Although we refer to Republican and Imperial periods of the Rome, Republican values were still paid lip service during Augustus’ reign and beyond. A semblance of democracy, although more of a façade, was reverentially upheld under Augustus and subsequent Emperors.
The Republic came to a practical end with Julius Caesar, but it was actually more a process of wearing away than an outright switch from patrician semi-democracy to wholesale monarchy. It seems that instability and war were suitable reasons or excuses for entering an authoritative political phase, but admitting to the end of the Republic was an idea that the people and senate would need getting used to.
Augustus’ solution was to create a system of government often referred to as the ‘principate’. He was Princeps, meaning ‘first citizen’ or ‘first among equals’, an idea that was in fact incongruous with the reality of the situation.
Despite the facts that Augustus had turned down offers of life consulship — although taking it up again when naming his heirs — and dictatorship, during his term, he consolidated the powers of the military and tribunal, became head of the state religion and gained the power of veto of the magistrates.
Evaluating Augustus’s Legacy: Monarchy or Republic?
Cameo of Emperor Augustus wearing a gorgoneion and a sword-belt. (Image: Strozzi Collection Blacas Collections/British Museum)
What Was Augustus’ Ultimate Impact?
One of the most interesting issues concerning Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, is how to evaluate his establishment of the Principate. Did he, for all practical purposes, destroy the Roman Republic and its government? Or, as he claimed, did he restore it when it needed rejuvenation?
Similarly, with his settlement of the Roman state, was he an innovator who created completely new institutions, or primarily a traditionalist who adapted and updated old forms for the current situation?
This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium
These are questions that historians have argued about for centuries. There may be no right or wrong answer to them.
Destroyer or restorer? Innovator or traditionalist? Or, to cut to the most fundamental aspect of his rule, was Augustus indeed a king?
Did his systematic monopolization of real power amount to his being a near-absolute monarch, or did the institutions of the republic continue to function in a meaningful fashion under his rule?
At the time, many Romans accepted the idea that he was a traditionalist who had restored and saved the republic during a time of crisis. This was the official story that Augustus strongly advocated. A fascinating document survives that encapsulates his version of events.
The Res Gestae: Powerful Propaganda
Augustus’ autobiography, composed by him and engraved on stone tablets that were erected outside his mausoleum, was calculated with typical modesty.
A fragment of the Res Gestae. (Image: Berolini, Weidmann, Mommsen/Public domain)
Augustus entitled his autobiography the Res Gestae, which can be loosely translated as “Things done.”
If a modern historian were writing Augustus’ history, he might rephrase this to read, “At the age of 19, I raised a private army to fight a civil war against the lawfully elected magistrates of the state,” but Augustus’ version sounds much more heroic.
Of his settlement of 27 B.C., he states:
After defeating these enemies, and at a time when by universal consent I was in complete control of affairs, I then transferred the republic from my power to the control of the senate and people of Rome. For these services, I was named Augustus by decree of the senate …
who also proclaimed that a golden shield should be fixed over my door proclaiming my courage, generosity, justice, and piety. After this time, I surpassed everyone else in influence, although I had no more official power than those who were my colleagues in the various magistracies.
In this passage, he emphasized that he supposedly only held power by “universal consent,” and that he had no more official power than his fellow office-holders. While technically true, the real issue was that he held the power of all the different magistracies, not just one of them.
Another interesting passage in the Res Gestae is a section where Augustus bragged, not about the titles or honors that he has earned, but instead about those that he turned down:
After I had celebrated three triumphs] the senate decreed yet more triumphs in my honor, all of which I declined … Both the senate and the people offered to make me dictator, but I refused it. They offered to make me consul for the rest of my life, but I refused it … I would not accept any office inconsistent with the customs of our ancestors.
The Res Gestae is a brilliant work of propaganda that perfectly captures the adroit way in which Augustus exploited language to promote his reign and his version of events.
The First Historian to Challenge Augustus’ Label
For obvious reasons, no one at the time dared to openly contest Augustus’ assertion that the republic still existed and had merely undergone a needed “restoration” under his direction. It was a full two centuries before a surviving account of Augustus openly dared to label him a king.
Around 200 A.D., the Roman historian Cassius Dio composed a history of Rome that included Augustus’ reign. Dio described in detail the various titles and offices that Augustus held, offering this blunt assessment:
In this way the power of both senate and people passed entirely into the hands of Augustus, and from this time there was, strictly speaking, a monarchy for monarchy would be the truest name for it … The name of monarchy, to be sure, the Romans so detested that they called their emperors neither dictators nor kings nor anything of the sort yet since the final authority for the government devolves upon them, they must needs be kings …
By virtue of these democratic-sounding titles the emperors have clothed themselves with all the powers of the government, to such an extent that they actually possess all the prerogatives of kings, except their paltry title.
Augustus’ Foreign Policy
In terms of Augustus’ foreign policy, the rapid expansion of the empire’s borders that had characterized the previous centuries largely stopped. In general, Augustus concentrated more on solidifying what Rome already had than on gaining new lands.
Ancient Roman silver denarius coin featuring Augustus. (Image: Eduardo Estellez/Shutterstock)
The civil wars had generated a huge number of legions. One of Augustus’ greatest initial challenges was what do with the hordes of soldiers who looked to him to reward their service. He reduced the number of legions to 28 and discharged hundreds of thousands of veterans.
Most of them were awarded grants of land and settled as farmers in a series of colonies that Augustus established all over the Mediterranean. This transformed them from being a drain on the economy into productive citizens and furthered the process of Romanizing the foreign territories Rome had acquired.
Rome controlled a continuous ring of peaceful provinces circling the Mediterranean Sea. Augustus also revised the bloated rolls of the Senate, reducing its membership by several hundred, down to about 600.
A Military Disaster for Rome
Augustus’ major attempt to expand the borders of the empire resulted in one of Rome’s greatest military disasters. Across the Rhine River from the provinces of Gaul lay the territory of Germania, inhabited by warlike tribes. During his reign, the Romans periodically made incursions into this region.
In 9 A.D., three legions under the command of a Roman general named Varus were sent on such an expedition. Unfortunately for the Romans, Varus had made his reputation in the law courts, not on the battlefield he was a thoroughly incompetent general, as well as a gullible person.
A German nobleman named Arminius, who had pretended to be an ally of Rome, lured Varus and his three legions into an ambush in the dense Teutoburg Forest. The Romans fought best on open ground, where their discipline gave them an advantage, but Varus was enticed into the swampy, thickly wooded forest, where Arminius’s men were able to attack the disordered Roman formations.
