Chapter 7, Lesson 3 the early roman empire

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Chapter 7, Lesson 3 -- THE EARLY ROMAN EMPIRE

Augustus created a new order that began the Roman Empire. The period from his death in A.D. 14 until A.D. 180 is called the Early Empire. During this period, the Roman Empire reached the height of its power and prosperity.

Emperors of the Early Empire

Augustus’s new political system allowed the emperor to select his successor from his natural or adopted family. The first four emperors after Augustus came from his family. They were Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. During their reigns, these emperors took over more and more of the responsibilities that Augustus had given to the Senate. As the emperors grew more powerful, many became more corrupt.

Nero, for example, had people killed if he wanted them out of the way, including his own mother. Without troops, the senators were unable to oppose his excesses, but the Roman legions finally revolted against him. Nero, abandoned by his guards, committed suicide after allegedly uttering these final words: “What an artist the world is losing in me.”

After Nero’s death, a civil war broke out in a.d. 69. It soon became obvious that the Roman Empire had a major flaw. Without a system for selecting a new emperor, emperors could be made and deposed by the Roman legions.

At the beginning of the second century, a series of five so-called good emperors came to power. They were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. These emperors continued a period of peace and prosperity known as the Pax Romana—the Roman Peace.

The Pax Romana lasted for almost 200 years. The rulers during this period treated the ruling classes with respect, ended arbitrary executions, maintained peace in the empire, and supported domestic policies generally helpful to the empire. Although they were absolute rulers, they were known for their tolerance. By adopting capable men as their sons and successors, the first four “good emperors” reduced the chances of succession problems.

Under the emperors of the Pax Romana, the powers of the emperor continued to expand at the expense of the Senate’s powers. Officials appointed and directed by the emperor took over the running of the government. These emperors also created new social programs. Trajan, for example, provided state funds to assist poor parents in the raising and educating of their children. The “good emperors" were widely praised for their building programs. Trajan and Hadrian were especially active in building public works—aqueducts, bridges, roads, and harbor facilities— throughout the provinces and in Rome.

The Empire Expands

Rome expanded further during the period of the Early Empire. Although Trajan extended Roman rule into Dacia (Romania), Mesopotamia, and the Sinai Peninsula, his successors realized that the empire was too large to be easily governed. Hadrian withdrew Roman forces from much of Mesopotamia. To protect the frontier, he strengthened the fortifications along a line connecting the Rhine and Danube Rivers. He also built a 74-mile- (118-km-) long wall—Hadrian’s Wall—across northern Britain to keep out the Picts and the Scots.

By the end of the second century, it became apparent that it would be more and more difficult to defend the empire. Roman forces were located in permanent bases behind the frontiers. When one frontier was attacked, however, troops were drawn from other frontiers, leaving the latter frontiers open to attack.

At its height in the second century, the Roman Empire, like the Han empire in China at the same time, was one of the greatest states the world had ever seen. The Roman Empire covered about three and a half million square miles (9.1 million square km) and had a population that has been estimated at more than 50 million people.

The emperors and the imperial government provided a degree of unity throughout the empire. At the same time, the Romans gave much leeway to local customs. The privileges of Roman citizenship were granted to many people in the provinces. In a.d. 212, the emperor Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to every free person in the empire.

The administration of the Roman Empire depended greatly on cities and towns. A provincial governor’s staff was not large, so local officials acted as Roman agents, performing many government duties, especially taxation. Most cities were not large by modern standards. Provincial cities resembled each other with their temples, markets, and public buildings. These cities were important in the spread of Roman culture, Roman law, and the Latin language. Latin was the language of the western part of the empire,whereas Greek was used in the East as a result of Alexander the Great’s earlier conquests. Roman culture spread and freely mixed with Greek culture. The result has been called Greco-Roman civilization.

Economy and Society

The Early Empire was a period of much prosperity, with internal peace leading to high levels of trade. Merchants from all over the empire came to the chief Italian ports of Puteoli (pyu • TEE • uh • LY) on the Bay of Naples and Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber. Trade went beyond the Roman frontiers as well and even included silk goods from China. Large quantities of grain were imported to feed the people of Rome. Luxury items poured in to satisfy the desires of the wealthy.

