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Roman Empire is the period of ancient history when the Roman state and the overseas provinces were under the sovereignty of a princeps (emperor). It begins when Octavian received the title of "Augustus" in 27 BC. AD and traditionally ends, for its western part, in 476 AD. At its peak, the Roman Empire extended from Brittany to the Arabian Peninsula, bringing together a multitude of ethnicities, cultures and religions. The empire brought peace (la Pax Romana), stability and prosperity within its well-defended borders. But the growing tension exerted by the peoples living on its periphery will lead it inexorably towards its downfall.
In 44 BC. AD, the Roman Republic is in crisis: it has gone through several civil wars in recent decades (between Marius and Sylla in 88-87 and 82-81 BC, against Sertorius in Spain in 82 -72 BC, conspiracy of Catiline in 63-62 BC). The last of these, between Caesar and Pompey, did not end until 48 BC. with the defeat of the latter. Made dictator for 10 years in 46 BC. AD, then for life in February 44 BC. AD, Caesar is about to embark on a campaign against the Parthians, tough enemies of Rome settled on the edge of the Roman territories in Asia Minor. His assassination on March 15, 44 BC. will unleash a new civil war that will eventually seal the fate of the Republic and bring about the advent of the Empire.
In the aftermath of the Ides of March, the Senate votes amnesty for Caesar's assassins, on the proposal of Marc Antoine, the only remaining consul and friend of Caesar, who is seeking reconciliation with the conspirators. Marc Antoine's search for conciliation did not last long. At Caesar's funeral, he galvanized the crowd with his speeches, reading the testament of Caesar (who bequeathed a large part of his property to the people of Rome) and pointing out the tears in the toga of the deceased, where the knives struck. The crowd attacks the houses of the conspirators, who are leaving Rome.
In October 43 BC. during the Bologna meeting, the Cesareans Marc Antoine, Octave and Lepidus form a second triumvirate. This is the start of the proscriptions, which target opponents and wealthy personalities. These measures designate individuals as enemies of the state, authorizing any Roman citizen to attack them and confiscating their property for the benefit of the state. Cicero counts among the victims, 300 in total. A year later, the triumvirs go to war against the former conspirators Brutus and Cassius, who control the East. The latter are defeated at the Battle of Philippi. Following their victory, the triumvirs divided the Roman world among themselves: Lepidus received Africa, Octave the West, Marc Antoine the East. Italy is not allocated to any particular triumvir.
After several years of war, Sextus Pompey, son of Pompey defeated by Caesar and who had occupied Sicily since 1944, was defeated by Octavian and his lieutenant, Agrippa, during the battle of Nauloque. Lepidus, who made the mistake of trying to appropriate legions of Octavian, is forcibly expelled from the triumvirate by the latter and forces him to retreat to one of his estates. Octave then finds himself unopposed in the West. 33 BC marks the end of the triumvirate. Octave does not seek to renew it, formalizing his break with Marc Antoine and summons the Senate accusing Marc Antoine of granting titles and offering territories to his relatives and to Cleopatra. Octavian, who managed to get hold of Marc Antoine's will, publicly reveals that the latter planned to inherit the children he had with Cleopatra from Roman territories and to be buried in Alexandria. Marc Antoine sees his powers revoked by the Senate, which declares war against Egypt.
At the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC. AD, Marc Antoine and Cleopatre are beaten and flee, pursued by Octave who invades Egypt. Cleopatra tries to negotiate with Octavian to keep her throne. After the double suicide of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt became a Roman province under the direct control of Octavian. The latter dedicates a temple to the Divine Julius, that is to say to his adoptive father, Caesar, deified after his death, at the place where his funeral took place. He thus recalls that he is the son of a deified. Octavian receives the imperium, which allows him to rule the provinces containing legions, the other provinces being administered by the Senate.
Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire
The reforms of the Roman Republic initiated by Julius Caesar having been interrupted by his assassination in 1944, it was his grandson Octave who was responsible for continuing the transformation of the Roman political regime. In 27 BC BC, the Senate awarded Octavian the title of Augustus ("consecrated" or "divine"), which later became synonymous with emperor, and that of princeps ("the first"). Continuing his habit of obtaining a prerogative without the associated office, Augustus was granted the tribunician power, the prerogative of the tribunes of the plebs (which Augustus could not be anyway, this magistracy being reserved for plebeians and prohibited for patricians), which allows him to veto laws, to convene the Senate and to propose laws, and confers on it inviolability (it is forbidden to do him the slightest harm or ignore his veto). This tribunician power will be renewed each year. In 13 BC AD, he becomes Pontifex maximus ("Grand Pontiff"), thus ensuring control over religion.
