Senātus Populusque Rōmānus ("The Senate and People of Rome ")
Reg (leader of the People's Front of Judea): All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
"To plunder, to slaughter, to usurp, they give the lying name of empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace."
—Calgacus, chieftain of the Caledonians, in Agricola by Roman historian Tacitus
The Roman Empire succeeded The Roman Republic in the first century BC, precisely when being a subject for debate. It is generally thought to coincide with Augustus taking control of Rome and declaring himself Princeps in 27 B.C. The pretense of a Hereditary Republic lasted rather longer, but withered away.
At one time or another it covered part or all of the modern day countries of- well, here's a list.
Rome, in its own name, continued to exist for quite a long time. By the end of the 3rd century it had gotten so unwieldy that it needed co-emperors to handle everything; in 395, not long after Constantine embraced Christianity, the empire split into the Eastern and Western halvesnote which had happened earlier as part of the general power balance/power struggle within the Empire at large; contemporaries apparently still saw it as one empire with two emperors, it just so happened that the administrative split became more permanent. The Eastern side, which historians re-named the Byzantine Empire for conveniencenote the Empire called itself Roman until its fall, despite being quite Hellenic—and so, for that matter, did almost everybody else, toiled on almost a thousand years longer, until Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. (Despite the power of the Roman legion, evidently their training course did not cover defense against flightless furniture.) The Western empire collapsed in 476, ushering in The Dark Ages. Charlemagne took the name of "Rome" for his kingdom, the "Holy Roman Empire," in 800 AD, as did Tsarist Russia ("Tsar" being a linguistic evolution of "Caesar"). The most salient point here is that a "Roman" nation of some sort existed, on paper at least, for well over two thousand years.
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During its heyday, the Roman Empire maintained a level of peace and stability within its borders not often known to people living in those times. With its legions, a relatively enlightened ruling system, religious freedom (well, tolerance and syncreticism, at least), the Roman Empire held well enough (and people considered themselves sufficiently part of it) that an American would probably be quite at home there. In fact, there is are two separate terms for this in the modern context: Pax Britannica (for when The British Empire's influence moderated conflict and brought relatively free trade from 1815 to 1914) and Pax Americana.
The Pax Romana was based, to a large degree, upon the political nature of the empire. A great deal was direct empire: Rome had immediate authority over the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. However, Rome's peace was the result of its Hegemonic Empire. Technically independent client nations surrounded it and participated in trade of goods, wealth, and (Roman) culture. In order to maintain control over these client states, Rome regularly sent lavish gifts to their rulers. In return, those rulers did everything they could to keep from antagonizing Rome. Not only did these client states not make war with Rome, they also served as buffers.
On the far side of the client states were barbarian tribes who, being nomadic (the horsemen of the desert) or seminomadic (the Germans to the North moved between different permanent sites depending on the season) and lacking such features of civilization as money and stone monuments, were indifferent to Romanization. They liked Rome's wealth but wanted nothing of its culture. The client states surrounding Rome absorbed the repeated incursions of barbarian raiders so that Rome wouldn't have to. This is why Augustus, after expanding the empire, told his successor to stop doing that: eliminate the clients and Rome has to deal with the barbarians herself.
Barbarians weren't the only problem. In the East, Rome had a potent enemy in the Iranian empires of Arsacid Parthia (247 BC - AD 224) and Sassanid Persia (224 - 651). The client states to the east were essentially shuffled back and forth between Rome and Parthia/Persia in a kind of hegemonic game of checkers, with each side more or less understanding that direct conflict between the two would be disastrous for both. Hence, the Kingdom of Armenia became a buffer kingdom in which the Persians chose who'd be king of Armenia, and that king would travel to Rome to gain the Emperor's approval and be crowned. This kept conflict at a minimum between the two empires for some time.
