The Roman Empire is the term conventionally used to describe the Roman state in the centuries following its reorganization under the leadership of Caesar Augustus. Although Rome possessed a collection of tribute-states for centuries before the autocracy of Augustus, the pre-Augustan state is conventionally described as the Roman Republic. The difference between the Roman Empire and the Roman Republic lies primarily in the governing bodies and their relationship to each other.
For many years, historians made a distinction between the Principate, the period from Augustus until the Crisis of the Third Century, and the Dominate, the period from Diocletian until the end of the Empire in the West. According to this theory, during the Principate, (from the Latin word princeps, meaning "the first", the only title Augustus would permit himself) the realities of dictatorship were cleverly hidden behind Republican forms; while during the Dominate, (from the word dominus, meaning "Master") imperial power showed its naked face, with golden crowns and ornate imperial ritual. We now know that the situation was far more nuanced: certain historical forms continued until the Byzantine period, more than one thousand years after they were created, and displays of imperial majesty were common from the earliest days of the Empire.
Over the course of its history, the Roman Empire controlled all of the Hellenized states that bordered the Mediterranean sea, as well as the Celtic regions of Western Europe. The administration of the Roman Empire eventually evolved into separate Eastern and Western halves, more or less following this cultural division. They are respectively known as the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire. By the time that Odoacer took power of the West in 476, the Western half was clearly evolving in new directions, with the Church absorbing much of the administrative and charitable roles previously filled by the secular government. The Eastern half of the Empire, centered around Constantinople, the city of Constantine the Great, remained the heartland of the Roman state until 1453, when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks.
The Roman Empire'Frankish" title ="Frankish">Frankish kingdom, the Holy Roman Empire, the first and second Bulgarian empires(see List of Bulgarian monarchs), the Russian/Kiev dynasties (see czars), and the German Empire (see Kaiser). See also: Roman culture
The Age of Augustus
As a matter of convenience, the Roman Empire is held to have begun with the constitutional settlement following the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. In fact, the Republican institutions at Rome had been destroyed over the preceding century and Rome had been effectively under one-man rule since the time of Sulla.
The reign of Augustus marks an important turning point, though. By the time of Actium, there was no one left alive who could recall functional Republican institutions or a time when there was no civil war in Rome. Forty-five years later, at Augustus'Life_expectancy" title ="Life expectancy">life expectancy of only forty years. The long reign of Augustus allowed a generation to live and die knowing no other form of rule, or indeed no other ruler. This was critically important to creating a mindset that would allow hereditary monarchy to exist in a Rome that had killed Julius Caesar for his regal pretensions. Whether or not the people of Rome welcomed one-man rule, in the Age of Augustus, it was all they knew, and so it would remain for many centuries.
Augustus's reign was notable for several long-lasting achievements that would define the Empire:
- The creation of a hereditary office which we refer to as Emperor of Rome.
- The fixing of the payscale and duration of Roman military service marked the final step in the evolution of the Roman Army from a citizen army to a professional one.
- The creation of the Praetorian Guard, which would make and unmake emperors for centuries.
- Expansion to the natural borders of the Empire. The borders reached upon Augustus's death remained the limits of Empire, with minimal exceptions, for the next four hundred years.
- The creation of a civil service outside of the Senatorial structure, creating a continuous weakening of Senatorial authority.
- The lex Julia of 18 BC and the lex Papia Poppaea of AD 9, which rewarded childbearing and penalized celibacy.
- The promulgation of the cult of the Deified Julius Caesar throughout the Empire, and the encouragement of a quasi-godlike status for himself in his own lifetime in the Hellenist East. This tradition lasted until the time of Constantine, who was made both a Roman god and "the Thirteenth Apostle" upon his death.
The Augustan period saw a tremendous outpouring of cultural achievement in the areas of poetry, history, sculpture and architecture.
