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The Empire In the I-II centuries AD

The rise of social and political tensions within the empire

Already under the successors of Augustus, it became clear that the system created by him was not as perfect as it seemed to his colleagues and admirers. When Augustus died in 14 AD (it was said that his last words were the phrase pronounced by the actors at the end of the play: “See me off with applause, I think I played my part well”), his successor was Tiberius, the son of Livia from his first marriage, who was adopted by him.

Formation of the Senate opposition

Female portrait. Mosaic from Pompeii. I century AD.

Female portrait. Mosaic from Pompeii. I century AD.

Under Tiberius, the senatorial opposition renewed its claims. The new emperor was accused of arrogance, trampling on freedom. Some of the senators could not accept the loss of their former privileged position, the right to dispose of the treasury and manage the provinces. But Tiberius, relying on the Praetorian cohorts and their commanders transferred to Rome, responded with reprisals. He used the old law “On insulting the Majesty of the Roman people”, directed against high treason. Now they began to punish actions and words that offended the Princeps. Many senators were executed, their property passed to the emperor. Thus began the struggle of the senate opposition with the emperors, first from the dynasty of the relatives of Augustus and Tiberius-the Julius-Claudians (Caligula, Claudius and Nero also belonged to it), and then from the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian). This era is known mainly from the writings of authors who belonged to the opposition or lived later, in the second century AD, when the Antonine dynasty came to power, officially breaking with the policies of its predecessors.

The reign of Nero

First of all, it is the philosopher Seneca, the historian Tacitus, the author of biographies of the first 12 Caesars, the historian Suetonius and the satirist Juvenal. Their writings for many centuries determined the assessment of the emperors of the first century AD and modern society. The former were depicted as despots maddened by unlimited power, while the society was represented as consisting of a depraved pleb and flattering, denouncing senators, among whom there were only individual heroes who dared to express their protest in silence when others praised the “tyrants”. Especially hated by the Senate was Nero, the son adopted by Claudius from the first marriage of his wife, the ambitious and domineering Agrippina, who poisoned her husband in order to put Nero on the throne with the help of the Praetorians. At first, under the influence of his tutor Seneca, he ruled in harmony with the Senate, but then his base vices affected him. He killed his wife, Claudius ‘ daughter Octavia, and then, burdened by his mother’s guardianship, sent assassins to her as well. When the Senate humbly greeted the murderer of his own mother, Nero is said to have exclaimed: “Until now, no princeps ever knew how far he could go!»

The conspiracy against him, discovered on the denunciation of a slave, gave rise to mass repressions, executions and confiscations. The zealots of the” mores of the ancestors ” were outraged by Nero’s passion for poetry, music and theater. Nero composed poems and songs, performed on stage, went on an artistic tour of Greece, reveling in the flattery of the audience. He built himself a magnificent palace, the “golden house” , and rebuilt Rome, which was badly damaged by fire in the summer of 64. According to rumors, the fire was caused by Nero himself, and to stop the unrest caused by these rumors, the blame was blamed on the Christians who appeared in Rome and brutally dealt with them.

The Fall of Nero and the Civil War

In 68, Gaul, Spain, and Africa revolted. In alliance with the local population, the troops stationed in the provinces acted, putting forward their pretenders to the throne. Nero was deposed, and a civil war broke out, which was won by Titus Flavius Vespasian, an obscure but experienced general, who at that time was suppressing the uprising in Judea that began in 66 (it was finally defeated by his son Titus). Vespasian’s army captured Rome, and the Senate confirmed him as emperor. At the same time, his general Petilius Cerealis suppressed a revolt in Gaul. Vespasian introduces to the Senate the same immigrants from the Italian cities as he was (he was originally from Reata), but he also had to face the senate opposition. Relations were particularly strained under his son Domitian. Repressions were resumed, informers from free and slaves were rewarded, and trials for “insulting the majesty” were resumed.

In 96, Domitian was assassinated, declared a “tyrant” (which led to the cancellation of his decrees, the destruction of his statues and even his name in the inscriptions). The emperor was a protege of the Senate, Cocceius Nerva. A new era began, known in senatorial historiography as the “golden age of the Antonines” (the dynasty was named after one of its representatives, Antoninus Pius, and included, in addition to Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus).

