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Roman Civilization (2/12/2012)

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Roman Civilization: 500 B.C. to A.D. 500


It is rare for me not to see a long list of Latin names among my students when I open the student
roster in any semester in my college course. Then, on the long drive back home to Santa Monica
from Cal State Fullerton after a long day of teaching, I relax listening to sinto siete ponto cinco
(107.5 on FM dial), beautiful and relaxing Latin music. Then, I think about the fact that 2,500
years earlier and tens of thousands of mile away, once there was a small village among many in
the Italian Peninsula where people spoke Latin. How far and how long this influence has come!
But it is not just that. It is not just the music (or the food in the Italian restaurants at every corner)
that has influenced and shaped our American society. Political principles, aesthetic values, and
other Roman ideas and tastes are widespread throughout our land.
The civilization in America itself was shaped by Europe. A little village called Latium quickly
dominated the Italian Peninsula, creating the Roman Republic in its last 500 years of existence
and dominating much of Europe, as well as some areas in North Africa and the Near East. Spain,
France, and two third of Britain later came under the domination of the Roman political system,
language, and cultural values. Through these cultural bridges, Rome will live forever. The
Roman civilization embraced, absorbed, refined, and preserved a large portion of the Greek
civilization and passed it to the later civilizations. We can confidently say that if it were not for
the Romans, Greek achievements would have been largely lost. In the realm of politics and law,
Roman ideas are still alive among us and, with a few exceptions most laws all over the world are
fundamentally based on the Roman laws (exceptions include the U.S., Britain, and Canadas
laws, which are based on English common law).
If it were not for Roman civilization, Christianity would not have developed and spread the way
it did, and most probably its circle of influence would have remained in a much smaller region in
the Near East. There had been many great ancient civilizations from the Americas to China, but
compared to that of Romans, they did not exert nearly as much influence on future as the
Romans did. If it were not for the Roman civilization, we would not have the Middle Ages in
Europe, and if it was not for Middle Ages, we would not have had the Renaissance, Reformation,
Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and Modern
Physics (quantum relativity); and in short, todays global situation would have been completely
different. That is why we spend so much more time on this civilization and its aftermath. From
my perspective, political correctness does not serve the interest of my students in the attempt to
make sense of, understand, and therefore explain why we are where we are today. I cannot be
criticized for Euro-centrism either, because I come from two proud cultural heritages, Persian
and Islamic, which are my academic specialties that I know so much more detail about than
Europe. My understanding comes from 18 years of teaching and thinking about world history
and how they are interrelated. In the Modern section of the course, there will be a lot more
interaction between diverse cultures, especially that of the East and the West. There are also so
many similarities in patterns between Roman civilization and the U.S. A., so maybe we can learn
some lessons from them as how to go forward.

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A Broad Comparison between Greek and the Roman Civilizations


On the outset, let us briefly compare these two most important civilizations in the West. In many
fundamental ways, the two were completely different. We can say, in a sense, that they were
complimentary opposites and that the synthesis of the two led to a powerful force shaping human
history. The Greeks were idealists and perfectionists. Philosophy, the most abstract and highly
idealistic discipline, is where the Greeks became supreme. Platos philosopher-king is a good
example of this idealism. This idea of a philosopher who has absolutely no material interest
ruling the society did not go beyond wishful thinking. Alexander the Greats father (Philip King
of Macedonia) had him tutored by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle (a student of Plato), and
Alexander was as close as one could get to the ideal of the philosopher-king, which maybe
influenced his sense of universalism of humanity. The Greek vocabulary in art and architecture
and their establishment of the standard of beauty (see Powerpoint), still remain valuable in
aesthetics (branch of philosophy established by Aristotle regarding what beauty is).
In addition, the Greeks were self-centered. They did not believe others would be worthy of their
ideals and they did not need to learn from other cultures. They accepted the rule of Alexander the
Great (who they referred to as a mountain man and not true Greek) only out of desperation with
their collapsing political and social system.
On the other hand, Romans were pragmatic people. They learned from whomever and wherever
as long as it helped them in some practical matter. They were flexible, and that is maybe the
reason they created an empire. Persians, as we saw earlier, were also pragmatic people, and that
is why they were also able to create the largest empire in history long before the Romans.
Romans, like Persians, allow conquered people to practice their own religions and cultures. As
long as there was no political threat to the system, Romans had high degree of tolerance toward
others. For most part, they tolerated the Jews and Christians. A popular religion of the Roman
soldiers (as we mentioned earlier) was Mithraism, the religion that came from Persia, their
archenemy and rival. Strong evidence for this pragmatism was Roman achievements in law and
politics, both with highly practical usages.

Pre-Historic Italy
Italy has always been the name of the peninsula, a long ladys-shoe-like land the stretches down
into Mediterranean Sea in South of Europe, just to the west of Greece. (See the map). But as the
name for a modern nation, the word Italy came into use in the late 19th century, under the
leadership of three great nationalist leaders: Mazzini, Cavour, and Garibaldi.
The history of Roman civilization comes after the Greeks. We do not have much going on in
Italian peninsula (apart from Etruscans in north) during the Greek Golden Age (500 B.C.). We
know much less about its history during the Archaic Age (750 B.C.) We know that around 1000
B.C. the Latins were living in a small village in Latium (just east of todays Rome) along with
other people in the peninsula, such as the Umbrians, Sabines, and Samnites. The people in
Latium spoke one of the many Italic languages, called Latin.
Before Rome become Rome, around 800 B.C., the Etruscans that were mentioned above ruled a
small kingdom in Etruria (todays Tuscany, the beautiful wine and olive country north of Rome).
The origin of the Etruscans in covered in mystery. But they did not speak any of the Italic

