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Social, Political, and Economic Structures of Imperial Rome 81

The recipients of this new wealth invested much of

it in Italy. Small farmers, impoverished by war and

taxes, sold their plots to former officers who incorporated them into large, slave-worked plantations. Whenever possible, investors purchased land in different parts

of the peninsula so that each property could be devoted

to a specialized crop. This allowed owners to take maximum advantage of soil and climate while minimizing

the risks of a bad harvest, for it was unlikely that every

part of Italy would be hit simultaneously by drought or

other catastrophes. Specialization also permitted

economies of scale. Owners devoted careful thought to

the optimum size for a vineyard, an olive plantation, or

a ranch. Slaves may have been cheap in the aftermath

of the wars, but feeding more of them than necessary

was pointless.

Ideally, in addition to its cash crop, an estate produced just enough to support its labor force. Selfsufficiency reduced costs and was relatively easy to

achieve, in part because slaves were no longer regarded

as part of the family. In the past, most slaves had been

Italian. Now they were foreign captives and therefore

harder to fit into the fabric of Roman life. Conditions

on some of the estates were appalling. In the Sicilian

grain lands, slaves worked on chain gangs and were

locked up at night. To be sold to the Spanish mines

was a death sentence. Elsewhere, conditions were better, but even the most enlightened owners viewed

slaves as an investment, and slave revolts were common

(see document 5.1).

In this way wealthy families developed networks of

specialized properties that brought in huge profits and

insured them against risk through diversification (see illustration 5.1). Ordinary farmers could not compete.

Their small plots were inherently inefficient, and they

lacked the capital either to expand or to make improvements. If they tried to do so, they had to borrow from

their wealthier neighbors, and though debt slavery had

long been abolished, many lost their land through foreclosures. Others were forced out of business by unfair

competition. Someone with a half-dozen great estates

could easily sell below cost if by so doing he or she

could drive out a competitor and pick up his land at

distress-sale prices.

Citizens by the thousands gave up their land and

migrated to the cities, but opportunities were limited.

Imperialism had concentrated wealth in the hands of a

few while doing little to increase the overall rate of economic activity. The rich developed habits of conspicuous consumption that horrified traditionalists such as

Cato, but their most extravagant wants could be met by

a handful of artisans, many of whom were skilled slaves

[ DOCUMENT 5.1 [

A Slave Revolt in Sicily

The habitual mistreatment of slaves under the late republic

provoked a series of terrifying slave revolts. The one described

below by Diodorus of Sicily lasted from 134 to 131 B.C. and

involved an army of more than seventy thousand slaves. Another great uprising occurred in Sicily in 104–100 B.C., and

yet another in Italy under the gladiator Spartacus (73–71

B.C.) in which 100,000 slaves were said to have been killed.

The Servile War broke out from the following

cause. The Sicilians, being grown very rich and

elegant in their manner of living, bought up large

numbers of slaves . . . and immediately branded

them with marks on their bodies. Oppressed by

the grinding toil and beatings, maltreated for the

most part beyond all reason, the slaves could endure it no longer.

The whole revolt began in the following manner. There was a man in Enna named Damophilus,

magnanimous in his wealth but arrogant in disposition. This man was exceedingly cruel to his slaves,

and his wife Megallis strove to outdo her husband

in torture and general inhumanity toward them. As

a result, those who were thus cruelly abused were

enraged like wild beasts and plotted together to

rise in arms and kill their masters. They applied to

Eunus [a slave from Syria who was also a wellknown magician] and asked whether the gods

would speed them in their design. Performing

some of his usual mumbo-jumbo, he concluded

that the gods granted it, and urged them to begin

at once. Thereupon they forthwith collected 400

of their fellow slaves and, when the opportunity

presented itself, they burst fully armed into the

city of Enna with Eunus leading them and performing tricks with flames of fire for them. They

stole into the houses and wrought great slaughter.

They spared not even the suckling babes, but tore

them from the breast and dashed them to the

ground. It cannot be expressed with what wanton

outrage they treated wives before the very eyes of

their husbands. They were joined by a large

throng of the slaves in the city, who first visited

the extreme penalty upon their masters and then

turned to murdering others.

Diodorus of Sicily, from Roman Civilization: Third Edition: 2

Vol. Set, Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Rheinhold, eds. Copyright

© 1990, Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission

of the publisher.

82 Chapter 5

Illustration 5.1

— Plan of a Typical Villa. This villa at Boscoreale

near Pompeii was the headquarters of a typical

working estate. Wealthy Romans spread their financial risks by investing in several such properties

during the later republic. Worked by slaves, this

one produced wine. The existence of a threshing

floor (T) indicates that it was more diversified in its

products than some other farms. Though comfortable enough by the standards of the time, the primary emphasis is on efficiency and practicality.

from the east. Slaves, whether in town or country, consumed little, and citizens who had been driven from the

land consumed less. Most of the latter were destitute.

