BECK index

Summary and Evaluation of the Roman Empire 30 BC to 610

by Sanderson Beck

Roman Domination 30 BC to 180 CE
Roman Decline and Christianity 180-610
Evaluating the Roman Empire to 610

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Roman Domination 30 BC to 180 CE

Greece to 30 BC
Rome to 30 BC

After winning the civil war against Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BC, Octavian Caesar gained Egypt as his private domain and soon consolidated his power as imperator over an empire of a hundred million people. He was given the name Augustus, and he managed to keep the peace and reduce the army. By 23 BC he was truly Emperor as he could convene the Senate, propose legislation, and oversee the judiciary while he personally controlled Egypt, Gaul, Spain, and Syria through his governors. He reinstituted election of city magistrates and tried to control bribery. Any rebellions were suppressed by force. Augustus was elected censor of morals, and Ovid's books were removed from libraries. Augustus sponsored public games and boasted that 3,500 African beasts had been slaughtered. He reduced the public dole in Rome to 200,000, and he attempted unsuccessfully to increase the population with social laws promoting marriage and family. Germans in the west managed to become independent of the empire. After his grandsons died, Augustus was succeeded by his adopted son Tiberius in 14 CE.

In a national epic Virgil's Aeneid portrayed early Rome as a heritage from ancient Trojan warriors. Their enmity with Carthage is derived from Aeneas betraying Queen Dido, and the afterlife is portrayed in a Platonic manner with rewards and punishments according to divine justice. Horace wrote poetic satires, odes, and epistles criticizing those who seek wealth and favoring ethical values of moderation. His letter on the art of poetry is a classic on esthetic taste that values moral sense. Propertius wrote poetry about his experience in love; but it was the poet Ovid, who really taught the Art of Love to the Romans. His advice is frank and detailed. He also wrote on the remedies for those who have suffered from love. In his poem Metamorphoses Ovid retold numerous myths and legends showing how life's changes teach us; but the obvious faults of the gods and goddesses would make Roman religion vulnerable to a more philosophical theology. For having offended the moralistic Augustus, Ovid had to spend his last years in bitter exile.

Tiberius (r. 14-37) maintained the Roman empire as Germanicus overcame the resistance in Germany. Tiberius then sent his rival Germanicus to Syria, where he was probably poisoned by Piso. Tiberius held on to his power with numerous treason trials and executions. For his last ten years he ruled from retirement at Capri, where he seems to have engaged in perversions with his successor Caligula.

King Herod ruled Judea from 37 BC to his death in 4 BC and used his friendship with Augustus to increase his power. He used taxes for extensive building but later lowered taxes to regain popularity with those who criticized him for supporting pagan religion. Herod was very suspicious of conspiracies and had several of his relatives executed. He was succeeded by his son Archelaus, who ruled for ten years during which the Roman army had to suppress Jewish rebellions. In 6 CE Augustus banished Archelaus and appointed a prefect to govern Judea.

Aside from the revolutionary zealots, there were three sects in Judaism in this era. The largest group was the liberal Pharisees, and their outstanding teachers were the tolerant Hillel and the strict Shammai. Hillel emphasized love, peace, and learning. The Sadducees were more conservative aristocrats and did not believe in immortality. The mystical Essenes definitely believed souls are eternal, and they shared their property in community so that none were rich or poor. Some of the Essene men lived in a community by the Dead Sea, where they left writings found in 1947 that describe their purification practices and spiritual rules for living in the community. Two years of training were required before one could become a regular member. They expected the Messiah to come and help the children of light defeat the children of darkness. This Essene community was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish revolt in 68 CE.

Philo Judaeus of Alexandria also described the ethical lives of the Essene community as well as the Jewish therapeutae in Egypt. Philo wrote extensively about Jewish law, always emphasizing ethics and the virtues that bring freedom over slavery that comes from desires. Philo criticized Flaccus, the Roman governor of Egypt, and described his own attempted embassy to Emperor Caligula that was ignored.

In Judea John the Baptist taught repentance and baptized people as a single converting experience rather than as a regular ritual. Jesus was baptized by John and called twelve disciples. He also taught repentance and forgiveness of sins, and he astounded people by healing the sick, expelling demons, perceiving their thoughts, and performing other miracles. Jesus preached with authority the sovereignty of God and a spiritual ethics of love. He went beyond the justice of the law to mercy, patience, and even loving one's enemies. Jesus exhorted people to seek God and do what is right rather than worry about money and physical things. Jesus often taught in parables that used practical metaphors for spiritual teachings. The expansion of heaven is like a seed, but it must be nurtured to bear fruit; for many seeds die on the path or in the rocks or are strangled by the weeds of materialism. Jesus sent out his disciples to preach also and instructed them not to acquire money. Peter recognized the Christ in Jesus; but in the next moment Jesus said that Satan had taken hold of him because he could not accept that Jesus would be killed. Jesus taught them to forgive and to pray persistently. He criticized the scholars and Pharisees but was well received by the poor.

Jesus prophesied that he would be killed but would rise again on the third day. During the Passover festival he was welcomed into Jerusalem, where he taught in the temple after driving out those doing business. He cleverly answered treacherous questions, taught parables of the sovereignty of God, criticized the hypocrisy of some, and prophesied the difficult times ahead that in a war would destroy the temple, which did in fact occur in 70 CE. Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples and explained that his body and blood were being sacrificed for them. Their partaking of bread and wine in this way would become the central ritual of the new religion, giving believers a symbolic but tangible experience of their oneness with Christ and providing a more spiritual substitute for the old animal sacrifices. Jesus demonstrated his teachings of loving enemies by not resisting by any means of violence during his arrest, trial, and punishment. Luke makes clear that the main reason why he was crucified by the Romans was because he told people not to pay tax to Caesar, and others indicated that they feared he might lead a revolt as the king of the Jews. The amazing ability of Jesus to heal his body and return to it even after death astounded his followers and proved to them his divinity.

John added more spiritual concepts of the Christ as Logos or meaning of the universe and emphasized the teaching of loving one another. The book of Revelation is an angry prophecy directed against the persecuting Roman empire that would be overcome and transformed by the Christians in the coming centuries before a millennium of Christian culture. Another disciple, Thomas, carried the teachings of Jesus to Parthia and India. His collection of sayings by Jesus was found in Egypt and emphasizes knowing God. Thus these heterodox sects were called Gnostics. The Gospel of the Ebionites indicates that some of them were vegetarians.

