The Roman Achievement

If the Greek contribution to civilization was essentially mental and spiritual, that of Rome was structural and practical; its essence was the empire itself. Though no man is an empire, not even the great Alexander, its nature and government were to an astonishing degree the creation of one man of outstanding ability, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted heir, Octavian. Later he was celebrated as Caesar Augustus. An age has been named after him; his name gave an adjective to posterity. Sometimes one has the feeling that he invented almost everything that characterized imperial Rome, from the new Praetorian Guard, which was the first military force stationed permanently in the capital, to the taxation of bachelors. One reason for this impression (though only one) is that he was a master of public relations; significantly, more representations of him than of any other Roman emperor have come down to us.

Though a Caesar, Octavian came of a junior branch. From Julius he inherited at the age of eighteen aristocratic connections, great wealth and military support. For a time he cooperated with one of Caesar’s henchmen, Mark Antony, in a ferocious series of proscriptions to destroy the party which had murdered the great dictator. Mark Antony’s departure to win victories in the east, failure to do so and injudicious marriage to Cleopatra, Julius Caesar’s sometime mistress, gave Octavian further opportunities. He fought in the name of the republic against a threat that Antony might make a proconsular return, bringing oriental monarchy in his baggage-train. The victory of Actium (31 bc) was followed by the legendary suicides of Antony and Cleopatra; the kingdom of the Ptolemies came to an end and Egypt too was annexed as a province of Rome.

This was the end of civil war. Octavian returned to become consul. He had every card in his hand and judiciously refrained from playing them, leaving it to his opponents to recognize his strength. In 27 BC he carried out what he called a republican restoration with the support of a Senate whose republican membership, purged and weakened by civil war and proscription, he reconciled to his real primacy by his careful preservation of forms. He re-established the reality of his great-uncle’s power behind a facade of republican piety. He was imperator only by virtue of his command of the troops of the frontier provinces - but that was where the bulk of the legions were. As old soldiers of his and his great-uncle’s armies returned to retirement, they were duly settled on smallholdings and were appropriately grateful. His consulship was prolonged from year to year and in 27 BC he was given the honorific title of Augustus, the name by which he is remembered. At Rome, though, he was formally and usually called by his family name, or was identified as princeps, first citizen. As the years passed Augustus’s power still grew. The Senate accorded him a right of interference in those provinces which it formally ruled (that is, those where there was no need to keep a garrison army). He was voted the tribunician power. His special status was enhanced and formalized by a new recognition of his state or dignitas, as the Romans called it; he sat between the two consuls after his resignation from that office in 23 BC and his business was given precedence in the agenda of the Senate. Finally, in 12 BC he became pontifex maximus, the head of the official cult, as his great-uncle had been. The forms of the republic with their popular elections and senatorial elections were maintained, but Augustus said who should be elected.

The political reality masked by this supremacy was the rise to domination within the ruling class of men who owed their position to the Caesars. But the new elites were not to be allowed to behave like the old. The Augustan benevolent despotism regularized the provincial administration and army by putting them into obedient and salaried hands. The conscious resuscitation of republican tradition and festivals had a part to play in this, too. Augustan government was heavily tinged with concern for moral revival; the virtues of ancient Rome seemed to some to live again. Ovid, a poet of pleasure and love, was packed off to exile in the Black Sea when a sexual scandal at the edge of the imperial family provided an excuse. When to this official austerity is added the peace which marked most of the reign and the great visible monuments of the Roman architects and engineers, the reputation of the Augustan age is hardly surprising. After his death in ad 14 Augustus was deified as Julius Caesar had been.

Augustus intended to be succeeded by a member of his own family. Although he respected republican forms (and they were to endure with remarkable tenacity) Rome was now really a monarchy. This was demonstrated by the succession of five members of the same family. Augustus’s only child was a daughter; his immediate successor was his adopted stepson, Tiberius, one of his daughter’s three husbands. The last of his descendants to reign was Nero, who died in ad 68.

