NCERT Textbook - An Empire Across Three Continents Humanities/Arts Notes | EduRev

History Class 11

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Humanities/Arts : NCERT Textbook - An Empire Across Three Continents Humanities/Arts Notes | EduRev

 Page 1


58 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
3
An Empire Across
Three Continents
THE Roman Empire covered a vast stretch of territory that
included most of Europe as we know it today and a large
part of the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. In this chapter
we shall look at the way this empire was organised, the
political forces that shaped its destiny, and the social groups
into which people were divided. You will see that the empire
embraced a wealth of local cultures and languages; that
women had a stronger legal position then than they do in
many countries today; but also that much of the economy
was run on slave labour, denying freedom to substantial
numbers of persons. From the fifth century on, the empire fell
apart in the west but remained intact and exceptionally
prosperous in its eastern half. The caliphate which you will
read about in the next chapter built on this prosperity and
inherited its urban and religious traditions.
Roman historians have a rich collection of sources to go on,
which we can broadly divide into three groups: (a) texts,
(b) documents and (c) material remains. Textual sources
include histories of the period written by contemporaries (these
were usually called ‘Annals’, because the narrative was
constructed on a year-by-year basis), letters, speeches,
sermons, laws, and so on. Documentary sources include
mainly inscriptions and papyri. Inscriptions were usually cut
on stone, so a large number survive, in both Greek and Latin.
The ‘papyrus’ was a reed-like plant that grew along the banks
of the Nile in Egypt and was processed to produce a writing
material that was very widely used in everyday life. Thousands
of contracts, accounts, letters and official documents survive
‘on papyrus’ and have been published by scholars who are
called ‘papyrologists’. Material remains include a very wide
assortment of items that mainly archaeologists discover (for
example, through excavation and field survey), for example,
buildings, monuments and other kinds of structures, pottery,
coins, mosaics, even entire landscapes (for example, through
the use of aerial photography). Each of these sources can only
tell us just so much about the past, and combining them can
be a fruitful exercise, but how well this is done depends on
the historian’s skill!
THEME
Papyrus scrolls.
© NCERT
not to be republished
Page 2


58 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
3
An Empire Across
Three Continents
THE Roman Empire covered a vast stretch of territory that
included most of Europe as we know it today and a large
part of the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. In this chapter
we shall look at the way this empire was organised, the
political forces that shaped its destiny, and the social groups
into which people were divided. You will see that the empire
embraced a wealth of local cultures and languages; that
women had a stronger legal position then than they do in
many countries today; but also that much of the economy
was run on slave labour, denying freedom to substantial
numbers of persons. From the fifth century on, the empire fell
apart in the west but remained intact and exceptionally
prosperous in its eastern half. The caliphate which you will
read about in the next chapter built on this prosperity and
inherited its urban and religious traditions.
Roman historians have a rich collection of sources to go on,
which we can broadly divide into three groups: (a) texts,
(b) documents and (c) material remains. Textual sources
include histories of the period written by contemporaries (these
were usually called ‘Annals’, because the narrative was
constructed on a year-by-year basis), letters, speeches,
sermons, laws, and so on. Documentary sources include
mainly inscriptions and papyri. Inscriptions were usually cut
on stone, so a large number survive, in both Greek and Latin.
The ‘papyrus’ was a reed-like plant that grew along the banks
of the Nile in Egypt and was processed to produce a writing
material that was very widely used in everyday life. Thousands
of contracts, accounts, letters and official documents survive
‘on papyrus’ and have been published by scholars who are
called ‘papyrologists’. Material remains include a very wide
assortment of items that mainly archaeologists discover (for
example, through excavation and field survey), for example,
buildings, monuments and other kinds of structures, pottery,
coins, mosaics, even entire landscapes (for example, through
the use of aerial photography). Each of these sources can only
tell us just so much about the past, and combining them can
be a fruitful exercise, but how well this is done depends on
the historian’s skill!
