Ancient History & Civilisation


Effects of Empire

There were always kingdoms and wars throughout Gaul until you submitted to our laws. Although we have so often been provoked, the only thing we have imposed on you by the rights of victory is what will enable us to keep the peace… Everything else is shared between us… If the Romans were ever driven out – may the gods forbid! – what else will happen except wars of all peoples, fighting among themselves?

Petilius Cerealis, in Tacitus, Histories 4.74

The lasting memorials of the Roman Empire are roads and city-buildings, aqueducts and Roman law and the Latin which underlies so many European languages. Even at the time, Roman emperors were acclaimed for their ‘liberality’ and the ‘benefits’ which their peace brought. There is an apparent unity and openness in an Empire in which a German or a Briton could become a full citizen of Rome and a man from Spain could become a senator or even, like Hadrian, an emperor. The Roman citizenship certainly spread far and wide, as did Roman laws and Latin. The most admired Latin authors in the first century AD were not often men born in Rome or even Italy: many came from Spain, such as Seneca the philosopher or Lucan the poet, Martial and his witty epigrams, and Quintilian and his teachings on how to speak and write Latin well. Already in the age of Augustus, the geographer Strabo had written of the dominance of Latin, the abandonment of warlike ways and mountain strongholds and the ending of old barbarisms in southern Spain and Gaul.

A shared, educated culture allowed upper-class provincials to communicate on equal terms with the existing upper class at Rome. It is from such educated people in the provinces’ upper classes that the praises of Rome’s ‘benefits’ come. There is, however, another side to this picture. Texts for Roman readers expressed some vividly ‘incorrect’ stereotypes of non-Roman foreigners. Gauls were said to be big, blonde, long-haired lumps who were particularly keen on homosexuality; Syrians were boastful, typical traders and over-sexed with it; in inland Spain, people were said to wash their teeth in their own urine; in Ireland, they were said to have sex in public. The ‘civilizing’ Romans, by contrast, brought human and animal blood sports to their subjects. The amphit heatres for both types of show were a major Roman contribution, albeit a cruel one, to the Empire’s quality of life. In comparison, their language, Latin, made verylittle headway among civilized Greek-speakers in the traditional Greek world. Even where it did, other languages persisted, ‘Celtic’ in Gaul, Punic in much of north Africa or south-west Spain (the legacy of Carthage and its colonists) and Aramaic (Jesus’ daily speech) in much of the Near East. Far and wide, there was more bilingualism than our barrage of surviving Greek and Latin texts might imply. Perhaps it even occurred among landowners when they returned to their country estates and liked to exchange local words with their old retainers and bailiffs.

Outside a few schools of higher learning, even such Latin as was spoken or written in the provinces was patchy or uneducated. A few phrases from important points in Virgil’s Aeneid might be copied out, even by craftsmen in Britain, but they were probably known through writing exercises, not through a wider literary or theatrical culture. The more we find Latin outside the educated class in papyri, graffiti or other inscriptions, the less it resembles our classic rules for Latin grammar. Some of it was passed on by Italians, who had settled overseas: they had not been as well schooled as Roman orators. The style is particularly vivid in the recorded replies of Latin-speaking Christians when on trial for their lives. Many of these martyrs would fail modern examinations in Latin with spectacularly low marks.

‘Liberality’, at least, is evident in the Empire’s surviving ruins and in the texts and inscriptions (mostly from the eloquent Greek East) which attest it. Roman emperors are thanked or commemorated for giving cities their fortified walls and aqueducts, their granaries and scores of civic buildings. Of all emperors, Hadrian was the greatest urban benefactor. He personally transformed Athens with his new library and gymnasium and temples and colonnades. His buildings elsewhere in the province revived a Greece which was generally at a low point; in north-west Asia, too, he founded a whole cluster of cities named after himself. He was amazingly generous to his own home town, Italica in western Spain. He transformed this small sleepyplace into somewhere with the glamour of a capital city, giving it broad streets and walks, baths, an amphitheatre, excellent drains and a theatre. Yet as emperor he never returned to it himself. Previous emperors had done much the same to places which mattered to them (except, on the whole, the stingy Tiberius), but Hadrian’s ‘liberality’ was on the grandest scale. He travelled more than any of them, and an imperial visit was so often the cue for a surge of new building, as we can see from the effects of Augustus’ visits to southern Gaul and Spain.

