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The Origins of Christianity and the Decline of the Roman Empire 101
Relief from the Arch of Titus, Rome. The relief shows the
spoils taken from the capture of Jerusalem. The arch was erected
after Titus’s death, probably about A.D. 81, and commemorates
the dual triumph celebrated by Vespasian and Titus in A.D. 71 af-
ter their victory over the Jews and the destruction of the Temple.
Note the menorah at center left. The seven-branched candelabra
first became a symbol of the Jewish people during this era.
Herod practiced Judaism and generally favored the
more numerous Pharisees over their opponents. His
realms extended north to the borders of Syria and east
into Transjordan and provided the revenues for an extensive building campaign, the jewel of which was the
reconstruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. Some of its
huge stones are still visible at the base of the Western
Wall. None of this endeared him to the more observant
Jews, but they accepted his rule.
When Herod died, he divided his kingdom into
three tetrarchies, each ruled by a son. Archelaus, the
Tetrarch of Judaea, so offended his Jewish subjects that
they asked Augustus to replace him with a Roman
procurator. Augustus agreed to do so, but the experiment was a failure. In theory, the procurators were supposed to look out for Roman interests while leaving
internal matters to the Jewish court known as the
Sanhedrin, but, if the Jewish historian Josephus
(c. 37–c. 100) may be believed, each procurator found
new ways of insulting Jewish religious and political sensibilities. By A.D. 7 a group known as the Zealots had
dedicated themselves to the overthrow of Roman rule.
After this, the turmoil in Jerusalem was broken
only by the short reign of Herod Agrippa, a Jewish
prince who governed Judaea from A.D. 41 to 44 under
Roman protection. Riots and protests accompanied a
growing belief in the coming of the Messiah, who
would deliver the Jews from their enemies and restore
the world. False messiahs appeared with predictable
regularity and caused great concern among the Romans who feared that one of them might organize a
general revolt. Finally, in A.D. 66 the emperor Nero
dispatched an army under Vespasian to restore order.
The Zealots and most of the population resisted, and
Jerusalem fell to the Romans only after a long and terrible siege (see illustration 6.1).
Exasperated by his inability to come to terms with
the Jews even after their defeat, Vespasian, who had by
this time succeeded Nero as emperor, ordered the Temple destroyed and the Jews scattered to the far corners
of the empire in A.D. 70. They retained their freedom to
worship and the exemption from sacrificing to the state
cult that had been granted them by Julius Caesar, but
the new exile or diaspora changed the character of Judaism. The destruction of the Temple forced the abandonment of sacrifices and other temple rites, for it was
thought that the Temple could be restored only by the
coming of the Messiah. The role of the priesthood diminished. Religious guidance was provided by rabbis, or
teachers, who interpreted the law to the far-flung congregations. The more distinguished of their opinions
helped form the Talmud, the vast collection of scriptural
102 Chapter 6
commentaries that is the basis of Jewish learning and of
modern Judaism. Only a handful of Jews remained in Judaea. A band of perhaps nine hundred Zealots held out
in the great desert fortress of Masada until A.D. 73 when
they committed mass suicide instead of surrendering to
the Romans. Sixty years later, another small group of
Jews launched a futile rebellion under Bar Kochva, but
nearly two thousand years would pass before the establishment of another Jewish state.
Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus lived in the midst of this chronic turbulence. He
was probably born at Bethlehem in Judaea, between
7 and 4 B.C. Both the year and date of his birth are now
regarded as the products of later calculation and tradition. A precise chronology is impossible because the
Gospels provide no dates. The four Gospels are the
most important sources dealing with his life and ministry. Though written by different authors more than a
generation after his death (Mark, the earliest, was written about A.D. 70; John, the latest, shortly before 100),
their accounts, though different in important ways, are
in broad general agreement.
They describe the circumstances of Jesus’s birth and
of an appearance at the Temple when he was about
twelve but remain silent about his activities until the
age of thirty, the point at which he began to attract a
following as an itinerant rabbi. Accompanied by twelve
close associates or disciples, he preached throughout
the Judaean countryside to ever-increasing crowds. His
message was directed primarily against the Pharisees.
