Rome

Imperial Rome


   After the death of Augustus in 14 AD, Rome underwent a series of profound changes. The Empire itself grew dramatically; from Augustus to the time of Trajan (98-117 AD), Rome acquired more of northern Africa, most of Great Britain, parts of Germany, eastern Europe around the Black Sea, as well as Mesopotami and the northern part of the Arabian peninsula. At home, Rome struggled with its new institution of quasi-monarchical rule. Augustus had fudged the issue by declaring himself "first among equals," or simply, princeps , but his successors stopped pretending and simply called themselves either Caesar, to indicate descent from the royal house, or imperator , since they derived their power from the imperium over Rome and the military. The institution became more like a monarchy after Augustus's death; Augustus had been elected by the Senate, and this practice remained—in truth, the early emperors were simply hand-picked by the current emperor.


   The first emperors of Rome were all from the Julian line. Augustus was immediately succeeded by Tiberius (emperor 14-37 AD), who was followed by Gaius, nicknamed Caligula ("little boot") (37-41), Claudius ("cripple, lame") (41-54 AD), and Nero (54-68 AD). Tiberius and then Caligula demonstrated how arbitrarily power could be wielded by the emperor; Caligula, in particular, probably had a nervous breakdown on the death of his sister and was famous throughout Roman history for his cruelty and delusive behavior. The imperiate of Caligula, however, demonstrated how the emperor's rule was based on sheer military power; after the assassination of Caligula in 41 AD, the Praetorian Guard found Claudius cowering in the palace and declared him emperor. All vestiges of Republican rule had been removed.


   This was a frightening discovery in the administration of the government; now that it was apparent that military force alone produced and legitimated the emperor's rule, there was nothing to stop ambitious generals from using their armies to advance their political careers dramatically. The final Julian emperor to sit on the throne was Nero, who had begun as a brilliantly talented and highly moral youth. It was in the time of Nero that the Romans began to actively persecute, and execute, Roman members of a new eastern, mystical religion: Christianity. Among those executed was one of the founders of Christianity, Paul of Tarsus. He soon, however, proved himself unconcerned and incompetent, and the frontier armies began to grow restless. In 68 AD, the armies revolted in Gaul and Nero was overthrown. The next year, 69 AD, no fewer than four emperors mounted the throne, each backed by a powerful army.


   Rome was spinning into chaos, but a Roman general, Vespasian (69-79 AD), managed to hold onto the imperiate long enough to found his own dynasty: the Flavian dynasty. Neither Vespasian or his successors were from a noble or aristocratic Roman family. In many ways, this was Vespasian's strength. He was a hard-headed and practical soldier and administrator who ridiculed most of the trappings of the office he held.This hard-headed practicality translated into a highly effective imperiate. He was succeeded by his son, Titus (79-81 AD) and then Domitian (81-96 AD), who began the second wave of persecutions of Christians.

   Domitian was assassinated in 96 AD (it was hard to die a natural death as emperor of Rome; very few seemed to have achieved it), and since he had no successor, the Senate elected the senator Nerva (96-98 AD). The Flavian dynasty was at an end, but Nerva began a period that later Roman historians would call the five good emperors: Nerva, Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). All of these emperors died without passing the succession on (except Marcus Aurelius), so each of these emperors were elected by the Senate from within its own ranks. This period was the period of the greatest political stability in Imperial Rome after the age of Augustus; when Marcus Aurelius broke the pattern and was succeeded by his son, Commodus (180-192), all hell broke loose again.

   This period saw the widespread exporting of Roman culture, government, and law. The Romans actively built up large urban centers throughout the Empire and granted these cities all the rights and privileges granted to Romans. These cities were ruled by the upper classes who, as a result, grew increasingly loyal to the emperor. At the same time, Rome began to exercise more control over these municipalities; unlike earlier empires which were more or less loose confederacies, the Roman Empire was converted into what amounted as a single state under the centralized control of a Roman bureaucracy.


Rome Glossary
Officium
   Culturally, this period is regarded as less creative and less interesting, but this is probably not the case. The first century may, in fact, rival the Golden Age during the Augustan principate in creativity, especially in literature and philosophy. Perhaps the most significant philosopher in Roman history was Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), who served for a time as the tutor and advisor to Nero in his youth. Seneca adopted Stoic principles in a peculiarly Roman fashion, theorizing about the relationship of "duty" (officium ) and human passions to the larger pattern of the universe, the logos . His central philosophical principle is that one should calm one's passions with the knowledge that all human experience, particularly suffering, has a meaning in the larger pattern of history and the order of the universe. This pattern, however, cannot be apprehended by human beings, so any effort to understand suffering is bound to produce more suffering. Perhaps more than anything else, the topic Seneca was interested in was the problem of human suffering; as Friedrich Nietzsche declares at the conclusion of The Genealogy of Morals , the problem isn't human suffering, the problem is assigning a meaning to human suffering. In addition, Seneca, like many of his contemporaries, believed that Roman culture had severely declined not merely in morals, but in toughness as well. Roman society and government was ruled by passion; it should be ruled by Stoic principles. The first Stoic emperor, however, was Marcus Aurelius over a century later. Seneca also wrote tragic drama which may or may not have been intended for actual production. His plays are violent and passionate, with fierce, staccato poetry and harsh language, perhaps the most powerful and dynamic poetry written in the Latin language. These plays explore the dark consequence of human passion and blindness, and the tragedy of suffering that has no meaning for the sufferer. There are no English translations that capture the sheer vertiginous power of Seneca's plays.


