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November 4, 2012
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The Late Roman Empire (AD 395) by Undevicesimus The Late Roman Empire (AD 395) by Undevicesimus

The Late Roman Empire (AD 395)

The ominous finale of the second century AD seemingly brought the Roman Empire on the brink of disintegration. But the considerable challenges the Romans had to face in those days were by no means the heralds of Rome’s fall. On the contrary, the tide turned completely under the powerful leadership of Septimius Severus: Germanic invasions in the north were halted, the Parthians in the east driven back, the army enlarged, monetary reforms enacted and the imperial frontiers strengthened. All this was largely accomplished as a result of Septimius Severus’ autocratic rule. The semi-republican facade of the Principate became increasingly irrelevant as Severus put the empire in a permanent state of emergency and established the most militarised, authoritarian regime the Romans had ever known until then. This allowed him the freedom to sweep away Rome’s internal and external problems with brutal efficiency, thus leaving a revitalised Roman Empire at his death in AD 211. In some ways, history seemed to be repeating itself. When the Roman Republic proved no longer capable of managing an empire, it had been transformed into the semi-republican Principate by Augustus. At the dawn of the third century, it became clear that the Principate itself was now no longer capable of dealing with the empire’s increasingly serious problems. Septimius Severus had understood this well, setting a precedent for his successors to transform the Roman government once more. However, given the difficult transition from Republic to Principate centuries ago, it seemed likely that transforming the Principate would be equally tricky, not to say bloody. Moreover, the problems the Romans had conquered under Septimius Severus would prove to be only the overture to the more serious disasters of the third century AD.

Having made the mistake of appointing his sons Caracalla and Geta as joint-successors, renewed troubles arose pretty much the day Septimius Severus died (AD 211). Indeed, Severus’ dynasty proved to be power-hungry and incompetent (unlike Severus himself), personified most of all in the rule of Caracalla (AD 211 – 217), who had his brother murdered and was ultimately murdered himself. The empire subsequently came dangerously close to complete anarchy, initially under the continued mismanagement of Severan rulers. But when Alexander Severus, the last Severan ruler, was murdered in AD 235, power was taken over by so-called ‘soldier emperors’ – military commanders using their armies to compete for power. In approximately fifty years, no less than twenty-five emperors, anti-emperors and usurpers passed the revue, of which only one (!) died in his bed. The empire thus plunged into a permanent civil war, reducing the Roman government to near-impotence in managing even its basic affairs. The results were catastrophic: the Roman economy collapsed under the weight of massive inflation, civil impoverishment reached a disturbing zenith as a result of the economic collapse and the heavy taxation under different pretenders, widespread banditry and epidemics broke out among the people...

Barbarian Gothi, Alemanni and Franci now seized their opportunity and assailed the nigh undefended imperial frontiers in the north. Simultaneously, the aggressive Sassanid Empire in the east propagated a revival of the ancient Persian Empire and – unlike their Parthian predecessors – found themselves in the position to try and make this a reality, further worsening the situation on Rome’s crumbling eastern frontiers. Things took yet another turn for the worse when emperor Decius fell in battle against the Gothi in Moesia (AD 251). Shortly afterwards, the Franci invaded Gallia and reached Hispania, the Alemanni and Marcomanni crossed the Danuvius and advanced on Italia, the Gothi ravaged Macedonia and the Black Sea regions, and the Sassanid armies successfully conquered Armenia and proceeded to invade Mesopotamia and Syria. On top of all this, several important regions of the empire successfully broke away (AD 260) – Gallia, Germania, Britannia and Hispania formed the new Imperium Galliarum and in the east the Regnum Palmyrae was founded around the city of Palmyra, controlling Egypt, the Syrian provinces and much of Asia Minor.

The Roman Empire at last seemed to be facing its irreversible defeat, but the Romans were not about to let it happen just like that. To them, their empire was still supreme and therefore superior to all others – there could be no empire other than the Roman Empire and accepting its defeat was unthinkable even in the darkest times. It must be noted that Rome’s trademark fanaticism and unwavering self-confidence would ultimately not only save the empire, but also recover much of the supremacy it had enjoyed while the Pax Romana lasted. This recovery could nevertheless only be realised if the Roman government re-invented itself and re-asserted its authority without compromise.

Having come to this conclusion, Rome resorted to drastic measures in sweeping away the catastrophes piled up on its imperial doorsteps and achieving the empire’s revival. The central architect of this was undoubtedly Diocletianus, chief among the so-called ‘Illyrian Emperors’, who ascended to power in AD 284 – popularly noted as the first year of Rome’s rebirth. Indeed, history repeated itself remarkably: much like the calamities of the first century BC had resulted in the Roman Republic’s transition to the Principate under Augustus, so would the Principate itself now be transformed to a new form of government; the Dominate under Diocletianus.

