinces under Rome’s direct rule, on the one hand, and client kingdoms under their own kings (the best-known being the family of Herod in Judaea).
Having done this, Pompey returned and spent several frustrating years trying to get the senate, which by now was in the hands of politicians deeply suspicous of his fame and power, to give land to his veterans, (having made the honourable mistake of disbanding his army first).
The Rise of Caesar
At Rome, domestic politics was coloured by the continual faction fighting between leading senators, spiced by gang warfare in support of one party or the other. These were also the years in which Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great orator, made his mark; he was consul in the year 63 BC, during which he defeated an attempt, called the Cataline conspiracy, by a group of impoverished nobles to carry out a coup.
Another rising politician and general was C. Julius Caesar, who was elected consul in 59 BC after a successful tour of duty as governor in Spain. During his term in office, he negotiated an informal alliance between himself, Pompey and Crassus: Crassus was to receive the eastern command, he was to receive the command in Gaul, and Pompey was to have the land distribution in favour of his veterans so long denied him. Their combined influence and wealth created an unstoppable political force, and they all got what they wanted from it. They renewed their compact in 56 BC.
In the next few years Caesar conquered the whole of Gaul and even invaded Britain twice (55 and 54 BC). During this he acquired an unparalleled reputation as a brilliant general, and great popularity with the ordinary people of Rome, but his opponents in the senate increasingly tried to have him recalled to face trial for various misdemeanours.
The Bust of Caesar
Crassus was killed in the east (along with most of his army) against the Parthians (53), at one of Rome’s biggest military disasters, the battle of Carrhae, and Pompey and Caesar soon fell out. Many senators were by now getting thoroughly alarmed at the rising popularity and power of Caesar, a feeling fully shared by Pompey.
In 49 BC, having been recalled from Gaul to face his enemies in the senate, Caesar chose instead to march on Rome with his army (the first time that a provincial army had “invaded” Italy in support of a Roman general). His enemies fled to Greece, where Pompey raised an army. Caesar followed with his army, and defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus (48). Pompey then fled to Egypt where he was assassinated on the orders of Ptolemy, king of Egypt.
Several more years of bloody fighting in Africa and Spain were needed to overcome up opposition to his rule, but by 45 BC Caesar was in complete control of the Roman state, like Sulla taking the office of dictator. He showed great clemency to his enemies, and carried out some reforms within Rome and the provinces. However, his time was short. His senatorial opponents were implacable, and he was assassinated by a group of them in 44 BC.
The assassination of Caesar set the stage for another civil war. The assassins of Caesar fled to Greece (43 BC), where they set about raising an army. Caesar’s former lieutenants, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and C. Octavianus (Octavian, Caesar’s grand nephew and adopted son), and Aemilius Lepidus, formed the Second Triumvirate (this time a formal one, with the specified aim of “Settling the Constitution”), and carried out a widespread purge of thousands of senators and knights in Rome and throughout Italy, distributing the confiscated lands amongst their followers. Antony and Octavian then took an army to Greece in pursuit of Caesar’s assassins, and defeated them at Philippi (42).
After Philippi, the triumvirs divided the Roman world between them: Octavian took Italy, Gaul and Spain, Lepidus took Africa, and Antony took all the eastern provinces.
The Triumvirate almost immediately began to break down. When Lepidus proved restive at his small share, Octavian crushed him and stripped him even of that. He then skilfully used Antony’s infatuation with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, to present him as an enemy of Rome’s true interests, and prepared for war.
This finally came in 31 BC, when the fleets of the two opposing sides met at Actium, off the Greek coast. Octavian won (thanks mainly to the generalship of his lieutenant, Vipsanius Agrippa), leaving Antony and Cleopatra to sail away and commit suicide in Egypt.
Octavian followed up his victory by occupying Egypt, which now became a part of the Roman empire – became, in fact, Octavian’s private estate.
Octavian was now sole master of the Roman world, and for a few years experimented with various ways of ruling in a manner that would be acceptable to all parties. Finally, in 27 BC he took the name Augustus, and remodelled the constitution in such a way that kept the traditional forms of the Republic (senate, historic magistracies and so on) in place, but concentrated effective power (especially overwhelming military force) in his own hands. This Augustan Settlement, as it has been called, provided the Roman world with a framework of government which lasted more than two hundred years. Octavian, or Augustus as we should now call him, was thus the first of the long line of Roman emperors who were to rule the Roman world for hundreds of years.
With his victory over Antony at Actium, in 31 BCE and his annexation of Cleopatra’s kingdom of Egypt the following year, Octavian became the sole master of the Roman world. But how was he to ensure stability in the Roman world? He knew that if he were to give up his control of his armies, rivalries between senatorial proconsuls would soon lead to warfare; but if he was also keenly aware that if he were to cling on to his powers he would soon gain the enmity of the senate, as his adopted father Julius Caesar had done. Given that the senate was the fount of the lawful exercise of power, his position would soon become untenable.
During a few years of experimentation with different arrangements, Augustus gradually developed the formula which would become the foundation for imperial rule in succeeding centuries. At the heart of this stood the arrangements for control of the provinces – and therefore armies – of the empire.
By this arrangement, the senate had responsibility for the more peaceful, civilized and wealthy of the provinces, such as Africa, Greece, Macedonia and Asia. It appointed governors to these provinces, and their taxes flowed into the senatorial treasury.
The great proconsulate
In return he had the senate appoint him proconsul (initially for a period of ten years, then in perpetuity) of a huge provincia whihc included most of the frontier territories of the empire (this followed a republican precedent whereby a general such as Pompey was given broad, multi-province powers to deal with a threat to Roman rule). It was in Octavian’s provincia that the bulk of the Roman legions were now stationed, so he kept in his hands an an overwhelming preponderance of military power. He appointed his own lieutenants (who were all senators except in the case of Egypt, to which he appointed an equestrian Prefect) to govern the different territories he controlled, and the revenues from them flowed into a treasury whose officials answered to him. Collecting the revenue from his provinces (known by modern scholars as the imperial provinces, to distinguish them from the senatorial provinces) was put into the hands of financial officials drawn from the equestrian class, not the senatorial. This was the first step in creating an equestrian public career to go alongside the senatorial career, and drew that class more closely into the running of the empire.
Augustus and Princeps
In 27 BC the senate voted him the titles Augustus and Princeps. He already had the title imperator (a title given previously to victorious generals, and which enabled him and his successors to wear the distinctive purple toga worn by such men in their triumphs). Henceforward he and all his successors always had the words Imperator Caesar Augustus within their nomenclatures.
A few years later Augustus gave up his practice of holding one of the two consulships each year, thus giving more room for ambitious senators to hold what was traditionally regarded as the most prestigious magistracy in the Roman state. However, he gained some additional powers, the most important of which was a proconsular imperium, which gave him a supervisory authority over all the provinces in the empire, senatorial as well as imperial (click here for a fuller tally of the various titles, powers and offices which the position of emperor embraced).
Apart from the legal foundation for his supreme position within the Roman state which this series of offices, titles and powers constituted, Augustus was able to supplement his power through a number of other factors. The first of these was the sheer wealth which he now controlled. The richest province on the empire, Egypt, was now virtually his private estate; and he also owned a growing number of estates which had been confiscated by defeated rivals. In his daily life Augustus lived frugally; but he was able to use his vast wealth as a way of winning support from groups such as army veterans, cities in different parts of the empire, and of course individual senators and equestrians.
