HIST 101 Lecture Outline (Spring 2023 – Week 7)

HIST 101

Week 7:

Rome’s Empire, 27 BCE – 305 CE



Roman legionary’s clothing, armor, and equipment (9:27 min.):

Mary Beard, “Meet the Romans,” 3 parts (BBC, 2017):

Episode 1: All Roads Lead to Rome  (59:06 min.; start at 9:00 min.):

Episode 2: Street Life (59:03 min.):

Episode 3: Behind Closed Doors (58:58 min.):



Cultures, pp. 195-210 (Rome’s golden age: the Augustan era; the sea; Roman lives and values)

Governing the empire:

During the principate (reign) of Augustus (31 BCE – 14 CE), the population of the Roman empire was about 45 million, and the size of the army (legions plus auxiliaries) was about 275,000. Only Roman citizens could serve in the regular army (legions), but the auxiliaries accepted recruits from throughout the empire. After 20 years of service, all soldiers received a cash pension or a grant of land, and auxiliaries received Roman citizenship for themselves and their family.  All non-Roman recruits learned Latin, absorbed Roman culture, and were moved from unit to unit, and sent around the empire. When they retired, if they chose to receive land rather than a cash pension, they were given land to settle in a province where they had served, not in their homeland, thus further consolidating Rome’s hold on those territories.

Except when the Senate voted to allow the emperor or another victorious general to bring his army into the city to celebrate a triumph (victory parade), the only troops allowed inside the city limits (pomerium) of  Rome were the Praetorian Guard, who served as the imperial bodyguard and also had police duties in Rome.

Rome divided its empire into provinces. Augustus claimed the most important (such as Egypt) as “imperial” provinces, for which he chose the governors, and designated the others as “senatorial” provinces, for which the Senate chose the governors. He used the wealth of Egypt to pension off 250,000 soldiers from the civil wars, leaving the army with 28 legions, each numbering about 5,500 men. Thereafter, soldiers were paid by the state, rather than by their own generals. Each legion had its own number and name, and was commanded by a legate, who was a senator chosen by the emperor. The symbol of each legion was its standard, topped by an eagle (symbol of Jupiter, the Romans’ chief god).

Augustus also established the cursus publicus – a state courier and transport service that provided way-stations along major roads connecting the provinces with Italy. The way-stations (mansiones) provided relays of horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen, and also carts and wagons, as well as veterinarians, wagon-wrights, and grooms to serve the government’s couriers and transporters of heavy goods. The mansiones also provided a place to sleep and have a meal to those traveling on government business.

The first two centuries of the Roman empire became known as the period of “pax Romana” (“Roman peace”), a period that – for the most part – was one of military success and political stability, overseen by a series of competent emperors. However, there was a built-in source of political instability: there was no established legal process for ensuring the peaceful transfer of power from each emperor to a competent and acceptable successor. During the Pax Romana some  emperors, including Augustus, chose and trained a competent and loyal successor, who was accepted peacefully by the Senate and the army, but others did not, resulting in turbulence and violence until a successful claimant emerged.


As the empire expanded, the Roman army built a network of strategically-sited military encampments linked by good roads. As the Romans consolidated their control of new territories, the military encampments became towns, where the Romans built temples, public bathstheatersarenas, markets, courthouses, and other public buildings, as well as roads and aqueducts.  In addition to the traditional pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses, whose worship these new towns helped to spread throughout the empire, Augustus proclaimed his adoptive father Julius Caesar to be a god, thus beginning an imperial tradition of deifying the previous ruler and, eventually, deifying the current emperor. Everyone was required to worship the deified rulers at an annual communal ceremony.

The Mediterranean Sea became a Roman lake. It was usually calm, and had no tides, and thus the merchant ships and the Roman navy could sail in any season and at any time of day. Most ships hugged the coastlines and thus could navigate by landmarks.  The Roman navy kept the sea free of pirates, and shuttled legions from place to place as needed.

