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Chapter XXV

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter XXVII

 p473  Chapter XXVI

From the Tyrant Domitian to the Philosopher M. Aurelius

Nerva, 96‑98 A.D. Most of the emperors of the first century were spoiled children bundled into the throne by fond parents; we come now to a line of emperors, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius, who grew up in private life without knowing what the future would bring. Only after they had proved their worth were they selected for their high office by adoption. When one compares the former line of rulers with the latter, one is tempted to the conclusion that the palace is not a fit place for the rearing of children. M. Cocceius Nerva was 60 years of age and childless when he was called to power. He was of course not a man of outstanding character; had he been so he probably would not have survived so long. Yet he was generally trusted and had escaped Domitian's wrath by tactful and harmless compliance rather than by base subservience. And since he was a man who would bend before a superior, Domitian had enjoyed the privilege of lending respectability to his own despised entourage by calling Nerva a friend.

Nerva, on accepting the throne, accorded the "dyarchy" formal recognition, took the much-desired oath that he would put no senator to death, called back political exiles, suspended the laws of treason, and invited the Senate to appoint a commission to coöperate with him in placing the state's finances upon a sound basis. When the Senate desired furthermore that he should let them have their revenge on Domitian's delatores he refused. He knew too well that he and the other senators were not without blame,  p474 since they had humbly voted at past trials in the way that the emperor demanded, and he was too honest a man to play the pharisee now.

These acts were on the whole promising, but the reign was too brief to reveal what he could do. There is, however, one very striking institution which is credited to his devising, though it is difficult to estimate its ultimate effects. It was he who first set apart large sums of state funds for the double purpose of providing "rural credits" and "mothers' pensions," if we may use modern terms. In the beginning the sums were probably small, and doubtless only a few districts were at first chosen for the experiment; but as the work extended under Trajan it seems that most of the municipalities of Italy were eventually taken into the plan, and it has been estimated that a sum of about 100,000,000 dollars was finally involved. The state's commissioners deposited with each municipality a given amount which the municipality in turn lent in small sums to local farmers on mortgages at a fairly low rate of interest (5 or 6 per cent). These funds, therefore, served in the first instance the very same purpose as the farm-loan banks recently instituted in America. But they performed a second service as well. The interest was not to revert to the state but was given to the municipality to be used by it in providing for the livelihood of poor boys and girls. The purpose of this was apparently to induce poor parents to rear larger families than was then customary; in other words, to provide what some states to‑day have called a "pension for motherhood." Our knowledge of the plan comes mainly from fragments of the stones upon which were inscribed the records of the mortgages, but there are a few literary references also which show the spirit of the institution, for they speak of it as a plan to "bring new life into Italy."

The whole plan seems to be an indication that not only was Italian agriculture in straits, but that the population  p475 was also failing to keep up. That this fact had long been apparent we may infer from Vespasian's policy of discouraging army recruiting in Italy. This is then the second very interesting experiment in sociology and economics undertaken by the emperors. We shall find more of these experiments later, all apparently failing adequately to stem the tide of decay.

Whether such paternalism was wise, whether it was anything but an external panacea and a salve to conscience, is a question that cannot be answered with the facts available. It is at least interesting to see the social conscience awakened to the recognition of disease, and also to see how far the ancient state was ready to leave the narrow beaten path of politics for social reform.

Nerva has been criticized for employing the surplus of provincial funds in the "pauperizing" of Italy, which did not so much as supply soldiers for the army. However, that criticism seems trivial. If we grant that the imperial rule was worthwhile which gave peace to all the provinces and saved the civilized world from external invaders, we must also grant that Italy, the buffer territory of the ruling metropolis, must be peopled by a healthy and strong race ready to defend the metropolis at any crisis, and ready also to supply the defensive troops if any part of the front line broke. The emperors, in other words, were saving Italy not alone for Italy's own enjoyment of life but to provide the last defense of the empire. Whether Italy served that purpose best after generations of coddling is another question. Rome was still a great experiment station in world government, and Nerva's new policy was at least laudable as a permissible experiment.

Trajan, 98‑117 A.D. Nerva had not been in office more than a year when he learned that power was slipping from his hands and that he must have aid. The praetorian cohort demanded, under threat of mutiny, that he put to death the murderers of Domitian. To save the situation he  p476 yielded against his wishes, but he also comprehended that a younger and stronger man must at once be called to power. So he adopted M. Ulpius Trajanus, then legatus of Upper Germany, gave him the name of Caesar, and asked the Senate to confer upon him at once the tribunician and proconsular powers. Trajan was born in Spain, the first emperor in fact from the provinces, but his native city was Italica, which had been the first Roman settlement in Spain, and his father had long been a senator and even proconsul of Asia. Trajan had passed through the regular cursus at Rome, and was favorably known to the Senate before he entered his military career. It would be wholly misleading to call him a Spaniard, as is sometimes done.​a In January, 98, a few months after his adoption and before he had returned to Rome, Nerva died. Not even then did Trajan return, for he was busy planning the roads and forts of the agri decumates that had been incorporated by Domitian; and he felt impelled to study the needs of the Danube provinces, for his experience on the frontier made it plain to him that Domitian's treaty with the Dacians must be revised. He came home after a year, and made a good impression on the Senate, to which he gave the usual formal promises. He also proved himself master of the praetorian guard by punishing the mutineers, and by granting only a half of the usual donative. He felt so strong in his position that on handing the sword of office to his new praetorian prefect, he made bold to say: "Use this for me if I do well, against me if I do ill."

