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CBSE Notes | Class 11 | Social Science | History | Chapter 3 - An Empire Across Three Continents

The chapter introduces students to one of the greatest empires: The Roman Empire, here we understand the geographical & political history of the roman empire. We also highlight the Sasanians empire and its political & Social hierarchies.

The Roman & Iranian Empire

There had been a great deal to contend with, as both the Romans and the Iranians were bitter rivals who fought for the majority of their history. Their empires were divided only by a narrow strip of land parallel to the Euphrates River.

  • The Mediterranean Sea separates Europe and Africa, extending from Spain to Syria in the west. It was also referred to as Rome's imperial capital. Rome completely dominated the sea in both directions, north and south.

  • Northern and southern borders were formed by the Rhine and Danube rivers, respectively, with the Sahara desert in the south. This was the Roman Empire's era.

  • Iran ruled the Caspian Sea region and a portion of Afghanistan. The majority of the world, dubbed Ta Ch'in ('greater Ch'in, roughly the west') by the Chinese, had been divided between these two superpowers.

What are the sources to understand Roman History?

The source collection of  Roman historians is broadly divided into three groups:

  • Texts

  • Documents

  • Material remains.

Textual Sources

  • Contemporaries' histories (commonly referred to as 'Annals' due to the chronological nature of the narrative), letters, sermons, and other texts are all examples of textual sources. 

  • The most frequently used documentary sources are inscriptions and papyri. Due to the fact that inscriptions were typically carved on stone, a significant number have survived in both Greek and Latin.

What is Papyrus?

  • The 'papyrus,' a reed-like plant that grew along the banks of the Nile in Egypt, was processed into widely used writing material.

  • Papyrus has been used to preserve thousands of contracts, accounts, letters, and official documents, which have been published by scholars known as "papyrologists."

Material Remains

  • Archaeologists have discovered buildings, monuments, and other types of structures, as well as pottery, coins, mosaics, and even entire landscapes (for example, through the use of aerial photography).

Roman Empire

Augustus: The First Emperor

The Roman Empire was a patchwork of territories and cultures that were bound together primarily by a shared political system. 

  • Augustus, the Roman Empire's first emperor, assumed the throne in 27 BCE. 

  • Augustus also referred to as the 'principate,' was the world's first emperor.

  • According to historians, he was merely a prominent citizen and not the state's legitimate ruler. 

When it was a republic, a body known as the 'Senate' exercised complete control, and the Roman Empire began with the demise of the Roman Republic.

What type of lingual practices were followed in the Empire itself?

The empire's administration was conducted in a variety of languages. Latin and Greek were the two languages that were most widely used:

  • The eastern upper classes spoke and wrote in Greek, while the western upper classes spoke and wrote in Latin, and their linguistic divide occurred somewhere in the Mediterranean, between the African provinces of Tripolitania (which spoke Latin) and Cyrenaica (which spoke Greek) (Greek-speaking).

  • Regardless of where they lived or what language they spoke, all those who lived in the empire were subjects of a single ruler, the emperor.

What was a 'Senate'?

For centuries in Rome, the Senate was and remained a body representing the aristocracy, that is, the wealthiest families of Roman and later Italian ancestry, primarily landowners.

  • Senators wrote the majority of the Roman histories that have survived in Greek and Latin. It was then discovered that emperors were judged on their treatment of the Senate.

  • The worst emperors were those who were hostile to the senatorial class, behaving suspiciously or with brutality and violence. Numerous senators wished to relive the glory days of the Republic, but they must have recognised that this was impossible.


  • The army was imperial rule's other significant institution. Unlike their Persian adversary, the Romans had a paid professional army with soldiers required to serve a minimum of 25 years.

  • The presence of a paid army distinguished the Roman Empire. 

  • The army was the empire's largest organised body (600,000 by the fourth century), and it possessed the authority to determine the fates of emperors. There were constant demands for better pay and working conditions, which frequently manifested themselves in mutinies.

  • Once again, the Roman army's image is heavily influenced by how historians with senatorial sympathies portrayed them.

The Senate despised and feared the army as a source of frequently unpredictable violence, especially during the tense third-century conditions when the government was forced to increase taxes to cover mounting military expenditures.

