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Augustus to Domitian
Trajan to Constantine
     Trajan's eastern campaign
     Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius
     The lapse into anarchy
     The weakness of Rome
     The reforms of Diocletian

Christian Rome

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Trajan: AD 98-117

When Trajan is selected by Nerva as his heir, in October 97, he is in command of the province of upper Germany. Less than three months later, Nerva is dead. But this time there is no crisis. The Roman empire has acquired a new maturity. Thirty years earlier, after the death of Nero, the succession was decided by armies marching on Rome. Now Trajan is able to spend the first year of his rule on a tour of inspection of the Roman legions on the Rhine and the Danube. It is an area in which he plans an important campaign.

Trajan is in his element among soldiers. Born in Spain (he is the first Roman emperor of non-Italian descent), his career has been spent with legions in Syria, Spain and Germany. But he proves himself a brilliant politician as well.


When Trajan returns to Rome, in 99, he enters the city without pomp, on foot, and immediately establishes an excellent relationship with the senate. He makes his imperial intentions and requirements perfectly plain, but at least he consults the senators. It is an approach which wins him the title Optimus ('best man', with its implication that he leads on the basis of merit rather than rank). Characteristically, he refuses to adopt this description officially until many years later, in 114.

In 101 Trajan is ready for the campaign which he was plotting before his return to Rome. He marches north and east, towards the region known to the Romans as Dacia - north of the Danube, bordering the Black Sea.


There are two good reasons for Trajan's interest in subduing this area. One is revenge; the Dacians, led by a powerful ruler, Decebalus, inflicted a major defeat on a Roman army sent out by Domitian in 86. The other is greed; the territory includes some famous gold mines.

In two campaigns (101-2, 105-6) Dacia is crushed and brought firmly within the empire; the modern name of the region, Romania, reflects Rome's success. Great wealth is brought back to the capital to fund Trajan's building programme. It is the Dacian wars which are depicted in such vivid detail on Trajan's column.


The emperor's public works in Rome, mainly carried out in the years after the Dacian wars, include practical amenities such as baths and aqueducts. But the centrepiece is ancient Rome's largest public space, the rectangular Forum of Trajan which includes along its sides a great assembly hall, two libraries and a temple, and which has at its centre the 30-metre-high marble column of Trajan. The forum is dedicated by Trajan in AD 112. It turns out to be his last full year in Rome.

News comes that the Parthians, violating a treaty, have interfered in the affairs of Armenia. In 113, at the age of sixty, the soldier emperor heads east again.


The eastern campaign: AD 113-117

Within two months Trajan is in Antioch, joining the Roman legions stationed in the Middle East. Early in 114 Armenia, until now a vassal kingdom of Rome, is annexed as a Roman province. The purpose of the campaign has been achieved, but Trajan decides to press on - welcoming the challenge of a confrontation with Rome's rival empire to the east, Parthia.

Like Armenia, the territories along the Euphrates are kingdoms, but these are undeniably vassals of Parthia. Trajan's marching against them is an act of war. They all capitulate. The region is annexed as another new Roman province, Mesopotamia. Trajan's reputation in Rome reaches new heights, and he formally accepts - at last - the title of 'best man', Optimus.


The following year, 115, he is tempted to go even further. He captures the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon and advances down the Tigris to the Persian Gulf. This is the furthest that the empire has ever extended, and it is a province too far. An uprising in his rear, in support of Parthia, causes Trajan to withdraw - leaving his cousin Hadrian in command of Mesopotamia.

Trajan is on his way back to Rome in 117 when he dies, in southern Turkey. He names Hadrian as his successor.


Hadrian: AD 117-138

Once again the imperial crown is passed on without civil war, though Hadrian's excution of four of Trajan's senior colleagues on a charge of conspiracy implies a degree of opposition. Strategically, Hadrian decides that Trajan's new additions to the empire are untenable. He abandons the provinces of Armenia and Mesopotamia, restoring the Euphrates to its previous role as Rome's eastern border.

It is almost a year before Hadrian returns to Rome, where he buys popularity by cancelling all personal debts to the state. But his real interest remains in the distant provinces of the empire. He is not involved in any major wars, but he is away from Rome for no less than twelve of his twenty years in power.


