The Roman Empire

The policies of Julius Caesar led to a more centralized form of government under a single leader; however, his style or rule alienated many members of the patrician class, who considered him to be little more than a tyrant. They organized a plot to restore the Republic by means of assassinating Caesar. They killed him in 44 B.C.E. in the Roman forum, but did not have the ability to restore the former government; instead, they precipitated another bloody civil war.

Caesar had named his nephew, Octavian Caesar (eighteen at the time) as his successor. He teamed up with Marc Antony, and Lepidus, and formed the Second Triumvirate. Soon, Octavian and Marc Antony parted company. Antony went to Egypt, and allied with Cleopatra; Octavian claimed that Antony had been seduced by her, and she was a former enemy of Rome. (It would be easy under these circumstances to paint him as a traitor).

In 31 B.C., Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, (land and sea battle). They both committed suicide. Antony did himself in the typical Roman way, by falling on his sword; Cleopatra had a basket of figs brought to her with an asp inside, which she allowed to bite her.

Octavian’s victory ended many years of civil war, and the result was the Pax Romana; the Roman Peace. In 27 B.C., the Senate gave Octavian the title of Augustus; which he retained. The title has strong religious connotation, suggesting that its holder was divine, or semi-divine. Thereafter, almost all Roman Emperors were known as Caesar.

Augustus ruled Rome for forty five years, and fashioned a government that would rule Rome for the next 300 years. Augustus wanted to restore the Republic, but this couldn’t be done; if he dropped the reins of power, someone else would simply pick them up, and the fighting would start all over again. Therefore, he gave himself the title of Princeps Civitatus (First Citizen). He was, of course, more than that, but from this comes the term "Prince." Because of his position as leader of the Roman Army, he received the title normally given to a Roman general after a great victory: Imperator. From this came the term, Emperor.

Augustus proceeded more cautiously than had his ill fainted Uncle Julius. He preserved the traditional government offices and forms of government, and included members of the elite in his government. Still, he substantially changed the nature of that government: He accumulated vast powers for himself and ultimately assumed responsibility for all important governmental functions. He tried to appear as just one of the crowd. He wore simple clothes, lived in a modest house, and encouraged family life. He made adultery a crime. Among his other accomplishments:

The Roman Army became permanent. They were paid a decent wage, and career soldiers could retire with a pension. He garrisoned them all over the empire; and allowed them to take their families with them.

He allowed Roman colonies to exercise a great degree of self-government; and respected local customs.

He encouraged "cult worship" in which the emperor himself became an object of worship.

He expanded the empire into Northern and Western Europe. During the days of the Republic, Rome had held Italy, Greece, Syria, Gaul and most of the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain and Portugal.) Augustus established outposts in southeastern Europe and North Africa, including Egypt. He also added large areas of Anatolia and southwest Asia to the Empire.

At its zenith, the Roman Empire had converted the Mediterranean Sea into a Roman lake; it was completely surrounded by lands of the empire. The Romans in fact spoke of the Mediterranean as mare nostrum ("our sea.) A frontier of sorts developed, on the other side of which lived the Germanic tribes whom the Romans collectively called "barbarians." They tried to maintain peace with them, but this wasn’t always possible, because the barbarians had wanted to be left alone before the Romans showed up. Also, Roman towns were often wealthy, and the barbarians often attacked them, tempted by the desire for plunder.

The arrival of Roman soldiers, diplomats, governors and merchants in new areas stimulated the development of local economies and states. They encouraged the local inhabitants to cultivate wheat, olives and grapes, and also mined for tin. Local communities thrived and grew in a way they had never grown before. Cities sprang up where administrators and merchants conducted business and the pace of life in Europe quickened. Among the modern cities which began as Roman outposts are: London, Paris, Lyons, Cologne, Mainz, Toledo, and Segovia. Trade and communication within the Roman Empire was facilitated by the Pax Romana, as merchants and businessmen could travel throughout the empire without fear.

Augustus was the first of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty of emperors. He died in 14 A.D. of natural causes.

Much of the kinky behavior and decadence that we associate with Rome and the Romans came about because of the Julio-Claudian Emperors. It wasn’t a way of life; in fact very few people knew about it. They were so wealthy and powerful, they could engage in their own personal fantasies and habits with abandon; and most of them did. The Roman historian from whom we know most about them recorded all the kinky details, apparently in an attempt to discredit them as much as he could.

Augustus had created a special unit of the army, the Praetorian Guard, as his personal bodyguards. This had a drawback, as it allowed the Army to interfere in politics on occasion. Quite often they murdered Emperors, and installed a new one of their own choosing.