THEME
Papyrus scrolls.
© NCERT
not to be republished
59
Two powerful empires ruled over most of Europe,North Africa and the
Middle East in the period between the birth of Christ and the early part
of the seventh century, say, down to the 630s. The two empires were
those of Rome and Iran. The Romans and Iranians were rivals and
fought against each other for much of their history. Their empires lay
next to each other, separated only by a narrow strip of land that ran
along the river Euphrates. In this chapter we shall be looking at the
Roman Empire, but we shall also refer, in passing, to Rome’s rival, Iran.
If you look at the map, you will see that the continents of Europe and
Africa are separated by a sea that stretches all the way from Spain in the
west to Syria in the east. This sea is called the Mediterranean, and it was
the heart of Rome’s empire. Rome dominated the Mediterranean and all
the regions around that sea in both directions, north as well as south.
To the north, the boundaries of the empire were formed by two great
rivers, the Rhine and the Danube; to the south, by the huge expanse of
desert called the Sahara. This vast stretch of territory was the Roman
Empire. Iran controlled the whole area south of the Caspian Sea down
to eastern Arabia, and sometimes large parts of Afghanistan as well.
These two superpowers had divided up most of the world that the Chinese
called Ta Ch’in (‘greater Ch’in’, roughly the west).
AN EMPIRE ACROSS THREE CONTINENTS
MAP 1: Europe and
North Africa
© NCERT
not to be republished
Page 3


58 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
3
An Empire Across
Three Continents
THE Roman Empire covered a vast stretch of territory that
included most of Europe as we know it today and a large
part of the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. In this chapter
we shall look at the way this empire was organised, the
political forces that shaped its destiny, and the social groups
into which people were divided. You will see that the empire
embraced a wealth of local cultures and languages; that
women had a stronger legal position then than they do in
many countries today; but also that much of the economy
was run on slave labour, denying freedom to substantial
numbers of persons. From the fifth century on, the empire fell
apart in the west but remained intact and exceptionally
prosperous in its eastern half. The caliphate which you will
read about in the next chapter built on this prosperity and
inherited its urban and religious traditions.
Roman historians have a rich collection of sources to go on,
which we can broadly divide into three groups: (a) texts,
(b) documents and (c) material remains. Textual sources
include histories of the period written by contemporaries (these
were usually called ‘Annals’, because the narrative was
constructed on a year-by-year basis), letters, speeches,
sermons, laws, and so on. Documentary sources include
mainly inscriptions and papyri. Inscriptions were usually cut
on stone, so a large number survive, in both Greek and Latin.
The ‘papyrus’ was a reed-like plant that grew along the banks
of the Nile in Egypt and was processed to produce a writing
material that was very widely used in everyday life. Thousands
of contracts, accounts, letters and official documents survive
‘on papyrus’ and have been published by scholars who are
called ‘papyrologists’. Material remains include a very wide
assortment of items that mainly archaeologists discover (for
example, through excavation and field survey), for example,
buildings, monuments and other kinds of structures, pottery,
coins, mosaics, even entire landscapes (for example, through
the use of aerial photography). Each of these sources can only
tell us just so much about the past, and combining them can
be a fruitful exercise, but how well this is done depends on
the historian’s skill!
THEME
Papyrus scrolls.
© NCERT
not to be republished
59
Two powerful empires ruled over most of Europe,North Africa and the
Middle East in the period between the birth of Christ and the early part
of the seventh century, say, down to the 630s. The two empires were
those of Rome and Iran. The Romans and Iranians were rivals and
fought against each other for much of their history. Their empires lay
next to each other, separated only by a narrow strip of land that ran
along the river Euphrates. In this chapter we shall be looking at the
Roman Empire, but we shall also refer, in passing, to Rome’s rival, Iran.
If you look at the map, you will see that the continents of Europe and
Africa are separated by a sea that stretches all the way from Spain in the
west to Syria in the east. This sea is called the Mediterranean, and it was
the heart of Rome’s empire. Rome dominated the Mediterranean and all
the regions around that sea in both directions, north as well as south.