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languages. The legend, and probably a myth, about the co-founding of the city of Rome go back
to two brothers, Romulus and Remus. According to the legend, as twin babies, these two
brothers were suppose to succeed their father as a local leader. But their jealous and ambitious
uncle had them thrown into the River Tiber, so he could usurp power. However, the brothers
were saved and raised by a female wolf, which raised them into adulthood. (Still if you go to
Rome today, you can buy a statue of two babies suckling from a female wolf.) When they had
grown up, the brothers cofounded the city of Rome. But a later dispute between the brothers
resulted in Romulus killing Remus; the city of Rome was named after him. (If Remus had killed
Romulus, we would probably talk about Reman Empire now!) The city was built on the hills
next to the Tiber River and it is about 15 miles east from the sea.
In the 7th and 6th century B.C., the Etruscans extended their rule both to the north and to the
south, and the city of Rome came under their rule. Again, according to the legends and myths,
the Romans rebelled against the Etruscans and threw them out. They founded and declared the
Roman Republic in 509. It was an aristocratic republic and a group of powerful men in the
Senate ruled this republic for 500 years until Rome technically became an empire in around year
31 (roughly around the birth of Jesus).

Roman Republic: 500 to 31 B.C.


To simplify the main periods in Roman civilization for the students of history, we can roughly
say Rome lasted through the long 1000 years that spanned from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500.
Somewhere right in the middle of these 1000 years, Rome was transformed from a Republic to
an Empire. We will later define the major features of these two periods. But, for the sake of
convenience, let us briefly distinguish the differences. The republic was the period when the
senate had the ultimate political power and the empire period was when an emperor, a single
man, had the ultimate power. From roughly 133 B.C., this transformation began, with the
Gracchus brothers unsuccessful attempt for land reform. This is an overall historical
breakdown that the students of history should know. We will discuss the details in the following
pages.
Before anything else, we need to define several important terms relevant to the Roman political
structure during the Republic period. Some of these terms that we use today originally had very
different meanings. As we mentioned, Rome had an aristocratic political structure. That means a
group (and not a single person) of upper class men in a body called the Senate made all the
ultimate political decisions. To run the everyday affairs of the republic, the Senate chose and
appointed two individuals (from within or outside the senate) called consuls, for only one year.
Since there was no clear separation of powers then, the Senate also held judicial power. The
consuls were, in some sense, similar to the executive branch, except they also issued commands.
An important concept of imperium is defined as: giving an individual the power to issue
commands and enforce them. This individual would be the consul, and the Senate gave them the
power. Later, many words such as emperor or empire were derived from imperium, but had
nothing to do with the original meaning of the term.
Two consuls were appointed because one was supposed to be in charge of the affairs of the city
itself and the other would be in charge of the areas outside the city. These consuls served for only

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one year. When Roman territory expanded and it was impractical to call back the consul from
outside territory, the mission of the consul was extended beyond that one year and they often
referred to as proconsuls. In the case of social emergencies, the consuls were given extended
power (such as arresting people without the normal procedures and right of appeal which would
take longer time), but, on the other hand, the term of service was reduced to only six months.
They were called dictators.
Social Structure of the Republic:
Initially, from the beginning of the Republic, the society in Rome was divided into two social
classes. What made this social division historically unusual was that it was not based on race or
even economic base. The two groups were both Romans and looked alike. They were called
patricians and plebeians. The difference was that the patricians filled the senate and held all
political offices. Although, in general, patricians were wealthier than the plebeians, there were no
barriers to become wealthy for plebeians. And since land-ownership was the main form of
wealth, there were many plebeian families who were wealthier than some patricians. No one is
really sure about the origin of this social division. It probably had its origin in the pre-Republic
period. Another important aspect of the Roman Republic was that in order to serve in military,
one must own land (but it did not matter how much). As you might guess, the only way to keep
the two classes (which looked similar) apart was to make it illegal for them to intermarry.
Since the plebeians had also served in the military from the beginning of the empire, they
demanded more political rights. The first 200 years of the Republic roughly corresponded to the
period that is called the Struggle of the Order (508 B.C. to 287 B.C.). This means the struggle
as to what the order of the society should be. (It has nothing to do with order as opposed to
disorder.) As you can see in the timeline (see Powerpoint), this period also corresponded with
the time of the military expansion of the Republic, dominating the whole Italian Peninsula (still
long before becoming an empire.) That correlates to patricians need for plebeians to participate
in military conquests, and therefore, be obliged to give them political rights. It is not necessary to
go into the details of the process of gaining political equality for plebeians when one can give a
rough chronology for the steps taken toward equality as follows:
The first demand of the plebeians was that they should be able to form their own assembly
parallel to that of the senate. They were granted the right to have their tribal assembly (471
B.C.). At the head of this assembly of the plebeians were the tribunes. The tribunes were leaders
and political representatives of the plebeians and their rights in the face of the senate run by
patricians.
Next, the plebeians demanded, and were responded to positively, that the laws of the Republic to
be written down. Before this time, the laws were in oral form and only the patricians knew the
laws; therefore, the plebeians were not aware of their rights. This recording was accomplished
through The Twelve Tables (in 450 B.C.).
Then, in 445 B.C., the plebeians received right to intermarry with the patricians. In 367 B.C.,
they demanded and were given the chance to elect one of the consuls from among the plebeians.
In 287 B.C., they were finally given complete rights, when the patricians agreed that the
decisions of the plebeian assembly be binding to the senate. We should be reminded than there