Diocletianus and his successors ceased to be called princeps, and openly emerged as dominus: a deified ruler with absolute authority. Indeed, the Dominate was as authoritarian as its name suggests: Rome turned its empire into a totalitarian state which controlled its affairs down to a local level, at least in theory. In retrospect, the emergence of the Dominate may be called a mere delay of the empire’s disintegration but it was nonetheless a significant one. In the west, the Dominate allowed the Romans to stand their ground for another century. It was only after the empire’s final division in an eastern and western half (AD 395) that the west went down the road to final dissolution, under the weight of renewed economic troubles and successive waves of barbarian invasions. In the east meanwhile, the Dominate formed the basis of another millennium of Roman imperial history.

Diocletianus’ Dominate was founded on one simple principle: defend the people to tax the people. To achieve this, he enforced major reforms within the Roman governmental framework, based on two elements: more soldiers and more bureaucrats. These two branches subsequently worked under the iron authority of the dominus, whom assumed the role of supreme supervisor. These ideas were not exactly new and had been fostering since the days of Septimius Severus. However, Diocletianus successfully radicalised every aspect of Septimius Severus’ approach, putting the empire in a permanent state of emergency, dropping all forms of republican facade and establishing a highly militarised and autocratic government. Indeed, Roman authority was rebuilt around its military apparatus, upon which all policies and reforms henceforth relied and/or focused. In addition to strengthening the imperial border fortifications and their garrisons, Diocletianus assembled mobile field armies which were not bound to a specific location and could thus rapidly reinforce threatened frontiers or crush internal dissent. However, the Romans required huge numbers of personnel to maintain their armies, which forced them to hire Germanic warriors from across the border on a steady basis. Parts of the Roman military and the empire’s border regions thus began to ‘barbarise’ slowly, which would ultimately prove to be a significant element in both the western empire’s initial survival and final dissolution.

Administratively, Diocletianus thoroughly reorganised the empire as well, dividing it into an eastern and a western half, each headed by an Augustus. This system itself was soon modified and replaced with the so-called Tetrarchy, the ‘rule of four’ (AD 293). The two Augusti were now joined by two Caesares, who governed as co-rulers and were the designated successors to the office of Augustus. Diocletianus furthermore reformed the Roman provinces by dividing them up into smaller territories which were then grouped together into dioceses. The dioceses in turn formed the four praetorian prefectures which became the highest administrative divisions of the empire.

To finance all these military and administrative reforms, Diocletianus needed to first revitalise and subsequently control the Roman economy. An imperial tax was thus instituted, which all citizens of the empire were required to pay. Simultaneously, the government commanded what sort of employment and social position an individual would have, something future generations would be bound too. In other words, if someone’s father had been in the army, that person was to serve in the army too, regardless of personal ambitions or talents. These policies bear witness to the authoritarian nature of the Dominate. Nevertheless, this should not be overestimated because the Romans typically lacked the time, resources and knowledge to control the affairs and people of their empire down to a local level. Any comparison of the Roman Dominate to totalitarian states of the modern era is therefore irrelevant and wrong.

Rebuilding and improving their empire’s administrative, economical and military capacities at last allowed the Romans to settle a number of open accounts with their external and internal enemies. Under Diocletianus’ guidance, the Romans smashed the barbarian invaders of the Danuvius frontier, destroyed uprisings in Egypt, secured peace with the tribes of Nubia and organised the greatest anti-Christian persecutions yet. Meanwhile in the east, the Sassanid Empire continued propagating itself as the New Persian Empire, claiming all the territory once ruled by the Achaemenid dynasty. In accordance with this and their earlier successes, the Sassanids once again declared war on Rome in AD 295. However, they now found themselves face to face with the well-trained armies of a revived Roman Empire which was more than eager to fight its eastern nemesis. The Romans halted the Sassanid advance and launched a counter-offensive, leading to the triumphant destruction of the Sassanid capital at Ctesiphon in AD 299. Appalled at the turning of the tide, the Sassanid government wisely accepted a peace treaty on Roman terms.

Diocletianus abdicated in AD 305 (the only Roman emperor to do so willingly), leaving a restored Roman Empire. However, egocentrism and dynastic factors proved too great for a successful Tetrarchic succession, resulting in the umpteenth civil war which ultimately brought to power Constantinus as the undisputed new dominus (AD 324). Despite Diocletianus having failed when it came to the succession, most of his reforms and policies survived him and were continued or improved by Constantinus, who successfully reinforced the fragile Roman economy by creating a new coin; the golden solidus.

