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date: 28 September 2022

Rome, history (political, military, administrative), from Augustus to the Antonines (31 bce–192 ce)free

Rome, history (political, military, administrative), from Augustus to the Antonines (31 bce–192 ce)free

  • Gwynaeth McIntyre


Rome’s political history from 31 bce to 192 ce was dominated by an imperial system controlled by large, interconnected families. Although power transitioned through three separate dynasties, this period proved to be remarkably stable, allowing for flourishing artistic and literary production, grand military successes (as well as some defeats), and relative economic security. Political power that, during the Republic, was achieved through family influence, campaigning for office, military achievements, and successfully navigating the cursus honorum, underwent several modifications, although many conventions persisted. Family influence continued to play an important role in legitimizing the position of the emperor and power was largely in the hands of a few select families. The increased influence and authority of the elite women of the Late Republic continued to develop and expand under the principate. The power of soldiers and their commanders, which dominated the political landscape in the 1st century bce, continued, with emperors relying heavily on the loyalty of their troops to preserve and legitimize their power. Roman imperialism and expansion through military and diplomatic means continued to increase the territory and population under Roman control. Likewise, the Republican social order of senators, equestrians, and plebs was expanded to incorporate new provincial elites, placed in the social hierarchy between the equestrians and everyone else. This expansion involved political, institutional, and cultural change, even if this change was not uniform throughout the Mediterranean. The sense of “becoming Roman” varied both over time and geographically. Likewise, “Roman” identity was not the only identity expressed by individuals living under Roman control.


  • Roman History and Historiography

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Between the years 27 bce192 ce there were eighteen emperors recognized by the senate in Rome. Modern scholars and ancient authors alike tend to organize discussions of these emperors into dynastic groups: the Julio-Claudians (Augustus [27 bce14 ce], Tiberius [14–37 ce], Gaius (1) or Caligula [37–41 ce], Claudius [41–54 ce], and Nero [54–68 ce]), the Flavians (Vespasian [69–79 ce], Titus [79–81 ce], and Domitian [81–96 ce]), and the Antonines (Nerva [Marcus Cocceius Nerva; 96–98 ce], Trajan [98–117 ce], Hadrian [117–138 ce], Antoninus Pius [138–161 ce], Lucius Verus [161–169 ce], Marcus Aurelius [161–180 ce], and Commodus [Lucius Aurelius Commodus; 180–193 ce]), with the individuals involved in the civil wars following the death of Nero largely discussed under the umbrella of “the year of the four emperors” (Galba [68–69 ce], Otho [69 ce], Vitellius [Lucius Vitellius; 69 ce], and Vespasian). During the reigns of these emperors, the landscape of the city became dominated by fora, temples, bathhouses, statues, columns, and triumphal arches, all serving to advertise the emperors’ various titles, ancestries, and achievements.

At its greatest extent the Roman empire encompassed a territory of approximately five million square kilometres and had an estimated population of around sixty million inhabitants.1 Provinces were added mostly through diplomacy and military expansion (see imperialism). As Augustus tried to turn the focus away from the civil wars, soldiers were given a new task: expand Rome’s influence and control in the Mediterranean. In his Res Gestae (26–33), Augustus specifically identifies all the territory brought under Rome’s control during his lifetime, the colonies he founded, and the relationships he fostered with client kingdoms. Much of the expansion during the 1st century ce involved the absorption of client kingdoms rather than military conquest, but the 2nd century saw renewed military expansion and conquest. Rome’s control and influence in the Mediterranean reached its largest extent under Trajan.

Even with the increase in Roman territory the emperor was the focal point of the empire; it did not necessarily matter where he was. Some emperors, such as Hadrian, travelled extensively throughout the Empire. Others largely remained at Rome. The emperor could be reached by letter for comment on particular matters of importance in provincial communities. Embassies sent from communities could request decisions from the emperor. Many responses were then immortalized in stone in those communities, such as Hadrian’s letters to the Athenians regulating the price of oil and fish.2 Legates and other governors were sent to their provinces with mandata, rescripts, decrees, and other instructions (constitutions). For the most part, the emperor made decisions on a case-by-case basis rather than by establishing general regulations.3

The semblance of stability of the empire and generally peaceful transitions of power during first two centuries ce did not mean that there were no periods of unrest. Soldiers in two regions on the frontiers, Pannonia and Germania, mutinied after the death of Augustus. Several commanders of the legions were hailed as imperator by their troops and threatened to overthrow a reigning emperor, as in the case of Gaius Avidius Cassius’s revolt in Syria in 175 ce. There were also several conspiracies against emperors’ lives: some were unsuccessful, such as the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 ce; others succeeded, such as the conspiracy against Domitian in 96 ce.