A second factor was the establishment of the Praetorian Guard. In Augustus’ time this was garrisoned in towns near Rome, rather than in Rome itself: only one of its nine cohorts (some 500 men) was on duty guarding his house at any one time. From his successor Tiberius’ time, however, the Praetorian Guard were housed in its own huge barracks just outside the walls of Rome. It was increased in size to twelve cohorts, with each cohort being of one thousand men. The commander of the guards became probably the second most powerful man in the empire after the emperor himself, even though not a senator.
One other aspect of Augustus’ reign should be mentioned, which certainly underpinned his position in the state but did not derive from republican precedents. This was the growth of the imperial cult, or “emperor worship”, as it is often called.
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 honours. 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 “saviour”, 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 honoured, 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 honour, 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 honour. 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 “saviour”.
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.
Summary of the Augustan settlement
The chief underpinning of the emperors power, however, was implicit in the legal arrangements that had emerged in the Augustan settlement. This was that he and his successors became by far the greatest fount of patronage for senators and equestrians. Directly or indirectly they controlled appointments to all the high offices of the Roman state – legionary commands, provincial governorships, and senior government posts in Rome itself.
This Augustan settlement provided the Roman world with a framework of government which lasted more than two hundred years. Augustus as we should now call him, was thus the first of the long line of Roman emperors who were to rule the Roman world for hundreds of years.
[Click here for more on the position of the emperor in the first two centuries of the empire]
Expansion under Augustus
Augustus was sole master of the Roman world for more than forty years (31 BCE to 14 CE). Along the eastern frontier he brought Armenia into the Roman sphere and stabilized the frontier with Parthia; by forceful diplomacy he was also able to have the legionary standards lost at the disaster of Carrhae returned to the Romans.
In a vast series of conquests his generals annexed the wild lands of the Balkans, pushing the Roman frontiers to the Danube, and moved the frontier with the Germans to the Elbe. These conquests were interrupted by a fierce rebellion in Danube lands that needed over half the imperial army to crush it, and then in 9 CE, Quintilius Varus, commander on the Rhine, was trapped with three legions deep in the Teutoburg forest in Germany, and wiped out. Augustus was deeply affected by this disaster, and made no further attempts at conquest. He left advice in his will that the Roman empire should not be expanded.
Scholars often call the political system of the early empire the Principate, after one of the emperor’s main titles, princeps (somewhat loosely translated as “first citizen”). Such was the overwhelming bundle of powers that Augustus enjoyed that no one could stand against his wishes to transmit his position to a successor. A return to the Republican system would in any case have been completely impracticable.
The only question was, then, who should succeed Augustus?
During the first century of the empire, the emperors were members of what has been called the “Julio-Claudian” dynasty. This is something of a misnomer, as none of the emperors of this “dynasty” were able to transmit their power to a genetic offspring; however, they did all belong to the interrelated patrician families of the Julii or Claudii, either through birth or adoption, and were this able to maintain a fiction of inherited power.
Since Augustus had no sons, and his nephew and grandsons had all died before him, he chose his step-son, Tiberius (a member of the Claudian clan) to follow him.
Tiberius (reigned 14-37 CE), though undoubtedly able, was elderly and gloomy, and probably alcoholic. For much of his reign his ruthless Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus, virtually ruled the empire until his downfall, which occurred when rumours surfaced that he was cooking up a plot against his master. In his last years Tiberius more or less retired to the island of Capri, off the coast of southern Italy, from where rumours of a depraved lifestyle filtered back to Rome.
Tiberius, as with Augustus having no surviving son, was succeeded by his great grand-nephew, Gaius (a member of the Julian clan, reigned 37-41 CE). Gaius, nicknamed “Caligula” (“Little Boots” after the small army boots he wore as a child when his father was a general), soon became insane. He lashed out at anyone he disliked or felt threatened by, and his blood-soaked rule was brought to an end when he was murdered by some of his servants and members of the Praetorian Guard.
In the chaotic scenes in the palace following Caligula’s murder, an elderly uncle of his (and grand-nephew of Augustus) was found by the guards and promptly elevated to the emperorship. This was Claudius (reigned 41-54 CE; as his name indicates, he was a Claudian).
Claudius had physical infirmities which made him liable to ridicule, but he was probably one of the most intelligent of all Roman emperors. It was during his reign that the conquest of Britain was launched.
He was not very sensible in his final marriage. The ambitious Agrippina had him adopt her son, Nero, and then, when he was 16, she poisoned Claudius (or so it was generally believed).
Nero (as the adopted son of Claudius, also therefore a Claudian) was the last of the Julio-Claudians. His reign (54-68 CE) was marked by more atrocities than any of his predecessors. He poisoned Claudius’ young son, Britannicus, murdered his mother Agrippina (after more than one attempt), divorced and executed his wife, Claudius’ daughter, and abandoned himself to various vices.
During Nero’s reign a huge fire destroyed a large section of Rome. Nero seems to have helped fund the rehousing of many people who had lost their homes, but he also used much of the land cleared by the fire to build a magnificent new palace on. This was called the “Golden House”, due to its unparalleled splendour. This led to rumours that Nero himself had started the fire to enable him to build this palace. He tried to deflect the blame onto members of the new Christian religion, which, despite it being barely thirty years since its founder Jesus of Nazareth had lived and died in Judaea, was already well established in Rome. He was the first emperor to instigate an official persecution of Christians.
Nero’s extravagance and eccentricities (he was fond of acting in public, an unheard of thing for a Roman aristocrat to do), did not endear him to the troops on the frontiers. He lost the loyalty of the Roman armies, and in the late 60s, a rebellion in Spain led quickly to his suicide.
The political situation under the Julio-Claudians
By the time of Augustus’ death the principate was the only political system which most people could remember. Perhaps because of this a rosy glow now hung over the memory of the old republic. Some senators, and not only those from old families with generations of consuls behind them, still hankered after the good old days when the senate had ruled supreme and there was no princeps to dwarf its members in authority and prestige.
Throughout the Julio-Claudian period, there were repeated conspiracies against the emperors, hatched by groups of senators and equestrians. This created an ongoing tension between emperor and senate which was never far below the surface. Some emperors, such as Gaius and Nero, succumbed to paranoia, prompting them to unleash a lethal campaign on the senators, with as many as one in then falling victim to their suspicions. At such times an atmosphere of fear prevailed in the corridors of power. Even under a moderate emperor like Claudius, who probably shared many of the Republican sympathies of some senators, several senators were executed on suspicion of treason.
Even in normal times senators were in a difficult position. Although the senate still retained important powers, and was required to deliberate on weighty matters, ambitious senators were now dependant upon the princeps for high office. it was natural that they should try to vote strictly according to the wishes of the emperor. This rather undermined the purpose of this institution, and in frustration Tiberius, for example, tried to conceal his own opinions on subjects which came before the senate, so that a proper debate could take place. This only made senators believe that he was trying to trap them into indiscretions.
The events following the murder of Caligula showed up the real powerlessness of the senate as a political institution. On news of the murder the senate immediately began discussing restoring the Republic. The Praetorian Guard, however, had acclaimed Gaius’ uncle Claudius as emperor and the senate had no choice but to acquiesce.
