Is the Imperial Rome of the past comparable to the US of A

No, decidedly not. The Vietnam quagmire, the Afghanistan imbroglio and now the push-pull farce going on in Misrata, Libya (supporting cast : Nato) do not exactly reflect Roman might and resolve. Yet, the similarities are striking. Hedonistic and iconoclast, it is still the nation leading others, despite economic meltdown, tea-party divisiveness and what have you. So, a review of the past Roman leaders could be an interesting exercise, having regard to the fact that the recent pronouncements of a presidential hopeful (sounds like Triumph) remind you somewhat of Nero.
Imperium Romanum was the term in Latin for Imperial Rome or the Roman Empire, and the word Imperium also meant the territory under Rome. Long before the evolution of the empire, Western Eurasia and Northern Africa were under Roman control and the Romans constituted the majority of the region’s population. The territory under Roman rule was at its peak comprising of a landmass of 5.9 million sq. kilometres or 2.3 million sq. miles at the time of emperor Trajan in 106 CE.

It is not possible to fix a date when Republican Rome ended and Imperial Rome appeared on the scene. Imperial Rome or Roman Empire is stated to have began after the conflict between Gaius Marius and Sulla, and the civil war Julius Caesar waged against his colleague Pompey in the 1st century BCE. Going back even further to the 5th century, there was the rebellion against the Etruscan kings with the establishment of a republican form of government under a senate, a forum of rich and powerful Romans. Although there was a constitution, it was not a written document and consisted of a series of unwritten laws and traditons. The poor known as plebeians could only select their representatives to the senate, invariably someone with wealth and power and known as patricians. It was a far cry from the democracy of the contemporary Greek city state of Athens. All the powers were vested in the consul, elected annually by the senate. Actually, there were two consuls to prevent abuse of power by any one of them. Anyway, the patricians were not too eager to share the administration with the plebeians, and simmering discontent continued. It was, however, not the plebeians who revolted, but disagreement between the patricians Gaius Marius and Sulla burst into the open in the form of a conflict, and continued as a civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, colleagues in the senate. Eventually, the senate made Caesar a dictator.

Caesar committed a grave mistake when he elevated himself as the dictator for life in 44 BCE. There was in the constitution of the senate indeed the position of a dictator, but for a six month tenure. This was therefore quite contrary to the basic principles of the republic. Anyway, Caesar exercised his authority on the basis of a republican post, he was no monarch. Furthermore, former enemies of Caesar whom he had graciously forgiven on being given the post of dictator in the senate justifiably concluded that by electing himself as perpetual dictator, Caesar was preparing the way to establish a monarchy. So Caesar had to die, in the hands of his fellow senators on 15 March 43 BCE. Mark Anthony, a friend of Caesar tried to prevent the assassination, but failed to do so. Mark Anthony joined hands with Caesar’s adopted successor Octavian, and later married Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt brought to Rome by Caesar. In time, there were diifferences between Octavian and Mark Anthony culminating in the Battle of Actium on 2 September 31 BCE when Octavian emerged as the victor. The senate honoured Octavian with the title Augustus, meaning consecrated and venerable on 16 January 27 BCE. In addition, he was called the Princeps, a title given earlier to Pompey meaning the first leader of the Roman Senate as also the first citizen of the Roman republic. Having regard to this, 44, 31 and 27 BCE could be regarded as the years when Rome changed gradually from a republican form of government to a principate which was not exactly a monarchy.

Octavian Augustus (31 BCE to 13 CE)

Octavian was Julius Caesar’s grand-nephew, adopted son and political heir, and from the very beginning avoided the mistakes for which Caesar paid with his life. He realised that the Romans had enough of autocracy and dictatorship, and covered his powers under republican forms with meticulous care. Wearing the civic crown of laurel and oak (given to him by the senate), he simply pretended to be a highly decorated Roman citizen, who also held the post of consul. In 13 BCE, he became Pontifex Maximus upon the death of the incumbent. He went on acquiring several several additional and extraordinary powers without claiming too many titles because it was power he was after and not the titles.

