Rome

The Late Empire


   While people like to talk about the "decline" or the "fall" of Rome, no such thing really happened. Although Rome underwent several shocks in the fourth and fifth centuries, some of them violent with a transfer of the imperiate to non-Romans, Rome really did remain in existence. It's impossible to say when the history of Rome ends and when the medieval ("medieval" means "in the middle") period begins, so I'm going to arbitrarily end this history of Rome with the assumption of the imperiate by foreigners. But the empire really does end, for all practical purposes, with the restructuring of the empire by Diocletian.

   Diocletian (284-305) came to the throne after a century of disorganization, internal dissent, economic collapse, and foreign invasions. A tough and practical soldier he had one ambition: to retire from the imperiate alive. And he managed to do it (an exceptional feat). To stem the descent into chaos, he decided that the Empire was too large to be adminstered by a central authority, so he divided it in half. The western half would be ruled by a colleague, Maximian, and the seat of government would be Rome; the eastern half would be ruled by Diocletian, and the seat of government was in Nicomedia. Maximian recognized Diocletian as "Augustus," or the senior ruler of the Roman emperor. Beneath these two were appointed to each two officials, called caesars, not only to help manage the administration, but to assume their respective empires on the death of the emperor. In this way, the succession was always guaranteed and the successors had already spent much of their career adminstering the empire. This would prevent both the possibility of the ambitious seizing of the imperiate by provincial generals and would prevent incompetents from assuming control of the Empire.

   This was a brilliant strategy and, with other innovations, stabilized the Empire. Diocletian was the first emperor to manifestly break with Roman tradition. He shifted the seat of power to the east, in Nicomedia in Turkey. He also adopted eastern ideas of monarchy; he no longer called himself princeps or even imperator , but dominus , or "Lord." He took a crown and wore royal clothing; he demanded and got out and out worship by his subjects.

   In 305, Diocletian retired to a farm to raise cabbages; he forced Maxmian also to retire. So the imperiate passed without fuss to their two caesars. This brilliant system, so promising in its inception, fell apart immediately as the two emperors began feuding. Within a year, the son of one of the original caesars gained the throne: Constantine (306-337). Like Diocletian, he ruled only half of the Roman Empire, the western half. But in 324, he abandoned the system and ruled over a single, united empire. However, he shifted the seat of government east to his own city in Turkey, Constantinople.

   Constantine was like Diocletian in his affection for eastern ways of life and eastern views of monarchy. He took on himself all the trappings of an eastern king, as Diocletian had done, and declared the imperiate to be hereditary. After eight hundred years without a monarch, Rome had finally returned back to monarchy. Constantine, however, is one of the most noted rulers in Rome for he was the first emperor to convert to Christianity. Although he didn't make Christianity a state religion, his conversion provoked a wild proliferation of the faith, particularly in the eastern empire. Constantine, however, never really became a Christian ruler. He retained all the trappings of power including the demand that he be venerated as a god, as Diocletian had done.


Early Christianity
Early Christianity
   Constantine, however, had several problems with his new faith. The first was that there was no established doctrine. In fact, there were as many forms of Christianity as there were communities of Christians. The second was more pressing, for foundational Christianity was manifestly anti-political. Its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, consistently condemned worldly authority and insisted that the Christian life is a non-worldly, individualistic, non-political life. As a result, the foundational Christian texts are not only anti-Roman (for Judaea was part of the Roman Empire during the life of Jesus of Nazareth), but consistently dismissive of human, worldly authority. If Christianity were going to work as a religion in a state ruled by a monarch that demanded worship and absolute authority, it would have to be changed. To this end, Constantine convened a group of Christian bishops at Nicea in 325; there, the basic orthodoxy of Christianity was instantiated in what came to be called the Nicene creed, the basic statement of belief for orthodox Christianity. Constantine accomplished more, however, for the Nicene council also ratified his own power and Christianity would begin the long struggle, lasting to this day, between the anti-political ideas of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christianity that is compromised to allow for human authority and power. (A more thorough discussion of the Nicene Council and the history of Christianity in the late Empire can be found in the module, "Early Christianity")


European Middle Ages
The Byzantines
   When Constantine died, he divided the Empire between his three sons who, as you might expect, began fighting one another over complete control of the Empire. His sons all adopted Christianity as well, but the emperor, Julian the Apostate (361-363), opposed the religion and tried to undo it by dismissing all the Christians from the government. He was a little too late and reigned a little too briefly, though, to have any real effect. The government of Rome during the fourth century essentially traces out a history of dynastic squabbles and constant internal fractiousness; it wasn't until the end of the century, in the rule of Theodosius (379-395), that Rome was again united under a single emperor. Theodosius made his mark in history by declaring Christianity the state religion of Rome; he made all pagan religions illegal. The Christian Roman state had entered the stage; however, history was about to dramatically change the character of Rome. In 410, the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that had migrated into northern Italy under the pressure of migrations of the Huns, captured and sacked Rome. From 451 to 453, Rome was overrun by the Hunnish leader, Attila, and finally, in 455, the Vandals, another Germanic tribe, conquered Rome. Finally, in 476, Odoacer deposed the Roman emperor and made himself emperor. Power had passed from the Romans to the barbarians war-chiefs; the Middle Ages had begun. Rome now passed to two heirs: Europe in the east and, to the west, the Byzantines, who carried on the government structure, the social structure, the art and the thought of classical Rome and Greece.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97