Despite the active trade and commerce, however, farming remained the chief occupation of most people and the underlying basis of Roman prosperity. Large landed estates, called latifundia (LA • tuh • FUHN • dee • uh), dominated farming in southern and central Italy. These estates mostly used slaves to raise sheep and cattle on a large scale. Small peasant farms continued to exist in northern Italy.

An enormous gulf separated rich and poor in Roman society. The upper classes lived lives of great leisure and luxury in their villas and on their vast estates. Small farmers often became dependent on the huge estates of their wealthy neighbors. In the cities, many poor citizens worked in shops and markets. Thousands of unemployed depended on the emperor’s handouts of grain to survive.

Roman Arts and Science

After they conquered Greece, the Romans began to adopt many aspects of Greek culture. By adapting Greek styles, the Romans spread Greco-Roman civilization throughout their empire.

Art, Architecture, and Technology

In a reflection of the Greek influence on ancient Roman culture, the Romans adopted many features of the Greek style of art during the third and second centuries b.c. They developed a taste for Greek statues, which they placed in public buildings and in their houses. Reproductions of Greek statues became popular when the supply of original works ran low. Although Greek sculptors aimed for an ideal appearance in their figures, Roman sculptors produced more realistic works that included even unattractive physical details.

The Romans excelled in architecture, a highly practical art. Although they continued to use Greek styles such as colonnades and rectangular buildings, the Romans also used curved forms such as the arch, the vault, and the dome. The Romans were the first people in antiquity to use concrete on a massive scale. Using concrete along with the new architectural forms made it possible for the Romans to construct huge buildings undreamed of by the Greeks. In order to emphasize the usefulness of Roman architecture, Frontinus, Emperor Trajan’s aqueduct commissioner, wrote, “Will anybody compare the idle Pyramids, or those other useless though much renowned works of the Greeks with these aqueducts, with these many indispensable structures?”

The remarkable engineering skills of the Romans were also put to use constructing roads, bridges, and aqueducts. The Romans built a network of some 50,000 miles (80,450 km) of roads throughout the empire. In Rome, almost a dozen aqueducts kept a population of 1 million supplied with water. Public baths and even some homes of the wealthy were supplied with freshwater while dirty water was flushed out through an extensive network of lead or clay pipes. Although the Roman technologies of sewers and drainage were mostly lost during the Middle Ages, they reemerged throughout Europe during the population boom and urbanization of the 1700s and 1800s.


Like their alphabet, the Romans borrowed their numerical system from the Etruscans, who may have originally created the numerical system based on tally marks. Roman numerals used letters to represent numbers, however, there was not an individual letter for each number. Using a limited number of symbols for specific values (I, V, X, L, C, D, M), addition and subtraction were used in order to express each number. Romans used an abacus, a type of counting frame, in order to carry out complex mathematical problems, as long numbers could become quite cumbersome. Although they are not commonly used today, Roman numerals continue to find use in recording book volumes or the production year of movies.


Greek thought heavily influenced Roman science. Romans, like Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23 – a.d. 79), compiled the works of Greek thinkers into encyclopedic volumes. These Roman summaries of Greek science and thought became the standard for scientific knowledge in Europe, North Africa, and much of Southwest Asia until the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Greek thought also inspired Roman medicine. For example, because so many doctors who had studied medicine were Greek, Julius Caesar attempted to lure them to Rome with promises of Roman citizenship during the first century b.c. Galen of Pergamum (a.d. 129 – a.d. 200) is considered to be the greatest physician and medical writer of the ancient period. Starting out as a doctor for gladiators in Pergamum, he later became a court physician for the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Combining Greek medical knowledge with his own experiments, Galen expanded Roman understandings of anatomy and medicine by dissecting animals, as Roman law did not allow the dissection of people.

