Identify threats to Roman rule in the third century
Trace the reconstruction and reorganization of the empire in the fourth century
Describe when and why the empire split into east and west
Outline the rise of Christianity in the fourth century
Discuss influences on late imperial culture
Identify Augustine and his role in the spread of Christianity
Outline some of the explanations historians have offered for the fall of the western empire
Justify your own explanation for the end of the Roman Empire in the West
KEY POINTS AND VITAL CONCEPTS
Roman Constitution: One of the great achievements of the Romans was their constitution. An unwritten collection of laws based upon tradition and precedent, it sanctioned a government dependent upon two principles: annuality and collegiality. That is, more than one person held each office (with the exception of the dictatorship) and they held it generally for one year only. Each citizen was allowed to vote and did in a number of traditional assemblies. Intended to govern a city-state, the constitution was appended to meet the demands of imperial administration.
Struggle of the Orders: The period from 509 to 207 B.C.E. has been called the “Struggle of the Orders” since the plebeians agitated for legal equality with the patricians. Gradually the plebeians won full legal, political, and social equality with the patricians. This was achieved without bloodshed—a point that the Romans were proud of and that contrasted with the chaos and violence of the late republic.
Clientage: The client–patron relationship in Rome was very important, and domestic politics involved the workings of this relationship on many levels whether it was among aristocrats or between aristocrats and the poor. The relationship was hereditary and sanctioned by religion and custom.
Roman Imperialism: A much debated point in Roman history concerns Roman intentions in the acquisition of its empire. Did Rome have a blueprint for empire and consciously follow a policy of aggressive imperialism? The answer is probably no, but once Romans became involved in a dispute (especially in the Greek east and often by invitation), they found it difficult to remain neutral with their own interests and even survival at stake. Within about 120 years, Rome had expanded from control of the Italian peninsula to mastery of the entire Mediterranean—a transformation that would present great problems for the state in the second and first centuries B.C.E.
The Reforms of the Gracchi: The reforms instituted by the Gracchi, which included redistribution of public land, colonies, Italian citizenship, subsidized grain, and so on, were not illegal and in some cases even had precedent. Yet it was their method, especially that of Tiberius, that aroused the hatred of the aristocracy. Many precedents for later actions proceeded from the Gracchan episode, including murder and violent intimidation. A major problem that was not solved during this period was the approval of Italian citizenship.
The Reforms of Marius: In addition to changes in formation and weaponry, Marius changed the composition of the army as well. He began using volunteers, mostly dispossessed farmers and proletarians, who looked upon military service as a way of obtaining guaranteed food, shelter, clothing, and booty from victories. Most importantly, they expected a piece of land upon discharge. Rather than looking to the Senate to provide these benefits, they expected them from their commander as fulfillment of a patron–client compact. One of the main reasons the republic collapsed was because of private armies’ loyalty to their generals and not to the state.
The Reforms of Sulla: These were enacted in the late 80s and were designed to reestablish the Senate as the ruling institution of Rome. They called for, among other things, restrictions on the veto power of tribunes and a halt to any advance in career after holding that office. Then only people without ambition would hold the office and the republic would be preserved from the troublesome obstructions of the Gracchi or Livius Drusus the Younger. The reforms, however, were undone by 70 B.C.E.
The Assassination of Julius Caesar: Caesar’s murder by Brutus, Cassius, and about 60 senators stemmed from ideologues who believed that they were ridding Rome of a tyrant and that after liberation, the republic would automatically be restored. Thus, they made no plans to follow up their deed. It is not certain if Caesar planned to become “king” of Rome although he held the title of dictator for life. It is certain, however, that he did not court the traditional aristocracy and even abused their dignity upon occasion. His heir, Octavian, would form a coalition of supporters and conservatives that proved successful in the long run.
The Augustan Principate: The Augustan settlement ostensibly restored the republic but in fact established a monarchy. Augustus controlled twenty of the twenty-six legions in the provinces with the most potential for fighting. Egypt, with its wealth and important grain production, belonged to him alone. In fact, geographically the imperial provinces practically surrounded the senatorial. However, Augustus knew that he could not rule by force alone. He built around him a coalition of supporters who owed their positions to him. Augustus respected the dignity of the senators by using them in the administration and listening to their advice. This “sham of government,” as it has been called, put a premium on efficient and equitable treatment of its citizens. The strength of the system can be evaluated in its survival even through the reigns of incompetent and cruel emperors.
Persecution of Christianity: The Roman policy toward Christianity was ambivalent. After the localized persecution by Nero in Rome, there was only sporadic violence in the provinces, much of it provoked by Christians. The uncertain Roman policy is reflected in Trajan’s correspondence with Pliny the Younger contained in the text. It is only later, in 250 C.E., that the emperor Decius launched a full-scale persecution. Much of the hatred of the Christians was due to their firm denial of pagan gods and anti-Christian propaganda that portrayed them as guilty of cannibalism and incest.
Constantine and Christianity: In his struggle to overcome his opponents in the civil war that followed the retirement of Diocletian, Constantine was said to have had a dream that convinced him he owed his success to the Christian god; from then on he supported Christianity (calling and presiding over the Council of Nicaea) without abolishing the imperial cult or pagan state religion. He was not baptized, in fact, until on his deathbed. His devotion has, therefore, been questioned. Some have seen a utilitarian purpose in his support of Christianity—it enabled him to confiscate the gold and silver from some of the pagan temples in order to help reestablish the currency standard.
Republican and Imperial Rome in Global Perspective: The history of the Republic is a sharp departure from the common experience of ancient civilizations. In the development from a monarchy to a republic founded on equitable laws, and the subsequent accumulation and administration of empire, the Romans displayed their pragmatic character. They created something unique: an empire ruled by elected magistrates with an effective power equal to the kings and emperors of China, India, and Iran. However, the temptations and responsibilities of such a vast empire proved too much for the republican constitution. The influx of slaves led to the displacement of citizens, who served as professional soldiers in the service of generals seeking personal glory above loyalty to the state. The conquest of a vast empire led the Romans toward the more familiar path of development experienced by rulers in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, and Iran. Comparisons can be made with the Chinese “dynastic cycle” that included a period of strength and security fortified by impressive leadership. Like the former Han Dynasty in China, the Roman Empire in the west fell, leaving disunity, insecurity, disorder, and poverty. Like similar empires in the ancient world, it had been unable to sustain its “immoderate greatness.”
PRIMARY SOURCE: DOCUMENTS IN WORLD HISTORY DVD-ROM
St. Augustine of Hippo, Theory of the “Just War”
Sidonius Apollinaris, Rome’s Decay and a Glimpse of the New Order
Pliny the Younger, Epistulae Letters
Pliny the Elder, from The Natural History
Paulus Orosius, from Seven Books of History Against the Pagans
Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, Book twenty-six
Horace, “Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori”
Bishop Synesius of Cyrene, Letter to his brother
The Acts of the Apostles: Paul Pronounces the “Good News” in Greece
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations,Book Two (167 C.E.)
From The Conversion of Kartli (the life of St. Nino)