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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 12: The Romans and the Roman World

I. Introduction: Rome and Theatre

Julius Caesar (click to see larger image)To the Romans we owe much of our culture, our words, our government, and for many, our very being—Roman blood runs through the veins of almost everyone with a European ancestor—so much so it's fair to say we are all Romans in one way or another. Their customs, their biases, their quirks permeate the world today. Rome's legacy ranges everywhere you look, from the name of the month July to "Cesarian" births—both of which go back to Julius Caesar—to the tradition that a groom carries a bride over the threshold, to the very foundation of modern representative government. More than that, over half of English vocabulary is derived from Latin, the Romans' native tongue. Indeed, our culture carries forward their attitudes and predilections with nearly as much energy and enthusiasm as the Romans did themselves. In more ways than one, we speak their language.

Roman Relief depicting Gladiators in the arena, with lions (click to see larger image)The stage is no different. The Romans' taste in entertainment also looks remarkably "modern"—or, better put, ours looks remarkably Roman—at least inasmuch as amusement trumped drama in Rome at almost every turn. For proof of this, one need look only at the words that we've inherited from Latin pertaining to performance. From Greek come terms like "theatre," "drama," "tragedy," "critic," "program," "theory" and "comedy," but Latin gives us words like "spectacle," "circus," "perform," "impersonation" and "actor," as well as "operatic histrionics," "sports personality," "nudity," "violence," "transvestism" and "stupid farce." To put it succinctly, the Romans liked their shows grandiose, something that appealed to both eye and ear—and heart and mind, if convenient—and we as their heirs follow in their noisy, motley boots.

For a people who adopted and realized a vision of world conquest, it was natural to think sumptuously, a perspective they did not apply only to the theatre. Roman architecture is still quite impressive today, as is the statuary and city-planning of ancient Italy. While delicacy and refinement, the hallmarks of later Greek art, were not entirely lost on the Romans, subtlety rarely guided their choices. As a rule, they turned out better engineers than artists, generals than philosophers, scenic designers than playwrights—with some notable exceptions, as we'll see.

In most arts, then, the Romans serve as transmitters more often than innovators, a reputation they themselves neither disputed nor disparaged. Largely content with re-creating Greek statues, drama and the like, the Romans on their own invented surprisingly little in the arts, especially when one considers the money and manpower they wielded. This reluctance to perform radical experiments in culture is part and parcel, no doubt, of their general belief that creative pursuits should be principally a source of recreation, not education or advancement. And because they deemed diversions of any sort as having secondary value—the state, the family and national defense were the aspects of life they held most dear—only when business was done, did most Romans make room for pleasure and art. Negotium, their very word for "business," means literally "no free time," a verbal reminder not to waste energy on idle pursuits.

Roman copy of a Greek statue of Laocoon and his sons being eaten by snakes (click to see larger image)So, where the Greeks took their theatre seriously, the Romans on the whole saw it as a pastime, a way to stop being serious for a little while. To them, the theatre brought an opportunity, if only momentary, not to rehearse real-world problems, an attitude that makes perfect sense when one backs up and looks at the larger scheme of things. As a general rule, creators like the Greeks focus on their inventions the way parents coddle a child. The Romans were more like a person who borrows his neighbor's lawn tools and eventually returns them, or not. So the Greeks tended to appreciate drama for its own sake in a way their powerful conquerors did not.

In studying Roman theatre, then, we are really investigating one aspect of the merger of Greek and Roman culture in the third and second centuries BCE. One of the most successful experiments ever in multiculturalism, Greco-Roman civilization was conceived when all sorts of Greek arts, drama included, began to infiltrate Rome. First came the Latin translation of Homeric epic, soon followed by tragedy and comedy—adapted, of course, to the Roman heart and tongue—and later other genres of poetry, culminating eventually in some of the finest literature ever produced by Western civilization, along with several of its most memorable names: Catullus, Horace, Vergil, Ovid, Juvenal. In many ways, what the Romans are to us now, the Greeks were to them back then, that is, models for how to build a culture. Only it was not the classical Greeks who pointed Rome toward civilization but their descendants, the post-classical heirs of Pericles' man-measuring world, those consummate master craftsmen who lived in the Hellenistic Age amidst burgeoning wealth and despair. Moreover, the greatest poets of Rome achieved heights comparable to the best the Greeks ever had to offer, though never on the stage unfortunately.

