Roman Empire

Roman Empire

27 BC – AD 476 (traditional dates)[1][2]
AD 395 – 476/480 (Western)
AD 395–1453 (Eastern)
Flag of Roman Empire
with the imperial aquila
Imperial aquila of Roman Empire
Imperial aquila
The Roman Empire in AD 117 at its greatest extent, at the time of Trajan's death (with its vassals in pink)[3]
The Roman Empire in AD 117 at its greatest extent, at the time of Trajan's death (with its vassals in pink) [3]
Common languages
Government Semi-elective, functionally absolute monarchy
•  27 BC – AD 14
Augustus (first)
• 98–117
• 270–275
• 284–305
• 306–337
Constantine I
• 379–395
Theodosius I[n 3]
• 474–480
Julius Nepos[n 4]
• 475–476
Romulus Augustus
• 527–565
Justinian I
• 610–641
• 780–797
Constantine VI[n 5]
• 976–1025
Basil II
• 1449–1453
Constantine XI[n 6]
Legislature Senate
Historical era Classical era to Late Middle Ages
32–30 BC
30–2 BC
•  Constantinople
becomes capital
11 May 330
•  Final East-West divide
17 Jan 395
4 Sep 476
• Murder of Julius Nepos
25 Apr 480
12 Apr 1204
• Reconquest of Constantinople
25 Jul 1261
29 May 1453
• Fall of Trebizond
15 August 1461
25 BC[4] 2,750,000 km2 (1,060,000 sq mi)
117 AD[4][5] 5,000,000 km2 (1,900,000 sq mi)
AD 390[4] 4,400,000 km2 (1,700,000 sq mi)
• 25 BC [6]
Currency sestertius,[n 7] aureus, solidus, nomisma
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Roman Republic
Western Roman Empire
Eastern Roman Empire

The Roman Empire (Latin: Imperium Romanum [ɪmˈpɛri.ũː roːˈmaːnũː]; Koinē Greek: Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων, romanized: Basileía tōn Rhōmaíōn) was the post-Republican period of ancient Rome. As a polity it included large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia ruled by emperors. From the accession of Caesar Augustus to the military anarchy of the 3rd century, it was a principate with Italy as metropole of the provinces and the city of Rome as sole capital (27 BC – AD 286). After the military crisis, the empire was ruled by multiple emperors who shared rule over the Western Roman Empire and over the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire). Rome remained the nominal capital of both parts until AD 476, when the imperial insignia were sent to Constantinople, following the capture of Ravenna by the barbarians of Odoacer and the subsequent deposition of Romulus Augustulus. The fall of the Western Roman Empire to Germanic kings, along with the hellenization of the Eastern Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire, conventionally marks the end of Ancient Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

The predecessor state of the Roman Empire, the Roman Republic (which had replaced Rome's monarchy in the 6th century BC) became severely destabilized in a series of civil wars and political conflicts. In the mid-1st century BC, Julius Caesar was appointed as perpetual dictator and then assassinated in 44 BC. Civil wars and proscriptions continued, culminating in the victory of Octavian, Caesar's adopted son, over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. The following year Octavian conquered Ptolemaic Egypt, ending the Hellenistic period that had begun with the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon in the 4th century BC. Octavian's power then became unassailable, and in 27 BC the Roman Senate formally granted him overarching power and the new title Augustus, effectively making him the first Roman emperor.

The first two centuries of the Empire saw a period of unprecedented stability and prosperity known as the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"). Rome reached its greatest territorial expanse during the reign of Trajan (AD 98–117). A period of increasing trouble and decline began with the reign of Commodus (177–192). In the 3rd century the Empire underwent a crisis that threatened its existence, as the Gallic Empire and Palmyrene Empire broke away from the Roman state, and a series of short-lived emperors, often from the legions, led the empire. The empire was reunified under Aurelian (r. 270–275). In an effort to stabilize it, Diocletian set up two different imperial courts in the Greek East and Latin West in 286. Christians rose to positions of power in the 4th century following the Edict of Milan of 313. Shortly after, the Migration Period, involving large invasions by Germanic peoples and by the Huns of Attila, led to the decline of the Western Roman Empire. With the fall of Ravenna to the Germanic Herulians and the deposition of Romulus Augustus in AD 476 by Odoacer, the Western Roman Empire finally collapsed; the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno formally abolished it in AD 480. Nonetheless, some states in the territories of the former Western Roman Empire would later claim to have inherited the supreme power of the emperors of Rome, most notably the Holy Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire survived for another millennium, until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks of Sultan Mehmed II in 1453.[n 8]

Due to the Roman Empire's vast extent and long endurance, the institutions and culture of Rome had a profound and lasting influence on the development of language, religion, art, architecture, philosophy, law, and forms of government in the territory it governed, and far beyond. The Latin language of the Romans evolved into the Romance languages of the medieval and modern world, while Medieval Greek became the language of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Empire's adoption of Christianity led to the formation of medieval Christendom. Greek and Roman art had a profound impact on the Italian Renaissance. Rome's architectural tradition served as the basis for Romanesque, Renaissance and Neoclassical architecture, and also had a strong influence on Islamic architecture. The corpus of Roman law has its descendants in many legal systems of the world today, such as the Napoleonic Code, while Rome's republican institutions have left an enduring legacy, influencing the Italian city-state republics of the medieval period, as well as the early United States and other modern democratic republics.


Transition from Republic to Empire

The Augustus of Prima Porta
(early 1st century AD)

Rome had begun expanding shortly after the founding of the republic in the 6th century BC, though it did not expand outside the Italian peninsula until the 3rd century BC. Then, it was an "empire" long before it had an emperor.[7][8][9][10] The Roman Republic was not a nation-state in the modern sense, but a network of towns left to rule themselves (though with varying degrees of independence from the Roman Senate) and provinces administered by military commanders. It was ruled, not by emperors, but by annually elected magistrates (Roman Consuls above all) in conjunction with the Senate.[11] For various reasons, the 1st century BC was a time of political and military upheaval, which ultimately led to rule by emperors.[8][12][13][14] The consuls' military power rested in the Roman legal concept of imperium, which literally means "command" (though typically in a military sense).[15] Occasionally, successful consuls were given the honorary title imperator (commander), and this is the origin of the word emperor (and empire) since this title (among others) was always bestowed to the early emperors upon their accession.[16]

Rome suffered a long series of internal conflicts, conspiracies and civil wars from the late second century BC onward, while greatly extending its power beyond Italy. This was the period of the Crisis of the Roman Republic. Towards the end of this era, in 44 BC, Julius Caesar was briefly perpetual dictator before being assassinated. The faction of his assassins was driven from Rome and defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC by an army led by Mark Antony and Caesar's adopted son Octavian. Antony and Octavian's division of the Roman world between themselves did not last and Octavian's forces defeated those of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, ending the Final War of the Roman Republic. In 27 BC the Senate and People of Rome made Octavian princeps ("first citizen") with proconsular imperium, thus beginning the Principate (the first epoch of Roman imperial history, usually dated from 27 BC to 284 AD), and gave him the name "Augustus" ("the venerated"). Though the old constitutional machinery remained in place, Augustus came to predominate it. Although the republic stood in name, contemporaries of Augustus knew it was just a veil and that Augustus had all meaningful authority in Rome.[17] Since his rule ended a century of civil wars and began an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity, he was so loved that he came to hold the power of a monarch de facto if not de jure. During the years of his rule, a new constitutional order emerged (in part organically and in part by design), so that, upon his death, this new constitutional order operated as before when Tiberius was accepted as the new emperor.

The Pax Romana

The so-called Five Good Emperors (from left to right): Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius

The 200 years that began with Augustus's rule is traditionally regarded as the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"). During this period, the cohesion of the empire was furthered by a degree of social stability and economic prosperity that Rome had never before experienced. Uprisings in the provinces were infrequent but put down "mercilessly and swiftly" when they occurred.[18] The success of Augustus in establishing principles of dynastic succession was limited by his outliving a number of talented potential heirs. The Julio-Claudian dynasty lasted for four more emperors—Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero—before it yielded in 69 AD to the strife-torn Year of Four Emperors, from which Vespasian emerged as victor. Vespasian became the founder of the brief Flavian dynasty, to be followed by the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which produced the "Five Good Emperors": Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and the philosophically-inclined Marcus Aurelius.

Fall in the West and survival in the East

The Barbarian Invasions consisted of the movement of (mainly) ancient Germanic peoples into Roman territory. Even though northern invasions took place throughout the life of the Empire, this period officially began in the 4th century and lasted for many centuries, during which the western territory was under the dominion of foreign northern rulers, a notable one being Charlemagne. Historically, this event marked the transition between classical antiquity and the Middle Ages.

