A NOTE TO FUTURE CHANGES TO THE FORMAT OF THIS BLOG, AND ON THE DATE IN QUESTION
Since I started writing this rather infrequent blog, I have been conflicted as to what format to use to convey my interest in the subject. I’ve oscillated between writing about specific events in history on the anniversary of their happening (as I have done in my previous posts) and writing on more general subjects which I am currently reading about with no specific date in mind.
While I believe the anniversary format has worked so far, there are some glaring limitations with this method that continue to bother me. As lately my focus has been on ancient history, and in particular military events with important historical repercussions, it has been difficult over the past couple months to find enough meaningful anniversaries to write about. Most campaigning prior to the 20th century took place during the aptly-named ‘campaign season’ of late spring-early autumn due to climatic concerns. The calendar has therefore recently been bleak, and will become very cluttered during the summer months. Another concern is that with a busy schedule of work and recreation, anniversary deadlines can sneak up of me and are thus sometimes hard to meet. The fact that my personal reading often forces me to switch back and forth between distant time periods only adds to the list of difficulties I now aim to remedy.
I have therefore determined that it would be far more conducive to both the quality and frequency of my writing if I simply took a hybrid approach and wrote pieces not only on important anniversaries of particular events, but also included more general articles on what I am reading at the moment.
I’ve also considered breaking up each of these posts into more manageably sized instalments. For instance, releasing an article of this length in three or four separate posts over the course of several days.
If you believe this would be a better plan, please do not hesitate to let me know. I would truly appreciate your feedback.
Regardless, with the aforementioned change in formatting, expect in the future more frequent articles supported by greater and more current research by myself.
This latest post will take a middle path between the two formats I hope to employ in the future. The date I am writing about in this article is really just one of a number of other dates that I could have used as a pretext for writing on this time period. As such, this article is intended as a more general outline of the Roman world in the late-200s AD and how the events in question fit in to the gradual decline of the Empire, and does not necessarily have to be read with particular attention to the date of the anniversary on which it is posted.
I suppose that, in the end, what ultimately matters to the reader is that I convey the context, events and significance of this time period to the best of my abilities. I will now attempt to do just that.
In advance, thank you for reading.
DIOCLETIAN, THE TETRARCHY, AND A NEW EMPIRE
APRIL 1st, 286AD
The far western end of the Roman Forum. It was here, between the Capitoline (the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus can be seen at this hill’s peak in the top left of the image) and Palatine hills, that the main offices and Temples of the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, were situated. In the saying ‘all roads lead to Rome’ , this is the location referred to. The Forum was the political and religious heart of the Roman world.
By the 1st of April, 286AD, the Roman Empire had pulled through the most dramatic crisis in its history since Hannibal ravaged the Italian countryside and camped his mercenary army within sight of Rome’s city walls nearly five hundred years before. But, while Hannibal’s war had lasted seventeen years, the calamitous Crisis of the Third Century had lasted nearly fifty. The effect this apocalypse had on the Roman world must be understood accordingly.
During the crisis, a tapestry of usurpers and short-lived Emperors battled against foreign invasion, widespread plague and famine, breakaway empires, and struggled to maintain what was clearly a failing Roman state in the face of disastrous economic and social dislocation. Between the years 235 and 284AD, the Roman senate alone had recognized twenty-six claimants to the imperial throne. All but one of these had been murdered or executed.
In the wake of the crisis, the establishment of a stable and efficient government proved miraculous. However, the new government quickly evolved to be quite alien from that which existed during Rome’s now seemingly distant golden age, the Pax Romana. It’s author was Diocletian, the son of slaves in present day Serbia. Proving himself and effective and able military commander, he soon rose through the ranks of the Roman army and established himself as sole ruler of a newly unified Roman Empire. Pragmatic and intelligent, on April 1st 286AD, Diocletian took the unprecedented step of appointing a co-Emperor, dividing the administration of the empire in two, then, later in 293AD, into four. While power-sharing had occurred before in the Empire, the formality and constitutional nature of Diocletian’s system would mark his political innovation as one of the most important efforts by any Emperor to remedy the massive shortcoming in the Roman constitution concerning succession which had plagued the Empire for three hundred years.
His new government, the Tetrarchy (Greek for ‘rule of four’), would mark the most dramatic step since the reforms of Augustus three centuries earlier to reshape the imperial Roman government and constitution. Diocletian’s measured and far-sighted choice of co-emperor’s would ensure a period of peace and stability to help facilitate the recovery of the devastated Empire. Despite it’s ultimate failure, both Diocletian’s Tetrarchy and the manner of his rule marks a clear shift in the history of the Roman Empire, allowing the injured empire to heal it’s wounds, while facilitating a transition, culturally and politically, into the period of late antiquity. It was however, not without problems, and many of the errors inherent in Diocletian’s system would contribute to further destabilizing the weakened Empire. Ultimately, Diocletian’s reforms would set the stage for the despotic governments and rulers that were to come and for the eventual abandonment of what it truly meant to be Roman.
THE EMPIRE DURING THE PAX ROMANA
The Roman world under the Trajan, second of the Five Good Emperors. Roman armies secured the borders from foreign invasion, the rule of law was respected, religious concord was established, and internal trade across the mediterranean flourished. In the city of Rome, a series of cultured and philosophical emperors governed justly and chose their heirs wisely. This was the golden age of Rome.
By the beginning of the reign of the first Emperor Augustus, after seven hundred years of inexorable expansion, the city of Rome controlled nearly the entire known world, stretching thousands of miles from the British Isles to Syria, and from Germany to North Africa. Under the leadership of ambitious and competent consuls, Rome had become the strongest power the world had ever known. It had destroyed the Italian alliances formed against it, fended off massive attacks by alliances of Gallic and Germanic barbarian tribes, razed it’s greatest rival the city of Carthage to the ground, defeated and incorporated the Greek city-states into it’s dominion, and subjected Egypt to total domination.
However, in the 1st century BC, a hundred years of intermittent civil war had made it clear that the machinery of Roman republic government was no longer able to withstand the strains that size of the Mediterranean-wide conquests had thrust upon it. It was clear to most something had to be done. After the dictator perpetuo Gaius Julius Caesar was murdered by aristocratic senatorial conspirators in 44BC, the Roman world was plunged into a series of massive civil wars for control of the Empire. In the end it was Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son, Augustus, who came out on top.
Augustus, the first and longest serving Emperor of the Roman Empire established a period of stability, peace, and prosperity over the Mediterranean world known as the Pax Romana. His humble and informal style of governance reflected a deep respect for republican traditions and the role of the senate in Roman society.
Augustus, with his rival Mark Antony dead, and the once-powerful senate impotent, now found himself in complete control of Rome. He quickly initiated a series of far-reaching reforms which centralized the Roman government, established the Imperial provinces by reorganizing the web of allies and dependencies under central Roman control, and created the informal office of princeps (in Latin: ‘first man’), or emperor. This was the title which would come to lend it’s name to the greatest era of Roman, and arguably world history, known today as the Principate. While the English word emperor originates for the Latin imperator (‘[military] commander’), it was under the title princeps that Augustus and his successors would control the new Roman Empire until late in the 2nd century AD. In reality, he and his successors exercised power by pressuring the senate into granting them the important offices of the republican state (consul, censor, pontifex maximus). It is important to note the subtle implication that this democratic charade reveals: the emperors of this period wanted to uphold the image that they were not above the common patrician; just another Roman citizen.