The Age of Augustus is, paradoxically, far more poorly documented than the Late Republican period that preceded it. While Livy wrote his magisterial history during Augustus'9_BC" title ="9 BC">9 BC, only epitomes survive of his coverage of the Late Republican and Augustan periods. Our important primary sources for this period include:
- the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Augustus'Autobiography" title ="Autobiography">autobiography,
- the Historiae Romanae by Velleius Paterculus, a disorganized work which remains the best annal of the Augustan period, and
- the Controversiae and Suasoriae of Seneca the Elder.
Though primary accounts of this period are few, works of poetry, legislation and engineering from this period provide important insights into Roman life. Archeology, including maritime archeology, aerial surveys, epigraphic inscriptions on buildings, and Augustan coinage, has also provided valuable evidence about economic, social and military conditions.
Secondary sources on the Augustan Age include Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Plutarch and Suetonius. Josephus's Jewish Antiquities is the important source for Judea in this period, which became a province during Augustus's reign.
The heirs of Augustus: the Julio-Claudians
The early years of Tiberius' reign were peaceful and relatively benign. Tiberius secured the power of Rome and enriched the treasury. However, Tiberius'19" title ="19">19, he was blamed for the death of his nephew, the popular Germanicus. In 23, his own son Drusus died. More and more, Tiberius retreated into himself. He began a series of treason trials and executions. He left power in the hands of the commander of the guard, Aelius Sejanus. Tiberius himself retired to live at his villa on the island of Capri in 26, leaving Sejanus in charge. Sejanus carried on the persecutions with relish. He also began to consolidate his own power; in 31, he was named co-consul with Tiberius and married Livilla, the emperor'Petard" title ="Petard">petard: the Emperor's paranoia, which he had so ably exploited for his own gain, was turned against him. Sejanus was put to death, along with many of his cronies, the same year. The persecutions continued apace until Tiberius'37" title ="37">37.
At the time of Tiberius's death, most of the people who might have succeeded him had been brutally murdered. The logical successor (and Tiberius's own choice) was his grandnephew, Germanicus'Caligula" title ="Caligula">Caligula). Caligula started out well, by putting an end to the persecutions and burning his uncle'37" title ="37">37 may have suffered from epilepsy, and was more probably insane. He ordered his soldiers to invade Britain, but changed his mind at the last minute and had them pick sea shells on the northern end of France instead. It is believed he carried on incestuous relations with his sisters. He had ordered a statue of himself to be erected in the Temple at Jerusalem, which would have undoubtedly led to revolt had he not been dissuaded. In 41, Caligula was assassinated by the commander of the guard Cassius Chaerea. The only member left of the imperial family to take charge was another nephew of Tiberius'Claudius" title ="Claudius">Claudius.
Claudius had long been considered a weakling and a fool by the rest of his family. He was, however, neither paranoid like his uncle Tiberius, nor insane like his nephew Caligula, and was therefore able to administer the empire with reasonable ability. He improved the bureaucracy and streamlined the citizenship and senatorial rolls. He also proceeded with the conquest and colonization of Britain (in 43), and incorporated more Eastern provinces into the empire. In Italy, he constructed a winter port at Ostia, thereby providing a place for grain from other parts of the Empire to be brought in inclement weather.
On the home front, Claudius was less successful. His wife Messalina cuckolded him; when he found out, he had her executed and married his niece, Agrippina the younger. She, along with several of his freedmen, held an inordinate amount of power over him, and very probably killed him in 54. Claudius was deified later that year. The death of Claudius paved the way for Agrippina'Nero" title ="Nero">Nero.
Initially, Nero left the rule of Rome to his mother and his tutors, particularly Lucius Annaeus Seneca. However, as he grew older, his desire for power increased; he had his mother and tutors executed. During Nero'Roman_Britain" title ="Roman Britain">Britain, Armenia, Parthia, and Judaea. Nero'68" title ="68">68, even the Imperial guard renounced him. Nero committed suicide, and the year 69 (known as the Year of the Four Emperors) was a year of civil war, with the emperors Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian ruling in quick succession. By the end of the year, Vespasian was able to solidify his power as emperor of Rome.