He pursued his ambitions by executing early on Julius Caesar’s supposedly only son Caesarion, who was also a co-ruler along with him, thereby eliminating the possible emergence of a rival in future. Thus securing his position as the undisputed leader of the Romans, he launched a programme of reformation of Roman financial, military and political matters. He took by himself the title of imperator, which meant commander-in-chief, and to show his lineage preferred to be called as Caesar (after all, his family name). The name subsequently transformed into a title from a family name, the later derivatives of which were czar and kaiser. Due to the almost unending civil wars continuing over decades, the Roman legions or divisions of army maintained for keeping peace had grown to around fifty. Octavian Augustus pared down the numbers to twenty-eight by combining two units into one and disbanding others suspected to be composed of dissident elements. In addition, he raised nine more special units known as cohorts (of one-tenth the size of a legion). Three of those units he kept in Rome, ostensibly for peace-keeping, which in time came to be known as the praetorian guards. To maintain the illusion of a constitutional republic and to disabuse the public mind of the idea of him as a tyrant like the past dictator Sulla, Augustus officially made a move to relinquish all his powers to the senate. The senate now consiting of only his supporters (dissidents like those who murdered Julius Caesar were gone since long) participated in this make-believe process by begging him not to do so for the sake of the republic and the Roman people. It is said that Augustus even stage-managed a riot of the Roman plebeians protesting against the suggestion of his stepping down from the position of consul. The senate made an agreement with Octavian (known as the first settlement) in which he was assured that he would not be regarded as a tyrant, thus beginning the period known as Imperial Roman Era.

To maintain the facade of constitutional propriety and to consolidate his position, he shared with the senate the task of appointing governors of the provinces. He selected the governors of the unruly provinces at the borders, where the vast majority of the legions were stationed, and classified them as imperial provinces. Provinces without any trouble were marked as senatorial provinces, and the governors there were chosen by the senate. Africa was one such senatorial province with one legion posted there. Augustus took away the control of the treasury from the senate and mandated that the taxes of the imperial provinces were deposited in the fiscus, a department manned by people of his choice and answerable only to him. The revenue from the senatorial provinces, however, was left with the senate. This arranagement made Augustus richer than the senate, and enabled him to bear the expenses of the legions thereby making them loyal only to him. Actually, the imperial province of Egypt was exceptionally rich and provided almost all of the grain consumed in the empire. The province was considered to be the personal fief of the emperor and senators were forbidden to go there even for a visit. Again in 23 BCE, Augustus renounced his consulship to the senate, this time for real, but kept with him the consular privileges. Once more a compromise was reached with the senate, known as the second settlement. The agreement vested him with the authority of a tribune (an official chosen by the plebeians for the protection of their interests) minus the title, exercising which he could convene a meeting of the senate or the people anytime he wished, set the agenda thereof, be the first speaker and preside over any election conducted there. It seems under the tribunician authority, he also assumed the position of censor who had the right to supervise public morals and scrutinize laws to ensure that they were for the benefit of the public. The censor was also empowered to hold a census and determine the criteria for the membership of the senate. No tribune of Rome before Augustus held the office of the censor simultaneously, nor was there any need to combine those two public offices either. Anyway, he was given (or assumed) the control of all armed forces within the city of Rome, a power exercised by the prefects of the city earlier. Also the power over all proconsuls was vested on him, exercising which he could to interfere in any province and override the decisions of any governor. Then there was maius imperium, or his sole privilege as the head of Roman army of rewarding a victorius general with a triumphal march into the city.

According to the Roman republican traditions, all those reforms were completely irregular, but the senators being Octavian’s own people did not protest. Besides, conservative senate leaders like Cato and Cicero were dead at that time. What underhand measures did Augustus employ to achieve his objectives are not known. Having secured his position in the senate by filling it with his backers, Augustus tried to extend the borders of the empire upon the rivers Danube and Elbe. He decided to invade Illyria, Pannonia towards the south of Danube and Germania to the west of the Elbe. Initially, things went on smoothly, but then he encountered resistance with the Illyrian tribes rising in revolt. The uprising was quelled only to be followed in the ninth year of the Christian or Common Era by a shattering defeat at the hands of German barbarians in the Battle of Teutoburg forest, in which three complete legions were ambushed and decimated. Exercising caution, Augustus concentrated upon securing all territories west of the Rhine river and harassed the Germans with retaliatory expeditions only. The northern borders of the empire were demarcated by the rivers Danube and Rhine.

