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The Grandeur That Was Rome
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The City Of God
 

Date: 1992

The Fall Of Rome And The Rise Of Christianity

To the inhabitants of the Graeco-Roman world, Rome was the "Eternal
City," a proud title that conveyed the sense of confidence that Romans had in
their capital. Thus when the Visigoths entered Italy and sacked the city in
A.D. 410, anguish reverberated throughout the crumbling Empire. In distant
Bethlehem, St. Jerome wrote, "The lamp of the world is extinguished, and it is
the whole world which has perished in the ruins of this one city."

This chapter examines the decline and fall of the City of the Caesars and
the emergence of the "City of God." It was St. Augustine, in the wake of the
Visigoths' capture of Rome, who devised that phrase to describe the rise of a
new Christian society on the ruins of paganism and a once invincible empire -
and to assure Christians that the "community of the Most High" would endure,
even though the greatest city on earth had fallen.

This period in history has several facets. One concerns the progressive
decline of the Roman Empire, beginning in the third century A.D. In the
gloomy words of a contemporary, "Our history now descends from a kingdom of
gold to one of iron and rust." Another facet concerns the migration and
settlement of the Germanic peoples in the western half of the Roman Empire. A
third element is the national history of the Jews, the coming of Jesus in the
midst of their turbulent relations with the Romans, and the eventual triumph
of Jesus' teachings.

Decline And Division In The Roman World

In the third century A.D., internal anarchy and foreign invasion
drastically transformed the Roman Empire. Augustus' constitutional monarchy,
in which the emperor shared power with the Senate, changed to a despotic
absolute monarchy in which the emperors made no attempt to hide the fact that
they were backed by the military and would tolerate no senatorial
interference. By the late third century, the emperor was no longer addresed as
princeps, meaning first among equals, but as dominus et deus, "lord and god."
The Principate had been replaced by the absolute rule known as the Dominate.

The Crisis Of The Third Century

The transformation of the Roman Empire in the third century was
foreshadowed by the reign of Commodus, who in A.D. 180 succeeded his father,
Marcus Aurelius. Unlike his stern father with his Stoic sense of duty,
Commodus was an incompetent voluptuary whose dissipations, cruelties, and
neglect of affairs of state motivated a group of conspirators to have him
strangled in 192. Civil war followed as rival armies fought for the imperial
throneon one occasion troops holding Rome sold the throne to the highest
bidder - until Septimus Severus emerged on top and established a dynasty that
provided some measure of order.

The Severan dynasty (193-235) marks the approaching end of the
Principate. The Senate, which under the Principate retained some governing
power and functioned as an advisory body, was ignored and the army was
pampered and enlarged. Septimus Severus' dying words to his sons, "Enrich the
soldiers and scorn all others," reflect the trend of the times.

The dire effects of this toadying to the soldiery became apparent after
235, when the last member of the Severan dynasty was murdered by his own
mutinous troops. During the next fifty years, the Empire suffered both from
bloody civil wars and foreign invasions. Generals murdered emperors with no
second thoughts, intimidated all opposition, and put themselves or their
puppets on the throne. Of the twenty-six who claimed the title of emperor
during this half-century of military anarchy, only one died a natural death.

Meanwhile, whole German tribes moved across the imperial frontiers: the
Franks devastated Gaul, the Saxons invaded Britain, and the Goths occupied
Dacia (modern Romania). For the first time since Hannibal's invasion five
centuries earlier, it was felt necessary to protect Rome itself with a wall
twenty feet high and twelve feet wide, which still stands. In Asia a powerful
new menace appeared after 226 - a reinvigorated Persia under the rule of the
Sassanid dynasty, which proceeded to attack Roman Syria. In 260 the Persians
defeated and captured a Roman emperor, who died in captivity - a severe blow
to Roman prestige.

Economic Decline

As deadly to the well-being of the Empire as military anarchy and foreign
invasions was prolonged economic decline. The Empire was no longer expanding;
the economy had become static. In the past, military expansion had paid off in
rich booty, and the tapping of new sources of wealth had justified a large
army. Now, however, wars were defensive, and the army had become a financial
liability rather than an asset. Gold and silver were also being drained away
because of an unfavorable trade balance with India and China.

In the western half of the Empire the trend toward the concentration of
land ownership in a few hands was greatly accelerated by the turbulent
conditions of the third century. Small farmers abandoned their lands, which
were then bought up cheaply by large landowners or confiscated by the
emperors. The number of tenant farmers, or coloni, increased
as small farming decreased. People fled the insecurity of city life to find
jobs and protection on the large estates (latifundia) with their
fortified villas. There they cultivated their patches of land, paying rent to
the landowner and providing free labor at sowing and reaping time. The
condition of the coloni deteriorated as they fell behind in their rents
and taxes and finally were bound to their tenancies by imperial order until
they had discharged their debts. This was a first step toward serfdom and the
social and economic pattern of the early Middle Ages.

The frequent civil wars disturbed trade and thus undermined the
prosperity of the cities, whose populations decreased correspondingly. To make
matters worse, inflation spiraled because the government spent more than it
took in. In order to meet their military and administrative expenses, the
emperors repeatedly devalued the coinage by reducing its silver content.
Ultimately the amount of alloy reached 98 percent, and prices soared as people
lost confidence in the debased currency. The government soon refused to accept
its own money for taxes and required payment in goods and services.

