Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Eighty-Two

The Edges of the Roman World

Between AD 70 and 132, catastrophes trouble Rome, but a string of sane emperors occupies its throne

BY SEPTEMBER OF 70, the walls of Jerusalem had been broken down and the city burned, the Second Temple gone up in flames. The rebel Jewish army had not been entirely defeated, but Vespasian felt victory was sure enough for him to leave the area. He finally set out for Rome in September of 70 after nine months of princeps in absentia.

Vespasian was an experienced soldier; he understood the ways in which soldiers thought, and he did not underestimate the power of the army to make or break his power. His first action, once in Rome, was to reassign commanders and redivide troops so that old loyalties would be destroyed.

His ten-year rule was quiet, orderly, well administered: just as the Senate had hoped, a return to the days of Augustan procedure. There was some fighting on the outskirts of the empire: campaigns in Britain, Rome’s least-conquered province, and a horrendous outcome to the war in Jerusalem. In 73, the remnants of the Jewish rebellion, trapped in their fortress of Masada, killed their children and then themselves, rather than finally surrender to the Romans. The last Jewish stronghold was gone, as was Judea and all remnants of the old nation of Israel; Palestine became part of the province of Syria.

But essentially Rome was at peace; Vespasian avoided treason trials and lowered taxes, both of which made him more popular and Rome more serene.

In AD 79, Vespasian died, probably of the flu, at the age of seventy.1 The Senate confirmed his son Titus as his heir, a little apprehensively. During Vespasian’s reign, Titus had gained a reputation as a ruthless and often cruel commander, and his conduct against Jerusalem had been particularly violent. But once given the title of princeps, he followed his father’s orderly and decent example.


82.1 The Roman Empire

Rome had no chance to draw a deep breath, though. Three disasters hit Titus, one after the other.

The first was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, only two months into his reign. The mountain Vesuvius lay near the southwest coast of Italy, not far from the Bay of Naples, and it had been rumbling in the background for as long as most Romans could remember. The people who lived in the city of Pompeii, near its foot, were accustomed to the earthquakes, and even though they had begun to grow stronger no one was alarmed; no one knew that quakes might be the first stages in an eruption.

The Roman writer Pliny the Younger was in Pompeii on August 23, 79, the day before the eruption. “There had been tremors for many days previously,” he wrote, in a letter to a friend, “a common occurrence in Campania and no cause for panic.”

But that night the shaking grew much stronger; people thought it was an upheaval, not just a tremor…. Now the day begins, with a still hesitant and almost lazy dawn. All around us buildings are shaken. We are in the open, but it is only a small area and we are afraid, nay certain, that there will be a collapse. We decided to leave the town finally; a dazed crowd follows us, preferring our plan to their own (this is what passes for wisdom in a panic). Their numbers are so large that they slow our departure, and then sweep us along. We stopped once we had left the buildings behind us. Many strange things happened to us there, and we had much to fear. The carts that we had ordered brought were moving in opposite directions, though the ground was perfectly flat, and they wouldn’t stay in place even with their wheels blocked by stones. In addition, it seemed as though the sea was being sucked backwards, as if it were being pushed back by the shaking of the land. Certainly the shoreline moved outwards, and many sea creatures were left on dry sand. Behind us were frightening dark clouds, rent by lightning twisted and hurled, opening to reveal huge figures of flame. These were like lightning, but bigger…. It wasn’t long there after that the cloud stretched down to the ground and covered the sea…. Now came the dust, though still thinly. I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land. “Let us turn aside while we can still see, lest we be knocked over in the street and crushed by the crowd of our companions.” We had scarcely sat down when a darkness came that was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but more like the black of closed and unlighted rooms. You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices.…It grew lighter, though that seemed not a return of day, but a sign that the fire was approaching. The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. We stood up and shook the ash off again and again. Otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me.2

Those who did not escape were buried in twenty-five feet of ash, or choked by the heat and gasses. Over two thousand people died in a single night.

Titus at once sent disaster relief from Rome, and visited the site himself as soon as it was safe. He was at Pompeii for the second time, checking to see what needs could still be relieved, when a small fire in Rome blazed up and burned an enormous area of the city. And on the heels of the fire came an epidemic, which swept through the overpacked refugees in the city, killing them in scores.

In 81, still struggling with the aftermath of the disasters, Titus came down with a fever and died at the age of forty-two. He had been princeps of Rome for less than three horrible years. Perhaps the fever was a relief.

On Titus’s death, his brother Domitian was proclaimed imperator by the Praetorian Guard, and (inevitably) was confirmed as princeps by the Senate, twenty-four hours later. Domitian had never been his father’s favorite; whatever self-doubts this had produced in him, he worked out in imperious behavior towards Rome and total disregard for the Senate.

This was not necessarily a bad thing. Suetonius says that his severity was generally exercised in the interests of law and order: “He administered justice scrupulously and conscientiously,” he writes. “He degraded jurors who accepted bribes, together with all their associates…. He took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and the governors of the provinces, that at no time were they more honest or just.” He also kept a severe eye on public morals: “He expelled an ex-quaestor from the Senate because he was given to acting and dancing,” Suetonius remarks. He made it illegal for prostitutes to receive inheritances, and when he found out that one of the Vestal Virgins had been having multiple flings, he decreed that the traditional punishment be meted out. She was buried alive, and her lovers were “beaten to death with rods” in public.3

This was all perfectly correct, although severe. Domitian was not inclined to show mercy; he took his power very seriously indeed. Not long after his accession, he adopted the title dominus et deus, which is to say “Lord and God,” and ordered that all official letters be headed “Our Lord and our God commands that this be done.” “And so the custom arose,” Suetonius adds, “of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation.”4

Unlike Caligula, he was quite sane; and he did not use the claim of godhood to break the law. This scrupulous righteousness prevented the kind of popular outrage that had killed earlier abusers of the power of princeps. The Senate did not mount any sustained objection; the Praetorian Guard did not immediately assassinate him.

But we can look back at this title dominus et deus as the point at which the pleasant mask of republican government was finally put away for good. Even the worst princeps had been confirmed by the Senate, however unwillingly. But no one could claim that a ruler called “Lord and God” needed any kind of sanction from his people in order to rule. Domitian was not the first Roman ruler to wield kingly powers, but he was the first to say so. The First Citizen had finally become an emperor.233

Domitian’s claim to ultimate power and his rigid law enforcement produced the same unhappiness that plagued China when rewards were given for reporting on the misdeeds of others, and vexed Sparta when each man was the enforcer of his brother’s morals. The atmosphere in Rome grew so oppressive that Tacitus expressed gratitude that his much-loved and missed father Agricola had died before Domitian’s reign:

Domitian no longer left interval or breathing space…. Under Domitian more than half our wretchedness consisted in watching and being watched, while our very sighs were scored against us…. Happy you, Agricola, in your glorious life, but no less happy in your timely death.5

Relentless punishment of misdeeds led to discontent, discontent to muttering, mutterings to plot, plot to suspicion, suspicion to conviction, conviction to relentless punishment, in an unending circle of wretchedness.

Domitian, like Titus and Vespasian, knew the source of his power; he increased the pay for the army to assure himself of its loyalty. His household was less appreciative. In 96, his wife, his chamber attendant, his niece (whose husband he had put to death for atheism), and the leaders of the Praetorian Guard together stabbed Domitian to death in his bedchamber.6 The Senate immediately declared as emperor one of their own number, the sixty-one-year-old consul Nerva.

This pleased the people of Rome, but not the army. In 97, the Praetorian Guard (which had not as a whole taken part in the conspiracy to kill Domitian and had shared the army’s loyalty to him) shut Nerva up in his own palace, dragged out the chamberlain who had allowed the assassins into Domitian’s rooms, hacked off his genitals, shoved them in his mouth, and then cut his throat.7 Immediately afterwards, Nerva declared that his heir would be the general Trajan, a favorite of the army, currently stationed near the Rhine river. He had probably been told that this was the only way to avoid assassination, but none of the negotiations have survived. Just a few months later, Nerva died from fever. It was probably a welcome deliverance from a much nastier end.

Trajan, hearing the news that he was now emperor, took the time to make sure that his current command was properly wrapped up before heading for Rome. He journeyed along the frontier of the Rhine and Danube to see that it was safe, and only then turned back to the south. It was nearly eighteen months after Nerva’s death that he arrived in Rome.

