`Having troubled the state in all these ways, Constantine died of a disease. His three surviving children succeeded to the imperium.... They managed the affairs of state, giving way to the inclinations of youth rather than to general welfare. For in the first place they distributed the nations amongst themselves.' - Zosimus, late fifth century.'
And close kinsmen as we were, how this most humane Emperor [Constantius II] treated us! Six of my cousins and his, and my father who was his own uncle, and also another uncle of both of us on my father's side, and my eldest brother, he put to death without trial.' - Emperor Julian, 361.'
Christianity made little fundamental difference to the ideology of the Roman empire. Emperors before Constantine had claimed special relationships with particular gods and been declared divine at their death. More recently, Diocletian had styled himself Jupiter-like and was called `lord and god' in his lifetime. Constantine instead presented his rule as sanctioned by the one supreme Christian God, who had given him victory after victory on the battlefield. Three centuries of tradition was still strong enough at the time of his death for him to be declared divine by the Senate - the last time this was done. The rule of Rome, and especially its emperors, was ordained by God. Constantine was far more concerned that all his subjects acknowledged this than with their actual religious beliefs. It bolstered imperial power, but did not alter the way the army, administration and other organs of the state actually functioned. Nor did it change the Romans' aggressive attitude to other peoples or reduce the savagery of internal rivalries.
Constantine's family members were all raised as Christians. His three surviving sons Constantine 11, Constantius I I and Constans had all been named as Caesars, as was his nephew Dalmatius. Each of the four men was granted a group of provinces to govern and each had his own praetorian prefect. Constans was still only fourteen, so in his case the day-to-day work was probably carried out by his officials. In 336 Dalmatius' brother Hannibalianus was given the extraordinary title `king of kings of Bithynia and Pontus'. This was clearly a challenge to the regional dominance of the Persian monarch and part of the pressure put on him in the build-up to Constantine's planned invasion. Therefore five of the Augustus' extended family shared power, and there was much marrying of cousins, both to promote family unity and prevent outsiders from acquiring a claim to the imperial purple.
Constantine died in May, but for four months no new Augustus was appointed and the dead emperor continued nominally to reign. As this peculiar interregnum continued throughout the summer, new laws were issued in his name. In the meantime there was an extremely bloody purge of the male members of the extended family. Both Dalmatius and Hannibalianus were murdered, as were seven other descendants of Constantius' second wife Theodora - posthumous revenge for her displacement of Constantine's mother Helena. By September the three sons of Constantine had disposed of all their rivals. Of their male cousins, only two infants were still alive. It was claimed that the army would accept only the rule of Constantine's sons, although no doubt the brothers had helped the senior officers to reach this decision. All three now took the title of Augustus.'
Constantius II played the key role in the purge. He was the first Caesar to arrive at Nicomedia after his father's death, and in due course presided over the funeral at Constantinople. Constantine had prepared a mausoleum for himself, where his body would rest surrounded by memorials to - and in time conveniently discovered relics ofthe twelve apostles. The funeral service was Christian and the very public decision not to be buried at Rome was new, and yet in many other respects the rituals were highly traditional. Constantine II and Constans were in Europe during both the ceremonies and the murders, but were probably complicit in the purge and certainly not inclined to hinder the killings. The three brothers met in September near the Danube and shared out the provinces between themselves. Constantius took the eastern provinces as well as Thrace, Constans received the rest of the Balkan regions along with Italy and North Africa, and Constantine continued to control Gaul, Spain and Britain.
All three were Augusti, and the empire was not formally divided, but there was little trace of harmony. Constantine was the eldest and seems to have felt that he was entitled to play a dominant role. This produced friction, particularly with his closest neighbour Constans, and in 340 this erupted into open civil war. The older brother was militarily stronger as well as more experienced, but managed to get himself killed in a preliminary encounter outside Aquileia. Like all Roman civil wars there was no ideology involved and the conflict ended when one of the rivals died. The popularity of Constantine's house was still so great that no outsider had a serious chance of rallying support against the seventeenyear-old Constans, who now found himself in charge of almost twothirds of the entire empire. Constantius had stayed out of the dispute between his siblings. The Persians, understandably aroused by his father's invasion plans, launched several attacks on the Roman frontier during these years. This gave Constantius good reason - and perhaps a pretext - to remain in his own territory and let the dispute resolve itself.4
A decade without a civil war followed - something rare enough to be worth noting. Then, in January 350, an army officer named Magnentius was proclaimed emperor at Autun in Gaul. Precisely how Constans had alienated so many of his senior officers and officials is unclear, but they were now willing to back an emperor from outside the imperial family. Perhaps as the young Augustus - Constans was still only twenty-seven - had grown up, he had proved less willing to be guided by the advisers who had shaped policy in earlier years. Many are also supposed to have been sickened by his blatant homosexuality and the freedom with which he indulged his lovers, handsome youths often selected from amongst the prisoners of war. On the other hand, this may just have been propaganda put out by the victor to blacken his name.
The coup was well managed and Constans failed to rally any support. When one of Magnentius' patrols found him, Constantine's son was attended by just one junior officer. Constans was executed. This provoked a second usurpation, when the army in Illyricum proclaimed as emperor its commander Vetranio. His motives are a little unclear, for within a matter of months he was in negotiations with Constantius. The two met and at a public ceremony Vetranio resigned from power, living out the remainder of his life in comfortable retirement. He may have been working for Constantius all the time, but judged that the best way to control the troops was by letting them proclaim him emperor. This would make them less likely to defect to Magnentius. Equally, Vetranio may not have been playing such a subtle game and simply waited to see how things developed.'
If Magnentius hoped for recognition as ruler of the west, then he was disappointed. Constantius had accepted one of his brothers killing the other, but was not about to tolerate an outsider joining in. The ensuing civil war lasted for three years and was fought on a large scale and at considerable cost in lives. Magnentius was also faced with another threat when Nepotianus, a son of one of Constantine's half-sisters, was proclaimed emperor at Rome. Within a month Nepotianus was beheaded and his mother had also been executed. More serious for Magnentius was the defection of one of his senior officers. This man, Silvanus, joined Constantius and may well have taken many of his soldiers with him. This helped Constantius to win a very bloody battle outside Mursa on the Danube in 351. In the next year his forces overran Italy and in 353 they began to reclaim Gaul itself. As defeat followed defeat, Magnentius finally despaired and committed suicide, along with his brother whom he had raised to be Caesar.'
Constantius was now master of the entire empire, ruling with just a single junior colleague. This was Gallus, the older of the two nephews of Constantine to survive the bloodletting in 337. He and his half-brother Julian were raised in virtual captivity and were not given any public role or responsibilities to prepare them for high office. The twenty-six-year-old Gallus was appointed Caesar in 351 and left to supervise the eastern provinces, while Constantius went off to deal with Magnentius. At first he seems to have performed this task reasonably competently, but mistrust was surely inevitable between a Caesar and the Augustus who had murdered his father and relatives. It was no coincidence that the friction came to a head just as Constantius was finishing the process of mopping up the rebellion in Gaul. Gallus may have become less restrained in his behaviour, and certainly his relations with many of the senior officials appointed by the Augustus had become tense. He had also made himself unpopular with the wealthy families of Antioch, blaming them for deliberately creating a grain shortage in the city so that they could force prices up. A number of prominent men were arrested, tortured and killed on trumped-up charges. One governor was torn to pieces when Gallus handed him over to an angry mob.
Constantius moved cautiously, fearing that his Caesar would win enough local support to rise against him. Gradually, Gallus was stripped of the military forces at his immediate disposal. Then in 354 he was summoned to join the Augustus in northern Italy, ostensibly for a celebration. On the way, he was arrested and executed. An officer then rode to Milan as fast as the relays of horses from the imperial post service could carry him. There he threw the Caesar's jewel-encrusted imperial shoes down before a delighted Constantius `as if they were spoils taken from a dead Parthian king'.7
The Reluctant Usurper
Our sources for the early decades of the fourth century are poor, and this is especially true of the years following Constantine's death. This situation changes dramatically when the surviving narrative of Ammianus Marcellinus' history begins in 353, providing us with a detailed account of the next twenty-five years. Ammianus was the last great Latin historian, which was ironic given that he came from the eastern Mediterranean - probably from Antioch itself - and so had Greek as his first language. After service as a staff officer in the army, he retired to Rome and subsequently wrote a history covering the period from 96 to 378. Only the last eighteen of the original thirty-one books survive, but it is clear that he covered the events of his own lifetime in greater detail than the earlier periods. This provides us with a detailed account that is not only contemporary, but also sometimes that of an eyewitness. Yet, just like any other source, Ammianus needs to be used with a degree of caution. He was not unbiased, and sometimes his focus on certain events distorts their place in the wider picture. Even so, the detail he provides gives us a very vivid portrait of the fourth-century empire.'
