Thoughts about the Roman Empire

Ruins of the Colosseum.

The Principate was the monarchy created by the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Although he presented it to the Senate and People of Rome as a restoration of the Roman Republic, Augustus and his successors held positions of supreme power, ultimately based on control of the army. I have discussed this previously. While we usually contrast the Roman Republic with the Roman Empire, it is hard to deny that already some 100-150 years before the Principate was founded, the Romans ruled over huge swathes of territory that can only be qualified as an “Empire”.

The Romans dominated international affairs, mediated in conflicts between states far away from Rome and received delegations from foreign nations in the Senate. For instance, the Roman politician Gaius Popillius Laenas ended the war between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires by simply drawing a line – actually a circle – in the sand in 168 BCE. And in 118 BCE, the Senate sent a committee of ten men under Lucius Opimius to Africa to divide the Numidian kingdom between the rivals Jugurtha and Adherbal. By the time the future emperor Augustus was born in 63 BCE, the Romans controlled Greece, most of Spain, Southern Gaul and parts of Africa, the Balkans and Asia Minor. Rome was still a republic, but despite the absence of an emperor it definitely ruled an empire.

The question is: was this Empire – I will write it with a capital E – ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Was being part of this Empire beneficial or not? I will try to present a balanced picture.

Poverty and oppression

Certainly there was still widespread poverty in the Empire, both in Rome itself and in many of the provinces, especially if these were bled dry by greedy governors. Infant mortality was high. Health care was pretty good for those who had access to it. Famous doctors were Aelius Galenus (ca. 129-200), who bore the family name of the emperor Hadrianus, and Aulus Cornelius Celsus (25 BCE-50CE). However, decent medical care was usually only available to the army.

Detail from the Arch of Titus. Note the menora on the left, taken away from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

The Romans continued to brutally oppress those who refused to accept their supremacy, though they were extremely benevolent to those who cooperated. Three Jewish revolts were put down with much bloodshed, but Jews who defected and supported the Romans were treated leniently. The famous historian Flavius Josephus is the prime example. Roman bloodsport was horrible. There was little political freedom and far more arbitrariness under the Principate than under the Republic. In exchange for this the inhabitants of the Empire had far greater stability than under the Late Republic, and this contributed massively to agricultural and industrial production, trade, arts and literature. At the same time, most of Rome’s approximately one million citizens were dependent on the grain dole. So overall, the picture is mixed.

Copying what is useful

The Romans were always willing to copy inventions and technology from other peoples. They had already done this in the Republican Era and continued to do so under the Principate. The Greeks were their greatest teachers, but we should not marginalise the role of others, such as the Etruscans (their earliest teachers) and the Gauls, who brought them the four-horned saddle, possibly chain mail armour and perhaps the barrel. The Romans’ great strength lay in copying technology, and then improving upon it and making the results available to all sections of the Empire. That in itself is innovation, or at the very least it is progress and advancement.

Dying Gaul (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

Water-powered applications were known in Hellenistic Egypt, but it was the Romans that made the technology widely available in all corners of the Empire and used it for new purposes. Roman engineers made use of water-powered saws for cutting marble and other types of stone. The sheer scale on which the Romans used these devices was unprecedented. Water power was also used for mining. Water pressure was employed to shift earth to uncover deposits. Subsequently, hydraulic hammers pulverized lumps of harvested ore. Roman mining technology was described in great detail by Pliny the Elder, and it seems that hydraulic mining was a mostly Roman innovation.

Even if the technology was not entirely novel, again the scale certainly was. From the first century BCE onwards, Roman mining projects in, for instance, Spain were massive and famous throughout the Ancient World. They are even mentioned in the Bible. 1 Maccabees 8:1-3 says:

Equipment of a Roman legionary.

“Now Judas heard of the fame of the Romans (…) And how great things they had done in the land of Spain, and that they had brought under their power the mines of silver and of gold that are there, and had gotten possession of all the place by their counsel and patience.”

Of course we do not have accurate data about productivity, but from samples taken from the polar icecaps we can deduce that levels of pollution were exceptionally high and that production was massive from the first century BCE to the second century CE. Perhaps it was not a technological revolution, but it certainly came close to an industrial revolution.

