(This piece follows Stuff from Way Back #34a: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It. Incidentally, the chronologies at the ends of these pieces are carefully indented and spaced, but that all goes out the window the moment I publish them. I have no idea why, and WordPress has a lame system whereby one must hope some contributor with nothing better to do with his time will supply an answer.)
[ISIS idiots are destroying ancient statuary in Mosul and their friends in Libya are desecrating Roman ruins. Slaughtering innocents is one thing, but this scourge is now assaulting the very history of humanity and irreplaceable treasures that belong to all of mankind. Kill them all and leave their bodies to be devoured by dogs.]
When Constantine died in 337, he was succeeded by his three sons, Flavius Claudius Constantinus, the senior Augustus, and Flavius Julius Constantius and Flavius Julius Constans. Blood not being thicker than ambition, Constans challenged his older brother, and when Constantine II invaded Italy in 340, he was defeated and killed. Engaged in continuous warfare against the Persians, Constantius accepted the new arrangement, and ten years later Constans was executed by his troops, who elevated a barbarian, Flavius Magnus Magnentius, as Augustus. At the same time, Flavius Vetranio accepted the purple in Illyria and then immediately abdicated when Constantius came west and in 351 defeated Magnentius, who committed suicide two years later, leaving Constantius sole Emperor.
In 355 Constantius appointed his last surviving cousin, Flavius Claudius Julianus, his Caesar and tasked him with dealing with an invasion of Alamanni, whom he crushed in 357. In 360 Julian, who was very popular with the troops, was proclaimed Augustus, and when his cousin died suddenly in 361, he named Julian his legitimate successor. Once he was sole Emperor Julian, who had been disgusted by the bloody history of his family, revealed his conversion to traditional Roman religion and became known to history as Julian the Apostate. Determined to settle the Persian question and pursuing the Alexander dream, in 363 he invaded the Sassanid Empire, only to be killed in battle, possibly by one of his own men who resented his abandonment of Christianity. His death marked the end of the House of Constantine.
Julian’s army chose Flavius Jovianus as Emperor, and he concluded a humiliating peace with Persia in order to move back west to defend his new authority. This turned out to be unnecessary, since he died the following year, probably assassinated. The army met with high civilian officials and decided upon another Illyrian, Flavius Valentinianus, who chose Milan rather than Constantinople as his capital and appointed his brother Flavius Julius Valens as Augustus in the east. (Flavius seems to have become an immensely popular name.) In 367 Valentinian, in order to prevent problems with the succession, made his nine year old son, Flavius Gratianus, Augustus, a practice that would become more common.
Valentinian’s great achievement was reestablishing the Rhine and upper Danube frontiers, where he spent all of his reign smashing Alamanni, Franks and Saxons, guaranteeing the security of Gaul for years to come. His general Flavius Theodosius meanwhile crushed a rebellion in Africa and swept Britain free of invading Picts and Scots. Unfortunately, in 375 while negotiating with the Quadi, who had launched an invasion across the Danube, he became so angry that he had a fatal stroke, and the teenage Gratian inherited the purple. Under pressure from his advisors Gratian chose his younger brother, Flavius Valentinianus (Minor), as Augustus, but only of Illyria, inasmuch as the new Emperor was only four years old.
Meanwhile, the situation in the east was more serious. The problem there was not so much the Persians, who had their own troubles with barbarians on their northern frontier, but Goths. In the early 370s the first of the steppe horsemen to plague Europe, the Huns, destroyed the Ostrogothic (East Goths) kingdom in the Ukraine and then assaulted the Visigoths (West Goths) on the Dniester River, driving sundry Gothic refugees to the Danube. Valens, a far weaker ruler than his brother, granted the Goths permission to settle south of the river, but they were abused by corrupt Roman officials, who also left them their arms. The result was the outbreak of war in 377, and in 378 Valens, ignoring advice to await his brother Gratian, attacked some 20,000 Goths at Adrianople in Thrace, and he and his army were slaughtered in the worst disaster for the Roman army against barbarians since three legions were lost to German ambush back in the days of Augustus. In the wake of their tremendous victory the Goths plundered the Balkan Peninsula.
Gratian then appointed Flavius Theodosius, son of Valentinian’s general of the same name, Augustus in the east. While fomenting trouble among the various factions of Goths, Theodosius enlarged his own army by enlisting many of them, and in 382 a deal was made by which the Goths were provided an independent kingdom in the depopulated lands south of the Danube in return for a military alliance with the Empire. This was an ominous development (the Salian Franks had been allowed to settle in far northern Gaul around 358), a practice that would hasten the disintegration of the western half of the Empire. A state that trades its territory for security from invaders is one in serious trouble indeed.
