City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The Empire After Augustus

When Augustus died, the whole empire mourned for him. As time went on, men mourned for him more bitterly than ever; for it was long before they had another ruler as wise and good as he.

The stepson of Augustus became emperor after him, and he was a cruel tyrant who put men to death upon mere suspicion. And the next emperor was half-mad, and once threatened to have his horse made consul, and at another time raised a great army, and marched it hundreds of miles, and then commanded the soldiers to gather the shells upon the sea-beach and carry them back to Rome. After him came a weak and foolish emperor who allowed the cruelest acts to be committed in his name, and then forgot them, and invited the persons to dinner whom he had just had put to death. And then came an emperor named Nero, who was a monster of vanity and cruelty; he was suspected of setting fire to the city and allowing more than two-thirds of it to burn up, in order that he might rebuild it finer than it had been before.

But even under such rulers, the misgovernment scarcely extended beyond the city of Rome itself, and the distant provinces were more prosperous and happy than they had been during the time when the Senate and the people of Rome ruled over them. For a hundred years there was no civil war. Then when one did begin, after the death of Nero, it lasted only a short time, and ended by bringing in a set of emperors, almost every one of whom was as strong and as good as Augustus.

Before this civil war, all the emperors who had ruled had been related in some way to the family of Julius Cesar; but after it, this was no longer the case. The emperors now were usually the leaders of the armies which guarded the different borders of the empire. Like the soldiers whom they commanded, they were often not Romans at all, but had been born and raised in some of the provinces. They did not care so much for the city of Rome and the Romans, therefore; and in course of time the people of Sicily and Spain, and finally of all the provinces, were admitted to have equal rights in the empire with the citizens of Rome itself.

A new plan was found in this period for arranging who should be emperor. The emperor who was ruling would choose the best man he could find, and adopt him as his son; and this son would then share the rule with him while he lived, and would succeed him when he died. In this way the empire had a hundred years of the best rule that it was ever to know.. Indeed, the people who dwell about the Mediterranean have never seen, before or since, a time of such unbroken happiness.

One of the emperors who made this time famous, was named Trajan, and he became so great a favorite, that when the Romans wished to pay a compliment to their rulers after this, they could only say that they were "more fortunate than Augustus and better than Trajan." He was a great soldier, and made war upon the people who lived beyond the Danube and conquered some of their territory; but this was soon given up again. To celebrate his victories, Trajan set up in the Forum at Rome, a carved marble column, a hundred and thirty feet high, with his statue on the top. This column still stands at Rome, after eighteen hundred years; and winding around the outside of it may still be traced the carvings which picture scenes from his wars with the tribes along the Danube.

The ruler who followed Trajan was named Hadrian. He was a man of peace, and a great traveler and builder. He visited all the provinces of the empire, from far-off Britain to Egypt and the East; and wherever he went he caused new temples and theatres and other public buildings to be raised, and the old ones to be repaired. And in Britain, he built a great wall across the island from sea to sea, to protect the Roman citizens there against the tribes that lived in what is now Scotland.

The two emperors who came just after Hadrian were different from any that had gone before. They were scholars and wise men, and liked the quiet of their libraries much better than the noise of armies and battles, or the traveling of which Hadrian had been so fond. But they both governed with the single purpose of making the people under their rule as happy as possible; so when it became necessary to make war to defend the empire, they did not hesitate to give up their own desires and march at the head of their armies. This became more and more necessary during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the second of these two emperors; and finally he met his death on the bank of the river Danube, fighting against the Germans who dwelt along that stream.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


With the death of this great and good emperor, the "golden age" of the empire came to an end. From now on the barbarians pressed more closely on the empire, and it became more difficult to defend it against their attacks. The Romans and the Italians had lost the old bravery and skill in fighting, which had enabled them to conquer the whole world; while the barbarians had learned much about war from their long struggles with Rome. Besides this, the government now fell once more into unworthy hands. Ignorant soldiers gave the rule to men who were not fit for it; and once the position of emperor was even put up at auction and sold to the highest bidder.

So a hundred years of war and bloodshed followed. This did not cease, until at last a strong ruler named Diocletian got the power, and divided the empire into an eastern and western half, each with its own ruler, so that the people might be better defended from the barbarians, and better governed in their own countries. Many other changes were made by Diocletian; then when his work was finished, he resigned his power and spent the rest of his days in quiet, far from the struggles of war and politics.

Soon after Diocletian had resigned his power, a new emperor arose who once more united the rule over both the eastern and western halves of the empire. His name was Constantine, and he is called "the Great." He did two things which were very important. In the first place, he was the first emperor to become a Christian himself, and to allow the Christians to practice their religion openly. In the second place, he moved the capital of the Roman empire to the shores of the Black Sea, and there built a, new city which was called from his name, "Constantinople," or "the city of Constantine." Sometime after the death of Constantine the empire was again divided into an eastern and a western part; and this time the division was a lasting one. After that there was an empire of the East, with its capital at Constantinople; and an empire of the West, with its capital at Rome.

Meanwhile, the barbarians, especially the Germans, had been growing more and more troublesome. Great hordes of them at last broke through the line of forts along the Rhine and the Danube, and wandered up and down the lands of the empire, plundering and destroying for many years. Battle after battle was fought with them, and sometimes the Germans were the victors, and sometimes the Romans were; but the armies of the emperors were never again strong enough to drive the Germans out of the Roman lands.

Then the Romans tried to buy off the Germans by giving them lands to settle on, and by taking their young men into the Roman armies. But the news of the success of these bands soon brought others after them, all demanding lands within the bounds of the empire. And often they would not wait to ask for a place to settle, but would seize upon it without asking, and the armies of the empire could not prevent it. In this way, Spain, and Gaul, and Britain, and even northern Italy, passed into the hands of the Germans; and in all these lands the Roman rule came to an end forever.

The new city of Constantinople was so well situated and so strongly built that the Germans were never able to capture it; and the empire there went on for a thousand years longer. But the empire of the West was not so strong. The city of Rome had been greatly weakened when Constantine moved the capital of the empire to the Black Sea, and it was not so able to stand the attacks of the barbarians. Just eight hundred years after it had been taken by the Gauls, Rome fell into the hands of the barbarians a second time, and was plundered by a wandering tribe of Germans. Then sixty-six years later, in the year 476 after Christ, one of these German chiefs seized the last Roman emperor in Italy, and took his crown and scepter from him; and the Roman empire of the West quietly came to an end.

You have seen how the Romans spread their rule from the little district around Rome, until they had gained a vast empire, and now you have seen how that empire was lost. The Romans gained their power, because they were worthy to rule, and they lost it because they ceased to be worthy. The rule of Rome, which had at first been a blessing to the world, at last became an injury to it. When that time came, it was easy for the Germanic barbarians to overthrow the old government.

But it is easier to destroy a government than it is to build one up. The Germans were at this time a rude and unlettered people, and they had never lived in cities and were ignorant of many things connected with ruling over them. So it was to take them a long time to set up strong governments which should rule as well as the old Romans had done. In the end, however, they succeeded in doing this; and then the modern nations of Europe arose out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, and united in themselves all that was best of the old Roman civilization, with the newer, freer and better ideas of the Germans.