| Tomorrow is a mystery,|
but yesterday is
|Wie es eigentlich gewesen|
The Roman Empire was a post-antiquity superpower that ruled most of Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East from roughly the 1st century BCE. to roughly the 5th century CE. The last remnants of the Roman Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire) fell to the Ottomans in the mid-15th century. Originating in Italy, the Roman Empire represented the direct successor to the Roman Republic, which had already established the Roman city-state as a dominant force in the West a couple centuries earlier. Despite this, they were basically the same exact government, the key difference being the establishment of an executive branch, overseen by an elected and non-autocratic pseudo-monarch, or "Roman Emperor".
The beginning of the Roman Empire played a strong role in the build-up of eschatological theories prior to and during the life of Jesus around the early 1st century CE. Messianic expectations at the time of Jesus existed even in Rome. For example, the prophecy that "a savior would come out of Judea" was popular in the Roman Empire; so popular that the biographer Suetonius saw fit to mention it in his De Vita Caesarum in 121 C.E. However, Suetonius identified the savior as the Emperor Vespasian in his Life of Vespasian, since Vespasian did, as it was said, "save the State" during the year of the four emperors (68-69 CE) and made his popular military reputation by campaigning in Judaea in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-69 CE ...
The first hints of Italian civilization appeared around 5,000 BCE, as Neolithic farmers began to settle the peninsula. By 1500 BCE, the northern “Terramaricoli” culture was exporting mineral supplies from the Alps to the pastoral, migratory Apennine culture occupying the center of the peninsula. As these cultures drew close through trade, Mycenaean trade exposed the Italians to proto-Greek culture. By 1,000 BCE, a new "Villanovan" culture had began working with copper and was occupying the rich valley of Etruria north of the future location of Rome. These Villanovans were supplanted by the Etruscan culture in the 8th century BCE, which was heavily influenced by seafaring Greeks. Their culture was domineered by the Romans, who borrowed and then improved on their grid-like cities, architecture, and religious rituals.
From approximately 750-500 BCE, Roman culture existed politically as a city-state which grew to become a kingdom as it enveloped surrounding cultures. This kingdom came to an abrupt end during the reign of the 7th king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud. Traditionally, Tarquin was a cruel tyrant whose oppressive reign forced the Romans to exile him. Though the true reasons for his exile are debated, the Romans elected not to reinstate him, and instead established the Republic, with two annually elected magistrates which came to be known as "consuls".
Republican Rome had a "constitution" in the same sense that Britain today has one. The laws were not codified in a single document, but encompassed hundreds of years of tradition. At its maturation, the Republic consisted of several branches of government. The two Consuls, who initially were chosen by the Senate but later by popular election, held veto power over each other (a political idea called collegiality, where the rule of one man is always challenged by his colleague, preventing him from appearing as a king). There was a Tribune, who represented the lower class plebeians, elected by the plebeians, and served as a check against the Senatorial magistracies. The Senate consisted of approximately 300 men, at first exclusively upper-class patricians. Later, plebeians gained representation in this legislative body. There were other assemblies and curiae which held power (some in the same way that a constitutional monarch holds power, others not), but the main organs of government rested around the popular assemblies and the Senate. This extremely complicated system of checks and balances resulted in a period of stability from the 5th century BCE to approximately 150 BCE that served to make Rome the most powerful military force in the west and helped to fuel its conquests.
The Republic's expansion from city-state to Empire was completed in many stages. The first of which was the unification of the Italic peninsula, which was done over the course of hundreds of years. When the Italic peninsula was brought under Roman control, the Republic began to expand into Sicily, bringing it into conflict with Carthage, sparking the First Punic War. The First of the "Punic Wars" was a territorial affair, where Rome ended up conquering Sicily and the majority of Spain. The Second is famous for the marching of Hannibal through the Alps and into Italy. Hannibal's fame comes directly from his feats: the most notable of which are crossing the Alps, defeating the Romans, defeating the Romans again, and then, defeating the Romans again (the Battles of Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae). However, though the Carthaginians won battles by performing spectacular martial feats, the Romans sailed to Africa and crushed Carthage's primarily mercenary army, ending with Carthage's surrender and subjugation to Rome. The Third Punic War was declared as soon as reparation payments from Carthage had ended. With no payments to interrupt, there was nothing stopping Rome from declaring war on Carthage and razing its old adversary to the ground. However, contrary to popular belief, Rome did not sow Carthage's fields with salt. Instead, it rebuilt the city as a Roman colony and did the colonial thing of exporting all the foodstuffs of Africa back to feed Roman Italy.