The humility and moderation of Augustus’ rule was often ignored by some of the more indulgent and hedonistic emperors (Nero, Caligula, Domitian) of the 1st century, but these trespasses of their princely responsibilities was often not tolerated (Caligula comes to mind). The rule of the early emperors, reflected a period in Roman history in which the republic and it’s democratic principles still existed as fresh in the minds of ordinary Roman citizens. Titles such as Rex (king) and Dominus (lord) were despised, and excessively despotic regimes were seen as ‘eastern’ and un-Roman. The senate, despite losing the majority of it’s influence and effectively all of it’s law-making power, was still revered by the Romans even after the foundation of the Empire, and was seen as an integral moral and legal component of the state. Privately, the ‘artful prince’ Augustus had learned from the errors of Caesar, and the moderation of his rule was also a reflection of Augustus’ fear of inciting the same circumstances that led to the death of his adoptive father. Caesar had brought his fate upon himself by his brazen use of the power he had accumulated. Augustus learned quickly, and attempted to deceived the people of his desire for power through modesty and humility. It is quite clear that while nearly everyone saw through this thin veil, the very act of attempting to deny himself the dictatorial powers his 44 loyal legions had won for him through combat, was enough to placate the people and the Roman elite. No one had a stomach for a fight against the powerful emperor, and his style of rule acted only further to subdue any feelings of rebellion. It was in this climate that classical society reached its zenith.
Thus, for the duration of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the Roman Emperors ruled in the relatively humble style of Augustus. There were exceptions of course, but these rare cases were often disposed of by the senate, the Praetorian guards, or their own personal staff. The general temperance of the early Roman Emperors towards the citizens of the Empire – still an exclusive title until the 3rd century BC as most people living under Roman control outside the province of Italia were not Roman citizens, with slaves alone making up approximately 1/3rd of the entire population of the empire – is a clear indicator of the nature of this period of Roman history.
Dramatic Roman victories during the three Punic wars against Carthage, the five Macedonian wars against the Greeks, the conquests in the east of Pompey, and in Gaul by Caesar, and additionally the countless victories over rebel alliances in Italia and barbarian invasions from Germania had established complete Roman military dominance across the Mediterranean basin. The destruction of all external and internal enemies led to a period of peace and stability across the Mediterranean world. Gone were the wars between the Greek city-states, or the tribal warfare in Gaul; in their place existed only stable Roman government and administration.
In religion too, there was peace. As Rome expanded, its pantheon of gods was expanded to fit the local deities of the nations it conquered. Much was taken from the Greeks, who had heavily influenced the religions of the eastern ancient world through their far-reaching trade networks and the conquests of Alexander. These two factors had brought the writings of Homer and his contemporary poets to the far reaches of the western Mediterranean, to Egypt and Syria, and as far as the distant borders of India. In Rome its civilizing influence had been felt too. Commuted through the greek colonies in southern Italy, Sicily, and Liguria, the Roman gods had all found their Greek counterparts. As Rome’s legions advanced further east, Greek influence on the Roman elites and artists grew. It’s pagan religion supposed the theoretical existence of any god, regardless of where it was worshipped. Soon, the gods of Syria and Persia were included into the Pantheon, as were those of Egypt, albeit the latter with reluctance). Even counterparts between Roman and Germanic gods were found, and by the time of the Pax Romana, nearly all forms of worship were acceptable, particularly in the cosmopolitain city of Rome with its massive immigrant and mercantile populations. The high priest was the Roman Emperor, and as he derived his power primarily through the secular offices of government and through the army, he found no need to promote either religious zeal or persecution (with some notable exceptions against the obstinate monotheism of the Jews and later the Christians).
With short-lived and infrequent exceptions, the Roman world experienced an era of peace and prosperity driven by far-reaching trade, religious harmony, and enforced by the well-developed Roman legal system and the absolute military superiority of the Roman legions.
The world in 100AD during the height of the Pax Romana must have felt very similar to that of today’s world, in which America, with unchallenged military superiority and the moral approval of the majority of human beings uses vast diplomatic and economic pressure to prevent large-scale war, while providing allies with the benefits of free trade and protection. In both cases, these factors have led to the nations acting as the leader of the civilized world. It is important to note, as is true in our day in the case of the United States, that Roman administration and society had by this point in time acquired from the vast majority of the population of the Mediterranean world, to borrow a line from the book Destined Encounters by Sury Pullat, ‘idealogical legitimacy as the only worthwhile form of civilization’. Naturally, there were rebels (notable are the Jews who revolted in 66AD) and grounds who despised Roman rule, but for the most part the citizens of the Mediterranean basin were content with life under the Emperors.
The Five Good Emperors (in order): Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius. These five enlightened men ruled over the climax of Roman power and prosperity from 96-180AD. Much of their success was due to the careful choosing of heirs, a practice which became increasingly self-serving and eventually non-existent during the proceeding decades, dooming Rome to poor governance during the Crisis of the Third Century.
Under the rule of the Five Good Emperors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius), Rome reached its geographic and cultural zenith. Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius in particular proved philosophic Emperors, and their position of power to insured that a current of morality ran through Roman government from the top. Of course, this is all relative; endless wars and vast social and economic injustice did pervade Roman society up until the end of the Empire, but, contrasted with the chaos and uncertainty of preceding and later periods in history, the era is certainly one of the most peaceful and stable in history. The absence of the aforementioned theological schisms and wars that would later tear Europe apart eliminated a key factor of instability, as did the strong Roman legal tradition which differentiated that great society from its contemporaries, the influence of which still exists today as the foundation of western society.
There were, however, major problems existed within the constitution of the Empire itself. Perhaps the most important problem was the absence of any formal system of succession in Roman government. During the days of the Republic, the senate controlled Rome. Members of the senate were chosen for life from among the elite patrician class of citizens, and the legislative body had vast powers over the formation of laws and appointments. Its recommendations were made to and generally accepted by two annually elected consuls who acted like modern presidents. Sharing power, these two magistrates carried out the will of the senate. Annual elections ensured that no one consul could accumulate enough power in his own hands. The system worked quite effectively, even in the most acute crises, until the 1st century BC when it’s revered position became increasingly ignored by strong and popular Consuls (Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Caesar etc.) with vast webs of patronage and the loyalty of their legions.
By the time Augustus became sole ruler of the Roman world in 31BC, the Mediterranean had already seen several vast and bloody civil wars as Romans such as Mark Antony, Brutus and Cassius, and Augustus (known in English at this time as Octavian) himself fought for control over the Roman world. Despite the prolific nature of his reign, Augustus, the first and longest-lasting emperor in Roman history, cursed the Roman state to continual civil war by failing to establish a constitutional process of succession. Given the nature of his reign, in which he endeavored to be considered ‘first among equals’, laying out a process of selecting a future emperor would have been a total admission of the authoritarian nature of his position – something the Romans despised, yet tolerated. As such, his reluctant successor Tiberius came to power through informal means. The undefined process of succession repeated itself, with the successors often coming to power in the midst of shady circumstances and dubious events until finally breaking into open violence later in the century.
