The history of Rome–part three

After Julius Caesar died, five of his relatives followed him as leaders of Rome. Octavian was the first, who adopted the title of Emperor and brought an end to the Roman Republic. He was given the title Augustus. After Augustus came Tiberius, then Gaius (called Caligula for the little army boots he wore as a boy), then Claudius, and then Nero. None of them inherited their position from their father; the succession of the early emperors was far more complicated. But all of them gained power over the Roman Empire and ruled much of the known world from the city of Rome.

Augustus ruled as Emperor for more than forty years. His designated heir, Tiberius, ruled more than twenty years. Between them, they accustomed the Roman people to Imperial government, centered upon a single person. Gaius Caligula was far less competent. He saw that his predecessors, Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, were being honored as Roman gods, and he demanded the honor and worship of a god while he was still alive. After four years of expensive and chaotic rule, he was assassinated. The Senate appeared ready to restore the Republic, but soldiers found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace and declared him Emperor. Claudius ruled the Empire about a dozen years, and his heir—Nero—was even worse than Caligula. Nero focused the power and wealth of the Empire upon himself. He accused wealthy people of treason so he could execute them and claim their families’ money for his expenses. He also sought honor as a god. Before he could be assassinated, though, he killed himself—the last Caesar to be related to Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.

By this time, the family name of Caesar had become a title, and it was sought by several generals of the Roman army. After a period of competing Caesars, accompanied by wars and assassinations, the general Vespasian was able to gain and keep power over the Empire as Caesar. After he died, his sons—first Titus, then Domitian—held power. After Domitian died, another period of chaos followed. In the next century, a line of several emperors managed to maintain a stable government. One feature of their rule was that each adopted a capable man to be son and heir, training him to follow them as Caesar. The philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius broke this pattern, making his own son Commodus his heir. Commodus was a disappointment, and once again the empire was thrown into turmoil, as various generals battled one another for power. Always, even from the time of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, control of the army was necessary for control of the Empire. Rome never had a Caesar who was not experienced in military matters and supported by the Roman army.

Three hundred years after Octavian Caesar Augustus became Emperor, a general named Diocletian gained power over the Empire. Diocletian could see that maintaining control of the entire empire was difficult because of its size and the many challenges it faced in different places. He began a system that had four leaders—two called Augustus and two called Caesar, one pair in the east and another in the west. This system held for a while. Then Constantine rose to power. Constantine did three things that changed the course of history. First, he called upon Jesus Christ to help him in battle, promising to become a Christian if he won. Constantine won, gained control of the Empire, and announced that he was a Christian. (He delayed baptism until he was on his deathbed, but this does not mean that he was lacking Christian faith. Many Christians delayed baptism as long as they could, fearing that baptism removed only previous sins and would not bring forgiveness for sins that were committed after one was baptized.) Constantine also built a new capital city for the Empire. Near a town called Byzantium, in the land that is now called Turkey, Constantine built a new city, naming it Constantinople. He moved his government to this new city, leaving the original city of Rome under a leader who answered to his authority as Emperor. (The third major accomplishment of Constantine was to assemble a church meeting to clarify the identity of Jesus Christ—something I will describe in more detail in another post.)

The eventual result of Constantine’s public avowal of Christian faith was to make Christianity legal and respectable in the Empire. Due to persecution, Christians had often hid from the government; now they could build large houses of worship and could reclaim sites where important events (like the birth and the resurrection of Jesus) had happened. The eventual result of Constantine’s new capital city was a new name for the Empire. Not immediately, but eventually, the land ruled from Constantinople would be called the Byzantine Empire. The early kingdom of Rome lasted a century or two. The Republic lasted almost five hundred years. From Caesar Augustus to Constantine was another three hundred and some years. From Constantine to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks was another eleven centuries. The entire history of Roman power, then, lasted more than two thousand years, but more than half of it was ruled from outside of Rome, from Constantinople.

But the emergence and triumph of Christianity outweighs the accomplishments and consequences of all of the Caesars combined. J.

