The Roman Empire
A decade of conflict ended in 48 BC when Caesar and the Roman army of Gaul invaded Italy and later defeated Pompey. Unlike Sulla, Caesar did not regard his dictatorship as a temporary position. He preserved power by cultivating the support of the plebians and the army, and by initiating a great programme of public works. His pretensions aroused resentment among many politicians, and eventually a group of them led by Brutus and Cassius assassinated him in 44 BC.
While he did not hold the title of Emperor, he was most certainly a dictator, and with Pompey out of the picture the sole dictator, laying the foundations for his heir Octavian to rise to a position of power and absolute authority.
The march to empire during this time of upheaval under the republic was not due to one turning point, but a series of politicial wranglings, opportunity, well planned strategy and sometimes misfortune. The rule of Roman gained its greatest importance and its political nature after Augustus established the principate in 28 BC. From that time Rome's territories were under the rule of one man until Diocletian established the principle of shared rule, which effectively split the empire into east and west.
The western half of the empire was overrun by barbarians and by the year AD 476 had ceased to exist. The eastern empire continued until the calamities of the sixth century AD, when it re-emerged as the Byzantine Empire which survived till 1453.
For three centuries, the Roman Emperors were in theory only the chief magistrates of the Roman Republic. But they exercised actual power by controlling the Senate. The old offices of the Republic remained, but their powers passed into the Imperial hands.
Julius Caesar, born of a patrician family in 100 BC and a brilliant politician and orator, was one of the republic's finest and most charismatic generals. He successfully conquered Gaul and on his triumphant return at the head of his devoted legions in 49 BC civil war broke out in Rome. Caesar emerged as the victor of the ensuing political struggle and assumed the position of dictator for life with absolute powers. This event ominously heralded the end of the great Roman republican tradition and Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC
The task was left to Caesar's adopted son Octavian to complete the formal transformation from republic to empire, and so restore stability to Roman politics. In 31 BC he defeated his rival Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium and four years later became the first Roman emperor, taking the name of Augustus Caesar.
After decades of disastrous civil war the people of Rome wanted a government that would respect the forms and traditions of the republic but that would be able to maintain order. Augustus accomplished this. He and the senate ostensibly divided the rule of the empire. Augustus held practical control of the government but treated the senate and magistrates with courtesy and respect. Theoretically, Augustus was princeps, or first citizen among equals, and legally the empire was still a republic.
The senate was won over with a guarantee of senators' privileges, and the people were won over with lavish games and the distribution of corn. Real power rested with the army and the civil service. Augustus used the huge colonial revenues to rebuild and beautify Rome. He also patronised an unequalled generation of poets and writers, including Virgil, Livy and Horace. His successors extended the civilisation of Rome far afield to more distant provinces.
The Augustan age of Rome's history was a period of peace in which the empire flourished. Civil government was reformed in the city of Rome and in the provinces. Augustus established Rome's first fire brigade and police force. He instituted judicial reforms and reorganized the public finance system. He used his authority in attempts to check public and private moral laxity and indulgence in luxury.
As emperor, Augustus completed the conquest of Spain and increased provincial control in Asia Minor. He extended the border on the northeast by adding Rhaetia and Noricum and by extending Roman holdings to the Danube. Thus he expanded Roman territory far more than had any republican general.
The four Roman emperors who succeeded Augustus were known as the Julio-Claudians. All descendants of Augustus's wife Livia and her first husband, a member of the Claudian family, they were adopted into the Julian family by Augustus.
Augustus had no legal right to dictate the choice of his successor. However he had granted special powers to his stepson, Tiberius, who, after the death of Augustus in 14 A.D., was not seriously opposed as the new ruler. Tiberius was a capable and vigorous leader, bent on continuing the policies of Augustus. The vigor with which he reformed the economy of Rome and the provinces made him extremely unpopular with the senate. His memory was reviled for the treason trials, a form of judicial murder, that were conducted in his name by the Praetorian Prefect Sejanus.
Tiberius was a solitary man and retired to the island of Capri never to return to Rome. He died in AD 37 and was succeeded by his great nephew Caligula.
Caligula, meaning "Little Boots," a nickname he had acquired in the army camps of his childhood, was the son of Germanicus Caesar, a prominent general. Caligula gave promise of a brilliant rule, but he probably became insane shortly after his accession. He was a ruthless man and killed real and supposed enemies at will while he squandered public funds. Caligula was himself murdered in 41 A.D. in a revolt of the imperial bodyguard, the Praetorians.