To emphasise the empire’s rebirth and the strength of the Dominate, Constantinus also founded a new capital: Nova Roma Constantinopolitana (quickly made into Constantinopolis – Constantinople), the New Rome which would become the empire’s beating heart for another thousand years. But unlike Rome itself, the new capital was Greco-Roman and ultimately Christian! Christianity had been brutally persecuted under the conservative Diocletianus, who viewed its monotheistic doctrines as incompatible with the Dominate. Christianity was nevertheless officially tolerated by Galerius in AD 311 and given the formal right to exist in AD 313. Constantinus himself would become the first Christian emperor, recognizing Christianity could be useful in strengthening the Dominate. Christianity thus became the religion of the regime.

‘Of the regime’ indeed in a quite literal sense. Constantinus worked hard to bring Christianity under his personal command, appointing his followers to prominent positions within the Church and interfering in its organisational structure and even in the Christian doctrine itself. To Constantinus, there could be no doubt that the emperor of a Christian Roman Empire would remain the dominus, albeit no longer as a god in human form. Instead, Constantinus established the idea that the emperor was God’s chosen representative on earth and therefore no ordinary mortal, but a half-god who ruled the empire by the grace of God. Constantinus thus brilliantly used Christianity to strengthen both the unity of the empire and the imperial personality cult propagated by the Dominate. The Christians accepted these policies for now, recognizing that the Church needed the Dominate too, if it was to survive and become the sole religion of the empire and its people. A smart move, for the Christian message spread ever more rapidly as its ties to the highest ranks of the Roman elite strengthened. Christianity’s dominance was ultimately secured when emperor Theodosius officially made it the state religion of the Roman Empire, purged the imperial court of any remaining anti-Christian sentiments and subsequently forbade the Greco-Roman polytheism (AD 391). Within less than a century after the state-orchestrated persecutions of Christians under Diocletianus, the tables were turned completely: Christians were no longer the hunted, but the hunters. Indeed, the very first thing they set out to do was to forcibly convert the remaining pagan people and destroy any still active pagan temples or sanctuaries.

However, despite Christianity’s increasing power within the empire, there was little else to boast about as the fourth century progressed. After the death of Constantinus in AD 337, the east and west drifted further apart. Constantinus had largely focused his reign on the eastern half of the empire and neglected to ensure his succession, sparking yet another civil war which left the western empire dangerously weakened. Rome now no longer had the power to either hold its frontiers against external enemies or enforce yet another revival of its collapsing supremacy. Without the stabilizing east, the west saw its ailing economy crumble rapidly under the weight of infighting and mismanagement. Meanwhile, even greater catastrophes were brewing beyond the northern Rhenus-Danuvius frontier. The Germanic world was suffering severe food shortages throughout the fourth century and increasing numbers of Germanic people attempted to penetrate the fertile lands of the Mediterranean which belonged to Rome. More importantly, the violent westward journey of the Hunni from the steppes of Central Asia sparked massive migrations among the Germanic tribes. By AD 370, the Hunni ravaged the kingdom of the Ostrogothi near the Black Sea and drove the Visigothi across the Danuvius. The Gothi initially pleaded with the Roman government for help and asylum, which was granted. However, the Romans simply could not handle such numbers of immigrants and the Gothi ultimately betrayed their hosts: at the Battle of Hadrianopolis (AD 378), a large Roman force under emperor Valens was massacred by the immigrants. Theodosius emerged as the new emperor and temporarily restored order, reuniting the Roman Empire one last time. However, another renewal of Rome’s supremacy was out of the question and at his death in AD 395, the empire was formally divided among his two sons, making the division of the Roman Empire in east and west an irreversible fact. Hardly fifteen years later in AD 410, the Eternal City of the Seven Hills – Rome itself – was besieged and sacked for the first time in nearly eight centuries.

“The City which had taken the whole world, was itself taken.” ~ St. Hieronymus

© 2012 – 2014

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Paullian Apr 28, 2013  Professional Interface Designer
You're a genius!
You're too kind :bow:
Keep up the god work :)
amazingly detailed and cool map
i remember all of this from history classes back in elementary and high school
in my opinion the most stable and prosperous times in history were roman imperial age, french empire under napoleon, and above all cold war
Thank you very much :bow:

The Roman Empire from Augustus to Hadrianus is indeed a very stable period, generally - although on the local level, there was much violence and unsafety. Napoleon's Empire was and is an example to the world, but it was constantly threatened by aggressor coalitions, forcing Napoleon to go to war again and again. Imagine what Napoleon could've accomplished if he didn't have to fight wars all the time? :) And don't forget China under the Ming Dynasty, which is generally seen as one of the most peaceful and stable periods in human history.
didnt know that about ming dynasty china being peacefull
Well they had their share of wars and internal problems, of course. But generally, Ming China was very stable, I think, much more than the Romans. But I don't know enough Ming history to be really specific (:
cold war era beats them all, since the general world peace was maintained with fear of nukes flying around annihilating everything much more stable than today
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