Tiberius :( His real name was Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus): Basically a good ruler; although there was some intrigue there. His son, Drusus, whom he hoped would succeed him, was murdered by poison by his second wife, who was Augustus’ daughter, whom he had been forced to marry.

In his later years, Tiberius lived on the Island of Capri, where he lived a life of debauchery. He loved to swim in a pool with little boys who dived under the water and bit him. He called them his "little fish."

Caligula (Gaius Caesar Germanicus). He was the Grandson of Tiberius, and when a small child often played "soldier" around the Praetorian Guard. This earned him the nickname, "Caligula," which in Latin means "little boots." He seems to have been doomed from the start. At a very early age, he was caught in bed with his sisters. They apparently instigated it. When he became emperor, he was considered very kind and fair, for the first six months, but became seriously ill, (plus it is commonly believed he suffered from epilepsy), which left him insane. He murdered most of his family and engaged in all sorts of perverse behavior. Often, he would invite a Roman noble to dinner, treat him lavishly, and after the dinner inform the noble that to return the favor, he would make love to the nobleman’s wife, while the nobleman watched. He decided that the Egyptian way was best (many of the Egyptian Pharaohs married their sisters), and his own sister became pregnant by him. He got carried away there, couldn’t wait for the child to be born, and eviscerated her and ripped the child out. Both she and the child died. He had his horse declared a God, and planned to install a statue of the horse in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem, but was murdered first.

Caligula was skinny, and prematurely bald, of which he was very self-conscious. It was considered extremely dangerous to look down on him from above when he rode by; he might have one put to death. He had a very hairy body; front and back, and this also was an annoyance to him.

Caligula was murdered as he left the Coliseum by the Praetorian Guard. He and his wife were stabbed, and their nine-month old daughter was murdered by smashing her head against a wall.

Claudius: He was Caligula’s uncle, and had been passed over by the Praetorian Guard when a new Caesar was chosen. The guard had apparently thought they could manipulate Caligula, but were sadly mistaken. It was he who had conquered Britain. Caligula had planned to do so, and had marched his troops as far as the ocean, but then ordered them to collect seashells. Claudius was murdered by his fourth wife in favor of her son: Nero


Nero: He is considered to be one of the cruelest rulers to have ever existed.

He was fat and ugly, but considered himself to be very talented. He wrote poetry, sang, did all sorts of acrobatic stuff, and no one dared do anything but fawn. He is responsible for a number of orgies, persecutions, etc. Rome caught fire during his rule. He was accused of having set the fire himself, and was accused of having played a lute while the city burned. From this comes the phrase "fiddling while Rome burns." He blamed the Christians for the fire, and had many of them put to death. Some he had covered with pitch, and burned to light his gardens. Tradition says that St. Peter was crucified in Rome during Nero’s reign; upside down at his own request.

Nero was overthrown after a revolt. He was so unpopular that the Roman people erased most records of him, and destroyed his statues and busts. He died by stabbing himself in the throat; and said as his last words, "the world has lost a great artist in me."

Nero was followed by the Fluvial Emperors, and the Antoine Emperors, named after Marcus Aurelius, who was something of a philosopher as well as Emperor.

Marcus Aurelius is the Emperor murdered in the movie Gladiator, succeeded by Commodus. That is a fabrication. He died of natural causes as did Commodus..

Roman Society and Culture

The Romans, as had the Persians, Chinese, and Indians built large networks of transportation and communication. Roman roads were among the finest of the Ancient world. Roman engineers prepared a deep road bed for roads, edge them with curves, made provisions for drainage, and topped them with paving stones. Main Roman roads were six to eight meters in width (20 to 26 feet), and could easily accommodate two-way traffic. Roads through winding mountain passes were easily two to three meters wide (6 to 10 feet.) Milestones were placed along the roads and a postal system set up for couriers. The postal system allowed messages and urgent travel to proceed at speeds previously unheard of. Tiberius once traveled 290 kilometers (180 miles) in one day. The entire empire was linked by Roman roads.

Roman Law: The stability of the pax romana allowed Roman legal scholars to construct an elaborate legal system, much of which has been adopted into Western legal systems. A written Code of Laws was first written during the Republic, c. 450 B.C.E. known as the Twelve Tables. As the Empire grew, legal scholars attempted to construct a body of law that would apply to everyone under Roman rule. Among the principles established:

Persons accused of a crime were presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Defendants had a right to challenge their accusers before a judge in a court of law.

Judges could set aside laws they considered inequitable or unfair.

