This page cannot be viewed in frames

Go to page

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Roman Empire at time of its greatest prosperity

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman Empire in 117 CE, At the end of Trajan's reign, Rome reached its peak territorial extent.
Roman Empire in 117 CE. By the end of Trajan's reign, Rome had reached its peak territorial range.

Roman Empire, expanding from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE, was one of the few in ancient history that covered such a huge area. It is also sometimes called a world state for this reason. In the first and second centuries, the Romans ruled huge areas around the Mediterranean Sea. This huge state can only be compared with the Chinese state during the Han dynasty (202 BCE 220 CE) and the former state of Emperor Szy-Huang-Ti.

Archaeologists and historians conducting research on the Roman Empire have come to many interesting conclusions about its development, organization, economy, social issues and aspects of everyday life in this great ancient country. An intriguing picture of civilization emerges from the results of their work, which I want to present here. It is also important to consider the role of Rome in the context of the cultures and civilizations around the world existing in its greatest development.

Short introduction – development of the Roman Empire

Rome, which was at the beginning of its history a small agricultural settlement Latines, located in the Tiber Valley. In the course of historical development, the inhabitants of Rome moved from the monarchy to the aristocratic republic (509 BCE). Already during the monarchy, the Romans gained a dominant position in the Latin Union. The Romans, after relinquishing the power of kings, defeated the Etruscans under Aricia in 504 BCE. In 496 BCE, the Latin Union won and gained dominance in this organization. An important event in the early history of Rome was the invasion of Celtic tribes in Italy in 386 BCE Rome was conquered by the Celtic chief Brennus, and the Romans had to pay tribute to the invaders. However, this event contributed to the internal consolidation of Rome. In 338 BCE, the Romans once again defeated the Latynów and incorporated their lands into their state. During the three heavy Samnic wars (343-291 BCE), the Roman army defeated the Samnites and their allies: Etruscans, Umbras, Sabin and Celts including their lands under their rule. Gradually, the Greek colonies on the shores of southern Italy came under the rule of Rome. In 272 BCE Taranto was conquered and in 264 BCE the Etruscan city of Volsinia, completed the conquest of Italy by Rome.

During struggles with the Carthaginian state during I (264-246 BCE) and II (218- 201 BCE) Punic War the Roman Republic became the first power in the Mediterranean. They entered Rome as the provinces of: Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Balearic Islands, and most of the Iberian Peninsula. After Third Punic War (149-146 BCE), the Romans occupied the former territory of Carthage in Africa. In the second century BCE, the Romans conquered Pre-Alpine Gaul, Macedonia, Greece (converted into one province), western Asia Minor (province of Asia), the Illyrian coast, Narva Gaul and Cilicia (south-east coast of Asia Minor).

Internal changes in Rome led to the collapse of the republican system and the establishment of the principate in 27 BCE. Until then, ambitious Roman leaders (Pompey, Sulla, Caesar, Octavian) managed to conquer many territories and convert them into a province. By 14 CE, Rome had thus taken: Numidia, Cyrenaica, Pont, Galatia, Illyria, Moesia, Pannonia, the Alps, Celtic Gaul, the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, Cyprus and Crete. During the Empire period, legions added some new provinces and the state was unified. By 117 CE, Britain, the Agri Decumates area (between the upper Rhine and Danube), Mauritania, Thrace, Dacia, Lycia and Pamphylia, Cappadocia, Arabia and part of northern Mesopotamia had been conquered. Within these borders, the Empire remained until its decline in the fifth century CE

Organization of the Empire – state, administration, power, bureaucracy, road system

To efficiently manage conquered areas, the Romans introduced a centralized bureaucratic administration system throughout the Empire. He had the task of efficiently collecting taxes, organizing works and investments, managing the economy and controlling the society of the Empire. Pragmatic Romans brought this system to perfection. The area of ​​the state was divided into administrative districts – provinces (provincia), whose residents were obliged to pay taxes annually in the Roman state. The obligation to keep garrisons and troops stationed in a given province fell to a large extent. The province was managed by a governor called a prosecutor. The prosecutor oversaw all work and investments in his province, coordinated tax collection, performed judicial functions, was interested in the economy and finances of the area he had to manage and took care of the order. The governor occupied a palace in the provincial capital, the seat and the visible symbol of Roman power over the area. He had an office, secretaries and a host of officials. Across the entire Empire, signs of Roman rule were built by prosecutors at the request of the Emperors, buildings: aqueducts, temples, amphitheatres, theatres, triumphal arches, colonnades, basilicas, forums, and baths. The Roman governor of Bithynia from the 2nd century CE, Pliny the Younger, in his letters to Emperor Marcus Uplius Trajan touched on economic and financial matters (citizens’ debt, finance of the city of Apamea), construction projects (construction of the theatre in Nikai), matters of the judiciary (judging Christians), social issues (establishment of workers corporations, privileges for cities) and administrative.

