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Roman Empire

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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The purpose of this article is to sketch the growth of the Roman Empire from its small beginnings down to about the middle of the 1st cent. a.d. The Empire did not stop growing at that date, but its later history hardly belongs to a Dictionary of the Apostolic Church.

1. Origins.-Rome, according to the opinion now commonly held, began with a settlement on the Palatine Hill on the left bank of the Tiber, some twenty miles from its mouth. This settlement occupied what was afterwards spoken of as Roma Quadrata, ‘Square Rome,’ from the shape of the outline of the walls. It was a community of shepherds, who, along with their wives, families, and property, were protected from an enemy by the strong walls surrounding the town. Hill towns are still a feature of Italy. Other hills in the neighbourhood seem to have been occupied by similar communities, and there can be no doubt that these communities found it advisable to make an alliance with one another against their common enemies. Such an alliance had a religious sanction, and we find in early times a festival of the Septimontium in existence, the seven mountains being the Capitolinus, Palatinus, Aventinus, Caelius, Oppius, Cispius, Fagutal (the three last spurs of the afterwards named Mons Esquilinus). (The later list of the [proverbial] ‘seven hills’ is not precisely the same, but consists of the first four followed by the Mons Esquilinus, the Collis Viminalis, and the Collis Quirinalis; this list is purely geographical, and has no religious significance.) The result of an attack on these combined communities by the hardier Sabines from the hills to the north and east appears to have been the defeat of the Romans, and the absorption within the population of a strong Sabine element. This fresh element led to the strengthening of the power of the united peoples. A further absorption seems to have taken place as the result of struggles with their northern neighbours on the banks of the Tiber, the mysterious Etruscans, who were believed to have come from Lydia in Asia Minor through Thrace to Italy. The presence of certain Etrurian customs as well as the ancient ‘Etrurian street’ (Vicus Tuscus) in Rome proves their influence on the young city.

2. Rome under the kings.-During this early period Rome was undoubtedly governed by kings, who were heads of the army and of religion as well as of civil affairs. We cannot, however, trust all the details given by ancient historians of the events which occurred during the regal period. The broad outline may be trusted. The later kings were of Etrurian stock, and are a sign that this element in the population had become dominant. The meeting-place of the various hill communities which combined to make Rome was naturally the hollow between the hills, in the immediate vicinity of the Palatine and the Capitoline. As this place was liable to be inundated by the Tiber, a splendid scheme of drainage was carried out in the Cloaca Maxima, which survives in part to the present day. Towards the end of the regal period Rome joined the other cities of Latium in a league, in which she was destined to become the predominant partner. The meetings of the league were held on the Alban Mount. But for this league Rome could never have conquered Italy. The existence of the league made it possible gradually to do so. First the tribes nearer at hand like the Volscians were conquered.

3. Rome under the praetors.-After the expulsion of the last king, Rome was governed by two rulers, with the name ‘generals’ [praetores, changed in 367 b.c. to consules, ‘men who consult [the Senate]’). Much of the history of this early period consists of dissensions between the patricians (the ruling class) and the plebeians (the dependent class). Some modern historians think that these two classes represented different tribes. In any case, the dissensions almost destroyed the community. Had it not been for Rome’s lucky star, the growing community would have been strangled. The constitution of the Republic was in fact being slowly hammered out by these quarrels.

The invasion and burning of Rome by a northern Celtic race, the Gauls, in 390 b.c. mark the beginning of authentic Roman history. The Romans bought temporary peace from them, but were tormented for a number of years by their incursions. The lower classes suffered deep distress at this time, with which legislation endeavoured, not unsuccessfully, to cope. In the year 287 b.c. the struggle between the orders finally ceased. They were now practically on terms of equality. From this hour dates the beginning of Rome’s power to deal with foreign affairs.

