The Roman Empire was the most powerful state of the ancient world. It started as a kingdom, then as a republic, and continued as an empire. The extent of Roman Empire was so vast. Much of the lands that are part of the empire were accomplished by military conquest. The civilization of Rome spread throughout the empire, and the Latin language and Roman legal system created a big impact on the Western culture.
The ancient Rome developed an army that would enable it to conquer the Mediterranean world. The system of law of the ancient Rome is among its important contributions to the civilization. To date, Roman law is one of the two major legal systems of the Western world. Prior to the establishment of the Roman Empire, there was the Republic. The republic was governed by the Senate, different assemblies, and several officials. At first, the Senate was open only to patricians, who held all high government posts. Having dominated the machinery of the government, the patricians were able to pass laws that would cater only to their interests. Plebeians were often deprived of land and were forbidden to marry patricians. Later on, the Senate agreed the plebeians to elect tribunes to defend their interests.
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The Roman emperors had kept the forms of the republic. Senate and assemblies still continued to meet. Officials were regularly elected. Theoretically speaking, the emperor and the Senate were two equal branches of the government. However, this did not seem to be the case. Some emperors just used the idea of republicanism as front, but in fact, they were more powerful, and the authority of the Senate was negligible. There were emperors who showed respect to the institution, while there were others who ridiculed it. On the other hand, the army became powerful during the Roman Empire. A significant change to the government was brought by Diocletian who divided the government between the East and West, and appointed a co-emperor. This divided government later on became permanent. In 476 A.D., the Western Empire ended. The Eastern or Byzantine Empire ended in 1453.
The emperors played a very important role in the development of the empire. Their personalities, actions and behavior greatly affected the fate of this powerful empire. As Theodor Mommsen (58) puts it, “Only under the Emperors did the Roman state attain its final form.” This essay discusses how the personalities of the emperors brought the rise and fall of the great Roman Empire. Only the most famous emperors are discussed herein in a chronological order. It should be noted that the personalities of each emperor affected their manner ruling, and their ruling affected the government of Roman Empire, as well as its rise and fall.
The Golden Age of the Roman Empire
In 27 B.C., Octavian was conferred with the title “Augustus” by the Roman Senate for ending the civil strife. Octavian is the son of Aita, a niece of Julius Caesar. Caesar adopted him as a son and heir. He was never proclaimed an emperor but was considered as such because he held supreme authority and passed the same to his heirs. He was 18 when Caesar died. He formed a triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus in 43 B.C. in order to avenge Caesar’s death. The triumvirate declared the official government, put to death at least 2,000 individuals who are considered as enemies, and defeated the murderers of Caesar’s in the battle at Philippi. The conflict that ensued between Augustus and Antony ended when Antony married Octavia, Augustus’s sister. Antony, however, left Octavia for Cleopatra and planned to put up his own empire in Egypt. In a battle, Augustus defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra, and a year later, Augustus was able to occupy Egypt. As a ruler, Augustus made administrative reforms and attempts to restore public and private morality. This period is called the “Augustan Age,” which is the golden age of architecture and literature (New Standard Encyclopedia A-752). This was also the beginning of Pax Romana (Roman peace), which continued for two centuries. Under Augustus’s rule, the Roman Empire enjoyed peace and security.
Augustus was succeeded by Tiberius, his stepson. Tiberius was not as popular as other leaders but under his rule, the provincial system worked better than under the old system (Roman-empire.net). He was succeeded by Caligula, his nephew. At first, Caligula seemed to be a popular and generous leader, having liberated the prisoners, recalled exiles, burned incriminating documents, and showed great determination in unaccustomed business of administration. After a few months, however, he fell ill, and had risen from sickness apparently as a madman. He was bereft of moral sense, and was noted for acts of cruelty. In his fifth year of crazed reign, he was assassinated by his guards. Caligula was succeeded by his feeble-minded uncle, Claudius. He was considered the “the wisest fool” (Roman-empire.net). His intentions and political theory were seen as excellent. He organized the conquest of South Britain and built many public works. Claudius married Agrippina, the widowed mother of Nero in 48 A.D. In 54 A.D., Claudius died, presumably due to poisoning by Agrippina.
Nero succeeded his stepfather Claudius. Nero started as a mild and clement ruler, receiving counsel from his tutor, the philosopher and writer Seneca (New Standard Encyclopedia N-130d). Nero’s mother was murdered. His wife, on the other hand, died from his brutality. Later on, Nero scandalized Rome by public performances of acting, paying the harp, singing, and activities that are beneath his position’s dignity. In 64 A.D., the Great Fire destroyed much of Rome. Rumor had spread that Nero set the fire and sung his poem while the city was burning. A small community of Christians was accused of starting the fire. Some of the Christians were thrown to the lions in the amphitheater.
The empire was torn by civil wars after the reign of Nero. In 69 A.D. alone, four different emperors ruled. The last of these four, Vespasian restored the stability of the empire. As a ruler, Vespasian engaged in no violence and restored the rule of law and public confidence. The expenditure was likewise economical, putting the state treasury back on a good foundation. His sons and successors, Titus and Domitian, were known for increasing the prosperity in the empire (Potter 122).
