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2nd Century Rome

Updated on February 27, 2012

Peace and Prosperity in the Empire

While it lasted, the era of peace and prosperity under the good emperors brought to the world blessings that have never been wholly lost or forgotten. There was no serious threat or invasion from without or of revolution from within.

For three generations and more, men lived in a civilized society and passed on to their barbarian neighbors the inheritance of learning, art, letters, philosophy, and the science of government an inheritance accumulated since the Hellenistic age.

The Hellenizing process begun in the East by Alexander the Great was now being carried to its conclusion in the West. For example, Greek was still spoken and written in Italy, Gaul, and North Africa. Hermas in Rome and Saint Irenaeus in Gaul wrote in Greek, and the persecuted churches in Vienne, near Lyon, wrote their accounts of the martyrdoms in Greek. The Latin version of the Bible was begun about 150, but previously the Greek text had served in North Africa, Italy, and Gaul. Even the Meditations of Aurelius were written in Greek.

Roman Government

The 2nd century emperors were virtually absolute dictators, since the Senate had declined in influence for over 100 years. But the government was efficient, staffed largely by men of the equestrian order. Taxes were moderate and were collected now by officials rather than by tax farmers. The law was studied scientifically and was accurately codified. Vast building operations were undertaken not only in Rome but also in the provinces, especially under Hadrian. The city governments were well organized, public schools were established, and farm relief was provided through government loans, the interest being used to educate poor country children. Slavery was dying out, and it was easier for slaves to obtain freedom. World trade had expanded; even silk from China and cotton from India could be purchased in the West.


Intellectual and Religious Life

Some of the great writers of later antiquity lived during the 2nd century: the historians Tacitus, Dio Cassius, Suetonius, and Arrian; the philosophers Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius; the essayist and biographer Plutarch; the satirists Lucian and Juvenal; the novelist Apuleius; the orator Dio Chrysostom; the traveler Pausanias; the physician Galen; the geographer and astronomer Ptolemy; and the writers of famous letters, Pliny the Younger and Marcus Cornelius Fronto. Among Christian writers, some of the later New Testament authors belong to the early 2nd century, and following them were the Apologists and Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus. Yet with all the intellectual and religious activity of the age, there was little indication of fresh progress. Rhetoric-that is, oratory- was still the crown of education, not philosophy, science, or history.

The ancient religious cults were dying. For the majority of the population astrology and the Oriental mysteries had taken their place-such cults as those of Isis, Cybele, Attis, and, above all, Mithras. For the educated, a refined type of personal philosophy sufficed, usually Stoicism or a revived and purely spiritual type of Platonism.

The most vital religious movement of the period was Christianity. The persecutions thus far had been only local and sporadic, usually outbursts of mob violence, as in Bithynia in 112 and Vienne in 177. The widespead official efforts to stamp out the new religion came later, under emperors Decius and Diocletian.

Spread of Roman Culture

The civilizing mission of Rome was accomplished not by coercion or restraint or by force of arms or the transplanting of populations, but by the peaceful methods of example, public education, the just administration of law, a widespread commerce, and the establishment of cities, towns, and country villas in which the urbane Roman type of life was cultivated, exemplified, and enjoyed. Roman civilization was thus made attractive to multitudes of peoples along the far-flung frontiers of the empire and among the nations only recently incorporated within it.

Whatever it had been originally, Roman civilization was now a self-sustained culture, expanding by its own inner attractiveness to other peoples.

The tragedy, for all later history, is that it ended too soon, before its task was done and before it had reached and transformed more of the barbarian peoples to the north and east, whose onslaughts on the Roman world in the 4th and 5th centuries almost extinguished European civilization. Where Roman culture had really taken root, it survived to some extent the Dark Ages that followed and in turn passed on its blessings to the new peoples.

This culture was not limited to the aristocracy, although naturally it was centered in the upper classes. Emperor Caracalla's grant of Roman citizenship in 212 to all freemen throughout the empire was only the climax of a long process of education and preparation for responsibility.

This process was more marked in the provinces than in Rome itself, where a large part of the populace still lived on the dole and where it was possible for landless farmers and vintners from every part of Italy and for the drifting unemployed of a whole empire to gather and be fed.

Economic Conditions

It is estimated that the city of Rome in the 2nd century had a population of over one million, of whom perhaps a fifth were idle, supported by the state, both fed and amused at public expense. The same luxury and extravagance were found in the provinces, though to a lesser degree. Unfortunately, this luxury and the general superficial prosperity that made it possible did not prevent the extinction of many of the upper-class and upper-middle-class families.

The equestrian class grew, but only by adoption and recruitment from outside.

Economically, a kind of stagnation seems to have been increasing. The rich had most of the wealth and lacked all incentive to increase it. The poor were content with "bread and circuses".

The middle class, in between, seemed satisfied with free public baths, public spectacles, free education, and the general security and opulence that surrounded them, and above all with the comparative freedom to pursue any religious cult or philosophy that attracted their attention or interest.

In the eastern provinces, manufacturing was thriving, and the finished wares of Syria and Asia Minor were as well known in Rome as Egyptian grain and cotton goods. The port of Ostia near Rome was a thriving headquarters of Mediterranean trade. It had completely outstripped Puteoli (Pozzuoli) , which was too remote for the transshipment of the vast cargoes of food and other supplies destined for the metropolis.

Trade and transport were well developed and thus had an immense effect upon the spread and establishment of a widespread common culture.


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