4. Samnite Wars.-But we are anticipating. The period 367 to 290 b.c. was one of great struggle. The Romans were now united at Rome and had secured the predominance in the Latin league, when they were called upon to fight the most dangerous enemy they had yet had to deal with. The long contest was for supremacy in Italy. The Samnites inhabited the central area of Italy, the Appenines, but frequently over-ran the rich plains at their feet. The war began by their attack on the Sidicini, a neutral people between Campania and Samnium. Campania supported the Sidicini and Rome supported Campania. The Romans were victorious in this first war (343-341) at Mt. Gaurus, but concluded peace with the Samnites because of internal dissensions and difficulties near home. This war was followed by war with the Latins (340-338), in which the Samnites fought on the Roman side. The contest was to decide whether the Latins should be subjects of Rome or not. It was fought in Campania, and by 338 b.c. the Romans had proved complete victors. In that year the league was dissolved, and special arrangements were made with individual parties to the old league. Assistance lent by the Samnites to Greek cities in Campania was the occasion of the second Samnite war (326-304). During the first five years the Romans were for the most part successful. This period was followed by a one year’s truce, which was broken before its end. In 321 the two Roman consuls sustained a disgraceful defeat at the Caudine Forks, a pass in Campania, and the army had to pass under the yoke. For several years afterwards fortune favoured the Samnites, but in 314 the consuls scored a decisive victory. This was followed by others, interrupted only by an Etruscan war in 311. In 304 the Samnites asked for peace, which was granted, and they were admitted to alliance with Rome. About 300 the Roman power seemed established in central Italy. In the third and last Samnite war (298-290), however, Rome had to face a coalition of Etruscans, Senonian Gauls, Umbrians, and Samnites. In 295 the desperate battle of Sentinum was fought, which resulted in a victory for Rome. The Samnites, however, continued to struggle on, until in 290 they finally gave up the contest. Rome’s mastery in Italy was now assured, though it took about a quarter of a century more to subdue the whole peninsula.

5. Conquest of Greek cities of South Italy.-The next stage in Rome’s career of battle was carried out in connexion with the Greek cities in the south of Italy. The people of Tarentum called in the assistance of a Greek filibuster, Pyrrhus of Epirus, who gave the Romans trouble from 281 to 275 b.c., in which year he returned to Greece finally defeated. In 272 Tarentum fell. Soon after, every nation in Italy south of the 44th parallel of latitude owned Rome’s supremacy. She was now the first power of the Western world, and one of the first powers of the ancient world. But empire was not her intention. She gave the cities of Italy self-government, and as far as possible incorporated them with the Roman State. The free inhabitants of Italy consisted now of (a) Roman citizens, residents in Roman territory and in coloniae, and individuals in municipia on whom citizenship had been conferred; (b) inhabitants of municipia (certain country towns) who had the citizenship of Rome (i.e. the right of trading and intermarriage) but not the right of voting or of holding office; (c) socii (allies), divided into two classes-(i.) Latini, who stood in a relation to Rome like that of the parties to the old Latin league, and had the capacity for acquiring Roman citizenship, by going to Rome or (later) by holding a magistracy in their own towns; (ii.) the free and allied cities, comprising all the rest of Italy, which had a military alliance with Rome, regulated either by foedus (formal treaty) or by lex data (a charter).

6. First and Second Punic Wars.-The signal career of Rome in extra-Italian conquest begins with the First Punic War (264-241 b.c). At this period Carthage, in the Tunis district, was mistress of the western Mediterranean. Rome was not as yet a naval power, but amongst her new Greek subjects (or allies) in southern Italy there were many traders by sea, and these had to be protected. Carthage had by means of mercenary troops conquered Sardinia and Corsica, and now aimed at the possession of Sicily. The western part, having been already planted with colonies from her parent city of Tyre, fell an easy prey to her, but the rest of the island was studded with Greek cities, which were not prepared to give up their free constitutions for the oligarchical tyranny of Semitic barbarians. The city of Messana (modern Messina) in the N.E. part of Sicily was the immediate cause of the outbreak of war between the Romans and the Carthaginians. Messana was at the time in the possession of Italian mercenaries, called Mamertini, who had conquered and taken possession of the city some time before. They grew great enough to menace the power of Hiero, the Greek king of Syracuse. He shut them up in their city, and they appealed for help to Rome. If Rome had refused, they would have appealed to Carthage. This fact determined the Roman people-for the Senate hesitated greatly, knowing, the responsibility this fresh step would entail-to give the support the Mamertini sought. The Carthaginians must not be allowed to occupy a place so close to Italy. But the delay had allowed the admission of a Carthaginian garrison, by whose means peace had been concluded with Hiero. The Romans could thus have retired altogether from the situation, had not a Roman legate persuaded the Mamertini to expel the Carthaginian garrison. Hiero and the Carthaginians next proceeded to lay siege to Messana, and the Romans declared war against them (264). The contest, with breaks was fated to last for about one hundred and twenty years. Rome had to build a fleet. She was for the most part victorious throughout the first war, but Regulus, who had invaded Africa, the territory of the Carthaginians, was defeated and taken captive. The battles in this war were for the most part naval, and a final naval victory in 242 made it possible to reduce the Carthaginian strongholds in Sicily (241). By the terms of the peace Carthage had to evacuate Sicily and the neighbouring islands. Thus was the first Roman ‘province’ formed (see under Province).