Domestic politics of the Julii-Claudii and Flavii

Portrait of the couple. Pompeii. I c.

Portrait of the couple. Pompeii. I c.

But was the reign of the Julians-Claudians and Flavians really so dark? What was the true character of this era? Apart from the personalities of the emperors, it is impossible not to recognize that significant progress was made in various spheres of life at that time. Many of the accusations of the Senate opposition were caused by its narrow-minded interests and conservatism. It demanded the continuation of a tough policy towards the provinces. Under Claudius, a part of Britain was subdued and turned into a province, where a pro-Roman party had already formed on which to rely. It was the epoch of the most extensive development of the slave-owning mode of production in Italy, and its rapid spread in the western provinces. The upper provincial strata joined the Roman nobility, mastered Roman culture and made their own contribution to it.

Romanization of the provinces was promoted by the policy of the emperors of the first century AD. They sought compromises with the provincial nobility: the Gauls were admitted to the senate, in Britain, after the suppression of the uprising that broke out there, the local leaders began to join the Roman way of life, not realizing, according to Tacitus, that the love of Roman luxury makes them slaves. Spanish cities were granted Latin law by Vespasian, which meant that all the magistrates of the city became Roman citizens. Some prospects opened up for ordinary people: after serving 25 years in auxiliary military units, they went to “honorary retirement”, received Roman citizenship with their family, land allotment and exemption from taxes. Such veterans became reliable agents of Romanization and Roman politics. Agricultural activities of the Princeps also played a significant role. In general, they tried to support small and medium-sized land ownership. They divided the confiscated lands of the nobility into plots among the new owners, returned to the communities the public lands seized by private individuals, stimulated the development of new lands, the compilation of land cadastres, etc.

Their policy met with the support of medium and small owners.

It was a time when the Roman component still played a significant role in the synthesis of Roman and Hellenic cultures, precisely because of the commitment of the strata that formed the main support of the empire in the first century AD.

The first signs of the crisis of the Roman state

A thoughtful girl (the so-called Sappho). Fresco from Pompeii. I century BC.

A thoughtful girl (the so-called Sappho). Fresco from Pompeii. I century BC.

Although the economy of the provinces was reviving, there were signs of a crisis of slave agriculture in Italy itself. As V. I. Kuzishchin showed, at this time there were several types of estates:

  • close to the city villas focused on the city market;
  • villas, remote from cities and leading a natural multi-industry economy;
  • latifundia with extensive methods, combining agriculture, cattle breeding and handicrafts in various workshops, and so on.

Attempts to reorganize the slave economy

The theorist of a rational relatively large estate (but not latifundia) was Columella, who argued that if all the rules of agronomy are observed and if the labor of the slaves is properly organized, such a villa can produce an income no less than usury (6%).

However, Columella’s treatise itself demonstrated the practical impracticability of his ideas. The level of development of production required initiative and highly qualified workers (according to the calculations of modern historians, Roman authors mention more than 40 specialties of rural slaves). But, according to Columella, it was such workers who were unreliable and prone to rebellion: a good, worth 8 thousand sesterces viticulturist, thanks to his knowledge, is obstinate and disobedient, he should be turned out to work in the stocks, and locked up at night in a home prison — ergastul. Naturally, under such conditions, the number of overseers increased, which accounted for a significant part of the surplus product. In remote estates, where the slaves enjoyed relative freedom, had their own huts, families, a few head of cattle, the situation was better, but the connection with the market remained weak. In the Latifundia, attempts to use hundreds of chained slaves resulted in colossal expenditures on the administrative apparatus.

Practitioners were looking for a way out in different directions: they leased part of the land to vilikas or small plots to tenants-colonas. For a fixed (monetary or natural) or sharecropping rent, they handed over part of the workshops, formed partnerships (sometimes from the freedmen of one patron), among the members of which they divided production, tried to interest qualified slaves, giving them shops and workshops with inventory and slaves, leaving them to run their own business.

Theorists, such as Seneca, suggested that the relationship between masters and slaves should be modeled on that between patrons and clients. Pliny the Elder believed that it was necessary to return to small farms, for which the forces of a small family are sufficient. Poets and writers promoted the mutual love of masters and slaves.