Mosaic depicting the Roman poet Vergil (click to see larger image)While theatre in Rome evolved into its own distinct species, the Romans failed to escape the strong gravitational pull of Greek drama in the long run, a situation consistent with their cultural dependence on Greece in general. This is not to say, however, that Roman authors were unoriginal or somehow shadows of their great Hellenic predecessors—they were not!—rather, their work was the extension of Greek artforms migrating across the Adriatic Sea and undergoing the modifications necessary to please a different audience and age. Thus, theatre in Rome is at once both Roman and Greco-Roman.

Thus, at its best Latin drama can be said to be eminently workable, some of the most feasible theatre ever created, at least to judge from its enduring presence on the stage, but it was neither as innovative as Greek drama at its finest nor as subtle or profound. The Roman dramatist Plautus, for instance, concocted masterful, effective comedies, still fully playable on the modern stage. His successor Terence—who was really more Menander's "stepson" than a native Italian—came as close to composing effective character study for the stage as anyone ever did in ancient Rome. Nevertheless, Terence's drama never surpassed the Greek classics he emulated. Last and late, Seneca's tragedies may be brilliant if understood to be meta-tragic parody—if not, they are simply too tragic to work effectively on stage—but in either case they make a sad and fitting finale for the histrionic genre of classical tragedy. In sum, while Greco-Roman drama, as perhaps it should be called, is well worth studying, it never achieved the summits that Greek drama before it had. Then again, what has?

II. Italy and Early Rome

A. Geography

Map of Early Italy (click to see larger image)Italy is the boot-shaped peninsula to the west of Greece in the Mediterranean Sea, with the long, narrow Adriatic Sea separating them. Unlike Greece, Italy comprises a vast and varied region, some of which is abundantly fertile and capable of sustaining a large population. But there are two major mountain chains in and around Italy: the Apennines running down the "spine" of the peninsula and the Alps closing it off to the north, separating it from France, Switzerland and Croatia (in Roman terms, Gaul, Helvetia and Illyricum, respectively). With seas on three sides and the highest mountains in Europe on the fourth, Italy is relatively well-protected from outside invasion—or was in early antiquity at least.

There are at the same time significant weaknesses in Italy's natural defenses. The Alps, for instance, contain a number of traversable passes despite their height, as the Romans discovered to their horror during the Second Punic War when Hannibal brought across these mountains a large Carthaginian army—including several elephants!—instituting a decade of terror. To the south, the proximity of the large triangle-shaped island Sicily opens Italy up to invasion. Separated from their Sicilian neighbors by only the narrow Straits of Messina, the Italians have been invaded successfully from this direction several times in history, by Byzantines, various barbarians and most recently the allied forces in World War II. It means Italy cannot retreat from the world outside but must participate in the Mediterranean community.

B. Early Rome

The Romans themselves traced their ancestry far back into history and claimed to have descended from the Trojan warrior Aeneas who fled the Greek siege of his city and migrated west with a rag-tag band of followers. These purported forefathers of Rome are clearly the product of a historical fiction fabricated to welcome the Romans during their ascendance to military and political supremacy into the larger fold of Greek myth and classical civilization. Indeed, the willingness of the hard-nosed Romans to embrace the romantic notion of Aeneas and the Ilio-Italic tie he personifies demonstrates just how much they aspired to be a part of Greek culture and life.

Map of Early Italian Languages (click to see larger image)The truth about the Romans' origins is more interesting and telling than any of the lies surrounding this issue. Though they never knew it, linguistic evidence shows that the Greeks and Romans were, in fact, more closely related than even the mythographers of Troy dared to claim. Both nations are of Indo-European stock, part of the massive invasions and displacements beginning in the second millennium BCE that disrupted and obliterated native peoples in a vast series of migrations extending from northern Europe all the way to India. This is apparent because Latin, the Romans' native tongue, is undoubtedly cognate with the Greek language—that is, they stem from the same original linguistic source—leaving little doubt that these populations also once belonged to the same culture.

Thus, the same sort of in-migration that brought the Indo-Europeans into Greece must also have landed the Romans in Italy, though somewhat later. Because Latin bears a strong affinity to Gaelic (Celtic), the native language of those ancient people who lived in Gaul to the north of Italy, what is now France and England, historical linguists surmise that at some point in prehistory—most likely, in the latter half of the second millennium BCE—the Indo-European ancestors of Latin and Gaelic speakers entered Western Europe. Later, they divided, some going south into Italy and others continuing west into France, where they developed, respectively, into the Romans and other early Italic peoples in the south and the Gauls or Celts in the north. As a result, when the Roman general Julius Caesar conquered this people in the first century BCE, though he could not have known it, he was defeating and slaughtering a people very closely related to his own, his linguistic and cultural cousins, so to speak.

