The Roman Empire at it’s height was the most influential power in the ancient world. The rise of a small Latin tribe from the banks of the Tiber, to their formation and consolidation of the greatest empire that Europe had ever known, was a monumental feat that took centuries. The Romans left Europe with the basis for many of it’s current institutions, as well as a fundamental language and cultural base of the classical world. The invasion of barbarian tribes in the 4 to 6th centuries was the catalyst for a transformation of Europe form a Roman to a medieval society. Today the languages descended from the original Latin provinces are spoken in many nations, and their artistic influence was the foundation for western society.
The Etruscans went on to lay the foundation of the city of Rome, to clear the shepherds huts which once littered the Palatine Hill, to drain the swamps and transform what had been a collection of tribal sheep herders into a true city which would eventually dominate large tracts of Europe, Asia and North Africa alike. From the Etruscans came writing, and Roman history was born in the true sense.
From their beginnings in the area that is now Tuscany, these Etruscans had deep rooted influences which survive to this day. Although the Etruscan language is by no means totally decoded, we now know enough to see that many words of Etruscan origin found themselves into Latin and from there into English. For an unknown language, many Etruscan words look very familiar.
Their Religious legacy had profound influences on at least the rituals and dress of the Church. Etruscan Art had obvious influences on renaissance artists such as Michelangelo. While the Roman legions conquered region after region, the Etruscan cities were occupied by Veterans, and the citizens of the once proud Etruria bowed to the pressure and became part of Rome or died during numerous rebellious uprisings.
Those same legions were organized in accordance with Etruscan traditions, responded to the sound of the tuba (from Etruria), built their camps on a North/ South grid, as specified by the Etruscan sacred books, and carried a Standard inscribed with SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus. “Populus” is a word of Etruscan origin, -que (Etruscan -c with probably the same pronunciation) means “and”, and even Romanus itself probably came from the Etruscan language. There are various theories among which connect it with the Etruscan gentilial name Rumlua.
The Etruscan Haruspices and soothsayers remained well into the 5th Century CE, and according to some reports, may have survived in the Eastern Empire in Byzantium. The ancient tradition of their ancestral leaders proved difficult for the Romans to give up entirely.
Tarquinius Priscus —The first of these new kings, it is said, came from the Etruscan city of Tarquinii, from which he derived his name. The story is told that, as he approached the city, an eagle came from the sky, and, lifting his cap from his head, replaced it. His wife, who was skilled in the Etruscan art of augury, regarded the eagle as a messenger from heaven, and its act as a sign that her husband was to acquire honor and power. At the death of Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius became king. He carried on many wars with the neighboring peoples, the Latins and the Sabines. He was great in peace as well as in war. He drained the city, improved the Forum, and founded a temple to Jupiter on the Capitoline hill. After a reign of thirty-eight years, he was treacherously slain by the sons of Ancus Marcius.
Servius Tullius —The next king was Servius Tullius, who is said to have been the son of a slave in the royal household, and whom the gods favored by mysterious signs. He proved a worthy successor to the first Tarquin. He made a treaty with the Latins, by which Rome was acknowledged as the head of Latium; and as a sign of this union, he built a temple to Diana on the Aventine hill. He enlarged the city and inclosed the seven hills within a single wall. After a reign of forty-four years, he was murdered by his own son-in-law, who became the next king.
Tarquinius Superbus —Tradition represents the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, as a cruel despot. He obtained the throne by murder, and ruled without the consent of the senate or the people. He loved power and pomp. He continued the wars with the Latins. He also waged war with the Volscians on the southern borders of Latium; and with the spoils there obtained he finished the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill. Although he scorned religion, it is related that he was induced to buy the Sibylline books from the inspired prophetess of Cumae. It is also said that later in life he was frightened by strange dreams, and sent his two sons, with his nephew Brutus, to consult the Greek oracle at Delphi. To one question asked the oracle, the response was given that the person who first kissed his mother should succeed to the power of Tarquin. Brutus showed that he was the person intended, by falling and kissing the earth, the common mother of all. The traditions tell us how at last the proud Tarquin was driven from the throne and the kingdom was ended.
