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The City State
We should note that it is because official documents still exist that we know more about Rome than other empires of ancient times. Latin remained the official language of Europe until the 17th century.
Rome began as a city state in the region of Italy on the borders of Etruria and Latium. The dominant people of that area are supposed to have been Etruscans. Their language is unknown as all literary texts have been lost. It is possible that they did not speak an Indo-European language, but their origin according to Herodotus was from the kingdom of Lydia in western modern Turkey according to recent archaeology - an area curiously near to historic Troy. The ancient Lydian language is reported to be Indo-European of the Anatolian branch. They used an alphabet based on the Greek letters but even the pronunciation of the few remaining inscriptions (on tombstones) is not certain. Ancient history is much disputed among those who study it. This article indicates the extent of disputes and uncertainties
Romans spoke Latin and were the descendants of an Indo-European migration into Italy. Theirs was an Italic language. Several other Italic languages were spoken in the peninsula. Their influence lives on in the various dialects of Italian still spoken in modern Italy. The arrival of Indo-Europeans into Italy is lost in the mists of time - there is no documentary evidence of any kind about their early history, other than what might be discerned from the study of early Latin.
The early kings seem to have been Etruscans but the exact relations between Latin speakers and Etruscans in the early days is difficult to be certain about. Knowledge of the Etruscan language probably died out in the days of the early empire (Claudius, a historian as well as emperor, is supposed to have been able to read the Etruscan texts. His 20 volume History of the Etruscans has been lost.).
Unlike in a modern state it was not clearly defined who had the right to make laws. Although the Consuls were considered to be the highest officials, and perhaps were the equivalent of a modern Head of State, several other officials, elected in various ways, were powerful. For example, the Censor could use his office for purposes other than his stated duties: maintaining the lists of citizens. The process of becoming a Consul was recognised as the Cursus honorum (Course of Honors), by which a young aristocrat progressed through a series of offices (honors) and only rose if he performed well in earlier offices. A similar arrangement operated in the British Empire. Some modern republics might do well to imitate this process and so improve the quality of those who reach the top.
What was the secret of Rome's expansion?
This popular army ceased to work as the city controlled larger and larger areas. Gaius Marius reorganised the army in about 100 BCE. He created what was in effect an entirely mercenary army - soldiers who fought for pay rather than patriotism. He recruited poorer men - previously excluded. The soldiers then became answerable to their commanders rather than to the Republic.
Decline of the Republic
Rome conquered these lands, and acquired a flood of slaves from the defeated armies and settlers.
Roman forces also expanded into Iberia - now Spain and Portugal - from the Carthaginian and Greek colonies on the Mediterranean coast. Then there were conquests in Greece itself and the Adriatic coasts - Illyria (now modern Yugoslavia). Julius Caesar led the conquest of Gaul - roughly modern France and Switzerland and visited Britain (without success).
One resulting problem was revealed when Marcus Antonius, in his attempt to become Julius Caesar's successor, seized control of Egypt. This was the equivalent of a hostile regime controlling the main oil fields, supplying a modern society dependent on imported oil. Thus, even at the height of Rome's power there were long term problems building up.
Steven Saylor - Roma
There were civil wars between interest groups and between the great men - the super-rich who actually controlled the state. The outcome of the civil wars was the coming to power of Octavius Caesar the adopted son of the assassinated Julius Caesar who had been trying to re-establish a monarchy. Octavius gave himself the title Augustus - respected. After defeating his rivals in battle he established a new office in the state: Princeps with a variety of old titles. Thus he assumed the title Imperator (Commander in Chief); Pontifex Maximus (chief priest); Censor (chief social secretary, regulator of citizenship); Tribune (representative of the ordinary people). At the beginning he gave the impression of this new office being a kind of first citizen or president of the Republic (but abrogating the original principle that required two consuls to avoid personal rule). However, in practice this First Citizen had enormous power with the use of the judicial authority but he also used: bribery, blackmail, quiet assassinations. He would send "suggestions" for legislation to the Senate which seldom rejected them. Eventually an emperor's suggestions (constitutiones) had the force of law. After Augustus's long reign the power became less and less constrained in the hands of the relatives who inherited the office, each one worse than the previous until it came into the hands of Caligula and Nero.
Tiberius was his step-son of his wife Livia.
The annual Consuls continued to be appointed, and indeed the list of consuls continues until 643. The custom was to name a year by the names of the Consuls. The later consuls were nearly always the reigning emperors. However, the post had become honorary - they had no function, unless to spend their money and hold Games. By the time of Justinian it was difficult to find rich men willing to take on the honorary post and it ceased a few years later.
