The Roman Empire (Latin: Imperium Romanum) was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The 500-year-old Roman Republic, which preceded it, had been destabilized through a series of civil wars. Several events marked the transition from Republic to Empire, including Julius Caesar's appointment as perpetual dictator (44 BC); the Battle of Actium (2 September 31 BC); and the granting of the honorific Augustus to Octavian by the Roman Senate (16 January 27 BC).
The first two centuries of the Empire were a period of unprecedented stability and prosperity known as the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"). It reached its greatest expanse during the reign of Trajan (98–117 AD). In the 3rd century, the Empire underwent a crisis that threatened its existence, but was reunified and stabilized under the emperors Aurelian and Diocletian. Christians rose to power in the 4th century, during which time a system of dual rule was developed in the Latin West and Greek East. After the collapse of central government in the West in the 5th century, the eastern half of the Roman Empire continued as what would later be known as the Byzantine Empire. Because of the Empire's vast extent and long endurance, the institutions and culture of Rome had a profound and lasting influence on the development of language, religion, architecture, philosophy, law, and forms of government in the territory it governed, particularly Europe, and by means of European expansionism throughout the modern world.
Rome had begun annexing provinces in the 3rd century BC, four centuries before reaching its greatest territorial extent, and in that sense was an "empire" while still governed as a republic. Republican provinces were administered by former consuls and praetors, who had been elected to one-year terms and held imperium, "right of command". The amassing of disproportionate wealth and military power by a few men through their provincial commands was a major factor in the transition from republic to imperial autocracy. Later, the position of power held by the emperor was expressed as imperium. The Latin word is the origin of English "empire," a meaning it began to acquire only later in Rome's history.
As the first emperor, Augustus took the official position that he had saved the Republic, and carefully framed his powers within republican constitutional principles. He rejected titles that Romans associated with monarchy, and instead referred to himself as the princeps, "leading citizen". Consuls continued to be elected, tribunes of the people continued to put forth legislation, and senators still debated in the curia. It was Augustus, however, who established the precedent that the emperor controlled the final decisions, backed up by military force. The reign of Augustus, lasting more than 40 years, was portrayed in Augustan literature and art as a new "Golden Age." Augustus laid out an enduring ideological foundation for the three centuries of the Empire known as the Principate (27 BC–284 AD), the first 200 years of which is traditionally regarded as the Pax Romana. During this period, the cohesion of the Empire was furthered by participation in civic life, economic ties, and shared cultural, legal and religious norms. Uprisings in the provinces were infrequent, but put down "mercilessly and swiftly" when they occurred, as in Britain and Gaul. The sixty years of Jewish–Roman wars in the first half of the 2nd century were exceptional in their duration and violence.
The success of Augustus in establishing principles of dynastic succession was limited by his outliving a number of talented potential heirs: the Julio-Claudian dynasty lasted for four more emperors—Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero—before it yielded in 69 AD to the strife-torn Year of Four Emperors, from which Vespasian emerged as victor.
Vespasian became the founder of the brief Flavian dynasty, to be followed by the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which produced the "Five Good Emperors": Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and the philosophically inclined Marcus Aurelius. In the view of the Greek historian Dio Cassius, a contemporary observer, the accession of the emperor Commodus in 180 AD marked the descent "from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron"—a famous comment which has led some historians, notably Edward Gibbon, to take Commodus' reign as the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. In 212, during the reign of Caracalla, Roman citizenship was granted to all freeborn inhabitants of the Empire. But despite this gesture of universality, the Severan dynasty was tumultuous—an emperor's reign was ended routinely by his murder or execution—and following its collapse, the Roman Empire was engulfed by the Crisis of the Third Century, a period of invasions, civil strife, economic depression, and plague.
