===================The Roman Empire ~ Pax Romana (27 BC – AD 211)
After the Roman Civil Wars of the first century BC, the victorious Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus was faced with the difficult task of restoring peace and stability in the Roman world. To this end, he assumed the title of Augustus
in January 27 BC and went on to rebuild the Roman government from a republican one fit for a city-state to an imperial one fit for an empire. Augustus nonetheless officially restored the Roman Republic, carefully avoiding a repetition of past disasters by not offending the senatorial elite. However, in restoring the Republic, Augustus simultaneously succeeded in reducing it to little more than a facade for the new imperial regime he established behind it. Thus began the Principate, named after the constitutional framework which made Augustus and his successors princeps
(first citizen) and which would last approximately three centuries.
The emergence of the Principate seriously shook the Roman political structure: central power fell into the hands of one person, in modern times popularly referred to as an ‘emperor’. Yet the Latin titles of Roman emperors during the Principate had no real equivalent for the modern interpretation of the word ‘emperor’. Augustus refrained from giving himself absolute power vested in a single title, instead subtly spreading imperial authority throughout the republican constitution while simultaneously relying on pure prestige. Thus he avoided stomping any senatorial toes too hard, remembering what had happened to Gaius Julius Caesar.
Constitutionally, Augustus and his successors drew their power from two republican offices. The title of tribunicia potestes
ensured the princeps political immunity, veto rights in the Senate and the right to call meetings in both the Senate and the concilium plebis
(people’s assembly). This gave the princeps the opportunity to present himself as guardian of the empire and the Roman people, a significant ideological boost to his personal prestige. Secondly, the princeps held imperium proconsulare
implied the princeps’ governorship of a number of provinces, the so-called imperial provinces which were typically border provinces, provinces prone to revolt and/or exceptionally rich provinces. These provinces obviously required a major military presence, thereby ensuring the princeps command of most of the Roman legions. The title was proconsular because the princeps enjoyed imperium
even without being a consul. The princeps furthermore interfered in the affairs of the (non-imperial) senatorial provinces on a regular basis and gave literally every person in the empire the theoretical right to request his personal judgement in court cases. Roman religion was also brought under the wings of the princeps by means of him being pontifex maximus
(supreme priest), a position of major ideological prestige. On top of all this, the Senate frequently granted the princeps additional rights which enhanced his power even further: supervision over coinage, the right to declare war or conclude peace treaties, the right to grant Roman citizenship, control over Roman colonisation across the Mediterranean, etc. The princeps was thus the supreme administrator, commander, priest and judge of the empire – a de facto
absolute ruler without actually being named as such. It is worth noting that Augustus and most of his immediate successors worked hard to play in the theatre of the empire’s republican facade. However, this became increasingly difficult as time passed so that the princeps’ position as de facto
monarch ultimately became less and less concealed until the republican act was dropped entirely.
The most important questions nonetheless remained the same for a long time after Augustus. Could the princeps keep himself from provoking the Senate by playing along in the republican charade? Or did he choose an open conflict with the Senate by ruling all too autocratically? Even a de facto
absolute ruler required the support and acceptance of the empire’s elite class, and a lack of this could prove to be a serious obstacle to a princeps’ policies. The relationship between the princeps and the Senate was therefore of significant importance in maintaining the political work of Augustus, particularly under his immediate successors. The first four of these were Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero – the Julio-Claudian House. Tiberius was chosen by Augustus to succeed him on account of his impressive military service and proved to be a very capable, if very gloomy ruler, continuing along the political lines of Augustus and implementing financial policies which left the empire in more than decent financial shape at his death and Caligula’s accession. Despite having suffered a particularly harsh youth full of intrigues and plotting, Caligula quickly gained the respect of the Senate, the army and the people, making a more than hopeful entry into the Principate. Yet continuous personal setbacks made Caligula increasingly bitter and autocratic, causing him to throw his imperial power head-first into the senatorial elite and any dissenting groups (most notably the Jews). After Caligula’s assassination (AD 41), the position of princeps fell to his uncle Claudius who, despite a strained relationship with the Senate, managed to play the republican charade well enough to implement further administrative reforms and successfully invade the British Isles to establish the province of Britannia. But the Roman drive for expansion was somewhat tempered after the consolidating conquests under Augustus in Hispania, along the Danuvius and in the east. The Romans had practically turned the Mediterranean Sea into their own internal sea (Mare Internum
or Mare Nostrum
) and thus switched priorities to territorial consolidation rather than expansion. However, the former was still often accomplished through the latter as multiple vassal states (Thracia, Mauretania, Cappadocia, etc.) were gradually annexed as new Roman provinces. Actual wars of aggression nevertheless ceased to be a main item on the Roman agenda and indeed, the policies of consolidation and pacification paved the way for a long period of internal peace and stability during the first and second centuries AD – the Pax Romana
. This should not be idealised, though – on the local level, violence was often one of the few stable elements in the lives of common people across the empire. Especially among the lowest ranks of society, frequent violent crimes such as murder and thievery were either ignored by the Roman authorities or answered with brute force. Moreover, the Romans typically focused on securing cities and places of major strategic or economic importance and cared little about maintaining order in the countryside. An unwanted encounter with brigands, deserters or marauders was therefore quite likely for those who travelled without an armed escort. At the empire’s frontiers, the Roman legions regularly fought skirmishes with their local enemies, most notably the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhenus and the Parthians beyond the Euphrates and Tigris. Despite this, the big picture of the Roman world in the first and second centuries AD is indeed one of lasting stability which could not be discredited so easily.