Ammianus' surviving narrative begins with the final breakdown in relations between Constantius II and Gallus. The latter is portrayed as an unrestrained tyrant, egged on by his even more ferocious wife, a daughter of Constantine who had earlier been married to the murdered Hannibalianus. Ammianus' account allows us to see the process by which Gallus was gradually stripped of power, isolated and killed. Even more importantly, he tells us of the purges that followed the Caesar's fall and the defeat of Magnentius. Anyone, and especially army officers and civilian officials, connected with them in any way were under suspicion. Senior men were tortured to extract confessions and evidence against others. Many were then executed, a few merely exiled.'
In a climate of almost paranoid suspicion, one of the easiest ways for an individual to prove his loyalty was to inform on another. This proof often brought promotion or other favours from a grateful emperor. Additional incentive was provided because such informers were usually rewarded with a share of the condemned man's property. Many wholly innocent men were attacked in this way and the vast majority were executed, for it was extremely difficult to disprove allegations, while evidence was easily fabricated. Ammianus felt that Constantius was too ready to mistrust people, but he was even more sickened by the willingness of officers and officials to turn on their colleagues - or indeed anyone they felt was vulnerable to an accusation. He tells of one frequent informer who was nicknamed `the count of dreams' because of his skill in twisting innocent stories of dreams told over the dinner table into aspirations for imperial power. Another was called Paul `the chain' because the evidence he invented would surround innocent men and always proved impossible to escape. Serving in the imperial bureaucracy had become very dangerous and this obviously did not promote efficiency.'°
Ammianus mentions by name many of the prominent victims of these purges. In 353 he was attached to the staff of the commander of the field forces in the east, the Master of Soldiers Ursicinus. Under suspicion after the fall of Gallus, in part because of the action of his sons, the general was put in charge of courts prosecuting others implicated in the recent disturbances. It was an unusual job for a senior soldier, and his behaviour was clearly monitored to assess his own loyalty to Constantius. Such tribunals condemned many unnamed and less prominent people - the relatives of the more powerful, as well as officers and officials whose careers they had advanced through their patronage. Investigations and arrests were made throughout Britain, Gaul and Spain in the aftermath of Magnentius' revolt. It is only because we have Ammianus' account that we become aware of this ripple effect, as punishments reached out to claim many more individuals than simply the leaders in civil wars and usurpations. This process is normally invisible in the skimpy sources for so many other internal struggles, but needs always to be kept in mind.T'
Even the briefest of challenges for imperial power caused considerable upheaval, creating a climate of nervousness that filtered a long way down the hierarchies of the army and administration. Men had to choose sides, trying to guess who would win. Even if they remained loyal to the eventual victor, they could not be sure that their innocence would protect them. Ambitious officials grew powerful through accusing others, sometimes out of personal enmity, but also just because they felt that they could get away with it. At the top, the emperor was suspicious that his most powerful subordinates wanted to supplant him - usurpation and civil war remained facts of life. Added to which, the growth in bureaucracy and the grand ceremonies of court life made it harder for him to know what was going on.
The climate of the times is well illustrated by the fate of Silvanus, the officer who had defected from Magnentius during the civil war. When the conflict was over, Constantius rewarded him with the post of commander of the army in Gaul. Silvanus was a Frank, whose father had fought with distinction for Constantine. He was one of many army officers of Germanic descent in the army at this time. A chieftain of the Alamanni had been prominent in Constantine's proclamation as emperor at York in 306. Many of these men adopted Roman names, all had been granted citizenship and social status commensurate with their rank, and were in every important cultural respect Roman. Silvanus was a Christian - something still rare amongst the Franks living outside the empire - and his loyalty was clearly to the empire, even if his earlier defection made it less clear to which specific emperor.'2
Early on in his command Silvanus gave letters of recommendation to an imperial official operating in the area. It was entirely normal to request such things from those with power in a region, but the man in question had a more sinister motive. He carefully erased the ink carrying the main text of the letters, leaving only the general's signature on each page. Then new letters were written, addressed to a range of senior officers, administrators and other prominent men, hinting at plans for rebellion against Constantius. These were passed on to fellow conspirators, including Praetorian Prefect Lampadius, and several other high-ranking officials. The prefect, whose role gave him access to the emperor outside the restrictions of court ceremony, privately handed these to Constantius.