However, the emperors needed the senate. This body was the fount of legitimacy; all their offices and titles had been voted to them by the senate, and it was this fact that made the emperors’ position legal in the eyes of the Roman people. Moreover most of the emperors’ generals, governors, ministers and high officials were senators; he relied on their good service, and he was not disappointed.The majority of senators gave loyal and distinguished service, and even under the worst of rulers the empire continued to run smoothly. Finally, all the emperors at this period themselves came from the oldest and most prominent of the senatorial nobility – the Julian and Claudian clans, and the other ancient families to which they were related. It was unthinkable that they should do away with their own class.
The environment in which the emperor lived also gave another group some political importance – the Roman mob.
The emperors were frequently to be seen in public. They presided over games in the amphitheatre and races in the Circus Maximus; they took a central role in the festivities and rites of the state religion; they attended meetings of the senate; and some of them even visited public baths, mingling with fellow citizens on terms approaching equality. It is difficult for us today o imagine, removed as we are from the environment in which the politics of the principate took place, what it must have been like for an emperor and his entourage to be greeted by a huge and unruly crowd, angry at some policy or other that they had instigated. What is clear that emperors were indeed as careful as they could be to keep on the right side of the Roman mob. Caligula once joked, “would that the Roman people had but one throat”. This points to the fact that, whereas he could threaten senators and other individuals into obedience, the mob was beyond his control.
Perhaps the most famous instance of the mob’s influence on politics came in Nero’s reign. Nero was in fact popular with the mob. He enjoyed acting on stage, and whereas the upper classes despised him for this (it was very ungentlemanly behaviour), the mob loved it. In 64 CE, however, a devastating fire swept through Rome. Nero seems to have personally helped in the search for victims, and contributed towards the cost of rehousing, but he reserved a large part of of the land cleared by the fire for a magnificent new palace complex, nick-named the “Golden House”. Naturally rumours began to circulate that had started the fire himself to enable such a palace to be built. Fearing the ill-will of the mob, he to deflect the blame from himself to the Christian community in the city. This, despite the fact that it was barely 30 years since Jesus of Nazareth had lived and taught in distant Palestine, was now large enough to be a widely-felt presence in the imperial capital, and no doubt due to its preaching of a way of life which few wanted to share, was widely unpopular with the mob. Nero ordered that they should be rounded up and killed, the first official persecution of the young Church.
The provinces and frontiers under the Julio-Claudians
Despite the personal failings of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the empire as a whole continued to be well governed. Peace prevailed throughout the provinces. The system which Augustus had established, by which senior army officers and provincial governors were appointed and promoted on the emperor’s say so (though from a very narrow group within society, mostly senators, some equestrians), ensured a generally high standard of administration. Senior officials were well paid, discouraging corrupt practices; and provincials – especially the elites of the towns and cities of the empires – could make their complaints heard in Rome if a governor was notably corrupt or incompetent.
In the first century of the empire Roman citizenship began to spread widely amongst the subject peoples of the empire. The ruling classes also began to fill up with men from provincial families. Men from Spain were admitted into the senate in Augustus’ time (though he did try to keep the senate a mostly Italian body), and Claudius was the first emperor to promote Gauls from north of the Alps (i.e from amongst those who were descended from Rome’s ancestral enemies, the tribes of modern-day France) to the senate.
The frontiers of the empire continued to advance. Tiberius was not particularly interested in new conquests – the disaster of the Tuetoburg Forest was probably still too fresh in the minds of Rome’s leaders in his time. Claudius however began the conquest of Britain (43 CE), where he made a brief personal appearance. He also extended Roman territory to cover the whole of north Africa. Under Nero there were continuing wars in Britain, where the revolt of the Iceni tribe, under their fierce queen Boudica, came perilously close to driving the Romans out of the island. After Boudica’s defeat Roman expansion in Britain resumed.
A war with the Parthian empire also broke out in Nero’s reign, over control of the kingdom of Armenia. The successes of Nero’s general Corbulo soon brought Parthia to the negotiating table and Armenia back into Rome’s sphere of influence.
At this point, however, a revolt broke out amongst the Jews in Judaea. This remained undefeated at the time of Nero’s death (see below).
Reports of Nero’s eccentric behaviour (especially his public stage appearances) reached the troops on the frontier; they were not impressed. They heard of his extravagances as well, especially his magnificent but hugely expensive “Golden House”. To complete this he had to raise extra taxes in the provinces, and even so, the payment of troops fell into areas. Also, his ordering of the suicide of his most famous general, Corbulo, who was very popular amongst his troops, infuriated them. By the late 60s the army was in a mutinous mood. In 68 a rebellion broke out in Spain. Nero found that none of the frontier armies would supported him, and he committed suicide, saying, “What an artist the world is losing in me!”
With Nero’s suicide the Julio-Claudian house was now extinct: who would be emperor? In 68 and 69 CE four emperors came and went as different frontier armies marched on Italy is support of their own candidates (in each case one of their senior generals). First Galba, the governor in Spain, was recognised as emperor by his troops and marched into Italy; he was soon murdered at the instigation of his lieutenant, Otho. Otho was a former friend of Nero who had the support of the Praetorian Guard (and who had been alarmed by the disciplinarian approach of Galba). Otho’s forces were soon defeated by the Rhine armies, who had acclaimed one of their commanders, Vitellius, as emperor. By the end of 69 Vitellius, too, had been murdered, and Flavius Vespasian, at the head of the eastern armies, was triumphant.
Vespasian (reigned 69-79 CE) was an experienced and able soldier, He came from comparatively humble origins in Italy, the grandson of a centurion, a far cry from the old patrician stock of the Julio-Claudians. He took the name Caesar, which henceforth was purely a title, and set about restoring order. He put the imperial finances on a firm footing by heavy taxation, and appointed able governors to restore order and good government to the provinces. In Rome he demolished Nero’s Golden House, which had become a by-word for extravagant waste, and on the land thus made vacant he started building a huge new amphitheatre, the Coliseum. partly to relieve unemployment in Rome. When he died he had gained the respect of the senate and was immediately deified.
Vespasian was succeeded by his son, Titus (the first non-adoptive to follow his father as emperor). Titus (reigned 79-81 CE) was easy going and popular. He won further popularity by his generosity in helping the homeless victims of the eruption of Vesuvius, which completely destroyed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Titus died after two years of natural causes. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Domitian.
Domitian (81-96 CE) was an efficient administrator, but cruel and suspicious. His behaviour provoked fear amongst those around him, and conspiracies, real and imagined, were launched against him. A reign of terror developed, as in the worst days of the Julio-Claudians; as then informers reigned supreme and senators in particular had to be very careful what they said and who they talked to. Eventually he was murdered by some of the palace servants.
The circumstances of Domitian’s death were not unlike that of the emperor Gaius: killed within his palace by members of his own domestic staff. What followed next was quite different, however, and had enduring consequences. The Praetorian Guard kept out of events and the senate found itself playing the key role of choosing the next emperor. They chose an elderly senator, Cocceius Nerva (reigned 96-8), who ruled competently and put an immediate stop to the reign of terror; but he was a stopgap choice. He was childless (like so many Roman aristocrats of the period), and by far the most important thing he did was to chose a highly suitable successor.
