Gender, Literacy, Culture
Nuclear family was the norm. Wife did not transfer to her husband’s authority. A woman retained full rights in the property of her natal family. Woman’s dowry went to the husband for the duration of the marriage. Divorce was relatively easy and needed no more than a notice of intent by either husband or wife. Marriage was generally arranged. Women were often subject to domination by their husbands. Fathers had substantial legal control over their children, even the legal power of life and death.
Rates of casual literacy varied in different parts of the empire. Casual literacy was widespread in Pompeii. Literacy was higher among solders, army officers and estate managers in Egypt. Aramaic was the dominant language group in the Near East, Coptic was spoken in Egypt, Punic and Berber in North Africa, Celtic in Spain and the northwest. Spread of Latin displaced many languages with the passage of time.
There was substantial economic infrastructure in the empire. It included harbors, mines, quarries, brickyards, olive oil factories, etc. Wheat, wine and olive oil came mainly from Spain, the Gallic provinces, North Africa and Egypt. Liquids were transported in containers called ‘amphorae’. Spanish olive oil was mainly carried in a container called ‘Dressel 20`. Spanish oil producers were successful in replacing their Italian counterparts from the market. This success was then repeated by the North African producers. After 425, southern Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria and Palestine became major exporters of wine and olive oil.
There were many regions with exceptional fertility. Campania (Italy), Sicily, Fayum (Egypt), Galilee, Byzacium (Tunisia), southern Gaul and Baetica (southern Spain) were among the most densely settled and wealthiest parts of the empire. Campania produced the best wines. Sicily and Byzacium produced large quantities of wheat. Galilee was densely cultivated. Contrary to these areas, a large part of the Roman Empire was in much less developed state. For example, transhumance was widespread in the countryside of Numidia (modern Algeria).
The empire had achieved various technological advancements. Water power was used for diverse purposes. There were well organized commercial and banking networks. Money was widely used for commercial exchange.
Slavery was deeply rooted in the ancient world. Number of slaves was large during the early period of the empire. But keeping the slaves needed investment. So, prudent landowners gradually switched over to hiring paid laborers. Supervision of workers was widely practiced by landowners. Workers were often chained together during the work. Poverty generally forced a person to agree to ‘debt bond’ and to work in inhuman conditions.
The fourth century was a period of cultural and economic changes. This period saw momentous developments in religious life; with the rise of Christianity and Islam. Emperor Diocletian (284-305) started to abandon territories with little strategic or economic value. He fortified the frontiers, reorganized provincial boundaries and separated civilian from military functions. Military commanders were given greater autonomy. Constantine consolidated some of these changes and added his own changes. His main innovation was in the monetary sphere. He introduced a new denomination, the solidus. The solidus was a coin of 4.5 gm of pure gold. His other innovation was the creation of a second capital at Constantinople.
Monetary stability and expanding population stimulated economic growth. All these developments resulted in strong urban prosperity. It was marked by new forms of architecture and an exaggerated sense of luxury.
The traditional religious culture of the classical world had been polytheist. Polytheists had no common name or label to describe them. Christianization of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries was a gradual and complex process. The boundaries between religious communities were more fluid in the fourth century. Such boundaries became more rigid in later period, due to repeated efforts of religious leaders.
The East was prosperous and its population continued to expand till the sixth century. In contrast, the West witnessed fragmentation of the empire because Germanic groups took over all the major provinces and established ‘post-Roman’ kingdoms. These kingdoms were precursors of a different kind of world which is usually called ‘medieval’.
In the East, the reign of Justinian is the zenith of prosperity and imperial ambition. Justinian recaptured Africa from the Vandals in 533. But his recovery of Italy (from the Ostrogoths) left that country devastated and paved the way for Lombard invasion. By the early seventh century, the war between Rome and Iran had flared up again. Byzantium recovered these provinces in the 620s. But the major blow to the Roman Empire came very soon, from the south-east.