Height of the Roman Empire. Emperors like Hadrian saw to it that conquest stopped at Rome’s natural borders, like the Sahara and Arabian desert in the south, and the Rhone and Danube Rivers along the frontier with Germania
The Pax Romana
Despite all manner of troubles in the capital, the two centuries from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius would be a time of prosperity and peace in the Western world. It was an age identified by the term Pax Romana, or "Roman peace," a time when no military force on earth could equal the power of Rome. The "barbarians" were out there, of course—in particular the Germans, who had come to be known as Goths—but they did not dare break through the frontiers of the empire itself.
Thus Roman strength ensured the peace, and the grandeur of the Roman Empire spread throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It was a time of massive building projects, including the construction of aqueducts that remain today as an impressive reminder of Roman achievements. Across the wide expanse of the empire, the Romans built temples, bridges, and triumphal arches, the latter to mark victories in battle, of which there were many. Roman artists improved greatly on the example provided to them by the Greeks and brought realism to a high point.
Science also flourished in the work of the astronomer Ptolemy (A.D. 100s) and the physician Galen (GAY-lehn; A.D. 129–c. 199) Neither man was a "Roman" in the strictest sense of the word: Ptolemy lived in Alexandria, and Galen lived in Asia Minor. But the name of Rome had long since come to refer to an entire world, not merely to a city.
Perhaps nothing says more about the stability of Rome in this era than its roads. Rome established a highway network so impressive that it can only be compared to the American interstate system of today. These roads were not mere paths: most were 12 or more feet wide, built of stone, clay, and gravel three feet deep. Drainage ditches lined either side, and there were stone markers showing the distance to and from Rome—hence the famous saying, "All roads lead to Rome." During the years of the Pax Romana, it was possible to start out from Scotland and travel by Roman roads all the way to Rome itself; or if one wished, into Greece and even across to Asia Minor and thence all the way to southern Egypt. The roads were generally safe, protected from bandits—always a problem in ancient times—because outlaws feared the wrath of the empire.
These examples of Roman technology are impressive in their own right. But what makes them more impressive is how the technology was spread throughout the Empire. This aqueduct is built in Spain, the bath is in Bath England, the road is located in Tunis Africa and the Colloseum like arena is from Croatia
The Emperors of Pax Romana
Augustus The Romans took a great risk abolishing their democracy for the rule of one man. That first Emperor, Augustus turned out to be the right decision. His reforms set Rome back on a path of growth, peace and prosperity. First he reformed the government. He knew that Romans were not completely ready to accept the rule of just one man, so he kept the Senate intact. Although all their decision had to go through Augustus, (so that in fact they had very little real power), they felt as though they were still necessary and a system of checks and balances still remained. But, probably more significantly, he selected and chose the people to administer the daily business of the government. He chose people because of their talent rather than their birth or who they knew. Thus competent citizens and even former slaves began to effectively carry out the work of the government. He gave provincial governors long terms so they could learn how to do their job and paid them good salaries to discourage corruption.
Then Augustus set about reforming the military. First Augustus made every soldier swear loyalty to him, not their general. To keep that loyalty, soldiers were now paid by Augustus himself. Now generals could no longer build up their own private armies. And to ensure that no general could march an army against Augustus or Rome, he created a special legion of the most elite soldiers whose job was to protect the Emperor and the city of Rome. This elite legion was called the Praetorian Guard.
Augustus was not interested in conquering new territory. Instead, he wanted to give the people of Rome a break from war. To do this however, he did conquer a few lands so that Rome would be easier to defend. So he rounded the empire to its natural frontiers like the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Rhine and Danube rivers in Germany.
Instead, Augustus turned his attention on bettering the lives of people in Rome. New buildings and shrines were built. Strict laws on public behavior were enforced. He created a fire department and police force to keep people protected. As well as hosting hundreds of gladiatorial games for the peoples amusements, he also built Rome’s first library. Augustus’ rule lasted for 41 years, the longest of any Roman Emperor.
The Julio-Claudian Emperors are so named because they were all related in some way to Julius Caesar. Tiberius was competent, but tried to retire and left the empire in corrupt hands. Caligula started out with promise, but disease may have been responsible for his ultimate insanity. Claudius was made Emperor because he was the first family member the Praetorian guard found after assassinating Caligula. They found him hiding behind a large potted plant. He never wanted to be emperor and the people never liked him, despite being one of the more competent emperors. He was poisoned to death by his second wife so that her son Nero could be named Emperor. Nero never wanted to be Emperor though – he wanted to be a poet. He had his mother drowned in the sea. Tiberius (r. A.D. 14–37), stepson of Augustus, was an able ruler in his early days, but he came to place too much reliance on a corrupt administrator. He was followed by Caligula (kuh-LIG-yoo-luh; r. A.D. 37–41), who suffered a serious illness and went insane as a result. Caligula was so cruel and violent that his military officers finally murdered him. Afterward the senate considered restoring the republic to prevent another madman from taking power. However, the military overruled the senate and chose Claudius (KLAW-dee-uhs; r. A.D. 41–54). Claudius's stammer and his absentminded behavior, as well as his interest in scholarly pursuits, made him an object of ridicule; but under Claudius, Rome prospered. It added southern Britain to its conquests in A.D. 47.
