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The Roman Empire

The Romans and the Roma Empire: The expansion of the Roman Empire

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The murder of Caesar was followed by a decade of civil war that ended with the birth of the Roman Empire. In 43 BC, Octavian joined forces with Mark Antony, Caesar's deputy, and MarcusAemilius Lepidus form the Second Triumvirate.

Together they defeated Brutus and Cassius at the battle of Philippi in northern Greece and then started a program to attend the neglected provinces and resettle the veterans.

While Antony took on the administrative reorganization of the wealthy eastern provinces, where he also began a love affair with Cleopatra, Octavian confiscated land in Italy for the resettlement of the army. Soon jealousy and ambition led to mutual suspicion among the three men. After the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in a sea battle near Actium, in 31 BC, Octavian became the unchallenged master of Rome and the entire Mediterranean.
On January 13 of 27 Bc, the Senate awarded Octavian the name of Augustus establishing the imperial monarchy that would endure for five centuries. It was the end of the Roman Republic (509-27 BC).

The emperor Augustus reigned from 27 BC to AD 14 with absolute power.
He re-established political and social stability and launched two centuries of prosperity called the Roman Peace (Pax Romana). During the first two centuries Ad the empire flourished and added new territories as ancient Britain, Arabia, and Dacia (present-day Romania). People from the provinces streamed to Rome and became soldiers, bureaucrats, senators, and even emperors.
Rome developed into the social, economic, cultural capital of the Mediterranean world. Most emperors ruled sensibly and competently till military and economic disasters brought on the political instability of the 3rd century AD.

The Empire guaranteed the fruitful cohabitation and melting of different cultures such as the Greek, the Jewish, the Babylonian, the new religion of the Christians, and cultural elements from Persia, Egypt, and other eastern civilizations.
The Romans supplied their own peculiar talents for government, law, architecture, and spread the Latin language. They created the Greco-Roman synthesis, the rich combination of cultural elements that for two millennia has shaped the Western tradition.


Octavian's victory over Antony made him master of Rome, but it did not resolve the conflicts that had destroyed the Roman Republic.
In order to guarantee the peace and stability of the so called Augustan Age he had to follow a hard program that included every aspect of political, religious, economic, civil and military life.


Augustus's main task was to create and staff new administrative structures for the empire. He mostly worked to reinvigorate the senatorial order and to include Italians, who had helped him during the civil wars, in the new regime.
To fulfil the exigency of more administrators for his large empire, he turned to the equestrian order, that is wealthy citizens who began to perform a wide range of administrative tasks, both in Rome and in the provinces.
Once established a basic administrative structure, Augustus managed to balance Rome's budget replacing the corrupt private tax collectors with state employees.
He also established public police and fire protection for Rome and kept close control over grain distribution and the water supply. After having reorganized the administration in Rome, Augustus proceeded to unify ancient Italy culturally, politically, and economically integrating the Italians into all aspects of Roman life.
His work of reorganization concerned also the eastern provinces, that he named territory of the Roman state. Augustus considered some of them (such as Egypt) his personal property and governed them through his deputies.

Moral Reform and Religious Renewal

Part of Augustus's program was aimed to restore the ancient Roman morality and foster a repopulation of the city. In this sense he passed a legislation to encourage marriage and childbearing while penalizing the unmarried and childless.
To support the old virtues and values, Augustus revived neglected ceremonies and restored 82 temples that had fallen into ruins.
In commemoration of his victory over Antony, and of the city of Rome, he built a new temple to the war god, Mars and held splendid celebrations to mark the anniversary of the founding of Rome.


Even though the emperor controlled coinage, taxation, and his own enormous estate, he allowed the economy to operate freely, with demand dictating price and profits.
Above all it was the end of civil war that encouraged economic growth. Farming remained the basis of the Roman economy. Under the emperor farming increased both in Italy and in the provinces and Romans learned new techniques for different climatic conditions.
Rome began to import many products from abroad, such as wheat from Egypt, wine from Gaul, and oil from Spain and Africa. Most of the landowners lived in the cities and the richest ones in Rome.
Metalwork, glass, and pottery were manufactured principally by small workshops and mostly at the sites where was the material. One of the most important centre of manufactory became, under the empire, Gaul, where more and more craftsmen produced weapons, pottery, boots, clothing, and building material for the increasing necessities of the militaries.
The easiest legal way to acquire a fortune quickly was trade. Trade was possible exploiting the advanced system of roads that Romans had built all throughout the empire and also by sea, even if there were risks.
Merchants throughout the empire normally used Roman coins, but the monetary system primarily served for the emperors to pay their troops.
During the reign of Augustus, a silver denarius weighted 5.7 gm and was 99 percent pure. The deficit spending of later emperors nearly halved the silver value of the coinage. Taxes felt more heavily on conquered peoples in the empire.
Romans and Italians were exempted from tribute.

