Republican and Early Imperial Rome had been subsidized by the profits of war. New conquests sustained the expansion of the system. But the cost of empire and civilization was high, and only plough-agriculture could generate sufficient surplus. Therefore, the Roman Empire reached natural limits once it had conquered the plough-lands and its frontiers came to rest on untamed wilderness. The profits of war then ceased to flow, and the shortfall was made up in higher taxes, labour corvées, and military requisitioning. The empire became a finely balanced military-supply economy in which a base of peasant labour-services and tribute-payments supported an imperial infrastructure of army, forts, towns, villas, propaganda monuments, and ‘bread and circuses’. The balance was repeatedly upset by military pressure on the frontiers. Simultaneous threats on different fronts frequently overstretched the empire’s military resources to breaking point. This destroyed the unity of the imperial ruling class, leading to usurpation, secession and civil war as regionally based factions attempted to organize their own defence. The resource crisis also increased the pressure on civil society, as the embattled state struggled to supply itself through taxation, conscription, requisitioning, and currency debasement. The 3rdcentury anarchy was, in essence, the crisis of a system of ancient military imperialism that was unable to expand and therefore unable to sustain itself without eroding its own socio-economic base. The Late Roman counter-revolution – which began under the Balkan soldier-emperors and was completed under Diocletian and Constantine – was the response of the military monarchy, representing the core section of the imperial ruling class, to this crisis. And in the absence of forces capable of destroying the military monarchy in the late 3rd century AD, whether foreign invaders or internal rebels, the counterrevolution allowed the Western Roman Empire to survive for another century and a half – though in a distorted and crisis-racked form, and at enormous cost to its people.
The counter-revolution was not a planned programme of reform, but a series of radical ad hoc changes imposed from above in response to successive crises. The effect was cumulative as the changes were consolidated into a new system, and the pace of change gathered momentum, especially after AD 284. The pattern under Diocletian and Constantine was similar to that under Octavian-Augustus: in both cases, improvisation under the stress of war and revolution was subsequently consolidated into a new political order. The term ‘Principate’ is commonly used to describe the Augustan system; some historians favour the term ‘Dominate’ for that of Diocletian. Peter Brown has highlighted the importance of the latter transition by dubbing it the ‘Late Roman Revolution’, and this term, despite recent revisionist emphasis on ‘continuity’, is embedded in the literature. But the implication is wrong: the Roman imperial ruling class was not overthrown; on the contrary, the essence of the change was for its power to increase substantially at the expense of subordinate social groups. Such was the gravity of the 3rd century crisis that revolution may indeed have occurred had there been a revolutionary class capable of carrying one out. But there was none. The gentry were scattered across a thousand cities, the peasants across a hundred thousand villages. Whatever discontent there was – and all the evidence suggests there was much – it was not organized into a political force capable of overthrowing the imperial ruling class and remodelling society. Instead of revolution, the state – centralized, bureaucratic, militaristic – grabbed a higher proportion of the available surplus to support its core activity (defence) and to cement together its power-base (the imperial aristocracy, the state bureaucracy, the army high command, the Church hierarchy, and key client-groups like the soldiers and the populations of major cities).
The result was the relative impoverishment of towns and villas, provinces and countryside, gentry and peasants. The military aristocracy was the winner, civil society the loser: a non-revolutionary outcome to the crisis of the 3rd century best described as ‘counter-revolution’. But as such, it left the contradictions that had produced the crisis unresolved. The intensified accumulation of surplus by the state – a process driven by military competition – was irrational in so far as it undermined the ability of the Late Roman economy to reproduce itself. Civil society was overtaxed, eroding its ability to sustain the military-bureaucratic complex in the long run. Indeed, not only could the Late Roman counterrevolution not resolve the contradictions of imperial decline, the victory of the state over civil society intensified them by increasing the amount of surplus that was siphoned upwards. The military-bureaucratic complex expanded by consuming its socio-economic capital. Increased state power may have suppressed the political symptoms of decay that had been so evident in the 3rd century, but beneath superficial calm the rate of decay accelerated and eventual collapse became more certain.