The next emperor, Nero, also had interests beyond his job as ruler: Nero (r. A.D. 54–68) saw himself as an artist, a performer, and a charioteer. As with Claudius, his pursuits did not win him many admirers, but for years he was guided by his tutor Seneca (SEHN-eh-kuh; c. 3 B.C.–c. A.D. 65), who virtually ran the empire. A Stoic philosopher, Seneca was also a dramatist of note, but he committed suicide after he was accused of conspiracy against the empire. As for Nero, his reputation suffered further when he was blamed for a fire that swept Rome in A.D. 64. To clear his name, he in turn blamed the members of a tiny religious sect then gaining a foothold in Rome: the Christians. Nero himself committed suicide after revolts against the empire broke out in a variety of places, including Palestine.
Vespasian (vehs-PAY-zhee-uhn; r. A.D. 69–79) began restoring order to the empire. In A.D. 70 his son Titus (TIE-tuhs) captured the city of Jerusalem and destroyed its temple. Titus was practically a partner in his father's reign, then served as emperor himself from A.D. 79 to 81, during which time a volcano destroyed the city of Pompeii (pahm-PAY). Titus was followed by his brother, the tyrant Domitian (doh-MISH-uhn; r. A.D. 81–96), who quarreled with the senate and demanded that he be addressed as "God."
Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius were collectively known as “The Five Good Emperors”. Since each Emperor appointed their best general as their successor, the Empire enjoyed the smooth transition of competent emperors for almost 90 years. After the brief reign of another emperor came a series of five able rulers. In fact, this period of time has been described as, "the period of the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous." Second of these "five good" emperors was Trajan (TRAY-juhn; r. A.D. 99–117), who added several provinces, including Mesopotamia, to the empire. By 116, the empire reached its greatest extent, stretching from the borders of Scotland to the mouth of Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
An artistic rendering of Hadrian’s Wall on the modern day border of Scotland.
The emperor Hadrian (HAY-dree-uhn; r. A.D. 117–138) gave the first evidence that Rome had grown too big for its own good. He gave up the recently acquired province of Mesopotamia. He built a large stone border, Hadrian's Wall, between Roman Britain and Scotland. His reign also saw the construction of the Pantheon, a huge temple to the gods covered by an open dome.
Hadrian was followed by a minor emperor, and then by one of the greatest rulers in Roman history, Marcus Aurelius (oh-REEL-ee-uhs; r. 161–180), who is also famed as a Stoic philosopher. Certainly the events of Marcus's time must have influenced the brave approach to life that he recommended in his writings. Not only did soldiers fighting in Asia bring back the plague, but Rome was subjected to invasions from several German tribes. Marcus became the first of many emperors to allow barbarians to settle inside Roman borders as a means of protecting the frontier from other barbarians.
Many of Europe’s major cities today began as Roman military camps; like Barcelona Spain on the left and London England on the right.
The Decline of the Empire (A.D. 180–337)
When Marcus died, a golden age died with him. Historians mark this point as the beginning of the fall of Rome. The fall of Rome was anything but sudden. It was long with times where things seemed to improve and get better. Neither did it all fall apart everywhere. Whereas life on the western side of empire was about to go through a violent collapse, life in the east would experience a reawakening of culture and success. Some historians argue that Rome never truly fell, but merely underwent a long process of change. Rome would look very different by 500 A.D., but many parts of its culture can still be seen today.
Just as Rome’s fall did not happen instantly, it also had many reasons for its demise. Although Augustus’ attempts to reform the government with an all-powerful leader worked for a time, it became corrupted and led to many political problems. Likewise, Rome’s increased wealth and expansion created more conflict and separation between its social classes. This led to a variety of social, economic and religious problems that left Rome unable and unwilling to deal with its other problems. Rome was left to weak, and too unmotivated to deal with its greatest threat – the barbarian invasions.
As the Roman Empire grew and expanded, this caused more and more tension between Rome’s social classes. As more wealth poured into Rome, it was going exclusively into the pockets of the wealthiest classes, who then used the money to buy more slaves and created fewer and fewer opportunities for the middle class. The gap between rich and poor, always wide, began to widen further. The middle class all but died out. Over time, slavery actually began to decline, but not for a good reason. Wealthy Roman landowners no longer purchased, housed, and fed slaves, when poor free citizens were so desperate for work that they were actually cheaper.
What developed was two extremes: honestiores, who were the very rich and powerful, most of whom had lavish homes both in the city and countryside, and humiliores, who lived in crowded slum dwellings that often collapsed or caught fire. Each had their own set of problems.
Rome’s wealthiest citizens began to remove themselves from the cities and built large estates in the country. Here, they could ignore the problems going on in the rest of the empire. In these lavish estates, the wealthy became infamous for wasting money on lavish parties where guests ate and drank until they became ill. Special rooms called, vomitoriums, were installed just off the dining room where guests could “relieve” themselves and then return for more gluttony. Many of the wealthy had water brought to their homes through lead pipes. This caused lead poisoning and led to high levels of insanity. The wealthy death rate was surprisingly very high.