The rulers of the classical world did not usually live easy lives. Some Roman emperors had great mirrors installed at the corners of the corridors of their palaces so that would-be assassins could not lurk around them. Tiberius himself may not have died a natural death, and none of his four successors did. The fact is significant of the weaknesses inherent in Augustus’s legacy. There was still scope for pinpricks from a Senate which formally continued to appoint the first magistrate and always room for intrigue and cabal about the court and imperial household. Yet the Senate could never hope to recover authority, for the ultimate basis of power was always military. If there was confusion and indecision at the centre, then the soldiers would decide. This was what happened in the first great burst of civil war to shake the empire, in the year of the Four Emperors, ad 69, from which there emerged Vespasian, the grandson of a centurion and far from an aristocrat. The first magistracy had passed out of the hands of the great Roman families.

When Vespasian’s younger son was murdered in ad 96 this upstart house came to an end. Its successor was an elderly senator, Nerva. He solved the problem of succession by breaking with attempts to ensure natural dynastic continuity. Instead, he institutionalized the practice of adoption to which Augustus had been driven. The result was a succession of four emperors, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, who gave the empire a century of good government; it has been named (after the third of them) the age of the Antonines. All of them came of families with provincial roots; they were evidence of the degree to which the empire was a cosmopolitan reality, the framework of the post-Hellenistic world of the West, and not merely the property of the Italian-born. Adoption made it easier to find candidates upon whom army, provinces and Senate could agree, but this golden age came to an end with a reversion to the hereditary principle, the succession of Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius. He was murdered in ad 192, and there appeared to be a repetition of ad 69 when, in the following year, there were again four emperors, each acclaimed by his own army. The Illyrian army prevailed in the end, imposing an African general. Other and later emperors were to be the nominees of soldiers too; bad times lay ahead.

By this time, the emperors ruled a far larger area than had Augustus. In the north Julius Caesar had carried out reconnaissances into Britain and Germany, but had left Gaul with the Channel and the Rhine as its frontiers. Augustus pressed into Germany, and also up to the Danube from the south. The Danube eventually became the frontier of the empire, but incursions beyond the Rhine were less successful and the frontier was not stabilized on the Elbe as Augustus had hoped. Instead, a grave shock had been given to Roman confidence in ad 9 when the Teutonic tribes led by Arminius (in whom later Germans were to see a national hero) destroyed three legions. The ground was never recovered, nor the legions, for their numbers were thought so ill-omened that they never again appear in the army lists. Eight remained stationed along the Rhine, the most strongly held part of the frontier because of the dangers which lay beyond it.

Elsewhere, Roman rule still advanced. In ad 43 Claudius began the conquest of Britain, which was carried to its furthest enduring limit when Hadrian’s wall was built across the north as an effective boundary forty or so years later. In ad 42 Mauretania had become a province. In the east, Trajan conquered Dacia, later Romania, in ad 105, but this was more than a century and a half after a quarrel, which was to be long-lasting, had begun in Asia.

Rome had first faced Parthia on the Euphrates when Sulla’s army campaigned there in 92 BC. Nothing of importance followed until thirty years later when Roman armies began to advance against Armenia. Two spheres of influence overlapped there and Pompey at one moment arbitrated between the Armenian and Parthian kings in a boundary dispute. Then, in 54 BC, the Roman politician Crassus launched an invasion of Parthia across the Euphrates. Within a few weeks he was dead and a Roman army of 40,000 destroyed. It was one of the worst military disasters of Roman history. Evidently there was a new great power in Asia. The Parthian army consisted of more than good mounted archers by this time. It also had heavy cavalry of unrivalled quality, the cataphracts, mail-clad horsemen with their mounts mailed too, charging home with heavy lances. The fame of their great horses even awoke the envy of the distant Chinese.