Since the "Lives of the Caesars" by Suetonius ends with the reign of Domitian we have but meager information about the reign of Trajan. The causes of the great Dacian wars, for instance, are not given us. We are not reliably told that Decebalus began them; in fact, we may conclude from Trajan's general policy in foreign affairs that he would sooner or later denounce Domitian's treaty, refuse to send gifts to Decebalus, and demand the return of the Roman  p477 engineers whom Decebalus was employing in the building up of a strong military machine. At any rate, Trajan invaded Dacia in the spring of 101 with a powerful army made up of all the Danubian legions and at least one legion from the Rhine front. The Dacian capital, called Sarmizegethusa, was in Transylvania, well guarded by mountains and woods. In the first year Trajan won a notable victory, but it was not till near the end of the second summer that he succeeded in reaching and taking the capital. Decebalus was made a client-king after surrendering the Roman workmen granted him by Domitian and after accepting a Roman garrison in the capital as well as in several other forts. Trajan returned to Rome to celebrate his triumph. He had apparently not aimed at extending Rome's boundaries beyond the Danube and was satisfied to have a strong buffer state above the river at the point where pressure from the northeast was most to be feared.

However, it soon became apparent that the problem was not yet solved. It was reported that Decebalus was building new forts, strengthening his army, and making secret alliances in contravention of the terms of 102. In 104 the Senate declared war, and in the following spring Trajan crossed the river with increased forces. This time the army made a brickyard on the river and constructed a permanent bridge of brick, parts of which are still to be seen. This was proof to the Dacians that Trajan intended to annex Dacia. The barbarians therefore defended their city till it was set on fire, and when all hope was lost a number of their leaders withdrew to the palace and drank poison to escape capture. Decebalus was pursued until he too was on the point of capture, when he also committed suicide. Many of the inhabitants were hunted out of the mountain fastnesses, where they had taken refuge.

But the region was now more dangerous to the Roman colonies than before, since it would only invite more barbarous folk from the North. Dacia must be settled, and  p478 men could not be spared from Italy for this task. How Trajan got his colonists we are not told, but we find that soon afterwards there were several colonies and municipia with new names in the province, and, to our surprise, a large number of religious inscriptions were presently erected there to all the gods of the East: Mithras and half a dozen different Baals. The new province had, it appears, been populated chiefly by colonists from Syria, Asia, Palmyra and Commagene. The land was doubtless kept in the possession of the state and rented out on the tithe system as the agri decumates had been. For the working of the gold mines, which were then very productive in Transylvania, miners were imported from Dalmatia, and procurators were sent out from Rome who let out the mining contracts on a percentage basis. Thus the Roman treasury, which had for some time felt the stress of a diminishing gold supply, was for a while relieved. It was in these gold mines that our first — though not the oldest — examples of ancient wax tablets were found.

The province, which included Transylvania north of the mountain range and the lesser Wallachia to the south (but not eastern Rumania), endured for about a century and a half, when it was finally overwhelmed by the barbarians of the North; but the circumstance that Rumania to‑day has a language which closely resembles Italian is in some measure due to the temporary occupation of this region by a Roman colony.

Trajan's own history (now lost) of this war was celebrated; it may have been fully illustrated; if so, it was probably from sketches made for his history that the sculptors drew the long series of illustrations with which they covered the remarkable column which now alone remains of Trajan's magnificent Forum. The column stands a hundred feet high, and the procession of events from the crossing of the Danube in the first war to the death of Decebalus in the second is told in a continuous spiral that twines about  p479 the column from the bottom to the top, making a scroll more than 600 feet long that contains over 2,500 figures. To the historian the scroll has great value, not only in giving the order of events but especially in the faithful reproduction of scenes, costumes and armor, portraits, buildings and landscapes. The artist was certainly present in the expeditions, taken along doubtless in order to illustrate Trajan's books as well as to supply the sketches for the tableaux that were to be used in the triumphal procession.

While Trajan was busy in the North, he sent the governor of Syria, Cornelius Palma, to annex Arabia, a task which Augustus had unsuccessfully attempted long before. The Nabataean Arabs held the region of Damascus and the country east of the Jordan as far as the desert. Further south along the coast of the upper Red Sea reigned minor Arab sheiks. The purpose of this aggression was probably to get control of the trade routes, for caravans from Mesopotamia came well laden by way of Damascus, while many Indian and Arabian products, especially precious stones and spices, were being brought up the eastern shore of the Red Sea, and then by caravan to Gaza. It is doubtful whether Roman traders brought influence to bear upon Trajan to include Arabia in the empire in order to facilitate their trade. It is more likely that the emperor acted with a view to strengthening the income of the treasury, for the export and import taxes, the sales taxes, and the tithes of this region would be considerable. The expedition of Palma succeeded, the province of Arabia Petraea was formed, and the pax romana extended the border of safe trading so that caravans came through by shorter routes, and the village of Bostra, on the edge of the desert, became a flourishing city.

[image ALT: A political map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent.]

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent: Growth of the Roman Provincial System from 241 B.C. to the time of Trajan, 117 A.D.

[A larger version, fully readable, opens here (2.4 MB).]

