Lecture 8: From the Principate to the Empire (27 BC - AD 324)

With his victory over Marc Antony, Octavian resolved two big problems that had plagued the late Roman Republic. First, he brought peace. Second, he maintained a façade of constitutionality that Julius Caesar had eschewed. Thus, Octavian satisfied an older generation that had been raised on the republic, while also providing a younger generation with the peace that it now felt was worth any cost. In short, Octavian was both a strong military leader and an astute politician. This combination of abilities completed the Republic’s downfall, but it also provided Romans with compensatory advantages that we will consider after a brief look at Octavian’s origins.
Octavian was born in 63 BC to Gaius Octavius and Atia Veii. The Octavii were a well-off family but had only reached the social status of equites. Gaius had been elected a praetor, but any hopes of a consulship for the family died with him in 58 BC. Atia, however, bequeathed some important social connections to her son. She was from senatorial stock on her father’s side, and her mother was Julius Caesar’s sister. This turned out to be important, since Julius Caesar had only one child, a daughter, who died in 54 BC. Caesar seems to have been impressed by the young Octavian’s abilities, and in his will adopted Octavian officially as his son. The adoption was a good deal for both sides, since Octavian got the glorious name of the Julii Caesares, and through Octavian that very name could live on. Thus in 44 BC, with Caesar’s assassination, the eighteen-year-old Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus was thrust into the maelstrom of Roman politics. Caesar’s confidence in the young man seemed well placed. Not only did Octavian survive the turbulent years of civil war, but over the next fourteen years, he also eliminated all his rivals, while avoiding Caesar’s fate. Now we want to consider just how he accomplished this.
It seems paradoxical, but Octavian undermined the republic by respecting all its old forms. His rule was always personal, irregular, and limited, and this was what saved him. In 28/27 BC, for example, Octavian surrendered all the powers he had acquired with his victory over Marc Antony and “returned” them to the Senate and People of Rome, who promptly gave him back most of the really important powers. This is a momentous and revealing exchange. It is momentous for it marked the end of the Roman republic, with the Senate willingly yielding to one man powers that it had guarded jealously for 500 years. It is revealing, in that it shows how widespread and accepted the perceived need for a strong man had become. Thus, we are confronted with the imperial paradox. For returning what rightfully belonged to the people, the Senate held Octavian above the people, granting him important titles such as Augustus, the great, and Princeps, the first citizen. This signaled the informal nature of Octavian’s power, but it also shows how important his power was. For that reason historians cease talking about the republic and have dubbed Augustus’s reign the principate.
Now known as Caesar Augustus (Caesar the Great), Octavian accepted gratefully just about every honor that the Senate and People of Rome could offer. The Senate named him governor of Gaul, Spain, and Syria. Traditionally, a person was only allowed to govern only one of Rome’s provinces at a time, in order to prevent the rise of exactly such a strongman. And if this were not enough, Caesar Augustus was “allowed” to keep Egypt as his own personal possession. There was some certain logic to this: most of Augustus’ army was scattered in these very four provinces. This meant, on the one hand, that no one could rise to threaten Augustus’ power. On the other hand, it also ensured that no one could raise an army with which to threaten Rome itself. As a reward for protecting Rome, Augustus was repeatedly elected consul. The old Roman traditions held that one could only be elected consul once every ten years. Augustus’ power, however, assured that this legal nicety would be overlooked, and his tremendous wealth also offered some compensation, in that Augustus spent princely sums on buildings and the arts. In 23 BC, he resigned his post as consul, only to be named tribune for life. In addition, the Senate declared that his imperium within his provinces was superior to that of all other provincial governors. This was an important fiction, since it overturned one of the last republican taboos, namely the one against governors exercising control over Rome itself.