Statue of Romulus and Remus suckling a wolf (click to see larger image)According to Roman tradition, the city of Rome in west central Italy was established in 753 BCE, which was according to the Roman calendar the year 1 A.U.C. (i.e. Ab Urbe Condita, "from when the city was founded"). 753 BCE is, however, a problematical date—as problematical as 1 CE which few historians today would defend as the actual year of Christ's birth—if for no other reason than that there are iron-age settlements on the site of Rome that are much older than the eighth century. This sheds further doubt over the already dubious myth that Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the god Mars and a Vestal Virgin. (note) All in all, it seems safe to say that Romulus ("Little Rome") is a later fabrication concocted—and probably not even by Romans but Greeks—to fill a void in the ancients' understanding of where the people who inhabited Rome in classical times had originally come from.

Map of Early Italian Peoples (click to see larger image)One thing all the sources agree on, however, is that, even if the Romans were in the center of Italy, they were not at its center, at least early on. The primeval denizens of Rome were surrounded by culturally and technologically superior civilizations, primarily the Etruscans who lived in the area near modern Florence, in antiquity called Etruria (now Tuscany). Peaking around the middle of the first millennium BCE (ca. 600-500), the Etruscans had a large and highly developed civilization that eventually spread south and influenced early Rome. Borrowing heavily from Etruscan culture, the Romans gained nothing less than a modified form of the Greek alphabet, and with it literacy. In this script are recorded the earliest known documents written in the Latin language. It would be helpful, then, in understanding the foundation of Roman culture to know where the Etruscans came from, but unfortunately we do not.

Etruscan statue: Tomb of a husband and wife embracing (click to see larger image)Nor does it improve matters that the Etruscan language is not Indo-European, indeed unrelated to any known language family. Worse yet, what little historical evidence there is for the Etruscans is contradictory—Herodotus says the Etruscans came from Lydia, but archaeological evidence supports continuous settlement of Etruria well back into prehistory—and so the Etruscans remain a mystery, and a maddening one at that, since their involvement in early Rome is central in the formulation of Roman culture, clearly the most formative influence outside of Greece. More frustrating still are Etruscan inscriptions which, though written in a well-known script, are not readable today. In other words, we know the alphabet the Etruscans used since they handed it to the Romans who subsequently passed it on to us, but we do not know what these perfectly legible Etruscan words are saying. Cracking this language is one of the great and, at present, insurmountable challenges facing the classicists of our time.

C. The Roman Republic

Map of the Roman Republic and its Expansion (click to see larger image)As Roman history itself comes into focus in the last decades of the sixth century BCE, we are told the enigmatic Etruscans were in control of the area around Rome. It is debatable whether kings from Etruria ever actually ruled Rome, as later Roman historians maintained, but the impact of Etruscan culture on Rome is not. The Romans remembered, in particular, the eviction of the last Etruscan king in 510 BCE, a seminal year in their history, the moment when they achieved independence and established a fair and representative government they called the Republic ("common-wealth"). How this actually unfolded is unclear, too.

Statue of a Roman holding the busts of his ancestors (click to see larger image)Of course, the rich and powerful were the only people represented in this newly liberated state. During this period of upheaval, the landed gentry, aristocrats known as patricians ("fathers"), formed a council called the Senate ("council of elders") that inherited the power of the kings and passed legislation—usually in its own best interest. Over the next two centuries, this inequity led to a long-term conflict between the social classes, as the haves and have-nots of Rome fought against each other with as much bitterness as armies at war.

In the end, the commoners—or, as they were known in Latin, the plebeians ("the common people")—won many important victories: the right of protection under the law, the privilege of voting, access to marry into aristocratic families and, finally, the honor of running for and holding the highest offices in the government. Out of a series of concessions that the patricians were forced into by their lower-class comrades emerged a more democratic form of government, one about as close to a modern democracy as the ancient world ever came.

Modern reconstruction of a Roman Legionary in full uniform (click to see larger image)This sense of a true "common-wealth" shared among all, in turn, helped Republican Rome expand its military and mercantile interests abroad. Instrumental in this growth was the development of the legion, a highly flexible fighting unit that could adapt itself to different types of terrain and enemy formations. Thus, by the early third century BCE (ca. 265 BCE) the Romans had come to own or control most of Italy below the Po Valley (northern Italy). In grand style, they had turned the tables on their erstwhile oppressors, the Etruscans.