For most of the first 14 years of his reign, Diocletian was busy on campaign, facing the usual combination of frontier incursions and usurper emperors. But by AD 298, he and his colleagues (for by then he had been joined by three co-emperors) had succeeded in suppressing resistance in Britain, Gaul, the Rhineland, the Balkans, Egypt, and the East. The hardest struggle had been in the West, where a combination of peasant revolt, seaborne raiding, and fighting along the Rhine had produced a powerful usurper regime based in Britain and northern Gaul, headed first by Carausius, then Allectus. This regime was established in AD 286, and though it soon lost northern Gaul, it successfully repelled an invasion of Britain in AD 293; the rebels did not finally succumb until AD 296. By this time Diocletian had reorganized his government into a ‘Tetrarchy’ (Rule of Four). In AD 285 he had made Maximian – also, like his patron, an Illyrian soldier – his adoptive son and co-emperor with the rank of Caesar. The following year Maximian was promoted to the higher rank of Augustus, thereby becoming Diocletian’s equal, and the empire was divided into two zones of responsibility: Maximian took the West (with his capital at Milan), Diocletian the East (Nicomedia). In AD 293 a Caesar was appointed to assist each of the Augusti, Constantius in the West under Maximian, Galerius in the East under Diocletian. The arrangements were sealed by dynastic marriages and appropriate titles, the empire was sub-divided into four zones of responsibility, and it was proclaimed that in due course the senior emperors would resign and their juniors succeed and appoint new subordinates. In place of regional usurpers, there were to be regional emperors. Instead of wars of succession, there was to be a seamless sequence of Caesars becoming Augusti and raising up new Caesars.
But the Tetrarchy’s stability depended on the consent of a small group of top men who knew each other, worked well together, and had combined to defeat a series of common enemies. The centrifugalism inherent in the empire could not be dissolved by a constitutional gimmick. Nor could the realities of power be altered by a change of titles. The tetrarchs claimed divine origins and took the title Dominus (master). Everything associated with an emperor became sacrus (sacred) or divinus (divine). Prostration before the ruler became a feature of court etiquette – a practice traditionally disparaged by Greeks as proskynesis, by Romans as adoratio. The ruler became distinguished by special dress, by a decorum associated with his person, and by maintaining a symbolic separation and distance between him and others. The men of his inner household – the freedmen, slaves and eunuchs of the Bedchamber (cubiculum) – became powerful figures at court. This was the style of true monarchy, of absolute rule, of ‘divine right’; a style wholly at odds with the Graeco-Roman tradition of personal familiarity and Republican dignity. Yet it reflected not strength, but weakness; it was an exaggerated assertion of power against the odds. It reflected also the relative independence of the state, which had been raised up above society and lacked any real accountability to those it dominated. Yet emperors could not become gods simply by claiming themselves to be them. Names and titles are simply that: only power can give them substance. In fact, the Tetrarchy was doomed to fail at its first test, when Diocletian and Maximian retired in AD 306, and their Caesars’ right to succeed was immediately contested by rival candidates and liquidated in civil war.
Other reforms were more durable. To one of Julius Caesar’s centurions, the Late Roman army would have been unrecognizable. Old units were divided and many new ones formed, and a plethora of regimental titles reflected the diversity of origins. Scholae palatinae were elite household troops. Protectores domestici were the officer cadets of in-service training units. Cunei equitum or plain equites were newly raised elite cavalry, and auxilia their infantry counterparts. Legiones, alae and cohortes, on the other hand, indicated regiments that had evolved out of old-army units of that name, while vexillationes had been formed from detachments of these. There were also units entitled simply milites (soldiers), numeri (numbers of men), or even just gens (perhaps best translated ‘friendlies’). To these type-designations were added regimental names: the Cornuti were the horn-blowers, the Bracchiati armlet-wearers, the Lanciarii lancers, the Herculiani followers of Hercules (and therefore Maximian’s Own), and the Iovianifollowers of Jupiter (Diocletian’s Own).
