`Reflect upon the rapidity with which all that exists and is coming to be is swept past us and disappears from sight. For substance is like a river in perpetual flow ... and ever at our side is the immeasurable span of the past and the yawning gulf of the future, in which all things vanish away. Then how is he not a fool who in the midst of all this is puffed up with pride, or tormented, or bewails his lot as though his troubles would endure for any great while?' - Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius died sometime during the night of 17 March i8o. Rome's sixteenth emperor was just a few weeks short of his fiftyninth birthday and had ruled his vast empire for nearly two decades. Later there were rumours of foul play - there nearly always were when any emperor died - of doctors ensuring his death to please his son and heir Commodus. This is very unlikely, and in fact it is in many ways surprising that he had lived as long as he did. Never a robust man, he had driven himself hard during a reign troubled by war and plague. Even so, later generations remembered him as the ideal emperor, and the senator Dio writing in the next century described his reign as a `kingdom of gold'. Marcus' remarkable Meditations - the diary-like collection of his philosophical ideas, which was never intended for publication - reveal a man with a profound sense of duty and an earnest desire to rule well. This was not from a desire for reputation -'It is the king's part to do good and be ill spoken of' - but because it was the right thing to do and the best for everyone. Reputation meant nothing to the dead, and he, like everyone and everything else was destined to die: `in a short while you will be no one and nowhere, as are Hadrian and Augustus'. Death, and the need to accept it without resentment, is a constant theme, which suggests that he was never quite able to convince himself. His private letters reveal his deep emotion at the loss of friends and family. Yet change was the nature of the world, and even those historians who deny that the Roman empire ever declined or fell describe its transformation. Before looking at this process it is worth examining the world of Marcus Aurelius.'
Educated people like Marcus knew that the world was round. Greek philosophers had first realised this, but for centuries the Romans had also spoken of the globe or orb. There were occasional suggestions to the contrary, but the trend amongst philosophers was to claim that the stars and planets revolved around the Earth rather than the Sun. Knowledge of the night sky was considerable in many cultures of the ancient world, in part because people had a deep-seated belief in astrology. Emperor Hadrian was supposed to have been able to predict even the smallest events in minute detail, including the day and hour of his own death. The world was round, but only three continents were known - Europe, Asia and Africa - and there was no clear idea of the full extent of the last two. Around the land masses was the vast encircling ocean, broken only on its fringes by a few islands like Britain. In the centre of the continents was the Mediterranean, the middle sea. This was the heart of the world, and of the Roman Empire.'
In Marcus' day the empire stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Rhine and Danube, and from the line of the rivers Forth and Clyde in northern Britain to the Euphrates in Syria. This was a vast area - by far the greatest part of the known world as far as its inhabitants were concerned. It was all the greater in an age when transport was never faster than a ship could sail across the sea or a horse could gallop overland. It was some 3,000 miles from the easternmost fringes of the empire to its northernmost tip, and yet we know that people made such journeys. In 1878 a tombstone was found near the site of the Roman fort of Arbeia at South Shields overlooking the mouth of the Tyne. It commemorates Regina - Queen or perhaps Queenie - the thirty-year-old `freedwoman and wife' of `Barates of the Palmyrene nation'. Palmyra was a wealthy oasis city in Syria and it seems likely that Barates was a merchant, and judging from the size and quality of this monument, a successful one. His wife was more local, a Briton from the Catuvellaunian tribe who lived north of the Thames. Originally she had been his slave, but he had given her freedom and then married her, a not uncommon arrangement. On the tombstone she is shown seated and dressed in the finery of a Roman lady, with a bracelet on her wrist and necklace at her throat, her hair pinned up in one of the ornate styles dictated by fashion. On the husband's part at least there does seem to have been genuine affection. Most of the inscription is in Latin, but the last line is in the curving script of his own native tongue and reads simply, `Regina, the freedwoman of Barates, alas.'4
Neither Barates nor Regina were Roman citizens, but their marriage and presence in northern Britain were all due to the empire. So was the fact that the monument was in Roman style and largely in Latin. The world they lived in was Roman, although never exclusively so. Each proudly identified with peoples that had once been independent. Barates spoke his own Semitic language and Regina is likely to have spoken the Celtic language of her people. Latin was only common in the western provinces and Greek remained the principal means of communication and culture in the east. Throughout the empire many different languages and dialects continued to be spoken locally. There were other differences, too, of religion, customs and culture, and yet the striking thing about the empire was the number of similarities from one province to another. The great public buildings - basilicas, temples, theatres, circuses, amphitheatres and aqueducts - looked much the same in Africa as they did in Gaul, Spain and Syria.
Yet it was more than just a question of architectural style and engineering technique. People dressed in similar and distinctively Roman ways, and particular fashions spread widely. Hadrian was the first emperor to wear a beard, expressing his fondness for this Greek custom, although others said that he just wanted to hide the blemishes on his skin. Many men copied him. Similarly women aped the hairstyles adopted by the emperors' wives and daughters, shown on their portraits throughout the provinces. Virtually identical coiffures can be seen on sculptures from the Rhineland as on funerary portraits from Egypt. These painted portraits decorated coffins containing bodies mummified according to the ancient custom of the region. Becoming Roman rarely, if ever, meant complete abandonment of local traditions.'
