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The Grandeur That Was Rome
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Date: 1992

The Early Empire, 30 B.C.- A.D. 180

At the end of a century of civil violence Rome was at last united under
one ruler, and the Republic gave way to the permanent dictatorship of the
Empire. Two centuries of imperial greatness, known as the Pax Romana (Roman
Peace), followed.

Reconstruction Under Augustus

Following his triumphal return to Rome, Octavian in 27 B.C. announced
that he would "restore the Republic." But he did so only outwardly by blending
republican institutions with strong personal leadership. He provided the
Senate with considerable authority, consulted it on important issues, allowed
it to retain control over Italy and half of the provinces, and gave it the
legislative functions of the nearly defunct Tribal Assembly. The Senate in
return bestowed upon Octavian the title Augustus ("The Revered," a title
previously used for gods), by which he was known thereafter.

During the rest of his forty-five-year rule, Augustus never again held
the office of dictator, and he seldom held the consulship. Where, then, did
his strength lie? Throughout his career he kept the power of a tribune, which
gave him the right to initiate legislation and to veto the legislative and
administrative acts of others. He also kept the governorship of the frontier
provinces, where the armies were stationed. Augustus' control of the army
meant that his power could not be successfully challenged. From his military
title, imperator ("victorious general"), is derived our modern term emperor.

Augustus thus effected a compromise "between the need for a monarchical
head of the empire and the sentiment which enshrined Rome's republican
constitution in the minds of his contemporaries." ^8 He preferred the modest
title of princeps, "first citizen" or "leader," which he felt best described
his position, and his form of disguised dictatorship is therefore known as the
Principate. At the beginning of the Empire, then, political power was
ostensibly divided between the princeps and the senatorial aristocrats. This
arrangement was continued by most of Augustus' successors during the next two

[Footnote 8: M. Hammond, City-State and World State in Greek and Roman
Political Theory Until Augustus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951),
p. 153.]

Because Augustus faced the problem of removing the scars resulting from a
century of civil strife, he concentrated on internal reform. He did extend the
Roman frontier to the Danube as a defense against barbarian invasions, but he
failed in an attempt to conquer Germany up to the Elbe River. As a result of
this failure, the Germans were never Romanized, like the Celts of Gaul and
Spain, and the boundary between their language and the Roman-based Romance
languages of France and Spain is still the Rhine.

Augustus also sought to cure a sick society - to end the mood of utter
hopelessness felt by many concerned Romans, among them the poet Horace:

Time corrupts all. What has it not made worse?
Our grandfathers sired feebler children; theirs
Were weaker still - ourselves; and now our curse
Must be to breed even more degenerate heirs. ^9

[Footnote 9: Horace Odes 3.6, trans. James Michie, The Odes of Horace
(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), p. 138.]

Through legislation and propaganda, Augustus sought with some success to
check moral and social decline and revive the old Roman ideals and traditions.
He rebuilt deteriorated temples, revived old priesthoods, and restored
religious festivals. He sought to reestablish the integrity of the family by
legislating against adultery, the chief grounds for divorce, which had become
commonplace during the late Republic. A permanent court was set up to
prosecute adulterous wives and their lovers. Among those found guilty and
banished from Rome were Augustus' daughter and granddaughter. Finally, to
disarm the gangs that had been terrorizing citizens, he outlawed the carrying
of daggers.

Augustus greatly reduced the corruption and exploitation that had
flourished in the late Republic by creating a salaried civil service, open to
all classes. He also established a permanent standing army, stationed in the
frontier provinces and kept out of politics. More than forty colonies of
retired soldiers were founded throughout the Empire; among them were Palermo
in Sicily, Patras in Greece, and Baalbek in Syria.

Augustus' reforms engendered a new optimism and patriotism that were
reflected in the art and literature of the Augustan Age (discussed later in
this chapter).

The Julio-Claudian And Flavian Emperors

Augustus was followed by four descendants of his family, the line of the
Julio-Claudians, who ruled from A.D. 14 to 68. Augustus' stepson Tiberius,
whom the Senate accepted as his successor, and Claudius were fairly efficient
and devoted rulers; in Claudius' reign the Roman occupation of Britain began
in A.D. 43. The other two rulers of this imperial line disregarded the
pretense that they were only the first among all citizens: Caligula was a
madman who demanded to be worshiped as a god and made his favorite horse a
senator; Nero was infamous for his immorality, the murder of his wife and his
mother, and his persecution of Christians in Rome.

