Trajan / Creative Commons
The Roman Empire reached its greatest geographical extent under Emperor Trajan.
By Dr. Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of Medieval History
The University of Kansas
In many ways, the Roman empire remains the ideal upon which Western civilization has shaped itself. One need only look at the Capitol in Washington to see how extensively the founders of the United States followed the Roman model in fashioning a new nation. Because so many Roman principles are embodied in modern institutions, people feel that it is important to know why the Roman empire fell. The answer might, after all, reveal a flaw or weakness in the Roman tradition that was passed on to modern Western civilization and which could eventually lead to the end of the centuries in which Western civilization has been able to expand and to dominate the globe. Much our of high standard of living has been a result of our ability to take what we wanted from the rest of the world, and the loss of that ability would mean that our lives would become significantly less comfortable and luxurious.
And so people are always interested in attempts to answer the question “Why did the Roman empire fall?” Every now and then, one sees a magazine or tabloid reporting the latest theory – all the Romans caught malaria and were sick most of the time; they were poisoned by the lead in the glaze of their cooking pots and went crazy; they started having orgies all the time and their moral fiber was weakened by their preoccupation with sex; their conversion to Christianity focused their attention on the next world rather than the present one; and so on. This question may or may not have an answer, but first we have to understand the nature of the Roman empire. You see, it was not so much a question of why it fell but what had kept it standing for so long.
The Unity of the Mediterranean Sea
The Mediterranean in 200 AD
1. The Roman empire was not unique. It was one of the classical empires of the Old World. Four classical empires — Han China, Mauryan India, Parthian Persia and the Roman — arose in the period 200-100 BC. Each were characterized by the fact that they had been formed by the unification of at least two widely disparate geographical regions.
- Han China had arisen in the temperate wheat-growing northern valley of the Huang-ho River and had expanded to the south, conquering the sub-tropical, rice-growing Yang-tze river valley.
- Mauryan India had expanded from the relatively arid, wheat-growing valley of the Indus River to occupy the fertile rice-growing valley of the Ganges River.
- the Persians, inhabitants of wheat-growing mountains and plateau of what is now the nation of Iran, a region characterized by extremes of climate. They had established their control over Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the sub-tropical and millet-growing basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. One might note that the Persians had established their rule as early as the 500’s B.C., but the real Persian dominance of the regions began when a mountain folk known as the Parthians seized power and re-established the bases of the state.
- The Romans, inhabitants of a small town in the Italian peninsula, in the western basin of the Mediterranean, had managed to conquer first the entire western basin, and then the eastern basin of this almost land-locked body of water.
In each of these empires, the regions that had been united were so different that they would not have come together if they had not been brought together by force, and they would not have stayed together if the rulers had not developed institutions that held them together.
One might think about that for a moment. One generally thinks of an empire as a state that is strong enough to subdue its weaker neighbors and to to keep them subjected by, often tyrannical, force. There have indeed been such empires, but they have seldom outlived the reign of their founders and certainly have not endured long enough to exert a significant influence on the long-term historical development of their regions (although one might make an exception for the Napoleonic empire of the nineteenth century). The empires that have shaped history have been characterized by their institutions since these institutions often live long after the state that developed them has vanished. Considered from this point of view, it was not the ability to conquer lands that made an empire but its need to develop the institutions necessary to consolidate and rule those lands. This was certainly the case with the Roman Empire
Map of the Mediterranean 260 AD
2. Let’s consider the differences between the western portion of the empire, centered on the western Mediterranean, and the eastern portion, which included lands that had been deeply influenced by Greek culture.
Comparison of the Eastern and Western Portions of the Roman Empire
3. As we have already noted, the regions that comprised these classic empires, including the Roman empire, were so different that they had to be united by forces, and the imperial governments kept them by establishing and maintaining common institutions throughout their lands. Interestingly enough, each of the empires used basically the same unifying institutions: a common language, currency, system of weights and measures, networks of roads and canals, standing army, centralized authority and a professional civil servants, etc. There were several unifying factors and institutions in the Roman empire.
Most of the population of the Roman empire lived within easy reach of the Mediterranean, and the imperial government promoted and protected sea-trade and naval communications between the various parts of the empire. Although it could be relatively dangerous, sea-transport was much faster and much less effecting that over-land carriage. There had been sea-borne commercial empires in the Mediterranean Sea for well over two thousand years before Roman domination. The Romans worked to keep the sea clear of pirates, to build lighthouses and to construct large and sheltered harbors for the great commercial cities maintained by that trade. One might go so far as to say that the existence of the Roman empire depended on the unity of the Mediterranean or, as the Romans called it, Mare nostrum, “Our Sea.”