After this, the eastern frontier on the Euphrates was to remain undisturbed for a century, but the Parthians did not endear themselves to Rome. They dabbled in the politics of the civil war, harassing Syria and encouraging unrest among the Palestinian Jews. Mark Antony had to retreat in disgrace and distress to Armenia after losing 35,000 men in a disastrous campaign against them. But Parthia suffered from internal divisions too, and in 20 BC Augustus was able to obtain the return of the Roman standards taken from Crassus and thankfully set aside any need to attack Parthia for reasons of honour. Yet the likelihood of conflict persisted, both because of the sensitivity with which each power regarded Armenia and because of the instability of Parthia’s dynastic politics. One emperor, Trajan, conquered the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon and fought his way down to the Persian Gulf, but his successor Hadrian wisely conciliated the Parthians by handing back much of his conquest.

It was the Roman boast that their new subjects all benefited from the extension to them of the Pax Romana, the imperial peace which removed the threats of barbarian incursion or international strife. The claim has to be qualified by recognition of the violence with which many subject peoples resisted Roman rule, and the bloodshed this cost, but there is something in it. Within the frontiers there was order and peace as never before. In some places this permanently changed the patterns of settlement as new cities were founded in the east or descendants of Caesar’s soldiers were settled in new military colonies in Gaul. Sometimes there were even more far-reaching results. The adoption of the Rhine frontier permanently affected the history of Europe by its division of the Germanic peoples. Meanwhile, there took place everywhere, as things settled down, a gradual romanization of the local notables. They were encouraged to share a common civilization whose spread was made easier by the new swiftness of communication along the roads whose main purpose was the movement of the legions. Napoleon could not move couriers faster from Paris to Rome than could the emperors of the first century ad.

The empire was a huge area and required the solution of problems of government which had not been faced by Greeks or solved by Persians. A complex bureaucracy appeared, with remarkable scope. To cite one small example, the records of all officers of centurion rank and above (company commanders upwards, as it were) were centralized at Rome. The corps of provincial civil servants was the administrative armature, sustained by a practical reliance for many places upon the army, which did much more than merely fight. Bureaucracy was controlled by the adoption of fairly limited aims. These were above all fiscal; if the taxes came in, then Roman rule did not want to interfere in other ways with the operation of local custom. Rome was tolerant. It would provide the setting within which the example of its civilization would wean barbarians from their native ways. The reform of the administrators had begun under Augustus. The Senate still appointed to many posts on an annual basis, but the emperor’s legati who acted for him in the frontier provinces held office at his pleasure. All the evidence is that. whatever the means were by which it was achieved, the administration underwent a notable improvement under the empire by comparison with the corruption of the last century of the republic. It was much more centralized and integrated than the satrapy system of Persia.

The cooperation of the subject peoples was tempted with a bait. First the republic and then the empire had been extended by granting citizenship to wider and wider numbers of Rome’s subjects. It was an important privilege; among other things, as the Acts of the Apostles remind us, it carried with it rights of appeal from local courts to the emperor at Rome. On the granting of citizenship could be based the winning of the loyalties of local notables; more and more non-Romans make their appearance in the Senate and at Rome as the centuries pass. Finally, in ad 212, citizenship was granted to all free subjects of the empire.

This was an outstanding instance of Roman power of assimilation. The empire and the civilization it carried were unashamedly cosmopolitan. The administrative framework contained an astonishing variety of contrasts and diversities. They were held together not by an impartial despotism exercised by a Roman elite or a professional bureaucracy, but by a constitutional system which took local elites and romanized them. From the first century ad the senators themselves included only a dwindling number of men of Italian descent. Roman tolerance in this was diffused among other peoples. The empire was never a racial unity whose hierarchies were closed to non-Italians. Only one of its peoples, the Jews, felt strongly about the retention of their distinction within it and that distinction rested on religion and the practices associated with it.

