Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian

The future flag of Europe? Albania Andorra Austria Belgium Bosnia
Bulgaria Croatia Czech Republic Denmark Finland France
Germany Greece Hungary Iceland Ireland Italy
Kosovo Liechtenstein Luxembourg Macedonia Malta Monaco
Montenegro Netherlands Norway Poland Portugal Romania
San Marino Serbia Slovakia Slovenia Spain Sweden
Switzerland United Kingdom Vatican City      

A History of Europe


180 to 476

(All dates are A.D. from now on)

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Troubled Times Begin
The Severan Dynasty
The Barbarians Learn New Tricks
The Soldier Emperors
The Tetrarchy Breaks Down
Constantine I
Constantinian Christianity
Announcing the Middle Ages
Constantine's Successors Muddle Through
Julian the Apostate
Go to Page Navigator

Part II

The House of Valentinian
The Beginning of the End of the Classical World
Notable Fifth-Century Christians
Alaric the Visigoth
Gaiseric the Lame
Attila the Hun
The Arthurian Mythos
The Final Collapse of the West
The East Survives
Go to Page Navigator

Troubled Times Begin

Something went very wrong with the Roman Empire in the third century. The Romans themselves were not sure what it was because their historians, like most before the twentieth century, wrote about emperors and battles, not about economics and general trends. As a result, some concluded that the empire was in trouble because it had seen too many bad emperors recently. The man wearing the purple did leave a lot to be desired, but in earlier times there were bad Caesars and Rome managed to survive anyhow. Nor was the only reason declining morals, though we know that was a problem. In better days the Romans had indulged in what we would consider immoral behavior, the gladiatorial games and orgies being the best known examples. If morals had been the only problem, the Christianization of Rome in the fourth century would have reversed the empire's deterioration, and this did not happen.

Today most historians believe that the decline and fall of Rome had two root causes: decreasing population and a decay in the apparatus of administration and defense. For whatever reason, the Romans lost their vitality right after they conquered most of the known world. It now appears that a changing world climate worked in their favor, during the years of the Republic and the early years of the Empire. From about 900 to 300 B.C. the world was colder than it is today, and then came a long period when the world was warmer than it is now. Farmers enjoyed bountiful harvests during the warm years. According to our estimates, world population doubled as a result, from about 100 million in 300 B.C., to 200 or even 250 million in 150 A.D. And rapid growth was not confined to the places under Roman rule; other civilized areas, from Mesoamerica to China, saw good times during this period.

However, after 150 growth leveled off. In the cities the death rate was still higher than in the countryside, and both the Roman and Chinese empires suffered serious losses from a disease epidemic in the late second century. By 400 A.D., we estimate world population at something like 205 million, suggesting that civilized communities were shrinking from an earlier peak. Meanwhile, outside the pale of civilization, the barbarians continued to multiply.

Nowadays large families are often raised by those least capable of feeding and clothing all their children; in earlier times population growth was a measure of economic prosperity. When empires are successful they bring peace and security to their subjects. Improved communications mean that food can be transported from places that have it to places that need it. The result of both these factors is an upsurge in population up to the limit of what the land can feed.

However, when empires come under pressure they raise taxes until it becomes uneconomical to farm land of marginal quality. Thus, during the decline of the Roman Empire the total area under cultivation dwindled. We have calculated that in the fourth century a whole quarter of the empire's farmland was abandoned. This would have lowered both living standards and the food supply, leading to a further deterioration of population.

The first area to feel the pinch of negative growth was the place where the Roman state got started--in Italy itself. Besides the disease factor, the Romans seemed to have lost the desire to have babies. As in the modern world, abortion and birth control were widely available, though not as effective as such devices are today; many men also cut the birthrate by delaying marriage, or avoiding it altogether. In addition, keeping a big chunk of the population in chains discouraged growth (slaves have a notoriously low birthrate). During the period covered by this chapter, feudalism would replace slavery as the chief means to control workers.

Edward Gibbon blamed the population drop on Christianity; many Christians thought a true man or woman of God should not marry, so even those who weren't monks tried to live like them. However, this fad came so late in the Empire's history (the fifth century) that we must see it more as a symptom than the root cause of the problem. And Gibbon could not explain why the Empire lasted so much longer in the east, when the east always had more Christians than the west.

The other factor in starting the Empire's decline, political and military decay, happened because at the end of the second century, both the government and the army were costing more than the Empire could afford, and giving back less than they had in the past.(1) By the late fourth century, taxes had gotten so high that the small farmers that made up 90% of the Empire's population stopped coming to the market towns, because that is where they paid their taxes. Without the farmers the towns ran out of food, so the town-dwelling population moved away and the government's revenue fell catastrophically.

Thanks to Gibbon's monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, we now view the period from 180 to 476 as a great tragedy of history, a time of unstoppable decay and the crumbling of classical civilization. However true that may be, it was a process that took nearly three hundred years (more than a millennium if you count the post-476 empire in the east). Keep in mind that this is more time than most modern nations, including the United States, have been in existence. Therefore the average Roman went about his daily business, trying to enjoy life in whatever way possible, and because he did not have our perspective on things, he probably did not notice that life as he knew it was ending. To him, the Empire seemed to go on as usual: tyrants wore the emblems of emperors and claimed to be the "first citizen of the Republic"; rich men went to Senate meetings but did nothing important; soldiers left to fight barbarians, though now they did it more for money than for the glory of Rome.

Individual voices began to sound the alarm, when they compared the current strains and dangers to Rome in previous days, and concluded that the Empire was past its peak; still, the idea of the Empire collapsing may have seemed preposterous even to them. One of the first to notice a change was Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage. In the middle of the third century he wrote, "The world has grown old and lost its former vigor . . . Winter no longer gives rain enough to swell the seed, nor summer sun enough to toast the harvest . . . the mountains are gutted and give less marble, the mines are exhausted and give less silver and gold . . . the fields lack farmers, the seas sailors, the encampments soldiers . . . there is no longer any justice in judgments, competence in trades, discipline in daily life . . . "

Most historians mark 180 A.D. as the beginning of the decline, because that is when death came to Marcus Aurelius and his foolish son Commodus took his place. Commodus (180-192) was a startling person for such a good home to produce, though he seems to have kept his vices hidden while his father was alive. Moreover, while there had been emperors for two hundred years, Commodus was the first to have truly been "born in the purple." Most of the previous emperors had not been the sons of emperors; the two that were, Titus and Domitian, were born long before their father Vespasian ascended to the throne. So unlike the others, before he assumed the purple, Commodus was seen as a future emperor for all his life, meaning he had more opportunities to get spoiled than even Caligula had.

At first all was well. Marcus Aurelius died while waging his ongoing was against the Germans on the banks of the Danube, so Commodus had his ashes sent to Rome, where they were placed in the mausoleum of Hadrian, and made sure his father was deified (the usual treatment for deceased emperors). Then, because Commodus didn't care for "roughing it" on the frontier, he made peace with the Marcomanni tribe. Surprise!--not only were the terms favorable for the Romans, but the Marcomanni kept the agreement for several years, meaning the Empire's frontiers would be peaceful during Commodus' reign. Regarding domestic affairs, Commodus felt that his position would be secure as long as he had two groups of people on his side--the lower classes of Rome and the soldiers--and ending a war the soldiers were tired of fighting won him the support of the latter. As for the masses, he gave them several generous gifts of cash and more games, the classic "bread and circuses." To pay for these expenditures, he raised taxes on the upper classes, especially the senators, because he felt he didn't need these folks, and that is where the trouble started.

One night in 182, Commodus was coming home from the Colosseum, when a man jumped out of the shadows, exclaimed "The Senate sends you this!", and tried to stab him. The emperor's bodyguards stopped this would-be assassin, but Commodus had an unstable mind to begin with, and this appears to have sent him off the deep end completely. After that, he gave himself over to the craziest stunts the Empire had seen since Nero, and Cassius Dio, a historian who grew up during this time, wrote that Commodus "was a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or crime." Thinking himself an incarnation of Hercules, he walked around wearing a lion skin like that hero, with gold dust sprinkled in his blond hair, and insisted on being worshiped as a god. He named a grain fleet Commodian, changed the names of Rome and Carthage to Commodiana, and tried to put his name on both the legions and the Senate. In the arena he indulged in executions and chariot races, and even fought as a gladiator!(2) After twelve years of misrule, the legions decided to get rid of him; they persuaded his mistress to give him some poisoned wine, and when that did not work, her current lover (a wrestler) strangled him.

A bust of Commodus, wearing his Hercules costume.

The Senate picked a retired officer, Pertinax, to rule next. The Praetorian Guard accepted him at first, because they could overlook any vice in an emperor but stinginess. Emperor Pertinax, however, had every virtue but generosity. He had promised a large sum of money to the guards when he became emperor, but paid only half of it, and told the guards to forget about the rest because the treasury was drained. The impulsive Praetorians murdered him, after he had only been on the throne for three months, and then they put the Empire up for auction. Cassius Dio described how they conducted this disgraceful business:

"The would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from inside [the military camp] the other from the outside . . . Some of the soldiers would carry the word to Julianus, 'Sulpicianus offers so much; how much more do you bid?' And to Sulpicianus in turn, 'Julianus promises so much; how much do you raise him?' Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being the prefect of the city and also the first to name a figure of 20,000 sestertii per soldier, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by 5,000 at one time, shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers."

25,000 sestertii worked out to ten times a guard's annual salary. Nevertheless, Julianus only enjoyed his prize for 66 days. The people of Rome refused to accept an emperor whose only qualification was that he had bought the office. Soon the armies in Britain, on the Danube and in Syria heard about the commotion in Rome, and they also decided they did not want any of this. Each army proclaimed its commander as the next emperor, and they marched on Rome. The Danube army, being both the largest and closest, got there first with its general, Septimius Severus. Deserted by everyone, Julianus locked himself in the palace; in the royal bedchamber a soldier used his sword to end Julianus' pretensions.