The Roman Empire was created through conquest, which was often an extremely bloody business. Julius Caesar was said to have killed a million people when he overran Gaul in 58-50 B c, and sold as many more into slavery. This was exceptional, and the numbers are probably exaggerated, but the Romans were ruthlessly determined in their pursuit of victory and the cost could be appalling for the vanquished. The Roman historian Tacitus made one tribal leader proclaim that the Romans `make a wasteland, and call it peace'. Very few provinces were created without at least some fighting and Caesar himself felt it was natural for the Gauls to fight for their freedom, even if it was entirely proper for him to deprive them of it in the interest of Rome. Yet in Gaul as elsewhere, there were always some communities and leaders who welcomed the legions, seeking protection from hostile neighbours or hoping to gain an advantage over rivals. The Iceni tribe of the famous Queen Boudicca had welcomed the Roman invaders in 43 and only rebelled in 6o when the royal family was mistreated. The legions were as efficient and brutal in suppressing a rebellion as they were in fighting any other war, and the revolt of the 6 Iceni ended in utter and very costly defeat.
Rebellions often occurred about a generation after the initial conquest, but were extremely rare in most areas after that. By the second century it is very hard to detect any traces of a desire for independence from the overwhelming bulk of the provincial population. Partly this acknowledged the dreadful power of the legions, but the army was not large enough to have held the empire down by force and most regions never saw a soldier, let alone a formed body of troops. More importantly, enough people prospered under Roman rule to want to keep it. The Romans had no wish to occupy a wasteland, wanting provinces that were peaceful and rich. In some periods there was substantial settlement of Roman and Italian colonists in communities in conquered territory, but these were never more than a minority amongst the indigenous population. Provinces would never have been peaceful and paid the required taxes without the efforts of the provincials themselves.
Those to benefit most were the local aristocracies, many of whom kept their land, status and wealth. Local communities were left to run their own affairs for much of the time, since central government had neither the desire nor the capacity to interfere. Some laws were imposed, especially those for incidents involving Roman citizens or to regulate relations with other communities. Usually these communities were cities, which administered the lands around them. Many pre-dated Roman occupation, but where none existed they were usually created. The culture of the empire was primarily urban and local aristocrats were encouraged to become magistrates and city councillors. This gave them prestige, authority and sometimes the chance for an even greater career in imperial service. Many were granted Roman citizenship, but Rome had always been generous with this and it was also extended to many less well-off provincials. In the middle of the first century the Apostle Paul, a Jew from the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, was a citizen, although there is no evidence that he could speak Latin. His family was able to give him a good education, but do not seem to have been more than moderately wealthy. On a grander scale, entire cities could formally become a Roman town or colony with constitutions modelled on that of Rome itself.
Most of the provinces were artificial creations of the empire, combining different tribes, peoples and cities into divisions that would have had no real meaning before the Romans came. Tribes and cities continued to inspire real emotion. Paul would boast of being a citizen of Tarsus, ,no mean city', as well as a Roman. In the second century cities were at their most prosperous and were fiercely competitive with their neighbours, striving to out-do them in splendour and prestige. Grand public buildings were constructed as physical symbols of a city's importance. Only a fraction survives from what once existed, but such monuments today provide many of the most spectacular reminders of the Roman era. Magistrates were expected to contribute plenty of their own money when presiding over such projects, commemorating this in great inscriptions set up on the completed buildings. Sometimes ambition got out of hand. At the beginning of the second century Pliny the Younger was sent to govern Bithynia and Pontus - modern northern Turkey. He found that Nicomedia had spent over 3 million sesterces on an aqueduct, which had never been completed. Nearby Nicaea had spent Io million on a theatre that was already collapsing. These were vast sums - a legionary soldier was paid only 1,200 sesterces per year - and give an indication of the huge amounts lavished on improving cities. Most projects were more successful. There were always local peculiarities of custom and ritual, but it is striking just how similar civic life was throughout the empire.7
However dreadful initial conquest by Rome may have been, if it created a wasteland, then it was never permanent. The famous Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was a reality, and we should not forget how rare prolonged peace was in the ancient world. Before the Romans arrived warfare and raiding were a common occurrence everywhere, and in some regions endemic. Tribes, peoples, cities, kingdoms or leaders fought each other frequently, and in many cases were wracked by internal violence and civil war. This was as true of so-called barbarian tribes as it was of the Greek world - democratic Athens had proved extremely aggressive in its foreign policy. The Romans, however, stopped all of this. Rome was the most successful imperialist of the ancient world, but it was most certainly not the only expansionist state. It is a mistake to think of conquered peoples as mere victims of Rome rather than aggressive in their own right. The Romans had a unique talent for absorbing others and managed to convince the provinces that remaining loyal to Rome was better than the alternative of resistance. This element of consent was ultimately what made the empire work. By 18o no one could seriously imagine, let alone remember, a world without Rome.