Not many documents on the Augustan period are available as opposed to the richly documented late republican era just before it. There is the authoritative work written by Livy covering all of Roman history upto the year 9 BCE. Also, there is a poorly written work by
Paterculus giving a relatively complete account of the times. Seneca the Elder’s work is an important primary source as well. Nevertheless, poetry and accounts of legislation and engineering along with archaeology, epigraphic inscriptions on buildings and Augustan coins provide significant insights into economic, military and social conditions. Major secondary sources include the works of Tacitus, Plutarch and the Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. Jewish Antiquities written by Josephus gives an account of Judaea, which became a Roman province during the Augustan times.

Julio – Claudian Dynasty (14 to 69 CE)

Three grandsons of Augustus by his daughter Julia did not survive long enough to succeed him upon his death on 13 CE. Tiberius Claudius, the son of his wife Livia from her first marriage, succeeded him for being his stepson. Augustus was a descendant of the Julian family, one of the most ancient patrician clans of Rome while Tiberius came from the Claudius family, somewhat less ancient than the Julians. For this reason, historians regard the three immediate successors of Augustus as belonging to the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

Tiberius (14 to 37 CE)

He started well, a benevolent and peace-loving emperor who consolidated the power of Rome and filled its coffers. He became paranoid in 19 CE after the blame for the death of his popular nephew, Germanicus was placed on him. Four years later, his son Drusus died, when he became more and more unbalnced, and started a series of trials for alleged treasons executing the persons concerned. Leaving the administration in the hands of the chief of the praetorian guards Sejanus, he in 26 CE started to live in the island of Capri. Sejanus followed his own agenda of depredations and began to strengthen his position. He was helped in his mission to some extent in 31 CE when Tiberius named him as a co-consul and allowed him to marry the emperor’s niece Livilla. Almost immediately his luck ran out, and he was put to death by Tiberius on charges of treason. The emperor continued with his persecutions for six years more when he himself died.

Caligula (37 to 41 CE)

When Tiberius died, he had nearly finished almost all of his probable successors by murdering them. However, he named as his successor his grandnephew Gaius, son of the late Germanicus, popularly known as Caligula or “little boots”. Caligula ended the persecution campaign of his uncle, but became ill probably due to the stress of his position. It is believed that he suffered from encephalitis, which causes mental instability. He became insane, and Suetonius mentions a rumour (in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars) that he planned to install his favourite horse as a member of the Roman senate. He ordered his army to invade Britain and to fight the sea god Neptune, but changed his mind at the last moment and asked the soldiers to collect sea shells from the northern shore of France. His friend king Herod prevented him from installing a statue of himself at the Temple in Jerusalem, an action that would have surely led to a rebellion. In 41 CE, Caligula was murdered by the chief of the praetorian guards, and his uncle Claudus succeeded him.

Claudius (41 to 54 CE)

Regarded as a fool and a weak person by his family, Claudius was not afflicted with paranoia like Tiberius nor insane like Caligula. He ruled over the empire efficiently, improved the bureaucracy and regularized the citzens’ and senatorial responsibilities. Britain was conquered and colonized during his reign, and more of the eastern provinces were included into the empire. A winter port for Rome was opened at Ostia so as to enable ships bringing grain to unload the cargo there during unfavourable weather. He killed his wife on finding out that she had betrayed him, and married his niece Agrippina who developed a strong hold over him. He died in 54 CE, apparently from poisoning by his wife. Agrippina then had the opportunity of anointing her 17 year old son Domitius Nero as the successor of Claudius.

Domitius Nero (54 to 68 CE)

Famous as the emperor who played a fiddle while Rome was burning due to a fire in 64 CE, Nero devoted a lot of his time to diplomacy and trade. He also made an effort to increase the cultural assets of the empire by building theatres and sports facilities. He concluded a successful war, negotiated peace with the Parthians, suppressed a revolt in Britain and improved diplomatic relations with Greece. Fleeing from a military coup, he faced the possibility of execution under orders from the senate and reportedly killed himself to escape the ignominy.