Meanwhile, Rome’s poor and unemployed crowded into the cities. They lived in small smelly rooms in apartment houses with six or more stories called islands. Each island covered an entire block. At one time there were 44,000 apartment houses within the city walls of Rome. First-floor apartments were not occupied by the poor since these living quarters rented for about $100 a year. The more shaky wooden stairs a family had to climb, the cheaper the rent became. The upper apartments that the poor rented for $40 a year were hot, dirty, crowed, and dangerous. Anyone who could not pay the rent was forced to move out and live on the crime-infested streets. Because of this, cities began to decay. To keep the people from revolting, the government provided them with free food. At one time, the emperor was importing grain to feed more than 100,000 people in Rome alone. These people were not only a burden but also had little to do but cause trouble and contribute to an ever increasing crime rate.
There were many public health and environmental problems. The continuous interaction of people at the Colosseum, surrounded by blood and death, caused disease to spread. Those who lived on the streets in continuous contact allowed for an uninterrupted strain of disease. Alcohol use increased, adding to the incompetency of the general public. As political freedom declined, sexual freedom increased, which actually lead to a decline in the population. Even during Pax Romana there were 32,000 prostitutes in Rome. Not only did family life begin to fall apart, but the practice of killing of unwanted children, spread.
One area that rich and poor had in common was their desire for ever increasing levels of violent entertainment to deal with their boredom. The rich because they had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it, and poor because they had no money and nothing to do. To keep them both happy the government provided them with a never ending supply of deadly entertainments, both at race tracks like the Circus Maximus and gladiator games at places like the Colloseum. 45,000 spectators would crowd into the Colloseum almost on a daily basis to watch increasingly cruel "sporting" events, as Christians, slaves, or prisoners were put in the ring unarmed against wild animals. Rome actually caused the extinction of some African animals to satisfy the crowds demand for watching animals fight to the death. As gladiators fought, vicious cries and curses were heard from the audience. One contest after another was staged in the course of a single day. Should the ground become too soaked with blood, it was covered over with a fresh layer of sand and the performance went on.
The Emperor’s Hadrian and Aurelius realized that the Roman Empire had reached the maximum that could be defended and governed. The policies they set in place ended Rome’s conquest and expansion and instead focused on protecting and defending its current borders. But since Rome’s economy had always been based on taking wealth from its conquered neighbors this new policy had a devastating impact on the economy. With no new conquests, there was no new wealth.
Rome had also always imported more goods than it exported. It was not a producer – it was a taker. Many ships sailed into the harbors of Rome fully loaded, but most of them left empty. Once the Romans stopped conquering new lands, the flow of gold into the Roman economy decreased. Yet much gold was being spent by the Romans to pay for luxury items. What little gold left in Rome was being traded out of the Empire to pay for products made outside of the Empire. This meant that there was less gold to use in coins. As the amount of gold used in coins decreased, the coins became less valuable. This results in a situation called inflation. To make up for this loss in value, merchants raised the prices on the goods they sold. If you have a lot of coins, this isn’t as much a problem, but if you are poor and have only a limited amount of coins, you find that more and more of them disappear just to buy a loaf of bread. Many people stopped using coins and began to barter to get what they needed. Eventually, salaries had to be paid in food and clothing, and taxes were collected in fruits and vegetables.
As Rome’s economy collapsed, so did its technology. During the last 400 years of the empire, the scientific achievements of the Romans were limited almost entirely to engineering and the organization of public services. They built marvelous roads, bridges, and aqueducts. They established the first system of medicine for the benefit of the poor. But since the Romans relied so much on human and animal labor, they failed to invent many new machines or find new technology to produce goods more efficiently. They could not provide enough goods for their growing population. They were no longer conquering other civilizations and adapting their technology.
Maintaining an army to defend the border of the Empire from barbarian attacks was a constant drain on the government. Military spending left few resources for other vital activities, such as providing public housing and maintaining quality roads and aqueducts. Frustrated Romans lost their desire to defend the Empire. The empire had to begin hiring soldiers recruited from the unemployed city mobs or worse from foreign counties. Such an army was not only unreliable, but very expensive. The emperors were forced to raise taxes frequently which in turn led again to increased inflation.
In the face of all these social and economic problems, what Rome needed was a strong ruler. Unfortunately, corruption made that the exception rather than the norm for the next 250 years. One of the most difficult problems was choosing a new emperor. The Romans never created an effective system to determine how new emperors would be selected. The choice was always open to debate between the old emperor, the Senate, the Praetorian Guard, and the army. Gradually, the Praetorian Guard gained complete authority to choose the new emperor, who rewarded the guard who then became more influential, perpetuating the cycle.