The Army

One defeated Mark Antony, Augustus reduced the military forces and provided men mostly with the land of the new colonies around the Mediterranean.
In so doing he reinforced the boundaries of the empire, favoured its expansion, and created new important centres for spreading the Roman way of life.
He also established a central military treasury and set funds for the legionaries. In order to bind his troops to him he rewarded it with regular compensation, occasional bonus, and promotions.
The Roman army could count on the ability of Romans for the heavy infantry but also on the skills of the auxiliary troops, composed by conquered peoples.
This measure also fostered a stricter unification throughout the peoples of empire, spreading the Latin and Roman civilazion in all the colonies.
While settling legions throughout the empire, Augustus disposed a special troop, know as the praetorian guard, to defend and protect Italy.

Augustus left a legacy of peace and prosperity to the Romans. Internal peace revived Roman patriotism and economic prosperity throughout the empire. He expanded and reinforced the empire boundaries and reorganized the administration of the colonies.
Augustus was also a generous patron of literature and art and, in his final decades, the father figure who provided food, entertainment, and security to Roman people.
The "imperial system" he had instituted endured for the next three centuries.

Julio-Claudian Emperors

For decades, Augustus watched his chosen successors die until only his stepson, Tiberius, remained. Tiberius (AD 14-37) was a successful general and a fine imperial administrator and left the empire with secure boundaries and a healthy treasure.
Caligula (AD 37-41) was the great-nephew of Tiberius and his chosen successor.
He abolished the sales tax and sponsored frequent public athletic games and spectacles, but a severe illness transformed him into a vicious tyrant. After his death, by hand of one of his guards, the empire was ruled well by Claudius I (ad 41-54) till his fourth wife Agrippina poisoned him to ensure the throne to her son Nero.
Nero (AD 854-68), after having murdered both his mother and his wife, ruled with increasing despotic tendencies. He persecuted Christians and blamed them for the blaze that in AD 64 devastated much of Rome.
As a result of his lavish behaviour (he preferred to give vocal concerts at Greek festivities then caring for the legions), he caused resentment among the neglected legions that eventually led to a series of rebellions throughout the empire.
All four Julio-Claudian emperors lived in the shadow of Augustus, and none felt secure on his throne. Insecurity brought tyranny, which then provoked conspiracies in the Senate and in the palace.
Finally, even the army turned away from the dynasty that had created the empire.

Civil war returned to Rome as one person after another claimed the throne and marched on the capital.
The savage civil war of AD 64, known as the Year of the Four Emperors, concluded with the triumph of Vespasian(AD 69-79), a plainspoken and practical soldier from the Italian middle class.
He placated the rebellions in the eastern provinces, restored the economy, recruited the senators from among western provinces, and ensured the loyalty of the military to the new dynasty he created, the Flavians.

Flavian and Antonine Emperors

After the brief and extremely popular reign of Titus (AD 79-81), Domitian (AD 81-96) revealed himself as a tyrant who ruled in a reign of terror that eventually led to his murder.
In AD 96 the Senate elected the childless Nerva (AD 96-98) as emperor. Nerva began the dynasty of the Antonines and was followed by his adopted child, Trajan.
Trajan (98-117), a distinguished soldier, became one of the most beloved Roman emperors thanks to his numerous conquests (Dacia, Arabia, Armenia, and Parthia), his common sense, administrative skill, and genuine human compassion.
He initiated an impressive building program throughout the empire and particularly cared about the social welfare programs, such as the distribution of food to poor children.
He displayed a great humanity and tolerance. Also his cousin Hadrian (117-138), a passionate travel and a cultured man, excellently administered the empire and created a series of military highways that enabled troops to march quickly toward the walls alongside the empire.
The Hadrian Wall, his most famous building project, stretched across 117 km of Northern England.
His successor, Antoninus Pius (138-161) had a peaceful reign but the inactivity of the legions during his long reign eventually created problems to his successor, Marcus Aurelius (161-180), who had to face hard wars against Germanic tribes.
After his fruitful campaigns and successful reign he designated as heir to the throne his son Commodus (180-192), who turned out to be a startling change for the romans after the series of good emperors.
His neglect towards the business of the empire in favour of his passion for the games caused him the death by strangling and eventually led to first civil war in more than a century.

