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The Roman Empire (60 BCE-160 CE)

Rome's Halcyon Days: 96-161 CE

The Short-Lived Flavian Dynasty: 69-96 CE

Study Questions


Domitian was disliked by all the elites, yet he had protected Rome's internal administration and the state's external posture. The Empire faced no existential threats, and was well equipped to deal with any challenges. His murderers and the Senate arranged the succession, which fell to M. Coceius Nerva, an eminent and admired senator, who nonetheless held the throne as a rather weak place-holder. Nerva was advanced in age—66—and had no son, making him unable to start a dynasty of his own. In addition, he was unrelated to any previous ruling dynasty and had no support group in the legions. In this respect his situation was analogous to that of Galba in 68-69. Indeed, when he assumed the purple, some Syrian and Danubian legions moved towards revolt, but were kept in line by a Roman elite desirous of stability. The new Emperor understood his status, though, and was intelligent. He began by giving the legionnaires a pay raise, and then proceeded to bring back the previously exiled senators and cooperated with the Senate as a whole. He also began to blacken Domitian's name.

During his two-year rule, Nerva undertook three popular measures: 1) He created the Alimenta, a small agriculturalists' loan. Small farmers were allowed to borrow funds from the imperial fisc up to 1/12 the value of their landholdings in order to improve their crops or implements. The interest was a low 5%, and the pay-off from the loans went to the local towns and villages. These funds in turn were used to support poorer families and orphans. It was a quite successful measure. 2) In 98, one of the Praetorian Prefects began complaining ominously that no one had prosecuted Domitian's killers. Nerva then calmed the Prefect by doing just that. 3) Most importantly, Nerva took out an insurance policy of sorts, by adopting a son with a strong military reputation. This was Trajan, a legion commander in upper Germany. The adoption was a brilliant move in that it calmed down Rome and removed anxiety about the future. As well, it solved the problem of succession in an extremely popular manner. Nerva's adoption of Trajan was so popular, in fact, it set a trend: several subsequent emperors adopted their successors as son shortly before their deaths. Though the Julio-Claudians had adopted heirs on a few occasions, the practice of adopting powerful men as successors became common practice throughout the second century.

Nerva died in 98. Trajan was on the Rhine and returned to Rome in a leisurely manner. He made a good impression on the capital city elites by entering Rome on foot. He was a significant departure, in that his family was neither from Rome nor Italy. He was from Iberia, and this trend of non-Roman born emperors would expand in the future, indicating a more cosmopolitan era in Roman elite- formation. Trajan was the most famous Emperor in Roman historical memory after Augustus. From a traditionally equestrian lineage, his family only moved into senatorial ranks under Vespasian. The new Emperor had followed the normal elite cursus honorum, but had a penchant for long-term military service, and spent ten years as a military tribune. By the beginning of his rule he was already a rather eminent general. He expressed his military side of himself early on in his Principate: he conquered Dacia for Rome. Supposedly the campaigns against Dacia were undertaken as an effort to restore Roman honor after Domitian's failures, but it is also clear that Trajan wanted a conquest- based military reputation, and wanted the booty that would come from control of this relatively wealthy region. The campaigns may also have been a preventative strike, as the Barbarians of the region had become more popular in the second century CE. To conquer Dacia, it was necessary to cross the Danube and then traverse open country in a forced march. Dacia proper was a fortress surrounded by mountains. In 102 CE, Trajan took an army across the Danube and fought his way into Dacia. Decebalus gave up and became a client king, but the settlement did not last, as the Dacians were not entirely conquered. In 105, Decebalus massacred a Roman garrison in the region and began raiding Moesia again. Thus, in 106 Trajan took thirteen legions into Dacia, ransacked Transylvania, and stormed the Dacian capital. Decbaulus committed suicide, after which the entire area was annexed directly to the Empire. The conquest was extremely profitable in terms of slaves and gold, and the Emperor opened the region up to settlement. Thousands of Latin-speaking peasants settled there, beginning the full-fledged process of Latinization of the region, completed over the next 150 years. It was from this point that the Roman people and aristocracy came to view themselves as world-conquerors par excellence. At the same time, Romans under Trajan received good government. Trajan's methods were as autocratic as Domitian's, but the former sought the advice of the Senate, reported back to it, and socialized with senators. Though he did not at all need senatorial support, this smoothed elite relations in Rome, and the aristocracy quieted down, beginning a trend that was to last for some time, and exempting Emperors from the fear of a senatorial conspiracy. In the process, government became increasingly smooth—imperial legates were professional, the Alimenta was expanded, and Trajan cared for the bankrupt cities which had overspent on public building programs. Imperial curatores were sent to these areas to take over financial responsibility, and to reestablish fiscal soundness. This was a good idea in that the curatores were efficient, but over time, it would cause growing local resentment towards an increasingly obnoxious imperial bureaucracy.