Significance of the Legends.—We cannot of course accept these stories as real history. We can yet see in them the evidence that Rome was becoming different from what it had been under the early kings. We can see that Rome came under the power of the Etruscans; that it was much improved by the construction of great public works and buildings; and that it acquired a dominant power over the neighboring land of Latium.
The Insignia of Power.—From the Etruscans came the royal insignia, that is, the symbols of power which were intended to make the person of the king more dignified and respected. These insignia consisted of a golden crown, an ivory scepter, an ivory chair called the “curule chair,” a white robe with a purple border (toga praetexta), and twelve lictors, or royal attendants, each carrying a bundle of rods (fasces) inclosing an ax. This last symbol was a sign of the absolute power of the king.
The Haruspices.—From Etruria also came the art of the haruspices, or soothsayers, who interpreted the will of the gods. These persons were supposed to ascertain the divine will by observing the lightning and other phenomena of nature, and also by examining the internal organs of animals offered in sacrifice, and even by watching the sacred chickens as they ate their food. The Etruscan soothsayers were supposed to be better versed in divine things than the Roman augurs; and the senate is said to have provided for the perpetual cultivation of the Etruscan ritual.
Public Works.—The buildings and other public works of the later kings bear the marks of Etruscan influence. The massive and durable style of architecture, especially as seen in the walls and the sewers constructed at this time, shows that they were the works of great and experienced builders, The name of the “Tuscan Street” (vicus Tuscus) which opened into the Forum, preserved the memory of this foreign influence in the Roman city.
The New Temples.—Under the Tarquins, the temples of the city assumed a more imposing architectural appearance. Before this the places of worship were generally altars, set up on consecrated places, and perhaps covered with a simple roof. The Etruscan kings gave a new dignity to the sacred buildings. The most imposing example of the new structures was the temple dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, on the Capitoline hill, which contained shrines set apart for the worship of Juno and Minerva. Other new temples were the one dedicated to Saturn at the foot of the Capitoline near the Forum, and one dedicated to Diana on the Aventine.
The Cloaca Maxima.—Among the most remarkable works of the Tarquins were the sewers which were constructed to drain the city. The most important of these was the famous Cloaca Maxima, or great drain, which ran under the Forum and emptied into the Tiber. It was said to be large enough to admit a hay-cart, and one could sail down it in a boat. It was strongly built of stone, in the form of a semicircular arch, such as the Etruscans had used, and its mouth is still visible on the shore of the Tiber.
The Circus Maximus.—For the amusement of the people, games were introduced from Etruria, and a great circus, called the Circus Maximus, was laid out between the Aventine and the Palatine hill. Here the people assembled once every year, to witness chariot races and boxing and other sports, which were celebrated in honor of the gods who were worshiped on the Capitoline.
A legion consisted of heavily armored infantry (foot soldiers). The Roman infantry became a feared force, well disciplined and well trained. Their weapons were two pila or javelins each and a short thrusting gladius or sword. Cavalry was supplied by the auxiliaries ( second line troops ) and was organized mainly in units 500 strong.
When it was on campaigns the army was accompanied by a number of specialists. One was the camp commandant, who was responsible for the organisation of the camp. The Romans were very careful about their camps – no Roman army halted for a single night without digging a trenches and fortifying its camp. Each soldier took his share in establishing the camp and striking the camp the next day. Another specialist was the quaestor, whose duty was to look after all the money matter. then there were the engineers and all kinds of craftsmen and artisans. They were responsible for siege operations and for the rather primative Roman”artillery”, which consisted of big catapults and complicated machines a little like crossbows. These were mainly used for hurling big rocks and stones at the walls of a defense place. The engineers also had to build the movable towers that were used in sieges – the Roman soldiers went up inside these towers so that they could see over the walls of a fortified place and shoot their stones and arrows into it. The engineers also made the scaling ladders that were used for getting over walls.
The Roman soldiers won their battles just as much from their staying – power as by their courage. They had to be strong and fit, for in addition to his weapons each soldier had to carry provisions for two weeks and tools for pitching camp.
When the soldiers went into line of battle to fight, the formation was called acies;when they were marching in column it was called agmen. If during a battle the legion were hard pressed the soldiers formed an orbis, which was very like the square that the British army formed in the 18th and 19th centuries if it was in difficulties. The standard of a legion was the aquila ,or eagle – made of silver or bronze and showing the bird with outstretched wings. It was the greatest disgrace if the eagle was captured.
