An Empire Across Three Continents
Explain the sources to understand roman history
1. Roman historians have a rich collection of sources to study which we can broadly divide into three groups: (a) texts,(b) documents and (c) material remains.
2. Textual sourcesinclude histories of the period written by contemporaries (thesewere usually called ‘Annals’, because the narrative wasconstructed on a year-by-year basis), letters, speeches, sermons, laws, and so on.
3. Documentary sources includemainly inscriptions and papyri. Inscriptions were usually cuton stone, so a large number survive, in both Greek and Latin
4. Material remains include a very wideassortment of items that mainly archaeologists discover through excavation and field survey. They are buildings, monuments and other kinds of structures, pottery,coins, mosaics, even entire landscapes.
Papyrus and Papyrologists
1. The ‘papyrus’ was a reed-like plant that grew along the banks of the Nile in Egypt and was processed to produce a writing material that was very widely used in everyday life.
2. Thousands of contracts, accounts, letters and official documents survive ‘on papyrus’ and have been published by scholars who are called ‘papyrologists.
Boundaries of Roman Empire
1. To the North, the boundaries of the empire were formed by two greatrivers, the Rhine and the Danube.
2. To the South, by the huge expanse ofdesert called the Sahara.
3. To the East river Euphrates and to the WestAtlantic Ocean.
4. This vast stretch of territory was the RomanEmpire. That is why Roman Empire is called an Empire across Three Continents.
5. The Mediterranean Sea is calledthe heart of Rome’s empire.
Division of Roman Empire
1. The Roman Empire can broadly be divided into two phases, ‘early’ and‘late’, divided by the third century as a sort of historical watershedbetween them.
2. In other words, the whole period from the beginning of Roman Empire to the main partof the third century can be called the ‘early empire’, and the period from the third century to the end called the ‘late empire’.
The political history of the Roman Empire
1. The Roman Empire was a mosaic of territoriesand cultures that were chiefly bound together by a common system ofgovernment. All those wholived in the empire were subjects of a single ruler, the emperor, but they followed various cultures, religions, languages and races.
2. Many languages were spoken in the empire, but for thepurposes of administration Latin and Greek were the most widely used,indeed the only official languages.
3. Augustus was the first emperor who established monarchy in 27 BCE. He was also called the ‘Principate’. Although Augustus was the sole ruler andthe only real source of authority, the fiction was kept alive that he wasonly the ‘leading citizen’ (Princepsin Latin), not the absoluteruler. This was done out of respect for the Senate.
4. Senate was the body which hadcontrolled Rome earlier, in the days when it was a Republic. TheSenate had existed in Rome for centuries, and had been and remaineda body representing the aristocracy, that is, the wealthiest families of Roman and later Italian descent mainly landowners.
5. Next to the emperor and the Senate, the other key institution ofimperial rule was the army. Romans had a paidprofessional army where soldiers had to put in a minimum of 25 yearsof service. The army was the largest single organised bodyin the empire with 600,000 soldiers in the fourth century. The soldiers would constantlyagitate for better wages and service conditions. These agitations often took the form of mutinies.
6. The emperor, the aristocracyand the army were the three main ‘players’in the political history of the empire. Thesuccess of individual emperors dependedon their control of the army, and when thearmies were divided, the result usually was civil war. Except for one notorious year (69 CE), when four emperorsmounted the throne in quick succession, the first two centuries werefree from civil war.
7. External warfare was also much less common in the first twocenturies. The empire inherited by Tiberius from Augustus was alreadyso vast that further expansion was felt to be unnecessary.The only majorcampaign of expansion in the early empire was Trajan’s fruitlessoccupation of territory across the Euphrates, in the years 113-17 CEabandoned by his successors.
8. The Roman Empire had two types of territories. They were ‘dependent’kingdoms and provincial territory. The Near East was full of dependent kingdoms but they disappeared and swallowedup by Rome. These kingdoms were exceedinglywealthy, for example Herod’s kingdom yielded 5.4million denarii per year, equal to over 125,000 kg of gold per year.
9. A city in the Roman Empirewasan urban centre with its own magistrates, city council and a ‘territory’containing villages which were under its jurisdiction. Thus one citycould not be in the territory of another city, but villages almost alwayswere. Villages could be upgraded to the status of cities, and vice versa,usually as a mark of imperial favour. One crucialadvantage of living in a city was essential commodities were better providedfor during food shortages and even famines than the countryside.
10. Public baths were a striking feature ofRoman urban life and urbanpopulations also enjoyed a much higherlevel of entertainment. For example, onecalendar tells us that spectacula(shows)filled no less than 176 days of the year!
The Third-Century Crisis
1. From the 230s, the Roman Empire founditself fighting on several fronts simultaneously. In Iran an aggressive dynasty emerged in 225 they were called as the ‘Sasanians’ and within just 15 years it expanded rapidly in thedirection of the Euphrates. Shapur I, the Iranian ruler, claimed he had annihilated aRoman army of 60,000 and even captured the eastern capital of Antioch.