After having seen the resurrected Jesus, the disciples met and elected Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot, who had committed suicide when he saw what happened to Jesus. Ten times the twelve disciples were present fifty days after the Passover when the Holy Spirit enabled them to speak in many languages and understand the teachings. Peter was accepted as the leader, and he advised them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Three thousand people were baptized that day and joined the fellowship by sharing their possessions. Peter helped a lame beggar walk and began to preach, reprimanding those who had not believed Jesus. Peter was questioned by the Council but was released. However, the Council had Stephen stoned to death as the rabbi Saul approved. Saul then arrested many followers. Peter criticized Simon for offering money for the Holy Spirit, and this corruption came to be called simony. Saul was on his way to arrest followers in Damascus when he was struck down, heard a voice, and was blind for three days, during which time he accepted Jesus as Christ. Saul changed his name to Paul, and now he had to flee from the Jews. Peter had a vision he could eat all kinds of animals, and he also ate with the uncircumcised. James, the brother of Jesus, was another important leader, and a letter attributed to him emphasized the importance of works as well as faith.

Paul and Barnabas preached in Antioch, where the followers were first called Christians. Paul traveled, preached, and wrote letters to congregations of converts in major cities such as Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome, developing his theology of Christ as savior. When Paul returned to Jerusalem, he was beaten and arrested. Brought before the governor at Caesarea, Paul as a Roman citizen appealed to Caesar. Paul was taken to Rome, where he preached for two years while under house arrest. About 64 both Paul and Peter were executed by Roman authority. Paul preached that Christians should overcome temptations such as lust, anger, and greed. He recommended marriage but advised women to submit to their husbands.

Some Christians became martyrs when they refused to give up their new religion and worship the Roman gods and Emperor. Clement was the third bishop of Rome from 92 to 101, and he urged the Christians to follow what their majority commands. Emperors Trajan and Hadrian did not allow the hunting of Christians but accepted that they must be punished if they refused to deny their religion. Valentinus taught a Gnostic doctrine in Rome, and in 144 Marcion was excommunicated for having similar views. Gnostic works were excluded when the New Testament was codified by the end of the second century. The martyrdom of Polycarp at Smyrna about 155 so moved people by his faith that the proconsul suspended the persecution. A popular allegory called The Shepherd of Hermas was read aloud in many churches.

Justin Martyr was converted by witnessing the faith of martyrs and wrote a philosophical defense of Christianity for Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Roman Senate to make them aware of the evil done so that they would stop doing it. Justin argued that Christians should be judged for what they do, not merely for their name. In 165 Justin and other Christians were beheaded for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Tatian (110-172) studied with Justin Martyr at Rome and founded an ascetic sect emphasizing self-control called the Encratites; they refrained from marriage, eating meat, and drinking wine. The Athenian Athenagoras was another philosopher who was converted to Christianity, and he sent a defense of the new religion to the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus about 177.

The short reign (37-41) of Caligula quickly degenerated as his behavior became more uncontrolled and irrational until he was finally murdered. The bribed praetorian guard made Claudius Emperor, and he proved to be more than the dolt people thought he was. Claudius allowed the freed slaves Pallas and Callistus to acquire immense wealth as they administered the finances and judicial petitions. Claudius invaded Britain and established Roman government there, and he generally tolerated Jews in the empire. Claudius believed that Rome's empire fared better than Athens and Sparta had, because they extended citizenship on the frontiers. He restrained his Syrian governor from intervening in conflicts between the Armenians, Iberians, and Parthians. After his wife Messalina was executed for treason, Claudius married Agrippina; but she apparently poisoned him so that her son Nero could be Emperor.

Nero was only 16 when he began to rule in 54; but he was dominated by his mother Agrippina and was assisted by the philosopher Seneca, who became quite wealthy. Nero had the harbor restoration begun by Claudius completed. At first he banned capital punishment, but in 61 the execution of slaves was allowed. However, when his debauchery and extravagant gifts exhausted the treasury, like Caligula, Nero became a ruthless tyrant. The Roman army maintained imperial control from Britain to Syria. Nero had his mother Agrippina murdered in 59 and his wife Octavia three years later. Seneca no longer could restrain Nero and retired. Accused of wanting Rome destroyed so that he could rebuild it in his image, Nero blamed the catastrophic fire of 64 on the Christians, who called him the anti-Christ. A plot against him was squelched in 65, and Seneca was ordered to commit suicide that year. The megalomaniac Nero was finally murdered in 68 as he was being replaced by Governor Galba from Spain.

Seneca wrote eight gory tragedies based on Greek plays that show family members murdering each other for power and because of jealousy. Octavia dramatizes Seneca's attempt to stop Nero from murdering his wife; it was probably written by an imitator soon after Seneca's death. In his philosophical writings Seneca popularized Stoicism. He distinguished virtues from good fortune and believed the good never suffer evil but only misfortune. While in exile at Corsica in 41 Seneca wrote a letter of consolation to his mother Helvia, saying the wise are not elated by prosperity nor depressed by adversity. Most influential was his long essay On Anger, a temporary insanity. The remedy is reasoned judgment to prevent taking revenge. In addition to many letters in which he often discussed the moral life, Seneca wrote essays on providence, firmness, tranquility of mind, clemency, the happy life, and benefits. He always emphasized developing virtue and control over the passions. He admitted that his acquiring of great wealth was not of the best, but he believed riches teach moderation, liberality, diligence, orderliness, and grandeur.

In Judea conditions deteriorated as brigandage increased, and governor Florus took 17 talents from the Temple as taxes. In 65 Jews refused to pay taxes, and the Zealots took control of the fortress at Masada. The Jewish war against Rome began the next year in Jerusalem with a civil war as the Zealots took over the city. Vespasian refrained from attacking divided Jerusalem for two years, but by 70 amid famine Josephus recorded that a million Jews had died as the Romans captured Jerusalem. Masada held out for three more years, and then 960 people there committed suicide. As the Sanhedrin dissolved, the Sadducean party disappeared. In synagogues ordinances and their interpretations were studied as Midrash and Talmud.