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Political Succession

What do we understand about the political history of the empire?

The three main players in the political history of the empire were:

  • The Emperor

  • The Aristocracy

  • The Army

Emperors' success depended on their control of the army, and when the armies were divided, civil wars resulted. Except for one year (69 CE) when four emperors ascended the throne in quick succession, the first two centuries were relatively peaceful and stable.

The throne was passed down through natural or adopted family descent, and even the army adhered to this principle.

How did the political succession take place after Augustus?

Tiberius (14–37 CE) was not Augustus' biological son; he was adopted to ease the transition of power following Augustus' death. Tiberius inherited an empire that was already so vast that further expansion was deemed superfluous.

The Augustan era brought peace after decades of internal strife and centuries of military conquest.

Dependent Kingdoms

In 113-17 CE, Trajan's successors abandoned his futile occupation of territory across the Euphrates. To gradually increase the scope of Roman direct rule, a series of 'dependent' kingdoms were absorbed into Roman provincial territory.

By the early second century, everything west of the Euphrates (towards Roman territory) had vanished, swallowed up by Rome.

Coinage: For instance, Herod's kingdom produced 5.4 million denarii per year, or more than 125,000 kilogrammes of gold!

The denarius was a Roman silver coin containing about 4½ gm of pure silver.


Except for Italy, all provinces of the empire were taxed. The Roman Empire stretched from Scotland to Armenia's borders in the second century, and from the Sahara to the Euphrates. They lacked a modern government to assist them in running the country. 

The true pillars of the imperial system were the great Mediterranean urban centres (Carthage, Alexandria, and Antioch).

The 'government' had the authority to tax the provinces, which generated the majority of the empire's wealth. Local upper classes actively aided the Roman state in administering and taxing their own territories. It is one of the most enthralling facets of ancient Rome's political history.


The provincial upper classes ruled the provinces and commanded the armies during the second and third centuries. They formed a new administrative and military elite far more powerful than the senatorial class with the support of the emperors.

Emperor Gallienus prohibited senators from holding military command (253-68). Gallienus prohibited senators from serving in the army or gaining access to it in order to prevent them from seizing control of the empire.

As citizenship spread beyond Italy in the late first, second, and early third centuries, the army and administration increasingly drew from the provinces. Senators of provincial origin did not become the majority until the third century.

Political And Economic Decline

A new elite developed in wealthier and more urbanised Mediterranean regions such as southern Spain, Africa, and the east, mirroring the empire's overall political and economic decline. In the Roman era, a city was defined as a settlement with its own magistrates, council, and 'territory' of villages.

Thus, while cities were prohibited from entering another's territory, villages were almost always permitted. Villages may become cities as a sign of imperial favour (or the opposite). The advantage of cities over rural areas was that they could be better prepared for food shortages and even famines.

Public Baths

Public baths were a prominent feature of Roman urban life (and were met with opposition by the clergy when one Iranian ruler attempted to introduce them!). 

Water was sacred to them, and bathing in public may have seemed sacrilegious), and urban populations had far more recreational opportunities. Specacula (shows) occupied 176 days on one calendar.

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The Sasanians

The Last Imperial Persian Dynasty

Before the Muslim conquest in the mid-seventh century, the Sasanian or Iranian Empire was the last imperial Persian dynasty. Around the 230s, the empire was engaged in combat on a number of fronts. Iran's Sasanians first appeared in 225. The Sasanians established the most aggressive dynasty in history.

The Sassanian conquest of the Euphrates took only 15 years. In a famous rock inscription cut in three languages, Iranian ruler Shapur I claimed to have annihilated a 60,000-strong Roman army and captured Antioch, the eastern capital.

Between 233 and 280, a line of provinces stretching from the Black Sea to the Alps and southern Germany was repeatedly invaded.

They were forced to abandon a large portion of their territory east of the Danube, and their emperors were constantly engaged in battles against barbarians. The rapid succession of emperors demonstrates that the empire was in distress (25 in 47 years).

Gender, Literacy, Culture

Roman Families / Dowry System

The Romans followed the concept of the nuclear family, it was one of the most striking features of Roman society. Adult sons did not live with their families, and it was exceptional for adult brothers to share a common household.

