The Rise and Fall of Rome (Lecture Notes) Summary Review: The Roman Empire The homeland of the Romans had poor soil, no metals, and no outlet to the sea. Their society was organized for war and victory was a supreme cultural value
The homeland of the Romans had poor soil, no metals, and no outlet to the sea. Their society was organized for war and victory was a supreme cultural value. Each citizen owed the state 16 years of military service. Roman education emphasized “patience and endurance”. Roman Weakness: The Roman Empire was an empire of coast with long, exposed landward frontiers. The African coastal provinces were flanked by deserts, which gave the Romans a false sense of security. Europe was never satisfactorily defended, even after 100 years of conquest and expansion. The most critical mistake Julius Caesar made was to not continue expansion and acceptance of the Germanic cultures across the Rhine River. These cultures would always feel bitterness and envy for being excluded from the empire. Roman Expansion: Retired soldiers, Latin-speaking and schooled in allegiance to Rome, helped spread a common culture across the empire, settling in lands where they had been stationed and often marrying local women. Everywhere, the empire promoted the same classical style for buildings and urban planning: symmetrical, harmonious, regular, and based on Greek architecture. Engineering was the Romans’ ultimate art. They discovered how to make cement, which made unprecedented feats of building possible. Everywhere the empire reached, Romans invested in infrastructure, building roads, sewers, and aqueducts. Amphitheatres, temples, city walls, public baths, and monumental gates were erected at public expense, alongside the temples that civic-minded patrons usually endowed. The buildings serviced new cities, built in Rome’s image, where there were none before, or enlarged and embellished cities that already existed. Trade as well as war shipped elements of a common culture around the empire. Rome exported Mediterranean amenities – the building patterns of villas and cities, wine, olive oil, mosaics – to the provinces, or forced Mediterranean crops like wine grapes and olive trees to grow in unlikely climates. As industries became geographically specialized, trade and new commercial relationships crisscrossed the entire empire. Roman identity, a sense of belonging to Rome, spread with Roman ways of life, as Rome granted Roman citizenship to subject communities. When Rome was a small city-republic, two annually elected chief executives, called consuls, shared power between themselves, subject to checks by the assembly of nobles and notables known as the senate, and by the tribunes, representatives of the common citizens. Increasingly, however, as the state expanded, in the emergencies of war, power was confided to individuals, called dictators, who were expected to relinquish control when the emergency was over. In the second half of the first century B.C.E., this system finally broke down in a series of struggles between rival contenders for sole power. In 27 B.C.E., all parties accepted Augustus, who had emerged as victor from the civil wars, as head of state and of government for life, with the right to name his successor. Yet this was by no means a uniform empire. It was so bigt that it could only work by permitting the provinces to retain their local customs and religious practices. At one level it was a federation of cities, at another a federation of peoples. Everywhere, Rome ruled with the collaboration, sometimes enforced, of established elites.
The Western Roman Empire and its Invaders
The empire suffered from abiding problems: its sprawling size, its long, vulnerable land frontier; the unruly behavior of its politicized soldiery, with Roman armies fighting each other to make and unmake emperors; the uneasy, usually hostile relationship with rivals in Persia. Two new, growing dangers were increasingly apparent. First, for most of the elite, Christianity seemed subversive. Challenging the worship of the emperor as divine and the connection across the empire to cults of the patron gods of Rome. Second, Germanic peoples beyond the empire’s borders in Europe coveted Roman wealth.
