Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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The best means of realising the extent of the Roman Empire in or about the year 64 is to glance at the map. It will be found to reach from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates, from the middle of England--approximately the river Trent--to the south of Egypt, from the Rhine and the Danube to the Desert of Sahara. The Mediterranean Sea is a Roman lake, and there is not a spot upon its shores which is not under Roman rule. In round numbers the empire is three thousand miles in length and two thousand in breadth. Its population, which, at least in the western parts, was much thinner then than it is over the same area at present, cannot be calculated with any accuracy, but an estimate of one hundred millions would perhaps be not very far from the mark.

Beyond its borders--sometimes too dangerously near to them and apt to overstep them--lay various peoples concerning whom Roman knowledge was for the most part incomplete and indefinite. Within its own boundaries the Roman government carefully collected every kind of information. Such precision was indispensable for the carrying out of those Roman principles of administration which will be described later. But of the nations or tribes beyond the frontiers only so much was known as had been gathered from a number of more or less futile campaigns, from occasional embassies sent to Rome by such peoples, from the writings of a few venturous travellers bent on exploration, from slaves who had been acquired by war or purchase, or from traders such as those who made their way to the Baltic in quest of amber, or to Arabia, Ethiopia, and India in quest of precious metals, jewels, ivory, perfumes, and fabrics.

There had indeed been sundry attempts to annex still more of the world. Roman armies had crossed the Rhine and had twice fought their way to the Elbe; but it became apparent to the shrewd Augustus and Tiberius that the country could not be held, and the Rhine was for the present accepted as the most natural and practical frontier. In the East the attempts permanently to annex Armenia, or a portion of Parthia, had so far proved but nominal or almost entirely vain.

On the Upper Euphrates at this date there was a sort of acknowledgment of vague dependence on Rome, but the empire had acquired nothing more solid. Forty years before our date a Roman expedition had penetrated into South-west Arabia, of which the wealth was extravagantly over-estimated, but it had met with complete failure. Into Ethiopia a punitive campaign had been made against Queen Candace, and a loose suzerainty was claimed over her kingdom, but the Roman frontier still stopped short at Elephantine. Over the territories of the semi-Greek semi-Scythian settlements to the north of the Black Sea Rome exercised a protectorate, which was for obvious reasons not unwelcome to those concerned. Along or near the eastern frontier she well understood the policy of the "buffer state," and, within her own borders in those parts, was ready to make tools of petty kings, whose own ambitions would both assist her against external foes and relieve her of administrative trouble.

At no time did the Roman Empire possess so natural or scientific a frontier as at this, when it was bounded by the Rhine, the Danube, the Black Sea, the Euphrates, the Desert, and the Atlantic. The only exception, it will be perceived, was in Britain, but the Roman idea there also was to annex the whole island, a feat which was never accomplished. Two generations after our chosen date Rome had conquered as far as the Firths of Clyde and Forth; it had crossed the Southern Rhine, and annexed the south-west corner of Germany, approximately from Cologne to Ratisbon; it had passed the Danube, and secured and settled Dacia, which is roughly the modern Roumania; and it had pushed its power somewhat further into the East. But it had not thereby increased either its strength or its stability.

At the period then with which we are to deal, the Roman Empire included the countries now known as Holland, Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal, Switzerland, Italy, the southern half of the Austrian Empire, Greece, Turkey, Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine, Egypt, Tripoli and Tunis, Algeria, Morocco, and also the southern two-thirds of England. Within these borders there prevailed that greatest blessing of the Roman rule, the pax Romana, or "Roman peace." Whatever defects may be found in the Roman administration, on whatever abstract grounds the existence of such an empire may be impugned, it cannot be questioned that for at least two centuries the whole of this vast region enjoyed a general reign of peace and security such as it never knew before and has never known since. That peace meant also social and industrial prosperity and development. It meant an immense increase in settled population and in manufactures, and an immense advance--particularly in the West--in civilised manners and intellectual interests.

Peoples and tribes which had been at perpetual war among themselves or with some neighbour were reduced to quietude. Communities which had been liable to sudden invasion and to all manner of arbitrary changes in their conditions of life, in their burdens of taxation, and even in their personal freedom, now knew exactly where they stood, and, for the most part, perceived that they stood in a much more tolerable and a distinctly more assured position than before. If there must sometimes be it would be the Roman tyrant, and he, as we shall find, affected them but little. All irresponsible local tyrannies, whether of kings or parties, were abolished.

On the high seas within the empire you might voyage with no fear whatever of pirates. If you looked for pirates you must look beyond the Roman sphere to the Indian Ocean. There might also be a few to be found in the Black Sea. On the high road you might travel from Jerusalem to Rome, and from Rome to Cologne or Cadiz, with no fear of any enemy except such banditti and footpads as the central or local government could not always manage to put down. On the whole there was nearly everywhere a clear recognition of the advantages conferred by the empire.

It is quite true that during these two centuries we meet with frequent trouble on the borders and with one or two local revolts of more or less strength. At our chosen date the Jews were being stirred by their fanatical or "zealot" party into an almost hopeless insurrection; within two years the rebellion broke out. Three years later still, certain ambitious semi-Romans took advantage of a troubled time to make a determined but futile effort to form a Gaulish or German-Gaulish empire of their own. Half a century after Nero the Jews once again rose, but were speedily suppressed. But apart from these abortive efforts--made, one by a unique form of religious zeal, one by adventurous ambition, at opposite extremities of the Roman world--there was established a general, and in most cases a willing, acceptance of the situation and a proper recognition of its benefits.

