The Roman Empire summary



The Roman Empire summary


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The Roman Empire summary






A. The problem of the proletariat

Last week, we talked about some of the consequences of Roman expansion: how conquering most of the Mediterranean world changed Roman society.

The rich got richer; the poor got poorer:

Senators like Pliny lived a very comfortable life - supported by their estates (worked by slaves or tenant farmers); the women from such families gained high degree of independence.


The poor, however, fell into debt (often while fighting Rome's wars), lost their farms, and migrated by the thousands into Rome.

Urban mobs develop - demanding free grain and land, and often violently interfering in Roman politics.

New style of Roman politicans arose who became beneficiaries of the "people" (populares)


Armies became difficult to recruit - because Romans relied on the small farmers as their main soldiers (required to supply own arms).

Generals begin to recruit soldiers from the "proletariat" - a Roman term meaning citizens too poor to provide state with anything except their offspring (proles)

These new soldiers saw military service as a profession - rather than a temporary duty.

Their loyalties were above all to their generals - who were the ones who got them their retirements (or not)


B.  Julius Caesar

New style of politican and general epitomized by Julius Caesar, in 1st century BC.

Julius Caesar was from one of the most aristocratic families of Roman senators (a patrician).

He started out as a orator and politician (not a military man); his elaborate public games to the Roman people gained him great popularity.

An alliance of convenience with the most famous general of the time (Pompey the Great) got him elected to the highest office (consul) and subsequent command of an army in Gaul.

There he made his military reputation - conquering conquering much of north-western Europe - n. Spain, France, Belgium, S. Germany, England (briefly)


Civil Wars

When Senate tried 50 BC to take away Caesar’s command in Gaul, he led an army against Rome itself.

Caesar’s response in 49 BC was to lead a legion across the Rubicon, a small river which separated Cisalpine Gaul and Italy.

This began the civil war BETWEEN CAESAR AND SENATE

His odds were not good: the senate had a great general - Pompey; and more troops in Greece

Nevertheless in 48 BC, at Pharsalus in Greece, Caesar defeated Pompey and the senate - largely because of the loyalty he could command of his troops.


Caeasar as dictator

It is hard to say whether Caesar would have been able to rule as well as he fought, because after the end of the civil war, he had only a year to live.

He offended the Romans by adopting some of the trappings of monarchy.

coins - Caesar’s head first image of a living human to appear on a Roman coin 44 BC

office of dictator (like Sulla) 49 BC on; by 44 BC, for life.


Conspiracy - led by two senators who had gone over to Caesar during the civil wars - Cassius and Marcus Brutus.

Caesar aware of conpiracies, but too proud to act against them; renowned for his clementia. He even had disbanded his private body=guard.

March 15, 44 BC, ides of March - groups of Roman senators stabbed Caesar in the Senate house; stabbed him.

The senators thought that they had restored the Roman Republic

They were wrong. Next class we will see how Caesar's heir, Octavian Augustus, founded the Roman empire.


C. Octavian Augustus' founds the Roman Principate


In his will, Julius Caesar had adopted a son  - Octavian Augustus

            (Octavian was only 18 years old at the time).

            He got the loyalty of Caesar's army veterans.

            Civil war sprang up between Caesar's supporters and the senators who had murdered Caesar

After some attempts to share power (the 2nd Triumvirate), Octavian fights a series of civil wars with Mark Antony, one of Caesar's old supporters.

The last Hellenistic queen - Cleopatra - fought against Octavian.

            She became Mark Antony's lover

            She let him use the wealth of Egypt to attack Octavian.

            But in 31 BC, Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

            Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide rather than be captured (the Romans considered suicide a noble way to avoid defeat)


Octavian had won the civil wars; no one was left to oppose him (he, unlike Caesar, executed his enemies)


B. Augustus' foundation of the Principate - a disguised monarchy

Actium marks the turning point in Roman history.

After this, the Roman Republic is no more, the Roman Empire (or Principate) begins.

Instead of Senatorial rule, there is imperial rule.

And yet, according to Octavian's own words, he was not the destroyer, but restorer of the Republic.

Then in  27 BC Octavian "restores" republic "transferred the Republic from my power into that of the Senate and the Roman People" (RG 34)

Senate renames him Augustus in gratitude (after this Octavian called Augustus)


What exactly did Octavian mean by restoration of republic?