Roman provinces

List of Roman provinces with their capitals during the heyday of the Empire (1st-2nd century CE):

  • Achaia and Epirus – Corinth
  • Africa ProconsularisCartagena
  • Alpes Martimae, Alpes Graiae et Poeniae, Alpes Cottiae – Cemenelum
  • Arabia Petrea – Nova Traiana Bostra
  • AsiaEphesus
  • Bithynia and PontNicomedia
  • KingdomLondinium
  • CiliciaTars
  • CyprusPafos
  • Dacia – Sarmizegetusa
  • Dalmatia -Salona
  • EgyptAlexandria ad Egyptum
  • GalatiaAncyra
  • Galia BelgicaDurocortorum
  • Galia AquitaniaBurdigala
  • Galia LugdunensisLugdunum
  • Galia NarbonensisNarbo
  • Germania InferiorMogontiacum
  • Germania SuperiorColonia Claudia Ara Agrippensis
  • Hispania BaeticaCorduba
  • Hispania TarraconensisTarraco
  • Cappadocia – Cezarea
  • CorsicaAleria
  • Crete – Gortyna
  • Lycia and Pamfilia – Myra
  • Lusitania – Emerita Augusta
  • Macedonia – Thessalonika
  • Mauritania Caesarensis – Caesarea (Iol)
  • Mauritania Tingitana – Tingis
  • Superior Moesia, Inferior – Viminacium
  • Mesopotamia – Dura Europos, Nisibis
  • Norikum – Virunum
  • Numidia – Thamugadi
  • Palestine – Cezarea
  • Panonia Inferior – Aquincum
  • Panonia Superior – Carnuntum
  • Raetia – Augusta Vindelicum
  • SardiniaKaralis
  • SicilySyracuse
  • Syria – Antiochia
  • ThracePeripheral

All these provinces were part of a well-organized state organism. This well-functioning system ensured order and law enforcement throughout the Empire. He also contributed to the development of civilization and the increase in the well-being of society and to the significant unification of culture in many areas.

Cities in the Roman Empire had a quite developed local government. In the eastern part of the Empire inhabited largely by Greeks, the Romans left traditional Hellenic institutions: areopagus – as city council and archons as officials. In the west, the cities were modelled on Rome and had the model of the Roman senate collegium of decurions, or city councils. Each city in the Empire was managed by a prefect who was a central government official and was governed by a governor. City cohorts took care of the order. This autonomy, although it contributed to the development of society, did not destroy the cohesion of the Empire.

Both during the republic and later, the Romans founded colonies in provincial areas. Roman citizens settled there, most often demobilized veterans of legions. These colonies were a factor in strengthening Rome’s power in conquered territories and Romanization. They could control the surrounding areas, their inhabitants were loyal and spread Roman culture around them, and if necessary they could create military troops. The most important of these colonies are: New Carthage in Spain, Lugdunum in Gaul, Tingis in Mauritania, Alba Iulia in Dacia, Corinth in Achaia, Apamea in Asia, Berytos in Syria, and Leptis Magna in Africa.

A sign of strong and efficient administration was the cobbled road network that entwined the entire Empire, making it easier to manage the Empire. Even if no written sources from the Empire had survived, the road network discovered by archaeologists would indicate the existence of a strong administration in the Mediterranean basin in the 4th century CE.

Having this system was very important for you. Roads connected the centre – of Rome with provincial capitals and smaller cities. They enabled the rapid movement of troops within the Empire and improved trade. Governors and the Imperial Chancellery were connected by a system of horse couriers carrying letters from the provinces to Rome. On the main routes, there were inns, taverns and stopping places where horses could be changed. In addition to these services and officials, the emperor had spies and informers at his disposal forming a sort of secret police – frumentaria.

Public buildings in cities used by residents, garrisons guarding the order, colonies founded by Roman citizens in all corners of the state, efficient administration, roads and communication system – all these aspects of Roman rule contributed to the consolidation of the Empire.