What, though, was the source of this ‘liberality’? Emperors might donate raw materials to beneficiaries, whether timber from forests (Hadrian owned the cedar forests of Lebanon) or fine marble from one of the highly prized quarries. Yet these local assets were ones which theyhad confiscated, seized or inherited at local expense. Quite often, an emperor’s favour would amount to the suspension of a city’s taxes for a year or two; if so, the ‘liberality’ was exercised with the provincials’ own output. During the suspension the taxes were diverted to local public monuments, but for the mass of workers who paid most of them there was no respite.

There was another two-edged type of generosity: the giving of new lands abroad to new immigrant settlers. For the settlers, the gift was real enough. After Julius Caesar’s example, Augustus had had to settle veteran soldiers in perhaps sixty new sites outside Italy, sending out more than 100,000 emigrants in all. The resulting ‘colonies’ were the greatest export of population since Alexander the Great’s conquests. These colonists were settled as Roman citizens. They began by speaking Latin and their towns, cults and buildings tended to evoke Rome itself. Worship of the three great gods of Rome’s Capitol (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) was prominent in the colonies’ major shrines, together with priests in Roman style. Nonetheless, in the Greek East the ‘Roman’ stamp did not usually last. Intermarriage with locals and assimilation to the strong local culture meant that colonies tended to go over to Greek in the course of time: Berytus (modern Beirut), however, remained a sturdy bastion of Latin and of Roman law in the Lebanon.

Colonies’ town plans could certainlybe made splendid veryquickly. In southern Asia Minor, Pisidian Antioch was settled on a conspicuous hill and rapidly acquired a massive temple for worship of Augustus. It was approached through a big triple-arched gateway (dedicated to him in 2 BC) and straight streets, sculptures and other imperial buildings soon set it all off splendidly. In south-western Spain, the well-named ‘Emerita’ (‘Time-served’, for the veterans: nowadays, Merida) was settled on the junction of two good rivers, from 25 BC onwards. Water was delivered to it by three smart new aqueducts; there were bridges, baths and, before long, an array of leisure-centres (a theatre in 16 BC and an amphitheatre for blood sports in 8 BC). The biggest success was the racecourse, or circus, which was probably built under Tiberius and was modelled on the Circus Maximus at Rome. Spain’s horses were magnificent, and the races continued here for centuries, even after the end of direct Roman rule. In the forum, meanwhile, a big sculpted portico imitated the sculptures in Augustus’ own great Forum at Rome.

At Pisidian Antioch in Asia, members of the Julio-Claudian family were elected as magistrates of the town in absence. It was a clever honour because like other magistrates they would be expected to give benefactions to ‘their’ town. Elsewhere, the Roman governor’s impetus was important; it influenced the building of Emerita, as did the role of Augustus’ reliable Agrippa who had campaigned nearby. On his travels, Agrippa showed a personal interest in construction: he had an Odeon built to impress the Athenians and may well have encouraged the design’s huge roof-span which required sixty feet of timber. He mayalso have encouraged the even bigger roof, eighty feet wide, which covered the great temple of Zeus at Baalbek in Berytus’ new territory where he was also active. Great feats of construction and assaults on the landscape always appealed to Romans and their architects. Hence they built great roads in Italy for Trajan or helped Hadrian to attack an age-old problem, the draining of Lake Copais in central Greece. The main uses of Roman roads were not for commerce or ‘provincial development’: they were military and governmental, for inter-communication among the governing class.

Where colonists settled, others had to leave, or keep out, because the veterans’ rewards of land were not necessarilysited on virgin soil. But the colonies’ showy new centres did encourage local imitation. Soon after Merida’s foundation we see it in a much simpler town in Spain, Conimbriga in the north-west. Conimbriga was no colony but it lay in a metal-rich area which had no doubt attracted Italian exploiters to it before the town was developed. In the Augustan age the leading citizens of Conimbriga built baths which were served by an aqueduct, and laid out an impressive forum with a temple, colon-nades and civic buildings. The Romans’ new Merida was being copied by its neighbours: should we, then, reckon everywhere on provincials who ‘Romanized’ themselves?