In the view of the Greek historian Dio Cassius, a contemporary observer, the accession of the emperor Commodus in 180 AD marked the descent "from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron"[19]—a famous comment which has led some historians, notably Edward Gibbon, to take Commodus' reign as the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire.[20][21]

In 212 AD, during the reign of Caracalla, Roman citizenship was granted to all freeborn inhabitants of the empire. But despite this gesture of universality, the Severan dynasty was tumultuous—an emperor's reign was ended routinely by his murder or execution—and, following its collapse, the Roman Empire was engulfed by the Crisis of the Third Century, a period of invasions, civil strife, economic disorder, and plague.[22] In defining historical epochs, this crisis is sometimes viewed as marking the transition from Classical Antiquity to Late Antiquity. Aurelian (reigned 270–275) brought the empire back from the brink and stabilized it. Diocletian completed the work of fully restoring the empire, but declined the role of princeps and became the first emperor to be addressed regularly as domine, "master" or "lord".[23] Diocletian's reign also brought the empire's most concerted effort against the perceived threat of Christianity, the "Great Persecution".

Diocletian divided the empire into four regions, each ruled by a separate emperor, the Tetrarchy.[24] Confident that he fixed the disorders that were plaguing Rome, he abdicated along with his co-emperor, and the Tetrarchy soon collapsed. Order was eventually restored by Constantine the Great, who became the first emperor to convert to Christianity, and who established Constantinople as the new capital of the eastern empire. During the decades of the Constantinian and Valentinian dynasties, the empire was divided along an east–west axis, with dual power centres in Constantinople and Rome. The reign of Julian, who under the influence of his adviser Mardonius attempted to restore Classical Roman and Hellenistic religion, only briefly interrupted the succession of Christian emperors. Theodosius I, the last emperor to rule over both East and West, died in 395 AD after making Christianity the official religion of the empire.[25]

The Roman Empire by 476

The Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate in the early 5th century as Germanic migrations and invasions overwhelmed the capacity of the empire to assimilate the migrants and fight off the invaders. The Romans were successful in fighting off all invaders, most famously Attila,[26] though the empire had assimilated so many Germanic peoples of dubious loyalty to Rome that the empire started to dismember itself.[27] Most chronologies place the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476, when Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate to the Germanic warlord Odoacer.[28][29][30] By placing himself under the rule of the Eastern Emperor, rather than naming a puppet emperor of his own, Odoacer ended the Western Empire. He did this by sending the imperial regalia to the Eastern Emperor Zeno, in effect declaring Zeno sole emperor, and placing himself as his nominal subordinate. In reality Italy was now ruled by Odoacer alone.[28][29][31] The Eastern Roman Empire, also called the Byzantine Empire by later historians, continued to exist until the reign of Constantine XI Palaiologos. The last Roman Emperor, he died in battle on 29 May 1453 against Mehmed II "the Conqueror" and his Ottoman forces in the final stages of the Siege of Constantinople. Mehmed II would himself also claim the title of caesar or Kayser-i Rum in an attempt to claim a connection to the Roman Empire.[32][33]

Geography and demography

The Roman Empire was one of the largest in history, with contiguous territories throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.[34] The Latin phrase imperium sine fine ("empire without end"[35]) expressed the ideology that neither time nor space limited the Empire. In Vergil's epic poem the Aeneid, limitless empire is said to be granted to the Romans by their supreme deity Jupiter.[35][36][37][38][39] This claim of universal dominion was renewed and perpetuated when the Empire came under Christian rule in the 4th century.[n 9] In addition to annexing large regions in their quest for empire-building, the Romans were also very large sculptors of their environment who directly altered their geography. For instance, entire forests were cut down to provide enough wood resources for an expanding empire. In his book Critias, Plato described that deforestation: where there was once "an abundance of wood in the mountains," he could now only see "the mere skeleton of the land."[40]

In reality, Roman expansion was mostly accomplished under the Republic, though parts of northern Europe were conquered in the 1st century AD, when Roman control in Europe, Africa, and Asia was strengthened. During the reign of Augustus, a "global map of the known world" was displayed for the first time in public at Rome, coinciding with the composition of the most comprehensive work on political geography that survives from antiquity, the Geography of the Pontic Greek writer Strabo.[41] When Augustus died, the commemorative account of his achievements (Res Gestae) prominently featured the geographical cataloguing of peoples and places within the Empire.[42] Geography, the census, and the meticulous keeping of written records were central concerns of Roman Imperial administration.[43]

The cities of the Roman world in the Imperial Period. Data source: Hanson, J. W. (2016), Cities database, (OXREP databases). Version 1.0. ( link).
A segment of the ruins of Hadrian's Wall in northern England, overlooking Crag Lough

The Empire reached its largest expanse under Trajan (reigned 98–117),[39] encompassing an area of 5 million square kilometres.[4][5] The traditional population estimate of 55–60 million inhabitants[44] accounted for between one-sixth and one-fourth of the world's total population[45] and made it the largest population of any unified political entity in the West until the mid-19th century.[46] Recent demographic studies have argued for a population peak ranging from 70 million to more than 100 million.[47][48] Each of the three largest cities in the Empire – Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch – was almost twice the size of any European city at the beginning of the 17th century.[49]

As the historian Christopher Kelly has described it:

Then the empire stretched from Hadrian's Wall in drizzle-soaked northern England to the sun-baked banks of the Euphrates in Syria; from the great RhineDanube river system, which snaked across the fertile, flat lands of Europe from the Low Countries to the Black Sea, to the rich plains of the North African coast and the luxuriant gash of the Nile Valley in Egypt. The empire completely circled the Mediterranean ... referred to by its conquerors as mare nostrum—'our sea'.[44]

Trajan's successor Hadrian adopted a policy of maintaining rather than expanding the empire. Borders (fines) were marked, and the frontiers (limites) patrolled.[39] The most heavily fortified borders were the most unstable.[12] Hadrian's Wall, which separated the Roman world from what was perceived as an ever-present barbarian threat, is the primary surviving monument of this effort.[50][51][52]


The language of the Romans was Latin, which Virgil emphasizes as a source of Roman unity and tradition.[53][54][55] Until the time of Alexander Severus (reigned 222–235), the birth certificates and wills of Roman citizens had to be written in Latin.[56] Latin was the language of the law courts in the West and of the military throughout the Empire,[57] but was not imposed officially on peoples brought under Roman rule.[58][59] This policy contrasts with that of Alexander the Great, who aimed to impose Greek throughout his empire as the official language.[60] As a consequence of Alexander's conquests, koine Greek had become the shared language around the eastern Mediterranean and into Asia Minor.[61][62] The "linguistic frontier" dividing the Latin West and the Greek East passed through the Balkan peninsula.[63]

A 5th-century papyrus showing a parallel Latin-Greek text of a speech by Cicero [64]

Romans who received an elite education studied Greek as a literary language, and most men of the governing classes could speak Greek.[65] The Julio-Claudian emperors encouraged high standards of correct Latin (Latinitas), a linguistic movement identified in modern terms as Classical Latin, and favoured Latin for conducting official business.[66] Claudius tried to limit the use of Greek, and on occasion revoked the citizenship of those who lacked Latin, but even in the Senate he drew on his own bilingualism in communicating with Greek-speaking ambassadors.[66] Suetonius quotes him as referring to "our two languages".[67]

In the Eastern empire, laws and official documents were regularly translated into Greek from Latin.[68] The everyday interpenetration of the two languages is indicated by bilingual inscriptions, which sometimes even switch back and forth between Greek and Latin.[69][70] After all freeborn inhabitants of the empire were universally enfranchised in 212 AD, a great number of Roman citizens would have lacked Latin, though Latin remained a marker of "Romanness."[71]

Among other reforms, the emperor Diocletian (reigned 284–305) sought to renew the authority of Latin, and the Greek expression hē kratousa dialektos attests to the continuing status of Latin as "the language of power."[72] In the early 6th century, the emperor Justinian engaged in a quixotic effort to reassert the status of Latin as the language of law, even though in his time Latin no longer held any currency as a living language in the East.[73]

Local languages and linguistic legacy

Bilingual Latin-Punic inscription at the theatre in Leptis Magna, Roman Africa (present-day Libya)

References to interpreters indicate the continuing use of local languages other than Greek and Latin, particularly in Egypt, where Coptic predominated, and in military settings along the Rhine and Danube. Roman jurists also show a concern for local languages such as Punic, Gaulish, and Aramaic in assuring the correct understanding and application of laws and oaths.[74] In the province of Africa, Libyco-Berber and Punic were used in inscriptions and for legends on coins during the time of Tiberius (1st century AD). Libyco-Berber and Punic inscriptions appear on public buildings into the 2nd century, some bilingual with Latin.[75] In Syria, Palmyrene soldiers even used their dialect of Aramaic for inscriptions, in a striking exception to the rule that Latin was the language of the military.[76]

The Babatha Archive is a suggestive example of multilingualism in the Empire. These papyri, named for a Jewish woman in the province of Arabia and dating from 93 to 132 AD, mostly employ Aramaic, the local language, written in Greek characters with Semitic and Latin influences; a petition to the Roman governor, however, was written in Greek.[77]

