Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER IV

The Roman Empire

Augustus

One of Rome’s greatest leaders, Augustus was the founder and the first emperor of the Roman Empire.

Augustus, who was known as Gaius Octavius before he became the head of Rome, was born in the Roman city on September 23, 63 B.C. His mother, Atia Balba Caesonia, was Julius Caesar’s niece, and his father, Gaius Octavius, was a Macedonian governor.

Augustus by Glyptothek Munich (Kept since 1589 in Palace Bevilacqua, Verona)

At the tender age of four his father died, and when his mother got married to a former governor of Syria, Lucius Marcius Philippus, Octavius went to stay with his grandmother Julia Caesaris (Julius’s sister).

Julius Caesar needed an heir, but he didn’t have a son to claim the title and so he adopted his great-nephew Octavius, who at that juncture assumed the name Gaius Julius Caesar. Not long after the will was written, Caesar was assassinated by his own advisors.

Octavius then joined forces with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus and formed the Second Triumvirate. Over the coming years, Octavius, with his new alliance, managed to defeat all of his enemies in Rome. After the victory was asserted, they decided to split the empire; Octavius took the West and Antony the East.

The Senate then recognized Octavius as the leader of the Roman Republic but he didn’t want to be titled King and so he replaced it with Emperor, which in those days meant ‘Commander of the Armies.’

Then in 27 B.C., after Octavius defeated Cleopatra and Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium and annexed Egypt, the senate gave him the title Augustus, which meant ‘The Majestic’, ‘sacred’ or ‘revered’. This victory made Augustus a hero and Rome’s first emperor.

Despite the succession of wars, Augustus managed to restore peace and security to Rome. His ruling days were known as ‘Pax Romana’ (Peaceful Rome).

Augustus was a hard working leader that was able to manage his political affairs with great intelligence.

He found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble— it is often said of him. Augustus didn’t only expand the frontiers of Rome, ruling its vast inhabitants accordingly, but he also built new buildings, palaces, temples, new roads and completely transfigured the city. He also facilitated the public with water by bringing water from the hills to aqueducts.

Another one of his great accomplishments as the first emperor of Rome was setting up a police force and a fire brigade.

Augustus ruled Rome until he died in 14 A.D. His days of ruling were remembered as the Golden Age in Roman History.

Nero

Much like Augustus, Nero also inherited the throne from his great uncle, Claudius, in 54 A.D.

Portrait Bust of the Emperor Nero by Thomas Della Porta (1520-1567)

Many historians believe that Nero’s mother killed Claudius. Nero’s involvement in this killing, however, is not certified.

“-for even if he was not the instigator of the emperor's death, he was at least privy to it, as he openly admitted; for he used afterwards to laud mushrooms, the vehicle in which the poison was administered to Claudius, as "the food of the gods," as the Greek proverb has it. At any rate, after Claudius' death he vented on him every kind of insult, in act and word, charging him now with folly and now with cruelty; for it was a favorite joke of his to say that Claudius had ceased "to play the fool" among mortals, lengthening the first syllable of the word morari, and he disregarded many of his decrees and acts as the work of a madman and a dotard. Finally, he neglected to enclose the place where his body was burned except with a low and mean wall.”

Suetonius wrote

Nero had a great start as the Emperor of Rome. He focused and worked more on enhancing trade, diplomacy and the Roman culture. He gave the Senate more power; abolished capital punishment; granted slaves the right to sue their owner; reduced taxation and much besides. He also built new theatres and upheld athletic games.

But this young Emperor also had a really dark side. Nero had a rather volatile personal life, and his mother, Agrippina, tried whatever was possible to pacify her son. Vexed by her persistent intervention, Nero decided to kill her in what would seem like a terrible shipwreck, but she survived the incident.

According to the recordings of Tacitus, Nero then, angered by the failure of his plot, sent out his soldiers and got her killed.

The other incident that displayed Nero’s ruthless side was the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D. which burned down an extensive portion of the city. The Emperor then decided to blame the Christians and persecute them for its eruption. Several Christians were tortured, crucified, burnt, and thrown to be eaten by lions during this period; amongst those who were put to death because of this incident were St. Peter and St. Paul.

Many believed that it was Nero himself that started the fire.

Nero’s ruling days came to an end when he took his own life in 68 A.D.

Colosseum: The Arena of Death

The gigantic amphitheater, which is known as the Colosseum or the Flavian Amphitheatre, is amongst the greatest relics of ancient Rome.

Around 70 – 72 A.D. Emperor Vespasian commissioned and began to build the Colosseum as a gift for the Roman people. But the project was completed by his son Titus in 80 A.D. The Colosseum was inaugurated with a festival of 100 days of games, in which over 9,000 wild animals were killed.

This amphitheater was made out of stones and concrete, measuring about 190 by 155 meters. Inside the Colosseum there were seats for more than 60,000 spectators.

Interior of the Colosseum Rome, by Thomas Cole (1832)

The Colosseum was used for cruel and deadly sports; gladiatorial contests, executions, animal hunts, and deadly duels were but a few. Both men and women gladiators were put to the challenge of combating lions, tigers and other deadly creatures. Gladiatorial combats came to an end in the 6th century.

Gladiators at that time were slaves, criminals or prisoners.