Although the Pax Romana specifically refers to a phenomenon in the Mediterranean world, the fact is that the period was marked by unusual peace across a solid belt across the Eurasian civilized world from the Atlantic to the Pacific, controlled by four great empires: Rome in the west; with Persia to its east; and then to Persia's east the Kushan and Gupta empires in Afghanistan and northern India; and to the east of both of those the Han Dynasty held not only the Chinese heartland but also the Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang. This is arguably the first period of "proto-globalization,"note the Hellenistic period might also count, although frankly the Greek kingdoms kept fighting each other and China was disunited, which put a serious damper on trade as in this time, the influence of the four large empires (Rome, Persia, India, and China) made regular cross-Eurasian trade not merely a reality, but big business. Although restricted to luxuries—nothing else was worth shipping that far—there was unquestionably regular trade, with the Romans developing a taste for Eastern silk and spices, the Chinese developing an interest in Roman glassware, and everything in between. (The Han, by the way, sent an explorer to Rome, who left a fairly detailed report; they seem to have greatly respected Rome, seeing it as a Western mirror to themselves and calling it Daqin: Great China.) Ideas also travelled: Christianity made its way to India and Central Asia in this time, finding moderate purchase; late in the period, the Persian Manichaeism spread to Rome and China. At the same time, fighting was restricted to proxy wars at the fringes of the great empires. This period of peace ended, however, after plagues swept Rome and China in the third century. Rome managed to hang on for another two centuries, but only just (see below); the Han met their fate quicker.
Unfortunately, the hegemonic empire couldn't last. Although Rome's tribute to her client states paid for the necessary military service of facing barbarian incursions, it couldn't pay for the human cost of warfare. Further, as each client became more Romanized, the citizens thereof became increasingly vocal in their desire to become part of Rome and receive the benefits of Roman civilization directly. Eventually each client state was absorbed into the Roman empire and Rome had to bear the burden of defending her borders herself.
As is often the case with a stable, growing population and economy, Rome faced the difficulties of inflation and, sometimes, too much economic growth, leading to cycles of boom and bust. As the science of economics wouldn't be developed for a few millennia, Rome found herself unable to cope with the complexities of managing the marketplace. Since the environmental factors fueling Rome's population growth also fueled the populations of the barbarians surrounding the empire, it led to a perfect storm that gradually ate away at Rome and led to her downfall. This can be marked in several stages.
Stage 1 - Search and Destroy
Search and Destroy is a military strategy wherein you search out hostile forces, destroy them on their own territory, and then withdraw. This prevents them from doing any damage to your own infrastructure and minimizes all other injuries done. Imminent barbarian incursions would be neutralized before they even reached the borders. This is a costly form of defense, but ideal. It requires a great deal of manpower at the border, regular and maintained fortifications, constant scouting in hostile territory, and a mobile force capable of meeting the enemy. This is what Rome had along all of her borders, with her forces and fortifications deployed in accord with the terrain and density of hostile forces. The German woods required a great deal of manpower and effort, the African deserts could be more sparsely manned. Despite the expense and effort required, attempts to carry out this strategy were made even as late as 375, a hundred years before the Western Empire would fall. However, even before then, declining power forced Rome to increasingly rely on...
Stage 2 - Static Defense
Rather than meet the hostile forces on their own ground, Rome learned to accept meeting them at the border. Very often the empire built actual walls (for example, the Antonine Wall in Scotland and Hadrian's Wall further south in England), though the psychological effects of building such walls may have been known even then. It's likely that this shift was made not out of any strategic choice, but because Rome was losing the manpower to engage in more effective strategies, the reason generally being disease: the Antonine Plague struck in 165 and lasted 15 years, and the Plague of Cyprian began in 250 and lasted at least 20. Both of these are generally accepted to be outbreaks of smallpox, and they caused serious damage to both civilian populations (the Antonine Plague killed up to a third of the population in some areas), and to the army (the Antonine Plague at least is understood to have been spread by a legion returning from fighting in the Middle East).
Since it requires less manpower—which is now what the Romans had—static defense it was. Unfortunately, this kind of defense is both unimaginative and passive, and a breach may occur at any single spot on a very long border, as the enemy may concentrate his strength, while the defender has no choice but to guard the entire perimeter. Once a breach is made, an invading horde may raid and pillage a great distance before they are stopped, as military forces are concentrated on the border and it takes time to react to face them. What's more, such defenses are also a constant drain on the defender as they must also be maintained and manned at all times. Once the barbarians broke through, the repeated damage to infrastructure (roads, fortifications, farms) led directly to...
Stage 3 - Withdrawal
Toward the end of the empire's existence, Rome gradually gave up on more and more territory as undefendable. Repeated incursions by hostile forces destroyed the population, the buildings, and the land. By the time the city of Rome was sacked, the Empire`s territory in the West had shrunk to more or less that of modern Italy. Rome itself was sacked multiple times during the fifth century and is seen as the final coda on the death of the empire. The Eastern, or Byzantine, empire continued for another thousand years, having much more secure natural borders and making better use of natural resources. Further, the density of hostile barbarians was much less in Western Asia than in Northern Europe, at least until the rise of, variously, the Mongols and Islam. It was Muslim Turks who finally conquered Constantinople, destroying the last remnant of the empire. For a time, Byzantium reached out, claimed, and held onto a significant portion of the Western empire (including modern Italy) in the sixth century, but it, too, had to retreat from those claims.
The most famous person that this happened to was of course Jesus, but it happened to quite a lot of other people too. Another well-known example would be Spartacus. Everyone in his army that was taken prisoner after finally being defeated (about 6,000 people) were crucified at the same time, spread over about 200 km of the Via Appia (the Appian Way). Kinda similar to Jesus, there are claims that Spartacus either escaped, survived, or had a son that survived.
In terms of sheer nastiness, little matches crucifixion in the capital punishment field. It was designed to be as painful and humiliating as possible. The Romans themselves considered it so barbaric that Roman citizens usually couldn't be sentenced to crucifixion.
To go into further detail about crucifixion: five- to-seven-inch-long nails were driven into the wrists and ankles. How the nails were driven in depended on the shape of the cross, which was I, T, X, Y or the traditional cross shape. Then ropes are tied, so the Romans can pull up the cross. The ropes cut into the skin as the cross is raised. Then the person is essentially left to die. Times passes on, the person literally gets baked by the sun. Crows start to come and peck on the eyes on the hung, if that person has no family or friends to fend them off. The hung man must struggle with all of his might to get one tiny breath in, as his lungs are constricted. If he's lucky, he'll get a bitter tasting wine as a painkiller. In terms of waste removal, there was none. This further adds to the humiliation and infects any wounds below the waist. After that, there's not much left as the prisoner gets no food nor drink. Jesus lasted the good part of a day before passing on, but there are cases of men who lasted THREE DAYS of this. It's also where we get the word "excruciating", literally "from the cross."
Now imagine this happening to six thousand people at the same time, on the same road.
Quite where the nails went (or if they were even used) and what the person was supposed to die of are debated by historians (The Bible isn't too clear on the subject either, due to translation issues from the original Greek). The usual theory has been suffocation, but some experiments concluded otherwise- certainly exhaustion and dehydration would have occurred too. Jesus' seven traditional sayings on the cross i.e. "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" ("My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" in Aramaic) would have been very hard, though not impossible, to get out in these circumstances. In order to speed things up, the legs of the condemned might be broken. How long it took to die varied widely and there are cases of people surviving due to a reprieve.
Victims were crucified completely naked to add to the humiliation factor. Though it is perfectly understandable that religious art wouldn't depict it visually (especially given that it was done to disgrace the victims), there is no reason to believe Jesus was spared this token of humiliation.
Some have said that humiliation and shame was the main issue Jesus dealt with, as part of the separation from God.
All that is what happened if you got to the cross- you had to carry it there yourself and you were flogged with a rather nasty whip (with iron balls or sharpened sheep bones in) beforehand. There are cases of the flogging killing people. In fact, the flogging was actually intended as a mercy — the worse you were beaten before crucifixion, the sooner you would die on the cross.
The Glory That Was Rome
The centerpiece of the Roman army, the Legion was and is justifiably famous. They were incredibly disciplined, on pain of death. Perhaps what they are most lauded for is not their ability to kill, but for their engineering.
The early imperial army was a two-tier institution, with citizen volunteers making up the legions, which fought as heavy infantry, and non-citizens recruited into the auxilia, which consisted of archers, cavalry, light infantry, and any other type of unit that could help the legions achieve their mission.