The British commander, Clodius Albinus, initially recognized that Severus had won the race to Rome and dropped his claim. However the Syrian commander, Pescennius Niger, wouldn't give up without a fight, so in order to make his claim stick, Severus spent the next four years in a brutal civil war to eliminate Niger and his supporters. Suddenly in late 196, Albinus changed his mind. He had expected to be named the next emperor after Severus, and when Severus instead declared that he intended to bequeath the throne to a son of his, Albinus renewed his claim and crossed the English Channel with his legions. He got as far as Lugdunum, the capital of Gaul, before Severus met him with a force the same size. The resulting battle lasted two days, ended in a victory for Severus, and Albinus was killed. We don't know if Albinus committed suicide or fell in battle, but the result was the same--Severus had crushed all opposition to his rule.

Top of the page

The Severan Dynasty

Septimius Severus (193-211) believed that the army was the only part of the government that mattered. "Enrich the soldiers and scorn all other men" was the advice he gave his sons. He was an excellent soldier, and considering the problems he faced, he was a good administrator, too. He turned back invasions from both the Germans in the north and the Parthians in the east. At home he faced the problem of an empty treasury, which had not recovered from the spending of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Marcus Aurelius tried to make up the deficit by devaluing Roman money 25 percent and by holding an emergency auction of imperial property. Now Severus devalued the money another 25 percent, raised old taxes and invented new ones. He also confiscated the property of his political enemies, and that of citizens who contributed too slowly to his campaigns.

In the end most of his reforms backfired. Just as the peace of the first and second centuries brought prosperity and strength, so now the wars of the third century brought poverty. The high taxes drained so many pockets that some members of the upper classes chose to move down in society--and into a lower tax bracket. Thus, as in other times, higher taxation led to lower revenues. To keep the poor fed--and quiet--Severus distributed large amounts of food, money and medicine, adding to the burden on the imperial budget. The result was a vicious circle; the state could not meet all the demands placed on it, but it could not survive without meeting them.

Severus spent the most on defense, as you might expect. Because the Praetorian Guard could not be trusted, he disbanded it and created a new Praetorian Guard containing soldiers from all provinces, who had distinguished themselves in military service (previously the Guard had been strictly for Italians). He started taking barbarians into the army, and raised three new legions for his Parthian war. After the war he left two of these legions in the East, garrisoning the province he conquered in (northern) Mesopotamia; the third he moved near Rome as a reminder for the Praetorians to behave. The pay of the soldiers went up, and some restrictions on their lives disappeared; Severus allowed them to marry, work small plots of land, and wear gold rings as a symbol of their improved status.

Former military men moved into civilian posts in the bureaucracy, until one historian noted that "the emperor and his council now resembled a general and his staff, with the equestrian civil servants as their executive officers." Severus allowed this because he did not see a need to keep the Empire's hallowed customs. An ethnic Carthaginian from the Libyan town of Leptis Magna, he spoke Latin with a Punic accent, and his sister never mastered the Latin language, so they often discussed family affairs in Punic (it's a good thing Cato did not live to see this!). His sympathies were firmly with the provinces; Punic and Celtic words were allowed on legal documents during his reign, most of the top officials came from Africa or Asia, and he granted Roman citizenship to more provincial towns.

The Severan Family

The imperial family attends the circus. Septimius Severus and his wife, Julia Domna, are seated. The elder son, Caracalla, is standing in the front, while the younger, Geta, leans against a pillar. By Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1907.

In 208 the Picts overran the Antonine Wall and southern Scotland. Bored with administrative work, Severus went to direct the defense and took along his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, in the hope that the campaign would make real men out of them. Unfortunately for Severus, the Picts chose to wage a guerrilla war, instead of facing the legions in a conventional battle. This dragged out the conflict for two years; eventually Severus made extermination of the Pictish race his goal, rather than just securing the frontier. But nature settled it; already in poor health when he arrived in Britain, Severus died in February 211 at Eburacum (modern York). The only accomplishment of Severus' last campaign was the restoration of the Antonine Wall, and even that was pointless, for his successors abandoned everything north of Hadrian's Wall.

Severus left instructions for Caracalla and Geta to rule jointly, like Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus did fifty years earlier. Because the military life wasn't for them, the first act of the new co-emperors was to end the war immediately and return to Rome. On the way they showed they weren't going to get along as their father wished; because each youth feared assassination at the hands of the other, they refused to stay in the same inn, nor did they eat their meals together. After reaching Rome they lived in different parts of the imperial palace, with separate entrances, barricades and lots of guards between them; they also never appeared together at public functions unless the presence of both was required. By the end of 211, there was talk of dividing the Empire between them, with the west for Carcalla, the east for Geta. This prompted Julia Domna to tell the rival siblings, "You may divide the Empire, but you cannot divide your mother." Not after that, she called them to come to her apartment alone, in order to end the quarrel between them, but as soon as Geta arrived, some guards loyal to Caracalla barged in and murdered Geta. Caracalla then claimed that the guards were only protecting him, for his younger brother was plotting against his life. Afterwards Carcalla secured his position by having Geta's name removed from inscriptions, and took steps to eliminate Geta's supporters.(3)

Caracalla (211-217) was headstrong, paranoid and unpopular, but successfully followed his father's dictates. He raised the soldiers' pay by another 50 percent and paid bounties to barbarian chieftains for staying away from weak points on the frontier. Buying off the barbarians was seen as humiliating, but it was cheaper than fighting them. Unfortunately, the amount of "protection money" would grow after that, until it equaled the whole army payroll. For Rome he built the largest public bath house on record--a structure with so much social life going on inside that it was almost a small city in its own right. To pay for all this he again raised taxes and debased the currency. In 212 he granted citizenship to all free men in the Empire, not because of a love for human rights, but to add as many taxpayers as possible to government records.

Looking to become another Alexander the Great, Caracalla declared war on Parthia in 214; he marched east to lead the expedition, but only his ashes came back. His first campaign only succeeded in turning Edessa, a client kingdom captured by Trajan, into a full-fledged Roman province. Then he took time off to visit Alexandria, and had just started a second campaign when he was assassinated in a conspiracy by Macrinus, one of his Praetorian prefects, who feared that he was about to become the next of Caracalla's many victims. Macrinus was in turn overthrown and killed after only fourteen months as emperor (217-218), because he ended the war with peace terms that favored the Parthians.

Next, the soldiers chose to go with a fourteen-year-old cousin of Caracalla, Varius Avitus Bassianus, better known to us by the title Elagabalus (Heliogabalus in Greek). They accepted him because his grandmother, a sister of Julia Domna named Julia Maesa, spread a false story that Elagabalus was really the son of Caracalla, making him the rightful heir to the throne. As soon as they got back to Rome, however, they realized they had made a mistake. The four-year reign of this emperor was the strangest Rome had experienced to this point. The priest of a Syrian sun god, El-Gabal, he brought his religion with him, and declared it the supreme religion of the Empire, replacing the traditional pantheon of gods led by Jupiter. A temple to the sun god was built on Rome's Palatine hill, and the sun god's chief idol, a black phallus-shaped meteorite, was placed in that temple. He spent extravagant sums on parades, orgies, and practical jokes, and just in case anything else was needed to disgust the Romans, he was a transvestite and passive homosexual as well.(4) The Imperial family tried to "straighten" him out with a respectable bride, but after marrying and divorcing five of them, including a Carthaginian priestess of Asherah and (horrors) a Vestal Virgin, it became clear that he was not interested in women. Eventually even Julia Maesa decided he was bad news, and persuaded him to appoint his cousin Severus Alexander as Caesar and heir to the throne. When Elagabalus changed his mind afterwards and tried to eliminate Alexander, the Praetorian Guards killed him and threw his body into the Tiber River. The idol of El-Gabal was sent back to Syria, but Rome tolerated followers of the sun god, now called Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun); we will hear from them again later.

Severus Alexander ruled as a likeable but incompetent emperor for the next thirteen years (222-235). He came to grief because, unlike the other Severan emperors, he cared little for military matters, at a time when the Empire needed a militant ruler. In 226 the Parthians were overthrown by one of their vassals, a Persian named Ardashir. The empire he established, the Sassanid or Neo-Persian Empire, was more tightly knit, more efficient, and more aggressive than its Parthian predecessor. The new empire he founded saw itself as the heir of the old Persian Empire of the sixth-fourth centuries B.C. Ardashir and his successors dedicated themselves to the recovery of the provinces that had once been Persian and were now Roman: Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt. Thus began a long series of wars that would eventually exhaust both empires.

The first Roman-Persian war ended in a stalemate and truce, and Severus Alexander left to deal with the Alemanni, a German tribe that had stormed across the Rhine while Rome was preoccupied with Persia. At this point Alexander wavered, and decided to bribe the Germans to go home instead of fighting them. The soldiers didn't like this, and incredibly, Alexander forgot what Septimius said about the military--he tried to slash the army's payroll to recover the money spent in the bribe! This foolish mistake resulted in his death at the hands of his angry soldiers.(5)

Top of the page

The Barbarians Learn New Tricks

The lack of discipline among the soldiers weakened the central authority, and attempts to buy their loyalty drained the treasury, but the biggest danger of the legions lay in their obsolescence. The Romans had always believed wars were won by infantry. Even when cavalry defeated them--as at Cannae and Carrhae--they did not question their belief, but blamed those defeats on poor leadership. As a result, nothing was learned from either of those battles. What they did not realize was that by the third century A.D., cavalry had improved beyond recognition. Mounted archers and heavily armored knights with lances were now combined to produce a force that could harass, encircle, shoot holes in and finally run over even well-disciplined infantry. This combination cavalry was developed by the peoples who lived between the Roman Empire and the nomads of the Eurasian steppe; to fight off the nomads' cavalry they needed an even better cavalry of their own. The three peoples who did this--and gave the Romans a nasty shock in the third century--were the Parthians, the Sassanid Persians who succeeded them, and the Goths.

The Goths were a German tribe. Originally called the Getes and living in Sweden (in a district henceforth known as Götaland), a branch of them came across the Baltic and joined the other Germans in the first century A.D. By this time, the Romans were quite familiar with the Germans; Julius Caesar found them to be a handful of herdsmen, who did a little hunting and fishing to fill out their needs. Around 100 A.D. the historian Tacitus described a more advanced society, which lived in nearly permanent wattle-and-daub villages and practiced farming, though with not much enthusiasm; they were organized for only one task--war--and they saw valor as the one indispensable virtue. He called them a robust race "with blue eyes and reddish hair; great bodies, especially powerful for attack," who considered it "limp and slack to get with the sweating of your brow what you can get with the shedding of your blood."

