The Early Empire:
The Roman Empire can be broadly divided into two phase, viz. ‘Early Empire’ and ‘Late Empire’. The period from 27 BCE to the main part of the third century CE is called the early empire. The period after that is called the late empire. Unlike the Iranian Empire, the Roman Empire was much more diverse in terms of territories and cultures. People of this Empire spoke many languages. But Latin and Greek were the most widely used language for the purpose of administration. The upper classes in the east spoke Greek, while those in the west spoke Latin.
Augustus established the Roman Empire in 27 BCE. He was called the ‘Principate’ or the ‘leading citizen’. This coinage was done in order to show respect for the Senate.
Senate: The body which had controlled Rome in the days when it was a Republic. Senate was composed of the wealthiest families of the Roman and Italian descent, mainly landowners. Senate was so powerful that emperors were judged by their behavior towards the Senate.
Army: This was another key institution of imperial rule, and its position came after the emperor and the Senate. The Romans maintained a paid professional army. The soldiers had to put in a minimum of 25 years of service. The army was the largest single organized body in the empire. Its strength had become 600,000 by the fourth century. The army had the power to determine the fate of the emperors. The success of the emperor depended on his control of the army.
69 BCE was a tumultuous year. Four emperors mounted the throne in quick succession in that year. Other than that, the first two centuries were free from civil war and were relatively stable. Succession to the throne was based on family ascent. A natural or adopted heir could be made the next emperor. Even the army strongly followed this practice.
Augustan Age is considered to be the most peaceful period of the Roman Empire. So, armed conflicts for expansion of the territory were rare. Gradual extension of Roman direct rule was more common. It was accomplished by absorbing a whole series of ‘dependent’ kingdoms into Roman provincial territory.
Managing the Territory
All the territories of the Roman Empire were organized into provinces and were subject to taxation. Italy was an exception because it was considered to be a province. At its peak in the second century, the empire stretched from Scotland to the borders of Armenia, and from the Sahara to the Euphrates. The empire was home to a population of about 60 million in the mid-second century.
A New Elite Class: Great urban centers lined the shores of the Mediterranean, e.g. Carthage, Alexandria, Antioch, etc. Such urban centers made the true foundation of the imperial system. The countryside was taxed through urban centers. The local upper classes actively collaborated with the Roman state in administering their own territories and raising taxes from them. Throughout the second and third centuries, the provincial upper classes supplied most of the cadre for the government and the armies. Thus, the upper classes went on to form a new elite class of administrators and military commanders. They became more powerful than the senatorial class. This development led the emperor Gallienus (253-68) to exclude senators from military command. Thus, the position of the upper classes consolidated in the power equation. This development also saw the general decline of Italy in the empire.
City in the Empire: A city was an urban centre with its own magistrates, city council and a ‘territory’ that contained villages under its jurisdiction. Villages could be upgraded to the status of cities, and vice-versa. Upgrading or downgrading of a place was usually a mark of imperial favor or the opposite. A city was better provided during food shortages, compared to the countryside. Public baths and facilities for entertainment were in plenty in the cities. So, the city life was far more superior to the life in the villages.
The Third-Century Crisis: From the 230s, the empire had to start fighting on several fronts simultaneously. A new and more aggressive dynasty emerged in Iran in 225. They called themselves the ‘Sasanians’. Within just 15 years, they were expanding rapidly in the direction of the Euphrates. On another frontier, a confederation of Germanic tribes began to move against the Rhine and Danube. The Alamanni, the Franks and the Goths were the most notable among these tribes. Thus, the Roman Empire had to withstand repeated invasions during the whole period from 233 to 280. The Romans were forced to abandon much of the territory beyond the Danube. The strains faced by the empire are evident from the rapid succession of emperors in the third century. 25 emperors came and went in a span of 47 years.