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Nerva succeeded Domitian. Nerva’s reign marked the beginning of the “Five Good Emperors.” Nerva was a man of lofty character. He was very courageous and wise. However, being told that he was, he had no heir. Instead of leaving it to chance, Nerva chose a successor by adopting Trajan as his heir. It is said that the Roman Empire was at its fullest during Trajan’s reign (New Standard Encyclopedia R-238). He was a man of very high ability who spent half of his life in the military. He declared that the Senate should always be informed about what was going on, and that the right to rule implies freedom for those who are ruled. He was succeeded by Hadrian who built many cities, fortifications, and public works. In 130s A.D., Hadrian invaded Athens without bloodshed. Hadrian relied not on superior military powers but on “armies of construction workers and careful town planning” (Kelly 61). Hadrian displayed his love for Greek culture and took an active intellectual interest in history and monuments of the eastern Mediterranean. Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian.
Marcus Aurelius was the last of the “Five Good Emperors.” He was wise and benevolent. In fact, he could even be considered the Rome’s first “Philosopher King” pursuant to Plato’s concept of the Philosopher King. He was devoted to academic pursuits when he was still young. He was serious and honest. His tutors were the finest in this period, including Euphorion for literature, Andron for geometry, Geminus for drama, Cornelius Fronto for Latin, and Alexander of Cotiaeum for Greek grammar. Honors were later received by his tutors. Aurelius studied stoic philosophy and became a dedicated student of the arts having Apollonius of Chalcedon as the tutor (UNRV History). However, during his reign, there were Barbarian attacks to the empire, forcing Aurelius to spend most of his time in military campaigns. A plague entered the empire and depopulated many areas. Aurelius died in war and was succeeded by his son, Commodus. Commodus’s reign was the mark of the decline of the empire.
The Decline of the Empire
Commodus neglected state affairs, and like Nero, he displayed public extravagance. He participated in chariot races and gladiatorial contests. He was later on assassinated. Following a year of disarray and ruling of Pertinax, then of Julianus in 193 A.D., Septimius Severus assumed emperorship. While Marcus Aurelius was the emperor, Severus was into the Senate. He continued to obtain imperial favor throughout the reign of both Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (UNRV History).
Severus was a strong ruler and competent administrator, raising the soldier’s pay, and enlarging the army. This signifies Severus’s intention to successfully defend the empire. The next emperors were Severus’s sons and relatives. The last in the Severan dynasty was Alexander Severus, who was killed by his troops because he attempted to negotiate peace with the Goths on the German Frontier. However, Alexander Severus was able to restore to Senate some of the authority it previously had in the past centuries (Roman-empire.net).
Maximinus replaced Severus. Maximinus was a peasant soldier who rose in ranks. This was the mark of the control of the army of the empire, when different commanders would fight for emperorship. The empire was in chaos.
Division between the East and the West
When Diocletian became the emperor, he restored peace. He won wars and secured the borders with fortifications. He made a basic change in the government of Roman Empire. He had taken absolute command of both political and economic activities and had himself worshipped as a god. He ruled the East, and appointed a co-emperor, Maximian, who would rule the West. Both took the title “Augustus.” Later on, Diocletian named two subordinates (subordinate emperors) as “caesars,” who were designated as successors.
A divided government of the empire was practical and became permanent. An equitable system of taxation was established. Tax assessments were revised and, if possible, increased every fifteen yeas. A complete census throughout the empire was inaugurated. This census was repeated every five years (Mommsen 196-199). During Diocletian’s rule, Christians were severely persecuted because the latter did not recognize Diocletian as god.
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In 308 A.D., there were six co-emperors, four augusti and two caesars. All six were in war against each other until the conflict ended when the two remaining co-emperors, Constantine the Great of the West and Licinius of the East made peace. In a war in 324, Constantine defeated Licinius as rose as the sole emperor. This was an important era to the Roman Empire. During his time, Constantine converted to Christianity. He ended the persecution of the Christians, and even made Christianity the favored faith of the Roman Empire. Constantinople was made the capital of the empire.
Constantine developed the reforms made by Diocletian. He completed the division of military forces into two major arms: the frontier force and the permanent reserves. Constantine’s frontier policy was, however, different from Diocletian’s. Though both emphasized defense, Diocletian’s soldiers would tend to assume most of the burden at the frontiers, while Constantine’s policy relied on defense in depth. Constantine’s policy was based on the assumption that the enemies would first encounter the frontier troops, but as the enemies moved into imperial land, they would fight with troops that are lined behind various fortifications. This was intended to slow the enemies down until they are given with the killing blow (Santosuosso 182).
The system of command was likewise changed. The imperial guard was disbanded. Constantine further established a chief of staff who would assume the control of military operations. The commanders of the imperial guard then became appeal judges and ministers of finance (Santosuosso).
Constantine partitioned the empire among his sons and nephews. A few years following his death, however, the empire was divided between his two sons. The successors were able to reunite the empire, but the same was permanently divided upon the death of emperor Theodosius. The Eastern or Byzantine Empire was ruled from Constantinople until its demise in 1453. The Western Empire, on the other hand was attacked by Goths and Vandals during fourth and fifth centuries.
Romulus Augustulus, then about 15, was the last emperor. He was deposed by Odoacer, a mercenary. It was here that the Western Empire had ended.