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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire : Boxed Volumes 4-6 (Everyman's Library)

When the ancient Greeks were reaching the height of their glory, the power of Rome, to the west, was slowly rising. The genius of the Greeks lay in art, literature, science, and philosophy. The Romans were best in warfare, engineering, and government.
Rome rose to power gradually, with no set plan for world conquest. The Romans fought many wars and enslaved many people. By the time of Augustus, shortly before Christ, most of the known world was unified and at peace under Roman rule.

Rome, the City of the Seven Hills

Halfway down the Italian peninsula, on the west coast, is a small river called the Tiber. The coastal plain south of the river was known as Latium in ancient times, after the people who lived there--the Latins. These people were shepherds and farmers.
In the hill country to the west lived the Sabines, distant kinsmen of the Latins. They had moved into the peninsula from central Europe before 1000 BC and had vanquished the original inhabitants, a dark people. The people conquered by the Sabines had probably begun to move from Africa about 10,000 BC as the Sahara gradually turned to desert.
On the left bank of the Tiber River rise seven low hills. At this point the river is shallow and easy to cross. Latin merchants built a village on one of the hills--called the Palatine--in order to trade with the wealthy Etruscans, who lived north of the river (see Etruscans). Settlements were later built on the other hills also. The towns on the seven hills finally joined to make one city, Rome.

The Kings of Early Rome

The early Romans kept no written records. Their history is so mixed with fables and myths that historians have difficulty distinguishing truth from fiction. There are only two existing works which give the continuous early history of Rome. Both of these works were written long after the events they tell of, and neither is complete. They are the histories of Livy and the 'Roman Antiquities' of Dionysius of Halicarnassus. These men used inaccurate literary works for their information about early Rome.
The old legends say that Romulus founded the city in 753 BC when the settlements on the seven hills were united (see Romulus and Remus). This date is probably too late for the actual founding of the city. Romulus was a mythical person, but there is some evidence that the kings who are said to have followed him actually existed.
Legend says that Numa Pompilius succeeded Romulus. He is described as a wise and pious ruler. One of his accomplishments is supposed to have been the adding of two months to the ten-month calendar.

The Horatii triplets vow to defend Rome to the death in the war with Alba Longa in the 7th century BC. The French classical painter Jacques-Louis David depicted the scene in a painting of 1784. --Bridgeman Art Library--SuperStock

Under his successor, Tullus Hostilus, the Romans conquered Alba Longa, the religious center of the Latin people. There is a legend that Tullus was killed by lightning when he was "meddling" with the weather. During the reign of Ancus Martius, the next king, a number of troublesome Latin cities were conquered, and their inhabitants were brought to Rome. Ancus Martius is said to have built Rome's seaport Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber.

The Etruscan Conquest

Shortly before 600 BC Rome was conquered by several Etruscan princes from across the Tiber River. Dating from this period of time information about Roman history is slightly more reliable, though it is still mixed with myth and legend.

The Roman Forum, as it may have looked when it was the heart of the vast Roman Empire, is depicted in a 19th-century American engraving. Around the huge public square stood public buildings, palaces, temples to the gods, and numerous statues. --The Granger Collection

Tarquinius Priscus, the first of the Etruscan kings, drained the city's marshes. He improved the Forum, which was the commercial and political center of the town. He also founded a temple to Jupiter and carried on many wars with neighboring people.
Under Servius Tullius, the second Etruscan king, a treaty was made with the Latin cities which acknowledged Rome as the head of all Latium. Early historians said that Servius Tullius enlarged the city and built a wall around all seven hills.
The last of the kings of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), was a tyrant who opposed the people. He scorned religion. Tradition says, however, that he was persuaded to buy the famous Sibylline Books which thereafter served as a guide for Rome in times of trouble.
Under the rule of the Etruscans Rome grew in importance and power. Great temples and impressive public works were constructed. The most notable of these public works is the huge sewer Cloaca Maxima, which is still in use. Trade prospered, and by the end of the 6th century BC. Rome had become the largest and richest city in Italy.