The real threat to the Pax Romana
lay not so much in local violence, shady neighbourhoods or frontier skirmishes but rather in the highest ranks of the imperial court. The lack of both dynastic and elective succession mechanisms had been the Principate’s weakest point from the outset and would be the cause of major internal turmoil on several occasions. Claudius’ successor Nero succeeded in provoking both the Senate and the army to such an extent that he got himself named ‘enemy of the state’. The chaos surrounding Nero’s flight from Rome and death by suicide plunged the empire into its first major succession crisis. If the princeps lost the respect and loyalty of both the Senate and the army, he could not choose a successor, giving both the Senate and the Roman legions a free hand to appoint the persons they considered suitable to be the new princeps. This being the exact situation upon Nero’s death in AD 68, the result was nothing short of a new civil war.
To further add to the catastrophe, the civil war of AD 68/69 (the Year of Four Emperors) allowed for two major uprisings to get out of hand – the Batavian Revolt near the mouths of the Rhenus and the First Jewish-Roman War in Iudaea. Both of these were ultimately crushed with significant difficulties, especially in Iudaea where Jewish religious-nationalist sentiments capitalised upon existing political and economical unrest. Though the Romans triumphed – culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) and expulsion of the Jews from the city – Iudaea would remain a hotbed of revolts until deep into the second century AD. The fact that major uprisings arose at the first sign of trouble within the Principate might cause one to wonder about the true nature of the Pax Romana.
Was it truly this strong internal stability it is popularly known to be? Or was it little more than a forced peace, continuously threatened by socio-economical and ideological discontent among the many different peoples under the Roman yoke? Though a bit of both, the answer definitely leans towards the first hypothesis. While the Pax Romana
lasted, unrest within the empire remained limited to a few hotbeds with a history of resisting foreign conquerors. These regions were usually already known to the Roman authorities as difficult to control. Besides the obvious example of the Jewish people in Iudaea – for whom the anti-Roman sentiment largely stemmed from their unique messianic doctrines – large-scale resistance against the Romans was scarce. Indeed the incorporation and aggressive Romanisation of unique societies near the empire’s northern frontiers led to severe socio-economical problems, which in turn set the scene for uprisings, most notably Boudica’s Rebellion in Britannia (AD 60 – 61) and the aforementioned Batavian Revolt near the mouths of the Rhenus and Mosa. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the Pax Romana
was strong enough to outlast a few pockets of rebellion and even a major succession crisis like the one of AD 68 – 69.
The Year of the Four Emperors ultimately brought to power Vespasianus, founder of the Flavian dynasty (AD 69 – 96) and architect of an intensified pacification policy throughout the empire. These policies were fruitful and strengthened the constitutional position of the princeps, not in the least owing to the fact that Vespasianus’ successors Titus and Domitianus were as capable as Vespasianus himself. However, their administrative and military skills did not prevent both Titus and Domitianus from bickering with the senatorial elite over the increasingly obvious monarchical powers of the princeps. In the case of the all too authoritarian Domitianus, the conflict ultimately escalated (again) and despite his competent (if ruthless) statesmanship, Domitianus was murdered in AD 96. A new civil war was prevented by means of diplomacy: Nerva emerged as an acceptable princeps to both the Senate and the army, especially when he adopted the popular Traianus as his son and heir. Thus began the reign of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty (AD 96 – 192). Having succeeded Nerva, Traianus once more steered the Roman Empire onto the path of aggressive expansion, leading the Roman legions across the Danuvius, crushing the Dacians and establishing the rich province of Dacia in AD 106. Subsequently, the Romans seized the initiative in the east, drove back the Parthians and advanced all the way to the Persian Gulf (Sinus Persicus
). Traianus annexed Armenia in AD 114 and turned the conquered Parthian lands into the new provinces of Mesopotamia and Assyria in AD 116. The staggering military successes did not prevent Traianus’ nephew and successor Hadrianus from returning to a policy of continued consolidation.