Hadrian's interest in securing the frontiers of a viable empire is demonstrated in the great wall which bears his name. He orders its construction when visiting Britain in AD 122. He also commissions another great defensive work, a fortified palisade stretching more than 250 miles to link the two great natural barriers of central Europe, the Rhine and the Danube.

In this policy of strengthening outlying areas of empire, one of Hadrian's undertakings has disastrous results. In the Middle East, in 130, he gives orders for a strong new Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, to be built on the site of Jerusalem, which was devastated sixty years earlier when captured by Titus.


On the ruined Temple mount there is to be a shrine to Jupiter, in which Hadrian himself will be honoured. Jewish opposition to this sacrilege is led by Simon Bar-Cochba, calling himself the prince of Israel. Simon's prestige increases dramatically when a leading rabbi recognizes him as the Messiah. In 132 his Jewish forces defeat a Roman legion and capture Jerusalem.

Not till 135, after a large army has been sent to regain control, is Jerusalem recovered by the Romans. In a bitter campaign, fought village by village throughout the region, half a million lives are lost. The whole area of Palestine is devastated. Aelia Capitolina becomes, for the moment, an unimportant provincial town.


Hadrian's efforts at building are more successful nearer home. Three great architectural monuments, in and around Rome, are connected with him. The magnificent domed Pantheon derives entirely, in its present form, from his rebuilding of an earlier temple on the site. His mausoleum, begun in 135 and completed just after his death, now forms the great circular base of the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Northeast of Rome, near Tivoli, are the remains of the complex of buildings, vistas and gardens which Hadrian spends ten years constructing (125-135). It is the outstanding example of one of the characteristic architectural delights of the empire, the Roman villa.


Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius: AD 138-180

There are two more rulers in a group later known as the 'five good emperors'. Hadrian has no children. He selects as his successor a respected senator, Antoninus Pius, insisting at the same time that Antoninus designate Marcus Aurelius, a talented young member of the ruling class who is as yet only 17, as next in line of succession.

Both men assume power without unrest, in AD 138 and 161. The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol, one of the first of its kind, has a confident air of quiet authority. But his rule is interrupted by constant warfare on the northern and eastern borders, and in 165-6 a Roman army brings back from Mesopotamia a devastating plague. Almost as damaging, Marcus Aurelius - unlike his predecessors - has a young son.


Commodus and the lapse into anarchy: AD 180-284

Over a span of eighty years four successive emperors - Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius - have been selected on merit. Commodus, in the more normal manner of royalty, is his father's son. When he succeeds Marcus Aurelius, in AD 180, he is eighteen years old.

The recent years of plague and warfare (including even a brief invasion of northern Italy by barbarian tribes) have left the empire in an unsettled state. The reign of Commodus would anyway have been difficult. It is made more so by his own behaviour, which scandalizes Rome as nothing has done since the rather similar habits of Nero. The death of the emperor is in keeping with his life.


During the last night of AD 192 Commodus is strangled in his sleep by a wrestler. His violent end is not surprising, since the emperor has recently been spending much of his time in the company of gladiators and he likes to dress as Hercules. Indeed on the very next day Commodus was intending to proclaim himself consul, wearing the outfit of a gladiator.

Everyone recognizes that the man is mad - even his mistress, Marcia, who arranges access for the assassin. The senate is standing by to proclaim a new emperor, a veteran soldier by the name of Pertinax, before the praetorian guards wake at dawn.


The assassination, involving the emperor's consort and with the senate ready for prompt action, closely echoes the last occasion when an emperor was murdered. Domitian was then the victim, and his death introduced the century of stability which the present murder ends. This time it is only three months before the unfortunate Pertinax is himself killed, in March 193.

The pattern is set for the rapid decline of the Roman empire into anarchy in the 3rd century AD. During a spell of fifty years in the middle of that century (235-84) there are more than twenty emperors. All but one of them die by violence.


The weakness of Rome: 3rd century AD

The chaos at the centre of the empire is reflected in a decline of imperial control. This brings certain benefits to the provinces (in AD 212 Caracalla drastically reduces the special prestige of Italy by granting Roman citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the empire), but it also exposes the frontier regions of the empire to ever-increasing incursions from barbarian neighbours.