The Latin Aristocracy Revolts

In spite of Rome's progress and development, the old Latin aristocracy resented the Etruscan kings. A rebellion of the aristocracy against Tarquinius Superbus was led by Junius Brutus about 509 BC. The Etruscans were expelled from the city, and Rome became a republic. Soon afterward the Etruscans were driven from the rest of Latium as well.
From that time the title of king was hateful to the Roman people. Even the most despotic rulers in the later days of the Roman Empire did not dare to call themselves kings.
Four times Tarquin attempted to regain his power. First, he enlisted the aid of Brutus' two sons. When their treachery was discovered, the stern old father, true to the ancient Roman ideal of duty, condemned them both to death. Second, the men of two Etruscan cities, Veii and Tarquinii, marched on Rome to force Tarquin's restoration. Brutus was slain in the fight, but the Romans won the battle. A third attempt to regain power was initiated by Lars Porsena, an Etruscan prince, who seized a high place across the Tiber from Rome. The city was saved only by the heroism of Horatius Cocles and two companions. They are said to have held off the Etruscan army while the Romans destroyed the bridge.
Tarquin finally induced his son-in-law, Octavius Mamilius, chief of all the Latins, to lead a revolt. In the famous battle of Lake Regillus, the Latins were crushed. According to legend the Romans were aided in this battle by Castor and Pollux.

Period of Conquest

The young republic now set out on its long career of almost constant warfare and conquest. At the time it did not seem destined to rule the civilized world. It was only a tiny city-state, much like the city-states that were flourishing at the same time in Greece. Its area was less than 400 square miles and its population was perhaps 150,000.
The government was in the hands of the wealthy and aristocratic citizens, called the patricians. They were supposed to be descendants of the three original tribes of Rome. The common citizens were called the plebs or plebeians. At first they had little to do with governing. Bit by bit, however, they tore down the barrier which separated the two orders. The internal history of the republic for the next three centuries is largely the story of how the plebeians wrested reform after reform from the patricians.
In the early days of the republic the ruling power was divided between two patrician magistrates, elected for one year. These were called consuls. They were chosen by an assembly called the comitia centuriata. It was made up of divisions apportioned in such a way that votes of the patricians counted for much more than those of the far more numerous plebeians. The Senate, the most important political body, consisted of 300 men chosen by the consuls from the patricians. Thus shut out from office and political power, the plebeians were grievously oppressed by their wealthy fellow citizens. True, they were protected from the worst dangers of arbitrary power by the lex Valeria (Valerian law) passed in 509 BC. This law provided that whenever the life or rights of any citizen were at stake, he could appeal from the magistrates to the assembly of the people. However, they suffered from unjust debt laws and from unfair distribution of territory won by conquest.

A Whole Nation Goes on Strike

To right their wrongs the plebeians went on what today would be called a general strike. In 494 BC they marched out of Rome in a body and threatened to make a new city. This strike terrified the patricians. They agreed to cancel all debts and to release people who were in prison for debt. Furthermore, the plebeians were granted the right to be represented by new officials, called tribunes. The tribunes had the right to veto the act of any magistrate which was unjust to any citizen.
From this beginning the plebeians went on to gain other rights. They soon won recognition for an assembly of their own, the concilium plebis. They forced the appointment of commissions of ten men, called decemvirs, to put state laws into writing and to have them engraved on 12 bronze tablets. This took place in 450 BC. They won the right to marry patricians by the lex Canuleia in 445 BC. They won appointment or election to public offices, one after another. The chief of these, which were established to relieve the consuls of the growing burdens of administration, were those of quaestors, or treasurers; censors, who kept the lists of the citizens, assessed taxes, and supervised public morals; and praetors, or judges.
The struggle was a long one, and it was not until 367 BC that it was decided one of the two consuls should be a plebeian. In 350 BC the plebeians were admitted to the dictatorship. This was an extraordinary magistracy whereby supreme power at critical times was given to one man.
Admission to these offices carried with it admission to the Senate, since vacancies were filled from those who had last been elected to public office. The Roman Senate of the republican period has been called the "most distinguished and important political body which has ever existed in the world." Its members were appointed for life, and executives were bound to submit to it all important measures. In theory it was a purely advisory body. Since its members were former magistrates, however, any advice it gave was almost certain to be accepted. No magistrate would dare challenge such a body unless he was prepared to back up his act by force of arms.
The growing power of the plebs was marked by the gradual rise of a new voting body, the comitia tributa, in which one man's vote counted as much as another's. This developed from the plebeian assembly (concilium plebis, which still continued to meet) by allowing patricians also to participate. After the passage of a law (lex Hortensia) in 287 BC making the acts of the plebeian assembly binding on all the people, these two bodies made most of the laws.