He adopted as son a highly respected general named Ulpius Traianus (Trajan). This ensured that his death was not followed by instability and civil war, and that sound rulership continued.
Nerva and his successors who reigned from 96 to 180 CE are known as the “Five Good Emperors”. Until the last one, Marcus Aurelius, they were all without sons to succeed them, and they all (except Marcus) took steps, well before they died, to ensure that there would be a suitable successor.
Trajan (reigned 96-117 CE) came from a Roman family long settled in Spain. He was an ambitious builder and soldier, and under him the Roman empire reached its greatest extent.
He was succeeded by his cousin, Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian, reigned 117-37 CE). After Trajan’s expansionism he pulled back behind defensible frontiers, which he strengthened. He adopted his relative Aurelius Antoninus as his successor, known to history as Antonius Pius (reigned 137-61). His was the most peaceful of any emperor’s reign.
He was succeeded by his adopted son Marcus Aurelius (161-180), who spent his whole reign campaigning on the Danubian frontier.
The political situation
Except for under the paranoid emperor Domitian, this period was much freer of tensions between emperor and senators than had been the case under the Julio-Claudians. The civil wars of the Year of the Four Emperors had perhaps underscored for all but the most die-hard republicans where the realities of power now lay. As the historian Tacitus said, the “secret was out – emperors could be made outside Rome”. It was now plain that the Roman armies were the real source of power in the empire; while an emperor retained their loyalty he was virtually unassailable. Ironically, this enabled the senators to devote their energies, not to opposition, but to loyal service to the emperors and in uphold the political order which now prevailed. Particularly under the Five Good Emperors, the political situation was marked by stability and quiet. The only dangerous moment was when rumours spread in the east that the emperor Marcus Aurelius had died, and the troops there acclaimed their commander Avidius Cassius as emperor. When this rumour proved false the crisis quickly passed.
Provinces and frontiers
At Nero’s death the revolt which had broken out in Judaea remained undefeated, and the civil wars that followed meant that no great effort could be made towards this objective. With Vespasian’s triumph in 69, his eldest son, Titus, who had been left in command against the Jews whilst Vespasian marched on Rome, vigorously prosecuted the war. After a bitter siege he captured Jerusalem in 70 CE, and raised the temple, the centre of the Jewish religion, to the ground.
Much of Domitian’s reign was taken up with frontier wars. His main achievement was the stabilisation of the Rhine-Danube front after a series of difficult campaigns.
Trajan undertook a major war of conquest beyond the Danube by marching into Dacia (modern Romania and eastern Hungary) and adding it to the empire after a hard-fought war. Trajan commemorated the Dacian war by erecting a huge column in a new forum he built in Rome. This column, which still stands, has realistic depictions of the Roman army on campaign, and is still studied by historians to see how the Roman army of the period was equipped, organized and fought.
Late in his reign Trajan invaded deep into the Parthian empire, intent on defeating that power once and for all. He marched his army right the way through Parthian territory, all the way to the Persian Gulf; but the problems of supply in a hostile land meant that he could not hold the territory, and had to retreat. He died on the way home. Nevertheless, he left the empire larger than it had ever been before.
Hadrian did not continue Trajan’s policy of expansion. Instead he sought to shore up the empire’s defences by organizing the frontiers more carefully. He ordered the building of the long wall that bears his name which runs from coast to coast across northern Britain; and he strengthened the fortifications along frontiers everywhere. He was a great traveller, going on tours of inspection to every part of the empire, interesting himself in the welfare of the provincials and the troops.
In 132 a second major Jewish revolt broke out, not only in Judaea but in many cities with Jewish communities in them. This was led by a man called Bar Kochba. It was put down without too much difficulty, and in the aftermath Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and 100 miles around. This was the beginning of their “Diaspora”, their dispersion amongst the nations of the world, without a homeland of their own. This would last until the state of Israel was established in 1947. On the site of the city of Jerusalem Hadrian established a Roman colony.
Antoninus Pius’ reign was one of the most peaceful in Roman history. The only military offensive was into Scotland, where he advanced the Roman frontier to the Firth-Forth line. In Antoninus’ reign, however, the empire was afflicted by a major plague that swept in from the east, and killed millions of people. It seems to have particularly struck the Roman army.
Looking back at that period it is difficult to escape the feeling that a turning point had been reached in the empire’s fortunes. The reign of Antonius’ successor, Marcus Aurelius, was troubled by long wars on the Danube as some barbarian tribes in central Europe sought to migrate across the frontiers into the empire. The Roman defences were hard put to it to contain the threat, and this set the tone for things to come. it may be that the plague had left the army chronically short of manpower. Perhaps significantly Marcus took the step of settling some of the invaders within the empire, in the Balkan provinces, to bolster the population in that region; and deported others to Britain to serve as auxiliaries in the Roman army there. From now on pressure along all the empire’s frontiers would increase, and Roman borders would more and more frequently be breached. The plague would also recur from time to time, keeping population levels somewhat lower than they had been before, and this will have added to the difficulties of mounting an effective defence.
Within the empire itself the period of the Flavians and Five Good Emperors was one of sound government and general peace. With peace came prosperity. The economy expanded to a level which would not be widely seen again until the 17th century. The cities of the empire received lavish endowments from their local elites, with theatres, baths, temples and other public works sprouting up. More and more people became Roman citizens, and the majority of the ruling class of the empire came from the provinces, rather than from Roman and Italy. This can be seen in the emperors themselves, who, from the time of Trajan, were seldom Italians.
The sequence of good emperors was brought to an end by the accession to power of Marcus Aurelius’ unworthy son, Commodus (reigned 180-192 CE). He immediately put an end to the interminable fighting on the Danube frontiers by making a treaty with the northern tribes which was widely regarded as a sell-out. On his return to Rome he soon alienated the senate and upper classes by his passion for gladiatorial combat (he even participated himself). He became more and more irrational and dangerous, and was eventually murdered by one of his mistresses.
Commodus’ murder plunged the empire into a second round of civil wars, more than a hundred years after the first. This time these lasted four years, not just one. The an the senate chose to replace Commodus, Pertinax (reigned 192-3), was a stern disciplinarian, and the Praetorian Guard soon killed him. They then put the succession up for auction; but as in 68-9 events had moved away from Rome. Frontier armies began marching on Rome, and civil war followed. It was not until 197 that Septimius Severus, the commander of the Danubian armies, had defeated his rivals and was firmly in power. Severus (reigned 193-211 CE) was a native of North Africa, and his wife was from Syria.
On coming to power Severus discharged the entire Praetorian Guard, and recruited a new one from amongst his own legionaries, many of whom were not Italians. He purged the senate of those who had supported one or other of his rivals. He strengthened the army, raising the pay of the troops considerably (a pay rise for them was in fact long overdue), and he raised three new legions. He ordered all taxes, even from senatorial provinces, to be paid directly into the imperial treasury – the senate’s treasury effectively became little more than the municipal treasury for the city of Rome.
Septimius was succeeded by his two sons, Caracalla and Geta. Caracalla (his official name was Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus; “Caracalla” was a nickname he got from the rough military cloak he wore) soon got rid of his brother and reigned alone (211-217 CE).