The dominance of Latin among the literate elite may obscure the continuity of spoken languages, since all cultures within the Roman Empire were predominantly oral.[75] In the West, Latin, referred to in its spoken form as Vulgar Latin, gradually replaced Celtic and Italic languages that were related to it by a shared Indo-European origin. Commonalities in syntax and vocabulary facilitated the adoption of Latin.[78][79][80]

After the decentralization of political power in late antiquity, Latin developed locally into branches that became the Romance languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Catalan and Romanian, and a large number of minor languages and dialects. Today, more than 900 million people are native speakers worldwide.[81]

As an international language of learning and literature, Latin itself continued as an active medium of expression for diplomacy and for intellectual developments identified with Renaissance humanism up to the 17th century, and for law and the Roman Catholic Church to the present.[82][83]

"Gate of Domitian and Trajan" at the northern entrance of the Temple of Hathor, and Roman Emperor Domitian as Pharaoh of Egypt on the same gate, together with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Dendera, Egypt. [84] [85]

Although Greek continued as the language of the Byzantine Empire, linguistic distribution in the East was more complex. A Greek-speaking majority lived in the Greek peninsula and islands, western Anatolia, major cities, and some coastal areas.[62] Like Greek and Latin, the Thracian language was of Indo-European origin, as were several now-extinct languages in Anatolia attested by Imperial-era inscriptions.[62][75] Albanian is often seen as the descendant of Illyrian, although this hypothesis has been challenged by some linguists, who maintain that it derives from Dacian or Thracian.[86] (Illyrian, Dacian, and Thracian, however, may have formed a subgroup or a Sprachbund; see Thraco-Illyrian.) Various Afroasiatic languages—primarily Coptic in Egypt, and Aramaic in Syria and Mesopotamia—were never replaced by Greek. The international use of Greek, however, was one factor enabling the spread of Christianity, as indicated for example by the use of Greek for the Epistles of Paul.[62]

Several references to Gaulish in late antiquity may indicate that it continued to be spoken. In the second century AD there was explicit recognition of its usage in some legal manners,[87] soothsaying[88] and pharmacology.[89] Sulpicius Severus, writing in the 5th century AD in Gallia Aquitania, noted bilingualism with Gaulish as the first language.[88] The survival of the Galatian dialect in Anatolia akin to that spoken by the Treveri near Trier was attested by Jerome (331–420), who had first-hand knowledge.[90] Much of historical linguistics scholarship postulates that Gaulish was indeed still spoken as late as the mid to late 6th century in France.[91] Despite considerable Romanization of the local material culture, the Gaulish language is held to have survived and had coexisted with spoken Latin during the centuries of Roman rule of Gaul.[91] The last reference to Galatian was made by Cyril of Scythopolis, claiming that an evil spirit had possessed a monk and rendered him able to speak only in Galatian,[92] while the last reference to Gaulish in France was made by Gregory of Tours between 560 and 575, noting that a shrine in Auvergne which "is called Vasso Galatae in the Gallic tongue" was destroyed and burnt to the ground.[93][91] After the long period of bilingualism, the emergent Gallo-Romance languages including French were shaped by Gaulish in a number of ways; in the case of French these include loanwords and calques (including oui,[94] the word for "yes"),[95][94] sound changes,[96][97] and influences in conjugation and word order.[95][94][98]


A multigenerational banquet depicted on a wall painting from Pompeii (1st century AD)
Spread of Seuso at Lacus Pelso (Lake Balaton)

The Roman Empire was remarkably multicultural, with "a rather astonishing cohesive capacity" to create a sense of shared identity while encompassing diverse peoples within its political system over a long span of time.[99] The Roman attention to creating public monuments and communal spaces open to all—such as forums, amphitheatres, racetracks and baths—helped foster a sense of "Romanness".[100]

Roman society had multiple, overlapping social hierarchies that modern concepts of "class" in English may not represent accurately.[101] The two decades of civil war from which Augustus rose to sole power left traditional society in Rome in a state of confusion and upheaval,[102] but did not effect an immediate redistribution of wealth and social power. From the perspective of the lower classes, a peak was merely added to the social pyramid.[103] Personal relationships—patronage, friendship (amicitia), family, marriage—continued to influence the workings of politics and government, as they had in the Republic.[104] By the time of Nero, however, it was not unusual to find a former slave who was richer than a freeborn citizen, or an equestrian who exercised greater power than a senator.[105]

The blurring or diffusion of the Republic's more rigid hierarchies led to increased social mobility under the Empire,[106][107] both upward and downward, to an extent that exceeded that of all other well-documented ancient societies.[108] Women, freedmen, and slaves had opportunities to profit and exercise influence in ways previously less available to them.[109] Social life in the Empire, particularly for those whose personal resources were limited, was further fostered by a proliferation of voluntary associations and confraternities (collegia and sodalitates) formed for various purposes: professional and trade guilds, veterans' groups, religious sodalities, drinking and dining clubs,[110] performing arts troupes,[111] and burial societies.[112]

Legal status

According to the jurist Gaius, the essential distinction in the Roman "law of persons" was that all human beings were either free (liberi) or slaves (servi).[113][114] The legal status of free persons might be further defined by their citizenship. Most citizens held limited rights (such as the ius Latinum, "Latin right"), but were entitled to legal protections and privileges not enjoyed by those who lacked citizenship. Free people not considered citizens, but living within the Roman world, held status as peregrini, non-Romans.[115] In 212 AD, by means of the edict known as the Constitutio Antoniniana, the emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the empire. This legal egalitarianism would have required a far-reaching revision of existing laws that had distinguished between citizens and non-citizens.[116]

Freeborn Roman women were considered citizens throughout the Republic and Empire, but did not vote, hold political office, or serve in the military. A mother's citizen status determined that of her children, as indicated by the phrase ex duobus civibus Romanis natos ("children born of two Roman citizens").[n 10] A Roman woman kept her own family name (nomen) for life. Children most often took the father's name, but in the Imperial period sometimes made their mother's name part of theirs, or even used it instead.[117]

Left image: Roman fresco of a blond maiden reading a text, Pompeian Fourth Style (60–79 AD), Pompeii, Italy
Right image: Bronze statuette (1st century AD) of a young woman reading, based on a Hellenistic original

The archaic form of manus marriage in which the woman had been subject to her husband's authority was largely abandoned by the Imperial era, and a married woman retained ownership of any property she brought into the marriage. Technically she remained under her father's legal authority, even though she moved into her husband's home, but when her father died she became legally emancipated.[118] This arrangement was one of the factors in the degree of independence Roman women enjoyed relative to those of many other ancient cultures and up to the modern period:[119][120] although she had to answer to her father in legal matters, she was free of his direct scrutiny in her daily life,[121] and her husband had no legal power over her.[122] Although it was a point of pride to be a "one-man woman" (univira) who had married only once, there was little stigma attached to divorce, nor to speedy remarriage after the loss of a husband through death or divorce.[123]

Girls had equal inheritance rights with boys if their father died without leaving a will.[124][125][126] A Roman mother's right to own property and to dispose of it as she saw fit, including setting the terms of her own will, gave her enormous influence over her sons even when they were adults.[127]

As part of the Augustan programme to restore traditional morality and social order, moral legislation attempted to regulate the conduct of men and women as a means of promoting "family values". Adultery, which had been a private family matter under the Republic, was criminalized,[128] and defined broadly as an illicit sex act (stuprum) that occurred between a male citizen and a married woman, or between a married woman and any man other than her husband.[n 11] Childbearing was encouraged by the state: a woman who had given birth to three children was granted symbolic honours and greater legal freedom (the ius trium liberorum).