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was no democracy and there was no secret balloting. In reality, only a few families from both
patricians and plebeians held high offices and, as a result, a new upper class of the politically and
economically powerful from both plebeians and patricians began to emerge, called the nobilis
(for example, from 233 to 133 B.C., only 26 families produced 80% of consuls).
Conquest of Italy:
From written documents and what we know, the Romans never really planned to become the
greatest empire in the world. In a sense, it all happened accidentally. We know that their concern
for their security was, in effect, the reason for their expansion. They soon dominated the whole
peninsula. They were not oppressive toward the Italian people conquered. They did not tax them.
They shared the spoils of the wars with them. All they had to do was contribute to the Roman
military with their young men. The Romans shared political power with these leaders and gave
them Roman citizenship if they moved to the city of Rome.
However, the Romans treatment of the conquered people outside the Italian Peninsula was very
different. They turned them into slaves (that is where the term Slave and Slavic people of Eastern
Europe comes from). Many slaves worked in the field and construction. Some slaves, like the
Greeks, were used as domestic helpers to teach Roman children philosophy and dance.
The Punic Wars: (264-241)
One of the most important and powerful Roman rivals in the Mediterranean Sea was the Empire
of Carthage, in the middle of the 3rd century B.C. Their capital was in North Africa (the location
of todays nation of Tunisia, east of Egypt and Libya). Their power extended into Spain and they
dominated the sea (See the map). The Romans called them Punicus (or Poenicus), which meant
Phoenicians, since they were originally one of the Phoenician colonies that survived the
destruction of the motherland (present day Lebanon) by the Assyrians around 700 B.C.
At first, and for most of the war, Carthage had the upper hand. Toward the end of the war, a huge
Carthaginian army let by their famous leader Hannibal moved from Spain through Southern
France, going over Alps Mountain into Italy. This army began a long siege of the City of Rome.
The war around Rome and in the Roman countryside was ferocious. It dragged on for about 15
years, during which much of the Roman farmland was destroyed. Relative to modern times, the
armies were small (a few thousand fighters). The reason that one nation could dominate over
larger land was generally the fear of punishment and expectation of reward. Regions would shift
sides depending on the perception of who was stronger and had a chance to win. In the case of
this war, the Hannibal was hoping and waiting for Romes allies in Italy to shift sides. But they
did not. The reason might have had something to do with the calculation of the Roman allies that
sticking with Rome and the resulting benefits outweighed the hopes for Carthage benevolence.
After all, as we said, the Romans treated their Italian allies pretty well.
The final outcome of the war was rather shocking: it ended with the Roman victory. While
Hannibal, assured of his victory, was tightening the circle around Rome, one Roman general
named Scipio Africanus attached the capital of Carthage from the south. That forced the already
exhausted force of Hannibal to take a big turn and go back quickly on the same route they came
(through France, Spain, and North Africa) to save their capital. In a decisive battle at a place near
Carthage (called Zama), Hannibal was defeated. Historians generally do not like to identify a

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single event as the cause of this major historical development. But if only one event could be
singled out as having an important impact on future history, it would be this battle at Zama. If
Carthage had defeated Rome, there would have been no Roman Empire and subsequent history
that we discussed earlier in this segment would have been changed. Carthage was later totally
destroyed when the Romans felt they might still be a threat to Roman power. This victory
removed the last obstacle to Romes complete domination of the Mediterranean Sea and North
Africa.

The Transformation Period


Rome from a Republic to an Empire: 133 to 31 B.C.
As we mentioned earlier, the definition of an empire is not the same as just having more political
and military power that extend over a larger territory. A republic is ruled by the senate (a
collective rule by the aristocracy, not a democracy). An empire (in the case, the Roman empire)
is ultimately ruled by one monarch. In addition, a political entity is referred to as an empire when
it rules over more than one nationality or ethnicity (as we see in the case of the British Empire in
modern times). But, in our case here, we are focused on the first definition.
So, let us take a look at this transformation step-by-step. The long 15-year war in Romes
countryside, even though it ended with a Roman victory, destroyed much of the farmland and in
a major way resulted in the dislocation of the farmers who had to leave their land for a safer
place, often the city of Rome itself. Some just left their lands and others were able to sell them
very cheaply (enough to enable them to feed their family in Rome). This trend continued even
after the Roman victory, when the land has been laid to waste. This is happened in spite of the
fact that the family-farm was the backbone of Roman values. Romans always prided themselves
on having a family farm. (If you saw the movie Gladiator, you remember that Maximus, the
second-in-command after the emperor Marcus Aurelius, had to go back to his farmhouse. That
was set much later from the time we are discussing now, around A.D. 200.) There were
thousands of jobless, homeless people who once held the pride of being Roman citizens and
owing and farming their own land.
The social pressure was building up in Rome, almost to the point of social upheaval or even a
revolution. One the other hand, the wealthy generals who had bought and still were buying (or
even taking) large pieces of land very cheaply turned this land into large plantations called
latifundia. As we know from earlier American history, plantations are large land plots run by
cheap labor (or free slaves). They are used for commercial agriculture, which means farming for
profit, not for family survival, as in subsistence agriculture. They usually did not include grains
or vegetables that a family needed to grow and harvest seasonally to make ends meet. In addition
to large quantities of cheap or free labor, commercial agriculture, on the other hand, requires time
and money. It is also called capital-intensive agriculture. Olive or fruit gardens and vineyards, for
example, require a few years of waiting for the trees to grow. After that, capital is required for
processing, marketing, and distribution. But in the end, they produce tremendous wealth. This
was the trend in Italian territories after the end of the Punic Wars. Some Romans were even fired,
just to be replaced by slaves who were increasingly captured by the Roman armies.
At this time in Rome, two brothers from upper class families, nobilis, became tribunes and
suggested a land reform. Their names were Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. In 133 B.C., they