Trajan now remained at home for several years and gave his time assiduously to a thorough renovation of the administrative machinery of the whole empire, including Italy and the senatorial provinces. An eager advocate of efficient  p480 management, he discovered where city governments were carelessly or dishonestly run, and sent city-managers or curatores to ferret out the trouble, to order reforms, and to see that they were executed. He gave these curatores much discretion, but he also made it plain that he and his council of experts were always ready to take the responsibility for any disagreeable decision, so that there should be no delay. Just how this procedure worked we happen to know, because Pliny the younger, who was assigned to Bithynia, preserved the correspondence that passed between him and the emperor on every minute question. Pliny asks, for instance, whether the towns may use Roman soldiers for police guards as had been customary. Trajan answers that the soldiers must be sent back to their colors and that the cities must provide their own police. Might the city of Prusa build a new bathhouse? Yes, if it does not impose new taxes for it. Nicomedia has wasted money on an aqueduct and left it incomplete, what is to be done? Trajan answers that the city must have good water, but that the men must be punished who had been guilty of the misuse of former appropriations. Nicaea has spent $400,000 on a theater which is so poorly built as to be unsafe. Can an architect be sent to inspect it? Trajan answers that Rome has not enough architects to spare and that Pliny must find some Greek builder and decide what is to be done. The people of Apamea desire to have their accounts examined, though they have a treaty forbidding Rome's interference in local administration. Trajan advises Pliny to examine the accounts. The Byzantines spend $500 annually to send an envoy to Rome to bear their honorary decree to the emperor. Could not this sum be saved? Trajan answers that the money can be saved by letting the governor carry such decrees.

There are a great many of such rescripts which prove the good judgment, the liberal-mindedness and the untiring devotion to conscientious duty on the part of the emperor,  p481 but one comprehends also that such paternalism on the part of the master will, if long extended, destroy the sense of responsibility in the local government, and, if exercised by a ruler of bad judgment, can only bring in its train the evils of autocracy. His was a very great departure from the Republican practice of recognizing the autonomy of subject cities, and the precedent established by Trajan led to many dangerous practices later.

In Italy Trajan extended the farm loans and the alimentary institution begun by Nerva. Indeed by his care for the revenues he was able to accumulate funds and add large amounts to the sums to be distributed. Public improvements were also carried on vigorously: a new enlarged harbor at Ostia, for instance, several roads, an aqueduct that brought water to the poor people living beyond the Tiber. (This duct is still used for the fountain of the Acqua Paola). He also used a portion of Nero's paradise for the construction of a public bath for women, and he extended Augustus' forum northward in a series of buildings which constituted perhaps the most impressive group in existence in that day. A forum at one end and a basilica at the other inclosed the space for two library buildings, between which stood the column which has been mentioned. The porches of the library gave access to the upper circles of the column, so that its scroll was, as it were, the most elaborate picture-roll of the whole library collection.

The flaw in Trajan's character, which marred some of his best work, is evident enough in what has already been mentioned, a flaw inherent in Rome's over-emphasis upon "gloria." Trajan paid too high a price for applause. He was too honest to bribe the guard, and he treated the Senate with only a formal dignity, but he was very fond of the plaudits of the people of the streets, and they were already spoiled beyond salvation. It is difficult to comprehend how one so prudent could have justified a donative, after each of the Dacian wars, of about a hundred dollars per man  p482 (650 denarii) to citizens of Rome, and a holiday season of four months at which ten thousand gladiators said to have fought for the amusement of the people. Not even Nero had gone to such extremes.

One is tempted to find this strain of megalomania in the campaigns of eastern conquest with which his life ended, for Trajan attempted to bring Armenia as well as a large part of the Parthian empire under Roman sway, a policy which his successor abandoned. But it is still a debatable question whether his was not the best way to establish a scientific boundary in the east. Rome needed to control Armenia in order to check the invasions of Scythian and Sarmatian nomads. From the time of Lucullus and Pompey, Armenia had in fact served Rome as a buffer state without creating much trouble, except when the Parthian kings interfered and placed their own nominees on the Armenian throne. What brought Trajan to the east was precisely this Parthian intervention. The Parthian king Chosroes (or Osroes) set aside Trajan's nominee for the Armenian throne and placed his nephew, Parthamasiris, there. This was contrary to treaty as well as a declaration of suzerainty in a Roman client-state. Chosroes must be compelled to withdraw of course; the question was whether Rome should try to settle the difficulty permanently by annexations. Armenia could readily be turned into a province, but to hold the province permanently would be expensive. The Parthian kingdom had now expanded not only over the whole of Persia, but also through the whole of Mesopotamia. The Arsacid kings of Parthia could over‑run Armenia and probably overwhelm any army that Rome could afford to station there. Should he annex Parthia also, as Julius Caesar had threatened to do, and could Rome extend her boundaries as far as Afghanistan?

Trajan asked the Senate to declare war in 113, but when he arrived in Syria he found the legions in bad condition.  p483 After a year of severe training he led them into Armenia by the upper Euphrates. Parthamasiris offered to accept the crown from Trajan, but he was ordered to vacate the throne, and presently in some unknown fashion he met his death. Armenia was overrun and annexed to Rome as a province. Then Trajan turned southward and made a province of upper Mesopotamia. The Parthians, being badly organized, offered little resistance. The ease of this task seems to have induced him to undertake the subjugation of Parthia. After wintering in Antioch he returned in 116, went beyond the Tigris, and swept the region of Nineveh into a province of Assyria; then, going back to the Euphrates, he sailed down in a flotilla that he had had built, crossed by the royal canal to the Tigris above modern Bagdad and took Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, and finally carried his army down to the mouth of the river on the Persian gulf. But by this time the natives of upper Mesopotamia in his rear had raised an insurrection. He had to march north again to recover the ground lost. The provinces were reëstablished and he went so far as to declare the Parthian throne vacant and to place upon it Parthamaspates, the son of Chosroes, as Rome's client-prince. However, he had no sooner returned to Syria than he learned that Chosroes was back at Ctesiphon and on his throne again.

It may be that he intended to return for a third attempt, but at present it was impossible, for the Jews who had at the fall of Palestine scattered to their outlying settlements in Alexandria, Cyrene, Cyprus and several metropolitan cities, now took the opportunity to get their revenge. On a fixed day they massacred Romans and Greeks indiscriminately. In Cyprus it is said they put 240,000 to death, in Cyrene 220,000, while in Alexandria their plan turned to their disadvantage and they were practically all killed. Trajan sent his best generals to the scenes of these riots, while he, learning of new trouble on the Danube front, set  p484 out for home. It is very likely that Chosroes had a hand in all of these revolts. At any rate they saved him his kingdom. Trajan died in 117 in Cilicia while on his way home. Hadrian, his successor, surrendered the new eastern provinces, except upper Mesopotamia, to their own kings.

What contemporaries considered Trajan's outstanding acts we learn from the pictures of the arch at Beneventum, erected at the northern end of the great Via Trajana. Their view has proved to accord with the judgment of posterity. The conquest of Dacia and of Mesopotamia stand out of course, for military deeds appeal to the imagination, but the artist did not omit other deeds equally important if more difficult to represent. The panel representing the merchants of Ostia thanking the emperor for a new harbor is given a prominent position; not less so the charming group of children brought by their parents to thank him for the benefits derived from the alimenta. The artist has also pictured the recruiting of provincial youths in Rome's army, conceived of as a Romanizing process to be highly prized, and the bestowal of colonial lands to citizens. The illustrations of the arch emphasize the wide interests of a very capable administrator.

Hadrian, 117‑138 A.D. P. Aelius Hadrianus, though an experienced general and governor, Trajan's own cousin and constant companion and married to Trajan's nearest relative, was not adopted until two days before Trajan's death. This hesitation may of course be due to Trajan's love of attention, but it is probably also an indication that Hadrian did not inspire complete confidence. He was too versatile, too many-sided in his interests, and somewhat too temperamental to seem a safe choice. The story is probably untrue that it was Trajan's competent wife, Plotina, who alone succeeded in having this man adopted, yet the story was believed, and that itself gives a hint of the man's character. There can be little doubt that he  p485 would have received a larger vote of confidence from the women of the court than from the generals in the field. He was a trustworthy and prudent soldier, but he cared for military glory neither for himself nor for the empire. He loved pleasure without being a slave to his physical wants, for on his campaigns he gladly lived as a common soldier. He was fond of social gatherings, and yet, endowed with a very sensitive temperament, he was prone to give and take offense. His friendships were usually brief. He delighted in good literature, and to judge from with the whimsical lines he uttered to his own fleeting spirit on his death-bed, he might have been Rome's most original poet. There is nothing else so strangely modern in Latin verse:

Animula vagula blandula

Hospes comesque corporis,

Quae nunc abibis in loca

Pallidula rigida nudula,

Nec ut soles dabis jocos.​1

What with his devotion to philosophy, to painting, to the early drama, to constant travel in ancient cities, to new experiments in architecture, he was a rather unusual choice for the throne of Augustus and Trajan. And one cannot forget that he trudged to the top of Aetna, 10,000 feet, to see the sunrise! Yet the choice was justified. He lifted the great burden with ease and gave Rome an administration for twenty‑one years that was surpassed in wisdom by few.

Hadrian had his cognomen from his far off forebears who had come from Hadria in Picenum. Several generations of the family however had lived in Italica in Spain, and his great-grandfather was the first of his line to win a  p486 senator's seat at Rome — doubtless under Julius Caesar's liberal policy. His advancement through the many stages of the cursus and his high offices in the army were doubtless due to his cousin's presence on the throne. But for that he would doubtless have gone a different road. He was not popular with the senators, partly because he came to his succession while in the East and for obvious reasons had to ask for the army's acclamation before the Senate knew what was happening. Trajan had several great generals in the East, and any delay would have meant a division of the army into factions and consequent civil war. But a large part of his unpopularity was also due to his frank acceptance of Trajan's policy of administering Italy and senatorial provinces in almost complete disregard of Augustan traditions. He divided Italy into four judicial districts. He placed senators in charge to be sure, but the innovation not only interfered with the autonomy of Italian municipalities but also encroached on the domain of the Senate.

The very basis of his whole vast administrative reform centered around the idea that since senatorial government had failed, imperial civil service machinery must be built up adequate to the great task and dignified enough to be worthy of the empire. Obviously if this was to be done, the offices of this cursus must not be in the hands of mere household freedmen. He removed these completely from high office. On the other hand it was not easy to draw senators away from republican offices into imperial ones. Hence it is that he built up the new bureaus largely with the aid of equites, who were free from established prejudices. Perhaps he went tactlessly far at times, as when he placed Marcius Turbo, a knight, over all the Danube provinces. To be sure, he gave him the title of "Prefect of Egypt," because the Egyptian command was an equestrian office and carried military duties with it. But the Senate did not like to see a knight in command of an army. In the  p487 gathering of revenues also freedmen were avoided. The procurators came more and more to be equites, and there was added to the bureau a separate staff of advocati fisci — these also being knights — whose duty it was to bring in arrears in revenue and guard the interests of the treasury in court proceedings. We also hear now for the first time of a regular post-horse department (for state mail and state traveling) in charge of a knight, the praefectus vehiculorum. Heads of bureaus of this kind were continued in office during good service and were well paid — from 60,000 to 300,000 sesterces a year (at this time worth from two to ten thousand dollars). The highest paid were the ministers of state (who in Claudius' day had been freedmen); a rationibus, ab epistulis, a libellis, and a few others. The next in grade were the procurators or financial agents of the provinces, then several heads of bureaus that once belonged to the city aediles, e.g. procuratores alimentorum, — aquarum, — bibliothecarum. This system had of course been growing up slowly under the preceding emperors, but the organization bears particularly the mark of Hadrian's monarchial ideas. It was the existence of this well-organized group of administrative bureaus which made it possible for the imperial machinery to run moderately well through the third century when the executive division of the government was wracked by civil strife.