Octavian decided not to call himself dictator or king - but rather princeps and imperator

Princeps was his title with respect to the senate - meant "first" of the senators

Imperator "emperor" - meant  commander of the army; the army gave him this title


1. Republican forms retained

- Senate continued to meet, pass laws (senatusconsultum)

- Elections returned

magistrates like consuls were elected by senate and Assembly again

Augustus not even consul after 23 BC, other men were

Senate even had say in electing Roman emperors:

            Senators voted emperors tribunician power (Army voted them imperator) - imperial title not automatically inherited!


2. Powers retained by Augustus:

right to veto any legislation; right to convene Senate; right to propose laws

Senate voted him all of these powers


- Control of army

But real power derived from his control of the army.

Imperator "emperor" - meant  commander of the army; the army gave him this title

Emperor had command of provinces with most legions - Germanies; Syria; Danube; Spain - in emperor's control


Changes in army:

Army was no long a citizen militia - called up only in times of war - but rather a professional, standing army.

            100's of thousands of Roman soldiers were stationed throughout the Roman empire - esp. on the borders.

            Augustus, as emperor, appointed their commanders, he paid their salaries, he ordered them to fight the wars;  the Senate did none of this.


So emperor had military control; the power though not title of high magistrates, and enormous revenues

Senate still exercised power in form - but in fact the Principate was a little more than a disguised monarchy.



Golden Age of the Roman Empire - but also of the Chinese empire under Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 BC)

A. Roman Golden Age


Pax Romana: shift to a defensive rather than offensive foreign policy

Augustus stops the constant wars that had plagued late Republic - both civil wars and overseas expansion

Roman territory reached its greatest extent during the reign of Trajan (98-117) (the last conquering emperor)


During most of the first and the second centuries, the Romans were at peace.


Placating the people with bread and circuses

Popular unrest quelled by public buildings, grain dole; games (and outlawing of private collegia - associations)

Emperors established enormous grain distributions - Roman welfare

            250,000 citizens in Rome itself got rations of grain from the emperor.

                        (it should be noted that only men got this welfare)

Most visible today are the public buildings the emperors built in Rome.

            Most of the Roman temples, court buildings, bath houses, etc you see in Rome today were built by Augustus and subsequent emperors.

            Also aqueducts, sewers, and public toilets


And emperors paid for frequent public games

            Gladiator contests

            Wild game shows -  Romans would watch condemned criminals be torn apart by wild animals imported from their provinces (Romans believed in public rather than secret executions as way to ensure transparency of legal system)



Economic prosperity

Partly as a result of this peace, the Romans enjoyed several centuries of economic prosperity.

Evidence for this lies partly in the mount of air pollution they produced:

Greek and Roman lead and silver mining and smelting polluted the atmosphere throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Cumulative lead fallout to the Greenland ice sheet from 500 B.C. to 300 A.D. was as high as 15% of that from the use of leaded gasoline since the 1930s.

The peak was in the Roman period.  (IMAGE OF LEAD POLLUTION IN PEAT BOGS)


Romans not the only great empire at the time.


B. China:

First united 221 BC (about time of Punic Wars for Rome)

202 BC - Han dynasty soon took over

Hang dynasty of China: empire comparable to Roman in power and duration  (takes over s. Manchuria, n. Korea; Chinese colonists go to these areas  as far as n. Vietnam )


The Chinese were known to the Romans (though only barely) -

            Direct sea route to China discovered by Greek captains - ca. 1st c BC - but not fully exploited.


Yet political developments in China will end up changing Roman history


Comparisons between China and Rome: 

1. Peak of their territorial extent at about the same time

Hang dynasty of China had an empire comparable to Roman in extent and duration  - China took over s. Manchuria, n. Korea 


Roman territory reached its greatest extent during the reign of Trajan (98-117) (the last conquering emperor)



- Walls on their borders

Both empires built major walls to delimitate their territory and protect it from invaders

Roman limes: earthen (sometimes stone) walls and forts on border

Best known part of it Hadrian's Wall on border between Roman Britian and Pictish Scotland (built 2nd c. AD)


Great Wall of China:

Started in the 7th century BC by princes before unification of China

Han emperors completed it 3rd c BC (also Chin) - extended 10,000 li or 5,000 kilometers.