Augustus was able to gain so much power over Rome precisely because he agreed to delimit it. Augustus controlled only those aspects of the government that were absolutely crucial to maintaining the peace and perpetuating his control. This brought security to those people who were tired of Rome’s repeated civil wars and it reassured those people who feared a new tyranny. Julius Caesar had disdained Roman traditions, being haughty, arrogant, and a micro-manager. Augustus, however, had a different temperament that allowed him to negotiate the old and the new. By using old forms to legitimize his power, he created a delicately balance system that brought forty years of peace to the Roman world. The problem was, however, that only he could run this system. When Augustus died in AD 14, there was really no one else in Rome who was up to the task. Thus, with Augustus’ death Rome left the Principate and became a full-fledged Empire.
Before his death, Augustus adopted the future emperor Tiberius as his heir and successor. Tiberius was a competent man who had broad experience in government, but he was not Augustus’ first choice, as Augustus had had the bad luck of watching two other chosen successors die. Tiberius was not at politically adroit as his adoptive father. Tending toward melancholy, he disliked people and preferred to withdraw to his rural estates. Thus, although he managed Rome’s finances well, he could not perpetuate the Principate’s republican forms, and at his death it was clear that the last vestiges of the republic were gone: Rome now had an emperor. For this Tiberius could be forgiven, since the republic’s official death would have happened eventually anyway. The problem with Tiberius, however, was that he made no effort to choose a worthy successor, and this left no choice but to pick someone from among Augustus’ living relatives. Thus, Tiberius’ personal oversight stuck the poor Romans with the volatile and erratic Caligula. You have heard this name before, I am sure—and not in the best of light. Caligula’ real name was Gaius, which is actually how specialists refer to him. He was the great grandson of both Caesar Augustus and Marc Antony. His nickname means “Little Boots,” and he received it while traveling with his parents through frontier military camps. Caligula ascended the new imperial throne in AD 37 at the age of 25. It’s not clear how many of the stories told about him are true, but he was by no means a good emperor. Indecisive on matters of policy, he repeatedly offended key constituencies within the empire. In AD 33, he, his wife, and daughter were duly murdered, beginning a distressing pattern of unnatural imperial deaths.
The next emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus was slightly better. Claudius invaded southern Britain, setting in motion a northward expansion that ended with the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Strategically the invasion was a bad idea, since Britain offered little wealth at the time and only soaked up Roman money. But the conquest of a new province proved to be a great propaganda victory in its day and kept the people happy, in spite of the basic mismanagement that Claudius brought to the empire. Claudius died in AD 54, probably of poison given to him by one of his consorts. This murder made possible the rise of one of Rome’s most infamous emperors, Nero. Nero was Claudius’s son by his consort, a ruthless woman who made certain that her son ascended the throne at the young age of 17. Initially things went well, but then Nero started to show signs of the mental instability that ultimately led to his own death. In 59, Nero had his mother executed for meddling in his affairs. At the same time Nero’s more rational advisers either left his orbit or died of old age, leaving him surrounded by a vicious court claque that corrupted policy making and merely played to Nero’s vanity. Nero’s policies were, therefore, a disaster. His extortionary taxes caused an uprising in Britain. He lost an entire army in Armenia, which was a major humiliation, and almost unheard of in Roman history. Moreover, his opportunistic purchase of lands that had burned in the great fire of 64 for the construction of an extravagant new palace led to rumors that he had set the fire himself. Then in AD 65, with his reputation in tatters, he uncovered a plot to overthrow him and instituted a series of purges that so unsettled the Roman elite that an uprising occurred three years later. On 9 June AD 68, Nero committed suicide before anyone could murder him.
Nero’s death marked the end of the Julio-Claudian line of emperors. With it went any direct connection Augustus and the Principate. I have traced this dynasty in detail, because I think that its demise provides an important window onto the Empire’s evolution. Without a legitimate successor, a brief civil war ensued from which emerged an interesting new character, the novo homo, or new man. The relative years of peace around the Mediterranean had allowed the empire to expand and change, as men from outside Italy made careers in the empire that led, in some cases, all the way to the top. The first such new man was the emperor Vespasian, who was in many ways the first true successor to Augustus. Vespasian had made his career in the Roman army, leading brilliant campaigns in Britain, before becoming a consul, governor of Africa, and then finally presiding over the suppression of the Jewish rebellion in AD 67. Anyone who has seen the famous bust of Vespasian can tell that he meant business. He brought a new order to the empire, reorganizing, for example, Rome’s financial and military system. Under his administration, for the first time, Roman revenue was organized so that multi-year plans could be made. In addition, Vespasian incorporated the last of Rome’s old client states directly in to the Empire, and he regularized military recruitment from cities outside of Italy. With these reforms began an extraordinary period of competent management, as Rome got two competent dynasties in a row, the Flavians, which began with Vespasian, and the Antonines, which began with Nerva. Until the death of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180, Rome was powerful, well-managed, and continually expanding. Disaster would befall the empire in the third century, but we will talk about that in a moment.
