History of Rome

Roman history begins in a small village in central Italy; this unassuming village would grow into a small metropolis, conquer and control all of Italy, southern Europe, the Middle East, and Egypt, and find itself, by the start of AD time, the most powerful and largest empire in the world. They managed what no other people had managed before: the ruled the entire world under a single administration for a considerable amount of time. This imperial rule, which extended from Great Britain to Egypt, from Spain to Mesopotamia, was a period of remarkable peace. The Romans would look to their empire as the instrument that brought law and justice to the rest of the world; in some sense, the relative peace and stability they brought to the world did support this view.

They were, however, a military state, and they ruled over this vast territory by maintaining a strong military presence in subject countries. An immensely practical people, the Romans devoted much of their brilliance to military strategy and technology, administration, and law, all in support of the vast world government that they built.

Rome, however, was responsible for more than just military and administrative genius. Culturally, the Romans had a slight inferiority complex in regards to the Greeks, who had begun their city-states only a few centuries before the rise of the Roman republic. The Romans, however, derived much of their culture from the Greeks: art, architecture, philosophy, and even religion. However, the Romans changed much of this culture, adapting it to their own particular world view and practical needs. It is this changed Greek culture, which we call Graeco-Roman culture, that was handed down to the European civilizations in late antiquity and the Renaissance.

Our journey through this remarkable history begins with the land itself and the various peoples that inhabited it. Unlike most of the regions we've dealt with, Italy was a multicultural landscape that came to be dominated by this small village, Rome. Each chapter in this history is followed by the title of the next chapter; you can proceed from chapter to chapter in this history by clicking the title that concludes each chapter. Alternatively, you can use the navigation menus in the frames to the left to go back to the contents page and navigate the chapters as you please.

The Land and the People

Italy is a peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean west of Greece. Unlike Greece, Italy is poor in mineral resources and surprisingly devoid of useful harbors. However, the most stunning difference between Greece and Italy is the exponentially larger amount of fertile land. While Greece is poor in fertile land, Italy is wealthy in both land and precipitation. So the two peoples developed very differently; the Italians began and remained largely an agrarian people. Even in its latest stages, Roman culture would identify its values and ideals as agrarian.

Italy had one other significant difference from Greece: it was easily accessible from Europe to the north. The Greeks lived behind a formidable mountain range; the Alps to the north of Italy were not quite as invulnerable. The Greeks also had a warlike Greek population to the north, the Macedonians, to serve as a buffer between themselves and other Europeans. The Romans had no such buffer civilization. As a result, conflict was a fairly constant affair on the Italian peninsula and the Romans, along with other peoples on the Italian peninsula, developed a military society fairly early in their history.

We know almost nothing about the earliest peoples in Italy. The earliest people in Italy were Cro-Magnons, but by the Neolithic stage, they seem to be displaced by waves of migrations from Africa, Spain, and France. These peoples were themselves displaced by a new set of migrations in the Bronze Age, which began in Italy around 1500 BC, which violently displaced many of the populations already there. These new peoples came from across the Alps and across the Adriatic Sea to the east of the Italian peninsula. They were a nomadic people who were primarily herdsmen; they were also technologically superior. They worked bronze, used horses, and had wheeled carts. They were a war-like people and began to settle the mountainous areas of the Italian peninsula. We call these people Italic , and they include several ethnic groups: the Sabines, the Umbrians, and the Latins, with an infinity of others.

Somewhere between 800 and 700 BC, two new groups of people began to settle the Italian peninsula. Unlike the earlier immigrants, these new colonists brought with them civilization: the Greeks and the Etruscans.

The Etruscans

Somewhere between 900 and 800 BC, the Italian peninsula was settled by a mysterious peoples called the Etruscans. We don't know where the Etruscans came from, but archaeologists suspect that they came from the eastern Mediterannean, possibly Asia Minor. We will, however, never really know where they came from or why they colonized Italy. We do know that when they came to Italy, they brought civilization and urbanization with them. They founded their civilizations in north-eastern Italy between the Appenine mountain range and the Tyrrhenian Sea. Their civilization stretched from the Arno river in the north to the Tiber river towards the center of the Italian peninsula; it was on the Tiber river that a small village of Latins, the village that would become Rome, sat. So the Romans, who were only villagers during the rise of the Etruscan civilization, were in close contact with the Etruscans, their language, their ideas, their religion, and their civilization; the Etruscans were the single most important influence on Roman culture in its transition to civilization.

The Etruscans lived in independent, fortified city-states; these city-states would form small confederacies. In the earliest times, these city-states were ruled by a monarch, but were later ruled by oligarchies that governed through a council and through elected officials. Like the surrounding peoples, the Etruscans were largely an agrarian people, but they also had a strong military, and used that military to dominate all the surrounding peoples. These dominated populations were forced to do the agricultural labor on the Etruscan farms, so the Etruscans had time to devote to commerce and industry. In the seventh and sixth centuries, the Etruscan military had subjugated much of Italy, including Rome, and regions outside of Italy, such as the island of Corsica.

They were a sophisticated people, with an alphabet based on the Greek alphabet, a powerfully original sculptural and painting tradition, a religion based on human-type gods which they had learned from the Greeks, and a complicated set of rituals for divining the future, which they handed down to the Romans. Unlike most civilizations of the time, gender inequality seems not to have been very pronounced.

While the Etruscans were busy building their power over Italy and engaging in active commerce with the east and with Africa, a city to their south began to grow precipitously, a city imitating Etruscans in many ways: the Roman kingdom.

The Roman Kingdom

Rome was founded by an agrarian Italic peoples living south of the Tiber river. They were a tribal people and the social logic of tribal organization dominated Roman society in both its early and late histories. The date of the founding of Rome is uncertain, but archaeologists date its founding to around 753 BC, although it probably existed as a small village long before then. As the Romans steadily developed their city, its government, and its culture, they imitated the neighboring civilization to the north, the Etruscans. The Etruscans, though, as they saw the power and influence of the Latin city to their south grow, would take over the government from these new, threatening people.

The early Roman government was a monarchy, but it was founded on a tribal logic. The monarch was given absolute power over the people; the Romans called this power imperium . However, the monarch's relationship to the people was seen as similar or identical to the power a father had over his household; in other words, the Roman monarchy was strictly patriarchal. The relationship between a patriarch and his family is a relationship of mutual obligations, and this is how the Romans understood the monarchy. In early Roman society, however, the father exercised incredible authority over the family. The father could sell his children into slavery (or could kill them if he could justify it). This arbitrary power was limited: before a father sold or killed his children, he was required to consult with the family and with the public. While the father was not allowed to kill or sell his wife, he was allowed to divorce her; this was allowed, however, only in the most extreme circumstances. In addition, the father served as the priest of the family. In many ways, the Roman monarch followed this model of power: absolute but limited by the people, their welfare, and tradition. The monarch served as a legislator, as the head of the military, as the head of the judiciary, and as a chief priest to the people. His authority, however, was limited and controlled by a constitution which he was powerless to change.

The monarch ruled alongside a Senate and an assembly. The Senate was a council of elders, a weak oligarchy, that was composed of the heads of various clan groups. These elders were originally clan leaders (and this function probably didn't change), so the Senate in its earliest form was a kind of clan confederacy. The Senate had the power to approve or veto the appointment of the king, so no individual could ascend the throne without the approval of the clan leaders. The Senate also judged the legislation and actions of the king to make sure that they accorded both with the constitution and with traditional custom; while the Senate seems to have ratified just about everything the king decided, they still exercised an important check on monarchical power. In this respect, the early Roman Senate served largely the same function that the Supreme Court serves in the United States.

The assembly consisted of all male citizens of Rome; citizenship was granted only to individuals who could demonstrate that both parents were native Romans. The assembly's principle function was to grant imperium to the monarch ratified by the Senate; there was, therefore, a limited democracy in the Roman kingdom: the clan leaders approved the candidate for king and the entire male population of Rome handed the king absolute rule. The assembly was organized into thirty groups based on kinship lines; each group got a single vote, so there were a grand total of thirty votes in the assembly. Each group would base its vote on the majority decision of the group. So while the citizens had a certain amount of say in the government in the assembly, that influence was greatly diminished by its diffusion in the group vote.

As Rome grew in power and influence, wealth began to accumulate in the hands of a few people. While we know little of the social structure of the very early Romans, by a very early period in the city's history, society was divided up into two groups: the patricians and the plebeians. The patricians were the wealthiest members of society; they controlled most of the wealth, trade, power, and the military. Only patricians could serve as clan leaders; therefore, only patricians were allowed to sit on the Senate or hold any appointed or elected offices. The plebeians were the majority of the population; they were mainly small farmers, hard laborers, and craftspeople. They worked mainly for the patricians, although some small farmers worked their own lands rather than the lands of the wealthy. The plebeians did have a small voice in government, though: the assembly was the governmental body that represented their interests, although the institution of the group vote severely watered down individual voices.