  • The late Roman republic had a typical dowry system, a typical form of marriage was one where the wife did not transfer to her husband's authority but retained full rights in the property of her natal family.

  • The woman’s dowry went to the husband for the duration of the marriage, the woman remained a primary heir of her father and became an independent property owner on her father’s death. Thus, Roman women enjoyed considerable legal rights in owning and managing property.

  • There were two financial entities in law, and the wife had complete legal independence. Divorce was simple and required only a written notice from either spouse.

  • However, whereas men married in their late twenties or early thirties, women married in their late teens or early twenties, creating an age disparity between husband and wife. 

  • Marriages were generally arranged, and women were often dominated by their husbands.

Domestic Violence was prevalent enough: Augustine, the great Catholic bishop who spent most of his life in North Africa, says his father beat his mother regularly, and that most of the other wives in his small town had similar bruises.

How did the literacy rate vary among the empire?

It is obvious that rates of casual literacy varied significantly across the empire: 

  • Pompeii, buried in 79 CE by a volcanic eruption, demonstrates widespread informal literacy. Advertisements were frequently seen on the city's main street walls, and graffiti was strewn throughout.

  • In Egypt, where hundreds of papyri survive, professional scribes wrote the majority of formal documents such as contracts, and they frequently state that X or Y cannot read or write. Even so, certain groups such as soldiers, army officers, and estate managers possessed a higher rate of literacy.

Cultural Diversity

The empire's cultural diversity was reflected in a variety of ways and levels: 

  • the vast diversity of religious cults and indigenous deities

  • the variety of languages spoken

  • the styles of dress and costume worn

  • the food consumed

  • the patterns of settlement.

Oral Linguistic Cultures

Coptic was spoken in Egypt, Punic and Berber were spoken in North Africa, and Celtic was spoken in Spain and the northwest. However, until the invention of scripts, many of these linguistic cultures were oral.

Armenian, for example, was not written until the fifth century, whereas a Coptic translation of the Bible appeared in the third century.

Latin's spread displaced many languages' written forms, including Celtic, which ceased to exist after the first century.

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Economic Expansion


  • Throughout the empire, there were ports, mines and quarries, brickyards, and olive oil factories. Wheat, wine, and olive oil were widely traded and consumed. Agriculturists from around the world travelled to plant these crops in the best conditions possible.

  • Wine and olive oil were transported in 'amphorae.'

  • Archaeologists were able to reconstruct the exact shapes of these containers, as well as determine what they contained and where they were made. 

The Spanish Olive Oil Industry

The industry peaked between 140 and 160. The majority of the olive oil from Spain was shipped in a Dressel 20 container (after the archaeologist who first established its form).

  • If Dressel 20 is widely available throughout the Mediterranean, then so is Spanish olive oil. The Spanish olive oil industry was successful in capturing the Italian olive oil market. This would only be possible if Spanish producers supplied lower-cost, higher-quality oil.

  • The large landowners competed for control of the primary markets for the products they manufactured.

  • North African producers dominated production for the majority of the third and fourth centuries, following in the footsteps of the Spanish.

The emergence of Other Industries

  • The Aegean, southern Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria, and Palestine became major wine and olive oil exporters, while African containers on Mediterranean markets were drastically reduced.

  • Individual regions' prosperity varied depending on their ability to efficiently produce and transport specific goods, as well as the quality of those goods.

Roman Land

  • The empire had a lot of fertile lands. Campania (Italy), Sicily (Egypt), Byzantium (Tunisia), southern Gaul (Gallia Narbonensis), and Baetica were identified by Strabo and Pliny as the empire's most densely populated or wealthiest regions (Spain).

  • Campania produced some of the world's best wines. Sicily and Byzantium supplied a large amount of wheat to Rome. According to Josephus, "the inhabitants cultivated every inch of the soil," and Spanish olive oil originated primarily along the Guadalquivir river in southern Spain.

Why did the large swaths of the Roman territory remained largely undeveloped?

Transhumance (type of pastrolism ) was common in Numidia's countryside (modern Algeria). These semi-nomadic and pastoral communities transported their oven-shaped huts (called mapalia).

