The Roman Empire


The Early Empire (27 BCE-180 CE)


Octavian Caesar comes to power  

Julius Caesar "willed" the position of Consul to his adopted son, Octavian.  In 42 BCE Octavian formed a Second Triumvirate with generals Mark Antony and Lepidus, who returned to Rome and crushed the Senate's republican faction (led by Brutus and Cassius).  Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus then ruled together/divided Rome's territories (Antony ruled Egypt and the East; Lapidus ruled Africa;  Octavian ruled Italy and the West).  Rivalry between Octavian and Antony led to a new civil war in 32 BCE.  Octavian defeated Antony at Actium in 31 BCE.


Octavian becomes Augustus

From 31 BCE to 27 BCE, Octavian ruled as Consul.  In 27 BCE, the Senate named him "Emperor" and "Augustus" ("victorious general" and "most honored").  He also was designated "Princips" ("first citizen").  In 23 BCE, Augustus Caesar (his new title) resigned as Consul.  But the Senate gave him imperium for life and named him Tribune for life. 


A Monarchy Disguised as a Republic

Augustus controlled the army, the Assembly and the Senate, he could veto any legislation, he could impose judgment and punishment on any Roman, and he was immune from arrest or punishment.   Yet Rome still had the façade of republican institutions.


Augustus as Reformer

Augustus issued administrative reforms that made the Roman state more efficient.  He re-organized the Senate, recruited talented (wealthy) commoners for government service, divided Rome into rational administrative districts, organized Rome's first police force and fire department, and built a network of aqueducts to provide a public water supply.  


He also reorganized the Empire’s administration, which aided in its growth.  He let local elites participate in the administering the provinces and appointed competent governors who served longer terms.  He reorganized tax collection to reduce corruption, which increased tax revenues, and he encouraged Roman colonization of the provinces.  His reforms sustained order in Rome for nearly 200 years (it began unraveling after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE).  


“Dynastic Succession” and the Emperors:

Imperial Rome was ruled by a succession of “dynasties”—often not blood relatives.  Emperors often were caught between two poles of political power—the Senate and the Army.  The Senate often appointed emperors, but many came to power in military coups, supported by army legions or the imperial guards. 


Julio-Claudians 27 BCE-68 CE (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero). 

4 different emperors in the year 69 CE

Flavian Dynasty (69-96)

Nervan-Antonian Dynasty (the Five Good Emperors) 96 CE-192 CE


Augustus, the Army, and the Pax Romana (Roman Peace)

Augustus professionalized Rome's armies.  Soldiers enlisted for 20 years, and received decent pay and land upon retirement.  He kept 300,000 soldiers in the provinces, to keep order and spread Roman culture.  


Under Augustus, Rome conquered most of Central Europe.  His dynastic successors then extended the empire into Eastern Europe and Mesopotamia.  Rome imposed "peace" (Pax Romana) through military dominance, but also offered benefits to conquered lands. 

Roman colonists and soldiers brought Roman culture and institutions to new provinces.  Rome built new cities, new monuments, new temples, new roads, new baths, new aqueducts and new ports.  And Roman rule meant Roman Law.


Roman Law

Even under Emperors, Rome still prided itself on the Rule of Law—the idea that men were to live according to clear legal principles.  Roman legal experts (jurists) developed three kinds of law:  civil law (law applied to citizens); the "law of peoples" (which applied to everyone, esp. property rights); and natural law (eternal principles by which the gods ordered the universe and according to which all men must act).  One of the key Roman natural law concepts was that men are born equal in rights that government cannot take away.


Force vs Resistance (“Resistance is Futile”)

Rome assimilated many conquered peoples, but also enforced "peace" through military force.  The Germanic tribes and the Celtic tribes (in Britain) rebelled several times, and each time the Roman army brutally crushed their resistance.  In 70 BCE, the Romans crushed a rebellion in Judea, burned the Second Temple, killed about 500,000 people, and banned Jews from Jerusalem. 


Assimilation as a two-way street

Rome offered opportunities to those who assimilated into its culture; but Romans also borrowed from the cultures they had absorbed.  Example: religious cults, like the Mithras cult from Asia Minor and, after about 40 CE, a new sect in Judaism known that eventually become known as the Christians.


Life in the Early Roman Empire:  The Roman Trade Imbalance

Imperial Rome traded with all the "known world" (even China).   It had artisans and manufacturing, but these were not high cultural priorities.  Generally, Rome imported goods and exported gold and silver (to purchase goods).  SO it had a negative trade balance, which was a problem as a long-term trend.  Also, it depended on “cheap” slave labor, which stunted domestic economic innovation.  Moreover, if the supply of slaves ended, the economy would decline. 