Caracalla embarked on a major expedition to Parthia. Whilst on it he was murdered by his Praetorian Prefect, Macrinus, who took the purple. He was the first non-senator to do so. He was himself soon murdered, and power passed back to members of the Severan family, with two young men, Elagabalus (218-222) and Alexander Severus (222-237) holding the throne in succession. In both cases, real power lay with their mothers. Elagabalus was of Syrian descent, a priest of a local god whose exotic debaucheries scandalised even Rome. He was soon disposed of. Alexander Severus’s reign saw a measure of stability, and some successes against Rome’s enemies, especially in the east, However his lieutenants were unable to deal effectively with a major Germanic invasion across the Rhine and Danube, and this undermined support for him amongst the troops there. A general mutiny led to his murder, bringing an end to the Severan dynasty.
Politics under the Severi
By this time, power lay with the army: the senate was no more than a cipher which endorsed the will of the troops. However, the long peace of the second century had led to military units being stationed in permanent barracks for generations. Their loyalties had become regional: the troops of the Danubian legions, for example, identified with their own section of the army rather than with the army as a whole. they had little sympathy with the troops far way on the eastern frontier. This trend had actually already been apparent in the events of 68-9, but were far more entrenched now.
Furthermore, there is a sense of growing indiscipline amongst the troops, at all ranks. Two of the five emperors of the period were killed by their own men in the midst of campaigns, Caracalla by a group of senior officers, Alexander Severus in a general mutiny. The army may have been the seat of power, but it was an increasingly unstable one.
Away from the frontiers, the provinces remained largely at peace, and the prosperity of the previous period mostly continued. One trend that was becoming apparent, however, was inflation, caused by regular rounds of official devaluations of the coinage. This was exacerbated by heavier taxation, to pay for the larger and more expensive army. This was becoming a major problem by the end of the period.
The long-term spread of Roman citizenship reached a conclusion in this period when the emperor Caracalla issued his famous edict granting citizenship to all free men within the Roman empire (212).
All the emperors devoted much attention to the frontiers of the empire, and spent much of their time there. Septimius had to shore up frontiers weakened during the civil wars. He fought a major war against the Parthians, and as usual scored some successes but achieved little. He spent the last three years waging a costly wear in northern Britain, where he died.
After Septimius Severus’ time, problems along the frontiers multiplied. Invasions became more frequent, and no emperor was for long able to take his ease in Rome. Some scholars believe that, during the long peace of the second century CE, population pressures within the barbarian world of Germany and central Europe, or some other dynamic, had built up to create an urge to migrate into lands under Roman rule. By the end of the Several period invasions across the Rhine and the Danube were becoming regular events.
At the same time, in the east, a development had taken place which posed another major threat to the empire. Between 222 and 227 CE a new Persian dynasty, the Sasanians, had overthrown the Parthian Arsacids. This replaced a weak, divided regime with a strong, aggressive one. The eastern frontier of the Roman empire was now under graver threat than ever before.
At the same time the plague which had first appeared under Antonius Pius continued to return from time to time, preventing the manpower of the Roman empire from recovering to pre-plague levels.
Conditions were now turning against the Roman empire.
On the murder of Alexander Severus, the troops acclaimed Maximinus Thrax as the new emperor (reigned 237-8 CE). He was a professional soldier of humble birth, with no time for senatorial aristocrats. He achieved some success against the Germans, but his hostile attitude to the senate led to a revolt against his rule, starting first in Africa then spreading to Italy. In what looks like a throw-back to the time of the republic, the senatorial faction triumphed, and in 238, a complex sequence of events brought a young boy, Gordian III (238-244), to the throne with the senate’s support.
Gordian’s regime won some success against the Persians, but the young emperor was killed in uncertain circumstances whilst with his eastern army. His successor, Philip “the Arab” (reigned 244-9 CE) managed to shore up the eastern frontier and scored some successes in dealing with another Germanic invasion across the Danube; and in 248 he was able to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Rome’s founding in magnificent style (according to tradition the city was founded in 753 BCE). However, barbarian invasions and army mutinies sapped Philip’s authority. In 249 the distinguished senator Decius, in command of the Roman army in the Danube, was acclaimed emperor by his troops and marched on Italy. He defeated and killed Philip near Verona.
Decius (reigned 249-51) is famous for instigating the first official empire-wide persecution of the Christians.However, he was killed fighting against the Goths in the Danube region.
The crisis escalates
The mid-third century marks something of a watershed in the troubles of this period. Up to now invasions from outside the borders and mutinies and insurrections within the Roman army had been growing more and more frequent. These problems had mostly affected the frontier areas, plus the strategically located northern Italy. Most of the inner parts of the empire, although they were experiencing heavy taxation, inflation and reoccurrences of the plague, were not directly affected by these troubles. From now on, this changes.
In 251 a major Persian invasion destroyed a Roman army. leaving a gaping hole in the eastern frontier. The Persians ravaged the defenceless province, sacking Antioch, one of the greatest cities of the empire. Barbarian incursions across the Danube continued, with one group crossing the sea to Asia Minor and causing great destruction there – including burning the temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
Roman armies on the Danube and Rhine continued to proclaimed their commander as emperors, and march into northern Italy to dispose of the current incumbent. In 253 Valerian emerged as emperor, and during his reign (253-60) the empire reached its nadir.
In the west a barbarian army broke through the Rhine frontier and marched right through Gaul and into Spain before being turned back. The victorious Roman general, a commander called Postumus, was promptly hailed emperor by his troops. So far so usual; but instead of marching into northern Italy, he remained in Gaul and established a break-away empire covering Gaul, Spain and Britain.
Valerian himself, meanwhile, after instigating a second official persecution of the Christians, had headed east to patch up Roman power in that part of the world. There he met the greatest humiliation the Roman empire ever experienced: the emperor was captured by the Persian emperor Shapur, to live out his days as a servant in the Persian king’s palace. The eastern provinces were now as good as lost, and the Persians now inflicted massive destruction on the cities of Syria – including taking much of the population of Antioch, one of the greatest cities in the Roman empire, away captive – before turning back to their own territory. In an extraordinary turn of events, the king of the city of Palmyra, located on the border between the Persian and Roman empires, took on the responsibility for organising the Roman defences. Over the coming years he and his widow, Zenobia, would extend their rule over many of the eastern provinces.
Valerian’s son, Gallienus, succeeded to the throne as sole emperor (he had ruled with his father since the latter’s accession); but the unity of the Roman empire was shattered. His rule extended over a rump, of Italy, Africa, the Balkans and Greece. The western and eastern portions of the empire were on their own. the barbarian invasions continued: in 267 a group of Goths sacked Athens.
By 260 CE the principate of the early empire was effectively dead. Indeed, the Roman empire looked on the point of expiring altogether – perhaps even had expired. But then something extraordinary began to happen: in the following decades the Roman empire, against the odds, recovered.
The seeds of recovery seem to have beeb planted while Gallienus reigned as sole emperor (260-8). He withdrew a large number of troops – many of them cavalry, which from now on became much more important in the Roman army – and brigaded them together into a strong, mobile army, stationed in northern Italy. From here it was able to guard Italy against all comers, barbarian or usurper alike, and if need be to move up towards the crucial Danube frontier to plug any gaps in the Roman defences there.