Modern empires have looked back on this process as a ‘blessing’, like their own ideals, and ascribed to it a ‘civilizing mission’. Certainly, we can point to new Roman styles and imports which travelled far beyond sites where Latin-speaking immigrants settled. Bath-houses are a widespread example, civic amenities which brought a new social style to East and West. But domestic styles changed too. Under Roman rule, people in Gaul or Britain began of their own accord to build houses in stone, not timber and thatch; they dined off smooth, shiny pottery in shapes which belonged with new table manners and new tastes. Wine took over from the pre-Roman habit of drinking almost nothing but beer. Olive oil was mass-produced for provincial use too, whether in southern Spain or inland, in what is now desert, in parts of north Africa. Saltyfish sauce, an Italian speciality, became a favourite seasoning outside Italy, while the new-style houses brought new divisions of space and perhaps new daily boundaries between men and women, elders and children. In public spaces, inscriptions and statues began to honour benefactors who had become drawn into a new public exchange of gifts. In return for their own giving, such people received the gift of publicly recorded honours, granted before the new focus of a town-crowd, whether in Spain or Gaul or north Africa. This exchange also encouraged social competition by donors among themselves.

This ‘Romanization’ was more accurately an Italianization. The veteran soldiers, the local immigrant traders, the friends whom provincial recruits made in the army were not Romans as old Cato had imagined them. Rome’s vast population was still a verymixed bunch, not purely ‘Roman’ now (or ever) by origin. Most of the ‘Roman’ colonists came from Italian towns which had themselves become Romanized during the Republic. What Romans first did to Italians, Italians then did to provincials. But the provincials were not a blank sheet of paper, either: they had their own cultures which varied from province to province. Greek and Aramaic, Hebrew and Egyptian were especially robust in the East, while Punic in south Spain and north Africa was the most robust culture in the West. Was, then, the Italianization adapted to fit the provincials’ own existing lifestyle, and if so, how should we describe the process? Historians now stretch words to cover it: did Rome’s subjects choose to ‘acculturate’ or did they ‘transculturate’ by developing a culture which was a mixture of old and new? Or is ‘subculturation’ somehow nearer the truth?

The process, surely, varied from place to place. In distant Britain, according to the historian Tacitus, it was helped along by the governor Agricola, Tacitus’ own father-in-law. Agricola, he tells us, encouraged the building of ‘temples, forums and houses’.1Archaeologically, we cannot yet weigh up this initiative, and so the current inclination is to disbelieve it, because Tacitus was writing a highly favourable book about the man involved. But in the Greek East there are scores of well-attested cases when emperors or governors did indeed encourage such buildings, and by comparison Britain was wild and only recently conquered. As in the East, military specialists from the army could be sent to help the first building-projects off to a good start. Taxes, even, might be diverted to kick-start them: within the Empire as a whole Agricola’s initiative is not as unprecedented as local Western archaeologists sometimes suggest.

His son-in-law, Tacitus, described it as the softening of a warlike people by pleasures, in order to accustom them to ‘peace and quiet’: if Tacitus thought in this way, his father-in-law Agricola could surely have thought on these realistic lines too. The sons of the British leaders are said, surely rightly, to have been exposed very quickly to Latin education. The toga became ‘frequent’ and, on Tacitus’ view, there was a gradual descent into seductive ‘vices’, encouraged by ‘colon-nades, baths and elegant dinners’. The ‘simple Britons called it “civilization”, although it was part of their slavery’.2 Here, Tacitus uses one of his (and antiquity’s) favourite contrasts, between ‘free’ hardy barbarians and soft ‘enslaved’ subjects. Yet he need not have been the only one to see ‘luxury’ as an aid to imperial subjection. In southern Britain, such ‘slavery’ to pleasure had already begun some while before Agricola arrived, as archaeology shows at London or St Albans and manifestly so at Bath. The Roman fashion for bathing was rapidly imitated by provincials: the local hot springs at Bath were already serving Roman bathers by c.AD 65, about twenty years before Agricola.

