Romans Restructure Regions and Facilitate Travel, Trade, and Defense, Deepen Ties With Europe
Romans first invaded western Asia in 190 BCE, and then tried to exert influence through client kingdoms. They created their first Roman province in western Asia (“Asia,” the western coastal region of what is now Asiatic Turkey) in 129 BCE. Simultaneously they started their ongoing ambitious construction of roads, which strengthened ties between the Middle East and Mediterranean and European lands. They imposed their ideas of peace and order. These had long-term consequences beyond control and strategy: encouragement and improvement of overland and maritime travel and commerce for raw materials and finished products and intellectual and religious ideas and practices. Total integration and assimilation of the Middle East never took place. Romans left the Greek demographic cultural and linguistic conditions of the post-Alexander era relatively intact in the Middle East. The modest numbers of Romans who settled in the Middle East did not change it linguistically although they introduced new technical, administrative, military, and legal vocabulary and structures.
Romans drew new administrative boundaries for their provinces, over which they appointed governors, imposed taxes and demanded recognition of and loyalty to Roman authority. They gradually incorporated independent or client kingdoms or autonomous districts and transformed them into provinces. For example, Romans annexed Egypt as a province in 30 BCE and Judaea in 6 CE. Eventually, by the late fourth century CE, after gradual restructuring, the number of Roman provinces in Asia and northeast Africa rose to forty-three. They stationed army units that defended their newly chosen boundaries and enforced local obedience and payment of taxes. Incorporation into the empire brought much of the Middle East into a protected and interlinked continuum with the central and western Mediterranean and even regions beyond the Alps. Rome ruthlessly extracted taxes from its provinces, especially from populous Egypt, to pay its administrative and military costs, but also for the benefit of elites and the poor in Rome. Western Anatolia and Syria prospered.
Some inhabitants of the Middle East, especially from but not limited to Syria, moved or were forcibly transferred, often as slaves, to European sections of the empire, especially to the city of Rome. Exact statistics do not exist. Rome became a magnet for voluntary and forcible internal migration. Romans never gained control of the entire ancient Middle East. Much of the Caucasus, central Mesopotamia, Iran, and most of the Arabian Peninsula remained outside of Roman control but became exposed to and familiar with Roman traders and artistic and architectural influences. The Romans did establish a foothold in northwest Mesopotamia. Except for Judaea, most occupied regions of the Middle East accepted Roman rule. At its peak the empire’s population may have reached even 70 million, which may have constituted as much as one-quarter of the world’s population. Roman rule opened the way for limited numbers of talented and ambitious inhabitants of the Middle East to migrate and seek opportunities elsewhere and sometimes achieve successes, fame, and fortune on an empire-wide scale in military, political, artistic, intellectual, and religious fields.
Walter E. Kaegi
Professor of History, University of Chicago
1. Explain the importance of large urban centers such as Alexandria and Antioch to the growth of the eastern Mediterranean region. Why are these urban centers so attractive?
2. Describe positive and negative social, economic, and political impact of the Romans on the populations of the Middle East.
3. Considering the history of the Romans in the Middle East, explain why some inhabitants of the Late Roman Middle East were unwilling to defend the Roman Empire.