The emperor immediately ordered the arrest of the men named in the letters. However, some officers - many of them also of Frankish descent and including Malarichus, the commander of one of the guard regiments - staunchly protested Silvanus' innocence. Constantius relented a little, but did not agree to their proposal to send one of their number to bring Silvanus to the court in Milan so that he could explain himself. Instead, he listened to Silvanus' predecessor in the Gallic command, who had no love for his replacement, and selected another emissary. This man went to Gaul, but made no effort to meet or contact Silvanus. Instead he joined up with a local official and started treating anyone vaguely associated with the general as an already convicted rebel. In the meantime the conspirators sent another forged letter, incriminating both Silvanus and Malarichus. It was worded in such a way that the recipient - the man in charge of the arms factory at Cremona in northern Italy - was left baffled, and sent back asking for an explanation.
Malarichus took this to the emperor and loudly proclaimed that a conspiracy was underway. Constantius ordered an investigation that spotted the imprint of the original text and so exposed the letters as forgeries. Lampadius was arrested, but still had enough influential friends to secure his release. One of his fellow conspirators was examined under torture, but he, too, was subsequently released and none of the others were punished at all. The man who had made the forgeries in the first place was soon afterwards promoted to be corrector governing one of the regions of Italy.
Although Silvanus had been cleared of any wrongdoing, the slow pace of communications meant that he did not know it. His friends at court had informed him of the accusations and the forged letters, while the behaviour of the emperor's messenger suggested that he had already been condemned without any chance of defending himself. At one point he considered fleeing beyond the frontiers to seek refuge amongst the Franks. Yet another Frankish officer serving in the army persuaded him against this, saying that the tribesmen would either kill him or happily take payment to hand him back to the Romans. The Franks were not a nation, but many loosely connected tribes and clans.
Silvanus had never planned to claim the throne. In the summer of 355 he paid his troops in the name of Constantius, making a speech praising the emperor and urging them to be steadfast in their loyalty. As Ammianus points out, `if he sought the insignia of imperial power, he would have given out this largesse in his own name'. Yet he felt trapped, found guilty without a hearing. Faced with what seemed inevitable execution, Silvanus decided that his only hope of survival was to make a bid for the throne. Perhaps he could supplant Constantius, or at least negotiate from a position of strength for acceptance as co-ruler. Four days after the pay parade - the date was probably ii August - he was hailed as emperor by his army at Cologne. It was a hastily organised, makeshift ceremony, with the new emperor wearing a cloak of imperial purple made from small flags taken off several army standards and sewn together.13
Constantius was stunned when the news of the usurpation reached Milan. At the court was Ursicinus, still under a degree of suspicion, and it was decided to send him to deal with Silvanus. He did not go with an army, but a few officers and ten of his personal staff, including Ammianus himself. His instructions were to deal with the usurper covertly, but the historian later wrote that they felt like `beast-fighters thrown down amongst savage animals'. They hastened to Cologne, carrying a friendly letter from Constantius, in which he pretended not to know of Silvanus' elevation. He was to hand over his command to Ursicinus and return with all honours to Milan.14
When the party reached Cologne and saw considerable forces gathered with every sign of local support for the usurper, Ursicinus decided instead to present himself as a sympathiser and prostrated himself before Silvanus in the appropriate manner. He was welcomed as a valuable ally, the whole thing made plausible since he, too, had fallen under Constantius' unjustified suspicion. As Silvanus resisted the calls of his men to march on Italy - it was just a few weeks since his proclamation so he may not have been ready, but he may simply have been reluctant to escalate the conflict - the new arrivals secretly went to work. Having discovered that a pair of army units were lukewarm in their support for the usurper, substantial bribes were paid over to persuade them to turn on Silvanus. At dawn a party of these soldiers burst into the palace, cutting down any sentries in their path. Then:
Silvanus was dragged out of chapel, where he had in terror taken refuge on his way to a Christian service, and was cut to ribbons by their swords. And thus died a general of considerable merit, who had resorted to the most desperate measures to save himself for fear of the calumnies in which he was ensnared during his absence by a faction of enemies.15