The Second Punic War did not begin till 218. It differed from the first chiefly in two respects. In the interval Carthage had conquered Spain and thus had a new base of operations, and the second war was fought on land. In 238 the Carthaginians had had to fight their own rebellious mercenary troops, and Rome took advantage of this state of affairs to demand Sardinia and Corsica, which were made into a second province. This is probably the only instance of unjustifiable acquisition of territory in Rome’s long history. Illyrian and Gallic wars occupied the rest of the interval. North Italy had been thus opened up (the Via Flaminia had been built from Rome to Ariminum in 220 b.c.). Hannibal in 218 left New Carthage and crossed the Rhone and the Alps. He defeated the Romans successively at the Ticinus and Trebia (Dec. 218) in North Italy, at the Trasimene lake in Etruria (217), and at Cannae in Apulia (216). The fidelity of Rome’s most important allies in Italy, the inability of Hannibal’s army to conduct successful siege operations, and other factors preserved Rome at this crisis. The further stages of the war may be compared with the later phases of the South African War. The Roman army was broken up into many small portions, leading strategic points were well garrisoned, and flying columns were dispatched over Italy, Capua, Tarentum, and Syracuse (in Sicily) were in turn lost and recovered. A Roman attempt to divert Hannibal’s attention by attacking Spain was attended with disaster, but Hasdrubal, who came from Spain to join his brother Hannibal, was signally defeated by the Romans at the Metaurus (207). Hannibal then retired to the very south of Italy. Meantime the youthful P. Scipio had conquered a great part of Spain. On obtaining the province of Sicily (205 b.c.) he crossed over into Africa. Hannibal, who had been recalled in consequence, was defeated by Scipio at the battle of Zama (202). By the treaty of next year the war was brought to an end, and Carthage lost all her foreign possessions.

7. Macedonian Wars.-The possession of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and Spain (or rather the Spains, for the Romans always distinguished between Hither and Further Spain), the last of which was made into two provinces in 197, made the Romans the greatest power in the ancient world. Philip, king of Macedonia, had been an ally of Hannibal. His attack on the two towns Oricum and Apollonia on the Illyrian side of the Adriatic, which had recently come into the possession of the Romans, drew Rome into the vortex of Eastern politics. The Romans at the close of the First Macedonian War (214-205) made peace with Philip, so that they might be left free to deal with Africa. The Second Macedonian War was declared in 200, and was brought to a successful end by the battle of Cynoscephalae (197). In the following year Greece was declared free from the yoke of Macedon. Discontent among Rome’s Greek allies led to war with the Seleucid king Antiochus, ally of Hannibal and Philip, who crossed to Greece by invitation. Having been defeated by the Romans at Thermopylae (191), he returned to Asia and was there defeated again, at Magnesia (190). He was compelled to give up all his Asia Minor dominions north of Mt. Taurus. Soon after, the Galatians (Celts) of Central Asia Minor were defeated, and Asia was organized (188). The Romans did not take over Asia at this time, but strengthened the power of the king of Pergamum and that of the State of Rhodes, to keep Antiochus out. About the same period the Gauls in the north of Italy had to be subdued, and from this time (191) Cisalpine Gaul was a Roman province. After the Ligurian War Roman influence reached as far as the Alps instead of the Apennines.

Rome’s protectorate over the East did not yet pass unquestioned. Perseus, son of Philip and his successor as king of Macedon, had been making preparations against Rome. The Third Macedonian War ended with victory for the Romans at Pydna (168). The Macedonian monarchy was finally overthrown, but Rome, following her usual policy in the East, did not annex the country but divided it into four districts, each under an oligarchical council. Stirrings and dissensions in Greece and Macedonia led in 146 to the destruction of Corinth by Mummius, and the constitution of the first eastern province, Achaea, which comprised both countries.