Paving the way

Much the same can be said about paved roads, arenas, basilicas, aqueducts and sewer systems. Roman roads were unusually straight. Instead of following the curves of the landscape, Roman engineers made the landscape obey their commands. The impressive road network facilitated the movement of troops, but it also increased travel, trade and communication with the furthest corners of the vast Empire. The Romans did not invent the aqueduct, but made it available throughout their Empire. Their aqueducts were masterpieces, which required great architectural and mathematical skills to construct, since the gradient had to be perfect to make the water flow smoothly (and in hydraulic mining, which also made extensive use of aqueducts, a steeper gradient was needed to make the water flow faster). Roman aqueducts ran for hundreds of kilometres. They dominated the landscape, and even the simpler settlements in Spain, Gaul and Britain could usually draw water from a nearby aqueduct.

The Pantheon.

We also see astounding architectural genius in buildings like the Pantheon, the Basilica of Constantine and the Baths of Caracalla or those of Diocletianus in Rome, with the Pantheon possessing one of the largest unreinforced concrete domes in the world. The Romans were masters of the use of concrete. Perhaps concrete is not a Roman invention; it rather seems to be a Roman re-invention of a building material that had been known in previous centuries. Roman engineers made use of it on a massive scale for hundreds of years, and especially under the emperors. Roman concrete was called opus caementicium, and it is hardly a surprise that the word “cement” itself comes from Latin.

Exploration and humanities

The Romans did not discover any new continents, but they did follow in Pytheas of Massalia’s footsteps by circumnavigating Britain to ascertain that it was an island. They also charted the coasts of Ireland. Roman ships left ports in Egypt on the Red Sea to sail to Arabia on the Persian Gulf and to India to bring back all sorts of exotic goods which were widely available, even in Britain and Germania. Roman armies explored the cataracts of the Nile and may have reached the northern edges of Uganda in an expedition during Nero’s reign. Roman traders visited Ireland, and they also travelled to the Baltic region to purchase amber. In 166, a delegation from a king named An-Tun arrived at the court of the Han emperor of China. This An-Tun was of course the Roman emperor Antoninus, better known as Marcus Aurelius.

Nile mosaic (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

That same Marcus Aurelius (121-180) is still regarded as an important Stoic philosopher, and so is the senator Seneca the Younger (4 BCE-65 CE), Nero’s old tutor. The emperor Claudius (10 BCE-54 CE) was the greatest Etruscologist of Antiquity and he also wrote a lengthy history of Carthage (none of his works survive, unfortunately). Patronage from emperors led to high quality literature from men such as the historian Livius (Livy) and the poets Horatius (Horace), Marcus Lucanus, Ovidius (Ovid) and Vergilius (Virgil). The Greek historian and geographer Strabo was born in a Roman province and certainly did not suffer from complacency, and neither did Pliny the Elder with his huge Historia Naturalis encyclopaedia.

Much the same is true for Claudius Ptolemaeus (100-170), a Roman mathematician, geographer, astrologer and astronomer from Alexandria. His ethnicity is disputed. He may have been a Greek, but he may just as well have been a native Egyptian. What matters most is that he was a Roman citizen living in a Roman world, just like Flavius Arrianus (Arrian; a general and governor who wrote a famous biography of Alexander) and Cassius Dio (a senator, consul and noted historian). The importance of Claudius Ptolemaeus works’ on geography, astronomy and astrology is undisputed, and in his work he mentions many other geographers, astronomers and astrologists who lived and worked under the Principate. Science was still thriving under the emperors.

Roman law and government

Previous civilisations had already developed codes of law. The Romans, however, were the first to develop a systematic study of the law. In this sense they were truly original. The study of the law thrived during the first 250 years of the Principate. Men like Gaius, Julius Paulus and the praetorian prefect Ulpianus wrote important legal works. That we have an academic study dedicated to law is largely due to the Romans. The impressive (systematic) quality of the legal systems developed by the Romans was already acknowledged by Greek writers such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus during the early Principate. Roman law was rediscovered during the Middle Ages, studied, commented upon and used in drafting important law codes such as the French Code Civil.

Personification of a Roman provincie, possibly Thrace. Ca. 145 (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

Personification of a Roman provincie, possibly Thrace. Ca. 145 (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

To rule their huge Empire, the Romans were forced to create a bureaucracy. Originally, Roman governors had been little monarchs, who were handpicked by the emperor (under the Republic: the Senate), and who subsequently handpicked their own staff. This meant that propraetors, prefects, procurators, proconsuls and imperial legates were highly dependent on local communities to run the provinces. This system was fairly primitive and was soon supplemented by the first traces of more permanent staffs and bureaucracy. Bureaucracies have a very bad name, and in quite a few cases this is justified. Yet at the same time they are essential for running large empires and modern welfare states.

