II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > E. Rome > 4. The Roman Empire, 14–284 C.E. > b. Economy, Society, and Culture
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
b. Economy, Society, and Culture
With the Principate came a long period of civic peace (pax Romana), which greatly benefited the economy of the Roman Empire. Older areas devastated by war, such as Italy and Asia, returned to their former prosperity, while recently conquered regions underwent population increases, urbanization, and intensified agricultural cultivation. Increased agricultural productivity was a response to the consumer needs of growing and newly founded cities and of the provincial armies, though in some respects Roman technology, as opposed to engineering, lagged behind eastern and southern Asia. The wheeled plow was introduced in Gaul, in order to till the heavier earth. Other innovations included an improved scythe and a mechanical reaper. From the 1st through the 3rd centuries, the overall trend in the agrarian labor force was a change from slavery to tenancy. How this occurred is very unclear, but it was certainly a long and slow process; slaves were still regularly employed in agriculture in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The major source of slaves, foreign conquest, did slow down, but the wars of Claudius, Vespasian, and Trajan brought in large numbers of slaves, while other sources—the exposure of unwanted infants, as well as slave breeding—continued to provide slaves in substantial numbers. Few figures are available, but in the mid-2nd century slaves totaled 40,000, or one-third of the adult population of the Asian city of Pergamum. In Roman Egypt, the slave population was lower, making up less than one-tenth. The proliferation of cities was a major development of the imperial period. Most of the newly founded cities were in the western empire, especially in south and central Gaul, in the lowlands of Spain, and in the fertile valleys and coasts of North Africa. Many cities relied on local production for their food. When intensified cultivation made regions productive, however, their surpluses were sent to large cities which required imports. The grain of North Africa and Egypt surpassed that of Sicily as Rome's major source, while olive oil from Spain and wine from many regions were imported into the capital. Industry remained small-scale, but trade of the local, interprovincial, and extraprovincial types was very significant by a scale of preindustrial societies. Produce, large amounts of timber, metals, and textiles were carried primarily by a sophisticated system of water transport but also by much used overland routes.  1
The Roman government was committed to founding cities as centers of civic and judicial administration, and of tax collecting. Archaeology testifies to the great number of cities that prospered during the high empire, although food shortages and financial and administrative difficulties were chronic problems which required outside assistance and which came increasingly from Rome. Cities were largely autonomous and governed by local elites, who resided in the cities and drew rents from their rural properties. Annual magistrates (duoviri, archontes, strategoi, grammateis) drawn from the body of municipal senators (decuriones, bouleutai) were responsible for maintaining law and order and ensuring municipal as well as imperial taxes. They also supported the cities' essential services and amenities through largess, giving their money and services in exchange for public recognition and status. Much of the space in a Roman city was taken up by public buildings and the large houses and gardens of the rich. For the nonelite, urban living conditions were crowded and, by modern standards, unsanitary, so life was lived outdoors during daylight hours. Most private dwellings were not connected to the public sewers, and few had running water. Although public baths were inexpensive and often sumptuous, they were also unhygienic, since the water was infrequently changed.  2
A major trend in the imperial period was the extension of Roman citizenship. Under Julius Caesar and the triumvirs, whole regions—Cisalpine Gaul, Sicily, along with Romanized provincial cities in the west—had received citizenship, while in more recently conquered areas, and in the Greek-speaking east, citizenship had been rewarded to prominent individuals. The establishment of Roman citizen colonies around the Empire, which had been greatly favored by Caesar and Augustus, slackened during the first century but was continued under Trajan and Hadrian. Citizenship status—either Roman or Latin—was granted to communities and whole regions. Latin status was granted to the Alpine provinces by Claudius and Nero, and to all of Spain by Vespanian. Roman citizenship was also extended by the auxiliary units of the army, where after 25 years of service noncitizen provincial soldiers received the citizenship for themselves and, until c. 140, their families. By the early 3rd century, every province of the Empire had large numbers of Roman citizens. In 212 the distinction between citizen and noncitizen was eliminated by the constitutio Antoniniana, which granted Roman citizenship to virtually all free male inhabitants of the Empire. As Roman citizenship became more common, its privileges diminished, and two legal statuses developed. One status included Roman citizens of the upper classes—senators, equestrians, and local magistrates, who were called honestiores. Everyone else, Roman citizen or not, fell into the class of humiliores and were subject to harsh punishments—crucifixion, burning, the arena, chained labor—which had previously been associated with servile punishments. Another function of the spread of Roman citizenship was the opening up of the equestrian order and, later, the senatorial order to upper-class provincials. The number of easterners in imperial equestrian service began to rise from about 100 C.E. In the Roman senate, old Roman noble families died out and were replaced by Italians. Wishing to exploit their wealth and energy, emperors then began to appoint wealthy provincials to the senate. Finally, emperors were chosen from provincial families. Trajan and Hadrian were descendants of old families of Roman settlers in Spain; Septimius Severus came from North Africa. The upwardly mobile freedman class was of great importance to the urban society and economy of the Empire. Beginning with Augustus, the energies and wealth of freedmen were officially recognized and channeled into government service. In Rome, freedmen became ward leaders (magistri vici), while in the municipalities of Italy and the west, they served the imperial cult as honorary officials (seviri Augustales). Women remained subordinate. Their legal status changed little, but a significant reform came when Claudius abolished guardianship (tutela) for adult women of free birth. And for a time, starting with Augustus, the husband lost the right to kill an adulterous wife. In the upper classes women received a literary education. Outside of the elite, many worked—most as fieldworkers, with others in a wide variety of urban occupations. Almost all women married. In the upper classes, women on average had their first child at 15. Family size was limited through infanticide, by exposure to the elements; by effective, if dangerous, forms of artificial birth control; and by equally dangerous abortions. Life expectancy for males at birth was between 20 and 30 years.  3