Jesus felt that their rigid observance of the Law was an
obstacle to faith and that it could largely be superseded
by the simple commandment to “love thy neighbor as
thyself.” At the same time, his preaching left no doubt
that he regarded himself as the Messiah (the Greek
word for which is christos, or Christ). By this he did not
mean the traditional Messiah who would lead the Jews
to earthly glory, but the Son of God who brought them
eternal salvation. His kingdom, he said, was “not of
this world,” and those who believed in him “would not
perish but have eternal life.”
This message enraged the Pharisees but attracted
many, especially among the poor. When he entered
Jerusalem at Passover accompanied by symbols attributed to the Messiah by prophetic tradition, Jesus provoked a crisis. The Sanhedrin demanded his arrest. The
Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, agreed, fearing that
his presence would provoke further disorders when virtually the entire country had come to town for the festival. Jesus was tried by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy
and by Pilate for treason, though both trials as described by the Gospels were of dubious legality. Everyone responsible seems to have been motivated by
political expediency, and Jesus was crucified with uncommon haste to avoid the possibility of demonstrations. After his execution, his followers reported that he
had returned from the dead and ascended into Heaven
after promising to return on the Day of Judgment.
The Spread of Christianity
The story of Jesus’s death and resurrection solidified his
followers into a new Jewish sect, but someone who had
never heard him preach spread his teachings throughout
the Roman world. Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee who had
originally persecuted the followers of Jesus. After a dramatic conversion to the faith of his opponents, he began
to use his Roman name, Paul, and devoted the rest of his
life to the task of converting Jews and non-Jews alike.
Though a Pharisee, Paul’s early education had been cosmopolitan and strongly influenced by Hellenism. To
him, the teachings of Jesus were universal. With some
difficulty, he persuaded the more conservative disciples
to accept converts without forcing them to observe the
Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised. Had he not done
so, Christianity probably would never have become a
universal church. By emphasizing faith over the minute
observance of the law, Paul influenced the theology of
the growing church as well.
In his letters, Paul portrayed himself as small of
stature and physically weak, but his efforts on behalf of
the faith were heroic. While Jesus was still alive, his
teachings had begun to spread through the Jewish communities of the Roman Empire. Opposition from the
Jewish leadership could not prevent the formation of
small, usually secret, congregations that became the organizational basis of Paul’s efforts. Traveling incessantly,
he moved from one to the other, prevailing upon them
to accept non-Jews as converts, preaching to the gentiles, and helping individual churches with matters of belief and practice. By so doing, he not only gained
converts but also provided stability and a vital link between isolated communities that might otherwise have
lost contact with one another and drifted into confusion.
When he could not visit the churches in person,
Paul communicated with them by letters that he seems
to have composed in answer to specific questions.
These Epistles, written in Greek, form an important
part of the New Testament. In some, he deals with theological questions; in others, with morality, ethics, and
church organization. For issues not addressed by Jesus,
Paul’s Epistles—logical, fervent, and rooted solidly in
The Origins of Christianity and the Decline of the Roman Empire 103
The Catacomb of San Callisto,
Rome. Unlike pagans, who generally
cremated their dead, Christians insisted
on burial, often in underground vaults
known as catacombs. In times of persecution, they held religious services in
these tombs to avoid detection. This
one, the so-called Chapel of the Popes,
is unusually elaborate and dates from
Scripture—became the basis of later church doctrine.
Through his efforts and those of the other disciples, the
Christian church grew rapidly.
In the beginning, Christianity appealed largely to
women, slaves, and other people of modest social standing, for it was universal in the sense that it accepted converts regardless of gender or background. Salvation was
open to all, though Paul objected strongly to women
preaching and church offices were apparently restricted
to men. Its high ethical standards appealed to a generation that seems to have been increasingly repelled by pagan vice, and its ceremonies were neither as terrifying
nor expensive as those of the mystery cults. The most
important were baptism with water—not bull’s blood, as
in the rites of Mithra—and a love feast or agape in which
the entire congregation joined. After a common meal,
the Christians celebrated communion in bread and wine.
By 153 the love feast had been abandoned in favor of
communion alone, which was preceded by a service that
included preaching and the singing of hymns.
