The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was an absolute monarchy—a form of government that has, throughout history, been very dependent on the personality of the monarch. An absolute monarch holds all the power but paradoxically is faced by threats from all sides. The monarch must pacify the nobility (because they constitute the likeliest possible threat to his or her supremacy); ensure the loyalty of the army; run an efficient, centrally controlled administration; and pursue a coherent foreign policy. The shrewdest absolute monarchs of history also realized that it was very helpful to win the genuine loyalty and affection of the common people.
One of the most important decisions Augustus made was to maintain the symbols of the Roman Republic; no doubt the brutal murder of Caesar made him feel it would be prudent to make this gesture toward those who had opposed him during the civil war. The Senate continued to meet and debate and was always spoken of with respect. Maintaining the Senate for its symbolic value was one part of Augustus’s policy of pacifying the patricians. He also created new political offices for them, thus giving them moderately prominent roles to play in the government and preventing widespread discontent.
Augustus was a highly skilled administrator. He established a civil-service network whose efficiency in collecting taxes and maintaining law and order has never been equaled. He reorganized the military, calling for a professional standing army with troops garrisoned throughout the empire, to protect it from external threats and internal rebellions.
A glance at the map in Figure 6.1 shows that Augustus was much more interested in maintaining his empire than expanding it. Under Augustus, the Roman Empire featured natural borders such as the Rhine and Danube rivers, which provided strong natural defenses. The empire would remain the same size and shape for four hundred years, apart from the annexation of Britain as far as Hadrian’s Wall under Claudius.
Economically, the empire flourished under Augustus. For the first time, all the ancient civilizations of the world—the West, the Near East, China, and India—were involved in international trade. This era of peace and prosperity would last until about AD 180—a stretch of nearly two hundred years known to history as the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace). It saw major achievements in many of the arts and sciences—Pliny and Ptolemy in astronomy; Livy, Caesar, Suetonius, and Tacitus in history; Cicero in rhetoric and essays; Virgil and Catullus in poetry; and Horace and Juvenal in satire.
Under Augustus, the Roman Empire continued its policy of tolerance— essential in any civilization that was so widespread that it contained a great variety of cultures. Rome required that all people within the empire obey the Roman law code, pay their taxes, and worship the Roman gods; other than that, everyone might do as he or she pleased, including practicing other religions.
Augustus’s early successors were other members of the Caesar family. (Originally a family name with no secondary meaning, caesar eventually became the imperial title; it would later become the German and Russian imperial titles kaiser and czar .) In AD 98, when there was no direct heir to the throne, the senators elected an emperor of their choice; from then until 180, each caesar chose his own successor. Peace and prosperity reigned throughout this era.
The year AD 180 marked a return to hereditary succession; unfortunately, the lack of competent heirs ended the era of wise leadership. A series of military takeovers followed, during which no emperor reigned for more than two years. This was known as the period of Soldier Emperors. During this era, a recent series of apparently insignificant events in Israel began playing a decisive role in the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire.
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