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OUTLINE FOR ROMAN IMPERIAL ART I (Copyright 2009 - John F. Kenfield) HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: The Hellenistic type monarchy imposed on the Roman world with the ascension of Octavianus , (henceforth known to the world as Augustus ) as a result of the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. is called the principate (from the Latin word princeps or prince) and is based on the theory that the emperor is simply the foremost citizen of the state, that citizen on whose shoulders the cares of state most logically rest. Augustus called himself primus inter pares or first among equals , an equivocation typical of his rule. Later, with the ascension in 193 A.D. of Lucius Septimius Severus who commanded the legions in the eastern part of the empire and came from that part of the world, the principate gives way to more autocratic eastern concepts of divinely sanctioned rule in which the emperor, now presented as the chosen viceroy of the gods on earth, is above the empire’s other citizens. In this form of imperial government, called the dominate (from the Latin dominus meaning lord or master) the pretense that the emperor is "just one of the guys” is abandoned. The rise of Augustus inaugurates a 200 year period of unparalleled prosperity for the ancient world that is commonly referred to as the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace) . The prosperity of this world was based on peace within the empire (though new provinces were "acquired") and a wealthy, philanthropic middle class. In the late 2 nd century A.D. this prosperity began to collapse principally because of external pressures exerted by Germanic tribes who were, in turn, being pushed by Turkic and Slavic tribes from east to west. These Germanic tribes spilled over the borders along the Rhine and the Danube. In order to control this movement of people, the Romans had to maintain enormous standing armies, an expensive undertaking. Thus taxes were increasingly raised and the philanthropic middle class on which prosperity of the empire had depended was increasingly squeezed economically. The government responded by debasing the currency causing hyperinflation. During the nadir of the empire, the 3 rd cent. A.D., the annual rate of inflation sometimes approached 300%. War had also broken out along the eastern border now shared with a renascent Iranian kingdom called the Parthian Empire, the only state sharing
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a border with the early Roman Empire that could treat her as an equal. The Roman troops fighting in the east returned home carrying a plague which is estimated to have killed 30-50% of the inhabitants of the Empire. Life on earth had become difficult for the average person. Thus the Greek materialist philosophy that stressed the primacy of worldly existence and had dominated the western world for 1000 years no longer met the psychological needs of the empire's inhabitants. As a result they began to hope that there was something better in the "hereafter," and began to turn increasingly to the spiritualism of "Near Eastern mystery cults" which promised the initiates a
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