Aurelius first broke the trend of appointing his most competent general as his replacement, and instead appointed his son Commodus (KAHM-uh-duhs; r. A.D. 180–192) as Emperor. Although the beginning of his reign started out promising, over time he became more and more unstable. He was one of the first emperors to demand to be treated as a living god. He also demanded that people recognize him as the reincarnated Hercules. Over time he developed an obsession with gladiators and would dress as a gladiator during state functions. This would be similar to our president attending official functions dressed in full football uniform. When he insisted on being allowed to participate in a gladiatorial match, his guards put an end to the embarrassment and had him strangled to death in his own bathtub by a professional wrestler.
Commodus, dressed as Hercules
Commodus’ replacement, Pertinax, only ruled for 67 days before he was assassinated by his own soldiers for refusing to pay them bribe money. His successor Didius Julianus did not make the same mistake. He promised the Praetorian Guard 25,000 sesteres to make him Emperor. Septimus Severus (SEP-ti-muhs seh-VEER-uhs; r. A.D. 192–211), Rome’s first African Emperor, did manage to restore order for the next 20 years and was one of the last Roman emperors to die of natural causes. His son Caracalla became the next Emperor after he ordered his guard to stab his brother and co-emperor to death – in front of their mother! He later claimed it was self-defense. When he was mocked for this on a trip to Alexandria, he invited all of the cities wealthiest families invited to the local arena for a “celebration”. When they had entered, he ordered the gates barred and ordered his army to slaughter them. Then they went out into the rest of the city. In all, over 20,000 people were put to death. He was assassinated soon after.
During the next forty-nine years, no fewer than twenty emperors reigned, many of them promoted to their positions by the army. Emperors who inspired the disfavor of the military or the senate had a way of winding up dead, and they would simply be replaced. For a time, a rival dynasty of emperors ruled Gaul, and plenty of other would-be rulers contended for power. Zenobia of Palmyra led a revolt in Syria, as did other leaders in other parts of the empire. The emperor, Valerian (vuh-LEER-eeun; r. A.D. 253–260), was captured in battle by the Persians. The Persian Emperor used him as a step stool to mount his horse. When he tired of this, he had him skinned alive and hung his skin in his palace.
Gallienus, Valerian's son and co-ruler, began a period of slow recovery in the empire as a whole. He built up the military on the borders and prevented senators from holding command positions in the army. Aurelian (oh-REEL-ee-uhn; r. A.D. 270–275) crushed the revolts in Syria and Gaul, but like other Roman emperors, he proved ineffective against the most serious threat to Rome's power: the barbarian tribes. His building of a wall around Rome, which had never had one in all its years, was a sign of the empire's increasingly defensive posture.
Diocletian and Constantine
After a half century of disorder, the emperor Diocletian (die-oh-KLEE-shun) was able, at least temporarily, to restore peace and stability. Diocletian and his successors would make drastic changes in the administration of the empire in an effort to prevent its dissolution. However, his reforms would later prove to be as responsible for the ultimate fall of Rome as it did to help it survive.
Diocletian, who ruled from 284 A.D. to 305 A.D., came to power with the backing of the eastern army. Although, he ruled the entire empire, Diocletian appointed one of his friends, Maximian, to supervise the western part. Both Diocletian and Maximian formally took the title of Augustus, and each appointed a second-in-command with the title of Caesar. The rule of the four together constituted what is termed the tetrarchy. This was also the beginning of the split between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. Diocletian remained in the east and began the task of restoring order. To combat the threat of German tribes in the west and Persians in the east, Diocletian had special border troops stationed permanently on the frontiers. For the first time in years Rome’s frontiers were stabilized.
Diocletian divided the empire into 120 provinces, each run by an administrator of his choosing. These provinces were gathered into groups often controlled by another official, the vicarius (vi KARE-ee-us). The vicarii reported to the headquarters of the Augustus or Caesar ruling his area of the empire. Diocletian also sent spies to watch over the administrators. To pay for all this, new taxes were passed, the burden of which fell most heavily on small farmers and business people.
Diocletian’s reforms included splitting the empire into two sections. Each section was ruled by its own co-emperor, and his chosen successor – called his Caesar. Although the idea of co-rulers would come and go over the next century, the split between the empires would become permanent. Constantine made a new capital in the East at the former city of Byzantium, giving the eastern empire the name of “The Byzantine Empire”
Diocletian’s programs did bring order to the empire. However, on his retirement in 305 A.D., the rule of the tetrarchy broke down and the struggle to succeed Diocletian led to civil war. Constantine, the son of one of the Caesars, emerged the winner in 324 A.D. Constantine kept many of Diocletian’s reforms. In 330 A.D., when Constantine made Constantinople, meaning the city of Constantine, his eastern capital, the declining fortunes of Rome and the western half of the empire were underscored. By creating a new capital in the east, Constantine all but sent the message that the Empire in the west was dead. No one cared about the old, decaying city of Rome anymore. Rome in the west was being abandoned, while Rome in the east was being reborn as something new.
Constantinople was to eclipse Rome in splendor and importance, and would become the center of the thriving eastern empire. But it was difficult to say how Roman it was. Because Constantinople was in Greece, it became fashionable to speak in Greek, and Latin was replaced. Clothing and art styles also took on a more eastern influence. But, perhaps most importantly of all, Constantinople adopted a new religion and coliseums were replaced with churches.
