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The Origins of Christianity and the Decline of the Roman Empire 101

Illustration 6.1

— 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

Illustration 6.2

— 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

c. 250.

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


The Important Roman Emperors

27 B.C.–A.D.14 Augustus

A.D. 14–37 Tiberius

37–41 Caligula

41–54 Claudius

54–68 Nero*

68–69 The year of the four emperors

69–79 Vespasian

79–81 Titus

81–96 Domitian*

96–98 Nerva

98–117 Trajan

117–138 Hadrian

138–161 Antoninus Pius

161–180 Marcus Aurelius*

180–192 Commodus

193–211 Septimius Severus

211–217 Caracalla

218–222 Elagabalus

222–235 Severus Alexander

249–251 Decius*

253–260 Valerian*

253–268 Gallienus

268–270 Claudius II Gothicus

270–275 Aurelian

284–305 Diocletian*

306–337 Constantine

337–361 Constantius II

361–363 Julian the Apostate

364–375 Valentinian

364–378 Valens

379–395 Theodosius

*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

craft goods.

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,

A.D. 1–600

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













Asia Minor








































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

Illustration 6.3

— 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

















A lp



































400 Miles


Prefecture of the East






Line of division

between East

and West


Prefecture of Italy





Prefecture of Illyricum




600 Kilometers

Prefecture of Gaul










Adriatic ATI










n R






T iber R.

R ho















Mt nees N

















i epe

r R.








MAP 6.1

— 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

in 313.

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









2 chickens






10 sparrows






30 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




Camel driver




Sewer cleaner 25


Monthly scale for teachers,

per pupil

Elementary teacher


Arithmetic teacher


For lawyer, simple

Teacher of Greek



Rhetoric teacher



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

Illustration 6.4

— 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

Illustration 6.5

— 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,

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