Unsure about whom to raise up in his place, the officers took Caligula's uncle Claudius, who was thought to be simple minded, and made him emperor. Claudius had long been considered a ridiculous figure, but he proved to be a good ruler along the lines established by Augustus.
Claudius extended Roman citizenship and instituted a renewed program of public works. He reorganized government administration by creating an imperial civil service, to which he gave great power. Claudius was accused of being dominated by his civil servants and by his several wives, but others credited him with keen administrative sense. In Claudius' reign the territory of the empire was increased by the addition of new provinces, and in 43 A.D. he began the conquest of Britain.
Claudius died in 54 A.D. He was probably poisoned by Agrippina II, his niece and third wife, who wished to secure the succession for Nero, her son by a former marriage. Nero, although only 16 years old, began his reign auspiciously, listening to the counsel of the philosopher Seneca and of Burrus, chief of the Praetorian Guard.
However, as Nero grew into manhood he became cruel and decadent, and he took the reins of government into his own hands. At the instigation of his favorite, Poppaea Sabina, Nero had his mother and his wife murdered. Nero was widely believed to have caused a great fire that destroyed most of Rome in 64 A.D. so that he would gain glory for the city's subsequent reconstruction. Nero blamed the fire on the Christians, who were beginning to come to Rome in considerable numbers. In 65 A.D., Nero discovered a plot against him and retaliated by executing many prominent Romans or, as in the case of his old mentor Seneca, by driving them to suicide.
During Nero's reign major revolts broke out in Britain and in Judaea. Nero committed suicide in 68 A.D., when Galba, the governor of Spain, joined with the Praetorian Guard to overthrow him. With Nero's death the Julio-Claudian dynasty ended.
Year of the Four Emperors
The death of Nero and the war of succession that ensued laid bare the military basis of the Empire. The year 68-69 A.D. saw several Emperors, or would-be Emperors. In 69 A.D. it was proved that military support, rather than the approval of the senate or of the people of Rome, could determine who should rule and for how long.
Galba had been proclaimed emperor by his own troops, but Roman legions in Germany declared their legate, Aulus Vitellius, to be emperor.
In Rome, Marcus Salvius Otho secured the allegiance of the Praetorian Guard. He had Galba murdered and proclaimed himself emperor.
Vitellius' forces defeated those of Otho, who committed suicide. Vitellius was recognized as emperor by the senate, which by then had little choice in the matter.
Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) emerged the final victor.
After a year in which four 'emperors' struggled for control, the Flavian dynasty was the next to rule Rome when Vespasian became emperor.
Titus Flavius Vespasian, who was legate of Judaea and who had been struggling to put down the rebellion there, was proclaimed emperor by the legions in the East. He proceeded to occupy Egypt, thereby cutting off Rome's vital grain supply. The legions stationed on the Danube frontier recognized Vespasian, marched on Rome, and killed Vitellius.
The senate and the remaining legions in the West confirmed Vespasian's authority, and he entered Rome as emperor. He was the first Roman emperor who did not belong to the old nobility.
The contemporary historian Tacitus pointed out the lesson of the struggles of 69 A.D. by saying, "The secret of empire had been discovered—emperors could be created elsewhere than in Rome."
His first task was to restore peace. The troubles of AD 69 had led to barbarian invasions on the Rhine frontier and the Danube which Vespasian repelled. His son Titus put down the bloody revolt in Judaea by capturing and sacking Jerusalem in AD 70.
He was a thrifty and industrious ruler who made the state solvent. He built numerous public works and monuments and began construction of the Colosseum. Vespasian consolidated the frontiers and in general reestablished order throughout the empire, which was based on a sound government in Rome itself.
Titus succeeded his father in 79 A.D. and was extremely popular with his subjects. A major event in his short rule was the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that buried the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. A year later a fire destroyed much of Rome. Titus became ill and died in 81 A.D., and the whole Roman world mourned him.
Domitian, Vespasian's younger son, succeeded Titus and began his reign with a show of concern for the public welfare. Under Domitian Rome expanded her territory in Britain, consolidated her position on the Rhine and bought off the Daci who threatened the Danube frontier. However, as time went on, Domitian became more and more despotic. His highhanded measures incurred widespread hatred and inspired conspiracies against him. In return, Domitian began a reign of terror that resulted in his assassination in 96 A.D.