Struggles Between Rich and Poor

Side by side with the struggle for political power was the economic struggle between rich and poor. The wealthy landowners continued to increase their estates, taking the best of the lands and increasing their herds until they monopolized the public pasture. They continued the practice of lending money at ruinous interest to the small proprietors, reducing them to slavery when they could not pay. Moreover, the population of Rome was increasing too fast, and the soil was becoming poorer because of the primitive farming methods. The burden of constant warfare fell most heavily on the plebeians, who had to leave their little farms to fight the state's battles. Gradually, however, reforms were forced through, chief of which were the Licinian laws of 367 BC. These again revised the debt laws, limited holdings to 300 acres, and compelled the large landowners to employ a certain proportion of free laborers.
While these important changes were taking place at home, the little city-state had been gradually extending its power. Compelled at first to fight for its very existence against powerful neighbors, Rome gradually fought its way to the leadership of the Italian peoples. This paved the way that was to lead to the conquest of the world.
The most powerful of its early foes had been the Etruscans. With their greater numbers and superior civilization, the Etruscans might have defeated Rome. Their fleet, however, was destroyed in a war with the Greek city of Syracuse in Italy (474 BC).
They also suffered constant pressure of the Gauls from the north who swarmed into the Po Valley toward the end of the 5th century and laid waste the Etruscan cities of the north. Thus aided, the Romans had been able (396 BC) to take, after a ten years' siege, the Etruscan stronghold of Veii, which was eight miles (13 kilometers) from Rome.

The Gauls Sack Rome

A 19th-century wood engraving depicts the sacking of Rome by the Vandals under their king, Genseric, in 455 AD. --The Granger Collection, New York

In its conflicts with this foe and with neighboring Italic tribes (chiefly the Aequians and Volscians), Rome was supported by the other Latin cities to the south. They were united under the name of the Latin League and had made a treaty with Rome for mutual defense. The victorious progress of Rome received a temporary setback in 390 BC when wandering Gauls advanced through the heart of Etruria. They laid waste the land as they went and captured and sacked Rome. Legend tells how the garrison on the Capitol Hill was aroused in the nick of time by the cackling of the sacred geese and repulsed the storming party. After a fruitless siege the Gauls accepted a heavy ransom and returned to the valley of the Po.
Although Rome had been burned, the Etruscans had suffered far worse in the invasion and were so weakened that Rome was able to seize their southern possessions. In another century Rome conquered their whole territory.
Meanwhile the Latin League had become restive under the growing power and arrogance of their ally and attempted to break away from its control. Rome won the two years' war which followed (340-338 BC). Some towns were reduced to vassalage, others were given full Roman citizenship, and others partial citizenship (the "Latin right").
Another strong foe in central Italy still remained to be reckoned with, the Samnites, who were also of Italic stock. The first conflict with this warlike people (343-341 BC) had been interrupted by the Latin revolt. The truce then made was broken a few years later (326 BC). A desperate struggle continued, with interruptions, until the decisive battle of Sentinum (295 BC) made Rome supreme over all central and northern Italy.
Only southern Italy, occupied by a disunited group of Greek city-states, remained independent. Its fate was not long delayed. Alarmed at the spread of Roman power, the Greek cities appealed to Pyrrhus, king of Epirus in Greece. He inflicted two telling defeats on the Roman army and then crossed to Sicily to aid the Greek cities there to throw off the yoke of Carthage. Encouraged by the arrival of a Carthaginian fleet, Rome renewed the struggle, and in 275 BC defeated Pyrrhus in the battle of Beneventum (see Pyrrhus). One by one the Greek cities were taken, and Rome was ruler of all Italy.

Consolidating Roman Gains

The Roman genius was great. Nowhere was its skill shown better than in the development of the system which gradually welded the lands conquered by the Romans into a single nation, contented and unified. Rome could have exploited the conquered cities of Italy for its own interests.
Instead it granted many of them the privileges of Roman citizenship, in full or in part, as it had done for the Latin cities. Most of these people were given the status of allies. They had self-government and the right to trade and intermarry in Rome. They did not, however, have the right to vote.
Furthermore, all Italy was dotted with colonies of Roman citizens. Most of the colonists retained their full civic rights. Much territory--nearly one sixth of all Italy--was annexed and distributed among these Roman citizens. Thus a common interest in the welfare of Rome spread throughout the Italian peninsula.