Until the assassination of Nero all the emperors were members of the Julio-Claudian family with the surname Caesar. The name then became in itself a title which all subsequent emperors held, even if they were not members in any way of the Caesar family. In the later empire indeed the title of the top ruler became "Augustus" and the "Caesar" was a deputy or vice-emperor. The latest development was when the ruler of Russia called himself Tsar (he regarded Moskva as the successor to Rome after Byzantium and called it the Third Rome). The German rulers of the Holy Roman Empire (see below) also became known as Kaiser - a title that became extinct only in 1918 in Germany and Austria.
In the time of the Republic there were many offices of state and no single person could control the whole system. The two Consuls had to agree with each other; the Tribunes and the popular assembly also had to agree. There were term limits. This was in practice a principle similar to the Separation of Powers, now seen in the Constitution of the United States after the Founders of the United States had studied, among other things, the Roman Republic. After Augustus seized power one man had acquired all the power. Unaccountable arbitrary power became the rule until the end, tempered only by riots and army rebellions. It is not surprising that Mussolini modelled his authoritarian fascist state on the Roman Empire.
In theory, the Princeps was appointed by the Senate; in practice it became hereditary, tempered by the fact that the army, or any part of the army, could declare their commanding officer to be Imperator. Augustus himself was "reappointed" by the Senate every ten years. In theory the ruler could be appointed by the Senate until the end.
The Roman Empire can be considered to have two main periods. The first period is sometimes called the "Principate": the emperors continued to be thought of as subordinate to the Senate (even if in practice the Senate had little power or influence over what they did, or even to do with the initial appointment). In reality in this period the emperors were usually appointed by a part of the army. Within this period there are two periods: the emperors from Augustus to Nero, increasingly dictatorial and corrupt (except, perhaps, for Claudius); the Flavian emperors from Vespasianus to Commodus, an efficient family of military rulers, with Marcus Aurelius as the outstanding philosopher king, succeeded by his brutal and incompetent son.
There was then a period of increasing chaos with a series of short lived emperors, some extremely eccentric, such as Elagabulus, the 17 year old high priest of a Lebanese temple, who brought his god with him - a black stone.
It was Diocletianus (284-305), believed to have been Illyrian (Albanian) in language (with Latin as his working language), who modeled himself on the practices of the Persian empire, illustrating how in a two power conflict the two sides come to resemble each other. These "oriental" emperors transformed the empire into a ritualized state, with for example an elaborate hierarchy of titles and court ceremonial. The emperors came to sit on a throne, wearing a Diadem modelled on that of the Persian king of kings. Economic paralysis occurred. Diocletian tackled inflation by fixing the price of everything and making every position in society hereditary. Presumably he did not understand economics and the process by which gold was passing out of the empire to import luxuries from the east. Town councillors (Decuriones) could not resign but had to hand over the position to their sons (along with the taxes required); tradesmen had to hand on their professions. Anyone with money fled the towns to live on their rural estates (archaeology shows this in Britain with the growth of country houses - Villas - and the decay of towns - big townhouses being subdivided into apartments for the poor. Deurbanisation of course was a feature later found in feudalism and it may be one of the contributory causes. It was to take about 800 years to reverse the trend and rebuild city life in Europe.
Diocletian also split the empire into two administrative units. Legally, it remained one state, but it is from this point that the western, Latin-speaking part increasingly declined, while the eastern, Greek-speaking part, flourished. The border between the two parts remains of significance today in Yugoslavia where Croatia is Catholic and westernised; Serbia is eastern and Orthodox. Belgrade is the site of Diocletian's line. He retired to the area of modern Yugoslavia.
Diocletian also marks the rise of Religion as an official feature of the ruling system. He favored a cult of the Sun, oriental rather than traditional religion, and persecuted the Christians, apparently not noticing how strong they were - perhaps because he dealt mainly with the Army where Mithraism was common.
Constantinus (also believed to have been Illyrian) removed all prohibitions of Christianity in 307 (though he himself was not a Christian) for political reasons - the church, under his control, played the role of a modern Single Political Party in a dictatorship. (See the Papacy).
Briefly, Julianus attempted to end the Christian monopoly by restoring freedom of thought to pagans and philosophers but he was killed in battle. (Try Gore Vidal - Julian, a novelised biography.) After him Christianity became compulsory and a part of the state.
There was an end of rational intellectual debate after the imposition of Christianity - disputes were about the various Christian "heresies" after scientific thought had been attacked as "pagan" by "saint" Cyril of Alexandria (see the murder of Hypatia). Boethius's "Consolations of Philosophy" was perhaps the last rational literary work of the western empire as it collapsed. Was Gibbon right when he argued that it was Christianity and its culture of irrationality that fatally weakened the Empire, causing the rulers to concentrate on theology rather than practical statesmanship?
It can be speculated that ordinary people became interested in religion after the fall of the Republic when they had lost all ability to influence the government.
Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium, a Greek city on the strait between Europe and Asia, renaming it Constantinopolis. From this time the empire became Greek rather than Latin in language and culture, and its main interests moved to the east. This was the beginning of the abandonment of the Latin west and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Following his time there were nearly always two or more emperors who mostly worked together, or at least consulted each other. However, the western emperor did not usually for example supply soldiers to assist the eastern emperor, nor vice versa. The east had constant needs for soldiers to fight its major enemy in the Persian Sassanian empire in a continuing war covering the provinces of the Middle East. Both parts of the empire had to meet the migrating German, Slavic and Turkic tribes which attacked both parts but permanently weakened more the west than the east.
The definitive division occurred in 395 when the last great emperor of both parts, Theodosius the Great, died and his son Honorius became emperor in the west and his brother Arcadius emperor in the east. Honorius was only 11 and was dominated by Stilicho the partly German general, the actual ruler. Arcadius was 17 and had a weak intellect and was dominated by his prime minister, Rufinus originally from Aquitaine. There was never again an emperor ruling both parts.
Taggart - A Classical Education
Mary Beard - Pompeii: the life of a Roman town
John Julius Norwich - Short History of Byzantium
Gore Vidal - Julian
Richard Miles - Carthage Must Be Destroyed
Carthage Must be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization (Allen Lane History)
Robert Harris - Lustrum
Plutarch - Fall of the Roman Republic
Plutarch: Fall of the Roman Republic
Outside the former empire grew the various non-Roman languages: varieties of German (including English, Dutch, Scandinavian etc.) and the non-Indo-European Hungarian and Turkish.
This is because literacy became rare, remaining only with monks in the monasteries, whereas the popular languages evolved unchecked by literary usage. French seems to have been based on the ordinary Latin spoken by the soldiers and working people, influenced by the native Celtic languages (gaulish) and German - in fact it was a form of pidgin. In Iberia several new languages came into being, represented now as Castilian (Spanish), Catalan/Provencal and Portuguese. These were influenced by the mixture of languages spoken in Iberia, including Greek, the native languages (mostly unknown to us) and the later Arabic of the invaders. All these successor (Romance) languages retained a common vocabulary and some aspects of Latin grammar.
In the Byzantine empire Latin fell out of use even for government purposes and was replaced by Greek. The Aramaic speaking provinces and North Africa were conquered by the Arabs.
Nevertheless in the west written Latin remained the common language of the Church and scholars well into the 17th century. Only from the late 17th century did scientific texts come to be written in successor languages such as English and French - Isaac Newton was perhaps the last major scientist to publish in Latin.
The final fall of Constantinople in 1453 released Greek books from the libraries into Europe, partly fuelling the Renaissance of intellectual life there. Soon they were translated and printed.
Holy Roman Empire
The Franks were based in Gaul. At first they were headed by the Merovingian dynasty, a tribal family whose origins were in the period of migration. They split and recombined into numerous combinations of kingdoms until they lost their power to a hereditary prime minister whose title was "Mayor of the Palace". The most famous of these was Charles Martel who, still as Mayor, led the armies of the Franks against the invading Muslims and defeated them near modern Poitiers in 732 - preventing the Muslim conquest of the north (but Muslims did conquer and hold for some years enclaves in the south of France as far north as modern Switzerland). Pepin the first became king himself in 751, ending the Merovingian dynasty in name as well as power, and then spread the kingdom into Germany and Italy, thus reuniting large parts of the former western Empire, as well as areas that had never been Roman. In return for saving his own skin from the Lombards the Pope Adrian the first crowned him King of the Franks in 774. It was Pope Leo the third who decided that what Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great or Charlemagne needed was to become Emperor of the west. Thus he crowned him in 800. What the pope wanted was to have the prestige of balancing the authority of the Emperor in Constantinople with one of his own.
Was this in fact the re-creation of the Roman Empire in the West? No, of course it wasn't. It was a new type of state - if indeed it was a state at all - the most one could say for it was that it evoked for the people at the time the false memory of an Empire they did not understand.
However, to the Pope it may not have seemed entirely different. Charlemagne was a German, but he probably spoke some Latin, quite probably in an early form of proto-French. The later emperors had been semi-barbarians and had inter-married with the Romans. If there was a real authority in the west it was the Pope and not the Emperor who wielded it, but one of the themes of medieval history was a contest between Popes and Emperors for supremacy that was never really resolved, except that the position of emperor became less and less significant.
The state eventually became known as the "Holy" Roman Empire but its emperors never had the power and authority of the old emperors. From the beginning the title was symbolic, and became less and less real as the centuries passed. When it was ended Kaiser was just a title of the rulers of the Austrian Empire. The ruler of the new (1871) German empire under Bismarck adopted the title Kaiser. The three versions of Caesar ended in 1917 (Russia) and 1918 (Germany and Austria).
Gibbon - Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Verfall und Untergang des Römischen Reiches
Histoire du déclin et de la chute de l'Empire romain d'Occident
J.P.Bury - Later Roman Empire
Stephen Mitchell - A History of the Later Roman Empire