Early Imperial Roman Culture:  The Golden Age and the Silver Age

Roman intellectual and artistic life flowered under the early Empire:  for Rome, this was the “Golden Age.”  (Roman culture, though, was still influenced by the Greeks).  Roman Stoic philosophers, for instance, stressed that one should seek inner peace by recognizing the natural order of the universe (which required ethical behavior).


Other examples include the poet Ovid:  Greek influence is clear in his mythical poetry and in his caustic/erotic poems in the Metamorphoses).   The Roman historian Livy was influenced by Herodotus and Thucydides, though less concerned with accuracy and documentation.  Livy's histories were engaging patriotic propaganda, as were the works of Augustus’ favorite poet, Virgil (e.g., the Aeneid).


In the Silver Age that began around 100 CE, Roman literature became more concerned with moral criticism of the seedier, decadent sides of Roman life.  Examples include the poet Juvenal and the historian Tacitus (who praised the "savage" Germans as morally purer than Romans).


Roman Architecture and Engineering

Rome copied Greek painting, sculpture, and literature, but surpassed the Greeks in architecture and engineering.  Rome excelled at building domes, arches, roads and bridges, aqueducts and urban water supply systems.   As in Greece, architecture had propagandistic purposes—monumental buildings were to remind Romans of the greatness of their Emperors/Empire. 


Roman “Sports” 

Romans liked to watch combat.  The Roman "circus" featured huge displays of gladiatorial combat.  The Coliseum in Rome fit more than 50,000 spectators and would be filled to capacity for the "circus."  All Romans (including Emperors) attended gladiatorial combats to watch men—usually slaves or convicts—torn apart by animals or forced to butcher one another. 


Even at the height of Rome’s power, some Romans worried about signs of decline—they pointed to the decadence of Roman elite culture, the strains that super-expansion placed on Rome’s military, and the underlying weakness of Rome’s economic system. 


The Roman Empire in Crisis (180-284 CE): 

The Severans and Military Rule

In 180 CE, Emperor Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius, inherited the imperial title.   Commodus rule by terror, and arbitrarily executed Senators, military commanders, and other public figures.  When he was murdered in 192 CE, Rome fell back into a series of civil wars between the factions of competing generals.  In 193 CE, a general named Septimus Severus seized power. 

Severus and his dynasty ruled until 235 CE, and were basically military dictators.  They weakened the Senate, made the army the center of Roman political life, and used the military against their potential opponents. 

Fifty more years of Chaos and Civil War (235 CE-284 CE)

In 235 CE the army turned against the Severans and murdered Emperor Severus Alexander and his wife.  For fifty years, general after general seized power in a series of military coups.  Political chaos gripped the empire until 284 CE. 

Economic Crisis in the 200s CE

In the 200s CE, Rome’s economic weaknesses reached the point of crisis.  Constant war, civil war, and the cost of appeasing the army had bankrupted the government.  Several emperors had patched over the crisis by raising taxes and issuing devalued the currency (less silver in the coins).  But devalued currency added to the crisis.  Important trade routes had been cut off by warfare and food production was declining.   Food shortages contributed to the spread of epidemic diseases.  That, like warfare, depopulated the Roman countryside.  In the mid-200s, plagues hit Rome's cities for almost two decades. The economic crisis had relatively little impact on the lives of Rome's wealthy aristocrats, but it meant great suffering for ordinary Romans.  

Between 180 CE and 280 CE, Rome's population declined by at least 30 percent

The Problem of a Slave Economy

Rome’s reliance on “cheap” slave labor made the crisis worse.   Once Rome's external expansion slowed (around 100 CE), it no longer had an inexhaustible supply of slaves.  By the mid-100s CE, the birth rate among slaves had declined dramatically.  Plus, hunger and plagues hit slaves harder than other Romans.  So labor productivity was falling, and Rome could not reproduce its slave labor force.  Roman landowners could have tried new techniques to improve agriculture, but instead worked their slaves harder.     

The Threat of Foreign Invasion

In the 200s CE, Rome's armies were far weaker than they had been a century earlier (a result of population decline and decades of civil war).  The Persians began carving away at Rome's territories in the East (they captured and killed Emperor Valerian in 260 CE).  In the North, Germanic tribes like the Goths began moving against Roman territory.  

Rome's pattern of authoritarian, militaristic rule had weakened it politically, its reliance on slave labor had weakened it economically, and its expansionism had created a backlash that weakened its security.  By the late 200s CE Rome was in serious decline, although its self-satisfied, luxury-loving elites seemed to take little notice. 