The Punic Wars

Two centuries of warfare had turned Rome into a nation of soldiers. Its only remaining rival in the western Mediterranean was the Phoenician colony of Carthage. Carthage was the chief sea power, just as Rome was the chief land power. Carthaginian warships made the Mediterranean a closed sea. The Carthaginians sank the trading vessels of any other city which dared to bid for a share of the rich commerce of this region. Such lordly and insolent behavior was intolerable to the equally haughty pride of Rome, and a conflict for Mediterranean supremacy (the Punic Wars) began in 264 BC. This continued with interruptions until Carthage was finally destroyed in 146 BC. The courage and endurance of Rome were tested to the utmost in this long and disastrous series of wars. The war with Hannibal (the Second Punic War), one historian says, was "a trial such as no people has ever gone through before or since, and survived." The stern devotion to duty, which was the keynote of Roman character, triumphed in the end, however. After the battle of Zama (202 BC) Carthage was reduced to the position of a vassal state. Fifty years later, in the Third Punic War, Rome again savagely attacked its defeated rival and razed the city. (See also Carthage; Hannibal; Punic Wars.)

Winning World Mastery

Rome was now well launched on its way to world domination. One conquest led to another. Upper Italy (Gallia Cisalpina), Sicily, Spain, Macedonia, Greece, and Asia Minor were subdued and made Roman provinces. Intoxicated with their sudden rise to power, the new generation of statesmen departed from the wise policies of their great predecessors. They fought ruthlessly and ruined the countries they conquered.
Most of the conquered lands were administered by governors (proconsuls). They ruled like despots and tried to amass in their one year of office wealth for a lifetime. The enormous taxes wrung from the subject peoples defrayed most of the expenses of the Roman state.
They also enriched the greedy collectors (publicans), who purchased the privilege of collecting the taxes. Wealth poured into Rome from all over the world, and the ancient simplicity of Roman life gave way to luxury and pomp. Morals were undermined, and vice and corruption flourished.
The suddenly enriched officeholders acquired estates and bought up the little farms of the peasants. The peasants were poor and could not compete with the hordes of slaves who worked the great plantations. The streets of the capital were flooded with poverty-stricken people--ruined farmers, discharged soldiers, and idlers from all Italy. These people lived on state and private charity as well as on bribes that were given by office seekers.
Between the aristocracy of birth and wealth and the vast moneyless mob there was bitter hostility. War of class against class was bound to come. A few patriotic statesmen tried in vain to avert the dreadful climax. The Gracchi brothers, grandsons of the great Scipio Africanus who defeated Hannibal at Zama, came forward as champions of the people. They proposed laws to redistribute the public lands and to limit the powers of the corrupt and selfish Senate. Both men fell victims to their foes, Tiberius in 133 BC and Gaius 12 years later.

The Empire Is Established

The death of Tiberius marked the beginning of a century of revolution and civil war that ended in the establishment of the Roman Empire. First of the popular military chiefs was Marius. He had become a national hero by capturing Jugurtha, leader of an insurrection in Africa, and almost destroying (102-101 BC) a horde of German barbarians (the Cimbri and Teutones) who had defeated four Roman armies. In the year 90 BC the Italian allies, who had long demanded full Roman citizenship, rose in revolt (the Social War). The struggle lasted two years and ended in the bestowal of citizenship.
Rivalry between Marius and Sulla, an adherent of the senatorial party, for command in a war against Mithradates in Asia Minor led Sulla to march with his troops on Rome. For the first time Rome was invaded by a Roman army. As soon as Sulla and his legions were safely out of the way in Asia, Marius in turn seized Rome with his army and massacred many of the senatorial leaders. On his victorious return in 82 BC, Sulla took a fearful revenge, slaughtering more than 5,000 of the people's leaders and confiscating their goods. As "perpetual dictator" (81-79 BC) he passed laws transferring supreme power from the people to the Senate. The aristocrats, however, were too corrupt and feeble to hold power.
The history of the remaining years of the republic is told in biographies of the great adventurers who now made themselves masters of the torn and disrupted state. They sometimes united to make their positions secure and sometimes waged savage civil warfare (see Caesar; Cicero; Pompey the Great).

Julius Caesar was basically an uncrowned monarch in the last years of the Roman Republic, so great was his authority. His statue can be seen in the Vatican Museums in Rome. --Alinari--Art Resource

The only thing that saved the vast edifice of Roman power from crashing to final destruction was the emergence of two brilliant statesmen, Gaius Julius Caesar and his great-nephew Augustus (Octavian). Scrapping the old republican framework, except in outward form, they remolded the tottering structure into an empire. All power was gradually concentrated in the hands of a single ruler, who was backed by the might of the Roman legions. How this change was brought about is told in the articles on Julius Caesar and Augustus. (See also Cleopatra.)