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proposed a land reform to limit the size of land an individual could own to 200 acres, allowing
the rest to be divided and distributed to those who lost their land. Romes population received
this reform proposal with tremendous enthusiasm and support and the brothers became extremely
popular. Partially due to self-interest and partially due to the fear of having tyranny by
individuals (remember the case of the Greek tyrants?!), the brothers were put to death one after
the other, charged with cheating in their tribunal elections and also undermining the 400 year
tradition of the Republic. If this were to happen today, they would probably be labeled
socialists!
The brothers were killed, but the incident left two major lasting impacts on Rome. First, this was
the first (and not the last) challenge of senatorial power in about 370 years (509 to 133 B.C.).
Second, their killings started a cycle of violence that only ended at the end of the Republic and
the beginning of the Empire with the rise of Augustus in 31 B.C. (almost the beginning of the
Christian calendar). Never before this time had Romans experienced violence within their
political institution. The Romans had fought with others, but the Senate was always the ultimate
source of power within the Roman political realm.
But now, many Roman leaders learned that there was another way to gain political power: by
being popular. The method of Gracchus brothers was pursued by one group of Roman politicians
labeled populares. Another group, more conservative and traditional, remained loyal to the old,
the way of the Senate. This group was called optimates (the best men, the Senate). This was the
beginning of a new trend in Roman politics. Please take notice that these two are just trends
regarding how to gain political power and not two political parties. Neither should you think of
them as democratic or anti-democratic trends. Examples of the populares who appear later in the
Roman political scene are Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and finally Octavian (later named
Augustus, by whom the Empire period is defined). An example of the optimates is Cornelius
Sulla, who called himself the Republics savior. We will discuss them shortly.
General Marius: Another Step in Transforming the Republic
General Marius, who became a consul in 107 B.C., was engaged with an African army in
Numidia but had major problems defeating that army. There was a stalemate and something had
to be done. He needed more troops. But, if you recall from our earlier discussions, there had been
a law in place requiring land-ownership to join the Roman army since the beginning of the
Republic. You may also remember that many Romans who used to have their own family farms
had lost them and become jobless, landless urban poor due to the Punic Wars. Marius came up
with an ingenious solution: change the law. He asked the Senate to change that law, and the
Senate did so gladly. There were a least two good reasons to do so, from the point of view of the
Senate. First, they got rid of the huge number of unemployed who were becoming increasingly
bothersome and a political liability in the city. Second, more troops meant more conquered land,
and more conquered land meant more wealth for them. So, it appeared to be good for everyone!
But this action further undermined the power of the Senate and added to the power of individual
commanders. In other words, it helped the populares and weakened the optimates. The Roman
Empire began to expand further and faster. The borders of Roman territory were further removed
from Rome. That resulted in the loyalty of the soldiers increasingly shifting from the Senate to
their generals, whom their protection, survival, and benefits from booty depended on. We will

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see the impact of this change when Julius Caesar was ordered by the Senate to come back from
France when his mission was terminated. He came back, except he brought his troops with him
and conquered Rome. Other generals followed the pattern, resulting in a social war.
The First Triumvirate and The Fall of the Republic
The senate was continually losing authority. In 60 B.C., three famous generals were in charge of
the three part of this vast empire. Julius Caesar (in the West and Spain), Pompey (in South and
Egypt), and Crassus (in East toward Persian). Among the three, Caesar was youngest but
politically most shrewd and ambitious. Pompey was an experienced general, and Crassus was a
really wealthy banker-general. Together, they decided to undermine the Senate by unofficially
dividing the Roman territory amongst themselves and agreeing to keep their noses out of each
others affairs. As you remember in the case of the consuls, Romans used to have the divided
leadership. One of the purposes of the divided leadership from the perspective of the Senate was,
in a way, to keep checks and balances, and, if necessary, set one against the other. But in this
case, it seemed that these three had outdone the Senate. This became known as the First
Triumvirate (meaning the rule of three).
Through chicanery, bribery, and oratory power, Caesar managed to convince the Senate to give
him the mission to conquer Gaul (today called France), which was not yet part of the Roman
territory. The conquest of Gaul made Caesar even more powerful and his troops wealthier.
Crassus was killed in a war with the Persians. That left the two men. However, with the backing
of Pompey, who also had become alarmed at the increasing power and ambition of Caesar, the
Senate told him that his mission was over and he must return to Rome immediately without his
troops. Caesar went back, but he took his troops with him and took over Rome. Pompeys army
was defeated and after he was chased to Egypt, his dead body was given to Caesar upon his
arrival by the young Egyptian king. The Senate was forced to recognize his victory and after they
appointed him as the dictator for 10 years, eventually he became dictator for life. Caesar realized
that the republic was no longer functioning. He became extremely popular by ending corruption,
aiding the poor, and beginning public work projects that included beautifying the city.
However, the deep hatred of many members of the Senate who saw him as the destroyer of the
Republic finally did him in. On March 15, 44 B.C. (the Ides of March), a group of Senators
attacked him and stabbed him to death while he was walking toward the Senate. They then went
into the public crying out Liberty, Liberty. But Rome had already changed and the
assassination did not save the republic. Two of Caesars trusted generals, Mark Antony and
Lepidus, promised revenge. The fought and defeated the army of Brutus and Cassius who had
led the assassination. The two generals assumed power until an unknown individual, a sick, weak
young Octavian, came to Rome and claimed right of succession to Caesar. He was the
grandnephew of Caesar who apparently, and according to the written document later found, was
willed by Caesar as an adopted son and his successor.
The three men formed what is known as the Second Triumvirate. Octavian took Julius Caesars
territory of Spain and France (Gaul), Lepidus was assigned to the Asia Minor (east toward
Persia), and Mark Antony became the ruler of the important and prosperous south, namely
Egypt. Previously, while in Egypt, Caesar had developed a close political and romantic
relationship with the young, but extremely smart, Egyptian queen Cleopatra. She had