In the Teutoburg Forest, the Germane forces lead by Arminus (green lines) ambushed the Roman forces lead by Varus (red lines) near the Rhine canal (blue line). (Image: Cristiano64 – Own work/Public domain)
Varus and all three legions were wiped out. This was an embarrassing defeat, and Augustus took the loss of the legions hard. One source reveals that for the rest of his reign, he was prone to banging his head against the wall while moaning, “Varus, give me back my legions!”
Augustus’s Legacy: Successes and Failures
The Varian Disaster was a rare blot on Augustus’ long and successful reign. The political system that he devised would be emulated by subsequent Roman emperors for the rest of Roman history.
Augustus became the paradigm of the good emperor against whom all later emperors—both those of Rome and those from other cultures—were measured. Augustus liked to view himself as a second founder of Rome after Romulus. There is truth to this image since he was indeed the father of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire under Emperor Augustus. dark green : Roman provinces, light green :dependent areas, pale green : Province Germania. (Image: Louis le Grand/Public domain)
For this alone, he is rightfully regarded as one of the most important figures in Roman history. For all his brilliance, however, there was one area in which his policies failed disastrously: Choosing a successor.
Like his system of government, the method Augustus adopted in selecting who would follow him as emperor would also be imitated for centuries, with the result that Rome endured several incompetent and even mentally unbalanced leaders.
Common Questions About Augustus’s Legacy
Augustus’s legacy was one of the best of all the Roman leaders. His transformation of Rome with civil works of public transportation, postal delivery, and creation of peace in Rome by ending the civil wars, led to him being considered a god in the Roman pantheon.
Augustus’s legacy holds that there were two different statements that he uttered at his deathbed. Officially he was to have said, “I found Rome a city of clay but left it a city of marble,” but his wife and son note a different message where he said, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”
Augustus’s legacy holds that first and foremost, he was the very first Roman Emperor as well as the greatest.
Augustus became one of the ultimate emperors as he was made a god in the Roman pantheon. This is the glory of Augustus’s legacy .
Ancient Roman Abortions & Christians
Abortion was practiced on a regular basis among the poor, slave, merchant and royal classes. To ancient peoples and the Romans an abortion was amoral. There was nothing in Roman law or in the Roman heart that said, “It is wrong to kill your baby in the womb.” Tertullian, the early Christian apologist, describes how doctors of the time performed abortions:
“Among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all and keeping it open. It is further furnished with an annular blade by means of which the limbs of the child within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care…
Embryotome—used to cut off the baby’s head, legs and arms
…its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by violent delivery…
Double Crochet—This abortion tool was used to grab and extract the baby from the womb
….There is also (another instrument in the shape of) a spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life. They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of embruosphaktes meaning ‘the slayer of the infant’ which of course was alive.” A Treatise on the Soul 25
Cranioclast—This type of instrument, similar to the above-described function, was used to crush the baby’s skull so as to facilitate the extraction.
Romans agreed with the Greek view of abortion. Some of the most eminent and respected Greek philosophers encouraged and condoned abortion. Aristotle (384-322 BC) encouraged abortion because he feared population explosion. But in the days of Caesar Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), he knew by censuses that the population of Romans in the world was declining. He had tried to curb lax morals and encourage marriages by implementing in 18 BC a law making adultery a crime and 27 years later in 9 AD he enacted Lex Papia Poppaea to promote and reward marriage because the number of Roman men who were unmarried was greater than the number of married men. He blamed the low birth rate on abortion, homosexuals and on men who preferred the licentiousness of the single life to the responsibilities of married life and children. As Caesar, Augustus saw lax morals and low birthrate as threats to the Roman State. He publicly addressed this problem in the Forum.
Augustus Caesar’s statue in the Forum of Augustus
Augustus praised the married men for: “…helping to replenish the fatherland….For is there anything better than a wife who is chaste, domestic, a good house-keeper, a rearer of children one to gladden you in health, to tend you in sickness, to be your partner in good fortune….And is it not a delight to acknowledge a child who shows the endowments of both parents, to nurture and educate it at once the physical and spiritual image of yourself so that in its growth another self lives again?….I love you and praise you…
…he then went over to the other crowd (of unmarried men)…. O, what shall I call you? Men? But you are not performing any of the offices of men. Citizens? But for all that you are doing, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are undertaking to blot out this name altogether….you are bent on annihilating our entire race and…upon destroying and bringing to an end the entire Roman nation….you are committing murder in not begetting in the first place those who ought to be your descendants….Moreover, you are destroying the State by disobeying its laws and you are betraying your country by rendering her barren and childless….For it is human beings that constitute a city…not houses or porticos or market-places empty of men.” Cassius Dio (155—235 AD), Roman History 56.1-5
In the 1st century AD Emperor Augustus, thinking strategically, saw Rome’s corrupt morals and low birth rate as threatening the defense and sustainability of the Roman State. But c. 300 years earlier Aristotle had been worried about the danger to the Greek State of too many children.
About 1,800 years before Caesar Augustus, an Egyptian Pharaoh had ordered the killing of all the male babies of his Jewish slaves because he feared an army of slaves rising up against him or an army of slaves leaving their country:
Pharaoh Decrees Drowning Babies—Michiel van der Borch, 1332
“…the Israelite (slaves) were exceedingly fruitful they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that (Egypt) was filled with them. Then a new king…came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.’ The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, ‘When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him but if it is a girl, let her live.’ The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, ‘Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?’ The midwives answered Pharaoh, ‘Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.’ So God was kind to the midwives and the (Israelites) increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own. Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.’” Exodus1:7-22
The Hebrew boy, in the Nile River bobbing in a basket cradle, who survived this edict was Moses who became one of the most famous and influential men in all of human history.
The Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures blamed their ills upon the proliferation of children or the dearth of children. In The Republic 461a-461c Plato argues that in the ideal state governed by Philosopher Kings, women should be forced to have an abortion when the city-state becomes too populous. Zero Population Growth (ZPG—-1968) and China’s One Child Policy (1979) promote the same doctrine in our modern world.
The pagan practice of abortion bolstered by the idea of the primacy of the State over individual liberties is deeply engrained in all heathen cultures.