Two Centuries of Peace and Prosperity

With the establishment of the Empire, the century of civil strife, which had also seen almost constant warfare abroad, was followed by two centuries of profound peace broken only by frontier warfare. At home literature and civilization flourished, and in the provinces responsible men held power. More and more the Mediterranean world came to resemble one great nation. Paved roads led from one end of Italy to the other and into what are now France and Germany. Fragments of Roman roads still exist even in faraway Britain, aqueducts and bridges in France, and Roman wells in the Egyptian oases of the Sahara Desert.
Roman citizenship was extended to all free men throughout the Empire, and Roman law was administered in every court. In this period of peace Christianity had an opportunity to grow slowly, in spite of repeated waves of persecution instigated by some of the emperors. In the reign of Constantine the Great it became the official faith of the Roman Empire. Finally the Christian religion spread throughout the Western world.
The "Roman peace" (Pax Romana) extended over the civilized world. Even the most remote lands were ransacked in order to supply the wealthy Roman citizens with luxuries and delicacies. Art and letters were prized and fostered. In this era, however, there were signs that the national character was decaying.
The fundamental seriousness (gravitas) which had characterized the conduct of ancient Romans was gone. The old reverence for the family, for the state, and for the gods was gone as well. Prosperity had brought corruption with it. In place of Brutus offering up his sons on the altar of duty to the state, there was Nero murdering his mother and his wife at the prompting of Poppaea.
The passion for a life of luxurious ease existed in all classes. The rich amused themselves by giving splendid feasts. The poor had their panem et circenses--that is, free bread and free shows. Slave labor had degraded the once sturdy peasantry to the status of serfs or beggars. The middle class, which once had been the backbone of the nation, had almost disappeared. In Roman society there were only the rich and the very poor.
After the reign of Diocletian the Empire was under an absolute one-man rule. Society became stagnant--politically, industrially, and mentally.

The Imperial History of Rome

Augustus was followed by his stepson Tiberius (AD 14-37), who was a capable but unpopular ruler. Then came the mad Caligula (37-41), whose life was ended by his own officers after he had reigned for only four years. Claudius (41-54) was not a strong ruler; but his reign left its mark on the history of the Empire, for his generals conquered the southern part of Britain. The infamous Nero (54-68) was the last ruler of the line of Augustus (see Nero).
For two years there were struggles for the throne between rival military commanders, and civil war was threatened. With the triumph of Vespasian (69-79), however, the government became stable. Vespasian's son Domitian, an insane tyrant, conquered all Britain. He was murdered for his cruelties.
Domitian was followed by a line of five great emperors--perhaps the wisest and noblest line of rulers the world has ever seen. Nerva's brief reign (96-98) was followed by that of the great conquering emperor Trajan (98-117), under whom the Empire reached its greatest extent. The capable Hadrian (117-138) consolidated and improved the Empire's organization and fortified the frontiers. Parts of the great wall he built across northern Britain still stand. Hadrian was followed by Antoninus Pius (138-161) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180) (see Marcus Aurelius).

Decline and Fall

From 180 to 284, the Senate recognized 27 men as emperors. Supported by the Roman legions, many others laid claim to the title. The succession of short terms was finally stopped by Diocletian (284-305), who abolished the last of the republican liberties. The Senate was now no more than the city council of Rome. Diocletian also took the first step toward dividing the Empire: he ruled the East and turned over the rule of the West to an associate.
The decline of Rome was complete when Constantine moved his capital to the Greek city of Byzantium on the Black Sea in 330. He renamed it Constantinople in his own honor. The transfer of the capital meant a real division of the Empire. As the long history of the Byzantine Empire began, the old Roman Empire fell into weakness and decline. Gradually the northern barbarians came down into Italy to invade the Empire. (See also Byzantine Empire; Constantine the Great; Goths; Huns; Lombards; Vandals.)
Romulus Augustulus, whose name combined the name of Rome's legendary founder and that of its first emperor, was the last ruler of the West. In 476 he was deposed by the barbarian leader Odoacer. The Roman Empire was at an end, and the barbarian kingdoms of the Middle Ages took its place; but the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire lasted another 1,000 years.

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