One of Galen’s most lasting contributions to science was his development of the Greek theory of humors. Galen believed that four different bodily fluids, called humors, were the key to medicine. He believed these humors should exist in equal measures in the human body and that, when unbalanced, they could harm a person’s temperament and health. This theory of humors proved to be enduring. From ancient Rome it spread into the Arab world and medieval Europe and continued to dominate the understanding of the body until the advent of modern medicine in the nineteenth century.


Although there were many talented writers, the high point of Latin literature was reached in the Age of Augustus. Indeed, the Augustan Age has been called the golden age of Latin literature.

The most distinguished poet of the Augustan Age was Virgil, who wrote his masterpiece, the Aeneid (ih • NEE • uhd), in Rome’s honor. In the poem, the character of Aeneas is portrayed as the ideal Roman whose virtues are duty, piety, and faithfulness. Aeneas fulfilled his purpose by establishing the Romans in Italy and initiating their mission to rule the world. The poem was also meant to express that Rome’s gift was the art of ruling. Although heavily influenced by Greek literature, Virgil’s Aeneid reflected Roman historical values and traditions.

Another prominent Augustan poet was Horace, a friend of Virgil’s. A sophisticated writer, he pointed out some of the follies and vices of his age. In the Satires, Horace directs attacks against dissatisfaction and greed: “How does it happen, Maecenas, that no-one lives content with the lot that either choice has granted him or that chance has thrown in his way. . . .”

The most famous Latin prose work of the golden age was written by the historian Livy, whose masterpiece was The Early History of Rome. In 142 books, of which only 35 survive, Livy traced Roman history to 9 b.c. Livy saw history in terms of moral lessons. His stories transcend Roman culture, revealing the character of its chief figures and demonstrating the virtues that had made Rome great.

Life in the Roman World

At the heart of the Roman social structure stood the family, headed by the paterfamilias—the dominant male. The household also included the wife, sons with their wives and children, unmarried daughters, and slaves.

Family Life and Women’s Roles

Unlike the Greeks, the Romans raised their children at home. All Roman upper-class children—boys and girls—were expected to learn to read. Teachers were often Greek slaves because upper-class Romans had to learn Greek to prosper in the empire.

Roman boys learned reading and writing, moral principles and family values, law, and physical training to prepare them to be soldiers. At age 16, childhood ended for Roman males. At a special ceremony, a young Roman exchanged his purple-edged toga for a plain white toga, which was the toga of manhood.

Some parents in upper-class families provided education for their daughters by hiring private tutors or sending the girls to primary schools. However, at the age when boys were entering secondary schools, girls were entering into marriage.

Like the Greeks, Roman males believed that the weakness of females made it necessary for women to have male guardians. The paterfamilias had that responsibility. When he died, his sons or nearest male relatives assumed the role of guardian. Fathers also arranged the marriages of their daughters.

For females, the legal minimum age for marriage was 12, although 14 was a more common age. For males, the legal minimum age was 14, although most men married later. Traditionally, Roman marriages were meant to be for life, but divorce was introduced in the third century b.c. and became fairly easy to obtain. Either husband or wife could ask for a divorce.

By the a.d. 100s, changes were occurring in the Roman family. The paterfamilias no longer had absolute authority over his children. He could not sell his children into slavery or have them put to death. The husband’s absolute authority over his wife also disappeared. Women were no longer required to have guardians.

Upper-class Roman women in the Early Empire had considerable freedom and independence. They had the right to own, inherit, and sell property. Unlike Greek wives, Roman wives were not segregated from males in the home. Outside their homes, upper-class women could attend races, the theater, and the amphitheater; however, they had to sit in separate female sections. When they went out, women of rank were still accompanied by maids and companions. Women could not participate in politics but influenced politics through their husbands.

Slavery and Slave Revolts

Slavery was common throughout the ancient world, but no people had more slaves or relied so much on slave labor as the Romans did. After the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean, large numbers of foreign peoples who had been captured in wars were brought back to Italy as slaves.

