Augustus’s first four successors are called the Julio-Claudian emperors. Each had been a member of the family of Julius Caesar and Augustus. But now the line had run out. In 68-69, four emperors, each a general supported by his own troops, ruled in rapid succession. The first three died by violence. The fourth was Vespasian, Nero’s commander in Palestine.
Vespasian (r. 69-79), a professional soldier from the Italian middle class, founded the second Roman imperial dynasty, the Flavian. The throne passed successively to his two sons, Titus (r. 79-81) and Domitian (r. 81-96). Tough and competent, Vespasian added new talent to the Senate by appointing numerous non-Romans. He put through financial reforms, subdued the rebellion in Gaul, made gains in Britain, and fought off potential uprisings by using some soldiers to build public works, stationing others in dangerous areas of the frontier, and keeping too few soldiers in any one place to encourage an ambitious commander to rebel. During the short reign of Titus, Vesuvius, the great volcano overlooking the Bay of Naples, erupted and wiped out the population of the provincial town of Pompeii. Domitian was a suspicious tyrant, seeing plotters against him everywhere; in 96 he was assassinated in a palace conspiracy.
When an emperor died, the Senate—so subservient during his lifetime—had the power of appointing his successor. In 96 it chose a mild, sixty-five-year-old official named Nerva (r. 96-98), who had no children. Nerva found a method of providing for the succession: He adopted the great general Trajan (r. 98-117) as his son and successor. When Nerva died, Trajan thus succeeded him peacefully. This was the first of a series of four successive fortunate adoptions that gave the Empire its most prosperous and peaceful years at home, A.D. 98-180. In a series of successful but expensive campaigns, Trajan moved north of the Danube to annex the gold mines of Dacia (part of modern Romania), which became a Roman province. To the east, he campaigned against the Parthians. A massive revolt of the Jews confronted Trajan’s successor, his nephew and adoptive son Hadrian, when Trajan died in 117.
Hadrian (r. 117-138), a widely experienced soldier and administrator and a highly cultivated man, put down the Jewish uprising. Realizing that Roman communication lines became too extended whenever Roman troops tried to cross the Syrian desert against the Parthians, he abandoned Trajan’s war against them and made peace. He made himself generally popular with the upper and middle classes by canceling all private debts to the government, and with the lower classes by furthering charities and putting on great spectacles in the circus. Among his advisers were some able lawyers who helped him adjust taxes and control prices in bad years and improve the legal position of slaves and soldiers. They codified all past decisions of the praetors; for the first time citizens knew when they ought to sue someone and were assured of uniform procedures under Roman law. Thorough censuses were restored, to be taken every fifteen years.
Hadrian believed that all the provinces should be equal, with himself as the “father of the fatherland.” So he caused each of the armies for provincial defense to be recruited within the province itself. And he himself lived much of the time away from Rome touring the provinces. In Britain he built the defensive system of walls and ditches still called Hadrian’s Wall, to contain invasions by the Scots and Picts to the north, and in Germania he constructed a wall of wood to link the Rhine and Danube rivers. Everywhere he inspected the troops and defenses, built buildings, and made himself known to the population, and everywhere (except Palestine) he was admired. After a decade abroad, he returned to Rome. He built the great Pantheon at Rome, a temple to all the gods originally commissioned by Agrippa in 27-25 B.C., and he used the giant Colosseum, originally built by Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, for gladiatorial combats and other spectacular entertainments.
Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus (r. 138-161), called Pius because he was so loyal an adoptive son to Hadrian, immediately adopted as his future successor his own nephew, Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180). The forty-two years of their combined reigns won glowing praise as an era of peace and prosperity. The eighteenth-century English scholar Edward Gibbon, whose massive history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire influenced modern perceptions about Roman life, remarked that there had never been another period “in which the happiness of a great people was the only object of government.”
There was little civil strife. Public buildings continued to rise, and those who lived comfortable lives had never been more comfortable. For the less privileged, in Rome itself and throughout Italy, the Antonine monarchy showed great concern and softened the worst pains of poverty. However, Egypt continued to be ruthlessly exploited, and slavery remained important to the economy. Stability still rested on the legions’ ability to assure “perpetual peace” by fighting perpetual local wars along the borders.
