Roman Imperial Era

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The greatest extent of the Roman Empire when the Emperor Trajan died in 117 AD. However, the provinces of Armenia , Assyria and Mesopotamia were only under Roman control for a few years.

The Roman empire (27 v. Chr. To 284 n. Chr.) Forms an epoch portion of the classical period , between the determined expansion and adaptation crises late Roman Republic and the late antiquity in which the Mediterranean a transformation process went through and Westrom went down .

Of Augustus outgoing reorganization of the state that the Prinzipat established, forming the start of the undisputed imperial epoch. Their end, on the other hand, can be dated differently with plausible reasons. The conventional epoch border is the deposition of the last Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus in the year 476, but the more recent research sees this date less and less as a real turning point (see end of antiquity ).

There is much to suggest that the change in the system of rule under Diocletian and the turn of Constantine the Great to Christianity , that is, the years around 300, should be viewed as the end of the “classical” Roman Empire, as a number of fundamental changes took place at that time. For this reason, ancient historians today normally only understand the “imperial era” to be the era of the principate between 27 BC. BC and the end of the imperial crisis of the 3rd century AD 284. The present article is based on these epoch boundaries. Although there were still Roman emperors after 284 (in the west until 476 and in the eastern empire long afterwards), they ruled in a strongly changed environment.

Augustus and the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Augustus statue from Prima Porta, now in the Vatican Museums

In the last hundred years of its existence, since the Gracchi attempts to reform, the Roman Republic has found itself in a phase of permanent civil war. Octavian, who was later called Augustus and was both great-nephew and adopted son of Gaius Julius Caesar , had first overcome Caesar's murderer in the power struggle following Caesar's murder and then his former colleague in the triumvirate , Mark Antony , who allegedly came from Egypt together with Cleopatra threatened to establish a Hellenistic kingdom at Actium 31 BC. Defeated BC. Augustus then laid down in January 27 BC He allegedly settled his autocracy, which he had achieved in the civil war, but had the authority of a tribune and commander-in-chief over the legions of the border provinces and periodically renewed what was the future formal basis of the empire (see principate ). With this he succeeded in legalizing his power.

Propagandistically, he legitimized his claim to rule through public and private building projects, donations to the plebs , the involvement of his person in the beginning cult and the glorification of the inner peace achieved through the end of the civil wars in architecture (Ara pacis) and poetry, which experienced its classic heyday ( Virgil , Horace , Ovid ). Augustus had attracted the Senate, which had been greatly changed by civil wars and proscriptions, and later also by restructuring due to the censorship office, to his side through favors: the nobility was largely disempowered, but retained its prominent social position. By exhausting the constitutional leeway, Augustus was the first citizen of Rome (princeps) to gain permanent autocracy and thereby avoided the mistake of his predecessors of being suspected of restoring the hated royal rule or of establishing a tyranny. In his report of deeds ( Res Gestae Divi Augusti ) Augustus calls himself superior in terms of reputation ( auctoritas ), but on an equal footing with his colleagues in terms of authority. In view of the princeps' special powers and means of power , this was a lie, but this fiction formed the ideological basis of the Roman monarchy for 300 years.

The city of Rome was redesigned architecturally and administratively in accordance with its political importance, such as through mansions, temple maintenance, games , baths as well as the establishment of a fire brigade and an urban guard entrusted with police-like tasks, whose commander-in-chief assumed a kind of imperial deputy position. In the social field, Augustus tried largely unsuccessfully to solve the decline in membership of the old noble patrician families through stricter marriage laws. Under Augustus, the empire was also expanded through the formal provincialization of Egypt and conquests in the Alpine region, northern Spain and the Balkans. The expansion into Germanic areas was completed soon after the defeat of Varus in 9; the areas between the Rhine and Elbe were not provincialized, but only indirectly controlled by the Romans.

His stepson and later adoptive son Tiberius (14-37 AD), a son of his wife Livia who was brought into the marriage, probably initially excluded Augustus from the line of succession (although the empire was formally never hereditary) because he denied him important offices . Augustus would have preferred a blood-related successor. Tiberius finally went into temporary exile in Rhodes in order not to be eliminated. Only after the death of Augustus' nephew Marcellus, General Agrippa , who was temporarily designated as heir, and his two grandsons Gaius and Lucius , Augustus appointed Tiberius as his successor. Tiberius tried to dispel possible doubts about his legitimacy by demonstrative hesitation in accepting the honors associated with the principate in the Senate. Nevertheless, the relationship between the emperor and the senate was disturbed, so that the senatorial historiography describes Tiberius as a tyrant. His cruel character traits are said to have emerged during his late reign, which were marked by the alleged high treason of the Praetorian prefect Lucius Aelius Seianus and the subsequent trials; Modern research has largely corrected this negative picture.