Brave as they were, the German tribesmen were little more than a rabble at first. They hurled themselves screaming and half-naked into battle, their only armor being wooden or wicker shields. They did not have even the finely crafted iron weapons of the Celts. Only a few owned swords; the rest relied on Neanderthal-style clubs and spears with fire-hardened wooden points. When this mob met a disciplined Roman legion, the usual result was a rout. One Roman historian wrote about a group of fleeing barbarians who attempted to swim across a river for safety. They "were battered by javelins, or carried away by the current, or finally overwhelmed by the mass of fugitives and collapse of the river banks. Some ignominiously tried to escape by climbing trees. As they cowered among the branches, bowmen amused themselves by shooting them down."

Painting of Roman-German battle.

A typical battle between Romans and Germans, before the Germans acquired horses and armor.

The reason why the Severan emperors faced trouble on the northern frontier was because there were more Germans than before. In the two centuries since Augustus and Arminius the Germans had multiplied steadily. They were also getting more sophisticated, because of the influence of the Empire. In the previous chapter the Germans were mainly confined to present-day Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark and the southern parts of Sweden and Norway. Now their numbers were growing, so they needed new lands to settle. Rome's frontiers on the Rhine and in the Alps held firm at this point, so their choices were to go either northeast or southeast. Northeast went into the swamps and forests occupied by the Slavs, Balts and Finns, a cold and univiting place, so most went southeast, following the course of the Danube River. The Romans stayed to the south of the Danube except in Dacia, so as long as the Germans kept to the north bank, they met little interference. This movement, which was probably a steady trickle of small tribes, rather than a deliberate Volkwanderung, produced two new nations, the Goths on the shore of the Black Sea in the late second century, and the Gepids in Transylvania(6), in the first years of the third century. Because they had the most Lebensraum, the Goths prospered; by the mid-third century they were the strongest German tribe. From the nomadic tribes to the east (the Iazygians, Roxolani and Alans, all descendants of the Sarmatians), they learned the latest techniques of horsemanship. Upon reaching the Black Sea, they learned to be sailors as well. Just as ominous for the Romans, the many small tribes on the Rhine merged to form two super-tribes, the Alemanni on the upper Rhine and the Franks on the lower Rhine.

Top of the page

The Soldier Emperors

Meanwhile in the Roman Empire, things went from bad to worse. The assassination of Severus Alexander in 235 eliminated the last bit of legitimacy the emperors had. During the next 50 years more than twenty "soldier emperors" rose and fell from power, nearly every one a usurper whose soldiers assassinated the previous ruler; the average emperor lasted only two years. The Severan policy of giving the army everything it wanted had started half a century of military anarchy.

Death places of the Soldier Emperors.
The Soldier Emperors explained with one map. Here you can see where each emperor from the mid-third century died, the cause of death, and the date when it happened. Click on the map to open it up full sized in a new tab.

The first of them, Maximinus I (235-238, also called Maximinus Thrax), was the roughest character to have assumed the purple so far. An eight-foot tall general from a peasant family in Thrace, he never even set foot in Rome. Previously the Senate didn't argue much when the army raised a governor or general to the purple because he always came from an upper-class family; the move may have been illegal but the candidate was acceptable. This time, however, they balked, nominating two of their own instead, Balbinus and Pupienus. They may have had a point; Maximinus doubled the pay of his troops, treated the imperial treasury as if it were his own money, and gouged the people with confiscatory taxes that put many well-to-do folks in the poor house. Maximinus couldn't deal with Balbinus and Pupienus right away; he had to rush to the Rhine to stop a major incursion from both the Alemanni and the Franks, followed by some Dacian and Sarmatian raids across the Danube. In Africa, an aged governor and his son (Gordian I & II), also proclaimed themselves emperors, to keep their province from paying the new taxes.

The governor of neighboring Numidia sent troops to get rid of the two Gordians, and once the northern frontiers were pacified, Maximinus marched on Rome. On the way he had to besiege the northern Italian town of Aquileia, and this took so long that his soldiers mutinied and killed him. Two months later, the Praetorians suspected that Balbinus and Pupienus were planning to replace them with German bodyguards, slaughtered both of them before this could happen, and promoted a thirteen-year-old grandson of Gordian I in their place.

This teenage ruler, known to us as Gordian III (238-244), did better than expected. Unlike Maximinus, Balbinus and Pupienus, Gordian was popular, and everyone was wiling to give him a chance. However, his young age meant that someone would have to run the Empire for him. Fortunately he had a superbly competent Praetorian prefect, Gaius Furius Sabinus Aquila Timestheus, who was up to that job. First they demobilized the African legion, because it had killed Gordian's grandfather and uncle, and because it launched a revolt in 240. This was a risky move, since it left most of North Africa unprotected. Then because their partnership was working so well, Timestheus arranged the marriage of his daughter, Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, to the emperor in 241.

The Empire's next challenge came not from the vulnerable African provinces but from the east, where a new militant Persian king, Shapur I, succeeded Ardashir. In 243 Gordian and Timestheus went east, where they defeated Shapur's first invasion. However, Timestheus fell ill and died not long after that, and Gordian was murdered by the troops, so that they could have an adult emperor, namely their commander, Philip the Arab (244-249). Philip was in Rome in 248 to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the city's founding--a citywide party which spared no expense and dispelled much of the pessimism Romans had been gathering in recent years--and that turned out to be the only good news during his reign.

Before 248 was over, three rebellions broke out in the provinces. Philip seems to have lost his nerve, because this crisis prompted him to offer his abdication to the Senate. A city prefect named Decius talked him out of it, arguing that the would-be usurpers would not last long, and Philip responded by making Decius commander-in-chief of the legions on the Danube front, since the Goths were starting to make trouble there. Decius cleaned up that problem so swiftly that Philip began to fear that the soldiers would transfer their allegiance from himself to Decius. Philip left Rome with an army to get rid of Decius; the two fought at Verona and Philip was killed.

As emperor, Decius (249-251) thought his foremost duty was to restore the paganism of the past in its original form. He felt that the state had fallen on hard times because the Romans had forsaken their gods and rituals. Consequently he strongly disliked the eastern cult which used an instrument of execution for its symbol--Christianity.(7) There had been ugly persecutions before, but they were always local in nature; while one governor threw Christians to the lions, another would leave them alone. Now Decius launched the first empire-wide persecution. He did this by ordering every citizen of the Empire to sacrifice to the old gods, within a thirty-day period. Anyone who did not perform the sacrifices by the time of the deadline was accused of treason, and subject to torture and execution. Christians were left with three choices: renounce their Christianity by doing the sacrifices, find some way to acquire a receipt that said the sacrifices had been made, when the authorities came to check for compliance--or become martyrs. After executing the bishop of Rome, Fabianus, Decius supposedly said: "I would far rather receive news of a rival to the throne than of another bishop in Rome." Then he kept the Roman Christians from electing another bishop for the rest of his reign.

A large-scale emergency broke out in 250 when the Goths broke through the defenses on the Lower Danube and ravaged the provinces of Lower Moesia and Thrace (modern Bulgaria). These Goths persuaded a number of Sarmatians and even some disgruntled Romans to join them, telling us that life must have been getting bad in the provinces. Things really went wrong for Rome when Decius took personal command of the army sent to retaliate. He and the army walked into a trap at Abrittus in Serbia and were completely slaughtered. The body of Decius was lost in a swamp, and never recovered. It was a bad omen for the future; never before had an emperor been killed by barbarians.

More soldier-emperors rose and fell in rapid succession: Trebonianus Gallus (251-253), Aemilianus (253), and Valerian (253-260). This and the Gothic disaster encouraged Rome's other enemies to try their luck. Now provinces which had not seen war or rebellion in centuries came under attack. North Africa and Egypt were menaced respectively by tribes of Mauri (Moors) and Blemmyes. The Vandals crossed the Lower Rhine, looted Gaul and Spain and even raided Morocco; an army of Alemanni crossed the Upper Danube and entered Italy. These two Germanic invasions forced the abandonment of the Rhine-Danube angle, with its defensive limes, to the Alemanni in 254. Meanwhile the Goths captured a fleet of ships, and used them to plunder the Greco-Roman cities on the shores of the Black Sea. In 255 the Persians began a five-year war, and won a great victory at Barbalissus, which took away Roman Mesopotamia and Armenia and put Syria at their mercy. Emperor Valerian tried to buy time for the shattered eastern provinces by requesting an interview with the Persian king. At the interview the emperor was seized and taken into captivity in Persia and the plunder of Syria went on. Since Valerian was an enemy of Christianity, Christians declared that both his capture and the death of Decius were caused by the wrath of God, which is to be feared more than any false idol.

Amid these misfortunes the Empire began to break up. Often the Roman soldiers sent against the invaders did as much damage to Roman communities as the enemy. Postumus, the army commander on the Rhine, and Odenathus, the Arab king of Palmyra, were crowned emperors, meaning that there were now three Roman emperors. Postumus ruled Britain, Gaul and Spain, while Odenathus ruled Syria, the Holy Land and Roman Mesopotamia; later his widow Zenobia added Egypt and Asia Minor. The official emperor, Valerian's son Gallienus, was thus restricted to Italy, North Africa and the Balkans.

The division was not altogether bad--it allowed each emperor to concentrate his efforts on a single frontier. Postumus, for example, had gained his followers by making the defense of their homes his top priority, so instead of marching on Italy, he stayed in the west, leading the troops because Gallienus was too busy dealing with barbarians in the middle of the Empire. Odenathus and Zenobia were better military leaders than the Persian king Shapur, and they pacified the eastern provinces by taking them for themselves. As for Gallienus, he got the upper hand against the Alemanni by recruiting the first Roman mobile cavalry unit, and stationed it in Mediolanum (modern Milan), where it could quickly respond to trouble both in Italy and on the Danube. The Goths proved to be a tougher challenge, because as noted above, they had both a cavalry and a fleet. In 262 they broke into the Aegean and ravaged the Ionian coast; the biggest casualty of this raid was Diana's Temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, which they destroyed. The Goths came back for more in 267, and this time they raided Greece, pillaging the great classical cities of Athens, Corinth, Olympia, Argos and Sparta. They only withdrew from Greece because they heard that Gallienus was coming with an army.