Already Hellenistic civilization had achieved a remarkable mixing of East and West; now Rome continued the process over an even wider area. The element in the new cosmopolitanism which was most obvious was, indeed, the Greek, for the Romans themselves made much of their inheritance from the Greeks, though it was the Greeks of the Hellenistic era with whom they were most at home. All educated Romans were bilingual and this illustrates the tradition upon which they drew. Latin was the official language and always remained the language of the army; it was spoken widely in the West and to judge by the military records, literacy in it was high. Greek was the lingua franca in the eastern provinces, understood by all officials and merchants, and used in the courts if the litigants wished. Educated Romans grew up to read the Greek classics and drew from them their standards; the creation of a literature which could stand on an equal footing with the older was the laudable ambition of most Roman writers. In the first century ad they got nearest to this and the coincidence of a cultural and an imperial achievement is striking in Virgil, the conscious renewer of the epic tradition who was also the poet of imperial mission.

It may be that in this lies one clue to the peculiar tenor of Roman culture. Perhaps it is the obviousness and pervasiveness of the Greek background which does much to deprive it of the air of novelty. Its weight was accentuated by the static, conservative concern of Roman thinkers. Between them, their attention was absorbed almost exclusively by the two foci provided by the Greek inheritance and the moral and political traditions of the republic. Both lived on curiously and somewhat artificially in a material setting, which more and more ceased to fit them. Formal education changed little in practice and content from century to century, for example. Livy, the great Roman historian, sought again to quicken republican virtues in his history, but not to criticize and reinterpret them. Even when Roman civilization was irreversibly urban the (almost extinct) virtues of the independent peasant continued to be celebrated and rich Romans longed (they said) to get away from it all to the simple life of the countryside. Roman sculpture only provided again what Greeks had already done better. The philosophies of Rome were Greek, too. Epicureanism and Stoicism held the centre of the stage; neo-Platonism was innovatory, but came from the East, as did the mystery religions which were eventually to provide Roman men and women with something their culture could not give them.

Only in two practical fields were the Romans to be great innovators - law and engineering. The achievements of the lawyers were relatively late; it was in the second and early third centuries adthat the jurisconsults began the accumulation of commentary which would be so valuable a legacy to the future when codification passed their work to medieval Europe. In engineering - and Romans did not distinguish it from architecture - the quality of their achievement is more immediately impressive. It was a source of pride to the Romans and one of the few things in which they were sure they outstripped the Greeks. It was based on cheap labour: in Rome it was slaves and in the provinces often the unemployed legions on garrison duty in peaceful times who carried out the great works of hydraulic engineering, bridging and road-building. But more was involved than material factors. The Romans virtually founded town-planning as an art and administrative skill west of the Indus, and their inventions of concrete and the vaulted dome revolutionized the shapes of buildings. For the first time the interiors of buildings became more than a series of surfaces for decoration. Volumes and lighting became part of the subject-matter of architecture; the later Christian basilicas were to be the first great expressions of a new concern with the spaces inside buildings.

Roman technical accomplishment was stamped on an area stretching from the Black Sea in the east to Hadrian’s Wall in the north and the Atlas mountains in the south. The capital, of course, contained some of its most spectacular relics. There, the wealth of empire expressed itself in a richness of finish and decoration nowhere else so concentrated. When the marble facings were intact, and paint and stucco moulding relieved the sheer mass of stone, Rome must have had some of the appeal to the imagination earlier possessed by Babylon. There was an ostentation about it which spoke of a certain vulgarity, too, and in this again it is not hard to sense a difference of quality between Rome and Greece; Roman civilization has a grossness and materiality inescapable in even its greatest monuments.

In part this was the simple expression of the social realities on which the empire rested; Rome, like all the ancient world, was built on a sharp division of rich and poor, and in the capital itself this division was an abyss not concealed but consciously expressed. The contrasts of wealth were flagrant in the difference between the sumptuousness of the houses of the new rich, drawing to themselves the profits of empire and calling on the services of perhaps scores of slaves on the spot and hundreds on the estates which maintained them, and the swarming tenements in which the Roman proletariat lived. Romans found no difficulty in accepting such divisions as part of the natural order; for that matter, few civilizations have ever much worried about them before our own, though few displayed them so flagrantly as imperial Rome. Unfortunately, though easy to recognize, the realities of wealth in Rome still remain curiously opaque to the historian. The finances of only one senator, the younger Pliny, are known to us in any detail.

