Ancient History & Civilisation

The Times

“In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guaranteed by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. . . . During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines.”

These are the words with which Edward Gibbon opens his monumental history. They paint a picture of material well-being whose colors, though perhaps too bright, are not false. It, indeed, was an age of peace and prosperity, thanks to the honesty and efficiency of Rome’s government, the extent of its sway, and the strength of the armies with which it defended all it held.

The Mediterranean, most of what is today France, Spain, Belgium, Holland, the Balkan countries, even the better part of the British Isles, was one world politically, all under the rule of the Roman Empire. Any inhabitant could make his way from the burning sun of Mesopotamia to the mists of Scotland without crossing a national frontier. The founder of this vast realm, the man who welded it together, fashioned its machinery of government, and launched it on its incredibly long career, was Augustus, the grandnephew of Julius Caesar.

Augustus rode to power on the waves of bloody civil war, a series of large-scale bitter conflicts in which he first destroyed his great-uncle’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, and then his own partner in this success, Mark Antony. When, in 30 B.C., the latter fell on his sword and his celebrated supporter pressed an asp to her bosom, Augustus was left in sole command of the Roman world. From the arts of war he turned, with equal ability, to the arts of peace. And since fate kindly granted him almost half a century more of life, until A.D. 14, he was able to get the new arrangements he devised for governing Rome working smoothly and surely.

What he created was, basically, an autocracy - but one that functioned behind the façade of a republic. From roughly 500 B.C. to 50 B.C., when Julius Caesar in effect brought it to an end, Rome had been a republic. Its chief legislative body was a Senate (whose membership, though theoretically open to all, tended to be mostly drawn from the aristocracy), its chief executive a pair of annually elected consuls. Under Augustus, the consuls and other magistrates of the republic continued to hold office, the Senate to sit regularly and deliberate and pass motions. But the reins of power, no doubt about it, were in Augustus’s grasp. It was he who controlled the army and navy, who determined foreign and domestic policy, whose favor made or broke political careers, who appointed the administrators to run Rome’s provinces, as the overseas possessions were called, who above all stood for the government in the eyes of both citizens and subjects. His face appeared on the coins they handled, his name was prominent on public buildings and monuments, and in all major communities, there were temples where he or his genius, his “spirit,” was worshiped. He was an emperor in all but name; he discreetly insisted on being called by the informal title Princeps, a neutral term that meant only “First Citizen.”

Augustus did his work so well that those who followed him on the throne - Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, and on through the great emperors of the second century A.D. whom Gibbon singled out for mention - merely adjusted or adapted but never basically changed what he had wrought. Obviously, there was no place in the system for freedom of speech or similar precious political rights that autocracy cannot countenance; on the other hand, infinitely more people enjoyed social and economic freedom than ever had under the republic. Moreover, Rome was, by and large, lucky in the quality of the rulers that came to the throne. Augustus’s successors for the next 200 years were all men of ability and, with a few exceptions, men of integrity. Even the few exceptions caused no fatal damage, since the governmental machinery continued to work in spite of them: A Caligula could spread terror in the capital with his insanities or a Nero helpless exasperation with his inanities, but the bureaucracy they headed went right ahead doing its job, collecting taxes, administering justice, carrying on the imperial correspondence, paying the imperial salaries - attending, in short, to the day-to-day needs of the state.

The key to the emperor’s power - and to the peace enjoyed by the diverse peoples he ruled - was Rome’s efficient armed forces. Before Augustus, Roman armies and navies had been called up as needed; Augustus created a standing army and navy, with himself as commander in chief. This was a potentially dangerous instrument, and the time would come when the imperial armies made, rather than obeyed, emperors. But that lay far in the future. The rulers of the first two centuries A.D. used the armed forces with care and intelligence - the army to conquer and guard, the navy to keep the sea lanes free of pirates.

The emperors lived in great palaces that they built for themselves on Rome’s Palatine Hill. These included not only their living quarters but the grandiose halls where they held court and the offices where their bureaucracy carried on the daily routine of government. Italy enjoyed a privileged status as Rome’s historic heartland and the source of the superb soldiers that had enabled it to conquer the Mediterranean world, but Rome’s strength now lay in its provinces; from these it drew the major portions of its wealth, brains, and muscle. The grain and wine and oil that fed its armies and civil servants came from Egypt and France and Spain; the businessmen who maintained its active commerce were largely provincials; and the army, though its core was still Italian, was increasingly recruited from the provinces, while provincials officered, as well as manned, the navy. By the second century A.D., the emperors themselves came from the provinces: Trajan and Hadrian were both of Spanish extraction. The head of state had to be as concerned for the political and economic health of Gauls, Arabs, Egyptians, and so on, as of Romans or Italians. When an ambitious provincial governor forwarded to Tiberius more in taxes than the stipulated amount, the emperor snapped that he wanted his “sheep sheared not skinned.”

To administer the overseas territories so vital to the empire, Augustus and his successors sought men of ability whom they could trust. They had to turn to the members of the Senate, even though few of these nourished warm feelings toward the rulers who had usurped their power. The emperors, as soon as they were able, widened their net to entice talented men into government wherever they could find them. They drew upon well-established, prosperous families that had previously stayed out of politics, upon provincials, even upon ex-slaves. In the process, they made government service a ready way for men of intelligence and ambition to climb up the social and political ladder.