Diocletian and Constantine:  Moving Rome to the East 

In 284 CE a general named Diocletian seized power in Rome and instituted important administrative and economic reforms.  Diocletian's reforms prevented Rome’s collapse, but also increased the state's power over its subjects.  Diocletian also began shifting the geographic center of Roman power to the East (the richest part of the Empire). 

Diocletian’s Administrative Reforms:

Diocletian decided to divide military and civilian administration to remove army generals from domestic government tasks.  To make administration more efficient, he divided the empire into two main territorial districts (East, under his personal rule, and West, under the rule of his protégé Maximian).  To prevent more succession struggles (civil wars), he subdivided the Eastern and Western Empire into four provinces, each administered by a governor.  When an emperor died, one of the four governors would take his place.  (This did not work out!) 

Diocletian’s Economic Reforms:

To stabilize the economy, Diocletian began by reforming the tax collection system by appointing large numbers of regional tax collectors. This resulted in higher tax revenues (at the expense of poor Romans), but also made the state bureaucracy much larger.  He also stopped the devaluation of Rome’s currency, and he tried to set fixed prices for food and other necessities and to set fixed wage levels (this failed). 

First Steps towards Serfdom:

To stop the decline in the agricultural labor force, Diocletian issued laws limiting the rights of  free agricultural workers to move.  But this did little to change Rome's reliance on un-free labor.  Instead, it began the slow process of creating a new form of un-free labor, serfdom. 

Making the Empire “Eastern”

Like Alexander the Great, Diocletian moved his capital to the East, from Rome to Nicomedia (in what is today Turkey).  The Eastern provinces had become a greater source of wealth than Rome’s European lands.  Like Alexander the Great, Diocletian emulated the style of Persian rulers-he dressed in Persian clothing and his court followed Persian as well as Roman rituals.

From the Pretend Republic to an Autocracy:  The Dominate

Augustus and other emperors had kept the pretense that Rome was a republic, not a monarchy.  But Diocletian no longer used the title Princips "first citizen."  Instead, he was Rome's "Lord" (Dominus) and the Empire was the Dominate.  Under Diocletian, the Emperor became a King and Rome became an Autocracy in which all state power rested with the Emperor.

Emperor Constantine

In 305 CE, Diocletian and Maximian both retired and were replaced by two regional governors according to Diocletian's reforms.  But within months another civil war broke out.  This ended with the military victory of Constantine in 312 CE.  (Constantine was son of the governor who had assumed power in the Western Empire under Diocletian's plan).  Constantine ruled only the Western Empire until 324 CE, but he then used military force to take power over the Eastern Empire as well, reuniting all Rome's territory.

Hereditary Kingship and Patrimonial Rule   

Constantine restored the principle of hereditary kingship in Rome and defined kingship as "patrimonial rule"—the empire, its lands, and its peoples were his own personal property. 

Moving the Capital to Constantinople :

In 330 CE, Constantine moved the imperial capital to a new city that he had built on the border between East and West, Constantinople.  (Today called Istanbul)   This gave the emperor easier access to the East and the West (Asia and Europe)  The empire's culture now became even more sharply divided between the "Latin" West and the "Greek" East. 

Under Constantine and his successors in the 300s CE, the Imperial bureaucracy grew ever larger and more corrupt.  A new kind of elite joined the old aristocratic and equestrian families—the wealthy bureaucrat.  The gap between rich and poor became even greater.  As the slave labor population dwindled, the state reduced the legal status of "free" laborers and tied them to the land of the wealthy.  High taxes and laws restricting free movement weighed heavily on the poor.    

Under Constantine, the poor turned for comfort to a new religion that promised them salvation and happiness after death:  Christianity.  Constantines policies had added to the hardships of the poor, but he also had converted to Christianity (in 312 CE), which guaranteed imperial support for the Christian church.    

The Origins and Early Growth of Christianity           

Trends in Hebrew (Jewish) Religious Life Circa at the end of the Roman Republic

From the 500s BCE, Jewish religious thought was entirely monotheistic, but there were still theological debates among Jews.  The dominant faction was the Sadduces, the temple priests and their allies, who argued that all Jews must follow the Ten Commandments, but that most other Mosaic laws applied only to the priests.  Their main opponents, the Pharisees, argued that all Jews must live according to all 613 laws in the Five Books of Moses.  The Pharisees also argued that God wants man to follow both the "written Torah"and the "oral Torah"—Moses’ unwritten teachings, passed for generations from teacher to student.  They preached that the Messiah (the "deliverer") would soon come and that the Day of Judgment was near.