In defining historical epochs, this crisis is sometimes viewed as marking the transition from Classical Antiquity to Late Antiquity. The emaciated illusion of the old Republic was sacrificed for the sake of imposing order: Diocletian (reigned 284–305) brought the Empire back from the brink, but declined the role of princeps and became the first emperor to be addressed regularly as domine, "master" or "lord". Diocletian's reign also brought the Empire's most concerted effort against the perceived threat of Christianity, the "Great Persecution".The state of autocratic absolutism that began with Diocletius as the Dominate endured till the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. The unity of the Roman Empire was from this point a fiction, as graphically revealed by Diocletian's division of authority among four "co-emperors", the Tetrarchy. Order was shaken again soon after, but was restored by Constantine, who became the first emperor to convert to Christianity, and who established Constantinople as the new capital of the eastern empire. During the decades of the Constantinian and Valentinian dynasties, the Empire was divided along an east-west axis, with dual power centres in Constantinople and Rome. The reign of Julian, who attempted to restore Classical Roman and Hellenistic religion, only briefly interrupted the succession of Christian emperors. Theodosius I, the last emperor to rule over both East and West, died in 395 AD after making Christianity the official state religion.
The Roman Empire began to disintegrate in the late 4th and early 5th century as invasions overwhelmed the capacity of the Empire to govern and mount a coordinated defense. Most chronologies place the end of the Western empire in 476, when Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate to the Germanic warlord Odoacer. The empire in the East—known today as the Byzantine Empire, but referred to in its time as the "Roman Empire" or by various other names—ended in 1453 with the death of Constantine XI and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.
Geography and demography
The Roman Empire was one of the largest in history, with contiguous territories throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The Latin phrase imperium sine fine ("empire without end") expressed the ideology that neither time nor space limited the Empire. In Vergil's epic poem the Aeneid, limitless empire is said to be granted to the Romans by their supreme deity Jupiter. This claim of universal dominion was renewed and perpetuated when the Empire came under Christian rule in the 4th century.
In reality, Roman expansion was mostly accomplished under the Republic, though parts of northern Europe were conquered in the 1st century AD, when Roman control in Europe, Africa and Asia was strengthened. During the reign of Augustus, a "global map of the known world" was displayed for the first time in public at Rome, coinciding with the composition of the most comprehensive work on political geography that survives from antiquity, the Geography of the Pontic Greek writer Strabo. When Augustus died, the commemorative account of his achievements (Res Gestae) prominently featured the geographical cataloging of peoples and places within the Empire. Geography, the census, and the meticulous keeping of written records were central concerns of Roman Imperial administration.
The Empire reached its largest expanse under Trajan (reigned 98–117), encompassing an area of 5 million square kilometres that as of 2009 was divided among forty different modern countries. The traditional population estimate of 55–60 million inhabitants accounted for between one-sixth and one-fourth of the world's total population and made it the largest population of any unified political entity in the West until the mid-19th century. Recent demographic studies have argued for a population peak ranging from 70 million to more than 100 million. Each of the three largest cities in the Empire—Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch— was almost twice the size of any European city at the beginning of the 17th century.
As the historian Christopher Kelly has described it:
Then the empire stretched from Hadrian's Wall in drizzle-soaked northern England to the sun-baked banks of the Euphrates in Syria; from the great Rhine-Danube river system, which snaked across the fertile, flat lands of Europe from the Low Countries to the Black Sea, to the rich plains of the North African coast and the luxuriant gash of the Nile Valley in Egypt. The empire completely circled the Mediterranean ... referred to by its conquerors as mare nostrum—'our sea'.
Trajan's successor Hadrian adopted a policy of maintaining rather than expanding the empire. Borders (fines) were marked, and the frontiers (limites) patrolled. The most heavily fortified borders were the most unstable. Hadrian's Wall, which separated the Roman world from what was perceived as an ever-present barbarian threat, is the primary surviving monument of this effort.