But as with all generalities, there are always exceptions. It is enigmatic to find Ovid, the ultimate ancient roué, despoiler of women and libertine of love, not only against abortion but wishing that his mistress who had just attempted an abortion had died in the process:
“She who first essayed to expel from her womb the tender fruit she bore therein, deserved to perish in the struggle she had invited….If in the childhood of the world mothers had followed this wicked custom, the human race would have vanished from the face of the earth….Who would have overthrown the kingdom of Priam (Troy) if Thetis, goddess of the seas, had not been willing to bear her fruit until the term allotted by nature? If Ilia had smothered the twins she bore within her (Romulus and Remus), the founder of the ruling city of the world (Rome) would never have been born. If Venus had slain Aeneas in the womb, the earth would have been bereft of Caesars. And thou (Ovid’s mistress), who was born so fair, would have perished had thy mother done that act thou has just tried….Why with cruel hand tear away the fruit ere it be ripe?….let it increase at will to bring new life into the world is meet reward for a few months of patience….O women, why will you desecrate your entrails with the instruments of death? Why offer dread poisons to infants yet unborn?….The Armenian tigresses behave not thus, nor dares the lioness destroy an offspring of her own….Many a time she slays herself who slays her offspring in the womb. She dies herself and with disheveled hair is born away upon her bed of anguish, and all who see her cry, ‘Well was her doom deserved.’” The Loves 2.14
Saturn Devouring His Son—Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Prada Museum
In our modern Judeo-Christian Western culture even the most fervent Anti-Abortionists would never wish any woman dead from an abortion. What to make of pagan Ovid whose name is forever linked to promiscuity and licentiousness.
The early Christian apologist Minucius Felix (c. 150-270), indicting the Roman gods writes: “I see that you expose your children to wild beasts and to the birds… and that you crush (them) when strangled with a miserable kind of death….those things assuredly come down from your gods….Saturn (aka Greek Kronos) did not expose his children but devoured them.” Octavius 30
Against the grain of the pagan world, the Jewish-Christian God and teachings stood strongly against both abortion and infanticide:
“You must not worship the Lord your God in their (pagan) way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” Deuteronomy 12:31 (c. 1450 BC)
“Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill him when born.” Didache 2.2 (c.50-100 AD)
Flavius Josephus (32-100 AD)
“The (Mosaic) law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten or to destroy it afterward and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child by destroying a living creature and diminishing human kind.” Josephus, Against Apion 2.25 (c. 80 AD)
“The embryo therefore becomes a human being in the womb from the moment that its form is completed. The law of Moses, indeed, punishes with due penalties the man who shall cause abortion, inasmuch as there exists already the rudiment of a human being which has imputed to it even now the condition of life and death, since it is already liable to the issues of both, although, by living still in the mother, it for the most part shares its own state with the mother.” Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul 37 (c. 200 AD)
“If men fight and hurt a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follow, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows (the death of mother or child), then you shall give life for life.” Exodus 21:22, 23
“You shall not abort a child, nor again, commit infanticide.” Letter of Barnabas 19.5 (c.130 AD)
Abortion and infanticide were outlawed after the age of the Christian Emperor Constantine from c. 313–337 AD. Customs and practices associated with their pagan gods and goddesses that had been common for thousands of years were declared immoral and legally wrong.—Sandra Sweeny Silver
Solidus of Constantine the Great— Struck at Antioch, Syria c.324 AD ($ = Priceless)
The Roman Empire expanded to encompass vast swathes of the world.
The succession of emperors that followed Augustus succeeded in growing the power of imperial Rome by subjugating foreign lands.
It was under Emperor Trajan that the empire reached its height in AD 117, annexing large parts of east Europe and the Middle East. Earlier under Claudius, the Romans had ventured into Britain, and in AD 122 Hadrian’s Wall was built to mark the empire’s northernmost boundary. By this time, the Roman Empire held sway over the entire Mediterranean and much of western Asia.
Although it faced threats from a variety of different groups, Rome was quick to extinguish any spark of rebellion, often leading to much bloodshed. In fact, the greatest threat to the stability of the empire came from within the city itself, with aspiring leaders competing for the top job. The self-explanatory ‘Year of the Four Emperors’, for example, was one of the most turbulent periods of the Golden Age.
Nonetheless, the Pax Romana endured until the end of the 2nd century, when the reign of Emperor Commodus marked the end of Rome’s Golden Age. The power, influence and stability won during the first 200 years of Roman imperialism gradually began to dwindle, although it continued to dominate in the Mediterranean.
Commodus was portrayed as a cruel ruler in the 2000 film ‘Gladiator’. via MaskofMonsters
Luke and Empire
As we turn our attention to the gospel of Luke, it is helpful to consider the broad approach he pursues before looking at the two key texts in relation to circumstances surrounding Roman rule. For as much as the Empire was able to appease many of its subjects, it was also a forced appeasement – often accepted as the only option. Many in various territories (especially outside of Rome) were frustrated by their situation, not least many of the Jews.
As stated above, with the exception of those who chose the first option of compromise with the Empire, those who lived in the Israel were not fully satisfied with the situation. This dissatisfaction finds a voice in Luke’s gospel.
Luke’s Jesus finds his earthly story beginning during the reign of Caesar Augustus. His entire life takes place in the context of being part of a dominated people, who believed that they were a special people group in the eyes of their Creator. Being a people under foreign rulers was nothing new to the Jews leading up to the period that Luke’s gospel describes.
They had been subject to Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the Greeks, and finally Rome. It was the Persians that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland after years of exile however they were now to be set up as a client state. Freedom had not arrived, just a new kind of exile. This self-understanding becomes evident in the intertestamental writings.
For the most part, Israel did not ever feel that they had been liberated from exile, so leading into the New Testament era is an ingrained hope that a “new exodus” would free God’s people from the “oppressive weight of empire.” As we shall see in our chosen texts, Luke’s gospel takes full opportunity to situate Jesus within the time-space reality of Roman rule, and demonstrates over and again how “the kingdom of Jesus subverts and overthrows the kingdom of Rome.”
This subversion does not come in through revolt-like force. Rather, Rome’s desire for domination over the world is challenged by Jesus’ Lordship, which is manifested through humility.
From Luke’s perspective, Jesus challenges the socio-political norms that were the result of Roman rule. Interestingly, Luke attributes the “kingdoms of the world” to the rule of the devil in the temptation narrative (see Luke 4.5-6). Cassidy says that “Satan’s boast that he orchestrates the power of all kingdoms implies the claim that he directs and manipulates the Roman authorities.” The perspective of Luke is that the Roman system is under the control of the devil and yet it is in place for a reason.
The emperor and his system may indeed be under the influence of evil and worthy of judgment. However, God has chosen to keep such rulers in place to keep the world from anarchy. God’s people are called to learn to live within the governing systems, while holding such to God’s high standards and confronting them in the face of injustice.
Crime and Punishment
When Nero was executing Christians after AD 64, why was the apostle Paul beheaded but Peter was crucified?