Violence was not completely absent from the provinces. Banditry was a serious problem in some areas at some periods and may at times have had a social or political element to it. Both pirates and bandits figure regularly in Greek and Roman fiction, suggesting that they captured the imagination, which does not necessarily mean that they were common in real life. However, there is frequent mention in a range of sources of other organised or casual violence - of landlords against tenants or any group against the vulnerable. We need to be a little careful, since crimes - especially violent crimes - attract disproportionate attention in today's media, quite simply because no one wishes to report or hear about days when nothing happened. There was no organised police force above a local level and the empire was certainly not without crime, but then this has also been true of other large states. Serious rebellion was very rare. Judaea rebelled under Nero (66-73) and again under Hadrian (132-135), while the Jewish population in Egypt, Cyprus and several other provinces rose against Trajan (115-117). In each case the fighting was bitter and costly, but eventually the Romans brutally suppressed the revolt.'
The Jews were unusual in having such a strong sense of nationhood, reinforced by religion, and traditions that emphasised resistance to invaders. There were Jewish communities dotted throughout the cities of the empire, but also many living outside, within the great kingdom of Parthia. The Parthians were the only significant independent power on the empire's borders, ruling a realm that covered much of today's Iraq and Iran. The Romans treated them with a degree of respect unmatched in their diplomacy with other peoples, but never as equals. Parthian cavalry armies were formidable in the right circumstances and had in the past inflicted a number of defeats on Roman armies, although conflicts invariably ended with a treaty favouring Rome. Yet their power should not be exaggerated and was dwarfed by the empire. Trajan had launched a major invasion and had sacked the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon. There was never any prospect of a Parthian army threatening Rome itself. Between Parthia and Rome lay the kingdom of Armenia, which clung on to a precarious independence. Culturally it had more in common with the Parthians, and its throne was frequently occupied by members of their royal family. However, the Romans insisted that only they could grant legitimacy to a new king.
Trajan attempted to annex much of Parthia, but was thwarted by a spate of rebellions in the newly conquered territories and his own failing health. His successor Hadrian withdrew from the new provinces and Parthia gradually recovered some of its strength. Elsewhere along the frontiers Rome faced communities far smaller in scale. The vast majority were tribal peoples, politically disunited and frequently hostile to each other. Occasionally a charismatic leader emerged to unite several tribes for a while, but his power rarely survived to be passed on to a successor. The bulk of the Roman army was deployed on or near the frontiers to face whatever threats emerged. This in itself suggests that serious rebellion was considered unlikely in most of the internal provinces. Writing in the second century, the Greek orator Aelius Aristides compared Roman soldiers to the wall protecting a city.'
More Honourable Men: The Rulers of the Empire
The nine hundredth anniversary of Rome's foundation was formally commemorated in 148 when Marcus Aurelius was in his teens. (It is impossible to know whether or not Romulus existed and actually founded the city in 753 BC, but the traditional date was probably roughly right.) Kings ruled Rome until 509 BC, when the last of these was expelled and the Republic created. In this system elected magistrates provided the state with its senior executive officers, leading it both in peace and in war. They were advised by the Senate, a council that included all former magistrates. The system was supposed to prevent any one individual or group from gaining supreme power. For a long time it worked well, giving Rome an internal stability that was envied by Greek commentators whose own communities were plagued by revolution and internal strife. The Roman Republic expanded to control the Italian Peninsula by the third century B c, and by the middle of the next century dominated the Mediterranean world. Yet eventually Roman politics became increasingly violent. In 88 Bc a Roman army marched against Rome itself, beginning the first in a series of civil wars that would tear the Republic apart. Finally, in 31 BC, Julius Caesar's adopted son Octavian defeated his last rival, Mark Antony. Rome became a monarchy once again, although Octavian studiously avoided the word `king' - Caesar had been murdered because it was claimed that he craved this title.
Octavian claimed to have `restored the Republic', but during his long reign he created a system that fundamentally altered the balance of power within the state. He and his successors received the name imperator, from which we get our word `emperor'. In Latin it meant `general', and victorious commanders were traditionally hailed as imperator by their armies. It gained a new meaning because Octavian controlled the army. Soldiers swore an oath of allegiance to him, not to their commanders, and were paid and rewarded by him, including a grant of land or money on discharge. He also had permanent control of most of the provinces, oversaw state finances, controlled appointments to most senior posts and could make law. There was no constitutional position of emperor and each power was individually granted to Octavian. Officially he was the princeps, the first magistrate and chief servant of the state. Later he was also granted the name Augustus, its dignity helping to replace memories of the bloodstained revolutionary who had clawed his way to power. Both this name and the family name of Caesar became deeply associated with supreme power, and were taken by later emperors who had no connection with the line. The Principate, as it is known to modern scholars, was a veiled monarchy, but few people were fooled. In the Greek-speaking east, Augustus was referred to as basileus (king) from the very beginning. Imperial power rested ultimately on armed force. When one senator noted for his skill as an orator was criticised by Hadrian for using a particular word, he meekly submitted, much to the surprise of his friends. Later he cheerfully chided them and asked how could he not `acknowledge that the man who controls thirty legions is the most learned of all'.'°
In practice, the emperor was far more than first amongst equals, but the good ones did not parade their power and treated their subjects, and especially the senatorial aristocracy, with respect. The Senate consisted of around boo members at any one time, but admission to its ranks conferred senatorial status on several subsequent generations so that the class as a whole was a little bigger. A senator had to be freeborn and own property valued at i million sesterces. Most senators possessed far more than this, and the bulk of their property took the form of landed estates, sometimes dotted all over the empire, although all were required to own some land in Italy.