After Carthage's defeat, the fall of the Republic began to accelerate. Over time, the depletion of labour from Rome's traditionally citizen-based army and the emergence of a generally unemployed and uneducated urban lower class allowed for the rise of charismatic generals like Gaius Marius. It is important to note that by this time, the official class structures of plebeian and patrician had broken down by repeated general strikes. Instead, Rome by the 1st century BC was stratified directly by socio-economic class instead of ancestral castes. Marius capitalised on the lack of opportunities for the poor and began a movement towards a permanent professional army. Coupled with the depletion of traditional sources of men, the Republic began to resort to the raising of armies not for itself, but through the personalities of generals, making troops more loyal to single men than to the state.
Over time, the generals began to chip away at the fragile institutions of the state. Generals like Marius later turned their loyal armies against Rome, seizing power for themselves. Reactionary movements became common as time went on and people became dissatisfied with certain aspects of the government. After a healthy lineup of consuls and praetors, a boorish, eccentric, rude, and arrogant wealthy landowner by the name of Publius Clodius Pulcher arose out of basically nowhere to put a serious dent in the political establishment. Originally aligning himself with the Patricians, Pulcher left his party and "officially" renounced his noble status, claiming to be a "man of the people" who wanted to restore "the glory that was Rome". He often became the center of controversy, as he was constantly womanizing, even trying to seduce Julius Caesar's wife while dressed as a woman, and getting into shouting matches with people in the Forum. He was known for having this one-sided and over-the-top feud with Cicero, and senate meetings were generally dominated by shouting matches and insults, particularly on Pulcher's part. When he was running for the position of tribune, he consistently made Cicero out to be the boogeyman, one of his main platforms being, due to being directly responsible for the death of some of his own guards just four years earlier, being to "lock Cicero up" (no, we are not making any of this up). Cicero was exiled, but Pulcher was eventually murdered in the streets by a gang led by one of his political opponents. Pulcher's entire period of office created so much upheavel in the Republic, that it was unlikely to ever regain its full strength as a democratic institution. It all only really went downhill from there.
Of this, there are two which mark critical points in the fall of the Republic. The first of which, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, motivated by the extremely volatile political climate in Rome, was the first to break the general precedent against dictatorship. Appointing himself as dictator for the restructuring of the Republic, he attempted to turn back the clock on Rome with sheer military might. His proscriptions, the organised killing of proscribed, or listed, men were the first to bring outright military violence into the Republican politics. Note that mob violence was already engrained with the murder of two democratic-populist tribunes some years beforehand (as a side note, the family names of these tribunes were 'Gracchus', which is why a character with the name 'Gracchus' always appears as a good guy in sword-and-sandal movies). The second major critical point was the rise of what is now called the First Triumvirate, a loose alliance between the general Pompey, a billionaire aspiring general Crassus, and a populist politician named Julius Caesar. The alliance worked exceedingly well at furthering the ambitions of all three men, with Pompey gaining power and prestige, Crassus raising an army for the invasion of Persia, and Julius Caesar being granted the proconsulship (analogous to a modern governorship) of Gaul, which the Romans effectively called all areas north of the southern Alps. The death of Crassus in battle led to the failure of the political alliance, with Pompey then attempting to prevent the rise of Caesar. Moves against Caesar eventually triggered a civil war, in which Pompey was killed and famously his head was presented to Caesar in Egypt. Caesar was the first man in the republic to be granted the title of 'dictator in perpetuo', effectively dictator-for-life. Conservatives, fearing a restoration of a King, assassinated Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 BC.