In less barbarous provinces, the governors and emperors surely gave similar encouragement for the sake of maintaining peace and quiet. There was little need for official encouragement anyway. On their own initiative, the local upper classes took swiftlyto the new avenues of display and competition which Rome offered. There were new titles to be had, new privileges to be paraded. This ‘status display’ even underlies the most individual and immediate art-works to survive from any imperial province: the portraits on wood panels found in Egyptian mummy-burials and dating from c.AD 40 onwards. Men and women are immortalized in these lifelike portraits, as if old age did not exist, yet the representations are also status-conscious.3 They are mostly painted on specially imported woods, lime-wood or box. Some of their women wear the up-to-date hairstyles, earrings and jewellery which we know in contemporary Italy, and yet only one of those depicted bears the names of a Roman citizen. Perhaps, like Roman funerary-masks, these portraits were displayed in funerary processions: it is attractive to connect them with the membership, or claimed membership, of the privileged Greek-speaking class in Egypt’s main towns, people who had been benefited under the Empire by an exemption from paying poll tax. Their culture of portraits marked them out as distinguished people, a cut above their tax-paying inferiors.

Many of the new types of provincial display were more comfortable and much more elegant than pre-Roman life. In Augustus’ lifetime the most famous symbol of rural peace, the villa, had already become widespread in southern Gaul. In Britain, its heyday was to be later, and a century or more would pass before landowners in Somerset or Gloucestershire could boast true country-house living, with mosaic floors and happy memories of their days’ hunting, under the patronage (in the Cotswolds) of their special young god of the chase. It is to Romans that Britain owes so many of its ‘native’ trees, the cherryor the walnut. It also owes them many staples of better cooking, coriander, peaches, celeryor carrots. To an educated Roman eye, the Britons’ local country-house culture was probably rather curious, with its copycat buildings and a local flavour to the lifestyle. There was only one area of equal exchange. Italians, it seems, introduced the domestic cat to Gaul; provincial dogs, in turn, transformed Italians’ packs of hounds. There was real progress here, people noted in the age of Hadrian, beyond the breeds of dog which had formerly been known to the Greeks.

To our age of exclusive religions, religion might seem likely to be a more contentious transplant. Religious cults of Rome and the emperor were indeed encouraged in provincial capitals, and they too became objects of extravagant competition. At Colchester in Britain, the temple of the deified Emperor Claudius was described by Tacitus both as a ‘citadel of eternal domination’ and also as a cause of bankruptcy among prominent Britons who ‘poured out their fortunes under the guise of religion’.4 There was no stopping their leaders’ extravagance in this headlong new game of ‘dynasty’. Conversely, there was no drive among the emperors or senators to civilize provincials for the sake of spreading a true religion. In Gaul and Britain, pre-Roman ‘Druid’ religion was actively suppressed, but only because of its barbarous aspects (probably including human sacrifice): the moral tone of cults had been a long-running Roman concern. A similar concern probably underlies Hadrian’s interference with the Jews in Judaea. Beliefs, however, were not the issue: local gods, if morally innocuous, were twinned with a Graeco-Roman divinity and simply given a double name (‘Mercurius Dumias’). The Roman residents and local upper classes tended to honour the god of the Graeco-Roman name only, while their inferiors preferred the explicit twinning. As so much Roman religion was concerned with worldly success and well-being, non-Roman polytheists could accommodate the new package without difficulty: they shared the same priorities.

If we take Roman law and Roman citizenship as the really important markers, there was official Roman concern to extend them, but even this concern is different from an active drive for social inclusion or a mission to civilize. Roman citizenship was traditionally bestowed in return for meritorious services; Augustus had been very sparing of it and had kept records at Rome of those few who had merited it. Even Claudius followed this principle, despite a contemporary satire on his wish to put all the Gauls and Britons into citizen-togas. One continuing road to deserving citizenship was army-service as an auxiliary; another was service as an upper-class magistrate in specially designated towns, or municipia. The grant of the status of municipium to a town under Roman rule was not automatic. Not until the 70s did the Emperor Vespasian give it to towns of Spain (probably, to the towns throughout Spain). Even there, the main reason was a calculated reward. Spain had played an important part in the recent Civil Wars and so the leaders of the towns needed a favour.