The old established families that had dominated the Republic were largely extinct, victims of the civil wars of the first century BC or the purges of nervous emperors. Natural wastage also contributed, for birth rates were low amongst the aristocracy, while infant mortality was exceptionally high. Marcus Aurelius and his wife Faustina were unusual in having as many as fourteen children, but only six of these survived to reach adulthood. Some lines survived through adoption, and others saw their wealth and heritage combine through a daughter's marriage with another family, but many died out altogether. The patricians, Rome's oldest aristocracy, became all but extinct during the rule of Augustus and his family. Later emperors conferred patrician status on other senators as a high honour. Caesar and Augustus had both introduced many Italians into the Senate. Claudius added a large number of men from Gaul and, over the course of time, there were senators from virtually every province in the empire. All were Roman citizens, some the descendants of Roman or Italian colonists, but others were from the provincial aristocracies, men whose ancestors may well have fought against Rome. In time, this was true of the emperors as well. Trajan and Hadrian came from Spain, as did the family of Marcus Aurelius, while Antoninus Pius was from Gaul.
The ancient prestige of the Senate remained, but very few of its members could boast more than a few generations of senators amongst their ancestors. Free elections had ended with the Republic, but the magistracies were still prestigious and important. In addition there were new jobs in imperial service. Most men followed a career that brought them both traditional and imperial posts, and mixed civilian and military responsibilities. The two consuls elected each year had been the senior magistrates of the Republic. Becoming consul was still a great honour, but it was normal for each pair to resign after three months and be replaced, so that there were usually eight in each year, all chosen by the emperor. It was more prestigious to be one of the two consuls who began the year, better again to hold the office twice or even thrice, and best of all to be consul with the emperor as a colleague. A number of provinces were governed by senatorial proconsuls, whose appointment was still the prerogative of the Senate, although it was unlikely that the successful candidate would not also have had imperial favour. Provinces with significant military garrisons were controlled by the emperor's representatives or legates. These men were carefully selected senators and such commands usually represented the pinnacle of their career.
After the senators came the equestrian order, or `knights' - the name a survival of an earlier age when those wealthy enough to afford a horse had served as cavalry in Rome's militia army. Equestrians were also normally supposed to be freeborn and had to own property worth at least 400,000 sesterces. Once again, many had far more than this. There were substantially more equestrians than senators. Early in the first century the Greek geographer Strabo noted that census returns showed Soo knights in the Spanish city of Gades (modern Cadiz) alone. This was exceptional - even in Italy only the city of Patavium (Padua) could boast as many, although this was perhaps I per cent of its population. There may well have been Io,ooo equestrians throughout the empire, perhaps substantially more than this. Under the Republic few formal offices had been open to them, but Augustus changed this and created a wide range of administrative and military jobs for them. Smaller provinces were governed by equestrians, as was Egypt, where uniquely the legions were also commanded by knights. Altogether there were around boo equestrian posts, the vast majority army commissions, compared to just over ioo senatorial jobs."
Equestrians were important men, and some held positions of great responsibility and influence, but they were not a coherent group with common interests. A senator would know every other senator, if only by reputation and family, and at times it was possible to speak of senatorial opinion, but in no meaningful way was there such a thing as equestrian opinion. An even larger and less united group was formed by the curial class, the local aristocrats who held magistracies and formed the ruling councils of the cities dotted around the empire. Their wealth and importance varied with the prominence and size of their home community, but we know that at Comum in northern Italy a man had to own property valued at ioo,ooo sesterces to be eligible for office - a quarter that required by an equestrian and a tenth of that needed by a senator. Doubtless once again many had more, and it does seem to have been common for equestrians to serve on their local city councils."
The wealthy had grand town houses - the remains at Pompeii and Herculaneum give some idea of their scale and luxury, although it is important to remember that neither of these towns were especially wealthy or important. However, the clearest expression of the elite's wealth came in the grand villas on their country estates. Landowning was the only truly respectable source of wealth and farming for profit offered one of the best - and certainly most consistent - returns on an investment. In addition a country villa provided the perfect environment for periods of leisure, offering peace and quiet unlike the bustling life of cities, as well as opportunities for hunting. Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius were all dedicated hunters, as were many senators. Hadrian was badly injured on at least one occasion and set up a monument to one of his favourite horses after the latter had been brought down by a boar. There were also quieter, more intellectual pursuits.
Rome's elite were highly educated and many devoted great efforts to literature and philosophy. All senators would have been at the very least bilingual, for Greek was as essential for an educated man as Latin was for official business. Marcus wrote the meditations in Greek, as a more fitting language for the abstract ideas of philosophy. Skill as an orator was very important for a career in public life, even if most of the speeches made were the formal and predictable panegyrics of emperors. Purity of language, style and expression were judged very strictly and were often more important than content. Literature had a tendency to look back to the distant past and avoid the concerns of contemporary political life. The second sophistic movement - the first sophistic had flourished when democratic Athens was at its height of power in the fifth century BC - was obsessed with the independent past of the Greek cities. The empire became the grand culmination of this glorious antiquity. Much of the literary output of this period is not particularly attractive to the modern reader. Yet the most important thing to notice about it was the standard of learning required to take part in this movement. Only the very wealthy could afford the leisure and acquire the necessary education to be truly men of culture. Their learning confirmed their status at the top of the social ladder."