By now the principate was firmly entrenched. The senate had lost most of its power and the emperor effectively controlled the government.
Nervan-Antonian Dynasty including the Five Good Emperors
With the death of Domitian in 96 A.D., the Empire went, by election of the Senate, to Nerva. Then followed a period of 83 years when, as chance would have it, none of the emperors had a direct male heir. They therefore selected as their adoptive heirs the men they considered the most suitable to rule, and in consequence Rome and the Mediterranean world enjoyed nearly a century of uninterrupted good government by a series of able and enlightened Emperors. The system broke down in 180 AD when Marcus Aurelius made the disastrous choice of his son Commodus to succeed him.
The distinguished but elderly senator Nerva, who represented the last attempt at self-assertion by the republican forces in the empire, was the first of a series of rulers known as the five good emperors. He was an unassuming man and his short reign, although honest and faithful to constitutional principles, did not achieve enough prestige to outweigh the Praetorian Guard, who still harbored resentment against Domitian's assassins.
Nerva, who was childless, adopted the great soldier Trajan as his successor, in hope of controlling the Praetorians and gaining the support of the empire's widespread legions.
Trajan, who was born in Spain, became the first non-Italian Emperor of Rome in 98 A.D. and proved to be a capable and vigorous leader both at home and abroad. He expanded the borders of the empire that had been set by Augustus. Trajan captured land north of the Danube River in Dacia (now Romania) and pushed the empire's eastern borders beyond the Euphrates into Greater Armenia and Parthia. He died in the East in 117 A.D., having named his cousin Hadrian as his successor.
Hadrian abandoned Trajan's aggressive foreign policy and sought to retrench and consolidate the empire rather than to expand it farther. In the East he withdrew the empire's frontiers to the Euphrates River. Elsewhere he built great protective walls, including the one across Britain known as Hadrian's Wall. The only serious military engagement of Hadrian's reign was the fierce suppression of an insurrection by the followers of Simon Bar Kokba in Judaea, which began in 131 A.D. Otherwise, Hadrian was remembered for his love of peace, his governmental reforms, and his generous patronage of the arts and letters.
Antoninus Pius, who had been adopted by Hadrian shortly before his death, became emperor in 138 A.D. His reign was a modest and prudent continuation of Hadrian's programs and was prosperous and generally peaceful.
When Hadrian adopted Antoninus he provided that Antoninus would in turn adopt both Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, who ruled jointly from 161 A.D. until Verus' death in 169 A.D. Marcus Aurelius, essentially a peace-loving scholar and philosopher, spent most of his reign suppressing internal rebellions and attacks on the empire's borders. By 166 A.D. he had secured Rome's eastern frontiers in a war with the Parthians. However, it was a costly victory because the legions returning from the war spread the plague, which decimated the empire. By 175 A.D., Marcus Aurelius had broken the power of German tribes that had swept across the Danubian frontier. He died in 180 A.D. while fighting the Germans.
In the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-80) the weakness of the frontiers first became apparent. The legions were largely composed of barbarian recruits, and they, lacking anything in the nature of patriotism, were as great a danger as their kinsmen without. A succession of soldier-emperors followed; they were placed on the throne by the sword, and by the sword most of them perished.
Commodus, the unworthy son and successor of Marcus Aurelius, was the last of the Antonine line of emperors. He was a despotic ruler and was strangled in a palace revolt in 192 A.D. The decline of the empire is usually said to have begun with the reign of Commodus.
Pertinax was chosen by the senate to succeed Commodus. However, the strict and economical rule of Pertinax led to his murder within three months by the Praetorian Guard. In one of the most bizarre incidents in Rome's history, the office of emperor was put up for auction to the highest bidder and sold to a wealthy senator, Didius Julianus. When the provincial legions heard of the events in Rome, several of them revolted and proclaimed their generals to be emperor. The ruinous civil wars that ensued in 193 A.D. were won by Septimius Severus, the legate of Upper Pannonia in what are now Austria, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. Within four years he had eliminated all opposition.
Under Severus' rule the government became a military monarchy, with strong emphasis on the provincial rather than on the Italian elements of the empire. Severus counted on his legions to keep him in power. He favored them with higher pay and gave them the opportunity to advance through the ranks and to take part in the civil service. Severus defeated the Parthians in western Mesopotamia, and he was in Britain planning an invasion of Scotland when he died in 211 A.D.