Aerial view of the harbor of Carthage (click to see larger image)But to the south the conquest and assimilation of the Greeks inhabiting Magna Graecia ("Great Greece," i.e. southern Italy) would prove more important in the long run. It exposed the Romans to Greek culture, and especially Greek drama. They could not, however, capitalize on this cultural wealth immediately, because their southward expansion also brought them into contact with the large and rich realm of the Carthaginians.

Their capital city Carthage lay in North Africa (modern Tunis) across the Mediterranean Sea from Rome. It had originally been a colony of Phoenicia (on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean) but had broken free of its mother state and by the third century BCE Carthage had established itself as a powerful, mercantile empire controlling most trade routes in the western Mediterranean. Seen from the vantage point of hindsight, the collision of Romans and Carthaginians looks inevitable. Arguably, it was.

D. The Punic Wars (264-202 BCE)

The hostilities began in 264 BCE when the Romans and Carthaginians came to blows over their mutually exclusive interests in Sicily. This so-called First Punic War lasted until 241 BCE, during which the Romans developed a strong navy for the first time in history and ultimately wrested control of Sicily away from the Carthaginians. (note) More important for theatre history, however, was that many Roman soldiers were exposed for a protracted period to the Greek civilization occupying Sicily—the product of centuries of colonizing expeditions dispatched from Greece—and when they returned to Rome, they brought home along a taste for Hellenic literature and entertainment.

Map of the Punic Wars (click to see larger image)Little wonder, then, that the Romans looked back on 240 BCE, immediately after the close of the First Punic War, as the year when Latin literature formally began. According to ancient tradition, a Greek slave named Livius Andronicus, living in Rome at the time, wrote a translation of Homer's The Odyssey in Latin, and with that was born Roman literature. Over the course of the next decade he also translated and staged Greek dramas, igniting a passion for Greek-style theatre among the Romans. But that, too, had to be put on hold, as other matters eclipsed Rome's cultural development for the moment.

Hannibal (click to see larger image)The First Punic War proved to be merely an overture to the much more ferocious and significant conflict that erupted between Carthage and Rome in the last decades of the third century BCE. In the wake of the humiliating loss of Sicily in 241 BCE, the Carthaginians sought revenge on the Romans. After spending the next two decades militarizing and securing a firm hold on eastern Spain, they attacked Rome in 218 BCE under the leadership of one of the most brilliant military commanders and tacticians who's ever lived, Hannibal.

The ensuing Second Punic War lasted nearly two decades (218-202 BCE) and came within a torch throw of destroying Rome. Hannibal's master plan—a brilliant strategy that by all fair measures should have worked—was to take the war home to the Romans. Also knowing well the advantage of surprise, he bypassed the formality of declaring war officially and led a large force of Carthaginians and allies from Spain to southern France, then over the Alps into Italy. There he defeated the Romans in battle several times, more than once with devastating consequences, but was unable for various reasons to capitalize on his victories and capture the city of Rome itself. (note)

All the same, for over a decade he plagued the Romans on their home ground. How they survived and held their state together in these dismal days is hard to comprehend, but surely to some extent their long record of generally fair and judicious treatment of conquered peoples in Italy played an important role in making it ultimately impossible for Hannibal to turn the Roman allies collectively against Rome. Little wonder, then, the Romans worshiped their ancestors: they owed them their lives in more ways than one.

Bust of Scipio made in black stone (click to see larger image)Finally, by 204 BCE the Romans were ready and able to retaliate. Under the leadership of the general Publius Cornelius Scipio, later dubbed Africanus ("the conqueror of Africa"), they invaded North Africa and at the Battle of Zama (202 BCE) defeated Hannibal who had recently been recalled to Carthage. As a turning-point in history, the significance of this battle and the war it ended is hard to overstate.

E. Rome in the Second Century BCE

Rome was now a major player in the world arena. The domain the Romans gained from the Second Punic War gave them access to power and money on a scale they had never seen before, and such awesome, absolute power did its usual job: it corrupted. To wit, for the first time in their history, the Romans began to treat conquered states as "provinces," less like partners and more like possessions.