Mosaic of damnatio ad bestias from Zliten villa near Tripoli
Rome was a military society in a brutal time. With first the Republic and then the Empire in a constant state of war for centuries, serving as a military officer was the essential first step in a “civilian” political career. It is no wonder that the men setting the rules of Roman society were hardened to what contemporary people would consider viciously barbaric treatment of those who broke the law. Capital punishment was standard in this society that built prisons mainly to hold the accused awaiting trial. Executions were public, and the means of execution were deliberately agonizing for the condemned and frequently entertaining for the bystanders. Execution scenes were even used for household decoration. Despite this, Rome set the standard for Western civilizations of governing by written law rather than the whims of the current ruler.
The rule of law rather than personality
Perhaps one of the greatest legacies of Rome was the establishment of a legal system based on a written code of law. In AD 530, Emperor Justinian I had almost a thousand years of Roman law (ius) compiled in the Book of Civil Law (Codex Iuris Civilis), which remained the basis of much of European law until the 1700s.
Judges oversaw courts where charges were brought and argued by prosecutors and lawyers rose to argue in defense of the accused. Records were kept of the court cases, and the results modified how the laws would be applied in future similar cases. In some cases, the convicted even had the right to appeal to a higher authority.
Starting with the Twelve Tables in 449 BC, what had been custom was written down and became well-defined laws to govern Roman behavior. For a millennium, additions and modifications to the written law were made by resolutions of the Senate (senatusconsulta), decrees of emperors, and rulings of magistrates. The practice of law was a respected formal profession. Many renowned Romans, such as Cicero, gained great fame as trial lawyers.
Lawyers for both prosecution and defense, the presentation of evidence as well as argument, a jury of one’s peers: these characterized at least some although not all trial proceedings. Although sometimes ignored or abused by emperors and governors, the written law let Roman citizens and, to some extent, even noncitizens know what to expect if they broke it.
The Roman approach to criminal justice is summed up in two words: punishment and deterrence. For most, trial came swiftly, and punishment was even swifter after judgement was pronounced. It was also public and frequently so horrible that an accused person who expected conviction might commit suicide instead. The upper classes were often given that opportunity the lower classes, maybe not.
Prisons were for holding the accused for trial and the convicted awaiting execution. The idea of serving a specified prison term for retribution or rehabilitation followed by release was alien to Roman thought. Imprisonment was not a legally sanctioned punishment, although an accused person in the provinces might be locked up for a long time waiting for the judge to come to town. In the provinces, a governor had great latitude on how to punish noncitizens, and judicial actions might be neither speedy nor fair. Governors sometimes condemned prisoners to be kept in chains or prisons, but it was not an “official” legal penalty for Roman citizens.
Depending on the social status of the accused and the particular offense, punishment was usually a monetary fine, labor on public projects, exile, or a sentence that led to either speedy or lingering death.
One law and justice for all? No.
In the Roman system, the penalty for a given crime depended on your citizenship status and your social class. In general, punishments for the senatorial and equestrian orders were milder than that for the ordinary citizen. In the Republic and early Empire, punishment for a citizen (civis) was less severe than for a noncitizen peregrine (peregrinus = stranger, alien, foreigner), and citizens had a right of appeal not open to the peregrines. If the person was a slave, punishment was often even more severe than for a free peregrine.
By the 2nd century AD, criminal law officially treated the “distinguished” and the “humble” differently. Citizens were divided into two groups: the honestiores (more honorable) and the humiliores (lower). The distinction was not based on wealth alone. The honestiores included senators, equestrians, soldiers, and local officials. Citizens not in one of these categories were humiliores regardless of their wealth. For a given crime, beheading or exile might be the punishment for a honestior, but a humilior would die by burning, beasts, or crucifixion or become a penal slave to be worked to death in the mines or quarries. The fate of the humiliores had become scarcely better than that of noncitizens.
Criminal and civil courts in Rome: Not prosecuting what you might expect
Few things remain static for over a thousand years. The Roman court system changed from Republic to Empire, and further changes occurred over the centuries of the Empire.
At the time of Cicero (early 1st century BC), there were two urban courts in the city of Rome: one for citizens and one for noncitizens. They were presided over by praetors, the second political post in the cursus honorum (course of honors) followed by senators seeking a political career. The two consuls could take jurisdiction and reverse a praetor’s ruling when they wished. A person unhappy with a ruling could also try to get the tribune of the plebs to intercede, but there was no formal process for appeal. Gradually the citizen/noncitizen distinction disappeared, the number of courts increased, and each court specialized in certain types of cases. Local courts existed throughout the province of Italia, but they could only hear civil suits with upper limits of 15,000 sesterces, and litigants could demand transfer to the courts in Rome for trial.
Many offenses that we would consider criminal were tried in Roman civil courts, especially if the persons involved were not from the senatorial or equestrian orders. Each court heard cases for specific types of crimes. Most violent crimes and virtually all property crimes involving only lower-class people were “civil” matters.
By the 2nd century BC, permanent criminal courts specializing in different types of crimes were established for upper-class offenders. These standing jury courts (quaestiones perpetuae) each dealt with a particular type of statutory offense using large juries selected from an annual list of the upper class. Their majority verdicts could not be appealed. The quaestiones were presided over by praetors. Serving first as a praetor was the requirement for service as governor of a province. Since the governor was the supreme judge in a province, the praetorship provided useful training.
These courts largely heard cases involving political crimes by the upper classes such as treason (maiestas) and bribery, especially to influence elections or political leaders. Criminal cases involving the lower classes were still prosecuted in civil courts. By the 3rd century AD, crimes involving senators were tried in the Senate with a jury of their peers. The emperor sometimes tried cases himself.
During the Principate (from Augustus to Carinus in AD 285) the standing jury courts were gradually replaced by “extraordinary” courts with delegates of the emperor presiding. Although the quaestiones were no more, the extra ordinem courts retained the same standard legal charges and penalties.
Trials in the provinces: Almost anything goes
In the provinces, legal matters were under the control of the governor, who had already served as a praetor in Rome. All suits involving Roman citizens came to him. Civil suits restricted to noncitizens might be handled by municipal courts in accordance with local laws and customs.
In criminal cases, the governor had sole authority, and he had no limitations on how he treated noncitizens. During the Republic, limitations were set for citizens by the right of appeal to the people (provocatio ad populum) that would transfer the case to a court in Rome. In the early Empire, this turned into an appeal to Caesar, and any citizen could appeal to have his case transferred to Rome. As a Roman citizen, Paul appealed to Caesar, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, and went to Rome to be heard by Nero. Noncitizens had no right of appeal.