After 213 B.C., senatorial factions began to distribute

charity among them in return for votes.

Aside from the senatorial elite, only one other

group appears to have benefited from the wars—the

merchants, purveyors, and military contractors who organized the logisitics of imperial expansion. Most were

men of humble origin, often manumitted slaves who

used knowledge and connections gained from their former masters to win contracts. They amassed great

wealth in shipbuilding, arms manufacture, and commodity speculation and made an effort to acquire estates because land remained the most secure and

prestigious source of income. Others followed the lead

of certain senators and invested their surplus capital in

urban real estate—ramshackle five-story tenements

built to house the growing masses of urban poor. In

later years these people would be known as equestrians,

a separate class with a political agenda of its own.

Roman society had changed beyond recognition in

little more than a century. Though pockets of traditional life remained, most small independent farmers

who were the backbone of the republic had been reduced to dependency. Production was largely in the

hands of slaves, while a few families lived in luxury that

seemed more oriental than Roman. The situation could

lead only to civil strife.

Social Conflict: The Reforms of the Gracchi

In 133 B.C., the same year in which Numantia fell and

Pergamum was ceded to Rome, a newly elected tribune,

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, initiated reform legislation. A member of the aristocracy and a descendant of

Scipio Africanus, he hoped to improve the condition of

landless Romans by redistributing public lands acquired

through conquest. Such properties were to have been

allocated among the citizens as a whole, but families

like his own often had seized them illegally through the

Social, Political, and Economic Structures of Imperial Rome 83

use of political influence. His motives included both

moral outrage and personal ambition; his most persuasive argument was practical. From the beginning of the

republic, land ownership was a prerequisite for military

service. An absolute decline in the number of free citizens caused by the wars, coupled with a loss of property by thousands of others, threatened the security of

the state by shrinking its base of recruitment. Only by

restoring land to Roman citizens could the

legions be preserved.

A number of powerful senators agreed. The dislocations of the past century threatened to undermine

recruitment as well as the moral fiber of society. Moreover, Tiberius tried to couch the proposal in terms acceptable to the landowners. Up to one thousand iugera

(about six hundred acres) of land per family could be excluded from the distribution even if it had been taken illegally, and only Romans would receive the proceeds of

the confiscations. This was not enough. Some senators

balked at giving up land held by their families for three

or four generations. They were backed by a tremendous

outcry from the Italian allies. Wealthy Italians, too, had

received public lands. They would be forced to surrender them, not to other Italians, but to Romans. To them,

the reform was clearly discriminatory.

Faced with an uncertain outcome in the Senate,

Tiberius decided to bypass it altogether. He went to the

plebeian assembly, which rapidly authorized the necessary legislation. When another tribune vetoed the bill,

he convinced the plebeians to vote the man out of office. Ignoring the Senate was bad politics, but deposing

a tribune was unconstitutional. Then, to make matters

worse, Tiberius left himself open to charges of corruption by entrusting the redistribution of lands to a committee composed of himself, his brother Gaius, and his


The Senate began to close ranks against Tiberius.

While allowing the committee to proceed with its

work, the senators refused to appropriate money for its

support. This was critical, because land reform proved

more difficult than Tiberius had expected. Establishing

clear title to many public lands was nearly impossible,

and virtually every decision aroused protest. Desperate

for funds, he asked that revenues from the newly acquired kingdom of Pergamum be devoted to the task.

The Senate saw this as an assault on its traditional dominance in the areas of finance and provincial policy. In

its view, Tiberius and his reforms had become a threat

to the constitution.

Knowing that, if he left the tribuneship, he would

lose judicial immunity and be charged with treason by

his enemies, Tiberius decided to run for a second term.

This, too, was unprecedented, if not unconstitutional. A

group of senators claimed that he was trying to establish himself as a tyrant and instigated riots in which

they and their clients killed Tiberius and three hundred

of his followers. It was the first outbreak of civil violence in the history of the Roman republic, but it would

not be the last. The divisions in Roman society were

too great to be resolved without constitutional change,

and ambitious politicians had learned from Tiberius

Gracchus that they could ride to power on the shoulders of the multitude. Such people were called populares.

Their opponents, who supported the traditional role of

the Senate, were known as optimates.