Thus, by 268 Postumus, Gallienus and Zenobia had succeeded in restoring the efficiency and confidence of their armies and had cleared the invaders out of the territories. Then because he was a civilian, Gallienus fell victim to his Praetorians, who wanted a military man on the throne again. The next two central emperors, Claudius II (268-270) and Aurelian (270-275), were officers from the Danubian provinces,(8) and likely accomplices in the assassination. Claudius won significant victories against both the Alemanni and the Goths; the latter earned him the title Gothicus. Around this time the western emperor, Postumus, was assassinated by his troops, and his Spanish provinces transferred their allegiance back to Rome, now that Rome had an emperor who could win every battle he got involved in. Claudius then managed to recover the southeast corner of Gaul, the Rhone River valley, before he heard of a new barbarian problem; the Vandals were now raiding across the Danube. He was at Sirmium, capital of the province of Pannonia, preparing to teach the Vandals a lesson, when he succumbed to the latest plague. Of the twenty-four emperors we have seen since the beginning of this chapter, Claudius was only the third to die of natural causes (the others were Septimius Severus and Valerian).

Map of the third-century crisis.

The Roman Empire in 271, at the height of the third century crisis. Aurelian started out with just the (pink) central portion.

Since his immediate predecessors had solved the military problem, Aurelian put the Empire back together surprisingly quickly. In 271-273 he defeated both Zenobia and the feeble heirs of Postumus, restoring the unity of the empire. He abandoned Dacia, an indefensible province, to the Goths and Gepids, and evacuated its soldiers and inhabitants to the south bank of the Danube, but otherwise the recovery was complete.(9)

After the wars ended, Aurelian got the idea that it would be easier to hold the Empire together, if it had a unifying religion. He decided that the sun-god cult of Elagabalus, Sol Invictus, was the most suitable for unification purposes. As a result, he decreed that Sol Invictus had replaced Jupiter as the supreme god of the Roman state; he built a temple to the new god in Rome, and made several priests of Sol Invictus senators. This religion had only one god, so you can say that Aurelian was the first monotheist emperor, but this did not mean he was promoting monotheism; he told the Empire's subjects that as long as they gave some veneration to Sol Invictus, they could keep the gods they had worshiped previously. Unfortunately for Jews and Christians, their persecution was not about to end, because there was no way for them to worship any god besides the God of the Bible. Still, the state cult paved the way for the future acceptance of the true monotheism of Christianity.

For the first time since Hannibal's invasion five centuries earlier, it was felt necessary to protect the city of Rome with a wall; Aurelian started building that wall, and it still stands today. In the summer of 275 Aurelian decided it was time to lead a campaign against the Persians, to punish them for kidnapping Valerian fifteen years earlier, so the army marched east again. He got as far as Thrace before his temper got the better of him; he caught his secretary in a lie and threatened to punish him. In self-defense, the secretary informed some Praetorian officers that the emperor had marked them down for execution, along with himself. The officers, perhaps because of a guilty conscience, accepted the warning as authentic, and struck the emperor down.

The Soldier Emperors could turn back Rome's enemies, but there was another deadly danger they could not deal with--prolonged economic decline. Because the Empire had stopped expanding, the economy had become static. In the past, military expansion had paid off in rich booty, and the tapping of new sources of wealth had justified a large army. Now, however, wars were defensive, and the army had become a financial liability rather than an asset. To pay for the army and other ruinous expenses in the budget, they debased the currency. The denarius and antonianus, the two chief silver coins of the third century, lost 95 percent of their silver content, becoming silver-coated copper coins. Prices skyrocketed; a peck of wheat which sold for half a denarius in the second century cost 100 denarii at the end of the third (from 90˘ to $180 in 1997 dollars). Soldiers and government workers were now often paid in trade goods instead of cash; in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus, bankers refused Roman money and tried to bring 300-year-old Ptolemaic coins back into circulation.

A decrease in population made the political and economic problems worse. This was caused by the casualties suffered in conflict, the military's insatiable appetite for more men, and plagues regularly depleting the supply of workers. Worst of all, the peasants chose to abandon the land, rather than have their crops confiscated or their farms ravaged by barbarians and marauding Roman soldiers. Thousands of farmers looked for safety in the walled cities or found more profit in brigandage. Formerly productive farmland turned to wilderness. Aurelian's response was to decree that local officials must bring in the specified taxes, whether or not the lands they administered were revenue-producing. The position of city or town magistrate now became a burden, and service in once sought-after posts became mandatory.

Not much is known about the next short-lived ruler, Tacitus (275-276), who was at his villa in southern Italy when the soldiers hailed him as emperor. Tradition claimed he was a seventy-five-year-old senator, and a descendant of the historian Tacitus; both are considered unlikely, given the nature of the other men who wore the purple at this time. The Goths and Persians were making trouble again in Asia Minor, so he went to deal with Persia, and sent his brother Florianus to confront the Goths. There in Cappadocia, we are told that he died of a fever, a fate so uncommon among late Roman emperors that the story is probably true. Florianus promptly claimed the throne, but the legions of Syria and Egypt refused to accept him, promoting their own commander, Probus, instead. The armies of Florianus and Probus met at Tarsus, but before a battle could take place, the summertime heat got so oppressive that Florianus' European soldiers decided they would rather go home than fight, so they put Florianus to death.

Probus (276-282) led many successful attacks against the Franks, Burgundians and Vandals; between campaigns he kept the soldiers busy by clearing land to plant vineyards on. Also, the soldiers were put to work completing Aurelian's wall around Rome. He did such a good job of securing the Rhine and Danube frontiers that when peace finally came, he staged a triumph in Rome and declared that soon they would not need armies any longer. This was his undoing. The soldiers didn't like the menial labor they were doing, and the senior officers feared unemployment; before long the army on the upper Danube proclaimed Carus, the Praetorian prefect, as emperor in his place. The unit Probus sent to get this upstart deserted, and he had to flee from his own troops. They found him hiding in a tower, though, and forced their way in to kill him.

Once domestic affairs had been taken care of, Carus (282-283) marched east, declaring that he had come to the throne to punish the Persians. He left his elder son Carinus behind to rule in his absence; his younger son, Numerian, came with him. He did this because Carinus was a compentent military leader, and thus could look after himself, but Numerian's only talent was in poetry. Sure enough, Carinus defeated German and British invasions, and crushed a revolt in northeast Italy. Meanwhile in the east, Carus found the going easy; he reoccupied Roman Mesopotamia without opposition, and then captured Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the Persian capital. However, just a few nights later, Carus was found dead in his tent. There had been a violent thunderstorm, and some declared that lightning killed him. Others suspected, however, that his death was the work of one Arius Aper, Numerian's father-in-law, who saw a greater future for himself once the young man's father was out of the way. The throne now passed under the joint rule of Carinus in the West and Numerian in the East.

The Persians made peace with the Romans, and Numerian began the long trek home. By the time he got to Bithynia, he was suffering from lack of sleep and a disease of the eyes, and had to be carried in a litter. At Nicomedia on the Bosporus, the army stopped to rest; there Aper murdered Numerian. For the next few days the soldiers asked about the emperor's health, and Aper told them that Numerian could not leave his tent because he had to protect his weakened eyes from the wind and the sun. Before long, however, the stench of the corpse revealed what had happened. Aper tried to pass Numerian's death off as from natural causes, so he could claim the throne for himself. However, the troops were not of the same mind; a general from Dalmatia, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocles, charged Aper with murder and executed him with his own hand.

The troops in the east did not care for Carinus, so naturally they hailed their general as the new emperor, and he changed his name to a more Roman-sounding one, Diocletian. Then he marched into Europe to remove Carinus. Carinus had the advantage at first, with a larger army and a better claim to the imperial throne, but when the two armies met in battle, at Margum in eastern Serbia, Carinus was assassinated by one of his own officers, who accused Carinus of seducing his wife. Carinus' army went over to Diocletian, meaning that the whole Empire was now his.

Top of the page


For the first time in decades the frontiers were secure, and the slow task of repairing the damage caused by invasions and internal warfare could begin. Diocletian may have been a soldier originally, but he was also a born administrator. He devoted his reign to a reorganization of the empire so that it would defend itself better against the barbarians, creating a discipline--and a regimentation--that would characterize Roman life for the rest of the Empire's history.

The first problem was an unruly army. The soldiers--particularly the Praetorian Guard--had gotten their way almost every time for nearly a century, and were inclined to assassinate the current emperor if they didn't. Moreover, the reestablished unity of the Empire was precarious, with wars likely to break out in more than one place at any time. The legions tended to lose battles when an emperor wasn't around to lead them, so the main army on each front expected to have an emperor nearby; if he wasn't handy, the soldiers would set up their commander as one. Diocletian decided that the simplest way to cope with this danger was to beat the soldiers to it. Because he had no son, he first tried the method used by the "five good emperors," and adopted a drinking buddy, a general named Maximian, as his heir. Although this was legal, it must look odd to the reader, because Maximian was only five years younger than his new stepfather. A year later, Diocletian tried a new arrangement by proclaiming Maximian his co-emperor; now Maximian would rule the western half of the Empire while Diocletian administered the eastern half. This worked better, but there were so many barbarian invasions to deal with over the next few years that Diocletian decided more emperors were needed. In 293 he created a system that would be called the "Tetrarchy"; two junior emperors were elevated (Galerius in the East, Constantius in the West) and given the title of "Caesar"; the two senior emperors got the title of "Augustus." Each of the younger men was required to marry a daughter of his patron; Constantius had to divorce his wife, Helena (the future St. Helena), to do this, though their son Constantine remained his heir.