The city had remained calm during all this time, which is a measure of Trajan’s perfect suitability for the job. The army respected his skill, and the people of Rome, relieved by Domitian’s absence and the escape from civil war that could have followed Nerva’s death, were ready to welcome him.

The Roman historians are almost unanimous in praising Trajan. He repaired roads and harbors, built libraries, dug canals, repaired sewers, and took “an oath that he would not shed blood,” which pleased the people.8 His campaigns pleased the army; by 106, he had added both the Sinai and the land north of the Danube to the Roman Empire. He led the attacks himself, and returned in triumph to a huge celebration. In honor of his victories, the story of his wars north of the Danube was carved, comic-book style, onto a column which still stands in Rome: Trajan’s Column.

Trajan’s reputation as a good emperor rested on his basic fairness, his lack of paranoia, his decent administration of the capital city, and his willingness to campaign for the greater glory of Rome. But it also had something to do with the punctilious manner in which he observed those empty forms of cooperation with the Senate. “He treated the Senators with dignity,” says the fourth-century Augustan History,234 and he was punctilious in carrying out senatorial regulations.

This was a relation between Senate and emperor that had not been seen for decades, or more; and in this atmosphere, thoughtful attempts were made to justify the domination of an emperor over a nation whose name itself denied any such possibility. The philosophy of stoicism had been taught in Rome for centuries; it had been foundational in the Roman idea of virtue. The stoic man was not dominated by his appetites. He was able to detach himself from both pleasure and pain, in order to decide with objectivity what course of action was good.

Now a philosopher named Epictetus turned to apply stoic principles to the problem of the emperor. The very word Roman, he wrote, now meant “a condition of submission to the emperor,” but there was no reason for this to be incompatible with true freedom. Even men who are legally, constitutionally “free” struggle with compulsions that threaten to enslave them:

Were you never commanded by her you loved to do anything you did not wish? Did you never flatter your precious slave-boy? Did you never kiss his feet? Yet if any one compel you to kiss Caesar’s you count it an outrage, the very extravagance of tyranny…. Did you never go out at night where you did not wish, and spend more than you wished, and utter words of lamentation and groaning…. Why do you call your self free then, any more?9

Epictetus was himself a slave from Asia Minor; he knew what it meant to live in submission. His Stoicism makes freedom a condition of the soul, not of the body. “That man is free,” he wrote, “who lives as he wishes…who gets what he wills to get, and avoids what he wills to avoid.” The emperors were there to stay; it was best, then, for Romans to simply redefine freedom.

IN THE LAST YEARS of Trajan’s reign, the empire was troubled by a phenomenon it did not know what to do with: the presence of a growing number of Christians. The consul Pliny, who had gone on to serve as a provincial governor in Asia Minor, was so worried by these people that he wrote to Trajan, asking what he should do about them. They talked about belonging to a kingdom with no earthly ruler; this was an attitude uncomfortably reminiscent of the Jews, who had first refused to worship the emperor and then had turned into a messy military problem.

In fact Christians, who did indeed look forward to a kingdom which would be ruled by God rather than Trajan, were quite different than Jews. Since Abraham, the Jewish worship of God had been tied to a particular piece of land; God had promised them the land of Israel which meant that their faith had to have a political dimension. The Jewish refusal to worship Roman emperors was based in theology (God had said: You will have no other gods but me), but it was also an assertion that the Romans had no right to rule over Israel, and particularly over Jerusalem. It belonged to God.

Christians, on the other hand, had never had a country of their own: the kingdom that they talked about was a spiritual one, existing in another dimension, side by side with the earthly nations where they lived. It was a city without foundations, whose builder was God, as the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews put it. The name Christian itself implied that they found their identity as followers of the God-man who had been crucified in Palestine—not as residents of a particular place.

The emperors and governors of Rome never did figure this out. Pliny’s letters were both cautious and puzzled: Should he hunt Christians down if they didn’t come forwards? Should he allow them to carry on the strange rituals of their faith in public? How should he respond?

Trajan suggested a don’t ask–don’t tell policy; Pliny should discourage public professions of Christianity, but he was not to racket around finding Christians to kill. If they were behaving peacefully, they should be left in peace.