The first serious example of the issue of succession was the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ in 69AD. After the suicide of Nero in 68AD, four Emperors battled with each other for recognition as Roman Emperor from the senate. Eventually, the brilliant and able military commander Vespasian won out, but not before the spilling of vast quantities of Roman blood. The wars continued.
Septimius Severus’ reign (193-211AD) might have seemed successful in his time, however, many of the problems that were to plague the Empire during the coming crisis were a direct result of his policies. primarily his spoiling of the army with massive donatives, and his dilution of the previously Italian legions with foreigners.
Many of the problems that were to plague the Empire until it’s eventual collapse were instituted during the of the reign of Septimius Severus. Severus came to power in 193AD during the so-called Year of the Five Emperors, a series of civil wars that broke out following the death of the emperor Commodus. To appease the increasingly powerful Praetorians and legions, Severus issued massive donatives, increased military pay dramatically, and allowed for a gradual relaxation of army discipline. The wars that had placed him in a position of power finally revealed to the army that it had the power to make and break emperors. This was the beginning of an age in which the threat of assassination by the Praetorians allowed them to extort concessions from the emperors, and within a short period of time they held the reigns of government in their hands. The reign of the Five Good Emperors had come crashing down, and under the reign of Severus, the power of the army grew in proportion to the rate at which it declined for the lawful Roman government. Despite being popular among his contemporaries, many of the precedents set during the reign of Septimius Severus would contribute to the events that led to the outbreak of the greatest crisis in Roman history.
The Crisis of the Third Century, or the Military Anarchy. Never before had the Roman Empire experienced a crisis so severe. For nearly 50 years, foreign invasion, civil wars, inflation, economic dislocation, plague, and famine ravaged the countryside and cities of the Empire. Eventually, the situation was stabilized by the generalship of Claudius II and Aurelian, but not before the Empire was dealt a significant physical and psychological blow.
The history of the Crisis of the Third Century, also known as the Military Anarchy, is long, convoluted, and deserves more time and space than I am able to devote to it here. In keeping with the overall theme of this article, I will try and condense the events that occurred while attempting conveying the apocalyptic nature this crisis had on the Roman world.
On March 19th, 235AD, at the age of only 26, the Emperor Alexander Severus was assassinated by his Praetorian guard after his attempts to bribe Germanic tribes into peace earned him the derision and of respect from his soldiers. The soldiers quickly acclamated their general Maximinus Thrax as emperor. Maximinus proved a bloodthirsty tyrant and was soon overpowered, and the chaos and violence shown during the murder of Alexander Severus repeated itself.
The assassination marked the beginning of a period of complete and total chaos in Roman history. In quick succession, claimants to the throne were declared emperor by the senate in Rome, only to be faced with repeated usurpers from the provinces. Roman legions, encamped on the distant borders of the Empire often chose to declare their own generals in favour of unfamiliar claimants from other regions. Due to local recruiting methods and the massive concentration of Roman forces on the Danube river frontier, many of these soldier emperors hailed from Illyricum (what is better known today as the former Yugoslavia). These came to be known as the ‘Barracks Emperors’; generals who were not part of the patrician class of senators in Rome, but rather were common men declared emperor by the troops loyal to them, and who otherwise held no imperial legitimacy. Illyricum’s proximity to Italia ensured that campaigns to overthrow governments in Rome were short and frequently successful. This in turn further contributed to the weakening of the authority of the already emasculated senate, whose members soon came to realize that it was the army, and not them, who now controlled the Roman state.
However, the soldier’s familiarity with their generals was not the only factor in motivating the legionaries to rebel against the senate in Rome. The practice of issuing a donative, that is a monetary donation issued to the soldiers at the beginning of a new emperor’s reign, had started back in the days of Augustus. The donatives were, in essence, a form of bribery, and were intended to placate the Praetorian Guard or legions at the assumption of the imperial purple. If the donative was too small, it was feared that the troops might rebel and declare for their own leader who would better reward them. As such, these payments quickly became obscene in their size, and weighed heavily on Roman finances, particularly during the quick turnover of emperors experienced during the Crisis of the Third Century. During the Crisis itself, the legions on the borders, and in particular the Praetorian Guard who were charged with ensuring the emperor’s safety engaged in frequent and unprovoked assassinations and rebellions simply to secure for themselves the wealth associated with the donatives they knew they would receive (or rather, could extort) from the betrayed emperor’s successor. The respect for the rule of law and the sanctity of the Emperor was beginning to collapse under the pressures of greed and personal interest.
Roman legionaries around the time of Diocletian. The reader might be surprised by their lack of resemblance to the Roman soldiers often portrayed in film. In reality, Roman armour and shielding had changed dramatically by the 3rd Century. As the foreign element in the Roman army gradually grew, the uniformity of the Roman legions became increasingly disjointed, and as time carried on the lack of discipline encouraged sloth and the gradual abandonment of heavier armour and arms.
This was, however, not the only issue that effected Rome during the crisis. Foreign invasion also contributed to the weakening of the Roman state, particularly during the reign of Valerian (253-260AD). In the east, the Persian Empire, the traditional enemy of Rome, became energetic and aggressive after the establishment of the Sassanid dynasty in 224AD. The new Sassanid Empire would prove to be a longstanding enemy of Rome in the east, with the nearly continuous wars between the two nations lasted up until the Arab conquests of the region (after it had been ravaged by warfare, depleted of manpower, and both Rome and Persia bankrupted). The Persian threat came to a climax when the Emperor Valerian, campaigning at the head of a massive army in Mesopotamia, was captured by Sassanid forces and killed either by (accounts differ and their accuracy is in question) having molten gold poured down his throat, or being skinned alive and then stuffed with straw and put on display. In the wake of this Roman disaster, Persian forces moved into Syria and sacked the major Roman city of Antioch, third largest city in the Empire, and proceeded to lay waste to the surrounding countryside. In any case, the wars against Persia taxed the Roman military heavily, and forced huge sums of men and money to be poured into the Syrian-Armenian frontier. It also drew the attention of the emperors, distracting them from usurpations, rebellions, or invasion in other parts of the Empire.
Along the Rhine and Danube rivers came pressure from the warlike Germanic tribes who aimed to migrate into the Empire. These people, traditionally nomadic and uncivilized by Roman standards, had in fact learned much from centuries of warfare with the Romans. They had improved their military tactics, their organization, and weaponry since the early wars against Caesar and the Republic. Formerly known to the Romans as the Suebi (from which the German state Schwabia derives its name), a collection of German tribes united in the early-mid 3rd century under the title Alemanni (the ‘all men’) and invaded Roman territory around the bend in the river Rhine. Note the significance to posterity of this Germanic unification to the people of Gaul in that this is where the French derive their name for Germany: Allemagne. The massive tribal alliance poured across the Rhine and ravaged the Roman countryside in Gaul.
Gothic campaigns preceding the Battle of Naissus. After capturing a fleet of ships in the Black Sea, the Goths sailed into the Aegean Sea where they raided the towns of Greece and Asia Minor in an attempt to enrich themselves on the endless wealth of the Empire. The raids were primarily successful, and the area suffered heavily from the effectively unopposed invasion.
