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History 1

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Chapter Fifteen The Roman Empire at its Zenith (to 235 CE)
In retrospect we can see that a decline of the Roman empire began in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), when the Germanic barbarians along the Rhine and especially the Danube discovered that the Romans were not well equipped to fight wars on two fronts. When the emperor, that is, was preoccupied with a war against the Parthians in Mesopotamia, the Roman frontier along and beyond the Danube was poorly defended, and the barbarians could make raids deep into the Roman provinces. Despite the danger of wars on two fronts, the Roman empire was able to manage well enough from the 160s until 235, when the decline became precipitous, and brought with it radical economic, cultural and religious changes. This chapter, therefore, will look at the empire in its relatively golden period, from the first century until the death of Alexander Severus, the last of the Severi, in 235.

The classes
This was a stratified, hierarchical society in all ways. In civic status the top of the pyramid was the emperor, followed by Roman provincial governors, senators and other officials, then by the local gentry, and next by the rank and file of Roman citizens. Of all the free men in the empire, only about a third ranked as Roman citizens. Right behind the Romans were the Hellenes (in the Greek-speaking eastern provinces the Hellenes were enrolled as such in the municipal census), then came Judaeans, and finally the other barbarians. So in Alexandria an “Egyptian” had fewer privileges than Judaeans and Hellenes, and far fewer than Romans. This hierarchy was illustrated, as we have seen in Chapter Five, by the difficulties Pliny encountered in promoting his Egyptian physician to the “Roman” rank.1 A significant change in the hierarchies occurred in 212, when the emperor Caracalla conferred Roman citizenship on all free men in the...

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