Severus left the empire to his two sons, Geta and Caracalla. However, in 212 A.D., Caracalla murdered the more popular Geta as well as many of his supporters. Caracalla was among the most tyrannical of Rome's emperors, but he did extend Roman citizenship to all free subjects of the empire, a significant step in the unification of the provinces as envisioned by Caesar and Augustus.
Caracalla cared more for military than for governmental matters, and he waged successful campaigns to strengthen the empire's northern frontier, after which he turned eastward and planned an ambitious campaign against the Parthians.
He was assassinated in 217 by the praetorian prefect Macrinus, who became, briefly, the next emperor. Macrinus was the first emperor who had not been previously a senator. Although his administration at home was moderate and sensible, he fared poorly on the battlefield and was forced to make large concessions to the Parthians. His conduct lost him the support of his troops, most of whom transferred their allegiance to a rival emperor put forward by the survivors of the house of Severus. Macrinus was captured and killed in 218 A.D.
Macrinus was followed in 218 by Heliogabalus, after the sun-god he worshipped, and his rule was one of the most shockingly dissolute that Rome had known. In 222 A.D., Heliogabalus was in turn killed by the Praetorians, and his young cousin was made emperor and ruled under the name of Alexander Severus.
Alexander Severus was well intentioned but weak. Alexander was dominated by his mother, Julia Mamaea. Their rule in general followed the traditions of Septimius Severus in an attempt to maintain an efficient and economically stable government at home, but Alexander was unsuited to military command. He won an initial victory against the Persians, who were proving to be even more formidable than Rome's ancient enemies, the Parthians. However, Alexander tried to purchase peace from Germanic tribes on the Rhine frontier, and the army, alienated by his ineptitude, revolted and killed him and his mother in 235.
The death of Severus marked the beginning of a period of anarchy and barbarian invasion that weakened the empire and transformed the principate into a virtual military dictatorship. For 50 years thereafter the empire foundered in military anarchy, threatened by internal chaos and by barbarian attacks that shook its frontiers. During that time there were about 26 recognized Roman emperors, only one of whom died a natural death. Many others claimed power and perhaps ruled in fact for a short time over some segment of the empire.
A claimant to the throne was put forward by his supporting troops, only to be set aside in favor of other claimants who promised more wealth to the army. Civil war raged among the armies and complicated the defense of the empire's frontiers, which, from the Rhine and Danube rivers to the Euphrates, collapsed before barbarian invaders.
The provinces were devastated by pestilence and a severe economic and social crisis developed. The population declined dramatically, trade was interrupted, the empire impoverished, municipal government weakened and production of all sorts at a low ebb. To the evils of civil war and barbarian invasions was added the aggressive policy of the Sassanids, the rulers of Persia, which resulted in the loss of Mesopotamia.
The unity of the empire was lost, and to the devastation caused by war were added the casualties of another great plague that lasted for more than a decade.
Emperors during the Crisis of the Third Century
From 268 a number of 'Illyrian' emperors managed to restore some stability to the empire. Rome's fortunes began to change under the reigns of Claudius Gothieus and Aurelian, who drove back the barbarians and consolidated the empire within defensible frontiers.
Aurelian (270—275), the most notable, was victorious against the barbarians and succeeded in reviving Roman fortunes somewhat.
The Aurelian Wall, much of which still stands, was built to fortify the city of Rome. The wall was symbolic of the aims of Aurelian, who was called restitutor orbis ("restorer of the world").
The death of Aurelian in 275 A.D. was followed by a decade of new disorders, which ended with the accession of Diocletian in 284 A.D. With Diocletian the empire returned to orderly government. He was determined to protect the empire against internal sedition and foreign invasion. In a frankly autocratic manner he introduced many far-reaching political and social reforms, most significant of which was his reorganization of the empire's structure.
Tetrarchy and Constantinian Dynasty
With the rule of Diocletian (284-305) the years of anarchy ended. A strong, talented and innovative ruler, Diocletian made radical changes in the government of the empire. He established the tetrarchy. This was the division of the empire into four political sections, two eastern and two western, governed by two Augusti and two Caesars. This began the effective division of the empire into east and west. Other radical reforms included increasing the number of provinces and grouping them in administrative units called dioceses. He strengthened the border provinces with garrison troops and also created a mobile field army. He attempted unsuccessfully to stabilise inflation by fixing prices and instituted a new system of taxation.
During Diocletian's reign Rome ceased to be the capital of the empire. Each emperor governed from the area he controlled and the emperor himself became a godlike figure, almost oriental in elevation, while the people became less socially mobile, professions and trades becoming virtually hereditary. The Christians, an insignificant minority up to this time, had been intermittently persecuted throughout the empire's history but under Diocletian occurred the last and greatest persecution and edicts were passed severely limiting their rights.
Diocletian divided the empire into the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire on a line running south from the Danube River to the Adriatic Sea at Dalmatia (now part of Yugoslavia). The government of the empire was similarly divided between two rulers, called Augusti, each of whom was to choose an heir and successor called a Caesar.
When Diocletian retired, the orderly succession he had envisaged failed to occur. Immediately on Diocletian's abdication (305) fierce quarrels broke out, and there was intermittent civil war until Constantine the Great emerged as sole emperor.
A Christian convert, Constantine granted universal religious tolerance and established Christianity on an equal footing with the old religions. After Constantine, the Christian church became an integral part of the state, and no emperor could rule without it. Only one emperor, Julian (361-363), tried unsuccessfully to restore the old gods.His administrative reorganisation of the empire gave great influence to the bishops and allowed them to share in the civil administration. Constantine resumed the division of east and west and moved the capital to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople.
Under him there occurred two events of importance in the history of Europe. In 325 he summoned at Nicaea the first of a long series of general councils of the Church, the effect of whose decrees in the political as well as the theological sphere has endured until our own time. In 312 he had already granted Christianity toleration by the so-called Edict of Milan. The other cardinal measure was the division of the Empire into East and West by the foundation of a new capital at Byzantium (Constantinople), with a new senate and a new nobility. This Eastern Empire was Greek in culture and developed into the Byzantine Empire which endured through many vicissitudes but unvarying splendour until 1453.
Once again, on the death of Constantine (337), the rival Caesars fought for power while the barbarians swept across the frontiers of the west. The empire was left to his three sons but Constantius II succeeded in defeating his brothers to become sole ruler.
There was a brief resurgence of paganism under Julian the Apostate, who ruled for 20 months after the death of Constantius. However, by then, Christianity was securely established. Julian was killed in battle against the Persians in 363 and was succeeded by Jovian. After the short reign of Jovian the empire was ruled by Valentinian and his brother Valens in the west.
In 364 Valens was appointed Western emperor by his brother, Valentinian I, of the Byzantine. Valentinian was competent, especially in foreign policy. He dealt effectively with the barbarians and quashed several revolts. His brother was not so able and was defeated and killed in battle with the Goths at Adrianople. For a time he succeeded in holding the Goths at bay, until his defeat in 378.
Byzantium itself was now threatened; but the Emperor THEODOSIUS, by astute diplomacy, managed to save his own dominions and the throne of his Western colleague Gratian. From the death of Theodosius (395) the remaining history of the Western Empire is chaotic. Waves of Goths, Huns, and Vandals followed.
Theodosius settled large numbers of Goths within the empire and was then forced to intervene in the west when they murdered Gratian. Theodosius eventually became sole ruler of both east and west. After his death in 395 the empire was permanently divided into east and west and Rome rapidly lost its political importance. Theodosius had settled with the Goths, albeit temporarily, and also arranged a peace with Persia. But the army was now dominated by barbarians and imperial rule became more oppressive as the empire moved to its end.
In the reign of Honorius (395 - 423) in the west, the barbarian tides broke the bounds of the empire. Honorius, with the aid of his general Stilicho (a Vandal), defeated the Goths; but after Stilicho's death the Visigoths, under Alaric having ravaged Macedonia and Illyria, captured and sacked Rome in 410 and hordes of other barbarians, forced on by the Huns at their rear, flooded into the empire. Spain and the northern part of Gaul were lost; Britain was abandoned and fell to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The Vandals seized North Africa and the Huns, under Attila, invaded the west.
The End of an Empire
Thereafter Germanic generals were less interested in serving a throne that had lost its prestige. In 476, the barbarian chief Odoacer deposed the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus. In the east, the empire was to gradually transformed into the Byzantine Empire and endure for another thousand years, but it was essentially a Greek empire. The thousand-year sway of the city of Rome had ended and the beginning of the Dark Ages in western Europe.