History of Rome, part two

The peninsula Italy looks much like a boot, with the city of Rome situated on the shin. The island Sicily appears to be a rock being kicked by the boot. When Rome had consolidated power over Italy, it turned its attention to Sicily, which brought it into conflict with the north African city Carthage, once a colony founded by the Phoenicians. War erupted between Rome and Carthage over control of Sicily. The result of that fight, known as the First Punic War, was that Rome gained control of Sicily and also damaged the Carthaginian navy, making Rome the prevalent power of the western Mediterranean Sea.

Treaties were signed between Rome and Carthage, but Roman leaders were not content with the treaties they had signed. Almost immediately, they sought ways to violate the treaties and return to war with Carthage—preferring, if possible, to make Carthage seem guilty of the breach rather than Rome. The desired conflict was sparked to the west, in what is now Spain. Rome sent its armies to defend Roman interests in Spain, but Hannibal—a general from Carthage—responded by transporting troops and supplies across southern Gaul (which is now France), over the Alps, and into Italy. (He was forced to use the land route because of the previous damage to Carthage’s naval forces.) His army was too weak to lay siege to Rome itself, largely because of reductions in strength during the long voyage to Italy; but they devastated the Italian countryside, hoping to draw Roman forces into an engaged battle. The Roman commander, Fabius, preferred to avoid battle and wait for Hannibal’s troops to run out of supplies. When Roman citizens tired of the impasse, other Roman generals took command and brought the fight to Hannibal. The Romans were solidly defeated. In the end, though, Hannibal still could not attack Rome itself. Another Roman general, Scipio (later given the title Africanus for his victory) moved his troops from Spain to north Africa, attacking Carthage and ending the Second Punic War in Rome’s favor.

Now masters of the western Mediterranean Sea, the Romans turned their attention to the east, to the land of Greece and the kingdoms ruled by descendants of Alexander’s generals. Over the course of many years, with a combination of negotiations, treaties, and military victories, Rome captured all the kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean basin. But some Roman politicians feared a revival of Carthage. A Senator named Cato ended every speech he gave, on any topic whatsoever, with the words, “Moreover, Carthage must be destroyed.” Eventually, his opinion prevailed. Rome attacked Carthage, initiating the Third Punic War, which Rome easily won, and Carthage was destroyed.

As Roman power expanded, the system of the Republic became increasingly unwieldy. Between bouts with other kingdoms, Rome was threatened with civil war. Several generals seized political power, generally with the support of their troops, who were demanding better retirement plans for veterans of the Roman army. Gaius Gracchus, his younger brother Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Marius, Cornelius Sulla, and Gnaeus “Pompey” Pompeius all sought power and influence to reform Roman law, to care for soldiers and veterans, and to establish a government capable of handling the larger land mass and population Rome was now ruling.

The most famous in this line of reformers was Julius Caesar. Like the other reformers, Julius Caesar rose to power within the Roman military system. Like the other reformers, he seized political power in Rome, working to adjust the government to face the changing reality of its power. Along the way, he reinvented the calendar (and the Julian Calendar, with some tinkering from a pope named Gregory, is still used around the world today). He revised the judicial system and the welfare system of Rome. He sent citizens to colonize various regions in conquered lands, relieving overpopulation in the city of Rome and other Italian municipalities. He rewrote the rules of local government in the places ruled by Rome. He planned new construction, including highways and harbors.


The opponents of Julius Caesar warned that their leader was becoming a king. (Remember that the word king—“rex”—was one of the most frightening words in the Latin language.) Graffiti even appeared in Rome with the words “Rex Julius.” To prevent his coronation, a group of Senators assassinated Caesar, stabbing him to death on the Senate floor. They believed that they had preserved the Republic. Instead, the provoked a new civil war, one which ended when Caesar’s grandnephew and heir, Octavian Caesar, defeated his opponents in battle. Octavian made it clear that he did not want to be a king. “Just call me Emperor,” he said, borrowing a word from legal practice that did not yet have the meaning it acquired. Octavian completed the reform that Julius began, finally bringing peace to the Roman Empire. A grateful Senate granted him a new title, making him Caesar Augustus. In time, the family name of Caesar would become a title equivalent to king or emperor—in Germany it was spelled Kaiser, and in Russia it was spelled Czar or Tsar.

But Caesar Augustus could not anticipate that a Jewish baby, born in his empire and counted in his census, would rise to outshine him in power and in glory. J.