The conspirators could not maintain popular support, and were crushed by Mark Antony and Caesar's adoptive great-nephew, Octavian. Octavian forced Antony into exile and later suicide, instituting himself as princeps, or first citizen of Rome in 27 BCE
Octavian, after his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, took the name Augustus and proceeded to complete his adoptive father's populist reforms and establish an executive branch to counterbalance the corrupt senate. Shockingly, the senate loved the kid so much, that they not only supported the notion, but they even gave him a crown and rewrote the law so that the new office was lifelong, while also ensuring that they had enough power to keep an eye on him if Auggie were go on a power trip like his late uncle. And thus, with the senate's approval, the office of the "Principate" was established, and so Octavian took the title of Imperator, which, in English, translates roughly into "commander-in-chief". Augustus Caesar, a paragon of virtuous leadership, brought peace to the land leading a stable and peaceful Empire by the elimination of all other poles of influence, including taxes, also proceeding to give local provinces more autonomy. He cut the size of the military and reorganized it so the Empire would have about 300,000 men under arms, manning the borders, and therefore not a threat to Imperial security. He decided against expanding the Empire after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE after the loss of multiple Roman legions. The empire continued to expand slowly under the reigns of later emperors, but the Empire itself was generally free from strife. This was the famous Pax Romana, or Roman Peace.
However, by the 3rd century CE, the Empire, now having reverted into an autocratic stratocracy, was on the brink of collapse due to economic depression, invasion, and civil war. A period known as the Crisis of the Third Century ensued, where emperors quickly came and went by the sword. Power was firmly in the control of whoever could field the most effective army. The end of this eighty-year period of constant civil war came when the emperor Aurelian (later proclaimed as restitutior orbis, restorer of the world), firmly united the increasingly separatist regions of the empire again into a unipolar society, although he was murdered before he could fully settle the Crisis. The Crisis is generally considered to have finally ended under Diocletian about 20 years later. To deal with the increasingly fragile institutions of state, later Emperors started to divide the Empire, notably when Diocletian experimented with splitting the Empire into a "Tetrarchy" ("rule of four"), which ended in 324 when Constantine I (who is arguably most famous for legalizing Christianity within the Empire) defeated and executed his co-emperor. Now under Christian dominion, the West outlawed many of its progressive policies, such as gay rights, gender equality, free speech, and just about every other liberal policy in existence (thanks Constantine).
The Empire was permanently split into separate Eastern and Western Empires, each with its own Emperor, after the death of Theodosius in 395. The Western Empire collapsed under the pressure of immense financial difficulty and foreign invasion in 476 CE. However, the East was to remain strong and generally constant well until the end of the Middle Ages.
Accounts of the remains of the Western half of the Empire's immediate descent into poverty have been somewhat exaggerated by biased sources. Rather, rulers such as Theodoric the Ostrogoth and his followers (the Amal clan), after defeating Odoacer in 493, ruled from Ravenna in the Roman style, trying to maintain much of Roman life and infrastructure. Theodoric even employed Romans in the administration to ensure this continuity and sense of Roman stability. Officially, Odoacer claimed to merely be ruling on behalf of the emperor Zeno, pretending to be an official of the Roman Empire even though Zeno had about as much power over him as Elizabeth II has over Justin Trudeau in Canada. Indeed, in the eyes of the people of Italy, the formal pronouncement of the end of the Roman rule in Italy wasn't apparent, as the barbarian kings ruled Italy in the same way and customs as the Emperors of the late Empire had. One example is Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (or just Cassiodorus), who, writing as Theodoric, famously urged all Romans to "clothe themselves with the morals of the toga" - i.e., retain your Roman ways, in spite of the "barbarian" rule. The Senate even continued to function, with varying levels of efficacy (depending on which "barbarian" happened to be ruling at the time, and their tolerance for sharing power) for about 150 years after the official fall of the Western Empire.
Of course, while the Western Empire fell, the Roman Empire itself continued on in the East in what historians would later refer to as the "Byzantine" Empire. The Eastern half the Empire always tended to be wealthier and more populous than the West; this gave them a distinct advantage over the West in resources, labour, and military power, allowing the Eastern half of the Empire to survive when the Western half could not. From its new capital at Constantinople, the Roman Empire would survive for nearly another thousand years. The name "Byzantine" was applied to the empire retroactively; during its lifetime, it continued to be known simply as the Roman Empire to itself and its neighbours.
