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Posted on September 4th, 2012, by

The Roman Empire was one of the most advanced civilizations of the ancient world. At the same time, the development of the Roman Empire was determined by the specific political and social system, which allowed the Roman Empire to become the universal empire, where people felt being a part of the Roman world, in spite of their ethnic difference. On the other hand, the Roman Empire gave rise to the new civilization, where different cultures did not come into clashes as they used to do in the empires where one state oppressed all the others, but, in contrast, different cultures grew more and more integrated into the Roman culture, enriching this culture, bringing new elements, philosophy, and new ideas, while the Roman culture shaped the framework within which the multicultural Roman civilization developed. In such a way, the Roman Empire became the advanced, powerful civilization blending peoples and cultures and growing even stronger due to the territorial expansion reaching the peak of its power in the 2nd c AD.

On analyzing the development of the Roman civilization, it is primarily necessary to dwell upon the development of culture and philosophy, which reveal the traditional Roman character along with influences of other non-Roman cultures. In this respect, stoicism is particularly noteworthy because stoicism was an attempt to revive traditional Roman values and principles in the new cultural or, to put it more precisely, multicultural environment. One of the most remarkable representatives of stoicism was Epictetus, whose works convey fundamental stoic ideas and principles.Ā  On reading Epictetus, it is possible to understand the essence of stoicism, which implied the moderation in the lifestyle and wishes of people and which avoided unnecessary emotions and strong feelings. Instead, stoicism stressed the importance of reason, logic and moderation. According to Epictetus, the life of stoics should be moderate and carefully planned, being free of strong emotions: “you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest with regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things”¯ (Epictetus).

Epictetus stressed the importance of reason. He argued that reason should dominate over human emotions: “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things”¯ (Epictetus). Therefore, he attempted to develop one of the main ideas and principles of stoicism according to which humans should stay reasonable and reason should govern their life. Stoics criticized emotional, unreasonable actions which could be harmful. Instead, they stressed the importance of the order which may be organized only when reason dominates over all human actions. In such a way, it would be possible to develop the society which is properly organized and where harmony and balance rule. At any rate, this was the belief of stoics developed by Epictetus.

At the same time, Epictetus recommended people to be patient because patience was essential for the achievement of goals people define in their life being guided by reason solely. For instance, Epictetus writes: “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”¯ (Epictetus). Thus, Epictetus develops another important idea which became fundamental for stoicism. In fact, this idea implies that people should work hard to attain their goals and it is impossible to achieve great results with little efforts. Instead, it is necessary to act reasonably and steadily to meet set goals. In such a context, Epictetus’ recommendation “begin therefore from little things”¯ (Epictetus) is quite logical because it stresses that human actions should be reasonable and balanced. In such a way, stoics promoted the idea of the patience and stressed the importance of hard work on the basis of the carefully developed plan and, what is more, people should be always guided by reason.

The work of Epictetus is a remarkable piece of ancient Roman literature and philosophy. This work mirrors ideas which grew more and more popular in the Roman Empire, which by the 2nd c. AD reached the peak of its power. The latter raised a serious problem of the degradation of the traditional Roman values, under the impact of foreign cultures which Romans learned through the conquest of huge territories. At the same time, Gibbon considers the Roman Empire to be the high point of western civilization. In fact, the author stands on the ground that the Roman Empire was the most powerful state in the ancient world, which united the most advanced cultures and civilizations of the ancient world. On the other hand, the Roman Empire proved to be able to borrow the best elements of foreign cultures to create not just a Roman culture or civilization but to give rise to the Western civilization as the civilization that has common values, norms and beliefs, which were apparently grounded on the Roman culture and civilization. No wonder, Gibbon argued that: “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”¯ (Gibbon). In such a way, the author attempts to show that the Roman Empire contributed to the prosperity of the western civilization. At the same time, Gibbons clearly defined the time when the Roman Empire reached the high point in its development ”“ the rule of Domitian and his successors.

Furthermore, Gibbons argue that the Roman Empire had a perfect state and political system because “the vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom”¯ (Gibbon). In such a way, Gibbon viewed the absolute power as the perfect political system which allowed the Roman Empire to maintain its dominant position in the ancient world. At the same time, he obviously associates political, military and cultural domination of the Roman Empire with the progress of the western civilization at large, although it is impossible to deny the advancements of the Roman civilization.

The major advantages of the Roman civilization and the Roman Empire as a state were its effective political organization, pragmatism and strong army. In this regard, Gibbon states: “The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws.”¯ (Gibbon). In such a way, the Roman Empire was a predictable and stable state, which functioned according to the laws established and maintained throughout decades and centuries. This stability, especially during the rule of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines marked the high point in the development of the Roman Empire.