Another new and acute barbarian threat were the Goths, another Germanic tribe. This time appearing for the first time in Roman records from modern Ukraine (although their origins can be traced back to the islands of southern Sweden), they entered Roman territory and plundered the countryside, often unopposed. The Goths even managed to kill the Emperor Decius at the battle of Abritus in 251AD, a major blow to the reputation of the Roman legions. They then captured a Roman fleet in the Black Sea, and sailing through the Dardanelles past Byzantium sacked the major Aegean Sea cities of Trebizond, Nicomedia, and Athens in consecutive years. They also destroyed the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in modern-Turkey, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. Greece and Asia Minor were ravaged. In the countryside the invaders destroyed villages and farmland, and from the major cities they extracted vast amounts of money and treasures. Finally, after plundering Greece and Asia Minor and laying waste to the countryside, the Goths were driven back from Roman territory at the battle of Naissus in 268AD by a significant defeat at the hands of the emperor Claudius II. While Claudius had changed the momentum of the war against the barbarians back in favour of Rome, the damage had been done; the wealthy provinces had suffered greatly and the Romans had been unable to stop it.
In the meantime, rebellions far within the borders of the Empire made effective and unified Roman resistance to these external threats impossible. In the reign of Valerian’s successor and son, Gallienus, there were probably around twenty rebellions alone, all of which ultimately failed but did contribute to further damaging the power and authority of the Empire. The Roman state was quickly coming part.
Queen Zenobia, ruler of the breakaway Palmyrene Empire. After ruling as de facto sovereign of the Province of Syria through her son, the ambitious and charismatic leader declared herself Queen and rebelled against the Romans. Capturing the wealthy provinces of Egypt and parts of Asia Minor, she controlled a significant portion of the wealth and food supply of the Empire. Her rebellion was ultimately crushed by Aurelian, and she was paraded in chains at his triumph in Rome.
Tetricus, the last of the Gallic Emperors. The breakaway state had been formed by the general Postumus, and had firmly resisted Roman reconquest for over a decade. When Aurelian brought his legions to bare on the outclassed Tetricus, he betrayed his army in an effort to preserve his own life. His army was massacred, and his provinces absorbed back into the Roman Empire.
Two major rebellions during the height of the crisis made the Roman situation even more precarious. In the chaos of 260AD, the general Postumus, commander of the Gallic legions, rebelled – ostensibly to more effectively command Roman forces in Gaul against the invading Alemanni – and established a breakaway state known to us now as the Gallic Empire. The Gallic Empire (which at the time called itself simply the Roman Empire) included at its height the regions of Britain, Gaul, and Hispania. This state had it’s own senate, elected it’s own consuls, and in almost every way acted as the actual Roman state did. To further complicate matters, in 270AD, Queen Zenobia based out of the ancient city of Palmyra in modern Syria (just this week taken back from ISIS by the forces of the Syrian Army), declared the establishment of her own breakaway state, known today as the Palmyrene Empire. Despite being one of only a handful of female rulers in the Roman world, her rule was quite effective and she was well respected by the people of the time. Her empire included Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and southern Asia Minor, some of the richest provinces in the Roman Empire.
Rome was also simultaneously hit by widespread famine as a result of dramatic economic dislocation, and widespread the plague. In 250AD, the Plague of Cyprian broke across the Roman world. Now believed to be a case of smallpox, it spread quickly across the major internal trade network that spanned the Mediterranean Sea and struck the major cities with acute severity. Rome, Carthage, Antioch, and Alexandria were all heavily depopulated. Likewise, famine effected the entire Empire and in particular the major cities, and stemmed from several factors, including general depopulation, the increasing localization of the Roman economy as a result of marauding armies (armies prior to about 200 years ago had to feed themselves off the land they conquered), and the advantage of the poor and destitute taken by the fantastically rich estate-owning Roman elite during the height of the crisis.
These economic problems caused great unrest in the Empire’s major cities from which states in classical antiquity drew their power. In the ancient Roman world, major cities were truly massive by later medieval and early modern standards. During the Pax Romana, Rome boasted a population of possibly a million inhabitants, Alexandria around half a million, and Antioch and Carthage slightly less than that. Compare this to the fact that the largest city in the Holy Roman Empire for hundreds of years during the renaissance was Prague with a population of approximately 50,000. It was not for 1400 years that modern London (in around 1810) surpassed Rome’s population during this period of antiquity. The massive population of cities like Rome was only able to grow so large as a result of the internal trade network that spanned the Mediterranean. They were the true centres of culture, learning, and political power. As they began to decline in the face of plague, famine, and the danger of wandering armies hungry for the spoils they had so conveniently concentrated, the residents of the city began to flee for the comparative safety of the countryside. Cities that hadn’t been walled since their conquests by the Romans hundreds of years earlier now built their walls back up in an attempt to save themselves not only from invading barbarians, but also from their own soldiers.
I hope I have painted a picture of the absolute calamity that this crisis was to the Roman Empire and to the classical world more generally. Despite the eventual resurgence of Roman power, and the stabilization of the empire, the weakening of the Roman state had been so severe that the classical world would never truly recover.
AURELIAN AND THE STABILIZATION OF THE EMPIRE
The Emperor Aurelian, who ruled for only five years. He defeated the Empire’s external enemies, the Germans and Persians, and incorporated both the Gallic and Palmyrene breakaway states back into the Roman fold. Had he not been assassinated so early in his rule, he might of be remembered as one of the Empire’s greatest rulers.
Aurelian became Roman Emperor in 270AD. At this point, the Crisis of the Third Century had been ongoing for 35 years. I expect to most of the population of the Empire, it appeared the end of Roman rule was near. Whole generations of young men had been consumed in the inferno of constant warfare, the cities had become depopulated and were forced to surround themselves with defensive walls for the first time in hundreds of years, while the strong Roman economy that had powered the Empire to the heights of wealth and glory was in shambles.
Aurelian was born in Sirmium, a major Roman city in modern Serbia, and the birthplace of many of the barracks emperors. Like many of his fellow barracks emperors, his origins were humble, and he had to prove himself through effective military service rather than having command conferred upon him for his social status. He did just that. Under the reign of Emperor Claudius II who had defeated the Goths in the aforementioned Battle of Naissus, he was able to win himself a place of great distinction in the mind of the emperor. As such, he was chosen to become Roman Emperor in 270AD upon the death of Claudius, who had recently died after contracting the plague. Aurelian quickly set about changing the fortunes of the crumbling Empire.
In rapid succession he brought the enemies of the Empire to their knees. In 271AD, the first full year of his rule, he defeated the Goths, then the Vandals, and finally an alliance of the Alemanni, Juthungi, and Macromanni in Cisapline Italy, near modern-day Milan. The following year, 272AD, he turned on the Carpi, another Germanic tribe, and defeated them. Immediately wheeling about, he marched his army to Palmyra in distant Syria, and destroyed the breakaway Palmyrene Empire’s army, forcing the surrender of the city, and capturing Queen Zenobia. In 273, Palmyra revolted against Aurelian again shortly after Zenobia’s capture, he returned and raised the city in vengeance for their rebellion. Palmyra, a jewel of classical civilization, never recovered, but at least the dissension of the rebellious eastern subjects had been crushed. Aurelian then turned west destroyed the army of the Gallic Empire at the Battle of Chalons in 274AD. At Chalons, the Gallic Emperor Tetricus was rumored to have made a deal with Aurelian for his own life (likely due to an acknowledgement of Aurelian’s superior army and generalship). Tetricus appears to have purposely put his army in a disadvantageous position, and then immediately surrendered himself to Aurelian once the battle commenced. He was given a villa in Italy where he lived out his life peacefully. His army, on the other hand, was massacred.
