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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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knives4cash Featured By Owner Jun 28, 2014  Hobbyist
This is a fantastic analysis and explanation of the Late Roman Empire. I'm reading through it again, and I'd just like to point out that you either overlooked or forgot about Emperor Aurelianus, who fittingly was named "Restorer of the world" for taking back the territories that had been lost to the Gallic and Palmyrene usurpers. Not only that, but he got it all done in just five years before his assassination! The man knew how to get a job done, I must observe. You jump right to Diocletian and for good reason, of course. I just feel that the man deserves recognition.
Undevicesimus Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2014   Artist
Thank you :bow:

I'm actually working on a new map and updated analysis of the Late Roman Empire. It'll be done and uploaded in a few days ^^
Aurelianus won't be overlooked in the new version. I don't even remember why I ignored him here tbh, considering his achievements were
- as you mention too - no less astounding than those of Diocletian.
knives4cash Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2014  Hobbyist
I look forward to reading it! I am absolutely ecstatic!

Will you still be giving the impression that Constantine hadn't truly converted to Christianity? That he was just using it to keep Rome unified? The results are certainly there, but we know that he refused to preform a traditional, pagan Roman sacrifice after the defeat of Maxentius and abandoned the traditional religion of Rome. And that he eventually had pagan temples sacked for funds in his later years. Of course, one does have to question why Jesus Christ, an entity born in the Middle East, would use Greek, conveniently Constantine's preferred language, to tell Constantine what to do.
Undevicesimus Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2014   Artist
It should be done soon ^^

Honestly, I think Constantine was before anything a political realist. He knew what he wanted and he looked for the tools to accomplish it. Diocletian essentially tried the same,
but he thought the Greco-Roman polytheism was the right tool for the job. This failed, and Constantine understood that using Christianity would be better than trying to destroy it.

I believe Christianity was nothing more than a very useful tool to Constantine, a tool he successfully wielded to (a) strengthen the unity of the crumbling Roman Empire
(b) consolidate the Dominate gov't with himself as the deified leader (which went against Christianity!) and (c) have a pretext to deal with the pagan Roman elite in Rome itself
(f. ex. he founded Constantinople as a Christian Roman capital to literally distance himself from the corrupt senators and officials in Rome)

Those are three accomplishments of Constantine for which he used Christianity and the Church, but with little or no devotion to the religion itself. He appointed his followers to important positions in the Church, he altered Christian teachings to suit his own needs, he used the Church as a vault for the seized property from the pagan senatorial elite (which made the Church very rich, but Constantine even richer!)... And most of all, he made it very clear that the Church's success was dependent on him. The core of the imperial personality cult was not suddenly God or Jesus, but Constantine himself. He continued his image as a deified ruler, which goes against every Christian teaching... The tales of Constantine's supposed devotion to the Christian God (f. ex.  the famous "dream of Constantine") are just the Roman propaganda created to gain some kind of ideological fundament and momentum for acceptance of Christianity.

Also, he was baptised only right before he died, which is yet another sign that he had little or no devotion to his new religion.
knives4cash Featured By Owner Jun 29, 2014  Hobbyist
I would love to have you as a history teacher, you would have been far better than my high school one. 

Just one more thing: What about Milvian Bridge? Constantine was a young, ambitious co-emperor who was facing numerically superior forces and seems to have had nothing to gain by converting to Christianity. Lactantius and Eucebius claims that Constantine had his soldiers paint the Chi-Rho on their shields and use it as their standards. 

What's your explanation for this? I've heard once or twice from some that it never happened (and the lack of Chi-Rhos on Constantine's Arch certainly support this claim), and Constantine just had it added in later to explain his conversion. Since you refer to his "devotion" as propaganda, I'm guessing you're a fan of that version?   
Undevicesimus Featured By Owner Jun 30, 2014   Artist
Lol thanks for the compliment, I appreciate that ^^!

Yes, the famous Dream of Constantine before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge... Personally, I think it never happened ^^ Constantine having a vision that he should put the Chi-rho symbol on his soldiers' shields and banners to gain God's grace and intervention in the battle... This is the classic type of propaganda, where a central character is given some kind of divine grace before facing a do-or-die challenge and naturally being victorious. This not only adds lustre and legitimacy to the victor, but also demonises the loser and warns any remaining supporters of the losing side that they are risking the wrath of both the victor and a divine authority.

I know Eusebius wrote an unfinished book called "Vita Constantini" (The Life of Constantine) which mentions the story of Constantine's dream before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge but this account was written years after the battle, when Constantine was already firmly in power and had long started favouring Christianity. This indicates again that the story was fabricated years after the facts. I don't think the account of Eusebius says says much about the possibility of this dream being a historical fact, seeing as his entire book is meant to glorify Constantine (even declaring him a god, go figure!) and demonise Diocletian.

Also, as you mention too, the abscence of any reference to Christianity or its symbolism on the Arch of Constantine - which was erected specifically to commemorate his victory at the Milvian Bridge - underlines again that the tale is pure propaganda. Surely Constantine would've put the Chi-rho in a central position on his arch, if he honestly believed this was the symbol that gave him victory, but it's not even there! ^^

So in short, I think the Dream was just a glorious story created by Constantine's propagandists to
+ throw mud at Maxentius and underline yet again that he was wrong, and the Roman people were better off with Constantine as leader
+ threaten the polytheists and any remaining Maxentian supporters that - if they try anything against Constantine - they risk the wrath of a God
who is stronger than the ones they worship (after all, Jupiter, Mars, Apollo and the rest had not stopped God and Constantine from gaining victory)
+ to help explain why Constantine started favouring Christianity and especially to encourage the Roman people to do so too

Good reasons, I would say, but if you ask me if the story is real, I say "no", it was a smart move in a big propaganda offensive ^^
Paullian Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2013  Professional Interface Designer
You're a genius!
Undevicesimus Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2013   Artist
You're too kind :bow:
Hoplitesoldier7 Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
Hoplitesoldier7 Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2012
Keep up the god work :)
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