A provincial governor was not limited by the statutory offenses governing the courts in Rome. During the Republic, he could try on any pretext and inflict any penalty he wanted to maintain order in his province. His power was not significantly changed in the early Empire, but the rules were somewhat different, depending on the type of province. In senatorial provinces, which were away from the frontier and generally peaceful, the governor had to handle capital offenses but could appoint a delegate for less serious cases. In the imperial provinces, where the governor was the commander (legate) of at least one legion and often consumed with military affairs, the emperor might appoint a legatus iuridus to carry the daily burden of legal matters.
While a governor had extreme power over the residents of his province, he was expected to behave with some level of honor. Excessive corruption could lead to trial when he returned to Rome, especially if citizens were the victims.
Rome did not have a civilian police force. Enforcement was provided by ordinary military personnel in the provinces. Garrisons were scattered strategically to provide patrols. Given the thousands of miles of roads spanning the Empire, one can imagine how easy it was for bandits to strike where the soldiers weren’t. Traveling alone was a dangerous proposition and could end up with the traveler being kidnapped and sold as a slave. Kidnapping (surripio, praeripio) was a serious crime. The crime of plagium (knowingly detaining a free Roman citizen or a slave belonging to another), while serious, was a civil offense normally covered by a fine.
Special military units enforced the law within Rome proper. The urban prefect (praefectus urbi) was a senator who commanded three cohorts (500 men each under Augustus, doubling to 1000 under Vitellius, and increasing to 1500 under Severus). These were responsible for policing ordinary crime in the city and within a 100-mile radius around it.
Fire was a serious problem in a city of poorly built apartment buildings where braziers were used for heating and cooking. After a fire in AD 6, Augustus established the vigiles, a permanent fire brigade who patrolled the city. With authority to enter any building to inspect for fire hazards, they often ran across criminal activity. They served as the night watch in addition to their fire-fighting duties. Seven cohorts of 500 to 1000 men served as vigiles, under a praefect vigilum of equestrian rank. Each cohort was quartered in a different section of the city.
Christ on the Cross (1846) Eugene Delacroix
Under the Roman legal system, the convicted criminal could not expect a well-defined prison term with possible time off for good behavior. Punishment was swift and usually inexpensive. There was no imperial budget for long-term incarceration.
Torture was not considered a legal penalty. It was a standard interrogation method for extracting truthful evidence. It was mandatory for slaves if the evidence they gave was to be admissible in court. There had to be some prior evidence for them to either corroborate or refute. If a master was killed, all his slaves were tortured to see if they were part of it. Even if they weren’t, they might all be executed because they failed to stop the murder. When Lucius Pedanius Secundus, a former consul and urban prefect at the time of his murder, was stabbed by one of his slaves in AD 61, the Senate, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus, demanded the execution of all 400 of his household slaves, as permitted but no longer required by Roman law. The common people demanded the release of the innocent slaves, but Nero used the army to ensure the executions were carried out.
Torture was optional for noncitizens. Augustus wanted to restrict torture to capital and other heinous crimes. Torture of citizens was generally not allowed during the Republic, but that changed in the later Empire after citizenship was extended to almost all free people by Caracalla. Torture was used more in the Principate (when the emperors ruled). A Roman citizen could appeal against being tortured. However, it was standard for treason, even for citizens.
During the Republic and early Empire, being a Roman citizen was tremendously valuable for anyone accused of a crime. Citizens were tried in different courts than noncitizens, and much milder punishments were meted out for conviction of identical crimes. Beheading instead of crucifixion, exile instead of slavery in the mines or quarries until you were worked to death: being a citizen had tremendous advantages.
The benefit of citizenship is dramatically displayed in the fates of the apostles, Peter and Paul. Peter, a Jew from the province of Judaea, was crucified by Nero while Paul, a Roman citizen from Tarsus in the province of Cilicia, was merely(?) beheaded.
Sentences after conviction of a crime
Sentences were divided into two general categories. The convicted criminal could be condemned to physical labor or to immediate execution.
Sentenced to physical labor
For relatively minor crimes, a person might be condemned to work on public projects for a fixed period of time. Projects included building roads, maintaining aqueducts, and cleaning and maintaining sewers and public accommodations such as latrines and public baths. The convicted person did not lose Roman citizenship and was released after the labor was completed.
During the Principate (early Empire), new types of condemnation to labor were in essence slow death sentences. One such sentence was damnatio in metalla or damnatio ad metalla. This stripped the convicted persons of citizenship and made them penal slaves. They worked in the mines or quarries until they died, which usually didn’t take long.
Senators and equestrians generally received milder sentences than the common people. The upper classes were often allowed to go into exile instead of to the mines. There were two levels of exile. With relegatio, the convicted person was expelled from Rome or a province but retained citizenship and usually retained property. With deportatio, the convicted one lost citizenship and property and was banished to a specific remote place.
A second mostly fatal sentence was damnatio ad gladium. The convicted person was stripped of citizenship and might be sent to gladiator school to fight as a penal slave. This was a swift death sentence if one wasn’t very skilled with weapons. A “milder” version was being condemned to the games (damnatio ad ludos). While those condemned to the sword would usually be killed during their first appearance in the arena, men condemned to the games could survive as long as they fought well enough. In theory, it was possible to earn freedom if you could avoid being killed long enough for the crowd to want you freed. Not all were given this “mild” version of the sentence. Some were executed in a serial fashion where two prisoners were paired, one armed with a sword and the other not. The armed man killed the unarmed. He was then disarmed and a new armed prisoner killed him. The process was repeated until the last prisoner was executed for the entertainment of the crowds that day.
Sentenced to death
For a Roman citizen, the most common mode of execution was beheading. Noncitizens, free or slave, were not so fortunate. There were several especially severe forms of execution called summa supplicia.
Crucifixion (crusis supplicium) was generally reserved for non-citizens and slaves. During the early Republic, it was used for incest and treason. It was always used for slave revolts. There were three great slave revolts during the Republic: two in Sicily (135-132 and 104-101 BC) and one in Italy, led by the Thracian gladiator Spartacus in 73-71 BC. The consul Crassus who defeated the slave army of Spartacus had 6000 men crucified along 350 miles of the Appian Way approaching Rome from the south. It proved an effective deterrent. That was the last major slave revolt.
Burning alive was used for arsonists and treachery. When Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire of AD 64, he chose to execute many by using them as torches in his garden.
Being fed to the beasts in the arena (damnatio ad bestias) was part of the morning program in the arenas of the Empire. Anyone fed to beasts lost all rights as a citizen, could not write a will, and had their property confiscated.