2. Meanwhile, a whole series of Germanic tribes or rather tribalconfederacies began to move against the Rhine and Danube frontiers, and the wholeperiod from 233 to 280 saw repeated invasions. The Romans were forced to abandon much of the territorybeyond the Danube.
3. The rapidsuccession of emperors in the third century (25 emperors in 47 years!)is an obvious symptom of the strains faced by the empire in this period.
Gender Roles in Roman Empire
1. One of the more modern features of Roman society was the widespreadprevalence of the nuclear family. Adult sons did not live with theirfamilies, and it was exceptional for adult brothers to share a commonhousehold. On the other hand, slaves were included in the family.
2. The typical form of marriage was one where the wife did nottransfer to her husband’s authority but retained full rights in theproperty of her father’s family. While the woman’s dowry went to thehusband for the duration of the marriage, the woman remained aprimary heir of her father and became an independent property owneron her father’s death.
3. Marriageswere generally arranged, and there is no doubt that women were oftensubject to domination by their husbands.Whereas males married intheir late twenties or early thirties, women were married off in the lateteens or early twenties, so there was an age gap between husband andwife and this would have encouraged a certain inequality.
4. Divorce was relatively easy andneeded no more than a notice of intent to dissolve the marriage byeither husband or wife. On the other hand,Augustine, the great Catholicbishop, tells us that hismother was regularly beaten by his father and that most other wivesin the small town where he grew up had similar bruises to show!
5. Finally, fathers had substantial legal control over their children –sometimes to a shocking degree, for example, a legal power of life anddeath in exposing unwanted children, by leaving them out in the coldto die.
Literacy in Roman Empire
1. It is certain that rates of casual literacy variedgreatly between different parts of the empire. For example, in Pompeii,which was buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 CE, there is strong evidenceof widespread casual literacy.
2. Walls on the main streets of Pompeiioften carried advertisements, and graffiti were found all over the city.
3. By contrast, in Egypt where hundreds of papyri survive, most formaldocuments such as contracts were usually written by professionalscribes, and they often tell us that X or Y is unable to read and write.
4. But even here literacy was certainly more widespread among certaincategories such as soldiers, army officers and estate managers.
5. Plurality of languages that were spoken in Roman Empire. They were Aramaic, Coptic,Punic, Berber and Celtic. Butmany of these linguistic cultures were purely oral, atleast until a script was invented for them. Among the above mentioned languages Armenianbegan to be written as late as the fifth century.
Economic Expansion in Roman Empire
1. The empire had a substantial economic infrastructure of harbours,mines, quarries, brickyards, olive oil factories, etc. Wheat, wine andolive-oil were traded and consumed in huge quantities, and they camemainly from Spain, the Gallic provinces, North Africa, Egypt and, to alesser extent, Italy, where conditions were best for these crops.
2. Liquidslike wine and olive oil were transported in containers called ‘amphorae’.The fragments and sherds of a very large number of these surviveand it has been possible for archaeologists toreconstruct the precise shapes of these containers.Spanish producerssucceeded in capturingmarkets for olive oil from theirItalian counterparts. Thiswould only have happened ifSpanish producers supplied better quality oil at lowerprices.
3. The empire included many regions that had a reputation forexceptional fertility. Italy, Sicily, Egypt and southern Spain were all among the most densely settledor wealthiest parts of the empire. The best kinds of wine, wheat and olive oil came mainly fromnumerous estates of these territories.
4. On the other hand, large Roman territories were in amuch less advanced state. The pastoral andsemi-nomadic communities were often on the move, carrying theiroven-shaped huts with them. As Roman estatesexpanded in North Africa, the pastures of those communities weredrastically reduced and their movements more tightly regulated.
5. Diversified applications of waterpower around the Mediterranean as well as advances in water-poweredmilling technology, the use of hydraulic mining techniques in theSpanish gold and silver mines and the gigantic industrial scale onwhich those mines were worked.The existence of well-organizedcommercial and banking networks and the widespread use of moneyare all indications of Roman economy.
Controlling of slaves and Workers
1. Slavery was an institution deeply rooted in the ancient world, both inthe Mediterranean and in the Near East, and Christianitywhen it emerged as the state religion seriously challenged this institution. Under Augustus there were still 3 millionslaves in a total Italian population of 7.5 million.
2. Slaveswere an investment, and at least one Romanagricultural writer advised landowners against usingthem because their health couldbe damaged by malaria. On theother hand, if the Roman upper classes were oftenbrutal towards their slaves, ordinary people didsometimes show much more compassion.
3. As warfare became less widespread with theestablishment of peace in the first century, the supplyof slaves tended to decline and the users of slavelabour thus had to turn either to slave breeding orto cheaper substitutes such as wage labour whichwas more easily dispensable.
4. In fact, free labour wasextensively used on public works at Rome because an extensive use of slave labour would havebeen too expensive. Slaves hadto be fed and maintained throughout the year, which increased thecost of holding this kind of labour.
