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31. Roman Empire - Its Origins, Vastness and Legacy

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Why Roman Empire is So Magnificient and Grandeur ?

I ) Roman Empire - Its Origins and Vastness

All roads lead to Rome. In ancient times, all routes did indeed emanate from the capital of the Roman Empire to Rome, the Eternal City, was seen as the caput mundi – ‘capital of the world’,

The Roman Empire was one of the largest in history, with contiguous territories throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.The Latin phrase imperium sine fine ("empire without end") expressed the ideology that neither time nor space limited the Empire.

The Roman Empire , in its heydays, One fourth of human population lived and died under its Command and Controls. World rarely seen magnitude of this grandeur , elegance and opulence earlier and never seen after it.

The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of ancient Rome. As a polity it included large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe,North Africa and West Asia ruled by emperors. From the accession of Caesar Augustus to the military anarchy of the third century, it was a principate with Italy as metropole of the provinces and its city of Rome as sole capital (27 BC – 286 AD).

The traditional date for the founding of what eventually became the Roman Empire is 753 B.C. This is the year, according to legend, that brothers Romulus and Remus founded the city of Rome (also known as the Eternal City and the City of Seven Hills).

The Roman Republic began after the overthrow of the monarchy around 509 B.C. Two consuls, advised by the Senate, governed the Republic from its creation to about 27 B.C. The election of consuls took place annually. During this period a Roman constitution gradually developed, based upon a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances within the government.

Due to the Roman Empire's vast extent and long endurance, the institutions and culture of Rome had a profound and lasting influence on the development of language, religion, art, architecture, philosophy, law and forms of government in the territory it governed, and far beyond.

Pic : Augustus Caesar ( 27BC - AD 14 )

The predecessor state of the Roman Empire, the Roman Republic (which had replaced Rome's monarchy in the 6th century BC) became severely destabilized in a series of civil wars and political conflicts. In the mid-1st century BC Julius Caesar was appointed as perpetual dictator and then assassinated in 44 BC. Civil wars and proscriptions continued, culminating in the victory of Octavian, Caesar's adopted son, over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. The following year Octavian conquered Ptolemaic Egypt, ending the Hellenistic period that had begun with the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon in the 4th century BC.

Octavian's power then became unassailable, and in 27 BC the Roman Senate formally granted him overarching power and the new title Augustus, effectively making him the first Roman emperor.

Though the old constitutional machinery remained in place, Augustus came to predominate it. Although the republic stood in name, contemporaries of Augustus knew it was just a veil and that Augustus had all meaningful authority in Rome. Since his rule ended a century of civil wars and began an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity, he was so loved that he came to hold the power of a monarch de facto if not de jure. During the years of his rule, a new constitutional order emerged ( in part organically and in part by design ), so that, upon his death, this new constitutional order operated as before when Tiberius was accepted as the new emperor.

The 200 years that began with Augustus's rule is traditionally regarded as the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"). During this period, the cohesion of the empire was furthered by a degree of social stability and economic prosperity that Rome had never before experienced. Uprisings in the provinces were infrequent, but put down "mercilessly and swiftly" when they occurred. The success of Augustus in establishing principles of dynastic succession was limited by his outliving a number of talented potential heirs. The Julio-Claudian dynasty lasted for four more emperors—Tiberius,Caligula,Claudius and Nero—before it yielded in 69 AD to the strife-torn Year of Four Emperors, from which Vespasian emerged as victor. Vespasian became the founder of the brief Flavian dynasty, to be followed by the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which produced the "Five Good Emperors": Nerva,Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and the philosophically-inclined Marcus Aurelius.

II) The Peak of Power

After Domitian's death, the empire reached its peak of power and wealth under the rule of the 'Five Good Emperors.' These rulers, known for their moderate policies, were in contrast to their more tyrannical and oppressive predecessors and successors. The below reigning dates of the good emperors are all in A.D.

The Good Roman Emperors

1) Nerva ------------- 96 - 98

2) Trajan---------------98 - 117

3) Hadrian ------------117 - 138

4) Antoninus Pius-----138 - 161

5) Marcus Aurelius---- 161 - 180

The good emperors period was particularly notable for its peaceful method of succession, where each emperor chose his successor by adopting an heir. This prevented the political turmoil associated with unstable and weak governments. Secure from both internal and external threats these Roman rulers governed during a time of unprecedented territorial, economic, and cultural expansion.