This powerful force was now the most potent source of military, and therefore political, power in the empire. Its senior officers were all long-term professional soldiers of Danubian origin. It seems that senators were kept well away from this force, part of a trend in these years for professional soldiers to hold senior commands as well as provincial governorships – which, in these times of deep trouble, had themselves become more or less military posts.
The high command of this army soon got rid of Gallienus and elevated one of their own, an experienced general named Claudius, as emperor (reigned 268-70). He inflicted a major defeat on invading barbarians of the Goth people, and received the nickname “Gothicus”. Claudius was succeeded by Aurelian (270-275), who reunited the empire under his rule, first by conquering Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, who had been the effective ruler of the eastern provinces, and then the Gallic regime of Postumus and his successors. He abandoned the province of Dacia as undefendable. Anxious for the safety of Rome itself, Aurelian had new walls built around the city.
Aurelian was succeeded by a series of emperors who had brief reigns, the most notable being Probus (reigned 276-82), who drove back a major German invasion to beyond the Rhine, and Carus (282-3), who in a short reign embarked on a successful campaign against the Persians. Each contributed towards beating back the barbarians and consolidating the work of Aurelian. Finally, the emperor Diocletian came to power (reigned 284-305), and it was under him that stability was properly restored.
Various long-term trends manifested themselves in the third century crisis. Some of these were continuations of changes which had begun well before the period, but which accelerated during the crisis; others were new to the period.
The emperor, court and central administration
From the mid-third century, emperors spent by far the majority of their time on the frontiers: this was particularly true of the the soldier-emperors who restored the empire’s borders, none of whom spent much time in Rome. Milan was for much of the time the effective capital of the empire, and at other times the emperors lived in military camps on campaign. The city of Rome would in fact never again be a main imperial residence.
As a result, the close ties between emperor and senate, taken for granted in the earlier Roman empire, were broken. This hastened the trend towards the displacement of senators from high commands and provincial governorships, which had begun as early as the Severi.
Their mobile lifestyle also freed the emperors from other older traditions, allowing them to develop new styles of rule. There had been a long-term trend going back to second century, of emperors living in larger and larger palace complexes and assuming a more monarchical style of rule; but in the later third century there was a clear acceleration which saw a significant change in court styles.
An unsurprising feature of the time was that the emperor’s staff became completely militarised. Also, practices modelled on Persian antecedents, and alien to the old Roman traditions, became a feature at court (probably under the emperor Aurelian). Ceremonials and titles became more elaborate, and the emperor became increasingly separated from other mortals – the custom was introduced for those approaching the throne to prostrate themselves. An imperial title which started to come to the fore at this time was dominus, “lord”, and person of the emperor began to be referred to as “sacred”.
One of the foremost of these trends was that, from the time of Marcus Aurelius onwards, soldiers’ pay began to rise markedly, and the army began to expand in size. Both these trends accelerated markedly in the military crisis of the mid-third century.
At the same time, the organization and structure of the army changed very significantly. Already by Marcus’ time the legions, the backbone of the army in the early empire, had become too unwieldy to be often deployed as complete units; increasingly detachments were drawn from several legions and brigaded together into task forces. This became general practice as the third century wore on, with the result that legions were gradually broken up and new mobile field armies emerged as the linchpins of the empire’s defence.
In the later third century barbarians began to be drafted into the army in significant numbers, either as recruits within regular units or in “federated” units under their own leaders.
The provincial administration
The government of the provinces changed practically out of all recognition. The evidence for this period is scant, but it is clear that, in their attempts to stem the disasters afflicting the empire, third century emperors had little time for the practices of previous, more stable times. The old distinction between senatorial and imperial provinces was swept away, and, with a few exceptions, governorships were no longer in the hands of senators but of equestrians, often from military backgrounds: these were more adept at ruthlessly mobilising the resources of their provinces to supply the war effort. The old partnership between provincial governors and city councils was a thing of the past: the governors’ tax collectors, now no longer cultivated Roman gentlemen but tough professional soldiers, came to the cities with their harsh demands (often not for money payments but, with the collapse of the coinage, for grain, salt, and other goods). These demands were backed by military threat.
This process was a part and parcel of the broader militarization of the administration, from top to bottom. Whereas in previous times governors had had small staffs drawn from the soldiery to help them in their administrative duties, in the third century these staffs expanded vastly and took over the entire administrative apparatus of the empire. Officials were now soldiers, wit the ranks, pay and rations of military rank.
The damage done by the barbarians during these years was immense. Cities which for centuries had remained undefended now acquired stout walls. In the west in particular, these new walls only surrounded the central core of the city, so that later Roman cities look much smaller than their earlier selves in the archaeological record.
There was a virtual cessation of urban public building in third century as the old-style civic patronage practiced by the city elites now came to virtual halt. in the conditions of the third century it would simply have been out of the question to fund new baths, theatres and so on when the cities’ very survival was at stake; defence was the absolute priority. Also, another factor may have been at work. Already in late 2nd century there are signs of strain in the upkeep of the public building stock in several cities, due to the abundance of previous benefactions; adding to this stock may have been increasingly unwelcome.
After the crisis of the third century, when the Roman empire was overrun by invasions from beyond its borders and looked as if it would break up, a succession of soldier-emperors restored a measure of unity and pushed the invaders back over the frontiers. The emperor Diocletian (reigned 284 to 305 CE), like his immediate predecessors, came from the Danubian provinces, and like them he had had a career as a professional soldier. Unlike them, he succeeded in remaining in power for twenty years, and so gave the Roman empire a much-needed period of peace and stability. How did he do this?
Successful though the efforts of the soldier-emperors were in reuniting the empire, one of the basic problems besetting the Roman empire in the third century persisted. This was that armies operating in their own theatre of war were tempted to acclaim their commander emperor, who would then march, not against Rome’s enemies, but on their rivals.
Diocletian set about dealing with this problem by dividing the empire into two parts, east and west, and, with himself based in the east, appointed a fellow emperor in the west. These two emperors each had a junior emperor to support them. The senior emperors had the title of Augustus, while the junior emperors had that of Caesar. The two Caesars were the designated heirs of the two Augusti. This emphasised the fact that anyone aiming for the throne from outside this charmed circle started from a position of blatant illegality.
This solution was the result of trial and error and emerged over a number of years. It dew on many precedents from the past, in which emperors had appointed others, usually sons or close relatives, as co-emperors. Indeed, under Diocletian family relationships were created to underpin the arrangement by marriage alliances and adoptions between the co-emperors.
Modern scholars call this system of co-emperors the tetrarchy, or “rule of four”. There was never any doubt amongst contemporaries that Diocletian remained supreme amongst them. The arrangement gave almost twenty years of much needed stability to the empire.
None of these emperors now lived in Rome. Diocletian based himself largely in Nicomedia, in northwest Asia Minor; his western colleague Galerius, traveled around near the frontiers, with Milan or Trier, in Gaul, as his preferred headquarters. The Caesars went as and where they were needed.
The system of administration
Diocletian and has colleagues were able to bring some system to the chaotic administrative condition the empire had fallen into. With the collapse of the silver coinage, the army was now paid and supplied partly by requisitions. In the crisis conditions of the third century, this was bound to be haphazard and a source of great distress to local civilian populations. Diocletian made tax payments – in both money and kind – regular and predictable. This alleviated the suffering for civilians and made the administrative more efficient.