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outsmarted and ousted her own younger brother to take the crown. Caesar had even a son name
Caesarian with Cleopatra. Now, with Mark Antony in Egypt and Cleopatra becoming a mature
woman, a new deeply romantic relationship began. The love story between the two has become
the subject of several movies.
However, Mark Antony suffered from some major weaknesses that politically hurt him. He was
a drunkard who spent many hours in lavish orgies. His licentious and carefree lifestyle, his
ambition for power, and the perceived influence of Cleopatra on him became a threat to the
Roman establishment. Cleopatra, a powerful Eastern woman, was not exactly the embodiment of
the Roman values. She was portrayed as anathema to image of Roman female figure in her
domestic setting.
On the other had, Octavian had become a mature and thoughtful man who had quickly learned
how to play politics and cooped the trust of the Senate, while at the same time preserving the
extreme popularity of Caesar as the man of ordinary people. When Lepidus retired and the
Roman political scene became competition ground for the remaining two men, the senate found
Octavian to be the lesser of the two threats and therefore lined up behind Octavian against Mark
Antony. The propaganda against Mark Antony and Cleopatra heightened. It was circulated that
Antony was under Cleopatras magic spell and they had plans to divide the Roman territories
amongst themselves. Caesarian, the son of Caesar with Cleopatra, was killed. The campaign
against the two lovers intensified. Eventually, Octavians naval force engaged the combined
forces of Antony and Cleopatra in the Mediterranean Sea, close to Egyptian coast. At the battle
of Actium, Octavian defeated them and forced them to escape to Egypt, as Octavian forces were
chasing them. Mark Antony killed himself and when Cleopatra found out about it, she also
committed suicide by taking a poisonous snake around her body. Octavian returned to Rome
victorious and proved himself to be an amazing leader who laid the foundation of a new Roman
entity, the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire lasted another 500 years until the Middle Ages,
when the Barbarians destroyed the Western part of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476.

The Roman Empire: 31 B.C. to A.D. 500


Augustus Principate
In 27 B.C., after returning to Rome, Octavian in a dramatic gesture presented his resignation to
the Senate, as though he had no interest in power or ambition in politics. As he probably
predicted, the Senate begged him to stay. After over 100 years of chaos and continuous
bloodshed, it appeared that the Romans were now ready to take anyone who could bring peace as
their leader. He was given pro-consulship of Spain, Gaul (France) and Syria, as well as and the
consulship of Rome. In effect, he became the sole ruler of a now-vast Roman Empire. He never
called himself an emperor. In fact, the term emperor that was used later on (to mean a powerful
monarch grander than a king) had not been used yet. The term emperor, which is from
imperator in Latin, is related to the word imperium. As you remember, it meant: a position given
by the Senate to someone to rule for one year. Octavian used the term princeps to as a title for
himself. It simply meant first citizen. Nothing fancy! But, he was given the title Augustus,
meaning great.
His principate, as it is called, was the time of some major and fundamental reforms. He reduced
inefficiency and corruption in the government. He purged the Senate of corrupt individuals with

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bad reputations and filled it (not directly, but his wishes would be fulfilled) with individuals with
good reputations and moral character. He increased the size of the Senate to 600 members. He
reestablished small farming, which, as the backbone of Roman culture, had been lost for a long
time. He resettled many veterans and gave them land. His slogan was, restoring and preserving
Roman values. He passed laws against adultery and divorce. He is said to have sent his own
daughter into exile for an adulterous act. But he was very different from ours todays politicians
in American who carry the banner of moral majority. He created the first welfare in history to
feed the poor children and orphans called alimenta. He also established the first police
department distinct from the military in history. The city of Rome had grown so big that it
needed one. And since the city was packed with 4- or 5- story high-rise apartment buildings
made out of wood, it also experienced a great number of fires. That required the first fire
department in history too.
By now, the Roman Empire had grown into a very large territory that included many different
nationalities. This situation required uniform laws that Augustus was first to establish. This code
was called jus gentium, or laws of people. It became the foundation on which the long tradition
of the Roman legal system was built upon. The grand Empire was also divided into semiautonomous regions called municipalities (the term is used today in U.S.). Serving in the
military became a respectable profession and the soldiers did not have to rely on booty to be
paid. They received good salaries and after 20 years of service, they received a good retirement
package with land given to them for farming. These were the foundations laid to guarantee the
survival and the growth of the Empire for another 500 years. But, the first 200 years, also know
as Pax Romana, was the Golden Age of the Roman Empire. In the third century A.D., after the
first 200 years, the signs of division and decline began to appear, which we will discuss shortly.
However, the most important event during the early Imperial period that needs to be mentioned
is the rise of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth was probably born around the year zero (actually at
least in 4 B.C. or earlier). This is the great transformational age in Rome. He was crucified
around 30 A.D., the time of the emperor following Augustus, named Tiberius. Paul of Tarsus
(Saint Paul), the most influential figure in Christian history, responsible for spreading this
religion among Jews, died around 60 A.D. With the reign of Augustus, the 200 years of peace
and prosperity began through the region. However, the beginning of the third century A.D. was
also the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire, or more accurately, fall of the Western part
of the Roman Empire (Italy to the west and north). The eastern part (Greece to the east and
south) survived for another 1,000 years (from 500 to ~ 1,500) in what we call Byzantine Empire.
But now let us a look an extremely important event at the dawn of the Roman Empire, the rise of
the religion of Christianity.
The Rise of Christianity ~ 00
Arguably, Christianity would not exist today if it were not for the Roman Empire. And,
definitely, it would not have spread the same way and to the same extent if it has not been for the
Roman Empire. According to the Bible, Jesus was born during the time of King Herod. Herod
was local ruler of Judea, the region that contains part of Israel, part of Jordan, and Lebanon of
today, and was under Roman control. According to the most up to date historical information,
Herod died in 4 B.C. Therefore, Jesus must have been born at least in 4 B.C. or even earlier. The
Gregorian calendar, which had established the birth of Jesus as the basis of the Christian
calendar, probably had it wrong at least by 4 years. So, as we just celebrated the beginning of the

