Condition of the Empire under Augustus

The Roman Empire under Augustus consisted of Italy and the following countries governed as provinces: - In Europe, Sicily, Sardinia, and the other islands in the west of the Mediterranean, Gaul as far as the Rhine, Spain, Illyricum, Dalmatia, Pannonia, Thrace, Macedonia, Greece, and the islands of the Aegean; in Asia, all the countries between the Caspian Sea, the Parthian Empire, the Persian and Arabian Gulfs, the Mediterranean, and the Caucasus; and in Africa, Mauritania, Numidia, the ancient territory of Carthage, Cyrene, and Egypt. Within these limits there may have been included, in all, about 100,000,000 of human beings, of different races, complexions, languages, and degrees of civilization. Not less than one-half of the whole number must have been in a condition of slavery, and of the rest, only that small proportion who, under the envied name of Roman citizens, inhabited Italy, or were distributed, in official or other capacities, through the cities of the Empire, enjoyed political independence. These citizens,' diffused through the conquered countries, constituted the ingredient by which the whole was kept in union. Working backwards and forwards in the midst of the various populations in which they were thus planted, the Romans assimilated them gradually to each other, till Celts, Spaniards, Asiatics, etc., became more or less Romanized. This process of assimilation was much facilitated by the circumstance that, with the exception of Judea and other portions of the East, all the nations of the Roman Empire were polytheistic in their beliefs, so that there was no fundamental repugnance in this respect between the modes of thought of one nation and those of another. In fact, the Roman Empire may be defined as a compulsory assemblage of polytheistic nations, in order that Christianity might operate over a large surface at once of that polytheism which it was to destroy and supersede. In the twenty fifth year of the reign of Augustus, and while that prince was ruling with undisturbed sway over 100,000,000 of fellow-polytheists, there took place in that small monotheistic corner of his dominions which lay on the southern border of the Levant, an event, the importance of which the wisest of the Romans could not have foreseen. This was the birth, in an obscure Jewish town, of Jesus Christ. From that town, and from that obscure corner of the vast Roman Empire, was to proceed an influence which was to overspread the polytheistic nations, eat out or dissolve into itself all existing creeds and philosophies, and renovate the thoughts, the habits, the whole constitution of mankind. Waiting for this influence, the various nations - Celts, Greeks, Spaniards, etc., were submitted to the preliminary pressure of Roman institutions, modifying, and in some cases changing, their native characters. The eastern half of the Empire, however, had been too thoroughly impregnated with the Greek element to yield easily to the new pressure; and accordingly while the Latin language spread among the barbarians of the west, Greek still continued to be the language of the East. This demarcation between the western or Latin-speaking and the eastern or Greek-speaking portions of the Empire became exceedingly important afterwards.

Of this vast empire Rome was the metropolis, now a city of innumerable streets and buildings, and containing, it is calculated, a population of. about two millions and a half. From Rome roads branched out in all directions leading to the other towns of Italy, and passing through the villa studded estates of the rich Roman citizens. From the coasts of Italy, the Mediterranean afforded an easy access to the various provinces, by whose industry the metropolis and Italy itself were in a great measure supported. The provinces themselves were traversed by roads connecting town with town, and laying all parts of the Empire open to the civil and military functionaries of government. Usually residing at Rome, the will of the emperor vibrated through a hierarchy of intermediate functionaries, so as to be felt throughout the whole of his vast dominions. In effect, this will was absolute. In Augustus, as in Julius Caesar, all the great offices of state, which had so long subsisted as mutual checks upon each other, were united, so as to confer on him power of the most unlimited description. The senate still met, but only as a judicial body in cases of treason, or legislatively to pass the decrees which Augustus had previously matured with a few private counselors; and the comitia were still held, but only to elect candidates already nominated by the emperor. In this system of absolute dominion in the hands of a single individual, the Romans cheerfully acquiesced, partly from experience of the superior nature of the government thus exercised to the wretched anarchy from which they had escaped, and partly in consequence of the hopelessness of revolt against a man who had the entire military force of the Empire at his disposal. In Rome and Italy, the public peace was preserved by the praetorian cohorts bodies of soldiers of tried valor, to whom Augustus gave double pay. Throughout the provinces, the people were kept in check by the regular troops, who were accumulated, however, principally in the frontier provinces of the Empire, where they might both maintain tranquillity among the recently-conquered populations, and resist the attacks of the barbarian races beyond. The provinces where military force was required, Augustus retained in his own hands, administering them through legates appointed by himself, usually for several years; the others he intrusted to the senate, who named governors for a single year.

The cities of the Empire were the centres of Roman influence. It was in them that the Roman citizens were congregated, that schools were established, and that the various agencies of civilization operated most uniformly. In the rustic populations of the provinces, the national individuality was preserved with the national language. It was part of the policy of Augustus to found cities in the choicest situations in the provinces; and so rapid was the spread of the Roman civilization during his reign, that Roman writers and orators of note began to be produced even in remote parts of the Empire. The Greek language and literature began also to penetrate the provinces of the west, and to find students among the Celts and Spaniards.