Rome’s security was also threatened by natural disasters and plagues. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 ce buried the surrounding region in ash, famously preserving Pompeii and Herculaneum; details of the event, and the actions of Pliny the Elder, were recorded by Pliny’s nephew (Plin. Ep. 6.16, 6.20). Troops returning from campaigns in the East in 164–165 ce brought with them a disease which was responsible for killing as much as 10 percent of the overall population in the decades that followed. The significance of this particular crisis is well attested by both contemporary accounts (Cass. Dio 72.14.3–4, as well as a few references in various works of Galen) and later sources (Hdn. 1.12.1; SHA Marc. 21.6–7). Yet even during these crises and periods of unrest, Roman political, military, and administrative power ensured Rome’s continued control over the Mediterranean.

From Republic to Empire?

Just as the use of the term “Roman Republic” to define the historical period from 509 to 31 bce obscures the many changes and developments which occurred over those five centuries, so too should one be wary of assuming the immediate constitutional change and later consistency implied by the use of the expressions “Roman Empire” or “Roman Imperial period” to discuss the centuries that followed. The 1st and 2nd centuries ce were periods of both immense change and notable continuity: many imperial “innovations” had Republican precedents. Rome did not become an imperial state only when Octavian defeated Mark Antony; rather, imperial expansion and the resulting administrative, political, and ideological changes had been part of its history almost from its very foundation. Reforms during the Imperial period did not always come from the emperors themselves but rather emerged through careful negotiation with the army, the people, and the senate, or as a reaction to crises and disasters.

The defeat of Mark Antony (2) and Cleopatra (VII) at Actium in 31 bce became a defining point in Roman history. Those reflecting on the battle and its aftermath saw it as the moment which led to Octavian’s inevitable one-man rule and the end of the Roman Republic. Yet Octavian’s own future and that of the Republic were far from certain, and the developments of the decades that followed were not necessarily novel nor did they provide as stark a contrast to the preceding decades as some historical narratives suggest. External threats, political violence, and the breakdown of constitutional norms had all put pressure on the political system throughout the 2nd and 1st centuries bce. The rise of military strongmen such as Sulla and Pompey the Great, and the weakening of the political traditions that had previously hindered the accumulation of political power, paved the way for individuals to gain power within the city apart from traditional political offices. Then, having achieved power, these men could advance their ambitions by promoting an ideology of peace and restoration.

Historians ought to be wary of periodization, yet many discussions of the “Augustan Age” look to key dates to create a structure for the transition from Republic to Empire. Discussions of the arrangements of 28/27 bce highlight the significance of the exceptional honours and powers—such as the imperium maius (“greater authority/power”)—offered to the man now called Augustus (formerly Octavian) in response to his restoration of the laws and power to the senate and the Roman people. The language of restoration found throughout discussions of these events and the gift of the corona civica (see crowns and wreaths), previously given to soldiers who had saved the life of a Roman citizen, promoted Augustus’s new position as saviour. After 23 bce, the tribunicia potestas (“tribunician power”) allowed Augustus certain legal and administrative powers irrespective of any political offices he might hold. These powers could then be shared, as they were with both Agrippa and Tiberius during Augustus’s lifetime. After Augustus’s death, Tiberius retained these powers, signifying not necessarily a transition of power from Augustus to Tiberius but a continuation of those powers he had already held. It was only with the succession of Caligula that an established set of powers was bestowed on an individual en masse, marking out the position of “emperor.” Evidence for these powers survives in the lex de imperio Vespasiani, which details the honours and powers granted to Vespasian upon his succession in 69 ce (ILS 244).

It is unlikely that Romans were fooled by Augustus’s “restoration of the republic,” and many authors from this period attempt to come to terms with the new political structures and developments. Genre, authorial intentions, and chronological separation from events all played a role in how particular authors presented Augustus’s actions and how they engaged with the ideology of restoration. Velleius Paterculus’s narrative of the years following Actium, one of the closest contemporary sources for the period, follows Augustus’s own language in his Res Gestae and uses the terms restituta and revocata (both having meanings of restoration and renewal) to discuss how the power of the laws, the authority of the courts, and the dignity (maiestas) of the senate as well as the ancient form of the republic (antiqua rei publicae forma) were all restored under Augustus (Vell. Pat. 2.89.3–4). Tacitus (1), on the other hand, presents an altered state where nothing of the traditional Roman values remained (Tac. Ann. 1.4). Cassius Dio presents Rome as returning to monarchy (monarchia), in part following the battle of Actium (Cass. Dio 50.1.2, 1.1.1–2) and most certainly after 27 bce, stating that monarchy was the truest name for it, even though the Romans detested that name (Cass. Dio 53.17.1–2).