Hadrian's first military task was to deal with the Sarmatians, who, learning that Trajan had called some of the legions to the East, began to attack the new province of Dacia. Hadrian seems to have brought about peace without a war; in fact he was so eager to avoid bloodshed that he sent the enemy presents to vouch for his desire for a peaceful settlement. But he made a careful survey of the military situation, and set the army at work on a strong line of forts to protect the frontiers of Dacia and of lower Moesia which now extended beyond the lower Danube as far as Bessarabia. Before he returned he heard of a  p488 serious conspiracy against him as well as of its suppression by the Senate. It was led by some of Trajan's best generals whose services Hadrian had not employed, especially the Moorish general, Lusius Quietus, who had been Trajan's chief cavalry officer in Dacia and Parthia, and Cornelius Palma, who had some years before conquered Arabia. It stands to reason that this military group had favored Trajan's expansionistic policy, and in turn grew suspicious of an emperor who at once surrendered all that they had gained in the East in three hard-fought campaigns. The Senate seems to have disposed of the four leaders without awaiting word from Hadrian. All four were executed. The severity was attributed to Hadrian by the populace, we are told, and was never quite forgiven.

The next eleven years Hadrian spent in extended tours from province to province with a view not only to establishing the frontier organization but also to encouraging the provincial cities everywhere to participate in promoting public work. He began at the Rhine frontier where he ordered the completion of the limes to the Danube. Along the whole limes he adopted a new policy in that he broke up the base forts, and sent the army in cohorts to the very wall to do guard duty. This was doubtless more effective for the time being, but it also immobilized the army and turned it into a stationary garrison. The consequences were not wholly satisfactory. In connection with this he made each legion its own recruiting agent, as a result of which the legions soon came to be made up of natives of the nearby regions. This of course facilitated the upkeep of the army and made service more attractive, but it disregarded the lesson that Vespasian drew from the revolt of Civilis; and the next century suffered from the nationalistic esprit de corps of the Illyrian and Gallic armies. Next he went to Britain, where the ninth legion had recently suffered defeat. Here too he set a permanent boundary by building a wall about eight feet broad and twenty feet  p489 high across the whole island from the Tyne to the Solway, parts of which are to be seen to‑day. York henceforth became the northern garrison. This is one of the most definite indications that in Hadrian's opinion Rome need never again adopt an aggressive policy.

Proceeding across Spain and along the African coast he spent two years in the East. He visited Chosroes in the friendliest manner, sent back to him his daughter, whom Trajan had taken away as captive, and promised to return the golden throne of Parthia which was now one of the showpieces at Rome. This was a very unusual course for a Roman, but entirely in harmony with the answer he gave chauvinistic senators who complained about "hauling down the flag" in Mesopotamia. He pointed out that during the Republic the Senate had done the same thing in Macedonia at Cato's advice. There are times when Hadrian seems to be what modern diplomatists like to call an impractical idealist. Before returning home he visited a great number of the famous ancient cities, encouraged them to improve their public buildings as well as their finances, visited their theaters, their games, and their lectures, and encouraged their literary men. New buildings were begun everywhere, usually on popular subscriptions, to which Hadrian gave generous sums. Corinth received a new aqueduct with public baths, Smyrna a gymnasium, Ephesus a temple to Rome, Megara one to Apollo, and at Athens, in which he remained a long time, he completed the great temple to Zeus was Pisistratus had left uncompleted seven centuries before. He wished to recall to the Greeks their former greatness and to instill in them a pride and optimism that might if possible engender the spark of creation once more. Nothing enduring came of it, but one can only admire the enthusiasm that insisted upon trying. At any rate it was not his fault that the old Greek blood had been diluted by dulled mixtures that possessed no creative force.

Returning home in 126, he presently visited the province  p490 of Africa, where the exhaustion of the soil was beginning to cause distress. The Roman settlers and the soldiers of the third legion had made Africa and Numidia blossom into a very productive country during the preceding century. The third legion, stationed by Augustus at Theveste, a hundred miles south of the coast, had built a city in the very desert. Trajan had moved the camp to Thamugadi (Timgad), somewhat to the west, to be nearer Mauretania. The impressive foundations of this camp-city with its splendid praetorium, its baths, temples, and library, are perhaps the best evidence of Rome's method of city-building that can be found. Hadrian now again moved the camp nearer Mauretania to Lambaesis, and its ruins to‑day are only less remarkable than those of Timgad.