During the monarchy, Rome greatly expanded its control over surrounding territories. The monarchy itself had been established with the express purpose of providing stability and security; the conquest of surrounding territories were undertaken with the same goals in mind. It doesn't seem that the Romans were particularly greedy for land or wealth; their conquests seem largely motivated by anxieties over the threat to their security posed by the surrounding populations. As their territorial power grew, however, they attracted the notice of the powerful Etruscans to the north who, in the middle of the sixth century BC, took over the government of Rome. From the middle of the sixth century, the Roman monarchs became Etruscan, and the Romans bitterly resented it. Finally, when an Etruscan prince of the Etruscan family that ruled Rome, the Tarquins, raped the wife of a patrician, the Romans rose up in revolt and threw the Tarquins out of power in 509 BC. While the rape of Lucretia and the overthrow of the Tarquins by Junius Brutus may be fictional (then again, it may not), the expulsion of the Etruscan monarchs began the decline in Etruscan power and civilization.

In Roman tradition, the king ruled only because of the consent of the people and in conformity with tradition and the constitution; the Tarquins had broken that tradition. Rather than reinstall a Latin monarch, however, the Romans dismantled the institution of the monarchy entirely. The age of the Roman Republic, an age that would see the greatest expansion of Roman power and numerous wars, had been opened.

The Roman Republic

After the overthrow of the Tarquin monarchy by Junius Brutus in 509 BC, Rome does not revert back to a monarchy for the rest of its history. The era of the great expansion of Roman power and civilization is the era of the Roman Republic, in which Rome is ruled by its Senate and its assembly, which were institutions formed at the beginning of the monarchy. The history of the Republic is a history of continuous warfare; all of the historical stories which the Romans will use as stories of Roman virtue and values date from this tumultuous period of defense and invasion.

The Romans had at the beginning of the Republic a constitution which had laid down the traditions and institutions of government; this constitution, however, was not a formal or even a written document, but rather a series of unwritten traditions and laws. These traditions and laws were based on the institution of a monarchy, so while the Romans did not revive the monarchy, they still invested enormous amounts of power in their officials. At the top were the consuls, who were two patricians elected to the office for one year. These patricians exercised imperium in much the same way the kings had in the Roman monarchy. These consuls initiated legislation, served as the head of the judiciary and the military, and served as chief priests to the nation. They even dressed as monarchs, by wearing purple robes and sitting on the seat traditionally reserved for the monarch: the ivory chair.

However, the power of the consuls were severely limited. First, they only served for one year, at which point they would have to be re-elected or enter into private life again. Second, there were two consuls; either consul could effectively prevent any action or decision by the other consul by simply vetoing him. No consul could act without the other consul in agreement. Third, the consuls would have to serve on the Senate after their term in office; this led them to cultivate assiduously the cooperation of the senate. So the consuls exercised absolute power, imperium , but their power was severely hamstrung by the circumstances of their office. As a result, the consuls did not exercise much initiative or creativity, so Roman government tended to be highly conservative and cautious. This, however, was the intent of the consular system. In 325 BC, however, the consul system was changed to allow for proconsuls, who were consuls whose terms in office were extended because of military campaigns.

Beneath the consuls were two financial officers called quaestors, and as the Republic evolved, an officical called the praetor was invented. The praetorship was originally a judicial office, but later became a military office; the praetors were essentially the central generals of Rome. The praetorship, like the consulship, was a one-year appointment, but like the consulship could be extended in times of war. In addition, the task of classifying citizens according to wealth and tax status, which was a consular duty, eventually fell to a new pair of officials called censors. It was the job of the censor to draw up the roll of citizens (somewhat like our modern day census; census is the Latin word from which "censor" is derived) and to fix their tax status. As you might imagine, the censors had all kinds of opportunities for bribery and corruption since they were setting tax rates, so after a while the office fell only to the most incorruptible and virtuous men of the Republic: former consuls. Eventually, the office of the censor acquired great powers, such as the power to dismiss senators from the Senate not merely for financial reasons, but any reason at all. By the time of the late Republic, the censors had become some of the most powerful politicians in Rome.

It is immediately evident that the imperium was fully concentrated in the hands of the patricians. The consuls were elected from the patrician class, as were the quaestors and the praetors; the censors, by definition, were always patricians. Because the consul reverted to the Senate, the Senate, composed only of patricians, became the principle power in Rome. The Republic in its early form was largely a transfer of power from the monarch to the wealthiest classes in Rome, and this dominance of Roman law, finances, and foreign policy by the patricians instantly produced resentment among the plebeians; from its inception in 509 BC to its demise at the hands of Caesar in the middle of the first century BC, the political history of the Roman Republic is a tumultuous, chaotic, and often violent conflict between the two classes in Rome vying for political power.

This conflict was called "the struggle of the orders" (the orders of society) and is largely about the patrician class attempting to hold onto power while the plebeians attempted to achieve social and political equality. The patricians found themselves unable to exist without the plebeians: not only did the plebeians produce the food and supply the labor that kept the Roman economy going, they also supplied the soldiers for the Roman military. If the plebeians could act as a group, they could effectively shut down the Roman economy and military; the latter was especially important since Rome was in continual military conflict during the age of the Republic.

In Roman historical tradition, in 494 BC the plebeians withdrew from Rome and occupied the Sacred Mount. There they declared an alternative government. They formed a tribal assembly, modelled after the Roman assembly, which would be headed by tribunes who were heads of their tribes. They declared that these tribunes could veto any decision by a Roman magistrate or official, and could veto any decision or legislation by the Senate. The assembly itself, like the former assembly, voted by tribe, and the decision of the assembly was binding on all plebeians. In other words, the plebeians had won for themselves the right to author their own legislation. Their decisions, however, were not binding on non-plebeians.

In 450 BC, the struggle of the orders produced the Law of the Twelve Tables, which simply formalized and codified Roman law and its constitution. The Romans, however, saw it as a victory for the rights of the citizen for it gave them an instrument to know where they stood as far as the law is concerned. In 445 BC, plebeians acquired the right to marry a patrician, and in 367 the plebeians gained the right to be elected consul, when the first plebeian consul was elected. The Licinian-Sextian laws demanded that at least one consul be a plebeian. After the completion of the term of consular office, the consul became a member of the Senate, so the patrician hold on the Senate had, in part, been broken when the plebeians gained full access to the office of the consul. In 300 BC, plebeians were allowed to serve at all levels of the priesthood, thus making them religiously equal to the patricians. Finally, in the greatest victory of all in terms of power and influence, in 287 BC, the decisions and legislation of the plebeian assembly were not only binding on the plebeians, but on the entire Roman citizenry. These reforms were purchased without any civil war or internal bloodshed; they would not resolve the struggle, but they certainly prevented out and out civil war.

The Romans, then, reformed their government as the need arose rather than pursuing any particular plan of reform or development. At the same time, the Romans built their territorial power with the same lack of planning and purpose. Originally, the wars which the Republic fought were largely defensive wars; the expulsion of the Tarquins provoked many attacks by their allies and by Etruscans. Soon, however, the Romans were moving to gain control over neighboring territory in order to neutralize the threat of attack. Their logic was that control over these territories would obviate any potential attack from the people occupying those territories and at the same time provide a buffer region between themselves and potential attackers. Roman conquest, then, was pursued largely for Roman security; the end result of this process would be, first, the conquest of the entire Italian peninsula by 265 BC, and then the conquest of the world. The Roman Empire was an accident, so to speak; it was formed in the pursuit of other policies, namely, security. Only in its later stages was the Roman Empire a deliberate objective.

The Conquest of Italy

The conquest of Italy began soon after the Romans expelled the Tarquins in 509 BC; their first target were the Etruscans themselves. Allying themselves with other Latins and with the Greeks, the Romans quickly drove the Etruscans from the Italian peninsula. Etruscan civilization came to a brutal end. Rome steadily conquered all the Etruscan territory throughout the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

The Romans, however, were dramatically checked in their conquest of Italy by invasions of another Indo-European people from across the Alps: the Gauls. The Gauls were a Celtic people who were nomadic and war-like. In 387 BC, the roared across the Alps into Italy, soundly defeated the Roman army, and then capture and burned Rome to the ground. The Gauls, however, did not wish to settle in Italy; they were interested only in amassing wealth. They looted Rome and then demnaded a tribute; after they had collected their ransom, they returned home to central Europe. Rome was now vulnerable to all the peoples it had conquered, and various Italian states tried to attack Rome. By 350 BC, however, Rome was sufficiently powerful enough to begin asserting dominance over the region again.

