10 Things About Roman History You Should Know

Since Since the earlier “10 Things” was quite popular, I thought I’d try my hand at another one on a topic I know rather well. This involves Roman history. Unfortunately, history is a less clear and distinct topic than evolutionary biology, so there may be some disagreement with the assertions below.

But here we go….

1) Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did not have an established religion, at that point, in any way we could understand today. Rather, there were customary subsidies given to traditional cults, and favor shown to particular religions by particular emperors. The subsidies from the state coffers to pagan cults were cut off more than two generations after Constantine.

2) By the late Republic most of the “noble” families of Roman society were originally plebeian, rather than patrician, in origin. They were defined by their wealth, power, and achievements, as opposed to their blood. There were still powerful patrician lineages, such as the Julii and Claudii, by they no longer held a monopoly on the public square (Julius Caesar may have been from an old patrician line, but his mother was a Cotta, who were plebeians).

3) Most of the emperors who were “not Roman,” were thoroughly Roman. Septimius Severus, the “African emperor,” born in Libya, did come from a paternal lineage of Punic (so Phoenician) origin. But his mother descended from Italian colonists in North Africa. He was culturally a man of the Latin West.

4) At the elite level Roman culture was to some extent dual-culture, with many Latin elites cultivating aspects of Greek culture and learning. But Western (Latin) and Eastern (which usually been Greek or Hellenized non-Greek) societies remained sharply differentiated in many ways. The first emperor who may have spoken Greek as his first language, Anastasius, reigned at the end of the 5th century. Greeks dominated philosophy, while Latins dominated rhetoric.

5) Though Latin political control collapsed in Italy in 476, the cultural and economic destruction of the Italian peninsula occurred during the East Roman reconquista of the 6th century.

6) The forms of Republican Rome persisted for centuries during the imperial period. The transformation of Roman Emperors into purely naked autocrats did not occur until after the chaos of the middle 3rd century.

7) Speaking of which, the Roman system almost collapsed during the “Crisis of the Third Century”.

8) The early “bad emperors,” such as Nero or Caligula, often caused problems for the Roman elites. But the overall institutional system persisted and was minimally impacted. In contrast, Julius Caesar would almost certainly be judged to have committed genocide in Gaul were he judged by modern standards.

9) Most of the expenditure of the Roman state went to the military.

10) Romans arguably invented Western bureaucracy. Though the Roman state in was incredibly understaffed by modern standards, one consequence of the Western Empire’s fall was the collapse of tax collection in specie as opposed to kind or service.

2 thoughts on “10 Things About Roman History You Should Know

  1. 2. I just finished reading Mary Beard’s SPQR, so I just recently found out about this as well. Republican Rome’s official/accepted history of itself in that time is fascinating – it’s one of struggle and erosion of the privileges of the patrician class, and a rather lively political environment of public argument, glad-handling, etc (although they still had a cohort of wealthy and powerful plebian families, wealth-based voting rights, etc). It’s a pity it couldn’t survive the struggles of the late 2nd/early 1st century BCE in substance, although the forms survived much longer as you pointed out.

    7. Given how much it changed, you could almost make an argument that it did collapse and was rebuilt, because so much of how it was organized changed after the crisis.

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