Though humble, the early church was remarkably
well organized. Each congregation was governed by a
committee of presbyters or elders, who were assisted by
deacons, readers, and exorcists. Bishops were elected by
their congregations to lead worship services and administer the community’s finances. The extent of their
power in earliest times has been the subject of much
debate, but its expansion was clearly assisted by the
doctrine of apostolic succession. This teaching, which
holds that episcopal authority derives from powers
given by Jesus to the disciple Peter, was generally accepted by the end of the second century.
Organization helped the young church to survive
persecution, for the Christians were hated. Persecution
came from two sources. Many Jews felt that Christianity divided and weakened their communities and were
quick to denounce Christians to the authorities. The
authorities, whether Roman or provincial, had other
motives. Like the Jews, Christians refused to sacrifice to
the Roman gods. The Jews were exempt from this requirement by their status as a separate nation whose
customs were honored by Roman law, but Christianity
was not. Many Romans feared that Christian exclusiveness masked a certain hostility to the state. Their suspicions were fed by the low social status of the Christians
and, ironically, by the secrecy they had adopted for
their protection. To avoid detection, Christians met in
private houses or in the underground burial places
known as catacombs (see illustration 6.2). Rumors of
cannibalism, based upon a misunderstanding of communion, only made matters worse.
Christians, in short, were unpopular and lacked the
protection of powerful individuals who might otherwise
have intervened on their behalf. They made ideal scapegoats. Nero, for example, blamed them for the great fire
at Rome and launched the first wave of executions that
claimed the life of Paul in A.D. 64 (see document 6.1).
Persecutions by later emperors caused great loss of life
until well into the third century. They were chronicled
in horrific detail by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–c. 340)
in his History of the Church, but to the annoyance of the
pagans, “the blood of martyrs” was, as Tertullian had put
it, “the seed of the church.” Too many Christians died
bravely. Their cheerful heroism, even as they were torn
104 Chapter 6
[ DOCUMENT 6.1 [
Tacitus: Nero’s Persecution of Christians
Tacitus (c. A.D. 56–120) is the best known of the ancient Roman historians. He was born to a patrician family in Gaul, educated at Rome,
and rose to the Senate and then to become consul under Nerva in
A.D. 97. Tacitus produced two long histories, The Annals (covering
A.D. 14–68) and The Histories (covering A.D. 68–96). Together
they provide the best record of the early Principate. The Annals, from
which the following excerpt is taken, is one of the few contemporary
sources to mention Jesus of Nazareth.
A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously
contrived by the Emperor is uncertain, as authors have
given both accounts; a fire—worse, and more dreadful
than any which have ever happened to this city—broke
out amid the shops containing inflammable wares, and instantly became fierce and rapid from the wind. . . . It devastated everyplace below the hills, outstripping all
preventive measures; the city, with the narrow winding
passages and irregular streets that characterized old Rome,
was at its mercy. . . .
All human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the Emperor,
all attempts to placate the Gods, did not dispel the infamous suspicion the fire had been started at someone’s
command. To quiet the rumor, Nero blamed and ingeniously tortured a people popularly called Christians,
hated for their abominations [including their prediction
apart by wild beasts, impressed spectators and powerfully endorsed the concept of eternal life. Many pagans
converted in spite of the obvious danger. Admittedly,
had the persecutions been consistent they might have
succeeded, but not all emperors were anti-Christian.
Each persecution was followed by a generation or more
in which the numbers of the faithful could be replaced
and even grow.
Though persecution backfired, Christianity needed
to explain itself to the educated elite to gain general acceptance. Moreover, as the movement spread, differences of opinion began to develop within it. During the
second and third centuries, a growing number of writers addressed themselves both to the task of defining
Christian doctrine and explaining it in terms acceptable
to those who had received a Greco-Roman philosophical education. These men, who eventually became
known as the Fathers of the Church, included the apologist Justin Martyr and theologians such as Tertullian,
Origen, and Clement of Alexandria. Together, they be-
that the world would soon end in a conflagration marking
the second coming]. Christus, from whom the cult had its
origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of
Tiberius, at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius
Pilate, but this noxious superstition [Christianity], suppressed for a moment, broke out again not only in Judea,
where it began, but in Rome itself, where all things
hideous and shameful from every part of the world become popular.