The next decade reinforced the conviction of Roman grandeur, particularly in the East. Since the 50s BCE Rome had been attracted to eastward expansion at Parthia's expense. In the early 100s CE, the Parthian king Chosroes had acted without tact, installing his nephew as king of Armenia and ignoring the arrangement going back to Nero. Furthermore, he had communicated with Decebalus during the Roman-Dacian war. In 113, Trajan slowly moved east, remaining noncommittal in response to Chosroes' peace envoys. In Syria, Trajan retrained the legions, after which he annexed Armenia in 114. 115 saw Roman troops east of the Euphrates, and Trajan took Edessa and marched 150 miles more to Nisibis, annexing mesopotamia in the North and Assyria to the South. In the winter of 115-116, Roman legions built barges and wagons, which they used in the spring to float down the Tigris. The Parthian capital Ctesiphon was then captured and sacked, with Chosroes fleeing and Trajan annexing the area. The Emperor then proceeded to the Persian Gulf. During 116, however, difficulties emerged. The northern Mesopotamian cities began to revolt, and a Parthian army appeared in the South. Trajan was equal to the challenge, however, and maintained realistic advances. By promising the province of Parthia to Chosroes' son Parthamaspates, the Emperor won him over. Parthamaspates fought for Trajan, and won back for him a fair portion of those areas that had rebelled against Rome. Still, persistent difficulties in 116-117 weakened Trajan in terms of manpower and some prestige. Northern Mesopotamia was never fully restored, and a new revolt broke out, this time among the Jewish communities of Cyprus and Egypt. Jewish groups in these areas had expected Trajan not to return West from Parthia, and broke out in opposition to the Hellenistic communities surrounding them. Jewish- Hellenistic animosity had simmered for the past century-and-a-half. In 116, the Jews massacred their Hellenistic neighbors in several areas; in Cyprus in particular they were able to get control of the island and killed up to 250,000 people. In Cyrene, Egypt, the Praetorian Prefect was put under siege. While turning to deal with this in 117, Trajan suddenly had a stroke and died.

At this point, the Praetorian Prefect Plotina stepped forward to attest that Trajan had adopted Hadrian as successor. He was from the same town as Trajan and was of the appropriate aristocratic background. He had completed the proper cursus honorum, had done military service, and had governed two provinces. In 117 he was in Syria, but feeling himself insecure, Hadrain gave a double donative, or accension gift, to his legions. He went back on Trajan's policies in the realm of military expansion: 1) instead of making war on the Sarmatian tribes in the Danube area, he negotiated with them. 2) He opposed the eastern expansion too, and withdrew Roman troops from northern Mesopotamia, returning to Parthian rule the lands east of the Euphrates. This was a reasonable move in that Rome had never been able to convincingly maintain its power there. 3) Hadrian also wanted out of Dacia, but since it had begun the process of Romanization, he was convinced to desist from further withdrawal here. A conspiracy of two generals against him early in his reign illustrated the mounting elite dissatisfaction with such policies.

Hadrian was now at peace with his neighbors, so the question was what to do with his time and the Empire's wealth? He went on a tour, paying particular attention to Greek culture. From 120-123 he visited the western and central provinces, while from 123-125 he looked at the East. In 127 he toured Italy, and then went East again, visiting its great Hellenistic cities, temples, historical markers. He also visited the army camps and would climb mountains just to see the sun rise. He went without a large retinue, however, with little fuss, and impressed the provincials, who had been accustomed to not seeing emperors unless they were passing through on their way to war.