Damnatio ad gladium (condemned to the sword) sent one into the arena to die in combat. In the more extreme form, the condemned man was forced to keep fighting a new opponent until one finally killed him.
A special punishment (poena cullei) was reserved for parricide (killing one’s parent or other close relative). After a flogging, the murderer was sewn into a leather sack with a dog, a viper, a rooster, and a monkey. The viper was standard, but the other animals may have varied over time. The sack was then thrown into the nearest body of water deep enough for drowning or suffocation if the sack was sufficiently watertight. The Tiber was used in Rome, but any river or ocean could be used.
The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1863-1883) Jean-Léon Gérôme
Christians classified as among the worst criminals
While Christians were regarded as a sect of Judaism for the first few years, they were partially tolerated by the state. That soon changed. Nero used the Christians as scapegoats for the fire of AD 64 that burned large areas of Rome, killing many for his own entertainment in his private circus. Trajan expressed his approval of Pliny the Younger’s policy in Bithynia and Pontus of giving Christians three chances to recant and sacrifice to Caesar before executing them.
Why was being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth considered a heinous crime by the Roman authorities, condemning them to damnatio ad bestias in arenas around the Empire? There were several reasons based on Roman law.
Christians were considered guilty of treason (maiestas). When it became mandatory to honor images of the emperor with libations and incense, they refused. Jews also refused, but they were allowed to do so by special exception as members of an officially sanctioned religion. When enough Gentiles became Christians and believers broke with following the details of Mosaic Law, Christianity was no longer considered a sect of Judaism. Under the rules of the Twelve Tables, Christians followed a new, foreign, and unauthorized religion (religio nova, peregrina et illicita).
The Christians’ refusal to worship the state gods was considered a sacrilege that might bring down the wrath of the Roman gods, threatening the Empire with disaster. The state religion was dependent on the rituals being performed correctly, regardless of the personal beliefs of those celebrating. There was a strong element of magic in the rituals, and the slightest mistake could render the ritual ineffective. The refusal of Christians to participate was, therefore, totally unacceptable.
3) Unlawful assembly
Rome did not allow freedom of assembly. During the Republic, any meeting with political overtones had to be presided over by a magistrate. The distaste for unsupervised gatherings continued into the Empire. Guilds (collegia) and associations (sodalicia), especially secret societies, were suspect for political reasons. From the mid-50s BC on, guilds and associations had to obtain a license from the state and were not permitted to meet more than once a month. Christians gathered in secret and at night, which made their gatherings “unlawful assemblies,” throwing them into the same class of crime as riots.
The use of damnatio ad bestias for the offense of merely being a Christian was embraced by Nero, but the sentence was not applied at all times and in all parts of the Empire. Other methods of execution were employed where no arena was handy. The enthusiasm with which a particular province persecuted its Christians varied with the individual governor when there was no specific imperial edict in effect. Emperors who decreed Empire-wide persecution included Marcus Aurelius (AD 177), Trajan Decius (AD 249-251) Diocletian (AD 284-305), and Maximian (AD 286-305).
Aldrete, Gregory S. Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Angela, Alberto. A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome. Translated by Gregory Conti. New York: Europa Editions, 2009.
Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome: the People and the City at the Height of the Empire. Edited by Henry T. Rowell. Translated by E. O. Lorimer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968.
Crook, J. A. Law and Life of Rome, 90 BC.―A.D. 212. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.
Knapp, Robert. Invisible Romans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Webster, Graham. The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D. 3rd ed. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1863-1883) Jean-Léon Gérôme and Christ on the Cross (1846) Eugene Delacroix are both at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD
The Zliten Leopard is a floor mosaic found at Zliten, near Tripoli in North Africa. Image in public domain.
Roman Republic vs. Roman Empire
Digital Reconstruction of a Roman Bathhouse from Cassinomagus – modern-day Chassenon, France
When the Imperial system held stable, during the reign of emperors like Augustus, Tiberius, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and others of their kind, the difference between the Republic and the Empire was a massive political shift. Yet there remained an undercurrent of the Republican system that made the position of the emperor a precarious one. Rome never entirely rejected her Republican roots. Furthermore, the government was not the only area to see changes in the shift from Republic to Empire. Roman religion added Imperial cults to their worship, as the Senate declared most of the deceased emperors to be gods.
Roman gladiators depicted on a mosaic currently in the Galleria Borghese in Rome
Roman culture also saw changes from Republic to Empire. Centralized power and the rapid expansion of Roman territory and foreign trade led to an increase of wealth in Rome. The early Romans were quite proud of their reputation as practical, hard-working, and self-sacrificing individuals. Though this ideal remained in the collective psyche, influx of money and goods lead to the development of a much more luxurious lifestyle, particularly in the city of Rome itself and the surrounding resort cities of the Italian countryside. High society in Rome consisted largely of lavish bathing and dining and public entertainment and spectacles grew ever more ostentatious.
Ancient World History
The Roman Empire was the largest in the ancient world and at its height controlled the land around the Mediterranean and most of continental Europe, with the exception of modern-day Germany, Denmark, and Russia. The incipient Roman Empire led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the accession of Octavian (better known by his posthumous title Augustus Caesar).
The first lands occupied by the Romans were in the Italian peninsula. From the days of the creation of the Roman Republic with the expulsion of the Tarquin dynasty in 510 b.c.e., the Romans had started attacking and ruling lands held by rival cities in central Italy.
Rome’s being sacked by the Gauls in 390 b.c.e. significantly weakened it in the eyes of many. It rebuilt its military strength, and its defeat of Carthage in the First Punic War (264 b.c.e.) led to Rome gaining a foothold in Sicily. From 241 until 218 b.c.e. the Romans conquered Sardinia, Corcyra (modern-day Corfu), and Lombardy (northeastern Italy).
During the Second Punic War, when Hannibal invaded the Italian peninsula in 218 b.c.e., the Romans were able to stop his attack on Rome, but their hold over the Italian peninsula was tenuous. Hannibal exploited this by forming alliances with the Gauls in northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul) and also with predominantly Greek cities in the south, such as Capua and Tarentum.
When Hannibal was recalled to North Africa to defend Carthage and defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 b.c.e., the Romans expanded their landholdings, taking many areas that had sheltered Hannibal during his 15 years in the Italian peninsula. The defeat of Hannibal also gave them the confidence to attack and conquer other lands, initially parts of Spain, and then attack Syria in 191 b.c.e.
This came about over tensions between Rome and the Seleucid Empire, with Rome declaring war in 192 b.c.e. and attacking in the following year. Ptolemy V of Egypt allied himself with Rome against his neighbor. A Roman fleet commanded by Gaius Livius destroyed the Seleucid navy off the coast of Greece in 191 b.c.e. and again in the following year at Eurymedon where Hannibal was helping the Seleucids in his first (and last) naval battle.