The emperor needed the wealthier classes to help him run the empire. Senators in particular were the class he lived amongst and their attitude towards him tended to dictate how he would be portrayed in later histories. Literature was mainly written by and for the aristocracy. It was important to treat them with respect and emperors who failed to do this were vilified after their deaths. Hadrian was a clever and able man, but tended to parade his talents too much, delighting in demonstrating his superiority to others. As a result he was unpopular, even though his reign was highly successful, and it was only with great reluctance that the Senate was persuaded to deify him after his death. Yet on the whole Rome had had a series of good emperors in the second century, talented men who took the job seriously and made decisions for the general good. The well-off were certainly content. Roman law had a long tradition of protecting the wealthy and aristocratic from the harsh punishments inflicted on their social inferiors. This continued under the Principate and gradually two distinct groups were acknowledged by law, the `more honourable men' (honestiores) and the `more humble men' (humiliores).14
More Humble Men' The Poor and the Rest
Even adding together senators, equestrians and the curial class, the elite of the empire consisted of a tiny fraction of its total population. There is no reliable figure for this at any period, since the numbers given in the sources are vague, sometimes contradictory and often wildly exaggerated. Usually the estimate of between 5o and 70 million is given for the population in the first century, with many scholars today compromising at 6o million. Ultimately such figures rest on the pioneering work of the nineteenth-century German scholar Beloch, who attempted a systematic study of population densities in the ancient world. Methodical though his work was, it inevitably involved a good deal of conjecture. The same has been true of more recent studies making use of such tools as life tables - charts presenting life expectancy for both genders on the basis of age - from `comparable' modern societies. Not unreasonably they suggest that birth rates and death rates were both high, as indeed they were in virtually every society before i8oo. However, some have opted for an extremely bleak picture of the ancient world, suggesting that life expectancy was as bad as the Neolithic period.
There are no reliable statistics. Ages on tombstones are not necessarily reliable - multiples of five are suspiciously common and there are an improbable number of ioo-year-old people from the African provinces. More importantly, only a tiny minority of tombstones have survived and obviously provide no evidence for those unable to afford them in the first place. Census reports from Egypt are again only a minute fraction of the records that once existed and present their own problems. One study found that 35 per cent of all those recorded were under fifteen, but to conclude that the comparatively fewer young adults was the result of high mortality is questionable. People at this age were far more likely to have left their villages, or to have wanted to avoid the census and the taxation that followed in its wake. Without statistics we are left with guessing. It has probably been wise to assume the grimmest possible conditions and, at the very least, it is extremely unlikely that the figure was lower than the range suggested. It may well have been higher, perhaps substantially so. My own suspicion - and it is no more than that - is that the figure will gradually be raised as more and more archaeological evidence accumulates for the number and size of settlements within the provinces.15
Whatever the overall size of the population, most people lived in the country, on farms and in villages. Some cities were huge. Rome probably had a population of around a million. Alexandria was half the size, but its population combined with those of Antioch and Carthage probably amounted to another million. A few cities may have had as many as ioo,ooo inhabitants, although most were far smaller, with populations numbering tens of thousands or even just thousands. Conditions were often crowded, especially in Rome and particularly for the poor. The multi-storey insulae (apartment blocks) were often badly constructed and liable to collapse. Fire was an ever-present threat. Even without such hazards living conditions were usually cramped, uncomfortable and expensive. The very poor could not afford to rent such accommodation and lived in shanty towns on waste ground or amongst the cemeteries. Such overcrowding made it very easy for disease to spread.
Some scholars suggest that ancient cities relied on a constant flow of immigrants to maintain their population, since unhealthy living conditions meant that the death rate outstripped the birth rate - or to put it more clinically, that cities were net consumers of people. Public bath houses offered improved hygiene, but the use of the same water by so many people also helped to spread some diseases. Roman cities had public lavatories, as well as drainage and sewage systems - which was considerably more than could be said for most cities before or after the Roman period - and yet these may not always have been adequate. Simply disposing of the dead presented problems in a city as large and as densely populated as Rome. Historians wishing to conjure up a grim image of life there are fond of quoting an incident when Emperor Vespasian was interrupted at dinner by a dog carrying a human hand. We should not forget that this was seen as a dreadful omen, not an everyday occurrence."
Conditions in the cities could be squalid, but they were also places where there was a chance of work. One of the reasons why so many great monuments were constructed was to provide the poor with labouring jobs. At Rome citizens were also entitled to a ration of grain. There were also the great festivals and entertainments. The Circus Maximus could seat between 200,000-250,000 people, and the Colosseum at least 50,000. Even today there are few sporting venues able to accommodate so many. Country areas lacked such attractions, although it is a mistake to think of town and country as completely separate, since most villages were fairly close to a city of some description. The great amphitheatre at Dougga in Tunisia had seats for more people than lived in the city, which suggests that many more would travel to see the games.
Conditions for the poor were different in the rural areas, but may have been similarly grim. We hear of wealthy landlords or their representatives intimidating and robbing their smaller neighbours, when authority was too distant or unwilling to intervene. Obviously, stories of the abuse of power - much like tales of attacks by robbers or pirates - were far more likely to be recorded and so appear in our sources than peaceful and hence mundane coexistence. There is a similar problem with the practice of abandoning unwanted babies on rubbish dumps or dunghills, something that attracted a lot of attention in our ancient sources and has received even more from modern scholars. Such infants were often taken to be raised and sold as slaves, and in Egypt they were sometimes given the unfortunate name of Kopros (dung). It is likely that the frequency of such exposures is exaggerated in our sources, which usually have a strongly moral tone and include many Christian manuscripts, and there are cases where Kopros became a proud family name, passed on to successive generations after the initial foundling had done well for himself.'