Hadrian still worked hard as an administrator. He spent much time and money on the army, inspecting it, training, it, even maneuvering with the soldiers and eating rations with them. He was also responsible for the Roman wall in Britain. It consisted of a big ditch, eleven feet deep, behind which was a stone and cement wall fifteen feet high. Sprinkled along this were observation and signal towers, as well as sixteen major forts. Hadrian's Wall was seventy- three miles long, near Scotland, and was the greatest military building project of the era. It stopped Barbarian raiding parties, and broke up Barbarian communications, yet it was not designed as the type of wall to be held for an indefinite period against a determined enemy. Near approximations of the wall were built along sections of the German border. In the Danube region, he founded new towns, and this was to be one of his longest-lasting legacies. In the eastern Greek cities, Hadrian initiated a civic building project, improving aqueducts, roads, and basilicae. As well, he took lots of time receiving petitions from the provinces, evincing his cosmopolitan view of the Roman Empire—development of the provinces would weld the Empire together better. While up until Hadrian senators had come mostly from Italy, the coast of Gaul, and Iberia, several Greeks were now appointed to the Senate. All this was accompanied by an increase in the size of the civil service and equestrian order. Furthermore, in order to delegate administrative responsibility and relieve Italian townspeople from the need of traveling to Rome for court cases, Hadrian divided peninsular Italy into four judicial circuits. This was highly unpopular though, as it derogated from senators' prerogatives, and suggested that Hadrian might have wanted to demote Italy's status to something just above that of a province.

The only major disturbance during Hadrian's reign was again related to the Jews. When the emperor visited Judaea in 130, he found Jerusalem in desolated ruins. His idea was to rebuild it, making it a new Jerusalem—Aelia Capitolina—without Jews. As well, a new temple to Jupiter was to be built on the site of the old Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in 70 CE. These plans elicited an organized revolt under the Jewish leader Bar Kokhba, which was supported by several in the rabbinical class who viewed the uprising in messianic terms. A Roman legion was soon destroyed, and a guerrilla war ensued. The British general Severus was brought in, and Hadrian went to Antioch with six supporting legions. By 135, the revolt was over, with Aelia Capitolina being built and no Jews allowed in Judaea, though the prohibition was impossible to enforce fully. Hadrian then died in 138. He had executed his two successor candidates, fearing conspiracies. Hadrian was hated by the Roman elite at his demise, given the lack of conquests during his reign, the increasingly intrusive civil service, and suggestions of Italy's diminution within the Empire. His successor Antoninus Pius almost refused Senatorial investment when the latter would not deify Hadrian, thus forcing the aristocracy to relent. Antoninus was, by contrast, quite well liked, being of the increasingly predominant country gentry of southern Gaul. He also agreed to abolish Hadrian's four-way administrative division of Italy. During his twenty-three-year rule (138-161), virtually nothing of note appeared to occur within Rome or on its borders. There was peace, good government, financial savings, and the promise of a great successor, in the person of Marcus Aurelias. If peace be the measure, it was the hey-day of Rome.


Though extremely important for a grasp of this era's history as a whole, Roman social and economic history is rather difficult to target, given the antiquity of it all, the disinterest in economics and sociology by that period's historians, and the lack of recovered statistics. Still, the outlines are helpful. The ancient world was composed of naturally occurring substances, such as wood, stone, plant and animal fibers. This was the result of a paucity of ideas on how to alter matter. Crafting consisted of metalworking, but metal supplies were restricted due to its high cost. Additionally, there was the dying, of clothing, pottery, and glass. The common brick was not innovated until the time of Tiberius, and liquids presented challenges of transport and storage. The barrel was still in the future, and the large jugs called amphora were unwieldy—too large to be used for two-way transportation, they also lacked stoppers, which, in addition to preventing the aging of wine, also hindered other liquids' preservation. In short, the ancient world was generally of low-technology. The main draft animal was the oxen or donkey. The horse was not used as a draft animal, but was ridden without a collar. Lacking the stirrup as well, it was somewhat ineffective in this role, seeing military service as light cavalry. Thus, land transport was rather slow. On the water, though wooden ships sailed the Mediterranean, they were small, slow, had a primitive sail complement, and were without compasses. Mediterranean sailors stayed within sight of the coast, and would pull up on beaches during the night. They also preferred the shortest crossings of open water, and were always in fear of getting lost. As well, sailing in winter was almost unheard of, and what emerged was a seasonal tempo to both commerce and warfare, with months elapsing before the arrival of news from the eastern Mediterranean and Parthia.