The highest authority in the Empire was the emperor, officially called princeps – “the first citizen”. He was the commander-in-chief of the army (emperor – the title the army gave to their victorious commander), censor (made lists of senators), people’s tribune, supervised the supply of grain to Rome (anonnae), had the power to issue decrees, lifelong power over provinces and legions (pro-consular empire), appointed people to all offices in the state, often travelled to the provinces to see for themselves the state of their development. In governing a huge state he was helped by the imperial offices: the office, prefects, legates, the state treasury, freedmen who were officials, and the offices of the imperial court. The Senate, which was the supreme authority in the republic, surrounded by reverence and seriousness (postetas), was now only an advisory body and became a free city council in Rome. A visible sign of the emperor’s power was the imperial palaces in the area of ​​Palatine Hill in Rome. The remains of this complex were discovered by archaeologists in Rome. In their palaces, the emperors lived in extraordinary luxury and splendour, surrounded by court officials, servants, slaves and freedmen. It seems that the most important aspects of Caesar’s power were: control over the army and the ceremonial and religious role of the emperor, who served as the high priest of Rome (pontifex maximus), overseeing religious worship. A visible sign of the military power and role of the emperor was the 10th cohort (approx. 5,000 people) assigned to him for protection, derived from the protective troops of Roman leaders – extraordinarii. She was stationed in Rome, in Castra Praetoria as a bodyguard. Over time, the Praetorians gained great influence in the choice of a new emperor.

From the above data, it can be concluded that Rome was a highly centralized state and efficiently ruled by bureaucratic administration.

Economy and trade in the Roman Empire

By conquering the Mediterranean basin and creating an Empire, the Romans led to the creation of one huge economic area on a scale that antiquity did not know before. It included areas of varying degrees of economic development, having various raw materials and craft development conditions (from the developed lands of Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, northern Mesopotamia and Italy, to the backward territories of Gaul, Britain or Mysia). The creation of the Empire gave great conditions for the development of trade, agriculture and crafts. Cities were the main centres of economic development. There were craftsmen associated in collegia (corporations). The products they produced met the local, general imperial market, plus the needs of buyers exporting products to the barbaricum area. Craftsmen produced vessels called terra sigillata, widespread in the Empire, as well as abroad, as evidenced by archaeological findings. Jewellery, metal and glass vessels, wine, ceramics, metal objects and coins were also exported to the barbarians in the East (to the Party, India). In return, Roman merchants received amber, tar, wax and slaves from Germans living in northern and central Europe, they brought parrots, ebony, ivory, pearls, precious stones, spices and perfumes from India.

Silk and medicines were imported from China via the Silk Road through Central Asia. Spices, incense, perfumes, jewellery and oils were imported from Arabia and the Party. The Romans also traded with the African kingdoms of Meroe and Axum, and more primitive tribes living on the stage of leadership or primary community. They brought ivory, rhinoceros horns, animal skins, live wild animals, ebony and perfumes, and spices from the Black Continent. At this time, one can speak of a flourishing international trade. His most important routes were caravan routes from Syria and Asia Minor through Palmyra to Mesopotamia and the Party, and further towards the Silk Road, through Kashgar, Chotan and Turfan. Another sea route led from ports on the Red Sea to India. There, Roman sailors used monsoon winds to reach Indian ports such as Barbaricum and Barygaza faster. From the Baltic coast to Aquileia, through the present lands of Poland and other countries, the Amber Route regularly traversed the wagons of Roman merchants. Pliny and Tacitus mention the expedition of Roman equites from the reign of Nero from Aquileia to the Baltic Sea after amber.

The empire’s internal trade developed due to the dense network of cities, convenient paved roads and travel safety as well as buyers. Merchant ships (corbita) loaded with various goods were constantly sailing on the sea routes. Wrecks of such ships are still discovered by archaeologists in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Amphorae with wine, olives, olive oil and marinated fish were found in these wrecks. Grains from Egypt, Africa and Sicily were also transported by large ships to Rome. One such ship, a great grain called “Isis”, was described by a poet from the 2nd century CE, Lucianus. The state-supported shipping by building ports and implementing projects to facilitate maritime trade (Neron once wanted to dig a channel through the Corinthian Isthmus).

The main sources of grain in the Empire were: Egypt, Africa, Sicily and Asia Minor. Olive groves and viticulture spread through Italy, Africa, Greece, Asia Minor, Spain and Syria. Metal ores were obtained by the Romans in the provinces: in Gaul, iron, copper and tin, in Spain gold, silver, lead and tin, in Britain tin, in Greece iron, in Asia Minor iron, copper, tin, silver, and gold. Marble, stone and granite, the best building materials, were mined in Egypt and Greece. Fisheries flourished on the sea coast, especially on the Aegean Sea and the Adriatic. Africa and Numidia were the sources of wild animals brought to Rome for the entertainment of the people and the games. Everywhere in the city, craftsmen manufactured ceramics, metal objects, oil lamps, glass, leather and wooden goods, weapons and tools, ships, boats, carts, clothing, fabrics and other products. Italy and the eastern provinces were the largest craft centres. Some craft enterprises have become large units, employing slaves and slaves, and occupying large workshops in cities. Bakeries, mills, potters and fulling and tanning workshops grew the most. The presence of legions was also important for the craft. Craftsmen supplied the army with weapons, tents, clothes and other items. Legionaries also needed food, as evidenced by the findings of a grain warehouse next to a legion camp in Roman York, UK.