Pic : Antoninus Pius

The greatest extent of Roman territorial expansion occurred with Trajan's conquest of Dacia in 117 A.D. Rome is considered the third largest and most powerful ancient empire, behind the first place Persian and second place Han dynasty. At the time of Jesus, it had a total population of about 60 million people.

As the historian Christopher Kelly has described it:

" Then the empire stretched from Hadrian's Wall in drizzle-soaked northern England to the sun-baked banks of the Euphrates in Syria; from the great RhineDanube river system, which snaked across the fertile, flat lands of Europe from the Low Countries to the Black Sea, to the rich plains of the North African coast and the luxuriant gash of the Nile Valley in Egypt. The empire completely circled the Mediterranean ... referred to by its conquerors as mare nostrum—'our sea'."

Pic : Roman Empire

With the fall of Ravenna to the Germanic Herulians and the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 AD by Odoacer, the Western Roman Empire finally collapsed – the (Eastern Roman) Emperor Zeno formally abolished it in 480 AD. Nonetheless, some states in the territories of the former Western Roman Empire would later claim to have inherited the supreme power of the emperors of Rome, most notably the Holy Roman Empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire, identified by modern historians under the name of the Byzantine Empire, survived for another millennium until the Empire's last remains collapsed when Constantinople ( modern day Istanbul in Turkey ) fell to the Ottoman Turks of Sultan Mehmed II in 1453.

III ) Roman Empire's Lasting Impressions and Contributions

1 ) Languages

The language of the Romans was Latin, which Virgil emphasizes as a source of Roman unity and tradition.Until the time of Alexander Severus (reigned 222–235), the birth certificates and wills of Roman citizens had to be written in Latin.Latin was the language of the law courts in the West and of the military throughout the Empire, but was not imposed officially on peoples brought under Roman rule.This policy contrasts with that of Alexander the Great, who aimed to impose Greek throughout his empire as the official language. As a consequence of Alexander's conquests, koine Greek had become the shared language around the eastern Mediterranean and into Asia Minor.The"linguistic frontier"dividing the Latin West and the Greek East passed through the Balkan peninsula.

Pic : TheTrevi Fountain

Romans who received an elite education studied Greek as a literary language, and most men of the governing classes could speak Greek. TheJulio-Claudian emperors encouraged high standards of correct Latin (Latinitas), a linguistic movement identified in modern terms as Classical Latin, and favoured Latin for conducting official business. Claudius tried to limit the use of Greek, and on occasion revoked the citizenship of those who lacked Latin, but even in the Senate he drew on his own bilingualism in communicating with Greek-speaking ambassadors. Suetonius quotes him as referring to "our two languages".

2) Society

The Roman Empire was remarkably multicultural, with "a rather astonishing cohesive capacity" to create a sense of shared identity while encompassing diverse peoples within its political system over a long span of time. The Roman attention to creating public monuments and communal spaces open to all—such as forums, amphitheatres, racetracks and baths—helped foster a sense of "Romanness".

Pic : Trajan Column, Rome

Roman society had multiple, overlapping social hierarchies that modern concepts of "class" in English may not represent accurately.

Personal relationships—patronage, friendship (amicitia), family, marriage—continued to influence the workings of politics and government, as they had in the Republic. By the time of Nero, however, it was not unusual to find a former slave who was richer than a freeborn citizen, or an equestrian who exercised greater power than a senator.

i) Legal Status

According to the jurist Gaius, the essential distinction in the Roman "law of persons" was that all human beings were either free (liberi) or slaves (servi). The legal status of free persons might be further defined by their citizenship. Most citizens held limited rights

( such as the ius Latinum,"Latin right"), but were entitled to legal protections and privileges not enjoyed by those who lacked citizenship.

ii) Women in Roman law

Freeborn Roman women were considered citizens throughout the Republic and Empire, but did not vote, hold political office, or serve in the military. A mother's citizen status determined that of her children, as indicated by the phrase ex duobus civibus Romanis natos ("children born of two Roman citizens"). A Roman woman kept her own family name (nomen) for life. Children most often took the father's name, but in the Imperial period sometimes made their mother's name part of theirs, or even used it instead.