Upheavals and Uprisings

The empire was ruled from Rome usually when peaceful conditions prevailed. A rebellion was always round the corner, was expected and would occur now and then when a general or a governor would collect a following by personal charm or by making golden promises and rise in rebellion against the empire.There was all the time the possibility of a conquered city trying to get back its freedom or a subjugated tribe trying to break free. This would be a worrysome but not an uncontrollable situation. Posted along the borders, Roman legions would be alerted and the units nearby would be rushed to the trouble spot. The rebellious general or governor would have at the most two units under him and would have a gory end together with his associates. If the rebels were from some local community, they would normally be without any knowledge of military tactics and would be defeated easily. Situations getting out of hand and leading to full-scale war included a rebellion at one end of the empire while the monarch was with the legions putting down another at the other end, or an enemy attack at that time. An instance of this was the widespread Jewish uprising towards the end of Nero’s reign. Though the rebellion was suppressed, Nero could not save his throne.

Actually, in a full-scale confrontation with the enemy it was necessary to deploy several legions. During wars, it was therefore customary for a paranoid or prudent emperor to held as hostages relatives of the general in command of the military campaign so as to ensure his loyalty. Nero did so at the time of the Jewish campaign and held the brother-in-law and younger son of the general Vespasian. But the enemy was within, and he faced a revolt by the praetorian guards who were bribed in the name of Galba, the governor of Hispania province. In fact, the praetorian guards, supposedly protectors of the throne, became an ever present threat as their loyalty could often be bought with bribes. Following their example, the legions stationed in the borders would often revolt and thus start a civil war. The Roman army was seriously impaired due to this threatening development.

In the west, the main enemy of the empire was the “barbarian tribes” on the other sides of the rivers Danube and Rhine. Augustus had failed to subjugate them, and they were left in peace so as to fight amongst themselves. Although they were a divided lot and unable to form a united front, they were greatly feared for their depredations. During the late republican period (53 BCE) an attempt was made to invade Parthia (or Persia), the main enemy in the east, and was unsuccessful. Likewise, Parthian attacks were repulsed, but the threat always remained. It was natural for these two enemies to raid and plunder Roman territories at the time of civil wars. The border in the west was close to Rome and was therefore under the control of the emperor. Not so was the border in the west, and the Parthians took advantage of it in the event of an internal strife in the empire. It became necessary to deploy a large number of legions in the borders, and the chances of an ambitious general starting a local rebellion were high. Good administration was not the answer to this problem as it required the presence of the emperor at two places at the same time, and it remained unresolved. In fact, many future emperors would resort to it to fulfil their ambitions.

69 CE (Year of the Four Emperors)

Galba, the governor of Hispania, who bribed the praetorian guards to rise in revolt against Nero was eventually declared as emperor by the senate. Within a short time he was murdered, and Otho (governor of Lusitania) became the emperor. Not to be outdone, Vitellius in Germania gathered his forces and marched towards Rome to remove Otho. In the first battle of Bedriacum, Otho was defeated and committed suicide. All this time Vespasian was in Judaea.
In fact, on hearing that Galba had become emperor he started towards Rome to greet him, but stopped when he came to know of the events thereafter. He was not too keen to be taken as a hostage by one or the other side in the confrontation between Otho and Vitellius. Anyway, when the news circulated among the armies in Judaea and Egypt, they on their own decided that Veapasian should be the emperor. Vespasian’s elder son Titus then negotiated with the governor of Syria (Mucianus) who agreed to join forces with them and to lead the expedition. By the end of the year, Mucianus defeated Vitellius, and the senate proclaimed Vespasian as the emperor. Having regard to the number of times a new emperor took the throne, the year 69 CE was called the year of the four emperors.

Flavian Dynasty (69 to 96)

They brought stability to the empire going through a serious turmoil. The reforms initiated by them in their relatively short-term existence extended the life of the empire into the fourth decade of third century CE. All the three emperors of the dynasty had military backgrounds, which probably made them to reduce the importance of the senate and opt for the role of imperator (monarch) instead of princeps (first citizen).