The Empire was able to regain much of its lost territory under Emperor Justinian I beginning in 533 CE led by the general Belisarius. It was able to reconquer its provinces in Southern Spain, Sicily, and much of Italy, including Rome. Unfortunately the protracted war devastated the Italian countryside, with the Eastern Romans only reclaiming a ravaged husk which left their possession soon after the death of Justinian with the rise of the Longobards in 568. Many Romans - Eastern and Western - blamed Justinian for this devastation.
While Justinian would be the last Emperor to make a serious attempt at reconquering the West, and the Roman Empire was never able to fully regain its former glory, the Empire still remained the preeminent power in the Mediterranean throughout much of the Middle Ages until Constantinople was finally seized by Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire in 1453. While it did face devastating blows from the Arab Conquests and the ill fated Fourth Crusade it wasn't all despair and decline. The Empire had several cultural resurgences and continued to maintain its traditions, learning and systems of law from antiquity.
Men and women captured during conquests could be sold as slaves. The pater familias also had the right, in principle, to sell his children into slavery. Thus the sale of unwanted or "unaffordable" children was also a source of slaves, as was infant abandonment, natural increace, and piracy. Although the age of consent for freeborn youths was 12, Roman law did not give slaves rights - as objects, they had no age of consent, and having sex with them was legally not considered infidelity. While most slaves had miserable lives, favored slaves of wealthy households could amass wealth and be granted (or allowed to purchase) "freedmen" status, while continuing to work for their patrons as part of their clientage network.
Only men could serve in the military and vote, and only men of the correct class could serve in a public office (except as priestesses), but women could go out in public, own property and could divorce their husbands.
Penises were displayed everywhere, and slaves with large genitals were put on constant display. Frescos at the public baths displayed all forms of sexual coupling, while statues of Priapis, the basis of the garden gnome, threatened burglars of homes with divine revenge sodomy. One of two surviving Roman novels, the Satyricon, describes a man and his boy slave as they navigate a series of orgies, flagellation and dildo wearing priestesses. Additionally, under the Empire, free speech, free love, and multiculturalism were not only sometimes tolerated, but were a part of the foundational ethos.
The Vestal Virgins were six traditional priestesses appointed at age 6-10 by the chief priest, the Pontifex Maximus (beginning with Augustus Caesar, the Roman emperor held this office). They studied ritual for a decade, practised for a decade, and taught for a decade before being allowed to leave the order; only then could they marry, though few chose to and Roman tradition claims that those who left the Vestal order "came to an unhappy end and regretted their choice".[note 1] Anyone who injured them was put to death, and they had the power to pardon crimes. They would be put to death if they lost their virginity, as their chastity was considered to directly affect the fortunes of the empire; though accounts vary as to exactly how often they were entombed alive, or given the freedom to choose their own deaths. The Vestal college was closed in 394 by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I.
Rome was a very traditional society and they had a lot of holidays and festivals. One of this biggest was known as Saturnalia; this was a celebration of the Roman people's freedom. Saturnalia started in the month of December and lasted 6 days. Everyone would dress in the same clothes from plebeian to consul to show equality. To start off the people would gather around the temple of Saturn (god not planet) and hold a vigil. Following this there would be a great feast where everyone ate from rich to poor. These festivities would last all night and revelers would yell "Ho Saturnalia" at each other as a Roman "Merry Christmas". The most astonishing thing about this time was the changing of the slave master dynamic. The Romans acknowledged the massive hypocrisy necessary to celebrate their own freedom while owning slaves. To rectify this for the entire time slaves and masters would talk as equals and slaves didn't need to cook for their masters.
Interpretations of the Fall of Rome
Historians, with varying motivations, have proposed equally varying reasons for the fall of the Western Roman Empire, starting immediately after it happened. The rationales range from the idiotic and transparently biased to the mundane, with some outlying probable causes.