On the other hand, the development of the Roman Empire was not as perfect as Gibbon viewed it. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the Letters of Pliny and Trajan. The letters reveal the extent to which the view of Gibbon on the stability of the Roman Empire was overestimated. In fact, the letters show that Roman provinces were governed in a very specific way compared to the traditional system of governing which were widely spread in the ancient world. The Roman Emperor appointed governors to each province. However, the Governor was not the ruler of the province as it was the case in other ancient empires, such as Persia. Instead, the Governor was rather a representative of the Roman Empire who surveyed and controlled the province using the military power of Rome and the authority given to him by the emperor. Therefore, Roman provinces had a large degree of autonomy. In this respect, it is possible to speak about self-governance of Roman provinces which preserved their authorities and they could even elect their authorities, while the Roman governor performed representative functions and interfered into the local policies only in cases when interests of Rome were under a threat. For instance, the letters of Pliny and Trajan prove the existence of autonomy and self-governance of Roman provinces: “All Greek peoples have a passion for gymnasia, so perhaps the people of Nicaea have set about building one on a rather lavish scale, but they must be content to cut their coat according to their cloth. You again must decide what advice to give the people of Claudiopolis.”¯ (The Letters of Pliny and Trajan).

At the same time, Pliny, as the Governor could change local policies for the benefit of Rome, namely he attempted to save costs spent on paying duty to Rome: “Delegate replaced by representatives of Romans canceling the expenditure of the Byzantines”¦ for that delegate.

They will in the future do their duty well enough, even though the decree alone is sent me through you”¯ (The Letters of Pliny and Trajan). In such a way, Governors could influence local policies when they affected the relationship of provinces and Rome.

At the same time, the development of the Roman Empire was far from perfect and the stability and power, which Gibbon admires of, were superficial, while at the local level, i.e. at the level of provinces the threat of rebellions and plots persisted. For instance, when Pliny asks Trajan the permission to create a fire company, Trajan proves to be anxious and warns Pliny: “remember that the province of Bithynia, and especially city-states like Nicomedia, are the prey of factions”¯ (The Letters of Pliny and Trajan). Moreover, Trajan states definitely: “such associations will soon degenerate into dangerous secret societies. It is better policy to provide fire apparatus, and to encourage property holders to make use of them, and if need comes, press the crowd which collects into the same service”¯ (The Letters of Pliny and Trajan).

Therefore, factions were a serious threat to the power of the Roman Emperor. At any rate, Trajan is definitely anxious about factions, which could undermine his power. In this regard, The Letters of Pliny and Trajan are totally different from Gibbon’s description of the Roman Empire, because the power of the Roman Empire does not seem to be absolute in The Letters of Pliny and Trajan. In stark contrast, the Roman Empire is the ruler of the empire but he cannot be absolutely confident in the loyalty of his subordinates and provinces, while plots are still a serious threat to his power. In contrast, Gibbon argued that the Roman Emperor was the absolute ruler and people were happy that naturally implied that they would never raised against their emperor.

Furthermore, Aristides also stressed that the power of the Roman Emperor was not really absolute, while provinces preserved their self-governance as it is seen from The Letters of Pliny and Trajan. To put it more precisely, Aristides writes: “You do not reign within fixed boundaries, and another state does not dictate the limits of the land you control; rather, the sea [Mediterranean Sea] extends like a belt, situated in the middle of the civilized world and in the middle of the land over which you rule”¯ (Aristides). Such flexibility of boundaries implies the ongoing territorial expansion of the Roman Empire, which, as Gibbon stated, reached its high point in the 2nd c. AD. On the other hand, such flexibility united the empire as the Roman Empire would not be clustered in its fixed boundaries.

In addition, Aristides defines several factors which contributed to the unity of the Roman Empire, among which it is possible to distinguish the cultural integration of the Roman Empire because different cultures grew integrated and assimilated into the universal culture of the Roman Empire: “Whatever each culture grows and manufactures cannot fail to be here at all times and in great profusion”¯ (Aristides). In such a way, the Roman Empire became a kind of cultural melting pot. In this regard, Rome was similar to Aeneid, where the Roman civilization is depicted as the success of the Trojan civilization.

Furthermore, Aristides stressed the economic unity of the Roman Empire. To put it more precisely, the Roman Empire played the crucial role in trade and economy of the ancient world: “Here merchant vessels arrive carrying these many commodities from every region in every season and even at every equinox [in other words, without any break whatsoever, despite the time of year], so that the city takes on the appearance of a sort of common market for the world”¯ (Aristides).

In addition, Aristides stressed that the technological, economic and political development of the Roman Empire contributed to its unity. To put it more precisely, according to Aristides, the Roman Empire united peoples because it brought advanced civilization to peoples: “As vast and comprehensive as its size is, your empire is much greater for its perfection than for the area its borders encircle”¯ (Aristides).

The self-governance provided conquered people with autonomy and sense of freedom that also contributed to the unity of the Roman Empire: “the people of today are ruled by governors sent out to them only to the degree that they wish to be ruled”¦”¯ (Aristides). Therefore, the Roman Empire was the unity of relatively free peoples. However, the Roman citizenship played probably the crucial role in the unity of the Roman Empire because the Roman citizenship was not bound to ethnic origin of persons but rather referred to their social status: “You have divided into two parts all men throughout your empire”¦ everywhere giving citizenship to all those who are more accomplished, noble, and powerful, even as they retain their native born identities, while the rest you have made subjects and the governed”¯ (Aristides). In this respect, Aristides’ depiction of Rome resembles that of Golden Ass, where the Roman Citizenship can be granted to any person who is rich and has a high social standing.

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