The Romans promoted trade by establishing a uniform imperial currency, standard weights and measures, standard tariffs, an imperial legal system, and by keeping the sea lanes and the roads safe. Latin became the standard bureaucratic language in the west, and the Romans carried on the practice established by Alexander the Great of using Greek as the standard bureaucratic language in the east.

Roman life:

During the mostly peaceful centuries of the Pax Romana,  local religions, languages, and cultural traditions were respected, but the urban-based culture of the Romans, together with the Roman gods, administrative system,  and literacy in Latin (or Greek) spread throughout the empire. Roman citizens had greater legal rights than non-citizens (including, in criminal judgments, immunity from torture, lesser fines, and crucifixion), but non-citizens could live their lives in peace and security, so long as they obeyed the law, paid their taxes, and performed required public religious rites. Although women’s legal status was inferior to that of men, and they were excluded from public office and from the army, women were active in commerce, owned and managed property, and practiced some professional occupations (e.g., as priestesses, physicians, midwives, dentists, etc.).

Most civil cases were judged by any Roman citizen who was acceptable to both parties (a local magistrate, the aedile, provided the citizen-judge with any necessary legal instruction). Tax collection was farmed out to local officials, who – like all public officials, such as those responsible for building and maintaining public works – were not paid a salary by the state, but were expected to make a reasonable (not abusive) profit from their office, and to pay for any deficits themselves.

Structural weaknesses included the reliance on slaves for manual labor (including on farms, in mines, in urban workshops, and in houses), and the constant drainage of silver and gold from the economy, both to buy imported luxury goods from abroad (especially silks and spices from Asia) and to create luxury items at home (such as jewelry and tableware), which led eventually to currency devaluation and economic instability.

Roman culture valued self-discipline, pragmatism, and duty – to one’s familia and its ancestors, to one’s city and gods, and to the emperor and the empire. The Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism (exemplified in the writings of Seneca and Epictetus), appealed greatly to many Romans for its focus on living a life of forbearance, virtue, and courage.





Mary Beard, Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town (BBC, 58:41 min.):

Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire without Limits, 4 episodes (BBC, 2016):

Episode 2: How the Roman empire transformed the landscape (59:00 min.):

Episode 3: Who were the Romans? And how did others become Romans? (58:59 min.):

Episode 4: How and why did the Roman empire fall? (59:00 min.):


Cultures, pp. 210-221 (The height of the “Pax Romana”)

Sources, pp. 96-105 (Epictetus, Enchiridion; Tacitus, Histories; Suetonius, lives of Caligula and Claudius; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations; 3rd cent. imperial-succession crisis)

The Roman empire was at its height during the principates of the Five Good Emperors: Nerva (96-98 CE), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Antoninus Pius (138-161), and Marcus Aurelius (161-180). Each of these adopted a capable general to be to be his successor, and each of these successors was then automatically elected by the Senate. This period also marked the apex of Rome’s cultural and religious synthesis with Greece.

One recurring source of cultural, political, and military resistance during the Pax Romana was the Jews, who for centuries refused to submit to Romanization, especially to the Romans’ demand that everyone offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, including the emperor. Although the Romans eventually gave them a special exemption from this religious requirement, the Jews revolted many times against Roman rule, and the three main revolts occurred during the Pax Romana:

66-73 CE  The Great Revolt: Began over religious tensions, grew to a tax revolt, and then – after the anti-Jewish Roman governor Gessius Florus plundered the treasury of the Second Temple, and arrested and crucified leading Jews –  escalated into full war. Tens of thousands died on both sides, Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed (70 CE), and many of the surviving Jews were exiled to the Diaspora.

115-117 CE  The Kitos War (or Rebellion of the Exiles): Just when the Roman army was fighting the Parthians (successors to the Persians), there was a great uprising of Jewish exile communities in Mesopotamia, Judaea, Cyprus, Egypt, and Cyrenaica (modern Libya).  They slaughtered local Roman garrisons and Roman civilians. Trajan himself led the army against the Jewish rebels in Mesopotamia, but suffered heatstroke and died. Eventually, Roman legions crushed the rebellion.