In four years, Aurelian had eliminated nearly all external and internal threats to Rome. The feat is one of the most impressive in the long history of Rome, and it’s truly a shame that Aurelian is basically unheard of outside of historical circles. The historiographical theory – advanced by Tolstoy in War and Peace if I remember correctly – that individuals are unable to make any meaningful influence in the inexorable path of history, sags under the weight of Aurelian’s accomplishments.
Never before, nor since, had a nation endured such a calamity as the Crisis of the Third Century, and survived. It is my opinion, and I’m sure many others’ as well, that without Aurelian, the Roman Empire would not have endured for much longer. That being said, Aurelian was soon assassinated by a Praetorian guard who had committed some error in his duties, and who was afraid of retribution for his ruthless Emperor. The man resolved to murder the Emperor by stabbing him to death in his tent on the way to lead a massive campaign against the Persians, and succeeded in his regrettable action. The event is quite tragic, and for a short while afterwards, Rome’s future once again appeared uncertain as a series of Emperors succeeded to the throne. While Aurelian’s military victories had secured stability and general peace in the Empire, it would take a reformer to truly stabilize the Empire for any lasting period of time.
The Emperor Diocletian. The son of a freedman in Illyricum, and a product of the Crisis of the Third Century, he succeeded through military brilliance and infectious charisma in a very short time frame to the highest office in the Roman world. Pragmatic and far-sighted, he aimed to reform the Roman Empire in a manner that would ensure its future survival.
Diocletian was born in 244AD in the town of Salona, close to the Adriatic Sea in the province of Illyricum, modern day Croatia. He was from humble stock, and, like many ambitious lower-class Romans before him, chose to advance his position in the Empire through a career in the military. While the details on his rise through the ranks are basically non-existent, we can infer from his quick rise to power that he must have showed great promise during this chaotic period.
By 282AD Diocletian held the important post of head of the elite guard of the Roman Emperor Carus. Carus had taken the imperial purple that year at the behest of his troops, and had notable not even bothered to gain the official acceptance from the senate, a trend would continue from this point until the end of the Empire. Carus’ first order of business was to march his army into Mesopotamia to punish the Persians for their repeated invasions of Roman Syria. With him he brought his son and future heir Numerian. He sent his other son Carinus to Gaul at the head of an army to hold off attacks from the resurgent Alemanni.
The campaign started off well. Marching into Mesopotamia, he captured the Persian capital of Ctesiphon without a fight, and for a time it appeared the new Sassanid Empire might collapse under the pressure of the Roman advance. However, his luck turned, and he soon fell ill and then died in camp. Numerian, was acclamated as Emperor by the soldiers following his father’s death, however, he too soon died of illness. The army turned back, partially due to a superstitious event at the time of Carus’ death, and returned to Roman territory.
At Chalcedon, near modern-day Istanbul, the leaders of Carus’ army convened to discuss the future of the leaderless Empire. Diocletian, the head of Carus’ elite guard was chosen to succeed him as emperor. Far away in Gaul, upon hearing of the death of his father and brother, Carinus’ troops acclamated him as Emperor and legitimate heir to the throne. Carinus soon marched against Diocletian, but was killed by one of his own officers (whose wife he had earlier seduced) in Illyricum. The infidelity and vice of Carinus’ private life had caught up with him before he could engage his political rival, and the civil war abruptly ended. Diocletian, 39 years old, was left as sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
Diocletian’s character is well attested by his contemporaries and by inference into the manner in which he achieved the unification of a fragmenting Roman society under his own personal rule. Having proved himself at a young age in the campaigns against the Persians, his valour and bravery in combat were second to none, and he always appeared to rise to whatever crisis confronted him. He was intelligent, calculating, and energetic of mind. His ambition was great, but hardly ever overcame his strong common sense. It was these attributes which enabled him to continually make effective and far-sighted decisions. From what was written about him during and after his reign, he appears in almost every way to hold the characteristics that make a good emperor.
Obviously capable in his abilities, and possessing a demeanor and personality that allowed him to gain the loyal support of those close to him, Diocletian set about stabilizing the Empire. He quickly ensured the national administration was organized and stocked with his supporters, making a couple of key appointments in the government. It is not certain whether or not he visited Rome directly after being made emperor, but it is known that he spent much of his early reign on the Danube frontier fighting against barbarian incursions into Roman territory. Ever the able soldier, he was quickly able to stabilize the borders he visited.
Despite having quickly and painlessly consolidated personal rule over the entire Roman world, Diocletian was a pragmatist, and seemed not to be blinded by the greed for power and wealth that had sealed the fate of so many of his predecessors. Regardless of the state’s weakening during the Crisis of the Third Century, the power and prestige of Rome still appeared to allow the state to function with some effectiveness under an able and effective leader, such as Aurelian or himself. Diocletian quickly noticed that the trouble with this arrangement was that as soon as the effective Emperor died, the state was immediately plunged into civil war and weakened by the resulting socio-economic chaos. If this was to happen again following his death, the state might not be able to pull through as it had miraculously done from the latest crisis. Diocletian knew that there were systemic problems with the administration and organization of the Empire that had to be remedied if Rome was to exist for any meaningful time after his death.
The primary issue that needed to be resolved was the glaringly obvious problem of succession. During the greatest periods in imperial Roman history, Emperors had chosen their successors from among their inner circle, adopted them, and gradually prepared themselves for the position of Emperor. This was the case in the wake of the death of Augustus, and then again during the reigns of the Five Good Emperors. For instance, the 80 or so years of peace and prosperity from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius (who had all adopted and mentored heirs that were not their own children) was only ended when Marcus unexpectedly chose his son Commodus (the two Emperors portrayed in the film Gladiator) to succeed him. Marcus’ error and nature of Commodus’ reign is captured in a famous quote by the great historian Edward Gibbon as being the moment Rome went from being a ‘kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’. There are many more examples of nepotism ending periods of stability and growth in the Empire, but his is probably the most famous example, and I will not go into detail about the various other examples in this post.
It was also clear to Diocletian that the current trend of barracks emperors needed to end as well. The chaos that the soldiers’ acclamations had created during the proceeding 50 years nearly destroyed the Empire, and many of these emperors knew little to nothing other than the art of waging war; hardly a resume for the ruler of the economic and cultural behemoth that was Rome.