Similarly, those who thrived more than others during the war became extremely influential and rich, far beyond what their simple democracy could afford. The Scipios, for instance, greeted the dawn of the second century BCE as the most powerful clan in Rome, driving both political policy and propaganda, which in antiquity often entailed art. For instance, the grandson of Scipio Africanus was famous as a sponsor of drama, in particular, the work of the playwright Terence, as we'll see in Chapter 14. More immediately, however, on the international scene the Romans turned east and began a succession of conquests extending across two centuries and the entire Mediterranean community. In time, they came to call it mare nostrum ("our sea"), and for centuries it was.

These successes abroad only exposed them further to Greek culture and heightened the stresses innate in multiculturalism, as peoples of many nationalities began flocking to Rome. If the Romans' successes had brought them great wealth, both financial and cultural, it also challenged many of the values that had taken them to the top. Simple, traditional strengths that early Romans had proudly heralded—virtues like courage, patriotism, self-sacrifice and respect for one's ancestors—started to look just that, simple.

Thus, Roma victrix ("Rome victorious") fractured along conservative and liberal lines, pitting its "good old traditional" ways against the newfangled Greek lifestyle, a vogue bedazzling and decked in all the finery of philosophy, art and drama. It was at heart a cultural war—Hellenism ("Greeking") versus the mos maiorum ("the ancestral ways")—and it wreaked more havoc than Hannibal had ever imagined visiting on the Roman state. After all, having slaves who are smarter than their masters can lead to all sorts of unrest, along with much must-see entertainment.

III. Julius Caesar and the Roman Revolution (The First Century BCE)

Statue of Julius Caesar in military dress (click to see larger image)Rome's fundamental problem was that what had worked so well for a relatively small, agricultural state lying at the heart of Italy simply did not function in the international arena. By then a quaint "council of elders," the Senate just could not handle the pressure brought on by such prosperity. Roman senators made easy prey for hulking bribes and fawning grafters. In the face of so much wealth, it was simply too tempting to advance one's own particular interests and charge the cost to Rome.

Soon an open pit of special interests with little—and eventually no—regard for the general good, Roman government could not hold the state together any longer. That duty fell to the army, Rome's tried and true defenders who were led to glory over the course of the next generations by a series of brilliant generals. Men like Marius, Sulla and Pompey were essentially charismatic warlords with enough political sense to survive a legislative season and return to the safety of foreign conquest and the sweet reward of exploiting defenseless provinces. Thus, the triumphs of the second century paved the way for Rome's own conquest in the next age, a humiliation delivered at the hands of its most brilliant native son. Julius Caesar was fundamentally an insider who attacked Rome from the outside, a home-grown, victorious "Hannibal."

A. Marius and Sulla

Marius (click to see larger image)Caesar's story is tied inextricably to the political convulsions of his day and reaches deep into the history of that dark affair, back at least to the days of Rome's premier general during the early first century BCE, Marius. Not a man of aristocratic birth but the owner of a distinguished military career and a bold and insightful leader, Gaius Marius married Julius Caesar's aunt because she belonged to a noble family. She married him because he was Marius. The exchange of power and prestige was a secret to no one.

Sulla (click to see larger image)The course of sweeping change began when Marius offered to pay disenfranchised commoners to join his legions on the condition that they enlist with him for several years. This opened the door to a viable livelihood for many a poor but willing soul who could not otherwise have secured the resources necessary for a career in the army. With this began the formation of a professional military in Rome. And as these so-called "client legions" came to replace the moribund citizen-soldiery whose hands had delivered the early state so many crucial triumphs, Roman soldiers started fighting for a general, not their country, and in return for their loyalty and valor in battle they expected their commander to equip and feed them and upon retirement—assuming they lived that long—to settle them on farms in Italy. Contracts, career investments, golden parachutes—the Roman army was now a business, and its generals rival CEO's.

Though long and distinguished, Marius' career ended in dismal disrepute, after one of his own officers, a man of patrician birth named Sulla, turned into his enemy and challenged him for supremacy in Rome. Their struggle for power instituted civil war and, with Marius' unexpected death in 85 BCE, Sulla quickly obliterated the remnants of his rival's constituency and seized sole control of the state. The bitterness and greed was nothing compared to the bloodshed.

As loyal Romans began to sense they'd somehow fallen into the hands of a dictator—dictator was the title Sulla chose for himself and the word has been sullied ever since—for the first time in history Roman legions met their own kind on the field of battle. (note) Nor would it be the last. After one scant year of rule and untold carnage, Sulla had had enough and abdicated power, denouncing his contemporaries as asses. He died shortly thereafter of natural causes, proving what few Romans in the day doubted: the gods may have a sense of humor but not of justice. More important, all successful generals henceforth must buy and own their legions.

