The Roman Empire (page 3)
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.
Jews in Ancient Rome
The Jews were the one group within the Roman Empire that absolutely refused to comply with its legal and religious requirements, minimal though these were. Jews protested that their religion forbade them from worshiping other gods or obeying any civil laws that did not accord with their own. Astonishingly, the response of the Roman government was tolerant and flexible; rather than forcing compliance, the Romans created special legal exemptions to meet Jewish demands. The only thing the Romans insisted on was that the Jews remain politically loyal to the state of Rome.
This did not happen. The Jews were never content to pay taxes to what they regarded as a foreign government; in AD 66, they rose up in armed rebellion. The Roman army sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70; in 135, they finally drove the Jews out of Judea and razed Jerusalem to the ground. Even after this, as they settled in small groups throughout the empire, the Jews were allowed to retain their special legal status. They continued to maintain their unique form of worship and observe their own religious laws. Those who had followed the Jewish rabbi Jesus, known as the Christ or the Messiah (both words mean “anointed one” or “chosen one”), began a serious missionary effort to convert Romans throughout the empire to their own beliefs. This gave rise to Christianity, which began as a form of Judaism and which would soon spread through the entire world.
Christianity is named for Jesus Christ, the rabbi whose life story is told in the four Gospels—books of the Greek Bible, known to Christians as the New Testament. Scholars believe the Gospels were written thirty-five to seventy years after Jesus’s death; although there is no historical evidence to prove or disprove it, historians have generally accepted that the story the Gospels tell is grounded in fact. Through the Gospels’ secondhand reporting of his words, Jesus became the single most influential thinker in the history of the Western world.
Born probably around 5 or 4 BC in the town of Bethlehem, Jesus was a commoner descended from King David of Israel. As an adult, he became a rabbi, or teacher, who could fascinate large crowds. His usual teaching device was the parable—he would illustrate a complex theological concept by comparing it to a homely, everyday image that any peasant could understand. This ability of an imaginative thinker to communicate with the common people won him a following in his own day; it may well be the reason his teachings continue to influence untold millions.
Jesus’s acclaim among the people alarmed various powerful vested interests in Israel; in the end, he was accused of blasphemy and executed by crucifixion about AD 30. His closest friends and followers believed that he appeared alive again a few days later, which proved to them that he truly was the only begot- ten son of God, whose appearance on earth had been foretold in the Hebrew Bible. These apostles and those who heard them speak eventually spread the religion of Christianity throughout the world.
Whether Jesus himself intended to found a new religion, or even a new sect of Judaism, is a matter of debate. Certainly, Jesus lived and died an observant Jew who obeyed Jewish laws. His revolutionary contribution to religious faith is that he preached a gospel that was not only relevant to the Hebrew people and their unique culture and traditions but that would also bring eternal salvation to anyone who followed him.
The most influential and important follower of Jesus is Saul, a Jew who underwent a visionary experience, converted to Christianity, and took the new name Paul. Paul became an important missionary, traveling through the eastern half of the Roman Empire and preaching the Gospel. It is due to Paul that Christianity took hold in the empire; it was Paul who spread the belief that Jesus was literally divine. Paul can safely be described as the true founder of Christianity; his writings make up much of the New Testament.
The roots of Christianity lie in Judaism; both believe in the same God. In order to make Christianity appeal to Greeks, however, Paul blended Hebrew beliefs with elements of Hellenistic culture and religion. The Christian concept of the trinity, in which God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three aspects of the same divine being, shows the influence of Greek abstract philosophy, as does the notion that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. One other major difference between the two is that Judaism is not a missionary religion; the Hebrew people have never made any attempt to convert or recruit followers. Christianity owes its success to its missionary tradition.
Like Judaism, Christianity is based on a moral code that claims it is superior to any state government or social organization, a moral code that applies equally to an aristocrat and a peasant or to a master and a slave. Jesus added a new element to this moral code when he gave his disciples a new commandment to add to the original ten—the commandment to love one another. The promise of eternal salvation—that, just as Jesus rose from the dead, all the faithful would enjoy eternal life—and the command to love one another appealed to many people in the warlike world of the late Roman Empire.
Like Judaism, Christianity was an exclusive religion that did not permit the observance of any other belief system. Christians therefore followed the Jewish lead in refusing even to pay lip service to worship of the Roman gods. In consequence, the spread of Christianity helped to bring down the Roman Empire. As small Christian communities throughout the empire began to grow into larger ones, the Roman state showed no particular alarm; the official position seems to have been tolerance, as long as Christians obeyed the civil law code.
The period of the Soldier Emperors ended with the reign of Diocletian, a highly capable administrator who believed that the empire had become too large and unwieldy to manage from Rome. He therefore divided the empire into two halves, each to be ruled by an emperor and an assistant emperor. This system did not survive Diocletian’s lifetime; instead of being content as coemperors, each likely successor to power wanted to rule the entire empire.
In AD 324, Constantine won the power struggle and reunited the Roman Empire under his sole authority. The fact that Constantine was a Christian changed the course of history, both for the empire and the future of the new religion.
No individual on earth had as much power as the Roman emperor; now that such a prominent individual gave Christianity his official blessing, it changed from being a minor sect of Judaism into a mainstream religious faith. In order to unify the faith by eliminating the numerous rival forms in which it flourished, Constantine decreed that the only proper form of this religion was the one he himself observed. (The idea that a subject must worship as the monarch did would hold sway over Europe for the next thousand years.) Many Romans converted to Christianity, either from sincere belief or political expediency.
In AD 325, Constantine opened the Council of Nicaea, at which the participants decided on the principles and creeds of Christianity as it would thereafter be practiced. The idea was to eliminate confusion and disagreement over doc- trine and to standardize the forms of worship. The Council of Nicaea set forth the rules that Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Catholics would follow from that time on. Jerome, one of the most important of the early Church Fathers, translated the Bible into Latin; this edition, known as the Vulgate, would later become the first printed book in the Western world. From 325 until after World War II, Latin would be the language of the Church; it would, in fact, be the common written language of all learned Europeans until the 1500s, when it began to be replaced by the languages Europeans actually spoke in their everyday lives.
In AD 330, Constantine founded a new capital city—Constantinople (now called Istanbul), built on the Bosporus Strait that connects the Black and Marmara seas. Despite the move of the seat of government to the East, Rome remained the most important city in the western half of the empire.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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