Outlying reaches of the empire were connected to the sea by the rivers and streams that flowed into it. The Romans were active in dredging ship channels and in building river ports at likely places – such as London, Paris, Cologne, Vienna, Belgrade and so forth – and maintaining river fleets to maintain security and order on these watery highways.
But the network of water-routes extended even further. The Romans and the native peoples they controlled invested a great deal of labor in digging canals, many of them for the purpose of drainage, it is true, but many others designed for barge shipping and so well constructed that they continued to be used for a thousand years after Roman imperial power had disappeared.
Finally, this complex network of water routes was knit together by a system of roads and bridges that have been used into modern times. People are often awed by the effort that must have been expended in building such highways without the aid of modern machinery, but one must remember that construction is more dependent upon organization than upon advanced technology. The Romans were well aware that the maintenance of a standing army was an expensive proposition, especially since that army would be employed in combat only 10 percent of the time at most. So the Roman administrators took care that there were productive pursuits for army units when they were not engaged in warfare or training for warfare. One of these pursuits was the construction of roads that would allow military units to move quickly from place to place. Such mobility increased the efficiency of the Roman army so that it was possible to reduce its number, and hence its expense, without diminishing its effectiveness. The great network of land routes that helped to unify the lands of the empire was a byproduct of this “policy of cost containment.”
The Roman career ladder, the “cursus honorum” / By Muriel Gottrop, Wikimedia Commons
The highest levels of Roman government were embodied in the absolute rule of an emperor who, in the state-sponsored emperor cult was considered to be a god. Execution of the emperor’s will was the function of a trained bureaucracy. Although this civil service was small in comparison with the establishments of modern states and its organization was rudimentary by the standards of the Han empire of China, it was superior to anything that had proceeded it in the West and was quite equal to the work it was expected to do.
Most people, when they think of the Roman empire, think of the emperors and their advisors. Certainly that was where Roman historians focused their attention, and they provided later screenwriters and novelists enough materials for hundreds of novels and motion pictures. In the day to day life of the average Roman citizen, though, the emperor was a distant figure often known only as a face stamped upon new coins. Most Roman citizens lived their lives in their local civitas, a local unit of government something like the American county. The civitas consisted of two parts – the city in which the political, commercial and cultural life of the district was concentrated and the pagus, the countryside dependent upon that urban center. Most of these civitates attempted to emulated the great capital at Rome, and it was indeed a poor place that did not possess an impressive law court, or basilica, an amphitheater for play-goers, and a racetrack. The civitas would also boast a public bath, busy markets, and as much in the way of civic amenities as the rich land-owners of the pagus could afford to endow the city. Local government and local life throughout the empire was centered upon such communities, and a Roman could move from the frontiers of Scotland to the mountains of Syria and still feel pretty much at home.
Rome at this point had:
- Well-developed written laws
- Uniform currency
- Uniform system of weights and measures
Roman soldiers: cornicen — players of the cornu (horn). From the cast of Trajan’s column. / Victoria and Albert Museum, Wikimedia Commons
The large standing army was concentrated on the frontier and defended the interior of the empire against foreign invasions.
As far as was possible, the Roman imperial administration attempted to make the Roman armies as productive as possible. Some units operated brick factories, tile manufactories, lead and iron smelters, and many other enterprises. They were often allowed to remained headquartered in the same garrison town almost permanently and often drew their recruits from the local population. Someone who had joined the Roman army had decided upon his life’s work since the standard enlistment was for twenty-five years. Since many recruits came from poor and isolated regions far from the centers of Roman life, the army literally taught them from the bottom up. They learned to dress properly, to speak Latin, to practice personal hygiene, as well as learning at least one and perhaps more than one trade. Along with this, however, it was even more important that they learn of the greatness of Rome and of the majesty of its institutions. Their year was marked off by great rituals in which they honored Roma, a goddess who was the exemplification of Rome, as well as for the peace of the imperial family, its security, the loyalty that bound the army to the service of the emperor, and so on.