In A.D. 64, a great fire raged for nine days, destroying more than half
of the capital. The Roman historian Tacitus has left us a vivid account of how
Nero made the unpopular Christians scapegoats for the fire:

... large numbers ... were condemned - not so much for
incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies. Their
deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals' skins,
they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into
torches to be ignited after dark....Nero provided his Gardens
for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus...
Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment
it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt they were
being sacrificed to one man's brutality rather than to the
national interest. ^10

[Footnote 10: Tacitus Annals 15:44, trans. Michael Grant (Baltimore: Penguin
Books, 1959), p. 354.]

The Julio-Claudian line ended in A.D. 68 when Nero, declared a public
enemy by the Senate and faced by army revolts, committed suicide. In the
following year four emperors were proclaimed by rival armies, with Vespasian
the final victor. For nearly thirty years (A.D. 69-96) the Flavian dynasty
(Vespasian followed by his two sons, Titus and Domitian) provided the Empire
with effective, if autocratic, rule. The fiction of republican institutions
gave way to a scarcely veiled monarchy as the Flavians openly treated the
office of emperor as theirs by right of conquest and inheritance.

The Antonines: "Five Good Emperors"

An end to autocracy and a return to the Augustan principle of an
administration of equals - emperor and Senate - characterized the rule of the
Antonine emperors (A.D. 96-180), under whom the Empire reached the height of
its prosperity and power. Selected on the basis of proven ability, these "good
emperors" succeeded, according to Tacitus, in "reconciling things long
incompatible, supreme power and liberty." Two of these emperors are especially
worthy of notice.

Hadrian reigned from A.D. 117 to 138. His first important act was to
stabilize the boundaries of the Empire. He gave up as indefensible recently
conquered Armenia and Mesopotamia and erected protective walls in Germany and
Britain, the latter an imposing structure of stone twenty feet high. Hadrian
traveled extensively, inspecting almost every province of the Empire. New
towns were founded, old ones restored, and many public works were constructed,
among them the famous Pantheon in Rome.

The last of the "five good emperors" was Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from
A.D. 161 to 180. He approached Plato's ideal of the "philosopher king" and
preferred the quiet contemplation of his books to the blood and brutality of
the battlefield. Yet he was repeatedly troubled by the invasions of Parthians
from the east and Germans from across the Danube. While engaged in his
Germanic campaigns, he wrote his Meditations, a collection of personal
thoughts notable for its lofty Stoic idealism and love of humanity.
(Ironically, the stoic manner in which Christian martyrs accepted death did
not impress him: "What an admirable soul, that is, which is ready, if at any
moment it must be separated from the body....This readiness must come from a
man's own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but with
reason and dignity if it is to persuade another, and without tragic show."
(Meditations XI,3) Like a good Stoic, Marcus Aurelius died at his post at
Vindobona (Vienna). At Rome his equestrian statue still stands on the
Capitoline Hill, "returning the salute of legions which have been dead for two
thousand years."

The "Immense Majesty Of The Roman Peace"

In its finest period, the Empire was a vast area stretching from Britain
to the Euphrates and containing upwards of 100 million people. It was welded
together into what Pliny the Elder, in the first century A.D., termed the
"immense majesty of the Roman peace" (Pax Romana). Writing during the
rule of Augustus, the Roman poet Virgil was the spokesman for what enlightened
Romans felt to be the mission of Rome:

Others, doubtless, will mould lifelike bronze with
greater delicacy, will win from marble the look of life,
will plead cases better, chart the motions of the sky
with the rod and foretell the risings of the stars. You,
O Roman, remember to rule the nations with might. This
will be your genius - to impose the way of peace, to
spare the conquered and crush the proud. ^11

[Footnote 11: Virgil Aeneid 6.847853, in Roman Civilization: Selected
Readings, ed. Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1955), vol. 2, p. 23.]

Non-Romans were equally conscious of the rich benefits derived from Roman
rule. The mass of the inhabitants of the Empire welcomed the peace,
prosperity, and administrative efficiency of the Principate.

The Pax Romana began with Augustus and reached its height under the Five
Good Emperors. Cities increased in number and were largely self-governed by
their own upper-class magistrates and senates. They formed nerve centers
linked together by a network of roads and waterways. Secure behind natural
frontiers guarded by well-trained armies, the Pax Romana created a
cosmopolitan world-state where races and cultures intermingled freely.