The fear of kings dominated Rome’s political and ideological landscape, so it should be no surprise that monarchical language was notably absent from the system developing in the final decades of the 1st century bce and the first two decades of the 1st century ce. Sources discussing Tiberius’s accession present the emperor’s position as a statio (“station”), evoking the military sense of keeping watch or guard. Cooley suggests that the use of statio thus presents the princeps as protector and saviour of the res publica.4 The term principatus (principate) is most commonly used in the 1st century ce to describe the period of leadership of the princeps and only later takes on the connotation of a constitutional settlement. Following Julius Caesar’s precedent, many emperors took the praenomen “Imperator” and, after Augustus’s death, almost all incorporated Augustus’s name into theirs. The Roman emperors were not kings, at least not in name.

The surviving ancient sources provide ample discussion of the expectations for how an emperor was to behave. Those who were seen as acting with proper decorum, adhering to the mos maiorum (“ancestral custom”), and paying proper attention to the defence of the empire and other military matters while also seeming to reject exceptional honours tended to be praised in the sources as “good” emperors. In fact, the ritual of recusatio (“refusal”) became the legacy of Augustus that all “good” emperors sought to emulate. Those who actively sought autocratic power, promoted aspects of their leadership that displayed more Hellenistic styles of rule, or did not adequately balance the needs of the senate, the army, and the people were characterized as tyrants, as “bad” emperors. Although these distinctions (and those sources that made them) have recently been called into question and scholars are turning to a more nuanced understanding of the rhetorical framework of historiographic sources, emperors such as Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Commodus nevertheless remain among the most notoriously “bad” rulers of all time.

Elections, traditional political offices, assemblies, and the senate persisted under the emperors, albeit in modified forms. Emperors or their family members regularly monopolized the coveted position of consul, the top of the Republican cursus honorum. Because of their tribunicia potestas or consular imperium, emperors could submit legislation to the popular assemblies (comitia) directly or could endorse particular candidates during their campaigns for political office. The senate continued to be consulted and senatus consulta came to have legislative power. They played a significant role in treason trials, as seen most famously in the senatus consultum de Gn. Pisone Patre, which details the senate’s decision in the case against Gn. Piso for inciting a foreign war, abandoning his province, corrupting the soldiers, and committing crimes against the imperial family (most notably, it was assumed that he was responsible for the death of Germanicus, although this could not be proven).5 Many new positions and opportunities arose for equestrians and freedmen under the new political structure, and these perceived threats to traditional senatorial power may explain some of the senatorial writings that actively denigrate influential individuals from these other classes and the emperors who relied heavily on them.

All in the Family: Succession and Legitimacy

Whereas political power could not necessarily be inherited in the Republic, the establishment of this new system relied on peaceful transitions of power across generations. As Pliny so aptly states in his Panegyricus, “A man must have a successor, whether he wants him or not” (Plin. Pan. 9.1–2). In addition to the sharing of military and political offices and titles, marriages and adoptions helped to create the illusion of stability and clear paths of succession. Having a connection to the “blood of Augustus” became both a marker for the possibility of future powers and a potential threat for those who sought to claim power from the current rulers, as can be seen in the number of treason trials and assassinations (political and familial) during the period.

Marriages were carefully orchestrated; the problematic power of women to influence succession, and the perceived threat of this power, became a common theme in the works of ancient authors. Figures such as Cornelia (1), Fulvia, and Octavia (2) had already played significant roles in the career trajectories of their husbands and children during the Republic, but under the emperors elite women rose to even greater prominence. Marriages to emperors’ daughters, sisters, and cousins were used to solidify family bonds, incorporate new powerful individuals into the family, and mark out successors, the quintessential example being Augustus’s daughter Julia’s marriages to Marcellus, Agrippa, and Tiberius. The debate over the choice of a new wife for Claudius after the death of Messalina, as detailed by Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 12.1–3), highlights the importance of family, bloodlines, and acquiring heirs. Pallas’s case for Agrippina the Younger, Claudius’s niece, was persuasive because she would bring with her the grandson of Germanicus and because this union would unite the Julian and Claudian families; there was also a suggestion that her blood connections could be a threat if they did not remain directly tied to the emperor’s immediate family.