Because of their legal status as citizens and the degree to which they could become emancipated, women could own property, enter contracts, and engage in business,[129][130] including shipping, manufacturing, and lending money. Inscriptions throughout the Empire honour women as benefactors in funding public works, an indication they could acquire and dispose of considerable fortunes; for instance, the Arch of the Sergii was funded by Salvia Postuma, a female member of the family honoured, and the largest building in the forum at Pompeii was funded by Eumachia, a priestess of Venus.[131]

At the time of Augustus, as many as 35% of the people in Italy were slaves,[132] making Rome one of five historical "slave societies" in which slaves constituted at least a fifth of the population and played a major role in the economy.[133] Slavery was a complex institution that supported traditional Roman social structures as well as contributing economic utility.[134] In urban settings, slaves might be professionals such as teachers, physicians, chefs, and accountants, in addition to the majority of slaves who provided trained or unskilled labour in households or workplaces. Agriculture and industry, such as milling and mining, relied on the exploitation of slaves. Outside Italy, slaves made up on average an estimated 10 to 20% of the population, sparse in Roman Egypt but more concentrated in some Greek areas. Expanding Roman ownership of arable land and industries would have affected preexisting practices of slavery in the provinces.[135][136] Although the institution of slavery has often been regarded as waning in the 3rd and 4th centuries, it remained an integral part of Roman society until the 5th century. Slavery ceased gradually in the 6th and 7th centuries along with the decline of urban centres in the West and the disintegration of the complex Imperial economy that had created the demand for it.[137]

Slave holding writing tablets for his master ( relief from a 4th-century sarcophagus)

Laws pertaining to slavery were "extremely intricate".[138] Under Roman law, slaves were considered property and had no legal personhood. They could be subjected to forms of corporal punishment not normally exercised on citizens, sexual exploitation, torture, and summary execution. A slave could not as a matter of law be raped since rape could be committed only against people who were free; a slave's rapist had to be prosecuted by the owner for property damage under the Aquilian Law.[139][140] Slaves had no right to the form of legal marriage called conubium, but their unions were sometimes recognized, and if both were freed they could marry.[141] Following the Servile Wars of the Republic, legislation under Augustus and his successors shows a driving concern for controlling the threat of rebellions through limiting the size of work groups, and for hunting down fugitive slaves.[142]

Technically, a slave could not own property,[143] but a slave who conducted business might be given access to an individual account or fund (peculium) that he could use as if it were his own. The terms of this account varied depending on the degree of trust and co-operation between owner and slave: a slave with an aptitude for business could be given considerable leeway to generate profit and might be allowed to bequeath the peculium he managed to other slaves of his household.[144] Within a household or workplace, a hierarchy of slaves might exist, with one slave in effect acting as the master of other slaves.[145]

Over time slaves gained increased legal protection, including the right to file complaints against their masters. A bill of sale might contain a clause stipulating that the slave could not be employed for prostitution, as prostitutes in ancient Rome were often slaves.[146] The burgeoning trade in eunuch slaves in the late 1st century AD prompted legislation that prohibited the castration of a slave against his will "for lust or gain."[147][148]

Roman slavery was not based on race.[149][150] Slaves were drawn from all over Europe and the Mediterranean, including Gaul, Hispania, Germany, Britannia, the Balkans, Greece... Generally, slaves in Italy were indigenous Italians,[151] with a minority of foreigners (including both slaves and freedmen) born outside of Italy estimated at 5% of the total in the capital at its peak, where their number was largest. Those from outside of Europe were predominantly of Greek descent, while the Jewish ones never fully assimilated into Roman society, remaining an identifiable minority. These slaves (especially the foreigners) had higher mortality rates and lower birth rates than natives, and were sometimes even subjected to mass expulsions.[152] The average recorded age at death for the slaves of the city of Rome was extraordinarily low: seventeen and a half years (17.2 for males; 17.9 for females).[153]

During the period of Republican expansionism when slavery had become pervasive, war captives were a main source of slaves. The range of ethnicities among slaves to some extent reflected that of the armies Rome defeated in war, and the conquest of Greece brought a number of highly skilled and educated slaves into Rome. Slaves were also traded in markets and sometimes sold by pirates. Infant abandonment and self-enslavement among the poor were other sources.[135] Vernae, by contrast, were "homegrown" slaves born to female slaves within the urban household or on a country estate or farm. Although they had no special legal status, an owner who mistreated or failed to care for his vernae faced social disapproval, as they were considered part of his familia, the family household, and in some cases might actually be the children of free males in the family.[154][155]

Talented slaves with a knack for business might accumulate a large enough peculium to justify their freedom, or be manumitted for services rendered. Manumission had become frequent enough that in 2 BC a law (Lex Fufia Caninia) limited the number of slaves an owner was allowed to free in his will.[156]

Cinerary urn for the freedman Tiberius Claudius Chryseros and two women, probably his wife and daughter

Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become citizens. After manumission, a slave who had belonged to a Roman citizen enjoyed not only passive freedom from ownership, but active political freedom (libertas), including the right to vote.[157] A slave who had acquired libertas was a libertus ("freed person," feminine liberta) in relation to his former master, who then became his patron (patronus): the two parties continued to have customary and legal obligations to each other. As a social class generally, freed slaves were libertini, though later writers used the terms libertus and libertinus interchangeably.[158][159]

A libertinus was not entitled to hold public office or the highest state priesthoods, but he could play a priestly role in the cult of the emperor. He could not marry a woman from a family of senatorial rank, nor achieve legitimate senatorial rank himself, but during the early Empire, freedmen held key positions in the government bureaucracy, so much so that Hadrian limited their participation by law.[159] Any future children of a freedman would be born free, with full rights of citizenship.

The rise of successful freedmen—through either political influence in imperial service or wealth—is a characteristic of early Imperial society. The prosperity of a high-achieving group of freedmen is attested by inscriptions throughout the Empire, and by their ownership of some of the most lavish houses at Pompeii, such as the House of the Vettii. The excesses of nouveau riche freedmen were satirized in the character of Trimalchio in the Satyricon by Petronius, who wrote in the time of Nero. Such individuals, while exceptional, are indicative of the upward social mobility possible in the Empire.

Census rank

The Latin word ordo (plural ordines) refers to a social distinction that is translated variously into English as "class, order, rank," none of which is exact. One purpose of the Roman census was to determine the ordo to which an individual belonged. The two highest ordines in Rome were the senatorial and equestrian. Outside Rome, the decurions, also known as curiales (Greek bouleutai), were the top governing ordo of an individual city.

Fragment of a sarcophagus depicting Gordian III and senators (3rd century)

"Senator" was not itself an elected office in ancient Rome; an individual gained admission to the Senate after he had been elected to and served at least one term as an executive magistrate. A senator also had to meet a minimum property requirement of 1 million sestertii, as determined by the census.[160][161] Nero made large gifts of money to a number of senators from old families who had become too impoverished to qualify. Not all men who qualified for the ordo senatorius chose to take a Senate seat, which required legal domicile at Rome. Emperors often filled vacancies in the 600-member body by appointment.[162][163] A senator's son belonged to the ordo senatorius, but he had to qualify on his own merits for admission to the Senate itself. A senator could be removed for violating moral standards: he was prohibited, for instance, from marrying a freedwoman or fighting in the arena.[164]

In the time of Nero, senators were still primarily from Rome and other parts of Italy, with some from the Iberian peninsula and southern France; men from the Greek-speaking provinces of the East began to be added under Vespasian.[165] The first senator from the most eastern province, Cappadocia, was admitted under Marcus Aurelius.[166] By the time of the Severan dynasty (193–235), Italians made up less than half the Senate.[167] During the 3rd century, domicile at Rome became impractical, and inscriptions attest to senators who were active in politics and munificence in their homeland (patria).[164]

Senators had an aura of prestige and were the traditional governing class who rose through the cursus honorum, the political career track, but equestrians of the Empire often possessed greater wealth and political power. Membership in the equestrian order was based on property; in Rome's early days, equites or knights had been distinguished by their ability to serve as mounted warriors (the "public horse"), but cavalry service was a separate function in the Empire.[n 12] A census valuation of 400,000 sesterces and three generations of free birth qualified a man as an equestrian.[168] The census of 28 BC uncovered large numbers of men who qualified, and in 14 AD, a thousand equestrians were registered at Cadiz and Padua alone.[n 13][169] Equestrians rose through a military career track (tres militiae) to become highly placed prefects and procurators within the Imperial administration.[170][171]

The rise of provincial men to the senatorial and equestrian orders is an aspect of social mobility in the first three centuries of the Empire. Roman aristocracy was based on competition, and unlike later European nobility, a Roman family could not maintain its position merely through hereditary succession or having title to lands.[172][173] Admission to the higher ordines brought distinction and privileges, but also a number of responsibilities. In antiquity, a city depended on its leading citizens to fund public works, events, and services (munera), rather than on tax revenues, which primarily supported the military. Maintaining one's rank required massive personal expenditures.[174] Decurions were so vital for the functioning of cities that in the later Empire, as the ranks of the town councils became depleted, those who had risen to the Senate were encouraged by the central government to give up their seats and return to their hometowns, in an effort to sustain civic life.[175]

In the later Empire, the dignitas ("worth, esteem") that attended on senatorial or equestrian rank was refined further with titles such as vir illustris, "illustrious man".[176] The appellation clarissimus (Greek lamprotatos) was used to designate the dignitas of certain senators and their immediate family, including women.[177] "Grades" of equestrian status proliferated. Those in Imperial service were ranked by pay grade (sexagenarius, 60,000 sesterces per annum; centenarius, 100,000; ducenarius, 200,000). The title eminentissimus, "most eminent" (Greek exochôtatos) was reserved for equestrians who had been Praetorian prefects. The higher equestrian officials in general were perfectissimi, "most distinguished" (Greek diasêmotatoi), the lower merely egregii, "outstanding" (Greek kratistos).[178]

Condemned man attacked by a leopard in the arena (3rd-century mosaic from Tunisia)

