(This essay follows Stuff from Way Back #33: Roma, We Have a Problem. A note on Roman names: Romans – at least the elites – traditionally had a base of three names, the praenomen, nomen and cognomen, as in Gaius Julius Caesar. The praenomen was the personal name, usually abbreviated, and by the time of the Principate there were only about a dozen in common use. The nomen was the gens or clan name, and the cognomen was originally a modifier of the nomen, but could become hereditary, in which case it indicated the particular family in that clan. Other cognomina might be added to express some achievement, such as P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus. This arrangement crumbled during the Anarchy, and in the Dominate nomina [or a modified form of them] were frequently employed in the place of a traditional praenomen.)
Against all odds the Roman Empire had survived the Anarchy, but the Late Empire or Dominate bore little resemblance to the autocracy that Augustus had established three centuries earlier. Most important, the political stability that characterized most of the history of the Principate was gone forever, washed away by the civil wars of the Anarchy and the corruption of the military. The Empire was now facing continually growing barbarian pressure on the northern frontiers as the great German migrations to the west and the south got underway, while the effectiveness of the army had plummeted, allowing incursion after incursion into the provinces. Economically, the Empire was in ruins, as the tax base shrank from devastated farmlands and declining commerce, while the state resources consumed by the army continued to rise. The Empire had become an unpleasant place in which to live, and it may be assumed that any sense of loyalty to the state, which was now seen as an oppressor, had disappeared.
But Diocletian did bring a measure of stability, and the empire was relatively free of internal strife for the next two decades. Having assumed the purple in 284, two years later he made another Illyrian, M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus, his co-ruler, who would look after the west while he took up residence in Nicomedia in the east. Diocletian had determined that because of internal troubles and barbarian invasions the Empire was now too big for one man to govern, and in 293 he established the Tetrarchy. Each Augustus appointed a Caesar, Galerius Valerius Maximianus for Diocletian and Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus for Maximian, the idea being that each Caesar would succeed his Augustus in an orderly fashion.
In a way the Tetrarchy was a return to Augustus’ original plan for succession – the Princeps would train his successor and associate him in power – but it is doubtful that this complex structure of four rulers could have worked even in the halcyon days of the early Principate. It certainly did not in the wake of the Anarchy. The type of man likely to be an effective ruler of the problem-plagued Late Empire was likely also to be ambitious and reluctant to share the ultimate power. Further, the natural son of an Emperor was not likely to be amused if someone else was named his father’s Caesar.
When Diocletian abdicated in 305 and compelled a reluctant Maximian to do the same, the Second Tetrarchy quickly collapsed into a new civil war. For a variety of reasons Diocletian decided to pass over the sons of Galerius and Chlorus as the new Caesars, naming Flavius Valerius Severus and Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia. In 306 Chlorus died after crushing an invasion of Picts in Britain, and while Severus succeeded him as Augustus in Rome, the army elevated Chlorus’ illegitimate son, Flavius Valerius Constantinus, to Augustus, thus opening the floodgates. Maximian came out of retirement, and he and his son, M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius, became Augusti in 306, turning out Severus and causing Galerius to invade Italy, unsuccessfully. Diocletian himself attempted to negotiate a settlement in 308, retiring Maximian again, outlawing Maxentius and naming Valrerius Licinianus Licinius Augustus. There were now six Augusti: Galerius, Constantine, Maximinus Daia, Maximian, who refused to stay retired, Maxentius, who refused to go quietly, and Licinius. It was now necessary to have a program to keep track of the players.
It got simpler. Maximian was murdered, and in 311 Galerius finally died, removing the major player from the game. The following year Constantine formed an alliance with Licinius in the east and invaded Italy to take out Maxentius, who was allied to Maximinus Daia. At the battle of the Milvan Bridge outside Rome, Constantine, a better general with a better though smaller army, crushed Maxentius, having sought the aid of the Christian god by having the Chi Rho (the first two letters of Christos in Greek) painted on his men’s shields. For the first time a Roman ruler had appealed to the new god.
Now there were three, and in 313 Maximinus Daia, who had received no cut of Maxentius’ territory, attacked Licinius, was defeated and died of sickness. Licinius began to intrigue against Constantine, but in the wake of inconclusive military action they reconciled and in 317 named their sons as their Caesars. The showdown came in 323, when Constantine chased raiding Goths into Thrace, Licinius’ territory, and the eastern Augustus responded by launching a war, which ended the following year in Licinius’ defeat and later execution.
Constantine was now sole Emperor and would remain so until his death in 337. During this period he continued and in some cases completed developments that had been underway since the Anarchy and especially since Diocletian. The exclusion of the civil authorities from involvement in the military, begun in earnest by Gallerius during the Anarchy, was now complete, and the Senate had essentially become little more than a municipal council and a ceremonial and honorary association. The autocracy had become an absolute despotism, and Constantine ruled by the grace of god. He adopted the diadem and an oriental style court, replete with ceremonial procedures, titles and orders of preference, and what had originally been an unequal partnership between the Princeps and Senate was now a traditional Near Eastern kingship.