Even such articles as amphoras have become the subject of lively trade, which can be seen following the spread of finds of the amphora of potter Sestius of Cosa in Italy and Gaul. Various craft products and raw materials were traded.

The richest and most influential citizens, however, preferred to invest their property in the land: olive plantations, vines, and arable land. The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the Empire were small and medium peasants (nevertheless, the number of city dwellers was also quite significant). They cultivated their small farms with rather primitive tools. They had little needs and were not consumers of most items produced in cities. The great latifundists had their extensive estates in Africa, Italy, Gaul and other provinces. A system of self-sufficient farms called villae developed in Gaul, Germania and Britain. They were the property of landowners. They employed not only farmers, slaves and overseers, but also craftsmen, which was to ensure their independence. Their area in the Empire coincides with finds of the Dressel type amphoras from the 1st century CE The owners of villae obtained great profits from this type of activity. Today, in vast areas of Western Europe, archaeologists are discovering the ruins of villae and reconstructing the lives of their inhabitants. Roman state minted silver (denarius), gold (aureus) and brass (sesterce) coins, which were a means of payment in the Empire and a symbol of the power and prestige of Roman emperors who ordered their coins to be minted. However, there was a gradual process of coin corruption, which negatively affected the state’s finances. The most valuable money flowed beyond the borders of the Empire, to the barbarian chiefs and the Parthians. Roman coins are found today in Polish lands, in northern Europe, in Iran, India, and even in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

The economy of the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd century BCE presents the picture of prosperity and constant development. The great economic organism was doing well and it seemed that the crisis would soon come.

Empire society, civilization level, picture of the state

The population of the Roman state during its heyday could have been about 80 million people. Society was highly hierarchical and divided into various categories of the population. The most important was the division into free and slaves. Slaves accounted for around 10-20% of the total population. Their number was steadily decreasing due to the small number of wars. They worked for their masters in the field, in mines, quarries, craft workshops, as a domestic service. Many educated slaves were teachers, singers, and songwriters. Although they were treated as “speaking tools” (instrumentum vocale), their bottom was slowly but steadily improving due to their increased price. There were frequent cases of freeing slaves. From here appeared a large class of freedmen, who gained great significance in the state by establishing craft workshops, villae and holding offices at the imperial court. Many have achieved large wealth and significant social status. The free population was divided into Roman citizens and people without citizenship (who, in turn, were divided into peregrini – higher population and dedictii – inferior population, at the mercy of Rome). Roman citizens had great political rights, they could serve in the army, they had the right to appeal Caesar’s sentence, and they could freely purchase land, and hold office. Their number increased as a result of citizenship being granted by emperors, and in the early third century CE emperor Caracalla granted all inhabitants of the Roman Empire citizenship.

Most of the free inhabitants of the Empire were free, poor, small peasants living in the villages. They were associated with rural communities. A large part of them came from an army of soldiers serving in legions and auxiliary (auxilia) and auxiliary (numeri) troops. They cultivated their farms, and many of them were fishermen or labourers employed by those who owned their own land. Another large group of the population were poor city dwellers: artisans and workers united in corporations, urban plebs living from the distribution of grain by the emperor and governors, and small buyers.

Both peasants and poor city dwellers lived modestly in poor homes (often in tenements in cities), eating mainly bread, oil and vegetables. They did not have much equipment at home, dressed modestly, in woollen tunics and coats, they used simple clay utensils, oil lamps and bows, most of the peasants and urban plebe were illiterate. This population could certainly not be consumers of imported articles. The only entertainment was ceremonial meals and meetings related to local celebrations (in the countryside) as well as gladiator games and chariot races (in the city). Free grain and entertainment served to the lower classes by the state contributed to their demoralization.

Above were the owners of large craft workshops using slave labour, rich merchants, ship owners, and owners of villae, mines and quarries. They were a class of entrepreneurs and landowners living in prosperity. This medium layer also includes artists, philosophers, teachers and other highly educated people working for the highest layers of society. The middle class tried to emulate the rich, also had access to some luxury items, dressed and lived better than plebs.

The highest social layer was the richest Roman citizens belonging to the following states: equites and senatorial. They were great landowners employing both slaves and small leaseholders (colonies) on their property. They lived in conditions of wealth and indescribable prosperity, they owned large residences, servants, and assets located not only in the land but also in jewellery, ores and luxury goods, which they abundantly collected. They held the highest offices, were army officers, and sat in the Senate. They were thoroughly educated, indulged in numerous pleasures (music, theatrical performances, reading, literary, philosophical and scientific creativity, sightseeing trips) and their abundant diet was often characterized by excess and intemperance. They dressed in expensive silks and Egyptian cloths and used metal and silver utensils. Jewellery, ores, luxury items from India and Africa and amber from Barbaricum were imported for them. There were such dangerous social phenomena as the breakup of the family and a significant decline in the moral level within this class.