As Roman estates expanded in North Africa, pastures were depleted and community mobility was hampered. Northern Spain was less developed, with a Celtic-speaking peasantry living in hilltop villages called castella.

The use of hydraulic mining techniques in Spanish gold and silver mines, as well as the massive industrial scale on which these mines operated in the first and second centuries (with output levels not surpassed until the nineteenth century),

The presence of well-organized commercial and banking networks, as well as widespread use of money, all indicate that the Roman economy is grossly undervalued. 

This raises concerns about labour and slavery.

Controlling Workers

What were the conditions of the slaves?

Slavery, a long-standing tradition in the ancient world, was never seriously challenged by Christianity (in the fourth century). Also, slave labour did not dominate Roman economic activity.

Augustus had 3 million slaves in parts of Italy but none in the empire. Many Roman philosophers also advised that not to have many slaves due to their bad health conditions.

In contrast to the upper classes, the common people were kind to their slaves.

The Supply of Slaves

  • After the first century, the slave supply dwindled, compelling users of slave labour to turn to slave breeding or to less expensive alternatives such as wage labour. 

  • Slave labour would have been prohibitively expensive in ancient Rome.

  • Due to the cost of feeding and caring for slaves year-round, they were more expensive than hired labour. 

  • There was also a time when slaves revolted against the East.

  • Slaves were heavily employed as business managers, a clearly overworked position. Slaves and freedmen were frequently lent money to run their businesses by their masters.

Labour Management

The Roman agricultural writers also emphasised labour management.

  • Columella, a first-century writer from southern Spain, asserts that the cost of such items is offset by the time saved by slave labour.

  • Employers assumed that it was necessary to supervise both free and slave labour. Workers were occasionally organised into gangs or teams for the purpose of supervision.

  • Columella asserts that in ten-person teams, it is easier to discern who is exerting extra effort. This exemplifies sound labour management.

  • Pliny the Elder, the author of the renowned Natural History, condemned slave gangs due to the fact that slaves were typically chained together by their feet.

  • While these are harsh methods, they continue to be used in the majority of factories today. Others implemented more stringent controls.

  • Pliny asserts that supervision of the frankincense factories in Alexandria was insufficient (officinae).

  • Their aprons are sealed, and they must change before leaving.'

Way Forward

A 398 law mandated worker branding to identify them in the event they fled or attempted to conceal themselves.

  • Numerous private employers structure agreements as debt contracts to exercise tight control over their employees. Thousands of jobless people are forced to work in servitude.

  • To survive, many impoverished families entered debt bondage. Augustine enquired with a lawyer friend about the possibility of the children being released following the father's death.

  • Rural debt was even more pervasive; during the Jewish revolt of 66 CE, revolutionaries destroyed moneylenders' bonds to win popular support.

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Social Hierarchies

How were the social hierarchies completely structured?


Aristocrats, equestrians, the respectable section of the people, those attached to the great houses, the unkempt lower class (plebs sordida), addicted to the circus and theatrical displays, and finally, slaves were described by Tacitus.

Around half of the Senate's 1,000 members came from Italian families in the early third century. By the early fourth century, Tacitus' first two groups (senators and equities) had merged into a unified and expanded aristocracy, with at least half of all families being of African or eastern origin.

This ‘late Roman' aristocracy was wealthy but weaker than the military elites, who were almost exclusively non-aristocratic. The ‘middle' class now included both imperial bureaucrats and soldiers, as well as wealthy merchants and farmers from the eastern provinces.

Tacitus referred to this ‘respectable' middle class as senatorial clients.

Many of these families were now supported by government service and state dependency. The humiliates (lit. ‘lower') were the vast majority of the lower classes.

Workers in industrial and mining establishments; migrant workers who supplied much of the labour for the grain and olive harvests; self-employed artisans who were said to be better fed than wage labourers; a large mass of casual labourers, especially in the big cities;

According to Olympiodorus, the aristocracy in Rome earned up to 4,000 lbs of gold per year from their estates, excluding the produce they consumed directly. The Spanish silver mines were exhausted, and the government ran out of silver to support a stable coinage in silver.

