The Roman Empire

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The Roman Empire                                                   (Back to menu of History of Italy)

The events of the first century BC in Italy are marked by a move from republican liberties to dictatorial regimes and a return to a democratic-type structure (rather similar to present-day presidential republics) with the advent of the principate of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14). At this stage the State was transformed into the Roman Empire, which gradually became a kind of elective monarchy although hereditary transmission was also not a rare occurrence. The Empire was to formally last until beyond mid 5C AD (476 was the year in which the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed) but came to an end for all practical purposes at the death of Emperor Theodosius (AD 395).

During the forty years of his principate, Octavian sought to give his empire a better organized territorial structure, which was necessary for the administrative, judicial and military reforms that were to flow. In this structure Italy formed one of the senatorial provinces in which the Empire was divided; this province was divided in its turn into eleven independent administrative regions, with the exceptions of Sardinia and Corsica that were imperial provinces. Much later, under Diocletian (284-305), these last two, together with the Italian peninsula and the addition of Rhaetia, formed the diocese of Italy, which was united to that of Africa as one of the four prefectures of the Empire. Octavian also took particular care to construct an efficient road network to link the various imperial provinces. These roads are represented in detail on the `Tabula Peutingeriana', which shows the entire imperial road network and probably dates to AD 4C.

Though retaining the Empire's capital (until it was transferred to Constantinople at the beginning of the 4C), the imperial period saw a radical economic and political change. In Italy this was characterized by the gradual loss of its pre-eminence in comparison with the other provinces with which it had to compete. The possibility of importing from many parts of the world all types of products, including foodstuffs, signalled the progressive decline of cultivation by small and medium proprietors and favoured the large cereal and pastoral estates to which flocked as tenants the old peasant class. Also, after the relative prosperity of the Augustan and Antonine periods, there was a profound reduction in cultivation and large-scale crops partially replaced specialized forms, such as grapes and olives. Another aspect was the growth of towns, which became the centres of political and economic life and thus also attracted an increasing population. Industrial production was organized by the State through its `fabricae', while craftsmanship took a corporate form that served to further harden social structures.

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