As time went on, the legions became smaller and more numerous, so that they could be deployed more easily. The quality of the equipment also deteriorated, but the legions remained a very effective fighting force almost until the very end of the western Empire. Units were classified as limitanei, or border units, and comitatenses, or mobile units.
In the east, the army was reorganized and was focused on heavy cavalry, emulating the Persians. Following the Arab invasions, the military was divided into an elite standing army, the tagmata, and local units raised from military districts, or themata, similar to the limitanei and comitatenses mentioned above. In the high middle ages, some troops were raised in a semi-feudal manner, and the Empire relied a lot more on mercenaries.
Symbols of the Empire
The empire was rife with symbolism and iconography that has truly stood the test of time. Unfortunately, some are virtually never used because, almost without exception, Hitler co-opted them for his Nazi regime, tainting them perhaps beyond redemption. Roman symbols include:
The Aquila - An eagle with wings outstretched, a rallying standard for the armies. Also found on a great deal of stonework.
The double-headed eagle - Dating to the splitting of the empire, though the symbol is much older.
Eagles in general - As they are associated with Jupiter/Zeus and are a symbol of strength. Their status as "King of the Birds", combined with the special Roman relationship with birds in general (avian activity was the primary form of state omen-reading), gave them particular importance to the Romans.
The laurels and S.P.Q.R. - As seen at the top of the page, it stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome. Still used as the municipal logo by the modern city of Rome.
The fasces - An axe, handle thrust through a bundle of reeds or sticks, the fasces was a symbol of authority. Originally a republican symbol of strength in unity (one reed or stick breaks, a bundle doesn't). It was resurrected by the fascists, specifically Benito Mussolini. So not everything was ruined by Hitler.
Not even Mussolini could ruin this one: the French and American republics, which intentionally attempted to recall Rome, used the fasces in their symbolism long before Mussolini. The French Fifth Republic still uses the fasces with an axe in its semi-official emblem, and the fasces are still found in many American symbols: the Seal of the Senate has crossed fasces with axes, while the Mace of the House and the armrests in the Lincoln Memorial are axeless fasces.
The fasces is also found in the symbol for the Swedish police◊ and related agencies, as well as in many other nations.
The swastika - The symbol most indelibly associated with the Nazis (in the West), it is very ancient, going back to the neolithic, and global, having been found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It is related to the sun, as are most cross symbols.
Roman Salute - There is little evidence that actual Romans actually saluted each other by raising their right hands above their heads, palm facing downward. Nevertheless, the image was associated with Roman Republicanism (via paintings by J-L David, among others) and became popularized during the French Revolution and thereafter. It was adopted by many Americans (as Bellamy Salute), by Fascist Italy (the Roman Salute), Nazi Germany (the Nazi salute), and many other political movements, although, after World War 2, its popularity receded drastically.
While the image of The Caligula may linger in the popular imagination, Roman emperors varied from good and competent to ineffectual to monsters. The early emperors, starting with Augustus, largely kept republican institutions in place, cultivating the image of what we would call a constitutional monarchy. However, all real power lay with the emperor, as he had the personal loyalty of the legionsnote If he didn't, he wasn't going to remain emperor for long. Later on, during the third century, the emperors dropped the pretense of being Just the First Citizen and openly embraced autocratic rule. Their personal force of bodyguards, the Praetorian Guard, had a large role in both selecting and displacing them.
List of notable emperors
Augustus (27 BC - AD 14): The first emperor, widely revered for bringing peace to the Empire. Extremely Machiavellian with his political rivals, he was benevolent with the general public.
Tiberius (14 - 37): The Replacement Scrappy for Augustus and his stepson, he grew increasingly eccentric and unpopular towards the end of his reign. Some political enemies accused him of being a literal baby rapist. Moved to an island near Naples in 26 and would never set another foot in the capital for the rest of his life even though he was still Emperor. He apparently died from natural causes, though there are rumours Caligula or a Praetorian Guard suffocated him.
Caligula (37 - 41): Tiberius' Great-Nephew. Insane and tyrannical, but just how much is still debated by historians to this day. He certainly was very unpopular with the Senatorial class. Accused, among other things, of Brother-Sister Incest. Assassinated by his own bodyguards.