Nero first arrested all who confessed [to being Christians]; then, upon their testimony, a vast multitude was
convicted not so much of arson as of hatred of the human
race. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths.
They were sewn in the skins of beasts and torn to pieces
by dogs. Many died nailed on crosses or burned at the
stake to illuminate the night. Nero gave his gardens for
the spectacle and put on a circus, mingling with the
crowd in the costume of a charioteer. . . . Thus, even
though the victims deserved the severest penalty, a
feeling of compassion arose on the ground that they
suffered not for the public good but to glut the cruelty
of one man.
Tacitus. The Annals, book 15, chaps. 38, 44, trans. A. J. Church and
W. J. Brodribb. New York: Macmillan, 1906.
gan the process of forging a new intellectual tradition
based upon faith as well as reason.
By the end of the third century, perhaps 10 percent
of the empire was Christian. Most of the followers were
concentrated in the east or in Africa. More significant,
the Fathers had done their work: Converts were coming
increasingly from the upper classes. In cities in Syria and
Asia Minor, Christians had become a majority and even
the leading families had accepted the faith. The last, and
one of the most terrible, of the persecutions occurred
under Diocletian in 303, but by then the church was too
strong to be destroyed (see chronology 6.1).
The Crisis of the Later Roman Empire
In 1776, Edward Gibbon described the fall of Rome as
“the triumph of Christianity and barbarism.” Though
his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the
The Origins of Christianity and the Decline of the Roman Empire 105
[ CHRONOLOGY 6.1 [
The Important Roman Emperors
27 B.C.–A.D.14 Augustus
A.D. 14–37 Tiberius
68–69 The year of the four emperors
138–161 Antoninus Pius
161–180 Marcus Aurelius*
193–211 Septimius Severus
222–235 Severus Alexander
268–270 Claudius II Gothicus
337–361 Constantius II
361–363 Julian the Apostate
*Launched major persecutions of the Christians.
great masterworks of history, he was at best only half
right. Neither Christianity nor pagan immorality contributed to the catastrophe that befell the western empire in the fifth century A.D. While the “barbarians”
clearly played a major role, they were little more barbaric than some of the emperors they replaced.
The true cause of imperial decline was instead a
generalized crisis whose basic outlines had become
apparent as early as the second century. When Marcus Aurelius died in A.D. 180, an army of more than a
half million men patrolled a border of several thousand miles. Within that border the pax romana was
broken only by occasional riots, but beyond it, powerful forces were gathering. Germanic tribes—Franks,
Alemanni, Burgundians, and others in the west;
Visigoths and Ostrogoths to the east—pressed
against the Rhine and Danube frontiers. For reasons
that remain unclear, their populations had grown beyond the available food supply in central Europe.
Behind them, on the eastern steppes, other peoples
with similar problems pushed westward into the
German tribal lands. Population movements on this
scale created intolerable pressure when they came up
against settled borders. The Germans did not hate
Rome. They sought only to settle within it. They
were hard, determined fighters whose grasp of strategy was anything but primitive. In fighting them,
Marcus Aurelius faced unpredictable attacks in force
delivered along a perimeter too extensive to be
manned completely by the legions. His bitter struggle with the tribes was an inkling of things to come.
To the east, the Romans faced a more conventional
foe. The Parthian Empire was a sophisticated territorial
state based, like Rome, on taxes and tribute. It fought
until it exhausted its resources and then made peace until its economy could recover. The pressure it exerted
on the eastern borders was therefore sporadic rather
than constant, but it was nevertheless severe. Rome defeated the Parthians in A.D. 198 and briefly annexed
Mesopotamia. This success was followed by a change
of dynasty in the eastern kingdom. An Iranian prince,
Ardashir I, overthrew the Parthians and established the
Sassanid dynasty, which lasted until the Arab conquests
of the seventh century. Determined to recapture
Mesopotamia, he and his successors launched a series
of wars that further depleted the Roman treasury,
weakened the eastern provinces, and ended in 260 with
the capture of the emperor Valerian.
The Roman economy could not sustain this level of
military commitment, and the third century was one of
almost unrelieved crisis. The prosperity of Augustan
times had been in some respects artificial. Much of it
was based on the exploitation of new wealth derived
from imperial expansion. When the expansion stopped,
that wealth was not replaced. Beneath the glittering
surface of the early empire, the economy remained
stagnant. The mass of slaves, tenant farmers, and unemployed citizens consumed little. Their productivity was
106 Chapter 6
low, and they had no incentive to improve efficiency to
encourage growth. Without growth, the number of rich
could not increase, and it was only they who, in the
Roman system, could provide a market for luxuries and
Arguably, had the Roman economy been able to
expand, the empire might have been able to meet its
military obligations. Instead, the imperial government
was forced to extract more and more resources from an
economy that may already have been shrinking. Taxes
and forced requisitions to support the army consumed
capital, reduced the expenditures of the rich, and drove
ordinary people to destitution. Basic industries such as
the trade in earthenware vanished, and food shortages
became common as harvests were diverted to feed the
troops. Trade languished.
Economic decline, though general, did not affect
all regions of the empire equally. Those provinces closest to the front suffered the most because they were
subject to requisitions of food, draft animals, and equipment and because governors could extract forced loans
from citizens who found themselves in harm’s way.
Both east and west suffered, but the strain was greater
in the west because the Germans exerted a steady, unrelenting pressure while the cyclical nature of the struggle with Persia allowed time for the eastern provinces
to recover between wars. Africa and Egypt, far from the
battlefields, were troubled only by the same ruinous
taxes that afflicted everyone.
The crisis fed upon itself in an unending spiral of
decline. The imperial government became more brutal
and authoritarian in its efforts to extract resources from
an ever-narrowing economic base, and with each exaction, poverty increased. The social consequences were
appalling. A steady decline in population is evident
from the mid-second century onward, which inhibited
recruitment for the army and reduced the tax base even
further (see table 6.1). Growing poverty and political
helplessness blurred social distinctions and encouraged
resistance that, in turn, forced the government to adopt
even sterner measures.
Much of this new authoritarianism was the legacy
of Septimius Severus, emperor from 193 to 211. Having
commanded legions on the Danube, he believed that
the full human and economic resources of the state had
to be mobilized to meet the German threat. He introduced laws that imposed forced labor on the poor and
trapped the decurions (officials who served as an urban
elite) in an inescapable web of obligations. The army,
meanwhile, was showered with favors. Severus doubled
the soldier’s pay—the first increase in more than two
hundred years—and allowed officers to wear the gold
3 TABLE 6.1 3
The Population of the Roman Empire,
These estimates (in millions) of the population of the Roman Empire are necessarily imprecise, but they show dramatic population declines in every region of the empire
after about A.D. 200. The Balkan figures include Illyria,
Pannonia, Dacia, Macedonia, and Thrace. The dramatic
decline around 400 marks the loss of Dacia. Note that,
even at its peak, the population of the empire remained
small relative to the size of the army it was forced to
Syria and Palestine
Source: Figures derived from C. McEvedy and R. Jones, Atlas of World
Population History (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978).
Britain was not part of the empire.
ring that signified membership in the equestrian order.
Such measures improved morale, but they were not
enough. Hard terms of service and the declining population of the interior provinces continued to make recruitment difficult. To compensate, Severus opened
even the highest ranks to men from the border
provinces and, for the first time since the days of Marius, allowed soldiers to marry.
These reforms, though rational and probably necessary, widened the gap between soldiers and civilians.
The post-Severan army, composed largely of men with
only the slightest exposure to Roman culture, was privileged as well as self-perpetuating. Children raised in the
camps usually followed their father’s profession. When
they did not, they remained part of a garrison community whose political and economic interests were in
conflict with those of the society it protected.
Because the soldiers, now half-barbarian themselves, continued to make emperors, the implications of
The Origins of Christianity and the Decline of the Roman Empire 107
this change were potentially disasterous. Severus was an
African, whose family members had long been senators
and were thoroughly romanized. His wife, Julia
Domna, was a gifted administrator and a patron of
Greek and Latin intellectuals who worked tirelessly for
cultural unity. The emperors who followed were of a
different sort. The tyrannical son of Severus and Julia,
Caracalla, was followed by men whose only common
characteristic was the support of a faction within the
army. Most were poorly educated provincials who
seemed like foreigners to a majority of their subjects. A
few were eccentrics or even children, and their average
tenure in office was short. All, however, tried to follow
the deathbed advice of Severus: “Stay on good terms,
enrich the soldiers, and don’t take much notice of anything else.” He had been nothing if not a realist.
