The Roman Empire in the First Century
Two thousand years ago, the world was ruled by Rome. From England to Africa and from Syria to Spain, one in every four people on earth lived and died under Roman law. The Roman Empire in the first century AD mixed sophistication with brutality and could suddenly lurch from civilization, strength and power to terror, tyranny and greed.
Leader of the pack. At the head of the pack were the emperors, a strange bunch of men (always men). Few were just OK: some were good – some even were great – but far too many abused their position and power. They had a job for life, but that life could always be shortened. Assassination was an occupational hazard. The emperors sat at the top of Rome’s social order. This was as finely graded as flour. Specific qualifications were needed for Romans to be admitted as equestrians or senators. Even freed slaves had different rights from citizens.
Daily life in ancient Rome. What’s more, the social status of any citizen governed the life they led. While all Romans enjoyed the baths and made a feature of the evening meal, their clothes and food, homes and hobbies, were a product of their class. Those that tried to climb the ranks too quickly were savagely mocked by Petronius, just one of many Roman writers whose observation and wit still breathes life into a society long since dead.
More than a city. Petronius knew his city well, but Rome itself was much more than just one city. Its empire was a vast collection of states, backed up by force. It was not always peaceful. Enemies and rebels like Cleopatra and Boudicca revealed the Roman steel that lay behind its civilization. Even allowing for the occasional revolt, the empire was an enormous achievement. It was a huge marketplace in which citizens could trade and travel unhindered. This helped the spread of foreign religions like Judaism and early Christianity as far as Rome itself. Slowly, these religions encroached on traditional Roman spirits and gods. By the end of the first century AD, Rome was even ruled by a Spaniard, Trajan. He was the first of many foreign emperors that showed the Roman Empire to be a vast, multi-cultural melting pot that still has relevance, more than 2,000 years later.