Another sect in Judaism in the first century BCE was the Essenes (Jesus' cousin John the Baptist?).  The Essenes argued it was not enough to follow God's laws; salvation depended on repentance, withdrawal from worldly life, and complete devotion to God. 

Roman Rule and the Expectation of a Messiah

Julius Caesar’s conquest of Judea created the immediate context for Christianity.  Rome appointed a king (Herod) to rule Judea, under the oversight of a Roman governor (Pontius Pilate).  Rome also appointed the high Temple priesthood.  The temple priesthood and elements of the aristocracy cooperated with the Romans, but Hebrews as a whole resented Roman rule.  Political radicals called the Zealots called for an anti-Roman uprising, while various religious factions within Jewish life criticized the Sadducees as collaborators and preached that God would send the Messiah to free the Jews of foreign (pagan) rule. 

 [Note:  the Jews rebelled against Rome in 69-70 CE and again in 132-135 CE.  The Romans crushed both uprisings, in the first case destroying the Second Temple, and in the second case expelling the Jews from Jerusalem.]

The Historical Jesus

In the first century CE, many preachers claimed to be the Messiah.  We need to consider this background when discussing the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Christian gospels and letters from the early Church are the only substantial historical evidence on Jesus' life.  None of the gospel writers belonged to Jesus circle (the disciples), and the earliest gospel account (Mark) was written at least 30 years after the death of Jesus. 

What seems certain is that Jesus was born between 3 BCE and 3 CE, the son of a Jewish carpenter.  At about 30 years old he became a teacher-preacher (rabbi), in the tradition of the Pharisees.  As an intenerate preacher, he emphasized themes common to Jewish reformers of that era:  the importance of forgiveness, of embracing good, of "turning the other cheek" to evil and loving one's enemies, and of treating others as you would have them treat you.  Like many Jewish preachers of his time, he spoke of the coming Day of Judgment, the resurrection of the dead, and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Some of Jesus' teachings also reflected the ideas of the Essenes  (emphasis on the mystical and on a personal relationship with God). 

Jesus' teachings as reported in the four canonic Gospels directly criticized the Sadducees.  Also, the claim (made in the last weeks of his life) that Jesus was the Messiah posed a direct challenge to the authority of the Temple priests and to the Roman colonial government. 

Some of Jesus' teachings also outraged the Pharisees—in particular, his argument that it was more important to follow the spirit of God's law than it was to following the letter of God's law.  (For example, the Mosaic laws in the Hebrew Bible saw that the community should stone to death those found guilty of adultery; Jesus taught that only those who themselves were without sin could "cast stones" at sinners.) 

During Passover week in his 33rd year, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, and the Temple priests directed Harrods government to arrest him for blasphemy.  The priest-judges convicted him, and because blasphemy was a crime against the state, the Roman governor (Pilate) determined Jesus' punishment.  Pilate sentenced Jesus to the standard Roman punishment for sedition:  crucifixion. 

Three days after his crucifixion, Jesus' followers reported that he had arisen from his grave.  Now the followers of this Jewish preacher became adherents of a new religion, the followers of Christ (Greek for "the anointed one").  The central tenants of this new faith was that Jesus was both the son of God and the manifestation of God; that he had lived the life of a man so as to suffer for man's sins; that he had been resurrected and then ascended into heaven; and that he would return on the Day of Judgment.

For two generations after the crucifixion,  the followers of Jesus were almost all Jews, who considered themselves part of the larger Jewish faith.  They were concentrated in towns in Judea and Syria, waiting for Christ’s return.  Each community had its own versions of the Jesus story; in the second generation, followers of Jesus began writing down these stories.  The first three canonic gospels (the synoptic gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and Luke) represent different versions of that story (Mark and Matthew may had read a previous written account, now lost).  

Paul and the Creation of Christianity

The most important figure in propagating Jesus’ teachings was the Apostle ("missionary") Paul.  Born Saul of Tarsus, in Asia Minor, in 10 CE, Paul was a Pharisee who had never met Jesus.  He was converted to the new faith when, on the road to Damascus [Syria], he saw a blinding light and heard the voice of Jesus, who instructed him to become God's missionary.  Paul traveled throughout Rome's eastern empire preaching the new faith and defining its differences from other sects of Judaism.

Paul argued that Christ had come as savior of all men, and just as the Jews' Messiah.  Christ's coming consummated God's "old" covenant, so the Torah's laws no longer pointed the way to salvation.  Instead, Christ had established a new covenant, and man (born in sin) could be redeemed (saved) only through Christ.  Without faith in Christ and God's grace, there was no salvation.  So, Paul said, Judaism was a dead end and Christianity alone was the true faith.

