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Roman Empire

The Roman Empire, successor of the Roman Republic, controlled the Mediterranean world and much of Northern Europe after 31 B.C. The last Roman emperor in the western half of the empire was deposed in 476. The eastern part of the empire continued without interruption, but with gradually shrinking territory, until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks (See Byzantine Empire). Successor states in the west (the Frankish kingdom and the Holy Roman Empire) and the east (the Russian czars) used titles adopted from Roman practices well into the modern period.

The Roman Empire's influence on government, law, architecture, and many other aspects of life remains inescapable. See also: Roman culture

Table of contents

The Rise of Augustus and the Julio-Claudian Emperors

As the Roman Republic (509 B.C. - 31 B.C.) came to an end, Gaius Octavius, great-nephew of Julius Caesar, solidified his position by his defeat of his only rival for power, Mark Antony, in the battle of Actium the following year. He had his work cut out for him; years of civil war had left Rome in a state of near-lawlessness. Moreover, Rome was not prepared to accept the control of a despot.

Octavius (or Octavian) was clever. First, he disbanded his armies, and held elections. Octavian was chosen for the powerful position of Consul. In 27 B.C., he officially returned power to the Senate of Rome, and offered to relinquish his own military supremacy and hegemony over Egypt. Not only did the senate turn him down, he was also given control of Spain, Gaul and Syria. Shortly thereafter, the Senate gave him the name Augustus.

Augustus knew that the power he needed to rule absolutely could not be derived from his Consulship, however. In 23 B.C., he renounced this office in favor of two other powers. First, he was granted the office of a tribune, which allowed him to convene the senate at will and lay business before it. Since the tribuneship was an office traditionally associated with the people, this consolidated his power further. Second, he received new authority in the form of an "Imperial" power, which gave him supreme authority in all matters pertaining to territorial governance. 23 B.C. is the date on which Augustus is usually said to have assumed the mantle of Emperor of Rome. He more typically used a civilian title, however, Princeps, or "First Citizen."

As Emperor, Augustus organized the affairs of his empire with aplomb; it is largely due to his genius that the Roman Empire lasted for as long as it did. He established standardized minting and taxation; he created a civil service structure consisting of knights and freedmen (former slaves). He also provided retirement benefits for soldiers.

He was a master propagandist, and his patronage of the Roman writers Horace, Livy and (especially) Virgil allowed him to cement his position through use of poetry and prose. His use of games and special events to celebrate himself and his family cemented his popularity.

Augustus also founded the world's first fire brigade, and created a regular police force for Rome.

In fact, Augustus's control of power throughout the Empire was so absolute that it allowed him to name his successor, a custom which had been abandoned and derided in Rome since the foundation of the Republic. At first, indications pointed toward his sister's son Marcellus[?], who had been married to Augustus's daughter Julia. However, he died of food poisoning in 23 B.C.. Reports of later historians that this poisoning, and other later deaths, were caused by Augustus's wife Livia Drusilla are inconclusive at best.

After the death of Marcellus, Augustus married his daughter to his right hand man, Marcus Agrippa. This union produced three children, Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar[?], and Postumus Agrippa (so named because he was born after Marcus Agrippa died). Augustus's intent to make the first two children his heirs was apparent when he adopted them as his own children. Augustus also showed favor to his stepsons (Livia's children from her first marriage) Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus[?] and Tiberius Claudius, after they had conquered a large portion of Central Europe.

After Agrippa died in 12 B.C., Livia's son Tiberius divorced his own wife and married Agrippa's widow. Tiberius shared in Augustus's tribunical powers, but shortly thereafter went into retirement. After the early deaths of both Gaius and Lucius in AD 4 and AD 2. respectively, and the earlier death of his brother Drusus (9 BC), Tiberius was recalled to Rome, where he was adopted by Augustus.

On AD August 19, 14, Augustus died. Shortly thereafter, the senate voted him into the pantheon of Roman gods (or deified him). Postumus Agrippa and Tiberius had been named co-heirs. However, Postumus had been banished, and was put to death around the same time. Who ordered his death is unknown, but the way was clear for Tiberius to assume the same powers that his stepfather had.

The early years of Tiberius's reign were peaceful and relatively benign. Tiberius secured the power of Rome and enriched the treasury. However, Tiberius's reign soon became characterized by paranoia and slander. In 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's niece. At this point, he was hoist by his own 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's death in 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's son Gaius (better known as Caligula). Caligula started out well, by putting an end to the persecutions and burning his uncle's records. Unfortunately, he quickly lapsed into illness. The Caligula that emerged in late 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's, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, better known as the emperor 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 administrate 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 corn and 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's own son, the 16-year-old Lucius Domitus, or, as he was known by this time, 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's reign, there were a series of riots and rebellions throughout the Empire: in Britain, Armenia, Parthia and Judaea. Nero's inability to manage the rebellions and his basic incompetence became evident quickly and in 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.

The Flavian Emperors

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 corn 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's excesses and the civil wars. By increasing tax rates dramatically (sometimes as much as doubling them) he was able to build up a surplus in the treasury and embark on public works projects. It was he who first commissioned the 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 Flavius 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's reign, was seen as the heir presumptive to the throne; Domitian was seen as somewhat less disciplined and responsible. Titus joined his father in the offices of censor and consul and helped him reorganize the senatorial rolls. Upon Vespasian's death in 79, Titus was immediately confirmed as Emperor.

Titus's short reign was marked by disaster: in 79, 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 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's reign that the Colosseum was completed. Titus died in 81, at the age of 41; it was rumored that his brother Domitian murdered him in order to become his successor.

See also: Roman Emperors, Five good emperors, Pax romana, Byzantine Empire, Roman place names and Byzantine Emperors.

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

Eusebius of Caesarea

Latin Literature of the Empire

Augustine of Hippo

18th and 19th century histories

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (1776 - 1788)

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)
  • M.I. Rostovteff, Economic History of the Roman Empire (2nd ed., 1957)
  • A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 (1964)

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