Many literary sources also suggest that emperors’ wives played an active role in controlling information during transitions of power and may have secured succession for their chosen candidates through trickery. Tacitus reports that both Livia Drusilla (Tac. Ann. 1.5.3–4) and Agrippina the Younger (Tac. Ann. 12.68.2) delayed the announcements of their husbands’ (Augustus and Claudius) deaths so that their sons’ (Tiberius and Nero) accessions could be pronounced at the same time. Cassius Dio (69.1.1–4) provides a similar narrative, with Pompeia Plotina delaying the announcement of Trajan’s death in order that Hadrian’s adoption could be publicized first. A passage in the Scriptores Historiae Augustae takes this even further, suggesting that Hadrian’s adoption happened after Trajan’s death through a trick by Plotina and the hiring of an impersonator (SHA Hadr. 4.10).

Following the traditions established by major Republican families, adoptions were also used by imperial family members to create political alliances, albeit with some notable differences. For Augustus, adoptions became a key aspect of his promotion of family. After a number of his adopted children died, Augustus created the illusion of stability through a multi-generational adoption: Augustus adopted Tiberius and insisted that Tiberius also adopt his nephew Germanicus, thereby establishing two successors for Tiberius—Germanicus and his biological son Drusus. Neither of these sons went on to succeed their father and the sources discussing the transitions of power from Tiberius to Caligula to Claudius to Nero focus on scandal, conspiracy, and intrigue. Yet power remained in the hands of those tied to Augustus or Livia by blood.

Following the death of Nero, there was a period of uncertainty and civil war as a series of individuals gained (and lost) the support of the senate. Although the “year of the four emperors” tends to be understood as a period when emperors were chosen by their troops for their military successes or through their influence in the senate, connections to the Julio-Claudian family continued to play an ideological role in legitimizing claims to power. Galba, the first to become emperor after Nero’s death, had family connections tracing back to Livia (Plut. Galb. 3.2). Otho, who had risen to prominence under Nero, attempted to gain the support of the people by restoring Nero’s memory and by taking the name Nero for himself (Plut. Otho 3.2). The other two emperors, Vitellius and Vespasian, had also held positions of influence under the Julio-Claudian emperors, but their accession to the throne came through the acclamation of the legions.

Vespasian was recognized by the senate as emperor in 69 ce. After his death in 79 ce, imperial power was transferred smoothly to his son Titus. This was the first instance of a biological son succeeding his father. Following the earlier Julio-Claudian model, Vespasian had given Titus various military commands and Titus had held both proconsular imperium and the tribunicia potestas. They had shared seven consulships. Following Titus’s death in 81 ce, Vespasian’s other son, Domitian, became emperor, keeping the position of princeps firmly in the hands of Vespasian’s immediate family. Although Domitian remained emperor for fifteen years, the sources present him as an autocrat and tyrant who ultimately met his end through a successful household conspiracy.

The use of adoptions to secure succession became an ideological tool for the Antonines. However, since no natural sons born to these emperors survived into adulthood until Marcus Aurelius’s son Commodus, the rhetoric of adoption by merit merely glosses over the use of adoption by necessity. Whereas adoptions of close relatives such as stepsons, nephews, and grandsons had been typical under the Julio-Claudians, the sources praise the Antonines for the meritocracy created by their adoptions of those worthy of the position of emperor instead of those born into the right family (see, for example, Hadrian’s “speech” at Cass. Dio 69.20.2–5). This change in rhetoric could be understood as a reaction against the Flavians and previous iterations of hereditary succession, as well as reflecting the rhetorical aversion to monarchy.

Ancient authors stressed both the positive and negative aspects of the role that the imperial family played in securing imperial power and ensuring continued peace and prosperity for the empire. Pliny’s Panegyricus stresses the importance of family, children, and the future for ensuring Rome’s success. Tacitus, in his Annales, presents his own fears and apprehensions regarding the power that women had in what some may have seen as a wholly male political sphere. The introduction of the role of emperor into Rome’s political system did not concentrate political power in the hands of one man but rather in those of his family. The importance of family ties was in part a continuation of previously influential and powerful families from the Republic (such as the Scipiones) and in part was modelled on the Hellenistic monarchies that Rome had defeated.

Securing the Empire: The Military at Home and Abroad

Legitimacy did not come solely from family relationships, the semblance of traditional political authority, or the legal bestowal of powers, offices, and titles. Most emperors, upon their accession, would first address the military personnel at hand, whether praetorians or the legions, and receive an acclamation. Donatives to the soldiers also played a key role in securing their loyalty. The Republican military oath was adapted to include the emperor by name and tied the soldiers to him with a bond of personal loyalty, a bond that was renewed on the anniversary of his accession. Over the first two centuries ce, the military, both at home and abroad, played a significant role in securing and legitimizing the power of individual emperors, as well as in overseeing the overall security of the empire and its frontiers.