Greek slaves were in much demand as tutors, musicians, doctors, and artists. Roman businessmen would employ them as shop assistants or craftspeople. Slaves of all nationalities were used as household workers such as cooks, valets, waiters, cleaners, and gardeners. Slaves built roads and public buildings and farmed the large estates of the wealthy. The conditions under which these slaves lived were often pitiful.

One Roman writer argued that it was cheaper to work slaves to death and then to replace them than it was to treat them well. Some slaves revolted against their owners and even murdered them, causing some Romans to live in great fear of their slaves. The murder of a master by a slave might mean the execution of all the other household slaves.

The most famous slave revolt in Italy occurred in 73 b.c. Led by the gladiator Spartacus, the revolt broke out in southern Italy and involved 70,000 slaves. Spartacus managed to defeat several Roman armies before being trapped and killed in 71 b.c. The Romans crucified— put to death by nailing to a cross—6,000 of Spartacus’s followers.

Living Conditions in Rome

At the center of the colossal Roman Empire was Rome. Truly a capital city, Rome had the largest population of any city in the empire—close to 1 million by the time of Augustus. People from all over the empire resided there. For anyone with ambitions, Rome was the place to be.

Rome boasted public buildings unequaled anywhere in the empire. Its temples, markets, baths, theaters, governmental buildings, and amphitheaters gave parts of the city an appearance of grandeur and magnificence. On the other hand, Rome was an overcrowded and noisy city. Because of the congestion, cart and wagon traffic was banned from the streets during the day. However, the noise from the traffic at night often made sleep difficult. Walking in Rome at night was also dangerous. Although Augustus had organized a police force, people were assaulted or robbed. They could also be soaked by filth thrown out of the upper-story windows of Rome’s massive apartment buildings. 

A large gulf existed between rich and poor. The rich had comfortable villas, while the poor lived in apartment blocks called insulae, which might be six stories high. Constructed of concrete walls with wooden-beam floors, these buildings were usually poorly built and often collapsed. Fire was a constant threat in the insulae where stoves, torches, candles, and lamps were used for heat and light. Once they started, fires were extremely difficult to put out. The famous fire of a.d. 64, which Nero was falsely accused of starting, destroyed a large part of the city.

Although it was the center of a great empire, Rome had serious problems. Beginning with Augustus, the emperors provided food for the city's poor. About 200,000 people received free grain, much of it imported from Egypt. Even so, conditions remained grim for the poor.

Large-scale entertainment was provided for the inhabitants of Rome. The poet Juvenal said of the Roman masses, “But nowadays, with no vote . . . , their motto is ‘couldn’t care less.’ Time was when their [vote] elected generals, heads of state, commanders of legions: but now . . . there’s only two things that concern them: bread and circuses.”

Public spectacles were provided by the emperor as part of the great religious festivals celebrated by the state. The festivals included three major types of entertainment. At the Circus Maximus, horse and chariot races attracted hundreds of thousands. Dramatic performances were held in theaters. The most famous of all the public spectacles, however, were the gladiatorial shows.

Religion in the Roman World

The Romans believed that the observance of proper ritual by state priests brought them into a right relationship with the gods. This guaranteed peace and prosperity. Indeed, the Romans believed that their success in creating an empire meant that they had earned the favor of the gods. As the politician Cicero claimed in the first century b.c., “We have overcome all the nations of the world, because we have realized that the world is directed and governed by the gods.” 

At the same time, the Romans were tolerant of other religions. They allowed the worship of native gods and goddesses throughout their provinces. They even adopted some of the local gods. Under Julius Caesar and Augustus, Jews, believers in a monotheistic religion, were permitted to practice Judaism, seeing it as an ancient religion that supported social stability. Later, the Roman-Jewish wars led to the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and prohibitions on practicing Judaism. After many years of persecuting Christianity, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion.

Augustus brought back traditional festivals and ceremonies to revive the Roman state religion, which had declined during the turmoil of the late Roman Republic. The official state religion focused on the worship of a number of gods and goddesses, including Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, and Mars. In addition, beginning with Augustus, emperors were often officially made gods by the Roman Senate, thus bolstering support for the emperors.