The cult of Isis is mostly a mystery. But followers believed that like Isis, certain “power words” would give practitioners power over life and death. When faced with social problems, most societies turn to religions to help unify people around a common set of morals. Rome’s official religion did little to provide direction and hope to its people. In fact, it’s hard to say that they had an “official” religion at all. Since the Romans had originally just adopted the Greek polytheistic gods, they tended to just incorporate most other gods of people that they conquered. With a few exceptions, like the Celtic Druids who were all but wiped out, cultures that were added to the Empire were allowed to bring their particular religious beliefs in as well. This led to a wide variety of different cults and religions being practiced throughout the empire. Not only did this make it difficult to unite people in a common direction, some of them participated in highly questionable moral practices. The Greek, Cult of Dionysus, for example, encouraged its followers to escape from the miseries of life by consuming large volumes of wine and dancing around a bonfire until they saw visions of their god.
The only thing that all Romans were required to practice was the Cult of the Emperor. The official religion of Rome stated that the Emperor was a god. Although many emperors practiced this in death only, meaning they didn’t really expect people to consider them a god until after they died, other emperors fully expected people to treat them as a god on earth. Unfortunately, some of these same emperors were also horrible role models when it came to moral behavior. Emperors who openly participated in murder, sexual deviance, and extreme gluttony did little to provide guidance and direction.
Jews and the Roman Empire
Among the peoples in the empire were the Jews. By 63 B.C., the Romans had conquered Palestine, where most Jews of the time lived, and made it into the province of Judea. As with other citizens of the empire, the Romans tolerated the Jews’ religion. They even excused the Jews from worshiping Roman gods. They knew that to do so would violate the Jewish faith, which was based on belief in one God.
Among the Jews themselves, however, religious ferment was creating deep divisions. During the Hellenistic age, many Jews absorbed Greek customs and ideas. Now, having been conquered by the Romans, Jewish leaders feared for more weakening of their culture. Jewish reformers began to call for a return to strict obedience to Jewish laws and traditions. An especially radical group, called the Zealots, even called on Jews to revolt against Rome and reestablish an independent Israel. Some Jews believed that a messiah, or savior sent by God, would soon appear to lead the Jewish people to freedom.
In A.D. 66, discontent did finally flare into rebellion. Roman forces crushed the rebels, captured Jerusalem, and destroyed the Jewish temple. When revolts broke out again in the next century, Roman armies leveled Jerusalem. Thousands of Jews were killed in the fighting. Faced with the destruction that resulted from the rebellions, growing numbers of Jews decided to leave Judea, where they survived in scattered communities around the Mediterranean.
The Birth of Christianity Before that rebellion, however, the Jewish religion saw the creation of a new sect, or group, of Judaism which would over time become its own major religion. This newest of cults spread slowly throughout the empire. Many blamed it for the final destruction of Rome because it so radically changed the morals and values of what was considered to be traditional Roman culture. But, more people saw it as the final savior of Rome. Today, it is the major world religion of Christianity, and is one of the most significant contributions remaining from the Roman Empire.
Jesus’ performance of miracles, like healing the sick, attracted a following in the province of Judea
Its founder was a Jew named Jesus. What little we know about the life of Jesus comes from the Gospels. These accounts were attributed by early Christians to four followers of Jesus. Jesus was born about 4 B.C. in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. According to the Gospels, an angel had told Jesus’ mother, Mary that she would give birth to the messiah. “He will be great,” said the angel, “and will be called the Son of the Most High God.”
Growing up, Jesus worshiped God and followed Jewish law. As a young man, he worked as a carpenter. At the age of 30, the Gospels relate, he began preaching to villagers near the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ teachings were firmly rooted in Jewish tradition. Jesus believed in one God and accepted the Ten Commandments. He preached strict obedience to the laws of Moses and defended the teachings of the Jewish prophets. Large crowds gathered to hear him especia1ly when word spread that he performed miracles of healing.
At the same time, Jesus preached new beliefs. After three years, Jesus and his disciples, or loyal followers, went to Jerusalem to spread his message there. According to his followers, he called himself the Son of God and declared that he was the messiah whose appearance Jews had long predicted. His mission, he proclaimed, was to bring spiritual salvation and eternal life to anyone who would believe in him. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summed up his ethical message, which echoed Jewish ideas of mercy and sympathy for the poor and helpless: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy... . Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”. Jesus rejected the principle of “an eye for an eye.” Instead, he preached forgiveness. “Love your enemies,” he told his followers. “If anyone hits you on one cheek, let him hit the other one, too.”
Some Jews welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem. Others, however, regarded him as a dangerous troublemaker. Jewish priests, in particular, felt that he was challenging their leadership. To the Roman authorities, Jesus was a revolutionary who might lead the Jews in a rebellion against Roman rule. Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples, the Gospels state. Arrested by the Romans, he was tried and condemned to be crucified. In crucifixion, a Roman method of execution, a person was nailed to a cross and left to die. Jesus’ disciples were thrown into confusion. But then rumors spread through Jerusalem that Jesus was not dead at all. His disciples, the Gospels say, saw and talked with Jesus, who had risen from the dead. He commanded them to spread his teachings. Then he ascended into heaven.