To the north, the boundaries of the empire were formed by two great
rivers, the Rhine and the Danube; to the south, by the huge expanse of
desert called the Sahara. This vast stretch of territory was the Roman
Empire. Iran controlled the whole area south of the Caspian Sea down
to eastern Arabia, and sometimes large parts of Afghanistan as well.
These two superpowers had divided up most of the world that the Chinese
called Ta Ch’in (‘greater Ch’in’, roughly the west).
AN EMPIRE ACROSS THREE CONTINENTS
MAP 1: Europe and
North Africa
© NCERT
not to be republished
60 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
The Early Empire
The Roman Empire can broadly be divided into two phases, ‘early’ and
‘late’, divided by the third century as a sort of historical watershed
between them. In other words, the whole period down to the main part
of the third century can be called the ‘early empire’, and the period
after that the ‘late empire’.
A major difference between the two superpowers and their respective
empires was that the Roman Empire was culturally much more diverse
than that of Iran. The Parthians and later the Sasanians, the dynasties
that ruled Iran in this period, ruled over a population that was largely
Iranian. The Roman Empire, by contrast, was a mosaic of territories
and cultures that were chiefly bound together by a common system of
government. Many languages were spoken in the empire, but for the
purposes of administration Latin and Greek were the most widely used,
indeed the only languages. The upper classes of the east spoke and
wrote in Greek, those of the west in Latin, and the boundary between
these broad language areas ran somewhere across the middle of the
Mediterranean, between the African provinces of Tripolitania (which
was Latin speaking) and Cyrenaica (Greek-speaking). All those who
lived in the empire were subjects of a single ruler, the emperor, regardless
of where they lived and what language they spoke.
The regime established by Augustus, the first emperor, in 27 BCE
was called the ‘Principate’. Although Augustus was the sole ruler and
the only real source of authority, the fiction was kept alive that he was
actually only the ‘leading citizen’ (Princeps in Latin), not the absolute
ruler. This was done out of respect for the Senate, the body which had
controlled Rome earlier, in the days when it was a Republic.* The
Senate had existed in Rome for centuries, and had been and remained
a body representing the aristocracy, that is, the wealthiest families of
Roman and, later, Italian descent, mainly landowners. Most of the
Roman histories that survive in Greek and Latin were written by people
from a senatorial background. From these it is clear that emperors
were judged by how they behaved towards the Senate. The worst
emperors were those who were hostile to the senatorial class, behaving
with suspicion or brutality and violence. Many senators yearned to go
back to the days of the Republic, but most must have realised that this
was impossible.
Next to the emperor and the Senate, the other key institution of
imperial rule was the army. Unlike the army of its rival in the Persian
empire, which was a conscripted** army, the Romans had a paid
professional army where soldiers had to put in a minimum of 25 years
of service. Indeed, the existence of a paid army was a distinctive feature
of the Roman Empire. The army was the largest single organised body
in the empire (600,000 by the fourth century) and it certainly had the
power to determine the fate of emperors. The soldiers would constantly
agitate for better wages and service conditions. These agitations often
*The Republic was
the name for a
regime in which the
reality of power lay
with the Senate, a
body dominated by a
small group of
wealthy families who
formed the ‘nobility’.
In practice, the
Republic represented
the government of
the nobility,
exercised through the
body called the
Senate. The Republic
lasted from 509 BC to
27 BC, when it was
overthrown by
Octavian, the
adopted son and heir
of Julius Caesar, who
later changed his
name to Augustus.
Membership of the
Senate was for life,
and wealth and
office-holding
counted for more
than birth.
 **A conscripted
army is one which is
forcibly recruited;
military service is
compulsory for
certain groups or
categories of the
population.