Imperial Efforts at Reform from
Septimius Severus to Diocletian
As the third century progressed, “enriching the soldiers”
grew more difficult. Both the economy and the population continued to decline. The rate of conception
slowed, in part because people felt that they could no
longer afford to raise families. Furthermore, malnutrition
and disease contributed to the population loss. The first
great epidemic struck in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. It
was followed by others, whose exact nature is unknown.
Defense costs could not be reduced. The middle
years of the third century saw a renewal of the Persian
wars and the invasion of the Goths, a Germanic people
who forced the Romans to abandon their provinces
north of the Danube (the area now known as Romania)
and threatened the interior as well. Imperial politics
alone demanded enormous expenditures as regional
commanders struggled against one another for the
throne. Of the twenty-six emperors who ruled between
A.D. 235 and 283, only one died of natural causes. All
were forced to bribe the legions for their support; some
even bribed the enemy. Large sums were expended to
buy peace from both the Sassanids and the Goths. Such
efforts predictably failed.
Emperors beginning with Caracalla tried to deal
with these problems by reducing the precious metal
content of their coinage, a practice that did little more
than add inflation to the empire’s list of economic woes.
Taxation and forced requisitions had long since reached
the limits of productivity. Decurions and tenant farmers, impoverished by an insatiable bureaucracy, abandoned their properties in favor of begging, banditry,
and piracy. The emperors, distracted by war and by the
The Tetrarchs, St. Mark’s Venice. The sculpture shows Diocletian and his colleagues as an inseparable unit for purposes of
requirements of personal survival, could do little about
it. Whole regions fell under the control of men who
were, in effect, warlords. In the east, Zenobia, queen of
the caravan city of Palmyra, managed briefly to gain
control of Syria, Egypt, and much of Asia Minor.
The emperors Claudius II Gothicus and Aurelian
brought the military situation under control between
268 and 275. However, major reforms were necessary.
Diocletian, who came to the throne in 284, embarked
upon a reorganization of the entire empire. To enlarge
the army without increasing its potential for anarchy,
he divided the empire into two halves, each ruled by an
augustus. Each augustus then adopted a caesar to serve
as his subordinate and successor.
Diocletian created four emperors, for each caesar
had primary responsibility for a region of his own
(see illustration 6.3). His colleague Maximian was
108 Chapter 6
Prefecture of the East
Line of division
Prefecture of Italy
Prefecture of Illyricum
Prefecture of Gaul
T iber R.
Mt nees N
Divisions of the Restored Roman Empire. c. 300
given responsibility for the west, with another, Constantius, serving as caesar in Gaul and Britain. In recognition of its greater wealth and importance, Diocletian
took the east for himself and established his headquarters at Nicomedia in Asia Minor. His trusted lieutenant
Galerius was made caesar with special responsibility for
Syria and Egypt.
Decentralization worked well as long as the authority of Diocletian remained intact (see map 6.1). He was
probably right in assuming that no one man could effectively govern so vast and beleaguered an empire. If Maximian and the two caesars remained loyal, they could
respond more quickly to crises without losing control of
an army that numbered more than 650,000 men. To ensure even quicker response, the army was divided into
permanent garrisons and mobile expeditionary forces.
The latter, reinforced with heavily armored cavalry
(cataphracti) on an unprecedented scale, were capable of
moving rapidly to threatened sectors of the frontier.
To separate military from civilian authority, Diocletian assigned each augustus and caesar a praetorian
prefect with broad judicial and administrative powers.
He then subdivided the existing provinces, increased
the civil powers of their governors, and grouped the
new, smaller units into dioceses supervised by imperial
vicars. The vicars reported to the praetorian prefects.
The new administrative system would be the model
for the later empire—and for the Christian church
when it eventually achieved official status. Diocletian
used it primarily to implement economic reforms. To
The Origins of Christianity and the Decline of the Roman Empire 109
him, and to his successors, only a command economy
in which the government regulated nearly every aspect
of economic life could provide the resources needed to
maintain both the army and a newly expanded bureaucracy. All pretense of a free market was abandoned.