The Romans developed a system in which talented young men, most of them from the ranks of the equestrians (equites), could choose between a career in the military or in the civil service. They would start their civil career on the lowest level, as ‘trainees’ if you like, and would then slowly be promoted to the higher levels, perhaps being enrolled in the Senate at the very end. This system was far more complex and far greater in size than anything that had ever been created in, for instance, the Successor Kingdoms after Alexander. It can be compared to the huge bureaucracy of the Han dynasty in China.

Of course, the system did not function perfectly, and that is putting it mildly. Big organisations usually suffer from severe cases of inefficiency. The bureaucracy that was slowly created during the Principate, from the first century onwards, was not utterly corrupt, nor did it work wonders. In many cases it simply performed adequately, and it may even have contributed to the Empire’s survival: even when emperors were tumbling and falling during the Crisis of the Third century, there were still people at the lower levels capable of administrative decision making. The biggest problem was that the bureaucracy at times degenerated into a state of its own, with top officials being capable of toppling emperors.

Enemies of today are citizens of tomorrow

From days of old, the Romans had been willing to grant citizenship to the peoples they had subjugated. In this respect, they differed markedly from the Greeks, which was noted by Greek historians such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus. At times, Greek city states were willing to give citizen status to foreigners, but these cases were few and far between. In the Athenian Empire (ca. 477-404 BCE), which consisted of about 150 poleis, only citizens in Attica held Athenian citizenship. Even in the Successor Kingdoms there was always a subtle hierarchy between natives, Greeks and Macedonians at the top. Yet in Roman Italy, yesterday’s enemy could become tomorrow’s consul. The Romans more or less abandoned their policy of inclusiveness around 170 BCE when they became more chauvinistic and conservative, but they were forced to reintroduce it during the Social War of 91-88 BCE, when many of their Italian allies demanded citizenship for their services and subsequently revolted when a tribune that had drafted a bill that met their demands was murdered by his opponents.

Bust of Caracalla (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

Bust of Caracalla (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

Early emperors granted citizenship to whole communities in the provinces on a very large scale, which is evidenced by the predominance of the names ‘Julius’, ‘Claudius’ and ‘Flavius’ in these communities, the family names of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties. It was customary to take the name of your benefactor; hence Gaius Julius Caesar had a personal secretary named Pompeius Trogus. Trogus’ grandfather had been granted citizenship through the efforts of Pompey Magnus. Claudius Ptolemaeus has already been named, and Flavius Arrianus and Julius Civilis are also good examples. So is Aelius (or perhaps Claudius) Galenus, the famous doctor mentioned above.

This policy of rediscovered inclusiveness, implemented in the provinces (as opposed to mostly in Italy, like under the Republic) was important, because in many cases it had the effect of binding people to the Empire. In the past, the policy of inclusiveness had produced Roman patriots from the lands of the Sabines and the Volsci, Rome’s arch enemies in her early years. The Claudians (gens Claudia) were of Sabine stock. Marius and Cicero came from Arpinum, formerly a Volscian town. Under the Principate, possessing Roman citizenship meant that a man could have a good career in the military or the civil administration. He had a chance of becoming a consul or an imperial legate, though obviously this was only for the lucky few.

Bust of Septimius Severus (Capitoline Museum, Rome)

Bust of Septimius Severus (Capitoline Museums, Rome)

Rome’s policy of inclusiveness contributed to the loyalty of subjugated peoples to the Roman Empire (though not necessarily the reigning emperor). After a few generations, people had become Greek AND Roman. They were Germanic AND Roman, Iberian AND Roman, Syrian AND Roman. Emperors came from Spain or Gaul, later from the Danube provinces. Septimius Severus (emperor from 193 to 211) was born in Africa and his native language was Punic. Yet he was in every sense a Roman. The policy of inclusiveness was thoroughly Roman. It finally culminated in the granting of citizenship to all free men in the Empire under Caracalla. One of the reasons why Rome was so successful was that it was able to turn today’s enemies into tomorrow’s soldiers, allies, friends, citizens and leaders.

Final thoughts

So here we have a balanced picture of life in the Roman Empire. The Empire was neither good nor bad. Being part of the Empire was beneficial, even highly beneficial for some, but a disaster for others. There were arrogant and chauvinistic Romans under the Empire, but they had been there too 150 years before the Principate was created. Although a technological revolution cannot be identified, neither under the Principate, not for that matter during the Republican era, the Romans have left us a legacy of roads, aqueducts, domed buildings, immortal works of arts and literature, and most of all a legal system which is still relevant even today.

This is an adapted version of a post I wrote in 2009 on this forum.


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