The work of the so-called ‘soldier emperors’ in the late third century AD saved the Roman world from utter collapse. It also paved the way for the systematic changes of structure initiated by Diocletian (AD 285–305) and completed by Constantine the Great (AD 312–37). Diocletian and Constantine realized the temper of the times and, like their predecessor Augustus, integrated the elements developed in the chaotic era into a system that had the permanence of a constitutional form. The pressure of military, fiscal and administrative demands provoked the creation of a system that may be construed as imparting a permanent form to a state of emergency. They established an intricate network of state intervention and supervision of individuals and social groups, an expansion of bureaucracy and police control, an organization of small administrative and legal units commanded by new intermediate authorities and a hitherto unknown degree of state planning and managerial intervention in every sphere of life. However, their measures were not promulgated and implemented throughout the empire at one precise moment. Rather, this process occurred in a largely fragmentary fashion during the five and a half decades that separated the accession of Diocletian and the death of Constantine. The transformation of the Roman state and society that transpired under these emperors inaugurated the last phase of Roman history, known as the ‘Dominate’ (dominatus), and ushered in the medieval world as well.

The reforms of Diocletian

As elaborated in the previous chapter, the Roman Empire experienced difficulties in the third century AD that derived mainly from deficiencies in the empire’s political, social and economic institutions. These innate shortcomings, rather than the power of external foes, weakened and threatened to destroy the state in the half-century preceding Diocletian’s rise to power. A serious defect in the system was the lack of a regularized imperial succession. In the late second and third centuries AD, the oft-repeated phrase ‘succession by revolution’ accurately portrayed the established pattern in the accession to the imperial throne. Dynastic sentiment failed to entrench in the system and the emasculated senate was habitually powerless, so that the army became the ultimate arbiter in the appointment and removal of emperors. The empire’s administrative problems were exacerbated by the political instability engendered by the ruler’s degradation to the status of an army instrument and the accompanying perversion of the military function. This undermined the empire’s ability to defend its borders and further aggravated the economic malaises that beset the Roman world throughout the third century AD. The character of the new regime established by Diocletian and consolidated by Constantine is reflected in the solutions they devised for these problems.

The empire was so plagued by internal problems and external threats that it could no longer be governed efficiently by a single ruler engaging the prevailing administrative means. Diocletian devised a system whereby imperial rule was divided but the principle of imperial unity remained intact. In AD 285 he appointed Maximian, one of his most capable generals, as Caesar and co-ruler. In AD 286 Maximian was promoted to Augustus and acquired dominion over the West, while Diocletian assumed rulership of the East. In AD 293 each Augustus appointed a Caesar as his assistant and successor; the four ruled jointly and each controlled one-quarter of the empire.1 The necessity for distributing the administrative and military duties generated a graduated, quadripartite, collective imperial summit that was still essentially dominated by Diocletian. At the same time, the rank and authority of the rulers were not limited to their own regions: all four were recognized throughout the empire.2 This so-called tetrarchic system was designed to facilitate the administration of the empire and also to discourage any attempts at usurpation by establishing a stable succession mechanism. As an institutional device, it proved successful during the reign of Diocletian by presenting the empire with a more efficient government and defence mechanism against foreign foes.

The establishment of the tetrarchy was pertinent to another problem: the exaltation and stabilization of the imperial office within the realm. Diocletian and his successors sought to bolster their authority by imbuing the imperial ideology with a new form and content. The emperor was elevated to the position of an absolute monarch and invested with the dignity and grandeur of the oriental god-kings. Secluded in his palace and set apart by a framework of complicated ceremonial and court etiquette, the monarch demanded divine veneration from his courtiers, officials and community. The practice originated from an old tradition evident in Augustus’ era when the princeps-emperor was granted divine status in the Eastern provinces, while in Rome and the West, a dead emperor was declared divine by an act of the senate. Even if a divine element was recognized as the basis for the auctoritas of the princeps in this earlier period, the emperor was only transformed into a divine, absolute monarch in the later years of the third century AD.3 Diocletian’s arrangements institutionalized the transformation. The new stylized emperorship of the late antiquity was predominantly based on religion. Diocletian and his successors portrayed themselves as members of a hierarchy encompassing gods and emperors, and sought to mobilize the imperial cult to reinforce empire solidarity.4 In later years, the recognition of Christianity as the state religion compelled an adaptation of the imperial cult to the demands of a stringent monotheism. The emperor was installed by the grace of God and his empire existed as a reflection of the heavenly kingdom; both were deemed divinely inspired and protected, and everything remotely connected with the imperial personage partook of imperial sanctity.

