The world of classical Rome is a complex yet interesting area of study. It can teach us a lot about the Roman and wider European past and the society we are today. Therefore study of the later Roman Empire is essential when dissecting the inner workings and fall of this powerful empire. To learn fully about this time looking at the characteristics which made up this world is essential. The following essay will discuss in detail many of the characteristics of the Roman Empire in the time period 100 AD to 450 AD including the centrality of the emperor in Roman life, the Christian church and Rome, the rise of the East Empire, the fear of the northern Barbarians and Pax Romana One of the main characteristics of the world of Late Antiquity is the centrality of the emperor in life.
The Roman populace included their emperors in everything and it was hugely important that emperors were found favourable by the general public.
Pliny pays further tribute to Trajan’s popularity in stating how frequently, but without compulsion, Trajan is named in his subject’s wills”. This shows, emperors were so important to their people to the extreme they would even aim to pay tribute to them after their death. They found popularity amongst all levels of their people from the common people to their soldiers for example Constantine who “enjoyed great popularity with the soldiers. Emperors were revered, feared and honoured leaders; they were involved in almost all aspects of being even religion.
Romans were a most religious people” and the majority of emperors were treated as deities even in pre-Christian Rome “You do homage with a greater dread and intenser reverence to Caesar than to the Olympian Jove himself”.
Therefore it can be said that the importance of emperors to the people of Rome was a key characteristic of this time period considering religion was of great importance to these people and they were willing to include many emperors after Caesar as their Gods also. As well as this, the relationship between the Christian church and the Empire is undoubtedly a key characteristic of the late Roman Empire. It is seen as a “pivotal development in western history”, as we could indeed question would the Roman Empire have developed the same without it? In early Rome the importance of Paganism was indeed significant to daily life as “human beings were seen to be totally dependent on them [the gods]” and although it indeed took over three centuries to fully make the transition from pagan to Christian, the newly established state religion was treated with the same dignity and respect.
But while Christianity became incorporated in many Roman citizens’ lives “many of their daily activities still bore the mark of the old religion”. Constantine the emperor who introduced more tolerance to Christianity really respected the religion “great indeed was the emperor’s [Constantine] devotion to Christianity” which expresses the people of Rome’s devotion to the religion. The involvement of the Christian church in daily roman life shaped the world today and as Gibbon claims the “establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman Empire”. The major involvement of Christianity in both the emperor and normal citizen’s lives are the main reason the association between the empire and the Christian Church could be seen as a key trait of the Roman Empire between 100 and 450 AD.
“Constantinople is the new Rome”. This important statement declared in 381 AD at the Council of Constantinople aptly shows the next key characteristic this essay will discuss. According to early Romans their state was the centre of the civilized world and during the 300s and 400s the strange change of power became the demise of their civilization. The centre of the world shifted irreversibly eastwards”. In 410 Rome fell to Alaric, this can be seen as one of the main psychological low points for the Roman Empire and the beginning of its downfall. Meanwhile “the western emperor and empire continuously lost out in power and prestige to the east” Rome was quickly losing status to the gateway of the east. The decline of the empire was becoming a new characteristic which was never seen before. Constantinople was becoming more and more important.
This shift of power was indisputably one of the most important features of the late Roman world and led to the people of the empire relying on Rome less and less, which led to the end of the western world as its people knew it. Ultimately as the century went on Constantinople and the east became more and more important, Rome was the city of their ancestors but Constantinople was the modern city of commerce. “For 150 years, the mighty Roman Empire seemed unbeatable” Before the 400s the Roman Empire appeared an all-powerful, strong, civilized nation. Romans considered themselves high above the barbaric tribes of the north, “the barbarians were seen only as invaders bent on the destruction of the Roman Empire and classical civilization”.
This belief however became the Achilles heel of the empire. The Romans believed they were safe in their city, that they would never be breeched especially by the barbarians who were irrational and too passionate for proper warfare. This was proven wrong by Alaric in 410 AD in the first sacking of Rome. Within four more decades the city, which was just recovering from the first sacking was once again invaded in 455 AD by the Vandals. These continuous attacks which were never seen before were creating an atmosphere of fear and low confidence in the once powerful empire. “The sacking of Rome was never forgotten, and Romans remained haunted by a kind of collective inbred fear of hordes of barbarians returning to destroy the city”. This distrust in the empire and atmosphere of anxiety over the threat of barbarian attack became embedded in the Roman psyche and was a key characteristic during this time period.
These attacks lead to the Roman people completely questioning the empire even taking it as far as to ask themselves “was the turning away from the ancient gods who had protected the global empire responsible for the catastrophe? Or did that event only confirm their powerlessness? ” There was also even a “singular and mutual distrust of elected rulers and the electoral people” in the empire before the attack of the barbarians. Therefore one could say fear and mistrust in the political institutions of the empire was a key characteristic between 100 AD and 450 AD especially in the later decades.
The last issue this essay will discuss is perhaps not the most important aspect of the late Roman Empire but it was one the Romans identified themselves with and were proud of. After decades of expanding and consolidating the power of the empire the idea of peace in their world was “eagerly anticipated in the hope of restoring stability”. Thus it is fair to say although the emperors imposed Pax Romana through law it was there by the will of the people. After decades of strife and conflict the empire was finally at peace. Emperor Vespasian was considered a hero for initiating Pax Romana. This characteristic sets this time frame apart from the rest considering in other times the empire was expanding or consolidating through military means and now there was no military fighting.
This was a time when “Rome became the Roman Empire, an integrated whole”, and Pax Romana could be considered a direct initiator of this due to the way it united a previously feuding empire. It brought together the previously fighting tribes in the empire who now seen the Pax Romana as an end to this. “The empire gained a settled rhythm” and this was held until the end of the peace. Consequently it can be said Pax Romana was a hugely important characteristic of this time which even brought the empire economic advantages. In conclusion, the late Roman world was still an authoritative, significant, influential place just as the pre-Christian empire had been. It was still in some ways considered the centre of civilization, culture, art and immense history. But, it was no longer the centre of the world or the only truly civilized place. It was now seen by many that Rome was no longer as important as the east.