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year 2012, we should know that it is now most probably 2016 years after the birth of Jesus. We
also know that Jesus was crucified at the age of 30 by the order of local Roman governor
Pontius Pilate. In addition to the Jewish kings, to keep everything under control, Romans also
had local governors to oversee the overall compliance to Roman rule. The Jewish High Council,
Sanhedrin, had arrested Jesus and released him the Pilate for proper punishment. The
crucifixion has since been the source, or more accurately, an excuse, for persecution of Jews, and
even official anti-Semitism, from the 11th century crusades to modern times. But the fact is that,
first, Jesus was executed by the Romans and not the Jews; and second, the Sanhedrin only
represented one of the three main Jewish trends, the group that, probably wisely, pursued
compromise with the Romans in order survive. We know that the later Jewish uprising of 68-70
A.D. resulted in destruction of the Temple and infamous massacres of the Jews in Masada. The
other two Jewish groups were Zealots (revolutionaries who fought for Jewish independence
form the Roman domination), and the third the important group were the Pharisees, who were
very observant and believed that each individual Jew had to live like a priest. Paul of Tarsus (or
Saint Paul) came from the Pharisaic background before he converted and became the most
historically important follower of Jesus. On the other hand, Jesuss radical and revolutionary
interpretation of Judaism (which ultimately led to the separation of a new religion called
Christianity around 90 A.D.) could have been easily interpreted as a political rebellion, especially
with the misunderstanding of openly announcing the coming of the kingdom of heaven.
The impact of the Roman Empire on Christianity was because Jesus lived in that time. It was
mainly because Saint Paul became his follower. Paul of Tarsus, unlike other original disciples of
Jesus who were from the small towns and villages around Galilee and in Judea, was from an
educated Jew family and went to important Jewish school in the big Roman city of Tarsus (in
present-day Syria). Most importantly, unlike Jesus and the others, he was a Roman citizen, which
gave him quite an advantage and the ability to travel around the Roman Empire. According to the
Christian tradition and the Bible, Paul was such an observant and self-confident Jew that could
not tolerate what he considered irreligiosity and lack of observance of the followers of Jesus.
When Jesus said: it is not what goes unto you rather what come out of you that defiles you, in
reference to the Jewish dietary laws, or when he worked on Sabbath day, it was quite
unacceptable to an observant Jew. Therefore, initially Paul was one of the main persecutors of
the followers of Jesus. Again, according to the Christian tradition, a radical conversion occurred
when Paul was on the way to Damascus. At that moment Jesus had already been crucified, but he
appeared to Paul and kept asking, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Paul, by seeing and
hearing Jesus, was completely transformed.
According to the Bible, after Paul transformed from being a strong persecutor to a strong
supporter of Jesus, he debated with the other disciples, such as Peter and James, that the message
of Jesus must be taken to non-Jews (the Gentiles.) This was an extremely bold proposition and
Paul initially faced strong resistance from the older supporters. But Paul eventually convinced
them that the message of Jesus is for all humanity and subsequently, having the advantages of
being a Roman citizen, knowing the language and culture, and also being a well educated in
Jewish tradition, he had no problem traveling throughout the Roman Empire to places such as
Rome, Corinth, and Galatia to spread the word of Jesus. He established the first churches, which
were not separated from Jewish synagogues and often for the fear of officials met in houses,
catacombs, and secret locations. And since travelling and communication were very difficult in

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those days, when facing misunderstanding by the Christian communities that he had newly
established, he was forced to elaborate on the meaning of the message of Jesus through
numerous letters known as Letters of Paul in the Bible. Since these letters reveal such deep
theology and philosophy, and since chronologically they were written even before the four
famous Gospels, they became the source of understanding and inspiration for all Christians
throughout history from the time of Paul. From Martin Luther and Protestant Reformation
around A.D 1500 (see the segment on Protestant Reformation) to the present time, Christians
and Christian theologians and philosophers have been inspired and guided by the content of these
important letters.
Roman Empire after Augustus: A.D. 14 to 476
As we mentioned earlier, the first 200 years of the Roman Empire was, generally speaking, a
time of peace, prosperity, and even further territorial expansion. However, we can identify
several stages even within that period. After the death of Augustus in A.D. 14, a group of
emperors named Julio-Claudians ruled until A.D. 68. They were from the family of Julius
Caesar or his wife Claudia. These emperors included Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero (the
emperor who is said to have burned Rome to enjoy looking at the fire from his palace: a new
DVD-CD burning program is named after him!). After a very brief civil war (68 to 69), a new
group of emperors known as Flavians ruled Rome. This group included Vespasian, Titus, and
Domitian. They were the first emperors who did not originate from the city of Rome. From about
100 to 200 A.D. (A.D. 96 to 192), Roman Empire was ruled by the 5 Good Emperors, also
called Antonines: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonious, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus. Well,
the 6th one wasnt so good! He is the only one who usurped power just because his father was
Marcus Aurelius (the great philosopher-emperor) through violence (as you saw in the movie
Gladiator). From that time, which coincides with the end of the Golden Age, Rome began to
decline. Internal division weakened the Empire, resulting in external attack by the so-called
Barbarians (the Germanic people from the north). The next period brings what is known as the
crisis of the 3rd century.
The Severi, the name of the next group of emperors in the 3rd century, began with Septimius
Severus. The most important feature of this group of emperors is that, from this time, Roman
emperors were not only chosen by different military groups, but the military also determined the
policies of the empire. By the way, the end of the Golden Age coincided with the height of
territorial expansion of Roman Empire. This shift in power more to the side of Roman military
might well be the result of the logistics of running such a vast territory moving beyond the ability
of the politicians sitting in Rome, far away from the affairs of distant regions. (See the map.)
This rivalry among military barracks increasingly became bloody in the 3rd century. From 235 to
284 (roughly 49 years), some 22 emperors ruled Rome. On the average, there was about one
emperor every two years. Forces from different military barrack pushing for a new emperor often
killed the previous one to get their own commander to the top. This group was, appropriately (!),
called the Barrack Emperors.
Finally, toward the end of the third century (284), one emperor, Diocletian, tried to find a
solution for the bloodshed and the running of such a vast territory. He invented a system that is
called Diocletian Tetrarchy (rule of four). He simply divided the Roman territory into 2 upper