The empire was clearly divided into two cultural and civilization zones: western Roman and eastern Greek. The Romans colonized the west to a large extent, building cities there and contributing to raising the level of civilization. In the east, the Romans supported the promotion of Greek culture, although they also settled in these areas. Within the Empire, one Greek-Roman society was created, connected by ties to the Roman state and the person of Caesar, as evidenced by the state worship of the Roma goddess, state deities, and sometimes the emperor throughout the entire country. Rome has combined various territories under its control, which is worth a closer look at as part of the characteristics of the empire.

In the centre of Mare Nostrum lay Italy with Rome, the capital of the state with a million inhabitants. Almost the entire population of Italy (which did not belong to the province) had Roman citizenship. In addition to Rome, important cities were: Ostia, the port at the mouth of the Tiber, to which goods from all over the Empire were imported, primarily grain, Ravenna, a naval base, and Naples, the former Greek colony. Italia was well developed economically, there were craft and modern centres for agriculture at that time.

The Iberian Peninsula was a well-Romanized region. There were many Roman colonies and cities here. The conquerors exploited the local metal ores and ore resources and set up olive and vine plantations. The most important cities here are Emerita Augusta and Nowa Cartagena. The conquered population here was composed of Iberians and Celtybers who spoke the Iberian language and engaged in agriculture, before the conquest they lived in the system of leadership and ancestral community. There were native Iberian cities founded by Phoenicians and Carthaginians, who constituted a certain percentage of the population.

In Gaul, Celtic tribes spoke the Celtic language, and in the south, the Ligurians (who were non-Indo-European), were societies at the level of leadership, engaged in agriculture and crafts. Before the conquest, only opiddia and larger strongholds were more significant settlements. In the south, there were former Greek colonies. The Romans and Gauls in these areas quickly merged into a homogeneous population. There was an economy based on the villae system, metal ores were mined, and various crafts developed (especially blacksmithing and the making of dishes terra sigillata). The largest city was Lugdunum, one of the largest in the Empire, a craft centre and administrative centre of the region. A mixed, Celtic-German population lived in the Germanic provinces.

Britain, conquered in the middle of the first century CE, was the most backward province. It was inhabited by belligerent Celtic Britan tribes, engaged in agriculture. Here, the Romans quickly romanized and urbanized the region. An example of raising the level of civilization can be the Roman Winchester (Venta Belgarum). Before the conquest, there was a Celtic oppidum on the river with embankments, not very densely built-up, and a small village. After the conquest, in the second half of the 1st century CE, the Romans built comfortable, straight roads and a bridge here. A small town was established with a mint and cemetery. Already in the 3rd century CE, a city surrounded by walls flourished, with a forum, straight streets and public buildings. After the departure of the Romans in the fifth century CE, the urban area was depopulated. In Britain, the Romans built villae and other cities (including Londinium) contributing to Britain’s development.

In Mauritania and Africa, the Romans occupied areas inhabited by the Numidian, Moorish, and Massaget tribes, living in leadership and engaged in agriculture and pastoralism. Phoenician colonists, who were at a high civilization level, mainly engaged in craft and trade, lived in cities, lived here. The Romans founded military colonies in these areas and settled the former Phoenician cities to a large extent: Lepcis Magna, Tingis, and Carthage. Crafts and growing of olives, grain and fruit developed here. The Romans built the city of Thumugadi in this area. It was located in the southern part of the province of Africa and built on the plan of a legionary camp, had many public buildings (theatres, baths, temples, triumphal arches, etc.). North Africa has become one of the most developed regions of the Empire. Here, the Romans recruited cavalry to auxiliary departments (numeri).

The provinces located on the Balkan Peninsula and on the Danube (Illyria, Thrace, Pannonia, Mezja, Dacja) were inhabited by Celts, Illyrians, Dacians and Thracians. These people lived in commune communities cultivating land and engaged in shepherding. After conquering these lands, the Romans built many cities here (Aquincum, Naissus) and colonies, especially on the Adriatic coast and the Danube. Most battle soldiers of the Roman army (both auxilia and legions) came from these regions. Metal and ore mining developed in these regions. In Thrace, there were Greek colonies that were centres of craft.

Macedonia and Greece (along with Crete, Cyprus and islands) were the countries of an older civilization that had a great impact on Roman civilization. The Romans were educated by philosophers and rhetoricians in Corinth and Athens. Both provinces, inhabited by Greeks and Macedonians, were well developed economically. Residents dealt in agriculture (cereals, olives, vines), trade and craft. They were famous as boatbuilders and sailors. The local population was highly literate and educated. Greece was a large centre of metallurgy. The centres of social life were cities (polis), built-up with public buildings. The Romans founded some military colonies here.