The plan was that when an Augustus died a Caesar would move up to take his place, and a new Caesar would be chosen. This new system proved its merit quickly; Constantius fought on the Rhine and in 296 re-conquered Britain (which had been in revolt since 287), while Galerius fought on the Danube and led an expedition against Persia in 297. The Persian campaign ended triumphantly, giving Rome her most favorable Mesopotamian frontier to date.

To increase the security of the emperor's person, Diocletian completed the trend toward autocracy, surrounding the emperor with enough pomp and splendor to make any usurper think twice before removing him. No longer even pretending to be the "first citizen" of a restored republic, Diocletian turned the emperor's position into an undisguised oriental despotism, called the "Dominate." Diocletian wore a crown, rather than the customary laurel wreath, and adorned himself in silk robes laden with jewels. Imperial etiquette transformed the emperor into a demigod; rigid ceremony demanded that people bow low before him, kiss the hem of his robe, and address him as dominus et deus, "lord and god." By contrast, the Senate was relegated to the status of a city council.

Diocletian also changed the structure of the army to bring it up to date. Under the Severans and the Soldier Emperors it became impossible to move the legions around as in the old days, because now the typical legionary put down so many roots in his original campsite (a wife, a business on the side, etc.) that he couldn't give more than grudging service elsewhere. To get reinforcements for a threatened frontier, Diocletian took two cohorts from each legion in a quiet sector, rather than move the whole legion. At the same time new cavalry units were raised and stationed independently, to counter the cavalry of the enemy. As temporary detachments became permanent the old legion camps disappeared; in their place came a garrison army tied to fortifications, creating a two-part army. Each Augustus kept part of the garrison army in his capital, and the rest was split between three administrative centers close to the frontier: Trier in Gaul, Sirmium in the Balkans, and Antioch in Syria. In manpower the garrison army was probably about the size of the whole pre-crisis army; the mobile army of cavalry and infantry used another 100,000 men, showing the extra burden the army bore on the state in Diocletian's time.

Diocletian & Maximian

Diocletian and Maximian. Note that instead of togas and wreaths, they are wearing crowns and paramilitary costumes, and holding orbs--all symbols of medieval royalty. The quality of art was also declining; in this case the artist didn't even tell us which was Diocletian, and which was Maximian.

The other big problem was money. Diocletian issued a new currency and tried to prevent it from inflating out of sight by fixing the wage and price of everything sold in every marketplace throughout the Empire, with death as the penalty for charging more than what was decreed. The edict was incredibly detailed; it set prices for wheat, barley, wild pheasants, fattened pheasants, sparrows, dormice, peas, beer, underwear fashioned from hares' fur, parchment treated with saffron, and even haircuts and freight rates. In addition, maximum salaries were specified for every worker in the Empire. Despite this, there wasn't enough money in the Empire to pay the soldiers, and laws don't change economic facts. When the edict was posted, Lactanius tells us, "nothing appeared on the market because of fear, and prices soared much higher." Eventually Diocletian realized his edict was unenforceable, and let prices go unchecked. The new currency went the way of the old, and forty years later a peck of wheat price-fixed at 100 denarii was selling for 10,000 denarii.

To make future revolts less likely to succeed, Diocletian cut each of the old provinces in half, which increased the number of governors from 50 to 100. The new administrative districts were more logical than the old, whose irregular boundaries reflected the empire's growth, rather than any thought-out plan. They were grouped into thirteen dioceses, and each diocese was governed by a vicarius (vicar); above the dioceses were four prefectures, each under a prefect who served directly under an emperor. Paralleling this civil administration was a separate hierarchy of military officials. Command of the armies went to generals called duces, from which we later derived the title duke. Finally, a large secret service was created to keep close watch over this vast new bureaucracy.

In order to pay for the enlarged government and military establishment, taxes would have to be raised. The problem in doing this was the same that many previous rulers had faced, when strapped for cash; if you raise the tax rate on everyone enough to get the revenue you need, the poorer segments of the population can't afford to pay. In place of older rates, he enacted an income tax system, which took the most revenue from those with the ability to pay it. Because the Empire's population (like most in the pre-modern world) was about 90% rural, the land was assessed for the quality of its soil and the expected size of the harvest, and the four prefects were expected to announce what their prefectures needed every year. If there wasn't enough money the soldiers would have to be paid in goods, so Diocletian set up a more efficient collecting service as well.

As you might expect, the new system leaned much harder on the public than the old one had; the typical citizen saw his taxes increase and his personal freedom decrease.(10) Local officials also saw their burden increase; those who did not collect their quota in taxes had to pay for the deficit out of their own pockets. Italy in particular lost all of its old privileges, except for a tax-exempt status on the city of Rome itself. However, this was poor compensation for Maximian's most important political act, when he moved the capital of Italy from Rome to Mediolanum. He did this because the decline of the Roman navy meant that Rome was no longer a convenient place for an imperial capital. Without official sea transport, every legion and every government agent who left Rome for any place besides southern Italy had to travel halfway up the Italian peninsula, before turning east or west. At any rate, because most of Italy's enemies came from the Alps, Mediolanum (and later Ravenna) were both closer to where the western emperor needed to be.

Diocletian's bureaucracy saved the Empire (although at great cost), and it served the emperors in the east for the next three hundred years. But today he usually receives a bad press because in one area he completely misread the trends. Christianity had grown over the last three hundred years so that it by now it claimed at least ten percent of the Empire's population as followers, making it more important than any pagan religion. Most of the soldiers of the day habitually disliked Christians, so for Diocletian it seemed natural to first order the Church to submit to his authority, then to launch the last and most vicious wave of persecution the Church experienced. It was a bad decision that put a sour note on all his other achievements.

Top of the page

The Tetrarchy Breaks Down

Despite Diocletian's intentions, the four-emperor Tetrarchy only worked while he was in charge of it. Late in 303, he decided to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his rise to the throne in Rome. This was the only in his life that he visited the city where the Romans had gotten started. Being old and conservative in terperament, he expected the people of Rome to still practice the old virtues (pietas, simplicitas, gravitas and all that). Instead, once the Romans began celebrating, with their orgies and games, their complete lack of restraint disgusted Diocletian, so he left early. On the way back to Nicomedia, he contracted an illness that almost killed him; he had to be carried in a litter the rest of the way home, and it took him more than a year to recover. When he got better, he took no chances, and in May 305 he became the first emperor to retire. He moved to a palace and cabbage farm in Split, Croatia, and forced Maximian to abdicate, too. The two Caesars, Constantius in the west and Galerius in the east, moved up to the senior positions.

Now that he was an Augustus, Galerius tried to run the show like Diocletian had done, by appointing both of the new Caesars: his old friend Severus II for the west, and his nephew Maximinus Daia (also called Maximinus II) for the east. The new Augustus in the west, Constantius, demanded that Galerius release his son, Constantine, and Galerius complied. Constantine had been serving in the east, as an officer under Galerius; in fact he had been a hostage, to make sure that the two junior emperors would get along. One story claims that Galerius was drunk when he agreed to let Constantine go, and Constantine packed his bags and left that evening, reasoning that when Galerius sobered up, he would realize he made a mistake and try to arrest Constantine. The father and son were reunited in Gaul, and together they went to Britain for a campaign against the Picts. But Constantius was already ill at this point, and he only lived one more year. In 306, when he knew he was dying, Constantius recommended to his troops that they recognize Constantine, and not Severus II, as the next Augustus. Diocletian's rules forbade an emperor to choose his son as an heir, so at this point the army of the West should have waited for the eastern emperors to confirm Constantine's elevation or make a new appointment. Instead they proclaimed Constantine Augustus in his father's place. Constantine sent Galerius a portrait of himself in the robes of an Augustus, and a letter claiming the legions had forced the promotion on him. Galerius was furious, but he also knew he could start a civil war by rejecting the choice of the western legions. Therefore he replied that because Severus was the rightful Augustus, Constantine would have to become a Caesar for the time being, and wait until Severus was done ruling to become an Augustus; Constantine accepted this compromise.

While Galerius was putting out one western fire, another appeared. In Italy, Maxentius, the son of Maximian, was dismayed that he had been shut out of the imperial succession completely, so when he heard that Constantine had worked his way into the system, Maxentius proclaimed himself an emperor, too. The provinces of central and southern Italy, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and Africa (modern Tunisia & western Libya) backed him; so did the Senate, in the hope that he would make Rome the imperial capital again. Unfortunately, there wasn't a vacant position to give to Maxentius, and Galerius didn't want to give the impression that he was going to concede to anyone with a claim, so he told Severus to get rid of this upstart. Severus marched south from Mediolanum with an army, parked it outside the walls Aurelian built around Rome, and since Maxentius didn't have many troops of his own, he called on his father Maximian to save him. Old Maximian, who was never happy with his forced abdication, did so with pleasure. He announced he was resuming his reign as the Augustus of the west, so now there were six emperors! Many of the soldiers under Severus had served Maximian a few years earlier, and now that their former boss was back, they switched sides. Seeing his army withering away, Severus fled to Ravenna, a city in northeast Italy where he felt he would be safe. Maximian offered to spare the life of Severus if he gave himself up, but when Severus surrendered, he was taken to Rome, imprisoned and executed (307). Diocletian's elaborate political scheme came to grief on two things: (1) the troops' loyalty to their commander and his heirs rather than to the Empire; and (2) the natural inclination of those near the top to grab all power and not share it with anyone else.

With Severus gone, who was the top man in the west now? Naturally Constantine thought it was his turn, but Maximian and Maxentius wanted the job, too; the son refused to step down in favor of the father. A marriage between Constantine and Fausta, a daughter of Maximian, initially kept Constantine from fighting the others, and by bribing the soldiers, Maxentius persuaded them to support him instead of Maximian. Maximian fled to Galerius in Nicomedia, and Galerius played his trump card -- he called on Diocletian to come out of retirement and straighten out this mess. Diocletian appeared only briefly in 308, to host a conference at Carnuntum (a military town in modern-day Austria), for the three living original tetrarchs. Here Diocletian made it clear that he would rather grow his cabbages than be an emperor for a second time, and that Maximian should not try to make a comeback, either. As for who should be the new western Augustus, Galerius rejected the claims of Constantine and Maxentius, and appointed another old friend, Licinius, for that position. This prompted Maximinus Daia, so far the quietest of the tetrarchs, to speak out. Maximinus resented being passed over for promotion to Augustus, in favor of a new guy who had not spent a term as Caesar first, so he proclaimed himself an Augustus too. Now there were six emperors again, all of them claiming to be Augusti.