Vespasian (69 to 79)

He had been ruling over the eastern part of the empire as a general and supported the senate’s decision to make Galba the emperor. Vespasian, however, became a contender for the throne after Galba was murdered, and gained a strategic advantage over his remaining rival Vitellius (after Otho’s suicide) by holding on to Rome’s winter grain supply in Egypt. When Vespasian’s troops captured Rome, Vitellius was killed by his own soldiers, and Vespasian was proclaimed emperor by the senate next day (21 December 69). From the very beginning Vespasian (60 years old at that time) kept the senate under control, as would be evident from the post-dating of his accession to power to 1 July, when his troops proclaimed him emperor, instead of 21 December the date of proclamation. He tightened it further by assuming the post of censor in 73 (Augustus also did that) which enabled him to constitute the senate. He expelled dissident members of the senate, and raised the numbers of senators from 200 (brought down by Nero to that level) to 1,000 by selecting most of them not from Rome but from Italy and the urban centers within the western provinces. He eased the financial burdens placed upon Rome by Nero’s excesses and the civil wars by increasing taxes and creating new forms of taxation. He updated by exercising his power as censor the tax structure of every city and province, many of them paying taxes based upon information more than a century old. A surplus was thus created in the treasury which enabled him to embark on public works and projects like Amphitheatrum Flavium (Colosseum) and to provide substantial aids to art and culture.

As an office holder for decades in various provinces in the east and the west, Vespasian was quite experienced in administration. Spain was his favourite, to over three hundred cities and towns in which he granted Latin rights (a civic right in betwween full Roman citizenship and that of a non-citizen or peregrine) thus promoting urbanization in the erstwhile “barbarian” western provinces. The crisis of 69 showed that when soldiers in the auxiliary units were posted in their native areas, they usually become supporters of the dissidents there. Vespasian stopped this by moving such units away from where they were recruited or by forming auxiliary units composed of men from different areas. He broke up the clusters of legions in different areas and placed them along the border so as to prevent a military coup. His most significant contribution towards build up of Roman military power was to begin recruitment of soldiers for the legions from Gaul and Spain along with Italy, which also helped the process of Romanization of those areas.

Titus (79 to 81) & Domitian (81 to 96)

As the eldest son of Vespasian, Titus served under his father as an effective general securing the east and later taking over the command of the Roman armies in Syria and Judaea. He suppressed the ongoing wide spread Jewish uprising and was the co-consul with his father, thus receiving the best possible training for the position of emperor. His association with some disreputable citizens of Rome caused some misgivings, but he proved his worth by recalling people exiled by his father. He was equally generous in providing relief to people when the volcanic Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 devastating Pompeii and a fire destroyed much of Rome in 80. He was very satisfied with his role in the construction of the amphitheatre Colosseum started by his father, and held gladatorial and other sports events in the semi-finished stadium for 100 days in 80. Next year he died of some unspecified illness, rumoured to be caused by his younger brother Domitian (taken as a hostage by Nero during the Jewish campaign). The rumour started because of his reported dying statement that he failed to correct a mistake, the mistake of doing nothing when he came to know that Domitian was planning to kill him to be his successor.

Domitian in the role of censor and consul carried out his control of senate to such extremes that the otherwise pliant senators were forced to protest. To compound matters further, he often appeared at the assembly in full military regalia to reinforce his image as the imperator (emperor) which was against the princeps (first citizen) image his immediate and Julio-Claudian predecessors projected. However, he kept the people happy by donations to every citizen of Rome and continued with the public projects taken up earlier. He also maintained the treasury well and kept its funds well-endowed. Increasingly he became paranoid because of the way he had been treated by his father, who gave him responsibilities but not without supervision. His paranoia reached a high after a short-lived rebellion by the governor of Germany in 89. Arrests, executions and seizures of property followed in such a scale that his advisers and family members always lived in a state of fear, leading to his murder in 96 by his enemies in the senate, family and praetorian guards.

Five Good Emperors (96 to 180)

That was how the period following Domitian came to be known – the five were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Each of them nominated his successor during his lifetime, taking into account the merits of the individual so chosen. Another point of view is that the succession scheme worked well because none of the emperors excepting the last had a natural heir.
Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva came to the throne with a sort of liberal agenda (like setting free imprisoned dissidents, involving senate in governance, etc., to save himself) which failed to help him. In 97, he was taken hostage by Domitian’s supporters who forced him to hand over to them people responsible for the late monarch’s death and even to make a speech thanking the rebel leader. Nerva then nominated the general in the German frontier, Trajan as his successor with a view to strengthen his own rule. Trajan would eventually execute the rebel who rose against Nerva.