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regions centered in Italy and Greece, each having two regions attached to it (Spain on the West
attached to Italy, and Asia on the East attached to Greeceplease see the map). Diocletian called
three other generals to share the power. The system was supposed to work this way: two senior
emperors would run the two major areas (Italy and Greece), and two junior emperors would run
the adjacent regions (Spain and Asia). When the two senior emperors got old, they would be
replaced by the two adjacent junior ones (by then, they would have gained much necessary
experience to run the main two regions). Then, two new junior emperors would be pulled in. This
system of tetrarchy was supposed to work smoothly, but it did not. Eventually in 337, one of
these men, named later as Constantine the Great, fought and defeated the three others and took
over the whole territory. One detrimental and lasting impact of the tetrarchy was that it
effectively divided the Roman Empire into two administratively separate regions. That in itself
made it possible for the Western half of the empire to collapse in 476 while the Eastern part
survived (as the Byzantine empire) for another 1,000 years.
Constantine was later glorified by the title the Great, not just because of his military power, but
rather because he became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. His conversion was
probably more matter of convenience as opposed to true spiritual transformation. He continued
worshiping the official Sun-god Apollo (Sunday, the day of Christian congregation, is named for
that reason). By the time of Constantine, probably no more than the 10% of the Romans were
actually Christians. Some important and influential officials had already converted, including
Constantines own mother. But we have to look at the Christianization of the emperor and later
the whole empire in different light. Prior to this time, although most emperors were somehow
tolerant toward the small but very energetic Christian population, some others like Diocletian
had suppressed Christians quite brutally. While having trouble defeating other contenders one
day, it is said that Constantine had a vision of light in the sky, which was in the form of an X and
a P, the Latin letters for Jesus Christ. Along this light he saw the letters that said, under this sign
you shall conquer. The next day he had these two letters, in the form of a cross, painted on the
shields of his soldiers, and he defeated his rival. That was enough for him to conclude that the
actual power of this God was more than the previous Roman gods. In fact, he told the king of
Persia, you see, I won under this God, so maybe you should consider changing your religion
too.
On the other hand, we should realize that with the gradual political and economic collapse of the
old Roman Empire, the strong sense of Roman identity that had psychologically glued people
together with a unified sense of purpose was also rapidly diminishing. However, Christian
minorities by surviving brutal suppressions had not only proved to any observer to have strong
faith in their beliefs, but also, unlike most other religious cults existing in the empire, to have a
very strong sense of community among themselves. That made them the envy of any political
faction who would want to have them on their side. These calculations might have passed
through the mind of Constantine.
Another very important undertaking of Constantine that had grave and lasting impact was the
transfer of his capital from Rome to a once-small fishing port on the eastern part of Greek
Peninsula, right at the edge of the present-day Europe, called Byzantium. Byzantium was soon
named Constantinople, and after the destruction of the Byzantine Empire by Ottoman Turks in
1450, it was renamed Istanbul. (It is now part of the European side of the nation of Turkey.) It

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should be mentioned that the Byzantine Empire always called itself Roman Empire even when
it was culturally totally Greek and had nothing to do with Rome. Modern Historians devised the
name to distinguish it from the Western Roman Empire.
The reason as to why Constantine moved the capital away from Rome can only be speculated.
Militarily and strategically, Byzantium was closer to where the main threat was coming from, a
new Persian Sassanid Empire to the east. This Persian Empire had risen up after, as you
remember, from the old Persian Empire was destroyed by Alexander around 300 B.C. Byzantium
was also closer to the delta of Danube River in the Black Sea, which even though in the east,
granted easy access to the borders with the Barbarians who were generally just to the north of
Danube River. In addition, as history proved, Byzantium was impenetrable due to its hilly and
elevated topography, as well as the fact that it was surrounded by water on three sides. The
western side of Constantinople was also made defendable later by the Theodosian Wall.
(Theodosius ruled a hundred years after Constantine, and by his time 100% of the empire had
been Christianized.) Another possible motivation for Constantine to move the capital was
probably his desire to create a new Christian Capital away from the old pagan Roman aristocracy
and to beautify this new capital with magnificent churches, which he did. Whatever the reason or
reasons, the moving of the capital weakened the western part of the Empire and eventually, in
476, the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus (a 13-year-old boy)
was overthrown by the Barbarians Odovacar (a Visigoth warlord), and with that the Roman
Empire in the West came to an end after ~ 500 years of its founding. We will continue with what
happened in the Western part when we start with the Early Middle Ages, after a brief review of
the history of long-lasting Byzantine Empire next.

A Brief Review of the Byzantine Civilization: ~ A.D. 500 to 1500


You might think that roughly one thousand years of history must deserve more than just a few
lines. But the fact is that there were not as many influential events happening during this
relatively continuous and secure civilization, compare to that of the Western part of the Roman
Empire, as far as its influence on the future of humanity. The relative security of this civilization
continued until the beginning of its shrinkage due to the rise of Islam in 7th century. Later, in 13th
century, the rise of the Ottoman Empire (which lasted till the 20th century) gradually ate away at
Byzantine territory until it was completely swallowed and Constantinople was captured in 1453.
We can choose to change the beginning if we consider Constantines transfer of the capital to
Constantinople in A.D. 324. In any case, one thing for sure, if it was not for this Greek-dominant
culture which preserved many of the Classic works, and toward the end of its life, the migration
of many of its scholar to Italy through the fear of Muslim takeover, Renaissance Italy (which is
the rebirth of the Classic) would not have been possible.
But let us now take a brief review of only a few chosen crucial events in this long history. In
contrast to the highly advanced development in modern Western Europe, when the Roman
Empire collapsed, the most prosperous and developed part of it, with the exception of the city of
Rome itself, was the Eastern regions. Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, and Lebanon, were much more
established territories. Most of Western Europe was under Barbarian control and was forest and
did not contain many cities. On the other hand, the Eastern part that later would become
Byzantine Empire, by around A.D. 500, contained over 1500 cities with a flourishing economy