Asia Minor was a melting pot of nationality inhabited by Greeks, Phrygians, Lydians, Carians, Cilians, Cappadokas, Celtic Galatians, people of Iranian and Armenian origin, and other tribes. It was one of the most urbanized regions of the Empire, with an old tradition of urban civilization. Metallurgical centres (Cilicia, Galatia, Cappadocia) were located here, and crafts and agriculture were developed. Mining and metallurgy played an important role in the economy. The Romans settled here in numerous colonies. The most important cities in the region are Ephesus, Miletus, Nicomedia, Tars and Ancyra. Greek culture was spread and the Romans came to study at the library in Pergamon. There was also a population resisting Romanization and Hellenization (Isaurs).

Syria and Palestine were inhabited by Semitic people of Aramaic, Phoenician and Arab origin, as well as by Greeks, people of Macedonian origin (settled here by Seleucids) and Jews. There were many cities here (Antioch – the third metropolis of the Empire, Tire, Berytos, Hieropolis, Jerusalem), which were craft centres. Olives, vines and grain were grown here. This region had an old, reaching 3,000 years old tradition of urban civilization. The local population has a high degree of socio-economic development.

Egypt, the cradle of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, as a province was the property of the emperor and a source of grain for Rome. Native, Egyptian and a large number of Greeks engaged in agriculture and crafts. The largest city, Alexandria ad Egyptum (the second metropolis of the Empire) was a great emporium and cultural centre of the ancient world. The cities here were also temple centres, and Egyptian priests who cultivated old culture and religion played a large role in society.

Northern Mesopotamia was a region which, as a result of wars, was once to the Romans, and sometimes to the Parthians. There were large cities here (Carrhae, Nisibis, Dura Europos), and the region was one of the most urbanized, with a tradition of civilization dating back to the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia. Craft and agriculture developed here. The city of Dura Europos has become a place where legions are stationed, a centre of culture and economy. Northern Mesopotamia was the last bastion of Greek-Roman culture in the East. It was inhabited by Arameans, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Armenians and people of Iranian origin.

The empire, despite such diversity, was connected by a road network, common administration, Greek-Roman culture and tourist traffic emerging among the upper classes. Public buildings built by the state were everywhere, and the upper classes of the province imitated the way of life of Roman patricians. Such a picture of the Roman Empire and its society emerges from this general review.

Army and defence of borders

Defending a huge state and maintaining order required the possession and maintenance of a huge army of total (including legions, auxilia, numeri) about a million people. It was the largest in antiquity (maybe outside China) and the most disciplined army in the world.

Legions formed the core of the Roman army. They were independent units stationed on the borders of the Empire and in major provinces, their task was to defend the borders, suppress revolts, and, if necessary, offensive actions against external enemies. Each legion had about 6,000 soldiers. The majority were heavily armed infantry armed with metal plates (lorica segmentata), iron helmets, shields (scutum), swords (gladius), and javelins ( pilum). The rest were cavalry, archers and auxiliary infantry. The Legion was equipped with its own siege engines, had engineering and food supply units, and each soldier had universal equipment. Only Roman citizens served in the legions. Legions had names and numbers (e.g. XIII Gemina, VI Ferrata). They were stationed in fortified camps (castra), which were self-sufficient fortresses and garrisons. They were independent combat units, a kind of miniature armies. The largest groups were stationed on the Rhine and the Danube (limes Germanicus), in Syria, northern Mesopotamia and Palestine. Some legions were also deployed in Gaul, Britain, Spain, Africa, Italy, Egypt and Asia Minor. Forces could be quickly transferred to designated areas thanks to the road network or ships.

The auxiliary troops consisted of soldiers who were not Roman citizens. Their soldiers were lightly armed, forming infantry, cavalry, sling and archers. They were to maintain order in the provinces and to be stationed on border lines (limes). After leaving the service, auxilia soldiers received Roman citizenship.

The auxiliary wards – numeri consisted of inhabitants of the poorly romanized areas who presented themselves for service with traditional weaponry. They consisted of infantry and cavalry. They were helpful in maintaining order and as meals for the main forces.