- Edward Gibbon, author of the monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, actually blamed Christianity, in relevant parts, for detracting from the civic republicanism and sense of unified purpose that had built the Republic. Most of this can be traced to Gibbon's own deep distaste for Christianity, although it is conceivable that Christianity, by splitting Roman society along (first) class lines and (later) violently among factions, inhibited a unity that would have forced awareness of, and staved off, latent problems in the Empire. However, this explanation does not account for other important variables (like the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire, which converted to Christianity along with the rest of the Empire, and yet outlived the western half by a millennium).
- Luttwak argued that Rome's fall was due simply to a decay of military prowess, and strategy, and the supposed problem of outsourcing one's army to one's enemy. This theory has been rather controversial and was argued against by multiple professional historians. Luttwak suggests that Rome abandoned its policy of fostering "buffer states" around its borders, which would be loosely defended by, and tributaries to, the Roman throne, and forestall barbarian incursions from entering Rome while the strategy was in operation. Coupled with a sudden upsurge in the violence of the barbarian hordes, caused by Attila the Hun pushing Gothic tribes out of their homes on the eastern steppes and into the empire, the overtaxed Western Roman army could not handle the incursions any longer, and collapsed. Roman tendency to depend more heavily on mercenary soldiers - which was a critical fault of Hellenistic Kingdoms, allowing for their easy conquest 700 years earlier by Rome - did not help Rome's defense, according to Luttwak. Contrarily, a more common view today is that the Hellenistic Kingdoms fell primarily due to the superior flexibility of the Roman army and that barbarization of it did not necessarily have any appreciable effect relating to the fall of Rome.
- Additionally, Rome at some point ceased in fact to be the heart of the empire, and thusly abandoned, justly fell. Constantine's shift of the capital to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, ancient Greek Byzantium) in the early 4th century focused the empire increasingly east, which Christianity's rise further impelled. As focus shifted away from Rome, so did money, trade, and defensive forces. Although Rome remained the spiritual center of the world, and of great symbolic value[note 2], without such trade the city stumbled and fell.
- Decay of morality is often proposed as a theory for the fall of the Roman empire. Its descent into decadence and perversion has become almost iconic in popular culture.[note 3] However, this theory is most often advocated by persons attempting to use this theory to support a stricter moral agenda in contemporary society, and justly reeks of bias.[note 4] The most that this theory can be justified is in the proper condemnation of the luxuries heaped on later emperors, and their corresponding inattention to issues of import to the empire.[note 5] This is not to say that faltering morality is to blame: rather, that a ruling class inculcated with a sense of entitlement is fatal to any government.
- Arnold Toynbee saw the Roman Empire as a depraved social order at its inception whose rottenness was already entrenched in Republican times, a political entity hostile to innovation and imagination, a consequence of a political entity becoming a "Universal State" that encompasses a whole civilization and imposes a rigid order while doing nothing to stop its economic and social decadence and wasting such resources as it commands. It thus refused to reform as necessary in its social order and rejected technological change that would have given the Roman Empire more economic viability. Toynbee did not place the fault upon homosexuality, gladiatorial games, or slavery.
Aside from the Byzantine Empire, many empires and states have claimed, sometimes grandiosely, and with varying degrees of
histerical historical accuracy, to be the successor to the Roman Empire.
- The Carolingian Empire was founded about 400 years after the fall of Rome by Charlemagne, a Frank. He was crowned "Emperor of the Romans" by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, 800 CE (to create a counterbalance to the guys in the East). Charlemagne left the empire to his only legitimate son, Louis the Pious, whose sons squabbled after their father's demise and broke the empire apart.
- The Holy Roman Empire (Sacrum Imperium Romanum) arose in Central Europe when German king Otto I, who had gotten hold of Italy as well, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John XII in 962. It slowed lost its internal unity and it was finally done in by Napoleon. Its ruling Hapsburg family became the emperors of Austria-Hungary while Prussia swallowed the other German speaking states. The German Empire (the Second Reich) arose from this and in turn it was succeeded by the Weimar Republic, which was succeeded by you-know-what.
- The Papal States, always playing for the lead role, considered the Holy Roman Emperors to be vassals of the pope, with true earthly power emanating from the pope alone. Which it did, whenever the Holy Roman Emperors wanted it to.
