The Roman Empire’s Pragmatic Puzzle Of Provinces
The popular conception of the Romans, mainly fostered by movies and television, extends to their all-conquering dominance, their armies, gladiators, blood and gore, sex and violence, mad emperors, everything that titillates the imagination in fact, without any glimpse of the more sober and down to earth qualities that the Romans possessed, their pragmatism, their administrative flair, their law making, their readiness to recognize and adopt the better ideas and methods of other people, and their ability to adapt their governmental processes as circumstances changed. These talents enabled the Romans to govern other peoples, not according to rigidly applied unchanging principles, but on a flexible basis, if possible, taking into account the varied customs of the tribes and states that formed the Empire.
Prelude to the Empire
The Empire developed over a very long period, with its roots in the distant Roman past. From rule of the kings of Rome and throughout the Republic during the eighth to the first centuries BC the Romans steadily developed and modified the methods and techniques of administering the territories that came under their rule. From the earliest times the Romans had to deal with their immediate neighbors, fighting them if necessary, though Romans never admitted to aggression on their own part, asserting that all their wars were fully justified, and putting the blame on their adversaries. Their early wars were with nearby Italian cities or tribes, and though the Romans suffered defeats, they doggedly kept on fighting until they won, in the process killing many people, enslaving others, and usually occupying the enemy’s lands.
There was a lighter side, in that not infrequently they brought the conquered people to Rome, awarded them Roman citizenship and provided lands for them. This was one of Rome’s enduring assets, their readiness to integrate other people as Romans, which according to tradition began under the first king, Romulus, who designated an area called the Asylum on the Capitol Hill, where people could enter the city and join the Roman community, whatever their origins and backgrounds. Rome was not alone in doing this, since other nascent states of Italy also needed to build up their populations and they too invited people in. The Romans have been labelled a mongrel race, and it is true that the name Roman never did indicate a purely racial type, but a citizen of Rome, and later of the Empire, under Roman government and law.
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Patricia Southern acquired an MPhil in Roman Frontier Studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where she was Librarian of the Archaeology Department for many years. Her latest book is: Rome's Empire How the Romans Acquired and Lost Their Provinces