From recently discovered inscriptions, we can now better reconstruct the outlines of a guiding ‘municipal law’ for Spain.5 The initial grant of municipal status gave the magistrates in these towns the right to Roman citizenship. Importantly, Roman citizenship did not exempt its recipients from the obligation of serving their home town as liturgists. They still had to give time and resources: emperors wanted to maintain vigorous local cities, on which the collection of taxes rested, and Augustus had explicitly asserted that Roman citizens still had their local obligations. So the upper classes were to pay for most of the amenities of civic life, continuing a pattern which had begun in the archaic Greek city-states and had spread as cities multiplied in the lands of Roman rule.

In classical Athens, the undertaking of liturgies had been kept separate from the holding of magistracies. Outside the older Greek city-states this distinction between benefaction and political office was not upheld, even before the Romans’ conquests. It was not observed in the new municipia, either. In Spanish municipia, the magistrates were drawn onlyfrom the councillors, and the councillors were themselves drawn only from the better-off. They paid an entrance fee on joining the council, and their service was for life. They would then ‘promise’ benefactions or accept liturgies as magistrates. There was no question of random selection by lot or popular participation on a council in the classical Athenian style. Nor was the ‘Latin right’ planned to be a stage halfway on the road to full Roman citizenship for all citizens. It was an end in itself, a careful limitation of the Roman citizenship to a community’s upper orders. The Roman citizenship protected such people against arbitrary violence by Roman officials and allowed them to make valid marriages with other Roman citizens. They could also make wills and enter on contracts which would be valid under Roman law before Roman officials. In return, the citizenship bound them closely to Rome’s interests. It was an important part of ‘class rule’ in the Empire.

Nonetheless, the other citizens of these ‘municipal’ towns were also affected by their towns’ new status. They were expected to worship Roman cults and in dealings between themselves they too were to apply Roman civil laws as ‘Latins’. Those who already traded with Roman citizens would have found this provision convenient, although it was somewhat perplexing for most people. In the 70s AD there were no law books and no local law schools and a real understanding of Roman law was surely rare among most provincials, as it still is among most of us. In principle, Roman laws did affect many family matters, including inheritance and marriage, the freeing of slaves and the powers, so huge, of a Roman father over his household. But there was sure to be confusion here. Arguably, the municipal law in Spain arose from an attempt by the Emperor Domitian to regulate abuses and ‘Spanish practices’ in the towns in the wake of Vespasian’s initial Latin grant to them. Behind these charters, there will have been more of an aspiration and an ideal than a reality realized in every matter of detail.

In the East, by contrast, this ‘Latin right’ was not granted to cities. The leaders of Greek civic life had their own robust culture already, and so Romans let it continue. Roman citizenship was rarer in the East, especially in those provinces without legions (legionaries were Roman citizens). Quiet and loyalty had already been secured here by supporting the existing upper classes against their lower classes, and so there was no need for yet another grant of privileges to them. Nonetheless, Roman law does turn up in the East in individual cases. In Hadrian’s reign, we can find its forms in the civil petition of a Jewish woman, Babatha, some of whose papers have survived for us in a desert cave in Judaea. As Babatha wanted to press her case with a Roman governor, she appears to have found someone to draw up her Greek petition in terms which the governor might recognize from his Roman background. Other petitioners no doubt did the same, but they did so by artful choice, not legal necessity.

In the East, the most sensitive area of Roman rule was Judaea itself. Under Antony’s appointee King Herod, classical civic building and ‘luxury’ had been lavishly advanced in this region. Herod’s successors founded cities too, even up by the Sea of Galilee. Yet the results were not peace and quiet. In AD 6, ten years after Herod’s death, Augustus brought Judaea under direct rule. The sequel, as usual, was a Roman census but it provoked keen opposition from particular Jews, who could cite a scriptural precedent against it. One group argued that allegiance was owed only to God: they became the Zealots (or ‘dagger men’, sicarii, in their victims’ name for them), the only anti-Roman ‘philosophy’ to arise in the entire Empire.6 They were the Empire’s first terrorists.

During his Civil War in the East, Julius Caesar had already approached the Jews and their religion with respect. Precedents here went back to the Persian kings in the sixth century BC. From Augustus on, the emperors also paid for sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple to be offered on their behalf. Most of the Jews were not unwilling recipients of these favours, and under Augustus favours were even confirmed for individual Jewish Diaspora communities scattered outside Judaea who were so often at risk to the citizen-bodies of Greek cities and their resentment. Under Roman rule, Jews were even exempted from the military service which they had once rendered to Alexander’s Successors. Some of the Romans, meanwhile, proved susceptible to the Jews’ ancient God and to the link between his cult and a code of ethics. During the first century AD several adherents to Jewish religion are traceable in high Roman society, especially among women, who were outside the most active power-structures of Roman life (where strict Judaism would have been more difficult). Women could also convert without the pain of circumcision.

