Stuff from Way Back #29b: Roma Aeterna

The last and most critical reason depends upon how one understands life in the Roman Empire, and there is much we do not know about life in the rural areas of the provinces. I am, however, convinced that it was basically good, convinced especially by the belief that the Empire could not have been generally so stable and last so long were its inhabitants generally oppressed. This of course comes close to making a circular argument, but the evidence appears to support the contention that at least until the Anarchy life in the Empire for the average free person was relatively comfortable or at least acceptable. Imperial structures based entirely on fear are simply not stable over the longer run – consider the Assyrian Empire.

Strong evidence that the Roman Empire was not such a bad place to live lies in the fact that apart from the Jews the Romans essentially did not have to concern themselves with the revolt of subject peoples. This strikes me as an impossibility were the Empire held together only by fear. There were of course revolts, which were suppressed with great brutality, but they all occur in areas that were recently or incompletely pacified: Gaul in the 50s BC, Illyricum in AD 6, Germany in AD 9, Boudicca in AD 59, Civilis in AD 69, Mesopotamia in AD 116. Once an area had been controlled for perhaps a generation Roman rule was accepted.

The one exception was the Jews, who undertook two disastrous revolts against Rome, the results of which were to forever change (and improve) the nature of Judaism by ridding the religion of the temple and all the rituals and sacrifices characteristic of polytheism and allowing it to become more introspective and spiritual. The Jews were a special case inasmuch as their monotheism prevented them from being assimilated into the polytheist Greco-Roman culture of the Empire as were all the other subject peoples. Understanding this, the Romans granted the Jews special exemptions from such things as any obligation to the imperial cult and allowed them more local autonomy, but friction was impossible to avoid. It was not just the religion, which affected every aspect of their society, but also the fact that this religion was inextricably entwined with the idea of a national state, given them by god. This was one thing Rome could not grant, given the strategic importance of Syria-Palestine.

It didn't work out

It didn’t work out

Generally Roman rule appears to have been accepted, certainly once the generation of the conquest had passed. The provincials, a least in the towns and cities, were easily assimilated and ultimately Romanized. The highly urbanized and Hellenized east fit readily into the urban Greco-Roman culture of the Empire; though Latin was the official language, Greek was the real lingua franca of the eastern provinces. In the west Roman civilization was simply at a much higher level of development than that of the Celtic and German tribes and naturally dominated, once again at least in the municipalities.

I believe that up until the Anarchy Rome gave more than she took. She obviously robbed the provincials of their nominal independence, but for many, especially in the Greek east, this was meaningless since they had already been under the control of someone else. Self-determination for the Greek states had essentially disappeared with the conquests of Alexander, but Rome had no problem allowing the Greeks and everyone else to run their own cities and communities. In fact, she had little choice but to allow a great deal of local autonomy, since administering the Empire at the grassroots level was beyond the manpower and financial resources of the state. Rome followed a traditional imperial pattern by making alliances with the local elites and drawing upon their experience by allowing them to govern locally under the auspices of the Roman officials at the province level. Such had the additional benefit of shrinking the imperial presence in the lives of the Empire’s subjects.

Rome of course also collected taxes. There is a great deal of dispute over what the tax burden was like for the average inhabitant of the Empire, but my estimation is that from the end of the Republic to the Anarchy that burden was not particularly onerous – in general. The civil wars in the first century BC saw the financial rape of the wealthy eastern provinces, but the return to stability and the systemization of provincial administration and tax collection seems to have produced a tolerable level of taxation. In any case, the Empire certainly prospered in the next two and a half centuries, suggesting relatively comfortable or at least livable economic circumstances for most inhabitants. With the Anarchy this changes rapidly, as continual civil war and barbarian invasion drives the government to extremes of revenue collection, which in turn begins to strangle the productive classes of the Empire.
In return the imperial subject received a number of things, the most important of which was peace and security. We tend to underestimate the value of peace because no wars have rumbled through the United States for a century and a half and we are used to it. For most human beings decades, let alone centuries, of peace is a highly compelling commodity. It is clear in the modern world that most people, even in places like America, would gladly trade some of their freedom and civil rights for security and comfort. So, that Gaul who fought against Caesar probably hated Rome, but his grandson would likely think more about the eight legions on the Rhine that prevented the Germans from trashing his farm every summer.