Slavery was a fact of life in the Roman Empire, and indeed every other ancient society. There was never any pressure for its abolition, although in the second century several emperors had legislated to relieve some of the more brutal practices, such as the castration of boy slaves to gain a better price as eunuchs. How high a proportion of the overall population were slaves is, once again, unknown. Household slaves were common everywhere - we have already encountered Barates' wife Regina - and the domestic staff of the grander houses could easily measure in the hundreds. Slaves seem to have been rare as the main labour force outside the large estates of Italy, and some of the more dangerous and unpleasant tasks such as mining. Domestic slaves often enjoyed better living conditions than the free poor and stood a fair chance of receiving their freedom. It was also common for a slave to run businesses on his or her owner's behalf and eventually buy his or her freedom for a previously agreed sum from the profits. Yet in the end slaves were still property and suffered from severe legal disadvantages. It was normal for slaves to be interrogated under torture if their master was suspected of a crime, since it was otherwise believed that they would not testify against him."
Scholars today all too often present a very simplistic view of the Roman world. On the one hand are the rich - the senators and equestrians, and at a pinch the curial class as well - and on the other hand are the poor - consisting of everyone else, with slaves as a distinct sub-group. To a great extent this inherits the snobbery of the literary sources, which were almost all written by and for the elite. Viewed from the top, the distinctions between the wider population were unlikely to stand out. A senator might easily own more than ten times the property of a magistrate in a minor city, but this does not mean that the latter was poor. The same logic would dictate that anyone today earning less than the managing director of a multinational company must inevitably live in abject poverty.
It is certainly true that the empire had nothing even vaguely resembling the middle class of Victorian and later Britain. Even the equestrian order did not form a coherent group with interests and attitudes of its own, so this should not surprise us. It is equally obvious from all our sources of evidence as well as simple logic that there were many people in the empire of middling income and property. In every village there were some people wealthier than others, and in towns and cities there was even greater variety of wealth and status. Money was not always enough for respectability - the rich freedman is a familiar and derided figure in literature - but successful freedmen were clearly important figures in many communities. It was common for cities to encourage teachers to set up schools. The elite educated their children at home with personal tutors, and these public schools catered for the more moderately welloff. Literacy was not the preserve of the elite, although few from outside their ranks were able to attain the fluency and purity of Greek and Latin expected of a senator."
Society was a good deal more complex than is often claimed and social mobility was always possible. There were also strong links between individuals at all levels. It was important for senators to have as many clients as possible, individuals and even whole communities obliged to them both for past favours and in confident expectation of new ones. Posts in government and the army were overwhelmingly determined by patronage, and influence mattered in nearly every other aspect of life. The letter of recommendation is the commonest form of writing to survive from the Greco-Roman world and operated at all levels, from senators to anyone able to write and to claim a connection with someone of influence. The following is an extract from a letter written to the equestrian officer commanding the garrison at Vindolanda in northern Britain in the early second century:
Brigonius has requested me, my lord, to recommend him to you. I therefore ask, my lord, if you would be willing to support him in what he has requested of you. I ask that you think fit to commend him to Annius Equester, centurion in charge of the region, at Luguvalium, ... you will place me in debt to you both in his name and my own . . .2O
The emperor was the ultimate source of patronage. Anyone believed to be capable of influencing the emperor would also be courted by people seeking favours. People at all levels had influence, if only because they had a link with someone of greater power. The acceptance of this system as perfectly normal is illustrated in a letter written by Pliny to a provincial governor in the early second century: `Your command of a large army gives you a plentiful source of benefits to confer, and secondly, your tenure has been long enough for you to have provided for your own friends. Turn to mine - they are not many.'2'
A man needed to secure plenty of favours if he was to keep his clients content and stop them from seeking preferment from someone else. Inevitably, it is likely that such a system favoured connections over individual talent, but then even modern, supposedly more impartial and scientific systems of selection manage to promote their fair share of incompetents. However, if a man continually recommended clients who were incapable of performing their job adequately, in the long run his appeals were less likely to be successful. Helping an able man gain promotion was also beneficial to the patron, since the former was now in a better position to return the favour. In general the system functioned adequately and seemed as natural to the Romans as it might seem alien to us. In the modern world it is usually considered better to conceal the operation of favour and patronage, even if it is blatant to insiders.
Much the same could be said of the empire's economic system. The academic debate over this has been fierce, all the more so because, once again, it must occur in the absence of any reliable statistics. All agree that it was not exactly the same as a modern market economy, but there is no consensus on just about anything else. It is worth noting that a single system of currency was employed throughout the empire, with just a few exceptions, such as Egypt. Virtually all gold coins in circulation within the empire in the second century had been minted at Rome, as had the majority of silver coins. All carried the head of a Caesar on them. It is also clear that large quantities of goods were able to move over considerable distances. Agricultural products were dominant, and `factories' - or rather, workshops - producing ceramics, metalwork, textiles and other products seem always to have been fairly small scale. The picture is usually of lots of small workshops, often operating next door to each other, rather than great unified industries. However, we know so little about who owned and drew most profit from such enterprises that it is wise to be cautious about making sweeping conclusions. The Romans did not develop a system of corporate law comparable to that pioneered by the Dutch in the early modern era."