Cut off from all bases of support, Maximian went to the court of Constantine, the only other emperor who could stand having him around. They got along at first, until Constantine went to the Rhine frontier to fight the Franks, and he sent Maximian to southern Gaul, to make sure Maxentius did not try a sneak attack from the south. Instead, Maximian announced that Constantine was dead, and he was now the supreme leader in the west. Most of the soldiers didn't believe him, and found out soon enough that Constantine was alive, well, and rushing south to deal with this attempted coup. Maximian tried to barricade himself in Massilia (Marseilles), but the citizens of that city opened the gates for Constantine anyway. Once Maximian was captured, Contantine declared that he was willing to spare Maximian, but everyone would be better off if he committed suicide, so he did (310).

The next emperor to go was the current first-among-equals, Galerius. If the Christian historian Eusebius can be trusted, Galerius came down with a rotting disease which caused him to feel bad, and smell bad -- for a long time. It may have been gangrene or colon cancer. Shortly before he died of it, in 311, he ordered an end to the persucution of Christians, so that they would pray for him. However, Licinius and Maximinus Daia chose to keep on burning churches and killing Christians. And since Licinius could not take charge of the west while rivals were in control of it, he and Maximinus agreed to a temporary division of the east: Licinius would take the Balkans, while Maximinus took Egypt and the Asian provinces.

Top of the page

Constantine I

Constantine may have played by the rules of the Tetrarchy at first, but his ultimate goal was to conquer the whole empire and leave it to his sons. Now that all of the original tetrarchs were gone, he felt ready to overthrow his colleagues. When he marched into Italy in 312, it must have looked like a foolhardy venture, because the army of Maxentius was much larger. The battle which made Constantine the undisputed master of the west took place at Milvian Bridge, on the Tiber River; here the more experienced troops of Constantine won, and Maxentius drowned in the Tiber while trying to flee. Meanwhile in the east, Licinius defeated Maximinus Daia twice, and Maximinus died soon afterward (313). That left just Constantine and Licinius, and Constantine's final victory in the battle of Adrianople (324) allowed him to rule the Empire alone for the last thirteen years of his life. Constantine may have gotten the chance to try for the throne because he was an emperor's son, but he obviously had the talent needed for it; he never lost a battle. He also did better than Diocletian because he went with the tide instead of against it. Though Diocletian set up the structure of the late Roman Empire, the style of it was Constantine's.

The most important change made by Constantine involved Christianity. Beforehand, he and his family had shown a tendency toward monotheism, by belonging to the Sol Invictus cult. We saw this movement start with Elagabalus, and promoted by Aurelian; many emperors in the late third century had themselves portrayed on coins with a crown of sunbeams, and the words Sol Invictus. For that reason, when the eastern emperors ordered the last anti-Christian persecution, Constantius I couldn't get excited about it, and chose to ignore the Christians instead. For that reason, we think he may have passed on to Constantine the idea that Christians weren't really their enemies.

According to the official story, Constantine switched from the sun-god to the Son of God shortly before the battle of Milvan Bridge, when he saw a vision of a cross in front of the sun, surrounded by these words: "In hoc signo vinces" (By this sign conquer). At once he marched his troops into a river, declared them baptized, and ordered them to paint the Greek letters chi and rho (an abbreviation for the name of Christ) on their shields. He may have done this to embarrass his rivals, who were all anti-Christian. When the battle ended in victory he became a lifelong friend of Christianity, legalizing it in the areas he ruled. Finally, when he was unconscious on his deathbed, he was baptized (337).(11)

Because the number of Christians was growing by leaps and bounds, the Empire's adoption of Christianity made the people more patriotic. By bringing the leaders of the Church over to his side, Constantine gave himself an air of legitimacy that the emperors had lacked for a century. Even allowing for the divisive effect of the heresies that would follow, the result was a stronger state, and closer ties with Armenia, which had declared itself Christian in 303.

Constantine also reorganized and enlarged the mobile army, disbanded the Praetorian Guard because it had supported Maxentius in the recent civil war, and let the garrison army dwindle to a watchtower militia. Thus, the mobile army became the most important force in the Empire. One result of these changes was a much needed reduction in the cost of defense, which Diocletian had fixed at a level too high to sustain.

On one point Diocletian and Constantine held the same views. They saw that the western half of the empire was no longer as important as the eastern half. The West's population was so scattered in the countryside that even the new system could not produce enough money and supplies for the army. The eastern provinces, on the other hand, with their higher, more concentrated populations, were easier to manage. The East had become the proper place for an emperor to live. Diocletian's headquarters was Nicomedia, the old capital of Bithynia. Galerius had his headquarters at Thessalonica, but moved it to Nicomedia when he succeeded Diocletian. Constantine also wanted an eastern capital, and got one even while he was the official emperor of the west; in the winter of 317/318 he moved to Sardica (modern Sofia, Bulgaria). This showed that he considered Licinius more dangerous than any barbarian threat to Gaul and Britain.

After the fighting ended, Constantine looked at the possibilities for a permanent capital in the east. At first he decided that Illium--ancient Troy--would be the most appropriate place. According to one legend, he personally marked out where the city walls should be, and ordered construction to begin. However, one night after the gates for the main wall were hung, the Lord appeared to Constantine and told him to seek another place for his new Rome. This time he moved to the European side of the Bosporus, picking a small city named Byzantium. Again he marked out the new city limits, by walking two miles away from old Byzantium, spear in hand. He kept going until a weary follower asked how much farther he planned to go; Constantine, who used divine visions to make his activities more impressive, replied, "I shall go on until He who is walking in front of me stops."

Constantine I
Constantine I.

Constantine launched a massive program to build the new city in record time. He turned it into a replica of Rome (complete with seven artificial hills), filled it with art treasures taken from other cities, and built a hippodrome, a forum, senate house(12), many churches and bathhouses, and gardens watered by aqueducts. Topping it off was a colossal gilded statue of Apollo, its head replaced by Constantine's, which held in one hand an orb symbolizing world power.(13) The whole creation, dedicated in 330, was first named Nova Roma, and later Constantinople.

Constantine's choice for a new capital was a brilliant one. By placing it on the main crossing point between Europe and the Middle East, he gave the government a commanding position over the trade of both. Moreover, since it was on a peninsula, defenses were superb: the navy could protect it on three sides, while the most massive set of walls the Western world had seen were on the fourth side (three walls in all), making the city so impregnable that it resisted onslaughts for a thousand years. Thus the West was saved from many invasions, particularly Islamic ones, for the whole Middle Ages.(14) It was also from Constantinople that the two last great Roman legal codes were produced, by Theodosius II in 438 and by Justinian between 529 and 534. These summaries of laws, decrees, and precedents, some dating back to the days of the Republic, were the Empire's last great achievement, which petty kings in the West would imitate for centuries to come.

Despite Constantine's preference for the east, he knew that calling his state "Roman" looked rather odd if the city of Rome was no longer an important part of it. Therefore he started some building projects in Rome as well, to make up for a generation of neglect since Diocletian took over. In January 326, he headed west, thinking that Rome would be the most appropriate place to celebrate the twenty-year anniversary of the beginning of his reign. Tragedy struck, however, before he got there. In May he executed his eldest son, Crispus, and then in June he suffocated his wife Fausta in a hot bath. Why this happened was never made clear; the most popular story was that Constantine had discovered an illicit love affair between Crispus and Fausta. A more complicated, but more logical theory, holds that Fausta wanted one of her own sons, not Crispus, to become the next emperor, so she accused Crispus of attempted rape, a crime punishable by death; Constantine then felt compelled to execute Fausta, too, when he found out she had framed Crispus. Finally, some historians believe that Constantine got jealous, because Crispus proved to be a fine governor and military leader when Constantine put him in charge of Gaul, and he feared that his son was becoming more popular than he was. Whatever his motive, Constantine was in a sour mood after that. He only stayed in Rome long enough to dedicate a new church, St. Peter's Basilica (see below), and then hurried east, never to show himself in the western half of the Empire again.

Top of the page

Constantinian Christianity

The fourth century saw the final triumph of Christianity over the Roman Empire. At the century's start, Christians were viciously persecuted; by the end, it was unthinkable for the emperor to be anything but a Christian. Christianity defeated paganism because its dogma was simpler; its ethical and social message was more progressive and better suited for troubled times; it offered hope to the ordinary person, which paganism could not do. Finally its organization, patterned after the state, spread the good news both efficiently and militantly. By contrast, paganism was a collection of idols and superstitions that changed from one province to the next; its myths were inconsistent and above the local level it had no organization at all.

As the Church converted Constantine, so Constantine also transformed the Church. The Christianity taught by Jesus was a prophetic faith; three hundred years later it had become a priestly one. Jesus did not tell his followers they needed priests, altars, or temples, but now all three of those elements overshadowed everything else. Though Constantine did not persecute pagans, his big subsidies made it clear whose side he was on. Constantine became the Church's prime defender, in ways the Bible had never promoted. His actions discouraged those who followed any other faith, and disagreement with the government on matters of doctrine became grounds for treason; the state now used the same brute force to promote Christianity that had once been used to promote paganism.

As Christianity came out into the open, so did some critical controversies among the believers. In the third century theologians like Paul of Samosata and Sabellus taught that Jesus was a good man so filled with the Holy Spirit that he turned into God; this point of view, called Sabellianism, saw the unity of God as so important that they probably did not believe God could be in Heaven while Jesus walked on Earth. A different view was proposed in Constantine's time by Arius, a brilliant clergyman from Alexandria. Arius thought that Jesus could not really be the son of God; instead he was a person God had created at the beginning of time to save men. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, excommunicated Arius, and Alexander's successor, Athanasius, argued strongly that Jesus must be the son of God, for if He isn't, His death cannot save us from our sins. That should have ended the matter, but enough of the clergy agreed with Arius that Constantine felt the need to intervene.

