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Imperial Rome to Fall of Western Empire. (27 b.c.-a.d. 476).


Ancient history, from the beginning of historical information to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (? B.C. - 476 A.D.). Rome (? 753 b.c. - a.d. 476).
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The imperial system established by Augustus retained the old republican offices and forms, but concentrated the titles and powers of most of them in one person. He was commander-in-chief of all the military and naval forces of the state as Imperator, meaning, "the holder of a military command" from the people, and giving rise to the title of Emperor. In the provinces he held proconsular power, but the control of these was divided between himself and the Senate. The more quiet provinces, needing but a small military force to maintain order, such as Africa, Asia (Minor), Achaia, Sicily, Sardinia, Hispania Bastica (southern Spain), and others, were senatorial; and those which needed the presence of regular armies, such as the four Gallic provinces, northern Spain, Syria, Moesia (the modern Semia and Bulgaria), and Egypt, were imperial, governed by legati (lieutenant-generals or deputy-rulers) in the name of the supreme ruler. He was princeps Senatus (chief man of the Senate), always speaking first on every question, the title giving rise to the word prince. As censor he controlled all appointments to the Senate; he also had the tribunitia potestas, or privileges and functions of the tribunes; the potestas consularis, or consular authority; and the supreme pontificate, or headship of the state-religion. The imperial rule was thus the government of an autocrat under the forms of an aristocracy, a system in which the names of the ancient free state threw a transparent veil over an actual despotism. The Equestrian Order, or knights, the great rival of the Senate under the republic, became now a nursery for the superior body, and the consuls were simply the agents of the emperor in the Senate for the transaction of public business. The title was still held in high respect by the people, and the emperors used to confer it on their favourites as the greatest distinction they could bestow. At last consuls came to be made out of freedmen, professors, and rhetoricians. There was at first little outward show of sovereignty assumed by the real ruler of the state, and a careful avoidance of the assumption of "kingship," a thing hateful to all Romans. The extent of Roman sway is to be seen in the boundaries by modern names. These were, on the north, the English Channel, the Rhine, the Danube, and the Black Sea; on the south, the great African desert (Sahara); on the west, the Atlantic Ocean; on the east, the Arabian Desert, the Armenian Mountains, and the Tigris. A great military force - 16 legions - was maintained on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, and eight legions on the eastern borders. The capital and the monarch were secured by the presence of 20,000 picked men - the City Cohorts and the Prastorian Guards; the commerce of the Mediterranean was protected by two permanent fleets, with headquarters at Ravenna on the Adriatic, and at Mise-num in the Bay of Naples. The population of the whole dominion may have been 100,000,000, one-half consisting of slaves. The "Augustan Age" of literature is proverbial, as including, within wide limits, the Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Livy, Catullus, and other authors in prose and verse whose names are familiar to British schoolboys. The great poet Lucretius was a little before this period; the comic poets Plautus and Terence flourished in the 2nd century b.c.; the great satirist Juvenal and the famous historian Tacitus were about a century later than the time of Augustus. The Maecenas whose name is proverbial as the enlightened and liberal patron of literary men was a friend of Augustus, and shared with Agrippa - an active and able commander in the civil wars, who led the victorious fleet at Actium - the confidential management of public affairs. We may note that in 4 b.c., probably, really occurred the greatest event of the world's spiritual history, the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem of Judea. The erroneous chronology has been, for the sake of convenience, allowed to stand.

In a.d. 4 Augustus adopted as his successor Tiberius, the son of his wife Livia by her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero. One of the chief results of the imperial system was the deliverance of the provincials, to a great extent, from the oppression exercised under the later Republic, when the Roman nobles were in power. By degrees, the provinces received the Roman citizenship, and were placed on a political equality with the dwellers in Italy, sharing the benefits of protection from the Roman law. A striking instance of this is seen in the fear of the "chief captain" of the troops at Jerusalem, with regard to Saint Paul, "after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him." The Apostle was a "free-born" citizen of Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia, made a "free city" by Antony for her support of the cause of Julius Caesar, and we see Paul justly asserting his rights, in the most dignified way, when, after he and his colleague Silas had been "beaten openly uncondemned, being Romans," and cast into prison, at Philippi in Macedonia, he compels the magistrates, who "feared, when they heard that they were Romans," to come in person and escort them out of durance, instead of their simply departing at the magistrates' order of release. Such was the majesty which belonged to the simple "Roman citizen."