132-136 CE  The Bar Kochba Revolt: The last great revolt by the Jews of Judaea, led by Simeon bar Kochba, and sparked by the decision of  Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina, with a temple of Jupiter on the ruins of the Second Temple. For two years Bar Kochba ruled Judaea as an independent “prince of Israel” (Nasi Israel), but Hadrian sent almost one-third of the entire Roman army to Judaea and they eventually crushed the rebellion. The survivors were massacred, enslaved, or exiled, and Hadrian renamed the province Syria Palaestina, and ordered that no Jews be allowed in Jerusalem except for a single day each year (on Tisha b’Av, which commemorated the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples). Hadrian also forbade the practice of Judaism, but after his death in 138 the religious persecution was eased, although Jews were still excluded from Jerusalem.

With Marcus Aurelius’s death in 180, the age of the “good” emperors and of the Pax Romana ended. The next century would be marked by cycles of vicious competition among Roman generals to seize the imperial throne. In 212 the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to every free resident of the empire, but this was not an act of generosity – it was to increase his tax revenues (Roman citizens paid more).

The period c. 235-285 was one of major crisis:

  • All the frontiers were overrun, especially the Rhine-Danube frontier
  • There were 26 emperors in 50 years (our textbook says that between 217 and 284 there were 81 emperors or claimants)
  • These “barracks emperors” debased the currency in order to reward the troops who had enabled their rise
  • The currency debasement led to wildfire inflation and economic instability
  • Tax revenues plummeted; public works were not maintained; and the curiales who held civic office began to abandon the towns for their country estates (villas)
  • There was a lethal plague epidemic
  • c. 268-284, the empire was split into 3 parts

284-305 CE    Diocletian restored order:

  • Re-organized the army
  • Restored the currency
  • Set wage and price controls
  • Required men to follow their father’s occupation (to prevent loss of essential services, such as tax-collection)
  • Divinized the office of emperor
  • Persecuted Christians who would not offer sacrifices to the gods and the emperor
  • Divided the empire into Eastern and Western halves, and ruled with a co-emperor and two deputy emperors (Tetrarchy)
  • Intended the Tetrarchy system to solve the problem of imperial succession

Primary sources:

Epictetus (55-135 CE), Enchiridion (“Handbook”):  Praises the Stoic virtues of self-control and courage in dealing with things outside one’s control. Says one should live life as if a guest at a dinner party: be patient, and don’t grab.

Tacitus (56-post 117 CE), Histories: Begins his work with the year [69 CE], following Nero’s suicide and the year of the Four Emperors; describes this as a frightful period, full of civil wars, military losses, natural disasters, riots in Rome, dreadful corruption at all levels, and omens of the wrath of the gods. In Book 5, he discusses the disputed origins of the Jews, their expulsion from Egypt into the desert, and the leadership then of Moyses, who gave them their unique form of worship, including sacrificing rams and oxen; refusing to eat pork; commemorating their desert wandering by eating only unleavened bread. They live apart from all other peoples; they practice circumcision to distinguish themselves from other peoples; they have only one god, whom they refuse to represent as an image, and they despise the gods of all other nations; when Caligula ordered a statue of himself to be set up in their temple, the Jews launched a war.

Suetonius (69-122 CE), Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Caligula and Claudius:  Caligula was a monster of depravity, considering himself a god, putting his face on the most sacred statues of the Greek gods, ordering the killing of people high and low, including members of his own family, and sleeping with his sisters. Claudius (Caligula’s uncle) was a modest man, whose respect for the Senate and politeness and humility won him great popular affection.

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), Meditations:  Upholds the principles of Stoic philosophy and the traditional Roman virtues of duty, service, dignity, kindness, liberality, justice, virtue, and courage.

3rd cent. imperial-succession crisis: Lists the emperors from Commodus to Diocletian; almost all were assassinated or died in battle.