The struggle for the imperial throne in 69 also caused a civil war. Otho became Emperor as Galba was beheaded, but he committed suicide three months later. Large numbers were killed, because quarter was refused. Vitellius exhausted the treasury and sympathy by his torturing and executions. During these civil wars many provincials were given citizenship. In the same year Vitellius was replaced by Vespasian, who ruled for ten years until 79. He increased taxes and consolidated the empire while granting Latin rights to Spain; his honest justice and reforms restored civility in the empire. Titus, son of Vespasian, was Emperor for two years but also died of illness and was succeeded by his brother Domitian, who crushed rebellions using military force. Domitian strictly enforced laws and increased military pay while reducing the number of troops. However, his extortions, confiscation of property, and many executions eventually led to his being murdered in 96.

The decline of literature is lamented in the anonymous treatise On the Sublime. Chaereas and Callirhoe is the earliest Hellenistic adventure novel and celebrated romantic love. In Seneca's Apocolocyntosis Augustus condemns Claudius to hell. The Satyricon by Petronius described the debauchery of Nero's Rome. Persius died young but left behind Satires exposing how unphilosophical most people are, and Martial used wit to make fun of Romans in his Epigrams. In Civil War Lucan wrote of Julius Caesar's "legality conferred on crime;" but it was unfinished, because he was forced by Nero to commit suicide at age 25. Statius in Thebaid described the fratricidal war between the sons of Oedipus in which even the gods are petty and promote war.

Quintilian's Education of an Orator systematically analyzes good education from the study of grammar to the subtleties of oratory. Quintilian emphasized the development of character and the importance of the teacher's example. The historian Tacitus also wrote a dialog on oratory in which he lamented that rhetoric had declined since the era of Cicero because of the authoritarian empire. Yet the emphasis on rhetoric reflected the importance of Roman law.

Apollonius was born in Tyana of Cappadocia about the same year as Jesus. He was educated by a Pythagorean and decided to abstain from meat, wine, and women. He spent five years in silence and was said to know all languages including those of animals. He held to his prayer to have little and want nothing. He traveled to Babylon and advised its king on his way to India, where he went to learn. Apollonius advised Vespasian to rule with generosity and self-restraint; he believed land was polluted by war, and he recommended appointing governors by merit. Apollonius went to Rome and was arrested by Domitian but was acquitted. He advised his disciples to be free of jealousy, spite, hatred, slander, and enmity.

Nerva was the first emperor freely selected by the senate, and he quickly reformed the abuses of Domitian and selected the capable Spaniard Trajan to succeed him. Trajan won two wars against Dacia and appropriated their considerable amounts of gold and silver. In the Senate the younger Pliny praised Trajan's lawfulness in contrast to Domitian. Trajan continued the child welfare program begun by Nerva. Trajan invaded Armenia, and about 116 many Jews were killed in rebellions.

Dio was born in Prusa of Bithynia and became known as Chrysostom (meaning "golden mouth") for his oratorical skill. Dio admired Diogenes and lived like a poor Cynic, traveling and doing manual labor. In his Discourses he argued against flattery and for truthfulness. He considered it a sign of fear to carry a weapon. He said slavery results from self-indulgence, greed, and ambition. He argued against war and urged cities to cooperate with each other in friendship, because enmity is very disadvantageous for all. He brought concessions from Emperor Trajan to Prusa and promoted civic improvements. He believed prostitution was shameful and should be illegal.

Plutarch wrote extensively, and 48 of his biographies of noble Greeks and Romans still exist. In his ethical essays he applied Plato's philosophy, emphasizing the importance of using reason to rule the more sensual emotions. He recommended studying poetry as a preparation for philosophy. Self-knowledge is the best defense against deceptive flattery. True friendship is virtuous, intimate, and useful. He blamed civil discord and despotism on luxury and extravagance. He believed the greedy and avaricious suffer from "mental poverty." Plutarch argued against the eating of meat.

Epictetus was born to a slave woman but was educated in Rome by the Stoic Musonius Rufus, because his master was Nero's secretary. Epictetus gained his freedom and taught philosophy. He left Rome when Domitian banned philosophers from Italy in 89. He taught in Epirus while living very simply. Epictetus was a Stoic and advised using the rational faculty for differentiating what is within our power from what is not. What can be controlled by will is what is within our power; all else is external. Epictetus encouraged people to be citizens of the world or cosmopolitan, because we are all part of one community and children of God. Only the educated are truly free. In addition to learning, study and practice are required to change bad habits. Only those who understand the good know how to love. All experience is a challenge to our goodwill, a test, and education. When something is taken away, remember that God gives all. Even when Epictetus was a slave, he believed he was free, because he controlled his own will.

Hadrian (r. 117-138) was governor of Syria at Antioch when Trajan adopted him as his heir. Hadrian abandoned the territories in Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria that Trajan had annexed. Hadrian forgave debts owed the imperial treasury for the past fifteen years, and he made Roman administration more professional. Salvius Julianus codified the laws now made by imperial edicts. Some rights of minors, women, and slaves were protected; but the law differentiated an upper class (honestiores) from the lower (humiliores). The wealthy tended to control regional governments, and hereditary aristocracy developed. Hadrian tightened military discipline and attended to problems personally by traveling, reducing rebellions. However, his prohibiting circumcision provoked a revolt led by the Messianic Simon Bar-Kochba in Judea, and Dio Cassius reported that 580,000 were killed by war and famine from 132 to 135. Hadrian chose the wealthy senator Aurelius Antoninus to succeed him and had him adopt young Marcus Aurelius.

Antoninus used his imperial army to crush rebellions in various places and had a wall built in Britain. He demanded only moderate tribute, and confiscations became rare. Corrupt administrators were prosecuted, and their children regained their estates if the money was returned to the provincials. Antoninus was praised for managing the empire well from Rome. Marcus Aurelius had been trained to be emperor by Antoninus, who died in 161. Marcus shared his throne with Lucius Commodus, who went to Antioch to command a war against the Parthians. Marcus limited gladiatorial spectacles and ruled moderately, rewarding good and pardoning bad. Lucius died in 168, and Marcus used diplomacy to resolve wars with invading Germans while a plague devastated the empire. While fighting in the north Marcus was treated for illness with opium by the physician Galen. Marcus made his son Commodus co-Emperor in 177 and was succeeded by him three years later.