Typically, regiments were of cohort or battalion size, varying between 300 and 1,000 men, with perhaps 500 as an approximate average on active service. Regiments were commanded by praepositi, tribuni and praefecti. They were formed into brigades of many different sizes, the composition liable to vary over time, especially in the case of the field army. And here was another difference from the old army. A broad distinction arose between comitatenses, field-army troops (so called because originally they had been the ‘companions’ of the emperor on campaign), and limitanei, the more static garrison troops who manned the frontiers; the former were commanded by comites (counts), the latter by duces (dukes). The highest command positions – the field-marshals of the LateRoman army – were the magistri equitum (masters of horse) and magistri peditum (masters of infantry). All officers, moreover, were now career professionals; the days when senior commands were routinely held by aristocratic politicians were long gone.
Having evolved during the anarchy, this new army was far better adapted than the old to contemporary conditions. Nor is there any evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that the Late Roman army was less professional than the old legions. Grand strategy had changed. That of the 2nd century had been based on fixed frontiers held by strong forward garrisons combined with pre-emptive aggression against neighbouring ‘rogue states’, with heavy-infantry legions providing the key strike-force. That of the 4thcentury was based on defence-in-depth and counter-attack by mobile field-armies organized around a core of elite shock cavalry. The network of roads behind the frontiers had been greatly elaborated to facilitate redeployment to confront intruders. The belt of forts in frontier regions had grown thicker and denser, providing strongholds, store-bases and assembly-points for defending forces. The forts were stronger. Military architecture was now heavily defensive, with thick, high walls, narrow, heavily defended gateways, numerous projecting towers, and sometimes wall circuits that followed the high ground. New equipment was introduced. Some cavalry now fought as cataphracti or clibanarii – heavily armoured in the manner of medieval knights. Infantry weapons included a torsion-powered, hand-held crossbow known as a manuballista (hand-ballista), lead-weighted javelins called martiobarbuli (barbs of Mars), and a long slashing sword, the spatha, previously reserved to cavalry. The archaeological record implies a high-tech, fully professional army. It reveals a network of defence-works – walls, forts and roads – more extensive and better constructed than anything otherwise known in the ancient world. Nor does the written record imply less than the highest standards of military efficiency. When the Roman army went into battle on anything approaching equal terms, it almost always won. The only real problems were recruitment and logistics: there were not enough soldiers.
Conscription was more widely used. Sons of veterans in particular were legally obliged to follow their fathers into the army. Law codes imposed fearsome penalties for draft-dodgers. Barbarians were frequently recruited, not least to fill the ranks of elite units. Military service was often imposed as a condition of peace or of resettlement in Roman territory; but there were also many willing volunteers. On the other hand, the so-called ‘barbarization’ of the army was neither new nor an aspect of ‘decline’. The Romans had always recruited from native populations on the fringes of their empire. (Indeed, it is hard to think of an empire which has not done this.) Instances of disloyalty or inefficiency were very rare; much less common, in fact, than mutiny by Roman citizen-soldiers. The real distinction was between recruitment into regular Roman units – whether of empire citizens or foreign barbarians – and the employment of barbarian mercenary contingents commanded by independent chieftains. The latter – known as foederati– became important only after the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378. Eventually they would indeed play a decisive role in the destruction of the Western Roman Empire. But that was not a matter of the Roman army being ‘barbarized’; it was a matter of the Roman army ceasing to exist at all.
For the present, the recruitment of more regular soldiers depended upon improved supply. To this end, Diocletian and his colleagues effected a lasting reform of the entire imperial bureaucracy. Our knowledge depends in large part on the survival of an extraordinary ancient text: the Notitia Dignitatum (List of High Offices). This lengthy document, illuminated with depictions of badges of office, appears to provide a complete list of the military commanders and senior administrators of the Late Roman Empire. It dates to c. AD 395–420, though the accuracy of the record even for this period is variable. The list seems to have been updated in some places but not in others, so the information presented may not always be contemporary. Also, the list may sometimes reflect claims and intentions rather than realities. Even so, much in the list can be corroborated from other sources, and the quantity of information provided is very high. We get a complete breakdown of each man’s command, his regiments and forts if a general, his civil service departments if a minister. Careful Notitia scholarship, moreover, can yield rich information about earlier periods – sometimes taking us back to the time of Constantine, Diocletian, even Gallienus; the nomenclature of regiments, for example, very often gives away their date of origin. What the Notitia most certainly reveals is the thoroughgoing centralization of empire which took place under Diocletian and Constantine.