The Roman pattern was reflected in all the great cities of the empire. It was central to the civilization that Rome sustained everywhere. The provincial cities stood like islands of Graeco-Roman culture in the aboriginal countrysides of the subject-peoples. Due allowance made for climate, they reflected a pattern of life of remarkable uniformity, displaying Roman priorities. Each had a forum, temples, a theatre, baths, whether added to old cities, or built as part of the basic plan of those which were refounded. Regular grid-patterns were adopted as ground plans. The government of the cities was in the hands of local bigwigs, the curiales or city-fathers who at least until Trajan’s time enjoyed a very large measure of independence in the conduct of municipal affairs, though later a tighter supervision was to be imposed on them. Some of these cities, such as Alexandria or Antioch, or Carthage (which the Romans refounded), grew to a very large size. The greatest of all cities was Rome itself, eventually containing more than a million people.

In this civilization the omnipresence of the amphitheatre is a standing reminder of the brutality and coarseness of which it was capable. It is important not to get this out of perspective, just as it is important not to infer too much about ‘decadence’ from the much-quoted works of would-be moral reformers. One disadvantage under which the repute of Roman civilization has laboured is that it is one of the few before modern times in which we have very much insight into the popular mind through its entertainments, for the gladiatorial games and the wild-beast shows were emphatically mass entertainment in a way in which the Greek theatre was not. Popular relaxation is in any era hardly likely to be found edifying by the sensitive, and the Romans institutionalized its least attractive aspects by building great centres for their shows, and by permitting the mass-entertainment industry to be used as a political device; the provision of spectacular games was one of the ways in which a rich man could bring to bear his wealth to secure political advancement. Nevertheless, when all allowances are made for the fact that we cannot know how, say, the ancient masses of Egypt or Assyria amused themselves, we are left with the uniqueness of the gladiatorial spectacle; it was an exploitation of cruelty as entertainment on a bigger scale than ever before and one unrivalled until the twentieth century. It was made possible by the urbanization of Roman culture, which could deliver larger mass audiences than ever. The ultimate roots of the ‘games’ were Etruscan, but their development sprang from a new scale of urbanism and the exigencies of Roman politics.


Another aspect of the brutality at the heart of Roman society was, of course, far from unique: the omnipresence of slavery. As in Greek society, slavery was so varied in its forms that it cannot be summarized in a generalization. Many slaves earned wages, some bought their freedom and the Roman slave had rights at law. The growth of large plantation estates, it is true, provided examples of a new intensification of it in the first century or so, but it would be hard to say Roman slavery was worse than that of other ancient societies. A few who questioned the institution were very untypical: moralists reconciled themselves to slave-owning as easily as later Christians were to do.

Much of what we know about popular mentality before modern times is known through religion. Roman religion was a very obvious part of Roman life, but that may be misleading if we think in modern terms. It had nothing to do with individual salvation and not much with individual behaviour; it was above all a public matter. It was a part of the res publica, a series of rituals whose maintenance was good for the state, whose neglect would bring retribution. There was no priestly caste set apart from other men (if we exclude one or two antiquarian survivals in the temples of a few special cults) and priestly duties were the task of the magistrates who found priesthood a useful social and political lever. Nor was there creed or dogma. What was required of Romans was only that the ordained services and rituals should be carried out in the accustomed way; for the proletarian this meant little except that he should not work on a holiday. The civic authorities were everywhere responsible for the rites, as they were responsible for the maintenance of the temples. The proper observances had a powerfully practical purpose: Livy reports a consul saying the gods ‘look kindly on the scrupulous observance of religious rites which has brought our country to its peak’. Men genuinely felt that the peace of Augustus was the pax deorum, a divine reward for a proper respect for the gods which Augustus had reasserted. Somewhat more cynically, Cicero had remarked that the gods were needed to prevent chaos in society. This, if different, was also an expression of the Roman’s practical approach to religion. It was not insincere or disbelieving; the recourse to diviners for the interpretation of omens and the acceptance of the decisions of the augurs about important acts of policy would alone establish that. But it was unmysterious and down-to-earth in its understanding of the official cults.