The historians paint an even more negative picture of the third emperor Caligula (37-41), on whom great hopes rested after Tiberius' death, but who, possibly because of his demonstrative turn to oriental kingship, became extinct after his murder and in the Historiography is portrayed as a mentally disturbed sadist. The apparently pathological actions of Caligula, who allegedly also wanted to raise his favorite horse Incitatus to the rank of senator, are often understood in modern research as humiliation rituals for the emperor striving for absolutism.

Claudius (41–54) had initially been passed over in favor of Caligula because of visible physical handicaps, but was the only legitimate candidate after the Senate revolt that led to the tyrant's assassination. Historiography portrays him as an introverted regent, hardly capable of his high office, who indulged himself in intellectual interests. In modern research, his government is rated as rather successful, mainly because he stabilized the borders and brought the expansion to a conclusion. Art historical research emphasizes the one-sidedness of the traditional image.

Similar to Caligula, Nero (54–68), who had been intrigued to succeed him by his ambitious mother Agrippina , was initially regarded as a figure of hope. In the first five years of his reign, which were recognized in contemporary literature with the Augustan term of the golden age, the youthful Nero was under the influence of his educator, the philosopher Seneca . Nero is portrayed in historiography as a tyrant and passionate actor who killed his mother. After the ensuing Pisonian conspiracy, Seneca, Lucan and Petronius , among others, had to commit suicide . Nero, in turn, was forced to commit suicide by the Senate, which had declared him an enemy of the state. He succumbed to senatorial condemnation, so that the historian Tacitus rumored to be the originator of the great fire in Rome, which he used to build his palace complexes. Due to the subsequent persecution of Christians , in which Paul allegedly also died, his tradition in Christian times was further discredited. His reign was also rated rather negatively by ancient historical research, for example the relationship to the senatorial upper class and the neglect of the army.

Nero's hostility to the two groups that legitimized rule, the Senate and the Army, led to the delegitimation of the Julio-Claudian family and into the civil war. The important role of the army became apparent in the year of the four emperors , in which the generals Galba , Otho and Vitellius replaced each other as brief rulers and from which Vespasian finally emerged as the victor. His dynasty is called the Flavians after his family name.

The Flavians and the adoptive emperors

Vespasian (69–79) is portrayed in historiography as the complete opposite of Nero: he was down-to-earth, humorous and was considered a just ruler. During his reign, the uprising in Judea that had broken out under Nero in the year 70 was bloodily crushed. Vespasian also cracked down on the Teutons , secured the borders on the Rhine and in the east against the Parthians , reorganized the army and restructured the finances. And although he had good relations with the Senate , he drew more and more powers to himself, but without tearing down the facade of the "republican order". The lack of legitimation of the Flavians due to their origin should be established through public buildings such as the Colosseum and the Arch of Titus. The surviving half of his inaugural law ( Lex de imperio Vespasiani ), which was probably awarded in a similar form to its predecessors, can be interpreted in its so-called discretionary clause as a transfer of absolute power, but the difficult text is also interpreted differently.

After his death, his sons Titus (79–81) and Domitian (81–96) ruled successfully overall. Titus' reign was overshadowed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the outbreak of an epidemic. However, his quick relief efforts and generosity ensured that his name would be fondly remembered. 81 Titus died, and his ambitious and sometimes cruel brother Domitian ascended the throne, with rumors emerging that he had poisoned Titus, but which are completely unproven. In any case, the sources paint a gloomy picture of Domitian, which is, however, strongly tendentious. Domitian followed up on his father's policy on Germania and undertook several successful campaigns. Although popular with the army and the people, resistance arose at the court due to some cruel acts and his autocratic style of government (he allowed himself to be dubbed dominus et deus, “Lord and God”), which finally led to his assassination in 96. The persecution of Christians, which he was often accused of in older depictions, was of a regional nature and by no means systematic.

With Domitian one often lets the Early Imperial Era end and the High Imperial Era begin. The so-called adoptive emperors followed , who supposedly “chose the best” - which of course took into account the fact that they had no sons. Nerva (96–98), a generally weak and aged Princeps, chose - probably under duress - the dynamic Trajan (98–117) as his successor. This was the first emperor to come from the provinces, namely from Hispania . Trajan, who tried to clearly differentiate himself from Domitian, although he had served the Flavians loyally and in fact linked in many ways with them, subjugated Dacia and at times also large parts of the Parthian Empire in protracted and sometimes bitter battles. The empire had reached its greatest extent in 117 (from Scotland to the Sahara, from Spain and the Danube region to today's Iraq). However, a Jewish revolt broke out in the rear of the Romans as early as 115 , and the Parthians went on the offensive; then in 117 Trajan died quite unexpectedly. His successor Hadrian (117-138), who was said to have been determined by Trajan on his deathbed as his successor, saw the resources of Rome clearly overstretched and therefore gave up the threatened conquests in the east (withdrawal of the border to the Euphrates ). Hadrian had serious conflicts with the Senate, as several senators had been assassinated after he came to power. But under his rule a certain cultural flowering developed, supported by Hadrian's philhellenism, which even the severe Jewish uprising 132–135 could not diminish.

Denarius of Marcus Aurelius

Hadrian's defensive policy was continued by his successor Antoninus Pius (138-161), whose reign was remembered as a time of peace. This calm ended under Marcus Aurelius (161-180), who had Lucius Verus as co-ruler until his death in 169, although he was superior to him in auctoritas . Marcus Aurelius is traditionally called the "philosopher on the imperial throne" because of his inclination towards philosophy - he was a stoic . He felt compelled to wage several wars: In the east there were heavy defensive battles against the Parthians between 161 and 166, which were finally defeated. In addition, a wave of epidemics occurred in 165/166 (so-called Antonine plague ); the plague was brought into the empire by the Roman troops returning from the east and was to severely affect the empire. Under Marcus Aurelius, the empire also experienced the pre-emigration of peoples , the effects of which were among the causes of its later demise: There were two wars against the Marcomanni , Quadi and Sarmatians on the central Danube ( Marcomann wars : 167–175 and 178–180) . In these defensive battles, the Roman troops only managed to repel the invaders with difficulty, but the emperor was finally able to launch a counter-offensive. In the middle of the campaign, Marcus Aurelius died in Vindobona . His decision to make his biological son Commodus (180–192) his successor put an end to the era of the adoptive empire.

The Severians and the Imperial Crisis of the 3rd Century

Commodus, who fell victim to a conspiracy at the end of 192, appearances as a gladiator and pathological traits are attributed to Nero's passionate acting, although the tradition from the Historia Augusta is strongly tendentious. His death heralded another troubled time, as the army's increasingly power to legitimize rule led to the second year of the Four Emperors, in which Septimius Severus (193-211) , who came from the province of Africa , prevailed. He stabilized the boundaries and internal order of Rome and founded the dynasty of the Severi . His son and successor Caracalla (211-217), who had his brother and co-emperor Geta murdered without further ado, issued the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212 , which brought citizenship (and tax liability) to all free residents of the empire. The fighting on the Rhine against the Teutons, especially the Alemanni , and in the east against the Parthian Empire intensified soon afterwards. Caracalla was murdered in 217 while a Parthian campaign had begun. He was followed for a short time by Macrinus (who had been involved in the assassination of Caracalla and made peace with the Parthians) and Elagabal , before the last Severus ascended the throne with Severus Alexander (222-235). Overall, he turned out to be a rather weak emperor. In the east he waged war against the Sassanids and Alemanni; In 235 he was murdered by insurgent soldiers in Mainz. After his death, the troubled times of the soldier emperors followed .

The time of the soldier emperors was marked by a rapid change of rulers, but also by constant internal and external pressure ( imperial crisis of the 3rd century ), which in some cases also led to economic problems. The "system of acceptance" that had been tried and tested since the early imperial era, according to which the legitimacy of every princeps was based on the consent of the army, senate and people of Rome, reached its limits; the army on the frontiers now became the only decisive political factor. Inside, the Gallic Empire split off from Rome in 260 . In the north the pressure from neighboring peoples persisted, in the east the New Persian Sassanid Empire became a dangerous enemy . Emperor Valerian was even captured in 260, which marked the low point of Rome's prestige in the east. Meanwhile, Palmyra took control of large parts of Asia Minor and Egypt . These centrifugal effects could only be eliminated after some effort. Above all, Emperor Aurelian (270–275) was able to stabilize the situation again and regain lost territories.

Emperor Carus (282–283) remained victorious against the Sassanids. His death (or that of his son Carinus ) ended the age of the soldier emperors , because his successor Diocletian carried out extensive reforms, including the division of the imperial rule into the rule of four ( tetrarchy ), with which the beginning of late antiquity is generally associated.

The preceding epochs are mostly divided into the Early ( Augustus to Domitian ) and High ( Nerva to Carinus ) Imperial Era. If one includes the late Imperial Era (or late antiquity), common dates for the end of the Imperial Era, as a delimitation to the Middle Ages and the Byzantine Era, are the year 476 (deposition of the Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus ), 565 (death of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. ) or the early 7th century ( Islamic expansion ). In terms of cultural history, the closure of the Platonic Academy by Justinian I in 529 and the founding of the first Benedictine monastery in Monte Cassino in the same year are often mentioned as a striking date in the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages.

Regarding the problem of the “ end of antiquity ” and the subsequent development from Diocletian on, see above all the corresponding explanations in the late antiquity article .

Archaeological definition

Migration period
to Eggers
D. A.D. 375-568
Roman Empire
after Eggers
C3 300-375 AD
C2 200-300 AD
C1 150–200 A.D.
B2 50–150 A.D.
B1 0–50 A.D.
La Tène time
D. 150-15 BC Chr./ 0
C. 250-150 BC Chr.
B. 380-250 BC Chr.
A. 450-380 BC Chr.

In archeology , especially in the pre- and early history , a section is traditionally (about 1 to 375 n. Chr.) The early history of to the Roman Empire adjacent areas of Europe as a Roman empire called. 375 is traditionally considered to be the beginning of the Great Migration Period . The chronological breakdown by Hans Jürgen Eggers into the levels B1 and B2 (early Roman imperial period) and C1-C3 (late Roman imperial period) is based on the dating of the Roman imported goods in Germania magna and the rest of the Barbaricum , but is used in more recent research in Asked a question.

See also

Portal: Roman Empire  - Overview of Wikipedia content on the topic of the Roman Empire


  • Hartwin Brandt : The Imperial Era. Roman history from Octavian to Diocletian. 31 BC Chr. – 284 AD Beck, Munich 2021.
  • Karl Christ : History of the Roman Empire. From Augustus to Constantine . 6th edition with updated bibliography. Beck, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-406-59613-1 , (Probably the best and most detailed representation of the imperial era in German.)
  • Werner Dahlheim : History of the Roman Empire . 3rd revised and expanded edition. Oldenbourg, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-486-49673-5 , (concise presentation with research section and comprehensive bibliography.)
  • Werner Eck (ed.): Local autonomy and Roman regulatory power in the imperial provinces from the 1st to the 3rd century (= writings of the Historical College . Colloquia 42). Munich 1999, ISBN 978-3-486-56385-6 , digital version (PDF).
  • Armin Eich : The Roman Empire. CH Beck, Munich 2014.
  • Albino Garzetti: From Tiberius to the Antonines . London 1974.
  • Klaus-Peter Johne (ed.): The time of the soldier emperors: Crisis and transformation of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD (235–284) . Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2008.
  • Dietmar Kienast : Roman imperial table. Basic features of a Roman imperial chronology . Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1990, 1996, 2004 (3rd edition), ISBN 3-534-18240-5 .
  • Michael Sommer : Roman history II. Rome and its empire in the imperial era (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 458). Kröner, Stuttgart 2009, ISBN 978-3-520-45801-8 .
  • Michael Sommer: The Roman Empire. The rise and fall of a world power. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2018.
  • The Cambridge Ancient History . 2nd ed., Vol. 10-12. (Important overall presentation; Vol. 13 and 14 deal with late antiquity.)
  • Fergus Millar : The Emperor in the Roman World (31 BC-AD 337) . London 1977.
  • David S. Potter (Ed.): A Companion To The Roman Empire . Blackwell, Oxford 2006, ISBN 0-631-22644-3 , (collection of essays in which the history of events is only dealt with very briefly, but a large space is given to the sources as well as the cultural, economic and social history, etc.)

Web links

Commons : Roman Emperors  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files


  1. Data from the timetable in: Die Welt der Kelten. Centers of power. Treasures of art. Thorbecke, Ostfildern 2012, ISBN 978-3-7995-0752-3 , p. 524 f.