Pic : Colosseum , Rome

3) Government and Military

The three major elements of the Imperial Roman state were the central government, the military, and provincial government. The military established control of a territory through war, but after a city or people was brought under treaty, the military mission turned to policing: protecting Roman citizens (after 212 AD, all freeborn inhabitants of the Empire), the agricultural fields that fed them, and religious sites. Without modern instruments of either mass communication or mass destruction, the Romans lacked sufficient manpower or resources to impose their rule through force alone.Cooperation with local power elites was necessary to maintain order, collect information, and extract revenue.

The Romans often exploited internal political divisions by supporting one faction over another: in the view of Plutarch, "it was discord between factions within cities that led to the loss of self-governance"

Pic : Amphitheatre , Verona , Italy

i) Central Government

The dominance of the emperor was based on the consolidation of certain powers from several republican offices, including the inviolability of the tribunes of the people and the authority of the censors to manipulate the hierarchy of Roman society. The emperor also made himself the central religious authority as Pontifex Maximus, and centralized the right to declare war, ratify treaties, and negotiate with foreign leaders. While these functions were clearly defined during the Principate, the emperor's powers over time became less constitutional and more monarchical, culminating in the Dominate.

The emperor was the ultimate authority in policy- and decision-making, but in the early Principate he was expected to be accessible to individuals from all walks of life, and to deal personally with official business and petitions. A bureaucracy formed around him only gradually.The Julio-Claudian emperors relied on an informal body of advisors that included not only senators and equestrians, but trusted slaves and freedmen.

ii) Military

After the Punic Wars, the Imperial Roman army was composed of professional soldiers who volunteered for 20 years of active duty and five as reserves. The transition to a professional military had begun during the late Republic, and was one of the many profound shifts away from republicanism, under which an army of conscripts had exercised their responsibilities as citizens in defending the homeland in a campaign against a specific threat. For Imperial Rome, the military was a full-time career in itself. The Romans expanded their war machine by "organizing the communities that they conquered in Italy into a system that generated huge reservoirs of manpower for their army. Their main demand of all defeated enemies was they provide men for the Roman army every year."

The primary mission of the Roman military of the early empire was to preserve the Pax Romana. The three major divisions of the military were:

  • The garrison at Rome, which includes both the Praetorians and the vigiles who functioned as police and firefighters;

  • The provincial army, comprising the Roman legions and the auxiliaries provided by the provinces (auxilia);

  • The navy.

iii) Provincial Government

An annexed territory became a province in a three-step process: making a register of cities, taking a census of the population, and surveying the land. Further government record keeping included births and deaths, real estate transactions, taxes, and juridical proceedings. In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the central government sent out around 160 officials each year to govern outside Italy. Among these officials were the "Roman governors", as they are called in English: either magistrates elected at Rome who in the name of the Roman people governed senatorial provinces; or governors, usually of equestrian rank, who held their imperium on behalf of the emperor in provinces excluded from senatorial control, most notably Roman Egypt.

A governor had to make himself accessible to the people he governed, but he could delegate various duties.His staff, however, was minimal: his official attendants (apparitores), including lictors, heralds, messengers, scribes, and bodyguards; legates, both civil and military, usually of equestrian rank; and friends, ranging in age and experience, who accompanied him unofficially.

4) Roman law

Roman courts held original jurisdiction over cases involving Roman citizens throughout the empire, but there were too few judicial functionaries to impose Roman law uniformly in the provinces. Most parts of the Eastern empire already had well-established law codes and juridical procedures.In general, it was Roman policy to respect the mos regionis ("regional tradition" or "law of the land") and to regard local laws as a source of legal precedent and social stability.

The compatibility of Roman and local law was thought to reflect an underlying ius gentium, the "law of nations" or international law regarded as common and customary among all human communities. If the particulars of provincial law conflicted with Roman law or custom, Roman courts heard appeals, and the emperor held final authority to render a decision.