Claudius (41 - 54): Uncle of Caligula. Having obtained his position through Obfuscating Stupidity, he was an able administrator, and conquered Britain during his reign. He became increasingly paranoid towards the end, killing off several Senators. Murdered by his last wife, Agrippina (who was also his niece), to make way for her son Nero.
Nero (54 - 68): Widely remembered as another Caligula, Nero was actually fairly popular with the common people, though he was maybe not a pleasant person (reportedly kicking your pregnant wife to death does not help your reputation), and was quite possibly insane. He blamed the Great Fire of AD 64 on the Christians, leading the first Imperially-sanctioned persecution against the new faith. He was a musician, and a victim of a Historical Villain Upgrade a few times after his death. Eventually was displaced by a rebellion and committed suicide with help from a slave.
"Year of the Four Emperors"
Galba (68 - 69): Made emperor by the legions of Gaul and Spain, an old man who soon proved to be very unpopular for being a miser and otherwise incompetent.
Otho (69): A former member of Nero's entourage, finished Nero's "Golden house". Committed suicide after being defeated by Vitellius.
Vitellius (69): Worst of the four emperors in 69. Was infamous for his gluttony and cruelty.
According to some historians, at any rate, might have simply been lazy, incompetent, and way out of his depth.
Vespasian (69 - 79): Former Governor of Judaea. Built the Colosseum, and was an able administrator and general. Famously frugal. According to Josephus, a former Jewish Commander, The Messiah prophecy referred to him.
Flavian Dynasty (includes Vespasian)
Titus (79 - 81): Vespasian's first son who waged a successful war against Judea early in his life, which would have long-lasting consequences for Christianity and Judaism. He finished the Colosseum and dealt with several disasters during his short reign (a fire in Rome and the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius).
Domitian (81 - 96): Loathed by the Senators, he ruled tyrannically, establishing a cult of personality. He probably wasn't insane, like Caligula and Nero, though he was somewhat eccentric. Also unlike them, he was fairly competent in administration. He was accused of murdering Titus. Murdered in in a palace conspiracy organized by court officials.
Nerva-Antonine Dynasty or the Adoptive Emperors
Nerva (96 - 98): An old childless Senator who was made Emperor by the Senate but was unpopular with the army. Adopted the more popular Trajan, and was the first of the "Five Good Emperors."
Trajan (98 - 117): Widely considered to be the greatest Roman emperor since Augustus, his conquests increased the Roman Empire to its greatest extent. He was extolled for his virtue and ruling ability.
Hadrian (117 - 138): Pulled back from several territories conquered by Trajan. Traveled the empire, and built the eponymous wall in Britain. Known for vehemently supporting Greek culture, almost to a bizarre degree. For example he flaunted his young male lover wherever he went (and later proclaimed him a god after he died), and banned circumcision in Judea (which helped cause a revolt).
Antoninus Pius (138 - 161): Famous for doing nothing at all besides ruling competently for 22 years. (About the only memorable thing he ever did was to browbeat the Senate into declaring his adoptive father Hadrian a god, hence his title of "Pius" - piety, to a Roman, meant obedience to one's parents as much as to the gods.)
Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180): Tried to live to the ideal of the philosopher king. He was a decent man and competent ruler, though his reign was marked by wars and The Plague, which killed him too.
Commodus (177 - 192): Started the empire's long decline by being a spendthrift and a tactless ruler. Not a nice fellow, though not quite as bad as depicted in Gladiator. Assassinated by a wrestler.
Year of the Five Emperors
Pertinax (193): Elected by the senate, proved to be way too nice before he was murdered by the Praetorians.
Didius Julianus (193): Came to power solely for buying the throne from the Praetorians.
Pescennius Niger (193): A general whose troops proclaimed him Emperor in Syria in response to the scandalous auction. Defeated by Septimius Severus in the next year.
Clodius Albinus (193; 196): A second general whose troops rebelled against Didius Julianus, this time in Britain and Gaul. He initially allied himself with Severus, but eventually proclaimed himself Emperor in 196 and was defeated in 197. Coincidentally, the cognomina of these two pretenders mean "Black" and "White."
Septimius Severus (193 - 211): Able ruler and general, he depended solely on the army for support, and the Senate began its final slide into irrelevance during his reign.