However, the crisis phenomena were growing. It was impossible to interest all the slaves, and the spread of rent often only increased the cost of production. The slaves continued to hate their masters, running away, killing their masters, despite the strict observance of the Silanian Senatuscultate.

Venus. Fresco from Pompeii. I century BC.

Venus. Fresco from Pompeii. I century BC.

Relations within society

The crisis first manifested itself in the old slave-owning areas of Italy. On the contrary, the former Cisalpine Gaul, where many peasants still remained, and large estates were dominated by colonists, flourished. From there, Praetorians and legionaries were recruited, and many senators came from there at the end of the first century AD. The Senate opposition mourned the “loss of freedom”, glorified Brutus, Cassius, Cato. In fact, freedom in the usual sense of the word was not shy. With the obligatory administration of the imperial cult, everyone could believe in any gods, follow the ideas of any philosophical doctrine. However, in all strata of society, the dependence of the lower on the higher grew and the distrust with which the latter treated any extraordinary person. The master did not trust knowledgeable slaves; the emperors were afraid that educated, popular senators would become their rivals; the position of ordinary people was characterized by a walking aphorism: “It is dangerous for the lowly to excel others in the arts.”

Claudius. Chalcedony. About 41-54.

Claudius. Chalcedony. About 41-54.

No one was sure of the future. The disgrace of the emperor, the patron, the master, the lawsuit, the denunciation could immediately deprive a person of all that he had achieved. Flattery became fashionable, they sought the mercy of the higher ones, hid their thoughts, which was previously the lot of only slaves. All this gave rise to people who did not put up with the situation, the desire to preserve at least spiritual freedom, internal independence. The answers were sought in philosophy, first of all in stoicism, the most prominent representatives of which were Seneca and the former slave Epictetus. Stoicism, which had developed under the monarchical regimes of Hellenism, now became closer to the Romans than before. From the Greek philosophers of classical times, who included in philosophy the theory of the universe, logic, dialectics, and politics, the Roman Stoics of the imperial era were distinguished by their orientation partly on politics in the form of developing theories about what a perfect monarch should be, and mainly on ethics, i.e., the doctrine of how a person should live in conditions when there is an eternal, like the cosmos, Roman Empire.

Philosophical trends

The natural-scientific theories of the Greeks in an eclectic, as it were averaged form were accepted as once and for all data, without discussion. Seneca, it is true, wrote “Questions of Nature” about certain phenomena — earthquakes, thunderstorms, etc. – and often repeated that studying nature is much more useful than singing “the robberies of Philip and Alexander”, but in general he paid little attention to science. Epictetus, on the other hand, believed that there were already too many books written, and that a philosopher should not so much theorize as set an example with his own life. The ideal for him was kinik, who refused material goods and attachments and was only engaged in teaching people. If the philosophers of classical Greece and Cicero, who borrowed much from them, reflected in their theories the psychology of citizens who felt their involvement in the life of the civil community, then the philosophers of the empire, especially the Stoics, were the exponents of the psychology of subjects who were obliged to obey, but spiritually alienated from state interests. This alienation, despite all the efforts of official propaganda, was especially strong at the grassroots. “When the princeps changes,” wrote the fabulist the freedman Phaedrus,”nothing changes for the common man but the name of the master.” But it also increasingly penetrated the upper classes, which were not directly involved in the administration of the Roman Empire.

The Stoic Teaching

The Stoics taught that the world is one, permeated by the world mind, the world soul, connecting all things with a single just law. A person must obey them, do his duty, do not condemn anything, do not try to change anything, do not grumble, because resistance is meaningless, and the yoke hurts the one who resists more than the one who obeys. The external is not subordinate to the individual, but it does not matter; only the inner self, the inner virtue, which is invariably preserved in all the changes of fate, is significant. Epictetus emphasized that only a person who is independent of material goods can be free. Our master, he said, will always be the one who has the power to give us or take away what we want. He who despises wealth, honors, and has no desires or attachments can give his body and his very life to a tyrant, but he must not allow him to control his judgment. A wise man should entrust himself to God and live according to his laws, then he is not afraid of the earthly rulers. In the first century AD, Stoics close to the opposition were repressed. The Antonines, perhaps appreciating the importance of preaching obedience to the authorities, patronized them.