From an administrative and military perspective, Diocletian’s measures were designed to facilitate internal control and effective defence against foreign attacks. But the chief threat to imperial power was internal rather than external, and this problem was granted priority. Thus, the greatly expanded bureaucratic apparatus was centralized in the imperial consistory composed of the highest court officials. A complicated system of administrative checks and balances was instituted to avert the accumulation of power by potential rivals. Diocletian’s reorganization of the provincial administration was particularly impressive and durable. As the power of any given official was directly related to the size and wealth of the area he governed, the provinces were reduced in size and their number doubled. Thereafter, the central function of the governor was general public administration and the administration of justice.5 In all the provinces with standing troops, the governor relinquished command to a military officer called dux. Thus, civil authority within a province was separated from military authority in such a manner that effectively foiled any prospect of rebellion from ambitious provincial officials. Diocletian facilitated the central government’s control of the provincial administration by creating new administrative districts superior to the provinces, the dioceses, while neighbouring dioceses were incorporated into larger units called prefectures.

The problem of defence against external enemies dictated a radical reform of the army in terms of organization, armament and military tactics. Diocletian considerably increased the size of the army to a total strength of around half a million soldiers. A new and powerful mobile reserve force (comitatus) was established to support the troops stationed along the frontiers (limitanei) and protect the provinces against barbarian incursions. In the capital, new forces were attached to the crack imperial troops who accompanied the emperor. In principle, Roman subjects were obligated to perform military service yet, in practice, the imperial government encountered an acute shortage of Romans available for army duty. Like their immediate predecessors, Diocletian and his successors depended increasingly on the enlistment of barbarians in auxiliary units. Within the army the principle of separation of powers, which sought to protect the emperor from insubordination, was operative, and superior command of cavalry and infantry was divided. These reforms suppressed the threats of revolution and barbarian invasion and, to a degree, the provinces revived with the return of peace.

The administrative and military reforms of the late third and early fourth centuries AD greatly inflated state expenditure. This increased financial outlay encumbered the strained economy. For state survival, economic life had to be converted to harmonize with harsh reality and this was the precise aspiration of the Tetrarchs. They developed the old levies in kind (annona) that had originally provided the state’s armies with their physical necessities. These levies were reinstated to redress the inadequacy of the taxes collected in cash by the government and to protect the state against inflation. The annona, formerly an extraordinary tax, was henceforth applied to the rural population on an annual basis.6 The new system of taxation liberated the government from the vicissitudes of monetary debasement and price fluctuations, for it now mainly paid its officials and troops in agrarian products and other commodities. At the same time, this enabled the formulation of an orderly budget based on the agricultural produce of the empire, and it constrained the extraordinary requisitions that were such a burden during the third century AD. Besides the annona, various monetary taxes were imposed in accordance with fairly specified criteria,7 and the system of compulsory public labour and extraordinary contributions, introduced during the later Principate period, was regularized and further developed.8

In contrast to the reorganization of the tax system, the Tetrarchs’ endeavour to reform the currency did not attain success. The only measure that endured was the change in coin production. This involved the abolition of the old local and provincial issues and the establishment of a decentralized but strictly supervised system of large imperial mints. However, the public distrust of the monetary system was merely increased by the assignment of new face values to the coins, whose purchasing power further declined as inflation escalated at an appalling rate.9 The Tetrarchs’ responded with the famous Edict of Prices (edictum de pretiis)inAD 301, which was a systematic attempt at price regulation by the state and thus also a form of state planning in the economic sector.10 This law proved largely ineffectual, however, due to the lack of an adequate enforcement mechanism and a parallel regulation of supply.