Marcus Aurelius wrote down thoughts to himself, beginning with the character traits he learned from others, and describing his ideas on living according to reason, Nature, and the will of heaven. He endeavored to serve justice and the common good. He suggested thinking of the universe as an organic whole with one soul. We are made to help each other, but each person's self has sovereign rights. In considering any action one should ask what the consequences may be.

Juvenal in his Sixteen Satires exposed the moral laxity of Rome, and lamented how much dishonesty had increased so as to become more common than honesty. The novels of the second century indicate the popularity of the Isis cult. Apuleius in The Golden Ass described how Lucius has to experience the animal nature when magic makes him into an ass; but after many experiences and a digression on Cupid and Psyche, he is restored by the goddess Isis and begins to purify himself for initiation and its mystical experience. Lucian became a lawyer but earned his living lecturing and wrote humorous stories, dialogs, and essays that parodied various philosophical schools, religious cults, and Roman myths, even how the unscrupulous could take advantage of Christians who shared their possessions.

Roman Decline and Christianity 180-610

Commodus ended the frontier wars of his father Marcus Aurelius; but he was extremely corrupt in his debauchery and had many people executed for their wealth. The physician Galen studied human anatomy and catalogued numerous drugs. Finally the tyrannical Commodus was murdered by his wife Marcia. Pertinax reversed the corruption and oppression but was murdered after 86 days by soldiers no longer allowed to plunder. The wealthy Julianus grabbed power but was executed by the senate after 66 days as they declared the commander Septimius Severus Emperor. He invaded the Parthians in an expensive campaign and subjugated Byzantium. In a civil war he defeated the rebellion of Albinus. Severus paid soldiers well; but in the empire slaves were mistreated, and bandits thrived.

When Severus died in 211, he was succeeded by his son Caracalla, who murdered his brother Geta and 20,000 he suspected of supporting him. Caracalla doubled soldiers' pay but debased coins and doubled taxes. Citizenship was extended to all free men to gain tax. The adulterer Caracalla executed adulterers and pursued a treacherous foreign policy until he was assassinated and replaced by Praetorian Prefect Macrinus. He alienated the army and was killed in 218. Elagabalus became Emperor; but he was so degenerate that soldiers killed him four years later. The Roman senate made Alexander Severus Emperor at age 13. Ulpian reformed Roman law but was killed by praetorians who resented their loss of privileges. Alexander ended the abuses of Elagabalus and applied the golden rule with religious tolerance. The Persian Sasanian dynasty tried to regain its empire. The army mutinied against the discipline of Alexander Severus and killed him in 235. In the next half century many Emperors struggled for power, subdued rebellions, and fought wars with invading Persians, Goths, and Germans, all of which caused famines, plagues, and disruption of agriculture and commerce.

The Patriarch Judah unified a compendium of oral traditions as the Mishnah. Irenaeus mediated the dispute over the mystical Montanists and refuted doctrines of the Gnostics. Tertullian wrote a defense of Christianity for the Roman rulers, arguing that killing innocent martyrs converts even more like himself, and he argued against killing in war and for patience. Clement of Alexandria wrote The Exhortation to Conversion. His Educator aimed at developing ethical habits, and in Miscellanies he applied philosophy to encourage Christians to gain knowledge. Origen succeeded his teacher Clement. His mother prevented him from becoming a martyr when his father was beheaded in 202. Origen castrated himself so as to instruct freely young female catechumens. He was tortured during the Decian persecution. In On Principles Origen implied that souls exist before birth, and their bodies reflect their previous experiences. He believed all souls, even fallen angels or devils, will be restored through Christ eventually. In a long work Origen answered the criticisms of Christianity by the Epicurean Celsus, arguing that Christianity makes its adherents act more ethically. Hippolytus criticized bishops of Rome and caused a schism. After the Decian persecution of Christians (249-251) penance was given to those who had accepted Roman rituals, and controversy split the church over the lapsed Christians.

The prophet Mani was born in Babylonia in 216 and taught a dualistic religion in Persia. He died in prison in 274 or 277, and his disciples spread his religion even though they were persecuted by Persian and Roman officials. Mani taught liberation from reincarnation through purification and recognized Zarathustra, Buddha, and Jesus as previous messengers of God. He wrote books, but most of them were eventually lost.

Plotinus (205-270) developed the philosophy of Neo-Platonism in his Enneads. He concentrated on the soul, purifying the lower self by practicing virtue and then using dialectic to transcend the emotions and approach God. His student Porphyry wrote biographies of Plotinus and Pythagoras, promoted the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and tried to purify Roman religion.

The Greek novels Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, The Ethiopian Story by Heliodorus, the Alexander Romance, and The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre indicate that romance adventures were becoming popular, and they affirm the value of chastity before marriage.

Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius with more legions than ever suppressed rebellions in the empire. Diocletian implemented wage and price controls in 301. Galerius persuaded Diocletian to force Christians to sacrifice or be punished, and Diocletian retired in 305. The next year Constantine was acclaimed Emperor by his army in Britain, and for several years several rival Emperors struggled for power. While persecution continued in the East, in the West Christianity was more tolerated. In 312 Constantine had a vision to conquer by the cross, and the Senate declared him Augustus. The next year Constantine and Licinius agreed on religious tolerance throughout the empire; but after Licinius banned church councils and meetings, the army of Constantine defeated him. The era of persecuting Christians ended in 324, and Byzantium was rebuilt as Constantinople.

The power of the emperor had increased, and Constantine instituted reforms; but wealthy landowners relied on slave labor, and many professions became hereditary. Constantine promoted Christians and prohibited sacrifices, but he did not compel people to be Christian. He called the Council of Nicaea in 325 to settle the Arian controversy. Constantine urged unity and banned heretics from meeting. He detested Jews and prohibited them from owning Christian slaves. Lactantius in his Divine Institutes urged practice of the Christian virtues, whether one was rich or poor. True wealth is doing good, while the selfish are poor. Lactantius noted that Emperors who persecuted Christians soon were killed, and he exulted in the triumph of Constantine as history justifying Christianity.