For four centuries the Colosseum was in active use. But then due to earthquakes, lightning and stone robbers, it was severely damaged – several sides of its walls collapsed.

Today, despite the efforts to restore it to its previous grandeur, only half of what used to be the world’s grandest arena stands.

Hadrian

Hadrian is commonly known as the third of the Five Good Emperors in Rome – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. He was the fourteenth Emperor of Rome and he ruled from 76 – 138 A.D.

Hadrian was the adopted successor of Trajan, but it was Pompeia Plotina, Trajan’s wife, that signed the paper that made Hadrian the official heir of the throne. She said that Trajan titled him Emperor on his death bed.

Hadrian was a great solider, and he had quite a lot of successful military expeditions before he acceded to the throne. After coming to power, though, Hadrian focused more on strengthening the frontiers of the empire instead of pursuing distant conquests.

He traveled to almost each and every province of the empire. And during his visit he would conduct a closer inspection on the administration and the army. He also had building projects in many of the provinces he visited, in the Balkan Peninsula, Egypt, Asia Minor and Greece.

This Emperor is especially known for completing the construction of the wall across Europe from the Rhine to the Danube, and then building a similar wall in Northern Britain, which is known as Hadrian’s Wall. The wall was built to keep the Northern barbarians out of Rome.

Hadrian died at the age of 62, on July 10, 138 A.D.

Marcus Aurelius

Hadrian initially adopted Lucius Aelius as his heir. But Aelius died just two years after and Hadrian decided to adopt Antonius Pius if he agreed to later adopt Lucius Verus, the son of Aelius, and Marcus Aurelius, as his heirs.

For many years, Marcus then lived as Antonius’ apprentice, during which he acquired quite a lot of knowledge about the mechanism of government. Then, in 161 A.D. he acceded to the throne and became the Emperor of Rome, assuming the name ’Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus.’

Marcus stayed true to the plan and started to rule Rome as a co-emperor with Lucius Verus. Then in 169 A.D. Verus fell ill and died and Marcus became the sole ruler of Rome.

Marcus was also listed as one of the last of the Five Good Emperors. He wasn’t just a wise statesman, but he was also deemed the most prominent Stoic philosophers in the ancient world.

During his campaign in 170 – 180 A.D., Marcus wrote the book Meditations. It was a recording of his deep thoughts and perspectives of his surroundings. Meditations was written in Greek and was originally titled ‘To Myself.’ According to experts, Marcus had the mindset that had much resemblance to that of Stoic philosophy and spirituality. Meditations is still one of the world’s renowned books.

Marcus’ ruling days, however, were filled with quite a lot of challenges; a deadly plague broke out and killed thousands of people across the world; several wars broke out, and the Germanic tribes broke through the Roman walls and invaded Italy. Despite all these setbacks though, Marcus did manage to succeed in restoring peace and order in the empire.

Marcus died on March 17, 180 A.D. at the age of 58. His ruling days were seen as the peak of Roman prosperity.

Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great (Constantine I or Saint Constantine) was the first Emperor of Rome to accept Christianity. He ruled from 306 – 337 A.D.

Constantine was the offspring of Helena and Flavius Valerius Constantius. The greater part of Constantine’s life was spent in the east. He was educated in Diocletian’s court where he learned philosophy, Latin literature, and Greek. Over the years he rose to prominence, becoming an essential member in the court. He served the emperors Galerius and Diocletian in their multifarious military expeditions in Asia. Because of his service, he got a promotion and became a military tribune.

Raphael Baptism Constantine, by school of Raphael (1483-1520)

Then in 305 A.D. he was asked to help his father in the campaign of Britannia. There are two accounts in regards to how Constantine left Galerius’ court; one says that Galerius allowed the leave and the other says that Constantine left the court at midnight.

Nevertheless, Constantine did manage to escape the court and join his father at Bononia (Boulogne) in Gaul. 

Constantine and his father then made their way to the capital of Britannia Secunda, Eboracum (modern day York). For an entire year the army, under Constantine’s command, conducted a successful campaign against the Picts beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Constantine then became a celebrated Roman general in Britain. And when his father died in 306 A.D. at Eboracum (York), the army proclaimed him as emperor.

After a succession of wars waged against the Emperors Licinius and Maxentius, in which he came out the victor, Constantine gained complete rule of Rome in 324 A.D.

According to various recordings, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity took place in 313 A.D. It is said that before he went in to battle, he saw the great Christian cross in the sky. The cross shone brightly and on it was written ‘By this sign you shall conquer.’ Constantine won the battle and it was in that instance he accepted Christianity.

The Emblem of Christ Appearing to Constantine / Constantine's conversion, by Peter Paul Rubens (1622)

During his reign, Constantine reformed the various sectors of the empire’s administration; the financial, military and social structure. He introduced a new gold coin which was called Solidus; he ended Christian persecution; held the first Council of Nicaea; reorganized the army and successfully defended the empire from barbarian invasion.

Constantine is also quite famous for building a new capital near the ancient fortress of Byzantium in 330 A.D. It was built to defend the empire by guarding the entrance to the Black Sea between Europe and Asia. He renamed the city after himself Constantinople.

After Rome had fallen, Constantinople then became the Empire’s capital and it remained as such for over a millennium.

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