The five emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius are designated as the "good emperors" because, though the great problems of the empire (plague, slavery, wars, religious conflicts), they acted as effective administrators who promoted prosperity, avoided civil wars, respected senators, and supported intellectuals and the arts.


With the election of Commodus, in 180 AD, Rome underwent a period of bad leadership that caused a collapse of the political institutions, a weakening of the army, and an economic disaster.
After the death of Commudus, in 182 AD, a civil war between rival claimants to the throne penetrated every corner of the corner and changed all he aspects of Roman life.

Severan Dynasty and Military Anarchy

From 193 to 235 AD Rome was ruled by the Severan dynasty, mostly occupied in pampering the army as to defend the empire's boundaries and to assure the future to their dynasty.
But this measure only produced the effect to weaken the defences while inflaming the greed and ambitions of the soldiers.

It became clear that imperial power depended more and more on the army. From 235 to 284 Rome underwent a military anarchy whereas the troops acclaimed numerous emperors who all lasted for a very short period.
Civil war and the collapse of the central authority had a very bad effect on all the aspects of Roman life: trade became dangerous, local services deteriorated, imperial funds disappeared and money underwent a terrible devaluation. But the crises particularly damaged the lower classes.
The farmers, unable to pay the taxes, had to abandon their lands, provoking the first widespread food shortage in centuries. The rich freedmen of the early empire disappeared, slavery declined and, except for soldiers, social mobility was impossible.
Widespread bitterness, poverty, and growing hatred of authority led to popular revolts in Rome, rural massacres in Africa, and local separatist movements that attempted to break away from the empire entirely.


The brilliant leadership of Diocletian, who ruled from 284 to 305, rescued the critic situation and restored through important reforms the political and economic system bringing back peace, stability, and prosperity to the Empire.
To better control the vastness of the empire, Diocletian instituted the so called tetrarchy, a rule of four that eventually led to the separation of the empire into east and west.
This measure had the scope to foster the administration of the empire and guarantee a secure defence of Rome's frontiers. Besides this historical step, the emperor issued a decree, the famous Edict on Prices, to fix throughout the empire the prices of all the products.
Through this economic reform, Diocletian succeeded to restore value to the currency, to control runaway inflation, and to finance the imperial budget.

Constantine the Great

The system ideated by Diocletian collapsed after his voluntary retirement. The empire was reunited under Constantine, famous for his Edict of Milan (313), that established toleration of all religions, including Christianity.
His religiosity eventually led him to found a new capital, Constantinople, on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. In so doing, the emperor established Christianity as the favoured religion of the empire.
Following Diocletian's example, Constantine greatly increased state control over the lives of Roman citizens. He tried to keep the empire under his own control through a larger army, a central economic planning, and an expanded bureaucracy. Every aspect of the life, throughout the Roman Empire, was regularized by a rigid control.
The enormous complexity of the system led to an inevitable rampant corruption.


Theodosius I (379-395) was the last ruler of the united Roman Empire.
At his death, he assigned the eastern portion of the empire to his son Arcadius, and the western portion to his son Honorius. This measure signed the final division of the empire.
While Constantinople and the Eastern Empire remained stable and prospered for another millennium, the Western part began a steady decline in concomitance with economic disintegration, weak emperors, and invading Germanic tribes.
The crises broke out in 410, when the Goths sacked Rome. Fifty years late, in 476, the Western Roman Empire would eventually fall with the deposition of the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and the election of a gothic commander, Odoacer, as king.
The survival and prosperity of the Eastern Empire was granted, among the other reasons, by its better geographic position, its longer tradition of urbanization, the larger population, and a stronger economic base.


Read more about: Life during the Roman Empire

Do you want to read more about the Roma's History? Here the links to the other sections:

The Early Rome
The Republican Rome
Rome in the Middle Age
The Renaissance
Baroque Rome
The Risorgimento
Modern Rome
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