© NCERT
not to be republished
Page 4


58 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
3
An Empire Across
Three Continents
THE Roman Empire covered a vast stretch of territory that
included most of Europe as we know it today and a large
part of the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. In this chapter
we shall look at the way this empire was organised, the
political forces that shaped its destiny, and the social groups
into which people were divided. You will see that the empire
embraced a wealth of local cultures and languages; that
women had a stronger legal position then than they do in
many countries today; but also that much of the economy
was run on slave labour, denying freedom to substantial
numbers of persons. From the fifth century on, the empire fell
apart in the west but remained intact and exceptionally
prosperous in its eastern half. The caliphate which you will
read about in the next chapter built on this prosperity and
inherited its urban and religious traditions.
Roman historians have a rich collection of sources to go on,
which we can broadly divide into three groups: (a) texts,
(b) documents and (c) material remains. Textual sources
include histories of the period written by contemporaries (these
were usually called ‘Annals’, because the narrative was
constructed on a year-by-year basis), letters, speeches,
sermons, laws, and so on. Documentary sources include
mainly inscriptions and papyri. Inscriptions were usually cut
on stone, so a large number survive, in both Greek and Latin.
The ‘papyrus’ was a reed-like plant that grew along the banks
of the Nile in Egypt and was processed to produce a writing
material that was very widely used in everyday life. Thousands
of contracts, accounts, letters and official documents survive
‘on papyrus’ and have been published by scholars who are
called ‘papyrologists’. Material remains include a very wide
assortment of items that mainly archaeologists discover (for
example, through excavation and field survey), for example,
buildings, monuments and other kinds of structures, pottery,
coins, mosaics, even entire landscapes (for example, through
the use of aerial photography). Each of these sources can only
tell us just so much about the past, and combining them can
be a fruitful exercise, but how well this is done depends on
the historian’s skill!
THEME
Papyrus scrolls.
© NCERT
not to be republished
59
Two powerful empires ruled over most of Europe,North Africa and the
Middle East in the period between the birth of Christ and the early part
of the seventh century, say, down to the 630s. The two empires were
those of Rome and Iran. The Romans and Iranians were rivals and
fought against each other for much of their history. Their empires lay
next to each other, separated only by a narrow strip of land that ran
along the river Euphrates. In this chapter we shall be looking at the
Roman Empire, but we shall also refer, in passing, to Rome’s rival, Iran.
If you look at the map, you will see that the continents of Europe and
Africa are separated by a sea that stretches all the way from Spain in the
west to Syria in the east. This sea is called the Mediterranean, and it was
the heart of Rome’s empire. Rome dominated the Mediterranean and all
the regions around that sea in both directions, north as well as south.
To the north, the boundaries of the empire were formed by two great
rivers, the Rhine and the Danube; to the south, by the huge expanse of
desert called the Sahara. This vast stretch of territory was the Roman
Empire. Iran controlled the whole area south of the Caspian Sea down
to eastern Arabia, and sometimes large parts of Afghanistan as well.
These two superpowers had divided up most of the world that the Chinese
called Ta Ch’in (‘greater Ch’in’, roughly the west).
AN EMPIRE ACROSS THREE CONTINENTS
MAP 1: Europe and
North Africa
© NCERT
not to be republished
60 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
The Early Empire
The Roman Empire can broadly be divided into two phases, ‘early’ and
‘late’, divided by the third century as a sort of historical watershed
between them. In other words, the whole period down to the main part
of the third century can be called the ‘early empire’, and the period
after that the ‘late empire’.
A major difference between the two superpowers and their respective
empires was that the Roman Empire was culturally much more diverse
than that of Iran. The Parthians and later the Sasanians, the dynasties
that ruled Iran in this period, ruled over a population that was largely
Iranian. The Roman Empire, by contrast, was a mosaic of territories
and cultures that were chiefly bound together by a common system of
government. Many languages were spoken in the empire, but for the
purposes of administration Latin and Greek were the most widely used,
indeed the only languages. The upper classes of the east spoke and
wrote in Greek, those of the west in Latin, and the boundary between
these broad language areas ran somewhere across the middle of the
Mediterranean, between the African provinces of Tripolitania (which
was Latin speaking) and Cyrenaica (Greek-speaking). All those who
lived in the empire were subjects of a single ruler, the emperor, regardless
of where they lived and what language they spoke.
