The Mediterranean in 200 AD
In many ways, the Roman empire remains the ideal upon which Western
civilization has shaped itself. One need only look at the Capitol in
Washington to see how extensively the founders of the United States
followed the Roman model in fashioning a new nation. Because so many Roman
principles are embodied in modern institutions, people feel that it is
important to know why the Roman empire fell. question The answer might,
after all, reveal a flaw or weakness in the Roman tradition that was
passed on to modern Western civilization and which could eventually lead
to the end of the centuries in which Western civilization has been able to
expand and to dominate the globe. Much our of high standard of living has
been a result of our ability to take what we wanted from the rest of the
world, and the loss of that ability would mean that our lives would become
significantly less comfortable and luxurious.
And so people are always interested in attempts to answer the question
"Why did the Roman empire fall?" Every now and then, one sees a magazine
or tabloid reporting the latest theory - all the Romans caught malaria and
were sick most of the time; they were poisoned by the lead in the glaze of
their cooking pots and went crazy; they started having orgies all the time
and their moral fiber was weakened by their preoccupation with sex; their
conversion to Christianity focused their attention on the next world
rather than the present one; and so on. This question may or may not have
an answer, but first we have to understand the nature of the Roman empire.
You see, it was not so much a question of why it fell but what had kept it
standing for so long. I'll state a proposition that will give you
something to think about as you cover the next few lectures.
The Roman empire consisted basically of the unity
of the Mediterranean Sea.
1. The Roman empire was not unique. It was one of the classical
empires of the Old World. Four classical empires -- Han China, Mauryan
India, Parthian Persia and the Roman -- arose in the period 200-100 BC.
Each were characterized by the fact that they had been formed by the
unification of at least two widely disparate geographical regions.
Map of the Mediterranean 260 AD
2. Let's consider the differences between the western portion of the empire,
centered on the western Mediterranean, and the eastern portion, which included
lands that had been deeply influenced by Greek culture.
- Han China had arisen in the temperate wheat-growing northern valley of
the Huang-ho River and had expanded to the south, conquering the
sub-tropical, rice-growing Yang-tze river valley.
- Mauryan India had expanded from the relatively arid, wheat-growing
valley of the Indus River to occupy the fertile rice-growing valley of the
- the Persians, inhabitants of wheat-growing mountains and plateau of
what is now the nation of Iran, a region characterized by extremes of
climate. They had established their control over Mesopotamia (modern
Iraq), the sub-tropical and millet-growing basin of the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers. One might note that the Persians had established their
rule as early as the 500's B.C., but the real Persian dominance of the
regions began when a mountain folk known as the Parthians seized power and
re-established the bases of the state.
- The Romans, inhabitants of a small town in the Italian peninsula, in
the western basin of the Mediterranean, had managed to conquer first the
entire western basin, and then the eastern basin of this almost
land-locked body of water.
In each of these empires, the regions that had been united were so
different that they would not have come together if they had not been
brought together by force, and they would not have stayed together if the
rulers had not developed institutions that held them together.
One might think about that for a moment. One generally thinks of an empire
as a state that is strong enough to subdue its weaker neighbors and to
keep them subjected by, often tyrannical, force. There have indeed been
such empires, but they have seldom outlived the reign of their founders
and certainly have not endured long enough to exert a significant
influence on the long-term historical development of their regions
(although one might make an exception for the Napoleonic empire of the
nineteenth century). The empires that have shaped history have been
characterized by their institutions since these institutions often live
long after the state that developed them has vanished. Considered from
this point of view, it was not the ability to conquer lands that made an
empire but its need to develop the institutions necessary to consolidate
and rule those lands. This was certainly the case with the Roman Empire
Comparison of the Eastern and Western Portions of the Roman Empire
3. As we have already noted, the regions that comprised these classic
empires, including the Roman empire, were so different that they had to be
united by forces, and the imperial governments kept them by establishing
and maintaining common institutions throughout their lands. Interestingly
enough, each of the empires used basically the same unifying institutions:
a common language, currency, system of weights and measures, networks of
roads and canals, standing army, centralized authority and a professional
civil servants, etc. There were several unifying factors and institutions
in the Roman empire.
Most of the population of the Roman empire lived within easy reach of the
Mediterranean, and the imperial government promoted and protected sea-trade and
naval communications between the various parts of the empire. Although
it could be relatively dangerous, sea-transport was much faster and
much less effecting that over-land carriage. There had been sea-borne
commercial empires in the Mediterranean Sea for well over two thousand
years before Roman domination. The Romans worked to keep the sea clear of
pirates, to build lighthouses and to construct large and sheltered harbors
for the great commercial cities maintained by that trade. One might go so
far as to say that the existence of the Roman empire depended on the unity
of the Mediterranean or, as the Romans called it, Mare nostrum,
Outlying reaches of the empire were connected to the sea by the
rivers and streams that flowed into it. The Romans were active in
dredging ship channels and in building river ports at likely
places - such as London, Paris, Cologne, Vienna, Belgrade and so
forth - and maintaining river fleets to maintain security and order on
these watery highways.
But the network of water-routes extended even further. The Romans and the
native peoples they controlled invested a great deal of labor in digging
canals, many of them for the purpose of drainage, it is true, but many
others designed for barge shipping and so well constructed that they
continued to be used for a thousand years after Roman imperial power had
Finally, this complex network of water routes was knit together by a
system of roads and bridges that have been used into modern times. People
are often awed by the effort that must have been expended in building such
highways without the aid of modern machinery, but one must remember that
construction is more dependent upon organization than upon advanced
technology. The Romans were well aware that the maintenance of a standing
army was an expensive proposition, especially since that army would be
employed in combat only 10 percent of the time at most. So the Roman
administrators took care that there were productive pursuits for army
units when they were not engaged in warfare or training for warfare. One
of these pursuits was the construction of roads that would allow military
units to move quickly from place to place. Such mobility increased the
efficiency of the Roman army so that it was possible to reduce its number,
and hence its expense, without diminishing its effectiveness. The great
network of land routes that helped to unify the lands of the empire was a
byproduct of this "policy of cost containment."
The highest levels of Roman government were embodied in the absolute rule
of an emperor who, in the state-sponsored emperor
cult was considered to be a god. Execution of the emperor's will was
the function of a trained bureaucracy. Although this civil service was
small in comparison with the establishments of modern states and its
organization was rudimentary by the standards of the Han empire of
China, it was superior to anything that had proceeded it in the West
and was quite equal to the work it was expected to do.
Most people, when they think of the Roman empire, think of the emperors
and their advisors. Certainly that was where Roman historians focused
their attention, and they provided later screenwriters and novelists
enough materials for hundreds of novels and motion pictures. In the day to
day life of the average Roman citizen, though, the emperor was a distant
figure often known only as a face stamped upon new coins. Most Roman
citizens lived their lives in their local civitas, a local unit of
government something like the American county. The civitas consisted of
two parts - the city in which the political, commercial and cultural life
of the district was concentrated and the pagus, the countryside
dependent upon that urban center. Most of these civitates attempted to
emulated the great capital at Rome, and it was indeed a poor place that
did not possess an impressive law court, or basilica, an
amphitheater for play-goers, and a racetrack. The civitas would also boast a
public bath, busy markets, and as much in the way of civic amenities as
the rich land-owners of the pagus could afford to endow the city. Local
government and local life throughout the empire was centered upon such
communities, and a Roman could move from the frontiers of Scotland to the
mountains of Syria and still feel pretty much at home.
Well-developed written laws
Uniform system of weights and measures
The large standing army was concentrated on the frontier and defended the
interior of the empire against foreign invasions.
As far as was possible, the Roman imperial administration attempted to
make the Roman armies as productive as possible. Some units operated brick
factories, tile manufactories, lead and iron smelters, and many other
enterprises. They were often allowed to remained headquartered in the same
garrison town almost permanently and often drew their recruits from the
local population. Someone who had joined the Roman army had decided upon
his life's work since the standard enlistment was for twenty-five years.
Since many recruits came from poor and isolated regions far from the
centers of Roman life, the army literally taught them from the bottom up.
They learned to dress properly, to speak Latin, to practice personal
hygiene, as well as learning at least one and perhaps more than one trade.
Along with this, however, it was even more important that they learn of
the greatness of Rome and of the majesty of its institutions. Their
year was marked off by great rituals in which they honored Roma,
a goddess who was the exemplification of Rome, as well as for the peace
of the imperial family, its security, the loyalty that bound the army to
the service of the emperor, and so on
Indeed, in times when Rome itself fell in disorder or when the imperial
administration had fallen into the depths of corruption or
ineffectiveness, the army's reverence for the ideal of Rome remained
undiminished even though they might acclaim their general as emperor and
march upon Rome to clear up the mess there. Consequently, they invested
their spare time and effort in turning the towns that sprang up along
their fortresses into little Romes, or at least close to what the soldiers
believed the essence of Rome to be. Stationed on the frontier, they were
set to the task of creating the transportation and communication networks
-- roads, bridges, beacons, canals, ports, aqueducts, - as well as
numerous other public works throughout the empire
One must remember that the Roman frontiers in the Western were not intended
primarily to keep people out, but to control their passage. There was a
great deal of trade moving through the frontier zones and several major
Germanic peoples settled just on the other side of the frontier in places
where they could enjoy extensive and secure relations with the Romans
beyond the border. The towns of those Romans beyond the border were
perhaps more Roman than Rome itself, and so at least some of the Germanic
peoples living more or less peacefully along the frontier developed a
familiarity with Roman ways and attempted to emulate them. If needed, the
Roman armies could fight the enemies of Rome but, in many cases, it proved
simpler and more effective to win them over and enlist them as allies of
the Roman state.
Wherever it was sent or wherever it was settled, the Roman army provided
local inhabitants an outstanding example of Romanitas, the sense of
belonging to a great civilization
The Romans established Latin as the common and official language of the empire,
but also adopted Greek culture and, in a form called Graeco-Roman,
spread a common literature, architecture, art, etc., throughout the empire.
An economic balance was maintained between the wealthy and productive East and
the relatively poor and backward West. The East was taxed heavily, and the
money transferred to the West, which used the money to purchase goods from the
The Romans established a strict policy of religious toleration.
They themselves freely adopted and adapted the gods and goddesses of the people
they conquered, a process called syncretism
They promoted a certain degree of commonality by establishing and promoting
emperor worship, which acted much the same as patriotic rituals -- saluting the
flag, the formulaic pledge of allegiance, standing when singing the national
anthem, reverence for the cloth of the flag -- are intended to promote feelings
on national unity among citizens.
Pax romana (Roman peace): The Romans brought an unprecedented degree of
peace and security to the lands of their empire, and their citizens and
subjects fully appreciated that these blessings were dependent on the continued
unity of the empire.
Romanitas (the sense of being roman) was a deeply-held sentiment and
outlived the empire itself by a matter of centuries.
But such institutions required attention and constant effort to maintain. A
weakness in the Roman imperial system led to internal wars and civil strife
that eventually made it impossible for the imperial government to support these
institutions and policies as it once had.
The Annals of
Tacitus provide an excellent insight into the management of Roman affairs
and were written by a man who had a role in that management
3. The Romans were unwilling to give up their reverence for Rome's long
tradition of republican government even when such a form of government
could no longer effectively manage Roman affairs.
Augustus Caesar converted the Republic into an empire in about 14 BC by
concentrating the major offices of the Republic in his own person and
maintaining the fiction that he was preserving and maintaining the
Republic. Under such a policy, he was unable to establish a stable system of imperial
succession, and struggles for power eventually began to drain the empire of its
Read Augustus's own account of his accomplishments in
The Deeds of the Divine Augustus
69 AD A civil war broke out as several of the frontier legions each
separately attempted to raise an emperor to replace Nero, which led
69 - 192, an era of military emperors that was ended only in
193 - 197 the bloody civil war of Septimius Severus. From
198 to 282, the stability established by Severus slowly decayed, and
258 - 283 Rome finally fell into a period of virtually constant civil
wars known as the Era of the Thirty Tyrants. In
283, the imperial system of frontier defense broke down and German
bands raided throughout the western portions of the empire.
283, Diocletian became emperor and began sweeping reforms in the
4. To all intents and purposes, the Roman empire established by Augustus
Caesar, what people generally think of when they talk of "the glory
that was Rome" had come to an end by the 280's. After the reforms
introduced by Diocletian and his successor, Constantine the Great, the Roman empire
would be a far different place than it had once been. As we shall see, it
was, in fact, well upon its way to assuming many of the characteristics of
So one possible answer to the question of when the Roman empire fell is
"sometime around AD 284." Why did it fall? "The imperial system had
proven unable to maintain internal peace and order, and Rome could no
longer maintain those institutions and policies upon which the unity,
security, and prosperity of the Mediterranean lands depended."
What followed the fall of the Roman empire? "Another Roman empire."