In law the formulary system was replaced by juristic interpretation and various forms of imperial intervention. After the praetor's edict was codified under Hadrian, the pronouncements of the emperor (constitutiones principis), in the form of edicts, decrees, and rescripts, became the principal source of law. By the 2nd century C.E. the culture of the upper classes of the Roman Empire had become truly Greco-Roman. The ruling classes of Greek cities learned Latin in order to participate in the Roman imperial government, while in Rome and Italy, the upper classes had been Hellenized since the late Republic. Roman elite education was centered on rhetoric and included the study of both Greek and Latin literature. Romans also took up the various schools of Greek philosophy—Platonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism—the latter becoming dominant during the imperial period and counting among its chief exponents the senator Seneca (c. 1–65), the slave Epictetus (c. 55–c. 135), and the emperor Marcus Aurelius (122–180). A moderate rise in literacy is indicated by, among other things, the great increase in inscriptions, the production of Greek papyrus texts, and the expansion of the Roman Empire into less advanced areas. While Greek and Latin became international languages, vernacular languages continued to be spoken by many populations in many parts of the Empire.  4
Latin literature entered its so-called Silver Age, characterized by its penchant for rhetoric. The Roman satirical tradition was continued by A. Persius Flaccus (34–62) and mastered by D. Iunius Iuvenalis (Juvenal, c. 55–138). Prose satire was cultivated in the picaresque novel Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter (d. 66), probably Nero's friend. Under Tiberius, Valerius Maximus composed Facta et dicta memorabilia, nine books of historical examples of virtues and vices. Spain was home to a noted literary family which flourished in Rome. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the rhetorican (c. 55 B.C.E.–c. 40 C.E.), wrote declamationes (set speeches). His son, L. Annaeus Seneca (c. 1–65), wrote Stoic philosophical treatises as well as tragedies; this man's nephew, M. Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan, 39–65), composed the historical epic Pharsalia. M. Valerius Martialis (Martial, c. 40–104) of Spain wrote satirical epigrams in Rome, as did the noted teacher of rhetoric and author of Institutio Oratoria, M. Fabius Quintilianus (c. 35–c. 100). The provinces were also the birthplace of the historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56–118?), author of Dialogus de oratoribus, the biography Agricola, the ethnological Germania and his historical works, the Historiae and Annales. In science, Galen of Pergamum (c. 130–200) furthered the Greek scientific tradition with prolific writings on medicine. Ptolemy (c. 85–165) wrote on astronomy, furthering the Hellenistic belief in an Earth-centered universe. C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny, c. 61–c. 113) was a noted political and literary figure, who composed elegant Epistulae; his prolific uncle, C. Plinius Secundus (c. 23–79) wrote, among other works, the encyclopedic but uncritical Historia Naturalis. Another prolific author was C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69–121?), whose biographies, De Vita Caesarum, extended from Caesar through Domitian. Under Hadrian and the Antonines began a revival of interest in pre-Ciceronian Latin, and a school of florid Latin writers emerged. Its exponents were the orator and writer M. Cornelius Fronto (c. 100–c. 166), whose correspondence with his student Marcus Aurelius survives, and the author of Metamorphoses, L. Apuleius (c. 124–170?), both from North Africa. Aulus Gellius (c. 130–c. 180) wrote the literary miscellany, Noctes Atticae (Attic nights), and the emperor Marcus Aurelius penned his stoical Meditations in Greek.  5
In early imperial architecture, concrete vaulting was increasingly exploited to create novel spatial effects (the Domus Aurea). Brick became the preferred facing material for concrete construction during Tiberius's reign. By the Flavian period, a new type of vaulting (the groin vault) was introduced (the Colosseum). In the 2nd century, the old canons were being rethought to create a new sumptuousness. Novelties included the broken pediment (first seen in Trajanic Rome) and the aedicular facades (the library of Celsus at Ephesus). In the city of Rome, architectural sophistication and daring reached its zenith under Hadrian in the 150-foot-wide concrete dome of the Pantheon and the large and radical Temple of Venus and Roma, whose top-heavy proportions evoked older temple types and marked a deliberate break with the Augustan Corinthian canon. Afterwards, creative experimentation in architecture increasingly shifted from the capital to the provinces (e.g., Leptis Magna in North Africa, Baalbek in Syria, and Ephesus in Asia Minor). In Roman state art, historical relief came into prominence. In Augustan reliefs the emperor had been consistently portrayed as first among equals in a realistic context (Ara Pacis), but in the course of the 1st century new conventions (such as the juxtaposition of real and allegorical figures, divinizing attributes, and apotheosis) made their way into the representations of rulers in state art (e.g., the Flavian Arch of Titus and Cancellaria reliefs). In the early 2nd century, emperors began to be portrayed showing imperial virtues in increasingly varied and elaborate, but essentially realistic, contexts in both peace and war. In portrait sculpture the realistic-looking portraiture of the late Republic continued to be employed. Imperial portraits of the Julio-Claudian dynasty adapted various ages and physiognomies to the ageless Augustan model. Under the Flavians a literal element was introduced into imperial portraiture. Portraits of Hadrian broke from tradition by showing the emperor wearing a beard, which reflected military fashion, philosophical phil-Hellenism, or both. A trend was introduced in the 3rd century by Caracella, whose portrait types sported the close-cropped hair and beard, and became the canonical style of the 3rd-century soldier emperors. In Roman painting, the Fourth Style, introduced about 62, combined Third Style panel painting motifs with Second Style representations of architecture in depth.  6
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.