The regime established by Augustus, the first emperor, in 27 BCE
was called the ‘Principate’. Although Augustus was the sole ruler and
the only real source of authority, the fiction was kept alive that he was
actually only the ‘leading citizen’ (Princeps in Latin), not the absolute
ruler. This was done out of respect for the Senate, the body which had
controlled Rome earlier, in the days when it was a Republic.* The
Senate had existed in Rome for centuries, and had been and remained
a body representing the aristocracy, that is, the wealthiest families of
Roman and, later, Italian descent, mainly landowners. Most of the
Roman histories that survive in Greek and Latin were written by people
from a senatorial background. From these it is clear that emperors
were judged by how they behaved towards the Senate. The worst
emperors were those who were hostile to the senatorial class, behaving
with suspicion or brutality and violence. Many senators yearned to go
back to the days of the Republic, but most must have realised that this
was impossible.
Next to the emperor and the Senate, the other key institution of
imperial rule was the army. Unlike the army of its rival in the Persian
empire, which was a conscripted** army, the Romans had a paid
professional army where soldiers had to put in a minimum of 25 years
of service. Indeed, the existence of a paid army was a distinctive feature
of the Roman Empire. The army was the largest single organised body
in the empire (600,000 by the fourth century) and it certainly had the
power to determine the fate of emperors. The soldiers would constantly
agitate for better wages and service conditions. These agitations often
*The Republic was
the name for a
regime in which the
reality of power lay
with the Senate, a
body dominated by a
small group of
wealthy families who
formed the ‘nobility’.
In practice, the
Republic represented
the government of
the nobility,
exercised through the
body called the
Senate. The Republic
lasted from 509 BC to
27 BC, when it was
overthrown by
Octavian, the
adopted son and heir
of Julius Caesar, who
later changed his
name to Augustus.
Membership of the
Senate was for life,
and wealth and
office-holding
counted for more
than birth.
 **A conscripted
army is one which is
forcibly recruited;
military service is
compulsory for
certain groups or
categories of the
population.
© NCERT
not to be republished
61
took the form of mutinies, if the soldiers
felt let down by their generals or even the
emperor. Again, our picture of the Roman
army depends largely on the way they were
portrayed by historians with senatorial
sympathies. The Senate hated and feared
the army, because it was a source of often-
unpredictable violence, especially in the
tense conditions of the third century when
government was forced to tax more heavily
to pay for its mounting military
expenditures.
To sum up, the emperor, the aristocracy
and the army were the three main ‘players’
in the political history of the empire. The
success of individual emperors depended
on their control of the army, and when the
armies were divided, the result usually was
civil war*. Except for one notorious year (69 CE), when four emperors
mounted the throne in quick succession, the first two centuries were
on the whole free from civil war and in this sense relatively stable.
Succession to the throne was based as far as possible on family descent,
either natural or adoptive, and even the army was strongly wedded to
this principle. For example, Tiberius (14-37 CE), the second in the long
line of Roman emperors, was not the natural son of Augustus, the
ruler who founded the Principate, but Augustus adopted him to ensure
a smooth transition.
External warfare was also much less common in the first two
centuries. The empire inherited by Tiberius from Augustus was already
so vast that further expansion was felt to be unnecessary. In fact, the
‘Augustan age’ is remembered for the peace it ushered in after decades
of internal strife and centuries of military conquest. The only major
campaign of expansion in the early empire was Trajan’s fruitless
occupation of territory across the Euphrates, in the years 113-17 CE
abandoned by his successors.
*Civil war refers to
armed struggles for
power within the
same country, in
contrast to conflicts
between different
countries.