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and agriculture. The city of Constantinople had a population of 350,000 people. Egypt, which
has been called the breadbasket of all previous empires, which controlled it, was in the East.
The Reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian (A.D. 527-565)
By the time of Justinian, the two parts of the old Roman Empire had already become completely
separated. As the Eastern part was prospering in peace and security, the Western part was the
roaming ground for different Barbarian tribes. Justinian, as an emperor of the Byzantine Empire,
is worthy of mention for several important reasons. First, he is the first and last Eastern emperor
to try, and succeed for a while, to unite the two parts of the Roman Empire back together until
the threat and victories of the Persian Empire to the East and the economic impact of the wars
forced him to relinquish the Western part back to the Barbarian control. His slogan was: One
God, One Empire, and One Religion. The One Religion meant that the minority Christians to
the east (now Turkish and mostly Arab Christians) had to conform to the official Orthodox
Church and were often oppressed. This oppressive policy could be one of the contributing factors
in explaining explain why two-thirds of the Empire in the eastern provinces so easily submitted
to the Muslim armies a century later when Islam appeared as a political force. Many Christians
in those regions preferred remaining Christian under Muslim rule, who ironically treated them
rather well, than to being oppressed by Christian Byzantines. These minority Christians, although
part of Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church (as opposed to Western Catholic Church), held slightly
different views toward the nature of Jesus. They believed that the divine and human nature of
Jesus were one. For this reason, they were called monophysites. To explain this requires some
complicated theological discussion. But a nice analogy is that of salt and water versus vinegar
and oil. No matter how much you shake a mixture of vinegar and oil, they will still be separate.
But salt dissolves in water completely. You might wonder, Why would anyone care? In
Western Christianity (especially Catholic Christianity and its expansion to Protestantism), there
is central emphasis on the sacrifice of Jesus, and his suffering on the cross for our sins. If the
human nature of Jesus is not sufficiently separated from his divine nature, it would be difficult to
make him suffer as a flesh and bone humans does. If he only looked like human and did not
suffer as one, the meaning of pain would not be the same. On the other hand, when monophysites
do not clearly separate these two distinct natures of Jesus, they are diluting the meaning and the
value of the suffering. As a whole, the monophysites put more emphasis on the teaching of Jesus
as opposed to his sacrifice. This is, in a nutshell, the difference. (Look back at our discussion of
African Civilizations: Egyptians, Coptic Christianity, and through them the Ethiopian Christians,
are all monophysites.)
Second, he order the compilation of all previous Roman laws into an important body of legal
work call Corpus Juris Civilis, meaning the Body of Civil Laws. This work became the legal
foundation for many modern Western national monarchies much later on. As you remember,
Augustus started the Jus Gentium (the Laws of People) around 1st century. During Justinians
reign there were also major riots and fires that almost destroyed Constantinople. After
overcoming the rioting in the city, Justinian found a chance to rebuilt the city totally with
magnificent new building projects, which still survive and give a unique character to the city.
The reign of Heraclius, who ruled the Byzantine Empire right after Justinian, is also important
for two reasons. First, during his reign, almost 2/3 of the Byzantine Empire was forever lost to

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the Islamic armies. This was, in part, due to exhaustive hundred years of wars with the Persians,
which had started at the time of Justinian and had dragged both empires economic hardship and
political and psychological disillusionment. Besides, neither of these two superpowers would
have even imagined that a major threat would come from some relatively insignificant, sparsely
populated tribal backwater such as Arabia.
Heracliuss era was also another significant turning point. This one is cultural. You might have
wondered, since Constantine moved the capital form Latin Rome to Greek Constantinople, what
language did the Emperors speak? Well, the cultural transformation was gradual. But Heraclius
was the first so-called Roman Emperor who could not even speak Latin. By this time, the
culture of Byzantine was really Greek. (We should be reminded that to the end in 1453, the
Byzantines called themselves the Roman Empire. The term Byzantine Empire has been
invented by modern historians to distinguish them from the pagan Roman Empire. Byzantine
Empire is also sometimes called Eastern Roman Empire.)
One last emperor to mention is Leo III (A.D. 717-740), who ruled in 8th century. His reign is
marked by the very unfortunate event of the destruction of religious icons from churches and
religious buildings, called iconoclasm. This was irreversible disaster for art history. Partly due to
the competition with Islamic civilizations and in response to Islamic intellectuals criticism that
Christianity has turned into superstition and icon worshiping, the Byzantine Emperor Leo and
his religious advisors decided to clean house by destroying many old icons from the walls of the
churches. After his reign, due to popular support, the icons were brought back and continued to
be used for religious purposes.
Jumping forward a few centuries, the first major defeat of the Byzantines since the initial Islamic
expansion was when the Seljuk Turks defeated them in the battle of Manzikert in 1071. But the
major and fatal blow came from Western Christendom during the 12th century Crusades.
Ironically, the Crusades began with a letter from Byzantine Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, to the
Pope Urban II (practically the sole ruler of the West), requesting some military assistance
against the Muslims who were pushing from the east in 1099. Although the initial Crusades were
aimed at Jerusalem (which was held by the Muslims), the 4th and last Crusade unexpectedly
turned against Constantinople and ended with the looting, destruction, and overthrow of the
Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople (to be replaced by a Catholic Bishop). The Byzantines
later fought back and regained their independence. But they never regained their strength and
were weakened to the point that their final annihilation, this time at the hand of Ottoman Turks,
became possible in 1453.
In the next segment, we will go back to what was left from the Western part of the Roman
Empire and extremely important developments, such as the rise of the Catholic Church and the
popes to tremendous political power, and subsequent rise of national monarchies such as France
and England, and ultimately the Renaissance, decline of the Catholic Church, and the Protestant
Reformation.

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