Home » Classical Catholic Library » World Chronology » Lesson 23. The Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD)

Lesson 23. The Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD)

We have studied the chronology of the world from the earliest days of the Sumerian Civilization through the death of Julius Caesar. In this lesson, we continue to study the history of the descendants of Japheth in the northern Mediterranean: the Romans.

We learned of the father of the Roman people–Aeneas–and his journey from Troy to the land of Italy. We learned of his son Iulius (Ascanius) and his descendants Romulus and Remus, who founded the city of Rome in 753 BC. We learned about the early monarchy and the abuses suffered by the Roman people under arrogant kings like Tarquinius Superbus. We learned of the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 BC, when Brutus led the people of Rome in casting off the monarchy and establishing a free Rome. We learned of the slow and unnoticed growth of the Republic in the west through the time of Alexander, who died in 323 BC while seeking to expand his Empire in the Far East. Then, we learned of the Punic Wars, through which, from 264-146 BC, Roman power rapidly grew to include the entire western half of the Mediterranean Sea.

Finally, we studied the life of Julius Caesar, the most famous of all Romans. In this lesson, let us learn of what took place after this most infamous death.

The Rise of the Roman Empire
In studying the history of Rome, we learned that the Romans had terrible memories of the days when kings ruled Rome. The Romans took great pride in their Republic, and referred to their state as “The Senate and People of Rome”. It would seem strange then, that as we look at our list of events in World Chronology that we would find the Roman Republic being replaced by the Roman Empire! An Empire is ruled by an emperor, who rules with absolute power, just like a king. How then did Rome end up with an emperor?

Remember that after the Punic Wars, Rome was no longer a small state on the west side of Italy. Rome’s power spread south into Africa, west to the Atlantic Ocean, east through Greece and north through Europe. Rome was growing…fast. Often people have ideas when they are young and poor, but then when they grow wealthier and more influential they realize that their younger ideas may not work any more for them. For example, when America was first started, it was desired that each state should rule itself. However, when America started to grow in power and deal with other nations, a single government was created to rule over all the states with a president to lead it. The ideas of America’s early days changed as her power and influence grew.

The new Rome, growing and changing like a boy becoming a man, could not remain a Republic for long. Rome needed a leader who could serve as a unifying symbol of the nation, who could represent the Romans before other world leaders and who could allow the nation to act quickly and wisely without allowing political fights and selfish ambition of men in the Senate to keep Rome from doing what was best for Rome. Most Romans understood this. Some Romans feared it would be the undoing of Rome.

Julius Caesar had risen up, by his own greatness, to become this leader, but the supporters of the Republic struck him down. While their action slowed down the change, it did not remove the circumstances that caused it in the first place. With Caesar dead, a number of individuals began a famous battle for control of Rome–and of the world.

The Beginning of the Roman Empire
Two basic groups formed in Rome after Caesar’s death: his friends and his enemies. Among his enemies were Brutus and Cassius, who were among his killers. These men had fled from Rome as the Roman people sided with Caesar’s friends. Among the leaders of Caesar’s friends was Marc Antony. Antony was a close friend to Caesar and it was Antony who spoke at Caesar’s death, shamed the men who killed him and drew the Roman people to Caesar’s side. After all, when Caesar’s will was read before the people, they learned that Caesar, accused of wanting to enslave them, had left all of his property to them. The second of Caesar’s most influential friends was Octavian, Caesar’s nephew.

Now, we would not be wise to pretend that the events that led to the founding of the Roman Empire were simple enough to be explained in a paragraph or two. Politics is always very complicated because men tend to seek their own welfare through a number of partnerships and promises that make different men friends and enemies depending on which way you look at them. In 43 BC, a year after Caesar’s death, Marc Antony, Octavian and a third man named Lepidus formed a three-man team called the Second Triumvirate. These men worked together against their common enemies, using their military power to rule over different parts of Roman territory–but that didn’t mean they were friends. It was simply a political alliance. A cat may team up with a mouse to fight off a dog, but once that dog leaves, the cat and mouse won’t be friends for long!

