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2. Life at the Top

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 26 January 2003

Life at the top. The Roman Empire, at its peak, spread right around the Mediterranean and stretched from Northumbria to Armenia. From the reign of the Emperor Augustus onwards, power of all that territory lay in the hands of one man: the emperor himself.

What did the emperor do all day? We have two stereotypical images of Roman emperors: the good ones led victorious armies in battle, the bad ones indulged in orgies and excess. How accurate is this picture?

Though the emperor sat at the peak of the command chain, there were other powerful figures in the Roman world - the imperial advisors, for example. So who were these people? And how much power did they have? Since the emperor's word was final, his whim was complete, and his tyranny absolute - how easy was it to keep friendly with the emperor?

Friendship was a vital tool in the running of the empire. Letters of recommendation were commonplace, and occurred at all levels. How did this network of friends-of-friends operate? What were the benefits - and disadvantages?

Those at the bottom of the social scale were not completely powerless. The emperor depended upon the good will and opinion of the people - and he knew it. How did they express their disapproval? And don't forget about the slave population of Rome, who vastly outnumbered the ranks of the free. They weren't without power, either.

  • Augustus


    Bronze head of the emperor Augustus from Meroe (Nubia) .

    Copyright British Museum
  • Claudius


    Bronze head of the emperor Claudius, found in Suffolk.

    Copyright British Museum
  • Further reading

    Further reading

    Peter Jones
    An Intelligent Person's Guide to Classics

    P Jones & K Sidwell
    The World of Rome
    Cambridge 1997

    Jerome Carcopino
    Daily Life in Ancient Rome

    Fergus Millar
    The Roman Empire and Its Neighbours

    Anthony Birley
    Garrison Life at Vindolanda - A Band of Brothers

    Pliny (tr) Betty Radice
    The Letters of the Younger Pliny
    Penguin Classics

    Marcus Aurelius (tr) Maxwell Staniforth
    Penguin Classics

    Seneca (tr) Robin Campbell
    Letters from a Stoic
    Penguin Classics

    Tim Cornell & John Matthews
    Atlas of the Roman World
    New York: Facts on File c1982


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