As the republican principle of citizens' equality under the law faded, the symbolic and social privileges of the upper classes led to an informal division of Roman society into those who had acquired greater honours (honestiores) and those who were humbler folk (humiliores). In general, honestiores were the members of the three higher "orders," along with certain military officers.[179][180] The granting of universal citizenship in 212 seems to have increased the competitive urge among the upper classes to have their superiority over other citizens affirmed, particularly within the justice system.[180][181][182] Sentencing depended on the judgment of the presiding official as to the relative "worth" (dignitas) of the defendant: an honestior could pay a fine when convicted of a crime for which an humilior might receive a scourging.[180]

Execution, which had been an infrequent legal penalty for free men under the Republic even in a capital case,[183][184] could be quick and relatively painless for the Imperial citizen considered "more honourable", while those deemed inferior might suffer the kinds of torture and prolonged death previously reserved for slaves, such as crucifixion and condemnation to the beasts as a spectacle in the arena.[185] In the early Empire, those who converted to Christianity could lose their standing as honestiores, especially if they declined to fulfill the religious aspects of their civic responsibilities, and thus became subject to punishments that created the conditions of martyrdom.[180][186]

Government and military

Reconstructed statue of Augustus as Jove, holding scepter and orb (first half of 1st century AD). [187] The Imperial cult of ancient Rome identified emperors and some members of their families with the divinely sanctioned authority ( auctoritas) of the Roman State. The rite of apotheosis (also called consecratio) signified the deceased emperor's deification and acknowledged his role as father of the people similar to the concept of a pater familias' soul or manes being honoured by his sons. [188]
Forum of Gerasa ( Jerash in present-day Jordan), with columns marking a covered walkway (stoa) for vendor stalls, and a semicircular space for public speaking

The three major elements of the Imperial Roman state were the central government, the military, and provincial government.[189] The military established control of a territory through war, but after a city or people was brought under treaty, the military mission turned to policing: protecting Roman citizens (after 212 AD, all freeborn inhabitants of the Empire), the agricultural fields that fed them, and religious sites.[190] Without modern instruments of either mass communication or mass destruction, the Romans lacked sufficient manpower or resources to impose their rule through force alone. Cooperation with local power elites was necessary to maintain order, collect information, and extract revenue. The Romans often exploited internal political divisions by supporting one faction over another: in the view of Plutarch, "it was discord between factions within cities that led to the loss of self-governance".[191][192][193]

Communities with demonstrated loyalty to Rome retained their own laws, could collect their own taxes locally, and in exceptional cases were exempt from Roman taxation. Legal privileges and relative independence were an incentive to remain in good standing with Rome.[194] Roman government was thus limited, but efficient in its use of the resources available to it.[195]

Central government

The dominance of the emperor was based on the consolidation of certain powers from several republican offices, including the inviolability of the tribunes of the people and the authority of the censors to manipulate the hierarchy of Roman society.[196] The emperor also made himself the central religious authority as Pontifex Maximus, and centralized the right to declare war, ratify treaties, and negotiate with foreign leaders.[197] While these functions were clearly defined during the Principate, the emperor's powers over time became less constitutional and more monarchical, culminating in the Dominate.[198]

Antoninus Pius (reigned 138–161), wearing a toga (Hermitage Museum)

The emperor was the ultimate authority in policy- and decision-making, but in the early Principate he was expected to be accessible to individuals from all walks of life, and to deal personally with official business and petitions. A bureaucracy formed around him only gradually.[199] The Julio-Claudian emperors relied on an informal body of advisors that included not only senators and equestrians, but trusted slaves and freedmen.[200] After Nero, the unofficial influence of the latter was regarded with suspicion, and the emperor's council (consilium) became subject to official appointment for the sake of greater transparency.[201] Though the Senate took a lead in policy discussions until the end of the Antonine dynasty, equestrians played an increasingly important role in the consilium.[202] The women of the emperor's family often intervened directly in his decisions. Plotina exercised influence on both her husband Trajan and his successor Hadrian. Her influence was advertised by having her letters on official matters published, as a sign that the emperor was reasonable in his exercise of authority and listened to his people.[203]

Access to the emperor by others might be gained at the daily reception (salutatio), a development of the traditional homage a client paid to his patron; public banquets hosted at the palace; and religious ceremonies. The common people who lacked this access could manifest their general approval or displeasure as a group at the games held in large venues.[204] By the 4th century, as urban centres decayed, the Christian emperors became remote figureheads who issued general rulings, no longer responding to individual petitions.[205]

Although the Senate could do little short of assassination and open rebellion to contravene the will of the emperor, it survived the Augustan restoration and the turbulent Year of Four Emperors to retain its symbolic political centrality during the Principate.[206] The Senate legitimated the emperor's rule, and the emperor needed the experience of senators as legates (legati) to serve as generals, diplomats, and administrators.[206][207] A successful career required competence as an administrator and remaining in favour with the emperor, or over time perhaps multiple emperors.[172]

The practical source of an emperor's power and authority was the military. The legionaries were paid by the Imperial treasury, and swore an annual military oath of loyalty to the emperor (sacramentum).[208] The death of an emperor led to a crucial period of uncertainty and crisis. Most emperors indicated their choice of successor, usually a close family member or adopted heir. The new emperor had to seek a swift acknowledgement of his status and authority to stabilize the political landscape. No emperor could hope to survive, much less to reign, without the allegiance and loyalty of the Praetorian Guard and of the legions. To secure their loyalty, several emperors paid the donativum, a monetary reward. In theory, the Senate was entitled to choose the new emperor, but did so mindful of acclamation by the army or Praetorians.[207]


The Roman empire under Hadrian (ruled 117–138) showing the location of the Roman legions deployed in 125 AD

After the Punic Wars, the Imperial Roman army was composed of professional soldiers who volunteered for 20 years of active duty and five as reserves. The transition to a professional military had begun during the late Republic, and was one of the many profound shifts away from republicanism, under which an army of conscripts had exercised their responsibilities as citizens in defending the homeland in a campaign against a specific threat. For Imperial Rome, the military was a full-time career in itself.[209] The Romans expanded their war machine by "organizing the communities that they conquered in Italy into a system that generated huge reservoirs of manpower for their army... Their main demand of all defeated enemies was they provide men for the Roman army every year."[210]

The primary mission of the Roman military of the early empire was to preserve the Pax Romana.[211] The three major divisions of the military were:

  • the garrison at Rome, which includes both the Praetorians and the vigiles who functioned as police and firefighters;
  • the provincial army, comprising the Roman legions and the auxiliaries provided by the provinces (auxilia);
  • the navy.

The pervasiveness of military garrisons throughout the Empire was a major influence in the process of cultural exchange and assimilation known as "Romanization," particularly in regard to politics, the economy, and religion.[212] Knowledge of the Roman military comes from a wide range of sources: Greek and Roman literary texts; coins with military themes; papyri preserving military documents; monuments such as Trajan's Column and triumphal arches, which feature artistic depictions of both fighting men and military machines; the archeology of military burials, battle sites, and camps; and inscriptions, including military diplomas, epitaphs, and dedications.[213]

Through his military reforms, which included consolidating or disbanding units of questionable loyalty, Augustus changed and regularized the legion, down to the hobnail pattern on the soles of army boots. A legion was organized into ten cohorts, each of which comprised six centuries, with a century further made up of ten squads (contubernia); the exact size of the Imperial legion, which is most likely to have been determined by logistics, has been estimated to range from 4,800 to 5,280.[214]

Relief panel from Trajan's Column in Rome, showing the building of a fort and the reception of a Dacian embassy

In 9 AD, Germanic tribes wiped out three full legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. This disastrous event reduced the number of the legions to 25. The total of the legions would later be increased again and for the next 300 years always be a little above or below 30.[215] The army had about 300,000 soldiers in the 1st century, and under 400,000 in the 2nd, "significantly smaller" than the collective armed forces of the territories it conquered. No more than 2% of adult males living in the Empire served in the Imperial army.[216]

Augustus also created the Praetorian Guard: nine cohorts, ostensibly to maintain the public peace, which were garrisoned in Italy. Better paid than the legionaries, the Praetorians served only sixteen years.[217]

The auxilia were recruited from among the non-citizens. Organized in smaller units of roughly cohort strength, they were paid less than the legionaries, and after 25 years of service were rewarded with Roman citizenship, also extended to their sons. According to Tacitus[218] there were roughly as many auxiliaries as there were legionaries. The auxilia thus amounted to around 125,000 men, implying approximately 250 auxiliary regiments.[219] The Roman cavalry of the earliest Empire were primarily from Celtic, Hispanic or Germanic areas. Several aspects of training and equipment, such as the four-horned saddle, derived from the Celts, as noted by Arrian and indicated by archeology.[220][221]

The Roman navy (Latin: classis, "fleet") not only aided in the supply and transport of the legions, but also helped in the protection of the frontiers along the rivers Rhine and Danube. Another of its duties was the protection of the crucial maritime trade routes against the threat of pirates. It patrolled the whole of the Mediterranean, parts of the North Atlantic coasts, and the Black Sea. Nevertheless, the army was considered the senior and more prestigious branch.[222]

Provincial government

The Pula Arena in Croatia is one of the largest and most intact of the remaining Roman amphitheatres.