Vespasian. Marble. Around 70-89.

Vespasian. Marble. Around 70-89.


Epicureanism, on the other hand, although it had supporters, was losing popularity. The Epicurean epitaphs, which called for rejoicing in life, because after death there will be nothing more, are becoming more and more pessimistic, they emphasize the inevitable end, hopelessness. At the same time, the belief in the immortality of the soul, which was not peculiar to the Romans before, grew stronger. The epitaphs expressed the hope that the soul of the deceased, for his virtuous life, enjoys bliss in Elysium in the company of the gods and becomes a deity itself. Among the higher classes, the mysteries and cults of Dionysus, Isis, and Osiris, later Mithras, spread. Initiates in the mysteries hoped to understand the mysteries of the universe and gain immortality. The emperors encouraged such cults. Thus, Claudius encouraged the cult of Cybele, in whose honor he established a festival dedicated to the death and resurrection of Attis. The celebrations were accompanied by prayers for the emperor, the senate, and the people, processions, and first mourning for Attis, then merriment. According to Plutarch, participating in such processions, both the common man and the slave are elevated in soul and realize themselves as individuals. However, the people remained loyal to the Roman gods, especially those that were least associated with an official cult, such as Silvanus, the forest god. In the eyes of the plebeians and the slaves, he grew up to be a mighty creator god, and at the same time was considered the helper of the workers. Heracles was also popular, especially revered by the Cynics, who rejected official values, glorified the purifying power of labor, and denounced rich idlers. The search for a god who set an example with his own life, a guarantor of immortality, more powerful than all earthly tyrants and lords, became more and more intense.

Scientific research

At the same time, there is still a lively interest in the scientific, rational explanation of nature, its study. Pliny the Elder based on 2 thousand works of Greek and Roman authors compiled an encyclopedic “Natural History”, which included all areas of the then science-from the structure of the cosmos to fauna and flora, from the description of countries and peoples to mineralogy. It is characteristic that, unlike, for example, Aristotle, Pliny did not seek to connect science with philosophy, but at every opportunity denounced the passion of his contemporaries for luxury and excess. Pliny himself, possessed by a thirst for knowledge, went to the erupting Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, and died there on August 24, 79 AD.

In the second century AD, there lived such luminaries of ancient science as Ptolemy, who created the world-famous geocentric system, works on optics, mathematics, geography, compiled a catalog of more than 1,600 stars, the doctor Galen, who conducted experiments on animals and came close to discovering the importance of nerves for motor reflexes and blood circulation. The construction technique developed, which made it possible to implement such structures as the Flavian Colosseum, the one-and-a-half-kilometer bridge over the Danube under Trajan, etc. Improved mechanics, used lifting mechanisms. According to Seneca ,the “despicable slaves” always invented something new: pipes that carried steam to heat the rooms, special polishing of marble, mirror tiles. The art of mosaics is spreading; even in the houses on the Rhine, glass is inserted in the windows.

However, the system based on the ancient community and its principles hindered the development of invention.

Consolidating Roman society and strengthening economic ties

Under the Antonines, the provinces reach a special flourish. Trajan and Hadrian were from Spain, and Antoninus Pius from Gaul. At the expense of the natives of the western and eastern provinces, who began to play an increasing role in the life of the empire, the senate is replenished. There were already few old aristocratic families left, which contributed to the disappearance of the senate opposition under the Antonines, especially since they abandoned the policy of limiting the growth of large land ownership. The upper classes considered them ideal rulers, and the time of their rule-the golden age. After death, they were all deified.

  • Trajan was portrayed as a bold conqueror of Dacia, an opponent of tyrants, the founder of a fund to help poor children, the organizer of magnificent spectacles and treats for the people.
  • Adrian was considered the patron saint of scientists, writers, and artists. He himself flaunted his democracy: he walked around Rome on foot, talking to people he met.
  • Antoninus Pius was presented as a model of piety.
  • Marcus Aurelius was the philosopher on the throne that both the Greeks and the Romans dreamed of.
Bust of a young Roman woman. Marble. End of the first century AD.