Vespasian was a remarkably successful Roman general who had been given rule over much of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. He had supported the imperial claims of Galba; however, on his death, Vespasian became a major contender for the throne. After the suicide of Otho, Vespasian was able to hijack Rome's winter grain supply, placing him in a good position to defeat his remaining rival, Vitellius. On December 20, 69, some of Vespasian's partisans were able to occupy Rome. Vitellius was murdered by his own troops, and the next day, Vespasian was confirmed as Emperor by the Senate.
Vespasian was quite the autocrat, and gave much less credence to the Senate than his Julio-Claudian predecessors. This was typified by his dating his accession to power from July 1, when his troops proclaimed him emperor, instead of December 21, when the Senate confirmed his appointment. He would, in later years, expel dissident senators.
Vespasian was able to liberate Rome from the financial burdens placed upon it by Nero'Roman_Colosseum" title ="Roman Colosseum">Roman Colosseum; he also built a forum whose centerpiece was a temple to Peace.
Vespasian was also an effective emperor for the provinces. His generals quelled rebellions in Syria and Germany. In fact, in Germany he was able to expand the frontiers of the empire, and a great deal more of Britain was brought under Roman rule. He also extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Spain.
Another example of his monarchical tendencies was his insistence that his sons Titus and Domitian would succeed him; the imperial power was not seen as hereditary at this point. Titus, who had some military successes early in Vespasian'Censor" title ="Censor">censor and consul and helped him reorganize the senatorial rolls. Upon Vespasian'79" title ="79">79, Titus was immediately confirmed as Emperor.
Titus'Vesuvius" title ="Vesuvius">Vesuvius erupted in Pompeii, and in 80, a fire decimated much of Rome. His generosity in rebuilding after these tragedies made him very popular. Titus was very proud of his work on the vast amphitheater begun by his father. He held the opening ceremonies in the still unfinished edifice during the year 80, celebrating with a lavish show that featured 100 gladiators and lasted 100 days. However, it was during Domitian'81" title ="81">81, at the age of 41; it was rumored that his brother Domitian murdered him in order to become his successor.
Domitian did not live up to the good name left for the family by his father and elder brother. While his offenses may have been exaggerated by hostile later generations, it is clear that he did not like to share power. It had become accepted by Domitian'Roman_Republic" title ="Roman Republic">Republican times (for instance the censorship and the tribunate), but it was still customary for other politicians to have those powers as well. Domitian wanted to claim authority for himself alone, causing him to alienate the Senate as well as the people.
The Antonines: the "five good emperors", 96 - 193
The next century came to be known as the period of the "Five Good Emperors", in which the successions were peaceful though not dynastic, and the Empire was prosperous. The emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.
Under Trajan, the Empire'Mesopotamia" title ="Mesopotamia">Mesopotamia.
The period of the "five good emperors" was brought to an end by the reign of Commodus from 180 to 192. Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius. He was co-emperor with his father from 177. When he became sole emperor upon the death of his father in 180, it was at first seen as a hopeful sign by the people of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, as generous and magnanimous as his father was, Commodus turned out to be just the opposite.
Commodus is often thought to have been insane, and he was certainly given to excess. He began his reign by making an unfavorable peace treaty with the Marcomanni, who had been at war with Marcus Aurelius. Commodus also had a passion for gladiatoral combat, which he took so far as to take to the arena himself, dressed as a gladiator. In 190, a part of the city of Rome burned, and Commodus took the opportunity to "re-found" the city of Rome in his own honor, as Colonia Commodiana. The months of the calendar were all renamed in his honor, and the senate was renamed as the Commodian Fortunate Senate. The army became known as the Commodian Army. Commodus was strangled in his sleep in 192, a day before he planned to march into the Senate dressed as a gladiator to take office as a consul. Upon his death, the Senate passed damnatio memoriae on him and restored the proper name to the city of Rome and its institutions. The popular movies The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Gladiator (2000) were loosely based on the career of the emperor Commodus, although they should not be taken as an accurate historical depictions of his life.