We must now give a brief account of the Teutonic tribes of Europe, before dealing with the most important secular event of the time of Augustus. The great region called Germany comprises central Europe, the slope from the Alps northwards to the German Ocean and the Baltic Sea, bounded eastwards by the Vistula and the Carpathians, westwards by the Rhine. The Roman provinces Raetia (the canton Grisons in Switzerland, and most of the Tyrol), Vindelicia (north-east of Sivitzerland, south-east of Baden, south of Wurtemberg and Bavaria, and north of Tyrol), Noricum (most of Styria and Carinthia, and a part of Austria proper, Bavaria, and Salzburg), and Pannonia (east of Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, south-west of Hungary, Slavonia, and part of Croatia and Bosnia) included a portion of what is now called Germany. The Roman Germania Superior and Inferior (Upper and Lower Germany) were Gallic provinces on the left (western) bank of the Rhine. Germany proper which was never a province of the empire, was called by the Romans Germania Magna (Greater Germany). Upper Germany means the hilly country, in early times covered with vast forests of oak pine, and birch, out of which the mountain-ranges rose like islands from a sea. Lower Germany is the northern level, having much heathery waste and marshland in the days with which we are dealing. There were many tribes of the old Germans: the Chatti (Hesse), the Angles (Schleswig), the Saxons (Holstein), the Suevi (Swabians), including then the Marcomanni ("Marchmen," in Bohemia), and the Longobardi, on the middle Elbe; the Batavi and Frisii (Holland) and others. We need not enter into particulars of the pantheistic nature-worship which formed the religion of these peoples, with its "all-father" Woden or Odin, its storm-god (Thor); deities of war, love, justice, and the earth, worshipped by invocations and by sacrifices which included the slaughter of prisoners of war. The special days set apart for devotions to certain deities are retained in our names of days of the week, and many modern customs come from the old German festivities. The faith of the Scandinavians or northern Teutons (Norway and Sweden) was one of great complication, quite beyond our scope here. The social system included nobles, with no political privileges; freemen, meaning landowners, a warrior class, with tillage performed by serfs; freedmen, renters of land bound to military service; and bondmen, partly serfs bound to the soil, partly actual slaves. The majority of the population was composed of the last two classes.

The close connection in race between the bulk of the inhabitants of Great Britain and a portion of these ancient Germans gives a peculiar interest to the character and history of the old Teutons. They were marked by regard for personal and political freedom for men of their own race, by respect for women, probity, and purity of life - the qualities which, heightened by Christianity, are illustrated in the age of chivalry and romance. We see that it was of the utmost importance to the future welfare of the world that such peoples should not be conquered by Rome, but enjoy the freedom which could alone secure the full development of national character and institutions, when we consider over how large a portion of the earth the influence of the German element is now extended - the whole of western, central, and north-western Europe, all of North America, much of Africa and India, all Australasia. This great result was obtained when our own ancestor Herman (called by the Romans "Arminius") gained, in a.d. 9, his famous victory over Varus. The Romans had already been in conflict with Germans, since the defeat of the Teutons by Marius. During his Gallic campaigns, Julius Caesar had inflicted a severe defeat on Ariovistus, a German chief who invaded Gaul. In 12-9 b.c. Drusus, a younger brother of Tiberius, made four campaigns against the Frisii, the Cherusci, and other tribes, leading Roman armies to the Weser and the Ems, but making no permanent conquest. In 8-7 b.c. Tiberius was also in the field against Germanic tribes and had some success. Arminius, chief of the powerful Cherusci, living on both sides of the Weser, was a man who had served in the Roman armies and held the Roman citizenship as a knight. He bravely resolved, when many of his countrymen, including his brother, had made full submission to the Romans, to defy the power which had crushed Hannibal and Mithradates, and the gallant Gaul Vercingetorix, who had been led captive in Caesar's triumph and then slaughtered with deliberate cruelty in a Roman dungeon. Again referring to Creasy's pages for a full account, we may state that the indignation of Arminius and patriotic Germans had been strongly aroused by the licentious conduct of Quintilius Varus, the Roman governor, and his officers. His headquarters were near the centre of the modern Westphalia, and Arminius, having secretly incited a general revolt of the tribes near the Weser and the Ems, caused his emissaries to represent the danger to Varus, and urge him to take the field in full force. The Roman commander, a very incompetent man, was thus seduced with three legions into the hilly district, with deep, narrow valleys and vast woods, called still the Teutoburger-wald, or Teutoburg forest. When the Roman forces were entangled, with a great baggage-train, in this difficult country, then sodden with rain, they were attacked on all sides with showers of missiles, and forced to make their fortified camp for the night on the first open spot that was reached. In the morning the march was renewed, and Arminius again assailed the enemy in a woody hilly region where he had blocked the road with barricades of hewn trees. Confusion followed in the Roman ranks; hundreds of men fell under showers of javelins; the Roman cavalry-commander rode off with his men; Varus was severely wounded; the column was pierced through, and scarcely a man escaped from the scene of slaughter. This great success, the complete liberation, as it proved, of Germany, was followed by the cutting-off of the Roman garrisons in every quarter. In following years, Tiberius and other Roman commanders made attempts to avenge this disaster, but no permanent success was attained, and a decisive verdict on the result of all the Roman efforts to subdue Germany has been given by the historian Tacitus, when he styles Arminius "Liberator haud dubie Germaniae," "the man who beyond doubt freed, Germany," and declares, with reference to certain Roman successes, that the Germans were "triumphati potius quam victi," "rather triumphed over [in the technical sense] than conquered."

Tiberius, coming to power in a.d. 14, at 55 years of age, had much previous experience in state-affairs both, civil and military. His character during his 23 years' period of rule has been drawn with consummate art, and probably with exaggeration due to the irritation of a recent hatred, by the historian Tacitus, as that of a gloomy, suspicious tyrant, whose just and moderate rule for the first eight years of his reign is ascribed to sustained hypocrisy. The imperial show of power was further developed by the reduction of the Comitia, or popular assembly, to a mere shadow. The Senate, now a cowardly and servile body, was the highest tribunal for the state-crimes of its own members, under charges of majestas, or high treason, which grew in frequency as the reign proceeded. The most trivial offences were dealt with under the laws of treason, and gangs of men sprang into existence as a terror to the most innocent subjects whose popularity and wealth provoked attack. Shameless and pitiless accusatores, or "denouncers," hounded by impeachments to their ruin the victims of their malice or their greed, and the mean and cowardly delator, or informer, muttered his insinuations of treason against better men than himself into the ear of a jealous emperor, or, like the mouchard of the modern French empires, vilest of all the agents of despotism, provoked and contrived the plots which he was paid to reveal. At the same time, a people of freed slaves, a mixture of races from every clime in the vast empire, were ready to serve any imperial master that was lavish in feeding them at home by distributions of gratuitous corn, and in amusing them at the circus by displays of gratuitous cruelty. We may note that the victims of the laws of treason were either banished to some barren rocky island in the Mediterranean, or were forced to self-destruction upon the system which, until the salutary revolution in Japan, existed with the ruler and the nobles of that country; the "happy dispatch" at Rome being designed to relieve the emperor from the odium of ordering a citizen's execution. For eight years (23-31) the infamous Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guards, was the favourite of Tiberius and the minister of tyranny. It was he who laid the foundation of the future power of the Praetorians, the "Janissaries" of Rome, by uniting their cohorts in one camp near the capital.

For the last ten years of his reign Tiberius dwelt in seclusion at the isle of Caprese (Capri), off the coast of Campania, indulging in secret debaucheries, and finally lapsing into an almost insane condition. In a.d. 31 Sejanus himself, an ambitious, bold, and able man who incurred his master's suspicion, was struck down through an imperial letter to the Senate which consigned him to immediate execution and handed his body over to the outrages of the Roman mob. Macro, the successor of the fallen man, was a worse Sejanus, having all his vices without any of his ability. Fallen into a lethargic condition, Tiberius was suffocated by Macro in a.d. 37. Among the criminal tragedies of the reign may be noted the poisoning of the popular hero Germanicus, the nephew and adopted son of Tiberius. He had fought with success against, the Germans, twice defeating the famous Arminius, and in one of his campaigns his troops gathered up the bones of the soldiers who perished with Varus, and paid the last honours to their memory. Recalled by his jealous master, he was sent to the East, where he died through the act of Piso, governor of Syria, whom Tiberius felt obliged to sacrifice to the public indignation. Germanicus was the father of the emperor Caligula and of Agrippina, the mother of Nero.

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Map. Te Roman Empire, A.D.119.
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