B. Pompey and Caesar

The young Pompey (click to see larger image)Sulla's successor was another man of non-noble birth, Gnaeus Pompeius known today as Pompey (106-48 BCE). The young Pompey's brutal tactics in treating Roman enemies—and enemy Romans alike—was just another lesson he had learned at Sulla's knee. Early in his career, his unprecedented savagery earned him the nickname adulescens carnufex ("teen butcher"), and his subsequent campaigns all over the Mediterranean area only reaffirmed the epithet. By 61 BCE he had been granted two triumphs—to get one was a rare honor, and Pompey would go on to have a third!—but in retrospect it's clear these triumphs stemmed less from the Romans' honor of the man than a collective fear for their lives any time he was in town.

The young Julius Caesar (click to see larger image)Soon thereafter, Pompey entered an alliance with Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE), a younger rising star on the political scene. Caesar had begun his career in ownership of little more than a name—granted, one of the more prestigious and ancient names in Rome—but his family had fallen onto hard times by the first century BCE. So the young Caesar had been forced to build his power base largely from scratch, something he did with amazing panache. (note) His personality, especially his intelligence and charm, proved a weapon sharper than any legionary's sword.

Map of Caesar's Military Career (click to see larger image)After forming the alliance with Pompey and holding the consulship (the highest executive office in Roman government) in 59 BCE, Caesar received command of the areas north of Rome along with the legions stationed there. He would shortly turn this into one of the most famous military expeditions in history. Within a decade he had subdued and brought under Roman control most of Gaul, executing his strategy with lightning speed and confronting the enemy with breathtaking brutality. Over a million Gauls, it is estimated, died in the course of Caesar's conquest; even more were enslaved. As one historian says, "Requisitions of food and punitive devastations completed human, economic, and ecological disaster probably unequalled until the conquest of the Americas." (note) The longest-lasting effect of Caesar's triumph would be the displacement of the Gaelic tongue by Latin. Modern French is thus an offshoot of the Romans' language, not the Celtic dialect once spoken by the native Gauls.

The older Pompey (click to see larger image)Caesar's successes spelled trouble for Pompey back in Rome, enticing these former partners eventually into conflict and precipitating another civil war like that between Sulla and Marius a generation before. This Caesar won in devastating fashion, to the delight of few including Caesar himself. After the Battle of Pharsalus where, once more against all odds, he defeated the forces Pompey and the Senate had marshalled against him (48 BCE), Caesar is said to have muttered as he surveyed the carnage, "This is what they wanted."

Cleopatra (click to see larger image)Though Pompey survived the battle, he did not live long. He fled to Egypt, and Caesar followed only to find his great rival's headless corpse floating in a tidal pool outside the city of Alexandria. Not by Egyptians, however, had he had been killed but by renegade Roman mercenaries who happened to be living there at the time—men, in fact, who had served under Pompey years before—all in all, it was a tragic but entirely inappropriate end for the "teen butcher." The image of Pompey's corpse, bloated with brine and floating in the territorial waters of the East, would haunt the Romans for centuries. To many, it would become a symbol of the death of the Republic and the beginning of their enslavement to their own government.

Coin celebrating the Assassination of Caesar (click to see larger image)It was also there in Egypt that Caesar met Cleopatra and had his famous affair with her. After a few more years putting down pockets of resistance to his rule, Caesar ended up the sole commander of Rome—several times he turned down the title of rex ("king")—but his unwarranted and unconstitutional usurpation of power whatever it was called inspired desperation among his enemies in the Senate. Especially one Brutus whose ancestor, also called Brutus, was the liberator of the state in its early days when the Etruscan kings had dominated—or so Roman boys by that day were being taught in school—this later and all-too-late Brutus of Caesar's day sought in vain to revive his historical heritage.

His and his allies' desperate, fatal stabs at liberation only produced more sorrow, a tragedy more Greek than Roman, and a fitting fate for a rapidly Hellenizing world. Though Brutus and his co-conspirators managed by sleight of hand to assassinate Caesar during a meeting of the Senate on March 15, 44 BCE, the infamous Ides of March, they were unable to restore either peace or the shattered Republic. Instead, the door to chaos only gaped again, wider than it ever would.

Octavian (click to see larger image)Coin depicting Mark Antony (click to see larger image)Caesar's heir was his grand-nephew Octavian (64 BCE - 14 CE). Though still a teenager, he was the only competent adult male relative of Caesar alive at the time of the assassination. Together with Mark Antony (Caesar's lieutenant and right-hand man) Octavian defeated Brutus and the Senate in battle. Their partnership lasted little longer, as Antony fell both in with and in love with Cleopatra who had become, thanks to Caesar, the queen of Egypt.