                        to protect themselves against Hsiung-no - nomadic peoples on their border


B. System of government

Ultimate power in both cases in the hands of one man - the emperor

Chinese emperors more dynastic (i.e. better chance of emperor's son becoming emperor), partly because Chinese emperors more likely to have sons (the advantage of polygamy).

Roman emperors given their power by Senate and (esp.) the army - though typically they chose the man the previous emperor designated as his heir


Chinese administration more centralized than Roman

Roman empire largely governed through its cities  - think of say Chicago having power to collect federal taxes, the Mayor being in charge of all the law courts - and you get some idea.

Chinese had a centralized bureaucracy:

            imperial officials collected the taxes; ran the courts; etc.

These bureaucrats that got their office through education- not by birth.

                        young men had to pass state exams in order to be considered for office

                        they were promoted for merit

In Roman empire - education was also important - but top offices usually reserved for those of high (i.e. senatorial) birth or military men - even if they were not well educated.


Science and technology

In part because of emphasis placed on education, Chinese made important scientific and technological advances - esp. in early Han period (3rd c. BC)

            Discovered sunspots, invented the compass (though used for religious purposes only at this point), first represenation of zero (by space): China 4th c. BC

On more practical side:

            Learned how to use water power to grind grain, and smelt iron.

learned how to make iron that resembled steel 3rd c BC (process of annealing)

                        Learned how to make paper from cloth rags - first paper money .

            Became most scientific farmers in the world:

                        cultivation in rows: 6th c BC (vs. broadcasting used until 18thc in Europe) - much better for irrigation, germination

                        iron plow with curved moldboard: designed to be used with only one ox (not adopted by Europeans until 18th c)

the horse collar, which greatly increased the pulling power of horses;


The Romans, in contrast, invented almost nothing during the imperial period (Lerner 243 Romans excelled "in drains, not brains")


            Greeks under Roman rule remained scientifically innovative:



Ptolemy lived in Alexandria (in Egypt) from approx. 87 -150 CE.

He was an astronomer, mathemetician and geographer.

He believed the planets and sun to orbit the Earth in the order Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn .

This system, known as the Ptolemaic System, was not seriously questioned until Copernicus in the 16th century.

In addition to his works in astronomy, Ptolemy was very important in the history of geography.

Ptolemy invented latitude and longitude - he was the first to place a grid system on a map and use the same grid system for the entire planet. (MAP)

We'll see later in the course how the rediscovery of Ptolemy in the late Middle Ages was a factor in leading Columbus to sail to the Americas.


C. Acculturation of other civilizations

China and Roman Empire were alike in that both acculturated conquered (and sometimes neighboring) peoples - making them Chinese and Romans.

This was partly done through colonization:

            Roman veterans set up as colonists in conquered provinces - like North Africa, Gaul (France), Spain (not so many in the East)

            Chinese colonists (not veterans, however) settled in much of eastern Asia - as far as n. Vietnam - during Han period.

Such colonists helped transmit their culture to other peoples in the area.


In both empires - conquered peoples voluntarily adopted Roman or Chinese customs - in order to be upwardly mobile.

In Roman empire, this happened especially in Europe and North Africa - where people started to speak Latin, live in Roman-styled cities, worship Graeco-Roman gods; and become citizens.

In 212, a Roman emperor (Caracalla) made citizenship universal: every free man in Roman empire was a citizen now.


Summary: state of the great empires ca. 200 CE




III. Third-century crisis and recovery

China falls apart

Last Han emperor deposed in 220 by a rebellion (Lerner 307)

Chinese empire falls apart, and won't recover for 3 1/2 centuries. (589  Sui Dynasty)

Collapse of Chinese empire had repercussions throughout Asia: dynamo effect

            Peoples in central Asia that had been kept at bay by the Chinese started to move around - expand their areas of influence.

            These central Asians in turned pressed on peoples in western Asia - like the Persians; the Germanic tribes in steppes of Russia and eastern Europe.

            And the Germans and Persians press on the Romans.


Third century crisis

Fifteen years after the collapse of Han China, the Roman empire also fell apart: "Third century crisis"

The Roman gov't - unlike the Chinese - will survive this crisis -  but it forever changed Roman society.

Nature of criss 

In the second half of the 3rd century, there was a new emperor on average every 11/2 years.

            Almost all of these emperors died violent deaths – either assassination by their own men, or death in battle.

            Civil wars arose between armies: the army in Europe would proclaim one emperor; the armies in Syria another.

They'd fight to see who got the title.