The ancient world was also restricted geographically. Indeed, it was a small place, consisting mostly of a narrow coastal plain surrounding the Mediterranean. Thus, Antiquity existed between the sea and the mountains. Most lived on the coastal plain until the time of Caesar and Augustus. The economic basis of life here was agrarian, but good soil was not common, and proved fragile, easily eroded. The hills were comparatively naked, with a rainy season inhibiting planting and further eroding the soil. Ancient agriculture had been invented in the Near East and transported west. The crops thus worked for the area, being cereals such as wheat and barley, with no oats yet. While olive cultivation provided a source of fat and illumination, the Mediterranean basin was mostly a dark world. The main drink aside from water was wine, with only the Barbarians drinking beer. Such an agricultural system was based mostly on hand labor. The simple scratch plough was good for gardens, and Romans also used it for light soil.

We are not sure of the effectiveness of these agricultural methods, but they were successful enough to generate a surplus leading to the emergence of cities, which developed naturally, except for in Egypt. The ancient city was a natural unit of two components joined organically: the urban center, and the agricultural hinterland. The people in the towns were comparatively wealthy, and owned estates—latifundia—in the hinterland. There were large number of free and semi-free peasants, and estates were also worked by tenants. Significantly, even at the height of the latifundia, free peasants persevered. These cities literally needed the estates and hinterlands for food, as the transport of foodstuffs was considered too expensive—wheat double in price every 300 miles. Thus, the cities nevcer outgrew the productivity of the estates, unless they were by the sea, and impinged upon the trade lanes. The standard size of a large town was 7,000-20,000 people. Some urban areas were larger, such as Carthage, Alexandria, and Rome. Urban areas with mineral supplies in the hinterland could also grow larger. Macedonia was highly urbanized, and possessed silver mines. Military expansion also aided city growth. Rome may have contained one million inhabitants. If this was the case, it was ten times as large as its biggest competitor. To get so large and support so many hungry mouths, Rome squeezed other regions of the Empire in the form of tribute and taxes; hence the use of expansion. On the whole, the ancient world's population was small, perhaps only amounting to 50 million.

To the ancients, the city was not the amount of people, but the quality of life. Cities had 4 roles: 1) it was the center of effective government and law; 2) urban areas were cultural/cultic centers, with temples and deities; 3) it was the place where the better sort of people lived, be they senators, equestrians, or veteran centurions; 4) cities were also the place to purchase the consumer goods appropriate to these elites. By and large, elites consisted of latifundia owners and owners of medium-sized estates, in addition to traditional societal leaders whose sustenance was not from land. In Rome, elites consisted of patricians and senatorial families, with equities becoming increasingly prominent. Thus, the economic basis of cities was the income rural landlords could bring into the city from their estates, as well as taxes accruing to government systems. This was indeed somewhat parasitic and exploitative both vis-a-vis the agricultural hinterlands, but also towards the provinces as a whole. In short, Rome was under-productive, and enjoyed peace and economic growth—this is not the same as development—at the expense of the surrounding areas. There was no self-sustaining motor economically speaking, and Roman leaders often did not think in economic terms. Cities were not centers of economic production, but only of consumption.

Great cities like Rome were atypical also in that they had a modest amount of artisanal activity. There were only small shops, employing only family members. Also, artisans were without social status, and were ill regarded by the elites. There were a few exceptions, and a few instances of guild activity. One example was Aretium. Around 30 BCE, the potter artisans of this city discovered terra sigillata, a red glazed tableware. It became popular immediately, and was exported all over the ancient world. Shops with up to fifty-eight slaves emerged, and guilds were organized. Samianware was the commercial name of the product, yet within fifty years the technology had diffused to other regions, and by the Flavian era Aretium had lost its prominence.

In contrast, trade was extensive. The western provinces exported raw materials and imported manufactured goods from the East. Spain exported wine, olive oil, minerals, and hides. Italy imported and exported handicrafts and some luxury items to the lesser developed regions and Barbarian elites. What emerged was a Mediterranean trade complex extending to Egypt, and connected to India from Octavian's time. Thus ancient cities became nodes in the trade system. Whereas urban merchants could be wealthy, they occupied an anomalous social position. Actually, they were often outside society as understood by its pillars, and consisted f foreigners such as Greeks and Easterners, in addition to freedmen. As in the medieval era, Roman elites looked down on the mercantile classes. This attitude, and the paucity of technology and manufacturing, sustained the underdevelopment of the Roman economy.

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