The content of these was a mixture of Greek mythology and festivals and rites derived from primitive Roman practice and therefore heavily marked by agricultural preoccupations. One which lived to deck itself out in the symbols of another religion was the December Saturnalia, which is with us still as Christmas. But the religion practised by Romans stretched far beyond official rites. The most striking feature of the Roman approach to religion was its eclecticism and cosmopolitanism. There was room in the empire for all manner of belief, provided it did not contravene public order or inhibit adherence to the official observances. For the most part, peasants everywhere pursued the timeless superstitions of their local nature cults, townsmen took up new crazes from time to time, and the educated professed some acceptance of the classical pantheon of Greek gods and led the people in the official observances. Each clan and household, finally, sacrificed to its own god with appropriate special rituals at the great moments of human life: childbirth, marriage, sickness and death. Each household had its shrine, each street-corner its idol.

Under Augustus there was a deliberate attempt to reinvigorate old belief, which had been somewhat eroded by closer acquaintance with the Hellenistic East and about which a few sceptics had shown cynicism even in the second century BC. After Augustus, emperors always held the office of chief priest (pontifex maximus) and political and religious primacy were thus combined in the same person. This began the increasing importance and definition of the imperial cult itself. It fitted well the Roman’s innate conservatism, his respect for the ways and customs of his ancestors. The imperial cult linked respect for traditional patrons, the placating or invoking of familiar deities and the commemoration of great men and events, to the ideas of divine kingship which came from the East, from Asia. It was there that altars were first raised to Rome or the Senate, and there that they were soon reattributed to the emperor. The cult spread through the whole empire, though it was not until the third century ad that the practice was wholly respectable at Rome itself, so strong was republican sentiment. But even there the strains of empire had already favoured a revival of official piety which benefited the imperial cult.

This was not all that came from the East. By the second century, the distinction of a pure Roman religious tradition from others within the empire is virtually impossible. The Roman pantheon, like the Greek, was absorbed almost indistinguishably into a mass of beliefs and cults, their boundaries blurred and fluid, merging imperceptibly over a scale of experience running from sheer magic to the philosophical monotheism popularized by the stoic philosophies. The intellectual and religious world of the empire was omnivorous, credulous and deeply irrational. It is important here not to be over-impressed by the visible practicality of the Roman mind; practical men are often superstitious. Nor was the Greek heritage understood in an altogether rational way; its philosophers were seen by the first century BC as men inspired, holy men whose mystical teaching was the most eagerly studied part of their works, and even Greek civilization had always rested on a broad basis of popular superstition and local cult practice. Tribal gods swarmed throughout the Roman world.

All this boils down to a large measure of practical criticism of the ancient Roman ways. Obviously, they were no longer enough for an urban civilization, however numerically preponderant the peasants on which it rested. Many of the traditional festivals were pastoral or agricultural in origin, but occasionally even the god they invoked was forgotten. City-dwellers gradually came to need more than piety in a more and more puzzling world. Men grasped desperately at anything which could give meaning to the world and some degree of control over it. Old superstitions and new crazes benefited. The evidence can be seen in the appeal of the Egyptian gods, whose cults flooded through the empire as its security made travel and intercourse easier (they were even patronized by an emperor, the Libyan Septimius Severus). A civilized world of greater complexity and unity than any earlier was also one of greater and greater religiosity and a curiousness almost boundless. One of the last great teachers of pagan antiquity, Apollonius of Tyana, was said to have lived and studied with the Brahmans of India. Men were looking about for new saviours long before one was found in the first century ad.

