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The Roman Empire: introducing some key terms
The Roman Empire: introducing some key terms

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2.3 Acquiring territory

As you saw from the map (Plate 1), Rome had been gaining control over territories in the Mediterranean from the third century BC: following its expansion in Italy came conquest of Sicily, Spain and north Africa (after the second Punic war), parts of Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece. Then, in the first century BC under Pompey, territories in the east were annexed, and in the west under Julius Caesar, Gaul was pacified and an abortive invasion of Britain made. The administration and control of these areas threw up some major problems. A regular practice was to designate the area as a province and place its government in the hands of senior magistrates sent out from Rome on a one-year appointment. This could have particularly unsettling effects on the management of the territory, as did the fact that local taxation was usually placed in the hands of Roman collectors who worked on a profit-making basis. Other practices had a more stabilising effect on the relationship between Rome and the territory. These included the planting of settlements, giving benefits of citizenship to local leaders to encourage their co-operation (as Julius Caesar did in Gaul), and treaties with neighbouring communities.

Such territorial gains raise the key question of how far Rome had a deliberate policy of expansion. This is hotly debated among modern historians. On one hand it is argued (as many Romans might have done) that in the third and second centuries BC these gains resulted from defensive campaigns which Romans had had to undertake for themselves or for their allies. On the other hand there is evidence to suggest that desire for wealth and power – for individuals as well as for the state – motivated a conscious policy of territorial expansion. Certainly some sectors of Roman society did very well out of it: senators and tax collectors could become very wealthy, while the traditional one-year imperium for magistrates encouraged individuals to strive for glory while they could. Consequently, money, loot and slaves all flowed to Rome.

As for a ‘concept of empire’, that is to say of the ‘empire’ as a spatial and political entity, this too is hard to tease out from the rhetoric. As Whittaker (1994, pp. 10–30) points out, the ambivalent terminology which blurs distinctions between the geographical ‘empire’ and the ‘empire’ of applied power seems to have to set up a dualistic view: Romans could speak of their rule as somewhat distinct from the place in which it was applied, yet use the word imperium in each case.

So in the late republic Cicero could say that ‘the world is already contained within our imperium’ (On the Republic 3.15.24), or the Augustan poet Virgil speak of Rome's imperium without an end (Aeneid 1.279). Phrases such as these intermingle the different concepts of empire as time and space and as a source of power.

During the republic there was no sign of any deliberate policy of extending Roman frontiers. But for the empire it has been argued that there was a ‘grand strategy’ of expansion which operated at least until the reign of Trajan at the start of the second century AD (Whittaker, 1994, pp. 62–70). And the rhetoric of ‘empire without an end’ meant that both Roman withdrawals and invasion of new territory might be judged against that ideal.

Yet there is evidence to suggest that there was often a much more pragmatic approach. According to Tacitus, Augustus advised his successor Tiberius that ‘the empire should be kept within its boundaries’ (Annals 1.11); but the case of Britain shows how motivation to acquire new territory continued along with problems about the location and style of the empire's northern frontier.