- The Latin Empire was established in 1204 after the Fourth Crusade sacked and captured Constantinople. The "Empire" consisted entirely of the city and a tiny bit of surrounding land. It was referred to by the Latin states in the region as the "Imperium Romaniae," a name intended to link the state to Ancient Rome while at the same time not intruding on the domain of the Holy Roman Empire. Like the "Byzantine" Empire, its modern name was applied to it only recently in order to distinguish it from the other states calling themselves "Rome" at around the same time. The Empire didn't last long: assaults from all sides drained its resources and manpower until 1261 when Constantinople was retaken and the Empire fell, although pretenders to the title would continue to claim the title for long afterwards.
- The Ottoman Empire: After the Fall of Constantinople, Mehmed claimed the title of "Caesar of Rome" (Kayser-i Rûm). The claim was not recognized by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Rome, or Christian Europe. Mehmed's claim rested with the concept that Constantinople was the seat of the Roman Empire and its last remaining territory after the transfer of its capital to Constantinople in 330 CE and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Mehmed also had a blood lineage to the last Byzantine Imperial family; his predecessor, Sultan Orhan I, had married a Byzantine princess, and Mehmed may have claimed descent from John Tzelepes Komnenos.
- Russia, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, had ambitions of becoming the "third Rome," as it was the world's largest remaining Orthodox state. The Slavic word tsar derives from Caesar, and the first Russian "Tsar of all the Russians" was Ivan IV, "The Terrible", crowned thus in 1547.
- The British Empire colonized large parts of the world, spreading its language, culture, and a tradition of
democracybureaucracy to grateful people of color everywhere. They self-consciously compared and contrasted themselves with the Roman Empire, even today sometimes resorting to Latin.
- Italy, homeland of the Romans, aspired under the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to regain the glory of its imperial Roman past. After gloriously invading Ethiopia and Albania, the would-be New Rome was repulsed by the Greeks, and became overshadowed by its fascist younger brother Germany to the north.
- United States: Many commentators have noted that the British Empire was more analogous to the Greeks, and the United States of America, with its violent, least-common denominator culture largely borrowed from the British Empire turned out to be more like Rome. Today it is exceedingly popular for pundits both left and right to compare current events in the US to the Decline and Fall of the first Rome. Most of them are poorly informed about the true history of Roman decline and rely on popular myths and dubious references. Caution is advised.
- The History of Rome Podcast - Hey, if you have to leave us, go to some quality podcast. More interesting than most books on the subject and not short on gory details.
- Roman History for people on a time crunch
- Crash Course
- A former Vestal was likely beyond her childbearing years, though this could be circumvented through the Roman practice of adoption
- Augustine's City of God, testifies to the fact that Rome was conceived of as the "mother of civilization.
- See, Hedonism-bot in Futurama, and the portrayal of Commodus in the film Gladiator.
- Conservapedia blames homosexuality, for example... which, as one can see, may be in line with their own agenda.
- Nero was legendary for lavishly spending imperial resources, and neglecting the running of his empire (Nero's numerous and lavish public spectacles were examples of blatant populism and such pandering to "the mob" was not to the liking of the aristocratic senatorial class who authored our extant sources for Roman history - yet another reason for Nero's bad historical reputation). The emperor Vespasian, who followed Nero, reverted this trend, but the resurgence of this theme is common in Roman history.
- See the Wikipedia article on Vespasian.
- Max Cary and H.H. Scullard, A History of Rome, (New York: Palgrave, 1975), 7-9.
- T.J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC), (New York: Routledge, 1997), 45.
- Peter Wolfram, The Goths
- Paulus Diaconus, Historia Langobardorum
- Procopius, the Secret Histories
- Some possibly NSFW examples
- Gardner, Jane (1986), Women in Roman Law & Society, pp. 22-26
- Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army, Thames & Hudson 2003 ISBN 0-500-05124-0
- royal.gov.uk Annus Horribilis
- hotbedinfo.com: Top 10 Similarities
- Tomorrowsworld.org: the wingnut view