An important marker of an emperor’s status was his personal detachments of soldiers, which could include the cohors praetoria (praetorians), milites urbani, and custodes Germani, among others. When discussing Tiberius’s accession and his refusal of the imperial title, Suetonius claims that the soldiers with whom Tiberius surrounded himself were the actual power and outward sign of sovereignty (Suet. Tib. 24). Tacitus writes that one of Tiberius’s first acts as emperor was giving the watchword to the praetorian cohort as imperator (Tac. Ann. 1.7), which clearly demarcated his new position. This retinue of armed soldiers within the city of Rome was a relatively new development from the time of Augustus, but there is evidence of magistrates being accompanied outside the city by a cohors praetoria from the early to mid-1st century bce. The exact function of these earlier contingents, how they may have developed into the emperors’ (and his family members’) own bodyguard, and what specifically they were guarding are still debated by modern scholars. By 23 ce, a camp (castra praetoria) was built within the city to house the praetorians. Their physical presence in Rome, not to mention their proximity and immediate access to the emperor and his family members, made them both a symbol of the emperors’ power and a group with significant political influence.

The main component of the Roman imperial army was the legions. A legion comprised five to six thousand men; there were ten squads (contubernia) in a century, six centuries in a cohort, and ten cohorts in a legion. The number of legions in service varied over time, with twenty-five legions serving under Augustus (after the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and thirty-two in service by the end of the 2nd century. Legionaries were equipped with a shield (scutum), javelin (pilum), short sword (gladius), and dagger, and for protection also wore a helmet (cassis), cuirass (lorica), and greaves (see arms and armour, Roman). Some minor variation in the appearance of this equipment likely arose based on the wealth of the individual soldier.

Exactly how many individuals fought or were present alongside the legion is still debated, as legions would also have cavalry, auxilia, military slaves, other administrators, and civilian non-combatants connected with them. The auxilia were organized into cavalry wings (alae) or individual cohorts of around five hundred to one thousand soldiers. Units were generally composed of men from the same tribe or region, but several rebellions, such as that of the Thracian auxiliaries in 26 ce (Tac. Ann. 4.4.4–51) ended this practice. An exception was made for groups and regions known for specialist military skills, such as the First Cohort of Cilician Archers.6

The imperial army was a professional force (see war, art of, Roman; armies, Roman, monarchy to 3rd century ce). Josephus himself recognized that Rome’s military success was a result of professionalism, planning, and training (Joseph. BJ 3.70–78). Terms of service tended to be around twenty to twenty-five years, although individuals could also serve for longer. To serve in the legions, one had to be a Roman citizen. Upon completion of their service, members of the auxilia could be granted Roman citizenship, and many military diplomas survive which serve as evidence of the change in status. Senior commanders were appointed by the emperors personally and these posts played a key role in an individual’s social and political advancement. Several of the writers of this period (such as Velleius Paterculus and Cassius Dio) had occupied such roles. In terms of the position of princeps itself, especially during times of upheaval and transition, it was mostly those who were already commanding armies that were thrust into that role, and in many cases it was armies under their command who put them there.

Military personnel, alone and in groups, could exert significant political power; they had practical power to make an emperor by fighting for him (or acclaiming their commander as emperor) and likewise could remove him from power through their refusal. Many emperors also recognized the importance of keeping the military on their side. In his will Augustus bequeathed 1,000 sesterces to each praetorian. Upon his accession, Tiberius promptly doubled that amount (Suet. Tib. 48.2). Caligula doubled it again (Cass. Dio 59.2.3). Although Suetonius claims that Claudius was the first of the Caesars to have secured the loyalty of the soldiers with bribery (Suet. Claud. 10.4), the tradition of providing the soldiers with a donative clearly predates Claudius. Securing the loyalty of the soldiers in this way could have long-lasting political ramifications. Domitian’s support among the praetorians, most likely bought since he increased military pay, was clearly demonstrated following his death when the praetorians forced Nerva to punish the conspirators responsible. Moreover, during the first two centuries ce, five individuals (Caligula, Claudius, Galba, Otho, Commodus) were either elevated to or removed from power (or both) by members of the cohors praetoria.

