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READ: The Roman Empire

By the time it got an emperor, Rome was already an empire. Its conquests connected new parts of the world, but cultural exchange, new trade networks, and luxury shopping habits also changed Rome.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What was the Pax Romana?
  2. How did Rome’s wars of conquest shape Roman society?
  3. How did the Romans approach to religion help them create an empire?
  4. According to the author, what does silk tell us about women in Roman society?
  5. When did the Roman Empire fall?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. You read an article about authority and control in empires. What are some methods of control mentioned in that article that you see reflected in the Roman Empire? Did Rome use any methods of control that weren’t mentioned in the earlier article?
  2. You’ve read some definitions and characteristics of empires. What aspects of the Roman Empire seem characteristic of all empires? What seems unique?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Roman Empire

Marble sculpture of an emperor. He is wearing a shield embossed with detailed figures. A baby is at his side.
Bennett Sherry
By the time it got an emperor, Rome was already an empire. Its conquests connected new parts of the world, but cultural exchange, new trade networks, and luxury shopping habits also changed Rome.

Background

Historians generally divide the history of the Roman state into three large periods. The city of Rome itself was built at a favorable location: one of the few places people could cross the River Tiber, surrounded by hills that could be defended, and with nearby farmland. Early in its history, it was dominated by nearby states, but maybe around 753 BCE it became an independent kingdom, Rome's first period. We don't know when this happened for sure, because a lot of Rome's early records were destroyed and most of what we know comes from oral tradition. Rome had kings for around two and a half centuries. Then, around 509 BCE, it became a republic, with some democratic features, Rome's second period. The republic lasted for almost 500 years.
Map shows the initial capture of Italy and part of Spain by the Roman empire, as well as regions that were captured later, including the rest of Spain and Macedonia.
A map showing Roman conquests during the Republican period. Rome had an empire well before Julius Caesar was even born. Public domain.
In 27 BCE, Rome entered its third period. Caesar Augustus became Rome's first emperor, and the Roman Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire. Or at least that's the story. In reality, Rome had an empire long before it became an empire. The Roman Republic controlled a multitude of cultures and peoples all around the Mediterranean Sea for centuries before Augustus became the first actual emperor.

Formation

Though he took the title princeps, meaning "first" or "foremost," there's no doubt that Augustus, and only Augustus, ruled the Roman Empire. He enacted a set of reforms that changed Roman politics and launched a golden age of peace and stability within the empire. This period, from 27 BCE to 180 CE is known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Beginning with Augustus, the Roman emperors seized more power over the political life of the empire and its military. They kept many of the titles and traditions of the Republic, but in practice they ruled as dictators. The figure of the emperor became central to Roman political life. His image was minted on coins, and he was linked to the gods.
Augustus only ever claimed to be the son of a god (very humble). But after his death the Senate declared him a full god. Several later emperors were also honored in this way.
Coin inscribed with the profile of a man and inscribed with the words Augustus Caesar and “DIVVS IVLIVS”
You know you’ve made it big when your face is on money. This Roman coin carries the image of Augustus, and the inscription, “DIVVS IVLIVS” means “Divine Julius.” By Classical Numismatic Group, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Administration: human resources

The Roman Empire expanded during the first century after Augustus, reaching its height in 117 CE. These wars of expansion shaped life in the empire. They made military service an important way for men to gain political power and wealth. And Rome's wars of conquest ensured a steady supply of enslaved people. These people, unlike citizens, could not be drafted into the Roman army, so they were a more reliable labor source for the wealthy people who enslaved them. By 1 CE, as much as one-third of the people living on the Italian peninsula were enslaved. These people were forced to work on plantations owned by wealthy Romans who turned from subsistence farming toward more lucrative crops like olives. Enslaved people could be freed or purchase their own freedom. People freed in this way gained limited rights, and their children were born Roman citizens.
Picture of an aqueduct crossing a river valley: a bridge-like structure featuring many arches.
A Roman aqueduct in southern France that carried water to the city of Nîmes. By Benh Lieu Song, CC BY-SA 3.0.
The Roman Empire under Augustus ruled about 45 million people. Only 4 million of these were citizens. At its peak, Rome was the largest city in the world, with a population of 1 million or so. The empire controlled 2 million square miles of territory. This many people and this much land required sophisticated administration and technology. Hundreds of miles of Roman roads connected the empire, linking its cities, allowing its armies to march, and facilitating trade. Aqueducts linked major cities to the essential resource of fresh water.

Religion and culture: beliefs that travel

The Romans generally avoided forcing their religion on the people they conquered. As long as people paid their taxes to Rome and followed Roman rules, they were allowed to practice their own religion. This tolerance changed Roman culture. Early Romans adopted Greek gods and religious practices, with some alterations to suit a Roman context. But as the empire expanded, cross-cultural encounters reshaped Roman approaches to religion. Roman soldiers and officials who had journeyed to the edges of the empire returned home with new beliefs from abroad. For example, the cult of Mithras—inspired by Mithra from Persian Zoroastrianism—spread across the Roman world. Similarly, other foreign gods like Isis from Egypt and Baal from Mesopotamia were refashioned and incorporated in the Roman pantheon (group of gods).
Stone carving depicts a scene of a man killing a bull with a dagger. He is looking behind him, where there is a man on horseback.
A relief of Mithras killing a bull. The Cult of Mithras was popular among soldiers, which is part of why it spread so quickly through the empire. By Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Early Christians faced persecution for refusing to honor the emperor. Unlike Roman religion, Christianity was a missionary religion—their goal was to convert the citizens and subjects of Rome. It worked, because, by 313 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine had legally recognized Christianity, and by 380, Christianity was the empire's state religion.