An annexed territory became a province in a three-step process: making a register of cities, taking a census of the population, and surveying the land.[223] Further government recordkeeping included births and deaths, real estate transactions, taxes, and juridical proceedings.[224] In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the central government sent out around 160 officials each year to govern outside Italy.[11] Among these officials were the "Roman governors", as they are called in English: either magistrates elected at Rome who in the name of the Roman people governed senatorial provinces; or governors, usually of equestrian rank, who held their imperium on behalf of the emperor in provinces excluded from senatorial control, most notably Roman Egypt.[225] A governor had to make himself accessible to the people he governed, but he could delegate various duties.[226] His staff, however, was minimal: his official attendants (apparitores), including lictors, heralds, messengers, scribes, and bodyguards; legates, both civil and military, usually of equestrian rank; and friends, ranging in age and experience, who accompanied him unofficially.[226]

Other officials were appointed as supervisors of government finances.[11] Separating fiscal responsibility from justice and administration was a reform of the Imperial era. Under the Republic, provincial governors and tax farmers could exploit local populations for personal gain more freely.[227] Equestrian procurators, whose authority was originally "extra-judicial and extra-constitutional," managed both state-owned property and the vast personal property of the emperor (res privata).[226] Because Roman government officials were few in number, a provincial who needed help with a legal dispute or criminal case might seek out any Roman perceived to have some official capacity, such as a procurator or a military officer, including centurions down to the lowly stationarii or military police.[226][228]

Roman law

Roman portraiture frescos from Pompeii, 1st century AD, depicting two different men wearing laurel wreaths, one holding the rotulus ( blondish figure, left), the other a volumen ( brunet figure, right), both made of papyrus

Roman courts held original jurisdiction over cases involving Roman citizens throughout the empire, but there were too few judicial functionaries to impose Roman law uniformly in the provinces. Most parts of the Eastern empire already had well-established law codes and juridical procedures.[102] In general, it was Roman policy to respect the mos regionis ("regional tradition" or "law of the land") and to regard local laws as a source of legal precedent and social stability.[102][229] The compatibility of Roman and local law was thought to reflect an underlying ius gentium, the "law of nations" or international law regarded as common and customary among all human communities.[230] If the particulars of provincial law conflicted with Roman law or custom, Roman courts heard appeals, and the emperor held final authority to render a decision.[102][229][231]

In the West, law had been administered on a highly localized or tribal basis, and private property rights may have been a novelty of the Roman era, particularly among Celtic peoples. Roman law facilitated the acquisition of wealth by a pro-Roman elite who found their new privileges as citizens to be advantageous.[102] The extension of universal citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire in 212 required the uniform application of Roman law, replacing the local law codes that had applied to non-citizens. Diocletian's efforts to stabilize the Empire after the Crisis of the Third Century included two major compilations of law in four years, the Codex Gregorianus and the Codex Hermogenianus, to guide provincial administrators in setting consistent legal standards.[232]

The pervasive exercise of Roman law throughout Western Europe led to its enormous influence on the Western legal tradition, reflected by the continued use of Latin legal terminology in modern law.


Taxation under the Empire amounted to about 5% of the Empire's gross product.[233] The typical tax rate paid by individuals ranged from 2 to 5%.[234] The tax code was "bewildering" in its complicated system of direct and indirect taxes, some paid in cash and some in kind. Taxes might be specific to a province, or kinds of properties such as fisheries or salt evaporation ponds; they might be in effect for a limited time.[235] Tax collection was justified by the need to maintain the military,[45][236] and taxpayers sometimes got a refund if the army captured a surplus of booty.[236] In-kind taxes were accepted from less-monetized areas, particularly those who could supply grain or goods to army camps.[237]

Personification of the River Nile and his children, from the Temple of Serapis and Isis in Rome (1st century AD)

The primary source of direct tax revenue was individuals, who paid a poll tax and a tax on their land, construed as a tax on its produce or productive capacity.[234] Supplemental forms could be filed by those eligible for certain exemptions; for example, Egyptian farmers could register fields as fallow and tax-exempt depending on flood patterns of the Nile.[238] Tax obligations were determined by the census, which required each head of household to appear before the presiding official and provide a head count of his household, as well as an accounting of property he owned that was suitable for agriculture or habitation.[238]

A major source of indirect-tax revenue was the portoria, customs and tolls on imports and exports, including among provinces.[234] Special taxes were levied on the slave trade. Towards the end of his reign, Augustus instituted a 4% tax on the sale of slaves,[239] which Nero shifted from the purchaser to the dealers, who responded by raising their prices.[240] An owner who manumitted a slave paid a "freedom tax", calculated at 5% of value.[241]

An inheritance tax of 5% was assessed when Roman citizens above a certain net worth left property to anyone but members of their immediate family. Revenues from the estate tax and from a 1% sales tax on auctions went towards the veterans' pension fund (aerarium militare).[234]

Low taxes helped the Roman aristocracy increase their wealth, which equalled or exceeded the revenues of the central government. An emperor sometimes replenished his treasury by confiscating the estates of the "super-rich", but in the later period, the resistance of the wealthy to paying taxes was one of the factors contributing to the collapse of the Empire.[45]


A green Roman glass cup unearthed from an Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD) tomb in Guangxi, southern China; the earliest Roman glassware found in China was discovered in a Western Han tomb in Guangzhou, dated to the early 1st century BC, and ostensibly came via the maritime route through the South China Sea [242]

Moses Finley was the chief proponent of the primitivist view that the Roman economy was "underdeveloped and underachieving," characterized by subsistence agriculture; urban centres that consumed more than they produced in terms of trade and industry; low-status artisans; slowly developing technology; and a "lack of economic rationality."[243] Current views are more complex. Territorial conquests permitted a large-scale reorganization of land use that resulted in agricultural surplus and specialization, particularly in north Africa.[244] Some cities were known for particular industries or commercial activities, and the scale of building in urban areas indicates a significant construction industry.[244] Papyri preserve complex accounting methods that suggest elements of economic rationalism,[245] and the Empire was highly monetized.[246] Although the means of communication and transport were limited in antiquity, transportation in the 1st and 2nd centuries expanded greatly, and trade routes connected regional economies.[247] The supply contracts for the army, which pervaded every part of the Empire, drew on local suppliers near the base (castrum), throughout the province, and across provincial borders.[248] The Empire is perhaps best thought of as a network of regional economies, based on a form of "political capitalism" in which the state monitored and regulated commerce to assure its own revenues.[249] Economic growth, though not comparable to modern economies, was greater than that of most other societies prior to industrialization.[245]

Socially, economic dynamism opened up one of the avenues of social mobility in the Roman Empire. Social advancement was thus not dependent solely on birth, patronage, good luck, or even extraordinary ability. Although aristocratic values permeated traditional elite society, a strong tendency towards plutocracy is indicated by the wealth requirements for census rank. Prestige could be obtained through investing one's wealth in ways that advertised it appropriately: grand country estates or townhouses, durable luxury items such as jewels and silverware, public entertainments, funerary monuments for family members or coworkers, and religious dedications such as altars. Guilds (collegia) and corporations (corpora) provided support for individuals to succeed through networking, sharing sound business practices, and a willingness to work.[179]

Currency and banking

The early Empire was monetized to a near-universal extent, in the sense of using money as a way to express prices and debts.[250] The sestertius (plural sestertii, English "sesterces", symbolized as HS) was the basic unit of reckoning value into the 4th century,[251] though the silver denarius, worth four sesterces, was used also for accounting beginning in the Severan dynasty.[252] The smallest coin commonly circulated was the bronze as (plural asses), one-fourth sestertius.[253] Bullion and ingots seem not to have counted as pecunia, "money," and were used only on the frontiers for transacting business or buying property. Romans in the 1st and 2nd centuries counted coins, rather than weighing them—an indication that the coin was valued on its face, not for its metal content. This tendency towards fiat money led eventually to the debasement of Roman coinage, with consequences in the later Empire.[254] The standardization of money throughout the Empire promoted trade and market integration.[250] The high amount of metal coinage in circulation increased the money supply for trading or saving.[255]

Currency denominations [256]
211 BC 14 AD 286-296 AD
Denarius = 10 asses Aureus = 25 denarii Aurei = 60 per pound of gold
Sesterce = 5 asses Denarii = 16 asses Silver coins (contemporary name unknown) = 96 to a pound of silver
Sestertius = 2.5 asses Sesterces = 4 asses Bronze coins (contemporary name unknown) = value unknown
Asses = 1 Asses = 1