Better than Germans

Better than Germans

The Empire meant more uniform laws and more efficient mechanisms of justice. This is not to say that the average person was guaranteed justice – as today, money and social standing played a large role – but he certainly had a better shot at it. There were material benefits of course. Those military roads that knitted the Empire together could be used by anyone, dramatically enhancing communications and consequently commerce. In fact, take an area the size of the Roman Empire and guarantee more or less continuous peace for a couple of centuries, and the economy can hardly fail to prosper, assuming reasonable levels of taxation.

But far more important, second only to peace, was that the Roman Empire was an open society and became more so as it aged. Rome exported Romanitas, that is, her culture and language, though not through any state directed policy. In the east Romanitas dovetailed perfectly with the Hellenism that had helped shape it, while in the west it naturally overwhelmed the less sophisticated native cultures, at least in the municipalities, which were focal points of Romanitas. Speak Latin and act like a Roman, and few will worry about your Celtic blood.

Even the once precious citizenship was available to non-Romans. By the time of the Principate citizenship was politically meaningless on the national level, but municipal politics remained vibrant, and in any case the citizenship brought enhanced social status and some economic advantages. During the Republic, Rome was loathe to extend citizenship to non-Romans – the Italian allies had to revolt to get it – but this hesitation broke down rapidly with the advent of the autocracy. In AD 212 the emperor Caracalla granted the Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the Empire. Now, he did it as a way to raise more revenues, and being a Roman citizen pretty much lost all its value when everyone was one, but the act is symbolic of the character of the Empire. Henceforth, a Roman who could trace his ancestry back to the early Republic had the same legal status as someone whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and fought Caesar. The conquerors had lost their special status in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. This points the way to the Late Empire, when Italy will simply be another set of provinces.

The city was one of the two primary mechanisms for the Romanizing of the Empire. They were the bastions of Romanitas, settled originally by Italians and bringing the trappings of Roman civilization to the provinces. And Rome had an unofficial policy of encouraging urbanization: the more urbanized a province was the more economically active it was and the easier it was to secure. Cities and towns of course also helped spread Romanitas, and they provided higher quality recruits for the provincial military units, who, incidentally, received the citizenship upon discharge.

A nice place to raise a family

A nice place to raise a family

The other major Romanizing element was the army, an irony considering that one rarely sees soldiers as a civilizing force. But half the Roman military establishment was composed of the provincial auxiliaries, for whom the army was a factory creating new Romans. One was not going to pick up the finer points of Roman culture in a legionary camp on the Danube, but the recruit learned basic Latin, the essentials of being Roman and came to think of himself as a Roman. It is estimated that during the first two centuries of the Principate the auxiliaries supplied a stream of about 15,000 Romanized provincials a year.

The Empire wants you!

The Empire wants you!

There was a two-way street connecting Rome to the provinces. As she exported Romanitas, she was also importing provincial talent, products of the Romanizing of the Empire. These were people whose bloodlines were not at all Italian but who did not for a minute consider themselves anything other than Roman. The emperors Trajan and Hadrian came originally from Spain, completely Roman but descended at least in part from Iberians. The emperor Septimius Severus hailed from North Africa, and during the Anarchy emperors came all over the Empire.

Despite Monty Python’s Life of Brian (the best and truest film ever made about Rome) most people think of the Roman Empire in negative terms – slaughtering Gauls, scattering Jews, oppressing Christians – but to my mind the Empire was perhaps the finest imperial structure ever, which accounts in part for its longevity. This was an incredibly cosmopolitan entity, a rare and seemingly successful multicultural state. The British Empire turned subjects into quasi-Englishmen, but Britain never relinquished its status as imperial master; one was not about to find an African or Indian in Parliament. Rome civilized western Europe and did it without the snottiness and hypocrisy of the British.

Welease Bwian!

Welease Bwian!

What have the Romans ever done for us?” Plenty.

One comment on “Stuff from Way Back #29b: Roma Aeterna

  1. Steve Beach says:


    Please add the following to your mailing list:

    (Mick McCarthy)

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