Bulky objects were easier and cheaper to transport by water, on rivers and canals, and most of all by sea. Far more wrecks of merchant vessels have been discovered dating to the first and second centuries than from any other period in the Roman era. There were some extremely large vessels, notably the great ships that carried grain from Egypt to Rome, but the vast majority of vessels seem to have been quite small. Again, the picture is of large numbers of small concerns rather than great centralised enterprises. Some goods are easier to track than others. Barrels were common, particularly in Europe, but are very unlikely to leave much trace archaeologically. In contrast, the ceramic amphorae that were used as containers for wine, oil, fish sauce and many other liquids survive in vast quantities. The famous Monte Testaccio in Rome, an artificial hill consisting of vast quantities of broken amphorae is one of the most spectacular examples, but finds of amphorae, and pottery in general, are extremely common throughout the empire. The wreck of a ship with a cargo of amphorae tends to be particularly visible.
Transporting goods by land was often more difficult, but sometimes the only option. Roman roads are justly famous for their sheer size and obsession with straightness. Originally built for military purposes, they also became valuable all-weather communications routes for civilian traffic. There is a persistent myth that the Romans never developed an effective horse harness, severely restricting the use of wagons for hauling heavy loads. Wheeled transport works best on level or only gently sloping surfaces. Italy is so mountainous that pack animals like mules tended to be preferred and were used in great numbers. Elsewhere in the empire carts and wagons were common, pulled by mules, horses according to availability and, if speed was not a priority, oxen. Camels were important as pack and draught animals in Egypt and some parts of the east. Carts and carriages were well designed for their purpose, and - again contrary to the frequent assertions of historians of technology - in most respects as sophisticated as anything before the modern era.
This was generally true of most types of machinery and engineering. The Romans did not develop windmills, but watermills were common from at least the first century and greatly increased productivity. Water power in general was especially developed in a wide range of activities. There were water-powered saws to cut marble and other stones for building. Mining used water pressure for a range of purposes, shifting earth to uncover deposits, then sifting it to separate out the parts containing ore, which was in turn broken into smaller pieces by hydraulicpowered hammers. Excavation has revealed mine-working on a truly massive scale at sites in Spain and north Wales, outstripping anything seen before the nineteenth century. Some of this occurred in state-run projects, often involving the army, but it is also clear that some private businesses were contracted to exploit the imperial-owned mines. Analysis of core samples taken from the polar icecaps has revealed traces of pollution produced by industrial activity such as smelting. The levels of this for the first century BC through to the second century AD dwarf those of both earlier and later centuries, and indeed of any period before the Industrial Revolution."
Much of the technological sophistication of the ancient world is only now being confirmed by archaeology. The Romans were always willing to copy the innovations of others - the barrel, for instance, appears to have been a north European invention. Most of the innovations in waterpowered machinery had been invented in Egypt in the third century BC, but spread widely only after the region's incorporation in the empire. Areas like Gaul were already flourishing before Rome's arrival, with agricultural productivity showing a marked increase and settlements growing in size and sophistication. Contact and trade with the Mediterranean world probably encouraged this indigenous development. There was long-distance trade, widespread mining and such aids as roads in many parts of Europe and in the pre-Roman Iron Age. Roman conquest further encouraged this development, tying all these regions more closely into a wider world and bigger markets. More consumer goods became available to more people, and many were objects that would be familiar in style and function from one end of the empire to another.24
It is unlikely that anyone living within the empire could have been unaware of its existence. This was also true of peoples living on the fringes or outside, such as the Garamantes, a tribal people living in the Saharan regions of modern Libya. Excavations at their most important settlement have revealed the presence of pottery, glassware, wine and oil during the Roman period in quantities massively greater than either earlier or later phases. The greater part of these goods had to be carried overland from the Mediterranean coast some 600-700 miles away. The Garamantes also seem to have travelled further, trading over massive distances with peoples further south in Africa, and quite possibly taking slaves as an agricultural labour force. During the creation of the empire Roman and Italian traders had preceded the legions virtually everywhere, although they rarely appear in ancient literature. This continued after the empire stopped expanding. Ireland never attracted the attentions of a Roman army, but there was much trading contact. Other merchants from the empire went to the Baltic to obtain amber.Z"
The most spectacular trade links were with India and China. From the Red Sea ports of Egypt large numbers of merchant ships left in July of each year, catching the monsoon winds that would carry them directly to reach India. Their cargoes included wine, glassware, metals and coin, textiles and frankincense from Arabia. The return journey began in December or January using the north-east monsoon winds to take them back, bringing perfumes, pepper, precious stones, ivory, cotton cloth and silk, which the Indians themselves had obtained from China. Some sailors even went further than this. Chinese records from 166 mention the arrival at the court of the Han emperor of an embassy from the king of Ta-ch'in, whose name was An-tun. Ta-ch'in was the name for Rome, and An-tun was doubtless Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. It was unlikely to have been an official visit and the gifts presented by the merchants - ivory, rhinoceros horn and tortoiseshell - had all been obtained en route.
