The Roman Empire, considered to be one of the greatest empires of all time, covered a vast expanse of territory including most of Europe as we know it today, North Africa and the entirety of the Mediterranean.
Two empires ruled over most of Europe and were sworn rivals, Romans and the Iranians. Majority of their history consists of wars and battles fought between the two massive empires. Their empire lay next two each other that was separated by just the Euphrates river.
One of the most important characteristics of the Roman Empire, was its army. The Romans had a paid and professionally trained army, only one of its kind (during its time) and was estimated to consist of 6,00,000 (600,000) soldiers and was the single largest organized body of the empire, it definitely had the power to decide the fate of emperors.
The army was mainly responsible for the annexation of territories and defending existing territories and maintaining law and order in its territories. The existence of a paid army was a distinctive feature which differentiated it from its Iranian counterpart which had a conscripted (forced to join) army. A soldier serving in the Roman army would have to give a minimum service of 25 years, during which he was very well taken care of, this led to the army being very well motivated and performing well.
Though this didn’t mean that the soldiers didn’t agitate for better wages and service conditions. These agitations often led to mutinies, if the soldiers felt they were being let down by a general or even an emperor, they would revolt. Therefore, the army is one of the most important institutions of the empire.
Rome is considered to be one of the earliest democracies and consisted of a Senate, whose members were of course called Senators. They were the richest, aristocratic and the most powerful men in Rome and controlled the empire during the Republican era. Membership in the senate was for life and wealth and office holding counted more than birth. It was responsible for choosing a new emperor (During republican era) and gave directives to the army and administration of the empire. The Senate and its senators hated the army, but as it was essential, did not speak out openly against it. The army was the source of unpredictable violence and constantly pressured the senate. Our view of the army is mostly through the eyes of the senators who had written accounts on them.
Senators and the Senate were an important part of the empire, until the Republican era. After the end of the Republican era, the senate was just symbolic and used by the emperor to create an illusion that he was just a ‘leading citizen’ and not an absolute ruler. The senate was overthrown by Octavian, adopted son & heir of Julius Caesar, later had his name changed to Augustus.
During the Republican era of the Roman empire, the Emperor was not a very big deal. He was chosen by the senate and was accountable for his actions to the senate and the people of Rome. He was given the responsibility of administration of the government and had to take prior permission from the senate for troop movement and any kind of policy change or administrative action that he would take.
After Julius Caesar, his adopted son and heir, Octavian, who (as mentioned above) changed his name to Augustus overthrew the Senate and took complete control of the empire. The senate was left as a symbolic institution mainly out of respect, for it controlled the empire prior to the authoritarian era. But just like the Senate, the emperor was subject to the actions of the army. If the army felt that the emperor was incompetent or was not carrying out his actions according to the demands of the army, they would simply overthrow him and install a new Emperor, usually the army general.
Therefore the army was the most important institution in the Roman empire, during republican era and post republican era.
The empire had a substantial economic infrastructure, harbors, mines, quarries etc. Wheat, wine, barley were consumed and imported in huge quantities and were mainly brought in from the Spanish and Gallic provinces.
Archaeologists, have found vast number of amphorae (vessels used to carry liquids), numbers run into millions and they were used to transport wines and olive oil. These were also manufactured in Italy itself, but the Spanish manufacturers were able to capture the market and able to supersede their Italian counterparts due to their superior quality and taste.
The land owners, upon seeing the success of the Spanish manufacturers began to compete with other landowners and started to manufacture different products as stated above. Which increased the overall circulation of the products and vastly expanded the market to a great extent.
The Roman Economy was a sophisticated one, and is often underestimated. For example, water was used to power different mills and mines for mass manufacturing of goods and extraction of raw materials. The Spanish gold and silver mines had extraction on a gigantic industrial scale, and the most interesting thing about it is that the levels of productions that reached during the Roman empire could not be reached again till the 19th century, approximately 1,700 years later! There existed an advanced banking network and widespread use of money as medium to purchase and hire goods and services respectively. Therefore, all of these show that the Roman economy was a sophisticated one and how much we under estimated its sophistication.
Social Hierarchies & Religion
Let us get a sense of the social structure of the empire. The upper class consisted of the Nobles, aristocrats, rich and powerful men of Rome who owned vast stretches of land. Followed by it were the Plebs, the common people who were often associated as the consumers of the empire and were addicted to the circus and other theatrical displays (as described by Tacitus) and finally the slaves. This was the social hierarchy in the Early Empire.
The late empire, often associated with the start of the rule of Constantine I, the upper class or the Aristocracy now consisted of the Nobles and the Knights or horsemen (mainly served as cavalry in the army, were able military commanders). These aristocrats were very rich but were less powerful than the pure military elites who came from purely non-aristocratic backgrounds due to their access to the army.
Followed by it is the middle class, the majority of the population who worked as bureaucrats, soldiers for imperials as well as the merchants of the empire.
Followed by them are the lower class, the rural labor force, who was employed in the large estates of the aristocrats and worked in grain and olive harvests. They are followed by the second lower class, the slaves who were found all over the empires and were permanently bound in service to the empire.
The religion of the empire was a polytheistic one, adopted from its predecessors the Greeks. It consisted of many gods and each god was given different elements (sky,water etc.), few examples are Neptune, god of the sea, Mars, god of war and much more.
It was the primary religion until Constantine came into power and adopted Christianity as his religion. Christians were tormented in the empire and if it weren’t for Constantine, Christianity as we know it right now might not have existed.
This is the Roman Empire as it was at its pinnacle of power, later in the timeline of the empire, vast changes come through which eventually splits it into two halves, western and eastern empire of which only the eastern half survived (more popularly known as Byzantine empire) and the western empire fell to the barbaric tribes.
There were various factors that led to the downfall of this once great empire, but as it was rightly said by a man in a virtually generated world,“Everything that has a beginning, has an end, Mr.Anderson” and on that note I’ll conclude this article right here.