Many other economic initiatives exhibited the regime’s liking for state control.11 These included the construction of state factories for the production of food, textiles and military supplies, and the increased interference of the state in the internal and external commerce of the empire. The state control over the empire’s productive resources expanded until, by the middle of the fourth century AD, nearly all forms of socio-economic activity important to the state were regulated by the government. Ultimately, the economic policies of Diocletian and his successors failed to restore balance in the economy. The price regulation and currency reform failed to stimulate production and curb inflation; tax collection remained unsatisfactory owing to the prevailing corruption; trade and industry waned as the state, once the main customer, became a large producer itself. The peasantry, originally the foundation of the empire’s economic system, was overburdened by taxation. This compelled many farmers to abandon their lands or become tenants of senatorial landlords. Encumbered by the imposed fiscal burdens, the urban middle class deteriorated and the cities declined – a decline precipitated by the loss of their former market function owing to the movement towards self-sufficiency of the great senatorial estates. In general, economic conditions throughout the empire steadily deteriorated, especially during the latter part of the fourth century AD. However, it is a mistake to regard the Dominate as a period of uninterrupted and universal economic decline, for there were important differences in the levels of prosperity maintained in different parts of the empire. As the West plummeted into primitive conditions, the state-controlled economy in the Greek-speaking eastern provinces achieved some success and private enterprise flourished in spheres that disinterested the state. In many eastern cities, such as Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch, manufactured goods were produced on a large scale, and Egyptian agriculture displayed signs of recovery. At the same time, trade resumed or increased within and between provinces, and commerce with Persia, India and the Far East progressed. At the end of the fourth century AD, the empire’s political division into a western and an eastern part reflected the new economic reality that determined their respective destinies during the closing years of the Dominate era and the ensuing centuries.

The empire of Constantine the Great

Diocletian and Maximian had ruled the empire for more than twenty years when, in AD 305, the former initiated their abdication. The two Caesars, Constantius Chlorus and Galerius, became the new Augusti, and each named a Caesar as his aid and heir. But this arrangement did not last very long. Shortly after Constantius’ death in AD 306, the system of the tetrarchy disintegrated into hopeless confusion and this provoked new civil wars between the claimants to the throne. In AD 312 Constantine, the son of Constantius, defeated his chief opponent Maxentius and thereby became the sole emperor of the West. In the following year, Licinius acquired emperorship of the East. But in AD 323 war erupted between the two Augusti. In AD 324 Licinius was finally defeated and Constantine became ruler of the entire empire. Constantine completed the work of Diocletian, infusing the empire’s organization with the basic characteristics it retained until the fall of the Western empire and its transition to the Byzantine Empire in the East.

During Constantine’s reign the transformation of the imperial government into an absolute monarchy was completed. At the summit of the imperium, Diocletian’s collegium of the Augusti and Caesars was replaced by a sole ruler of the empire accompanied by a new dynasty. The aggrandisement of the emperor’s position was further exaggerated by the ideological extension of the emperor’s ruling power over the entire world, the elevation of his victorious attributes to a universal level and, above all, the sanctification of the ruler’s position by Christianity. The imperial tradition permanently adopted proskynesis,oradoratio, the eastern ceremony of genuflection addressed to divinity, and purple robes, jewelled diadems, richly adorned belts, sceptres and other ceremonial regalia derived from oriental kings and priests.

The administrative and military policies of Constantine so closely resembled those of Diocletian that it is not always possible to identify which emperor was responsible for a particular institution. Diocletian’s system of dioceses and provinces was only slightly modified; the separation between the stationary frontier troops and the mobile field army was maintained, while the number of Germans and other non-Romans in the army expanded; the regimentation of large sections of the population into rigidly defined hereditary castes according to occupation, function and office was further recognized; and Diocletian’s financial, taxation and monetary policies were mainly retained.12 In general, the policies of Constantine and Diocletian may be described as conservative as they merely represented the culmination of existing tendencies.