Chapter 8, Lesson 1 -- THE FIRST CHRISTIANS

A new civilization came into being in western Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. This new civilization—European civilization—was formed by the coming together of three major elements: the Germanic people who moved in and settled the Western Roman Empire, the legacy of the Romans, and the Christian Church.

Judaism in the Roman Empire

In the period immediately preceding the Roman conquest of 63 b.c., the Jewish people enjoyed independence. By a.d. 6, however, Judaea (joo • DEE • uh), which embraced the lands of the old Jewish kingdom of Judah, had been made a Roman province placed under the direction of an official called a prefect, later known as a procurator.

A wide variety of Jewish groups developed and vied for influence under the Romans. Unrest was widespread in Judaea, but the Jews differed among themselves about Roman rule. The priestly Sadducees (SA • juh •seez) probably favored cooperation with Rome. The scholarly Pharisees (FAR • uh • SEEZ) held that close observance of religious law would protect them from Roman influences. The Essenes lived apart from society, sharing goods in common. Like many other Jews, they waited for God to save Israel from oppression. The Zealots, however, called for the violent overthrow of Roman rule. In fact, a Jewish revolt began in a.d. 66, only to be crushed by the Romans four years later. The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and Roman power once more stood supreme.

A few decades before the revolt, a Jewish teacher named Jesus traveled and preached throughout Judaea and neighboring Galilee. These teachings began a new movement within Judaism.

The Rise of Christianity

What are the beliefs that define Christianity? How did Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and what were the consequences?

After reports spread that Jesus had overcome death, the movement gained additional support throughout Judaea and Galilee and led to the development of a new monotheistic faith. Known as Christianity, it was heavily influenced by the culture of ancient Israel.

The Teachings of Jesus

Jesus believed that his mission was to complete the salvation that God had promised to Israel throughout its history. He stated: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Jesus, then, adhered to the entire Law and emphasized those elements that called for the transformation of the inner person: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets."

Citing verses from the Hebrew Bible, Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus shared these and related ethical concepts with other prominent Jewish teachers. He gave them particularly eloquent and influential expression. The concepts—humility, charity, and love toward others—later helped to shape the value system of Western civilization.

Jesus's preaching stirred controversy. Some people saw him as a potential revolutionary who might lead a revolt against Rome. His opponents finally turned him over to Roman authorities. The prefect Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus’s crucifixion. After the death of Jesus, his followers proclaimed that he had risen from death and had appeared to them. They believed Jesus to be the Messiah (anointed one), the long-expected deliverer who would save Israel from its foes and inaugurate an age of peace, prosperity, and monotheism.

Christianity Spreads Through the Empire

Prominent apostles, or leaders, arose in early Christianity. The recognized leader was Simon Peter, a Jewish fisherman who had become a follower of Jesus during Jesus’s lifetime. Another major apostle was Paul, a highly educated Jewish Roman citizen who joined the movement later. Paul took the message of Jesus to Gentiles— non-Jews—as well as to Jews.

At the center of Paul’s message was the belief that Jesus was the Savior, the Son of God who had come to Earth to save humanity. Paul taught that Jesus’s death made up for the sins of all humans. By accepting Jesus as Christ (from Christos, the Greek term for Messiah) and Savior, people could be saved from sin and reconciled to God.

These central ideas of early Christianity were passed on orally through preaching. Paul and other followers of Jesus also wrote letters, or epistles, outlining and developing Christian beliefs. Also, some of Jesus’s disciples, or followers, may have preserved some of the sayings of Jesus in writing. Later, between a.d. 40 and a.d. 100, these accounts became the basis of the written Gospels—the “good news” concerning Jesus. These writings give a record of Jesus’s life and teachings, and they form the core of the New Testament, the second part of the Christian Bible. This same Christian Bible has become the most published book in the world and has endured into the present day, conveying universal themes to a variety of cultures around the globe.

By a.d. 100, the early missionaries had established Christian churches in most of the major cities of the eastern empire and in some places in the western part of the empire. Most early Christians came from the Jews and the Greek-speaking populations of the east. In the second and third centuries, however, Christianity had spread among an increasing number of Latin-speaking people.