The better to deal with the immense burden of tax collection and other administrative duties which now fell to the provincial governors and their staffs, which in previous times had been the preserve of city councils, Diocletian progressively reduced the size of provinces. This of course increased the number of provinces (Britain, for example, now had four provinces instead of two), so co-ordinating provincial administration became an issue. He therefore grouped the provinces into administrative regions called diocese. These were supervised by senior officials called vicarii, who reported to the Praetorian Prefects (of which there were two, one for each of the Augusti).
The military responsibilities of governors was now handed to army commanders called duces (pl. of dux). From now on, for the first time in Roman history, military and administrative careers were separated (although civil servants were still officially viewed as military personnel, due to the militarization of the administration in the third century crisis; they wore military-style uniforms and had the rank and pay of soldiers,). This process of separation was not quite complete: it would have to await the reign of Constantine before officials of the topmost rung, the Praetorian Prefects, lost their military powers.
This new system of provincial government required a much greater number of officials to run it than in the early empire.
In the past Diocletian was credited with vastly increasing the size of the army, but scholars now think that he oversaw no more than a modest expansion. He did create many new legions, but these were not the huge units of six thousand men of the early empire; they were about one thousand men strong, probably in line with the example of late third century emperors, under whom the old legions had been dispersed and considerably reduced in size.
Also in line with developments in the third century, field armies now formed a major element in imperial defences. However, Diocletian seems to have strengthened frontier defences, building military roads and forts, and strengthened natural barriers. The eastern frontier in particular received a great deal of attention, and would remain very heavily defended throughout the fourth century.
Social and religious legislation
The overriding need to pay for the defences of the empire, and the expanded imperial administration which went with it, determined the nature of Diocletian’s social legislation. It was aimed at ordering society in such a way that it was as easy as possible to raise taxes from it.
Much of the legislation from Diocletian’s time onwards was aimed at preventing various social groups from moving from place to place, or from one line of work to another, thus keeping them as regular taxpayers. Peasants were prohibited from leaving the estates on which they lived and farmed; they were (in law, at least; reality was a different thing) tied to their estates, making them similar to the serfs of later medieval times. Some professions regarded as crucial to the smooth operation of the state, such as shippers, bakers and soldiers, were made hereditary. Town councillors, who still had a vital role to play in the collection of taxes from their communities, were not allowed to leave their positions. From being a highly privileged elite in the early empire this had become a harassed and, in some parts, even impoverished class now, being required to personally guarantee their towns’ taxes from their own pockets. To keep them in place they were forbidden to enter the civil service, the army or the church.
That similar laws were repeated again and again later in the fourth century, in a shriller and shriller manner, points to this legislation not being very effective. Notably, town councillors left their positions in a steady trickle to take up a career the civil service – highly desirable as it freed them from their tax obligations and potentially opened the way to high office, much improved status and substantial wealth.
Another piece of Diocletian’s legislation that even he realised was ineffective was his attempted to control prices of a range of goods. He had the relevant laws withdrawn after a few years.
Diocletian’s attempts to dragoon society into supporting the military effort attests to the greater tax take in the later Roman empire than in the early empire. With a larger army and administration, this was inevitable. In the past, scholars have concluded that from Diocletian’s time onwards there was a harsh regime which created a caste-like society consisting of an oppressed majority, its vitality sapped by an unproductive minority of officials, courtiers, landowners, soldiers and clergy. However, the archaeological evidence gives a more nuanced picture; in most places it suggests an economy not much less vigorous than that of the early empire. In the east, indeed, the fourth and fifth centuries seem to have been ones of economic expansion. The west’s economy was a great deal more fragile, and seems never to have recovered all the ground lost in the third century; but even here, for example in Africa, southern Spain and much of Italy, above all Rome itself, this period shows signs of a great deal of prosperity.
Diocletian initiated the last great persecuted of Christians. This fits in with the ordered mind which seems to be apparent in his other policies: he wanted uniformity of belief as well as behaviour.
The end of the Tetrarchy
In the final analysis, Diocletian’s system of co-emperors rested on consent. After Diocletian retired in 305, to allow the Caesars to become Augusti in an orderly fashion, the system almost immediately began to break down. The ambitions of one of the Caesars, in particular, ensured that this was the case by rebelling against the Augustus of the west, Maxentius. In 312 Constantine fought and won the battle of the Milvian bridge, just outside Rome, and so established himself as the Augustus in the west. By 324 he had defeated the Augustus of the east and made himself the sole emperor of the Roman world.
Constantine’s reign (from 312 in the west, from 324 in the whole empire, until his death in 337) is one of the pivotal periods in European, even world, history. This is for two reasons. First, he became a Christian, and from his time until the modern age almost all European rulers have followed him in this, enabling the Christian Church to dominate religion and culture to such an extent that Europe has for most of its history been synonymous with the term “Christendom”.
Secondly, he founded a new capital, Constantinople, which would remain the centre of the Roman (or, as scholars call this phase, the Byzantine) empire for another thousand years. With its superb location and massive walls it would act as a strong defence against the advance of Muslim for all of that time.
In the course of his struggles for power, Constantine was converted to Christianity, He would not actually be baptized into the Christian church until right at the end of his life, but this was a fairly common practice at the time (for fear of committing a mortal sin).
Under Constantine, all persecution of the Christian church ceased, and Christianity became a legal religion. All subsequent Roman emperors except one, Julian “the Apostate” (reigned 361-3), would also be Christians.
Under Constantine and his successors, the Christian church began to receive official patronage. The Clergy were exempted from the duties and responsibilities of town councillors, and Constantine himself embarked on a major church building programme. The bishops of the Christian church started their rise to become prominent figures in their own towns and cities.
However, Constantine soon found himself drawn into the internal disputes between different groups of Christians. The main controversies revolved around attempts to define the precise nature of Christ in relation to God on the one hand, and mankind on the other. Constantine tried to resolve these issues by calling councils of Bishops, which would be regular occurrences in the later Roman empire. The Council of Nicaea of 325 CE, over which he presided, was the first of these, and probably the most influential: it hammered out a position (that Christ is both man and God) to which most of the the bishops, drawn from all over the Roman world, could sign up to, and which has remained broadly the orthodox view of mainstream churches ever since.
Pagans were not persecuted by Constantine nor any of his immediate successors, and certainly in Constantine’s time and for some time afterwards Christianity remained a minority religion. However, Constantine initiated a church building programme which would soon start to make the Christian religion a key part of the physical townscapes of the empire.
As we have seen, the later third century emperors were too busy campaigning on the frontiers to live in Rome for any long periods; and none of the emperors of the Tetrarchy made Rome their residence. Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople was therefore building on long-established practice going back at least a generation.
Yet there was something different about this act. It was no ad-hoc choice of a city as a temporary headquarters, but the deliberate selection of a permanent, second, imperial capital for the mighty empire. This is seen in the way it deliberately mimicked the features of Rome itself, above all the installation of second senate, and the appointment of the Prefect of the City to govern it, like the historic Prefect of Rome, the most senior (if not the most powerful) official since Augustus’ day.