There were other considerations too. The Crisis of the Third Century had proven that the Empire could only effectively maintain the two primarily warlike borders of Syria and the Danube if it had two commanders each controlling events on his respective frontier. Many problems had arisen during the proceeding years as Emperors had concentrated massive military power in a single army and marched against one enemy or another, leaving the other borders stripped of troops and open to plunder and invasion. Several times, as Emperors had marched into Persia, Germanic tribes had crossed the Danube and devastated the countryside, and had managed to retreat from Roman territory before effective Imperial forces could be mustered to secure the compromised area. Possibly the greatest example being during the reign of the ill-fated Valerian, the tribe of the Franks had managed to push through Gaul, Hispania, and as far south as northern Africa where they plundered the wealth of the rich province, while the Alemmani had ravaged the northern Italian countryside. All the while, Valerian, deep in Persian territory, was unable to offer any effective aid.
This state of affairs was obviously unacceptable and reflected the inability for any one commander-in-chief to be in two places with two armies at once. The issue was ultimately part of a greater problem of administration: the Roman Empire was so large by this point that it had become extremely difficult for a single ruler to govern the sprawling state effectively. Something had to be done if Rome was to survive.
Diocletian’s Tetrarchy. The senior emperors, the Augusti, where given the richest provinces, while the two junior emperors were tasked with holding the unstable Rhine and Danube frontiers. Under the just leadership of Diocletian, this system of government added balance and stability to the Roman administration and military, and allowed the Empire to recover from the Military Anarchy.
In any case, in postulating his reforms, Diocletian knew that he had to formalize a system of succession to ensure that Rome was able to recover and prosper in the future. He also knew that he needed to establish a system that allowed for some form of power sharing across the Empire.
His solution was brilliant and far-sighted. On April 1st, 286AD, Diocletian elevated his friend, the general Maximian, co-emperor. Taking the east (by far the wealthier half of the Empire) for himself, he gave Maximian the west. While Diocletian could have followed precedent and kept control of an undivided Empire in his own hands, it is certainly a testament to his deep pragmatism and sense of self-confidence that he decided voluntarily to share military and political power with another able general. This was the first step in establishing his new form of Roman government.
Emperor Maximian, Augustus in the West. Ruling from Mediolanum, Maximian was the ready instrument of Diocletian. His lack of inhibition in using his legions in accordance with his counterparts policies proved useful to Diocletian, and contributed to the stability of the period. Despite his immense power, he never once betrayed Diocletian, and the two emperors became good friends, continuing their correspondence into old age.
Maximian himself was an interesting character. Ruthless and unsympathetic, he was a hard soldier through-and-through; very much a product of the Crisis of the Third Century. While Diocletian played on diplomacy and clemency in dealing with threats to the Empire, Maximian was very much the one-dimensional hawkish general who was always able and willing to provide the military strength where it was needed. He was in this sense the military instrument of Diocletian, and never hesitated in putting down with the most extreme severity and cruelty, threats to their joint rule. In this sense, the two Emperors can be seen as playing off each other’s characters; I’ve heard their arrangement described as a good cop-bad cop relationship. However, despite his violent nature, Maximian was ever loyal to Diocletian, from beginning to end, and the two seemed to work very well together. As was often the case, such as in the power sharing between Caesar and Pompey, or Octavian and Antony, ambitious Roman generals sharing power usually resulted in costly and bloody civil war for the position of sole Roman ruler. In the case of Maximian and Diocletian, this never occurred, and this exception to the general rule can truly be put down the character of both leaders, and while some of it can be attributed to the formality of the new system of government, Diocletian must also be given credit for making a far-sighted choice of co-emperor. Diocletian’s good judge of character continued.
In early spring 293AD, Maximian and Diocletian named two further co-emperors, Constantius and Galerius respectively, bringing the total to four. This was the true beginning of the Tetrarchy. The system would work as follows: Two senior Emperors, operating under the title of Augustus would government the Empire, one in the east and one in the west. These Augusti would then nominate a junior co-Emperor, given the lesser title of Caesar. When one of the Augusti would abdicate or die, his respective Caesar would be proclaimed Augustus of his half of the Empire, and would in turn nominate a new Caesar under him. The Empire would be divided into four geographical components, with each of the four Emperors governing a their share of the territory. Diocletian and Maximian would be given the richest and more peaceful sections of the Empire, while Galerius and Constantius would be given the war-torn border provinces.
This was the most radical structural and constitutional change to the Roman world since the establishment of the Empire by Augustus in 27BC, 300 years beforehand.
The Tetrarchs. Notice the two pairs of Emperors (east and west) with the senior Augusti’s hands on the shoulders of the younger Caesars. In many ways, the Augustus-Caesar relationship was that of a mentor and student. Also important to note is the hand of each emperor on the hilt of his sword. This symbolized the readiness of the emperors to engage their four separate Imperial armies in defence of each other and the realm.
The new-system had several benefits. Firstly, it represented a formal system of succession. Diocletian hoped that this system would prevent the uncertainty and chaos that often followed the death of an Emperor, and end the trend of the rise of several claimants to the throne. Secondly, it would enable four Emperors to control their own section of the border, ensuring that there was always an Imperial army on hand should the threat of invasion occur. Thirdly, the existence of four emperors with four independent armies would ensure that should a usurper arise or should any one of the Tetrarchs act unlawfully and try and bypass the system for their own personal benefit, he would have to face at least three Imperial armies.
This was a significant change to the Roman government and administration, and for a considerable amount of time, the system worked well. It turned out that the choice of Caesars – Constantius in the west under Maximian, and Galerius in the east under Diocletian – were just as well made as Diocletian’s choice of Maximian as co-Augustus. They Caesars were effective in war, and submissive in their relationship to the older Augusti. The Roman Empire, temporarily spared of the costly succession conflicts that had so damaged it during the proceeding century, began to recover under the stable reign of these four men.
A NEW EMPIRE
Edward Gibbon, the father of modern history, notes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Diocletian, like Augustus, ‘may be considered the founder of a new empire’. The statement is certainly not merely sensationalist. The changes Diocletian would enact to both the structure and nature of Roman administration would prove to change Roman history forever. However, the Tetrarchy, despite its benefits, was not perfect. Many of the problems associated with the new system only became apparent following the death of the Diocletian. I will quickly try to go through some of these changes.
One of the most telling indicators that Diocletian’s reforms had changed the Roman Empire irrevocably was the shift in the status of the city of Rome. To combat the constant border incursions by foreign barbarians, both Diocletian and Maximian changed their primary administrative cities, moving their administration closer to the borders. Diocletian established his capital and court of the east in the city of Nicomedia (to cover both the Danube and Syrian borders), near modern-day Istanbul, while Maximian moved the Imperial administration in the west from Rome to Mediolanum, modern-day Milan. The change was telling. No longer was Rome the undisputed caput mundi, or head of the world. No longer was Rome the residence of the emperors, and the center of government. The administrative and military challenges that appeared during the Crisis of the Third Century had pulled the government of the Empire away from the ancient city that had conquered the world and established the legal and moral framework for a millennium of Roman rule. True, Rome was still the largest and most important cultural, religious, and economic city in the Empire, but it’s power and position had begun to decline.