He was not overly concerned about the issue, in part because he was inclined to look outwards for his battles. Under Trajan, the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent. He had pushed the borders north and south; his final campaign was against Parthia, now ruled by the king Vologases III. In 113, he personally led Roman troops east through Armenia, which fell to Rome and became a Roman province, and directly into the Parthian land across the Euphrates river. The Parthians were forced to retreat; Trajan marched into Mesopotamia itself, occupied Babylon, and captured the Parthian capital Ctesiphon.

This was a great victory, but the Mesopotamian desert was notoriously difficult to hold onto; it was better suited to guerilla warfare than for occupation by a large army. Until 117, Trajan remained in Mesopotamia, fighting against the ongoing Parthian resistance, but was never able to entirely obliterate it. At the same time, another civil disturbance was troubling the Roman subjects. In 115, Jewish communities scattered across the empire, from Egypt northwards, had taken the Roman preoccupation with Parthia as an opportunity to rebel. Masada was still well within living memory; and the Jews wanted the land given to them by God back again. This rebellion grew more and more serious, until Trajan gave permission to the non-Jews in the troubled areas to kill their Jewish neighbors, a massacre which temporarily suspended the problem.

He decided, though, that he had better suspend operations in Parthia until a more auspicious time; and so he pulled his troops back and started home. He only got as far as Asia Minor. In Cilicia, he had a stroke and died almost at once on August 9, 117. He was sixty-four.

THERE WAS some confusion about who should take power next, since Trajan had left no unambiguous directions. His legal ward Hadrian, now the governor of Syria, claimed that Trajan had intended for him to be the next emperor, although some friends of Trajan claimed either that he had intended to choose someone else, or that he had intentionally left his choice unmade so that the best man might win. As there was no clear candidate to replace Hadrian—and as Hadrian was already heading for Rome when the doubts began to fly—the Senate confirmed him. And once in Rome, Hadrian sealed his accession with the usual large payments to the Praetorian Guard: “The soldiers loved him much on account of his very great interest in the army,” the fourth-century Augustan History concludes, “and for his great liberality to them besides.”

In his twenty-one-year reign, Hadrian proved a cautious and conservative man, a middle-ground emperor, not much loved but not particularly feared. His biggest war came not from aggression, but from an error in judgment; he tried to build himself a new capital city overtop of the ruins of Jerusalem and even planned to put a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Second Temple.

This sparked yet another huge Jewish uprising, which was (in the words of Dio Cassius) “a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration.”10 The leader of the Jewish resistance was Simon Bar Kochba, a man the church historian Eusebius describes as possessing “the character of a robber and a murderer,” who nevertheless promised the Jews that he would “bring them light in the midst of their misfortunes.”11

Hadrian sent his most experienced generals to put down the revolt. They mounted a war of small battles against the Jewish guerrilla outposts all across the country: “intercepting small groups…depriving them of food and shutting them up.” The strategy led to absolute devastation in the Promised Land. “Fifty of their most important outposts and 985 of their most famous villages were razed to the ground,” Eusebius writes; “580,000 men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease, and fire was past finding out.

Thus nearly the whole of Judea was made desolate.”12

This was Hadrian’s greatest victory, but it was a defensive action. Nor did he make any efforts to retake the Parthian land that Trajan had invaded. He wanted to seal Rome’s borders right where they were. This attitude towards the entire empire was typified by his actions in Britain, when he decided that it would be a good idea to build a wall across Scotland.


82.2 Hadrian’s Wall

The construction of Hadrian’s Wall began in 122. Ten years later, the wall was almost entirely finished. It stood twenty feet high and was built along the crests of the hills, so that ground fell away from the far side, increasing its height tremendously. And it stretched all the way from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, girdling Britain in the middle, a length of seventy-five miles.

The Wall did manage to keep the Celts from the north (the troublesome and warlike Picts) from raiding the Roman province of Britain, which had now crept well up the island. But the Wall was more than a frontier. It was an arbitrary division that did not follow a river or natural barrier, and it made a declaration: Here, on one side of the wall, this is Rome; that, on the other side, that is not. There was no buffer zone in the middle, no transition.

Like the occupation of Armenia, the building of the Wall showed that the Romans were less and less willing to put up with ambiguous identities. The subjects of the emperor were either Rome’s full citizens, or they were Rome’s enemies. The day of client kingdoms had passed; they were either drawn into the empire as full provinces, or they were destroyed.


82.1. Hadrian’s Wall. Photo credit Susan Wise Bauer


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