Roman Power and Economy

We look back at the past and the Roman Empire and wonder how a state centred around a city became a huge power across Europe. From 509 BCE to 27 BCE Rome was a republic, then it had Emperors across all of it, divided into west and east (under Diocletian 284-305 CE, who took the eastern part only giving Maximian the western part - the last ever combined emperor was Theodosius, 394-395 CE) and in 476 CE the loss of the western Roman Empire was complete, leaving Byzantium to the east. Romulus Augustulus was the last Emperor in the west (from only 475 CE).

Rome's empire in the Mediterranean and parts of Western Europe lasted for centuries and in places became rich and wealthy - for some people. It needed Greek as well as Latin to communicate within itself. Outsiders were called Barbarians. Emperors came from Rome and Italy, and Spain, Gaul, northern Africa, the Danubian provinces, and the Near East.

Rome built cities and its houses had incredible technology of the age, such as underfloor heating, and mosaic floors were works of impressive design. There were viaducts to carry water, and drains.

When the Roman Empire spread it did so through superior armies and a technology many enemies had never seen before. Yet this was more than success through being efficient. They plundered gold and mined for it wherever it was available to pay for these adventures: armies needed clothes, food and pay.

The economy worked too though having many slaves, taken from conquered lands and opposition. These people had no rights at all.

The Roman Empire built baths and amphitheatres in main cities. Whilst baths were pleasureable the amphitheatre was a place of entertainment through cruelty. Animals, criminals and Christians (because the did not worship the gods or the emperor) were killed for fun. Gladiators fought to the death. The gods needed their sacrifices in order to be satisfied. It was a harsh way to keep society together through perverse pleasure and fear. It was a cruel regime, with crucifixions along roadsides following summary justice.

Slavery only worked by punishing, torturing and killing. Brutality was normal. It was not racist, but no one could be really sure if they were free one minute and a slave the next. Finding yourself on the wrong side of a Roman official could mean a whole family going into slavery.

Slaves worked in the fields and in the cities: this was how Rome could produce goods so cheaply. It meant that Rome did not innovate and produce new technology, and science was very limited. It meant that Rome would eventually decline when it could find no more slaves and when the opposition around the Roman Empire knew how to get around existing Roman technology.

Yet many slaves became liberti, or freed and able to make money for themselves and their families. Some freed slaves became exceptionally powerful when associated with the Emperor.

Rome ruled a vast empire by giving much local control to sympathisers who agreed with Roman power, for example British Chieftains who ended up living in posh villas, but the army also crushed any opposition through killing (for example, in Britain, Boudicca's revolt in 60-61 CE). Supreme power lay with a few people or the Emperor at the centre in Rome (or, later, after the Western Empire dwindled, Constantinople). Julius Caesar and Augustus are seen as good Emperors and better than former city states or aristocrats in political disagreement. But the Emperors became corrupt and even dangerous, such as Caligula (37-41 CE). Nero (54-68 CE) thought he was hugely loved when he scared more than he impressed. Claudius (41-54 CE) attempted to build a lasting bureaucracy of government so that politics became more ordered and stable. The legacy of Rome is to distrust single leaders with unlimited power.

In contrast today the European Union is economically able to afford its geographical extent, and is made up of sovereign liberal-democratic states providing its Council of Ministers, a legislature of executive branches balanced by the European Parliament, served by the Commission and made legal with the European Court. It is technologically advanced and innovates, and (other than for entry transition reasons) everyone is free to find (or be denied) their market worth in a Europe wide capitalist market.


A. J. Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful