Rome in its glory
In the two centuries following the death of Augustus, the Roman Empire was one of the richest and most successful empires that the world has ever seen. The central part of the empire was at peace, and peace brought prosperity: towns and villas displayed the riches of prosperity, and even the peasants lived in prosperous villages.
Gibbon, in the opening chapter of his famous work, delivered a famous encomium:
“In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government.
During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.”
The two centuries after the death of Augustus form in many ways the central part of our story when the Roman world emerged from the traumas of the First Century BC into the glories of peace and prosperity. There is however one tinie weenie little problem which most authors of this period are keen to gloss over: this was the time when the Romans gave up any pretence of democracy and became an empire. Does this mean that our own near-religious belief in democracy is somewhat, shall we say, misleading? Is it possible to devise a system in which the advantages of a strong centralised rule outweigh the advantages of democracy? And as far as the religion of democracy is concerned, is not a certain agnosticism perhaps desirable? In trying to analyse what went on in the first two centuries AD, we shall try to keep these questions at the back of our minds.
Mind you, we must not fall into the trap of believing that the story of the rulers is necessarily the story of society as a whole. We must try to balance the accounts, and while an account of the emperors forms the skeleton of the story, let us try and fill in an account of what was really happening in the Empire as a whole.
This age of prosperity can be divided conveniently into two halves, which coincide more or less with the Christian centuries. The first century AD was a time when the concept of imperial rule was settling down with some difficulty and good emperors were interspersed with a number of mediocre emperors and several bad emperors. The second century however was more successful, being divided between just four emperors, each of them adopted by his predecessor. It was only when the last of these emperors Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his own son Commodus that the empire began to fall apart.
On to Tiberius
Our main account is chronological, but there are two major excursuses.
First, we go to Pompeii, to see what life was like in a medium-sized city, and to see how Roman local government really worked.
And then what did ‘Romanisation’ really mean? How did the Romans turn barbarians into Romans? We look at the four great provinces to the West and North. First there is the slow, slow conquest of Spain; then the conquest of Gaul, Roman France; then the defeat in Germany and finally the long drawnout conquest of Britannia and the building of Hadrian’s Wall.