[Revised somewhat November 29, 2012]


The Age of the Soldier Emperors had been a time of constant crisis in Rome: there were invasions by Goths, Boranni, Allemani, Franks, and Sassanids; disruption to political stability caused usurping emperors and mutinous armies; devastating plagues—and those troublesome Christians.  “Things Fall Apart,” said Yeats--and so they do.  And it must have seemed to many 3rd century Romans that there empire was one of those things that was going to fall apart, no matter what they wanted or what they did.

But in the midst of these crises, as it so often did at crisis time, Rome got an exceptionally capable leader: Diocletian.  Diocletian in many ways earned the title he claimed for himself, “restorer of the world.”  But the true turning point in Roman (and world) history was the reign of Constantine.

Diocletian took power in Rome after another series of usurpations, mutinous armies, and assassinations.  At first, he seemed like just one more soldier emperor, no more likely to succeed than any of his predecessors.  But Diocletian was determined to preserve his life, to preserve his power, and to restore peace and security to the empire.

He came up with a brilliant way to do this.  You will remember that the problem for Rome stemmed in large part from the necessity of fighting on several fronts at the same time.  The Rhine, Danube, and the Euphrates all had to be well supplied with troops. But a general sent out with enough force to deal with the problems in these areas was very likely to succumb to the temptation of instead making his own bid for power.  An emperor could, of course, lead the troops himself…but not in all three places at once!

So what do you do?  Well, what if the man sent out cannot possibly be made emperor?  That might work, yes?  But what kind of person can’t you make into an emperor?  Well, what about someone who is emperor already!!!

What Diocletian does is to divide the empire into two parts.  He chooses a co-emperor (an Augustus) to rule with him, Maximius.  Later, he adds two junior emperors (Caesars), Constantius and Galerius.

This is a more than decent solution to the problem. Constantius defeats the Allemani and pushes them back across the Rhine, while Galerius pacifies the Goths and Diocletian inflicts a major defeat on the Parthians.

Also, there is an obvious potential solution to the succession problem here, a system sort of like that of the Five Good Emperors.  When an Augustus retires, his Caesar moves up, and chooses a new Caesar.

Diocletian also deals with a potential problem from the Senate. Senate confirmation was, prior to this time, a more-or-less official part of the imperial process.  Diocletian says no.  He uses the title “Dominus” for himself. He is the master, not merely a Princeps.  And there’s none of the diarchy nonsense either: no split between senatorial and imperial provinces.  There’s just one bureaucracy, run by the emperor himself.

Political stability.  Economic recovery.  Hope for the future…and just one more little problem to solve: the Christians.  In 303 AD (almost 20 years into his reign), Diocletian’s Caesar, Galerius, convinced him that it was time to deal with one more serious threat to the stability of the empire.  It was time to get the gods back on their side, and deal, once and for all, with the Christians.  At first, Diocletian ordered the churches destroyed, the scriptures burned, and the exclusion of Christians from all offices and authority.  This was not enough: he now order the leaders to be imprisoned and compelled with every type of torture to sacrifice to the emperor as a god.  Still not enough.  So Diocletian set out to get all the Christians, rich and poor, young and old, male and female.  Refuse to sacrifice, and you’re imprisoned, tortured, and eventually dead. And now the Christians were in real trouble.  They had been persecuted before, but never by a ruler with the ability to devote full attention to the job.  Diocletian (and even more Galerius) were also doing there best to restore pagan worship, building temples, planting groves, and sending pagan priests everywhere.

Not long after beginning this great persecution and trying to bring back that old time religion of Rome,  Diocletian decided to retire, and to force his co-Augustus (Maximan) also into retirement.  The new leaders:

Augusti: Constantius, Galerius
Caesars: Severus, Maximinus

The transition went as smoothly as one could have hoped.  Diocletian had done it!  Stability.  Peace.  Prosperity.  And those pesky Christians would be gone soon as well.

But the best laid plans of mice and men gain oft aglay.  Constantius dies unexpectedly in 306 AD, and now there’s a question: who should take his place.  Severus?  Well, Constantius' soldiers say no: they want Constantine, the son of Constantius.  And, from retirement, Maximian pipes up with his own candidate: Maxentius.  Eventually, there are six Augusti fighting for two spots…and Rome is at war with itself again….and with the Christians.