Paul's version of Jesus' teachings appealed to those gentiles (non-Jews) in the Roman Empire who were drawn Judaism but remained outside that faith.  Now they also could have salvation through Yahweh.  And unlike the Mithras cult, though, Christianity offered salvation to men and women.  In the first two hundred years after Jesus' life, Christianity was one of dozens of "small" religions in Rome.  It did not emerge as a major religion until the 200s CE.

Christianity in Rome 

Christianity was a minor “foreign cult” in Rome until the 200s CE.  Its promise of salvation appealed most to the poor, who suffered most the costs of war, who faced heavy economic exploitation, hunger, and disease.  Christian congregations offered hope and help to the poor:  like Jewish congregations, they provided social services and charity to their members, who felt tied together as part of a community. 

In the late 200s and early 300s CE, several "mystery" cults and "miracle working cults" were popular in Rome; the Christians, too, believed in miracles, and many Christian preachers were said to work powerful miracles.  Moreover, the Church had been evolving a sophisticated priestly hierarchy, which gave Christian communities great organizational cohesiveness.   


Although the Roman government at times persecuted Christians (under Diocletian and Galerius), Roman authorities generally tolerated Christianity just as they tolerated other "sects."  The brief periods of persecution, however, were extremely important to the culture and traditions of the early church.  Martyrs who died for their Christian beliefs became crucial symbolic figures and martyrdom was considered the ultimate act of Christian devotion.  

Christianity as Rome’s State Religion

By 300 CE, about 3 percent of the Roman Empire's population followed the Christian faith.  Most Christians lived in the Eastern Empire and in Africa. 

In 312 CE, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.  He then promoted Christianity as the Empire's chief religion, gave Christian clergy special protections and dispensations, and built churches across the empire.  At the end of his reign (337 CE), Constantine outlawed "pagan" sacrifices to undermine Rome's other religious cults. 

Emperor Julian (361-363), reversed this decree and promoted paganism.  But all the emperors after Julian were Christians.  In 391-392 Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan cults and made Christianity Rome's one and only official state religion (although it is clear that the ban on paganism was not very effective).   

The Vogue of Christianity in Rome:

State support made Christianity "fashionable" among the wealthy, who embraced what had been a faith of the poor.  The Emperors were now Christians, and being a Christian was necessary for upward mobility in the Roman bureaucracy.  Some old aristocratic families, called Christianity “vulgar,” and associated old "pagan" cults with Rome’s great history.  But in the 300s and the 400s CE, the majority of Romans converted to Christianity. 

Creating a Church Hierarchy

State support also shaped the church's organizational hierarchy.  At first, the faith had no priests.  As it grew, each local community (parish) appointed priests.  By the 200s, priests in large towns and cities recognized the authority of that city's bishop.  Once it was the state religion, the Christian church hierarchy became more elaborate.  Each region had an Archbishop (or Metropolitan), who led the church at a regional (provincial) level.  The largest Christian centers, like Alexandria, were under the authority of a Patriarch.    

The Papacy

In the 300s-400s CE, the Patriarch of Rome claimed to be the highest authority in the church (the Papacy, or seat of the head priest--the Pope).  The Roman bishops claimed that because Christ had designated St. Peter as the head of his church, and St. Peter had (supposedly) been the first Bishop of Rome, the Bishop of Rome was the head of the entire church (called the Apostolic Succession). 

Since the Roman Emperor now ruled from Constantinople, he counted on Rome's Bishop to help administer power in the western territories.   In 455 CE, Emperor Valentinian III ordered all western bishops to recognize the authority of the Roman Pope.  (Eastern bishops generally did not recognize papal authority, foreshadowing the later schism in the church.)      

Dogma and Heresy

Imperial power also helped to shape church doctrines.  Differences in interpretation of Christ's teachings had existed since the earliest years of the church.  The Roman state played a role in defining which teachings were absolute truth (dogma) and which were false (heresy).

The most important early doctrinal disputes regarded the concept of the Trinity—the unity of God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost.  In Egypt, the priest Arius argued that since God the Father had created Christ the Son, the two could not be the same. 

In 325 CE, Constantine held a council of bishops (the Council of Nicea), which rejected the so-called "Arian heresy" and decreed Trinitarianism to be "dogma"--the only correct doctrine.   

The relationship between the Church and the Roman State benefited both parties.  Constantine could argue that his secular power came from his role as Christ's representative on earth.  This approach to legitimating royal power set a precedent for other Roman emperors, and then for Rome's Eastern successor state, the Byzantine Empire.