Rome
The Republican Crisis
   Literary activity, in particular, seems to have evolved into a dramatically creative phase around the time of Seneca; this period is called the "Silver Age" of Latin literature. Writers such as Juvenal (60-140 AD) and Persius continued to write satires about the moral decay of Roman culture while exulting in the day to day problems and depravity of their city and its bursting population. Juvenal in particular used Stoic principles to show how far Roman life had strayed from its original values. The poet Propertius, on the other hand, seemed to revel in the passions and degeneracies of an illicit love affair with a married woman, producing one of the most moving and witty explorations of a soul in moral decline in his Elegies . Epic poetry was wildly popular in the silver age as Vergilian imitator sprang up all over the place. The theme, however, was not the moral virtue of Romans, but the moral degeneracy of their own times set in relief against the old virtues. The most powerful of the silver age epics is the Civil War or Pharsalia , by Lucan (40-65 AD). This epic narrates the struggle between Caesar and Pompey leading up to Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus. In Lucan's narrative, Caesar is bloodthirsty, cruel, and ambitious; Pompey, who is the only representative of traditional Roman virtue, is ineffective and undecisive. No individual stands out as exceptional or virtuous; the cost of this moral poverty are Roman lives and blood, gallons and gallons of Roman blood. In fact, Lucan and his audience revel in melodramatic violence; in one scene, a soldier single-handedly fends off an entire army by serving as a human shield, standing his ground in spite of the dozens of spears and missiles in his body. Lucan's theme, however, is about the moral depravity that has taken away Roman freedom; this message was not lost on Nero, and when Lucan took part in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, the emperor forced him to commit suicide at the age of 25. In historical writing, Tacitus (55-117 AD) emerges as perhaps the greatest of the Roman historians. Among his histories is a massive history of the imperiate, called the Annals ; the central theme of his history is that Rome had become morally degenerate and this moral degeneracy was responsible for all its ills. If there is a single theme running throughout all of the literature and philosophy of the period, it is precisely this issue of moral degeneracy. The Romans were, after all, straight-laced moralists, and nothing got their attention better than a good, stern moral lecture. So, overall, the character of first century and second century Rome is a moralistic character, in which either the psychology of immorality as both seductive and destructive is explored by some writers, while other writers, such as Seneca and Tacitus, sternly condemn the degeneracy of the age.


Early Christianity
Early Christianity
   This period also saw the introduction of Christianity into Europe and the Roman Empire. Originally a Jewish religion, it was spread to the Greek world by the early apostles. In particular, a late follower of Christianity, Paul of Tarsus devoted his life to translating Christianity into a form that would be acceptable by Greeks and Romans. On the whole, however, the Romans didn't pay much attention to the Christians, since they were small in numbers which were largely confined to women and children. Both Nero and Domitian persecuted Christians for political reasons, but on the whole, the Romans left them alone. It wasn't until the third and fourth centuries that Christianity grew dramatically in the Roman Empire (along with other mystery religions), until it was finally declared the state religion by the emperor Constantine.


What is Architecture?
What is Architecture?
   During this period, the Romans undertook their most massive building projects, which included the Pantheon in Rome (built by Hadrian), which is the largest unsupported dome in the world, and the Colosseum, a massive games complex that can seat well over sixty thousand people. All the great engineering projects date from this time, including a massive system of aqueducts. Rome itself had eleven aqueducts carrying 300 million gallons of water a day into the city from the surrounding hills. Not only was this water used for drinking and washing, it was also used for flushing the massive sewer system that had been built for Rome. In science, however, historians regard the Romans as deficient—looking at their massive sewers and aqueduct marvels, the joke about the Romans is that when God was handing out brains, the Romans thought he said drains. This view, however, is not entirely accurate. The Romans did not pursue speculative natural philosophy as the Greeks did, but were interested only in practical applications. While we say that the Romans made no significant scientific discoveries, in reality they made a host of scientific discoveries in engineering and medicine, the practical sciences. The "discoveries" of the Greeks were rarely empirical in nature and frequently wrong (or immediately refuted). In medicine, the Romans advanced very far in the first and second centuries; perhaps one of the greatest medical scientists of the ancient world was Galen, who lived in the last half of the second century; his most important discovery was that blood circulated in the arteries. The full mechanism, however, wouldn't be understood until the seventeenth century.


   This silver age, which I must confess I find one of the most culturally interesting period in human history, came to an abrupt end in 180 AD, when Commodus succeeded his father, Marcus Aurelius, as emperor. Within a few short years, this slightly cracked emperor managed to undo over a century of stable political rule and cultural stability, and Rome steered into a storm of chaos: the calamitious third century.

Richard Hooker



The Calamitious Century, 180-284

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated10-3-97