5) Taxation

Taxation under the Empire amounted to about 5% of the Empire's gross product. The typical tax rate paid by individuals ranged from 2 to 5%. The tax code was "bewildering" in its complicated system of direct and indirect taxes, some paid in cash and some in kind. Taxes might be specific to a province, or kinds of properties such as fisheries or salt evaporation ponds; they might be in effect for a limited time. Tax collection was justified by the need to maintain the military,and taxpayers sometimes got a refund if the army captured a surplus of booty.

In-kind taxes were accepted from less-monetized areas, particularly those who could supply grain or goods to army camps.

6) Economy

Moses Finley was the chief proponent of the primitivist view that the Roman economy was "underdeveloped and underachieving," characterized by subsistence agriculture; urban centres that consumed more than they produced in terms of trade and industry; low-status artisans; slowly developing technology; and a "lack of economic rationality."Current views are more complex. Territorial conquests permitted a large-scale reorganization of land use that resulted in agricultural surplus and specialization, particularly in north Africa.

Some cities were known for particular industries or commercial activities, and the scale of building in urban areas indicates a significant construction industry.Papyri preserve complex accounting methods that suggest elements of economic rationalism, and the Empire was highly monetized. Although the means of communication and transport were limited in antiquity, transportation in the 1st and 2nd centuries expanded greatly, and trade routes connected regional economies.

The supply contracts for the army, which pervaded every part of the Empire, drew on local suppliers near the base (castrum) , throughout the province, and across provincial borders.The Empire is perhaps best thought of as a network of regional economies, based on a form of "political capitalism" in which the state monitored and regulated commerce to assure its own revenues. Economic growth, though not comparable to modern economies, was greater than that of most other societies prior to industrialization.

i) Currency and Banking

The early Empire was monetized to a near-universal extent, in the sense of using money as a way to express prices and debts.The sestertius (plural sestertii, English "sesterces", symbolized as HS) was the basic unit of reckoning value into the 4th century, though the silver denarius, worth four sesterces, was used also for accounting beginning in the Severan dynasty. The smallest coin commonly circulated was the bronze as (plural asses), one-fourth sestertius.

Bullion and ingots seem not to have counted as pecunia, "money," and were used only on the frontiers for transacting business or buying property. Romans in the 1st and 2nd centuries counted coins, rather than weighing them—an indication that the coin was valued on its face, not for its metal content. This tendency towards fiat money led eventually to the debasement of Roman coinage, with consequences in the later Empire. The standardization of money throughout the Empire promoted trade and market integration.The high amount of metal coinage in circulation increased the money supply for trading or saving.

ii) Mining and Metallurgy

Landscape resulting from the ruina montium mining technique at Las Médulas, Spain, one of the most important gold mines in the Roman Empire.

The main mining regions of the Empire were the Iberian Peninsula (gold, silver, copper, tin, lead); Gaul (gold, silver, iron); Britain (mainly iron, lead, tin), the Danubian provinces (gold, iron); Macedonia and Thrace (gold, silver); and Asia Minor (gold, silver, iron, tin). Intensive large-scale mining—of alluvial deposits, and by means of open-cast mining and underground mining—took place from the reign of Augustus up to the early 3rd century AD, when the instability of the Empire disrupted production.

The gold mines of Dacia, for instance, were no longer available for Roman exploitation after the province was surrendered in 271. Mining seems to have resumed to some extent during the 4th century.

iii) Transportation and communication.

The Tabula Peutingeriana (Latin for "The Peutinger Map") a Itinerarium, often assumed to be based on the Roman cursus publicus, the network of state-maintained roads.

