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The Fall of Rome (150CE-475CE)

Attempts to Salvage the Roman Order: Diocletian and Constantine (285-337 CE)

Rome from Tranquility to Crisis: Marcus Aurelius to Diocletian (161-285 CE)

The Germanic Tribes to 375


Also an Illyrican peasant having risen through the army, Diocletian (284- 304) and his successor Constantine (r. 313-337) reformed the imperial system to the point of remaking Roman state and society. When Diocletian ascended to the Purple, borders had been barely reestablished; Germanic and Sassanid threats continued, just as commerce and farming had decreased, engendering military requisitioning and difficult supply problems. This troubling situation was compounded by the continually decreasing silver content of the coinage, which caused inflation. Upon taking the throne, the first thing Diocletian did was to ensure that he did not go the way of previous military emperors. He withdrew to a secluded palace in Nicomedia (Asia Minor), espousing the idea of a remote, semi-deified monarch, and eschewing the classical Principate idea of imperial primus inter pares and senatorial cooperation in government.

Diocletian then took several measures to reinvigorate the Roman State: 1) Given constant military threats in East and West, he divided the empire into two. Maximian was named co-emperor in Italy, Gaul, N. Africa, and Iberia, with the effective capital in Milan, closer to the limes. Diocletian reserved all else, including the Balkans, to himself, and ruled from Nicomedia. 2) Concerned with succession, he and Maximian, both titled Augustus, adopted trusted generals as sons, naming them Caesars, who acted as deputies that would assume the throne upon an Augustus' retirement. This system was called the Tetrarchate. 3) Reforming the administrative divisions, the 50 existing provinces were subdivided into 100, grouping them into 13 intermediate dioceses. These were administered by a centrally-appointed bureaucracy designed to monitor local decurions' conduct. The bureaucracy created a link between outlying regions and central Rome, curtailing powers of potential rebels and increasing efficiency. The empire now became a bureaucratic state. 4) Defending long frontiers was increasingly impossible given army size. Diocletian doubled it from 300,000 to 600,000. To find soldiers, he decreed that sons of soldiers had to follow their fathers into service. From this decree a caste emerged, creating a ready supply of troops but also increasing social gaps in Roman society. Further, empire-wide conscription was implemented. Since many coastal and older Roman regions could evade the draft, most soldiers from the 300s came from the Balkan, barbarian peoples newly entered into Roman lands. 5) Debasement of the coinage (progressively lessening its silver content) beginning in the Severi years caused runaway inflation. The state had increasing trouble paying its debts, paying its soldiers, and raising new revenues. To end inflation, and raise revenues, Diocletian issued a new, bimetallic currency, consisting of a decent gold coin, as well as a heavier silver one. He also imposed a new land tax, based upon a survey of all the empire's agricultural land. The object was to make the tax fair and bearable, so that the government could estimate available and needed revenues for a year and generate a budget fully supported by taxes. Problems emerged when the exchange rate between the gold and silver coins was incorrect, so that bad money drove out the good, peasants were unable to cover their tax burden and escaped their debts by fleeing to the city, strangling urban environments for food. Diocletian implemented new policies in 302. The peasant was legally prohibited from leaving his plot of land. Though still free in other terms, this began the road to the enserfment of peasants and is a foundation of the rise of the manorial systems. Further, taxes were now payable in kind, in commodities the state could use. Finally, price and wage controls for the entire empire were set, in the hopes that the measure would prevent inflation and guarantee commoners' livelihoods. In order to guarantee receipt of tax revenues, provincial urban business classes, decurions, were forced to serve for life as tax collectors. This new system provided enough revenue, and Diocletian's subsequent establishment of state workshops, whose slave and conscript workers produced arms and uniforms for the army and bureaucracy, allowed the state to avoid market dynamics.

Diocletian and Maximian retired in 304, after which their deputies descended into conflict. Constantine defeated his chief rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312). As Augustus of the West he shared power with Licinius in the East until 324, when he defeated Licinius and took sole power over the Empire. Constantine continued the reforms of Diocletian. Imperial court ceremony was made even more strict and exclusive. The senate was demoted to city council of Rome, while the central government's bureaucracy was increased. Masters of the Army, magistri militum, assured imperial control of the military forces. These were increased to 900,000 men, including an increasingly Germanized field army and marginally Romanized barbarian forces stationed along borders as federates (foederati). Provinces increased to 117 and dioceses to 14, all administrated by four civilian praetorian prefectures. Military and civil administration was separated for the first time. Constantine's Crown Council assumed the role of a cabinet. When he found decurions were trying to evade tax-collection by joining the civil bureaucracy, Constantine forbade it and made them a hereditary class.