Trajan (98 to 117)

Trajan succeeded Nerva and brought the territory under Roman rule to its highest ever by conquests. In 112, following a provocation by Parthia, he annexed Armenia and continuing southwards took the city of Babylon and declared Mesopotamia as a new province of the empire in 116. Lamenting that he was too old to continue in the footsteps of Alexander, he nonetheless took the great city of Susa and pushed the border of the empire to its furthest in the east.

Hadrian (117 to 138)

Although famous as a military administrator, there was no major campaign during his reign apart from the suppression of a massive Jewish rebellion in Judaea in 132 – 135. He had to engage himself in defending the territories in possession rather than annexing new ones. Even so, he parted with Trajan’s conquests in Mesopotamia as he found them to be indefensible. He avoided a war with Parthia by negotiating peace in 121. Unlike his predecessors, he toured almost all the provinces giving money for local projects. In Britain, he provided for a wall (known as Hadrian’s wall) as a defensive measure as also various other defences in Germany and Northern Africa. Roman empire was peaceful and prosperous during his reign.

Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)

His reign was also peaceful, though there were some military disturbances of no particular importance in Britain, Judaea and Mauritania. Due to the trouble in Bitain, construction of a wall from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde (known as Antonine Wall) was started but abandoned later.

Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)

During his time there were many raids along the long north European borders by Germanic tribes (themselves pushed by fiercer tribes from the east)in Gaul and by others along the Danube, which were repulsed. The Parthians also started to attack, to deal with which Marcus Aurelius sent his co-emperor and rival Verus. The strategy worked; Verus was happy with his hold over the army and felt no need to confront Marcus. He died during the campaign in 169, and Marcus was relieved of the threat. Commodus, son of Marcus, was co-emperor with his father from 177. When he became the emperor after the death of Marcus in 180, he made a good beginning. Then there was an attempt to murder him by some of his family members, following which he gradually became insane. It is believed that with the assassination attempt began the long decline and fall of the Roman empire.

Severan Dynasty (193 to 235)

Emperors of this dynasty were Septimius Severus (193 – 211), Caracalla (211 – 217), Macrinus (217 – 18), Elagabalus (218 – 222) and Alexander Severus (222 – 235). They ruled in an increasingly troubled period just before the crisis of the third century. The founder was from a prominent family of Leptis Magna in Africa who married into a prominent Syrian family. Rulers emerging from such provincial background and cosmopolitan alliance were possible due to the broadening of political base and economic prosperity attained during the previous regime. Septimius was a successful ruler who ensured the army’s support by increased pay and by appointing them as officials instead of the earlier practice of engaging senators. This widened the administrative power base throughout the empire, which was further helped by the abolition of the standing jury courts dating back to republican times. His son Marcus Antoninus or Caracalla
enacted a law in 212, which removed all legal and political differences between Italians and provincials extending full citizenship to all free men. He was also responsible for the construction of the famous Caracalla Baths in Rome, which served as a model for gigantic public buildings in times to come. He was murdered by a prefect of the guards (Macrinus) in 217, who succeeded him for a brief period as the first non-senator ruler. There were quite powerful and capable women in the court, who pulled strings to put Elagabalus and after him Alexander Severus in the throne in 218 and 222 respectively. Alexander restored the power of the senate to some extent and enacted some fiscal measures. Though he succeeded in defeating the Sassanians early in his reign, eventually the army went out of his control, mutinied and assassinated him in 235. With his death, began nearly fifty years of turmoil and civil war.

Crisis of the Third Century (236 to 284)

This was a period of military anarchy when the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse. The times of peace and prosperity from the reign of Augustus came to an end, for which that late emperor could be held partly responsible. In order to lay stress on his first citizen (princeps) image he did not specify an order of succession, which inspired ambitious generals to start civil wars. Despite occasional setbacks, his successors were able to keep things in order. During the third century the situation went out of control because of “barbarian’ raids”, foreign invasions and a depleted treasury. Consequently, from 235 onwards, no fewer than 25 different emperors ruled Rome. Excepting two, all such soldier-emperors were either murdered or killed in the battle in the next 50 years. Ascending the throne in 284, Diocletian was able to solve some of these acute problems and stave off for a while the break up of the empire.