The usual purge of the dead man's relatives and associates followed, Paul `the chain' playing a prominent role in `discovering' information that led to many being executed. Ammianus mentions five victims by name, as well as `many others.' Even Ursicinus was for a while under suspicion of misappropriating funds.'6
Silvanus' reign had lasted just twenty-eight days. His murder avoided a civil war, which would inevitably have been far more costly in lives than the executions that did occur in its aftermath. Yet it is important not to measure the costs of usurpations solely in terms of casualties and physical damage. Each emphasised just how precarious a career in the imperial service was. One of the most striking features of this episode is the willingness with which senior Roman officials arranged the disgrace and death of colleagues for their own personal advantage. Another is the difficulty that Constantius had in knowing what was going on in his empire. If anything, the massive increase in bureaucracy kept an emperor less well informed than he had been in the first and second centuries. None of this made for the efficient running of the empire.'7
Yet good government was not the highest priority for emperors - survival was. Throughout his career, Constantius was always willing to execute, murder or fight a civil war against anyone who challenged his grip on imperial power. The emperors of the Principate had likewise often shown themselves to be utterly ruthless. Ammianus compared the plight of Ursicinus in 354 to that of Corbulo, a distinguished general instructed to commit suicide by Nero. In the first century both Augustus and Vespasian, two men generally treated in our sources as amongst the best emperors, won power in the first place through civil war. Yet the difference was still considerable. Usurpations were not as common in the fourth century as they had been in the third, but they were still frequent. Emperors were harder to murder because of the greater security at court, but the danger of someone winning over a large part of the army remained very real.
No emperor was ever wholly secure. The complex bureaucracy and divided hierarchy, with strict division between military and civil power and complex relations within each one, gave some protection. It was harder for a man to mount a successful challenge. Yet it was not impossible, and if he managed to build up wide support in the different branches of the army and administration then the challenge was likely to be a dangerous one. Emperors were understandably nervous and mistrustful, and their attitude inevitably filtered downwards. Their subordinates knew that they could at any time fall under suspicion. A career could end abruptly in torture and death, or could flourish, quite possibly through the demise of others. Violent competition underlay all levels of government, especially the highest ranks. There was also a degree of ambivalence. For most career soldiers and civil servants, it did not really matter who the emperor was. All that was important was to win his favour and avoid his mistrust. Whoever the emperor was, he would always need his subordinates. Army and bureaucracy survived each usurpation, even if many of the individuals within them became casualties.
Yet, for all the suspicion and paranoia of imperial government, fourthcentury emperors lived lives of splendour. Surrounded by ceremony, everything about them was supposed to be blatantly lavish and spectacular. Emperors were special, chosen of God and above the rest of humanity. This was always emphasised, even for men who had just recently proclaimed themselves as rulers. Ursicinus was only behaving as he was expected to do when he prostrated himself before Silvanus. Merely possessing enough purple material to fashion an imperial cloak led some men to their executions.
In reality emperors were always insecure, but in public they were presented as overwhelmingly superior and utterly certain of their rule. This is conveyed well in Ammianus' account of Constantius' entry into Rome in 357. Although not formally holding a triumph, the grand procession of troops suggested just that. Constantius was surrounded by standards and rank on rank of troops, including cataphracts in gleaming armour that even included silvered masks for their faces, so that they seemed `polished statues and not men'. The emperor
And so being acclaimed as Augustus by enthusiastic voices, while the hills and shores echoed the roar, even so he remained utterly still, staying as unmoved as when he was seen in the provinces. And although he leaned a little forward when going under huge gates (even though he was a short man), he stared fixedly ahead, just as if his neck was held in a vice, and glanced neither to the right nor left; he did not even sway when the wheel jolted on a rock, and was never seen to spit, or touch his nose or cheek, or move his hands at all."