Among the populares was Gaius Gracchus, the

younger brother of Tiberius. When elected tribune in

123 B.C. he prepared to implement reforms more farreaching than those favored by his brother (see document 5.2). Gaius realized that the agrarian problem was

only one of many created by the transformation of

Roman society. First he reenacted his brother’s agrarian

law, which had been repealed in 129 B.C. Then, knowing that not everyone could receive land in Italy, he

guaranteed annual grain rations to every poor Roman at

a fixed price and tried to set up overseas colonies for

those willing to emigrate in return for land. The first of

the new settlements was to be established on the site of


To prevent the reversal of these policies by the

Senate, he allied himself with the equestrians to weaken

its power. The assemblies were given the sole right to

establish capital courts, and he replaced senators with

equestrians as jurors in cases of extortion. A more important attack on senatorial prerogatives came in the

area of provincial administration. The Senate had for

years influenced the behavior of consuls by waiting until after their election to designate which provinces

they would control. By forcing them to make their appointments before the election, Gaius deprived the senators of an important source of political leverage. From

the senatorial point of view this was even worse than

another new policy by which he allowed syndicates of

rich equestrians or publicani (the biblical publicans) to

bid at auction for the right to collect provincial taxes.

In later years this practice became a fertile source of


The issue of whether a tribune could succeed himself had apparently been resolved since Tiberius Gracchus’s death, and Gaius was reelected tribune in 122

B.C. Having addressed the grievances of the poor and

satisfied the equestrians in his first term, he turned to

the problem of the Italian allies, who remained angry

over agrarian reform and a host of other slights. His

84 Chapter 5

[ DOCUMENT 5.2 [

The Reform Program

of Gaius Gracchus

Here Plutarch summarizes Gaius Gracchus’s plan for reforming Roman society as presented in 123–121 B.C. It is easy to

see why the senators felt that he must be destroyed.

Of the laws which he now proposed with the object of gratifying the people and destroying the

power of the senate, the first concerned public

lands, which were to be divided among the poor

citizens; another provided that the common soldiers should be clothed at public expense without

any reduction in pay, and that no one under seventeen years of age should be conscripted for military

service; another concerned the allies, giving the

Italians equal suffrage rights with the citizens of

Rome; a fourth related to grain, lowering the market price for the poor; a fifth, dealing with the

courts of justice, was the greatest blow to the

power of the senators, for hitherto they alone could

sit on the juries, and they were therefore much

dreaded by the plebs and equites. But Gaius joined

300 citizens of equestrian rank with the senators,

who were also 300 in number, and made jury service the common prerogative of the 600. . . . When

the people not only ratified this law but gave him

power to select those of the equites who were to

serve as jurors, he was invested with almost kingly

power, and even the senate submitted to receiving

his counsel. . . .

He also proposed measures for sending out

colonies, for constructing roads, and for building

public granaries. He himself undertook the management and superintendence of these works and

was never too busy to attend to the execution of

all these different and great undertakings.

Plutarch. “Life of Gaius Gracchus,” from Roman Civilization:

Third Edition: 2 Vol. Set, Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Rheinhold,

eds. Copyright © 1990, Columbia University Press. Reprinted

with permission of the publisher.

proposal, though not original, was straightforward: Admit them to Roman citizenship. Had this been done,

Rome might have been spared a bloody war, but the

plebeian assembly had no desire to share its privileges.

A conservative reaction set in, and Gaius was defeated

for reelection in 121 B.C. When the assembly began to

repeal its earlier reforms, rioting began. Gaius and a

band of followers fortified themselves on the Aventine

hill. The Senate declared martial law for the first time

in its history, and the reformers were slaughtered. The

violence was committed by Roman troops, not by

members of the senatorial opposition and their clients.

The Fall of the Republic

The Gracchi had tried to address Rome’s fundamental

problems and failed. Though the Senate’s view of the

constitution triumphed, at least for the moment, that

failure led ultimately to the collapse of the republic.

Equestrians and Italian allies felt excluded from their

rightful place in the political system, and far too many

citizens remained landless and dependent upon what

amounted to welfare. The army, deprived of an adequate number of recruits, grew steadily weaker. Although not the time for foreign adventures, in 111 B.C.

the Senate reluctantly declared war on Numidia. The

African kingdom had been engulfed by a succession

struggle during which the Romans backed the losing

candidate. The winner, Jugurtha, celebrated his victory

by murdering a number of Roman businessmen. Because most of the victims were equestrians, a tremendous outcry arose in the plebeian assembly, and the

Senate was forced to give way.