Yet again civil war erupted, this time between Octavian and Antony. In 31 BCE Octavian's forces met Antony's and Cleopatra's at Actium (on the coast of western Greece), a naval battle the western forces won. Within little more than a year, Antony and Cleopatra were dead at their own hands, and Octavian had seized control of Egypt and, more important, Rome.

IV. The Roman Empire

A. The Pax Romana

Map of the Roman Empire (click to see larger image)The Emperor Augustus dressed as a Roman priest (click to see larger image)The Romans now owned all the area around the Mediterranean Sea or, rather, Octavian owned it for them. In 29 BCE they woke up from a century of civil war to find themselves the clients of one of their own. Though a comfortable and becoming indenture, it was slavery all the same.

Octavian began by ending the most brutal period of internal violence ancient Rome had ever experienced or was to see, the so-called "Roman Revolution," and installed a regime that engendered two-hundred years of general peace, the so-called Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"), all at the simple price of Roman liberty. To a populace wearied of war, the choice was no choice at all. It was time to stop making war and choices and leave the fighting and deciding to someone else. It was time for Romans to enjoy the fruits of peace and leisure, something the next generation and its descendants learned to bite into with a gusto unprecedented in Roman history.

The Emperor Augustus in military dress (click to see larger image)So, when Octavian officially "restored" the Republic to the Senate in 27 BCE—of course, it was only the hollow shell of representative government, with the conqueror of Rome in real control—he looked for all the world to be a reasonable master, and the Romans signed on en masse. In return, Octavian was given the title Augustus ("Holy") and the summer months of Quintilis and Sextilis were renamed Julius and Augustus, our July and August, to honor him and his now deified predecessor, Julius Caesar. Henceforth, Octavian was, to the Romans and for all time, the "Holy Man" Augustus.

The Ruins of the Roman Forum (click to see a reconstruction of the Roman Capitol)The famous historian, Edward Gibbon, suggested in his monumental tome, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that this Pax Romana was the single finest period in human history. There is much to support his opinion—and much not to, also—peace reigned (for the most part), wealth abounded (for the wealthy) and Roman culture (but really Greek culture) permeated every corner of the Roman Empire. And let us be clear: that is Empire, not Republic.

As the Pax Romana forged on, the Republic, even the hollow trappings of democracy, became a long-lost memory. The Roman State now served the whim of an "emperor"—a derivative of the Latin word imperator ( "general"), an emperor's technical title—who commanded his subjects like a ruthless and singlehanded autocrat, to paeans of universal gratitude and remarkably few cries of protest. After all, how many dogs protest when they're served their dinner?

Colosseum (click to see larger image)A few of these emperors made good heads-of-state—Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius embody some of the best leadership ever in human history—others did not. Names like Tiberius, Caligula and Nero are synonymous with tyrant, despot and sadist. But all these emperors, good or bad, lived up to the Latin that lurks behind their title. Their power rested largely on their ability to steer Rome's legions, what by then defined and controlled the state.

Pompeii (click to see larger image)And it was a state at its finest, a "high noon" if there ever was one. In terms of literature, Rome produced some of the finest writers in history: Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Seneca, to name but a few. In terms of architecture, the city itself became the grandest in the known world. Its Capitol, the center of Roman commerce and government, gives us the very word "capitol," meaning "a statehouse, or the building where any legislature meets." The Colosseum, an enormous amphitheatre built during the reign of the emperor Vespasian (69-79 CE), did much the same for sports arenas.

Other Roman arts, however, like painting, have not fared so well over time, though in their day they were the object of much interest and praise. Only in rare instances, such as the well-preserved city of Pompeii, can we glimpse the brilliance of Roman craftsmanship in arts such as wall-painting. Still, the Pax Romana was clearly and by all fair standards a golden age resplendent in its tranquility and the heights of civilization it achieved—in other words, boring!

B. The Decline and Fall of Rome

Bust of a German Bodyguard (click to see larger image)To the good fortune of historians and everyone else's sorrow, the ennui did not endure. The Roman Empire's infamous "decline and fall," the subject of much debate post antiquity, was presaged by another century of turmoil and revolution, resulting in a new type of state, army and religion. That is, the government of Rome in the fourth century and after was nothing short of totalitarian, in many respects more Medieval than Classical.