In many ways, this is a sad and sobering reminder that the golden days of the Roman world were now behind it, and that a new and alien state was suddenly being constructed on top of the classical foundation. In some ways, it marked the beginning of a change in the character of Roman society, towards the conquered peoples of the border provinces and away from the established and educated elite in the city of Rome. Of note is that, in the east, Greek gradually began to be used more commonly between the administrators of that half of the empire, as the influence from the Latin-speaking west based in the city of Rome began to decline. This trend, mirroring the political culture of the eastern administration, would gradually become more pronounced until the Eastern Roman Empire had established a culture entirely separate from that of the west.
An image I have used before of the Emperor Honorious. Despite reigning nearly a hundred years after the abdication of Diocletian, the changes in the Imperial court and among the Roman elite that began with Diocletian are well depicted. Notice the distracted emperor, too caught up in frivolities to be effectively governing the Empire. Notice too the increasing subservience of the court officials and the increasing importance of religion.
The very nature of the Roman Emperors themselves also changed. The eastern leaders began to drop the guise of the princeps, the emperor who associated with the common senator, which had been the expected norm for Emperors during the Pax Romana. Instead, the eastern Augusti, led by Diocletian, began to adopt increasingly authoritarian and monarchical attributes. What remained of the plain clothes worn by Augustus and his successors that were purposely intended to appease the love of freedom held by the Roman citizenry by making the Emperor appear to be just other senator of Rome and thus reinforce the mirage that the republic still existed, were gradually replaced under Diocletian’s reign by garments of extreme opulence and value. Often, the dress of the emperors was studded with precious stones and gold, and they wore pearls and jewels of inestimable value around their necks. Diocletian even began wearing an eastern Diadem, an ancient symbol of the despotic eastern governments that had preceded Roman rule. This was a detested symbol in the Republic and early Empire that would have incited revolt during the golden age, and in fact emperors had been killed for such blatant shows of superiority in the past.
Royal courts also began to develop, and visitors meeting the emperor now had to prostrate themselves before being allowed to speak. The emperors began to surround themselves with eunuchs, a common practice in eastern and Chinese governments, but nearly unheard of in the Latin west with it’s modest republican foundation. Beginning with Diocletian, the eastern Emperors in particular began to disassociate themselves from any involvement in the affairs of the plebs, and instead became far removed from the reality of the citizens of the Empire. Speaking to an emperor, which had once been no different from speaking to a normal Roman senator, became a rare and convoluted procedure. As time went on, an increasingly large and controlling court of eunuchs, sycophants, and domestic servants would gradually work to cut off the Emperors from the average civilian, and eventually usurp their power. While not yet the case with the intelligent and energetic Diocletian, the seclusion of the Emperors from any form of reality would eventually lead to sloth and languor from the Roman leadership during the great crises that were to ultimately doom the Western Empire in the 5th century. The failure of the later Emperors, many of them puppets to strong figures in the royal courts, to react with any competency or urgency to these increasing threats, would eventually spell disaster for Rome. These changes can be seen as beginning in earnest under the reign of Diocletian.
However, despite the ultimately negative effects of the new style of emperor, in establishing the new form eastern government it is very likely that Diocletian had no real personal desire to adopt the eastern despotic practices mentioned above, and rather engaged in them as a means of gaining the respect of the citizens and soldiers of the eastern provinces, who were culturally more inclined to respect rulers who removed themselves from everyday activities and were elevated to the rank of semi-divine despot. This eastern preference for the royal despot might best be observed when Julian, the last pagan emperor who attempted in the 360s AD to re-establish old Roman civic virtues and wipe-out Christianity, was insulted publicly by the citizens of the city of Antioch in modern Syria for sporting the traditionally plain garb of a Roman senator and for his rejection of a royal court.
I mention all of this because it is extremely significant as a change to the character of the Roman world. This is the end of any remaining façade of democracy or republican values and voluntary civic virtues in the Roman world. In many ways, it is the beginning of the sort of rule employed by the kings of Europe during the dark and medieval periods. The republican legal basis for the authority of the early emperors was usurped by the divine right of kings; the citizens of the Empire gradually became subjects, and eventually ended up as slaves.
It must be noted that not all of these changes became so apparent or were so readily adopted by the members of the Tetrarchy during the reign of Diocletian, but this is the period in which they started, and thus must be seen as an important milestone in the decay of the traditional values of the Empire.
Another major negative result of the Tetrarchy was a massive expansion in the Imperial administration. Since four men now shared the supreme office of the state, each had to be given their own court, administration, and taxation system. The result of this was the duplication of the offices of government four-fold, with a correspondingly heavy tax burden on a populace already crushed by taxation. Every office of the unified Roman government now existed in four separate geographical divisions of that previously undivided state. Couple with the corruption and extravagance of the Imperial courts, and the unrestrained bribery of the army, taxes were increased across the Empire in an attempt to offset the vast governmental expenditure. This led to gross corruption in the provinces by the powerful governors. In response to the crushing weight of taxes and the intolerable trespasses of the corrupt landowners and provincial officials, peasants across the Empire rose up in revolt. These groups of rebellious peasants were known as the Bagaudae, and they persisted in Gaul and Hispania up until the end of the Empire in 476AD causing disruption of trade, agriculture and tax collection.
WORK UNDONE: THE COLLAPSE OF THE TETRARCHY
Diocletian’s Palace, now the center of the Croatian city of Split on the Adriatic coast. It was to this massive personal estate that Diocletian would retire following his abdication in 305AD. He fell in love with gardening and no longer wanted anything to do with politics. He died here peacefully in 311AD.
On May 1st, 305AD, Diocletian became the first Roman emperor to abdicate voluntarily. Suffering from ill health in his advanced age, he proclaimed to his legions assembled on a plain to the east of his capital of Nicomedia that he would be giving up his office to that of a younger, and more able man. He was soon on the road for his private palace on the Adriatic Coast in modern whose foundation now forms the center of the Croatian city of Split. At the insistance of Diocletian, on the same day, at roughly the same time, Maximian made the same announcement in Mediolanum.
The impact of human interference in the succession system Diocletian had established became apparent immediately following his retirement. For nearly two decades following the abdication of the great emperor, the Empire once again plunged into a state of chaos and uncertainty. Frequent civil wars once again plagued the trade and well being of the citizens of the Empire, and Roman blood was yet again spilled in vast quantifies as ambitious and unscrupulous claimants to the throne battled for sole rule of the Empire. Just as the rule of Imperial law had been forgotten following the death of Marcus Aurelius, so was it altogether abandoned in the wake of Diocletian’s retirement. In the absence of any respect for Roman law among the new claimants, the greed and vanity of the contenders had revealed the sad truth: that it had only really been Diocletian’s military power and web of patronage that had held the Empire together.
The subsequent period in history might be slightly confusing for the reader due to the fact that six emperors reigned simultaneously, and due to the similarity of the names of many of these six emperors. I will try and be as succinct and direct as possible.
According to Diocletian’s plan, Constantius in the west and Galerius in the east assumed the title of Augustus. In the west Severus, bound by loyalty to the eastern Augustus Galerius, was made Caesar, while in the east the new Caesar was a surprised and inexperienced Maximin. It quickly became apparent that Galerius had attempted to subvert the power of his western counterpart Constantius by having the loyal Severus made Caesar, thus giving himself informal control of three out of four of the Imperial positions in the Tetrarchy. The greed of Galerius, who likely aimed at gaining total power over the Roman world, was beginning to distort the delicate equilibrium of the Tetrarchy that had been so painstakingly balanced by Diocletian.