It is, thus, with Vespasian that we can begin to identify some important themes in the Empire’s history that run right through the third century AD. First, Rome was becoming a cosmopolitan empire, as it was now possible for outsiders to achieve much. The emperor Nerva, for example, came from Illyria, which is today’s Croatia. Septimus Severus was from northern Africa. And there was even an emperor in the third century who was called Philip the Arab. Oddly, however, the empire became ever more homogeneous as it grew larger. By the second century AD Latin had assumed equal status with Greek. This was due, in part, to the literary efflorescence that began during the Republic’s end and ran through the principate. By Augustus’ death, Rome had acquired a stable of writers whose names still resonate, such as Vergil, Lucretius, Catullus, and Horace. Moreover, Rome also created a stable economic environment. The work that Pompey had done in ridding the Mediterranean of pirates, the extension of Roman citizenship and law, the construction of roads, bridges, and aqueducts led to the spread of Roman culture and the Latin language. From 31 BC until AD 180 truly was a Pax Romana.
Things began to change, however, by the end of the second century. For reasons unknown and probably inexplicable, the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius broke with the recent tradition of the emperor adopting a successor and named his own son, Commodus, to succeed him. This was a bad idea. Commodus did not have the skills to be emperor, and his head was full of silly ideas. He was killed before he was able to embarrass all of Rome by appearing in a wrestling match. Commodus did not cause Rome to decline, but his death offers a convenient turning point, for Rome’s structural weaknesses began to show in the third century. Rome’s decline stemmed from problems in four areas: politics, the military, the economy, and culture. The problems in each area were interrelated with every other area. The result of these internal problems was that power in the Mediterranean shifted away from Rome to the east. I will discuss the early period of this shift briefly today; a fuller discussion will wait until the lecture on Byzantium.
Rome’s political difficulties began with the question of succession. There was no legal mechanism within the empire to assure the continuation of stable leadership. With Marcus Aurelius’s death, Rome began a gradual descent into political chaos. For the next century almost every emperor either died in battle or was assassinated. In such a context it was inevitable that the traditional Roman emphasis on law and order would break down. This trend was indicative of a broader problem within Rome: the empire became militarized, which meant that only military solutions seemed appropriate to the political situation. The emperor Diocletian tried to address the problem of decay and disorder. In doing so, however, he merely showed that the empire was in irreversible decline, for his solutions were wholly military. Diocletian tried to run the empire as an army. He issued edicts that compelled people to serve in specific positions for life. He tried to revalue the empire’s currency by fixing prices, which is always a failure. He also reorganized Rome’s political system, dividing the empire into four parts. Two parts were led by co-emperors, or Augusti. The other two parts were run by deputy emperors, or Caesari. The theory was that the co-emperors would retire and their deputies take over. This system did not last beyond Diocletian’ own retirement. Tensions rose immediately and civil war eventually broke out. Diocletian’ experiment ended with another strongman, the emperor Constantine, whom I will discuss in the lecture on Byzantium.