Severan Dynasty (Includes Severus)
Caracalla (198 - 217): Expanded Roman citizenship to all free people throughout the empire. Whatever ruling ability he may have had was utterly overwhelmed by his extreme paranoia, which counted among its victims his brother and co-ruler Geta and the citizens of Alexandria. Assassinated by a soldier.
Elagabalus (218 - 222): Camp Gay at a time when Straight Gay or Bi the Way was the norm (some even claim him to be a Transsexual), he was so flamboyant that it led to his early demise. Of course, he also made no friends by replacing the traditional Roman gods with new gods from the east. Assassinated by the Praetorian Guard.
Alexander Severus (222 - 235): Elagabalus's cousin. Did his best, but was somewhat dominated by hismother. Also assassinated, which meanwhile had become common in Rome.
Maximinus Thrax (235 - 238): The first of the so-called "Barracks Emperors", and also the first one who never set a foot into Rome. Started as a common soldier from Thrace. Was said to be exceptionally tall and strong. Also murdered, by his own soldiers.
Philippus Arabs (244 - 249): Oversaw the celebration of the millennium since the foundation of Rome. As his cognomen implies, he was an ethnic Arab from Syria—a fact of which modern Syrians are quite proud; they put him on their 100-pound note. Very tolerant towards Christians, going as far as to visit Antioch to celebrate Easter with them. Some sources from the time claim that he was a Christian himself, though this is strongly debated by modern historians.
Decius (249 - 251): Persecuted the Christians and became somewhat infamous for it. Fell in battle against the Goths.
Valerian (253 - 260): His reign marked the nadir of Roman fortunes in the third century. He was captured by the Sassanid Persians and allegedly flayed alive.
Gallienus (260 - 268): The former's son who didn't care much that his father became a POW.
Aurelian (270 - 275): Reconquered the breakaway provinces of the Gallic Empire and the Palmyrene Empire under Queen Zenobia. He probably extended Roman rule in the west by two hundred years. He obtained the title of Restitutor Orbis, or restorer of the world. Favored the cult of Sol Invictus. Assassinated by the Praetorian Guard.
Diocletian (284 - 305): A true Magnificent Bastard, he reorganized the empire and appointed three other co-emperors, creating what is called the tetrarchy. Cultivated his status as a God Emperor, marking the point when the emperor's authority was absolute in theory as well as in fact. Persecuted the Christians, because he considered them a threat to his authority. (This persecution was particularly felt in Egypt, which had a large Christian population, and as a result the Coptic calendar is dated from 284 CE to mark the beginning of the "Era of Martyrs''.) After he felt he had done all he wanted to do, he retired, and convinced his co-emperor to abdicate with him. (It didn't last though.)
Constantine (306 - 337): Tolerated, then favored Christianity. He was the first Christian emperor, being baptized just before his death. He moved the capital to what would be called Constantinople. Not a pleasant fellow, he killed both his wife and his son.
Julian the Apostate (360 - 363): Tried to turn back the clock and reinstate the traditional Roman religion, but Christianity had become too established by then. Began a number of large reforms, only for them to be abandoned after his death in a battle against the Persians.
Theodosius (379 - 395): Last emperor to rule over east and west. Split the Empire after his death, the west going to Honorius and the east going to Arcadius.
Honorius (395 - 423): Emperor of the Western empire. Most notable moment of his reign was the Sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths, lead by Alaric.
Romulus Augustulus (475 - 476): A kid who was the puppet of his father Flavius Orestes, who himself had violently supplanted the previous emperor Julius Nepos. When Orestes denied the barbarian troops that had helped him to dethrone Nepos the promised rewards — specifically to grant them a third of Italy for settlement — he was in turn overthrown by the German(ic) general Odoacer, who deposed the puppet Romulus (but spared his life) and assumed the title "commander of Italy". Romulus is usually identified as the last emperor in the west, although some insist that Julius Nepos, who ruled in Dalmatia until 480, was the last one.note Romulus's prominence in the history books is somewhat boosted by his name, which ironically recalls Romulus the mythic founder of Rome.
(For Emperors of the Eastern Empire after the Western's fall, see Byzantine Empire)