For nearly four years the war went badly. The plebeian assembly and its equestrian allies knew that the

senators disliked the war and began to suspect that

some of them were taking Numidian bribes. In 107 B.C.

they elected Gaius Marius consul. Like Cato before

him, Marius (c. 157–86 B.C.) was a “new man” who

came to politics with the support of an old senatorial

family. To gain the votes of the assembly, he turned

against his patrons. If his ethics were questionable, his

military abilities were not. He defeated Jugurtha without capturing him and then turned his attention to the

north where two Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and the

Teutones, threatened the Roman settlements in Gaul.

His lieutenant, the quaestor Lucius Cornelius Sulla

(138–78 B.C.), was left to track down the Numidian

and destroy him in a hard-fought guerrilla campaign

that made his reputation and infuriated Marius, who

thought that the younger man had taken too much

credit for the victory.

War on two fronts when social dislocation had reduced the pool of eligible recruits made keeping the legions up to strength virtually impossible. Marius felt

that he had no choice but to reform the army by admit-

Social, Political, and Economic Structures of Imperial Rome 85

ting volunteers even if they owned no land. Recruits

were to be paid in cash as they had always been. Marius

also promised them a plot of land in Gaul or Africa

when they retired.

To thousands of slum dwellers and landless peasants, the Marian reforms offered an escape from grinding poverty, but the recruitment of proletarians created a

new danger for the state. Lacking property of their own,

the men became wholly dependent upon their commander for pay and, more important, for the security of their

old age. Though land and money came ultimately from

the Senate, neither could be obtained without the influence of the consul or proconsul who requested them.

The troops, in short, became the clients of their general

who could use military force to threaten the government. Rome was at the mercy of its own armies.

The implications of this change became evident after the Italian wars of 90–88 B.C. For decades the Italian

allies had sought Roman citizenship to no avail (see

table 5.1). Their patience exhausted, they abandoned

Rome and decided to form an independent confederation. Belatedly, the Romans extended citizenship to all

who returned to their allegiance, but two years of fighting were required to reach a final settlement.

Sulla, whose reputation as a soldier had grown

greater during the Italian wars, was elected consul in 88

B.C. with the support of the Senate. His services were

needed in the east, where Mithradates, King of Pontus,

had annexed parts of Asia Minor and invaded Greece.

The aged Marius came out of retirement and convinced

the plebeian assembly to appoint him commander instead. His action, based in part on personal resentment

of Sulla, provoked a lengthy crisis. Sulla, ostensibly to

defend the Senate, marched on Rome and drove out

Marius. When Sulla left for Asia, Marius returned with

his own army and conducted a bloody purge of his opponent’s senatorial friends. Finally, in 83 B.C. Sulla returned and established a dictatorship. To do so he had

to conclude a compromise peace with Mithradates and

fight a civil war on Italian soil against the followers of

Marius, who had died of a stroke three years before.

Sulla’s dictatorship was unlike any that had yet

been declared. It lasted four years and was intended to

reform the state from within, not to protect the state

from outside enemies. To do this, Sulla launched a

reign of terror by proscribing or outlawing his opponents, his personal enemies, and the rich, whose only

crime was that their property was needed to pay his

troops. He then passed a series of laws intended to

strengthen senatorial power and improve the criminal

justice system. Some of these changes survived his re-

3 TABLE 5.1 3

Citizenship in the Roman Republic,

264–70 B.C.

These census estimates refer only to adult male citizens

and are taken primarily from Livy. The lower figure for

208 B.C. seems to reflect the defection of Capua and

other allies after the defeat at Cannae as well as war

losses. The major increases after 204 B.C. and 115 B.C. reflect the expansion of citizenship rather than a change in

underlying demographics.


Census total


Census total

264 B.C.


147 B.C.


251 B.C.


142 B.C.


246 B.C.


136 B.C.


240 B.C.


131 B.C.


233 B.C.


125 B.C.


208 B.C.


115 B.C.


204 B.C.


86 B.C.


154 B.C.


70 B.C.


Source: Data from Tenney Frank, ed., An Economic Survey of Ancient

Rome, vol. 1 (New York, N.Y.: Pageant Books, 1959), pp. 56, 216–17.

tirement in 79 B.C. Although Sulla was in theory a conservative who sought only to preserve the traditional

system, his career marked the end of constitutional

government. For almost a decade Roman soldiers had

been used repeatedly against Roman citizens and

against each other. Power now rested with the legions

and those who commmanded them, not with the Senate or the assemblies.

Sulla’s departure created a political vacuum. Generals, including his former lieutenants Pompey and Crassus, vied for preeminence using the wealth and power

generated by proconsular commands. Such commands

proliferated mainly because the perception of disorder

encouraged Rome’s enemies. Roman politicians welcomed the commands because they wanted armies of

their own as protection against their domestic rivals.