The Severan dynasty, 193 - 235
The Severan dynasty includes the increasingly troubled reigns of Septimius Severus (193–211), Caracalla (211–217), Macrinus (217–218), Elagabalus (218–222), and Alexander Severus (222–235). The founder of the dynasty, Lucius Septimius Severus, belonged to a leading native family of Leptis Magna in Africa who allied himself with a prominent Syrian family by his marriage to Julia Domna. Their provincial background and cosmopolitan alliance, eventually giving rise to imperial rulers of Syrian background, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus, testifies to the broad political franchise and economic development of the Roman empire that had been achieved under the Antonines. A generally successful ruler, Septimius Severus cultivated the army's support with substantial remuneration in return for total loyalty to the emperor and substituted equestrian officers for senators in key administrative positions. In this way, he successfully broadened the power base of the imperial administration throughout the empire. Abolishing the regular standing jury courts of Republican times, Septimius Severus was likewise able to transfer additional power to the executive branch of the government, of which he was decidedly the chief representative.
Septimius Severus'Caracalla" title ="Caracalla">Caracalla - removed all legal and political distinction between Italians and provincials, enacting the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 which extended full Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. Caracalla was also responsible for erecting the famous Baths of Caracalla in Rome, their design serving as an architectural model for many subsequent monumental public buildings. Increasingly unstable and autocractic, Caracalla was assassinated by the praetorian prefect Macrinus in 217, who succeeded him briefly as the first emperor not of senatorial rank. The imperial court, however, was dominated by formidable women who arranged the succession of Elagabalus in 218, and Alexander Severus, the last of the dynasty, in 222. In the last phase of the Severan principate, the power of the Senate was somewhat revived and a number of fiscal reforms were enacted. Despite early successes against the Sassanian Empire in the East, Alexander Severus'235" title ="235">235. The death of Alexander Severus ushered in a subsequent period of soldier-emperors and almost a half-century of civil war and strife.
Crisis of the third century, 235–275
Main article: Crisis of the Third Century
The Crisis of the 3rd Century is a commonly applied name for the crumbling and near collapse of the Roman Empire between 235 and 275. During this period, Rome was ruled by more than 35 individuals, most of them prominent generals who assumed Imperial power over all or part of the empire, only to lose it by defeat in battle, murder, or death. After 35 years of this, the Empire was on the verge of death, and only the military skill of Aurelian, one of Rome's greatest emperors, restored the empire to its natural boundaries.
Main article: Tetrarchy
The Tetrarchy ("leadership of four") was a system of government created in 293 by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in order to solve serious military and economic problems in the Roman Empire. This involved dividing his power over the empire into east and west sectors: he retained control of the East and his colleague Maximian controlled the west. Eight years later, feeling more focus was needed on both civic and military problems, he furthered the division of power by naming one "Junior Emperor", or Caesar, under each "Senior Emperor", or Augustus. Thus the Tetrarchy, a rule of four, was established and lasted until c. 324.
The first tetrarchs were
- Diocletian, Augustus of the East
- Galerius, Caesar of the East
- Maximian, Augustus of the West
- Constantius Chlorus, Caesar of the West.
Christian Empire, 313 - 395
The beginning of the Roman Empire as a Christian empire lies in 313 CE, with the Edict of Milan. The edict was signed under the reign of Constantine I. The edict made Christianity one of the official religions of Rome.
Christianity became the single official religion of Rome under Theodosius (r. 379-395 CE). Initially the emperor had control over the church. During Theodosius'Ambrose" title ="Ambrose">Ambrose refused to let Theodosius enter the church until he made a public repentance. Theodosius did and from then on the church's powers grew. Eventually the church would gain enough power that it would outlast the empire in the west.