The Romans had been part of a Latin alliance, but exerted tremendous hegemony over that alliance. Despite being defeated by the Gauls in 387 BC, the Romans successfully fought back Gaulish raiding parties throughout the middle of the fourth century BC. Roman allies, however, began to bitterly resent the Roman hegemony over the league and demanded their independence. Rome turned them down flat, and the Latin cities rose up against Rome for their independence in 340 BC. Rome, however, only took two years to defeat the Latins in this uprising; in 338 BC, Rome dismantled the Latin League and took control of all of Latium.

In 295 BC, Rome began a war with a tough Latin people living in the Appenine mountains, the Samnites, who were joined by the remaining Etruscan cities, by Gaulish tribes, and some rebellious Italian cities. The result of this war, in 280 BC, was total Roman control over all of central Italy. Rome then turned its eyes south to the Greek cities and quickly overpowered them. By the middle of the third century BC, Rome controlled all of the Italian peninsula.

Ancient history shows abundantly that it is enormously difficult to hang onto conquered territories; the Romans, however, seemed to have figured out how to peacefully hold onto conquered territory with both liberal and militaristic policies. First, Rome didn't destroy conquered cities, but granted them certain rights. Some cities were allowed full Roman citizenship, particularly those near to Rome. Others were allowed certain Roman rights. Some were allowed complete autonomy. Some were allowed to become allies. All, however, were required to send Rome taxes and troops. In addition, Rome settled soldiers on the captured lands as payment for their service. Some of these land grants were especially lucrative. The soldiers got land wealth, and the Romans got permanent military settlers in the conquered lands. In this way, Rome was able to maintain a permanent military settlement in every conquered land. In order to reinforce these settlements, the Romans began an ambitious road-building project. Their roads were of the highest quality and went in straight lines—right straight over mountains in fact—so that soldiers and supplies could be quickly moved into rebellious territories. The response to revolt was swift and harsh. So the combination of granting conquered territories rights and citizenship (or the promise of future rights and citizenship) and the surety of a swift, harsh response to rebellion produced a lasting, peaceful empire on the Italian peninsula.

A new enemy, however, asserted itself across the Mediterranean in the south: Carthage. The next century would see the clash of these two great and powerful cities; the end of these wars, the Punic Wars, would make Rome the most powerful force in the Mediterranean.

The Punic Wars

Carthage

The greatest naval power of the Mediterranean in the third century BC was the North African city of Carthage near modern day Tunis. The Carthaginians were orginally Phoenicians and Carthage was a colony founded by the Phoenician capital city of Tyre in the ninth century BC; the word "Carthage" means, in Phoenician, "the New City." The Phoenicians, however, were conquered by the Assyrians in the sixth century BC, and the conquered by the Persians; an independent Phoenician state would never again appear in the Middle East. Carthage, however, remained; it was no longer a colony, but a fully functioning independent state. While the Romans were steadily increasing their control over the Italian peninsula, the Carthaginians were extending their empire over most of North Africa. By the time that Rome controlled all of the Italian peninsula, Carthage already controlled the North African coast from western Libya to the Strait of Gibraltar, and ruled over most of southern Spain, and the island of Corsica and Sardinia in Europe as well. Carthage was a formidable power; it controlled almost all the commercial trade in the Mediterranean, had subjected vast numbers of people all whom sent soldiers and supplies, and amassed tremendous wealth from gold and silver mines in Spain.

These two mighty empires came into contact in the middle of the third century BC when Rome's power had reached the southern tip of Italy. The two peoples had been in sporadic contact before, but neither side felt threatened by the others. The Romans were perfectly aware of the Carthaginian heritage: they called them by their old name, Phoenicians. In Latin, the word is Poeni, which gives us the name for the wars between the two states, the Punic Wars. These conflicts, so disastrous for Carthage, were inevitable. Between Carthage and Italy lay the huge island of Sicily; Carthage controlled the western half of Sicily, but the southern tip of the Italian peninsula put the Romans within throwing distance of the island. When the city of Messana revolted against the Carthaginians, the Romans intervened, and the first Punic War erupted.

The First Punic War: 264-241 BC

The First Punic War broke out in 264 BC; it was concentrated entirely on the island of Sicily. Rome beseiged many of the Carthaginian cities on Sicily, and when Carthage attempted to raise the seige with its navy, the Romans utterly destroyed that navy. For the first time since the rise of the Carthaginian empire, they had lost power over the sea-ways.

The war ended with no particular side winning over the other. In 241 BC, the Carthaginians and Romans signed a treaty in which Carthage had to give up Sicily, which it didn't miss, and to pay an indemnity to pay for the war, which it could well afford. But Carthage soon faced rebellion among its mercenary troops and Rome, in 238 BC, took advantage of the confusion by seizing the island of Corsica. The Romans greatly feared the Carthaginians and wanted build as large a buffer zone as possible between them and the Carthaginians. By gaining Sicily, the Romans had expelled the Carthaginians from their back yard; they now wanted them out of their front yard, that is, the islands of Corsica and Sardinia west of the Italian peninsula.

The Carthaginians were furious at this action; even Roman historians believed it was a rash and unethical act. The Carthaginians began to shore up their presence in Europe. They sent first the general Hamilcar and then his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, to Spain to build colonies and an army. Both Hamilcar and Hasdrubal made allies among the native Iberians, and their armies, recruited from Iberians, grew ominous as Carthaginian power and influence crept up the Iberian peninsula.

The Second Punic War: 218-202

BC By 218 BC, Carthage had built a mighty empire in Spain and grown wealthy and powerful as a result. Growing increasingly anxious, the Romans had imposed a treaty on Carthage not to expand their empire past the Ebro river in Spain. However, when a small city in Spain, Saguntum, approached Rome asking for Roman friendship and alliance, the Romans couldn't resist having a friendly ally right in the heart of the Carthaginian Iberian empire.

A few years later, however, in 421 BC, a young man, only twenty-five years old, assumed command over Carthaginian Spain: Hannibal. At first, Hannibal gave the Saguntines wide berth wishing to avoid coming into conflict with Rome. But the Saguntines were flush with confidence in their new alliance, and began playing politics with other Spanish cities. Hannibal, despite direct threats from Rome, attacked Saguntum and conquered it.

The Romans attempted to solve the problem with diplomacy, demanding that Carthage dismiss Hannibal and send him to Rome. When Carthage refused, the second Punic War began in 218 BC. Rome, however, was facing a formidable opponent; in the years following the first Punic War, Carthage had created a powerful empire in Spain with a terrifyingly large army. Hannibal marched that army across Europe and, in September of 218, he crossed the Alps with his army and entered Italy on a war of invasion. Although his army was tired, he literally smashed the Roman armies he encountered in northern Italy. These spectacular victories brough a horde of Gauls from the north to help him, fifty thousand or more; his victory over Rome, as he saw it, would be guaranteed by convincing Roman allies and subject cities to join Carthage.

The Romans knew that they couldn't beat Hannibal in open warfare. Desperate, they asked Quintus Fabius Maximus to become absolute dictator of Rome. Fabius determined to avoid open warfare at any cost and simply harass the Carthaginian army until they were weak enought to be engaged with openly. But when Hannibal marched into Cannae and started decimating the countryside in 216 BC, Fabius sent an army of eighty thousand soldiers against him. This army was completely wiped out, the largest defeat Rome ever suffered. Roman allies in the south of Italy literally ran to Hannibal's side; the whole of Sicily allied itself with the Carthaginians. In addition, the king of Macedon, Philip V, who controlled most of the mainland of Greece, allied himself with Hannibal and began his own war against Roman possessions in 215 BC.

The situation was nearly hopeless for the Romans. Fabius had been chastened by his defeat and absolutely refused to go against Hannibal, whose army moved around the Italian countryside absolutely unopposed. Hannibal, however, was weak in numbers and in equipment. He didn't have enough soldiers to lay seige to cities such as Rome, and he didn't have either the men or equipment to storm those cities by force. All he could do was roam the countryside and lay waste to it.

The Romans, however, decided to fight the war through the back door. They knew that Hannibal was dependent on Spain for future supplies and men, so they appointed a young, strategically brilliant man as proconsul and handed him the imperium over Spain. This move was unconstituional, for this young man had never served as consul. His name: Publius Cornelius Scipio (237-183 BC). Scipio, who would later be called Scipio Africanus for his victory over Carthage (in Africa), soon conquered all of Spain. Hannibal was now left high and dry in Italy.