8. Third Punic War.-In the same year the Third and last Punic War resulted in the siege and destruction of Carthage and the formation of the province of Africa, consisting of her former territory. The province of Asia was constituted on the death of Attalus, king of Pergamum, in 133 b.c. having been left by his will to the Roman people (129). About 121 b.c. Gallia Narbonensis was made a province, on the conquest of the southern portion of Transalpine Gaul, between the Alps and the Pyrenees. It must not be supposed that there was complete peace in all these territories from the moment they were formally annexed. Many of Rome’s wars, which have to be passed over without mention in this article, were connected with the consolidation of a power already defined.

9. The Social War.-A most important event was the Social War (90-80 b.c.), the result of which was that the territory of the city-State Rome now stretched from a point a little to the north of Florence as far as the extreme south of Italy. All freeborn persons within that area were now cives Romani, with all that that implied.

10. Mithradatic Wars.-Soon after, the Romans had to meet one of the direst enemies in all their long history, Mithradates (120-63), king of Pontus, south of the Black Sea. His father by favour of the Romans had been given Phrygia also, but this the Romans took from the son in his minority. The war between Mithradates and the Romans was due to the former’s aggressions and his interference with the kingdoms protected by the Romans. He kept the whole of the Near East in a ferment. The first stage (88-84) was concluded by a peace, according to the terms of which Mithradates agreed to give up his conquests. The Second Mithradatic War was entirely due to the aggression of a Roman general Murena (83), and was with some difficulty concluded by a peace in the next year. Mithradates now seriously trained his army to meet the Roman style of warfare. The Third and last War was begun in 75 b.c., when King Nicomedes of Bithynia left his country by will to the Roman people, and Bithynia was in consequence declared a Roman province. Mithradates supported a claimant to the throne, and the war began. Roman armies sustained defeats. Tigranes, king of Armenia, joined Mithradates, and the combined forces needed the best generalship the Romans had to cope with them. Lucullus distinguished himself greatly, but the result was fruitless, and in 66 Lucullus had to make way for Pompey, who had just defeated the Cilician pirates. Pompey succeeded in defeating Mithradates and in conquering Armenia. He reduced Pontus and thereafter Syria (64) to the state of Roman provinces. There was now a chain of Roman provinces from the Black Sea to the Euphrates, but client States were retained along the frontier.

11. Acquisition of Gaul.-The next stage in the growth of the Roman Empire is the acquisition of Gaul, which corresponds roughly to modern France, by the generalship of Gains Julius Caesar (58-49 b.c.). Caesar was one of the three most powerful men in the State, but was without means, and was anxious to obtain a command which would enable him to emulate Pompey’s achievements in the East and eventually obtain supreme power. By the arrangement of the coalition in 60 he obtained the provinces of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum for five years (58-54). Transalpine Gaul was shortly afterwards added. The details of Caesar’s stubborn campaigns need not be here entered into. In addition to conquering the whole of Transalpine Gaul (except Gallia Narbonensis, already a Roman province), he twice crossed the Rhine and twice entered Britain. His period of command was extended for a further five years. His conquests secured Rome a northern frontier and saved the Empire for centuries.

12. Civil War.-In 49 b.c. civil war broke out, and for a number of years there could be no thought of extending the Empire. During the civil war, the eastern provinces, roughly speaking, were on Pompey’s side and the western on Caear’s; later, Antony held most of the cast against Octavian.