Rome had no central bank, and regulation of the banking system was minimal. Banks of classical antiquity typically kept less in reserves than the full total of customers' deposits. A typical bank had fairly limited capital, and often only one principal, though a bank might have as many as six to fifteen principals. Seneca assumes that anyone involved in commerce needs access to credit.[254]

Solidus issued under Constantine II, and on the reverse Victoria, one of the last deities to appear on Roman coins, gradually transforming into an angel under Christian rule [257]

A professional deposit banker (argentarius, coactor argentarius, or later nummularius) received and held deposits for a fixed or indefinite term, and lent money to third parties. The senatorial elite were involved heavily in private lending, both as creditors and borrowers, making loans from their personal fortunes on the basis of social connections.[254][258] The holder of a debt could use it as a means of payment by transferring it to another party, without cash changing hands. Although it has sometimes been thought that ancient Rome lacked "paper" or documentary transactions, the system of banks throughout the Empire also permitted the exchange of very large sums without the physical transfer of coins, in part because of the risks of moving large amounts of cash, particularly by sea. Only one serious credit shortage is known to have occurred in the early Empire, a credit crisis in 33 AD that put a number of senators at risk; the central government rescued the market through a loan of 100 million HS made by the emperor Tiberius to the banks (mensae).[259] Generally, available capital exceeded the amount needed by borrowers.[254] The central government itself did not borrow money, and without public debt had to fund deficits from cash reserves.[260]

Emperors of the Antonine and Severan dynasties overall debased the currency, particularly the denarius, under the pressures of meeting military payrolls.[251] Sudden inflation during the reign of Commodus damaged the credit market.[254] In the mid-200s, the supply of specie contracted sharply.[251] Conditions during the Crisis of the Third Century—such as reductions in long-distance trade, disruption of mining operations, and the physical transfer of gold coinage outside the empire by invading enemies—greatly diminished the money supply and the banking sector by the year 300.[251][254] Although Roman coinage had long been fiat money or fiduciary currency, general economic anxieties came to a head under Aurelian, and bankers lost confidence in coins legitimately issued by the central government. Despite Diocletian's introduction of the gold solidus and monetary reforms, the credit market of the Empire never recovered its former robustness.[254]

Mining and metallurgy

Landscape resulting from the ruina montium mining technique at Las Médulas, Spain, one of the most important gold mines in the Roman Empire

The main mining regions of the Empire were the Iberian Peninsula (gold, silver, copper, tin, lead); Gaul (gold, silver, iron); Britain (mainly iron, lead, tin), the Danubian provinces (gold, iron); Macedonia and Thrace (gold, silver); and Asia Minor (gold, silver, iron, tin). Intensive large-scale mining—of alluvial deposits, and by means of open-cast mining and underground mining—took place from the reign of Augustus up to the early 3rd century AD, when the instability of the Empire disrupted production. The gold mines of Dacia, for instance, were no longer available for Roman exploitation after the province was surrendered in 271. Mining seems to have resumed to some extent during the 4th century.[261]

Hydraulic mining, which Pliny referred to as ruina montium ("ruin of the mountains"), allowed base and precious metals to be extracted on a proto-industrial scale.[262] The total annual iron output is estimated at 82,500 tonnes.[263][264][265] Copper was produced at an annual rate of 15,000 t,[262][266] and lead at 80,000 t,[262][267][268] both production levels unmatched until the Industrial Revolution;[266][267][268][269] Hispania alone had a 40% share in world lead production.[267] The high lead output was a by-product of extensive silver mining which reached 200 t per annum. At its peak around the mid-2nd century AD, the Roman silver stock is estimated at 10,000 t, five to ten times larger than the combined silver mass of medieval Europe and the Caliphate around 800 AD.[268][270] As an indication of the scale of Roman metal production, lead pollution in the Greenland ice sheet quadrupled over its prehistoric levels during the Imperial era and dropped again thereafter.[271]

Transportation and communication

The Tabula Peutingeriana ( Latin for "The Peutinger Map") an Itinerarium, often assumed to be based on the Roman cursus publicus, the network of state-maintained roads.

The Roman Empire completely encircled the Mediterranean, which they called "our sea" (mare nostrum).[272] Roman sailing vessels navigated the Mediterranean as well as the major rivers of the Empire, including the Guadalquivir, Ebro, Rhône, Rhine, Tiber and Nile.[273] Transport by water was preferred where possible, and moving commodities by land was more difficult.[274] Vehicles, wheels, and ships indicate the existence of a great number of skilled woodworkers.[275]

Land transport utilized the advanced system of Roman roads, which were called "viae". These roads were primarily built for military purposes,[276] but also served commercial ends. The in-kind taxes paid by communities included the provision of personnel, animals, or vehicles for the cursus publicus, the state mail and transport service established by Augustus.[237] Relay stations were located along the roads every seven to twelve Roman miles, and tended to grow into a village or trading post.[277] A mansio (plural mansiones) was a privately run service station franchised by the imperial bureaucracy for the cursus publicus. The support staff at such a facility included muleteers, secretaries, blacksmiths, cartwrights, a veterinarian, and a few military police and couriers. The distance between mansiones was determined by how far a wagon could travel in a day.[277] Mules were the animal most often used for pulling carts, travelling about 4 mph.[278] As an example of the pace of communication, it took a messenger a minimum of nine days to travel to Rome from Mainz in the province of Germania Superior, even on a matter of urgency.[279] In addition to the mansiones, some taverns offered accommodations as well as food and drink; one recorded tab for a stay showed charges for wine, bread, mule feed, and the services of a prostitute.[280]

Trade and commodities

Roman provinces traded among themselves, but trade extended outside the frontiers to regions as far away as China and India.[273] The main commodity was grain.[281] Chinese trade was mostly conducted overland through middle men along the Silk Road; Indian trade, however, also occurred by sea from Egyptian ports on the Red Sea. Along these trade paths, the horse, upon which Roman expansion and commerce depended, was one of the main channels through which disease spread.[282] Also in transit for trade were olive oil, various foodstuffs, garum (fish sauce), slaves, ore and manufactured metal objects, fibres and textiles, timber, pottery, glassware, marble, papyrus, spices and materia medica, ivory, pearls, and gemstones.[283]

Though most provinces were capable of producing wine, regional varietals were desirable and wine was a central item of trade. Shortages of vin ordinaire were rare.[284][285] The major suppliers for the city of Rome were the west coast of Italy, southern Gaul, the Tarraconensis region of Hispania, and Crete. Alexandria, the second-largest city, imported wine from Laodicea in Syria and the Aegean.[286] At the retail level, taverns or specialty wine shops (vinaria) sold wine by the jug for carryout and by the drink on premises, with price ranges reflecting quality.[287]

Labour and occupations

Workers at a cloth-processing shop, in a painting from the fullonica of Veranius Hypsaeus in Pompeii

Inscriptions record 268 different occupations in the city of Rome, and 85 in Pompeii.[216] Professional associations or trade guilds (collegia) are attested for a wide range of occupations, including fishermen (piscatores), salt merchants (salinatores), olive oil dealers (olivarii), entertainers (scaenici), cattle dealers (pecuarii), goldsmiths (aurifices), teamsters (asinarii or muliones), and stonecutters (lapidarii). These are sometimes quite specialized: one collegium at Rome was strictly limited to craftsmen who worked in ivory and citrus wood.[179]

Work performed by slaves falls into five general categories: domestic, with epitaphs recording at least 55 different household jobs; imperial or public service; urban crafts and services; agriculture; and mining. Convicts provided much of the labour in the mines or quarries, where conditions were notoriously brutal.[288] In practice, there was little division of labour between slave and free,[102] and most workers were illiterate and without special skills.[289] The greatest number of common labourers were employed in agriculture: in the Italian system of industrial farming (latifundia), these may have been mostly slaves, but throughout the Empire, slave farm labour was probably less important than other forms of dependent labour by people who were technically not enslaved.[102]

Textile and clothing production was a major source of employment. Both textiles and finished garments were traded among the peoples of the Empire, whose products were often named for them or a particular town, rather like a fashion "label".[290] Better ready-to-wear was exported by businessmen (negotiatores or mercatores) who were often well-to-do residents of the production centres.[291] Finished garments might be retailed by their sales agents, who travelled to potential customers, or by vestiarii, clothing dealers who were mostly freedmen; or they might be peddled by itinerant merchants.[291] In Egypt, textile producers could run prosperous small businesses employing apprentices, free workers earning wages, and slaves.[292] The fullers (fullones) and dye workers (coloratores) had their own guilds.[293] Centonarii were guild workers who specialized in textile production and the recycling of old clothes into pieced goods.[n 14]

GDP and income distribution

Economic historians vary in their calculations of the gross domestic product of the Roman economy during the Principate.[294] In the sample years of 14, 100, and 150 AD, estimates of per capita GDP range from 166 to 380 HS. The GDP per capita of Italy is estimated as 40[295] to 66%[296] higher than in the rest of the Empire, due to tax transfers from the provinces and the concentration of elite income in the heartland. In regard to Italy, "there can be little doubt that the lower classes of Pompeii, Herculaneum and other provincial towns of the Roman Empire enjoyed a high standard of living not equaled again in Western Europe until the 19th century AD".[297]

In the Scheidel–Friesen economic model, the total annual income generated by the Empire is placed at nearly 20 billion HS, with about 5% extracted by central and local government. Households in the top 1.5% of income distribution captured about 20% of income. Another 20% went to about 10% of the population who can be characterized as a non-elite middle. The remaining "vast majority" produced more than half of the total income, but lived near subsistence.[298] The elite were 1.2–1.7% and the middling "who enjoyed modest, comfortable levels of existence but not extreme wealth amounted to 6–12% (...) while the vast majority lived around subsistence".[299]

Architecture and engineering

Amphitheatres of the Roman Empire
Construction on the Flavian Amphitheatre, more commonly known as the Colosseum (Italy), began during the reign of Vespasian.