Spain rebelled under a former ally of Marius and had to

be suppressed by Pompey. At the same time, Italy was

threatened by a massive slave rebellion led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator. A direct result of the brutality

and greed of the slaveowners, it was put down with

great difficulty by Crassus, who crucified six thousand

of the rebels along the Appian Way between Rome and

86 Chapter 5

Capua. To the east, Mithradates of Pontus resumed his

aggression, while in the Mediterranean as a whole,

widespread piracy threatened trade and communications throughout the empire.

The Senate responded to each crisis by granting

extraordinary appointments, often in violation of the

constitution, and then refusing full honors to the victors when they returned. The Senate was especially

stingy in denying them the great ceremonial processions known as triumphs. Grants to veterans were also

delayed. The senators thought that in this way they

could weaken the authority of successful commanders,

but their policy served only to irritate them. Although

Pompey and Crassus feared and disliked each other, in

60 B.C. they made common cause with another popular

politician, Gaius Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.), to

dominate the elections and create a kind of governing committee known as the First Triumvirate.

Pompey and Crassus had disbanded their legions

when they returned to Rome. They either were loyal to

republican institutions or failed to understand that

Marius and Sulla had changed the political rules. Caesar’s vision was clearer. He knew that talent alone was

useless without an army, and he used the power of the

triumvirate to grant him proconsular authority over

Cisalpine Gaul. From 58 to 50 B.C. he conquered Gaul,

an area roughly equivalent to modern France, and

raided Britain. A master of public relations, he offered a

selective account of these exploits in the Commentaries, a

classic that remains the first book read by most students

of Latin.

The Gallic campaign brought Caesar enormous

wealth, an army of hardened veterans, and a reputation.

The other triumvirs were less fortunate. Crassus died in

53 B.C. while fighting in Asia. At Rome, an inactive

Pompey grew fearful of Caesar’s ambitions, and the

Senate, sharing his distrust, ordered Caesar to return

home as a private citizen. Knowing that to do so would

end his career and perhaps his life, Caesar crossed the

Rubicon, the small river that divided Cisalpine Gaul

from Italy, and marched on Rome in 49 B.C.

The civil war that followed lasted three years. Because legions loyal to either Pompey or Caesar could

be found from Spain to Syria, it involved almost every

part of the empire. Pompey was murdered at Alexandria in 48 B.C., but his friends continued the struggle

until 46 B.C. when Caesar returned to Rome in triumph as sole consul. Caesar’s power, like Sulla’s before

him, was based on control of a professional army

whose ties to the political order had been broken by

the Marian reforms. Unlike Sulla, Caesar did not in-

tend to retire. Though Caesar’s rule was destined to

be brief, the Roman republic had fallen, never to be


The Rise of Augustus and the Augustan Principate

Caesar’s rule was generally benign and devoted to reform, including the proclamation of a new calendar that

remained standard in Europe until the sixteenth century, but it was autocratic and clearly unconstitutional.

On the ides of March (March 15) in 44 B.C. he was assassinated as he entered the Senate house. The conspiracy involved sixty senators under the leadership of G.

Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, who believed that his death would restore the powers of the

senatorial class. The murder led to thirteen more years

of war and the establishment of what amounted to an

autocratic state. The violent and dramatic events of this

period have fired the imagination of writers and artists

down to the present day and have been analyzed by a

host of political theorists.

Caesar’s heirs were his close associate Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and his grandnephew Gaius Octavius (63 B.C.–A.D. 14), then a boy of eighteen. Antony,

in a famous funeral oration, turned the mob against Caesar’s assassins and forced them to flee the city. Those

senators who were not assassins but who favored the

restoration of the republic feared that Antony, or

Antony in combination with Octavius, would seize control of the state. Their leader was Marcus Tullius Cicero

(106–43 B.C.), the brilliant lawyer, writer, and philosopher whose works are among the finest monuments of

Latin literature. Cicero’s political career had been

blocked only by his failure to achieve military command. He was the finest orator of the age. He easily persuaded the Senate that Antony was unprincipled and a

potential tyrant and that a consular army should be sent

against him. He then tried to drive a wedge between

Octavius and Antony, who resented that most of Caesar’s enormous wealth had been left to the younger man.

Caesar’s heirs disliked one another, but the policy

misfired. When the consuls of 43 B.C. died fighting

against Antony in Cisalpine Gaul, the Senate, on Cicero’s advice, gave Octavius command of the armies but

refused him the consulship because he was still only

nineteen years old. The future Augustus, who now

called himself Julius Caesar Octavianus, went to Rome

with his legions and took the office by force.