Though victorious, Hadrianus at once withdrew the Roman legions from Armenia, Assyria and Mesopotamia in exchange for a peace treaty with the Parthians while in the north, the new province of Dacia was reduced in size to optimise its defences. Perhaps most significantly, Hadrianus initiated a systematic fortification of the empire’s frontiers, symbol of which is the famous Vallum Hadriani
(Wall of Hadrianus) in northern Britannia. The Romans called these fortification lines limites
, which gradually emerged across all the borders of the empire. Their purpose was not so much to isolate the empire from the outside world, but rather to tighten control on any kind of frontier interaction between the Romans and peoples living beyond the limites
. Hadrianus’ reign marked a period of significant prosperity in the empire, the longest since the heydays of Augustus himself. Hadrianus’ death in AD 138 brought to power Antoninus Pius, a moderate ruler who was in turn succeeded by Marcus Aurelius in AD 161, famously known for his philosophical writings entitled ‘Meditations’ (Greek: Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν). During his reign however, the imperial frontiers in the north and east came under increasingly disturbing pressure. This was not so much because of Aurelius’ incompetence, but rather as a result of demographical developments upon which the Romans could have no influence whatsoever. Significant population growth in the Germanic heartlands around the Baltic Sea (Mare Suebicum
) sparked massive migrations which practically set in motion the entire Germanic world. Marcus Aurelius brilliantly managed to maintain the empire’s northern Rhenus-Danuvius frontier against the invaders – despite multiple barbarian incursions – and even beat back the renewed Parthian aggressions in the east. However, Rome spent huge resources in the effort and came close to a point of irreversible exhaustion. Despite the Roman legions and frontiers holding out against the waves of barbarians, the Pax Romana
had at last lost its glory.
To worsen matters further, Marcus Aurelius made a huge mistake in appointing his son Commodus as his successor. Commodus’ megalomania and outright tyranny, his holding on to power for over a decade, his violent death and the resulting internal power struggle made for a more than ominous finale of the second century AD. Yet the Roman Empire did not fall apart so easily, having dealt with such perilous times on more than one occasion in the past. Order was restored from AD 193 onward by Septimius Severus, a more than capable administrator and commander who threw the entire weight of his power behind the army, believing that only the Roman military could restore the Pax Romana
. Under Severus, the Romans quickly turned the tide both internally and externally: pretenders were destroyed, monetary reforms enacted, the army enlarged, barbarian hordes halted and the Parthians driven back. Subsequently, the Roman legions launched a massive counter-offensive in the north, east and south, proving all the more how far Rome really was from actual defeat. The armies of Severus smashed the Parthians in a retaliatory war, culminating in the destruction of their capital at Ctesiphon in AD 197. Severus proceeded to enlarge and reinforce the limites
of the province Arabia Petraea to discourage the Arabian tribes from becoming all too rash. Next, the Romans launched a counter-attack against the continuous raids of the Garamantes, a Berber people living in the Sahara desert. Never before had a Roman army advanced so far south into the Sahara desert. Once more, the war ended in victory when the legions of Severus captured and destroyed the Berber capital at Garama. Severus’ next ambition was to put a halt to the aggressions of the tribes in Caledonia (modern-day Scotland), invading in AD 208 and allegedly planning to systematically exterminate the Caledonian tribes so as to prevent any future problems near the empire’s northernmost frontier. These ruthless plans were cut short when Severus fell ill in AD 210, ultimately dying in early AD 211. Septimius Severus had successfully led the Romans through the crisis of the late second century AD, largely by putting the empire in some kind of perpetual emergency, redirecting the economy to support above all the military, suppressing the senatorial elite and turning the empire into the most autocratic and militarised regime it had known until then. In truth, the crisis of the second century AD and the way the Romans had reacted to it would prove to be only the overture to the far worse calamities of the third century AD and the transformation of the Roman Empire from the semi-republican Principate to the totalitarian Dominate.© 2012 – 2014 undevicesimus.deviantart.com