The "True Democracy" Of The Roman Empire

At the head of this huge world-state stood the emperor, its defender and
symbol of unity as well as an object of veneration. "The whole world speaks in
unison," proclaimed a Greek orator, "more distinctly than a chorus; and so
well does it harmonize under this director-in-chief that it joins in praying
this Empire may last for all time." ^12 The major theme of the many encomiums
written to celebrate the generally enlightened government of the Principate
was that liberty had been exchanged for order and prosperity. The Empire was
said to represent a new kind of democracy: "the true democracy and the freedom
that does not fail" - "a democracy under the one man that can rule and govern
best." The last century of the Republic, by contrast, exhibited "the evils
found in every democracy.... The cause is the multitude of our population and
the magnitude of the business of our government; for the population embraces
men of every kind,...and the business of the state had become so vast that it
can be administered only with the greatest difficulty." ^13

[Footnote 12: Aelius Aristides To Rome. Oration 26, trans. S. Levin (Glencoe,
IL: The Free Press, 1950), p. 126.]

[Footnote 13: The advice of Maecenas, Rome's richest capitalist, to Augustus
in Dio Cassius Roman History 52.1415, trans. Earnest Cary, The Loeb Classical
Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), vol. 6, pp. 109ff.]

Economic Prosperity

Rome's unification of the ancient world had far-reaching economic
consequences. The Pax Romana was responsible for the elimination of tolls and
other artificial barriers, the suppression of piracy and brigandage, and the
establishment of a reliable coinage. Such factors, in addition to the longest
period of peace the West has ever enjoyed, explain in large measure the great
expansion of commerce that occurred in the first and second centuries A.D.
Industry was also stimulated, but its expansion was hindered since wealth
remained concentrated and no mass market for industrial goods arose. Industry
remained organized on a small-shop basis with producers widely scattered,
resulting in self-sufficiency.

The economy of the Empire remained basically agrarian, and the huge
estates, latifundia, prospered. On these tracts, usually belonging to
absentee owners, large numbers of coloni, free tenants, tilled the soil
as sharecroppers. The coloni were replacing slave labor, which was
becoming increasingly hard to secure with the disappearance of the flow of war

Early Evidence Of Economic Stagnation

Late in the first century A.D. the first sign of economic stagnation
appeared in Italy. Italian agriculture began to suffer from overproduction as
a result of the loss of its markets for wine and olive oil in Roman Gaul,
Spain, and North Africa, which were becoming self-sufficient in those
products. To aid the Italian wine producers, the Flavian emperor Domitian
created an artificial scarcity by forbidding new vineyards in Italy to be
planted and by ordering half the existing vineyards in the provinces to be
plowed under. A century later the Five Good Emperors sought to solve the
continuing problem of overproduction by subsidizing the buying power of
consumers. Loans at 5 percent interest were made to ailing landowners, with
the interest to be paid into the treasuries of Italian municipalities and
earmarked "for girls and boys of needy parents to be supported at public
expense." This system of state subsidies was soon extended to the provinces.

Also contributing to Roman economic stagnation was the continuing drain
of money to the East for the purchase of such luxury goods as silks and spices
(see "The Meeting of East and West in Ancient Times," Chapter 4), and the
failure of city governments within the Empire to keep their finances in order,
thus making it necessary for the imperial government to intervene. As an
official sent by one of the Five Good Emperors to investigate the fiscal
troubles of some cities in Asia Minor reported:

Many sums of money are detained in private hands for a
variety of reasons, and in addition some are disbursed
for quite illegitimate expenditures.... The city of
Nicomedia, my lord, has expended 3,329,000 sesterces on an
aqueduct, which has been abandoned still unfinished and has
even been torn down. Again they disbursed 200,000 sesterces
for another aqueduct, but this, too, has been abandoned.
So now, after throwing away all that money they must make a
new expenditure in order to have water. ^14

[Footnote 14: Pliny the Younger Letters 10.17a in Roman Civilization: Selected
Readings, ed. Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, p. 342.]

Such early evidence of declining prosperity foreshadowed the economic
crisis of the third century A.D., when political anarchy and monetary
inflation caused the economy of the Empire to collapse (see ch. 5).

