Enclosing the West: The Early
Roman Empire and Its
Neighbors, 31 B.C.E.-235 C.E.
The West
Imperial Authority: Augustus
and After
• Behind the façade of a restored Republican
tradition, Octavian (Augustus) created a Roman
version of the Hellenic monarchy
• Princeps (First Citizen) - all-powerful, but
unobtrusive political position
• Augustus’ heirs adopted the title Imperator,
instead of Princeps
• Principle of hereditary monarchy staved off
political instability
The Nature of Imperial Power
• Defense and expansion of imperial territory
• Administration of justice and provision of good
government, through public infrastructure
• Pontifex Maximus: supervision of religious
• Symbol of unity and embodiment of the empire the cult of the emperor focused the allegiance of
the empire’s diverse population
The Agents of Control
• The Senate - legislative arm of imperial rule
• Public service and honor obtained via the
Senate harnessed the Roman aristocracy and
provincial élite to the imperial system
• The Army - enforced peace, defended
borders and conquered new lands
• Military support was crucial to the
emperor’s position and power
The City of Rome
• A monument to the authority of the emperor
and to the power of the senatorial élite
• The Forum was the physical, political and
religious center of the city and the empire
• Public works and buildings displayed
imperial might
• Majority of the city’s population lived in
impoverished slums
Conquest and Administration
• Conquest fueled the Roman economy
• Empire managed by a provincial system evolution of an administrative-military class
• Imperial
administration of the provinces by city
• Provincial government collected taxes,
defended frontiers and administered justice
The Provincial Cities
• The civitas (city and surrounding land) was the
basic unit of imperial government
• Cities served as economic, legal and cultural
• Each city modeled itself physically and politically
on Rome
• Each province had a unique legal and
administrative system - the Law of the Province
The Countryside
• Land ownership in the countryside was the
key to prosperity in the imperial system
• Conditions for the peasantry varied across
the empire
• Legal system favored large, wealthy
property owners over the rural poor
• Agricultural productivity was very high
Revolts Against Rome
• Revolt of Arminius (9 C.E.): the only successful
rebellion, led to the linguistic divide between
Germanic and Romance languages in Europe
• Enduring tribal allegiance fueled revolts in Britain
and Gaul, but only for a few generations
• Religious identity fueled revolts in Judea and
allowed Jews to resist assimilation
Forces of Romanization
• Roman Army - bound together men from all
provinces with a common culture, language and
• Uniformity of Roman Law across provinces
• 212 C.E. - the Antonine Decree granted
citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire,
eliminating the distinction between conquerors
and conquered
Frontier Zones: Civilization and
• Physical and cultural demarcation along the
empire’s frontiers
• Heavily fortified borders represented limits
of Roman authority and civilization
• Romans defined their own identity, and
justified their conquests, by viewing all who
lived beyond the frontiers as barbarians
Rome and the Parthian
• Parthian Empire, stretching from the
Euphrates to the Indus, was the greatest
rival to Rome
• Majority of emperors favored diplomacy
over conflict with Parthia
• Commercial ties between Rome and Parthia
favored an exchange of ideas and
technologies between the two empires
Roman Encounters with
Germanic Peoples
• The Germans posed the greatest threat to
• Never conquered or assimilated
• Trade and cultural contacts spread Roman
ideas and values into Germanic tribes
• By the end of the second century C.E.,
Rome could no longer withstand the tide of
Germanic invaders
Roman Encounters with
Asians and Africans
• Rome had commercial, but not diplomatic, ties
with imperial China
• Demand for spices and other luxury items
extended Roman trade networks as far east as
Thailand and Java
• Roman explorers ventured into sub-Saharan
Africa, and commercial links may have existed
between Rome and African peoples
• Sub-Saharan Africa remained a place of myth and
fantasy in Roman thought
The Upper and Lower Classes
• Social hierarchy of the Republic endured
• Three
equestrians and city councilors
• Plebeians - poor, but free, citizens
• “Bread and circuses” - free grain and
entertainment used to contain plebeian
Slaves and Freedmen
• As much as 35 to 40 percent of the population of
Italy were slaves ca. 30 B.C.E.
• Ownership of slaves conveyed social status
• Violence underpinned the institution of slavery
• Freedmen (slaves who had obtained liberty)
constituted an ambitious minority of the
• Economic importance of slavery declined in
second century C.E.
Women in the Roman Empire
• Women of senatorial and equestrian rank
possessed great freedom
• The wives, mothers and other female
relatives of the emperor could wield great,
but unofficial, power
• Female infanticide remained common
Literature and the Empire
• The new imperial system influenced literary
• Virgil encapsulated the potential and the
threat of imperial government in the Aeneid
• Rhetoricians and historians analyzed
imperial government
• Advances in geography and astronomy,
especially in the works of Claudius Ptolemy
Religious Life
• Roman religion was polytheistic and public
• Syncretism spread a shared religious
experience across the empire
• After the destruction of the Second Temple,
Rabbinic Judaism evolved
• Rise of Christianity: appeal to marginalized
philosophy, intolerance of other religions
Rome Shapes the West
• Boundaries of Roman Empire defined the
geographical heart of the West
• Rome transmitted Hellenistic and classical
ideas into Europe
• The cultural uniformity achieved within the
Roman empire, between ca. 30 B.C.E. and
220 C.E., formed the foundation of Western

Enclosing the West: The Early Roman Empire and Its