Late Antiquity in the West
In popular history, the year 476 is generally accepted as the end of the Western Roman Empire. In that year, Odoacer disposed of his puppet Romulus Augustulus (475-476), and for the first time did not bother to induct a successor, choosing instead to rule as a representative of the Eastern Emperor (although Julius Nepos, the emperor deposed by Romulus Augustulus, continued to rule Illyricum until his death in 480, at which point Odoacer annexed the remainder of the Western Empire to his Italian kingdom). The last Emperor who ruled from Rome, however, had been Theodosius, who removed the seat of power to Mediolanum (Milan). Edward Gibbon, in writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire knew not to end his narrative at 476. The great corpse continued to twitch, into the 6th century.
On the other hand, in 409, with the Emperor of the West fled from Milan to Ravenna and all the provinces wavering in loyalties, the Goth Alaric I, in charge at Rome, came to terms with the senate, and with their consent set up a rival emperor and invested the prefect of the city, a Greek named Priscus Attalus, with the diadem and the purple robe. In the following year when the Goths rampaged in the City, local power was in the hands of the Bishop of Rome. The transfer of power to Christian pope and military dux had been effected: the Western Empire was effectively dead, though no contemporary knew it.
The next seven decades played out as aftermath. Theodoric the Great as King of the Goths, couched his legitimacy in diplomatic terms as being the representative of the Emperor of the East. Consuls were appointed regularly through his reign: a formula for the consular appointment is provided in Cassiodorus' Book VI. The post of consul was last filled in the west under Theodoric'Cassiodorus" title ="Cassiodorus">Cassiodorus to meld Roman and Gothic culture within a Roman form.
In essence, the "fall" of the Roman Empire to a contemporary depended a great deal on where they were and their status in the world. On the great villas of the Italian Campagna, the seasons rolled on without a hitch. The local overseer may have been representing an Ostrogoth, then a Lombard duke, then a Christian bishop, but the rhythm of life and the horizons of the imagined world remained the same. Even in the decayed cities of Italy, consuls were still elected. In Auvergne, at Clermont, the Gallo-Roman poet and diplomat Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of Clermont, realized that the local "fall of Rome" came in 475, with the fall of the city to the Visigoth Euric. In the north of Gaul, the Franks could not be taken for Roman, but in Hispania the last Arian Visigothic king Leovigild considered himself the heir of Rome. In Alexandria, dreams of a "Christian Empire" with genuine continuity were shattered when a rampaging mob of Christians were encouraged to sack and destroy the Serapeum in 392. Hispania Baetica was still essentially Roman when the Moors came in 711, but in the northwest, the invasion of the Suevi broke the last frail links with Roman culture in 409. In Aquitania and Provence, cities like Arles were not abandoned, but Roman culture in Britain collapsed in waves of violence after the last legions evacuated: the final legionary probably left Britain in 409. In Athens the end came for some in 529, when the Emperor Justinian closed the Neoplatonic Academy and its remaining members fled east for protection under the rule of Sassanid king Khosrau I; for other Greeks it had come long before, in 396, when Christian monks led Alaric I to vandalize the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
From Roman to Byzantine in the East
The transition between one united empire to a divided Western and Eastern empire was a gradual transformation. In 285, Diocletian became emperor of the Roman Empire. Diocletian felt that the system of Roman imperial government was unsustainable in the face of internal pressures and a military threat on two fronts. He gave Maximian the title of Caesar, which was the traditional form in which an emperor (Augustus) designated a successor. However, Diocletian soon made Maximian an Augustus as well. The imperial power was now divided between two people. Diocletian's sphere of influence was the east, and Maximian'Constantine_I_of_the_Roman_Empire" title ="Constantine I of the Roman Empire">Constantine the Great became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. He decided that the empire needed a new capital. He chose Byzantium for this. He refounded it as Nova Roma, but it was popularly called Constantinople, Constantine'Istanbul" title ="Istanbul">Istanbul in the east.