Nonetheless, anti-Jewish stereotypes were still current and not only among the Greeks of Alexandria where anti-Semitism had originated. ‘Politically incorrect’ Roman governors of Judaea found it hard to respect the local ethnic proprieties. Uniquely, the Jews worshipped only one God and had strict prohibitions against Gentiles entering their Temple. In reply, they attracted a series of Roman taunts and insults, ranging from the bringing of military standards into Jerusalem to some rude farting by a Roman soldier at an angry Jewish crowd. Under Claudius, the province of Judaea became the plaything of imperial favourites. First, it was assigned to Herod’s grandson, Agrippa I, who had assisted Claudius in his bizarre accession; then it went to Felix, the brother of the over-important freedman Pallas who had intrigued for Claudius’ ill-judged marriage to Agrippina (Felix even named a city ‘Agrippina’ after her). Not for nothing was Paul the Christian said to have lectured Felix on ‘justice, self control and the judgement to come until Felix begged him to stop’.7 Some ten years later Nero’s gorgeous wife, Poppaea, fixed the appointment of a disastrous governor of Judaea simply because she was friendly with his wife. Poppaea probably meant no mischief; she had shown herself sympathetic to a Jewish embassy and among all her personal luxury, she is said to have been sympathetic to the Jews’ God. However, her choice as governor, Gessius Florus, was a tactless choice, by origin a Roman knight from a Greek city. He gratuitously enraged his subjects and helped to provoke a major Jewish War.

Florus’ provocations mattered because they fell on unusually susceptible ground. Roman rule had deepened existing tensions between rich and poor in Judaea and its neighbourhood. Italian moneylenders had been active even in Galilee. As a crowded pilgrim city, Jerusalem’s economy was shaky; there were acute class divisions within the priest-hood and the Jews’ upper classes showed a self-serving willingness to go along with Roman rule which was not to everyone’s liking. Above all, Roman tactlessness impinged on an old and exclusive national cult. There was no one ‘Judaism’ at the time, but everyone could unite against what seemed crass Roman sacrilege against Yahweh.

In 66 the upper classes in Judaea and the senior priests tried to steer off a general uprising, but the support for it was strengthened by extremists, including the Zealots. Sacrifices for the emperor were discontinued in the Temple, and so Roman legions moved in to suppress the revolt. It took four years of hard, bloody fighting, and the later stages ended within Jerusalem, where the war became a fierce class-war of Jew against Jew as much as of Jew against Roman.

In August 70 the city fell and, as a punishment, Herod’s great Temple and Jerusalem’s buildings were destroyed. The loss of the Temple changed the focus of Jewish worship for ever. Whereas Jews had always made payments to their ancient shrine, now they were subjected to a special Jewish tax which was payable to Jupiter’s temple at Rome. In 116/7 a second Jewish revolt broke out in the Diaspora at a time when the Emperor Trajan was fighting a war in the East. This revolt did not leave a mark on Judaea, but it did lead to the destruction of the very strong Jewish communities in Cyprus, Cyrene and above all, Egypt’s Alexandria.

The final act of destruction, as we shall see, was left to Hadrian himself. He provoked a third revolt, this time within Judaea itself between 132 and 135. The results were another massive loss of Jewish lives and the conversion of Jerusalem into a Roman colony with pagan temples, a city which surviving Jews were forbidden to enter. Within one lifetime, between 70 and 135, Roman insensitivity thus obliterated the only monotheist temple (to one and only one God) in their Empire and took Judaea, literally, off the map: it was renamed ‘Syria Palestina’. These measures were the ultimate acts of Romanization, but they were not imposed as rewards for services: in Roman eyes, they were deserved by uniquely unwelcome disservice. But the troubles were of Rome’s own provoking, and the final solution reflects on a classicizing Roman, Hadrian, and his view of a classical world.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!