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The Roman Empire and the seas

from HISTORICAL CASE STUDIES: The Mediterranean world

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 April 2017

Phyllis Culham
Affiliation:
US Naval Academy, Annapolis, United States
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Summary

ABSTRACT.This contribution discusses key maritime aspects of the politics, economy and culture of the Roman Empire (31 BC – AD 284). It argues that, while the Roman emperors from Augustus onwards had no specific maritime ‘policies’, many of their military and political initiatives had major impacts in terms of the development of maritime trade and cultural interactions, not just within the relatively closed world of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, but also in the nascent world economic system of the Indian Ocean.

RÉSUMÉ.Cette contribution étudie les aspects clés de la navigation, en termes de politique, d'économie et de culture, au sein de l'empire Romain de 31 av. J.-C. à 284 ap. J.-C. Elle cherche à démontrer que malgré l'absence de stratégies maritimes précises chez les empereurs romains depuis Auguste, nombre de leurs initiatives militaires et politiques ont grandement impacté le développement du commerce maritime et des interactions culturelles, aussi bien dans les régions relativement avoisinantes des mers Méditerranée et Noire que dans le système économique du monde émergent de l'océan Indien.

The Roman Republic had been moribund since the end of the second century BC. At the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian (later called Augustus) achieved a decisive victory which ensured that Roman hegemony would prevail throughout the Mediterranean Sea. No resurgent Hellenistic kingship, such as that of queen Cleopatra of Egypt, would either assume hegemony, or split the Mediterranean world between the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East. Consequently, Augustus had a unique opportunity to conceptualize the maritime aspect of the world he intended to control. No other political leader has governed a sea surrounded by lands subordinated to him by alliance, the creation of client kings, or conquest, with no strategic level naval opponent in sight. Nonetheless, Augustus had no grand political design in his pocket for the complex hegemony we call the Roman Empire. He had to patch together a political and cultural framework from 27 through 13 BC, which would both legitimize his authority across the Mediterranean world and make it effective. Nonetheless, despite the Roman élite's limited interest in maritime matters, Augustus had the ability, assets, and tools to foster a maritime oikoumene, a world at sea, more culturally homogenous and perhaps even more Rome-centered than the land realm with its more obvious Roman governors and tax collectors.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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