At first, Christianity remained a sect, or small group, within Judaism. The disciples who spread Jesus’ message are known as the Apostles, from the Greek word meaning “a person sent forth.” Some preached among the Jews of Judea. Others traveled to the communities of the Jewish diaspora, including Rome. Slowly, a few Jews accepted the teaching that Jesus was the messiah, or the Christ, from the Greek for “the anointed one.” These people became the first Christians.
The Growth of Christianity
It was the apostle Paul, a Jew from Asia Minor, who began the wider spread of the new faith. Paul had never seen Jesus. In fact, he had been among those who persecuted Jesus’ followers. Then one day, Paul had a vision in which Jesus spoke to him. Immediately converting to the new faith, Paul made an important decision. He would spread Jesus’ teachings beyond Jewish communities to gentiles, or non-Jews. With this decision, Christianity was now open to people who were not the “Chosen People”. Thus, they could no longer consider themselves to be part of the Jewish faith. Thus, they went from being a branch of Judaism, to its own religion. However, at this point, its followers were so small and unknown that Rome considered them to be no more than just another of many mysterious eastern cults.
Paul’s missionary work set Christianity on the road to becoming a world religion. A tireless traveler, Paul set up churches from Mesopotamia to Rome. In long letters to the Christian communities, he explained and expanded Christian teachings. For example, he emphasized the idea that Jesus had sacrificed his life out of love for humankind. Paul promised that those who believed Jesus was the son of God and followed his teachings would achieve salvation, or eternal life.
These beliefs put them into direct conflict with the Empire. Rome’s tolerant attitude toward religion did not extend to Christianity. Roman officials suspected Christians of disloyalty to Rome because they refused to make sacrifices to the emperor or to honor the Roman gods. When Christians met in secret to avoid persecution, rumors spread that they were engaged in evil practices. The practice of Baptism was reported as Christians drowning babies. The Eucharist, where Christians consume the body and blood of Jesus, was believed to be a practice of cannibalism. But mostly, Romans just did not trust the pacifist message of the Christians. The belief of “turn the other cheek” was just too strange of a concept for Romans who preferred a preemptive kick in the groin if you even thought your enemy might slap you in the cheek.
Not all Emperors sought to destroy Christianity. When times were good, Christians were treated with tolerance. However, in times of trouble, persecution increased. Roman rulers like Nero used Christians as scape goats, blaming them for a fire that destroyed large portions of the city (Even though in fact he probably had the fire started to make way for a new imperial palace). Over the centuries, thousands of Christians became martyrs, people who suffer or die for their beliefs. Among them was Paul, who was killed during the reign of Nero. Most gladiator game days began with Christians being fed to wild beasts or burned alive for the crowd’s entertainment. It also sent the message that this was one religion you did not want to be a part of.
Rome’s plan to eliminate Christianity backfired. Despite the attacks, Christianity continued to spread. The reasons were many. Jesus had welcomed all people, especially the humble, poor, and oppressed. They found comfort in his message of love and of a better life beyond the grave. The risk of burning at the stake was a small price to pay to end an otherwise miserable existence in return for the promise of an eternal paradise.
Christianity also attracted the educated members of Roman society. As they did their work, Christian missionaries like Paul added ideas from Plato, the Stoics, and other Greek thinkers to Jesus’ message. Educated Romans, in particular, were attracted to a religion that incorporated the discipline and moderation of Greek philosophy. Women also had reasons to find this new religion. Many welcomed its promise that in the Church “there is neither Jew nor Greek . . . neither slave nor free. . . neither male nor female.” In early Christian communities, women served as teachers and administrators. Even when they were later barred from any official role in the Church, they still worked to win converts and supported Christian communities across the Roman world.
The persecution of the Christians in the arena’s had the exact opposite impact than what the Emperors planned. Instead of resisting or crying out in pain, many Christian martyrs met their end in silent prayer. Observing the willingness of Christians to die for their religion, Romans were impressed by the strength of their belief. Instead of turning Romans away from the religion, they wanted to know more about what gave its followers such strength.
As the empire grew older, and its problems more severe, more and more people turned away from the old beliefs and converted to Christianity. The emperor Diocletian, made an attempt to unite the people of Rome in 303 A.D. by declaring that all Romans must practice one religion. And that one religion would be the old, state religion where he was the god. Thus began the last and greatest of the persecutions where it is estimated over 20,000 Christians were crucified. But it did not work.
In 312 A.D., Diocletian’s successor, Constantine also attempted to unite the people of Rome behind him. But instead of fighting the Christians, he joined them. After a great victory in which he claimed to have seen a great cross in the sky with the words “In this sign you shall be victorious”, he converted to Christianity. It probably didn’t hurt that his wife and mother were already Christians. Thus Constantine became the first Christian Emperor. One year later he issued the Edict of Milan, which granted religious freedom to all. Although Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of Rome,( that would not happen until the emperor Theodosius in 379 AD), he would go on to have a significant impact on the shaping of Christianity as an official religion.