Roman Persecution

The basic values of Christianity differed markedly from those of the Greco-Roman world. In spite of that, the Romans at first paid little attention to the Christians, whom they regarded as simply another sect of Judaism. However, the Roman attitude toward Christianity began to change.

The Romans tolerated the religions of other peoples unless these religions threatened public order or public morals. Many Romans came to view Christians as harmful to the Roman state because Christians refused to worship the state gods and emperors. The Romans saw the Christians’ refusal to do so as an act of treason, punishable by death. The Christians, however, believed there was only one God. To them, the worship of state gods and the emperors meant worshiping false gods and endangering their own salvation. Jews, who also refrained from such worship, had been allowed to follow "the laws of their fathers," but this exemption was not extended to the new religion.

The Roman government began persecuting (harassing to cause suffering) Christians during the reign of Nero (a.d. 54–a.d. 68). The emperor blamed the Christians for the fire that destroyed much of Rome in a.d. 64 and subjected them to cruel deaths. In contrast, in the second century, persecution of Christians diminished, allowing this new monotheistic faith to develop. By a.d. 180, Christians still represented a small minority, but one of considerable strength.

Roman Empire Adopts Christianity

The occasional persecution of Christians by the Romans in the first and second centuries had not stopped the growth of Christianity. It had, in fact, served to strengthen Christianity in the second and third centuries by causing it to become more organized. Influenced by the Roman institutions under which they lived, missionaries used the Roman language and organizational structures to spread their message. Fear of persecution meant that only the most committed would follow the faith.

Crucial to this change was the emerging role of the bishops, who began to assume more control over church communities. The Christian church was creating a new structure in which the clergy, or church leaders, had distinct functions separate from the laity, or the regular church members.

Christianity grew quickly in the first century. It took root in the second century, and by the third century, it had spread widely. Why was Christianity able to attract and maintain so many followers?

First, the Christian message had much to offer the Roman world. The Roman state-based religion was impersonal and existed for the good of Rome. Christianity was personal and offered salvation and eternal life to individuals. Christianity gave life a meaning and purpose beyond the simple material things of everyday reality.

Second, Christianity seemed familiar. It was viewed by some as similar to other mystery religions, offering immortality as the result of the sacrificial death of a savior-god. At the same time, it offered more than the other mystery religions did. Jesus had been a human figure to whom it was easy to relate. Moreover, Christianity did not require painful or expensive initiation rites as other mystery religions did. Initiation was by baptism—a purification by water—by which one entered into the Christian community.

Finally, Christianity fulfilled the human need to belong. Christians formed communities bound to one another. In these communities, people could express their love by helping one another and offering assistance to the poor and the sick. Christianity satisfied the need to belong in a way that the huge Roman Empire could never provide, and developed a unifying social element that would endure into medieval Europe.

Christianity proved attractive to all classes, but especially to the poor and powerless. Eternal life is promised to all—rich, poor, aristocrats, slaves, men, and women. As Paul stated in his letters to the Colossians and the Galatians, "And [you] have put on the new self. . . . Here there is no Greek or Jew . . . barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." Although Christianity did not call for revolution, it stressed a sense of spiritual equality for all people—a revolutionary idea at the time.

The Christian Church became more organized in the third century. Some emperors began new persecutions, but their schemes failed. The last great persecution was by Diocletian (dy • uh • klee • shuhn) at the beginning of the fourth century. Even he had to admit, however, what had become obvious in the course of the third century: Christianity and its followers were too strong to be blotted out by force.

In the fourth century, Christianity prospered and found a powerful supporter in Emperor Constantine. According to the traditional story, before a crucial battle in a.d. 312, Constantine saw a vision of the Christian cross with the words, “In this sign you shall conquer.” Having won the battle, Constantine was convinced of the power of the Christian God. Although he was not baptized until the end of his life, in a.d. 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed official tolerance of Christianity. Then, under Theodosius the Great, who ruled from a.d. 378 to a.d. 395, the Romans adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

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