Scipio then crossed into Africa in 204 BC and took the war to the walls of Carthage itself. This forced the Carthaginians to sue for peace with Rome; part of the treaty demanded that Hannibal leave the Italian peninsula. Hannibal was one of the great strategic generals in history; all during his war with Rome he never once lost a battle. Now, however, he was forced to retreat; he had, despite winning every battle, lost the war. When he returned to Carthage, the Carthaginians took heart and rose up against Rome in one last gambit in 202 BC. At Zama in northern Africa, Hannibal, fighting against Scipio and his army, met his first defeat. Rome reduced Carthage to a dependent state; Rome now controlled the whole of the western Mediterranean including northern Africa.

This was the defining historical experience of the Romans. They had faced certain defeat with toughness and determination and had won against overwhelming odds. For the rest of Roman history, the character of being Roman would be distilled in the histories of this desperate war against Carthage. The Second Punic War turned Rome from a regional power into an international empire: it had gained much of northern Africa, Spain, and the major islands in the western Mediterranean. Because Philip V of Macedon had allied himself with Hannibal and started his own war of conquest, the second Punic War forced Rome to turn east in wars of conquest against first Philip and then other Hellenistic kingdoms. The end result of the second Punic War, in the end, was the domination of the known world by Rome.
The Third Punic War: 149-146 BC
In the years intervening, Rome undertook the conquest of the Hellenistic empires to the east. In the west, Rome brutally subjugated the Iberian people who had been so vital to Roman success in the second Punic War. However, they were especially angry at the Carthaginians who had almost destroyed them. The great statesman of Rome, Cato, is reported by the historians as ending all his speeches, no matter what their subject, with the statement, "I also think that Carthage should be destroyed." Carthage had, through the first half of the second century BC, recovered much of its prosperity through its commercial activities, although it had not gained back much power. The Romans, deeply suspicious of a reviving Carthage, demanded that the Carthaginians abandon their city and move inland into North Africa. The Carthaginians, who were a commercial people that depended on sea trade, refused. The Roman Senate declared war, and Rome attacked the city itself. After a seige, the Romans stormed the town and the army went from house to house slaughtering the inhabitants in what is perhaps the greatest systematic execution of non-combatants before World War II. Carthaginians who weren't killed were sold into slavery. The harbor and the city was demolished, and all the surrounding countryside was sown with salt in order to render it uninhabitable.

 

The Conquest of the Hellenistic Empires

While Rome was engaged in internal politics and the conquest of Italy, the Macedonian Greeks first conquered the Greek mainland and peninsula, and then, literally, the whole of the world. By 324 BC, when Rome still didn't control much of Italy and the city was still struggling with friction between the patricians and the plebeians, the entire world east of Rome, everything, was under the control of a single man, Alexander the Great. While there were numerous Greek cities on the Italian peninsula and while Rome was heavily influenced by Greek culture and thought, the Romans didn't seem to pay this ground-shaking development with much concern. Although the Hellenistic world fractured in pieces, nonetheless the end of the fourth century saw three great empires controlling the world east of Rome. The Romans, however, didn't seem overly concerned, occupied with problems of their own; the Romans, you see, were not particularly interested in world domination, but rather on their own immediate security. And the Hellenistic empires were not viewed as a threat.


The Second Punic War, however, changed all that. Rome had almost been destroyed by Carthage and the Macedonian kingdom under Philip V 221-179 BC) had allied themselves with Carthage; the Hellenistic world had appeared on the Roman radar in the only way that foreign countries ever appeared on the Roman radar: as a potential threat. Philip V of Macedon was an empire builder; he eagerly sought to extend Macedonian control over more territory. Unfortunately for him, Antiochus III (223-187 BC), the king of the Seleucid empire, the second of the great Hellenistic empires, also was an empire builder. Only one hundred years after the death of Alexander the Great, the Hellenistic empires entered a new era of expansion. Antiochus III began seizing territories in Palestine, wresting control from the Ptolemies in Egypt (this included Judah). Philip V began seizing territories in the Aegean Sea and Asia Minor. Philip and Antiochus decided it would be best to move in concert, so they began contemplating the conquest of Egypt; they would then split the territory among themselves.

Rome, after its bitter experience with Carthage, was deeply suspicious of any empire-building at all. They had fought against Philip during the Second Punic War (this first Roman war with Philip was called the First Macedonian War), and demanded that he cease seizing Greek territory. When Philip refused, Rome fielded an army against him under the generalship of Flaminius in 200 BC; thus began the Second Macedonian War. Flaminius defeated Philip in Thessaly only three years later and in the next year, 196 BC, declared all the Greek cities to be free.

The Romans, however, were deeply suspicious of Antiochus as well. Seeing an opportunity, Antiochus landed an army on the Greek mainland in order to "free" them from the Romans, but he was soon driven from Greece and his army decimated at the battle of Magnesia in Asia Minor in 189 BC. As with the earlier war, the Romans seized no territory whatsoever, although they did demand a heavy penalty from Antiochus. By and large, the Romans regarded the Greek cities as free cities that posed no threat to them; they also felt that they were the "protectors" of Greece, a role that would prevent the rise of any centralized power that might threaten the security of Rome.

However, when Philip V died in 179 BC, he was succeeded by Perseus, who then roused up democratic and revolutionary passions in Greece. So Rome invaded Greece again, in the Third Macedonian War (172-168 BC); the results, however, were dramatically different. While the Romans did not seize territory, they did impose very stern control over the native control of that territory. The Romans embarked on hegemonic rule of allies and subject states as well in order to prevent any kind of revolutionary fervor. They had learned from their control of Italy that states were more likely to remain subject to Rome if reprisal was sure, swift, and harsh.

At this point, Roman empire-building had been accomplished piece-meal. The Romans responded to threats as they appeared on the horizon; the result was, you might say, an accidental empire. This situation changed, however, after the Third Macedonian War. The defeat of Perseus involved massive looting of the conquered cities; in addition, the penalties imposed on the defeated states literally flooded the Roman treasury with wealth. In the west, entrepreneurial governors, called publicani had been extracting harsh taxes from the subject peoples and greatly increasing both their own and Roman wealth. By the middle of the second century BC, it had become apparent to Romans that the empire was a vast money-making machine and empire-building a fabulously lucrative affair. The accidental Roman Empire suddenly shifted into high gear. However, the massive wealth that was created for Rome awoke old tensions between the classes, and the Republic would live in a state of crisis for over a hundred years—a crisis that, at its conclusion, would precipitate the demise of the Republic in favor of a dictatorship.

The Crisis of the Republic

Rome had begun as a small city-state. It's constitution, its government, its social structure, and its moral values were those of a small, mainly agrarian state. All of these, the constitution, government, social structure, and values, adapted well to the governing of Italy. The Empire, however, which Rome had stumbled into by accident, provoked a profound crisis in Roman society, government, and morals.

In particular, the Second Punic War created vast disparities in wealth. Up until the Second Punic War, the plebeians were farmers, craftsmen, or laborers. They would farm their own land that, even though it was small, was still their property. As laborers or craftsmen, they worked for decent wages (or the equivalent of wages). However, Hannibal had razed the countryside; while the wealth sat secure within the walls of Rome, thousands of people had their farmlands and houses destroyed. With no land they had no work and so began to flood the cities. The wealthy, who had grown wealthier because of the spoils of war, bought up the farmlands so that by the middle of the second century, Roman agriculture was dominated by large plantations owned by fabulously wealthy landowners. This was only the tip of the iceberg, though. The Punic Wars and the Macedonian Wars flooded Rome and Roman territories with new slaves. Rome had had slave labor before then, but the second century saw a major shift in the Roman economy from a laborer economy to a slave economy. By the end of the second century BC, the majority of the population in Italy were slaves. This severly depressed job opportunities and wages. For slavery is an economic phenomenon more than anything else; slavery is an economic device to keep the remuneration of labor at or slightly below subsistence level. This meant that the poor who were not slaves either couldn't work or had to work at below subsistence wages; it also caused massive migrations of the unemployed into cities. As in most migrations of the unemployed, the result was not necessarily employment in a new place. In Rome, however, it meant the concentration of a large population of poor, disaffected, and angry free Romans. The tinder-box was set to go off.