Constantine claimed that his victory at Milvan Bridge was due to Divine intervention. Judea
It is difficult to say what role the conversion of Rome to Christianity played in its downfall. Some believe that Christianity made many Roman citizens into pacifists, making it more difficult to defend against the barbarian attackers. Also money used to build churches could have been used to maintain the empire. Although some argue that Christianity may have provided some morals and values for a declining civilization and therefore may have actually prolonged the imperial era. Furthermore, since it is still with us today, one could argue it is one aspect of the Roman Empire that never did die out, but still lives on.
The Final Fall (A.D. 337–476)
The ultimate cause of the fall of Rome, at least western Rome, was due to the violent and hostile migrations of the Germanic people. But, keep in mind that the Germanic people would have never been able to invade Rome, if Rome was not already weak from its own social, economic and political problems. In short, the Germans succeeded because the Romans no longer had the funds or desire to resist.
Nearly 20,000 Roman soldiers were slaughtered in an ambush in the thick forests of Teutoburg. The Germans were not new to the Romans. The Romans had been dealing with the Germans since the days of Augustus and Caesar’s newly acquired lands in Gaul first bordered up against the Germans. In 9 A.D., Augustus sent his general, Varus, to subjugate a tribe of Germans only to have 3 legions ambushed and slaughtered in the Teutoburg Forest. After that incident the Romans determined that the German tribes were not to be conquered and admitted into the empire, but instead shunned and kept out at all costs. Frankly, the Germans scared the Romans. Thus the Romans shunned them, called them barbarians and considered them animals that needed to be kept out of house. In reality though, the Germanic culture contained many elements that we would recognize today.
The Germanic peoples had no written language, therefore most of what we know about them comes to us from Roman accounts. Because the Germans were so different then the Romans, much of what the Romans said about them was very biased. First, the Germans were physically different. They were much larger than the Mediterranean Romans. Whereas Romans kept their hair neat and trim, Germans saw long hair and beards as a sign of masculinity. Romans lived in stone, orderly cities. Because Germania was heavily forested, the Germans tended to live in small isolated villages of wooden structures. Romans heated their homes with fires kept burning day and night with slave labor. Germans used their animals to keep their homes warm. Romans drank wine. Germans drank beer – lots of it! All day drinking bouts were a common entertainment in the long dark winters of the north.
Some aspects of German culture we would recognize as more civilized than the Romans. For instance, the Germans highly valued family. German men and women monogamous, meaning they were faithful to each other in marriage. In Rome it was common for patricians to not only have a wife, but many other loves as well. German ties between parents and child were very strong, unlike in Rome where a Roman father might go years without seeing his children or would have them sent off to be raised by other families. German society had few social classes. Guests were treated with great hospitality and it was against the law to turn away a person in need. Although they did have slaves, these slaves were defeated enemies who were for the most part respected and valued. They were given the jobs of farming as punishment for having been defeated in battle.
In many ways, German society was more democratic than Roman society. The basic unit in German society was the family. A group of families formed a clan. Larger groups organized themselves into tribes, governed by a chieftain and a tribal council called a Witan. The chieftain was elected by the Witan. All the adult males, except slaves, belonged to the council, which discussed tribal policies. To show their agreement with the chieftain, the German warriors clashed their shields. German law was considered to come from the people. A chieftain could not change a law without the permission of the people. If a person broke a law they were tried by a judge and a jury of their peers – much like we do today.
But most of all, the Germans were a warrior society. German males were warriors and they prized the values of courage and loyalty. Each German military leader was followed into battle by his own band of warriors who were linked to him by a personal pledge of loyalty. The Romans called this warrior band a comitatus (kah rnuh-TAH---tuss) The leader of the comitatus saw that his warriors were provided with food, weapons, and shelter and that they received a share of the land and wealth gained in battle. In return, each member of the comitatus pledged to fight to the death alongside his leader. It was considered a disgrace to survive a battle in which the leader of the comitatus died.
The Germanic Invasions
The Romans considered the Germans to be uncivilized. The Germans, in contrast, were very much attracted to Roman culture, land and wealth. Their hopes to live peacefully within the borders of the Roman Empire throughout the 1st and 2nd century A.D. were shunned as the Roman army went to great lengths to keep the Germans behind the Danube and Rhone river. Roman generals did, however, develop a respect and admiration for the fighting abilities of the German warriors.
In the third century, as the Roman army began to suffer from a lack of soldiers and money to pay them, the Romans developed a new strategy with regards to the German warriors. Limited numbers of friendlier tribes were allowed to settle in the empire in exchange for military service. The Romans figured that the best way to fight a German, was with other Germans. And, they were cheaper since they didn’t have to pay them. As the empire further declined, the Romans were forced to recruit more and more German warriors. By the end of the fourth century the bulk of the Roman troops in western Europe
were Germanic, and it was their duty to protect the frontiers against other Germanic invaders.
