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Imperial Rome to Fall of Western Empire. (27 b.c.-a.d. 476). page 2


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It is impossible to pursue here in detail the careers of the Roman emperors, and we shall note only a few important persons and events. Of the 62 emperors from Julius Caesar to Constantine, 42 were murdered, 3 committed suicide, 2 abdicated, and only n died a natural death, each "Caesar" having an average reign of little over 5 years. A part of the history is made up of civil wars between rival claimants for the imperial authority, another part deals with revolts of provincial governors and of the Praetorian Guards and other divisions of the military force, who raised to imperial power whomsoever they chose to impose upon the Senate. The mad Caligula (37-41) was murdered by some of his servants. The feeble old Claudius (41-54), younger brother of Germanicus, and husband of the infamous, proverbial Messalina, began the conquest of Britain, to be hereafter related, and visited the island. He was very good to the Gauls and gave the Roman citizenship to many of them. Mauritania and other African provinces were added to the empire, with Lycia, Thracia, and Judea, hitherto a dependent kingdom for many years. Poisoned by his second wife Agrippina, Claudius was succeeded by the monster Nero (54-68), who murdered his mother Agrippina, his wife Octavia, and his stepbrother Britannicus, and degraded his office by appearing in public as a chariot-driver at the games, an actor, and a singer. The Christians were brutally persecuted on a false charge of causing the great fire at Rome which lasted for six days and laid much of the city in ruins. The capital was splendidly rebuilt with a vast imperial palace, the domus aurea ("Golden Mansion"), covering all the Palatine Hill and adjacent grounds. A general revolt caused Nero, abandoned by all, to kill himself at the age of 30. With him ended all the male members, by birth or adoption, of the house of Julius Caesar, and Galba, an old general of the army in Spain, the dandy Otho, and the glutton Vitellius, were all raised to power and murdered within two years (68, 69). The Flavian emperors, so called from the first of the line, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, though only his two successors were of his family, were in power for over a century, and included the best men who ever ruled the empire. Vespasian (69-79), raised to the imperial power with universal approval, after a civil war, was a Sabine of the fine old stock, a brave, skilful soldier, simple in life, strict and moderate in rule. We have seen him in Judea, and he played his part in the conquest of southern Britain. Two months after the close of his reign the great eruption of Vesuvius buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. His son and successor, the excellent Titus, the captor of Jerusalem, reigned but two years (79-81), completing the Colosseum, the gigantic remains of which are still the wonder of visitors in Rome. His brother Domitian (81-96), a cruel, cowardly tyrant, under whom the infamous informers were active, and the Christians, Jews, and philosophers were atrociously persecuted, was murdered by one of his freedmen.

Five good rulers then followed each other through adoption as sons of the predecessors. The kindly Nerva, an old senator, reigned but 16 months, but in that time he repealed the law of treason and recalled the exiles. A bright period came with Trajan (98-117), a Spaniard by birth, the first ruler not of Roman, or even Italian, race. He is reckoned the greatest of the emperors for the combination of mental, physical, and moral qualities. The great province of Dacia (Ronmania, eastern Hungary, and Transylvania) was added to the empire by successful war against king Decebalus, to whom Domitian had paid tribute to refrain from attacks. From the numerous colonists then settled there, the modern Roumanians derive their language. It is probable that during this period, and under Trajan's three successors, the people of the Roman Empire had the happiest life of all the history of Rome. The emperor and his wife lived a simple quiet life, walking about unguarded in the streets of the capital. The Senate were treated with due respect, and the people were pleased by kindly treatment and by the adornment of Rome with splendid buildings. The magistrates enjoyed much of their former authority under the Republic, and liberal support was given to every useful institution in Rome or in the provinces. The Parthian warfare of this excellent emperor has been already given.

Hadrian (117-138) was a lover of peace and a good administrator, an active man who seems to have been the first emperor who understood his real position as master of most of the civilised world. The vast expense of maintaining frontier-garrisons caused him to give up Trajan's conquests beyond the Euphrates, and he then made journeys to every part of the empire, in order to maintain good government of the provincials and strict discipline among the troops. Even the distant Britain was visited, and the imperial journeys ranged from the borders of Caledonia (Scotland) to the cataracts of the Nile. Much was done to develop the Roman jurisprudence in drawing up a code of laws based on the decisions and rules of the judges, and published by the emperor for public use. Hadrian thus rendered service not only to his own generation but to the people of Europe in ages then far distant. Great architectural works of public use and adornment arose under Hadrian - harbours, aqueducts, new buildings at Athens, and a splendid mansion at Tibur (Tivoli) near Rome, with many still extant art-treasures.