The only serious war to be feared within the empire itself was a civil war, begun by some aspiring leader when his chance seemed strong of ousting the existing emperor or of succeeding to his throne. Four years from the date at which we have placed ourselves such a war actually did break out. Nero was driven from the throne in favour of Galba, and the history of the year following is the history of Otho murdering Galba, Vitellius overthrowing Otho, and Vespasian in his turn overthrowing Vitellius. Yet all this is but the story of one entirely exceptional year, the famous "year of four emperors." Take out that year from the imperial history; count a hundred years before and more than a hundred years after, and it would be impossible to find in the history of the world any period at which peace, and probably contentment, was so widely and continuously spread. Think of all the countries which have just been enumerated as lying within the Roman border; then imagine that, with the exception of one year of general commotion, two or three provincial and local revolts, and occasional irruptions and retaliations upon the frontier, they have all been free from war and its havoc ever since the year 1700. In our year of grace 64, although the throne is occupied by a vicious emperor suffering from megalomania and enormous self-conceit, the empire is in full enjoyment of its pax Romana.

Another glance at the map will show how secure this internal peace was felt to be. The Roman armies will be found almost entirely upon the frontiers. It was, of course, imperative that there should be strong forces in such positions--in Britain carrying out the annexation; on the Rhine and Danube defending against huge-bodied, restless Germans and their congeners; on the Euphrates to keep off the nimble and dashing Parthian horse and foot; in Upper Egypt to guard against the raids of "Fuzzy-Wuzzy "; in the interior of Tunis or Algeria to keep the nomad Berber tribes in hand. In such places were the Roman legions and their auxiliary troops regularly kept under the eagles, for there lay their natural work, and there do we find them quartered generation after generation.

It is, of course, true that they might be employed inwards as well as outwards; but it must be manifest that, if there had been any widespread disaffection, any reasonable suspicion that serious revolts might happen, there would have been many other large bodies of troops posted in garrison throughout the length and breadth of the provinces. In point of fact the whole Roman military force can scarcely have amounted to more than 320,000 men, while the navy consisted of two small fleets of galleys, one regularly posted at Misenum at the entrance to the Bay of Naples, the other at Ravenna on the Adriatic. To these we may add a flotilla of boats operating on the Lower Rhine and the neighbouring coasts. Except during the year of civil war the two fleets have practically no history. They enjoyed the advantage of having almost nothing to fight against. If pirates had become dangerous--as for a brief time they threatened to do during the Jewish revolt--the imperial ships would have been in readiness to suppress them. They could be made useful for carrying despatches and imperial persons or troops, or they might be used against a seaside town if necessary. Beyond this they hardly correspond to our modern navies. There was no foreign competition to build against, and no "two-power standard" to be maintained.

The Roman troops, it has already been said, were almost wholly on the frontier. So far as there are exceptions, they explain themselves. It was found necessary at all times to keep at least one legion regularly quartered in Northern Spain, where the mountaineers were inclined to be predatory, and where they were skilful, as they have always been, at carrying on guerilla warfare. We may, if we choose, regard this comparatively small army as policing a lawless district. In but few other places do we find a regular military force. Rome itself had both a garrison and also a large body of Imperial Guards. The garrison, consisting of some 6000 men, was in barracks inside the city, and its purpose was to protect the wealth of the metropolis and the seat of government from any sudden riot or factious tumult. It must be remembered that among the Romans it was soldiers who served as police, whether at Rome or in the provinces. The Imperial Guards, consisting of 12,000 troops, were stationed just outside the gates, in order to secure the safety and position of the emperor himself, if any attempt should be made against his person or authority. The rich and important town of Lugdunum (or Lyons) had a small garrison of 1200 men, and a certain number of troops were always to be found in garrison in those great towns where factious disturbances were either probable or possible. Thus at Alexandria, where the Jews were fanatical and at loggerheads with the Greeks, and where the native Egyptians were no less fanatical and might be at loggerheads with both, it was necessary to keep a disciplinary force in readiness. Somewhat similar was the case at Antioch, where the discords of the Greeks, Syrians, and Jews stood in need of the firm Roman hand. Nor could a similar regiment be spared from Jerusalem. The western towns were generally smaller in size, more homogeneous, and more tranquil. It was around the Levant that the popular émeute was most to be feared. Doubtless one may meet, whether in the New Testament or in Roman and Greek writers, with frequent mention of soldiers, and we make acquaintance with an occasional centurion--something socially above a colour-sergeant and below a captain--or other officer in various parts of the empire. But it should be understood that, except in such places as those which have been named, soldiers were distributed in small handfuls, to act as gendarmerie, to deal with brigands, to serve as bodyguard and orderlies to a governor, to bear despatches, to be custodians of state prisoners. To these classes belong the centurions of the Acts of the Apostles, while Lysias was the colonel of the regiment keeping order in Jerusalem.

What the Roman army was like, whence it was recruited, how it was armed, and what were its operations, are matters to be shown in a later chapter. Regarded then as a controlling agent, maintaining widespread peace, the Roman Empire answers closely to the British raj in India. The analogy could indeed be pressed very much further and with more closeness of detail, but this is scarcely the place for such a discussion.

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