Diocletian attempted to solve the labor shortage by
forbidding workers to leave their trades and by binding
tenants to the great estates for life. In later years, these
provisions were made hereditary, but they did nothing
to retard economic stagnation. In the long run, restricting the free movement of labor probably made matters
worse, as did continued tax increases and a new, more
efficient system of forced requisitions that he introduced early in his reign.
The long-term effect of these changes was obscured
by peace, which enabled the economy to recover somewhat in spite of them, but Diocletian’s effort to control
inflation failed quickly and visibly (see table 6.2). He restored the metal content of silver and gold coins, devalued under his predecessors, but could not issue enough
of them to meet demand. Silver-washed copper coins
known as nummi remained the most common money in
circulation and depreciated even faster in relation to the
new coinage. Prices continued to rise. In 301, Diocletian
responded by placing a ceiling on wages and prices.
Like all such measures, the edict proved impossible to
enforce. Riots and black marketeering greeted its introduction in the more commercial east, while the agricultural west seems to have ignored it altogether. The
program was abandoned after a year.
Whatever their shortcomings, the reforms of Diocletian were perhaps the best answer that administrative
genius alone could apply to the problems of the later
empire. Little else could have been done within the constraints imposed by Rome’s defensive needs. To preserve
his achievements, Diocletian abdicated in 305 and retired to the magnificent fortified palace he constructed
on the shores of the Adriatic (see illustration 6.4).
Though many of his reforms endured, all plans for
an orderly succession collapsed long before he died
The Age of Constantine
Even had Diocletian’s colleagues been fully willing to
accept his settlement, their sons were not. Maximian,
the western augustus, abdicated in favor of his caesar,
Constantius, but when the latter died in 306, his son
Constantine was proclaimed augustus by the troops and
Maximian’s son, Maxentius, rebelled against him. In
3 TABLE 6.2 3
Diocletian: Edict of Maximum Prices, A.D. 301
The emperor Diocletian’s reforms included an important effort to
control the inflation of prices. His edict stated the maximum
permissible price of wages in many jobs, of many commodities,
and of transportation. Although the edict was often circumvented, it provides a remarkable portrait of daily life in the Roman Empire.
For one modius
(c. 2 gallons):
For 1 sextarius
(approx. 16 ounces):
Wheat 100 denarii
100 oysters 100
Olive oil 40
For daily labor:
1 pheasant 250 denarii
12 oz. pork
12 oz. fish
For skilled wages:
Farm laborer 25 denarii
Scribe, per 100 lines
Notary, per document
Tailor, cutting one cloak
Tailor, for breeches
Sewer cleaner 25
Monthly scale for teachers,
For lawyer, simple
Teacher of Greek
Transactions of the American Philological Association, 71 (1940), 157.
312 Constantine defeated Maxentius at the battle of
the Milvian bridge and became undisputed augustus of
the west. In the east, Licinius, who governed the dioceses on the Danube frontier, eventually succeeded Galerius and made an uneasy alliance with Constantine
that ended, after much maneuvering, with the defeat
and execution of Licinius in 324. Constantine, known
thereafter as “the Great,” had reunited the empire under
his personal rule.
Constantine, like Diocletian and the rest of his imperial colleagues, came from the provinces along the
lower Danube and had only an approximate acquaintance with traditional Roman culture. In administrative
110 Chapter 6
Model of Diocletian’s Palace at Split. The emperor built
this palace on the Dalmatian Coast after A.D. 293 for his retire-
ment. The concern for security indicates the limited success of
his reforms and a certain distrust of his fellow tetrarchs.
matters, he continued the policies of his predecessor
and surpassed him in ritualizing the imperial office. All
trace of republican values were abandoned. Under
Constantine, the emperor became a godlike figure surrounded by eastern rituals who spoke to all but the
most privileged of his subjects from behind a screen
(see illustration 6.5).