Management of labour by Columella
5. The Roman agricultural writers paid a great deal of attention to the management of labour. Columella, a first-century writer who camefrom the south of Spain, recommended the following points:
6. Landowners should keepa reserve stock of implements and tools, twice as many as they needed,so that production could be continuous, ‘for the loss in slave labourtimeexceeds the cost of such items’.
7. There was a general presumptionamong employers that withoutsupervision no work would ever getdone, so supervision was paramount,for both free workers and slaves.
8. Tomake supervision easier, workerswere sometimes grouped into gangsor smaller teams. Columellarecommended squads of ten,claiming it was easier to tell who wasputting in effort and who was not inwork groups of this size. This showsa detailed consideration of themanagement of labour.
9. Pliny theElder, the author of a very famous‘Natural History’, condemned the useof slave gangs as the worst methodof organizing production, mainlybecause slaves who worked in gangswere usually chained together bytheir feet.
10. The Elder Pliny describedconditions in the factories of Alexandria. A seal is put upon the workmen’s aprons,they have to wear a mask or a net with a close mesh on their heads,and before they are allowed to leave the premises, they have to take offall their clothes. Agricultural labour must have been fatiguing and disliked this system so Egyptian peasants deserted their villages ‘in order not to engage in agriculturalwork’. The same was probably true of most factories and workshops.
11. A law of 398 referred to workers being branded so they could berecognized if and when they run away and try to hide. Many privateemployers cast their agreements with workers in the form of debtcontracts.
12. A lot of the poorer families wentinto debt bondage in order to survive. Parents sometimes soldtheir children into servitude for periods of 25 years. The late-fifth-century emperor Anastasiusbuilt the eastern frontier city of Dara in less than three weeks byattracting labour from all over the East by offering high wages.
Social Hierarchies(Divisions) in Rome
1. The social structures of the empireas follows: senators, equites( horse men and knights), the respectable section of thepeople (middle class), lower class and finally the slaves. In the early third centurywhen the Senate numbered roughly 1,000, approximately half of allsenators still came from Italian families. By the late empire,the senators andthe equiteshad merged into a unified and expanded aristocracy.
2. The ‘middle’ class now consisted of theconsiderable mass of persons connected with imperial service in thebureaucracy and army but also the more prosperous merchants andfarmers of whom there were many in the eastern provinces.
3. Below them were the vastmass of the lower classes known collectively as humiliores(literally- ‘Lower’).They comprised a rural labour force of which many were permanentlyemployed on the large estates; workers in industrial and miningestablishments; migrant workers who supplied much of the labour forthe grain and olive harvests and for the building industry; self-employedartisans etc.
4. One writer of the early fifth centurytells us that the aristocracy based in theCity of Rome drew annual incomes of up to 4,000 pounds of gold from theirestates, not counting the produce they consumed directly.
5. The late Roman bureaucracy, both the higher and middleechelons, was a comparatively affluent group because itdrew the bulk of its salary in gold and invested much ofthis in buying up assets like land. There was of course alsoa great deal of corruption, especially in the judicial systemand in the administration of military supplies.
Cultural transformation of the Roman world from the fourth to
1. The traditional religious culture of the classical world, both Greekand Roman, had been polytheist. That is, it involved a multiplicity ofcults that included both Roman/Italian gods like Jupiter, Juno, Minervaand Mars, as well as numerous Greek and eastern deities worshippedin thousands of temples, shrines and sanctuaries throughout theempire
2. At the cultural level, the periodsaw momentous developments in religious life, with the emperorConstantine made Christianity as the official religion.
3. Overexpansion had led Diocletian to ‘cut back’ by abandoningterritories with little strategic or economic value. Diocletian also fortifiedthe frontiers, reorganized provincial boundaries, and separated civilianfrom military functions, granting greater autonomy to the militarycommanders who now became a more powerful group.
4. The monetary system of the late empire broke with the silver-based currencies of the first three centuries because the Spanish silver mines were exhausted and government ran out of sufficient stocks of the metal to support a stable coinage in silver. Constantine founded the new monetary system on gold and there were vast amounts of this in circulation.
5. Constantine’s chief innovations were in the monetary sphere, where heintroduced a new denomination, the solidus, a coin of 4½ gm of puregold that would in fact outlast the Roman Empire itself. Solidi wereminted on a very large scale and their circulation ran into millions.
6. Theother area of innovation was division of Roman Empire into east and west and the creation of a secondcapital at Constantinople (at the site of modernIstanbul in Turkey, and previously calledByzantium), surrounded on three sides by the sea.
7. In the West, the empire fragmented politically as Germanic groups from theNorth (Goths, Vandals, Lombards, etc.) took over all the major provincesand established kingdoms that are best described as ‘post-Roman kingdoms.
8. By the early seventh century, the war between Eastern Romeand Iran had flared up again, and the Sasanians who had ruled Iran sincethe third century launched a wholesale invasion of all the major easternprovinces (including Egypt).