The Roman defeat at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, along with the death of Emperor Valens, were each deciding moments in the division of the Empire. Valentinian I, brother of Valens, Emperor of the Western part of the Roman Empire, had designated his oldest son Gratianus Augustus. He was heir to the Western part of the Roman Empire. However on his father'Pannonia" title ="Pannonia">Pannonia declared his infant half-brother emperor under the title Valentinian II. Gratian acquiesced in their choice and administrated the Gallic part of the Western Empire. Italy, Illyria and Africa were officially administrated by his brother and his step-mother Justina, however the real authority rested with Gratianus. With his uncle'Theodosius_I" title ="Theodosius I">Theodosius I to govern the eastern part of the empire.
For some years Gratian governed the empire with energy and success, but gradually he sank into indolence. Magnus Maximus led a rebellion, defeating Gratianus. Gratianus had to flee, from Paris to Lyon. Through treachery of the Governor, he was handed over to the rebels and was assassinated on August 25, 383. Valentinian II succeeded him, only twelve years old, but the Northern provinces stayed under Magnus Maximus rule. In 387 Magnus Maximus crossed the Alps into the valley of the Po and threatened Milan. Valentinian and his mother fled to Theodosius, the Emperor of the East and husband of Galla, Valentinian'Vienne" title ="Vienne">Vienne. Theodosius succeeded him, ruling the entire Roman Empire.
Theodosius had two sons and a daughter, Pulcheria, from his first wife, Aelia Flacilla. His daughter and wife died in 385. By his second wife, Galla, he had a daughter, Galla Placidia, the mother of Valentinian III, who would be Emperor of the West.
After his death in 395, he gave the two halves of the Empire to his two sons Arcadius and Honorius; Arcadius became ruler in the East, with his capital in Constantinople, and Honorius became ruler in the west, with his capital in Milan. Though the Roman state would continue to have two emperors, the Eastern Romans considered themselves Roman in full. Latin was used in official writings as much as, if not more than, Greek. The two halves were nominally, culturally and historically, if not politically, the same state.
The west would continue to decline during the 5th century. However, the richer east would be spared much of the destruction. The last western emperor was desposed in 476, but the Empire counter-attacked in the 6th century under the eastern emperor Justinian, taking much of the west back. These gains were lost during subsequent reigns. Of the many accepted dates for the end of the Roman state, the latest is 610. This is when the Emperor Herclius made sweeping reforms, forever changing the face of the empire. Greek was readopted as the language of government and Latin influence waned. By 610, the Classical Roman Empire had evolved into the Middle Age Byzantine Empire. It is important to note that the Byzantines continued to consider themseleves Roman until their fall in the 15th century.
The Byzantine Empire was born, though it was never called this, rather it was called Romania or Basileia Romaion.
- List of Ancient Rome-related topics
- List of Roman Emperors
- Five good emperors
- Byzantine Empire
- Byzantine Emperors
- Gallic Empire
- Pax romana
- Roman culture
- Roman currency
- Roman Emperor
- Roman mercantilism
- Roman place names
- Roman provinces
- Roman roads
- Roman military history
Ancient Historians of the Empire
Writing in Latin
- Livy - his history is of the Roman Republic, but he wrote during the reign of Augustus
- Ammianus Marcellinus
Writing in Greek
Latin Literature of the Empire
- Grout, James, "Encyclopaedia Romana".
- J. O'Donnell, Worlds of Late Antiquity website: links, bibliographies: Austine, Boethius, Cassiodorus etc.
- History Forum Simaqianstudio
18th and 19th century histories
Modern histories of the Roman Empire
- J. B. Bury, A History of the Roman Empire from its Foundation to the death of Marcus Aurelius (1913)
- J. A. Crook, Law and Life of Rome, 90 B.C. - A.D. 212 (1967)
- S. Dixon, The Roman Family (1992)
- Donald R. Dudley, The Civilization of Rome (2nd Edition) (1985)
- A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 (1964)
- A. Lintott, Imperium Romanum: Politics and administration (1993)
- R. Macmullen, Roman Social Relations, 50 B.C. to A.D. 284 (1974)
- M.I. Rostovtzeff, Economic History of the Roman Empire (2nd ed., 1957)
- R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (1939)
- C. Wells, The Roman Empire (2nd Edition) (1992)
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