Another symptom of eastern influence was the popularization of mysteries, cults which rested upon the communication of special virtues and powers to the initiated by secret rites. The sacrificial cult of Mithras, a minor Zoroastrian deity especially favoured by soldiers, was one of the most famous. Almost all the mysteries register impatience with the constraints of the material world, an ultimate pessimism about it and a preoccupation with (and perhaps a promise of survival after) death. In this lay their power to provide a psychological satisfaction no longer offered by the old gods and never really possessed by the official cult. They drew individuals to them; they had some of the appeal that was later to draw men to Christianity, which in its earliest days was often seen, significantly, as another mystery.

That Roman rule did not satisfy all Roman subjects all the time was even true in Italy itself when, as late as 73 BC, in the disorderly last age of the Republic, a great slave revolt required three years of military campaigning and was punished with the crucifixion of 6000 slaves along the roads from Rome to the south. In the provinces revolt was endemic, always likely to be provoked by a particular burst of harsh or bad government. Such was the famous rebellion of Boadicea in Britain, or the earlier Pannonian revolt under Augustus. Sometimes such troubles could look back to local traditions of independence, as was the case at Alexandria where they were frequent. In one particular instance, that of the Jews, they touched chords not unlike those of later nationalism. The spectacular Jewish record of disobedience and resistance goes back beyond Roman rule to 170 BC, when they bitterly resisted the ‘westernizing’ practices of the Hellenistic kingdoms which first adumbrated policies later to be taken up by Rome. The imperial cult made matters worse. Even Jews who did not mind Roman tax-gatherers and thought that Caesar should have rendered unto him what was Caesar’s were bound to draw the line at the blasphemy of sacrifice at his altar. In ad 66 came a great revolt; there were others under Trajan and Hadrian. Jewish communities were like powder-kegs; their sensitivity makes somewhat more understandable the unwillingness of a Procurator of Judaea in about ad 30 to press hard for the strict observance of the legal rights of an accused man when Jewish leaders demanded his death.

Taxes kept the empire going. Although not heavy in normal times, when they paid for administration and police quite comfortably, they were a hated burden and one augmented, too, from time to time, by levies in kind, requisitioning and forced recruiting. For a long time, they drew on a prosperous and growing economy. This was not only a matter of such lucky imperial acquisitions as the gold-mines of Dacia. The growth in the circulation of trade and the stimulus provided by the new markets of the great frontier encampments also favoured the appearance of new industry and suppliers. The huge numbers of wine jars found by archaeologists are only an indicator of what must have been a vast commerce - of foodstuffs, textiles, spices, which have left fewer traces. Yet the economic base of empire was always agriculture. This was not rich by modern standards, for its techniques were primitive; no Roman farmer ever saw a windmill and watermills were still rare when the empire ended in the West. For all its idealization, rural life was a harsh and laborious thing. To it too, therefore, the Pax Romana was essential: it meant that taxes could be found from the small surplus produced and that lands would not be ravaged. 


In the last resort almost everything seems to come back to the army, on which the Roman peace depended, yet it was an instrument which changed over six centuries as much as did the Roman state itself. Roman society and culture were always militaristic, yet the instruments of that militarism changed. From the time of Augustus the army was a regular long-service force, no longer relying even formally upon the obligation of all citizens to serve. The ordinary legionary served for twenty years, four in reserve, and increasingly came from the provinces as time went by. Surprising as it may seem, given the repute of Roman discipline, volunteers seem to have been plentiful enough for letters of recommendation and the use of patrons to be resorted to by would-be recruits. The twenty-eight legions which were the normal establishment after the defeat in Germany were distributed along the frontiers, about 160,000 men in all. They were the core of the army, which contained about as many men again in the cavalry, auxiliaries and other arms. The legions continued to be commanded by senators (except in Egypt) and the central issue of politics at the capital itself was still access to opportunities such as this. For, as had become clearer and clearer as the centuries passed, it was in the camps of the legions that the heart of the empire lay, though the Praetorian Guard at Rome sometimes contested their right to choose an emperor. Yet the soldiers comprised only part of the history of the empire. Quite as much impact was made on it, in the long run, by the handful of men who were the followers and disciples of the man the Procurator of Judaea had handed over to execution.

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