No revolt in the Roman Empire?
No revolt in the Roman Empire
Of course there were revolts in the Roman Empire. Just think of the uprising of the confederates in Italy from 91 to 88 BC or the Ephesian Vespers in 88 BC. At the time, the inhabitants of the province Asia killed the Roman publicans and 80,000 of their fellow countrymen. There were also the Jewish wars, of course. They were almost inevitable, as incompatible concepts of sovereignty and empire were clashing together. Nevertheless, despite all social differences and the lack of a social system in the modern sense, there was a long time of peace throughout the largest part of the Roman Empire between 27 BC and the murder of Caracalla in the year 212.
The Roman society consisted of a number of social classes. The equites and senators were at the top. There were only few of them and some had gigantic assets. It was from their class the assistants of the emperor came, the civil servants necessary to assert the central governance’s power.
At the very bottom, we find the army of slaves whose work kept society going.
But in between those two, there was a broad middle class, who was living comparatively well for ancient times. After all, since Augustus had come to power, there was peace in the Roman Empire. The economy was blossoming and there was a demand for labourers. Be it Roman citizens, non-Roman inhabitants of the Empire or freedman – most people had a stable income and could more or less support themselves and their families.
One decisive element for social peace was the permeability of the system. It could not happen in one, but in two generations. The army gave every man – for it was only men who were relevant in the Roman Empire – a chance to climb the social ladder. Since Emperor Claudius, every non-Roman who had served the auxiliary troops got the Roman citizenship for himself and his children after the end of his service. Holders of the Roman citizenship could make a career in the legions. From ordinary soldier to centurion. From centurion to primus pilus. And a primus pilus earned so much that he could even become a member of the equestrian order. And it went on after that. The emperor often liked to appoint successful soldiers for the high and highest administrative positions, since he could rely on their loyalty and experience.
Even a slave could hope for social advancement. He had a restricted right to save money for himself, so he could ultimately buy his freedom. Although many slave owners sooner or later decided to let their servants go anyway. Thus a slave became a freedman. He was not completely equal to a person who was born free, but his sons were.
Another element to ensure inner peace was the fact that emperors, senators and equites were taking responsibility for their fellow citizens. Not just in Rome but in the provinces, too. There was a network of cities which internally reigned themselves throughout the empire. At least as long as there were no revolts. If the upper class wanted to take action without imperial interference – and they did want that – it was in their own interest to avoid riots and disturbances. They did so by prominently sharing their wealth with their disadvantaged fellow citizens.
Naturally, no one actually shared. No wealthy person ruined themselves through great benefactions that were too costly. But they celebrated what they did donate.
Until this day, inscriptions and the fundaments that used to bear precious statues give an account of how the rich benefactors used to draw their fellow citizens’ attention to their good deeds. They constantly repeated that they had provided grains and oil for the gymnasium, built a library or financed the games.
If the city was celebrating itself in a procession to honour the gods, those who had paid for the sacrificial animals were certainly at the front of the procession.
Everywhere the inhabitants of a city could read who had paid which amount for the community. Thus the wealth of the rich became useful. It was not the possession of money and property that served as a status symbol, but how much of this money had been given to the general public.
Let us add a third element, which ensured peace: the emperor’s readiness to intervene and help financially in real emergencies. Of course there were natural catastrophes in imperial times, too.
Think of the earthquake in the year AD 17, which destroyed thirteen cities in Asia Minor. In such cases, the emperor himself would help to both finance and organise the reconstruction of the city. There are coins that prove that Tiberius helped the victims of the earthquake. Their inscription “civitatibus Asiae restitutis” let the entire empire know how much the emperor had helped.
Or the many regional crop shortages. In order to avoid famine, the cities would appoint officials who had to buy grains from other regions and give them to the starving population either for free or for a very low price. Rome had a permanent agency for this case, with the praefectus annonae at the top. His efforts in the name of the emperor can be seen on numerous coins.
A secure income, the opportunity for one’s own children to rise to the very top and the certainty that the emperor would intervene and help in case of a true catastrophe – all of these things let the people believe that they were living in glorious times. And it was good that others were wealthier than them because it was only the rich who could share some of their affluence.
In this concept, there was no space for the type of anger at bigwigs and fat cats that rules today’s envious society.