Bust of a young Roman woman. Marble. End of the first century AD.

In this era, the economic ties between the individual regions of the empire were significantly strengthened.

  • Spain exported metals, olive oil, fish products;
  • Italy — wine, ceramics, products of Italian crafts and arts and crafts;
  • Africa-grain, olives;
  • Asia Minor and Syria-fabrics, jewelry, art objects.

Such economic and cultural centers as Antioch, Palmyra, Ephesus, Nicomedia, Carthage, Alexandria, Hades, Arelat, Lugdunum, Londnium, etc. grew. Rome itself had a population of millions, flocking there from all over the empire.

The fusion of Greek and Roman cultures

The Greco-Roman culture has already become unified. At this time, the historian Tacitus wrote (about 55-about 120 years), whose works — “Dialogue on orators”,” Agricola”,” Histories”,” Annals ” – were distinguished by deep psychologism. Recognizing the inevitability of autocracy and hating its bearers, he tried to show that even in an era of universal corruption, it is possible to remain a decent man, a Roman, a senator, to serve the fatherland, avoiding both obsequiousness and excessive insolence.

Appian, a native of Alexandria, wrote a Roman history, or rather, a history of the Roman wars, including civil ones, in which he revealed the true cause of the struggle between small and large land ownership. The Greek Plutarch was famous for his biographies of famous Roman and Greek figures, but he also wrote many other works: philosophical and religious, instructions to city magistrates, advice to private citizens, descriptions of Greek and Roman customs, etc. The famous writer Lucian, who came from the Syrian city of Samosata, in his witty conversations of the gods, small dialogues and stories about various events, ridiculed the superstitions of his contemporaries; philosophers who claimed to be wise, but groveled before the rich; historians who distorted real facts out of flattery to the emperors; parodied works about fantastic journeys, attempts to resurrect ancient, already incomprehensible turns of speech and words. Dion Chrysostomus was popular as a brilliant orator. Suetonius wrote his biographies of 12 Caesars-from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Fragment of a mosaic from Carthage. End of the second century AD.

Fragment of a mosaic from Carthage. End of the second century AD.

The epistolary genre was very popular. Such, for example, are the letters of the Senator Pliny the Younger to friends and to the Emperor Trajan, when he was governor of Bithynia. The novel genre was new. Of the Latin novels, only the novel “Metamorphoses” by Platonicus Apuleius from the African city of Madaura has come down to us. It tells the story of the adventures of a young man turned into a donkey, about his comic and sad experiences, about meeting different people and, finally, about finding a human form thanks to Isis, whose admirer he became. In the Greek novels, the common theme was the love of a young man and girl of extraordinary beauty and virtue, separated by chance, suffering all sorts of misfortunes, but finally reunited with the help of the gods. Judging by the fact that fragments of the texts of such novels on Greek papyri have come down to us, these works had many admirers. Both the entertaining plot and the images of the characters were attractive: in any circumstances, they behaved like free-born Hellenes, stood spiritually higher than their enslavers-the Persian satraps and kings, to whom they were captured, which corresponded to the doctrine of spiritual freedom and virtue as the benefits that give a person the power to resist those in power.

Natives of the provinces were many prominent lawyers who held high positions in the administration of the empire and intensively developed issues of Roman law. Especially famous were the law schools in the Syrian city of Berit.

The situation of the slaves and the peasantry

Under the Antonines, the condition of the slaves improved. The masters were deprived of the right to execute them, to keep them in chains for life, to hand them over to the gladiators. If the crimes were committed by slaves and they were entitled to heavy punishment for this, then the case was decided by the court. The rights of slaves to their peculias were strengthened, their legal capacity (under natural law) and to own property were recognized. In fact, the family ties of the slaves were also recognized. When a case concerning the rights of a slave to emancipation (under a will, on the fulfillment of a condition, etc.) was tried in court, it was prescribed in doubtful cases to decide the case in favor of freedom. The patrons ‘ claims to the duties of the freedmen were limited. The wealthiest of them often played a prominent role in the cities.

Isis. A fragment of the terrain. Mid-II century AD.