Rome, Imperial Capital

At the hub of the sprawling Empire was Rome, with about a million
inhabitants. Augustus boasted that he had found a city of brick and had left
one of marble. Nonetheless, Rome presented a great contrast of magnificence
and tawdriness, of splendid public buildings and squalid tenements, which
often collapsed or caught fire. The crowded narrow streets, lined with
apartment houses and swarming with all manner of people, are described by the
satirist Juvenal early in the second century A.D.:

...Hurry as I may, I am blocked
By a surging crowd in front, while a vast mass
Of people crushes onto me from behind.
One with his elbow punches me, another
With a hard litter-pole; one bangs a beam
Against my head, a wine-cask someone else.
With mud my legs are plastered; from all sides
Huge feet trample upon me, and a soldier's
Hobnails are firmly planted on my toes. ^15

[Footnote 15: R. C. Trevelyan, Translations from Horace, Juvenal and Montaigne
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1941), p. 129.]

Social Life

At the top of the social order were the old senatorial families who lived
as absentee owners of huge estates and left commerce and finance to a large
and wealthy middle class. In contrast to the tenements of the poor, the homes
of the rich were palatial, as revealed by excavations at Pompeii, which was
buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. These elaborate villas
contained courts and gardens with fountains, rooms furnished with marble
walls, mosaics on the floors, and numerous frescoes and other works of art. An
interesting feature of Roman furniture was the abundance of couches and the
scarcity of chairs. People usually reclined, even at meals - a custom which
may have had its value during the sumptuous dinners served by the wealthy
gourmands, who were not above administering emetics to permit disgorging and
starting afresh on more food and wine.

The lower classes in the cities found a refuge from the dullness of their
existence in social clubs, or guilds, called collegia, each comprising
the workers of one trade. The activity of the collegia did not center on
economic aims, like modern trade unions, but on the worship of a god and on
feasts, celebrations, and decent burials for members.

The living conditions of slaves varied greatly. Those in domestic service
were often treated humanely, and their years of efficient service frequently
rewarded by emancipation. Nor was it uncommon for freed slaves to rise to
places of eminence in business, letters, and the imperial service. On the
other hand, conditions among slaves on the large estates could be
indescribably harsh. Beginning with Augustus, however, numerous enactments
protected slaves from mistreatment; Hadrian, for example, forbade private
prisons and the killing of a slave without judicial approval.

Recreation played a key role in Roman social life. Both rich and poor
were exceedingly fond of their public baths, which in the capital alone
numbered 800 during the early days of the Empire. The baths served the same
purpose as our modern-day athletic clubs. The larger baths contained enclosed
gardens, promenades, gymnasiums, libraries, and famous works of art as well as
a sequence of rooms through which one moved - the sweat room, the warm room
where sweat was scraped off by a slave (soap was unknown), the tepid room for
cooling off, and the invigorating cold bath. Another popular room was the
lavatory with its long row of marble toilets equipped with comfortable arm
rests. Here Romans liked to sit and chat for an hour or more.

Foot races, boxing, and wrestling were minor sports; chariot racing and
gladiatorial contests were the chief amusements. The cry for "bread and
circuses" reached such proportions that by the first century A.D. the Roman
calendar had as many as a hundred days set aside as holidays, the majority
of which were given over to games furnished at public expense. The most
spectacular sport was chariot racing. The largest of six race courses at Rome
was the Circus Maximus, a huge marble-faced structure seating about 150,000
spectators. The games, which included as many as twenty-four races each day,
were presided over by the emperor or his representative. The crowds bet
furiously on their favorite charioteers, whose fame equaled that of the sports
heroes of our own day.

Scarcely less popular, but infinitely less civilized, the gladiatorial
contests were organized by both emperors and private promoters as a regular
feature on the amusement calendar. These cruel spectacles, which have no exact
counterpart in any other civilization, were held in arenas, the largest and
most famous of which was the Colosseum. The contests took various forms.
Ferocious animals were pitted against armed combatants or occasionally even
against unarmed men and women who had been condemned to death. Another type of
contest was the fight to the death between gladiators, generally equipped with
different types of weapons but matched on equal terms. It was not uncommon for
the life of a defeated gladiator who had fought courageously to be spared at
the request of the spectators. Although many Romans decried these
blood-letting contests, they continued until the fifth century, when
Christianity forbade them.

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