Many of Rome’s problems also traced back to its parlous military situation. During the second century waves of German tribes left the Asian steppe and descended on Roman territories. For a time, Rome was able to settle some tribes and make them allies, or foederati. And the emperors were able, with Germanic help to defend a border that was demarcated by the Rhine and the Danube. During the third century, however, Roman armies suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of Germanic tribes. This was due, in part, to poor leadership, but the real reason was a chronic lack of manpower, as it became increasingly difficult to find adequate numbers of recruits to meet the army’s needs. In 212, in a desperate bid for more manpower, the emperor Caracalla allowed Roman citizenship to be extended to any non-citizen who enlisted in the army. This new policy had a paradoxical effect, however, as it undermined the old incentive structures that had encouraged Romans to join the army. As a result fewer ethnic Romans served in the military, and the Roman army became every more mercenary, losing any anchor it had had in Roman life and politics. The reliance on mercenaries weakened Rome in two ways. First, mercenaries could not have cared less which city they sacked for income, whether Roman or otherwise, and military discipline disappeared. Second, as the quality of the army declined Germanic and Persian armies accumulated victory after victory. In 378, the Goths defeated the Roman army at Adrianople, opening the empire to successive waves of invasion; Rome was attacked in 410, 455, and 476. The Roman Empire in the west disappeared because it could not defend itself.
Now I reach the third area, the Roman economy. Commerce declined steadily in the west during the second and third centuries. The Romans had never really had a productive economy. For the most part the empire lived off booty and slavery. Cities needed money and slaves in order to survive, since they imported all their food. This system depended on enormous armies of slaves to work the land. Without repeated military victories, there were no new slaves to work the fields and feed the empire. This led to a decline in food production, which led to a decline in population, as the Roman empire fell from roughly 70 to 50 million people. With the countryside could no longer supporting the cities, the latter went into decline and commerce broke down. Moreover, those cities that still functioned well were taxed heavily, or became victims of repeated sackings, which meant that people fled the cities and headed to the country. The political effect of this move was that governments passed laws to force people to stay in place. Such laws were a failure, since the central government could not enforce its edicts. As a result, people congregated in places where they could get protection, Latifundia, which were rural regions run by a strongman who provided protection in exchange for work. With this change the cities fell into severe decline and Rome’s cosmopolitan culture collapsed.
As the Roman world declined new cultural trends began to appear. Bereft of a satisfactory civic life people began to turn to philosophies and religions that emphasized the reality of another world. The old civic philosophy of the Greeks and Romans receded and people began to construct their identities through religious perspectives. Two approaches became particularly influential in this period. The first was a mystery religion called Mithraism, a Persian religion, which became very popular during the second and third centuries among the poor and rank-in-file soldiers. Mithra was a god in the Zoroastrian pantheon, an assistant to Ahura Mazda. The fundamentals of Mithraism bear a remarkable resemblance to the tenets of later Christianity. According to Zoroastrian mythology, Mithra had been slain by evil, but came back from the dead to help people battle against evil. He was linked to the sun, which was why the cult of Mithra set aside Sunday to worship him. He was born on December 25, and believing in him brought the reward of life after death. This cult began to decline in the late third century, and it will be no surprise to you that many former devotees joined the Christian religion.
Rome also had an elite religious approach which was called Neo-Platonism. Neo-Platonism was really a system of thought designed to explain man’s role in the universe. It began with the Hellenistic philosopher Plotinus (205-270 AD), who took basic Platonism and made it even more spiritual. Plato had articulated a basic two-world approach to philosophy, in which the world of ideas was better than the physical world, and only philosophers could hope to move in the world of ideas. Plotinus went beyond this, holding that the goal of all humans should be to escape the physical realm and achieve spiritual union with higher reality. For Plotinus meditation was the key to reaching this realm, but this meditation was more spiritual than rational. Whereas, Plato thought there was nothing higher than reason, Plotinus added an emotional element to philosophical truth, arguing that spiritual ecstasy was the goal of contemplation. This system of philosophy gradually replaced the older Stoic system that Cicero, among others, had popularized. You can see how this both Neo-Platonism and the cult of Mithra contributed to the success of Christianity in later years. By the time the Roman Empire finally fell, the ground had been well prepared for a new world religion. Christianity became that religion in part because it spoke to needs that many people needed, but also in part because the aging empire allied itself with the new religious system. In 312, the emperor Constantine officially tolerated Christianity within the empire. By 324, when he died, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman world. We will discuss Rome’s supposed fall and the rise of Christianity in future lectures.