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Rome: the Early Empire

The Roots of Medieval Civilization


Rome had been a monarchy, then a republic, but it is as an empire that the civilization is most renowned. When medieval scholars and rulers looked back at "the Glory that was Rome," the early empire is usually what evoked such admiration and nostalgia. Though dates vary according to the scholar, the period from about 30 B.C.E. to the mid-third century C.E. is known as the Principate. This was when one ruler took control, putting an end to civil war and bringing peace and prosperity to Rome.

Here are some of the defining aspects of early imperial Roman civilization.

Emperors of a Republic

Beginning with Augustus, the rulers of Rome tried to maintain the premise that their government was still a republic. And certain aspects of the republic did remain, albeit in notably different forms. Among them:

  • a far-reaching and well-established government infrastructure
  • a tradition of respect for the law
  • the Senate

However, as an autocratic ruler, the emperor could exercise control over the government infrastructure at will; he could pass laws without the consent of any legislative body; he could ignore the Senate (which was basically a body of advisors), manipulate its activity or determine who its members could and could not be.

Nevertheless, the best leaders had respect for all these facets of Roman government and at the very least paid lip-service to them. People at most levels of Roman society were therefore left with the impression that they had some say in government. Indeed, they sometimes did have a say, even though it was a single ruler who ultimately made the decisions, and even though that ruler's power came not "from the people" or even from the upper classes, but from the military.

Some of the early emperors (most notably Augustus) were successful in bringing peace back to Rome and relieving its economic troubles. As a result, emperors were elevated to the status of gods after they died. Some were even worshipped while they were still alive -- a practice that was encouraged by the government. This of course led to the occasional misuse of the position, but the system was fortunate enough to survive even "mad" emperors like Caligula.

With widespread prosperity, expanding borders, an efficient government that resembled a Republic and effective rulers, there was a surge of romanitas. This patriotic sense of being Roman was a phenomenon that would outlast the Empire itself.

The Military

Unlike the republic, which had for most of its history a kind of part-time service army, the Roman Empire had a standing army, and it was fairly impressive. The Roman Army was responsible for the following:

  • The Pax Romana
    The army occasionally engaged in wars of expansion, which helped to spread Roman law, culture and language to a large geographical area. But, more importantly, it successfully defended the borders. The result was the Pax Romana, "Roman Peace," which allowed trade to take place throughout the empire with relatively little hindrance from bandits or the outbreak of war.

  • The Spread of Roman Culture
    Army units remained stationed in one area for long periods of time, and so they built towns at the far reaches of the Empire that had a distinctly Roman character. Even societies that weren't strictly part of the empire would be influenced by Roman culture; succeeding generations would inherit Roman architecture and engineering feats they could utilize and strive to reproduce.

  • Roman Engineering
    When they weren't busy fighting, soldiers built public works such as aqueducts, bridges, and the famous Roman roads. Nearly everywhere within the Empire's borders, Roman citizens could enjoy the technological advances of Roman water supply and sewage systems. The inhabitants of many towns and cities throughout the empire could enjoy products and foods they otherwise would never have experienced but for those sturdy, far-reaching highways and the merchants who were able to travel them in peace.

  • Support of the Emperor
    Officers took oaths of allegiance to the emperor, which they renewed every January 1. The oath included the promise not only to support the current emperor, but to see to it that his heir or chosen successor would take his place once he died.

The Roman Empire thus owed its peace and prosperity, its civic infrastructure, and even part of its government to a strong and well-used military force.


In the last century of the Republic, Roman law evolved swiftly from a primarily oral tradition passed from one pontifical priest to the next into a complex system of written codes. By the time the empire was established, respect for both customary and written law had become fairly well-ingrained in the Roman citizenry. There was at this time no single codification of all Roman law, but a dynamic legal evolution was taking place.

While the Senate became a high court, it was the emperor who acquired the power to make laws. Early emperors often did this in the form of Senatorial decrees, but by the second century it was more common for rulers to issue edicts, mandates, and similar statements in order to legislate directly. The idea that the emperor was the first to abide by the laws he made gave the Roman populace a sense of equality and pride in the system.

Roman law would be highly influential in the development of medieval legal systems.

Continued on Page Two

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