The Latin term Imperium Romanum (Roman Empire), probably the best-known Latin expression where the word imperium denotes a territory, indicates the part of the world under Roman rule. Roman expansion began in the days of the Republic, but reached its zenith under Emperor Trajan. At this territorial peak, the Roman Empire controlled approximately 5,900,000 km² (2,300,000 sq mi) of land surface. Because of the Empire’s vast extent and long endurance, Roman influence upon the language, religion, architecture, philosophy, law, and government of nations around the world lasts to this day.
In the late 3rd century AD, Diocletian established the practice of dividing authority between two emperors, one in the western part of the empire and one in the east, in order to better administer the vast territory. For the next century this practice continued, with occasional periods in which one emperor assumed complete control. However, after the death of Theodosius in 395, no single emperor would ever again hold genuine supremacy over a united Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 as Romulus Augustus was forced to abdicate by Odoacer. The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire endured until 1453 with the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks led by Mehmed II. Therefore, it is difficult to give an exact date when the Roman Empire ceased to exist.
Julius Caesar — and a few years later Octavian in an even more subtle and gradual way — worked towards several goals: accumulating offices and titles that were of the highest importance in the Republic; making the power attached to these offices permanent; and preventing anyone with similar aspirations from accumulating or maintaining power for themselves. However, Julius Caesar, unlike those after him, did so without the Senate’s vote and approval.
Julius Caesar had gone a considerable part of the road: he held the Republican offices of consul four times and dictator five times, was appointed dictator in perpetuity (dictator perpetuo) in 45 BC, had been “pontifex maximus” for several decades and had handsomely prepared for his deification (see Imperial cult); again he did not gain these positions without the majority of a vote by the people and senate. Technically, he was an “appointed” dictator (as was Sulla), and while he was the last dictator of the Republic that was appointed by the Senate (guidelines provided for such if the country was in disarray such as civil war), Julius Caesar died several years before the final collapse of the traditional Republican system, to be replaced by the system modern historians call the Principate. Many historians theorize that the fall of the Roman Republic began at the assassination of Julius Caesar, thereby putting in motion events that would forever change the operations of the Republic.
By the time of his assassination in 44 BC Julius Caesar was the most powerful man in Rome. But if being “princeps” is seen as the determining office he should have held in order for modern historians to call him emperor, then he was not emperor. Still, he realized something that only a monarch could achieve, but what would only become evident many decades after his death: he had made his high power in the republic hereditary, by his will, in which he had appointed Octavian as his only heir as his adopted son. But not until over a decade after Caesar’s death did Octavian achieve supreme power, after the civil wars first avenging Caesar’s murder, then the step-by-step process of neutralizing his fellow triumvirs, culminating in his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
In 27 BC, following the second triumvirate, Octavian appeared before the Senate and expressed a desire to retire. The Senate requested he remain and Octavian stayed in office till his death. Most more recent history books, however, noting that immediately after the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Roman State had in all respects returned to the republic and that the second Triumvirate could hardly be called a monarchy, see Augustus as the first “emperor” in the proper sense and (somewhat arbitrarily) say he became emperor when he “restored” power to the Senate and the people, an act which in itself was a demonstration of his auctoritas and was given the name Augustus in 27 BC by the Senate to refer to all things godly.
Even at Augustus’ death, some later historians like Tacitus would say, it might have been possible to return to the republic properly, without even needing to change anything, if there had been a real will to accomplish that (that is, by not allowing Tiberius to accumulate the same powers, which he did, however, very quickly). Even Tiberius continued to go to great lengths to keep the forms of “republican” government untouched.
The historians of the first centuries saw the continuity in the first place: if a hereditary monarchy-not-by-kings existed after the republic, it had started with Julius Caesar. In this sense Suetonius wrote of The Twelve Caesars, meaning the emperors from Julius Caesar to the Flavians included – where, after Nero, the inherited name had turned into a title.