Trade networks: silk and more silk

As the Roman Empire expanded and got richer, people in Rome wanted to use their new wealth to buy luxuries from far away. Luxury shopping may sound unimportant, however, the vast trade networks that were extended to meet this demand were anything but. Merchants linked Rome to the Chinese Han Empire, trading fancy silks and other luxuries. By the time they reached Rome, these luxuries traveled across thousands of miles of desert, mountains, and sea.
There is some debate as to how far these networks extended. It's unlikely that the two empires ever directly interacted. Goods moved more like a relay race than a marathon. Networks of merchants in the Parthian and Kushan empires and around the Indian Ocean carried spices and silk west and Roman metals and glass east. Most silk that made its way to Rome came through India, where archaeologists have found many Roman coins. Spices from the Indian Ocean were somewhat common in Rome. In the earliest Roman cookbook, titled Apicius, some recipes call for pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and cumin, all of which came from the Indian Ocean. But it wasn't all spice and silk–uninvited germs allowed several devastating plagues to spread along these routes of exchange.
Spices and diseases aside, we can't underestimate the importance of silk. These trade networks grew because Romans craved this soft and beautiful fabric that only the Chinese knew how to make. There was so much silk being imported that the Roman Senate restricted the trade. They worried that too much Roman wealth was leaving the empire in exchange for silk, and the trade imbalance would ruin the Roman economy. However, silk was so popular that attempts to ban it ultimately failed.

Women in society

Silk tells us quite a bit about the place of women in Roman society. For example, we know that part of the reason the Roman Senate tried to ban silk was because they believed the fabric was too revealing and undermined good Roman morality. They worried that too much silk corrupted Rome's masculine virtues. Wealthy women might have been able to afford the luxuries of distant lands, but much of their public life was dictated by men in Rome's patriarchal society.
The early years of the Roman empire saw many such attempts to regulate women. Augustus passed new laws that gave advantages to women who married and had children and punished those who did not. Augustus hoped to impose an image of the moral Roman family on the empire. In addition to regulations on women's bodies and sexuality, women in the Roman Empire lacked full legal rights. They were technically citizens, but could not vote or hold political office. Women were required to have a male relative represent them in financial and legal matters.
A painting of a figure. They appear to be floating on air and is holding a mirror in one hand. They are wearing a flowing, silk dress.
A fresco from Pompeii depicting a maenad in silk dress. Maenads were mythical figures who went to parties thrown by Bacchus, the god specializing in excess and debauchery. Public domain.
Still, many women in the empire worked within these constraints to exercise political power. There are instances of women who ran the estates of dead husbands. Women could divorce their husbands, though the husband retained custody of their children. Women of lower classes entered public life through work, while wealthy women often acted as influential advisors to their sons and husbands.

Decline and fall: sort of

In 476 CE, Germanic tribes invaded, and the Roman Empire fell. All done. Finished. Next empire, please.
Or at least, that's the story. It's true that the Western Roman Empire was crippled by a poor economy and Germanic invasions, but the Roman Empire didn't really fall in 476. In fact, it lasted another 1,000 years.
After 180 CE, things got tough in the Roman Empire. As it expanded, it relied more on non-Romans to fill the ranks of its army. Invasions by Germanic tribes in the north and the Sassanid Persians in the east combined with internal disagreements to weaken the empire. In 284 CE, the emperor Diocletian divided the empire into two administrative halves: east and west. In 324 CE, Emperor Constantine founded a new capital city in his name, Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The city was a better location than Rome, since it was closer to Rome's wealthiest provinces. At first, the split between east and west was purely an administrative change to help the empire run better. The Roman Empire was still a single entity. But increasingly, the two halves were ruled independently. So, by the time the Germanic general Odoacer overthrew the last Western Roman emperor in 476, the western and eastern halves of the empire were governed as two separate empires.
But did the Roman Empire fall in 476? Not really. There was division in the west, as Germanic tribes seized territory and the empire crumbled from within. But in the east, there was consolidation and even expansion. The Roman Empire remained a power in the eastern Mediterranean for another 1,000 years, even reconquering the Italian Peninsula in the sixth century. Though historians have rebranded it the "Byzantine Empire," the people living there thought of themselves as Romans. For centuries after the so-called "fall of Rome," these Romans continued to be the most powerful state in the Mediterranean world.
A map shows the areas conquered by the Roman Empire, mostly around the perimeter. Many cities were ruled under the empire.
A map of the Eastern Roman Empire after Justinian reconquered Italy and other lands in the west. By Tatatryn, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in history from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a research associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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