At the same time a large Roman army advanced into Asia Minor and in December 190 b.c.e., at the Battle of Magnesia, destroyed the Syrians. In an agreement signed at Apameax, the Romans returned most of the land they had taken, only retaining the islands of Cephalonia and Zacynthus (modern-day Zante).
During the conflict of the Third Macedonian War (172 b.c.e.), the Romans defeated the Macedonians at the Battle of Pydne on June 22, 168 b.c.e. The following year the Romans took over Macedonian lands and divided them into four republics under Roman protection, establishing a protectorate over most of the Greek peninsula. Over the next 40 years the Seleucid Empire fell apart, and the power vacuum was exploited by Rome.
However, before the Romans were able to conquer the eastern Mediterranean, they had to deal with Carthage in the Third Punic War (149 b.c.e.). With the Romans preoccupied in North Africa, rebellions broke out on the Iberian Peninsula. Sparta, a city allied to Rome, was also attacked.
The Romans responded by sending soldiers to Spain and defeating the Lusitanians. They sent an army to help Sparta, which resulted in the annexation of Greece. By 146 b.c.e., Rome was in control of all of the Italian peninsula, modern-day Tunisia, modern-day Spain and Portugal, and the Greek peninsula.
Jugurthine and Mithridatic Wars
From 112 to 106 b.c.e. the Romans fought the Jugurthine War, sending soldiers back to North Africa and eventually capturing the Numidian king Jugurtha. The Cimbri and other Germanic tribes from modern-day Switzerland then moved into southern Gaul, destroyed a Roman army of 80,000 at the Battle of Arausio, and slaughtered 40,000 Roman noncombatants.
This led to war in Gaul, culminating with the Battle of Vercellae. The Roman commander Marius destroyed the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae, killing an estimated 140,000 tribesmen and their families and capturing another 60,000.
Although the Roman Empire had control over much of the Mediterranean and Rome became the wealthiest city in the region, problems were brewing in the Italian peninsula with the Social War (91 b.c.e.). Some cities on the peninsula were angered that their people were discriminated against for not being Roman citizens.
The Romans, with difficulty, overcame their opponents the Roman soldiers had not shown the same brutality as they had in Gaul and other places. As the Seleucid Empire faltered, the Romans sought to expand into Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
This coincided with the emergence of Mithridates VI of Pontus, who was intent on capturing Bithynia and Cappadocia. The Roman commander and politician Sulla defeated the army of Pontus at the Battle of Chaeronea in 86 b.c.e. and the Battle of Orchomenus in the following year.
He then returned to the Italian peninsula for the Roman civil war in which Sulla had himself proclaimed dictator, later returning to Asia Minor in the Second Mithridatic War (83 b.c.e.).
The Third Mithridatic War (75 b.c.e.) saw the Romans under Lucullus defeat the army of Pontus at the Battle of Cabira in 72 b.c.e., essentially removing them as a threat to the Roman Empire in the East.
With no further threat from the eastern Mediterranean, the Romans turned their attention to Spain. Julius Caesar fought there 61 b.c.e., taking the Iberian Peninsula ﬁ rmly under Roman control. From 58 to 51 b.c.e.
Caesar waged the gallic wars, and the Gauls were defeated in a number of large battles culminating in the Battle of Alesia in 52 b.c.e. At this battle a massive Gallic force was annihilated while trying to relieve the Gallic chief Vercingetorix in Alesia, and Gaul was brought under Roman rule.
For the next 20 years there were large numbers of Roman civil wars with, initially, Caesar fighting and defeating Pompey Mark Antony and Octavian defeating Brutus and then Octavian defeating Mark Antony. Control of the empire was split into three sections, with Octavian controlling the Italian peninsula, Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula, Dalmatia, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily.
Mark Antony was in control of Greece and Macedonia, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Cyrenaica, and Cyprus. The third member of the triumvirate, Lepidus, was in control of North Africa west of Cyrenaica. The final defeat of Mark Antony saw Octavian invade and capture Egypt and establish Roman rule there.
Octavian never used the title emperor or the name Augustus—both were added to him posthumously. However, he is recognized by historians as being the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, and hence the Roman Empire officially dates from his rule, which began in 31 b.c.e. and ended with his death in 14 c.e.
Initially, Roman governors were politicians, eager to advance their political career by proving administrative ability. Octavian reformed the system by raising gubernatorial salaries and making appointments longer to encourage governors to become more familiar with the areas they controlled.
It also allowed some governors to mount challenges to central authority. Under a governor procurators were made responsible for raising revenue and for day-to-day administrative matters. The most famous procurator was Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judaea, Samaria, and Idumea from 26 to 36 c.e.
At the accession of Augustus the Roman Empire covered the entire Italian peninsula, Istria (in modern-day Slovenia and Croatia), the Greek peninsula, western Asia Minor, Syria, Cyrenaica (in modern-day Libya), the area around Carthage (modern-day Tunisia), the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal), Transalpine Gaul (modern-day France, Belgium, parts of western Germany, and southern Holland), and the islands of the Mediterranean (the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Malta, Crete, the Ionian and Dodecanese Islands, and Cyprus).
It also had protectorates over the rest of Asia Minor, Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula and southern Palestine, the eastern part of modern-day Libya, and Numidia (modern-day eastern Algeria).
Because of its immense size Octavian devoted much of his time and energies to maintaining, rather than enlarging, the territory under the control of Rome. There was conflict along the frontier with Germany, with a massive Roman loss at the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in September or October 9 c.e.
Although the Romans sent in forces to avenge the loss, they held back from a full-scale invasion of Germany, which Octavian judged would be a disaster. He was a cautious ruler, as was his adopted son and successor Tiberius (r. 14 c.e.).
Caligula, Nero, Vespatian, Titus, and Domitian
After Tiberius the emperor Caligula (r. 37 c.e.) saw no advances in the empire, but Caligula’s uncle and successor, Claudius (r. 41), invaded Britain under Aulus Plautius. Some British tribes chose to oppose the Romans, while others supported them.
Under the next emperor, Nero (r. 54), there was trouble with the Parthians, and a revolt broke out in 61 in Britain, led by Boudicca of the Iceni tribe. She was eventually defeated, but her rebellion put an end to Roman plans to send an expeditionary force to Ireland. Nero was overthrown in 68, and his three successors had brief rules before being overthrown.
