[Revised somewhat November
DIOCLETIAN AND CONSTANTINE
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
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
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
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
on their side, and deal, once and for all, with the Christians.
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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
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).
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
--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.
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
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
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
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
* Ideally situated for trade/communications
* New senate
* Different entertainments (no gladiatorial
shows—circuses and hippodrome instead—60,000 people could watch
* 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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.