Both Rome and China were dimly aware of the other's existence, but the distances involved ensured that there was never any direct and meaningful contact. Traders also trekked over vast distances to carry goods overland along the famous Silk Road. Silk was much in demand in the empire and seems to have been available in great quantities. The same was true of pepper. In the first century Pliny the Elder commented on the vast sums spent by Romans on these and other luxuries. It is doubtful that many men travelled the whole route themselves, and the trade was controlled by a succession of middlemen. There were workshops in Syria that wove silk more finely than anything the Chinese themselves could produce, and this semi-transparent gauze was reexported back eastwards in considerable quantities. There were persistent rumours in China that the Romans had silkworms of their own producing this finer material, but in fact it was not until the sixth century that monks smuggled some silkworms to Constantinople and production began in the west. Once again the Romans did not create this longdistance trade, but the conditions of the empire massively increased its scale."
Trade flourished and Pliny was convinced that it was of general benefit: now that world wide communications have been established thanks to the authority of the Roman Empire ... living standards have improved by the interchange of goods and by partnership in the joy of peace and by the general availability of things previously concealed'.'
The Philosopher Emperor
When Marcus Aurelius became emperor in 161, the empire was at its height. It was prosperous and stable, and the sophisticated culture that mingled Greek and Roman elements with other influences was flourishing. It was not a perfect society. Slavery was widespread and the lives of the poorest free citizens were often spent in extremely squalid conditions. Perhaps even more shocking to the modern mind, human beings were regularly slaughtered for entertainment. Yet neither before nor for a long time afterwards was so much of Europe, North Africa and the Near East at peace. More people were better off than had been the case before. For Gibbon, writing in the 1770s, the message was clear:
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus [i.e. 96-i8o]. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws.Z"
It was not an unreasonable conclusion at the time he was writing, although Gibbon was also appreciative of the advantages of life in Britain and Europe in his own day. The Roman emperors he mentions were probably amongst the most decent and capable men to hold the supreme office. They were all mature men when they came to power, worked hard at the job and eventually died natural deaths.
The reign of Marcus Aurelius was particularly hard. It began with a war in the east, once again sparked by a dispute over Armenia. The Parthians killed a Roman governor and wiped out his army, and launched raids deep into Syria. Marcus had made his brother by adoption co-ruler, giving him the title of Caesar while styling himself Augustus. Caesar Lucius Verus was sent to take command of a grand war effort, although the sources suggest that he was mainly a figurehead and the war was conducted by his subordinates. The Romans repulsed the invaders and then advanced down the Tigris to sack both the Parthian capital Ctesiphon and the nearby Hellenistic city of Seleucia in 165. After this the Parthian king sued for peace. Verus returned to Italy at the end of 166, and the detachments of troops drawn from all over the empire also started to go back to their home bases.
With them came a dreadful epidemic, whose identity cannot now be established, although smallpox and bubonic plague have both been suggested. For the next three decades much of the empire was ravaged by periodic outbreaks of this disease, and in 189 it was said that 2,000 were dying in Rome every day. The overall death toll cannot be estimated - as we have established, there are no reliable figures for how big the population was before the epidemic started. It was certainly seen by contemporaries as an appalling and catastrophic event. The suggestion that some 1o per cent of the total population died, with higher proportions in the crowded cities and army bases, is plausible enough, but is no more than a guess. Census returns from Egypt seem to show a severe drop in the population at this time, with some communities being abandoned altogether. There may be traces of dreadful losses in army recruitment patterns.29
While the empire was reeling under this blow - perhaps because of it - a serious problem developed on the Danubian frontier, beginning with a raid on Pannonia by 6,ooo Germanic warriors from a number of tribes in 167. This was eventually repulsed, but the perception that Rome was vulnerable encouraged more attacks. A series of bitter campaigns were fought, most of all against the Germanic Marcomanni and Quadi and the nomadic Sarmatian Iazyges. Marcus presided in person over most of these operations. In 17o a raiding band of Germans reached Italy and attacked the city of Aquileia, while another group had penetrated as far as Greece. The sources for these campaigns are poor, but there seem to have been a number of Roman defeats before the tide turned and one by one the tribes were forced to accept peace terms.
Then in 175 Marcus faced an unexpected threat when a false report of his death prompted the Syrian governor Avidius Cassius to declare himself emperor. Marcus' son Commodus was still only thirteen and so could not yet be seen as a viable heir. The revolt collapsed as soon as the truth was known. Cassius and his son were killed, but otherwise there was virtually no bloodshed. However, Marcus was drawn away from the Danube to ensure that the east was secure. Fighting flared up again on the frontier in 177 and the following year the emperor left Rome to resume personal command. He never returned. There was talk of plans to annex two new provinces beyond the Danube. Excavations in the Czech Republic in recent years confirmed that large army bases were established there at this period. A fresh campaign was anticipated when Marcus fell ill and died, perhaps at Vindobona (modern Vienna)."
Marcus Aurelius had been a decent, intelligent man who had tried to do his best. His Meditations may not be the most original or greatest work of philosophy ever written, but it is striking to read such sentiments from the ruler of most of the known world.
Marcus was to be greatly missed. The senator historian Dio, who grew up under his rule, gloomily wrote that after his death `our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day'.3'