Diocletian And Constantine

A much-needed reconstruction of the Empire was accomplished by Diocletian
(285-305), a rough-hewn soldier and shrewd administrator. Diocletian's work of
stabilization is often compared to that of Augustus after a similar period of
turmoil. But while Augustus had established a form of constitutional monarchy,
Diocletian founded an undisguised oriental despotism.

To increase the strength of the government, Diocletian completed the
trend toward autocracy. The Senate was relegated to the status of a city
council, while the person of the emperor was exalted. Adorned in robes laden
with jewels, Diocletian surrounded himself with all the splendor of an
oriental despot. An imperial etiquette was established that transformed the
emperor into a veritable god; rigid ceremony demanded that people bow low
before him, kiss the hem of his robe, and address him as "the most sacred
lord."

Diocletian realized that the Empire's problems had become too great for
one man, so he divided the Empire, retaining the more prosperous eastern half
for his own administration. In the West he created a co-emperor who, like
himself, was designated an Augustus. Each Augustus in turn entrusted the
direct rule of half his realm to an assistant, called a Caesar. Since each
Caesar was to succeed his Augustus when the senior official died or retired,
the problem of succession seemed to be resolved.

Diocletian greatly increased the number and variety of administrative
units within the four divisions of the Empire. The provinces were reduced in
size and more than doubled in number. (Italy lost its hitherto favored
position and was divided into provinces.) The provinces were grouped into
thirteen dioceses, each under a vicar. The dioceses in turn were grouped into
four prefectures, each under a prefect who served directly under one of the
four emperors. Paralleling this civil administration was a separate hierarchy
of military officials. Command of armies was given to generals called
duces (from which the title duke was later derived). Finally, a
large secret service was created to keep close watch over this vast
bureaucracy.

Diocletian also made strenuous efforts to arrest economic decay in the
Empire. He gradually restored confidence in the debased currency by issuing
new standard silver and gold coins. In the meantime, in an effort to stem the
runaway inflation, he issued an edict fixing maximum prices for all essential
goods and services, from peas and beer to haircuts and freight rates.

After Diocletian and his fellow Augustus retired in 305, his scheme for
the succession collapsed, and civil war broke out once again. Within a few
years Constantine (306-337) forged to the front. After sharing the Empire for
a few years with an eastern rival, Constantine became sole emperor in 324.

Constantine carried on Diocletian's work of reconstructing and
stabilizing the Empire. He was the first emperor to use the Christian religion
as a means of strengthening his position. In 312 Constantine was in the midst
of a desperate battle for the city of Rome with a rival when, as tradition has
it, he saw emblazoned across the sky a cross with the words In hoc signo
vinces ("By this sign you will conquer.") Constantine won the battle, and
in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity throughout
the Empire and put it on an equal footing with the pagan cults. The emperor
himself waited until on his deathbed before receiving baptism, but during his
reign he actively supported Christianity by granting many favors to the
church, thereby gaining the loyalty of many Christians, the bishops in
particular. His mother, a barmaid named Helena (St. Helena), converted to
Christianity and made a famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she is
reputed to have discovered the remains of the True Cross on the site of
Christ's Crucifixion. She presented her son with two nails from the cross. One
he set in his crown, the other in the bridle of his war horse.

To ensure the production of essential goods and services as well as the
collection of taxes, Constantine, like Diocletian earlier, issued a series of
decrees that froze people in their occupations and places of origins.
Henceforth, no colonus could leave the soil, and the children of a
colonus had to accept the same status as that of their father. A
soldier's son, too, had to follow his father's profession. In the cities the
same restrictions were applied to members of those guilds whose activities
were essential to the state, such as baking and transportation. Thus, to serve
the interests of the state and to arrest further economic decline, a kind of
caste system was established.

Division Of The Empire

The center of gravity in the Roman world shifted eastward during the age
of Diocletian and Constantine. The administrative reforms swept away Italy's
former primacy, and Rome ceased to be a seat of imperial authority.
Diocletian's coemperor in the West ruled from Milan, while Diocletian himself
chose to govern the eastern half of the Empire and set up his court at
Nicomedia in northwestern Asia Minor. His was a logical choice; the East had
declined less than the West, and the greatest dangers to the Empire came from
beyond the Danube River and from Persia. But even more strategic than
Nicomedia was the old Greek colony of Byzantium, just across the straits in
Europe, which Constantine selected for a new capital. Reached only through a
narrow, easily defended channel, Byzantium possessed a splendid harbor at the
crossroads of Europe and Asia. Constantine dubbed his capital New Rome, but it
soon became known as Constantinople ("City of Constantine").

The establishment of an eastern capital foreshadowed the impending
division of the Empire into two completely separate states. For about fifty
years following the death of Constantine in 337, the unity of the Empire was
preserved, although there were often two joint emperors, one in the East and
the other in the West. But after Theodosius I divided the Empire between his
two sons in 395, the Roman world was never again governed as a single unit.
Henceforth we can speak of a western Roman empire, which soon fell, and an
eastern Roman - or Byzantine - empire, which endured for another thousand
years during which it adhered to the paternalistic and authoritarian pattern
laid down by Diocletian and Constantine.

 


 

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