Galerius, despite the difficulties of the civil war (which should have been his main priority) decided to step up the persecution of the Christians.  Eusebius of Caesarea, who was fortunate enough to survive this bloody time, left us an account of some of those things the Christians suffered:

It would be impossible to describe the outrages and tortures which the martyrs in Thebais endured. They were scraped over the entire body with shells instead of hooks until they died. Women were bound by one foot and raised aloft in the air by machines, and with their bodies altogether bare and uncovered, presented to all beholders this most shameful, cruel, and inhuman spectacle.

Others being bound to the branches and trunks of trees perished. For they drew the stoutest branches together with machines, and bound the limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those for whom they contrived this.

All these things were done, not for a few days or a short time, but for a long series of years. Sometimes more than ten, at other times above twenty were put to death. Again not less than thirty, then about sixty, and yet again a hundred men with young children and women, were slain in one day, being condemned to various and diverse torments.

We, also being on the spot ourselves, have observed large crowds in one day; some suffering decapitation, others torture by fire; so that the murderous sword was blunted, and becoming weak, was broken, and the very executioners grew weary and relieved each other. And we beheld the most wonderful ardor, and the truly divine energy and zeal of those who believed in the Christ of God. For as soon as sentence was pronounced against the first, one after another rushed to the judgment seat, and confessed themselves Christians. And regarding with indifference the terrible things and the multiform tortures, they declared themselves boldly and undauntedly for the religion of the God of the universe. And they received the final sentence of death with joy and laughter and cheerfulness; so that they sang and offered up hymns and thanksgivings to the God of the universe till their very last breath.

These indeed were wonderful; but yet more wonderful were those who, being distinguished for wealth, noble birth, and honor, and for learning and philosophy, held everything secondary to the true religion and to faith in our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ.

It seemed that, no matter what Galerius did, the Christians just wouldn’t give up.  But then…well, we get the great surprise.

It’s AD 311.  A sick Galerius is on what he suspects is his death bed.  But he still has time to issue one of the strangest decrees in history, the Edict of Toleration (read in class).

The Christian prayers didn’t do Galerius any good…at least not in this life, and Galerius' death made the political situation in Rome even more confused.  And then we get the beginning of another great turning point for Rome.

One of the contenders for Augustus in the West, Constantine, was headed toward a decisive battle—and he knew it.  On the eve of the battle, he supposedly had a dream instructing him to put the chi/rho symbol on his banners.  And then, before the battle itself, he looked up to the sun for a sign. Well, he got his sign…and perhaps a voice as well, “in this, conquer.”

What’s it mean?  Well, your guess is as good as mine, and probably better, but Constantine thought these things were signs of favor from the Christian God.  And since that god had favored him, he was determined to return the compliment.

He, and his partner in the east Licinius, issue the Edict of Milan (313), a decree favoring the Christians (read in class).

Constantine soon went beyond the Milan edict with…

--Money to Christian clergy

--Laws against those trying to turn people away from the church

--The exemption of Christian clergy from taxes

--The forbidding of soothsaying in private (though public soothsaying ok!)

--Sunday set aside as a day of rest (for everyone except farmers)

Thus in less than ten years, Christianity had emerged from the greatest of all persecutions as the religion most favored by the Roman state!  An exceptionally good illustration of the line Euripides uses at the end of several of his plays:

Many are the forms of divine intervention,” said Euripides, “many things beyond expectation do the gods fulfill.  That which was expected hasn’t been accomplished; for that which was unexpected ha god found away.  Such was the end of this story.

Constantine’s reign was a turning point in many ways:

1.  He made permanent some of the changes made by Diocletian, keeping the provincial divisions made by Diocletian.  He also kept the title Dominus.  Though he wasn’t actually worshipped, Constantine regarded himself as God’s messenger on earth, and his voice was, well, the voice of God.

2.  He changed parts of Diocletian’s settlement, ending the Augustus/Caesar system.  In 324, he defeated Licinius and ruled as sole emperor---and he made it clear that it was back to hereditary succession.

3.  He made economic reforms, trying wage and price fixing to end inflation, and tying labor to the land on the great latifundia.  He also introduced the solidus, a stable currency.

4.  He doubled the military in size, but eliminated the praetorian guard.  He also changed recruitment.  Not volunteer soldiers, but conscripts came to dominate the army—conscripts provided proportionally by each estate.  (These conscripts weren’t particularly good soldiers, by the way).  Constantine also began to incorporate Germans within Roman borders, and relied on these Germans for some of his conscripts.  Eventually, Romanized Germans were the heart of the army.  