Eastern ritual was appropriate because the empire’s
center of gravity had long since shifted to the east. The
constant military pressure exerted by the Germans had
drained the west of much of its wealth. What little remained tended to flow eastward, as westerners continued to purchase craft and luxury items from the more
advanced cities of Syria and Asia Minor. More than
ever, the west had become a land of vast, self-sufficient
latifundia, worked by tenants and isolated from the
shrinking towns whose chief remaining function was to
house a bloated imperial administration. Constantine,
who had spent most of his adult life in the west, knew
this all too well. That was why, in 324, he established a
new capital at Byzantium on the shores of the Bosporus.
Rome, the city, had declined in importance. Most of the
emperors since Marcus Aurelius had passed their reigns
closer to the military frontiers, and some had never visited the ancient capital. Constantine’s move was therefore an acknowledgment of existing realities. Byzantium,
renamed Constantinople in honor of himself, was at the
strategic and economic center of the empire. Rome,
though still a great city, was becoming a museum.
Moving the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople hastened the decline of the west, but it was
only one of several steps taken by Constantine that revealed the shape of the future. The most important was
his personal acceptance of the Christian religion. His
reasons for doing so are not entirely clear. Constantine’s
mother, Helen, was a Christian, but he grew up a virtual hostage at the pagan court of Diocletian. It was not
until the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 that he had
his troops paint Christian symbols on their shields. Afterward, he claimed that a flaming cross in the sky had
led them to victory. Constantine’s grasp of Christian
principles remained weak to the end, and he may have
converted simply because he thought that the magic of
the Christians was stronger. An element of political calculation probably also entered into his decision.
The Origins of Christianity and the Decline of the Roman Empire 111
Monumental Head of the Emperor Constantine. Originally
part of a much larger seated statue, the head alone is more than
eight feet tall and is meant to convey a godlike impression.
In the course of the third century, the Christians
had become a political force in the eastern half of the
empire. No longer a church of the weak and helpless, it
included people of great influence in Diocletian’s administration, some of whom were thought capable of
fraud and violence. In 303 Diocletian became convinced that they were plotting against him and
launched the last and most savage of the persecutions.
He was encouraged in this by Galerius, whose tenure in
the east had convinced him that the Christians were a
menace to imperial government as a whole. When Diocletian abdicated, Galerius continued to pursue antiChristian policies until his own death in 311 and
bequeathed them to his successor, Maximin Daia. Constantine perhaps adopted Christianity because he and
his then-ally Licinius needed Christian support in their
successful struggle with Maximin Daia. However, no
direct evidence of this is available, and little reason exists to suppose that Christian support affected the final
outcome of these imperial struggles.
In any case, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity
changed the basic character of the church. Though paganism continued to be tolerated, Christianity now had
many of the characteristics of an official religion. Homes
and catacombs were abandoned as centers of worship in
favor of the basilica, an oblong structure of the sort used
for Roman public assemblies (see illustration 6.6). The
new construction—and the clergy itself—was funded in
part with imperial monies, and membership was both a
mark of status and essential for those who wished to
reach the highest levels of the imperial service.
Converts poured in, and Christian principles became the basis for a mass of legislation. Even before his
final victory in 324, Constantine moved to limit the
brutality of official punishments and to expand poor relief. To provide poor women with an alternative to infanticide, the most common and effective method of
birth control in ancient times, arrangements were made
for the care of foundlings. Most measures were benign,
but the sterner side of Christian morality was reflected
in new and savage penalties for adultery, prostitution,
and premarital sex.
Constantine might not have understood the intricacies of Christian theology. As a practical ruler, however,
he knew that doctrinal disputes could lead to political
disorder. He sought from the beginning of his reign to
end the heresies that disturbed the church.
The most important of these involved the Trinity.
By 260 a majority of Christians believed that there was
one God, but that God had three persons—the Father,
the Son (Christ), and the Holy Spirit. In the reign of
Constantine, an Alexandrian priest named Arius advanced the view that Christ was a created being, neither fully God nor fully man. This called the nature of
Christ’s sacrifice into question, for, if he were not both
fully man and fully God, how could his suffering on the
cross have atoned for the sins of humankind?
The popular interest aroused by this argument is
hard to imagine today, but trinitarian disputes became a
fruitful source of riots and other violence in the cities of
the empire. Arianism may have masked political and regional grievances that owed little to religion. In any
case, Constantine was forced to call another general
meeting of the church. In 325 the Council of Nicaea
decreed that Christ was both fully man and fully God,