Octavian, though young, understood the need for

overwhelming military power. He made peace with

those who commanded the remaining legions—Antony

Social, Political, and Economic Structures of Imperial Rome 87

and a former Caesarian governor named Lepidus—and

together they formed the Second Triumvirate. To consolidate their position and, above all to pay their legions, they launched a proscription that led to the

death of more than three hundred senators, including

Cicero, and two thousand equestrians who had, by definition, no part in politics. Octavian then turned his

army against Brutus, who had taken refuge in Macedon,

while Antony defeated Cassius in Syria. In the course

of these actions, both of Caesar’s assassins were killed

in battle.

Octavian and Antony were the dominant figures of

the triumvirate. With the removal of Lepidus in 36 B.C.,

they divided the empire between them. Octavian took

the west; Antony, the east. Realizing that conflict with

Octavian was inevitable, Antony turned for assistance

to the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII (69–30 B.C.). A

woman of great charm and intelligence, Cleopatra was

determined not only to revive the power of the

Ptolemies, but also to play a part in Roman affairs (see

illustration 5.2). To that end she had become Julius

Caesar’s mistress and traveled to Rome where she bore

him a son. When Caesar died, she returned to Alexandria and arranged for the murder of her brother, who

was also her husband and coruler according to the

Egyptian custom. Now sole ruler of Egypt, she hoped

that through Antony she could preserve the empire of

the Ptolemies for herself and her children.

For his part, Antony needed the immense wealth of

the Ptolemies to defeat Octavian. The alliance of

Antony and Cleopatra resulted in the birth of twins as

well as in a formidable conjunction of military and financial power. Octavian, in a skillful propaganda campaign, portrayed himself as the champion of Rome and

the west against the decadent east as symbolized by the

Egyptian queen. In 31 B.C. he defeated Antony and

Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium and followed

them to Alexandria where, in the summer of A.D. 30,

they both committed suicide.

Octavian became the undisputed ruler of the western world. With characteristic subtlety, he asked only

that he be called princeps, or first citizen, and moved

over the next seven years to consolidate his influence in

ways that would not offend the Senate or other traditionalists. He treated the senators with courtesy, expanding their numbers and increasing their legislative

power, but his much vaunted partnership with the Senate was a sham. The real basis of his power was proconsular authority over Spain, Gaul, and Syria, the border

provinces that contained a majority of the legions. After 23 B.C. his proconsular authority was extended to

Rome, and he was awarded the powers of a tribune, to

Illustration 5.2

— Portrait Bust of Cleopatra. Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, failed to preserve Egypt’s independence from

Rome. Her defeat at Actium in 31 B.C. and subsequent suicide

paved the way for Octavian’s triumph.

be renewed annually for the remainder of his life. This

enabled him to participate in the assemblies and gave

him veto power over their legislation. As tribune, his

person was also sacrosanct, though the Senate, in 27

B.C., had already granted him the semidivine title Augustus (see illustration 5.3). After 23 B.C. he left consular authority to others, accepting the office only on


In person, the new Augustus tried to appear modest

and unassuming (see document 5.3). As an administrator, he was without equal. By controlling the electoral

apparatus, Augustus made certain that magistracies

went to men of ability with little regard for their origins. Provincial administration, a disgrace under the

later republic, was greatly improved. Wherever possi-

88 Chapter 5

[ DOCUMENT 5.3 [

Suetonius Describes the Political

Style of Augustus

The following passage from Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius (c. 69–after 122) describes what might be called the

political style of Augustus. It helps to explain how he could

rule the empire without arousing significant opposition.

Illustration 5.3

— Augustus as Princeps. An idealized but recognizable statue

of Augustus from Prima Porta.

He always shrank from the title dominus [“master,” a

title that became obligatory under Caligula and his

successors]. . . He did not if he could help it leave

or enter the city or town except in the evening or

at night, to avoid disturbing anyone by the obligations of ceremony. In his consulship he commonly

went through the streets on foot, and when he was

not consul, generally in a closed litter. His morning receptions were open to all, including even the

commons, and he met the requests of those who

approached him with great affability, jocosely reproving one man because he presented a petition

to him with as much hesitation “as he would a

penny to an elephant.” On the day of a meeting in

the Senate he always greeted the members in the

House and in their seats, calling each man by

name without a prompter; and when he left the

House, he used to take leave of them in the same

manner, while they remained seated. He exchanged social calls with many, and did not cease

to attend all their anniversaries until he was well

on in years.

Suetonius, vol. 1, trans. R. C. Rolfe. Loeb Classical Library.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1913.

ble, Augustus and his successors encouraged provincial

cities to adopt Roman institutions and granted Roman

citizenship to their leaders. Where this was impossible,

they encouraged similar developments on a tribal level,

often with considerable success.