Constantine went beyond Diocletian in two ways. A) Extending previous rulers' eastern tendencies, Constantine established a new imperial capital for the East, on the Bosphorous remains of the town of Byzantium. With construction beginning in 325, Constantinople took six years to build. Constantine attracted rich senatorial families to settle there, established a senate, and implemented a corn dole to attract lower classes. B) Constantinople was also to be a new kind of Roman city: Christian. Immediately prior to the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine received a vision he interpreted to be of Christian inspiration, and went on to win the battle. From then, he became a generous patron of Christianity and the Church. Whereas Diocletian had implemented a severe round of Christian persecutions, Constantine's Edict of Milan (313) legalized the religion as a corporate body.

Though he did not make it the state religion, the Emperor took several measures to privilege Christianity: 1) He built several imposing churches in the empire's large cities, St. Peter's Basilica being an example. 2) He granted the church large agricultural tracts whose revenues supported church expansion. 3) As the church was known for charity, Constantine gave it access to imperial grain stores so it could be doled out. 4) The Church was allowed to receive legacies, and bequests of land to the corporate church soon made it the greatest Western landowner. 5) To increase the importance of bishops, Constantine allowed them to hold civil court, to which the general population could turn. 6) Decurions were allowed to escape their duties by joining the clergy. 7) Sunday became the official state holiday. These measures, along with the emperor's courting of converts and apologetic stance, allowed Christianity to transform from a small, persecuted group to being a vital part of the Roman state by the 330s, at which time Constantine stripped pagan temples of their agricultural land, as well as their precious metals. He also banned sacrifice, the core of pagan rituals. Constantine died in 337, undergoing a death-bed baptism.


Diocletian and Constantine brought the metamorphosis in Roman state and society to its logical conclusion, given the previous trends and the Empire's perceived needs. Emperors became purposely secluded, orientalized leaders. Gone was any illusion of equality with the Senate, which was sidelined in terms of governing, consultative, and fiscal powers. Political and social hierarchies were made much more rigid, at least on paper. Along with evidencing the influence of long residence in Eastern areas of the Empire on the political thought of the Emperors, it is quite possible that this was done to elevate the emperors—who as Balkans or half-Germans might have felt insecure—beyond the level of being assassinated.

Furthermore, the two leaders ushered in a society that was no longer one of rights and legal recourse, but of regimentation. Rome witnessed a real militarization of society in terms of manpower, priorities, and challenges, though Diocletian and his successor did try to keep civilian provincial administration separate from military matters, to both rationalize government and prevent generals from accumulating a threatening amount of power. That Diocletian would militarize the state is natural, given his military origin and thereby conditioned reading of the Empire's challenges. His autocracy too, and methods for implementing policies, are characteristic of his upbringing. The rigidity of his measures, such as binding peasants to the soil, in conjunction with processes already under way, such as latifundia, perhaps amplified an already emerging societal stratification; many historians have seen these measures as a creeping enserfment of peasants, and an antecedent to feudal relations. Also, such calcifying social policies suggest that the idealized 'Rome' may have begun to matter to less and less people. Of course, that both leaders increased the German element in the Army would have to mean that Rome and its traditions would be understood imperfectly by its protectors.

A fascinating question when viewing Constantine relates to his motives for embracing Christianity. The truth of his 'vision' is open to tremendous question, as the various versions were recorded by Christian apologists decades later. According to one version, while marching his forces through Gaul from Britain, he looked up at the sun and saw a symbol particular to that era's Christians emblazoned across it. Not the cross, it was called the Chi-Rho monogram, and its design is unclear to us today. Under the monogram were the words 'In this conquer', 'hoc signo vince.' In another version, he was told in a dream the night before the fateful battle at Milvian Bridge to include such a symbol on his shield. More skeptical explanations have emphasized Constantine's preexisting devotion to the cult of the sun, or that he was actually seeing the reflection of ice crystals in the sun's rays. Additionally, scholars have cited the presence of Christian mercenaries in his complement as a motive for embracing the religion. Finally, others have suggested that life as a youth in the East, where Christianity was more prevalent and acceptable, had allowed him to gain an understanding of its ideas. Whatever the truth, not only did his conversion entail the Roman order's gradual conversion, but its ramifications for the Church itself were extremely, transformatively large. As Emperor, Constantine actively took on the role of Christian arbiter in Church controversies regarding doctrine. This set up a precedent copied by Eastern Roman Emperors into and throughout the Byzantine period, both decreasing Church autonomy and absorbing perhaps too much imperial time. Further, While Christianity had previously been a minority, relatively impoverished religion, now it rather rapidly became quite wealthy; joining the Church as a functionary was suddenly a lucrative prospect. In the fourth and fifth century, this resulted in somewhat of a dilution of its spiritual vigor and message, leading to the rise of monasticism as a corrective.