The Roman Empire completely encircled the Mediterranean, which they called "our sea" (mare nostrum). Roman sailing vessels navigated the Mediterranean as well as the major rivers of the Empire, including the Guadalquivir, Ebro, Rhône, Rhine, Tiber and Nile.Transport by water was preferred where possible, and moving commodities by land was more difficult. Vehicles, wheels, and ships indicate the existence of a great number of skilled woodworkers.

iv)Trade and commodities

Roman provinces traded among themselves, but trade extended outside the frontiers to regions as far away as China and India. The main commodity was grain. Chinese trade was mostly conducted overland through middle men along the Silk Road; Indian trade, however, also occurred by sea from Egyptian ports on the Red Sea. Along these trade paths, the horse, upon which Roman expansion and commerce depended, was one of the main channels through which disease spread. Also in transit for trade were olive oil, various foodstuffs, garum (fish sauce), slaves, ore and manufactured metal objects, fibres and textiles, timber, pottery, glassware, marble, papyrus, spices and materia medica, ivory, pearls, and gemstones.

v) Labourand Occupations

Workers at a cloth-processing shop, in a painting from the fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus in Pompeii

Inscriptions record 268 different occupations in the city of Rome, and 85 in Pompeii. Professional associations or trade guilds (collegia) are attested for a wide range of occupations, including fishermen (piscatores), salt merchants (salinatores), olive oil dealers (olivarii), entertainers (scaenici), cattle dealers (pecuarii), goldsmiths (aurifices), teamsters (asinarii or muliones), and stonecutters (lapidarii). These are sometimes quite specialized: one collegium at Rome was strictly limited to craftsmen who worked in ivory and citrus wood.

vi ) GDP and Income Distribution

Economic historians vary in their calculations of the gross domestic product of the Roman economy during the Principate. In the sample years of 14, 100, and 150 AD, estimates of per capita GDP range from 166 to 380 HS. The GDP per capita of Italy is estimated as 40 to 66% higher than in the rest of the Empire, due to tax transfers from the provinces and the concentration of elite income in the heartland. In regard to Italy, "There can be little doubt that the lower classes of Pompeii, Herculaneum and other provincial towns of the Roman Empire enjoyed a high standard of living not equaled again in Western Europe until the 19th century after Christ,

7) Architecture and Engineering

The chief Roman contributions to architecture were the arch,vault and the dome. Even after more than 2,000 years some Roman structures still stand, due in part to sophisticated methods of making cements and concrete. Roman roads are considered the most advanced roads built until the early 19th century. The system of roadways facilitated military policing, communications, and trade. The roads were resistant to floods and other environmental hazards. Even after the collapse of the central government, some roads remained usable for more than a thousand years.

Pic : The Pula Arena in Croatia is one of the largest and most intact of the remaining Roman amphitheatres.

Roman bridges were among the first large and lasting bridges, built from stone with the arch as the basic structure. Most utilized concrete as well. The largest Roman bridge was Trajan's bridge over the lower Danube, constructed by Apollodorus of Damascus, which remained for over a millennium the longest bridge to have been built both in terms of overall span and length.

The Romans built many dams and reservoirs for water collection, such as the Subiaco Dams, two of which fed the Anio Novus, one of the largest aqueducts of Rome. They built 72 dams just on the Iberian peninsula, and many more are known across the Empire, some still in use. Several earthen dams are known from Roman Britain, including a well-preserved example from Longovicium .

Conclusion :

Legacy of the Roman Empire

Rome was able to gain its empire in large part by extending some form of citizenship to many of the people it conquered. Military expansion drove economic development, bringing enslaved people and loot back to Rome, which in turn transformed the city of Rome and Roman culture.

The legacy of the Roman Empire has been varied and significant, comparable to that of other hegemonic polities of world history (e.g. Persian Empire, ancient Egypt or imperial China).

The Roman Empire itself, built upon the legacy of other cultures such as Ancient Greece, has had long-lasting influence with broad geographical reach on a great range of cultural aspects, including state institutions, law, cultural values, religious beliefs, technological advances, engineering and language.

This legacy survived the demise of the empire itself (5th century AD in the West, and 15th century AD in the East) and went on to shape other civilisations, a process which continues to this day. The city of Rome was the civitas (reflected in the etymology of the word "civilisation") and connected with the actual western civilisation on which subsequent cultures built .

Roman Empire's lasting contributions like Central Government, Military, Provincial Government, Roman Law , Adminstration and Its Engineering Marvels continue to inspire Country after Country and World at large till this time and in future as well.

MM Rao


Special Note :

We got an opportunity to visit Rome on 20.04.2012 and visited some of the Sites of Roman Empire and Monumental Structures during our stay in Italy.

Sources :

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