The Emperor Trajan’s Dream – A Conquest of India?
Then, after a winter (115/16) in Antioch marked by a great earthquake, in 116
Trajan marched down the Euphrates to Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, and then
to the head of the Persian Gulf. There [the historian] Cassius Dio describes him
looking longingly at a merchant-ship setting off for India, and wishing that he
were as young as Alexander.
– Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East.
Shops in Forum
Julium, Rome. This
piazza with columns
was built after 51
BCE, to enlarge the
older Roman Forum.
AN EMPIRE ACROSS THREE CONTINENTS
© NCERT
not to be republished
Page 5


58 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
3
An Empire Across
Three Continents
THE Roman Empire covered a vast stretch of territory that
included most of Europe as we know it today and a large
part of the Fertile Crescent and North Africa. In this chapter
we shall look at the way this empire was organised, the
political forces that shaped its destiny, and the social groups
into which people were divided. You will see that the empire
embraced a wealth of local cultures and languages; that
women had a stronger legal position then than they do in
many countries today; but also that much of the economy
was run on slave labour, denying freedom to substantial
numbers of persons. From the fifth century on, the empire fell
apart in the west but remained intact and exceptionally
prosperous in its eastern half. The caliphate which you will
read about in the next chapter built on this prosperity and
inherited its urban and religious traditions.
Roman historians have a rich collection of sources to go on,
which we can broadly divide into three groups: (a) texts,
(b) documents and (c) material remains. Textual sources
include histories of the period written by contemporaries (these
were usually called ‘Annals’, because the narrative was
constructed on a year-by-year basis), letters, speeches,
sermons, laws, and so on. Documentary sources include
mainly inscriptions and papyri. Inscriptions were usually cut
on stone, so a large number survive, in both Greek and Latin.
The ‘papyrus’ was a reed-like plant that grew along the banks
of the Nile in Egypt and was processed to produce a writing
material that was very widely used in everyday life. Thousands
of contracts, accounts, letters and official documents survive
‘on papyrus’ and have been published by scholars who are
called ‘papyrologists’. Material remains include a very wide
assortment of items that mainly archaeologists discover (for
example, through excavation and field survey), for example,
buildings, monuments and other kinds of structures, pottery,
coins, mosaics, even entire landscapes (for example, through
the use of aerial photography). Each of these sources can only
tell us just so much about the past, and combining them can
be a fruitful exercise, but how well this is done depends on
the historian’s skill!
THEME
Papyrus scrolls.
© NCERT
not to be republished
59
Two powerful empires ruled over most of Europe,North Africa and the
Middle East in the period between the birth of Christ and the early part
of the seventh century, say, down to the 630s. The two empires were
those of Rome and Iran. The Romans and Iranians were rivals and
fought against each other for much of their history. Their empires lay
next to each other, separated only by a narrow strip of land that ran
along the river Euphrates. In this chapter we shall be looking at the
Roman Empire, but we shall also refer, in passing, to Rome’s rival, Iran.
If you look at the map, you will see that the continents of Europe and
Africa are separated by a sea that stretches all the way from Spain in the
west to Syria in the east. This sea is called the Mediterranean, and it was
the heart of Rome’s empire. Rome dominated the Mediterranean and all
the regions around that sea in both directions, north as well as south.
To the north, the boundaries of the empire were formed by two great
rivers, the Rhine and the Danube; to the south, by the huge expanse of
desert called the Sahara. This vast stretch of territory was the Roman
Empire. Iran controlled the whole area south of the Caspian Sea down
to eastern Arabia, and sometimes large parts of Afghanistan as well.
These two superpowers had divided up most of the world that the Chinese
called Ta Ch’in (‘greater Ch’in’, roughly the west).
AN EMPIRE ACROSS THREE CONTINENTS
MAP 1: Europe and
North Africa
© NCERT
not to be republished
60 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
The Early Empire
The Roman Empire can broadly be divided into two phases, ‘early’ and
‘late’, divided by the third century as a sort of historical watershed
between them. In other words, the whole period down to the main part
of the third century can be called the ‘early empire’, and the period
after that the ‘late empire’.