The Gracchi

The poor and the wealthy had been in conflict since the overthrow of the Tarquins in 509 BC; this conflict, however, largely revolved around political power and freedom. In 133 BC, the conflict erupted into civil war. In that year, Tiberius Gracchus was elected as one of the tribunes of the assembly (see the chapter on the Roman Republic for an explanation of the nature of the tribuneship). He proposed that the land ownership be limited to only 640 acres, thus removing much of the land from the hands of the wealthy. If a single person owned more than 640 acres, the excess would be seized by the state and given to the poor. As you might expect, the wealthy in Rome, and the Senate, were as opposed to this procedure as it is possible to be opposed. They controlled one of the tribunes, a man named Octavius, and persuaded him to consistently veto Tiberius's land reform. Fed up with the opposition, Tiberius removed Octavius from office, a manifestly unconstitutional procedure. When his term as tribune expired, he stood for reelection to a second term—another unconstitutional procedure. At the elections a riot erupted and a group of senators assassinated Tiberius: the first civil bloodshed in Roman history.

One can't underestimate the importance of Tiberius Gracchus for Roman history. Although he was ultimately a failure in his reform, he created a new style of politics: appealing to the masses. Up until Tiberius Gracchus, political change had taken place largely in cooperation with and deference to the patrician class. Tiberius Gracchus, however, sought to bring about political change by ignoring the patricians altogether and appealing to the passions of the general populace. This created a new type of politician in Rome; they were called the populares for they attempted to gain power by raising the population in their favor. Against the populares were the optimates ("the best"), who continued to attempt political change by appealing to traditional methods and structures.

The family of the Gracchi were not finished. In 123 BC (and again in 122 BC), Gaius Gracchus was elected tribune. Enormously popular among the people, Gaius managed to push several laws through the assembly. First, he stabilized the price of grain by building storehouses for excess grain. Fixing this price would help small farmers keep their heads above water and keep grain prices from rising so high that the poor could not afford to feed themselves. In his second law, the one that provoked the most opposition, he proposed that citizenship be granted to all Italians (in order to increase his power base).

The Senate, in 121 BC, then passed a law which ordered the consuls to make the Republic safe and declared Gaius Gracchus an enemy to the state. The consuls hunted him down, and, in their final conflict, Gaius Gracchus killed himself and several thousand of his followers were killed or executed. Thus the Gracchan revolt.

 

Marius

Shortly afterwards, Rome began a war with Jugurtha, the king of Numidia (south of Carthage), in 111 BC. This war, the Jugurthine War, was prosecuted with little enthusiasm and the Roman people grew suspicious of the Senate. So in 107 BC, Gaius Marius (157-86 BC) was elected consul and was assigned the province of Numidia by the assembly. He was a brilliant soldier and quickly defeated Jugurtha; but it was Marius' lieutenant, Sulla (138-78 BC) who defeated Jugurtha for good. Now Sulla was of an old and well-established aristocratic family; although he was relatively poor, he was as blue-blooded as they came in Rome. Marius, on the other hand, was a novus homo , a "new man," who was the first in his family to occupy the consulship. These new men were bitterly resented by the aristocracy, and Sulla felt that Marius was being given credit for work that he, Sulla, had done. The rivalry between these two men would result in civil war in 88 BC. Marius, however, was an innovator and a maverick. He changed the fundamental make-up of his army by enlisting mainly volunteers. These volunteers were drawn from the poorest (and hence most disaffected and angry) classes, still bitter over the killings of the Gracchi. Marius held out the promise of the spoils of war and land-parcels as payment for their service (this on top of the guarantee of food and shelter for the length of their service). Something new had occurred. Poverty now pushed vast numbers of the poor into the military; these soldiers, however, owed their loyalty and gratitutde not to the state, but to their general who served as a kind of patron. This personal loyalty gave Marius, and future generals, access to civilian power that they had never had before.

Sulla

In the 80's BC, Rome was heavily engaged in wars with Italian allies who suffered greatly from the economic inequities. Sulla proved himself to be an astonishing general during these wars and was elected consul in 88 BC, finally getting the recognition he felt he deserved. Unlike Marius, Sulla was firmly in the patrician camp; he defeated Marius in a civil war and the Senate, fearful of the population, seized complete control of the Roman government by appointing Sulla dictator. Now the position of dictator ("one who speaks, one who dictates") was a constitutional position; the Roman government was allowed to hand complete authority, imperium , to a single individual in times of crisis. This imperium would not be shared with another, as it was in the consulship. Sulla promptly set about "reforming" the Roman government over the next three years by restoring power to the Senate and deracinating the authority of the assembly. Sulla, despite his intentions to restore Roman government to what he saw as its original form, nonetheless brought about a revolutionary new way of doing government: as a general, he used his army to kill his opponents (and even some who weren't his opponents). Dangerous new ground had been broken.

The Beginning of the End


Sulla's reforms, rather than restoring order to Rome, provoked a violent reaction. After the death of Sulla, the Senate was facing armed rebellion. In 70 BC, two highly ambitious men, Crassus and Pompey, were elected consuls and promptly repealed Sulla's constitution. A new political order was emerging: ambitious generals, such as Pompey and Crassus, allied themselves with the tribunes and the disaffected assembly against the Senate and patricians.

Pompey gained the imperium over the entire Mediterranean region in 67 BC for three years, and this imperium was extended several more years so he could prosecute a war in Asia Minor. By the end of this period, Pompey had become the single most popular leader in Rome. Crassus, however, was frightened of Pompey and, since he was unpopular in both the assembly and the Senate, he allied himself with popular leaders, the most popular of which was a brilliant general, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). Julius was from an old, noble family, and had served as a brilliant military leader in Spain and in Gaul.

When he returned from Spain, he demanded a triumph, that is, a victory parade, through Rome. Denied this triumph by the Senate (who feared his popularity with the masses), Julius convinced Pompey and Crassus to reconcile and the First Triumvirate was established. This triumvirate ("three men") was the beginning of the end of the Republic, for this alliance between these three politicians, two of whom were generals, had as its end the control of the Roman government for the political advantage of the three men.

Julius Ceasar

The First Triumvirate, consisting of Julius Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey, came to power in 59 BC when Caesar was elected consul. The Triumvirate reform program was enacted and Caesar got himself appointed governor of Illycrium and Gaul. The way to power in Rome was through military conquest; this gave the general a loyal army, wealth (from the conquered), and popularity and prestige at home. So the governorship of Illycrium and Gaul allowed Caesar to become the general and conqueror he so desperately desired to become.

Now the Romans really had no reason to conquer northern and central Europe; the people who lived there, the Germans and the Celts, were a tribal, semi-nomadic people. The province of Illycrium provided enough of a territorial buffer to defuse any threat from these people. But Julius embarked on a spectacular war of conquest anyway. In a series of fairly brilliant campaigns, Julius added a considerable amount of territory to the Roman Empire in northern France, Belgium, and even southern Great Britain, subjugating the Celts in all these territories. When he had finished his conquests, however, the Triumvirate had dissolved. Crassus had died in a war against the Parrhians in the Middle East, and Pompey had turned against Julius and had roused the Senate against him. The Senate declared Julius an enemy of the state and demanded that he hand over his generalship and province. Julius, however, decided on a different course of action. His troops were fiercely loyal to him; so in 49 BC, Caesar ordered his troops to cross the Rubicon River, which separated his province from Italy, thus committing a grave crime against the state. The Civil War started the minute the first of his legions had finished crossing the Rubicon.

The war was fought between these two great generals, Pompey and Caesar, but in 48 BC, Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus in Greece. Shortly thereafter Pompey was assassinated by the Egyptians among whom he had sought refuge. Caesar then turned his forces towards Asia Minor in a conquest that was so swift that Caesar described it in three words: "Veni, vidi, vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered").

Caesar returned to Rome in 46 BC and had the Senate appoint him dictator for ten years; he was given imperium over the Roman Empire and was, for all practical purposes, above the law and the constitution. Two years later he was appointed dictator for life, and he quickly assumed all the important offices in the government. He reformed the government in many ways, but these reforms were functionally meaningless considering his absolute power. Caesar's absolute power, imperium for life (which made him imperator , or Emperor, of Rome), looked suspiciously like a monarchy, which, for all practical purposes, it was. The Romans, proud of their Republican tradition, deeply resented his power, and in 44 BC, on the Ides of March (March 15), a group of conspirators, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, assassinated Caesar as he entered the Senate in his usual manner: with no bodyguards or protection.

The conspirators were striking a blow for the Republic, fully confident that the Republic would magically reconstitute itself. Caesar had, after all, ruled Rome for a mere two years. Their dreams, however, disappeared in a brutal civil war that would last for thirteen years. At the end of the war, the Roman Republic would come to a shattering end and never again appear on the stage of history.