5.  He made Constantinople a new, 2nd capital for Rome.  This, perhaps, was the most important change. Constantinople was established on the site of what used to be called Byzantium and which today is called Istanbul.  As many of you know, Istanbul was Constantinople.  Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople.  Been a long time gone, old Constantinople.  Still, it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night.  But, not only that, Constantinople had some great advantage for Constantine over old Rome.

    * An ideal site for supervising Danube and eastern affairs
    * Ideally situated for trade/communications
    * New senate
    * Different entertainments (no gladiatorial shows—circuses and hippodrome instead—60,000 people could watch hippodrome races)
    * Churches instead of temples

The move to Constantinople let Constantine rebuild without the hindrance of the sclerotic bureaucracy of old Rome, and the new city formed the basis of an eastern empire that lasted for more than 1000 years—until 1453!

But the move to Constantinople probably weakened the Western empire, and certainly was bad for those in the city of Rome itself.  What happens to Pierre or DC if half the government goes elsewhere?  Constantine’s choice here a major factor in future of Rome itself…

Constantine’s reign was also an important turning point for the church. Numbers are difficult to estimate, but when Constantine took over, the empire was probably 1/10 Christian in the West, somewhat more than that in the East.  Conversions now came by the thousands, and, within short order, 90% of Romans were Christians.  Christian art and architecture, subsidized instead of destroyed, can now flourish

All this is very nice for the church, and it’s easy to see why Eusebius and other regarded Constantine as a 13th apostle.  But Constantine’s adoption of Christianity posed some problems for the church as well, particularly when it came to dealing with heresy.

Constantine’s intention was to use the church as the glue to hold his empire together.  But to perform this function, the church itself had to be unified.  Heresy, division in the church, had to be eliminated.  But who was to decide what was heresy, and what was not?

Three guesses, and the first two don’t count.  Of course, it will be Constantine himself.  But Constantine was no theologian.  How could he possibly decide which doctrines were orthodox, and which were heretical?  Easy enough.

When problems came up, he simply called for a council of bishops.  He told them to reach a decision.  And then, whatever it was, he enforced it.  Simple enough, because Constantine didn’t really care what decision was made: he just wanted agreement.  In 314 a council at Arles settled a dispute over who would be bishop of Carthage.

But the most important Council of Constantine’s time was that at Nicaea in 325.

The issue at stake here was the Arian controversy.  Arius, a presbyter, had been creating problems by insisting that there was a time when “the son was not,” i.e., that Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father.  This wasn’t a really tricky issue to deal with, and 218 of the 220 bishops at Nicaea agreed that Arianism should be condemned as a heresy.  The issued the Nicene Creed a definitive summary of the essentials of Christian doctrine, and that was that.  No more division ever again, and the Church lived happily ever after.

Well, no.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, a difficult, perhaps insoluble, problem afflicts now, not just Rome, but all subsequent Western societies, the problem of church-state relations.

Constantine has moved toward Caesaro-Papism, a system where the state has the ultimate say in how the church is run.  But the reins are not all that tight here, and it’s not entirely clear where the authority lies. Sure, Constantine and his successors order the councils to be held, and this implies ultimate imperial authority.  But can the emperor make doctrine and settle disputes over leadership positions on his own?  That’s very unclear.  It seems that there is a great authority vested in consensus of the assembled bishops, and, just maybe, that authority is great enough even to check the emperor should he stray from consensus doctrinal decision.

What really complicates the problem is that, once the emperors are adding their official seal, so to speak, to the decisions of a council, heresy because a different kind of matter altogether.

Prior to the time of Constantine, the church dealt with incorrigible heretics simply by excluding them from participation in their assemblies—a certainly unobjectionable practice.  Don’t follow the rules of the Lion’s Club?  You get kicked out.  Don’t follow the rules of the YMCA?  You’re out--simple as that.  If you don’t like the way one organization does things, well, just go start your own.  You don’t like what the church says and does?  Go start your own.

But now heresy is not just an internal church problem.  It’s a political problem as well.  To work contrary to the unity of the church is to work against the unity of the state, and a serious enough offense is treason: persecution, imprisonment and death are, in a way, appropriate enough penalties.  Consider the difference between adultery committed with private citizen and adultery committed with a queen.  There’s the same escalation of the offense of heresy here.  To declare someone a heretic is now to declare him a traitor…and, to a certain extent, heresy really is treason.  And whereas in earlier times Christians in general were all alike politically suspect, now it’s heretical Christians who are suspect.  But who, really, is a heretic, and who is not?  Well, now we’ve got a new factor in our ongoing Roman history game—and things are going to get more exciting than ever.