Back in the west, Gratian’s incompetent administration had alienated the soldiers and civilian populace, and in 383 the British troops proclaimed Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus. He crossed to the continent, where Gratian was deserted by his army and killed, and unable to do much about it, Theodosius temporarily recognized Maximus’ position as ruler of the western provinces, excepting Illyria and Italy, where Valentinian II was in control. This arrangement lasted until 388, when Maximus chased Valentinian out of Italy and was then attacked and killed by Theodosius. Maximus did have an impact: moving his troops to Gaul led to the abandonment of Britain’s northern defenses, including Hadrian’s Wall. They were never reoccupied.
In 383 Theodosius named his son Flavius Arcadius Augustus, stationing him in Constantinople while he returned to Milan. Eight years later he was back in the east to deal with Gothic troubles and problems among Arcadius’ officials, the most important of which was Flavius Rufinus (Was everyone named Flavius?), who served as a regent for the thirteen year old Emperor. Meanwhile, in the west Valentinian was at odds with his protector, Flavius Arbogastes, who had him murdered in 392. As a Frank, Arbogast could not assume the purple and proclaimed instead Flavius Eugenius, a rhetorician. In response Theodosius named his son Flavius Honorius Augustus in 393 and invaded Italy the following year, defeating Arbogast and the hapless Eugenius. Having restored unity in the Empire, he died in Milan in 395, never to know that the Roman Empire would be permanently divided after his death.
This period from the death of Constantine to the death of Theodosius saw the continuation of developments during the previous half century. All state officials were now in theory personal servants of the Emperor, and despite the efforts of some Emperors there were more and more of them. In 68 there were thirty-six provinces; by the end of the fourth century there one hundred and twenty, arranged into fourteen dioceses, which were grouped into four prefectures. The praetorian prefects, who were the heads of the prefectures (yes, that is what happened to them), were the highest officials in the Empire. Italy, incidentally, was now simply another set of provinces, a culmination of the “democratization” of the Empire, and Milan was now the western capital.
The economic decline, though not even, continued, and it appears the “Roman” population was steadily shrinking, making it more attractive to settle barbarian tribes within the confines of the Empire. The western half of the Empire, far less urbanized and increasingly suffering more barbarian depredation than the eastern, was sinking faster, and huge estates, worked by virtual serfs, were turning to household economies, producing all they needed as economic communications broke down. The medieval manorial system was emerging. Members of the Senatorial class played a large role in these estates, for while the Senate itself was powerless, the Senatorial order comprised a great number of extremely wealthy and influential men, though they for the most part represented new families.
The army was of course the greatest consumer of shrinking Imperial revenues, and the Empire simply could not afford the numbers it required. Further, the main source of recruits was barbarians, given the declining population and increasing reluctance to serve in the military. Training had plummeted, and the only advantages “Roman” armies, now devoid of heavy infantry, possessed were in mobilization, logistics and fortifications. The Persian front was more or less stable, as control of northern Mesopotamian and Armenia see-sawed back and forth, and in 384 a treaty of friendship provided peace for almost four decades. But the pressure from Germanic tribes was becoming overwhelming, requiring the planting of relatively autonomous kingdoms in the provinces and the payment of tribute. The barbarians were in effect now running a huge protection racket.
With all the power of the state behind it Christianity was spreading and the church growing in power. Constantine and a few other Emperors had supported a policy of religious tolerance, but the persecution of non-Christians grew steadily. In 341 polytheist sacrifices were outlawed, and in 392 the cults were banned altogether. Symbolically important, in 357 Constantius removed from the Senate the Altar of Victory, installed by Augustus in 29 BC, and though it was restored by Julian, it was removed again in 382 by Gratian. (And the Empire split into two thirteen years later.) The old gods persisted in the rural areas and among many of the intellectual elite, whose learning was rooted in the non-Christian literature of the Greeks.
The Church also began to flex its muscles regarding the state. In 390 Theodosius ordered the massacre of a mob in Thessalonika for murdering general, and Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, told the Emperor that he would be barred from Church services if he did not publically repent for the crime. Theodosius at first resisted but ultimately gave in and publically admitted his guilt. The Empire was ending, and the long battle between Church and State was beginning.
337-395 Dominate II
337-340 Flavius Claudius Constantinus
337-350 Persian War
337-350 Flavius Julius Constans
337-361 Flavius Julius Constantius
350 Flavius Vetranio (abdicated)
350-353 Flavius Magnus Magnentius
358 Salian Franks settled in northern Gaul
358-363 Persian War
360-363 Flavius Claudius Julianus
363-364 Flavius Jovianus
364-375 Flavius Valentinianus
364-378 Flavius Julius Valens
367-383 Flavius Gratianus
373 Huns attack the East Goths
375-392 Flavius Valentinianus (Minor)
378 Battle of Adrianople
379-395 Flavius Theodosius
382 Goths settled south of the Danube; Altar of Victory removed from the Senate
383-388 Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus
383 Hadrian’s Wall abandoned
384 Treaty of Friendship between Rome and Persia
383-408 Flavius Arcadius
390 Theodosius does public penance at Ambrose’s order
392-394 Flavius Eugenius
392 Polytheist cults banned
393-423 Flavius Honorius
393 Olympic games ended