Even where the barbarians are kept at bay, there is a loss of central authority. Commanders in the more remote provinces begin to behave almost as independent rulers, paying scant attention to Rome.


One response to this decline is an attempt to reinvigorate the empire by a return to traditional Roman values. In AD 250 the emperor Decius decrees that every citizen is to perform a religious sacrifice to the Roman gods in the presence of a commissioner, who will issue an appropriate certificate of compliance. Christians, refusing on principle to comply, find themselves in a direct clash with the state and suffer accordingly.

The emperor Valerian maintains the same religious policy but also introduces, in 253, an adminsistrative reform which will have lasting effects. He splits the empire into two zones of responsibility, east and west.


Valerian appoints his son Gallienus as co-emperor. Gallienus is put in charge of the western empire, with responsibility for holding the frontiers on the Rhine and Danube. Valerian marches east to tackle the permanent threat from Persia.

Valerian has little success (in 260 he is captured by the Persians and dies a prisoner), and his solution of shared rule is not followed by his immediate successors. But it is adopted by Diocletian, the man who restores the Roman empire to stability. Thereafter it becomes the normal arrangement for the best part of two centuries.


The reforms of Diocletian: AD 284

Diocletian, commanding an army near the Bosphorus, is proclaimed emperor by his own troops when news comes in AD 284 that his predecessor has been murdered. He marches west, killing a rival claimant in battle in 285. The sequence of events reflects many previous occasions in this century, when usurpers, supported by their own armies, have laid claim to the throne. But Diocletian breaks this pattern of anarchy.

He is fortunate in that the frontiers of empire have recently been pushed back to their well established lines in the north and the east. He uses an unusual period of stablity to introduce a bold and but highly schematic reform in the administration of the empire.


He not only divides the empire geographically into east and west (following the example of Valerian). He even divides the traditional imperial title, Augustus Caesar, into two ranks - a senior one, Augustus, and a junior Caesar.

He appoints his friend Maximian as co-emperor, giving him the western empire and the title Augustus. Officially Diocletian and Maximian are to be equal, but a subtle addition to the title makes plain who is in charge. Diocletian in the east is now Augustus Jovius, representing Jupiter on earth. Maximian in the west is Augustus Herculius, standing in for Hercules. As any Roman knows, Hercules is a muscular hero; but the supreme god is Jupiter.


Seven years later, in AD 292, each Augustus acquires a Caesar as a lieutenant. Galerius is appointed to serve with Diocletian in the east, Constantius with Maximian in the west. Each Caesar marries the daughter of his Augustus. Each has the status of co-emperor.

With Diocletian himself at the head of the team, this quartet - based on friendship and marriage - succeeds admirably in holding together the empire (though as late as 303 the Christians suddenly suffer a new and extreme wave of persecution). All four men, like nearly all the emperors of this period, come from humble or peasant backgrounds. They are leaders of strong practical experience, who have proved themselves in military campaigns.


But Diocletian is over-optimistic in expecting this blueprint of government to survive his own departure. In AD 305 he falls ill and resigns as Augustus. He insists that Maximian does the same, enabling him to promote the two Caesars to the rank of Augustus and to appoint two more Caesars.

On paper it looks logical, but in the remaining years of his life Diocletian sees his careful edifice crumble. In 306 Constantius, the Augustus of the west, suddenly dies. His troops proclaim his son Constantine as Augustus in his place. But others, elsewhere, have other ideas. By 308 no fewer than six men are claiming to be Augustus. A familiar pattern of the Roman empire is recurring. Civil war is inevitable.


Constantine: AD 306-337

Constantine is probably in his twenties in AD 306 when his father, Constantius, dies at York. For most of the past ten years the young man has been at the court of Diocletian. But he has joined his father's camp in the previous year, 305, after the promotion of Constantius to the post of Augustus in the west. Constantine is therefore known to the legions in Britain. In 306, contrary to orders from the centre of empire, they proclaim him Augustus.

Compromises are made, giving Constantine rule over Britain and Gaul. But as more claimants emerge, Constantine gambles on a bigger share of power. In 312 he marches south and invades Italy.


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