The Ancient Roman world was a time of grandeur, conquest, and opulence, but it was also marked by political intrigue, power struggles, and the notorious excesses of emperors.
In her book, Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World – our book of the month for September 2023 – Mary Beard shines her spotlight on the emperors who ruled the Roman empire, from Julius Caesar (assassinated 44 BC) to Alexander Severus (assassinated 235 AD). Rather than giving a chronological account of Roman rulers one after another, Beard asks bigger questions: What power did emperors actually have, and was the Roman palace really so bloodstained?
Here we delve into the reality of what it was like to rule and be ruled in the Ancient Roman world.
The nature of Imperial power
At the heart of the Roman Empire was the institution of the Emperor. Emperors were central figures in Roman politics, society, and culture, and wielded enormous power. But what was the true extent of this power, and how did it impact those ruled by them?
Emperors held a unique position in Roman society. While not elected, their legitimacy often rested on the support of the Roman Senate and the military. The Senate – an assembly of Roman aristocrats – could bestow titles and powers upon the emperor, effectively granting them the authority to rule. However, over time, the Senate’s role became increasingly symbolic, and real power resided in the hands of the emperors themselves.
The emperor’s power was vast. They had control over the Roman legions, the backbone of the empire’s military might, allowing them to defend the empire from external threats and to suppress internal uprisings or challenges to their rule. The emperor also controlled the empire’s finances, making decisions about taxation, expenditure, and trade policies.
Along with political and military power, the emperor was also the chief religious figure. Emperors were often deified, with elaborate cults and temples dedicated to their worship. This religious aspect of their role further consolidated their authority, as they were seen as intermediaries between the people and the gods.
However, emperors were still subject to certain constraints, including the need to maintain the support of the military and key political allies. If an emperor lost this support, they could be deposed or even assassinated. The famous Roman historian Tacitus noted, “The object of power is power,” highlighting the precarious nature of imperial rule.
Was life in the Roman palace really quite so bloodstained?
The image of the Roman palace as a blood-soaked den of cruelty, brutality and excess has been perpetuated by popular culture for centuries. While there is some truth to these tales, it is essential to put these stories into context – the Roman palace was not a constant scene of horror.
Emperors such as Nero and Caligula are often cited as prime examples of the supposed bloodlust that ran through the Roman palace. Nero, for instance, is infamous for his alleged fiddling while Rome burned and his persecution of early Christians. Caligula is remembered for his eccentricities, including appointing his horse as a consul and his seemingly random acts of cruelty.
It is true that some emperors indulged in extravagant and sometimes brutal behaviour, but these were not representative of all emperors, or the daily life within the Roman palace. Furthermore, many of these stories come to us through the writings of ancient historians, some of whom had political agendas or were writing long after the events they described – making it challenging to separate fact from fiction.
Emperors did enjoy a life of luxury and privilege, but also faced immense pressure and political intrigue. The palace was often a place of political manoeuvring and backstabbing, with advisors, generals, and family members jockeying for influence and power. In this environment, emperors sometimes resorted to brutal measures to maintain their authority and eliminate perceived threats.
However, crucially, the lives of ordinary Romans were not directly affected by the palace’s intrigues. Most Romans lived far removed from the political centre in cities, towns, and rural areas, and were primarily concerned with their daily lives, such as work, family, and community. The actions of emperors did not always have a direct impact on them.
In fact, some emperors were known for their relatively benevolent rule. Augustus, for example, brought about a period of relative stability and prosperity known as the Pax Romana. During this time, the Roman Empire experienced a significant period of peace and economic growth, improving the lives of many of its citizens.
The diverse realm of the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was vast and diverse, encompassing a wide range of cultures, languages, and traditions. While the emperor held ultimate authority, local governance and administration played a significant role in the lives of the empire’s subjects.
Provincial governors, known as proconsuls or propraetors, were appointed by the emperor to oversee specific regions of the empire. These governors had significant authority within their provinces, and were responsible for maintaining law and order, collecting taxes, and administering justice. This allowed for a degree of local autonomy and flexibility in governance.
In addition to governors, the Roman Empire had a complex bureaucracy that managed the day-to-day affairs of the state. This included a vast network of civil servants, tax collectors, and administrators who ensured the empire’s functioning. While they operated under imperial authority, they also had a direct impact on the lives of the people they governed.
The Roman Empire was also marked by its inclusivity. Romans were generally tolerant of local religions and customs, allowing conquered peoples to maintain their traditions so long as they acknowledged Roman authority to become Roman, no matter where they called home. This approach helped integrate various cultures into the broader Roman identity, further expanding the empire.
Ordinary Roman life
While emperors and the elite of Roman society often dominate historical narratives, it’s important to remember that the Roman Empire was primarily composed of common people. The daily lives of the average Roman citizen were shaped by various factors, including their social class, occupation, and geographic location.
For the urban population, life revolved around the bustling cities of the empire, such as Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople. ‘Roman’ towns were built throughout the empire, extending the Roman way of life, and cities were centres of commerce, culture, and political activity.
Male citizens engaged in a wide range of professions, including farming, trade, craftsmanship, and civil service, whilst less wealthy women generally worked in the family business and took care of their households. Wealthier Roman women who had more free time could however own property and run their own businesses if they wished.
Life in the city offered opportunities for social mobility and cultural enrichment, particularly in the forum, a large, open square courtyard surrounded by shops and important public buildings which acted as a central meeting place where they could trade goods as well as discuss local issues. Music, theatre and dance were enjoyed, alongside violent shows known as ‘The Games’ where people gathered in amphitheatres to watch events such as chariot races and gladiatorial combat.
However, city life could also be challenging, with overcrowding, pollution, and occasional food shortages. Whilst wealthier Romans ate elaborate meals, ordinary people ate simpler foods, including free bread from the state.
In contrast, rural life was the norm for a significant portion of the population. The majority of Romans lived in small villages or on farms, working the land (mostly by hand) to sustain themselves and their families. These rural communities were often self-sufficient, producing their own food and resources. While they lacked city amenities, rural life had its own rewards, including a stronger connection to the land and sense of community.
Roman society was stratified into various social classes, with the elite at the top, followed by the middle class, and finally, the working class and slaves. Social mobility was possible, but it was often challenging for individuals to rise above their birth status. Few children went to school – for most, education was in the hands of the family, and centred on managing the household for girls, or reading, writing, arithmetic, and the laws and proper conduct for boys.
Slavery was a fundamental institution in the Roman world. Most were kidnapped from their home villages, while other were prisoners of war, captured by the Roman army. Slaves performed a wide range of tasks, from household chores to agricultural labor and even skilled craftsmanship. Indeed it was the slaves and servants who, in reality, made the emperor’s lifestyle possible.
Mary Beard is one of the most original and best-known classicists working today. She is Professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, and the Classics editor of the TLS. She is a fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her books include the Wolfson Prize-winning Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (2008) and the best-selling SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015). Her popular TLS blog has been collected in the books It’s a Don’s Life and All in a Don’s Day. Her latest book, Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World is published by Profile Books, and is published on 28 September 2023.