Most emperors actively promoted their connections to the army. Both Caligula and Commodus, lacking in personal military experience, instead advertised the fact that they were “brought up in the camps.” Many emperors used active campaigning to win the support of the soldiers. Their success could then be broadcast on coins, arches, statues, buildings, and other monuments. Claudius’s conquest of Britain was proclaimed on a number of the coins minted throughout his reign. The success of Vespasian and Titus’s campaigns during the Jewish War brought enormous wealth into the city and was celebrated in both Titus’s triumphal arch and the Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum). The military actions of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius were commemorated through their illustration on large columns (Trajan’s Column, Column of Marcus Aurelius). The presence of various emperors on the frontiers with their troops promoted another important image of a “good emperor,” that of the soldier-emperor (Dio Chrys. Or. 1.22, 27, 28–29). This led to associations between emperors, Trajan in particular, and another great commander/king, Alexander the Great (Cass. Dio 68.29).

Following Augustus’s consolidation of Rome’s provinces and territories, the greatest periods of expansion occurred under Claudius (Mauretania Tigitana and Caesarensis [Mauretania], Noricum, Britain, Lycia, and Thracia [Thrace]) and Trajan (Dacia, Arabia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria). It was under Trajan that Rome reached its largest geographical extent, but many of the provinces and regions acquired under Trajan—such as Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria—were relinquished by Hadrian. Much of Rome’s military activity in the Mediterranean in the first two centuries ce focused on Germania, Dacia, and Parthia (see Parthian-Roman Wars).

Most of Rome’s military power was exerted outside the Italian peninsula. Rebellions and mutinies (such as the mutinies following the death of Augustus, the Boudicca revolt in 60 ce, and the Jewish revolts of 66–74 and 132–135 ce) could destabilize regions for a time, but the area over which Rome exercised control remained largely stable and relatively peaceful during the first two centuries ce. Rome used natural barriers such as rivers and mountain ranges to its advantage, while also constructing forts and outposts to facilitate movement along the boundaries. The most famous of the artificial barriers constructed on the frontier is Hadrian’s Wall, although its purpose and function—whether military, economic, or social, or some combination—is still debated. Legions and their auxiliary troops were deployed mainly along the frontiers and over time soldiers came to be mobilized in smaller divisions (such as alae or cohortes) rather than as full legions.

In addition to its military responsibilities, the army also played a large role in the construction of major infrastructure projects, especially roads and bridges; administration in the provinces; and overseeing some aspects of law and governance. Camps that had originally been built as temporary strongholds and forts were made permanent, and the amenities of Roman cities, such as baths, theatres, and temples, were built to support these communities. Everyday life in these frontier camps is best known from the Vindolanda Tablets. While army camps had been seen as almost exclusively male spaces, evidence from these tablets and other archaeological evidence from camp sites is shedding new light on the women, children, slaves, and other individuals whose lives were connected to those of the soldiers. The movement, and settlement, of large numbers of soldiers and other individuals connected to the military throughout the empire also made way for the spread of ideas, culture, religion, and languages.

Governing the Empire: Provincial and Local Administration

To some extent, Rome’s empire was won through war and the military, but its long-term success depended upon creating stability through peace. Starting with the first permanent overseas provinciae in the 3rd century bce—Sicily in 241 bce and Corsica and Sardinia in 227 bce—Rome’s empire gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean. Although there is still debate as to whether the term provincia designated a particular task or implied a geographical region during the mid- to late Republic, by the 1st century ce it seems to refer most commonly to a particular geographical region. Because of the gradual incorporation of territory and the fluctuating relationships and varying treaties with client kingdoms, free cities, and inhabitants of territories beyond Rome’s immediate control, provincial governance was not prescribed through a single enactment nor is it possible to apply a single concept of what provincial governance looked like during the first two centuries ce. As was the case with the military developments, succession structures, and means of legitimizing power discussed above, many of the mechanisms for governance from the Republican period continued under the emperors.

One aspect of the so-called Augustan settlement of 27 bce was the designation of provinces as either under the direct control of Augustus himself (governed through legates, legati pro praetore, chosen by the emperor) or as still under the control of the senate (governed by ex-praetors and ex-consuls chosen by lot according to the Republican tradition). Egypt was an exception: its strategic importance and wealth meant that the emperor needed more direct control, and it was therefore governed by a praefectus, an equestrian with imperium; senators were for the most part banned from this province so as to prevent them from using it as a power base or to overthrow the emperor.

Governors were responsible for overseeing the collection of taxes, organizing the census, and settling disputes. Quaestors continued to support the governors. Military tribunes and commanders assisted with the legions and commanded auxiliary troops. During the Flavian period, a new official, the curator rei publicae (logistes in Greek), was introduced to help solve some financial problems that arose in cities. Cassius Dio presents what he sees as the process for sending governors to their provinces and mentions the fact that directives on how to govern now came directly from the emperor (Cass. Dio 53.14.1–4). Tacitus’s biography of his father-in-law Agricola provides details about the conquest of Britain and praises Agricola’s character and actions, providing insight into the virtues which a governor was expected to possess. The most detailed source for how a governor might make decisions and interact with the emperor comes from Pliny the Younger, the governor (legatus Augusti pro praetore consulari potestate) of Bithynia-Pontus, appointed in 109/110 ce. His letters to the emperor Trajan range from the mundane—facilitating transportation in the province and overseeing building projects—to managing interpersonal conflict and, most famously, seeking guidance about how to handle the province’s Christians. These letters provide the best evidence for the range of tasks undertaken by the governor and how a legatus of the emperor might seek clarification from the emperor who had appointed him as his representative.

Evidence for local administration, governance at the municipal level, largely comes from fragments of municipal or colonial charters and from local honorific dedications and inscriptions. Three town charters come from Baetica during the late 1st century ce, of which the most notable is that for the municipium Flavium Irnitanum (tabula Irnitana). These texts provide valuable information about how Latin status was defined, how Roman law was applied within provincial communities, local administrative guidelines, and the powers of particular offices, such as those of aedile and quaestor. When first founded, municipia (see municipium) seem to have modelled their local governance on that of Rome, with the highest local office being that of duumvir (the local equivalent of the Roman consul). Communities also had local councils, whose members were called decuriones, and provincial councils (concilia or koina; see concilium), whose membership was made up of elites from communities within that province. When it could, Rome would, for the most part, allow earlier local administrative structures to persist and relied heavily on local management rather than an imposition of central control over localities, so long as order was maintained and taxes were collected.

Incorporating new provinces into Rome’s empire and governing them involved political, institutional, and cultural change. However, that change was not uniform, nor did it fully disrupt the sense of continuity with previous practices and ideas. “Roman” identity was not the only identity expressed by individuals living under the Roman empire. While it cannot be denied that there was some semblance of a shared culture among the communities under Roman control, that culture, as well as individual identities, were expressed in a variety of ways. The expansion of the empire and the relative peace experienced by those within its territory during the first two centuries ce suggest that the inhabitants accepted as legitimate not only the power granted to the emperor, his family, and his agents but also the ideological, cultural, and religious changes that accompanied it. Existing local hierarchies were strengthened and expanded through systematic collaboration between local aristocrats and Rome’s central governance.7 While there was a powerful illusion of stability present throughout this period, cracks continued to form. The death of Commodus in 193 ce and the resulting civil wars led to the introduction of new threats, new types of administration, and new ways of claiming and legitimizing political power—while also preserving some continuity from the earlier period.

Discussion of the Literature

Recent scholarship has focused on the re-characterization of the various aspects of the principate. Following a series of conferences and edited volumes around the bimillennium of Augustus’s death, scholars have begun reframing the Augustan Age. An increase in scholarship re-evaluating the triumviral period has also led to further exploration of the years which followed it. Much of the work revolves around the re-evaluation of Actium as a “turning point” and looks to showcase the continuity between the Late Republic and the Early Imperial periods. Of particular note is the edited volume by Osgood, Morrell, and Welch, The Alternative Augustan Age, which provides an excellent collection of discussions examining at this period by turning the focus away from Augustus and exploring the continuity between the 1st century bce and the 1st century ce.

One of the largest challenges for the study of the Imperial period is the synchronic approach to government, culture, religion, etc. that can be found in many introductory textbooks in Roman history. In many instances, the Republic is treated as a constantly changing, developing, and expanding entity and chapters are thus organized chronologically. Once Rome falls under the control of Augustus and his family members, chapters are then organized by dynasties or focus on thematic discussions such as “religion under the emperors.” Although there is no simple way to avoid this given a lack of particular types of evidence for particular time periods, we should nevertheless be aware of the oversimplification this causes and the artificial dichotomy (Republic = change / Empire = stability) that it creates. This article too has fallen into this trap—mainly due to its brevity—but it does recognize the problems that this sort of simplification can exacerbate.