(Motive: The troops would demand higher pay as a reward for supporting a new emperor)

            Low point: 260 AD

                        The Persian king (Shapur) defeats a Roman army, and captures and kills the Roman emperor (Valerianus)

(Shapur then set up an enormous inscription  - which survives – bragging about the deed)

            Afterwards, a rather small Syrian city  Palmyra - ends up taking over much of the eastern empire.


Ultimate Cause of the Third Century Crisis

- Movement of peoples in central Asia - which had pushed peoples like the Goths and Persians against the Roman empire - leading to wars on multiple fronts


And as usually happens at times of civil war, the people suffered.

            To get money to pay off the troops, the emperors minted more debased coins (coins made of cheap metal)..

            Hyperinflation occurred – the currency became virtually worthless, forcing people to resort to barter (what is in fact happening in Russia today).

            Cities stopped investing in public works – the Roman aqueducts, temples and so on started to fall apart

            And people began to doubt their gods


Ordinary Romans began to look for new gods

            The old gods were clearly not doing a good job protecting the empire or people

            More and more people in the Roman empire turned towards "mystery" religions - religions which offered a personal relationship with a god and a hope of life after death (like Cybele, Isis, Jesus)

            Christianity was a popular choice (more about this on Thursday)


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The Roman Empire summary

The Roman Empire

Ancient City: Rome

  • Located by the Tiber River, 15 miles inland (in modern Italy)
  • Founded (according to Roman mythology) by the twins, Romulus and Remus, circa 509 BCE. They were abandoned by their mother, sent down the river, and reared by a she-wolf, until they grew strong and powerful.
  • Once they took over the kingship, there was a dispute as to whom would rule, which led ultimately to the fratricide (murder of one’s brother) of Remus by Romulus, who becomes the first mythic king of Rome.
  • In actuality, most likely, Rome was founded by Etruscans and Latin peoples.
    • The Etruscan language is still a mystery today, and these people were the supposed enemies of another Roman founding myth, the Aeneid, written by the famous librarian-poet Virgil, during the reign of Augustus Caesar (the first emperor of Rome).


Longevity of Rome: 800-1300 years

  • Rome endured for 800 years in the west, and another 500 years in the east (under the name Byzantium), but truly the Byzantine Empire is just an extension of the Roman Empire in the east.


Rome: Practical and Organized

  • An empire that identified as farmers, citizens, and soldiers


Roman Government: KingshipàRepublicàEmpire

  • After the era of kings, which was relatively short-lived, Roman government evolved.
  • The first real government of Rome was a republic (Latin: rei “thing” publicae “of the people”), which was called the Roman Senate, connected to the word senior, as you had to be old (and wealthy), in order to become a member of this legislature. This government was supposed to speak for the people, and was comprised of elected officials (though almost always extremely wealthy).
  • In addition to the legislature, there were two executives (presidents) known as consols, which served for a year and act as checks for one another.
  • Later, after the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, in perhaps the most epic and classic example of conflict between the executive (rulers - consols) and legislative (republic - Senate) branches in Western history, the Roman Republic evolves into the Roman Empire.
  • As an empire, they expand their reach well into Europe, Africa and Asia (mostly the Middle East), seized the perimeter of the Mediterranean Sea (and dominated naval trade), and thereafter ruled over many conquered, non-Roman peoples. This is attributed in large part to their practicality and organization.
  • Government was so well organized that even the worst of the emperors (Nero and Caligia) could not take down the Roman Empire – this is the sign of a good, effective and strong government.


Organization: The Roman Way

  • Rome was well organized in all ways – politically, socially, structurally, and all for the benefit of their patria (fatherland), Rome!
    • Roads – “All roads lead to Rome”, made of stone and better designed then our modern roads, in terms of longevity
    • Plumbing – The Romans were VERY keen of proper hygiene and general cleanliness
    • Public Service Buildings – Temples and Basilicas are structural designs still used today!
  • Old Roman Religion – believed in many deities “gods” (tolerant in the sense they just absorbed other religions, but they required those conquered to honor their deities, in turn).
  • Christianity comes afterward, largely as a result of the conversion of Constantine and Council of Niccea (where the Bible was official comprised).
  • Rome had one of the earliest and most successful cash economies, and even minted their own coin with emperors’ head on them (not dissimilar from our presidents’ faces upon them)!