The Roman army in Judaea, flushed with its victory—including sacking Jerusalem and the burning of the Jewish Temple—returned to Rome with their commander, Vespasian, at their head. He became emperor, to be following by his sons Titus and Domitian.
The rule of Vespasian (r. 68), Titus (r. 79), and Domitian (r. 81) saw a period of some internal peace in the Italian peninsula and a gradual expansion of some parts of the Roman Empire. The Romans eventually controlled all of England, Wales, and southern Scotland.
In central Europe parts of southern Germany were added to the Roman Empire, which had come to include the whole of the coast of northern Africa. Domitian’s assassination caused many to expect another Roman civil war, but the accession of Marcus Cocceius Nerva ensured that this did not occur. He nominated his son Marcus Ulpis Trajanus to succeed him.
The emperor Trajan (r. 98) extended the empire further, in large part due to the Dacian Wars (101) in which Roman armies attacked the Dacian king Decebalus, a powerful force in east-central Europe (modern-day Romania).
With cruelty unparalleled since Caesar’s invasion of Gaul, the Romans pushed their frontier to the Carpathian Mountains and the river Dniester. After that Trajan added Arabia Petrea (modern-day Sinai and nearby regions) to the Roman Empire. Next Trajan waged war against the Parthians, with Osroes, king of Parthia, having placed a "puppet" ruler on the throne of Armenia.
The Romans felt this violated a long-standing treaty with the Parthians, and Trajan, aged 60, attacked and captured Armenia and Mesopotamia, taking over the remainder of the former Seleucid Empire, which the Romans had attacked 200 years earlier. This gave the Romans access to the Persian Gulf.
Trajan’s successor, Publius Aelius Hadrianus (r. 117), or Hadrian, decided to consolidate Roman rule over recently conquered areas and is best known for building a wall along the English-Scottish border, known as Hadrian’s Wall. Making peace with the Parthians, he gave up land east of the Euphrates and crushed a revolt in Mauretania and the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judaea.
This was the last large-scale Jewish revolt against the Romans and was destroyed with massive repercussions in Judaea. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. Jews were subsequently banned from entering Jerusalem.
Pius, Marcus Aerulius, and Commodus
Antoninus Pius (r. 138) succeeded Trajan, initiating a "forward movement", pushing Roman rule back into southern Scotland and building the Antonine Wall, which stretched from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth.
This meant that Hadrian’s Wall was no longer a barrier, and it brieﬂ y fell into disuse until the Romans discovered that they were unable to control southern Scotland. The Antonine Wall was abandoned in favor of Hadrian’s Wall.
The empire was approaching its greatest extent. At this point, the only places added to the empire were parts of Mesopotamia, which had been given to Parthia by Hadrian, and parts of Media (modern-day Iran). Of the next Roman emperors some are well known, but most had only a minor role in the history of the Roman Empire.
Marcus Aurelius (r. 161) was known for his philosophical teachings encapsulating what many saw as the "golden age" of the Roman Empire and Commodus (r. 180), for his brutality, decadence, misrule, and vanity.
The reign of Commodus led to infighting in the imperial court, with subsequent emperors becoming worried that regional commanders were becoming too powerful. In response they only gave them as many troops as were necessary. This in turn led to troop shortages in some areas and worry of invasion.
Trade and The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was a trading empire as well as a military empire, and Roman money was widely recognized throughout the region, and beyond. Latin became the language of the educated elite of the entire empire and of government officials and soldiers who settled in various parts of the empire. Gradually, Greek began to supplant Latin in the eastern Mediterranean, and it became the language of business and commerce in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
Surviving tombstones show that many Romans came from distant lands. Goods were traded extensively — Rome had to import large amounts of corn and wheat to feed its growing population. Ideas also traveled throughout the Roman Empire. Initially these were connected with the Pax Romana — the Roman legal system.
Under Antoninus Pius, Roman citizenship was extended in much of the eastern Mediterranean, and Roman citizens had to be tried in a Roman court, leading to Roman law becoming the standard in the eastern part of the empire. The Romans encouraged the spread of learning, philosophy, and religion.
Christianity and the belief in Mithras rapidly spread to all corners of the empire, with archaeological evidence for both religions stretching from Spain to northern England and to the Middle East. Since the founding of Rome, the citizenry had traded with other empires.
Roman goods found their way to the Kushan Empire in southern Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Sogdians, in Central Asia (modern-day Uzbekistan), traded with both the Romans and the Chinese, and Roman coins have been found in archaeological sites in some parts of the Far East.
Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius
Diocletian (r. 284) was an administrator rather than a soldier, even though he came from an army background, and sought to erode the inﬂ uence of the army on politics. When news was received in Rome that there was an uprising or an attack on the Romans, Diocletian complained that he needed a deputy who could dispatch armies efficiently but not want to claim the throne.
In 286 he appointed an Illyrian called Maximian, the son of a peasant farmer. Maximian was posted to Milan, where he could respond to attacks in the West, especially along the frontier with Germany. Diocletian then moved to Nicomedia, in modern-day Turkey, where he would supervise the empire and respond to attacks from Parthia or Persia.
Although the empire remained undivided, there were definite lines of demarcation. These would manifest themselves years later in the division of the Roman Empire. Diocletian, however, is probably best known for his persecution of the Christians. Soon after he abdicated, Christianity would become an important part of the Roman administration.
The emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306) provided a unity to the empire, and his mother, Helena, greatly influenced her son in Christian ideas. However, under Theodosius I (r. 379) many felt that the western part of the empire was becoming a liability, with the eastern part being far more prosperous.
As a result, in 395 the Roman Empire split to form the Western Roman Empire, with Rome as its capital, and the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). Only 15 years after this split the Western Roman Empire suffered a major shock when Visigoths invaded the Italian peninsula and sacked Rome. The capital had been brieﬂ y moved to Ravenna, but the psychological damage was done.
Rome was retaken from the Visigoths, and authorities called back Roman legions guarding other parts of the western empire, withdrawing soldiers from Britain and the German frontier, to try to defend the Italian peninsula. In 476 the last Roman emperor of the West, Odovacar, the leader of the Ostrogoths, deposed Romulus Augustulus. The eastern empire continued as the Byzantine Empire, although gradually lost much territory.
The Roman Empire was founded on military glory, but its legacy was much more broad. Roman roads connected many cities and towns, most of which are still inhabited, and archaeological digs uncovered the remains of Roman walls, buildings, and lifestyle.
Roman aqueducts can be seen in many parts of the former empire, with Roman plumbing and sewage disposal being unmatched in western Europe until the Italian Renaissance. The Roman system of law is still followed by many parts of the former Roman Empire, and many other Roman customs survive.