Constantine was succeeded by his three sons while other relatives were killed. Constantius ruled the east, fought Shapur II's Persian empire, and outlived his brothers. When he died in 361, the capable general Julian was promoted from Caesar to Emperor even though he was not a Christian. Julian tolerated all Christian worship including heretics but reinstituted pagan sacrifices and removed subsidies for Christians. Julian launched a large invasion of Persia and Assyria but died from a wound without an heir in 363. His successors were Christians but tolerated pagan religion. The brothers Valentinian and Valens co-ruled the empire; the latter was an Arian and persecuted dissent in the east, executing many suspected conspirators. Valens also defeated the rebellion of Procopius and spent three years fighting the Goths. Valentinian fought Germans and others, raising taxes to pay his troops. He died in 375 and was succeeded in the West by his 16-year-old son Gratian. Goths invaded the empire, and Valens was killed fighting them in 378.

Theodosius became Augustus, accepted the Nicene creed, and issued fifteen edicts against heretics. He allowed Goths to settle within the empire. The general Maximus was acclaimed Augustus by his army in Britain, and they overthrew Gratian. Theodosius used Goths, Huns, and Alans to defeat Maximus, and he let young Valentinian II rule the west. Theodosius made a treaty with Shapur III, giving most of Armenia to the Persians. After racing fans murdered a general in Thessalonica, Theodosius had 7,000 massacred in the circus. Theodosius declared pagan sacrifices and divination treason in 391. Temples were demolished, and the great library of Alexandria was destroyed. The ancient Olympic games were ended, but gladiator shows continued. Valentinian II was murdered in 392, and Theodosius died three years later, succeeded by his young sons Arcadius and Honorius.

Antony's living as an anchorite in the Egyptian desert for so many decades led to the development of the monastic tradition. He found value in virtue rather than in material possessions. He urged self-knowledge and preparation for God. Hilarion was influenced by Antony to become a hermit and in 329 founded a monastery in Palestine. Pachomius founded a cenobite (community) monastery in Egypt that by his death in 348 had thousands of monks.

Arius wrote about the oneness of God and that the Christ was created by God. This doctrine was condemned by bishops at a council in 321, and four years later the council at Nicaea decided that the Christ was of the same essence as God and declared Arius a heretic. The books of Arius were ordered burned, and twenty canons attempted to solve current controversies with church authority. Athanasius became bishop at Alexandria and was the foremost opponent of the Arian heresy. He was condemned and deposed by an Arian church council in 335. For many years Arianism prevailed in the East under Constantius, and Athanasius was banned five times.

Basil of Cappadocia founded a monastery and developed rules for cenobite monks living in community. He also wrote extensively on virtue and the value of self-control. Basil's friend Gregory of Nazianzus became a bishop and helped the doctrines of Athanasius become accepted as orthodox at the second ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381. Basil appointed his brother Gregory bishop of Nyssa, and in his Great Catechism, Gregory synthesized Jewish monotheism and Hellenic polytheism into the Christian trinity.

Martin was a soldier like his father; but after being baptized he told Emperor Julian he could not accept a bonus nor fight. Martin established the first monastery in Gaul, and he was elected bishop of Tours. Ambrose as praetorian prefect was settling a disturbance in Milan when he was spontaneously elected bishop in 374. Ambrose excommunicated Maximus for beheading Priscillian heretics, and he defended church authority against incursions by emperors. In On the Duties of Ministers Ambrose argued that Christian ethics are superior to pagan ideas although he adopted the classical virtues. The poet Prudentius pioneered allegorical story-telling in his Psychomachia (Soul Battle) in which virtues overcome vices with the help of Christ. He also honored the sacrifices of Christians in his hymns Crowns of Martyrdom.

John Chrysostom was born in Antioch. In 373 he challenged a decree by Emperor Valens compelling monks to serve the state. He became the patriarch at Constantinople and was a very popular preacher, leaving behind homilies and other writings. He deposed six bishops for simony and tolerated Origenists despite the efforts of Epiphanius, who opposed heretics. Jerome completed his translation of the Bible into Latin in 406, and he wrote many biographies of literary men. His friend Paula established a monastery and convent in Bethlehem.

Augustine wrote his Confessions in 396. In this innovative book he prayed to God and confessed his shortcomings and experiences that led him from the religion of Mani to the Catholic faith. He had mistresses, praying for chastity, but not yet. After his mother Monica died, Augustine went back to Africa and became bishop of Hippo in 397. In On Free Choice of the Will he said people are responsible for their evil actions, and so God is justified in punishing them. He argued that judicial executions and soldiers killing enemies are not murder, but he believed that an unjust law is not valid. Augustine wrote On Christian Doctrine and other works that greatly influenced Christian theology. He opposed lying to entrap Priscillianist heretics. Augustine supported the persecution of the Donatist schismatics although he opposed capital punishment so as not to make them martyrs. After Alaric pillaged Rome, Augustine wrote the long City of God, contrasting the heavenly city with the earthly city of man. He criticized pagan Rome and compared it to the militaristic Assyrian empire. Those who were raped did not sin, because they did no wrong. Even a king can be a slave of sin. The virtuous living in the city of God obey the laws of the earthly city.

While the Eastern Roman empire co-existed with the Persian empire, the Goths led by Alaric invaded Greece. The poet Claudian criticized the praetorian prefect Rufinus and then the eunuch Eutropius, who became consul in the East, where Arcadius reigned. The general Stilicho fought against invaders, made a treaty with Alaric, and gained power in the West as consul, marrying his daughter Maria to Emperor Honorius. The Christian poet Prudentius persuaded Emperor Honorius to prohibit gladiatorial games, and the Coliseum was closed in 405. Honorius alienated pagans and Arians by excluding them from office. Alaric's Goths sacked Rome before he died in 410. Amid barbarian invasions several emperors competed for power in western Europe as Rome abandoned Britain to Saxon invasion.

Macrobius wrote that humans reincarnate until they achieve eternal happiness by virtue. John Cassian founded a nunnery and the monastery of St. Victor at Marseilles. He wrote about the eight principal faults of gluttony, fornication, covetousness, anger, dejection, laziness, ambition, and pride. In Conferences completed by 428 Cassian described the spiritual lessons he learned from various monks. Cassian opposed the Nestorian and Pelagian heresies.