Isis. A fragment of the terrain. Mid-II century AD.

But at the same time, the exploitation of the provincial peasantry is increasing. It was less romanized than the urban strata.

The oppression of the peasants increased as some alarming signs began to appear under the cover of the prosperity of the golden age of the Antonines. Already Hadrian was forced to forgive the provincial cities 900 million arrears in taxes, but the debts accumulated again. The slave economy, as it developed in the provinces, faced the same contradictions as in Italy. The same antagonism of slaves and masters prevented the creation of a larger production, in which the complex cooperation that preceded the invention and introduction of machines could be carried out. Neither to reduce the cost of production, nor to significantly increase labor productivity, and hence the surplus product was not possible. In addition, a significant part of it was absorbed by the mandatory costs for the needs of cities.

Despite all the attempts of the Antonines to support the cities, by the end of the second century AD, the small towns were becoming poorer, and the city magistracies were becoming burdensome. Part of the land that did not bring income was abandoned. On the other hand, there was a process of their concentration in the hands of the emperors and large landowners. Since the second half of the second century AD, these lands, together with the colonists who cultivated them, were withdrawn from the territory and jurisdiction of the cities, which dealt a heavy blow to the latter, but was in the interests of the senatorial class. A split began to emerge between the municipal farmers and the land magnates. The latter tried to make the surrounding peasants dependent on themselves, to turn them into their own columns. And this process led to the weakening of the Roman army, mainly recruited from farmers.

Vase with a relief image of the court of Paris. Asia Minor. I century AD.

Vase with a relief image of the court of Paris. Asia Minor. I century AD.

Spreading mystical ideas

The alarming symptoms also affected the state of mind of the social strata. The desire to go beyond the limits of regulated reality gave rise to an interest in everything extraordinary, wonderful, fantastic. Stories about supernatural phenomena, ghosts, demons, spirits, unknown peoples and animals became popular, even flooding the works that claimed to be scientific. Magic, astrology, and demonology became increasingly popular. The ideal in the eyes of many was no longer the heroes of the “Roman myth”, but the sages-seers involved in the mysteries, initiated into the secret wisdom of the Indian brahmins, Egyptian priests, Persian magicians. Accordingly, the Pythagoreans were dissected, from which political and ethical ideas were withdrawn, but new details were added to the descriptions of demons that supposedly carried out a connection between God and people, and the teachings about the world soul, about the material world filled with evil, which is opposed by a good ideal world, were developed.

The penetration of Christianity

Relief with the image of Mithras slaughtering a bull. Marble. II-III centuries AD.

Relief with the image of Mithras slaughtering a bull. Marble. II-III centuries AD.

Among the common people, protest against the rich and noble began to grow, which contributed to the spread of Christianity. About the identity of its founder and his closest disciples, about the time of the creation of Christian writings, there were and still are disputes that gave rise to an immense scientific literature. But no matter how all these questions were solved, there is no doubt that early Christianity sought to answer the requests of the masses. In the fate of Christ, the common man was looking for a model of life and death, for which spiritual freedom and independence. It rejected the rich and noble with their “wisdom”, with their contempt for work, undermined the confidence in the eternity of the existing order and thus — the moral support of the empire.

Unlike the other cults that were spreading, Christianity not only did not try to join the imperial cult, but also resolutely rejected it. The Christian author Lactantius wrote that Jesus came to earth as the son of a carpenter and died the death of a slave, so that anyone could follow him, even the poorest and simplest person. Christianity set new goals — common, for all (the achievement of the kingdom of God on earth) and individual, for everyone (the achievement of eternal bliss in paradise). It sanctioned a break with the official world, in which one had to live, “giving Caesar what is Caesar’s”, but not to touch it internally. Christianity initially spread among the urban lower classes, but gradually people from other strata began to join it. They brought their own philosophy, which influenced the teachings of various Christian sects, wrote treatises that expounded the Christian faith and refuted the Greco-Roman religion. The government, after the persecution of Nero, then repressed individual Christians for refusing to participate in the imperial cult, then left them without attention, considering Christianity the superstition of the ignorant, not yet realizing that the growth in the number of Christians is a sign of an impending crisis.

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