The policies of the two emperors contrasted most sharply in the field of religion as Diocletian remained a pagan while Constantine embraced Christianity and rendered it the favoured religion of the state. Christianity was an oriental mystery cult with a message and organization that enticed many followers from among all classes of Roman society. During the first two centuries of the Principate, Christians were largely tolerated even though their religious practices were regarded as immoral and subversive by many Romans, especially the governing classes. The pagans construed Christianity as highly suspect because its adherents, as strict monotheists, refused to worship the empire’s gods and participate in the imperial cult that guaranteed the unity of the empire. However, the actual persecution of Christians was sporadic rather than general and accidental rather than organized. Even though from the late first century AD the confession of Christianity constituted a capital offence, there were no systematic attempts to eradicate the new religion. However, the relative peace between the Roman state and the Christian church was violently disrupted by the crisis of the third century when the emperors formed a strategy to save the state by reviving and embracing old religious practices. Their attempts to revive observance of the pagan religion and public acts of loyalty deepened the gulf between the state and Christianity. The occasional persecutions of Christians that characterized the earlier period were supplanted by a more organized effort to expunge the Christian faith. The systematic persecution of Christians was instigated during the reign of Decius (AD 250–51) and under Valerian (AD 257–59), but this ended in failure as Christian resistance solidified and assumed greater militancy. After the fall of Valerian in the war against the Persians, the persecution of Christians ceased. This entailed the return of confiscated Church property, and many Christians entered the imperial civil service. The last great persecution of the Christians occurred during the reign of Diocletian, and was probably inspired by his Caesar, Galerius, who was a determined opponent of the Church. Convinced that Christianity posed a serious threat to the religious and political unity of the Roman state, the Emperor and Galerius issued four edicts between AD 303 and 304 dictating the destruction of Christian churches and liturgical books, the imprisonment of the clergy and the infliction of the death penalty on all Christians refusing to present offerings to the Roman gods. Despite all the hardship inflicted on the Christians, the wave of persecution did not achieve its goal. Failing to secure the solid support of the pagan population, the government was unable to enforce the relevant laws efficiently, and gradually the persecutions eased or ceased. In AD 311 Galerius, the Augustus of the East, acknowledged the failure of the official policy by issuing an edict granting the Christians the rights to worship their God and rebuild their churches on the condition that they refrained from acts offending public order. After a decade of persecution, Galerius’ edict engendered a dramatic reversal of the Roman state’s attitude towards Christianity, recognizing it as religio licita and preparing the ground for further development.

But the status of Christianity became definite only when Constantine removed his political rivals and thereby acquired the sole rulership of the empire. He attributed his victory over Maxentius (AD 312) to the intervention of the Christian God. Shortly after this accomplishment in AD 313, Constantine and Licinius met in Milan and agreed to adopt a policy of complete toleration that granted Christians unrestricted freedom and ordered the return of confiscated Church properties.13 This development marked the beginning of the ultimate triumph of Christianity. Although Constantine was only baptized a Christian shortly before his death, he became a lavish patron of the Church, which he supported with generous gifts and privileges.14 Leading Christians of his day, pleased with the new turn of events, did not object to the pagan practices the emperor preserved.15

Convinced that the integrity and survival of the empire depended on the unity of the Church, Constantine endeavoured to use his imperial power and prestige to resolve the emerging disputes within the Church. To obtain the clergy’s judgment on disputed matters and determine the correct or orthodox position in dogma and discipline, he adopted the Christian practice of convening synods or councils and assumed the responsibility for enforcing their decisions.16 He perceived that as divine will had selected him to rule the empire, his duty to God was to thwart the spread of false dogma and strife within the Church. His incessant interventions had enduring effect not only in the Donatist controversy,17 but also in the dogmatic conflicts associated with the names of Arius and Athanasius. Of particular importance was the ecumenical council which he summoned in AD 325 at the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor to settle the Arian controversy.18 All bishops of the empire were invited to attend this council presided over by Constantine, who directed the deliberations and forced his preferred theological solutions upon the bishops. The Council of Nicaea and others that followed in the fourth century AD confirmed the position of the emperor as head of the Christian Church (‘caesaro-papism’). After the council of Nicaea, the Church appeared as a unified society embracing all Christian congregations of the empire, and Church and state were increasingly intertwined. At the same time, the political organization of the Roman state existing after the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine furnished the Church with a model on which to fashion its own system of administration.19

It remains controversial whether Constantine’s attitude towards Christianity derived from a genuine religious conviction or political calculation. Regardless of the emperor’s motives, it is doubtful whether Christianity would have triumphed as the empire’s dominant religion without an imperial patron, such as Constantine, to enhance its popularity and influence. At the same time, Constantine’s personal decisions in matters of faith, his opinion of Christianity not only as a religion but also as a facet of social politics, and more specifically, his view of the Church and its role, unquestionably assumed world historical significance.20

Another revolutionary change initiated by Constantine was the foundation of a new imperial capital on the old site of Byzantium in the East. In the course of time, this developed as the largest urban concentration in medieval Europe and a great centre of civilization. The choice of Byzantium as the location for the new city is indicative of the fact that the empire’s vital political and economic centre had shifted to the East.21 The decision also probably emanated from Constantine’s desire to disengage from the pagan past and centre the empire on a new Christian foundation. The new city, called Constantine’s city or Constantinople, was strategically located midway between the important Danubian and eastern frontiers on the crossroads between Europe and Asia Minor, and possessed a better commercial situation than Rome. This location not only provided Constantinople with immense economic vitality, but also rendered it an effective political and administrative centre. In time, Constantinople was regarded as a second Rome.22

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