Division of the empire

After defeating his rival Carinus in July 285, Diocletian became the sole emperor. Realising that the empire was ungovernable by a single emperor due to external threats and internal strifes, he divided the empire in two parts along a north-west axis just east of Italy, and created two equal emperors to rule under the title of Augustus. Diocletian became Augustus of the eastern half, and selected his long-time friend Maximian to rule the western half, thus creating what would be known as Eastern and Western Roman Empire. The western empire would last for about 200 years, and the eastern empire would become the Byzantine Empire, with the Greek city of Byzantium as its capital, later to be named Constantinople by the emperor Constantine I and would survive for another thousand years. Authority was further divided in 293, when each Augustus took a junior Emperor called Caesar to aid him in administrative matters as also to provide a line of succession. Modern scholars call this tetrarchy or leadership by four. In 305 Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in favor of their Caesars, and two new Caesars were named by the two incoming Augustus (es) or Augusti. The tetrarchy worked well under Diocletian and Maximian and for a short time thereafter. Edward Gibbon in his book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire says that it was so because of the affinity the four rulers had for each other and compares it to a “chorus of music”, the harmony in which disappeared when Diocletian and Maximian abdicated. Then one of the augusti died in 306, Maximian came back in 307 to back his son and at the end of that year there were four augusti and a lone caesar. The pattern was thus set, and the empire was divided among sons, nephews and cousins till the time of Julian and Jovian when it was one again for a while.

Julian and Jovian (361 to 364)

Julian, caesar of the western empire since 355, would remain the sole emperor for two years. Though a Christian himself, he would lift the ban on paganism enforced earlier and imposed restrictions on Christianity. It seems he believed himself to be a reincarnation of Alexander the Great and wrote works of philosophy based on the ideas he held. He died while fighting Shapur of Persia and did not name his successor. Pagans considered him as a hero while Christians a villain. Upon his death, his officers elected the unknown Jovian as his successor. Jovian ceded territories to Persia and restored the privileges of Christianity.

Valentinian Dynasty (364 to 392)

Again the officers had to select a new emperor, when they chose a Pannonian called Valentinian. He selected as co-emperor his brother Valens, and together they ruled after the pattern set by Diocletian: he in the west and his brother in the east. Soon Valens faced a challenge from a cousin of Julian, who bribed two legions and captured Constantinople. Valens fought back, defeated and executed him. A third co-emperor, Valentinian’s son 8 year old Gratian was selected next with a view to secure succession. However, on his father’s death in 378, the then 16 year old Gratian was not given the chance to rule. His infant step brother becme the emperor as Valentinian II, and Gratian was left to administer Gaul. His step mother and infant step brother was given Italy, Illyria and Africa, but the real authority remained with him. Meanwhile, Valens was challenged by Germanic tribes whom he allowed to live in the area south of Danube. Gratian was coming to his help, but without waiting for Gratian he started the Battle of Adrianople. Two-thirds of the Roman army was lost along with many experienced leaders and Valens was killed in 378. In the aftermath, Theodosius I was chosen to rule the eastern empire. Gratian, after ruling efficiently for some time, became lazy and a Frankish general and a bishop jointly acted as the power behind the throne. Theodosius selected his five year old son as the fouth co-ruler with support from the other three in 383 to secure succession.
The Spanish general Maximus of Roman Britain revolted and attacked Gaul when Gratian fled and was killed. Then Maximus chose his infant son as a co-ruler, raising the number of such incumbents to five. Theodosius acknowledged these two co-rulers, but Maximus and his son were not accepted by the other two co-rulers. So, Maximus attacked Italy, drove out Valentinian II, when Theodosius came to Valentinan’s rescue and killed Maximus. In 392, Valentinian II was murdered when Theodosius invaded the western empire, and reunited the entire Roman empire under his own rule. After his death in 395, the two halves of the empire were ruled by his two sons: Arcadius in the east with the capital Constantinople, and Honorius in the west with the capital in Milan and later Ravenna. Though the Roman state would continue to have two emperors, the eastern part considered itself as Roman in full. Latin was used in official writings to the same extent (if not more than) Greek. The two halves were culturally and historically the same state, though perhaps politically they were different.

