فصل 17

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فصل 17

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LIFE IN THE EMPIRE AND AT ITS FRONTIERS If you weren’t a Christian, a Jew or a close relative of the emperor, life in the Roman empire could be peaceful and pleasant. You could travel from Spain to the Euphrates, from the Danube to the Nile on wonderful Roman roads. The Roman postal service made regular visits to settlements at the empire’s frontiers, carrying news back and forth. In all the great cities like Alexandria or Rome you could find everything you needed for a comfortable life. Of course, in Rome there were whole districts of barrack-like buildings, crudely built and many storeys high, where poor people lived. The private houses and villas of the well-to-do, in contrast, were luxuriously furnished with beautiful Greek works of art, and had delightful small gardens with cooling fountains. In winter months, rooms were warmed by a form of central heating in which hot air circulated through hollow bricks under the floor. Every rich Roman had several country houses, usually near the sea, with many slaves to run them, and fine libraries in which the works of all the best Greek and Latin poets were to be found. The villas of the rich even had their own sports grounds and cellars stocked



with the best wines. If a Roman felt bored at home he would take himself to the marketplace, the law-courts or to the baths. The bath houses, or therms, were monumental buildings supplied by aqueducts with water from distant mountains. They were magnificently furnished and decorated and had halls for hot baths, cold baths and steam baths, and others for practising sports. Ruins of these colossal therms can still be seen. With their high vaulted ceilings, their brightly coloured marble pillars and their pools tiled with rare and precious stones, they look more like fairy-tale palaces. Bigger still, and even more impressive were the theatres. The great amphitheatre in Rome known as the Colosseum held up to fifty thousand spectators ­ few of our modern stadiums hold more. They were mainly used for gladiatorial contests and animalbaiting, and, as you remember, many Christians died there. The tiers of seats for the spectators rose high above the arena, like a giant oval funnel. Imagine the noise fifty thousand people must have made when they were all in there together! The emperor sat below in the royal box beneath a magnificent awning to protect him from the sun. When he dropped his handkerchief into the arena, it was the signal for the games to begin. The gladiators would appear and, standing in front of the imperial box, cry: ‘Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!’ But you mustn’t imagine that emperors did nothing but sit in amphitheatres, or that they were all layabouts and raving lunatics like Nero. On the contrary, they spent most of their time maintaining peace in the empire. Beyond the distant frontiers all around were fierce, barbarian tribes waiting to raid and pillage the rich provinces. The Germans, who lived in the north at the other side of the Danube and the Rhine, were especially troublesome ­ Caesar had already clashed with them during his conquest of Gaul. Tall and powerfully built, they towered over the Romans and frightened the life out of them. Not only that, but their country (now Germany) was in those days a land of swamps and dark forests in which Roman legions were forever losing their way. But, above all, the Germans simply weren’t used to living in fine,

L I F E I N T H E E M P I R E A N D AT I T S F R O N T I E R S 99 centrally heated villas. They were peasants and herdsmen, as the Romans themselves had once been, and they preferred to live as they always had, in isolated wooden farmsteads. Educated Romans from the cities liked to write about the great simplicity of the Germanic way of life, the plainness and austerity of their traditions, their love of warfare and their loyalty to their chieftains. By drawing attention to this seemingly simple, uncorrupted and natural way of life in the freedom of the forest, the authors of the accounts which have come down to us warned their fellow countrymen against what they saw as the Romans’ own dangerously refined and self-indulgent way of life. The German warriors really were dangerous enemies. The Romans had already learnt this to their cost during Augustus’s rule. At that time the leader of a Germanic tribe called the Cherusci was a man called Arminius. Brought up in Rome, he knew all about Roman military tactics and, one day, when a Roman army was marching through Teutoburg Forest he ambushed it and annihilated it completely. After that, the Romans kept out of that region. But it was all the more vital for them to secure their frontiers against the Germans. Accordingly, during the first century AD, they did what the emperor Shih Huang-ti had done in China. They built a wall, known as the Limes, along the length of the frontier from the Rhine to the Danube. This wall, made of palisades with watchtowers and ditches, was intended to protect the empire from the nomadic Germanic tribes. For what worried the Romans most was that, instead of staying quietly on their farmsteads, cultivating the land, the tribes were always on the move looking for new hunting grounds or new pastures. They simply loaded their wives and children onto ox-carts and set off in search of somewhere else to live. This meant that the Romans had to keep troops permanently stationed at the frontiers to defend the empire. Along the Rhine and the Danube there were soldiers from every country under the sun. Near Vienna there was an encampment of Egyptians, who even built themselves a temple beside the Danube which they dedicated to their goddess Isis. On that spot there is a town today