Antoninus (138-161), surnamed Pius, or "the Affectionate," from his devoted regard for his adoptive father, Hadrian, was a true father of his people, and his reign may be considered as the happiest period of the Roman Empire. The frontiers were well defended against the attacks of barbarians, and the world of Roman sway was free from the crimes, conspiracies, civil wars, and bloodshed which had so troubled and disgraced it under some previous rulers. Wise, just, kindly, courteous, an enjoyer of all innocent pleasures, this most admirable and lovable of imperial masters encouraged literature, extended commerce, repaired roads and bridges, improved the laws, and stayed the persecution of the Christians. His successor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), trained in his youth by sages of the Stoic school, and styled "the Philosopher," had already, as adopted son, taken a part in government with Antoninus. He was a man of the purest virtue, the noblest production of Stoicism, one of the finest moral characters in all history. He erred at times from the unsuspecting goodness of his heart, but his excellent intentions can no more be doubted than those of our own immortal Alfred, with whom he may be well compared. The reign of Aurelius, however, was one of great troubles for which he was in no way answerable. The warfare with Parthia has been already noticed, as also the dreadful pestilence, the real Oriental plague, which overspread the whole western world, slaying many millions of people, and was followed by famine. The first symptoms of the great northern migration of tribes appeared, and the emperor had to take the field against the Marcomanni, Alani, Sarmatse, and other races on the north-eastern and north-central frontiers. The energy and discipline of the Roman armies had become relaxed, and the. fearful losses in the ranks due to the plague were supplied by the enlistment of vast numbers of slaves and gladiators. The German tribes were, on the whole, successfully dealt with in warfare which continued for most of the reign. The emperor was also harassed by the ill-conduct of his wife Faustina and the bad promise of his son Commodus. He had never been strong in health, and he died on a campaign against the Germans, worn out by constant anxiety and fatigue. This illustrious champion of the best heathen philosophy and faith displayed in his life a spirit of gentleness, magnanimity, humility, and forgiveness such as only the best Christians have attained, and his famous Meditations, invested with a melancholy charm of rare potency in their revelation of a soul saddened but not embittered by its loneliness amid the troubles of life, are the legacy to the world of this serene and elevated spirit, ever philanthropic, ever a student of his beloved philosophy even amid the storms of war. His death was lamented throughout the Roman world as a vast calamity, and he received almost divine honours in countless families, where his image, more than a century later, was found treasured among the household gods. Aurelius' two persecutions of Christianity, in 166 and 177, involving the martyrdom of Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle St. John, at Smyrna, were the work of a man who, clinging earnestly to his stoical faith, had been brought, through misrepresentations, to regard the new religion as an immoral superstition and as a political conspiracy. He believed that, in striving to extirpate the creed of which he might have been one of the noblest converts, he was doing his duty as a ruler in preserving society from revolution. We need hardly remark that Aurelius, like all the cultivated men of his day, had no belief in the old pagan mythology, which the witty Lucian, a Greek author of the time, born in Syria about a.d. 125, of Semitic race, treats with the most graceful and amusing ridicule. The old beliefs were, in fact, fast declining, and a great political and social, as well as mental, change was in progress when the German tribes, urged by the Slavonic peoples of the north-east, furnished many peaceful settlers within the Roman boundaries and recruits to the Roman armies. The empire was not merely depopulated, to a large extent by the great plague and by other like visitations in the next century, but it was being repopulated by Teutonic aliens. We have here the real cause of the "downfall of the Roman Empire."