The Age of Augustus

Augustus called himself "princeps," or "first" (from which we get the word, "prince"); his full title that he assumed was "first among equals." So, in language at least, nothing had really changed in Roman freedom and equality. His successors, however, would name themselves after their power, the "imperium," and called themselves "imperator." Augustus, however, was on a mission to restore order and even equity to the Empire, and so in many ways is considered the greatest of all these emperors. He radically reformed the government to curb corruption and ambition; he also extended Roman citizenship to all Italians. While he allowed elections to public office, he rigged those elections so that only the best candidates would fill the office, and so many members of the lower classes entered into government. He resettled his soldiers on farmland, and so agrarian equity was more closely achieved than at any time since the Second Punic Wars. He turned the military from a volunteer army into a standing, professional army; Rome and the provinces became, in essence, a police state. The military presence throughout the Empire spread the Roman language and Roman culture throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. And since Augustus controlled Rome militarily and politically, he put the provinces in the hands of intelligent, less ambitious, and virtuous men; for the first time since Rome began to build its empire, the provinces settled down into peace and prosperity—this peace and prosperity would be the hallmark of the Age of Augustus.

Finally, Augustus began a vast project of building and patronage of the arts, and Roman culture flourished in a boom of creativity that would make the age stand out as the greatest cultural period in the history of Rome. Two ages stand out as the great creative periods in Rome: the age of Cicero near the end of the Republic, and the Age of Augustus and the beginning of Imperial Rome.

The Age of Augustus is known as the Golden Age of Roman literature, for during this time flourished the greatest poets of Rome. Under Augustus, poets and artists were patronized not by individuals, but solely through the princeps himself. To this end, Augustus appointed a cultural advisor, Maecenas, to aid him in extending patronage to poets. The result was an incredibly powerful system for identifying the best poets who could further the ideology of the Augustan government.


The three greatest poets of this time were Vergil (70-19 BC), Horace (65-8 BC), and Ovid (43 BC-18 AD). Vergil's earliest compositions were a set of pastoral lyrics celebrating artistry and the rural life; these were modelled after Hellenistic poetry. These poems, called the Eclogues , are often blatantly political in nature. In the first Eclogue , Vergil criticizes Augustus' policies of granting agricultural land to soldiers since these land grants displace poor farmers already living there. However, in the fourth Eclogue , Vergil produces a "prophecy" poem about the birth of Augusts as a savior of the world, bringing peace and law. Since Vergil lived so close to the birth of Christ, the Christians of medieval Europe would interpret the poem as a prophecy about the birth of Christ and give Vergil, a pagan, a kind of honorary status as a Christian poet. Vergil's second work is a versified manual on farming called The Georgics , which had as its subject not only the agricultural life, agrarian values (which the Romans saw as the core set of values in their culture), but also speculation on the natural world and the role of poetry. But Vergil's greatest contribution to Roman literature was the Aeneid , an epic, heroic poem about the founding of Roman civilization by Aeneas, a Trojan hero in flight from the destruction of Troy. The subject of the Aeneid is the greatness of Rome, of the Augustan Age, and Roman values. Chief among these values are pietas , or "piety, respect for authority," virtus , or "manliness, fortitude in the face of adversity," and "officium," or duty. Aeneas represents the Stoic values of suffering in order to bring about a better future; he, like Augustus and the best Romans, is marked by his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the people and history. For the poem is about Aeneas setting aside his own concerns in order to take care of the people he is taking from Troy. This concern for his people goes beyond their safety; the successful migration of the Trojans is the prerequisite for the founding of Rome. The lesson that Aeneas has to learn is to sacrifice all his own personal concerns for a future that he will never see and will never enjoy. For the Stoic philosophy which imbues every aspect of this great poem on Roman virtue held that the universe was patterned, that it had a larger purpose and meaning, which the Stoics called logos , and that this logos originated in the divine mind which ruled the universe. Humans, who do not have the ability to comprehend this logos , nonetheless must serve and further it. In a scene that aroused passion and emotion in his audience, Vergil narrates how Aeneas, just as he is about to begin his battle for Italy, is handed a shield crafted by the god Vulcan with the entire history of Rome sculpted on its outer surface. The final lines describing this scene, when Aeneas has looked over all the history of Rome and has no idea what any of it means, takes the shield onto his shoulders perfectly defines the Roman view of morality, the state, and the individual:

Horace, on the other hand, wrote both poems that glorified the Empire and the family of Augustus and poems that described the joys and irritations of everyday life in Rome. These latter poems, called satires, largely concern moral evaluations of everyday and mundane behavior. Ovid, on the other hand, wrote primarily about love and sexual looseness; when he wrote a poetic book called The Art of Love , which was largely a manual on sexual seduction, Augustus misunderstood it and exiled the poet. For the book is not about sexual seduction, but really concerns the difference between ethics (love) and art (seduction). Ovid's greatest poem is the Metamorphoses , which is the richest storehouse of Greek and Roman myth from antiquity. Augustus also patronized art and sculpture with the same passion and fervor that he patronized literature. He began enormous building projects, including several temples, the Temple to Apollo in the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum.

Imperial Rome 14 - 180 AD

After the death of Augustus in 14 AD, Rome underwent a series of profound changes. The Empire itself grew dramatically; from Augustus to the time of Trajan (98-117 AD), Rome acquired more of northern Africa, most of Great Britain, parts of Germany, eastern Europe around the Black Sea, as well as Mesopotami and the northern part of the Arabian peninsula. At home, Rome struggled with its new institution of quasi-monarchical rule. Augustus had fudged the issue by declaring himself "first among equals," or simply, princeps , but his successors stopped pretending and simply called themselves either Caesar, to indicate descent from the royal house, or imperator , since they derived their power from the imperium over Rome and the military. The institution became more like a monarchy after Augustus's death; Augustus had been elected by the Senate, and this practice remained—in truth, the early emperors were simply hand-picked by the current emperor.

The first emperors of Rome were all from the Julian line. Augustus was immediately succeeded by Tiberius (emperor 14-37 AD), who was followed by Gaius, nicknamed Caligula ("little boot") (37-41), Claudius ("cripple, lame") (41-54 AD), and Nero (54-68 AD). Tiberius and then Caligula demonstrated how arbitrarily power could be wielded by the emperor; Caligula, in particular, probably had a nervous breakdown on the death of his sister and was famous throughout Roman history for his cruelty and delusive behavior. The imperiate of Caligula, however, demonstrated how the emperor's rule was based on sheer military power; after the assassination of Caligula in 41 AD, the Praetorian Guard found Claudius cowering in the palace and declared him emperor. All vestiges of Republican rule had been removed.

This was a frightening discovery in the administration of the government; now that it was apparent that military force alone produced and legitimated the emperor's rule, there was nothing to stop ambitious generals from using their armies to advance their political careers dramatically. The final Julian emperor to sit on the throne was Nero, who had begun as a brilliantly talented and highly moral youth. It was in the time of Nero that the Romans began to actively persecute, and execute, Roman members of a new eastern, mystical religion: Christianity. Among those executed was one of the founders of Christianity, Paul of Tarsus. He soon, however, proved himself unconcerned and incompetent, and the frontier armies began to grow restless. In 68 AD, the armies revolted in Gaul and Nero was overthrown. The next year, 69 AD, no fewer than four emperors mounted the throne, each backed by a powerful army.

Rome was spinning into chaos, but a Roman general, Vespasian (69-79 AD), managed to hold onto the imperiate long enough to found his own dynasty: the Flavian dynasty. Neither Vespasian or his successors were from a noble or aristocratic Roman family. In many ways, this was Vespasian's strength. He was a hard-headed and practical soldier and administrator who ridiculed most of the trappings of the office he held.This hard-headed practicality translated into a highly effective imperiate. He was succeeded by his son, Titus (79-81 AD) and then Domitian (81-96 AD), who began the second wave of persecutions of Christians.

Domitian was assassinated in 96 AD (it was hard to die a natural death as emperor of Rome; very few seemed to have achieved it), and since he had no successor, the Senate elected the senator Nerva (96-98 AD). The Flavian dynasty was at an end, but Nerva began a period that later Roman historians would call the five good emperors: Nerva, Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). All of these emperors died without passing the succession on (except Marcus Aurelius), so each of these emperors were elected by the Senate from within its own ranks. This period was the period of the greatest political stability in Imperial Rome after the age of Augustus; when Marcus Aurelius broke the pattern and was succeeded by his son, Commodus (180-192), all hell broke loose again.

This period saw the widespread exporting of Roman culture, government, and law. The Romans actively built up large urban centers throughout the Empire and granted these cities all the rights and privileges granted to Romans. These cities were ruled by the upper classes who, as a result, grew increasingly loyal to the emperor. At the same time, Rome began to exercise more control over these municipalities; unlike earlier empires which were more or less loose confederacies, the Roman Empire was converted into what amounted as a single state under the centralized control of a Roman bureaucracy.

Culturally, this period is regarded as less creative and less interesting, but this is probably not the case. The first century may, in fact, rival the Golden Age during the Augustan principate in creativity, especially in literature and philosophy. Perhaps the most significant philosopher in Roman history was Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), who served for a time as the tutor and advisor to Nero in his youth. Seneca adopted Stoic principles in a peculiarly Roman fashion, theorizing about the relationship of "duty" (officium ) and human passions to the larger pattern of the universe, the logos . His central philosophical principle is that one should calm one's passions with the knowledge that all human experience, particularly suffering, has a meaning in the larger pattern of history and the order of the universe. This pattern, however, cannot be apprehended by human beings, so any effort to understand suffering is bound to produce more suffering. Perhaps more than anything else, the topic Seneca was interested in was the problem of human suffering; as Friedrich Nietzsche declares at the conclusion of The Genealogy of Morals , the problem isn't human suffering, the problem is assigning a meaning to human suffering. In addition, Seneca, like many of his contemporaries, believed that Roman culture had severely declined not merely in morals, but in toughness as well. Roman society and government was ruled by passion; it should be ruled by Stoic principles. The first Stoic emperor, however, was Marcus Aurelius over a century later. Seneca also wrote tragic drama which may or may not have been intended for actual production. His plays are violent and passionate, with fierce, staccato poetry and harsh language, perhaps the most powerful and dynamic poetry written in the Latin language. These plays explore the dark consequence of human passion and blindness, and the tragedy of suffering that has no meaning for the sufferer. There are no English translations that capture the sheer vertiginous power of Seneca's plays.

Literary activity, in particular, seems to have evolved into a dramatically creative phase around the time of Seneca; this period is called the "Silver Age" of Latin literature. Writers such as Juvenal (60-140 AD) and Persius continued to write satires about the moral decay of Roman culture while exulting in the day to day problems and depravity of their city and its bursting population. Juvenal in particular used Stoic principles to show how far Roman life had strayed from its original values. The poet Propertius, on the other hand, seemed to revel in the passions and degeneracies of an illicit love affair with a married woman, producing one of the most moving and witty explorations of a soul in moral decline in his Elegies . Epic poetry was wildly popular in the silver age as Vergilian imitator sprang up all over the place. The theme, however, was not the moral virtue of Romans, but the moral degeneracy of their own times set in relief against the old virtues. The most powerful of the silver age epics is the Civil War or Pharsalia , by Lucan (40-65 AD). This epic narrates the struggle between Caesar and Pompey leading up to Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus. In Lucan's narrative, Caesar is bloodthirsty, cruel, and ambitious; Pompey, who is the only representative of traditional Roman virtue, is ineffective and undecisive. No individual stands out as exceptional or virtuous; the cost of this moral poverty are Roman lives and blood, gallons and gallons of Roman blood. In fact, Lucan and his audience revel in melodramatic violence; in one scene, a soldier single-handedly fends off an entire army by serving as a human shield, standing his ground in spite of the dozens of spears and missiles in his body. Lucan's theme, however, is about the moral depravity that has taken away Roman freedom; this message was not lost on Nero, and when Lucan took part in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, the emperor forced him to commit suicide at the age of 25. In historical writing, Tacitus (55-117 AD) emerges as perhaps the greatest of the Roman historians. Among his histories is a massive history of the imperiate, called the Annals ; the central theme of his history is that Rome had become morally degenerate and this moral degeneracy was responsible for all its ills. If there is a single theme running throughout all of the literature and philosophy of the period, it is precisely this issue of moral degeneracy. The Romans were, after all, straight-laced moralists, and nothing got their attention better than a good, stern moral lecture. So, overall, the character of first century and second century Rome is a moralistic character, in which either the psychology of immorality as both seductive and destructive is explored by some writers, while other writers, such as Seneca and Tacitus, sternly condemn the degeneracy of the age.

This period also saw the introduction of Christianity into Europe and the Roman Empire. Originally a Jewish religion, it was spread to the Greek world by the early apostles. In particular, a late follower of Christianity, Paul of Tarsus devoted his life to translating Christianity into a form that would be acceptable by Greeks and Romans. On the whole, however, the Romans didn't pay much attention to the Christians, since they were small in numbers which were largely confined to women and children. Both Nero and Domitian persecuted Christians for political reasons, but on the whole, the Romans left them alone. It wasn't until the third and fourth centuries that Christianity grew dramatically in the Roman Empire (along with other mystery religions), until it was finally declared the state religion by the emperor Constantine.

During this period, the Romans undertook their most massive building projects, which included the Pantheon in Rome (built by Hadrian), which is the largest unsupported dome in the world, and the Colosseum, a massive games complex that can seat well over sixty thousand people. All the great engineering projects date from this time, including a massive system of aqueducts. Rome itself had eleven aqueducts carrying 300 million gallons of water a day into the city from the surrounding hills. Not only was this water used for drinking and washing, it was also used for flushing the massive sewer system that had been built for Rome. In science, however, historians regard the Romans as deficient—looking at their massive sewers and aqueduct marvels, the joke about the Romans is that when God was handing out brains, the Romans thought he said drains. This view, however, is not entirely accurate. The Romans did not pursue speculative natural philosophy as the Greeks did, but were interested only in practical applications. While we say that the Romans made no significant scientific discoveries, in reality they made a host of scientific discoveries in engineering and medicine, the practical sciences. The "discoveries" of the Greeks were rarely empirical in nature and frequently wrong (or immediately refuted). In medicine, the Romans advanced very far in the first and second centuries; perhaps one of the greatest medical scientists of the ancient world was Galen, who lived in the last half of the second century; his most important discovery was that blood circulated in the arteries. The full mechanism, however, wouldn't be understood until the seventeenth century.

This silver age, which I must confess I find one of the most culturally interesting period in human history, came to an abrupt end in 180 AD, when Commodus succeeded his father, Marcus Aurelius, as emperor. Within a few short years, this slightly cracked emperor managed to undo over a century of stable political rule and cultural stability, and Rome steered into a storm of chaos: the calamitious third century.

The Calamitous Century

When Marcus Aurelius died in 180, his son Commodus assumed the imperiate. Marcus Aurelius had been appointed by the Senate and proved to be a thoughtful and highly efficient administrator. His son, however, was slightly imbalanced. Fancying himself to be a reincarnation of Hercules, Commodus was both brutal and incompetent. He openly defied the Senate and revelled in all sorts of perversities. He was so violent and vicious, that the palace guards murdered him in 192.

The Roman Empire at this time was in the teeth of a crisis. In the east, a new empire was arising in Iran, the Sassanids, who were attempting to restore Persian glory. In the north, the German tribes were beginning to migrate and were pushing past their borders in raiding parties. The most dangerous of these Germanic tribes were the Goths, who occupied southern Russia. By the middle of the third century, however, they had managed to take territory from Rome in the area that is now Bosnia.

To fan the flames of this crisis, the internal politics of the imperiate fell into chaos. After the death of Commodus, a military general, Septimius Severus (193-211), seized power after two others had tried their hands at the imperiate in the same year and ruled as an absolute dictator. He decimated the economy by dramatically raising taxes, and he dramatically changed the character of the Senate by directly attacking senators. He replaced them with military men, so the Senate gradually began to look more like a military aristocracy. He established a rigid class system which slowly solidified to the point where social mobility was almost completely obviated.

After the death of Septimius Severus, the imperiate fell to the next in line in the dynasty, Alexander Severus. However, Septimius had set a precedent by seizing and retaining power using the provincial army under his control. After the death of Alexander in 235, Rome saw a half century of "barracks emperors" who were all generals and seized power in the same way Septimius Severus had done. This half century, from 235 to 280 was the most calamitious period in Roman history. Internal politics had fallen into complete disarray, the economy had become a disaster, taxation in some cases approached near-confiscation levels, and foreigners made tremendous inroads in capturing Roman territory. The two last "barracks emperors," Claudius II Gothicus (268-270) and Aurelian (270-275), stemmed the tide slightly by pulling back troops from the frontier and hiring mercenary soldiers, but Roman government and stability would not be restored and reconstructed until the imperiate of Diocletian (284-305).

These were times of immense social crisis and fear. Even the statues of the emperors show this fear; while imperial statuary of Augustus and the early emperors (all the way up to Commodus) show heroic and powerful individuals, the statues of the emperors in the third century show worry and resignation and their faces are deeply lined with wrinkles and furrowed brows. They are amazing documents in Roman history, for the purpose of statuary is to present the ideology of the government; the Romans seemed so hopeless, that even the emperors were represented as weak and worried.

During this period, the Romans underwent deep religious and philosophical changes. The fear and panic evoked by the loss of territory and the economic decimation of the country led people to adopt far more mystical religions and philosophies. It is during this century that eastern religions, particularly Christianity, really take hold in Rome. Christianity, for instance, had hung on but was not a wildly popular religion in the Roman Empire until the third century. With its promise of rewards in an afterlife, its emphasis on the individual and on spirituality, and its explanation of suffering in this world, it was a powerful world view in a world that seemed to be falling apart. Other eastern religions, particularly Mithraism, which was derived from Persian Zoroastriansism, also promised an afterlife and a meaning to suffering and were as popular as Christianity. In fact, there were as many Mithraists in Rome in the third century as there were Christians; because the two religions were so close to one another (they both involved the son of god taking a human form to experience human suffering; the human life of this god involves a last supper and an execution; both religions are eschatological and promise a final judgement—the difference, however, is that Mithraism is at least three centuries older than Christianity), they deeply influenced one another. There grew up several species of Christian-Zoroastrian religions, such as Gnosticism and Manicheism, but the interaction between these two religions affected mainstream Christianity itself, such as the moving of the Sabbath day to Sunday and the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25, both of which have no precedent in foundational Christianity and were taken whole cloth from Mithraism, which had its day of worship on Sunday (Mithras was the god of the sun) and celebrated his birth in human form on December 25 (there is no date given for the birth of Christ).

The Romans also reoriented themselves philosophically. The practical philosophies of Rome, particularly Stoicism, were edged out by new eastern and Greek philosophies. The most important and influential of these philosophies was Neo-Platonism. Founded in the first century by Plotinus and his pupil, Proclus, the Neo-Platonists believed that they were reviving the original philosophy of Plato. In reality, however, they believed that the universe preceded from a single thing, that is, that the multiplicity of all phenomena and existence derived from a single deity which Plotinus called, "the One" (in Greek, "to hen"), which Plotinus also called God. Everything in existence "eminates" from the One. The first emanation is the "world soul," and from the world soul come the forms of things and all the souls of living things, which themselves emanate from the world soul. The last of the emanations is matter or the physical world. So all of existence is a kind of hierarchy of emanations from the One; the farther an emanation is from the One, the less existence it has. So the One has all existence, the world soul has much existence, your individual soul has some existence, and your body and the material world around you barely exist. Since your soul is an emanation of God, it originally was a part of God and desires to be reunited with God. The material and physical world binds your soul to matter so that it can't escape and achieve its mystical reunion with God. Human life, then, should be spent in spiritual and intellectual contemplation in order to free the soul from matter; everything that is associated with the body, such as pleasure, should be rejected since these pleasures further chain the soul to the material world.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. While this philosophy was becoming the major philosophy in Rome during the third century, it corresponded to the phenomenal growth of Christianity within the Empire as well. Many of the Neo-Platonist ideas were incorporated into Christian theology by the most prominent Christian theorists of the time, particularly Augustine, who had spent a large part of his life as a Neo-Platonist.

The decline of Rome during this century seemed to point to an almost certain demise, and the promise of an afterlife or a mystical reunion with the One seemed to be the only thing to hope for. However, the last of the barracks emperors, a shrewd and practical man named Diocletian, radically reconstructed the Empire and set the stage for the Christian Roman Empire in the fourth century.

The Late Empire

While people like to talk about the "decline" or the "fall" of Rome, no such thing really happened. Although Rome underwent several shocks in the fourth and fifth centuries, some of them violent with a transfer of the imperiate to non-Romans, Rome really did remain in existence. It's impossible to say when the history of Rome ends and when the medieval ("medieval" means "in the middle") period begins, so I'm going to arbitrarily end this history of Rome with the assumption of the imperiate by foreigners. But the empire really does end, for all practical purposes, with the restructuring of the empire by Diocletian.

Diocletian (284-305) came to the throne after a century of disorganization, internal dissent, economic collapse, and foreign invasions. A tough and practical soldier he had one ambition: to retire from the imperiate alive. And he managed to do it (an exceptional feat). To stem the descent into chaos, he decided that the Empire was too large to be adminstered by a central authority, so he divided it in half. The western half would be ruled by a colleague, Maximian, and the seat of government would be Rome; the eastern half would be ruled by Diocletian, and the seat of government was in Nicomedia. Maximian recognized Diocletian as "Augustus," or the senior ruler of the Roman emperor. Beneath these two were appointed to each two officials, called caesars, not only to help manage the administration, but to assume their respective empires on the death of the emperor. In this way, the succession was always guaranteed and the successors had already spent much of their career adminstering the empire. This would prevent both the possibility of the ambitious seizing of the imperiate by provincial generals and would prevent incompetents from assuming control of the Empire.

This was a brilliant strategy and, with other innovations, stabilized the Empire. Diocletian was the first emperor to manifestly break with Roman tradition. He shifted the seat of power to the east, in Nicomedia in Turkey. He also adopted eastern ideas of monarchy; he no longer called himself princeps or even imperator , but dominus , or "Lord." He took a crown and wore royal clothing; he demanded and got out and out worship by his subjects.

In 305, Diocletian retired to a farm to raise cabbages; he forced Maxmian also to retire. So the imperiate passed without fuss to their two caesars. This brilliant system, so promising in its inception, fell apart immediately as the two emperors began feuding. Within a year, the son of one of the original caesars gained the throne: Constantine (306-337). Like Diocletian, he ruled only half of the Roman Empire, the western half. But in 324, he abandoned the system and ruled over a single, united empire. However, he shifted the seat of government east to his own city in Turkey, Constantinople.

Constantine was like Diocletian in his affection for eastern ways of life and eastern views of monarchy. He took on himself all the trappings of an eastern king, as Diocletian had done, and declared the imperiate to be hereditary. After eight hundred years without a monarch, Rome had finally returned back to monarchy. Constantine, however, is one of the most noted rulers in Rome for he was the first emperor to convert to Christianity. Although he didn't make Christianity a state religion, his conversion provoked a wild proliferation of the faith, particularly in the eastern empire. Constantine, however, never really became a Christian ruler. He retained all the trappings of power including the demand that he be venerated as a god, as Diocletian had done.

Constantine, however, had several problems with his new faith. The first was that there was no established doctrine. In fact, there were as many forms of Christianity as there were communities of Christians. The second was more pressing, for foundational Christianity was manifestly anti-political. Its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, consistently condemned worldly authority and insisted that the Christian life is a non-worldly, individualistic, non-political life. As a result, the foundational Christian texts are not only anti-Roman (for Judaea was part of the Roman Empire during the life of Jesus of Nazareth), but consistently dismissive of human, worldly authority. If Christianity were going to work as a religion in a state ruled by a monarch that demanded worship and absolute authority, it would have to be changed. To this end, Constantine convened a group of Christian bishops at Nicea in 325; there, the basic orthodoxy of Christianity was instantiated in what came to be called the Nicene creed, the basic statement of belief for orthodox Christianity. Constantine accomplished more, however, for the Nicene council also ratified his own power and Christianity would begin the long struggle, lasting to this day, between the anti-political ideas of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christianity that is compromised to allow for human authority and power. (A more thorough discussion of the Nicene Council and the history of Christianity in the late Empire can be found in the module, "Early Christianity")

When Constantine died, he divided the Empire between his three sons who, as you might expect, began fighting one another over complete control of the Empire. His sons all adopted Christianity as well, but the emperor, Julian the Apostate (361-363), opposed the religion and tried to undo it by dismissing all the Christians from the government. He was a little too late and reigned a little too briefly, though, to have any real effect. The government of Rome during the fourth century essentially traces out a history of dynastic squabbles and constant internal fractiousness; it wasn't until the end of the century, in the rule of Theodosius (379-395), that Rome was again united under a single emperor. Theodosius made his mark in history by declaring Christianity the state religion of Rome; he made all pagan religions illegal. The Christian Roman state had entered the stage; however, history was about to dramatically change the character of Rome. In 410, the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that had migrated into northern Italy under the pressure of migrations of the Huns, captured and sacked Rome. From 451 to 453, Rome was overrun by the Hunnish leader, Attila, and finally, in 455, the Vandals, another Germanic tribe, conquered Rome. Finally, in 476, Odoacer deposed the Roman emperor and made himself emperor. Power had passed from the Romans to the barbarians war-chiefs; the Middle Ages had begun. Rome now passed to two heirs: Europe in the west and, to the east, the Byzantines, who carried on the government structure, the social structure, the art and the thought of classical Rome and Greece.


"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."    — Robert A. Heinlein

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