The result was the first great ecumenical (universal) council of bishops, held at Nicaea in 325; more than 250 bishops attended. Constantine had not yet been baptized, and probably had only a superficial knowledge of what they were discussing, but he presided over the meeting anyway, though most of the speeches must have gone over his head. The view of the moderate (Trinitarian) faction was put down in writing, as the famous Nicene Creed, and Arianism and Sabellianism were condemned as heresies. Only Arius and two supporters refused to sign the creed. Since Constantine wanted unity most of all, the council must have looked like a big success to him.(15)

Council of Nicaea.
The Council of Nicaea.

However, Constantine would have liked the result better if the losing factions were on his side, too. Thus, he was rather lenient to them, especially Arius, who was exiled to the Holy Land. After Arius modified his theology to remove its most objectionable points, he was allowed to return to his home, while Athanasius was in turn exiled. In 336 the emperor ordered Alexander, the bishop of Constantinople, to readmit Arius, and Alexander, who followed the Trinitarian view, prayed that Arius would die first. That is exactly what happened; Arius made a triumphal entry into Constantinople the day before he was supposed to meet the bishop, and was struck down by one of the most hideous deaths on record. Edward Gibbon simply wrote that "his bowels suddenly burst in a privy," while Socrates Scholasticus, another opponent of Arius, gave a more graphic description:

"It was then Saturday, and . . . going out of the imperial palace, attended by a crowd of Eusebian [Eusebius of Nicomedia is meant here] partisans like guards, he [Arius] paraded proudly through the midst of the city, attracting the notice of all the people. As he approached the place called Constantine's Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore enquired whether there was a convenient place near, and being directed to the back of Constantine's Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died. The scene of this catastrophe still is shown at Constantinople, as I have said, behind the shambles in the colonnade: and by persons going by pointing the finger at the place, there is a perpetual remembrance preserved of this extraordinary kind of death."

In other words, Arius pooped out his guts. Of course Trinitarian Christians saw this death as God's punishment for his heretical views. Non-Christian writers, including Gibbon, have suggested he was poisoned, but we have no report of any poison doing this to anyone else.

Between 325 and 348 a brave bishop named Ulfilas, a barbarian raised in Constantinople, traveled to the Visigoths and introduced them to Christianity. By combining Greek and Roman letters with Scandinavian runes, Ulfilas invented a Gothic alphabet, and wrote the Bible in it for his converts, though he prudently omitted the books of 1 & 2 Kings because he felt that would encourage the tribesmen to continue their warlike ways. His teaching later spread to the Ostrogoths, Vandals and Burgundians, and there lay a major tragedy. Ulfilas was a follower of Arianism, because he had become a Christian during the years when Arianism was most popular; that made the Germans he converted heretics. Thus, the doctrine of Arius continued for three hundred years after its founder was gone.

When the Germans began to take over Roman territory, their Arianism became the creed of a proud and very successful minority, who feared absorption into the mass of Catholics they had subjugated. This attempt to exist as a distinct and superior class was shortsighted, for it continually reminded their subjects that a handful of foreigners ruled them. It is no coincidence that the most successful of the German tribes were either those who adopted the faith of the empire's Catholic majority (the Franks), or avoided Christianity until Arianism was gone (the Anglo-Saxons).

Judaism converted some Arab and Berber tribes during this period, but the only faith which advanced at a rate comparable to that of Christianity was Manicheism, a "new & improved" version of Zoroastrianism taught by the third-century Persian prophet Mani. Manicheism accepted Zoroaster's thesis that life is a struggle between a good and an evil god, but added to it advanced personal ethics that resembled those of Christianity. In spite of repression, it spread rapidly in Persia, and it flourished in the Roman Empire until it seemed to challenge the Church in the fifth century; that caused the emperors to turn their machinery of persecution against it as well.

Besides Armenia and the Roman Empire, the only Christian states were Abyssinia and Nubia. They were converted in the fifth and sixth centuries respectively, but lost what little contact they had with the rest of Christendom when the Moslems conquered Egypt in 641.

Top of the page

Announcing the Middle Ages

When Constantine allowed Christianity to come out in the open he gave the Empire another project--build a lot of churches quickly. The old temples were not suitable for churches, for however imposing they might be on the outside, most of them had room for a few people on the inside. Christians needed buildings that could hold a crowd of believers at any given time. Up to this point large houses had been the places most frequently used for worship.

The standard Roman design for a large building was the basilica, a three-part hall with a two-story main section (nave) and a single-story hall flanking it on each side. Halls of this type were ideal places for church congregations, so they built hundreds of them in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Basilicas normally had a wooden roof. Concrete ceilings were possible, but this meant building an expensive support structure in the form of massive walls and buttresses. When Constantine decided to build a basilica over the grave of the Apostle Peter he made it big but kept the cost in mind by opting for a wooden roof; he also saved money by using columns from abandoned pagan temples.

St. Peter's Basilica gave Rome a Christian building on a scale to match the masterpieces of classical antiquity, and despite Constantine's cost-cutting measures it outlasted most of its rivals. It was only in 1506--by which time the south wall was leaning about 5 feet over from a vertical angle--that the demolition team came in and began working on the present-day St. Peter's Cathedral.

Old St. Peter's Cathedral
Old St. Peter's.

Though the imperial government had moved out, one important official remained faithful to Rome: its bishop. He was undisputed head of at least half the Christian Church and his seniority over the four patriarchs of the East was admitted at least in ceremony. So Rome remained a spiritual capital, if not a secular one, because of his presence. The temples of the old gods were deserted as tourists thronged to St. Peter's and to the Lateran Palace, the bishop's official residence. Rome was changing from a classical to a medieval city.

Other changes were apparent in the types of people who appeared. Counts and dukes, bishops and monks make the last chapters of Roman history read like a medieval chronicle. Serfs tilled the land, mounted knights rode to the battlefield. Nearly every man went into the same profession as his father. The slide to feudalism began more than a century before the Western Roman Empire fell.

Top of the page

Constantine's Successors Muddle Through

For somebody who changed the course of history, Constantine showed a remarkable lack of imagination, when it came to names for his children. He was survived by a daughter named Constantina, and three sons: Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans I. Although the Empire's natural division was into two parts, the elder Constantine groomed all three sons, and even two nephews, to inherit it. Upon his death, the soldiers insisted that the sons share the Empire, so in 338 they met and agreed to divide it: Constantine II got Gaul, Britain and Spain; Constantius got Asia; Constans got Italy, Africa and the Balkans. However, they weren't willing to let the nephews join them, and when Constantius accused Constantine I's brother, Julius Constantius, of poisoning Constantine I, the soldiers launched another bloodbath, which killed not only Julius but also most of the house of Constantine. When they were done the only male members left were the three sons of Constantine and two young sons of Julius, Constantius Gallus and Flavius Claudius Julianus (Julian for short).

The agreement between the brothers only lasted for two years. Constantine II decided that he had gotten the poorest territory, so being the eldest, he tried to bully the others. He told Constans that he should have North Africa; because North African farms fed Italy, Constans said "No way," and claimed that North Africa was part of Italy. Angered by this response, Constantine marched into Italy while Constans was on the Danube frontier. Constans sent an army back to deal with this invasion, and it ambushed and killed Constantine at Aquilea (340). This left Constans with the European and African portions of the Empire, including Constantinople. Constans and Constantius didn't fight, but they kept the cities stirred up by taking opposite sides in the Arian controversy. Arianism had been banned by the Council of Nicaea, but it refused to go away quietly, because many found Arianism easier to understand than the complicated subject of the Trinity. In fact, it was an Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia, who baptized Constantine at the end of his life, because Constantine had turned against the Trinitarians after the death of Arius. Constantius preferred Arianism, made it binding on the entire Church, and discriminated against the Trinitarians; this caused Athanasius, the bishop who championed the Trinity, to get exiled five times between 335 and 366. Meanwhile in the west, Constans went with the Trinitarian (Catholic) faction, which probably made him more popular with the clergy. However, the troops never liked Constans much, and when a officer named Magnentius revolted in 350, the army went with the usurper, and assassinated Constans.

Until now, Constantius had stayed out of Europe, because he was hard pressed to defend the Asian portion of the Empire from the most aggressive Persian king to date, Shapur II. But with Constans gone, and the legions on the Danube unable to decide which side to take. the west was now in greater danger, so Constantius promoted his cousin Gallus to the rank of Caesar, put him in charge of the east, and marched west to overthrow Magnentius. This was accomplished by 353, leaving Constantius the sole emperor. Unfortunately, Gallus proved to be a totally incompetent tyrant; in 354, fearing Gallus would cause new revolts, Constantius summoned him to the west and had him arrested, tried, condemned and put to death. Because the east could not be left unattended (Shapur was as dangerous as ever), Constantius returned to Asia, but before leaving he called Gallus' brother, Julian, and appointed him Caesar of the west.

We last saw Julian when Constantius had his father killed. He had only survived because he was five years old, and thus was not seen as a threat to anybody. For most of the time since then he had been living in Asia Minor, raised under the watchful eye of high-ranking Christians like Eusebius. Asia Minor had long been part of the Greek-speaking world, so he had access to plenty of books and the greatest philosophers of the day; by the time he grew up, Julian was a confirmed intellectual. At some point he decided he liked paganism, but for now he successfully paid lip service to Christianity; he even briefly became a lector or reader at the church he attended in Cappadocia. Because he had few friends and was rather shy, he probably would have been content to spend the rest of his life studying the classics, but when Constantius called on him to do his duty, there was nobody else qualified for the job; Constantius and Julian were the last living men in the Constantinian family. Of course he hated the murderer of his father, so when Constantius made him responsible for half of the Empire, Julian could not tell if he was receiving a promotion or a death sentence.

Before long he got a chance to prove his ability in a dangerous way; Alemanni and Frankish raiders were coming across the Rhine. Though he had no military education or experience whatsoever, the twenty-three-year-old bookworm was a quick learner; between 356 and 359 he defeated much larger barbarian forces, drove most of them back, and restabilized the frontier by settling some of the defeated Franks in Toxandria (modern Belgium).