To strengthen this alliance, Antony married Octavia, the sister of Octavian. However, Antony was an immoral man who loved power, luxury and pleasure. He fell in love with the Egyptian princess Cleopatra and broke off his relationship with Octavia. After the enemies common to Antony and Octavian were set down, and Lepidus removed from his share of power, Octavian turned against Antony. While Antony was away in the east with his Egyptian mistress, Octavian stirred the people against him. Antony had given great gifts of land to Cleopatra and her children–gifts of Roman land! Ashamed of his abuse of power and selfish ambition, Octavian led an army against Marc Antony at Actium in 31 BC. Antony and Cleopatra managed to escape to Egypt, but knowing that they could not run from Octavian for long, Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves before falling into his hands.

Thus, Octavian alone was left in power and all the enemies of the Empire were defeated. The Senate remained in power and the Roman Republic was still safe and sound, yet Octavian would emerge as the absolute ruler of all Rome and its distant lands. Rather than taking control by violence or leading a revolution, Octavian was awarded with all of the powers and offices of the Roman Republic–for life. Thus, the Republic remained in force in Rome in word (de iure), but became an Empire in practice (de facto).

When Octavian received all the powers of the Roman Republic, he also received an honorary name: Augustus. The name means “magnificent, “sacred” or “revered” and so referring to the leader as Octavian Augustus would be equivalent to “the Reverend” or “the Magnificent” Octavian. Thus, in 27 BC, the Roman Empire was established.

The Growth of the Empire
Just as Roman politics can be complicated, so Roman geography is also complicated because the borders of Rome were constantly expanding. We know that Rome began as a single city, whose walls were built by Romulus in 753 BC, but as the Republic grew in power, it spread through many lands. The new lands were organized into provinces, and were given by the Roman government to individual senators to rule over for the good of Rome.

When Octavian Augustus took power, the borders of Rome stretched from the African coasts and Aegyptus (Egypt) in the south to Syria in the east, north and west to the Alpes (Alps) and finally to the northern coast of Gallia (Gaul). The Empire surrounded the entire Mediterranean Sea, which led the Romans to call it Mare Nostrum–“Our Sea”. Lying outside the borders of Rome were the lands of Germania in the far north, central Asia, Mesopotamia and Arabia in the east and the deserts of Africa in the south. Everything else was under Roman control. Below, you can see the borders of Roman territory and the names of the provinces:

As the Empire grew, Augustus divided the provinces between “Imperial” (the emperor’s) provinces and “Senatorial” (the senators’) provinces. Those on the borders, where Roman lands touched barbarian lands, were the emperor’s and those nearer to the center belonged to the Senators. This allowed the emperor not only to have direct control over the Roman armies on the borders, but also to enjoy the rewards of the Roman conquests in distant lands. There was more work to be done on the borders, but also more glory and wealth to be gained there. We’ll learn more about this below.

The Government of the Empire
It is important to understand that the Roman Empire did not throw away the government in place throughout the history of the Roman Republic. Additions were made to the government of the Republic for simple reasons. If we understand the government of the Republic, we will easily understand the government of the Empire.

The Roman Republic enjoyed one of the most excellent systems of government ever created by man. The Romans were famous for their simplicity of life and justice and this was largely due to the happiness they enjoyed under the Republic. The Republican government lasted for over 500 years and Rome grew stronger and stronger as time went on. In fact, the only reason the government of the Roman Republic had to be changed was because Rome had become too successful!

The government was referred to as Senatus Populusque Romanum (“the Senate and People of Rome”), abbreviated as S.P.Q.R.. In this there were two important parts of the government that represented the two classes of people in Rome.

On the one hand, there was the Senate, which represented the patricians, or upper class Romans. The patricians were those Roman families whose ancestors were famous in Roman history and who inherited their wealth, influence and fame. The Senate was ruled by two officials, known as Consuls. The consuls were elected by the Senate and served for only one year. The Senate had the right to make and enforce the laws in Rome. The army was governed by a Praetor and served as the Senate’s police force. The finances (money) of the Republic were managed by a Quaestor, whom we would call a treasurer. The public buildings and festivals of Rome were governed by an Aedile.

On the other hand, there was the Plebeian Council, which represented the rest of the Roman people. The plebeian council was ruled by ten Tribunes, who were understood to be the representatives of all of the people of Rome before the Senate. This allowed both the patricians and plebeians to have a say in the laws and programs developed by the Roman government. The Senate had great wealth and political control in its hands, but the Council had the masses of Roman people for its power. The two of these had to work together because the wealth of the patricians was useless without the support of the people and the numbers of the people were useless without the wealth and wisdom of the patricians–at least the good ones. This balance of powers was what made the Roman Republic so successful.

When the territories ruled by Rome grew and grew to the point that the S.P.Q.R. could no longer manage them and when Rome began to deal face-to-face with the other great nations on their borders, the need for a single ruler became clear. The Senate and Council worked well in managing the everyday affairs in Rome, but when any real challenges arose, they appointed a dictator to lead the nation. The slow processes of the Senate and Council cannot guide an army in war, make decisions in times of distress or do business with other kings and governors. Therefore, when the borders expanded, the need for a single ruler was necessary.

How would the wisdom and justice of the Republic be preserved while making such a great change to the way the Roman government worked? How would both the patricians and plebeians maintain their balance of power if a patrician was given full power over Rome?

The answer was to keep the government just as it was in the Republic, but to create a new position that would provide the benefits that were needed. This position was that of Imperator, or emperor. The emperor was also referred to as Princeps, which means the “first citizen”. The idea in each of these titles was to separate the ruler from any appearances of a king who rules over a people with absolute control. The emperor in Rome was a citizen given authority to rule by the Senate and People of Rome.

To create the office of emperor without messing up the successful government of the Republic, the Roman Senate and Council gave to the emperor all of their powers. This was not really a big deal because the emperor assigned to them the management of the area they already ruled. The emperor’s powers were really focused on the lands along the borders of the Empire where the most trouble was found. Thus, as we learned above, Augustus made a distinction between the provinces so that those close to Rome and which were pretty well under control would be managed by the Senate and those further away would be ruled by the emperor. The military power of Rome was present on the borders, and was in the hand of the emperor.

As the Empire grew, the emperor delegated his governing work to officials who took care of his business throughout the Empire. In every province, the emperor appointed governors called Proconsuls (or Propraetors) to rule over the people there. The Latin word pro means “in place of“, so these officials were simply men who stood “in place of” consuls and praetors in these territories. Just as consuls in Rome governed local affairs, kept the peace, judged legal cases among the people and appointed other men to manage different projects, so did the proconsuls in their provinces far from Rome. Just as praetors commanded the military on behalf of the emperor, so did a propraetor command the Roman military forces in his province. These governors were responsible to make sure the people in their area paid their taxes to Rome and remained peaceful and obedient to the emperor. These governors sat as judges among the people, judging any serious cases in the area and they alone could assign the death penalty to a criminal.

If an area ruled by a Proconsul was very large and the governor needed help, he could break his area into pieces and assign a Procurator or Prefect to help him. The work would be divided so that only the most important issues were handled by the proconsul and the less important issues were dealt with by the procurators and prefects.

By the time the government system was established, the emperor was able to rule over the entire Empire in a very easy way. The emperor gave orders to the senators who ruled over their provinces and the city of Rome itself. The emperor gave orders to his proconsuls and propraetors and they put them to work in their provinces. Every governor was accountable to the will of the emperor and could be called upon to give an account for his behavior at any time. The system ultimately looked like this, with Imperial provinces in yellow:

The Culture of the Empire
Since you have studied the early history of Rome, you will have no problem understanding its culture. The Romans believed that, through Aeneas, the gods created Rome. They chose Aeneas because he was obedient to the gods. The gods willed the creation of Rome, they blessed the establishment of the Republic and they arranged the rise of the Empire. It was by the will of the ancient gods of the Romans that Augustus ruled the world. Augustus was referred to with names we Christians are familiar with–“Son of God”, “King of Kings”, etc… Thus, Roman religion required that the Roman people honor the emperor himself as a “god”, or divine person. It was believed that when this religious system was in place, that Rome would be blessed and if it was not in place, Rome would fall to pieces.

This culture and religion, however, was largely invented by poets. It was the Roman poet Vergil, who wrote the famous poem that told the story of Aeneas and the founding of Rome. Vergil wasn’t an ancient poet who lived in the days of the Trojan War, but a friend of Augustus! Thus, the story of how the gods created Rome and raised up Augustus Caesar was written by one of Augustus’s friends, whom the emperor paid to write. The beliefs of the Roman people may have been controlled in some way by the emperor at the time the Empire was established, and that by the man who is probably the greatest poet in the history of the world.

There were other religions held by the Roman people, and philosophies. We will study them later in this course. You should know that while the “old religion” of Rome was the religion of the emperor and all of his officials, it was not the only religion in the Empire. In fact, the Romans were tolerant of other religions, so long as they honored the old religion and obeyed the laws.

The Romans were not lovers of the arts as the Greeks were, but were practical people. Romans are not famous for sculptures, plays, music, games and philosophy as the Greeks were. They built cities, roads and aqueducts that carried water to their cities from miles away. They invested their money in the defense of their borders and in the quality of life in their cities. They were masters of laws and the courts, not the schools of philosophy. In fact, the wealthy Romans sent their children to be taught by Greek school masters if they wanted a philosophical education. Those educated in the liberal arts were often called “Greekish” by the Romans.

Thus, remember that in early Rome the culture can be understood as an attempt to (a) maintain the support and blessing of the gods and (b) live simply and practically.

The Future of the Empire
Looking at your World Chronology timeline, you will see that the Roman Empire lasts from 27 BC, when Octavian received the title “Augustus” all the way until 476 AD. Unfortunately, the history of the Empire didn’t continue down the good path known in the Republic and early Empire. Over time, the wealth and leisure in Rome left men seeking pleasure rather than justice and peace. The people of Rome wanted to spend their fathers’ money rather than work for their own children and grandchildren. Emperors swelled with arrogance and treated the people like slaves rather than fellow citizens. While the old religion was maintained as a show, the old piety and toughness of the Roman people was eaten away by their love of pleasure. The younger generations turned their attention to the pleasures of the Greeks rather than following in the successes of their own Roman ancestors.

Shortly after the Empire was established, the Christian Church was established by Jesus Christ, who was born during the reign of Augustus. The coming of the Son of God into the world revealed the corruption, pride and violence of the Roman Empire and, as we will see, Christians suffered terribly for Rome’s sins. In our next lesson, we will study the life of Jesus Christ and see what happened when the Kingdom of God came down into the midst of the Kingdom of Man, centered at Rome.

Summary
In our next lesson, we will study the most important man who ever lived and will ever live: Jesus of Nazareth. Here we leave off with the mighty Roman Empire established and, mysteriously, this is the point in time when God chooses to send His Son into the world. As we study the life of Jesus, we will pay special attention to its relationship to the Roman Empire and what was going on around Israel during the life of Jesus. This is why the study of Roman history is so important! The better you understand the Romans, the better you will understand the details of the life of Jesus. St. Augustine explained the importance of history, when he wrote:

“Anything, then, that we learn from history about the chronology of past times assists us very much in understanding the Scriptures, even if it be learned outside the Church as a matter of childish instruction.”23

Home » Classical Catholic Library » World Chronology » Lesson 23. The Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD)