The Roman Empire came into being In 27 BC, when the senate granted Gaius Octavius the "Augustus" title - which meant "divine". It affirmed his position as the most important man in the empire and brought the end to the Roman Republic.
Octavian Augustus reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD and in this time he managed to restore political and social stabilization throughout the empire. Caesar abolished the republican system and concentrated on consolidating the powers of the civil and military offices, the authority of consul, tribune of the Plebes and the highest priest in particular. And so, he concentrated the power of three offices in his hand. Caesar was also called “the victorious leader” and the “father of homeland”. Augustus upheld the privileges of the senators, at the same time emphasizing, that it is he, who is the first among all equal. In addition to this, his reign was called principate.
Augustus was one of those emperors, who introduced many laws in order to improve the Roman administration. Octavian replaced corrupted patricians with administrators from the knight class, who were now entrusted with key positions in the country, and the corrupted entrepreneurs, whose job was to collect taxes, with civil servants. These changes, as well as reasonable taxes and stable currency led to development of trade and economic growth in the empire.
The emperor reformed religion and also restored morality in the country. Laws he introduced not only encouraged families to have children, but also provided punishment for sexual crimes. Octavian Augustus promoted culture, which guaranteed a simple, rural life and held family values and religiousness in estimation. During his reign, emperor Octavian Augustus renewed 82 temples and restored the neglected religious traditions.
The successor of Augustus, Tiberius was not only an effective leader but an administrator as well. Tired of power, he passed the reign to the prefect of the Praetorium Aelius Seianus, and settled down in his cottage on Capri. Seianus however, passed the title quickly to his nephew Gaius, called Caligula.
Caligula at first gained favour by abolishing sale taxes and organising games and shows, after a certain period of time it showed, that his reign showed signs of tyranny. He murdered the senators, made his childhood friends governors and demanded being praised, comparing himself with Jove. He was murdered a plot, as his tyranny couldn’t be tolerated by some.
After the death of Caligula, the Romans were considering restoring the republic, but just then, the praetorians made the senators elect Claudius emperor. He was reasonable in his political decisions and introduced human rights for the slaves and debtors. But even he didn’t mount the throne for a long time. Claudius was poisoned by his wife, Agripina, who wanted to introduce her son, Nero to the throne.
Nero was an emperor, who started persecuting the Christians, as he blamed them for the fire of Rome in 64 AD. He was a ruler with great artistic ambitions, but his singing and stagy shows made the Romans embarrassed. He was an incompetent emperor and therefore the Romans made a revolt against him. Nero committed suicide during his escape from Rome.
His death started a civil war, during which Galba, Otto, Vitellius and Vespasian battled each other in order to be emperor.
The triumphant of the struggle between the four emperors was Vespasian. The nomination found him quelling a Jewish uprising. By appointing new senators from outside of Italy and loyal commanders, he built support for the new Flavian dynasty. He healed the empire’s finances. Vespasian’s successor was Titus, his son. The Romans had a pleasant memory of his short-lived reign, his brother, Domitian, however, was considered by them as a tyrant and despite his numerous militaristic successes his reputation never improved. Domitian was murdered as a result of a plot.
After his death, the senate elected Nerva emperor. That was the beginning of the Antonian dynasty. Five following emperors of that line were excellent administrators and politicians. Apart from other undertakings, they managed to initiate a program of building many objects, fortifications and roads throughout the empire, instituted a welfare program and an administration reform.
Historians consider the reign of the five emperors - Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius as a great time for the Roman Empire. However, Commodus - the one that succeeded Marcus Aurelius, didn’t care for the affairs of Rome. After his death, praetorians conducted an auction, where the imperial throne was at stake. A war began, victor of which was to become the emperor.
As a result of the civil war that erupted after Commodus’s death, Severus, a commander of the armies along Danube, mounted the imperial throne. After defeating his rivals, he dedicated his reign to maintain the borders of the empire. Neither did he trust the senate (deprived the senators of their military leader statuses) nor the praetorians’ guard, which he dissolved. He secured the loyalty of the army by introducing an even pay and loosening the discipline. He entrusted to the soldiers administrative duties, such as collecting the taxes. However, those reforms made the empire weaker, and his five successors were murdered because of the constant bribing of the soldiers. The reign of the Severus dynasty ended with the murder of the emperor Alexander Severus.
The army began to consider itself as a representative of the Roman people and the source of power. Between 235 AD and 284 AD, the army elected 20 emperors, who succeeded in capturing Rome and 30 who didn’t. Only one of those emperors died of natural causes. This situation led to a decline in economy: the tax collectors demanded enormous taxes for the fighting soldiers and ruined peasants were becoming servants of the latifundia or just raiders.
The anarchy and negligence of roads and bridges paralysed trade, what caused the fall of many villages and cities. Money lost its worth, what led to a change from financial economy into bartering. Also the monetary taxes were replaced by natural taxes, that were collected from producers of for example food, weapons or clothes. Raising poverty struck also in the educational system, culture, the games and religious festivals. During the reign of Aurelian, Rome had new city walls built, as the old ones were to small. However, the empire remained weak.
In the first centuries of its existence, the Roman Empire covered an area, where nowadays are 30 countries. It was inhabited by 50 million people.
Rome created an enormous bureaucratic machine. The skeleton of the empire’s administration were the provincial servants, who, in times of need, could count on the army. The range of action of bureaucracy was restricted by the goals it was to achieve. The main objective was the collection of taxes. If the taxes kept coming to Rome, the administrators didn’t influence the lives of local communities or local traditions.
It was Augustus who began to reform the administration. To tell the truth, this situation was much better compared to the corruption in times of the Republic. The administration was much more centralised and coherent.
The empire was really a mosaic of self-governing towns with adjoining areas that were ruled by local elite. This elites were responsible for carrying out administrative tasks, realisation of laws and collection of taxes. The towns themselves were usually copies of the capital of the empire. They had their own senate and clerks elected annually from the local nobles.
The economical and military situation began to improwe in the 70’s of the third century. Political stabilization was restored by emperor Diocletian. Having realised that he wasn’t able to rule by himself , he chose Maximian as a second emperor. He entrusted Maximian the western provinces. Shortly after that, both emperors got assistants.
This system of reigns of four emperors was created by Diocletian as a permanent institution. After a time, Diocletian abdicated and gave power to his emperor. However, a civil war raised, victor of which was Constantinus, who managed to conquer the western and the eastern part of the empire.
During the reign of Diocletian and Constantinus the empire was reorganised. The army was expanded and divided into two groups: the defenders of borders and a mobile field army. Provinces were divided into smaller regions, so as to make governing them easier. This resulted in restoring civil order but also the number administrators had to be enlarged, what soon resulted in widespread corruption. In addition to this, taxes were higher.
Christianity, which was born in the first century in Palestine gained popularity very fast. At the beginning of the second century its followers were spread throughout the empire. The Christians faced hostility of the other inhabitants of the empire. They were charged with atheism, as they didn’t worship the pagan gods. If not count a few exceptions, however, they were not persecuted by the officials of the empire.
It all changed in the third century. In the uncertain times this new religion was becoming more and more popular. The growing numbers of the Christians made the authorities anxious and the official persecutions began. Their apogee fell on the first years of the fourth century - bloody, merciless persecutions didn’t, however, break the Church. The courage of martyrs made its authority stronger.
Constantinus understood that and in 313 AD issued an act of tolerance. Twenty four years later, dying, Constantinus baptized himself. All following emperors were Christians. A exception to this was Iulian ( 361-363), who tried to enliven the pagan religion. In vain.
In 330 AD Constantinus made capitol of the empire Byzantium, an old Greek colony by Bosfor, which he soon made Constantinopol. In 395 Ad a final division of the empire was a fact: the western part with Rome and the eastern part with Constantinopol.
Soon after this division the fall of the western empire began. Numerous Germanic people broke through its borders. In 410 the Visigoths conquered and Rome. It was the first time for 800 years when Rome was raided by a hostile army. In that year emperor Honorius gave up the defence of Britain. Then, a temporary improvement followed. In 451 with Germans as allies at Catalaun fields the empire repulsed the attack of Attyla, the leader of Hunes.
Four years later, the Vandals, who set up their own kingdom in Northern Africa raided Rome. The remains of the western empire remained until 476 when a Roman leader of a Germanic origin, Odoaker detronised Romulus Augustulus and claimed the title of king of Italy.
The eastern empire continued to exist despite the fall of Rome and lasted for a thousand years longer.
More on the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, and how its downfall parallels politics in the US now: www.roman-empire-america-now.com