Roman Legacy: Art and Architecture

  • Art and architecture – efficient, organized and practical
  • Roads, aqueducts, etc – much of it still works today!
  • Aqueducts made it possible to build a city in the desert.
  • Civic building – baths, arenas, forums (public discourse halls), aqueducts, etc.
  • Arches, vaults, domes were largely designed or perfected by the Romans
  • Creative use of concrete (lost thereafter until the 1900s) used to build things like the Coliseum, which seated 50,000, the first Western entertainment complex of that proportion!
  • Sculpture – realism and idealism
  • Pompeii – shows frescoes, mosaics, use of perspective.


Warfare: The Roman Legions

  • One of, if not the, best fighting force of their time, organized and efficient
  • Take on armies, 3x–5x, their size, and not just beating, but massacring their enemies.
  • At first, military service was considered a civic duty, and the wealthy were expected to contribute more in terms of time and money, because the could afford to, and had more at stake in the success of the empire, and thus more to lose if it were to fall.
  • This later develops into a professional standing army, where the generals paid for the service of their private armies (where the term “privates” come from).
  • There became a tradition, as a result of privatizing the armies, that no general would lead and army into Rome itself, doing so was seen as a sign of a tyrant, and would immediately cause the citizenry to lose respect and loyalty for such a general, and in turn the public and the senate would become extremely suspicious of any who would do so.
  • This private ownership of the armies, by generals, led to internal conflict, power struggles between wealthy generals, and ultimately numerous civil wars.


Fall of Rome: Collapse in the West

  • No one exact date for the fall of Rome in the west, but usually considered to be between 400-500CE (circa 476 CE).
  • This was a very gradual process, resulting from numerous factors, ranging from political, social and economic issues.
    • Germanic tribal invasions
    • Failing economics and corruption in government
    • Tyrannical and weak emperors
    • Lack of loyalty to Rome, and rise of selfishness in its place
  • Rome adopts a new religion, Christianity, which unifies medieval Europe
  • Greek side of the empire, the eastern portion, remains in tact, unchanged, and even tried to reconquer the western half a few times. Constantinople becomes the center of the eastern empire, known thereafter as Byzantium, where Christianity known as “Eastern (Greek) Orthodoxy”, thrives throughout much of the medieval era.


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The Roman Empire summary

Roman Republic

753 BC - The city of Rome is founded. Legend has it that the twin sons of Mars, the god of war, named Romulus and Remus founded the city. Romulus killed Remus and became ruler of Rome and named the city after himself. Rome was ruled by kings for the next 240 years.

509 BC - Rome becomes a republic. The last king is overthrown and Rome is now ruled by elected officials called senators. There is a constitution with laws and a complex republican government.

218 BC - Hannibal invades Italy. Hannibal leads the Carthage army in his famous crossing of the Alps to attack Rome. This is part of the Second Punic war.

73 BC - Spartacus the gladiator leads the slaves in an uprising.

45 BC - Julius Caesar becomes the first dictator of Rome. Caesar makes his famous Crossing of the Rubicon and defeats Pompey in a civil war to become the supreme ruler of Rome. This signals the end of the Roman Republic.

44 BC - Julius Caesar is assassinated on the Ides of March by Marcus Brutus. They hope to bring back the republic, but civil war breaks out.

27 BC - The Roman Empire begins as Caesar Augustus becomes the first Roman Emperor.

64 AD - Much of Rome burns. Legend has it that Emperor Nero watched the city burn while playing a lyre.

80 AD - The Colosseum is built. One of the great examples of Roman engineering is finished. It can seat 50,000 spectators.


The Roman Empire at its peak in 117 AD

121 AD - The Hadrian Wall is built. To keep out the barbarians a long wall is built across northern England.

306 AD - Constantine becomes Emperor. Constantine would convert to Christianity and Rome would become a Christian empire. Prior to this Rome persecuted the Christians.

380 AD - Theodosius I declares Christianity to be the sole religion of the Roman Empire.

395 AD - Rome splits into two empires.

410 AD - The Visigoths sack Rome. This is the first time in 800 years that the city of Rome has fallen to an enemy.

476 AD - The end of the Western Roman Empire and the fall of Ancient Rome. The last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus is defeated by the German Goth Odoacer. This signals the start of the Dark Ages in Europe.

1453 AD - The Byzantine Empire comes to an end as it falls to the Ottoman Empire.


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