State bureaucracy in the Early Empire had been minimal. Provinces were large yet had small staffs. Efficient local government was the key, and this was in the hands of the decurions, part-time officials and councillors recruited from the gentry. Diocletian hugely increased the central bureaucracy. Each of the four tetrarchs had his own comitatus (mobile court). The empire was divided into large territorial prefectures under senior praefecti. Provinces were grouped together as ‘dioceses’ under vicarii. Many provinces were subdivided. Britain had been one province until the time of Septimius Severus, who made it two, and then Diocletian split each of these, making four. Each required its own governor and staff. The men appointed were usually professional civil servants of equestrian status rather than senatorial politicians. There were two parallel hierarchies, one military, one civil, both of them technocratic rather than political in spirit, and in each case men got on largely through experience, seniority, hard work, and winning favour with superiors. One estimate is that a diocesan vicar was served by around 300 officials, a provincial governor by 100; on that basis, Diocletian’s reforms may have added 10 to 15,000 officials to the government payroll.
The lower bureaucracy remained a local affair, but the decurions had been displaced. Public office had become arduous, expensive and unpopular, and in late antiquity there were no compensating rewards. Efficient imposition of rising state demands earned opprobrium, not praise. Often decurions were frustrated by popular resistance – but any shortfall earned a forced levy on their own estates. Local councillors risked ruin in the public service while making themselves hated by their fellow citizens. Many qualified men, in consequence, tried to evade service, and successive legal edicts from on high denounced their negligence, threatening dire penalties. Filling the gap in local administration were the principales or decemprimi, the top group of richest men, perhaps one in ten of a town’s decurions. These were given special powers to administer in default of a full council. Naturally they used these powers to shift burdens on to others; specifically to protect their own property at the expense of lesser gentry and the peasantry. The rise of the principales is clearly represented in the archaeology of Late Roman towns: the evidence is still there for basic urban infrastructure, but most of the grand houses of the gentry lie abandoned, town life having lost its attractions.
The main job of the principales was to impose a new tax system. During the anarchy, debasement and inflation had destroyed the tax-pay cycle on which military supply depended, and officers on campaign had used forced requisitioning (without payment) to support their troops. Such erratic and uneven burdens were unsustainable. Monetary and tax reform was essential. Diocletian introduced two new taxes, one levied on capita (heads), thus a capitatio, the other on iuga (taxable units of land), thus a iugatio. The former was a poll tax, a levy on existence itself, and a particular burden on large peasant families, who would pay for each of their grown-up children. The latter was a property tax, which, bureaucratically administered from above, took inadequate account of differences in land quality and of variations in yield from year to year, and, moreover, no account at all of the overall size of holdings, such that rich and poor paid the same percentage. The capitatio was paid in coin, the iugatio at first in kind, later also in coin. Reform of the coinage was therefore an essential corollary. The standardization of AD 294 was based on 60 gold coins per half kilogramme and 96 silver coins per half kilogramme of the respective metals. Local issues ceased, though many official mints were established. But would the new coinage be any more resistant to debasement and inflation than its predecessors? Diocletian’s central plan included an attempt at price control. His Price Edict of AD 301 has survived, and, being immensely detailed about goods and prices at the time, is an invaluable source. But the severity of the penalties proposed for violators is no doubt inversely related to the Edict’s effectiveness. Without regulation of supply and means of enforcement, official prices were widely ignored, and the Edict stands as a supreme example of an historical document that records intention not reality. The new coinage fared little better, and further reforms were soon necessary. A greater success was the establishment of government factories to supply the troops directly with arms, armour, uniforms and equipment: many are recorded in the cities of the empire by the Notitia.
