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The Roman Empire

The City of Rome and its decaying senate had failed in its attempt to rule the now vast Roman Empire. The mightiest of the Romans, Julius Caesar, had formed great plans for improving and organizing the Empire. Both Caesar and Alexander before him -- the greatest men of the ancient world -- had hoped, if they had lived, to weld together East and West, from the borders of India to the Atlantic Ocean.

Brutus and Cassius, and earlier patriots like Cicero, had tried to restore the ancient republic. But the fine old Roman character had been destroyed in the constant wars, and Rome and its rabble of citizens could no longer rule an empire. The death of Julius Caesar was followed by fourteen more years of civil war. At last (31 B.C.) these turmoils ended with the triumph of Caesar's grand-nephew, who became Augustus, "the august," and Princeps, "the first of Roman citizens" -- in fact, the first Emperor of Rome, though the hated name of "king" was not used.

And so the century of violent changes or revolution (133-31 B.C.) ended in the rule of one man -- as in the ancient East. And this Roman Empire lasted, though it gradually decayed after the first two centuries, for 500 years.

With the reign of Augustus (33 B.C. to A.D. 14) began two centuries of peace and prosperity in the Roman world -- the Roman Peace (Pax Romana). It was in this brilliant reign that the great Latin writers lived -- Livy the historian, and Vergil and Horace the poets. And it was in an eastern corner of this empire that Jesus Christ was born.

The various provinces of the Empire were now better ruled by governors chosen by the emperor. Tribute was paid to the one Caesar, whom all obeyed, and it was collected by the publicans, or tax-gatherers, of whom we read in the New Testament. "It came to pass," wrote St. Luke, "that there went out a decree of Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one to his own city." All over the Empire the great land and property taxes were levied, and the governors (like Pontius Pilate) were responsible for their collection. What remained, after paying the expenses of the province, was sent to Rome each year.

Of the various provinces, Spain, since 200 B.C., had been the most completely Romanized. It gave many soldiers to the emperors, and these became full Roman citizens. Many of its great towns date from the time of the. Romans -- e.g. Seville, Toledo, and Lisbon.

Gaul was also fully Romanized in language and custom, and it was as flourishing as any part of the Empire. At Nismes we can still see the magnificent Roman bridge and aqueduct (built about A.D. 20) which carried fresh spring water to the Roman colonists in the town. At the famous town of Lyons (Lugdunum) many great roads met, and for three centuries it was the capital of Roman Gaul; there, every year, was held the national festival of the Druids.

In Britain, famous Roman towns were Chester, Caerleon, York, Silchester, and Colchester, where the Emperor Claudius stayed. Between A.D. 43 and 51 all South Britain had come into Roman hands, and the brave chief Caractaeus had been sent in chains as a captive to Rome itself.

Throughout western Europe may still be seen, in the various museums and elsewhere, remains of the daily life of the people of the Roman Empire -- the artisans' tools, the pots and vases, knives and daggers, and even the children's toys and the women's needles.

In Italy, Rome itself was greatly changed by Augustus. He found it, he said, a city of brick, and left it of marble. Across the old market-place was the new senate house, planned by Caesar. Beyond rises the Capitol, with the Temple of Jove on its hill and the Temple of Concord at its base. In Augustus' time the first of the great series of Baths was built, and also the Pantheon, with its great dome -- the oldest building still standing complete in the great city. The Colosseum was built later (about A.D. 80). Thus Augustus and his successors, following the example of Pericles who beautified Athens, made Rome a worthy capital of the world.

Within the frontiers, Pax Romana -- the Roman Peace -- ruled supreme. For the first two centuries of the Christian era, the world had peace and order such as has never been known before or since.

"If we turn our eyes towards the monarchies of Asia, we shall behold despotism ... and subjects inclined to rebellion though incapable of freedom. But the obedience of the Roman world was uniform, voluntary, and permanent. The vanquished nations, blended into one great people, resigned the hope -- nay, even the wish -- of resuming their independence.... The authority of the emperors... was exercised with the same facility on the banks of the Thames, or of the Nile, as on those of the Tiber.... In this state of general security the leisure, as well as the opulence, both of the prince and people, were devoted to improve and to adorn the Roman Empire." So wrote Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Wherever the Roman ruled, there he lived. All the Roman towns had certain features in common -- baths, dyeing works, a market-place or forum, a town hall, where the busy crowds did their business; temples, and perhaps an early church (as at Silchester) of the Christians; an open-air theatre, sometimes seating 10,000 spectators. There the people enjoyed their games and watched the gladiators: "man battles man, and beast mangles beast; the hairy wild boar is pitted against the great hounds, and the wolf is let loose on the mighty bulls, until the ladies and brutish slaves have had enough of bloodshed."

In their houses the Romans set an example which the Western World has yet to emulate. There have never been more beautiful villas or town houses than those of the Roman citizens and colonists. They were built round an open court, adorned with marble statues and fountains and gardens, and all round the court was a colonnade. The dining and sitting rooms, the library and bedrooms all opened on this garden court. And if the house belonged to a wealthy Roman, he would have it furnished with Eastern mosaics and carpets, pipes for running water, hot and cold baths, sanitary conveniences, and beautiful bronze kitchen utensils; and a large number of household slaves would wait upon him and his family.

Connecting the towns were the great straight roads built by the engineers of the Roman army -- like Watling Street and Fosse Way in our own island, and the Appian Way in Italy. There were no better roads in the world till the nineteenth century, nor were travel and traffic so quick till the coming of the railways. Along these great roads moved the Roman legions and their supplies, and the emperor's armies, and all the traffic of commerce. Where the roads crossed, there arose great camps (castra), which in time became towns.

On the frontiers of the Empire the Roman legions kept guard -- on the Rhine, on the Danube, on the Euphrates; and in Britain, at the famous "wall" built between Solway and Tyne by the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 120). And on these frontiers many cruel and exhausting wars were fought.