Constantius had mixed feelings about Julian's surprising success. He was glad to hear that the west was now at peace, but when you're an emperor, news that somebody is doing better than you is cause for alarm. Constantius' response was to try to weaken Julian by ordering him to send reinforcements, to help with the Persian menace. However, the troops didn't want to go, and Julian had already promised not to send any of them east, because if he did, few were likely to come back. In Julian's camp at Lutetia (modern Paris), one of the legions, instead of going east, suddenly proclaimed Julian as their Augustus. He tried at first to talk his way out of a fight with Constantius, protesting that he had no desire to become an emperor, and the troops would have killed him if he had refused to go along, but Constantius, convinced that Julian had committed an act of treason, was fully aroused. In 361 Julian marched east, and Constantius marched west, but they never met in battle. When he got to Cilicia, Constantius saw a headless corpse, which he took to be a bad omen, contracted a fever, and quickly died. Like his father Constantine, Constantius was baptized on his deathbed, and in a final act of Christian forgiveness, he named Julian his heir. This allowed Julian to enter Constantinople unopposed.

Top of the page

Julian the Apostate

Next to Constantine I, Julian is the most controversial person in late Roman history. Since the fall of Rome, historians have seen Julian as the Antichrist, the hero of a tragedy, the ideal philosopher-king, a mystic rebel for a lost cause, a strange epilogue to the dynasty of Constantine, or simply as someone whose talents were wasted. In truth, he was all of the above, which shows what a complicated person he was. As emperor, he was an efficient administrator, and because he was single and lived simply, he was able to downsize the imperial household considerably, firing those workers who provided services he did not need. Books were the only luxury he allowed himself (in Constantinople he founded a library that eventually contained 120,000 volumes), and to express his views he became a prolific author, writing more than any other emperor.(16) Add to that his newly acquired skill as a general, and Julian could have been another Marcus Aurelius. He failed to achieve that, though, for two reasons: he only ruled for two years, and he was obsessed with getting rid of Christianity.

Church leaders like Athanasius thought better of the Arian Constantius when confronted by "Julian the Apostate." After attending the funeral of Constantius, where he even shed some tears for his late enemy, Julian never set foot in a church again. Now that his position was secure, Julian renounced the Christianity his family had forced on him, declaring he was really a pagan. To Julian, the Empire was sick, Christian values like forgiveness had sapped its strength, and he had been entrusted with a divine mission, to bring back the old-time paganism. However, unlike previous pagan emperors, he did not directly persecute Christians; recent history had shown that making martyrs caused the Church to grow, not shrink. Instead, he called back those Christians who had been exiled, leveling the playing field between Arian and Trinitarian; he figured that he would not have to kill any enemies, if he could get his enemies to kill each other. Or, better yet, he might convert his enemies, by showing them the foolishness of their ways.

What Julian mainly did was discriminate in favor of anyone who opposed Christianity.(17) He took away the privileges of the Church, ordered it to give back the land it had taken from pagans, removed Christians from military and civil posts, and forbade Christians from teaching literature. But nothing he did could revive the ancient beliefs. His synthetic neo-Platonism, which combined the organization of the Church with pagan traditions, was a state-sponsored cult with no real following. As a high priest in his order, Julian personally took part in many services, kindling the altar fire, wielding the knife and looking for omens in the entrails of slaughtered birds. A letter to Arsacius, his high priest in Galatia, shows he also intended to compete with Christian charity:

"Why do we not notice that it is their kindness to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done [the] most to increase atheism (his name for Christianity)? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests of Galatia, without exception . . . In the second place admonish them that no priest may enter a theater or drink in a tavern or control any craft or trade that is base and not respectable . . .
In every city establish frequent hostels in order that strangers may profit by our generosity; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money . . . For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galileans (Christians) support both their own people and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us . . ."

Julian never understood why his ideas failed to win over the public. When he visited the famous Oracle at Delphi (see Chapter 2) in 362, it gave its last recorded message, telling him that paganism was a dead ideology: "Go tell the King, the well-wrought hall has fallen in the dust; Phoebus Apollo no longer has a home or laurel, or a murmuring spring. Even the talkative spring has dried up and is no more." Then he went to Antioch, where he learned that his brother Gallus had driven away the god Apollo by burying the bones of a third-century Christian martyr in the local temple. He ordered the bones dug up, the Christians of Antioch demonstrated, and when a fire destroyed the temple shortly after that, Julian blamed the Christians and closed the city's main church (an investigation, however, ruled the fire was an accident).

Julian was in Antioch because he had decided to pick a fight with the Persians; if he could win a battle as paganism's champion, it would prove that the gods were on his side. In March 363, the army he had brought with him was ready to move out, but instead of winning a great victory, he was killed in a battle near Ctesiphon, the Persian capital. One story reported that his last words were, "You have won, Galilean," suggesting that he believed Jesus, and not Shapur II, was the enemy who struck him down. With his death the Church came back stronger than before, the house of Constantine became extinct, and the troops proclaimed Jovian, a young officer on the Persian front, as the next emperor. A Christian, Jovian undid Julian's anti-Christian policies, and gave up part of Armenia and Iraq to get out of a bad situation with the Persians. Then he started home, but only got at far as the border between Bithynia and Galatia before he died in bed, cause unknown.

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. In the 1990s, the historian Paul Kennedy concluded that deficit spending is the main reason why great empires fall, and gave it a name: "imperial overstretch."

2. Usually he fought lions; his human opponents were given weapons made of soft lead to make sure the emperor won.

3. Caracalla always reacted strongly to any mention of Geta's name after that. He once executed a joker for suggesting that because the emperor called himself Parthicus for beating the Parthians, and Alemanicus for defeating the Alemanni, "Geticus" would be a good title if he ever fought the Goths!

4. He liked dressing in drag and wearing makeup and perfume, which gave him the nickname "Empress of Rome." Because of this, I have come across some websites which claim Elagabalus was female, or even trans-sexual. Don't believe it; they didn't have gender-assignment surgery back then. Also, I am skeptical of the story which asserts that Elagabalus had a movable ceiling rigged so that it dumped tons of blossoms on the guests at a banquet, and some guests suffocated because they could not crawl to the top of this heap of flowers.

5. Severus Alexander is said to have kept a private chapel which contained statues of great historical figures: several emperors, Abraham, Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander the Great, and--most amazing of all--Jesus of Nazareth. This suggests that there were already Christians in the imperial household, a full eighty years before Constantine.

6. Previously the Gepids had lived at the mouth of the Vistula River. Another tribe based in Poland, the Vandals, took their place. Around 230 the Vandals themselves split into two tribes: the Siling Vandals, who stayed in Silesia, and the Asding Vandals, who moved south to present-day Hungary. The origin of the Vandals is not clear; Gibbon thought they were Sarmatians or Slavs, rather than true Germans.
The Romans knew little about the tribes that did not live right on the imperial frontier. The Frisians, the main power in the North Sea, were friendliest to the Romans.

7. Rodney Stark estimated that the Christian community made up about 2% of the Empire's population in 250, and 10% in 300. See The Rise of Christianity, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1996, pg. 7.

8. Because it saw the most barbarian invasions during the third century, Illyria produced the Empire's best soldiers, and all of the emperors from Claudius II to Diocletian and Maximian.

9. Around 275 the Goths became such a large tribe that they split in three; henceforth they were known as the Gepids, Visigoths (West Goths) and Ostrogoths (East Goths).

10. Diocletian's experiments in wage-price controls and taxation are important because of how the people responded, and what he did about their response. As when previous emperors raised taxes, many people voluntarily dropped to a lower social class to reduce the taxes they had to pay, and to become unqualified for the duties they were expected to perform. Others moved to the countryside, to hide from the census-taker and tax collector. In Israel, for example, so many abandoned Tiberias, that the Galilean port became a ghost town. To make sure each citizen worked and paid his share, Diocletian made it illegal for anyone to change his job--or for a son to go into a different trade from his father's. This had the effect of tying farmers to their land; in other words, free peasants were turned into serfs. Later Constantine added to this by prohibiting landlords from transferring tenants to another piece of land, even if they sold the estate the tenants were on.

11. This makes his expressed Christianity sound like pure politics, but he may have been playing it safe spiritually. Many Christians in those days delayed baptism for years after they became believers, out of fear that any sin committed after baptism would ruin one's chances of salvation.

12. Most of the senators refused to leave Rome, so Constantine simply appointed new ones to take their place.

13. The orb reportedly contained a piece of the True Cross. Tradition says the cross of Jesus was buried after the crucifixion, and St. Helena found it on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land three hundred years later. She sent it to Rome, along with two of the nails used to crucify Jesus; Constantine put one nail in his crown, and the other in his horse's bridle. Later he built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the spot where the cross was dug up.

14. The original founder of Byzantium was a Greek named Byzas, who lived around 600 B.C. Legends assert that before he left Greece, he went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask where he should build a new colony; the answer he got was "opposite the blind." With that in mind he sailed for the Black Sea, where many of his countrymen were setting up new city-states, but stopped when he got to the Bosporus. Like Constantine, Byzas noted that the peninsula on the west side of that strait was a superb location for both defense and commerce; however, it was uninhabited, while a city named Chalcedon sat on the east side. Byzas concluded that this place fit the oracle's description, and that Chalcedon's founders must have been blind to ignore a superior site for a city so close to their own that they could see it every day!

15. The bishops really split hairs. Those who agreed with Nicaea used the word homoousion to declare that the Father and Son were of the same substance. Arians, by contrast, believed they were merely of similar substance, or homoiousion; only a one-letter difference!

16. Like Hadrian (see Chapter 4), he grew a beard to look like a Greek philosopher. When the people of Antioch made fun of it, he responded by writing a scathing satire of the city called Beard-hater.

17. Among other things, he offered to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, since Jews and Christians no longer got along. He never got around to doing it, though, and some Christians saw his death as an act of God to prevent the project.

Support this site!

© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



A History of Europe


Other History Papers

Beyond History