The 2nd century is dominated in the history books by the two largest empires: the Romans and the Han Dynasty in China. Both entered the century at the peak of their powers but saw great upheaval, war, and revolt that left both looking very different as they entered the 3rd century. In this article, we will look at 7 key events that took place during the 2nd Century.
Pivotal inventions in China (105-132)
The establishment of a long, stable dynastic rule in China (by the early 2nd century, the Han had ruled for 300 years) allowed some of the best and brightest to flourish in its borders. Three important inventions occurred in three decades this century, with an imperial official called Cai Lun inventing the most important: paper. Using mulberry bark, old rags, fishnets, and other fibrous materials, Cai Lun developed the first sheet of paper in 105 AD. It would take some time for this to spread west, but in doing so, history could be recorded more accurately and language could be standardized. The astronomer Zhang Heng then invented the world’s first water-powered armillary sphere in 125 and the first seismometer in 132. These inventions put China at the forefront of world knowledge.
Hadrian’s Wall built in Northern England (122-132)
Conquering Britannia the previous century, the Romans took all of modern-day England quite easily but came unstuck with the Caledonians in the north (Scotland). Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to fortify his borders rather than extend them, and instructed for a massive wall to be built, stretching from coast to coast to protect Roman Britannia from the north and better control trade. It ran 73 miles and stood higher than 12 feet at its greatest extent, taking a decade to build, starting in 122. The wall solidified Roman presence in Britannia and was so substantial, parts of it still exist today. Perhaps inspired to outdo his predecessor, and push further into Caledonia, the next emperor Antoninus Pius instructed the building of his Antonine Wall built between 142 and 154, across what is now central Scotland. This second construction was abandoned less than 20 years later, however, but Hadrian’s Wall stood strong.
Jewish revolt against Rome (132-135)
Since the middle of the 1st century, the Jewish people of Judea were unhappy with the Roman military presence, the changing of their administration, and the erection of pagan temples for worshipping Jupiter. Two previous revolts, in what is collectively known today as the Jewish-Roman Wars, had already failed, but this one in 132 led by Simon bar Kokhba, was initially successful. Achieving a string of victories over the Romans, bar Kokhba established an independent Jewish state for almost three years, but the Roman Emperor Hadrian came back with a vengeance, invading Judea and crushing the revolt by 135. The repercussions were devastating, with the Jews being exiled, killed, and sold into slavery by the Romans, Jewish people being barred from Jerusalem, and to eradicate any memory, Judea was renamed Syria Palaestina.
The last of the Five Good Emperors (180)
Since its inception by Augustus in 27 BC, the Roman Empire was a relatively stable and peaceful place. In the middle of an era called the Pax Romana, a string of capable and popular emperors, known as the ‘Five Good Emperors’ ran from Nerva in 96 AD until Marcus Aurelius’ death in 180 AD. The 2nd century saw the empire reach its peak, with Trajan overseeing the second largest expansion of Rome in its history, and Hadrian and Antoninus Pius fortifying these gains. Although revolt and war still took place, it remained peaceful internally and secure in its borders. Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his son Commodus, bringing the period of Pax Romana to an end, and beginning the decline of the empire.
The Antonine Plague (165-180)
The first major pandemic in Rome, the outbreak now called the Antonine Plague was likely smallpox (with ‘plague’ often being used to describe any disease that is highly infectious). It is believed that the pandemic began while warring with the Parthians from 161 to 166, and conducting a siege in Mesopotamia. Brought back to Rome, it quickly spread throughout the empire, possibly killing the co-emperor Lucius Verus in 169, and likely straining the empire as it entered the final decades of its golden age. Conservative estimates suggest that the Antonine Plague killed between 5 and 10 million in total: around 10 percent of the Roman population at the time, although some suggest it was many times more. The Roman army was particularly ravaged, with Germanic tribes taking advantage by invading their territory, and it took 5 years for replacements to be found and trained to drive them out.
Turmoil in the Han dynasty (184-220)
Approaching four centuries of rule, by the end of the 2nd century AD, the Han Dynasty in China had become too stagnant and corrupt. The Yellow Turban Rebellion and separate Liang Province rebellion, both beginnings in 184 saw peasants revolt, weakening the Han, who struggled to suppress them. Following the death of Emperor Ling in 189, a power struggle between powerful eunuchs and the military began, resulting in warlord Dong Zhuo being summoned to deal with the eunuchs, but instead, he simply seized power for himself. When Dong was killed in 192 AD, the damage had already been done, and warfare continued throughout the country for decades, while at the imperial court, a string of warlords governed in the stead of powerless, puppet Han emperors. The Han finally fell in 220 AD, and China entered its greatest era of instability.
Year of the Five Emperors in Rome (193)
Not to be confused with the Five Good Emperors, the year 193 saw five separate men vying for the title of emperor following the assassination of Commodus on the final day of 192. Pertinax was named successor, but after attempting to reform the Praetorian Guard, he was killed by his own men after just three months. The throne was then, effectively, auctioned off to the highest bidder in the Senate, Didius Julianus, but at the same time, Septimius Severus gained approval from the senate and was named emperor himself, having Didius executed just 9 weeks into his reign. Meanwhile, Governor of Syria Pescennius Niger proclaimed himself emperor, so Severus set out to deal with him and appointed Clodius Albinus as his co-emperor to deal with domestic matters in the meantime. After defeating Niger, Albinus proclaimed himself true emperor again in 196, sparking another civil war, which Severus also won, and the tumultuous period was finally at an end.
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