But what especially engaged the attention of Hadrian was the condition of the agricultural folk in this province, which had supplemented Sicily as the granary of Rome. The region had been settled by many Romans who had had to migrate in search of new homes when their lands were confiscated by the triumvirs. Owing to the fact that farming was not a success in Africa without expensive irrigation, rich landlords with ready capital soon got possession of vast tracts, employing the small farmers now as their tenants. And since Nero had proscribed many of these wealthy landlords and had brought their property into the fiscus, the state had great domains here. Under Vespasian and Trajan the procurators of the state would lease out these imperial domains to large contractors (conductores) who would sub‑lease plots to peasants (coloni) on condition that they turn in as rental a percentage of the crop and also six days' labor per year on the domain lands which were not sub‑leased. In Hadrian's day we find, from inscriptional records of tenants' grievances, that, since the thin soil was beginning to give out, the tenants were appealing to the state's agents for reductions in rent, for the privilege of taking up and replanting abandoned farms on  p491 easy terms, and for exemption from the forced labor which the contractors were imposing over and above the six stipulated days. In fact it seems that the contractors had gradually been imposing a mild kind of serfdom on the tenants. The whole problem is particularly interesting because it shows how serfdom began on the state-domains of the empire. For the purpose Hadrian examined the situation and issued an edict rectifying the grievances, and this was inscribed in various copies and set up here and there on the domains for the protection of the coloni.

In the year 129, after a few months' rest at Rome, Hadrian set out upon a second long journey of four years, this time chiefly to the East. He visited numerous cities as before to show that he was eager to see how far his plans had been carried out. While in Syria he made the mistake of founding a colony on the site of her. This act drove the Jews who still remained into a desperate revolt under the leadership of Bar Cochba, who claimed to be the Messiah. This guerrilla war continued for several years, and since the insurgents would neither come to terms nor surrender Judea was nearly depopulated. Hadrian left the conduct of the war to a legatus while he went to visit Egypt. There he extended his tour of inspection as far as Syene. It was in Egypt that Antinous died, a young Bithynian on whom he seems to have lavished a sentimental devotion. It was said that Antinous had heard of a strange prophecy that Hadrian was doomed to an early death unless a victim was found to sacrifice himself in the emperor's place, and that in consequence the young man drowned himself in the Nile. Hadrian, deeply touched by this act of devotion, proclaimed Antinous a deity and had his statue made in many replicas with the attributes of Dionysus. But this was a proof of mysticism that did not wholly please Rome. Hadrian returned by way of Athens where he dedicated in 132 the great temple of Zeus now nearing completion.

 p492  Of his last years, spent mostly in a sick bed, we hear little except that he built his mausoleum beyond the Tiber, the present Castel Sant' Angelo, and continued to add to his villa below Tibur, the ruins of which are still most impressive. It is probable, however, that some of his administrative reforms belong to this period. We have mentioned those of the civil service above. A reform in legal procedure is perhaps of greater importance. Preceding emperors had come more and more to assume judicial functions, and had often employed jurists to aid them in writing decisions. Hadrian now formed a permanent bench, a privy council, of consiliarii Augusti, consisting of senators and knights well grounded in law. They were regularly appointed and received salaries. This change was extremely important, for hitherto the councillor was too frequently expected to be the emperor's spokesman who could find the right argument for him. Henceforth the council consisted of an independent body of responsible men who were expected to vote according to the dictates of logic and law. It may well be that a new emphasis upon humanitarian principles which enters Roman law at this time is due to the activity of this council. Slaves, for instance, were now given a standing in court, whereas they had hitherto been at the mercy of their masters, and it was also forbidden to sell slaves for immoral purposes. A digest of old praetors' edicts, the so‑called perpetual edict, was also made by Julianus, one of the chief councillors, and this became law by enactment of the Senate.

As his successor, since he had no children, Hadrian chose for adoption a young man, L. Ceionius Commodus, of whom we know very little, and to whom of course he gave his own nomen, so that he was called L. Aelius Caesar. Aelius however soon died, leaving a son, L. Verus, only seven years old. Hadrian, therefore, chose again, this time selecting a senator of over fifty years of age, T. Aurelius Antoninus, who for his kindness to his adoptive  p493 father came to be called Pius, and Antoninus in turn was asked to adopt his wife's nephew, the Marcus Aurelius of history, then an attractive young man of eighteen, as well as the boy Verus. The choice of Antoninus proved good, but it did not satisfy some senators who had imagined that they were in line. Especially embittered was Hadrian's brother-in‑law, Servianus, who, though ninety years of age, hoped that because of his relationship and his long years of excellent service he might at least win the succession for his descendants if not for himself. Indeed a conspiracy seems to have been reported to the emperor, and Servianus as well as his grandson were put to death. This was an act of cruelty, due doubtless to a fevered temper, which only added fuel to all the resentment already felt in the Senate. Hadrian died in 138 after attempting suicide, thoroughly hated by the Senate. It was with difficulty that his successor saved his name from the treatment accorded that of Domitian.

T. Aelius Antoninus Pius, 138‑161 A.D. Antoninus Pius was also a returning scion of those Roman colonists who had been planted in a healthier day in the provinces. His native town was Nemausus (Nîmes) in Southern France, which Augustus had founded with veterans in 16 B.C. It is probably to him that this beautiful city owes the amphitheater which is still in use there and the stately Pont‑du-Gard north of the city which carried the aqueduct high over the deep river to serve the colony. Marcus Aurelius, who had the greatest admiration for his adoptive father and patterned himself after him, has at the beginning of his "Meditations" written very frankly if rather sentimentally of the man's qualities. Antoninus seems to have had the firmness of resolution, the industry and perseverance, the complete self-control and poise, that one expects from a Roman of the old school, but there was a gentleness, tenderness, and modesty that amounted almost to meekness, which typical Romans of the old Senate had  p494 seldom displayed. It would be difficult to find in any modern ruler such a complete catalogue of the very virtues taught in the Gospels as Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius both manifested throughout their reigns. The best of paganism and of Christianity seems to be combined in their codes of daily conduct.