To facilitate censuses, tax collection, and state control over labour, peasants were ordered to return to their places of origin and remain there: henceforward many were classed as coloni, effectively serfs tied to the land by law, a condition which greatly strengthened the power of landlords, since peasants were no longer free to move in search of an improved tenancy. Other occupations also became hereditary. Among those whose labour the state now attempted to direct were decurions, soldiers and their sons, shippers, boatmen and carters, workers in the new state factories, and various categories of artisan and trader. The sources are scanty and do not allow us to distinguish between intention and reality, and in particular to estimate the overall degree of the state’s success. But the aim is clear.
Within the limits imposed by a pre-industrial economy, the Late Roman state had some of the characteristics of modern totalitarian systems. A greatly enlarged apparatus was created to regulate and exploit civil society more effectively, and to harness and channel resources to support the military-bureaucratic complex that controlled the empire. Centralized control was established over local government, the tax system was overhauled and improved, state factories were set up, and military conscription and tighter control of labour imposed, such that military supply greatly improved. But clear limits to state power are apparent in the raucous tone of many repressive laws, the inflationary collapse of the new coinage, and the total failure of price controls. More seriously, however, to the extent that Diocletian was successful, there was a heavy price to be paid, at least in the long term, in growing economic decline, social discontent, and popular hostility towards the state, its officers and its mission.
One reform that did not outlast Diocletian was the Tetrarchy. Diocletian (willingly) and Maximian (under duress) resigned in May AD 305. Constantius became Augustus in the West, Galerius in the East. Constantius, who was ailing, requested the release of his son Constantine from service in the East, but Galerius, suspecting that the young man was being groomed for the succession in violation of tetrarchic arrangements, refused to release him. Constantine escaped nonetheless, attending his father’s deathbed in York in July AD 306, where he was promptly hailed Augustus by the Roman army in Britain. The usurpation destroyed at a stroke the delicate balance of the tetrarchic system and unleashed a complex and protracted struggle for power. Britain and Gaul adhered to Constantine; Spain and Africa to Maxentius, son of Maximian; Italy to the legitimate tetrarch, the Caesar Severus, who was also backed by Galerius in the East.
Maximian returned to office from retirement – playing the Augustus to his son Maxentius’s Caesar – and Severus was quickly defeated, giving the rebels control of Italy. Galerius then attacked the Maximian/Maxentius faction from the East. Both parties wooed Constantine, but he accepted the suit of the latter, an alliance sealed by the marriage of Maxentius’s sister to Constantine. Galerius’s invasion in AD 307 proved abortive. Despite this, the central bloc promptly imploded: Maximian was estranged from his son and fled to join Constantine. Galerius, seizing the moment, called a conference of the former Augusti at Carnuntum on the Danube late in AD 308. Diocletian persuaded Maximian to retire again. Licinius was appointed western Augustus. Constantine was recognized as Caesar. Maxentius was declared a usurper. Before any action on these redrawn battle-lines, however, Maximian, politically unstable to the end, self-destructed by initiating a plot to overthrow Constantine which backfired badly and resulted in his own enforced suicide (AD 310). The Tetrarchy, despite Carnuntum, had obviously broken down irrevocably. Whatever had been agreed, no one trusted anyone else, and one of the key players, Maxentius, had not been included at all. Constantine, for example, was threatened by Maxentius, who was laying claim to the whole of the West, but at the same time feared that a victory by the Galerius-Licinius bloc over Maxentius would lead directly to an attack on himself. It was around this time that Constantine made a momentous decision: he was going all-out to win sole autocratic power.