13. Rome under the Emperors.-In 31 b.c. Egypt was acquired by Octavian, and henceforward the Roman Emperors reigned there as kings. About the same time Octavian re-organized the eastern provinces. On 16th Jan. 27 b.c. the provinces were apportioned between the Senate and Augustus (see Province). Though the greater part of Spain had long been part of the provincial system, the hardy tribes of the north-west, the Cantabri and Astures, had never been subdued. Between 26 and 20 b.c. Augustus and Agrippa succeeded in quelling them, and a new province, Lusitania, was formed. On the death of the client king Amyntas in 25 b.c. all the northern and western part of his kingdom was taken over and made into the province Galatia. The boundaries of this province changed with the changing sphere of duty which covered all the central part of Asia Minor. It retained its importance down to a.d. 72, when Cappadocia became a consular province with an army, whereas in a.d. 17 it had been created merely a procuratorial province. Augustus spent 21-19 b.c. regulating the East, and in 16-13 visited Gaul. There he aimed at fixing the north-west frontier of the Empire. His first intention was to fix the limit at the Elbe and the Danube. The tribes of the Tyrol, the Rhaeti, Vindelici, and Norici were conquered in 15, and the Alpine tribes in 14-13. After a number of campaigns the dream of an Elbe frontier had to be given up, and the Rhine was reluctantly substituted. The Rhine-Danube frontier is much longer than the other, and was therefore much more difficult and expensive to defend. The reign of Tiberius (a.d. 14-37) saw the annexation of Cappadocia, as has been said. Gaius (Caligula) (37-41) pursued a somewhat retrograde policy. He restored to Antiochus of Commagene the realm which Tiberius had taken from his father. A similar policy was pursued in Palestine. In Thrace the former kingdom of Cotys was given to his son RhCEmetalces, and further territory in Thrace was added to it. To Polemo was gifted Pontus Polemoniacus, and to Cotys, younger brother of RhCEmetalces, lesser Armenia. Mauritania was taken over and afterwards (under Claudius) divided into two provinces, named Caesariensis and Tingitana. In Africa the legion was taken from the senatorial proconsul and put under the command of a special legatus. Under Claudius (41-54) many important administrative changes were made in the provinces. In Germany and Pannonia the extensive operations resulted in no addition to the Empire, but Thrace was at last made a province under a procurator in 46. Lycia was united to Pamphylia as a province under one governor in 43. Macedonia and Achaia, which under Tiberius had been governed by an Imperial legatus, were restored to the Senate as two separate provinces. In 44 Judaea , which had been for a time under the rule of Herod Agrippa, was put under a procurator.

The most interesting event of Claudius’ reign is, however, the annexation of Britain. Britain had been invaded twice by Julius Caesar, but had never been conquered, still less annexed. It was reserved for Claudius to make the southern half of England into the province Britannia, which he visited in person. The Roman forces numbered between 40,000 and 70,000 and were under the command of A. Plautius Silvanus. The first objective seems to have been Essex and Hertford; Camalodunum (Colchester), the capital of the Trinovantes, was taken and made the capital of the new province. Plautius, the conqueror of the province, remained till 47 as legatus Augusti pro praetore. During this period the Romans penetrated at least as far as Somersetshire. At the end of Plautius’ command the country comprised within a line drawn from hath through Silchester, as far as London, with a loop enclosing Colchester, was Roman. Plautius’ successor, P. Ostorius Scapula (47-52) conquered the Iceni and drew a line of forts across the country from Gloucester to Colchester. His greatest achievements were along the Welsh border. A fresh advance was made under Nero (54-68), when Suetonius Paulinus was appointed governor (59). His first two years were probably spent in subduing North Wales. An insurrection meantime broke out among the Iceni in the East. On the death of their king their territory had been added be the province. A rising of the Iceni and Trinovantes, who massacred 70,000 Romans and their allies, recalled Suetonius to the East. He took a terrible vengeance. The after history of the province is full of interest, but cannot be pursued here. For the Armenian wars of Nero see under Nero. His reign saw the addition of two provinces to the Roman Empire, Pontus Polemoniacus and Alpes Cottiae.

Literature.-The best large history is T. Mommsen, Römische Geschichte, vols. i.-iii. (Republic). vol. v. (Provinces under Empire), last ed., 1904. Eng. translation in 7 volumes (5 vols. ‘Republic,’ best ed., 1894; 2 vols. ‘Provinces,’ best ed., 1909); the best small histories are H. F. Pelham, Outlines of Roman History4, 1903; and J. B. Bury, A History of the Roman Empire2, 1896; on a smaller scale still, but very good, are W. Smith. A Smaller History of Rome, now ed., 1898; M. A. Hamilton, A Junior History of Rome to the Death of Caesar, 1910. There are maps of ‘Imperium Romanum’ in Kiepert’s Atlas Antiquus (no. 12), 1885. Perthes’ Atlas Antiquus 1895; Murray’s Handy Classical Maps; Smith, op. cit., p. 344; Bury, op. cit., pp. 83, 103. There is a handy list of Roman provinces with details in Companion to Latin Studies, ed. Sandys. 1910, pp. 401-409. On the fascinating subject of the Roman northern frontier the best account in English is E. G. Hardy, Studies in Roman History, 2nd ser., 1909, pp. 1-129: further details in German and Austrian journals specially devoted to the subject. On Britain see F. J. Haverfield, Romanization of Roman Britain3, 1915, and, for details of individual sites, his contributions to the Victoria County History, 1900 ff.; on Roman London his classic article in JRS [Note: RS Journal of Roman Studies.] i. [1911-12].

A. Souter.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Roman Empire'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​r/roman-empire.html. 1906-1918.