The Imperial bureaucracy continued its rapid growth, as the state attempted to control every aspect of the lives of the Empire’s inhabitants, and as much as was possible for a pre-industrial society, the Roman Empire became more and more totalitarian. In order to prevent land from going out of cultivation, farmers were legally tied to their farms, unable to escape the increasingly oppressive taxation. These bound farmers, the coloni, would form the basis of medieval serfdom. Occupations, especially farming, were made hereditary, turning the Empire into a vast social prison and creating a highly stratified society, in which inequality was institutionalized in the law. The elites, state and municipal officials, soldiers and veterans, were the honestiores; virtually all the rest of the population constituted the humiliores, who were subject to more restrictive laws and more brutal punishments.
These arrangements of course seriously injured agricultural productivity and especially commerce, and while Constantine reformed the currency, there simply was not enough revenue to support the military without crushing taxation, which further injured the economy. The Empire was running out of silver and gold, and Diocletian’s attempt in 301 to freeze prices was, as one might expect, a complete failure. Constantine had to accept taxes in kind, laying another foundation for medieval society. Further, the maintenance of the Imperial infrastructure had traditionally relied upon liturgies, the voluntary contributions of the municipal elites, but these men were being now squeezed by the increasing taxation, which compelled the state to make such contributions mandatory. The result was the deterioration of the middle income class, especially businessmen, who were at the heart of the non-agricultural economy, and it became harder and harder to find individuals willing to serve in the municipal offices.
Major changes were taking place in the military sphere. Constantine created a Field Army that could be rushed to any crisis in the Empire, further emphasizing cavalry, which formed the core of the new army, while for the first time in Roman history infantry took second place. The prominence of horse was not just a response to the Persians, who had excellent cavalry, but also because of its mobility in dealing with threats. Meanwhile, the frontiers were increasingly dependent upon fortifications and border troops that were little more than local poorly trained militias. From the point defense of the Principate and the elastic defense of the Anarchy the Empire moved to a defense in depth, in which multiple lines of fortified points would slow any barbarian invasion, providing the Field Army the time to move to confront the danger. Finally, more and more barbarians were being recruited into the military, especially the frontier units, and entire tribes were being given land within the Empire in return for their military services. This development was to a great degree a response to the declining population of the Empire, who were desperately needed in agriculture, but it nevertheless boded ill for the future.
Regarding that future, two of Constantine’s achievements were momentous enough to mark major turning points in Roman history – and that of the West in general. Because of the Persian threat and the fact that the major barbarian pressure was along the lower Danube, he perceived a need for a “capital” in the east, and consequently the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus was rebuilt in 324 as Constantinople, the “city of Constantine.” Constantine could hardly know it, of course, but the existence of a “New Rome” would certainly help facilitate the later separation of the Empire into two states and the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, which would carry on a Greek version of the Roman tradition for another millennium.
The other was even more world shaking, the establishment of Christianity as the favored and then official religion of the Empire. I have tended to be cynical about Constantine’s conversion (which took place on his death bed, a not uncommon occurrence), but the more I look into this (I have always found studying the Late Empire depressing.) the more I think his commitment to the Church was genuine. Most of the army was after all polytheist, and it is estimated that by the fourth century Christians only comprised about ten percent of the population, a weak base upon which to establish a new imperial policy simply for political reasons. The stories of visions in the sky and dreams may be discounted, but it may well be that the success of his somewhat desperate invasion of Italy and the victory at the Milvan Bridge convinced him of the power of the Christian god. His various efforts to preserve the unity of the religion, particularly the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which officially defined the Church’s understanding of the Trinity, strongly suggests a man who is personally concerned about the faith.
Whatever his motives, his conversion resulted in every succeeding Emperor but one being Christian, and Christianity thus rapidly became identified with the state and emerged as the official religion under Theodosius (379-395). Constantine himself was generally respectful of the rights of non-Christians, but given the exclusive nature of monotheism and growing power of the Church, it was only inevitable that future rulers would become more repressive. The persecution of the pagani would in fact begin under Constantine’s sons. (See also Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block and Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying.)
Constantine gained the appellation “the Great,” certainly deserved, for like Augustus he was one of the few individuals in history who single-handedly and dramatically affected the course of events.
285-337 Dominate I
284-305 C. Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (abdicated)
286-305 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus (abdicated)
286 Peasant revolt in Gaul
297-298 Persian War
301 Edict on Prices
303-304 Edicts against Christians
305-306 Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus
305-311 Galerius Valerius Maximianus
306-337 Flavius Valerius Constantinus
306-307 Flavius Valerus Severus
306-308 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus
M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius
308-324 Valerius Licinianus Licinius
310-313 Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia
312 Battle of the Milvan Bridge
313 Edict of Milan/Toleration
324-330 Foundation of Constantinople
325 First Council of Nicaea; Constantine adopts the diadem