The chief Roman contributions to architecture were the arch, vault and the dome. Even after more than 2,000 years some Roman structures still stand, due in part to sophisticated methods of making cements and concrete.[300][301] Roman roads are considered the most advanced roads built until the early 19th century. The system of roadways facilitated military policing, communications, and trade. The roads were resistant to floods and other environmental hazards. Even after the collapse of the central government, some roads remained usable for more than a thousand years.

Roman bridges were among the first large and lasting bridges, built from stone with the arch as the basic structure. Most utilized concrete as well. The largest Roman bridge was Trajan's bridge over the lower Danube, constructed by Apollodorus of Damascus, which remained for over a millennium the longest bridge to have been built both in terms of overall span and length.[302][303][304]

The Romans built many dams and reservoirs for water collection, such as the Subiaco Dams, two of which fed the Anio Novus, one of the largest aqueducts of Rome.[305][306][307] They built 72 dams just on the Iberian peninsula, and many more are known across the Empire, some still in use. Several earthen dams are known from Roman Britain, including a well-preserved example from Longovicium (Lanchester).

The Pont du Gard aqueduct, which crosses the Gardon River in southern France, is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

The Romans constructed numerous aqueducts. A surviving treatise by Frontinus, who served as curator aquarum (water commissioner) under Nerva, reflects the administrative importance placed on ensuring the water supply. Masonry channels carried water from distant springs and reservoirs along a precise gradient, using gravity alone. After the water passed through the aqueduct, it was collected in tanks and fed through pipes to public fountains, baths, toilets, or industrial sites.[308] The main aqueducts in the city of Rome were the Aqua Claudia and the Aqua Marcia.[309] The complex system built to supply Constantinople had its most distant supply drawn from over 120 km away along a sinuous route of more than 336 km.[310] Roman aqueducts were built to remarkably fine tolerance, and to a technological standard that was not to be equalled until modern times.[311] The Romans also made use of aqueducts in their extensive mining operations across the empire, at sites such as Las Medulas and Dolaucothi in South Wales.[312]

Insulated glazing (or "double glazing") was used in the construction of public baths. Elite housing in cooler climates might have hypocausts, a form of central heating. The Romans were the first culture to assemble all essential components of the much later steam engine, when Hero built the aeolipile. With the crank and connecting rod system, all elements for constructing a steam engine (invented in 1712)—Hero's aeolipile (generating steam power), the cylinder and piston (in metal force pumps), non-return valves (in water pumps), gearing (in water mills and clocks)—were known in Roman times.[313]

Daily life

Cityscape from the Villa Boscoreale (60s AD)

City and country

In the ancient world, a city was viewed as a place that fostered civilization by being "properly designed, ordered, and adorned."[314] Augustus undertook a vast building programme in Rome, supported public displays of art that expressed the new imperial ideology, and reorganized the city into neighbourhoods (vici) administered at the local level with police and firefighting services.[315] A focus of Augustan monumental architecture was the Campus Martius, an open area outside the city centre that in early times had been devoted to equestrian sports and physical training for youth. The Altar of Augustan Peace (Ara Pacis Augustae) was located there, as was an obelisk imported from Egypt that formed the pointer (gnomon) of a horologium. With its public gardens, the Campus became one of the most attractive places in the city to visit.[315]

City planning and urban lifestyles had been influenced by the Greeks from an early period,[316] and in the eastern Empire, Roman rule accelerated and shaped the local development of cities that already had a strong Hellenistic character. Cities such as Athens, Aphrodisias, Ephesus and Gerasa altered some aspects of city planning and architecture to conform to imperial ideals, while also expressing their individual identity and regional preeminence.[317][318] In the areas of the western Empire inhabited by Celtic-speaking peoples, Rome encouraged the development of urban centres with stone temples, forums, monumental fountains, and amphitheatres, often on or near the sites of the preexisting walled settlements known as oppida.[319][320][n 15] Urbanization in Roman Africa expanded on Greek and Punic cities along the coast.[277]

Aquae Sulis in Bath, England: architectural features above the level of the pillar bases are a later reconstruction.

The network of cities throughout the Empire (coloniae, municipia, civitates or in Greek terms poleis) was a primary cohesive force during the Pax Romana.[321] Romans of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD were encouraged by imperial propaganda to "inculcate the habits of peacetime".[314][322] As the classicist Clifford Ando has noted:

Most of the cultural appurtenances popularly associated with imperial culture—public cult and its games and civic banquets, competitions for artists, speakers, and athletes, as well as the funding of the great majority of public buildings and public display of art—were financed by private individuals, whose expenditures in this regard helped to justify their economic power and legal and provincial privileges.[323]

Even the Christian polemicist Tertullian declared that the world of the late 2nd century was more orderly and well-cultivated than in earlier times: "Everywhere there are houses, everywhere people, everywhere the res publica, the commonwealth, everywhere life."[324] The decline of cities and civic life in the 4th century, when the wealthy classes were unable or disinclined to support public works, was one sign of the Empire's imminent dissolution.[325]

Public toilets (latrinae) from Ostia Antica

In the city of Rome, most people lived in multistory apartment buildings (insulae) that were often squalid firetraps. Public facilities—such as baths (thermae), toilets that were flushed with running water (latrinae), conveniently located basins or elaborate fountains (nymphea) delivering fresh water,[320] and large-scale entertainments such as chariot races and gladiator combat—were aimed primarily at the common people who lived in the insulae.[326] Similar facilities were constructed in cities throughout the Empire, and some of the best-preserved Roman structures are in Spain, southern France, and northern Africa.

The public baths served hygienic, social and cultural functions.[327] Bathing was the focus of daily socializing in the late afternoon before dinner.[328] Roman baths were distinguished by a series of rooms that offered communal bathing in three temperatures, with varying amenities that might include an exercise and weight-training room, sauna, exfoliation spa (where oils were massaged into the skin and scraped from the body with a strigil), ball court, or outdoor swimming pool. Baths had hypocaust heating: the floors were suspended over hot-air channels that circulated warmth.[329] Mixed nude bathing was not unusual in the early Empire, though some baths may have offered separate facilities or hours for men and women. Public baths were a part of urban culture throughout the provinces, but in the late 4th century, individual tubs began to replace communal bathing. Christians were advised to go to the baths for health and cleanliness, not pleasure, but to avoid the games (ludi), which were part of religious festivals they considered "pagan". Tertullian says that otherwise Christians not only availed themselves of the baths, but participated fully in commerce and society.[330]

Reconstructed peristyle garden based on the House of the Vettii

Rich families from Rome usually had two or more houses, a townhouse (domus, plural domūs) and at least one luxury home (villa) outside the city. The domus was a privately owned single-family house, and might be furnished with a private bath (balneum),[329] but it was not a place to retreat from public life.[331] Although some neighbourhoods of Rome show a higher concentration of well-to-do houses, the rich did not live in segregated enclaves. Their houses were meant to be visible and accessible. The atrium served as a reception hall in which the paterfamilias (head of household) met with clients every morning, from wealthy friends to poorer dependents who received charity.[315] It was also a centre of family religious rites, containing a shrine and the images of family ancestors.[332] The houses were located on busy public roads, and ground-level spaces facing the street were often rented out as shops (tabernae).[333] In addition to a kitchen garden—windowboxes might substitute in the insulae—townhouses typically enclosed a peristyle garden that brought a tract of nature, made orderly, within walls.[334][335]

Birds and fountain within a garden setting, with oscilla (hanging masks) [336] above, in a painting from Pompeii

The villa by contrast was an escape from the bustle of the city, and in literature represents a lifestyle that balances the civilized pursuit of intellectual and artistic interests (otium) with an appreciation of nature and the agricultural cycle.[337] Ideally a villa commanded a view or vista, carefully framed by the architectural design.[338] It might be located on a working estate, or in a "resort town" s