There are very few startling deeds to record during Pius' twenty-three years of ruling. The Brigantes in Britain rebelled but were quickly reduced (140 A.D.) by Lollius Urbicus, a legatus of ability, and the captives were brought to the Roman limes on the Neckar and employed in raising a new advanced line of forts against the Germans. In Britain a wall was built north of Hadrian's line at the narrowest point of the island. In the East the Alani were again checked when they attempted a raid across the Caucasus mountains, and the people of that far distant region above Armenia acknowledged the suzerainty of Rome voluntarily. Antoninus kept on good terms with the Parthians, as Hadrian had done, by friendly interchange of letters. Chauvinists assumed that this mild policy only strengthened the pride of the barbarians and made them all the more ready to attack Rome later, but of this there is no proof. The provincials were treated with every possible consideration, many cities receiving the Latin or the Roman status, and the tribute was considerably reduced, since by care and frugality Pius was able to show a respectable annual surplus in the treasury despite diminished exactions.

Perhaps the only evidence of any innovations of striking character is to be found in Roman law. The Digest, at least, cites many well-reasoned decisions from the days of Pius, and they are always based upon wholesome and liberal principles. Pius was himself no mean jurist and as such he chose for his consilium the foremost lawyers of the day. The innovation of Hadrian in founding a permanent privy council that was independent of bias was giving Roman law  p495 an opportunity to go back to the great traditions of the Republic and to continue the structure on the basis of equity. Antoninus Pius died in 161, having long before secured the regular imperial powers for his adopted son, Marcus Aurelius. In fact he had given his daughter, Faustina the younger, to him in marriage instead of to Verus, as Hadrian had desired. At his death he made no mention of Verus, who had turned out to be a youth of bad habits and no power of industry, but Marcus Aurelius, desiring to be absolutely fair to the young man, at once betrothed him to his sister and asked the Senate to give the same powers to Verus as to himself. So long as Verus lived, therefore, there were two Augusti, and formally, at least, the executive power was for the first time in the Empire divided between two rulers.

Marcus Aurelius, 161‑180 A.D. (Lucius Verus, 161‑169). M. Aurelius Antoninus, the philosopher-king, was the scion of two families that had risen to great wealth by means of the brick industry. His mother, Domitia Lucilla, was the great-granddaughter of the Domitius Afer who had possessed almost a monopoly of the brick-kilns in the Neronian period of great building, while his father, Annius Verus, seems to have owned most of the yards that did not belong to Lucilla. The young man was, therefore, very wealthy in his own name when he came to power. There was but little of his fortune left at the end; he was too sensitive to the need of his people to be able to retain any of it.

The philosopher is known to all the world through his "Meditations," a book of intimate jottings of an over-sensitive and morbidly self-critical soul. This book, lacking all the sturdy self-assurance of the Stoic philosophy, which it purports to teach, has made a very deep appeal to later generations imbued with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. And yet those subdued sentences  p496 and phrases were apparently written during spare moments in the campaigns of a series of terrible wars.

Even before Aurelius came to power, the Parthians had broken into Armenia again. They quickly overwhelmed the Cappadocian and Syrian armies that came to stem the tide of invasion. Aurelius sent Verus to the East to superintend operations, perhaps to draw the young man out of his irresponsible career of pleasure at Rome. Verus only continued his dallying at Antioch, but fortunately Rome had tried officers to do the actual work. Statius Priscus came with strong forces from the Danube and cleared Armenia, while Avidius Cassius organized the Syrian army and invaded Parthia. He reëstablished Roman rule in upper Mesopotamia, and by taking Ctesiphon again compelled the Parthians to sue for peace. The work was hardly done however before it was announced that the Germans were invading Italy and the army must return home. The returning soldiers of Verus now brought home an infection that was worse than many wars, some plague of the Orient which quickly swept the whole empire. A full half of some cohorts fell sick and died. Rome suffered unspeakably; wagons were heaped with the dead that were drawn out to be buried. And all through Italy cities and villages were thinned down till there was a question of who should till the fields. It was a miserable beginning for a war of defense when all of Germany seemed to be overrunning the Danube.

What had happened in Germany we do not know, but it seems that the great folk movements which finally overwhelmed Italy, France, England, and Spain had begun. The Marcomanni and Quadi, the tribes nearest the Danube, were the chief offenders, pressed on by others from behind. But several of the tribes of the Sarmatians,​2 coming on from Russia, also took part, as did many of the German tribes  p497 like the Vandals and Lombards that had hitherto lived in the far interior, and, to judge from the portraits and costumes pictured on the Aurelian column at Rome, even Slavic tribes, now for the first time disclosed to history. The front on the lower Danube held at first, but the Marcomanni and Quadi broke through from Bohemia and dashed on as far as the Adriatic. The Emperor took personal charge of the defense, and in 166 relieved Aquileia in time to save Italy. There was some heavy fighting in Pannonia during the winter, but by the spring of 167, the lands below the Danube were clear again, as was Dacia, which had been overrun as far as the mining region. But new tides of barbarians kept flooding over, and it was not till 170 that the Romans could take the offensive. They advanced across the river at Carnuntum, attacking the Quadi first in order to divide the Germans from the Sarmatians. Defeating the Quadi and compelling them to give up their booty and prisoners, the army struck eastward against the Lombards and the Sarmatians. Again the Marcomanni crossed the upper Danube, and Aurelius had to turn west. Aided by a second army led by the skilful Pertinax, later emperor, he cleared Raetia. The enemy was whipped at the crossing of the river and pursued deep into Bohemia. Numerous prisoners were taken and sent to Italy to work as subject tenants on land that had been depopulated by the plague. It might have been beneficial to all concerned had this original idea been carried much further. The subjection of the Sarmatians had now to be begun again, but they were overwhelmed by the Roman legions, who now advanced as far as the Vistula beyond the Carpathians.