Among the less privileged were the women of Rome, though they took a much more active role in affairs than women had in Greece. They were understood to be central to the familia, or Roman household, which included relatives dependent on the head of the family and slaves. In general they were in charge of the slaves, and they ran the household while their husbands managed the land. Daughters were sent to school, and at home they learned spinning and weaving, so that in the poorer households they contributed significantly to the domestic economy. Among the rich, women were expected to devote much time to their clothing and to the etiquette of social occasions, particularly dinner parties.
After Augustus, women who had presented their husbands with three to five children could manage their personal property, and many women engaged in business. They did not, apparently, seek to have the law altered so that they could enter politics or administration. The law’s intent was to assure that women gave birth to children, preferably to sons. Under Augustus girls were married at twelve and boys at fourteen, both to cement an economic or political alliance and to assure early childbirth.
As there were fewer females than males in the upper class, Roman women found husbands easily and often remarried; upper-class women were probably less numerous because of deaths through childbearing and the selective infanticide of unwanted female infants. (A father was bound to raise all male children but need nurture only the first-born female.) By now women could easily break across class barriers, since men of the upper classes often had to take a wife from a lower class, and this helped soften class barriers in general.
Antoninus Pius, unlike Hadrian, never left Italy. So Marcus Aurelius (121-180)—the Stoic philosopher whose melancholy Meditations (written in Greek) serve as a corrective to official optimism—was forced to fight in Dacia and beyond the Euphrates against the Parthians. Although he was victorious, he allowed certain barbarians to settle within the imperial frontiers and to be enrolled in the Roman armies, thus jeopardizing the unity of the traditional defensive system.
During the pivotal reign of Marcus Aurelius the ever- increasing pressure from the Germanic tribes of central Europe began. The more Germans were allowed to settle inside the frontiers, the greater the pressure from those still outside. The Empire, with perhaps 60 million people, an army of 300,000, and a small and very rich upper class, could not in the long run adjust to the demands made upon it. In the end, a declining population could not cover both the farms and the frontiers. Although no one in Marcus Aurelius’s entourage could have predicted it, a long downward slide was now beginning.
Why did the population of the Empire decline? We do not know, though there is abundant evidence that it did and that the emperors took major steps to stop the decline. Augustus passed laws discouraging divorce and prohibiting abortion. His creation of charities to feed orphan children and provide emergency supplies to the poor so that their children would not die was less for humanitarian reasons than because the state required more and healthier bodies. Large families were encouraged by exempting from certain services fathers who had five or more children; women were urged to have dowries to be more attractive marriage candidates. The incorporation of barbarians into the Empire and the ready acceptance of new immigrants showed a desire for more peasants from whom a sturdy army could be drawn. Efforts were made to improve crop production and to reduce malaria by draining swamps.
Nonetheless, the population declined, in a vicious cycle the state could not control. Barbarian raids caused more violent deaths; malnutrition and higher mortality followed economic decline; cities became more crowded, spreading disease. Debasement of coinage and general inflation led to social unrest, brigandage, and to so sharp a decline in official revenues that the emperors had to create unpopular new taxes or demand services in non- slave labor directly from the people.
Epidemics regularly ravaged the crowded cities or the unhealthy countryside. In A.D. 65 and again more devastatingly in 165 (when the plague was carried throughout the Eastern empire by troops returning from Mesopotamia) there was an outbreak of febrile disease that lasted until 189 and took 7 million to 10 million lives. Again in c. 251-266 plague struck Rome, with five thousand dying daily. In the shortage of agricultural labor supply and recruits for the army, Rome faced the most grave demographic problems it had ever known.
We do not know for certain what these diseases that reduced the population were, although they resemble modern measles and smallpox. Malaria certainly played a chronic role. While both Greeks and Romans studied disease with care, they knew of no ready cures. In any case, extensive trade was likely to introduce new diseases against which immunities were not developed. In the first century A.D. the Romans traded with the Chinese along the Silk Road, and fashionable women of the upper class wore semitransparent silks produced in Antioch. Such trade routes, as well as the organization of complex trading patterns by sea, helped spread diseases in patterns that are still not fully understood.