As Rome’s pre-eminent citizen, Augustus quickly became the empire’s pre-eminent patron of the arts, and many of the people within his ambit enjoyed similar roles. In the sphere of art and architecture, the Augustan building programme was extensive, prompting his famous quote: “I found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble.” Augustus himself proudly boasted of the dozens of building projects (constructions, restorations, and adornments) he undertook at his own expense. These projects exclude the innumerable acts of munificence carried out by members of his household, his inner circle, or the elite at his instigation. Among his major monuments in the city were his Forum (still an impressive ruin), the Ara Pacis Augustae, and Agrippa’s extensive activity in the Campus Martius, which generated the Baths of Agrippa, the Stagnum and Euripus, the Pantheon, and the Saepta Julia. Throughout, the Augustan style is a mixture of conservatism and innovation and often strives for a Greek look so that it has been termed “classicizing” in tone, which is aptly demonstrated by the way Augustus’s ageless portraits stand in sharp constrast with the sometimes brutally frank “veristic” representations of the Late-Republican elite.
The Augustan literary scene was also exceptionally vibrant. This is the era of some of Rome’s most famous and influential writers, including Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus in poetry, and Livy in prose. Vergil, in particular, crafted a new national epic for the Romans in the Aeneid, which quickly came to replace Ennius’s Annales as the poem every schoolchild learned by heart. This great flowering of literary activity was generated by the development of literary circles of patronage, which had been mostly in abeyance since the second century BC. The most famous literary, indeed artistic, patron of his day was C. Maecenas, a close associate of Augustus from the very beginning but one who never played an active role in politics (in contrast to Agrippa). Something of a bon vivant, he actively supported the careers of Vergil and Horace, for instance, until his death in 8 BC. Another circle formed around M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus, who promoted the careers of Tibullus and Ovid. For the historian the most intriguing question such literary circles prompt is the degree to which the political and cultural sentiments expressed by these writers were officially directed, and so in effect provided propaganda for the Augustan regime. When all the evidence is weighed, there can be no question of a state-controlled literature (on the model of media in modern totalitarian states) but there may have been encouragement from the top to express the correct view coupled, no doubt, with genuine gratitude and relief on the part of the patrons and writers alike that Augustus had restored peace and stability to public affairs. In this way, Vergil’s Eclogues and Georgics can reflect the hope Augustus brought for a restoration of peace to the Italian countryside, while the Republican sentiments of Livy’s history could be so pronounced that Augustus jokingly termed him “my Pompeian.” The point is that both authors flourished under the regime.
Besides the adoption of Christianity, Constantine’s reign is marked by an event only second in importance, the shifting of the center of gravity of the Empire from the west to the east by making Byzantium a second capital, a second Rome. The foundation of Constantinople determined the subsequent history of the state; it established permanently the division between the eastern and western parts of the Empire -a principle already introduced-and soon exhibited, though not immediately, the preponderance of the eastern half. The eastern provinces were the richest and most resourceful, and only needed a Rome in their midst to proclaim this fact; and further, it was eastward that the Empire fronted, for here was the one great civilized state with which it was in constant antagonism. Byzantium was founded on the model of Rome, had its own senate, and presently a praefectus urbi. But its character was different in two ways: it was Christian and it was Greek. From its foundation New Rome had a Christian stamp; it had no history as the capital of a pagan empire. There was, however, no intention of depressing Rome to a secondary rank in political importance; this was brought about by the force of circumstances.
The Christian Roman Empire, from the first to the last Constantine, endured for 1130 years, and during that long period, which witnessed the births of all the great modern nations of Europe, experienced many vicissitudes of decline and revival. In the 5th century it lost all its western provinces through the expansion of the Teutons; but in the 6th asserted something of its ancient power and won back some of its losses. In the 7th it was brought very low through the expansion of the Saracens and of the Sla y s, but in consequence of internal reforms and prudent government in the 8th century was able before the end of the 9th to initiate a new brilliant period of power and conquest. From the middle of the the century a decline began; besides the perpetual dangers on the eastern and northern frontiers, the Empire was menaced by the political aggression of the Normans and the commercial aggression of Venice; then its capital was taken and its dominions dismembered by Franks and Venetians in 1204. It survived the blow for 250 years, as a shadow of its former self.