Three strands of evidence suggest this shift: a pre-emptive strike against Maxentius; a clear change in Constantinian propaganda; and the inauguration of a politico-religious revolution. Formally in alliance with Licinius, in AD 312 Constantine invaded Italy with the declared intention of destroying the usurpation of Maxentius. The defenders, taken by surprise, fell back to the outskirts of Rome, and here, at the Milvian Bridge, one of history’s most decisive battles was fought. Maxentius seems originally to have planned a defence of the city, but collapsing prestige and the threat of revolt from within forced him to lead his army into open battle. The armies clashed at a place called Red Rocks, a defensible defile between hills and the River Tiber where Constantine had judged he could hold Maxentius’s assault with part of his army. Once battle was joined, Maxentius learnt that the rest of Constantine’s army was attacking his rear, and there was heavy fighting at the Milvian Bridge leading back into the city. Trapped, Maxentius’s army still fought well, but it finally broke up, and, as it did so, thousands, including the defeated emperor, were cut down or drowned trying to escape across the river. Constantine’s victory was total. He was master of the Western Roman Empire. But there was more to his victory than speed and tactical finesse.
Constantine had already begun to claim descent from Claudius Gothicus – a genealogical fiction that represented a pre-tetrarchic claim to legitimacy. He also announced that Sol Invictus, the All-conquering Sun, a favourite deity of Aurelian, was his special protector – rather than Hercules, who had been the patron of the now disgraced western tetrarch Maximian. Constantine was creating a new dynastic propaganda that elevated him above all his contemporaries, implying that they, whether usurpers or legitimists, had more recent, and therefore inferior, claims. And there was something more. Cheerfully oblivious of any inconsistency as he mixed the ingredients of a rich ideological brew, the emperor had his men fight at the Milvian Bridge with the Chi-Rho (the first two letters of his name in Greek) monogram of Christ painted on their shields. Lactantius tells us this was due to a dream before the battle in which God instructed Constantine to have this done. Eusebius reports that Constantine had been inspired by a cross of light seen emblazoned across the sky. Probably he did indeed have some sort of conversion experience. Certainly he was under strong Christian influence, not least that of his mother Helena, who had already converted. Later, for sure, his Christianity was clear, consistent and committed, encouraged, no doubt, by a spectacular sequence of victories that brought him to supreme world power in AD 324.
Whatever personal engagement there may have been, however, it was the power of the Church at the beginning of the 4th century AD that made Constantine’s decision possible. Its significance can hardly be exaggerated. The Battle of the Milvian Bridge was one of history’s great turning-points. It was the first victory by a major political leader fighting as a Christian, and, because it set Constantine on course for empire-wide supremacy, it led directly to the eventual triumph of the Church across Europe. In February AD 313 Constantine issued the famous Edict of Milan granting religious toleration across the empire, thus legalizing Christianity and facilitating its rapid development henceforward as the religion of court, army and civil service. By the end of the 4th century, the emperors had unleashed a full-scale offensive against the old religion, handing over the estates, treasures and sanctuaries of the pagan temples to the Christian Church, which in return preached that obedience to and service under state authority were holy duties. This alliance of Church and State was, of course, an essential, defining feature of the medieval West. It is important, therefore, to ask: what lay behind Constantine’s religious revolution?
Christianity had been founded in the 50s AD by an itinerant mystic who preached in the synagogues and public auditoria of the cities of the Roman East. A Hellenized Jew, he had grafted ideas about saviour deities and the afterlife that were widespread in the Greek-speaking world at the time on to a set of stories, at first orally transmitted but gradually taking on a written form, about a Jewish village prophet of the 30s AD called Jesus Christ (Jesus the Messiah). St Paul – as we know him – made the startling discovery that Jesus was a god in human form; that he was literally the ‘Son of God’, not simply, as any Jew might be metaphorically described, a ‘son of god’. Jesus’s mission, it turned out, had not been to lead the Jews in a national struggle against Roman imperialism and Jewish collaborators; rather, his kingdom not being of this world, it had been to make converts and save souls, guiding humanity on to a path of righteousness that would guarantee resurrection and eternal life after death. The defeat and destruction of the Jewish national revolutionary movement in AD 70 – including, we must assume, the Jewish Christian sect – cleared the decks for the advance of Pauline ‘Catholic’ Christianity. Rooted in the cities of the East, where Gentiles as well as Jews had been converted, it survived the holocaust in Palestine. More than that, by denationalizing and spiritualizing Jesus, Paul had effectively severed Christianity’s roots in Judaism, transforming it from a national religion concerned with the struggle against oppression in Palestine into a universal one concerned with personal salvation. As such, it was ideologically equipped to deal with the shattering disillusionment that followed the Jewish defeat. Still, though, and for long afterwards, it remained mainly a religion of the poor, especially the urban poor. A central tenet of Early Christianity – in contrast to most pagan religions – was that all were equal before God, that earthly possessions were of no account, and that differences of rank and property would not be recognized in the afterlife. The Early Church retained an egalitarian spirit. It offered solace to slaves and commoners in a world corrupted by class oppression. It was therefore viewed with suspicion by authority, and was periodically the target of persecution.
The Great Persecution of AD 298–313 was only the last of many. It was triggered when pagan priests blamed failed omens on the presence of profane persons at a ritual attended by Diocletian and Galerius in AD 298. Diocletian ordered all public servants to perform sacrifice to the pagan gods (considered sacrilege for a Christian) on pain of flogging and dismissal. Not until AD 303, however, was a full-scale pogrom unleashed. Imperial edicts were posted ordering the surrender for burning of all copies of scripture, the dismantling of churches, the banning of Christian meetings, and loss of rank and denial of legal rights to all Christians. The edicts gave the green light to reactionary local officials and urban mobs. In Nicomedia, the eastern capital, the local church was destroyed, the bishop executed, and the imperial household purged. Eusebius kept an accurate record of martyrdoms for his diocese in Palestine: one execution under the first edict; two under the third; one under the fourth; and eight more when six young men presented themselves shouting out that they too were Christian. Overall, when the authorities attempted to implement the edicts forcefully, while some Christians recanted, handed over scriptures, and made sacrifice, many refused and were imprisoned, sometimes tortured, occasionally executed. The Church was left with a catalogue of martyrs to parade. Though many fair-weather friends departed during the storm – leaving a legacy of deep division among Christians – the Church emerged defiant. The Great Persecution was another of Diocletian’s failures.
Large-scale, top-down, empire-wide persecutions were rare. That of Diocletian may indicate the state’s insecurity as it attempted to drive through reforms which attacked whole sections of civil society. The persecution created an enemy within and an intimidating, witch-hunting atmosphere. The potential effects were various: to assuage public anxiety in a period of turmoil by placating angry pagan gods; to provide scapegoats, castigate deviance, and encourage uniformity and obedience; above all, to expose the actually disloyal and terrorize the potentially disloyal. It seems improbable that Christians were a real threat. Christian pacifism has only rarely been a discouragement to military service, and the Church hierarchy certainly did not have subversive political aims, merely an interest in protecting itself and enlarging the social space it occupied. Certainly, the Church was a large, well-organized, empire-wide institution, with bishops meeting regularly in provincial capitals, and metropolitan bishops in major centres emerging as powerful figures, the effective leaders of tens of thousands of Christians in places like Rome, Carthage, Antioch and Alexandria. But if, in some sense, the Church was ‘a state within a state’, that need not weaken the cohesion, loyalty and political will of the Roman body-politic. Indeed, it was a potential ally, and, ironically, more so after the Great Persecution than before. The Church had demonstrated its strength. It had shown that it could not be broken by direct state assault. What the moderation of local authorities, the resistance of the Christian communities, and the relative lack of anti-Christian pogroms in the cities had revealed was that central government was weak and the Church strong. The persecutors found themselves opposed by a powerful public opinion, including sections of the military-bureaucratic complex itself.
Its bargaining position strengthened, the Church was now poised to cut a deal with the state. It was clearly the largest single ideological apparatus in the Roman Empire, and the state could hardly expect to function effectively without its co-operation. On the other hand, if the state became the patron of the Church, a great network of preachers and adherents might be converted into enthusiasts for secular authority. Though a minority overall, Christians were strategically concentrated in the towns, always the locus of power in the ancient world. Their theology’s distinctive combination of universal appeal and monotheistic intolerance meshed well with the centralizing aims of the Late Roman state, allowing Christian emperors to demonize pagan usurpers as enemies of God. Moreover, the Christian vision of a heavenly hierarchy seemed to mirror, and thereby legitimize, the imperial order on earth. At the very least, being ‘the heart in a heartless world’, Christianity offered personal solace in a world full of fear, giving many men the will to carry on, and some the courage to fight heroically in the empire’s defence. Constantine’s religious revolution, in short, was an event of substance and great moment. Within a few decades of the Milvian Bridge, the Church had been transformed into what it would remain for more than a millennium: the principal ideological apparatus of the medieval states of Europe.
The Church embraced by Constantine in AD 312 was, however, a flawed instrument. Always split into theological factions, the Great Persecution had hammered wedges deep into the cracks. The ‘Catholic’ moderates of the North African Church were willing to readmit those who had caved in – those who had handed over copies of scripture to be burnt (thus traditores). The ‘Donatist’ radicals were not. The Catholic party was that of the government, the urban elite, and the great landowners. The Donatists were a party of village priests and the rural poor. The left-wing of the party included bands of militants who attacked landlords and debt-collectors. The conflict between the rival churches erupted over a bitterly contested election to the vacant metropolitan see of Carthage. The emperor was invited to arbitrate. Constantine had little choice. If his vision of a powerful, united, conservative Church working for the defence of the empire was to be realized, orthodoxy and obedience had to be imposed; otherwise, so far from being an ally, the Church might become a vehicle for the empire’s subversion from within. Henceforward, church councils were regularly convened, often with the emperor chairing in person, in an effort to heal schism. The first, the Council of Rome in AD 313, ruled against the Donatists. The second, the larger Council of Arles in AD 314, attended by 33 bishops, confirmed this ruling. It made little difference: Donatist agitation continued, there was rioting in Carthage, and in AD 321 the authority of the church councils was enforced by state repression. Church and State became, for the first time, allies in the persecution of ‘heretics’. Donatism yielded a second gallery of martyrs. The rift in the North African Church deepened.
In the struggle against paganism, by contrast, the emperor enjoyed further spectacular success. The campaign of AD 312 had delivered the West to Constantine and the Church. That of AD 324 delivered the East. Relations with Licinius had steadily deteriorated. There had been a flurry of fighting in the Balkans in AD 316. Constantine had appointed consuls without the approval of his ostensible colleague. Licinius had resumed the persecution of Christians within his territory. When Constantine felt ready to launch a full-scale invasion, the western bishops were summoned to give their blessing, the emperor was provided with a special campaign tent to serve as a portable chapel, and the army marched bearing the Labarum, a sacred imperial standard emblazoned with theChi-Rho, with its own guard of 50 picked men. Licinius, by contrast, chose to fight under the totems of the old pagan gods.
They did him little good. Like the campaign of AD 312, that of AD 324 was a Constantinian blitzkrieg. A series of victories gave Constantine’s army control of the Balkans, and when he immediately ferried his men across to Asia Minor, Licinius sued for peace. His surrender was accepted, but he was promptly executed on the victor’s orders. Constantine – the first Christian emperor – was master of the entire Roman world. Political authority was restored to a single, supreme, military dictator. The empire was again a unified war economy. The reformed military-bureaucratic complex of Diocletian dominated civil society. Paganism withered in the shadow of Constantine’s Church. The Late Roman counter-revolution was complete.
All that glisters is not gold, however. The reforms of the soldier-emperors – Gallienus, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian, Constantine – had bought the empire time. But the price, largely hidden from history, certainly for long unpaid, was high. The siphoning of surplus upwards – from towns, estates and farms – sustained the military-bureaucratic complex only by consuming the economic foundations of the empire. The contradictions of imperial decline were not resolved. On the contrary, the stronger the state, the more efficient the exploitation; and the more efficient the exploitation, the faster the decay. The Roman Empire was being hollowed out.