A major difference between the two superpowers and their respective
empires was that the Roman Empire was culturally much more diverse
than that of Iran. The Parthians and later the Sasanians, the dynasties
that ruled Iran in this period, ruled over a population that was largely
Iranian. The Roman Empire, by contrast, was a mosaic of territories
and cultures that were chiefly bound together by a common system of
government. Many languages were spoken in the empire, but for the
purposes of administration Latin and Greek were the most widely used,
indeed the only languages. The upper classes of the east spoke and
wrote in Greek, those of the west in Latin, and the boundary between
these broad language areas ran somewhere across the middle of the
Mediterranean, between the African provinces of Tripolitania (which
was Latin speaking) and Cyrenaica (Greek-speaking). All those who
lived in the empire were subjects of a single ruler, the emperor, regardless
of where they lived and what language they spoke.
The regime established by Augustus, the first emperor, in 27 BCE
was called the ‘Principate’. Although Augustus was the sole ruler and
the only real source of authority, the fiction was kept alive that he was
actually only the ‘leading citizen’ (Princeps in Latin), not the absolute
ruler. This was done out of respect for the Senate, the body which had
controlled Rome earlier, in the days when it was a Republic.* The
Senate had existed in Rome for centuries, and had been and remained
a body representing the aristocracy, that is, the wealthiest families of
Roman and, later, Italian descent, mainly landowners. Most of the
Roman histories that survive in Greek and Latin were written by people
from a senatorial background. From these it is clear that emperors
were judged by how they behaved towards the Senate. The worst
emperors were those who were hostile to the senatorial class, behaving
with suspicion or brutality and violence. Many senators yearned to go
back to the days of the Republic, but most must have realised that this
was impossible.
Next to the emperor and the Senate, the other key institution of
imperial rule was the army. Unlike the army of its rival in the Persian
empire, which was a conscripted** army, the Romans had a paid
professional army where soldiers had to put in a minimum of 25 years
of service. Indeed, the existence of a paid army was a distinctive feature
of the Roman Empire. The army was the largest single organised body
in the empire (600,000 by the fourth century) and it certainly had the
power to determine the fate of emperors. The soldiers would constantly
agitate for better wages and service conditions. These agitations often
*The Republic was
the name for a
regime in which the
reality of power lay
with the Senate, a
body dominated by a
small group of
wealthy families who
formed the ‘nobility’.
In practice, the
Republic represented
the government of
the nobility,
exercised through the
body called the
Senate. The Republic
lasted from 509 BC to
27 BC, when it was
overthrown by
Octavian, the
adopted son and heir
of Julius Caesar, who
later changed his
name to Augustus.
Membership of the
Senate was for life,
and wealth and
office-holding
counted for more
than birth.
 **A conscripted
army is one which is
forcibly recruited;
military service is
compulsory for
certain groups or
categories of the
population.
© NCERT
not to be republished
61
took the form of mutinies, if the soldiers
felt let down by their generals or even the
emperor. Again, our picture of the Roman
army depends largely on the way they were
portrayed by historians with senatorial
sympathies. The Senate hated and feared
the army, because it was a source of often-
unpredictable violence, especially in the
tense conditions of the third century when
government was forced to tax more heavily
to pay for its mounting military
expenditures.
To sum up, the emperor, the aristocracy
and the army were the three main ‘players’
in the political history of the empire. The
success of individual emperors depended
on their control of the army, and when the
armies were divided, the result usually was
civil war*. Except for one notorious year (69 CE), when four emperors
mounted the throne in quick succession, the first two centuries were
on the whole free from civil war and in this sense relatively stable.