But it was not only the man near the top who found paths for advancement open to him. They lay open for the whole of society, little people as well as big. This was because of Rome’s unique attitude toward citizenship, its willingness to share it with others.

In ancient Athens, only the children of Athenian parents were citizens. For a foreigner to gain the privilege took nothing less than an act of the Athenian Congress. Other ancient states were scarcely more charitable. Rome was an outstanding exception. From its very beginnings, it adopted the practice of incorporating into the state some of the communities it conquered by granting them citizenship en bloc. What the republic had started, the emperors continued on an increased scale, turning by decree the populace of entire cities, even groups of cities, into Roman citizens overnight. Claudius was particularly generous in this regard; one wag grumbled that he had “put every Greek, Gaul, Spaniard, and Briton into togas.” Citizenship, of course, brought with it the full protection of Rome’s authority and law. The best-known instance is Saint Paul’s refusal to be judged by a provincial governor; though a native of Tarsus in southern Asia Minor, he was a Roman citizen and demanded, as was his right, to be tried in Rome (how he became a citizen is a question; Tarsus may have been enfranchised en masse, perhaps by Julius Caesar in return for the help its people gave him during his fight to the death with Pompey). And, just as important, citizenship brought a man new social and economic opportunities, the possibility of entering and moving up in Rome’s governmental apparatus. So we find people of provincial extraction, Greeks or Arabs or Levantines or any other of the many nationalities within Rome’s bounds, mounting the ladder to administer its provinces, command its armies, even sit on its throne.

Enfranchisement of communities was only one of the large-scale ways in which Rome extended its citizenship. Another was through the manumission of slaves. Roman law had the incredibly liberal provision that the slave of a Roman citizen, upon being freed, became a citizen himself. Since the Romans commonly did free their slaves, multitudes of new members of the most varied origins each year joined the citizen body. Moreover, for whoever had the ambition, there were any number of ways of becoming a citizen: by joining the army or the navy or by serving as a local magistrate in one’s hometown. By the beginning of the third century A.D., practically all the population of the empire had in one way or another gained citizenship. The ruling class was no longer Roman, not even Italian, but a melange of men from all the provinces. Rome’s empire lasted far longer than any other in history, half a millennium in the West and a millennium and a half in the East. Unquestionably one of the factors that held it together so successfully for so many years was the generous spread of the citizenship: men who were born in the mountains of Spain or on the shores of Syria came to feel themselves as Roman as those born along the Tiber.

There were also strong economic ties to add their holding power. Augustus recognized that efficient rule over a large area required swift and easy movement of dispatches and troops. And so he and his successors embarked on a program that laced the empire together with a superb network of roads. At the same time, the navy finally freed the Mediterranean from its age-old curse of piracy and permitted ships to shuttle securely along its sea lanes. All this quickened economic life enormously. Towns now had easier access by road to local markets, and new access by road and ship to markets all over the empire. Soldiers wore armor of Austrian iron or of Spanish copper alloyed with British tin; wealthy men had themselves buried in coffins of Greek or Asia Minor marble; Italians drank wine from France and ate bread made of Egyptian grain; altars all over smoked with incense from Arabia or Ethiopia. More people than ever before were in a position to make money, as importers, exporters, ship owners, brokers, teamsters, and the myriad other activities needed by a vigorous and multifarious trade. Every center of consequence now boasted a comfortable middle class, and wealth spread far wider than in previous ages. There was still an abyss between the very rich and the very poor, there were still throngs mired in desperate poverty, but previously, few had been able to find an escape and now thousands did - and remained forever grateful to the government that had given them their chance.

The city of Rome was the nerve center of this great and prosperous realm. Under the emperors, its population was perhaps as much as a million - a gigantic metropolis. After centuries of receiving immigrants and manumitted slaves into its midst, it had become almost totally polyglot; by the second century A.D., perhaps 90 percent of its denizens were of foreign extraction. Into its port came the products of Europe, Africa, Asia; in its public places stood buildings that only the rulers of an immensely wealthy state could afford to erect; its streets were thronged with men of all classes, with lofty officials and government slaves, with millionaire ship owners and bankers and a mass of chronic unemployed who lived off government handouts. It was the capital of a state that for the first time had made one unified political whole of the Mediterranean, that boasted a society more open than any before the nineteenth century and a prosperity unmatched until the twentieth, and that gave Western civilization the longest period of peace it was ever to know.

Let us look at the various facets of life in this great capital during its finest hour, the second century A.D., the years that Gibbon lauded as a veritable golden age. We will have several helpful guides to show us about: Pliny the Younger, an eminently proper nobleman who left behind a collection of letters to his circle of eminently proper friends; Petronius, a most improper nobleman who wrote the Satyricon, the justly celebrated novel about the doings of a trio of scoundrels among the nouveaux riches; and Martial and Juvenal, masters of poetic satire who looked, the one with amused scorn and the other with sardonic rage, on the urban scene about them.

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