Chapter 7 The Roman World

Section 6 The Later Roman Empire  

The crisis of the 200s shattered the Roman world in all its aspects. Drastic reforms had to be implemented if the empire were to survive. This was the goal of the Emperor Diocletian, who assumed the purple mantle of imperial authority in 284. Diocletian succeeded in giving the empire another two centuries of life, but in the process he completely transformed it, particularly the western provinces. Neither the political system, nor even the intellectual world of what we call the Late Roman Empire can be compared with the Roman imperial civilization of the first three centuries A.D.  

The Diocletian Reforms

In an effort to stem the floodtide that was steadily undermining the empire’s foundations, in the late 200s and early 300s the Emperor Diocletian transformed the principate into an absolute and autocratic monarchy. The emperor was no longer simply the princeps, or first citizen, but rather the dominus, or master. Drawing on eastern traditions of monarchy, the emperor surrounded himself with elaborate ceremony and pomp. No longer continuing the idea of being a first among equals, he now placed himself far above his subjects, and ruled over them with no accountability to anyone. Soon, he became Dominus et Deus, Master and God, ruling the empire from a state of divine grandeur and isolated splendor. 

A new social order. Diocletian’s reforms  transformed Roman imperial society into a bureaucratic and rigid order that might best be compared to a prison camp. Every aspect of life was regulated by the central imperial administration. Individual freedom was a privilege of the past—under Diocletian’s decrees sons must follow the trades and social positions of their fathers. Thus soldier's sons must become soldiers, while baker’s sons must become bakers. Peasants were permanently tied to the land they farmed as coloni. Even the provincial organization was reviewed and revised. Diocletian made provinces smaller for better administrative control, and grouped them together into four large divisions called prefectures. Local aristocrats were subjected to the scrutiny of imperial civil servants and lost all their independence and political power. The army was increased to 500,000 men in all, as it became increasingly important and received the full attention of the emperor himself. 

A new economic order. The economy also came under full state direction and control. Prices of goods and services were rigidly controlled. A new tax system raised more money than ever for the new administration and for the army. Under the increasing pressures of maintaining security, all aspects of the economy were regulated. Factories producing weapons in the eastern cities of the empire, for example, were given quotas and forbidden to shut down, even when they were losing money. Everywhere, commercial and manufacturing activities were subordinated to the needs of imperial defense.

            Initially, these drastic reforms were successful. Diocletian did save the empire from falling into anarchy or even disappearing. But the price was enormous, particularly in the loss of individual freedom and intellectual originality. Rome was no longer a civilization expanding but a civilization on the defensive. The individualism of the Hellenistic world and the early empire gave way to growing conformity. People ceased to be citizens so much as subjects, anonymous parts of a state-engineered society.

Political reforms. As part of his efforts to improve the efficiency of imperial administration, Diocletian divided the empire in two. Ruling the eastern half himself, he appointed a co-emperor to rule the western provinces. In addition, both emperors named assistants, called Caesars, who were supposed to help administer the empire and eventually succeed peacefully to the imperial purple in their turn. So long as Diocletian remained emperor, these arrangements worked reasonably well, and in 305 he retired to “grow cabbages.” His co-emperor also retired so that the two Caesars could assume the purple at the same time.

            Soon, however, the two new emperors quarreled and the empire plunged once more into civil war. Not until 312 did Constantine, the son of one of the original Caesars, emerge victorious and restore peace throughout the empire. Although at first he maintained the system of divided rule, governing the western provinces himself, in 337 Constantine did away with the system and restored the unity of the empire. In other respects, however, Constantine continued Diocletian’s policies of rigid state control over society. 

            As emperor, Constantine made two personal decisions that would profoundly affect the direction of the future empire. First, he made Christianity legal and encouraged its development throughout the Empire under the auspices of the state. Second, he established a second imperial capital, named Constantinople, on the site of the tiny village of Byzantium on the European shore of the Bosphorus, which separated Asia Minor from Europe. While Constantine hoped to use Christianity to revitalize the unity of the empire, like Diocletian, he recognized that the balance of wealth and power in the empire had shifted from the west to the east—it was for this reason that he tacitly admitted a continuing division of the empire by creating Constantinople as a second imperial capital.  

Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. According to tradition, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was triggered by a personal experience that occurred just before the the last battle of the civil wars that brought him uncontested power in 312. Before the battle the emperor apparently saw a vision of the cross in the sky, and heard the words, “In hoc signo vince,” “In this sign, conquer.” When he did indeed conquer, Constantine decided to become a devotee of the Christian faith. In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity legal. Although Constantine did not go so far as to make Christianity the state religion, he certainly favored it and under his patronage the new religion began to flourish throughout the empire. 

The Triumph of Christianity

From a tiny religious minority, Christians soon grew to constitute a majority of the population. Constantine’s successors were raised in the doctrines of the faith and further favored it. Finally, in 380, the Emperor Theodosius the Great outlawed all religious worship in the empire except that of Christianity. Paganism, which had once held sway throughout the Greco-Roman world, soon all but disappeared from the territories of the Roman world. 

Development of the church. Early Christian congregations were not only spiritual organizations, but also acted as closely knit families. They provided all kinds of support for their members, such as nursing and burial services, and provision of food and shelter for the poor. As crisis rocked the foundations of the Roman world, Christianity provided emotional and physical support and reassurance for its growing membership.

            Under imperial patronage, however, Christianity itself began to change. Part of its early success had been due to the development of special ceremonies and rituals designed to inspire people’s faith and make them feel closer to Christ. Those who organized and performed these ceremonies gradually became a special class within Christianity. They derived their authority from the apostles, or disciples of Jesus, who had passed on the authority given them by Christ himself to their own followers and helpers through a “laying on of hands.” Called priests, those who were part of this apostolic succession were soon distinguished from the laity, or general congregation of the church.

            Over time, distinctions also appeared even within the priesthood. Christianity was primarily a urban religion. As the church expanded, and particularly as it became the beneficiary of legacies left by its members in gifts of property or money with which to carry on its charitable and missionary activities, it also began to develop an administrative structure. Soon, a single member of the clergy emerged in most cities who had authority over all other members of the clergy within the region. These officials were called bishops.

            The adoption of Christianity as the state religion not only reinforced such a hierarchical development but accelerated it. Bishops in the large cities of the empire, for example, began to call themselves metropolitans, and to claim jurisdiction over the clergy in entire provinces. By the 300s, the heads of the oldest and largest Christian congregations in Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople, were being called patriarchs, and claimed authority even over the metropolitans. Primarily administrators, these bishops, metropolitans and patriarchs were also the leaders in the development of Christian doctrine.

            At first, questions concerning correct doctrine and church organization were handled by general councils, with representatives from all the major churches in attendance. Councils continued to be an important part of the church government, but increasingly the position of the bishops of Rome and of Constantinople, as the leading churchmen in the imperial capitals, also became particularly influential and authoritative. The Roman bishops in particular claimed primacy in the Christian world, by arguing that the church in Rome had been founded by Saints Peter and Paul, both of whom were martyred there.

            Saint Peter was generally accepted by the Christian community as having founded the Roman church and acted as its first bishop. Consequently, later bishops of Rome were seen as Peter’s spiritual heirs. Reinforcing their claim to primacy, the bishops of Rome interpreted a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Christ apparently gave Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” to mean that all subsequent Roman bishops would also inherit the keys—a doctrine known as the Petrine Succession. Although other metropolitans and patriarchs, as well as many ordinary bishops, disputed the Petrine Succession for centuries, in 445 the Emperor Valentinian III decreed that all western bishops should acknowledge the authority of the bishop of Rome, or pope as he was now being called, after the Latin word for father. Increasingly, the church organized itself along the same lines as the imperial administration.

            In fact, such developments were probably in keeping with Constantine’s original decision to foster the church as a potential source of unity for binding the empire back together. Ironically, however, the more closely organized the church became, the greater became the dangers it faced from internal disputes over doctrine.

The problem of heresy. Heresy, or beliefs that did not conform to the accepted teachings of the main body of the church, seriously threatened to destroy the unity of Christianity in its early years of imperial patronage. During the first major crisis over doctrine, the so-called Arian heresy, after the views of a priest named Arius, became the subject of a church council summoned by Constantine to settle the doctrinal controversy once and for all and to establish a uniform doctrine for all of the Christian community.

            Arius argued that Christ, being God’s son, could not be the same as God himself and must therefore have been created by God the Father. This entirely rational view was opposed by the followers of Saint Athenasius, who argued that it was a matter of correct faith to accept that the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all mentioned in the Gospels, were co-eternal, co-equal, and made of the same substance. Eventually, this view of the Christian Trinity prevailed and Arianism was branded a heresy and swept out of the church.

            Other heresies were dealt with in the same manner, usually debated in a church council and then eventually declared beyond the bounds of true Christianity. Although to the modern observer such doctrinal questions might seem trivial, for Christians of the times they were of absolute importance—since only the correct doctrine could assure people of the chance for salvation and eternal life. Anyone who threatened such certainty of salvation was simply asking for trouble.  

Monasticism. As the church became increasingly involved in the daily affairs of people’s lives after its recognition as the state religion, many within its fold became concerned that it was losing sight of the original message of Christ. In an effort to recapture the ascetic and contemplative spirit they believed Jesus had wanted, such pious individuals often turned toward monasticism, becoming monks and living alone to practice a life of asceticism and self-denial in order to prepare for the life to come. During the 300s, monasticism spread like wildfire throughout the church, especially in the east, where the monastic movement first emerged.

            As the clergy became more and more involved in the affairs of administration and the life of the flesh, more and more lay people abandoned the world around them in favor of isolation in the deserts and woods and mountains. Some went to extreme lengths to practice their devotion to God by denying the needs of the flesh. St. Simeon Stylites, for example, lived on a platform atop a tall pole for 37 years. Others had themselves cemented into tiny cubby holes, with only small openings through which they could be passed food and water. In such perfect isolation they felt closer to God and better able to devote themselves entirely to preparing for the next life rather than becoming caught in the struggle for survival in the present life.

            As monasticism reached new heights of self-torture, however, eventually some in the church decided that a communal approach to asceticism would be more productive. Perhaps the most influential of these advocates of communal monasticism was Saint Basil. In a series of writings, Basil developed plans and rules for monastic communities that would replace the individual asceticism of the early monks. Instead of self-denial, Basil suggested that hard work would better serve the needs of both the individual ascetic and the Lord. Even with work to fill their time, however, under Basil’s rule monks spent most of their time in prayer and meditation, and monastic communities along this new model preferred to establish themselves as far away from the “outer” world as possible.  

Barbarian Migrations and the Fall of Rome

The history of the western Roman empire after the death of Constantine in 337 was almost entirely conditioned by the constant struggle to keep its borders safe from Germanic invaders. Military considerations became the main preoccupation of the emperors and all the resources of the empire were aimed at trying to protect the integrity of its borders. The empire was besieged and constantly threatened on its frontiers along the Rhine, the Danube, and the Euphrates. Neither the economy nor the manpower of the empire could withstand invasions on so many fronts. Consequently, at the end of the 300s, the Romans had to concede territory to the invaders and allow them to settle inside the empire as autonomous groups. In exchange, they hoped the tribes would act as frontier guards against the tribes still pressing in behind them. At the same time, Diocletian’s division of the empire into eastern and western parts was revived, with Rome as the capital of the west and Constantinople as capital of the east. By the time of the Emperor Theodosius’s death in 395, this division had become permanent.

The Goths. The first major group of barbarian peoples to enter the empire were the Goths, a Germanic people fleeing from the advancing hordes of central Asian steppe nomads, the Huns.



            Progressively Germanized, the western empire survived until 476 A.D. when Odoacer, a German chieftain, deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last western Roman emperor. The eastern empire resisted the invaders on its borders, but it too was forced progressively to withdraw into itself. Although Constantinople remained the capital of “Rome in the East” for another thousand years, at the end of that time the only thing left to the emperors was the city itself and its immediate surroundings.

            Meanwhile, in the western provinces, Germanic tribes began to roam at will, attacking cities and establishing kingdoms of their own in the ruins of the Roman provinces. As the imperial communications network began to break down, cities could no longer obtain enough food from the countryside to sustain many people. Gradually, most cities were abandoned as people drifted back into the countryside to find food and some kind of security.

            Civilization did not cease, but it retreated increasingly to the local level as a new culture began to emerge from the amalgamation of Germanic, Roman, and Christian elements. Only the memory of a united empire under a single emperor remained alive, fanned by an ever present church hierarchy that survived the transition and began to pick up the pieces after the fall of Rome itself. Both the ideal of a universal empire and a universal church to sustain it would remain embedded in the imagination of Europeans for centuries to come.