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Marcus Aurelius, Pax Romana, Beginning of Christianity
27 BC to 313 AD
We're at the year 27 BC. Octavian wins the Civil Wars. He becomes the first emperor of Rome. The Roman Republic was dead.
Plenty of others had vied for it, including his great uncle, Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated in 44 BC (another year you may want to tuck away). After his assassination, Octavian teamed up with Lepidus and Mark Antony to form the second triumvirate, to take revenge on Julius Caesar's assassins and to divide the Roman Republic among themselves. The second triumvirate was successful, they then warred among themselves, Octavium beat Mark Antony at Actium in 31, and was in control. He always had to maintain the illusion that he wasn't in control (remember, the Romans hated kings . . . It was in their lifeblood and collective unconscious. In 27, however, the Senate bestowed on him the title of “Augustus,” or “Illustrious One,” and at that point, it was pretty much all over. Octavian had a vast fortune, control of the military, and a really, really cool name.
It also brought in the Pax Romana, which is why I pick 27 BC as a year to remember in order to develop an historical perspective. The Pax Romana would last for over 200 years and transform the turbulent Mediterranean world into a peaceful and prosperous one. This was, I believe, providential. Galatians 4:4. Christ came in the fullness of time. It was the Pax Romana that allowed the word to spread. It was the Greek culture and its philosophical principles that allowed people to start making sense of the momentousness that had just occurred.
Why else is 27 BC a good reference point?
This was the period in which Rome conquered Britain, all the way up to Scotland, where they built a wall to keep out the fierce Picts and Scots. Hadrian's Wall. The Romans would stay there for over 300 years. We're talkin' a real long time. And it was powerful culture in every way, wealth, art, literature, philosophy. It left a deep mark. It would also be the reason we have a King Arthur. Because after the Romans withdrew their last legions in 410, it wasn't like everyone left with them. Plenty of Romans stayed behind. There was a firmly ensconced Roman culture, and they had to defend themselves. When the Anglos and Saxons and Jutes started to invade (or were they merely migrating . . . .the historical record is mixed . . . But there is strong historical evidence that they were invited over to work as mercenaries and then overstayed their welcome and invited their friends over). The Romans were driven from the cities and to the west, where they probably set up centers of resistance and, occasionally, sallied forth in an offensive against the invaders. One of those leaders was King Arthur, if there was a King Arthur at all. But that would be in the late 400s, and this part of our historical overview is supposed to stop at 313. But the Romans first took over during this time period, in 84 AD, another year you can tuck away into the gray crevices in your brain .
This was also the heyday of Stoic philosophy. Stoicism started 300 years earlier with Zeno, but it really hit its stride in this time period (again, 27 BC to 313 AD). This was the era of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations must be read by anyone interested in, well, life. It's often said Aurelius, deprived of Christianity, didn't have the god he deserved. Please get a copy. I'm told the translation can make a big difference. I can't tell you which translations are good and which are bad, but my copy of the translation by George Long, which is the public sphere free of copyright, has served me well.
This time also marks the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire, at least according to Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Empire reached its zenith under the Five Good Emperors. The 12th emperor, Nerva, then Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pious, and Marcus Aurelius (yes, the same one who wrote the Meditations). Trajan took over in 98 AD. Under him, Rome reached its absolute peak, so tatoo “100 AD” ISH on your brain as “Rome at its mightiest.” After Trajan, a slow decline started but Rome mostly held its own until the death of Marcus Aurelius. He left the empire to his decadent son, Commodus and then the decline really started. That's where Gibbon starts his multi-volume classic history.
After Marcus Aurelius, Rome started to decline fairly quickly. Its decline would be slowed dramatically under Diocletian, who ruled from 284 to 305. You may want to mark 284 in your brain: The beginning of serfdom. That's not really accurate, and something like serfdom had already started to emerge before Diocletian, but his radical reforms to stop the Empire's decline included tying farmers to the land, so they'd keep growing food.
Diocletian also split the empire into two, in order to alleviate administrative problems. This would pave the way for his eventual successor, Constantine, to establish Constantinople and move the entire administrative center to the east (today's Istanbul).
This period was also the period that Christianity would start and grow. Christ's death, the early Church, persecutions, steady growth, gaining more and more adherents (how many? It seems to me that Christianity didn't grow as fast as Christians would like to believe, but it wasn't slow either and only gaining momentum when Constantine became Catholic, like the secularists want to believe. Rodney Stark, a secularist but friendly and just trying to do honest work, gives a sober recount and analysis in The Rise of Christianity.