With the reigns of the "five good emperors" the best days of the great Roman dominion passed away. The military power was becoming supreme, and withal the provinces could no longer be governed, but merely defended against barbarian encroachments. Commodus (180-192), son and successor of Aurelius, was simply a monster of cruelty and licentiousness. Murdered by his servants, he was followed, on the appointment of the troops, by a man who was murdered by the Praetorians within three months, and then Septimius Severus (193-211) carries us into the dreary 3rd century, marked by the worst of calamities in the shape of tyrannies, plagues, and the mischiefs wrought by a mutinous, omnipotent, and half- barbaric soldiery. Severus, a good commander, fought with success in the East, and died at Eboracum (York) on a visit to Britain for the strengthening of the frontier against the Scots, Under his rule the Praetorian Guards, hitherto always natives of Italy, were increased in number to 50,000, picked men from all the frontier- armies, and thus the capital of the empire was in the hands of troops of foreign birth. Caracalla (211-217) was a cruel tyrant, whose reign was made notable by the granting of the Roman citizenship to all the provincials who were free-born. The object in view was to obtain more money for keeping the soldiers in good humour, through the higher taxation imposed on citizens. The political effect was of great importance. All free persons governed by Rome now became "Romans," and the unity thus obtained gave a new sense to the designation "Roman Empire." Caracalla was murdered, as usual, and we pass over the debauched Elagabalus (218-222), also murdered, to Alexander Severus (222-235), an excellent ruler, under whom the famous jurist Ulpian, a native of Tyre, flourished. He was one of the emperor's ministers, and commander of the Preetorian Guard, who slew him during a mutinous outbreak. Emperor after emperor followed, short-reigned in all cases. Under Decius (249-251) the powerful Teutonic people called Goths, whom we shall see hereafter, invaded Thrace, and were repelled.

Under Valerian (253-260) there was much warfare with the northern barbarians, with the Franks in Gaul, with the Alemanni as invaders of northern Italy, with the Goths on the Danube and in Greece and Asia Minor. The emperor was defeated and taken prisoner by Sapor, king of a revived Persia to be seen hereafter. A period of confusion followed, with Gothic invasions, and warfare between pretenders to power, until a.d. 270, when a brief better period came with the emperor Aurelian (270-275), an Illyrian by birth. His predecessor Claudius (268-270), also a native of Illyria, and a brave soldier, had routed and driven back the Goths and Alemanni, and Aurelian showed both strength and wisdom in his dealings with the problem of foreign invasion. His brief reign was crowded with memorable achievements. The province of Dacia was surrendered to the Goths, and the Danube was in that quarter made the boundary of the empire. The Alemanni and Marcomanni were repulsed from Italy in a second battle of the Metaurus. A strong empire under one ruler existed again by Aurelian's defeat of a rival claimant of power in Gaul, Spain, and Britain. In the East, he reconquered Egypt, and defeated and brought captive to Rome the beautiful, brave, high-spirited, virtuous, and accomplished Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra ("Tadmor in the Desert"), a rich and magnificent city of northern Syria, about midway between Damascus and the Euphrates. This famous lady, probably of Arab race, was wife of the Bedouin chief Odsenathus, who had been appointed by the emperor Gallienus, in a.d. 264, to the rule of the East, and allowed to set up a "kingdom of Palmyra." He drove the Persians out of Syria after their defeat of Valerian, and extended his sway over most of the adjacent territory, from Egypt to Asia Minor. Splendid remains of Palmyra, including the great mile-long colonnade, originally of 1,500 Corinthian pillars, and the temple of the Sun (or Baal), are still to be seen. Aurelian, after crushing this newly risen Oriental empire, ruled wisely and well by Zenobia after her husband's death in 271, exhibited his illustrious captive, decked with jewels, and weighed down with golden chains, in his "triumph" at Rome, and then permitted her to end her life, in peace and affluence, in the society of her two sons, on possessions which he bestowed near Tibur (Tivoli).

The emperor Probus (276-282) also did good work in restoring Roman supremacy by repelling the Franks, Alemanni, Vandals, and Burgundians. He enlisted a large number of German mercenaries in the army, and in this way another step was taken towards the ultimate overrunning of the empire by northern tribes.

Before the end of the 3rd century, in fact, the Roman dominions had become largely "barbarised" in the persons of the Teutonic Goths and Vandals who had entered the military service, and were spread through the territory more than any other nationality. The capital became, as we shall see, a provincial town on the banks of the Tiber. The Senate had no political existence, and the emperor became a kind of Oriental despot, naming his own successor, and living in pomp and luxury, exacting the utmost servility of demeanour from his courtiers, and creating the principle of sovereignty which was to prevail in Europe for many ages until the rise of constitutional checks on monarchical power. A vast army of military and civil officials was spread over the empire, with expense that caused ruinous taxation, another prelude to the ultimate dissolution due to barbarian encroachments and attacks.

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