Conflict between the Romans and Germans finally came to a head at the end of 4th century, surprisingly due to a change in weather conditions in China. A period of cooling temperatures caused large droughts and a change in the way of life of a group of nomadic herders in Northern China. To survive, they tried to escape into the Han Dynasty but were turned back by the Great Wall. These people, who would come to be known as the Huns, had no choice but to turn west. Crossing the mighty Himalayas and the vast steppes of Russia, they emerged into the fertile wooded world of Eastern Europe in 372 A.D. These skilled fighters, mounted on horseback, quickly conquered the East Germans, or Ostrogoths (OS-truh-goths). Then they settled temporarily in what is now Hungary, raiding southward and westward.
The Hun advance spread terror among other Germanic tribes. People in the west had never seen people with Asiatic features, let alone Asians who were rarely seen off horseback. Many Germans thought they were in fact a breed of centaur, half man – half horse. If the Germans were considered uncivilized, then the Huns were considered absolute savages. Huns marked the scene of raids and battles by impaling the heads of their victims on spears, or just by stacking hundreds of skulls into large mounds. What was truly terrifying about the Huns is that they seemed to have no desire to ever stop fighting. They had no desire to settle down and become farmers. In fact, Hun cuisine consisted of placing a large slab of raw meat between their horses back and their saddle. As they rode around all day, the meat would “cook” in the horse sweat. The great Hun horde had no real leadership or government but was merely a vast mob that wanted to raid villages, steal and kill, and then move on to do it again.
The Hun invasion of Germania did not directly harm the Romans. What it did was send the Germans fleeing into Rome. The German respect for the Roman army was nothing compared to their fear of the Huns. Especially considering that most of the Roman army now consisted of fellow Germans.
Rome however had little sympathy for the Germans. One nation of Germans who were allowed to enter Rome as refugees, were the Visigoths, or the West Goths. Because of their previous good relations with the Romans, they were allowed to settle in camps in northern Greece. The Roman officials who were supposed to help care for the refugees instead used the opportunity to take advantage of them. Beef that was supposed to feed the Visigoths was sold instead and replaced with dog meat. Then the officials would force the Visigoths to trade their children for the dog meat. The children were then sold in to slavery. The Visigoths revolted. The emperor, Valens, tried to subdue the Germans, but was soundly defeated at the battle of Adrianople in 378 AD. The Visigoths fought as people who had nothing to lose, whereas the Romans were mostly made up of Germanic soldiers who had little loyalty to an empire who were abusing their own people.
Alaric enters Rome
For many, Adrianople marked a turning point for the Roman Empire. The army could no longer be counted on to keep them safe. Things were only going to get worse. In the winter of 406, the Rhone River froze for the first time in Roman history. With no natural barrier between them and the empire, German tribes began to pour into the west taking lands by force that the Romans would not let them have out of mercy. In 410 A.D., Rome itself was attacked and plundered by the leader of the Visigoths. Alaric had at one time been an officer in the Roman army. But when he was overlooked for a promotion, he returned to his own people, vowing to get even with the Romans. Although his sacking of Rome only lasted one week, the message was clear. The Roman army and government could no longer save the west. The people were on their own.
The Visigoths continued westward, they settled in southern France and Spain. Another German tribe, the Vandals, swept through France and Spain, then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to conquer Roman North Africa. The destruction they left behind was so great that the word vandal has come to mean someone who thoughtlessly destroys property. Another Germanic tribe, the Burgundians took over eastern Gaul, while northern Gaul fell to the Franks. From the bordering lands of modern Germany
and Denmark, Jutes, Angles, and Saxons sailed to Britain. Meanwhile, Italy was overrun by Ostrogoths.
In 451 A.D. the Huns returned. And this time they headed for Rome itself, under the leadership of Attila. Although his name really meant “Little Daddy”, he was more commonly referred to in Rome as “the scourge of God”. Faced by a common danger, the Romans and Germans formed an alliance and defeated the invaders at the battle of Châlons (sha-LON). With westward movement prevented,
We won’t ever really know what Attila looked like, but the Romans envisioned that he had horns.
ttila retreated to Italy where he sacked a number of Italian cities. Then he marched on Rome. Mysteriously, he never attacked the city itself. The Romans claimed they were saved by the head of the Christian Church, Pope Leo I, who asked Attilla to leave in God’s name. And he miraculously did. It is also believed that Attilla’s army was suffering from an outbreak of plague and he had no choice but to retreat. Attila died shortly afterward,(from a nose bleed on his wedding night) and the Huns were driven back toward Asia.
With the Hun menace ended, the Germanic tribes were free to move against the Western Roman Empire. The Vandals sailed from North Africa, raided Italy, and sacked Rome in 455 A.D. Italy was plunged into chaos. For the next twenty years a series of weak emperors followed in rapid succession, none reigning more than a few years. These emperors were only figureheads for the real power lay with the barbarian generals and their armies. In 475 A.D. one of these generals placed his young son, Romulus, on the throne. The following year the young emperor was deposed by an Ostrogoth general, Odoacer (oe-doe-AY-sur), and the line of Roman emperors in the West came to an end. This event, which occurred in 476 A.D., is commonly said to mark the fall of the Western Roman Empire.