To defend the borders against external enemies, the Romans carried out large-scale fortification works in the Danube, Rhine, Euphrates, Mesopotamia, Africa, Britain and Asia Minor. Hadrian’s Wall was built in Britain (to defend the border against the Pict tribes), limes Germanic and Agri Decumates (on the Danube and Rhine, defending the Empire against invasion Germans), limes in Africa (protecting against the invasions of Massagets and other tribes from the depths of Africa), limes in Syria and Mesopotamia, on the Euphrates (defending against invasions from the Parthian State), Coastal forts in Gaul and Britain (as a defence against attacks by German invaders and pirates arriving by sea). All these fortification systems (limes) were a complicated combination of forts, watch and signal towers, palisades, stone and brick walls, legionary and auxiliary camps (castra), auxiliary army camps, fortified cities and fortresses. This system was intended to defend the borders against external invasions. Archaeologists have found traces of it with the help of aerial prospecting and excavations (limes were discovered in Syria and Africa, and excavations were carried out along the entire length of Hadrian’s Wall, on the Germanic limes).

Demobilized soldiers constituted an important factor in Romanization, settling after the completed service on the land granted by the state, and creating towns in border regions (vici).

A modern and efficient disciplined army successfully defended the empire and suppressed internal riots (the rise of bucol in Egypt, the rise of Tacfarinas in Mauritania, the Jewish uprising, riots in Gaul and Britain) ensuring security and order.

Rome against the rest of the world

The Roman Empire was not the only civilization existing in the period of I-II century CE. He contacted Asian and African civilizations and barbarian peoples through trade, war and diplomatic contacts.

In the north of Europe lived Germanic tribes, living in a system of highly organized leadership, ruled by tribal chiefs and engaged in agriculture. The Germans lived in small settlements, were a warrior tribe (frequent finds of weapons), used crematory burial and professed a polytheistic religion. Their main tribes are Markomanowie, Kwadowie, Lugiowie, Saxon, English, Jutów, Goths, and Vandals. They were spread from the Rhine and Danube to Scandinavia and today’s Poland. They traded with Rome and sometimes invaded its borders. In the 5th century CE, the wandering of the Hun tribes was supposed to lead to the fall of Rome. Further east (probably in present-day Ukraine and Belarus, in the Dnieper river basins) Proslavs, who were at the stage of primary community. Nomadic tribes of Sarmatians and Roksolans, as well as the remains of the Scythians, moved through the region of the Black Sea steppes and Transcaucasia. They were the people of the Iranian language group. Their militant, receiving communities settled the region for a long time after the Scythians were forced out. Sometimes they attacked Rome and its dependent Bosporan Kingdom in Crimea – inhabited by Greeks and Scythians. All these communities were known to the Romans.

The vast territories of today’s Russia – from the Baltic to the Pacific – were inhabited by various tribes – from the fragmented societies of the inhabitants of agricultural villages, through nomadic shepherds, to clusters belonging to the tribes of the Evian, Yakut and other tribes living here for millennia in the gathering and hunting economy. The Romans probably knew nothing or almost nothing about these tribes. The steppes of Mongolia were inhabited by Hsiung-nu pastoral tribes, ancestors of the Huns, for now only periodically invading China.

A worthy military opponent (and trading partner) of Rome in the East was the Iranian Parthian State, stretching from Khabur and the Euphrates to the mountains of Afghanistan. His rulers, who were strongly influenced by Hellenic culture, felt that they were the heirs of the Achaemenid monarchy, constituting the first power of the East during the Greco-Roman period. This centralized state had efficient administration, an army (based on heavy driving) and significant ore resources. Mighty Iranian families were the backbone of society. The capital of the state was the city of Ktezyfont on the Euphrates. The Parthians received serious sums in connection with trade on the Silk Road.

In what is now Afghanistan, in the first century CE vegetated the remains of the once great Kingdom of Bactrian Greeks, which was based on the cooperation of the Greek and local people. The oriented Greek community was killed in a sea of ​​natives, and the state was soon conquered by the Kushans. The Kushans, a nomadic people from Central Asia, founded a powerful empire in the mountains of Afghanistan, Pamir, Hindu Kush, Indus and Ganges. They conquered the Saks, which existed in the upper reaches of the Indus and the Ganges. Buddhism spread widely throughout the Kushan state. Trade developed, including with Rome, and the Kushans maintained diplomatic relations. India was politically broken at that time, the most powerful was the Gupta (who were to unify India) and Satawahan dynasties in the region of Decan. It was the peak period of trade with Rome and Southeast Asia and the spread of the ideas of Buddhism and Manicheism.

At that time, there were Arab kingdoms in southern Arabia: Sheba, Kataban, Himjar, and Hadramut. Their rulers made huge profits from trade with Rome and India. Incense, perfumes and spices were sold. This area was a rich and developed civilization. The rest of the Arabian Peninsula was inhabited by nomadic tribes at that time.

The Romans were aware of the existence of the Chinese State, although they didn’t know much about it. They knew the source of luxury goods (silk, medicine). They called the area of ​​China Sericum. During the time of Marcus Aurelius in Rome and Emperor Huan-ti, both countries exchanged messages. In the 1st and 2nd century CE there was the Han dynasty in China (the Wang Manga rebellion and the Xin dynasty were transient 9-23 CE). It was a period of China’s political stability and development in all areas. The Chinese had centralized administration, an army, border fortifications (the Chinese wall), forts and large cities. The capital of the state was Luoyang, called Sera Metropolis by the Romans. It was probably a city almost as large as Rome, one of the largest in the world at that time.

East Asia was unknown to the Romans, where the Silla, Kogurio, and Pekdze were fighting and defending against China on the Korean Peninsula. The capital of the state of Silla – Kwangdzu was one of the largest cities in the world, in terms of population and grandeur of public buildings it matched the city of Rome. In the Japanese Islands, tribal chiefs supported by elites waged bloody wars by conquering fortified settlements with bronze weapons.

In Indochina, the Dian and Dong Son countries, partially dependent on China, and agricultural Iron Age communities existed. Traded here with India and China, and sporadically Roman products appeared.

In Africa, the Romans knew the Meroe and Aksum, their trading partners, perfectly. Meroe sometimes fought against Rome, his capital housed the temples of the god Apedemak, worshipped in Sudan. Axum minted its own coins and traded with Rome, and its main port – Adulis was a stop for Roman merchants on their way to India.

The rest of Africa was inhabited by almost unknown inhabitants of the Roman Empire of hunter-gatherer communities, shepherds and farmers using iron, stone or bronze. They were still very primitive, the only more developed communities lived in Nigeria and Senegal. In Indonesia, Melanesia and parts of Polynesia, gathering, fishing and hunting tribes and primitive farming communities practice taro, cassava and colloquia. They lived in villages or camps, and their culture was at the Stone Age level. In Australia, the Aborigines lived on gathering and hunting as they did 30,000 years ago, and like some of them do so today.

In the other hemisphere, in the Americas lived people whose existence the Romans did not even guess. In North America, there were Indian tribes of hunters and gatherers occupying areas from the polar circle to the Gulf of Mexico. In the Mississippi basin, the Indians belonging to the Hopewell culture built their tombs. In the northwest of today’s USA, the Pueblo Indians launched an agricultural economy.

Civilizations arising from Olmec influence developed dynamically in Central America. There were big cities here – Cholula and Teotihuacan, which could be among the largest cities in the world at that time, they had ritual centres and public buildings. The Mayan culture was just beginning its development.

The greater part of South America was inhabited by gatherer and hunting Indian tribes. Only in Peru did civilized societies exist. At the foot of the Andes, Mochica was a powerhouse. It was ruled by autocratic rulers who controlled the economy and religion and were buried in rich tombs. The settlements were connected with ceremonial centres. In the south, the agricultural communities of Nazca and Paracas, the creators of the famous Nazca geoglyphs, developed.

This was the picture of the world in the era of Rome’s splendour. It was one of the few centres of civilization in the world (next to China, India, Central America and the state of Mochica). These areas of civilization were surrounded by peripheral regions that maintained contact with them and partly benefited from the gains of civilization through trade, diplomacy and war. Outside these areas lay a huge area of ​​truly barbaric and uncivilized societies (without the pejorative meaning of these words), although having their own culture and tradition. Rome was among the most developed civilizations. In the course of the next 500 years, he was to fall under barbarian blows (just like the Han dynasty in China) and give rise to the civilization of medieval Europe. His culture has largely survived, having an impact on our lives today.

Author: Szymon Modzelewski | (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Archeologia Świata. Atlas, pod red. Paula G. Bahna, Warszawa 2003
  • Gordon Childe, O rozwoju w historii, Warszawa 1963
  • Peter Connoly, Historia armii rzymskiej, Wrocław 1992
  • John Haywood, Starożytne Cywilizacje. Starożytne kultury Bliskiego Wschodu i basenu Morza Śródziemnego, Warszawa 1998
  • Colin Renfrew, Paul Bahn, Archeologia: teorie, metody, praktyka, Warszawa 2002
  • Józef Wolski, Historia Powszechna. Starożytność, Warszawa 2002
  • Czasopismo Starożytne Cywilizacje nr 98 Starożytni odkrywcy i podróżnicy

IMPERIUM ROMANUM needs your support!

If you like the content that I collect on the website and that I share on social media channels I will be grateful for the support. Even the smallest amounts will allow me to pay for further corrections, improvements on the site and pay the server.



Find out more!

Check your curiosity and learn something new about the ancient world of the Romans. By clicking on the link below, you will be redirected to a random entry.

Random curiosity

Random curiosity

Discover secrets of ancient Rome!

If you want to be up to date with newest articles on website and discoveries from the world of ancient Rome, subscribe to the newsletter, which is sent each Saturday.

Subscribe to newsletter!

Subscribe to newsletter

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: