Rome

The Calamitious Century, 180-284


   When Marcus Aurelius died in 180, his son Commodus assumed the imperiate. Marcus Aurelius had been appointed by the Senate and proved to be a thoughtful and highly efficient administrator. His son, however, was slightly imbalanced. Fancying himself to be a reincarnation of Hercules, Commodus was both brutal and incompetent. He openly defied the Senate and revelled in all sorts of perversities. He was so violent and vicious, that the palace guards murdered in in 192.

   The Roman Empire at this time was in the teeth of a crisis. In the east, a new empire was arising in Iran, the Sassanids, who were attempting to restore Persian glory. In the north, the German tribes were beginning to migrate and were pushing past their borders in raiding parties. The most dangerous of these Germanic tribes were the Goths, who occupied southern Russia. By the middle of the third century, however, they had managed to take territory from Rome in the area that is now Bosnia.

   To fan the flames of this crisis, the internal politics of the imperiate fell into chaos. After the death of Commodus, a military general, Septimius Severus (193-211), seized power after two others had tried their hands at the imperiate in the same year and ruled as an absolute dictator. He decimated the economy by dramatically raising taxes, and he dramatically changed the character of the Senate by directly attacking senators. He replaced them with military men, so the Senate gradually began to look more like a military aristocracy. He established a rigid class system which slowly solidified to the point where social mobility was almost completely obviated.

   After the death of Septimius Severus, the imperiate fell to the next in line in the dynasty, Alexander Severus. However, Septimius had set a precedent by seizing and retaining power using the provincial army under his control. After the death of Alexander in 235, Rome saw a half century of "barracks emperors" who were all generals and seized power in the same way Septimius Severus had done. This half century, from 235 to 280 was the most calamitious period in Roman history. Internal politics had fallen into complete disarray, the economy had become a disaster, taxation in some cases approached near-confiscation levels, and foreigners made tremendous inroads in capturing Roman territory. The two last "barracks emperors," Claudius II Gothicus (268-270) and Aurelian (270-275), stemmed the tide slightly by pulling back troops from the frontier and hiring mercenary soldiers, but Roman government and stability would not be restored and reconstructed until the imperiate of Diocletian (284-305).

   These were times of immense social crisis and fear. Even the statues of the emperors show this fear; while imperial statuary of Augustus and the early emperors (all the way up to Commodus) show heroic and powerful individuals, the statues of the emperors in the third century show worry and resignation and their faces are deeply lined with wrinkles and furrowed brows. They are amazing documents in Roman history, for the purpose of statuary is to present the ideology of the government; the Romans seemed so hopeless, that even the emperors were represented as weak and worried.


Early Christianity
Early Christianity
   During this period, the Romans underwent deep religious and philosophical changes. The fear and panic evoked by the loss of territory and the economic decimation of the country led people to adopt far more mystical religions and philosophies. It is during this century that eastern religions, particularly Christianity, really take hold in Rome. Christianity, for instance, had hung on but was not a wildly popular religion in the Roman Empire until the third century. With its promise of rewards in an afterlife, its emphasis on the individual and on spirituality, and its explanation of suffering in this world, it was a powerful world view in a world that seemed to be falling apart. Other eastern religions, particularly Mithraism, which was derived from Persian Zoroastriansism, also promised an afterlife and a meaning to suffering and were as popular as Christianity. In fact, there were as many Mithraists in Rome in the third century as there were Christians; because the two religions were so close to one another (they both involved the son of god taking a human form to experience human suffering; the human life of this god involves a last supper and an execution; both religions are eschatological and promise a final judgement—the difference, however, is that Mithraism is at least three centuries older than Christianity), they deeply influenced one another. There grew up several species of Christian-Zoroastrian religions, such as Gnosticism and Manicheism, but the interaction between these two religions affected mainstream Christianity itself, such as the moving of the Sabbath day to Sunday and the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25, both of which have no precedent in foundational Christianity and were taken whole cloth from Mithraism, which had its day of worship on Sunday (Mithras was the god of the sun) and celebrated his birth in human form on December 25 (there is no date given for the birth of Christ).


World Cultures Glossary
The One and the Many
   The Romans also reoriented themselves philosophically. The practical philosophies of Rome, particularly Stoicism, were edged out by new eastern and Greek philosophies. The most important and influential of these philosophies was Neo-Platonism. Founded in the first century by Plotinus and his pupil, Proclus, the Neo-Platonists believed that they were reviving the original philosophy of Plato. In reality, however, they believed that the universe preceded from a single thing, that is, that the multiplicity of all phenomena and existence derived from a single deity which Plotinus called, "the One" (in Greek, "to hen"), which Plotinus also called God. Everything in existence "eminates" from the One. The first emanation is the "world soul," and from the world soul come the forms of things and all the souls of living things, which themselves emanate from the world soul. The last of the emanations is matter or the physical world. So all of existence is a kind of hierarchy of emanations from the One; the farther an emanation is from the One, the less existence it has. So the One has all existence, the world soul has much existence, your individual soul has some existence, and your body and the material world around you barely exist. Since your soul is an emanation of God, it originally was a part of God and desires to be reunited with God. The material and physical world binds your soul to matter so that it can't escape and achieve its mystical reunion with God. Human life, then, should be spent in spiritual and intellectual contemplation in order to free the soul from matter; everything that is associated with the body, such as pleasure, should be rejected since these pleasures further chain the soul to the material world.


   If this all sounds familiar, it should. While this philosophy was becoming the major philosophy in Rome during the third century, it corresponded to the phenomenal growth of Christianity within the Empire as well. Many of the Neo-Platonist ideas were incorporated into Christian theology by the most prominent Christian theorists of the time, particularly Augustine, who had spent a large part of his life as a Neo-Platonist.

   The decline of Rome during this century seemed to point to an almost certain demise, and the promise of an afterlife or a mystical reunion with the One seemed to be the only thing to hope for. However, the last of the barracks emperors, a shrewd and practical man named Diocletian, radically reconstructed the Empire and set the stage for the Christian Roman Empire in the fourth century.

Richard Hooker



The Late Empire

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97