Indeed, in times when Rome itself fell in disorder or when the imperial administration had fallen into the depths of corruption or ineffectiveness, the army’s reverence for the ideal of Rome remained undiminished even though they might acclaim their general as emperor and march upon Rome to clear up the mess there. Consequently, they invested their spare time and effort in turning the towns that sprang up along their fortresses into little Romes, or at least close to what the soldiers believed the essence of Rome to be. Stationed on the frontier, they were set to the task of creating the transportation and communication networks — roads, bridges, beacons, canals, ports, aqueducts, – as well as numerous other public works throughout the empire.
One must remember that the Roman frontiers in the Western were not intended primarily to keep people out, but to control their passage. There was a great deal of trade moving through the frontier zones and several major Germanic peoples settled just on the other side of the frontier in places where they could enjoy extensive and secure relations with the Romans beyond the border. The towns of those Romans beyond the border were perhaps more Roman than Rome itself, and so at least some of the Germanic peoples living more or less peacefully along the frontier developed a familiarity with Roman ways and attempted to emulate them. If needed, the Roman armies could fight the enemies of Rome but, in many cases, it proved simpler and more effective to win them over and enlist them as allies of the Roman state.
Wherever it was sent or wherever it was settled, the Roman army provided local inhabitants an outstanding example of Romanitas, the sense of belonging to a great civilization.
Defaced Dea Roma holding Victory and regarding an altar with a cornucopia and other offerings, copy of a relief panel from an altar or statue base / Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Bardo Musuem in Tunis, Wikimedia Commons
The Romans established Latin as the common and official language of the empire, but also adopted Greek culture and, in a form called Graeco-Roman, spread a common literature, architecture, art, etc., throughout the empire.
An economic balance was maintained between the wealthy and productive East and the relatively poor and backward West. The East was taxed heavily, and the money transferred to the West, which used the money to purchase goods from the East.
The Romans established a strict policy of religious toleration.
They themselves freely adopted and adapted the gods and goddesses of the people they conquered, a process called syncretism
They promoted a certain degree of commonality by establishing and promoting emperor worship, which acted much the same as patriotic rituals — saluting the flag, the formulaic pledge of allegiance, standing when singing the national anthem, reverence for the cloth of the flag — are intended to promote feelings on national unity among citizens.
Pax romana (Roman peace): The Romans brought an unprecedented degree of peace and security to the lands of their empire, and their citizens and subjects fully appreciated that these blessings were dependent on the continued unity of the empire.
Romanitas (the sense of being roman) was a deeply-held sentiment and outlived the empire itself by a matter of centuries.
But such institutions required attention and constant effort to maintain. A weakness in the Roman imperial system led to internal wars and civil strife that eventually made it impossible for the imperial government to support these institutions and policies as it once had.
The Annals of Tacitus provide an excellent insight into the management of Roman affairs and were written by a man who had a role in that management
The Romans were unwilling to give up their reverence for Rome’s long tradition of republican government even when such a form of government could no longer effectively manage Roman affairs.
Augustus Caesar converted the Republic into an empire in about 14 BC by concentrating the major offices of the Republic in his own person and maintaining the fiction that he was preserving and maintaining the Republic. Under such a policy, he was unable to establish a stable system of imperial succession, and struggles for power eventually began to drain the empire of its strength.
Read Augustus’s own account of his accomplishments in The Deeds of the Divine Augustus
- 69 AD A civil war broke out as several of the frontier legions each separately attempted to raise an emperor to replace Nero, which led to
- 69 – 192, an era of military emperors that was ended only in
- 193 – 197 the bloody civil war of Septimius Severus. From
- 198 to 282, the stability established by Severus slowly decayed, and 258 – 283 Rome finally fell into a period of virtually constant civil wars known as the Era of the Thirty Tyrants. In
- 283, the imperial system of frontier defense broke down and German bands raided throughout the western portions of the empire. In
- 283, Diocletian became emperor and began sweeping reforms in the imperial system.
To all intents and purposes, the Roman empire established by Augustus Caesar, what people generally think of when they talk of “the glory that was Rome” had come to an end by the 280’s. After the reforms introduced by Diocletian and his successor, Constantine the Great, the Roman empire would be a far different place than it had once been. As we shall see, it was, in fact, well upon its way to assuming many of the characteristics of Medieval Europe.
So one possible answer to the question of when the Roman empire fell is “sometime around AD 284.” Why did it fall? “The imperial system had proven unable to maintain internal peace and order, and Rome could no longer maintain those institutions and policies upon which the unity, security, and prosperity of the Mediterranean lands depended.”
What followed the fall of the Roman empire? “Another Roman empire.”
Originally published by Dr. Lynn Harry Nelson, Lectures in Medieval History to the public domain.