On July 25, 306AD, only fifteen months after succeeding Maximian as Augustus in the west, Constantius died from an illness contracted while on campaign against the Picts in northern Scotland. Disregarding the Tetrarchical system of succession, the troops of Constantine, the popular son of Constantius, acclaimed him as Augustus of the west in Eboracum, modern day York. Constantine was an able and effective general, highly charismatic, and was well respected by his father’s troops. He quickly sent a message to Galerius notifying the eastern emperor as to the nature of his father’s death and his acclamation as Augustus. In Nicomedia, Galerius flew into a rage and went so far as to threaten to burn the messenger who delivered the news, but eventually calmed down and decided to grant Constantine the lesser title of Caesar, instead proclaiming Severus as Augustus. Constantine accepted. He now controlled the battle hardened legions of Britain and Gaul and posed a significant risk to the stability of the Tetrarchy.
Simultaneously, in Italia there was growing discontent. The citizens of the one-time leading province in the Empire had become increasingly frustrated with the rule of foreign Emperors in distant cities. Envious of the rising prestige of cities like Nicomedia and Mediolanum, and spiteful at the decline of the city of Rome in the hands of Diocletian and his successors, their anger was now turned towards Galerius and his western puppet emperor Severus. Rising up against the distant ruler in Nicomedia, they elevated Maxentius, a son of Maximian and resident of Rome as Augustus in the west in an effort to reverse the dishonor they saw done to their great city. Maximian returned to military service in support of his son, and Severus was soon forced to surrender at Ravenna and was duly executed. An uneasy alliance was then formed between Maxentius and Constantine. The alliance was brokered when Maximian offered his own daughter to Constantine as a sign of unity.
As such, within 2 years, usurpers in the west had twice ignored the authority of Diocletian’s succession system; things were beginning to look much like they had before the Tetrarchy. Worse yet, the usurpers carried themselves in the manner of the new emperors, and made no attempt to conceal their contempt for the senate and the Empire’s democratic facade.
A confusing and convoluted series of events involving a quick succession of rival claimants and usurpers followed, which I do not have time to recount in this post. What is important to know is that in 312AD Constantine won out against his rival emperor after defeating Maxentius just north of the city of Rome at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Also important to note is the fact that Constantine supposedly had a vision on the eve of battle during which he saw a cross in the sun, and Jesus Christ instructed him to encourage his troops to paint a Christian symbol on their shields. The battle was won, and Constantine’s conversion to Christianity began, forever changing the Empire. For more information on the rise of Constantine, please see my first post entitled ‘Constantine, Christianity, and the Battle of the Milvian Bridge’.
THE DECLINE OF THE ROMAN TRADITION AND THE DEATH OF THE CLASSICAL WORLD
The Goths sack Rome. By 410AD Roman power in western Europe had grown so contemptible that the Gothic king Alaric (pictured here atop a horse) was able to besiege and then sack the city. At the time of Alaric’s capture of the city, the Emperors resided in the western capital of Ravenna. Rome, increasingly irrelevant in Imperial politics after it’s demotion during the reign of Diocletian, would be sacked again (by the Vandals in 455AD) before the last Roman Emperor was dethroned.
Constantine, like Diocletian before him, noticed the shift in the Empire, both culturally and financially, from west to east. Unlike Diocletian, however, he was not interested in establishing any kind of lasting solution to the succession problem, and instead looked to consolidate total control of the Empire in his own hands. By 325AD, Constantine had defeated Galerius’ successor in the east, Licinius, and had established sole rule over the Roman world. Stepping into Diocletian’s despotic powers, he became sole master of the Roman Empire, and did away one and for all with the formality of appearing to honour Rome’s traditional republican values. The Tetrarchy was finished.
Constantine set about actuating the shift in the Empire’s centre of gravity by establishing a new, eastern capital. He settled on the Greek fishing and trading village of Byzantium. This ‘New Rome’, rebuilt from the ground up, would come bare his name, and by the 5th century AD, Constantinople would become the largest and wealthiest city in the world. It would remain the largest city in Europe until the 13th century, 800 years after the extinction of the Western Roman Empire. The social and geographic center of the Roman Empire had shifted forever. So had its soul. Increasingly bereft of importance, Rome’s population and reputation gradually declined. Eventually, it was left undefended by the emperor Honorius, and soon fell easy victim to the Goths who sacked it in 410AD.
The Tetrarchy was, in many ways, the last attempt by the ancient world to correct itself. Excluding the brief reign of Julian in the 360s AD, it was certainly the last systematic attempt by a pagan emperor to reform the administration and governance of the Roman state in an effort to maintain some sort of continuity with the ancient world. With the rise of Constantine from the ashes of the Tetrarchy, the philosophical traditions of the ancient philosophers that had established the Roman Empire as the leading light of civilization was swept away by the petty theological bickering of the adherents of a new philosophical wasteland called Christianity. Through Constantine’s unrestrained power, something he obtained from the precedent of Diocletian, this new religion swept away the most respectable aspects of ancient classical culture: republicanism, civic virtue, tolerance, philosophy. And when the philosophy of a state is cast aside, the state loses the moral legitimacy that keeps both citizens and rulers adherent to a common rule of law.
With the rise of the despotic eastern practices among the Emperors, the burden of increased taxes from a greatly expanded bureaucracy, and the spread of Christ’s still unformed and mysterious eastern cult, the Roman Empire quickly began to disintegrate. In the west, it would only last another 150 years, although only 90 or so of these were stable following the death of Diocletian. The failure of any of the successors of Diocletian to acknowledge the legitimacy of the new constitution he had instituted, or to adhere to the restraints and humility of earlier Roman law, certainly contributed to the gradual breakdown of the Empire.
With the death of the Tetrarchy, the idea of Rome died, and above the rotting corpse of the Roman legal tradition the opportunistic vultures circled. The wealth and power associated with any position of power ultimately leads to the corruption of the original ideas that created the success of that institution in the first place. This is true for businesses, countries, trade unions, and any institution that exists for any lengthy period of time. Ultimately, it is the power hungry bureaucrats and career politicians that take over these institutions in the hope of advancing their personal position at the expense of the state. This is especially true of ancient Rome, already over 1000 years old during the reign of Diocletian. Good leadership and reform can prolong the life of a struggling government for some time, but if the idea of the state is dead, so to is the future of the nation. Diocletian tried to revive the Empire’s fortunes, but his attempts to reinvigorate the traditional values of the Roman Empire through radical reform was eventually betrayed by his ungrateful and myopic successors.
From the time from the death of Constantine onwards, with very few exceptions (only Julian and Majorian come to mind), the Empire was governed by increasingly ineffective and uninterested Emperors until one day it simply ceased to exist. Yet, Diocletian’s efforts were not in vain. He had miraculously restored stability and greatness to the Roman world in a moment when its future balanced precariously on a knife edge. His noble efforts are certainly worthy of praise. The story of the decline of Rome is a tragic one, but it is one that might have happened much earlier had Diocletian not done his best to save the Roman world in the old Roman tradition: law and order.
Thank you for reading.
Written by: Max Trinz