The improvement of provincial government was

essential in part because the empire continued to expand. The defeat of Antony and Cleopatra resulted in

the annexation of Egypt. Augustus added several

provinces in Asia, including Judaea, and extended the

northern borders of the empire to the Danube and the

Rhine. His successors would add Britain and Mauretania (Morocco), Armenia, Assyria, Dacia (Romania), and

Mesopotamia (see map 5.1).

In Rome, Augustus embarked upon an ambitious

program that replaced many of the city’s old wooden

tenements, established rudimentary fire and police ser-

vices, and improved the city’s water supply. Much of this

was accomplished by using the vast resources of Egypt,

which he had appropriated, not by taxing the Romans.

When Augustus died in A.D. 14, he had established a

legacy of sound administration and what has been called

the pax romana, an era of peace and prosperity that later

ages would look upon with envy (see document 5.4).

The First Emperors

Augustus’s successors, the Julio-Claudian emperors,

continued his administrative policies, though none of

them was his equal as statesmen. His adopted son,

Social, Political, and Economic Structures of Imperial Rome 89

Black Sea









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Sea of Nicomedia




12 B.C.- A.D. 9







n u be








e ari c


















te s


















Ta urus M ts. Tarsus ME




s us




Sicily Syracuse


Black Sea




















ne R





Po R.














s Mts. (Marseilles)


Rome Ostia























900 Kilometers

600 Miles








Roman Empire at the end

of Trajan's reign, A.D. 117

MAP 5.1

— The Roman Empire at its Height (A.D. 117) —

Tiberius, succeeded him by inheritance; Tiberius

ruled A.D. 14–37. Caligula, Claudius, and Nero abandoned republican formalities, expanded the imperial

bureaucracy, and sometimes treated the Senate with

open contempt. Caligula so scorned the republican

tradition that he designated his horse, Incitatus, as his

coconsul. Augustus’s successors institutionalized the

powers that had been granted personally to Augustus

and gradually appropriated semidivine status (see illustration 5.4). The Roman Empire became a hereditary monarchy, though as always, real power rested

with the army. Claudius, thought wrongly by the

Senate to be an incompetent figurehead, was placed

on the throne by the Praetorian guard, an elite unit

established by Augustus for the protection of the princeps. In spite of a speech defect and physical disabilities, Claudius astonished everyone by ruling capably

and conscientiously. He took the first steps toward

establishing a regular imperial civil service staffed by

members of the equestrian order.

Nero, whose tutor and chief adviser at the beginning of his reign was the Stoic philosopher Seneca,

showed early promise. He neither was responsible for

the great fire that consumed much of Rome in A.D. 64,

nor did he fiddle while it burned, but his behavior grew

increasingly more erratic with the passage of time. In

A.D. 68, the legions began a series of revolts that ended

with the emperor’s suicide. The next year saw no fewer

than four separate emperors, each a commander supported by his troops in the hope of securing their retirements by seizing the imperium. The last of them,

Vespasian (ruled A.D. 69–79), established the Flavian

dynasty, which lasted until A.D. 96, and formally

adopted the title imperator or emperor. When his descendant, Domitian, left no successor, the Senate revived sufficiently to appoint another general in his

90 Chapter 5

[ DOCUMENT 5.4 [

Plutarch: The Pax Romana

The pax romana referred to the peace within the empire

that had been established by Augustus. Though it did not

preclude a number of regional revolts, it was a remarkable

achievement and, as this sensible if unheroic passage from

Precepts of Slatecraft makes clear, the primary justification for Roman rule.

The greatest blessings that cities can enjoy are

peace, prosperity, populousness, and concord. As

far as peace is concerned, the people have no need

of political activity, for all war, both Greek and

foreign, has been banished and has disappeared

from among us. Of liberty the people enjoy as

much as our rulers allot them, and perhaps more

would not be better. A bounteous productiveness

of soil; a mild, temperate climate; wives bearing

“children like their sires” [a quotation from Hesiod] and security for their offspring—these are the

things that a wise man will ask for his fellow citizens in his prayers to the gods.

Plutarch. “Precepts of Statecraft,” 32, from Roman Civilization: Third Edition, 2 Vol. Set, Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Rheinhold, eds. Copyright © 1990, Columbia University Press.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

place named Nerva, who ushered in the age of the five

good emperors. Neither Nerva nor the three emperors

who followed him (Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus

Pius) had sons, and each appointed a successor who

was acceptable to both the Senate and the legions.

(The fifth emperor of the period was Marcus Aurelius.)

The age of the five good emperors (A.D. 96–180)

was later remembered as one of exceptional happiness.