Thus, without radically upsetting the functioning of institutions, Augustus fashioned a new regime, the principate, thanks to which the predominance of a single man, the princeps, in state affairs was recognized: the republican institutions remained (comitia , Senate, magistracy), but gradually lose their prerogatives. The absolute authority of Augustus is assured to him by the accumulation of powers. Augustus (like his successors) did not carry a royal title. He was only called the "Prime" (princeps, where the word "prince" comes from). Augustus restored peace to the Roman Empire after a long period of civil war, bequeathing it a strong and efficient system of provincial government, contributing to the stability and development of the Empire for the next two centuries.
The heirs of Augustus
Without male descendants, Octave Auguste appointed his stepson Tiberius to succeed him. the latter would prove to be a skilful administrator, consolidating public finances and imposing strict discipline on the army. The end of his reign as Tiberius, who retired to a sumptuous villa in Capri, was marked by many plots, including that of Sejanus, the praetorian prefect. It won't be the last time the Praetorian Guard interferes in Roman political life, making and defeating emperors.
The third Roman Emperor Caligula, will make himself infamous for his bloodthirsty madness. In 41, the soldiers of his praetorian guard assassinate him and proclaim his uncle Claudius emperor, imposing him on the Senate. Claudius strengthened the borders of the empire by conquering the provinces of Judea and Thrace, then Brittany. He also developed the administration, from which he freed the staff, thereby strengthening his power to the detriment of the Republican magistrates. Finally, he facilitated access to the Senate, and more widely granted the right of citizenship to local elites. A shrewd and competent emperor, he died of poison in 54, probably on the orders of his wife Agrippina. Nero, the latter's son, is proclaimed emperor…. by the Praetorian Guard.
Under the aegis of his tutor Seneca, the first five years of Nero's reign were marked by moderation and mercy, although Nero may have had his rival, Britannicus, poisoned. In July 64, two-thirds of Rome burned while Nero was in Antium; he was wrongly accused of having been responsible. The Church fathers made him the first persecutor of Christians on the basis of unclear texts by Suetonius and Tacitus, two stories not very favorable to the emperor. He sheltered the homeless and rebuilt the city by taking protective measures against fires. Its construction programs, as well as shows and distributions of grain to the population, were financed by the plundering of Italy and the provinces. He wanted to be an artist and a mystical visionary, scandalizing the army and the aristocracy by playing in public in religious dramas.
The height of the Roman Empire
Nero was dethroned during an uprising of the army, and the latter then had full latitude to name the emperor. She often gave preference to Roman generals, rather than aristocrats. Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, the Flavian emperors, returning to a more sober principate from the early days of the Empire, attempted to restore the authority of the Senate and promote the well-being of the people. It was at this time that the famous Colosseum was built, which will host, among other things, many gladiatorial fights. The reign of Vespasian (69-79) was marked by the end of the revolt of the Jews, which resulted in the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and the second great Diaspora in Jewish history. It was during the reign of Titus (79-81) that the eruption of Vesuvius occurred, which devastated the region south of Naples, including the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Although literature flourished during the reign of Domitian (81-96), he soon revealed himself to be a cruel and suspicious tyrant, ushering in a period of terror that only ended with his assassination.
The Empire reached its greatest prosperity during the second century, and it was fortunate to be ruled by a succession of emperors of great stature: the dynasty of the Antonines. The political power in Rome is concentrated more and more around the emperor, at the expense of the Senate, very weakened. Trajan (98-117) fought against the Dacians, Armenians and Parthians, and stood out for his excellent administration. The Empire reached its extreme extent during his reign. The satirical author Juvenal, the orator and letter-writer Pliny the Younger and the historian Tacitus were all three contemporaries of Trajan.
The twenty-one year reign of Hadrian (117-138) was a period of peace and prosperity. By abandoning certain territories in the east, Hadrian consolidated the rest of the Empire and stabilized its borders. The reign of his successor, Antoninus Pius (138-161), was also serene and peaceful. That of the next emperor, the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who reigned (161-180) collegially with Lucius Aurelius Verus until the latter's death in 169, was troubled by the incursions led by different tribes migrating to various parts of the Empire.
The Antonines were confronted with the emergence of Christianity which challenged the religious foundations of the imperial government by refusing the cult of the emperor. After the travels of St. Paul in the first century, Christianity enjoyed immense success, first in Asia and then in the West: according to some estimates, half the population of Asia had been converted to Christianity by the middle of the second century. This phenomenon led the emperors to resort to systematic repression, which resulted in tragic persecutions.
Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his son Commodus (180-192). One of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in history, he was assassinated. The disorders of the reign of Commodus, such as those known under Caligula or Nero, also reflected a mutation of the Roman world: its extension and its wealth made it a pole of attraction for all the peoples with which it was in contact; pressure from the barbarians increased not only at the borders, which had led the Antonines to systematize the fortification of the limes, but also within the empire itself where, through trade and participation in auxiliary troops, they were more and more present. Romanity, which had readily accepted the preeminence of the Hellenic cultural model from the Republican era, was faced with the absolute necessity of a new adaptation.
La Pax Romana imposes Roman civilization
The vast Roman world was divided into provinces, each with its own legal administration. Roman policy was to persuade the notables of the region to take part in local government; their good and loyal service was rewarded with the granting of Roman citizenship. Despite the existence of a state religion, the various peoples within the Empire worshiped hundreds of gods, the Romans tolerated any religion that did not involve human sacrifice. They expected citizens to observe the official worship of the emperor and offer sacrifices to the Roman gods; any refusal was considered a sign of disloyalty. Jews and Christians, who did not take part in these cults, were often persecuted.
All the peoples of the Roman Empire were encouraged to adopt the Roman way of life. Whether in Brittany, near the Danube, in Palestine or in North Africa, the Romans built cities according to an identical plan, with aqueducts to ensure the supply of running water, baths, theaters, and all other amenities. which they considered essential to lead a civilized life. The army also helped to spread the Roman lifestyle. Thus, the provincials could enlist in the "auxiliary troops. The men serving in the army learned there Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, and obtained the Roman citizenship on their retirement. In this way, they. came to see themselves not as conquered peoples, but as full Romans.
In 212 Roman citizenship was granted to all free inhabitants of the Empire. Latin gradually replaced most of the local languages in the West (Celtic survived in Brittany, Basque, in the Pyrenees), Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese and Romanian) all developed from regional Latin dialects. Latin did not make the same breakthrough in the eastern provinces of the Empire; Greek remained the most widely spoken language there for a long time.
Economy and defense
Within the borders of the Empire, trade flourished, without the threat of war or looting, and Roman currency was the basis of all transactions. The Empire provided for its own basic needs. An important trade in agricultural commodities had developed to supply the rapidly expanding cities: Rome, which was by far the largest, imported grain from Egypt, Africa and Sicily. Rome's network of paved roads was the most developed in the ancient world and the Mediterranean basin strictly controlled. Most of the inhabitants were peasants who made their everyday objects and clothes themselves. As for the expensive luxury goods intended for the more fortunate, such as spices, silks, perfumes, ivory and precious stones, they were imported from China, India and East Africa.
The prosperity of the Empire began to decline in the third century. As tensions at the gates of the Empire increased under pressure from the barbarian peoples, it was necessary to strengthen border defense. To find the resources needed to pay the Roman armies, the silver value of the coins was reduced. Soon the population saw the price of all goods rise, and inflation skyrocketed, degrading imperial prestige. If an emperor did not achieve victory on the battlefield, the soldiers under his command could very well depose him or see him executed. Civil wars were frequent and Germans and Persians among others took the opportunity to lead devastating forays into the empire. Out of 26 emperors who reigned between 235 and 284, all but one perished a violent death.
The partition and the fall of the Roman Empire
Diocletian (284-305) understood that the empire was too large to be ruled by one man, and reformed it by dividing it into a western part and an eastern part, each with its own emperor (Augustus) and his heir. (the Caesar). Over time, two capitals emerged: Rome, in the West, and Constantinople, in the East. Diocletian doubled the strength of the army. The tax burden had to be massively increased again, which caused more problems: in many parts of the Empire, these crushing charges barely left the peasants enough to live on. It results in a significant demographic decline and jointly recruiting problems for the army, which had to resort to mercenaries, mostly German.
In 313, Constantine the Great (306-337) extended religious tolerance to Christianity, Born pagan, Constantine considered that the god of Christians had intervened to offer him a decisive victory at the battle of the Mïlvius bridge a year earlier. He promulgated the Edict of Tolerance of Milan, which delivered Christians from the fear of persecution. Although only baptized on his deathbed, he ordered during his reign to build churches throughout the empire. Christianity came to influence all aspects of Roman life, at the risk of undermining its cohesion. In 391, Emperor Theodosius (379-395) put an end to traditional pagan worship, and recognized Christianity as the official religion of the Empire.
At the end of the 4th century, the Huns, originally from Central Asia, emigrated to Eastern Europe. They pushed the Germanic tribes towards Rome. Some were given land within the Empire in return for military service, but they proved to be unreliable allies. The Western Empire was unable to resist the continual invasions into Gaul, Spain and North Africa.
Under Attila (434-453), "the scourge of God", the Huns also devastated the Empire before being defeated by a coalition of Romans and Germans, in the Catalan Fields. At the end of the fifth century, it was too late to save the Western Roman Empire: when its last emperor Romulus Augustule was deposed in 476, he had already collapsed, eaten away from the inside as well as from the 'outside. The Eastern Roman Empire, which was later called the Byzantine Empire, nevertheless survived for almost a thousand years.
- General history of the Roman Empire, tome 1, tome 2, tome 3, by Paul Petit. History Points.
- Geopolitics of the Roman Empire, by Yann Le Bohec. Ellipses, 2014.
- Marcel Le Glay, Yann Le Bohec, Jean-Louis Voisin, Roman history, PUF, 2006