Constantine's new monetary system was based on gold, which was widely traded in late antiquity.

The Roman Bureaucracy

The late Roman bureaucracy was wealthy because it received most of its pay in gold and invested it in assets like land. Of course, there was a lot of corruption, especially in the judiciary and military supply administration.

The upper bureaucracy's extortion and provincial governors' greed were legendary. But the government intervened repeatedly to stop it. The classical world is notable for its ‘criticism' element. The Roman state was autocratic.

Emperors could not do as they pleased, and the law actively protected civil rights. That's why in the late fourth century powerful bishops like Ambrose could confront equally powerful emperors who were oppressing the populace.

Late Antiquity

Late antiquity refers to the final, fascinating period in the evolution and dissolution of the Roman Empire, spanning the fourth to seventh centuries. The fourth century saw a significant cultural and economic change.

The emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion, and Islam arose in the seventh century. Starting with Diocletian (284-305), there were significant changes in the state structure.

Due to over-expansion, Diocletian had to ‘cut back' by abandoning low-value territories.

Dictator Diocletian fortified the frontiers, reorganised provincial boundaries, separated civilians from military functions, and gave greater autonomy to military commanders (duces).

Constantine introduced a new coinage denomination, the solidus, a 412 gm pure gold coin that would outlive the Roman Empire. Millions of Solidi were minted and circulated.

Another innovation was the establishment of a second capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), surrounded by the sea on three sides.

Because the new capital required a new senate, the ruling classes grew rapidly in the fourth century. The archaeological record shows significant investment in rural establishments, including industrial installations like oil presses and glass factories, newer technologies like screw presses and multiple water-mills, and a revival of long-distance trade with the East, which fueled economic growth.

The ruling elites had more money and power. Hundreds of papyri from later centuries in Egypt show a relatively wealthy society where money was widely used and rural estates generated vast gold incomes. During Justinian's reign, Egypt paid over 212 million solidi (approximately 35,000 lbs) in annual taxes.

Large parts of the Near Eastern countryside were more developed and populated in the 5th and 6th centuries than in the 20th! This is the social context for this period's cultural developments.

The classical world's religious culture was a polytheist. That is, thousands of temples, shrines, and sanctuaries worshipped both Roman/Italian gods like Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, and Mars, as well as Greek and eastern deities.

Polytheists lacked a common name or label. The empire's other major religion was Judaism. Judaism was not a monolith, and Jewish communities in late antiquity were very diverse.

A complex series of events took place in the fourth and fifth centuries.


Polytheism did not vanish overnight, especially in the western provinces, where Christian bishops condemned polytheism more than the Christian laity.

Because powerful bishops now led the Church, religious leaders tried to rein in their followers and enforce a more rigid set of beliefs and practices. Despite the impact of the Mediterranean plague in the 540s, the population continued to grow in the East until the sixth century.

In the West, however, Germanic groups from the North (Goths, Vandals, Lombards, etc.) conquered all major provinces and established ‘post-Roman' kingdoms. The Arabs destroyed the Visigoths in Spain between 711 and 720, the Franks in Gaul (c.511-687), and the Lombards in Italy (c. (568-774).

These kingdoms foreshadowed the beginnings of a ‘mediaeval' world. Justinian's reign was a time of prosperity and imperial ambition in the East, where the empire remained united.

However, his recovery of Italy from the Ostrogoths devastated the country and allowed the Lombard invasion.

79 CE Colosseum, where gladiators fought wild beasts. It can hold 60,000 people. The Sasanians, who had ruled Iran since the third century, invaded all of the major eastern provinces in the early seventh century (including Egypt).

Byzantium, as the Roman Empire was now known, reclaimed these provinces in the 620s, just years before the final major blow from the south-east. The spread of Islam from Arabia was described as "the greatest political revolution in ancient history."

When Did the Arabs appear in the picture?

By 642, only ten years after Prophet Muhammad's death, the Arabs had conquered large portions of both the Roman and Sasanian empires. Those conquests, which later reached Spain, Sind, and Central Asia, began with the subjugation of Arab tribes by the emerging Islamic state, first in Arabia, then in the Syrian desert and on the borders of Iraq.

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