The pax romana or Roman Peace described by Plutarch

seemed to be a permanent condition, and trade flourished. Trajan and Hadrian sponsored lavish building

programs, and Trajan introduced the alimenta, a subsidy

to help poor parents in raising their children. All five

emperors refined and strengthened imperial administration, but the possibility of military intervention remained. The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (ruled

A.D. 161–180) broke the tradition of appointment by

merit, not only by having a son, but also by having the

poor judgment to leave him the throne. The reign of

Commodus, from A.D. 180 to 192, was a disaster that

ended in yet another military revolt. But by this time

the empire was experiencing difficulties that had little

to do with the personality of its rulers.


Art, Literature, and Thought

in Imperial Rome

Throughout the late republic and early empire, the culture of Rome’s elite remained heavily dependent upon

Greek models. Painting and sculpture were an integral

IIllustration 5.4

— Base of the Column of Antoninus

Pius. This scene shows the apotheosis

of the emperor Antoninus (reigned A.D.

138–161) and his wife, Faustina; that is,

the imperial pair are in the process of

becoming gods after their death. Based

on the symbolism of the eagles, they are

about to become the new Jupiter and

Juno, an indication of how the imperial

office had become deified.

Social, Political, and Economic Structures of Imperial Rome 91

[ DOCUMENT 5.5 [

Seneca: The Stoic Ideal

Seneca was tutor to the emperor Nero and the dominant political figure of the early part of his reign. Though Seneca enriched himself in dubious ways and was involved in the

judicial murder of Nero’s mother, his writings on Stoic themes

reflect a different, more attractive side of his character. He

committed suicide on Nero’s orders in A.D. 65. Here he describes the Stoic equanimity that comes from an understanding

of divine providence.

llustration 5.5

— A Roman Family. This relief probably came from a tomb on

the outskirts of Rome. It shows L. Vibius, his wife, and what appears to be the death mask of a son who died in childhood. Based

on the woman’s hairdo, the work has been attributed to the time

of Augustus.

part of most public places and adorned the luxurious

palaces of the rich. Reliefs on public buildings featured

mythological subjects or idealized versions of historic

events. Private collectors bought reproductions of famous Greek statues from Roman workshops, and a thriving trade existed in bronzes from Greece. In some cases

these skillful copies provide the only access to lost originals. Only in portrait statuary did the Romans break with

established tradition. Ignoring the Greek tendency to

idealize the human form, they produced busts whose

photographic realism is a monument to individual men

and women (see illustration 5.5).

Architecture, too, abandoned Greek precedent.

Temples and theaters recalled Hellenistic models, while

other public buildings used the arch and vault construction favored by the Etruscans. Augustus and his successors built baths, aqueducts, warehouses, and stadia for

games and chariot races whose scale virtually precluded

the post-and-lintel construction of the Greeks. Some

structures, such as the Mausoleum built by Augustus for

his family and the Pantheon constructed by Hadrian,

featured domes that spanned enormous spaces. Increasingly, columns, friezes, and pediments evolved into

decorative elements without structural purpose. Engineering and an imperial taste for grandeur triumphed

over the aesthetics of simplicity.

In philosophy as in art, the Romans tended to borrow Greek conventions and adapt them to their own

What is the principal thing in human life? . . . To

raise the soul above threats and promises of fortune; to consider nothing as worth hoping for. For

what does fortune possess worth setting your heart

upon? What is the principle thing? To be able to

enjoy adversity with a joyful heart; to bear whatever betide just as if it were the very thing you desired . . . For you would have felt it your duty to

desire it, had you known that all things happened

by divine decree. Tears, complaints, lamentations

are rebellion.

Seneca. Natural Questions, trans. J. Clarke. London: 1910.

purposes. The dominant current in Roman thought was

Stoicism. Cicero, Seneca (4 B.C.?–A.D. 65), and the emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote extensively on Stoic

themes, in part because, as men of affairs, they appreciated the philosophy’s moral activism and the comfort it

offered a politician in difficult times (see document

5.5). Their emphasis, however, was on the practical application of Stoic principles, and their writings added

little or nothing to the speculative tradition.

The same might be said of Roman writings on science. Alexandria remained the center of scientific and

philosophical inquiry, and Greek the primary language

of scientific publication. The most important scientific

work in Latin, the Natural History of Pliny the Elder

(A.D. 23–79), was little more than a vast compendium

of information, much of it false, gleaned by the author

from nearly 500 sources—327 of them Greek. The

work is important primarily because it summarized ancient knowledge and transmitted it to a later age.

Roman literature was more original than Roman

thought. By ancient standards, literacy was widespread

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