Constantinople was in fact the ancient city of Byzantium, renamed, refurbished and much upgraded (hence the name of the empire it ruled, the Byzantine empire). From the start this was to be a Christian city; but it was also to be a well-defended city. It was located on a piece of land jutting out into the sea, with only one landward side. Stout walls (later rebuilt on a massive scale) surrounded the entire city; these were to prove impervious to attack for more than a thousand years (unless treachery was involved).
Constantine’s administrative and military policies
In his secular policies, Constantine mostly followed in the footsteps of Diocletian, though with some departures of his own. He consolidated Diocletian’s provincial arrangements by dividing the empire into three sectors, each one under a Praetorian Prefect. One was responsible for the west, Spain, Gaul and Britain; another for the central trunk, Africa, Italy and the Balkans, and the other for the Eastern provinces in Asia Minor, the Levant and Egypt. Their military responsibilities were taken away from them altogether and handed over to new officers, a magister militum, also one for each of the sectors. The Praetorian Prefects were left as the top civilian officials of the empire, viceroys of their respective sectors. This measure completed the separation of military and civilian offices in the empire.
One departure from Diocletian’s practice was to expand the senatorial order. He removed the obligation for senators to attend meetings of the senate, or even to live in Italy; and from now on most members of the order were high officials and generals who held senatorial rank as a social cache rather than a substantive position. But Constantine also appointed senators who were actual members of the Roman senate, and who came from Roman senatorial families based in Rome (though probably of provincial ancestry), to governorships much more frequently than Diocletian had done. Later in the fourth century such senators would reached very high office indeed, as members of the emperors’ inner council and as Praetorian Prefects.
Perhaps this expansion of the senatorial order and appointment of senators was linked to his introduction of taxation for this group (as a sort of quid pro quo). Since this was by far the wealthiest class within Roman society, this would have greatly strengthened the imperial treasury. Indeed, perhaps, in turn, this new taxation (which also brought certain merchants into the taxable fold) was linked to his issuing a new gold coinage, the solidus, which began to put an end to the chronic and disabling inflation the empire had experienced for so long.
In the military sphere, he seems to have placed more emphasis on field armies stationed behind the lines than Diocletian had done, who is noted for having strengthened the frontiers.
The fourth century CE was certainly more stable for the Roman empire than the third century had been; even so, it fell a long way short of the stability and peace of the first and second centuries CE.
On Constantine’s death in 337, fighting between his sons left the empire divided between two of them, Constans in the west and Constantius II in the east. In 350 a usurper, Magnentius, rose against Constans and killed him; but, after winning control of much of the west, he himself was defeated and killed by Constantius (353), who thus became sole emperor.
In 355 the commander on the Rhine frontier, Silvanus, rebelled, but was killed soon after; this event probably prompted Constantus to realise that ruling alone was not a practical proposition by this time. He appointed his cousin Julian as Caesar. In 361 Julian succeeded Constantius as Augustus, but lasted only two years, dying on his return from a disastrous invasion of Persia.
With Julian’s death, the family of Constantine came to an end. The high command of the eastern army chose an officer called Jovian to succeed him (361-2), and then Valentinian (364-75), who reigned with his brother Valens as co-emperor. Valens remained in the east while Valentinian took ruled the west.
In 375 Valentian died, and his 16 year old son Gratian, took over control of the west. At same time his younger brother, the infant Valentinian II, was proclaimed emperor by the troops on the Danube. In 378, when Valens was defeated and killed at the battle of Adrianople, Gratian hurriedly appointed his general Theodosius to be his co-emperor in the east.
In 383 a usurper Magnus Maximus proclaimed himself emperor in Britain, and invaded Gaul. Gratian, a strict disciplinarian, was promptly murdered by his own troops, who joined Maximus.
Theodosius was forced to recognize Maximus as Augustus until the later started expanding his power. Theodosius then moved decisively against him, and in 383-5 overpowered him. After Maximus’ defeat, Theodosius ruled as sole emperor until his own death in 395.
Struggles within and without
It can be seen from the above that internal struggles were frequent; they had a serious impact on the empire’s efforts to repel invaders. In Constantine’s last years, hostilities broke out between Rome and Persia. His son Constantius II inherited the war here, which was prolonged by his struggles with his brothers. The rebellion of the commander of the Rhine frontier, Silvanus (355), prompted Germanic tribes to invade, and had to be pushed back by Julian, meanwhile Constantius was dealing with invasions in the Danubian sector. Constantius then had to return to the east, where the Persians had again invaded. He managed to patch things up there temporarily.
In 363 Julian, now sole emperor, embarked on a Persian campaign of his own, invading deep into Persian territory as far as the capital, Ctesiphon. This, however, he was unable to take it, and was forced to retreat. His successor, Jovian (361-2), concluded a peace with the Persians, which was generally considered humiliating for the Romans, but which in fact stabilised the eastern frontier for a long time to come (though fighting did break out here form time to time).
The co-emperors Valentinian and his brother Valens, and later his son Gratian, were constantly engaged in fighting on all frontiers, and on occasion, rebels. In 378, however, Valens was defeated and killed by the Goths at the battle of Adrianople, and his army destroyed,. This was an enormous shock to the Romans, and left a gapping hole in their defences along the eastern Danube. The Goths were able to rampage at will through the Balkans as far as the walls of Constantinople.
Valen’s successor in the east, Theodosius, patched up the situation in the Danube region as best he could, settling the Goths on their own land within the empire so that they caused no more destruction.
A major civil war occurred in 383-5 in which Theodosius defeated the usurper Magnus Maximus, which further weakened frontier defences along the Rhine and the Danube.
These later fourth century emperors broadly continued the policies of Diocletian and Constantine. All, except Julian “the Apostate” (360-3) were Christians, and Julians’ attempts to turn back the clock to paganism came to nothing. In fact, this period saw the Christian church become firmly embedded into the government and society of the Roman empire. In 385 it was proclaimed the state religion of the Roman empire. At both a local and empire-wide level, Christian bishops rose to prominence, with famous bishops such as Ambrose of Milan becoming having a major influence on policy, and within cities across the empire, bishops becoming central figures within their communities. The growing wealth of local churches meant that bishops were now the prime source of patronage, with money now no longer devoted to the building and upkeep of temples and public baths, and the funding of games, but in the construction and maintenance of churches, which now came to dominate the townscapes of the empire, and in charity to the poor.
The overriding need to pay for the defences of the empire, and the expanded imperial administration which went with it, determined the nature of Diocletian’s social legislation. It was aimed at ordering society in such a way that it was as easy as possible to raise taxes from it.
As in Diocletian and Constantine’s time, much legislation continued to be aimed at fixing social groups in place on a hereditary basis – peasants on their land, soldiers and traders in their professions, town councillors in their cities – so that tax collection could be more efficient. It is quite clear that this legislation was only partially successful, at best. Such legislation was part of the great struggle to keep invaders out of the empire, which continued throughout the fourth century. By the end of the century this struggle was showing clear signs of being lost, at least in the west. The Rhine and Danube frontiers were increasingly being given over to Germans and other barbarians to defend. In the next century these defences would give way altogether.
Articles on Ancient Rome:
Government and Warfare under the Roman Empire
Click here for a short overview of the history of the ancient Middle East, showing the role the Roman empire played in that region.