After 395, the rulers in the west were usually figureheads. For most of the time, the actual rulers were military strongmen who called themselves patrician or magister militum. In June 474, Julius Nepos became the ruler in the west. Next year, the magister militum Orestes revolted and made his son Romulus Augustus the Roman emperor. Romulus, however, was not recognized by the eastern Emperor, and was therefore technically an usurper. Romulus Augustus, however, is regarded as the last Western Roman Emperor.
The Western Roman Empire is supposed to have ended in 476 when Orestes was killed by rebelling Germanic tribes. The capital Ravenna was captured and Romulus was deposed bringing about what is traditionally described as the fall of the Roman Empire.


Latin was the language of the empire before its expansion as also its official language. Actually, there were two languages, classical and vulgar Latin. Classical Latin was the written language while Vulgar Latin was the spoken language. Vulgar Latin was a fluid language which differed in various regions of the empire and changed quite a lot over time. In the provinces in the west, Vulgar Latin became the common language and later evolved into the modern Italian, Spanish, French and so on. After the fall of the west, Latin remained the official language of the administration, and for some centuries in the east as well. Greek, however, was always the primary language used in the east for administration outside the capital. Actually, Greek was the most widely spoken language there, mainly in the larger urban centers, and, even in the city of Rome itself, Greek became the language of the educated and the elite. Before the imperial period in the second century BCE, more than 15% of Rome’s population spoke Greek and that percentage continued to grow. Greek became the language of scholarship and the arts, and, to a large degree, the common language for trade between provinces and with other nations. Like Latin, the primary spoken language, Koine Greek, existed with the literary language, a variant of the ancient Attic Greek.

Greek lost its dominance over Latin by the fourth century, resulting to a great extent from the growth and development of the western provinces. The publication in the early fifth century of the Vulgate Bible corroborates it. With the decline of the west, the number of people who spoke both Greek and Latin declined as well, contributing greatly to the future cultural divisions in Europe. Anyway, languages evolving from Latin are widely spoken in the world today, while Greek dialects are limited mostly to Greece, Cyprus and parts of Turkey. Due to the multi-ethnic nature of the empire, many other languages like Syriac, Aramic, Coptic, Armenian, etc. existed and some of these were given limited official status in their provinces at various times.


Succession to the Roman Empire had been claimed by several states after the fall of the west. First, it was the Byzantine Empire, the modern term used for later period of the east. Then followed the Holy Roman Empire, a very different entity, which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire either. The king was Frankish, the empire was a collection of independent States and the 9th century Pope Leo III (who organized it) was the only person to be considered holy (with reservations). When the Ottomans captured Constantinople, the Russian Tzars, as inheritor of the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Church, called itself the third Rome (with Constantinople being the second). Then the Ottoman’s, who based their state on the Byzantine model, established in 1453 their capital in Constantinople and the ruler claimed to be sitting on the throne of the Roman Empire. He even went to the extent of launching an invasion of Italy with the purpose of “re-uniting the Empire”, only to be stopped by the Papal army at Otranto in 1480. Apart from such successors, the Roman state lasted (in some form) from the founding of Rome in 753 BCE to the fall in 1461 CE of Trebizond (a fragment of the Byzantine Empire which escaped conquest by the Ottomans in 1453), for a total of 2214 years. The Roman impact on Western and Eastern civilizations is tremendous. In the centuries following, most of the Roman achievements were duplicated by later civilizations. For example, the Romans knew how to make cement, the technology for which was rediscovered by John Smeaton in 1759.

The (more-or-less) modern calendar, the Christian institutions and facets of modern neo-classical and neo-classical and Byzantine architecture are all contributions of the Roman empire to the world. The extensive system of roads constructed by the Roman army still exist and till the introduction of railways there was no reduction in travel time between destinations in Europe. In the sphere of governance, the Roman empire influenced through its constitution those of the countries in Europe and many former European colonies. The framers of the constitution of the United States in creating the presidency did so to usher in an “Augustan Age”. Roman Law as codified in Corpus Juris Civilis in the period of late antiquity (6th century CE) is the cornerstone of the legal system in many a modern country in the world. The Romans developed the science of public administration to govern their vast territory to an extent never before thought of. They created an extensive civil service and formalized methods of tax collection. The Greeks gave the west its intellectual stimulus; the Romans their methods of living, ruling and governing.

About chepeyja

chartered engineer(India), B.Sc., risk management consultant, blogger and layabout!
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