Marcus Aurelius anticipated ways in which the empire would cope with these problems for the next three centuries. He sensed the need to divide responsibility for governing the vast empire, admitting his adoptive brother to the rank of co- emperor and delegating to him responsibility for guarding the eastern frontier. In combination with the strain of threats from Persia and the convulsions of Roman politics, Germanic invasions in the third century almost dissolved the empire. In the late fourth century, the struggle to keep out the immigrants became hopeless. The biggest bands of migrants, numbering tens of thousands at a time, and traveling with women and children, were driven by stresses that arose beyond their borders, in the Eurasian steppelands. Here, the mid and late fourth century was a traumatic time, when war or hunger or plague or exceptional cold or some combination of such events induced unprecedented mobility, conflict, and confusion. Late in the fourth century, the Huns broke out of their heartlands in the depths of Asia, perhaps on the northeast borders of China, where many scholars identify them with the people the Chinese called Xiongnu. A kind of ricochet effect set in, as peoples collided and cannoned off each other. Or perhaps all the turbulence of peoples, Germans and steppelanders alike, was the result of common problems: cold weather, shrinking pastures; or new sources of wealth, such as trade and booty, enriching new classes and disrupting the traditional stability of the societies concerned. Whatever the reasons, in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, displaced communities lined up for admission into the enticing empires of Rome, Persia, China, and India. Germans were not nomadic by nature but, according to their own earliest historian, Jordanes, who wrote in the sixth century, were “driven to wander in a prolonged search for lands to cultivate,” The Ostrogoths, or Eastern Goths, for example, farmed on the banks of the Don River in what is now Ukraine from the late second century until the 370’s, when Hun invaders forced them over the Dniester River into the territory of the Visigoths or Western Goths. In 376, a reputed 200,000 Visigothic refugees were admitted into the Roman Empire. But the Romans then left them to starve, provoking a terrible revenge at the battle of Adrianople in 378 when the Goths killed a Roman emperor along with most of his army. From 395 to 418, the Visigoths undertook a destructive migration across the empire, terrorizing areas they crossed. In 410, they sacked Rome, inspiring speculations about the end of the world among shocked subjects of the empire, before settling as paid “guests” and, in effect, the masters of the local population in southern France and northern Spain. Other Germanic peoples found the Visigoths’ example irresistible. Rome’s frontier with the Germans was becoming indefensible. Meanwhile, the center of power in the dwindling empire shifted eastward into the mostly Greek-speaking zone, where barbarian incursions were more limited. Constantinople replaced Rome as the principal seat of the emperors. In 323, the Emperor Constantine elevated this dauntingly defensible small garrison town, surrounded on three sides by water and close to the threatened Danube and Persian frontiers, into an imperial capital. From here, the emperors were able to keep invaders out of most of the eastern provinces of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. In part, the greater durability of the eastern empire was the result of the direction invaders took. The Rhine River was an easily crossed frontier, especially in the cold winters of the early fifth century, when the river often froze. From there, invaders usually swung through northern France toward Spain, or turned south to reach Italy. Moreover, the eastern provinces of the empire, from Italy’s Adriatic coast eastward, could be relatively easily reached, supplied, and garrisoned from Constantinople, whereas the western Mediterranean lay beyond the terrible navigational bottlenecks between Italy, Sicily, and North Africa.
Finally, the eastern provinces, especially those east of the Adriatic, were better equipped for survival by the presence of the emperor and by the wealth of great estates in regions where mountain barriers, deserts, and seas deterred at least some invaders. The western empire was beset with problems. Impeded by war, long-range exchanges of personnel and commerce became increasingly impractical. Communications decayed. Aristocrats withdrew from traditional civic responsibilities, retiring to their estates, struggling to keep them going amid invasions. Bishops replaced bureaucrats. In localities from which imperial authority vanished, holy men took on the jobs of judges. Almost everywhere, barbarian experts in warfare took military commands. Garrisons withdrew from outposts of empire beyond the Rhine, the Danube, and the English Channel. After 476, there was no longer a co emperor in the west. Regional and local priorities replaced empire-wide perspectives. The most extreme form of the dissolution of authority inside the empire was the establishment of kingdoms led by foreigners, as Germans, settled as uneasy allies, entrusted with tasks of imperial defense, and quartered at the expense of their host communities, gradually usurped or accepted authority over non-Germanic populations. Where such kingdoms delivered peace and administered laws, they replaced the empire as the primary focus of people’s allegiance. Rome was the last of the world monarchies the Bible foretold. Its end would mean the end of time. Everyone, including barbarian kings, connived in pretending that the empire had survived. Yet to Romans, the new rulers remained barbarians, foreigners of inferior culture. In turn, the limits of barbarian identification with Rome were of enormous importance. The notion of Roman citizenship gradually dissolved. Although the barbarians envied Roman civilization, most of them hankered after their own identities and, not surprisingly amid the dislocation of the times, clung to their roots. Many groups tried to differentiate themselves by upholding, at least for a time, unorthodox versions of Christianity. Some of their scholars and kings took almost as much interest in preserving their own traditional literature as in retaining or rescuing the works of classical and Christian writers. Law codes of barbarian kingdoms prescribed different rules for Germans and Romans.