At this point unfortunately the emperor was suddenly called off. Avidius Cassius, the governor of Syria, on receiving a false rumor that he was dead, had declared himself emperor, and so far committed himself and several provinces that he did not choose to withdraw when the  p498 truth was learned. Cassius had in fact never been known for loyalty. Verus while in the East had reported his misbehavior to Marcus, suggesting his removal, but the latter had, with a lofty altruism hardly to be expected of a pagan, answered simply: "Cassius is a good soldier and his services are needed by the state. If he is a better man than my own children he has a right to the throne." But Cassius had struck at the wrong moment. Aurelius had to hurry from a very important task to put down the revolt. Cassius was, however, struck down by his own officers before Aurelius arrived. On his return journey, the emperor's wife, Faustina, to whom he was deeply devoted despite rumors of her infidelity, died. He asked the Senate to accord her divine honors, and in memory of her he set aside large sums in a trust-fund for the support of daughters of poor parents. The beneficiaries were called puellae Faustinianae.

Aurelius returned to the Danube again in 178 to complete his work. But before going he had to come to the relief of the treasury which had been wholly depleted by the expenditures in the plague and in the war. A large part of his own fortune went at once and then he stripped the palace of all the objects of value that could be disposed of, much that his predecessors had left, and much also that his own wife had collected in the form of jewelry, tapestries, furniture, and works of art. The public sales in the Forum lasted for weeks.

Reaching the frontier he sent forces across to take and fortify important points, for he rightly felt that Bohemia could best be controlled as a province, and if Bohemia, then also the Sarmatian wedge between that and Dacia must be occupied. In fact he set out to add Marcomannia and Sarmatia as provinces to the empire. But before this was done he died at Vienna (Vindobona) in the spring of 180. His unworthy son Commodus abandoned both provinces  p499 and hurried home to enjoy and abuse the power he so little deserved.

The humanitarian ideas evident everywhere in the legal and governmental reforms of Pius are also apparent in the acts of Aurelius, as we should expect from a reading his book: encouragement of manumission, relief measures for the poor, relief of provincial debtors, enlargement of the scope of "equity" in legal procedure. It is characteristic of him and his day that the monument in honor of Faustina was not a great building but a charitable foundation which was to care for 5,000 children of the poor. But Aurelius had lived long enough at Rome to realize that the same liberalism could not be applied to the government, given the feeble Senate and subservient populace that Rome now had. Hence while he continued to recognize old constitutional forms in a correct manner, he actually centralized power and continued to build up the imperial bureaus. Although he dutifully attended all sessions of the Senate when at Rome, and went so far as to refer all important matters to it, he nevertheless chose to present all such matters in person so that in point of fact there was no debate and his "reference" amounted to an account of faits accomplis.

The imperial cursus was also built up, and graded titles were given to the equites who had charge of the bureaus; these were, in order: V. Em. (vir eminentissimus) the title of the praetorian prefect; V. P. (vir perfectissimus) the title of the great procurators of Rome, the "secretaries of state," and V. E. (vir egregius) that of other procurators. The senators were distinguished by the title V. C. (vir clarissimus). He was enough of a student of human nature to know the secret of securing consistent service in public office. The curatores rei publicae were continued as were the juridici of the four regions of Italy — though Pius had sacrificed the latter for a time to the resentment of the Senate. Finally he hoped to bind the  p500 important office of the praetorian prefect more closely to the civil interests of the city and of the emperor by choosing eminent jurists rather than ready soldiers for this position. At his death he left a well organized governmental machinery which required for successful manipulation only a reasonable amount of common sense, of fair judgment in the choice of officials, and of loyal good-will toward the state. That Rome would in the future fail to find even those modest requirements in her rulers was hardly to be expected after the experience of the second century.

The Author's Notes:


"Lifeling, changeling, darling, the body's comrade and guest,

To what world now wilt betake thee —

Weakling, shivering, starveling — nor utter thy wonted jest?"

2 Recent researches seem to indicate that the Sarmatians were of Iranian stock.

Thayer's Note: Good details maybe found at Livius.Org.

Thayer's Note:

a Trajan's family, or just maybe even Trajan himself, seems to have been from Umbria in central Italy. According to Franco Mancini (Todi e i suoi castelli, Perugia, 2d ed. 1986, pp171, 133) Federico Cesi (1585‑1630), duke of Acquasparta in Umbria, best known as a naturalist and scholar and founder of the Accademia dei Lincei, was the first modern writer to claim the neighboring town of Todi or its immediate area as the home of Trajan's family, and even had a large room in his palace at Acquasparta frescoed with an allegory of Mother Todi and her two famous sons, Trajan and Pope St. Martin I: traces of the painting survive. The theory, based on the words "ex urbe Tudertina" in a single passage of ps-Victor (Epitome de Caesaribus, 13.1 with thanks to "Deipnosofista" for digging it up) was not unopposed in scholarly circles thru the eighteenth century and even sometimes today — the emendation Turdetana has been suggested, putting Trajan's family back in Spain — but Umbrian writers have by and large followed Duke Federico, and gaining traction after them others elsewhere.

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