Constantine's erection of a new capital was also be highly important. A Christian city, Constantinople came to inform the evolving ethos of Byzantium as a Greek civilization imbued with Christian identity, as well as serving as the hub of the continuing Roman political-legal tradition in the East.

even from the 330s, there is an evident parting of ways between the West and East. Though Constantine did not relinquish western lands, and in theory succeeding emperors of both halves were brothers-in-rule, differing political styles and decreasing military and bureaucratic capabilities allowed, and in allowing perhaps forced, the two regions to draw away from each other.

What is the overall significance of the 285-337 Roman restructuring? Several historians have idealized the Roman system of legality, rights, small peasant proprietorship, and industrious, civic-minded urban middle-class bourgeoisie topped by a senatorial class as epitomizing a self consciously Roman order based on Antiquity's balance. Such writers judged Diocletian and Constantine very harshly. The new system was indeed more rigid, and perhaps brittle, depending too much on a single leader to manage and monitor an expanded bureaucracy, military, police, informers, etc. Perhaps along with the structural change there was also something like a metamorphosis, or diminishing, of the Roman ideals in the minds of its citizens. And definitely, there was an increasing Germanization of the army, just as the state became for the first time an interested party to one's religious views.

Yet it is still more proper to view this period as earnest attempts to reinvigorate the state through transformation. The ancient core of the Empire was Italy and the Mediterranean coast cities. These were not terribly affected by the century of barbarian incursions and civil unrest. Some economic decline was evident, yet subsistence farming is quite resilient, and these regions continued as before economically, though less so culturally and politically. Moving beyond the core, to inland cities, Gaul, and more recently Romanized areas not fully integrated linguistically or culturally, the situation is more delicate. Barbarian plundering and Roman army requisitioning caused a shrinkage in town size, with the first walled towns emerging. On the one hand this can legitimately be seen as embodying insecurity and precariousness, yet we must consider that wall-building assumes privately- or senatorially-held funds; the walled cities were not without power and money. Still, economic affects of warfare and fiscal exactions by the state were harsh. Peasants were increasingly forced to sell their land to latifundia owners who would shoulder the tax burden. These mostly senatorial latifundia families would soon gather much land to themselves, hinting at later feudalism. In the fourth century, provincial wealth drained entirely to the top, and poor weather years as well as barbarian plundered harvests worsened the situation, especially since all Constantine's successors kept raising taxes.

Clouding the issue further, while military enlargements militarized the state and increased fiscal burdens, Diocletian and Constantine's reforms also responded to the need of repelling barbarian incursions. And the reforms were successful, producing a stronger, more flexible army that acquitted itself well for the century. More and more, soldiers came from the barely Romanized regions—Pannonia, Illyricum, etc. Some historians have seen recruitment of Balkan peasants as ensuring the existence of an army that did not comprehend the ideal it was defending. Still, not only were these people quite willing to join and defend Roman society, but opening up the ranks of the army to their promotion allowed people of low social origins but proven combat skills to rise. Some became officers and even emperor. Thus emerged a means of real social advancement in late Roman society, precisely at the point when old elites no longer demonstrated martial potential. Additional recruitment of Barbarians, however, or use of German auxiliaries, increased likelihood that the Roman army would not necessarily fight steadily in Rome's interest. All the same, ever- broadening processes of ethnic inclusion—conscious or otherwise—had come to characterize Rome from the beginning of the second century CE. What was really necessary in military as well as administrative terms was a continuing line of strong, attentive emperors. This focused need was a major weakness.

Of final significance was Constantine's embrace of Christianity. How did it impinge upon imperial survivability? Earlier historians, such as Gibbon, viewed the change as directly contributing to sapping imperial vigor in martial as well as realpolitik terms. In our century, some have claimed that now-legitimate church service diverted bright, imaginative people from imperial employment, just as it began to change the focus and long-term aspirations of segments of Roman society. This is not so certain, as Christianization was an extremely slow process, especially beyond the urban domain. Further, Christian emperors could be just as ruthless as their pagan predecessors. Of course, spread of the religion in German-Roman society did also engender proliferation of debilitating doctrinal disagreements, and probably distracted emperors and administrators from more mundane, pressing tasks. This, however, is indicative of what we mentioned above; the impact of imperial Christianization was probably most heavily felt by the Church itself. Furthermore, the Christianizing of the Roman Empire meant that Rome and its civilization would become memorialized as the touchstone and progenitor of all that to which thoroughly Christian Medieval Europe should aspire, preserving Roman tradition and ideal perhaps more strongly than they otherwise might have been.

In short, by the 350s, it was not at all obvious that Rome was headed for terminal difficulties. The tensions between old and new—imposing governments vs. societal traditions, Pagans vs. Christians, government's fiscal demands vs. economic capacity, and Germanization vs. Latin Roman culture—all this may have suggested to many a vibrant mix ensuring a continuing of success.

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