Rome’s greatest success was in providing a semblance of unity throughout the empire and extended periods of peace. Once a province was incorporated into the Roman empire, why might those living there accept Roman rule, obey the new rules and government, and pay taxes or agree to other economic burdens? When we discuss the lives of those living in the provinces, we should not imply that there was a single provincial culture or even a single Roman culture. Recently, postcolonial approaches have stressed the agency of provincial inhabitants and how they chose to either accept or ignore particular Roman cultural elements. The question still remains, what did it mean to “be Roman” or to “become Roman”? A number of important scholarly works have addressed possible approaches to this question. Hopkins saw imperial cult practices (see ruler-cult, Roman) as the uniting force of the empire.8 Woolf looked to the experiences and actions of the local elites in Gaul to explore what it might mean to “become Roman.”9 Ando explored the different mechanisms by which the Roman princeps might foster—and rule by—consensus.10

Scholars have examined the ways in which euergetism (from the Greek euergeteō, “to do good deeds”), patron-client relationships, and ritual practice supported the creation of both local and imperial identities. Local elites received social and political benefits from engagement with the provincial governing system. Holding local or provincial-level political offices or seats on local and provincial councils could lead to Roman citizenship and even, in some cases, to political offices and senatorial positions in Rome for oneself or one’s children. Euergetism, mainly through the construction of buildings and infrastructure or provision of games and festivals, stimulated the desire for self-promotion and increased the influence of those who sought Roman political offices. Among these was Tiberius Claudius Atticus Herodes (2)—usually called Herodes Atticus—a wealthy Athenian known for his philanthropy, patronage of the arts, and numerous public works. Those barred from political offices, such as women and freedmen, could also gain influence and “symbolic capital” in their communities through these actions.11 Certain buildings, such as baths, fora, porticoes, and temples, became markers of a “Roman” city. Many building projects were either modelled on the euergetism of the emperor or his family members, or were built through their patronage.

The study of women, freedmen, slaves, non-citizens, and other marginalized groups has also expanded in the last few decades. A shift in focus away from strongman politics has greatly enriched our understanding of the ancient world and has brought to light many stories of less prominent individuals living throughout the empire. Greater attention has been paid to how individuals might influence Roman politics and governance without holding political office. Incorporating such types of evidence as inscriptions and material remains can allow us to hear the voices of previously “hidden” Romans.

Following from work in the 1990s and 2000s on women’s role in religion, Hemelrijk’s work on women and civic life has been instrumental in understanding the roles of elite women in provincial communities and developing further areas of inquiry.12 Richlin’s wide-ranging collection of studies examining how the history of Roman women has been written remains an excellent starting point for any discussion of women’s representation in the surviving ancient sources.13

Studies of slavery have suffered from the “Republic = development / Imperial stability = decline” dichotomy and much of the recent work on Roman slavery has focused on the Republic. Richlin’s work on slavery and the Republican theatre has been incredibly influential.14 Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s work has explored the religious experience of Rome’s slaves during the Republic and engages with helpful cross-cultural comparisons.15 Unfortunately, the richness of studies of slavery in the Republic does not extend into the Imperial period. Nevertheless, the Cambridge World History of Slavery does provide an excellent starting point. Further studies of slavery looking beyond the Italian peninsula or examining how Rome’s slave supply, slaves’ economic contributions, and their treatment and experiences were impacted by Rome’s expansion would be most welcome.

Woolf’s Becoming Roman encouraged scholars to think about the lived experience of individuals in the provinces rather than how Rome imposed cultural changes from the centre. Although such a perspective is dependent upon surviving sources and archaeological evidence which is not consistently present in all regions, further localized studies of regions and peoples and how their experiences changed over time would help to develop a more nuanced image of what life was like in the vast expanse of Rome’s empire. Extending our gaze even farther, the study of many frontier regions influenced by Rome or connected to it by trade might help to develop a better understanding of the sharing of cultural ideas, practices, and technology that was occurring throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.

A re-examination of the historical sources themselves has been undertaken recently. Studies have looked to questions of genre, rhetorical training and style, and how we are to interpret the surviving historical narratives. Suetonius studies are experiencing a revival, as are other significant writers of this period such as Velleius Paterculus, Valerius Maximus, and Aulus Gellius who were previously dismissed as being too biased, too stylistic, or too lacking in literary merit to contribute anything of note to a reconstruction of the historical narrative. This rehabilitation of historical sources has also resulted in a rehabilitation of some of Rome’s most notoriously “bad” emperors: Nero, Domitian, and Commodus. As the final emperors of their respective dynasties, it should not be surprising that the historical accounts of these individuals’ reigns, written after their deaths, would denigrate them in order to praise the emperors or dynasties which followed. Still, more detailed exploration of rhetorical style and non-literary sources are showing that scholars should take a more nuanced view when discussing these reigns and their historical context.


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  • Bradley, Keith R., and Paul Cartledge, eds. The Cambridge World History of Slavery. Vol. 1, The Ancient Mediterranean World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
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