Succession to the throne was based as far as possible on family descent,
either natural or adoptive, and even the army was strongly wedded to
this principle. For example, Tiberius (14-37 CE), the second in the long
line of Roman emperors, was not the natural son of Augustus, the
ruler who founded the Principate, but Augustus adopted him to ensure
a smooth transition.
External warfare was also much less common in the first two
centuries. The empire inherited by Tiberius from Augustus was already
so vast that further expansion was felt to be unnecessary. In fact, the
‘Augustan age’ is remembered for the peace it ushered in after decades
of internal strife and centuries of military conquest. The only major
campaign of expansion in the early empire was Trajan’s fruitless
occupation of territory across the Euphrates, in the years 113-17 CE
abandoned by his successors.
*Civil war refers to
armed struggles for
power within the
same country, in
contrast to conflicts
between different
countries.
The Emperor Trajan’s Dream – A Conquest of India?
Then, after a winter (115/16) in Antioch marked by a great earthquake, in 116
Trajan marched down the Euphrates to Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, and then
to the head of the Persian Gulf. There [the historian] Cassius Dio describes him
looking longingly at a merchant-ship setting off for India, and wishing that he
were as young as Alexander.
– Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East.
Shops in Forum
Julium, Rome. This
piazza with columns
was built after 51
BCE, to enlarge the
older Roman Forum.
AN EMPIRE ACROSS THREE CONTINENTS
© NCERT
not to be republished
62 THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
Much more characteristic was the gradual extension of Roman direct
rule. This was accomplished by absorbing a whole series of ‘dependent’
kingdoms into Roman provincial territory. The Near East was full of
such kingdoms*, but by the early second century those which lay west
of the Euphrates (towards Roman territory) had disappeared, swallowed
up by Rome. (Incidentally, some of these kingdoms were exceedingly
wealthy, for example Herod’s kingdom yielded the equivalent of 5.4
million denarii per year, equal to over 125,000 kg of gold! The denarius
was a Roman silver coin containing about 4½ gm of pure silver.)
In fact, except for Italy, which was not considered a province in
these centuries, all the territories of the empire were organised into
provinces and subject to taxation. At its peak in the second century,
the Roman Empire stretched from Scotland to the borders of
Armenia, and from the Sahara to the Euphrates and sometimes
beyond. Given that there was no government in the modern sense
to help them to run things, you may well ask, how was it possible
for the emperor to cope with the control and administration of such
a vast and diverse set of territories, with a population of some 60
million in the mid-second century? The answer lies in the
urbanisation of the empire.
The great urban centres that lined the shores of the Mediterranean
(Carthage, Alexandria, Antioch were the biggest among them) were
the true bedrock of the imperial system. It was through the cities
that ‘government’ was able to tax the provincial countrysides which
generated much of the wealth of the empire. What this means is
that the local upper classes actively collaborated with the Roman
state in administering their own territories and raising taxes from
them. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Roman political
history is the dramatic shift in power between Italy and the provinces.
Throughout the second and third centuries, it was the provincial
upper classes who supplied most of the cadre that governed the
provinces and commanded the armies. They came to form a new
elite of administrators and
military commanders who
became much more powerful
than the senatorial class because
they had the backing of the
emperors. As this new group
emerged, the emperor Gallienus
(253-68) consolidated their rise to
power by excluding senators from
military command. We are told
that Gallienus forbade senators
from serving in the army or
having access to it, in order to
prevent control of the empire from
falling into their hands.
*These were local
kingdoms that were
‘clients’ of Rome.
Their rulers could
be relied on to use
their forces in
support of Rome,
and in return Rome
allowed them to
exist.
The Near East
From the
perspective of
someone who lived
in the Roman
Mediterranean, this
referred to all the
territory east of the
Mediterranean,
chiefly the Roman
provinces of Syria,
Palestine and
Mesopotamia, and
in a looser sense
the surrounding
territories, for
example Arabia.
Pont du Gard, near
Nimes, France, first
century BCE. Roman
engineers built
massive aqueducts
over three continents
to carry water.
© NCERT
not to be republished
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