The language of the Romans was Latin, which Vergil emphasises as a source of Roman unity and tradition. Until the time of Alexander Severus (reigned 222–235), the birth certificates and wills of Roman citizens had to be written in Latin. Latin was the language of the law courts in the West and of the military throughout the Empire, but was not imposed officially on peoples brought under Roman rule. This policy contrasts with that of Alexander the Great, who aimed to impose Greek throughout his empire as the official language. As a consequence of Alexander’s conquests, koine Greek had become the shared language around the eastern Mediterranean and into Asia Minor. The "linguistic frontier" dividing the Latin West and the Greek East passed through the Balkan peninsula.
Romans who received an elite education studied Greek as a literary language, and most men of the governing classes could speak Greek. The Julio-Claudian emperors encouraged high standards of correct Latin (Latinitas), a linguistic movement identified in modern terms as Classical Latin, and favored Latin for conducting official business. Claudius tried to limit the use of Greek, and on occasion revoked the citizenship of those who lacked Latin, but even in the Senate he drew on his own bilingualism in communicating with Greek-speaking ambassadors. Suetonius quotes him as referring to "our two languages".
In the Eastern empire, laws and official documents were regularly translated into Greek from Latin. The everyday interpenetration of the two languages is indicated by bilingual inscriptions, which sometimes even switch back and forth between Greek and Latin. After all freeborn inhabitants of the empire were universally enfranchised in 212 AD, a great number of Roman citizens would have lacked Latin, though they were expected to acquire at least a token knowledge, and Latin remained a marker of "Romanness."Among other reforms, the emperor Diocletian (reigned 284–305) sought to renew the authority of Latin, and the Greek expression hē kratousa dialektos attests to the continuing status of Latin as "the language of power." In the early 6th century, the emperor Justinian engaged in a quixotic effort to reassert the status of Latin as the language of law, even though in his time Latin no longer held any currency as a living language in the East.
Local languages and linguistic legacy
References to interpreters indicate the continuing use of local languages other than Greek and Latin, particularly in Egypt, where Coptic predominated, and in military settings along the Rhine and Danube. Roman jurists also show a concern for local languages such as Punic, Gaulish, and Aramaic in assuring the correct understanding and application of laws and oaths. In the province of Africa, Punic was used for legends on coins during the time of Tiberius (1st century AD), and Punic inscriptions appear on public buildings into the 2nd century, some bilingual with Latin. In Syria, Palmyrene soldiers even used their dialect of Aramaic for inscriptions, in a striking exception to the rule that Latin was the language of the military.
The Babatha Archive is a suggestive example of multilingualism in the Empire. These papyri, named for a Jewish woman in the province of Arabia and dating from 93 to 132 AD, mostly employ Aramaic, the local language, written in Greek characters with Semitic and Latin influences; a petition to the Roman governor, however, was written in Greek.The dominance of Latin among the literate elite may obscure the continuity of spoken languages, since all cultures within the Roman Empire were predominantly oral. In the West, Latin, referred to in its spoken form as Vulgar Latin, gradually replaced Celtic and Italic languages that were related to it by a shared Indo-European origin. Commonalities in syntax and vocabulary facilitated the adoption of Latin. Basque, not an Indo-European language, survived in the region of the Pyrenees.
After the decentralization of political power in late antiquity, Latin developed locally into branches that became the Romance languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian. As an international language of learning and literature, Latin itself continued as an active medium of expression for diplomacy and for intellectual developments identified with Renaissance humanism up to the 17th century, and for law and the Roman Catholic Church to the present.
Although Greek continued as the language of the Byzantine Empire, linguistic distribution in the East was more complex. A Greek-speaking majority lived in the Greek peninsula and islands, western Anatolia, major cities, and some coastal areas. Like Greek and Latin, the Thracian language was of Indo-European origin, as were several now-extinct languages in Anatolia attested by Imperial-era inscriptions. Various Afroasiatic languages—primarily Coptic in Egypt, and Aramaic in Syria and Mesopotamia—were never replaced by Greek. The international use of Greek, however, was one factor enabling the spread of Christianity, as indicated for example by the use of Greek for the Epistles of Paul.