called Ybbs, and Isis lives on in that name. Among the frontier guards any number of gods were worshipped ­ the Persian sun god Mithras, for example, and not long after, the unique and invisible god of the Christians. However, life in these outposts was not very different from life in Rome. Today we can still find Roman theatres and bath houses in Germany (in Cologne, Trier, Augsburg and Regensburg), in Austria (in Salzburg and Vienna), in France (in Arles and Nîmes), and in England (in Bath), together with villas for imperial officials and barracks for the soldiers. Older soldiers often bought themselves land in the district, married a local girl and settled near the camp. As a result, the populations within the provinces gradually became accustomed to the Roman presence, while those who lived beyond the Rhine and the Danube became increasingly restless as the years went by. It wasn’t long before Roman emperors were spending more time in frontier towns than in their palaces in Rome. Among them were some remarkable men, one of whom was the Emperor Trajan. He lived about a hundred years after Christ and, long after his death, people were still talking about his justice and his gentleness. Trajan’s troops had crossed the Danube once again, into what is now Hungary and Romania. Making that land a Roman province would also make the empire safer. The country they conquered was known as Dacia. Once it had become Roman and its inhabitants began to speak Latin, Dacia became Romania. But Trajan didn’t only lead military expeditions. He made Rome beautiful with glorious squares. Whole hills were levelled to make room for them. Then he commissioned a Greek architect to build temples and shops, law-courts, colonnades and monuments. You can still see their ruins in Rome today. The emperors who followed Trajan also took good care of their empire and defended its frontiers, especially the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned between 161 and 180, and spent much of his time in garrisons on the Danube ­ at Carnuntum, and at Vindobona, which is what Vienna used to be called. And yet Marcus Aurelius hated war. He was a gentle, quiet man, a philosopher, who loved nothing better than reading or writing. We still

L I F E I N T H E E M P I R E A N D AT I T S F R O N T I E R S 101 have the diary he kept, much of which was written during his campaigns. Almost everything he wrote in it was about self-control and tolerance, about enduring pain and hardship, and about the silent heroism of the thinker. They are thoughts that would have pleased the Buddha. But Marcus Aurelius couldn’t retire into the forest to meditate. He had to wage war in the countryside near Vienna against the Germanic tribes, who were particularly restless at that time. The Romans are said to have taken lions with them to scare off the enemy from across the Danube. But since the Germans had never seen any lions before, they weren’t frightened at all. They just killed what they thought were large dogs. While these battles were going on, Marcus Aurelius died suddenly at his headquarters in Vindobona, in AD 180. The emperors who succeeded him spent even more time at the frontiers and even less in Rome. They were true soldiers, elected by their troops and often dismissed or even killed by them too. Many of these emperors weren’t Romans, but foreigners, for by now the legions had only a very small number of Romans in them. The Italian peasants who, in earlier times, had gone out to conquer the world as soldiers, had virtually disappeared, while their farms had been absorbed into the huge estates owned by the rich and managed by foreign slaves, and the army was also made up of foreigners ­ you remember the Egyptians by the Danube. Most of these soldiers were Germans who, as you know, were excellent warriors. And it was these foreign troops, stationed at all four corners of the vast empire ­ at the frontiers of Germania and Persia and in Spain, Britain, North Africa, Egypt, Asia Minor and Romania ­ who now chose their favourite generals to be their emperors. Then they all fought for power and had each other murdered, just as at the time of Marius and Sulla. Confusion and misery reigned in the years after AD 200. In the Roman empire there was almost no one to keep order but slaves or foreign troops who couldn’t understand one another. The peasants in the provinces were unable to pay their taxes and rose up against their landowners. In those desperate times, when the land was in the grip of pestilence and lawlessness, many found consolation in



the good news of the Gospel. More and more free men and slaves became Christians and refused to make sacrifices to the emperor. At the height of the crisis a man from a poor family succeeded in wresting control of the empire. This was the Emperor Diocletian. He came to power in 284 and set about trying to rebuild the empire, which was by now in ruins. Famine was everywhere, so he fixed a limit on the price of all foods. Realising that the empire could no longer be governed from a single place, he chose four towns as his new imperial capitals and placed a deputy ­ or prefect ­ in each. To restore respect and dignity to the role of emperor, he introduced new rituals and court ceremony, and magnificent, richly embroidered robes for his courtiers and officials. He was particularly insistent that people should make sacrifices to the emperor, and so ruthlessly persecuted Christians throughout the empire. This was the last and most violent of all the persecutions. After a reign of more than twenty years, Diocletian renounced his imperial title and retired, a sick man, to his palace in Dalmatia. There he lived long enough to see the futility of his battle against Christianity. It is said that his successor, the Emperor Constantine, abandoned this struggle on the eve of a battle against his rival, Maxentius. He had a dream in which he saw the Cross, and heard the words: ‘Beneath this sign you will be victorious.’ Victorious in that battle, he issued a decree in 313 that Christians should no longer be persecuted. He himself remained a pagan for a long time, and was only baptised on his death-bed. Constantine no longer ruled the empire from Rome. In those days the chief threat came from the east, the Persians having once again become powerful. So he chose as his seat the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium on the Black Sea, upon which it was renamed Constantine’s City, or Constantinople. Today we know it as Istanbul. By 395, the Roman empire didn’t only have two capitals, it had two states: the Western Empire, consisting of Italy, Gaul, Britannia, Spain and North Africa, where people spoke Latin, and the Eastern Empire, consisting of Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and Macedonia, where they spoke Greek. In both states Christianity became the official religion from 380 onwards. This meant that

L I F E I N T H E E M P I R E A N D AT I T S F R O N T I E R S 103 bishops and archbishops became important dignitaries who wielded great influence in the affairs of state. Christians no longer met in underground passages, but in grand churches with fine pillars. And the Cross, symbol of the deliverance from suffering, now became the legions’ battle emblem.

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