ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Classical Prologue

Section 6: Ideology, Identity and Empire -- The Romans

Steven Muhlberger



The period of Greek expansion (800-300 B.C.) was also the period when the Roman Republic was founded and beginning its rise to empire. If Rome was far more successful in building an empire, it is in large part due to their creation of a more inclusive ideology of citizenship than achieved by any Greek city. There were other factors. The Romans were, of course, very good soldiers, who in Rome's early centuries lived by a very severe standard of public virtue. Citizens sacrificed themselves in war for the good of the community and profited and gloried in common success. But the key to Roman expansion was the willingness of the citizens to share the benefits of citizenship with others.

This can be seen in the unusual Roman attitude to slavery. Romans, like Greeks and everyone else, kept slaves, for service around the house, to extend the productive power of the household, for dirty and dangerous work like mining. In most ancient cultures, slaves were slaves until death. The Romans, however, were willing to free their most useful servants; not only free them, but grant them citizenship, a share in public affairs (res publica). The power of enfranchisement of one's slaves was vested in every Roman citizen. The slaveowner, by freeing his slave, did not lose much, because the freed man was still his client, morally (and usually economically) obliged to support his old master, his patron. Yet the freed man gained for himself and his descendants a share in the Roman res publica. And the Roman state gained a new taxpayer and soldier.

Such calculated generosity was paralleled in the field of foreign relations. Success at war allowed Rome to annex territory, and plant citizens on it, thus expanding the state. But early Rome did not have the population or resources to overrun its neighbors, or subject them to direct rule. So Rome constructed alliances, alliances in which it was the dominant partner, but which presented benefits to the allies. Later, Rome took a further step: citizenship was offered to the most useful of its allies. In some beneficiary towns, all local citizens became Roman citizens; in others, only the leading oligarchy of a city was given full political rights. But, as in the case of emancipation, the Roman state gained important support in defending and expanding its hegemony.

The inclusiveness of the Roman republic was its strength. Adding to the politically privileged and military obligated citizen body in a measured manner enabled a single unremarkable Italian city to build a huge empire and hold onto it. During some periods the Romans were very greedy, ignoring the rights of allies and treating whole provinces as fields for untrammeled exploitation. But sooner or later they returned to their original strategy. Selected cities or their leaders were coopted by the grant of citizenship. Where there were no cities, cities -- not just urban centers, but also the political communities of which they were the focus -- were founded to be Rome's surrogate in a given area. A privileged body of citizens would rule the district for Rome, and the most important of them would become Roman citizens.

Rome had adopted a winning strategy. It also came on the world stage at an advantageous time. The process of urban expansion, agricultural intensification and population growth we have already examined was well underway by 300 B.C., and offered vast profits to successful imperialists. There were plenty of towns to loot, and, once the looting was over, to tax. Swallowing the Hellenistic cities as far east as Syria was especially lucrative. The Roman expansion was extremely costly to its victims, especially after 250 B.C. when it really began to roll: millions were killed, enslaved, or dispossessed and entire cultures were destroyed. Yet the Roman conquest did not permanently devastate the countries it rolled over. Julius Caesar destroyed many of the new cities of Gaul, and drained the country of gold and silver, yet a century later Gaul was more populous and prosperous than ever before. The growing prosperity is explained by a conjunction of favorable circumstances which enabled the Mediterranean world to thrive, even under the Roman boot. In so far as we can tell, the climate was unusually favorable to agricultural expansion. It was a time without epidemics. New resources were available if there was demand for them, and Roman profiteering itself created an unusual demand. Conquered countries were not left empty and poor, at least not for long. They were reorganized for the benefit of Roman settlers, absentee landlords, and tax collectors, and their local collaborators.

Economic and demographic growth continued after the Roman empire ceased to expand about A.D. 14. Rome had swallowed a great deal of territory, and the colonization and exploitation of them took some time. In the first and second centuries A.D., both new, Latin-speaking cities in Europe and on the boundary of the Sahara and older, Greek-speaking cities in Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor grew to unprecedented size. They built monuments and public works -- theaters, temples, fora, aqueducts -- that still exist and impress today. Imperial rule (the so-called "Roman peace") encouraged these developments. Those who gained most from this boom were the Roman citizens, who owed their prosperity in large part to their legal privileges, and blessed the gods of Rome and the genius (guiding spirit) of the Roman emperor for their good fortune. Even the Greeks were slowly won over. Without ever forgetting their Greekness, the Greek elite in the East came to regard Roman citizenship as a sort of pan-Greek identity.


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Index, Overview of Late Antiquity.


Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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