Trade and Urbanization: Rapid expansion of the empire brought economic and social changes throughout the empire. Agricultural development underwent major changes. Instead of planting crops for immediate local use, owners of large slave-operated farms known as latifundia concentrated on growing crops for export. Grain from throughout the Empire was shipped to large cities; in fact the ship which carried Paul of Tarsus from Caesarea and which ultimately shipwrecked (as told in the Book of Acts) carried wheat for Rome. It was possible to import grain at favorable prices from areas with large surpluses, so other regions concentrated on the production of fruits and vegetables, and manufactured items. Greece produced olives and vines, Syria and Palestine furnished fruits, nuts, and wool; Gaul produced copper and some grape vines. Italy became a center for the production of pottery, glassware, and bronze. Such specialization set the stage for large scale trading within the Empire. The Roman navy kept sea lanes free from pirates, so, unless weather interfered, ships could carry large amounts of cargo throughout the empire without hindrance. The exchange of trade and the interaction of Roman military forces, administrators, tax collectors, etc. linked the entire Mediterranean into a well integrated network.

Roman cities benefited most from this integration. Much of the profit of trade flowed to Rome itself where a remarkable city was developed. By the first century C.E. the city had over ten thousand statues with seven hundred pools, five hundred fountains, and thirty six marble arches celebrating military victories or other accomplishments. Roman taxes paid for the construction of temples, bath houses, public buildings, stadiums and aqueducts that provided fresh water from the mountains nearby. The Romans were among the first to use concrete for construction, which allowed them to erect structures according to exacting specifications.

Construction projects put hundreds of thousands of workers on the job. This also caused the city and its economy to explode. Although most common workers received very low wages, those with skills often found high wages as craftsmen. Some established thriving businesses and became wealthy businessmen.

As Roman cities grew more affluent, urban residents expected a variety of creature comforts which were not available in rural areas. Roman homes had running water and sewage systems. Romans often attended the circus; chariot races (drivers who won many races became heroes; like athletes today), and later, gladiatorial fights. The latter were cruel events by modern standards. Battles to the death were conducted between men, or sometimes between men and animals. The modern day bull fight in Spanish culture is perhaps a result of gladiatorial entertainment. Romans attended frequently. The Roman Colosseum seated 50,000 people, and had a multi-colored awning that protected viewers from sun and rain. Its construction was so precise that it was possible to flood the area with water for mock naval battles. The most famous circus was the circus maximis, in which acrobats and other performers, including wild animal acts, entertained the masses.

Rome had its share of poor, who depended upon the government for survival. Large subsidies of grain and other foodstuffs were regularly provided for them. The existence of idle poor presented the possibility of civil unrest. Roman emperors never developed a true urban policy; but rather tried to keep them pacified. They frequently declared holidays, perhaps as often as every Thursday, during which races or gladiatorial fights were held. Admission to the events was free. The policy was one of "bread and circuses.

Gladiators more often than not were condemned men, who were sent to the ring to die. Often, they were not allowed to carry weapons, as they were supposed to get killed. Some men (and women) voluntarily became gladiators for the thrill of it all, like a bullfighter. A very successful and popular gladiator might even earn his freedom.

There were also theaters where plays were performed (this was a takeoff from the Greeks), but the most important diversion was the Roman bath. This was basically a pool, where one could bathe. There were exercise rooms attached, called gymnasia; men could exercise or play games; there were pools of hot and cool water, snack bars, and halls where people could chat. The bath was the place where one went to talk, to see the right people, talk politics, etc.

Roman Family and Society: Oldest dominant male, usually the father or grandfather, was the paterfamilias. He had absolute power over his wife and children. He could legally kill his wife for adultery; divorce her at will, and could kill is children or sell them into slavery whenever he wished. He could force them to marry against their will; when he died, his wife and children inherited his property. He was not completely a dictator; important decisions were made by a family council which included all the adult males.

The Wife was the matron of family. Virtues for a Roman matron were fidelity, chastity, modesty, and dedication to the family. She spun and wove clothes for the family, normally made of wool, supervised slaves, and planned meals.

Children played with dolls made from terra cotta or other toys; they kept pets, usually dogs; and played games, often games of chance. They remained at home until age seven, when they were normally enrolled in school.

In the country, the day was divided roughly into twelve hours of day and night. Breakfast was at daybreak; which could be anywhere from 4:30 to eight, depending on the season, and was very light, normally, often bread and cheese. The main meal was eaten at midday; which consisted of very coarse bread, made from entire husks of wheat; or possibly a porridge made with milk or water. They also ate turnips, cabbage, olives, and beans. The preferred meat was pork. Fish was extremely expensive, and a rare delicacy. Wine was mixed with water for this meal. Those who could took a nap after the meal; but slaves and hired laborers went back to work. Dinner, in the evenings, was a very light meal, after which they went to bed at nightfall.

In the cities, new classes of merchants, landowners, and construction contractors emerged who developed enormous private wealth, so much so that they rivaled the old nobility (patricians) for prominence. Eager to show off their wealth, they often spent lavishly and excessively. They built huge, palatial mansions with formal gardens; they often threw lavish banquets at which exotic foods were served, such as boiled ostrich; parrot tongue pie; or tree fungus (apparently similar to truffles) in a sauce of fish fat, jellyfish, and eggs. While they ate sumptuously, the poorer folk ate porridge and vegetables, sometimes with eggs, sausage or other pork.

Slavery: Slaves were used extensively throughout Roman society. By 200 C.E., it is estimated that one third of the Roman population were slaves. . Ethnicity made no difference; in fact, black slaves from Africa, and blond slaves from Germany were considered more valuable than others because of their distinctive appearance.

Those in the countryside worked mostly on the latifundia as slaves of the state; while others worked in quarries and mines. They often worked under exceptionally harsh conditions, and were often chained together in teams. Several massive revolts originated from slave discontent; the most famous of which broke out in 73 B.C.E. led by an escaped slave, Spartacus, who assembled an army of 70,000 escaped slaves. Eight legions of Roman soldiers comprising forty thousand troops put down the revolt. Spartacus was crucified.

Slaves in the cities worked under circumstances considerably less difficult than in the country. Most worked as servants, laborers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, or even business agents for their owners. Those who were educated could live quite comfortably. They also had some hope of emancipation, which slaves in the countryside seldom saw. It was a common practice (but not required) to reward a slave for loyal service when he reached age thirty by issuing a certificate of manumission, which made him free. Unless they were manumitted, however, slaves were under the strict authority of their masters who could work them as they pleased, sell them, arrange family affairs for them, punish them, even have them executed for serious offenses.

A Cosmopolitan Society

The vast expanse of its empire meant that as a matter of course, Romans came into contact with other peoples with other cultures and religious traditions. Those who moved to Rome often continued to observe their old cultural traditions and this amplified the cosmopolitan nature of Roman society.

Roman Religion: Was important part of life. Over time, the Romans adopted the Greek Gods, and gave them Roman names; Zeus became Jupiter; Mars was the god of war, but also guaranteed the fertility of the farm. There was also belief in special deities who looked after the welfare of individual families. There was also a belief in spirits, ghosts, etc. They often adopted deities from still other peoples; for instance from the Etruscans, they adopted the worship of Juno, the moon goddess, and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.

Roman gods were not loving and personal; for that reason, there was no emotional attachment to them as one sees in present day religions. They were considered to be stern, powerful, and aloof; preferring not to be bothered with the affairs of men. They rather had to be pacified, and kept happy. Part of this involved a series of rituals, many of which were adopted into Christianity.

Romans believed that the Gods sent warnings in form of natural phenomena; the flight of birds, color or arrangement of the entrails of an animal. The priests who interpreted these signs were known as augurs.

Stoicism became a large influence in Roman society, as its belief in a set of universal moral standards based on nature and reason that would transcend local ethical codes appealed to Roman intellectuals. Among those who adopted Stoic values was Marcus Tullius Cicero, who studied in Greece. Cicero was an accomplished Orator and wrote relying on Stoic principles. His treatises and letters emphasized the duty of each person to live in accordance with nature and reason. He argued that one’s highest public duty was the pursuit of justice. He had little use for those who accumulated wealth of power through immoral or illegal means. Cicero’s writings and speeches helped establish Stoicism as the most prominent moral philosophy in Rome.

Religions of salvation were also popular, particularly among the masses, as it provided them with a sense of purpose and the promise of a glorious life after death. Religions of salvation were spread by merchants, soldiers, and businessmen as well as by missionaries who traveled with them in search of converts. The roads and sea lanes of the Roman empire made the dissemination of religious ideas more easily possible.

The Cult of Mithras, first encountered by Roman soldiers in Anatolia, was based on Zoroastrian mythology. Mithras was associated with the sun and light; but Roman soldiers associated him with military prowess, strength, courage, and discipline. This religion became especially popular among Roman soldiers. The cult of Mithras offered hope for those who observed its teachings by promising them an ecstatic and mysterious union with Mithras himself. It was an exclusively male religion (women were not allowed to participate.)

Among other religions popular with the Romans:

Cult of Bacchus: the practice of which involved wine drinking, often resulting in a drunken frenzy.

Cybele – the Great Mother. This religion was for both men and women.

Numerology and Astrology were popular.

Cult of Fortuna: its slogan was: Carpe Diem.

Perhaps the most popular religion for men and women was the Cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Temples were built to her as a benevolent and protective deity who nurtured her worshipers and helped them cope with the stresses of life.

The popularity of religions of salvation has been cited by many historians as an element in the remarkable success of Christianity in the Empire. It fell on fertile soil and grew rapidly.

Judaism and Early Christianity: The Kingdom of Israel divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the North and Judah in the South but both were ultimately destroyed and the people dispersed. Even so, they maintained their faith and their communities under a variety of imperial regimes, including Babylonia, Achaemenid, Alexander’s regime, and the Seleucids, as well as the Romans. All the empires mentioned here were religiously tolerant, as they encompassed a variety of religions, provided the subjects paid taxes and did not foment rebellion. Many created state cults which honored the emperor as a god in order to promote political loyalty. This presented a problem for the Jews , who were strictly monotheistic. They believed that their god, Yahweh was the only God, and was God of all the earth. They considered emperor worship to be blasphemous, and refused to participate. At times they even refused to pay taxes. Between 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. Jews in Palestine mounted several rebellions against Roman authority; but were ultimately defeated in the Jewish War of 66-70 C.E.

Some Jews formed new religious sects which did not actively oppose the Romans, but rather looked for a savior who would deliver them from the Romans. One such group was known as the Essenes. They observed a strict moral code, and participated in rituals designed to enforce a sense of community. New members were admitted through a rite of baptism with water, and ritual communal meals were often held.

Many of the concerns of the Essenes were shared by early Christians, although they probably had little contact with each other. Christians formed a community around Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic preacher whom they considered their savior. Although he lived at a time of tension between Jews and Romans, Jesus was a peaceful man who taught devotion to God and love for fellow human beings. His wisdom, and reports of his ability to heal the sick caused him to attract large crowds. Although his message was one of peace, Jesus alarmed the Romans with his comments that "the kingdom of God is at hand." Although he spoke of a spiritual kingdom in which God would gather the faithful to him, the Romans thought his message was a threat to their own rule. He also drew opposition from the Jewish establishment, who considered him a disruption to their traditional teachings. At the insistence of Jewish leaders and with the complicity of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, Roman soldiers executed Jesus by crucifixion in the early 30’s C.E.

The crucifixion of Jesus did not end the movement he began; in fact his close followers still sensed his presence, and proclaimed that he had risen from the grave. They referred to him as "Christ," a Greek word meaning "the anointed one," and spoke of him as the savior who would bring everyone into the kingdom of God. They also said that he was the son of God, and that his death was a sacrifice to pay the debt of sin for others. They also taught that just like Jesus, the faithful would rise from the dead and experience eternal life in the kingdom of God. As Jesus had taught, early Christians observed a demanding moral code, and devoted themselves to God uncompromisingly. They compiled a body of writings which described Jesus’ earthly life and teachings, reports of the works of his followers, and letters outlining Christian teachings, which became the New Testament, the holy book of Christianity.

Although Jesus and his followers had all been Jewish, the religion spread to non-Jews in the first century, C.E. as converts were sought throughout the empire. The principle person responsible for the spread of Christianity was Paul of Tarsus, a Jew from Anatolia, who zealously preached his faith in the Greek speaking portion of the Roman Empire. Paul explained that the world and human history were the result of God’s acts, and promised a glorious future for those who observed Christian teachings. Paul traveled widely along Roman roads and sea lanes, and founded several Christian communities. His last journey was by ship from Palestine to Rome, where he sought converts for two years before he was executed.

For the first two centuries following the crucifixion of Jesus, there was no central authority in the church; rather local communities selected a leader from their midst known as a bishop. Christian doctrinal views and practices varied widely until the third century when Rome became the principal seat of the church. Much debate centered on whether Jesus had physically resurrected from the dead; while other debates centered on the role of women in the church.

As had the Jews, early Christians refused to worship the Roman emperor or follow the established cults. Roman officials launched sporadic campaigns of persecution against them designed to eliminate the religion as a threat to the Empire. Among its most severe persecutors were the Emperors Diocletian and Nero; the latter of whom blamed the great Roman fire on the Christians. Despite persecution, the church grew rapidly, and spread to all parts of the Empire. The success of Christianity appears to be due to its appeal to lower classes and women. It honored individuals who did not enjoy status in Roman society, and gave them a sense of spiritual freedom unlike earthly power or prominence. It also taught the equality of men and women (Mithraism had admitted only men.) It also provided a sense of purpose and a promise of future glory for those who believed in Jesus. The urban population of Rome embraced Christianity so enthusiastically that by the third century C.E. it was the most influential religion in the Mediterranean basin.