The Vandals crossed from Spain to North Africa, while Saxons took over more of Britain. Huns, Burgundians, Visigoths, and Alans struggled in Gaul. In 450 Marcian succeeded Theodosius II as Emperor in the West and stopped paying tribute to the Huns and ended the selling of offices. In 451 Attila led his Huns along with Gepids, Ostrogoths, Scirians, Heruls, Thuringians, Alans, and others into Gaul. The next year Attila invaded Italy, but he retreated and died in 454. Vandals plundered Rome the next year. Emperor Leo ruled the East from 457 but was named the Butcher; he died in 474. The Scirian Odovacar deposed the last western emperor and was proclaimed king of Italy in 476.

At the request of Augustine in 418 Orosius wrote his History Against the Pagans to prove that Christians were not responsible for the fall of the Roman empire. However, Salvian in his On the Present Judgment criticized wealthy Roman Christians for not following the ethics of Jesus. Salvian noted that the sexual morality of the Goths and Vandals was better than that of the Romans and Spaniards. In To the Church Salvian warned about avarice. Vincent of Lerins wrote that Christians should accept the doctrines that are most universal, ancient, and agreed to by most. Leo was Bishop of Rome from 440 until his death in 461. He banished Manichaeans and Pelagians from Italy. Leo increased church hierarchy and his own position to the level of Pope. He persuaded Attila and the Vandals not to burn Rome. He declared usury incompatible with charity. After having been enslaved in Ireland, Patrick returned there as bishop in 432 and converted many. The Palestinian Talmud was written down in the late 4th century, and the longer Babylonian Talmud was compiled by Rabbana Ashi (352-427). Jews were discriminated against in both the Roman and the Persian empires.

The eastern empire continued with the Isaurian Zeno as emperor from 476 until he died in 491 and was replaced by Anastasius, while the Ostrogoth Theodoric defeated and replaced Odovacar as king of Italy. Invasions by Germans and Huns had depopulated the Balkans in the 5th century. Anastasius was a Monophysite and faced religious opposition; he died at 88 in 518. Cassiodorus served Theodoric as secretary. Symmachus and Boethius also helped Theodoric govern, but he had them both executed shortly before he died in 526. In The Consolation of Philosophy Boethius is treated in prison by Philosophy, who comes to him and answers his questions. She affirms the highest good, the intrinsic reward of virtue and punishment of wrong-doing, because the providence of God regulates all while still allowing humans free choices.

The Frank king Clovis (r. 481-511) prayed to Jesus Christ for victory, defeated his enemies, and became a Christian. He established a capital at Paris, united the Franks, and proclaimed Salic laws. The four sons of Clovis divided the Frank kingdom and fought each other. The wars went on for two generations until only Chlotar survived; but he died in 561.

Caesarius studied with Pomerius at Arles and was archbishop 502-542. As papal vicar Caesarius organized synods and settled controversies. Benedict was educated in Rome but became a hermit before founding monasteries. Benedict died in 547 but left behind the Rule that would become the standard for many monasteries. The Rule includes twelve steps of humility. Monks spent five hours praying, five or six hours working, and four hours reading. Obedience to the abbot is emphasized. In addition to his many writings Cassiodorus contributed to preserving classical culture by collecting books and having monks copy them.

Justinian gained power in 520 and became emperor seven years later. He worked to expand the territory of the Roman empire and his control over the Church. Empress Theodora had much power with her own intelligence service; she supported Monophysites and established a convent for converted prostitutes. The Persian Khusrau (r. 531-579) made peace with Justinian in 532. That year Belisarius had to use the army to suppress a revolt in Constantinople, killing 30,000. Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer the Vandals in North Africa, and Arians there were persecuted. After the Goth regent Amalasuntha was killed, Justinian ordered the imperial army to invade Italy, and Belisarius entered Rome in 536. A siege by the Goths destroyed aqueducts the next year. In 539 Ostrogoth king Witigis asked the Persian Khusrau to attack the Roman empire, and they did so, burning Antioch. Justinian offered northern Italy to the Goths, who wanted Belisarius to be Western Emperor; he refused the office but invaded the north.

Goths led by Totila fought the imperial army and Belisarius in Italy for a decade until Totila was finally defeated and killed by a large army, which included many Lombards, led by Narses in 552. The next year an even larger army led by Alamanni chiefs plundered Italy with Franks. In 554 Justinian applied the Imperial Code to Italy, restoring the aristocracy and the Church, and Narses administered Italy as Patrician for thirteen years. Justinian made a new truce with Persia's Khusrau in 557, and five years later they agreed upon a fifty-year treaty. The immorality of Justinian's imperialistic wars was exposed in The Secret History by Procopius, and they did cause tremendous suffering. Procopius blamed Justinian for extraordinary corruption, religious hypocrisy, and the deaths of twenty million people. Taxes during the wars were high while soldiers went unpaid. Yet in his Buildings Procopius praised Emperor Justinian for his building programs, for expanding and saving the empire, and for his new laws. Justinian also tried to unify the Church and made the canons of the four ecumenical councils valid imperial laws. Citizens that were not orthodox Christians could lose their civil rights and their possessions. Samaritans revolted in 529, and many thousands were killed. That year Justinian closed the schools in Athens. Thirty years later pagan books were publicly burned in Constantinople.

Codex Justinianus was published in ten books in 529, followed by fifty books of Pandects in 533. The Institutions contained the authoritative commentaries of Gaius, Papinian, Ulpian, Paulus, and Modestinus. The new laws established imperial edicts and thus favored monarchy. Everyone was either a citizen or a slave, though lower classes were punished more severely. Slavery was hereditary, but the number that could be freed was no longer limited.

The expanded empire of Justinian soon broke into pieces. While Constantinople was divided between Blues and Greens, Persians encroached from the east, Avars and Slavs invaded the Balkans from the north, and most of Italy was lost to the Lombards. The Visigoths ruled Spain while Christianity was developed there by Martin of Braga and Leander of Seville.

For half a century the sons and grandsons of Chlotar fought each other as Franks were divided. The queens Brunhild and Fredegund often intervened in these violent struggles. The Celtic monk Columban established numerous monasteries and nunneries that used strict discipline but tolerated pagan literature. Saxon, Angles, and Jutes invaded and settled in Britain. Saxon king Aethelbert married the daughter of Charibert, adopted her religion, and allowed Augustine to bring forty monks to Canterbury in 597. Aethelbert was the first Saxon to establish written laws in Britain, and he governed Kent until 616. Gregory became prefect of Rome in 572 but later converted his palace into a monastery and helped the poor. Gregory represented Pope Pelagius II at Constantinople, gaining aid against the Lombards, and in 590 he was the first monk to become pope. Gregory confirmed Benedict's Rule and promoted convents. He protested imperial war taxes and tried to make peace with the Lombards. He consolidated the lands of the Papal States, and Emperor Phocas declared his successor head of the church. In his Pastoral Rules Pope Gregory recommended ministers practice a saintly ethics.

Byzantine and Frank Empires 610-1095
Crusades Era 1095-1250

Evaluating the Roman Empire to 610

The Roman republic was dead before Octavian gained control over the entire empire in 30 BC to become the first emperor. His reasonable policies and long life consolidated the empire in the Pax Romana. The literature of Virgil and Horace reflected the morals of Roman culture as did the advice of Ovid on love even though he was censored by Augustus. His successor Tiberius (r. 14-37) held on to power with treason trials and executions, but the Augustan administration and Roman law were by then well entrenched. King Herod ruled Judea until 4 BC, but soon Jewish rebellions led to Roman prefects being appointed. The liberal Pharisees absorbed the humane teachings of Hillel and the strict rules of Shammai; the conservative Sadducees held the Temple; and the mystical Essenes experimented with communal living. Philo Judaeus of Alexandria applied philosophical reason in developing his ethics.

John the Baptist awakened Jews by preaching repentance and baptizing them in the Jordan River. Jesus taught and healed for three years before he was arrested by Jews and crucified by the Roman government. The quality and sensitivity of his ethical teachings and the depth of his parables are probably still unsurpassed. Accounts of his miracles and spiritual teachings of love and forgiveness spread after his followers believed in his rising from the dead. His apostles shared their possessions and preached. Saul was transformed from persecuting them to become Paul, the preacher of the religion based on Christ as savior. His travels and letters encouraged many of the new congregations called churches. He and the disciples' leader Peter were executed in Rome in 64, but the Gospels were written and circulated along with Paul's letters and other writings. When the Romans punished Christians for refusing to give up their beliefs, the martyrdoms won over more people to the new faith. Christianity became distinguished from Judaism but recognized its relationship by rejecting Gnostics and calling its canon of scriptures the New Testament.

The Roman empire continued even though some of its rulers were degenerate tyrants. Caligula ruled for only four years before he was murdered. Claudius (r. 41-54) allowed his advisors to become very wealthy but was wise enough to extend Roman citizenship on the frontiers. He was murdered so that the immature Nero could rule. The Stoic philosopher Seneca advised him and gained wealth; but as Nero's desires got out of control, Seneca retired and was forced to commit suicide. Seneca contributed thoughtful letters and essays on ethics and adapted Greek tragedies. Nero was murdered, and the civil wars of four emperors were ended quickly by the able Vespasian, who patiently put down the Jewish revolution in Palestine. His son Domitian (r. 81-96) maintained the empire by suppressing rebellions with military force, paying a professional army. Literature satirized the debauchery of the times, but Quintilian contributed to the preparation needed to sustain Roman law with his Education of an Orator. Apollonius of Tyana demonstrated mystical abilities and taught a Pythagorean spirituality.

A series of intelligent emperors stabilized the Roman empire after Nerva was elected by the Senate in 96. Trajan continued Nerva's child welfare program and expanded the empire; but Hadrian (r. 117-138) abandoned Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria that Trajan had annexed. He forgave past taxes, and Roman law differentiated an upper class (honestiores) from the lower (humiliores). The wealthy dominated, and hereditary aristocracy developed. Dio Chrysostom was a great orator who taught the ascetic ethics of the Greek Cynics. Plutarch wrote biographies of noble Greeks and Romans and numerous essays adapting Platonic philosophy to many issues. Epictetus was born a slave but gained his freedom and became an outstanding Stoic philosopher, teaching how the will can control what is in our power. Emperor Antoninus was succeeded by the philosopher Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180), who used both the military and diplomacy to sustain an empire crumbling around the edges. He wrote down his thoughts to pass on his Stoic wisdom. Juvenal satirized the moral laxity of Rome and lamented how much dishonesty had increased, and Apuleius in his novel The Golden Ass portrayed the spiritual development implied in the Isis cult.

The decline of the Roman empire is apparent in the corrupt reign (180-192) of Commodus and by the quick murder of his reforming successor Pertinax by soldiers. Septimius Severus survived by paying soldiers well; but slaves were mistreated, and bandits flourished. Emperors Caracalla and Elagabalus were tyrannical and inept, and both were murdered. Young Alexander Severus showed religious tolerance; but he was killed when the army mutinied in 235. In the next fifty years numerous emperors struggled for power, suppressed rebellions, and fought wars with invading Persians, Goths, and Germans as these wars, famines, and plagues disrupted agriculture and commerce. Extensive writings by Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen defended Christianity and taught its ethics. Most churches forgave the lapsed Christians of the Decian persecution (249-251). The Neo-Platonist Plotinus (205-270) concentrated on the soul, purifying the lower self by virtue and transcending the emotions to approach God. Greek novels diverted the literate with romantic adventures while affirming chastity before marriage.

Emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius used legions to suppress rebellions, and Galerius instigated a serious persecution of Christians that was named after Diocletian, who retired in 305. In the West Constantine became Emperor by having his soldiers fight using Christian symbols. In 324 Roman persecution of Christians ended as he became sole Emperor and began building Constantinople. Lactantius argued that history justified Christianity as tyrannical emperors were killed, and Constantine triumphed. Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea and tried to eliminate heresy; but the conflict between the theology of Arius and the trinity defended by Athanasius persisted. When Constantine's son Constantius died in 361, the pagan Julian was emperor for two years; but he died trying to conquer Persia and Armenia. Co-emperor Valens was an Arian, persecuted dissent in the East, and fought invading Goths, while his brother Valentinian fought Germans in the West. Emperor Theodosius allowed the Goths to settle in the empire and issued edicts against heretics.

Antony founded the anchorite tradition by living alone in the Egyptian desert. Pachomius founded a cenobite (community) monastery in Egypt which by 348 had thousands of monks. Basil of Cappadocia developed rules for monks living in community and wrote on virtue. Martin refused to fight for Julian and established the first monastery in Gaul. Ambrose was elected bishop of Milan and defended church authority. Prudentius wrote Christian poetry. John Chrysostom preached at Constantinople, and Jerome completed his Latin translation of the Bible in 406. In one century the mostly pagan Roman empire had been transformed into a mostly Christian culture.

Augustine described the inner struggle of becoming a Christian in his Confessions, and he became bishop of Hippo in 397. His writing justified executions of criminals and killing in a just war, but he considered an unjust law invalid. He persecuted heretics but opposed making them martyrs by killing them. After Rome was pillaged by Alaric's Goths in 410, Augustine wrote The City of God to contrast the heavenly city of the virtuous with others living in the earthly city. Augustine got Orosius to write his History Against the Pagans to prove that Christians were not responsible for the fall of the Roman empire. However, Salvian criticized avaricious Roman Christians. John Cassian wrote of monastic lessons. The Talmud was compiled, though Jews were persecuted. Leo raised his position from bishop of Rome to pope and banished Manichaeans and Pelagians from Italy. He persuaded Attila and the Vandals not to burn Rome, but Odovacar deposed the last western emperor and became king of Italy in 476.

The eastern empire went on under the Isaurian Zeno and then Anastasius. The Ostrogoth Theodoric replaced Odovacar, and he executed Boethius, who in prison wrote the brilliant Consolation of Philosophy. Frank king Clovis (r. 481-511) became a Christian and proclaimed Salic laws, but his sons fought for power. Benedict wrote the Rule for monasteries that become a standard for centuries. Justinian (r. 527-565) made peace with Persian emperor Khusrau (r. 531-579) and expanded the Roman empire by using military power, as Belisarius and Narses reconquered most of Italy from the Goths; but this devastated the land and wasted many resources. The historian Procopius recorded both the evils and the accomplishments of Justinian's policies. Those who were not orthodox Christians could lose their rights and possessions. Justinian had skilled lawyers codify his edicts as a new set of laws. After Justinian died, his empire crumbled from division within and invasions from the Persians, the Avars and Slavs; the Lombards took over Italy, and Visigoths ruled Spain. Queens Brunhild and Fredegund vied for power as Franks fought civil wars. Britain was invaded by Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. Pope Gregory sent a mission to Canterbury and gained control of the Papal States.

The era of the Roman empire from Augustus to Justinian and the subsequent disintegration of the western portion of the empire saw a series of emperors ruling with the authority of Roman law and legions. These emperors usually succeeded by heredity or by violent struggles for power that often resulted in even more tyrannical leaders claiming power. Emperors usually relied on their armed forces to consolidate their power and enforce their will on the people. This meant that often the most ruthless leaders rose to power; several Roman emperors bribed their way to power by promising largesse to the Praetorian Guard. Some good leaders were selected by their predecessors for their ability, as with the line of Roman emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius. Yet ironically the last of these, considered by many the wisest, chose his own degenerate son Commodus to succeed him, beginning the sharp decline of the empire.

This study of the ethics of civilization tends to show two quite disparate trends. The actual practice of men (and to a limited extent women) in the ways they achieve and enforce power, collect taxes for doing so, and make laws tends to be a rather brutal process of the strongest and wealthy taking advantage of the weak and poor. This is perhaps the most significant ethics of humanity that affects the most people and leaves much to be desired. Much of history is the story of these power relationships. In contrast to this arrogance, greed, and violence are the ethical theories of the great philosophers and religious leaders which usually recommend the golden rule of loving others as oneself, practicing justice, honesty, and mercy. Some of these saints and prophets are able to live according to these lofty teachings, but often the authorities of the organized religions succumbed to the same temptations as the political leaders.

This period of the Roman empire offers a particularly strong contrast between the teachings of Jesus with his early followers and the imperial power of militaristic domination. Perhaps more than anyone Jesus demonstrated the truth of his teachings in his own self-sacrificing actions and refusal to use any form of violence even in resistance to his persecution. The early Christians also gained tremendous moral power over people's minds by their nonviolent willingness to be martyrs when facing brutal Roman power. In the early centuries church authorities such as bishops were usually elected, and this produced fairly good leaders. However, after Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman empire, almost immediately Christians came into conflict over the theological issue of the trinity. Ironically, Christians fought each other, while Christian emperors showed little or no improvement in their ethics over the previous pagan emperors. Romans did promote the development of laws. The monastic communities of Christians provided some of the best examples of ethical living and contributed greatly to education and transmission of culture.

In the final analysis every person and even every action has to be evaluated as an individual occurrence based on the consequences. That is why I have attempted to present this history in detailed events. Though philosophy and religious doctrine are contrasted to these human behaviors, the literature tends to reflect a combination of both. During the empire there was little or no theater after Seneca. Secular literature declined after the classical era, as religious literature was written by Christians and Jews. The decline of the Roman empire teaches that the attempt of a few powerful people to dominate others is probably doomed to corruption and decay if it is not reformed or transformed by enlightened policies. The growth of the Christian religion indicates that good teachings and the examples of virtuous living without violence can influence others and improve society. Yet even a religion based on good teachings can be corrupted by power if it does not continue to follow those teachings or improve upon them.

Evaluating Medieval Europe 610-1250

Copyright © 2004 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book ROMAN EMPIRE 30 BC to 610. For ordering information, please click here.


Empire of Augustus and Tiberius
Jesus and His Apostles
Roman Decadence 37-96
Rome Under Better Emperors 96-180
Roman Empire In Turmoil 180-285
Roman Power and Christian Conflict 285-395
Augustine and the Fall of Rome 395-476
Goths, Franks, and Justinian's Empire 476-610
Summary and Evaluation


World Chronology 30 BC to 750 CE
Chronology of Europe to 1400

BECK index