During this long life its chief political role was that of acting as a defender of Europe against the great powers of western Asia. While it had to resist a continuous succession of dangerous enemies on its northern frontier in Europe-German, Slavonic, Finnic and Tatar peoples-it always considered that its front was towards the east, and that its gravest task was to face the powers which successively inherited the dominion of Cyrus and Darius. From this point of view we might divide the external history of the Empire into four great periods, each marked by a struggle with a different Asiatic power: with Persia, ending c. 630 with the triumph of Rome; with the Saracens, who ceased to be formidable in the nth century; with the Seljuk Turks, in the filth and 12th centuries; with the Ottoman Turks, in which the Roman power went down.
Medieval historians, concentrating their interest on the rising states of western Europe, often fail to recognize the position held by the later Empire and its European prestige. Up to the middle of the 11th century it was in actual strength the first power in Europe, except in the lifetime of Charles the Great, and under the Comneni it was still a power of the first rank. But its political strength does not express the fullness of its importance. As the heir of antiquity it was confessedly superior in civilization, and it was supreme in commerce. Throughout the whole period (to 1204) Constantinople was the first city in the world. The influence which the Empire exerted upon its neighbors, especially the Slavonic peoples, is the second great role which it fulfilled for Europe-a role on which perhaps the most speaking commentary is the doctrine that the Russian Tsar is the heir of the Roman Caesar.
The Empire has been called by many names- -Greek, Byzantine, Lower (Bas-empire), Eastern (or East-Roman). All these have a certain justification as descriptions, but the only strictly correct name is Roman (as recognized in the title of Gibbon’s work). The continuity from Augustus to Constantine XI. is unbroken; the emperor was always the Roman emperor; his subjects were always Romans (`PcoµaIoa: hence Romaic-Modern Greek). ” Greek Empire ” expresses the fact that the state became predominantly Greek in character, owing to the loss, first of the Latin provinces, afterward of Syria and Egypt; and from the middle of the 6th century Greek became the official language. ” Lower Empire ” (Later is preferable) marks the great actual distinction in character between the development before Constantine (Haut-empire) and after his adoption of Christianity. ” Byzantine ‘ sums up in a word the unique Graeco-Roman civilization which was centered in New Rome. Eastern is a term of convenience, but it has been used in two senses, not to be confused. It has been used, loosely, to designate the eastern half of the Empire during the 80 years or so (from 395) when there were two lines of emperors, ruling formally as colleagues but practically independent, at Rome and Constantinople; but though there were two emperors, as often before, there was only one Empire. It has also been used, justifiably, to distinguish the true Roman Empire from the new state founded by Charles the Great (800), which also claimed to be the Roman Empire; Eastern and Western Empire are from this date forward legitimate terms of distinction. But between the periods to which the legitimate and illegitimate uses of the term ” Eastern Empire ” apply lies a period of more than 300 years, in which there was only one Empire in any sense of the word.
However, Roman art also had its own original contributions. Compared with Greek architecture, Roman was more secular and utilitarian and showed an interest in grandeur and scale, for example in the Colosseum and public baths in Rome. The Romans also developed the use of the arch, the vault and the dome, and discovered concrete, which all allowed for a much grander architecture, its culmination being found in religious buildings such as the Pantheon in Rome and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Both these buildings (which still stand today) had important influence far beyond the Roman period. The triumphal arch was another Roman invention that was revived in the Renaissance and stands as an important example of Roman civic and monumental architecture. The triumphal arch used relief sculpture and inscription to carry its historic and commemorative messages, and this narrative technique decorated the entire surface of the commemorative Trajan’s Column. Relief sculpture was also used for funerary art. The Romans developed the use of mosaic decoration from the Greek example and with wall painting it became an important aspect of patrician domestic decoration, the best surviving examples being from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Wall painting showed an interest in landscape and the illustration of scenes from myth and literature. The decorative arts included fine silver and glassware, such as the Portland Vase, and jewellery of amber, precious gem; and gold.
Wherever the Roman Empire extended, it took its arts and architecture, and its mosaic, theatres, temples and statuary may be found from Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England to Leptis Magna in North Africa, and from Constantinople in the east to Emerita Augusta in Spain in the west. Though the barbarian tribes who finally overran the empire brought their own arts and traditions they held the Roman culture in awe, adopting and adapting their art as well as their laws and religion, by then Christianity, as they saw fit. However it was the 15th century Italian Renaissance that saw the greatest revival of Roman art, and its influence and heritage survives in all branches of the arts today.