The army, for example, eventually based itself on the very effective Germanic comitatus ("war-band"), no longer resembling the classical legions of Scipio's day, by now a distant memory. And the ancient Olympian religious system centering on Jupiter, Juno and their multifarious kin collapsed as Christianity surged in popularity. All in all, it was a Rome Augustus would hardly have recognized. Indeed, if he had glimpsed his city around 400 CE, he would probably have said that Rome was already gone a century before its purported "fall," which begs the beguiling question: "Why did Rome fall?"

Map of Late Rome (click to see larger image)No single answer to that question—and there have been more than two hundred posited—has won universal, or even widespread, approval. It is simply too complex a question to answer at such a remove as ours and with the scant data that remains. But it is safe to say that certain conventional answers, regularly trotted out at the convenience of various factions in our society today, have little historical validity. "Moral decay," for instance, probably did not play a primary role, at least by the standards of contemporary proselytizers, since Rome had been an exclusively Christian state for nearly a century by the time of its reputed "fall" in 476 CE. Conversely, if one is tempted to place the blame on the rise of Christianity, as Gibbon did, then what's to be made of the Western Empire's equally benighted twin in the East, the deeply Christian Byzantine Empire that would not disappear completely for yet another millennium?

All in all, the most compelling reasons cited for Rome's decline and fall stem most likely from less exotic and eye-catching things than orgies, religious or otherwise. For one, the Romans never really fostered a strong industrial base in their empire.They farmed, they fought, they traded, they enslaved and organized the world around them, but they did not cultivate industry or anything that could sustain their economy outside of subjugating and exploiting conquered peoples. So, when their foreign conquests began to slow down and eventually faltered, they had nothing to fall back on.

Barbarian attacking Rome (click to see larger image)With that, taxation and money woes increased over time—inflation was a persistent and corrosive influence from the third century on—to the point that people began avoiding work altogether, just to dodge taxes. And from that came the abandonment of cities, the failure of central government and the inability to pay the soldiers defending the empire, which led to the rupture of the frontiers that kept at bay the barbarians living outside the boundaries of Rome. A state in such deep and lingering debt cannot go on for long.

Map of the Barbarian Invasions (click to see larger image)When the Visigoths broke in and sacked the city of Rome in 410 CE, the end seemed inevitable. Though it took, in fact, over sixty years more for the barbarians to complete their devastation of the West, eventually a man who was not a Roman citizen—nor even a Roman—was pronounced the "Emperor of Rome." It should be noted, however, that this man, a German named Odoacer (or Odovacar) who did little more violence in assuming the throne than dump a child out of a chair, acted as "Roman" as any emperor in the last years of the empire. He proceeded to run the Roman government and army with great skill. His only real drawback was that he was technically an outsider, and so Rome is said to "fall" with his assumption of power in 476 CE. Anti-German bigotry underlies the presumption of this purported collapse.

Map of Barbarian Kingdoms (click to see larger image)The reality of the "Fall of Rome"—"splinter" or "crumble" would be a better metaphor—is that a long, slow process of governmental decentralization led to the birth of several smaller states (provinces and the like) founded largely on Roman local administration. These presaged the formation of modern Western Europe and North Africa today. All in all, these new states proved, in the long run, a stronger, more adaptable collective than the monolithic, bureaucracy-laden leviathan that had once been Roman government. (click here to read more about this issue)

These Romulae ("little Romes") that inherited Rome's West recall nothing so much as the days preceding the Romans' rise to greatness, a time when myths abound and reliable data are hard to come by. This later age, the first period of the so-called "Middle Ages," which is often seen as a "bad" or "dark" down-time in history, represents, in fact, a necessary and vibrant phase in the re-creation of Europe, in reality, an exciting and formative epoch responsible for many of the things we rely on today: the modern alphabet, our calendar and dating system, the educational curricula our students enjoy so much, and so much more. "Dark" only to historians, the period of the "decline and fall of Rome" and its subsequent stages of development are actually a beacon that guides us into the future and shows us who we are. The fact is, we are all living in "late" Rome.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know
753 BCE
Romulus and Remus
510 BCE
Plebeians [pluh-BEE-yawns]
Magna Graecia [MAHG-naw GRIGH-key-yah]
First Punic War
Second Punic War
Scipio Africanus [SKIP-ee-yoh aff-rick-CAN-nuss]
Julius Caesar
Ides of March
Mark Antony
Pax Romana
Decline and Fall
Middle Ages


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