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10: The Roman Empire

  • Page ID
    17050
  • When Octavian succeeded in defeating Marc Antony, he removed the last obstacle to his own control of Rome's vast territories. While paying lip service to the idea that the Republic still survived, he in fact replaced the republican system with one in which a single sovereign ruled over the Roman state. In doing so he founded the Roman Empire, a political entity that would survive for almost five centuries in the west and over a thousand years in the east.

    This system was called the Principate, rule by the “First.” Likewise, although “Caesar” had originally simply been the family name of Julius Caesar’s line, “Caesar” came to be synonymous with the emperor himself by the end of the first century CE. The Roman terms for rule would last into the twentieth century CE: the imperial titles of the rulers of both Russia and Germany - “Tsar” and “Kaiser” - meant “Caesar.” In turn, the English word “emperor” derives from imperator, the title of a victorious Roman general in the field, which was adopted as yet another honorific by the Roman emperors. The English word “prince” is another Romanism, from Princeps Civitatis, “First Citizen,” the term that Augustus invented for himself. For the sake of clarity, this chapter will use the anglicized term “emperor” to refer to all of the leaders of the Roman imperial system.

    • 10.1: Augustus
      Octavian was unquestionably the architect of the Roman Empire. Unlike his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, Octavian eliminated all political rivals and set up a permanent hereditary emperorship. All the while, he claimed to be restoring not just peace and prosperity, but the Republic itself. Since the term Rex (king) would have been odious to his fellow Romans, Augustus instead referred to himself as Princeps Civitatus, meaning “first citizen.”
    • 10.2: The Imperial Dynasties
      The period of the Pax Romana included three distinct dynasties: (1) The Julian dynasty: 14 – 68 CE - those emperors related (by blood or adoption) to Caesar's line. (2) The Flavian dynasty: 69 – 96 CE - a father and his two sons who seized power after a brief civil war. (3) The “Five Good Emperors”: 96 – 180 CE - a "dynasty" of emperors who chose their successors, rather than power passing to their family members .
    • 10.3: The Julian Dynasty
      While archaeology and the surviving written sources create a reasonably clear basis for understanding the major political events of the Julian dynasty, the biographical details are much more difficult. All of the surviving written accounts about the lives of the Julian emperors were written many decades, in some cases more than a century, after their reign. In turn, the two most important biographers, Tacitus and Suetonius, detested the actions and the character of the Julians.
    • 10.4: The Flavian Dyansty
      In the aftermath of Nero's death, a brief civil war broke out. Four generals competed for the emperorship, supported by their armies. In the end, a general named Vespasian (r. 69 – 79 CE) seized power and founded a fairly short-lived dynasty consisting of himself and his two sons, known to history as the Flavians. The importance of Vespasian’s takeover was that it reinforced the idea that real power in Rome was no longer that of the old power-broking families, but instead in the armies.
    • 10.5: The "Five Good Emperors" and the Severans
      Historians frequently refer to the rulers of the Roman Empire who followed the death of Domitian as the “Five Good Emperors,” those who successfully managed the Empire at its height. For almost a century, emperors appointed their own successors from the most competent members of the younger generation of Roman elites. Not least because none of them had surviving direct heirs of their own, each emperor would adopt a younger man as his son, thereby ensuring his succession.
    • 10.6: The Empire
      As far as the Romans were concerned, there were only two things beyond their borders: endless tracts of inhospitable land and semi-human barbarians like the "Germans," and to the east, the only other civilization Rome was prepared to recognize: the Persians, ruled first by the Parthian clan and then the Sassanids. For the rest of the Roman Imperial period, Rome and Persia periodically engaged in both raiding and full-scale warfare, with neither side capable of conclusively defeating the other.
    • 10.7: The Army and Assimilation
      Perhaps the most important thing Augustus did besides establishing the principate itself was to reorganize the Roman legions. He created a standing professional army with regular pay and retirement benefits, permanently ending the reliance on the volunteer citizen - soldiers that had fought for Rome under the republic. Instead, during the empire, Legionaries served for twenty years and then were put on reserve for another five, although more than half died before reaching retirement age.
    • 10.8: Roman Society
      Rome itself was opulent during this period. The city of Rome boasted eleven aqueducts, enormous structures that brought fresh water into the city from miles away. The houses of the rich had indoor plumbing with drains that led to public sewers. There were enormous libraries and temples, along with numerous public sites for recreation, including public baths, race tracks, and the famous Colosseum, used primarily for displays of lethal gladiatorial combat.
    • 10.9: Social Classes
      That all being said, there was vast social distances that separated elites and commoners. Even in the city of Rome, most of the citizens lived in squalor, packed into apartment buildings many stories high, made out of flammable wood, looming over open sewers. The rich lived in a state of luxury that probably would not be equaled until the Renaissance, but the majority of Romans lived in squalid conditions.
    • 10.10: Law
      Roman citizens could always appeal to Roman law if they wanted to, even if they were part of provinces far from Rome. This changed dramatically in 212 CE when the emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all free men and women (to make it easier to collect taxes). This was an important event because it extended Roman law to almost everyone in the empire; citizens were also exempt from some of the crueler punishments including crucifixion.
    • 10.11: Conclusion
      For the first two centuries of its existence, Rome was overwhelmingly powerful, and its political institutions were strong enough to survive even prolonged periods of incompetent rule. Trouble was afoot on Rome's borders, however, as barbarian groups became more populous and better-organized, and as the meritocratic system of the “Five Good Emperors” gave way to infighting, assassination, and civil war.

    Thumbnail:Augustus of Prima Porta. (Public Domain via Wikipedia).

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