Chapter 20

East Is East and West Is West: Diocletian and Constantine

In This Chapter

● How Diocletian created a brand new order

● The cheekiest rebel emperor of them all

● Why the new system fell to pieces

● How Constantine the Great changed the course of human history

● How Constantine’s successors ripped the Empire apart - again

By the end of the third century, the days when the emperor could do much of his ruling from Rome, or concentrate on one war at a time, were long gone. Roman emperors, good or bad, were spending virtually all their time on campaign. Instead of just relying on well-established garrisons around the Roman world, highly mobile units had also to be created so that soldiers could race from one trouble spot to another. When the emperors weren’t fighting one another, they were moving from one frontier to another, shoring up the defences, fighting back barbarians, and negotiating peace deals. The coasts of Britain and Gaul, for example, were plagued by pirates from Northern Europe, so a series of coastal fortified compounds were installed to help protect commerce, towns, villas, and farms. New fortifications were being built on new frontiers as well.

Meanwhile, society across the Roman Empire was changing. The endless parade of rebel emperors disrupted provincial government. As vast quantities of resources were being poured into the army and defences, provincials found themselves being taxed to pay for all the various rebellions as well as the legitimate army. Some lost their land and livings and formed marauding bands of landless outlaws.

This chapter tells the story of how one soldier emperor named Diocletian tried to transform the Roman world in an attempt to repair the damage before it was too late, and how another Roman emperor named Constantine issued an edict that changed Rome forever.

On the Case: Diocletian (AD 284-305)

Diocles, born around 240 to a poor family in Dalmatia, had spent a lifetime witnessing the chaos of the soldier emperors. Like so many of the emperors of the third century, he rose through the ranks of the army entirely on merit. That was how he ended up on the imperial bodyguard under the emperor Numerian (282-284) and why he was chosen to avenge Numerian’s death (refer to Chapter 19 for the details on this episode).

When he became emperor in 284 (following the murder of Carinus, who ruled from 282 to 285, and the defection of Carinus’s men to his side; refer to Chapter 19), Diocles changed his name to Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus. It helped echo former emperors’ names.

Diocletian moved fast and decisively after getting rid of Carinus. In 285, he made his comrade Maximian his Caesar and, therefore, his heir. The next year, he made Maximian into a joint Augustus and sent him to Gaul to sort out the Bagaudae, a mob of landless peasants who were ravaging the countryside. Maximian soon defeated Bagaudae, with the help of another soldier called Carausius, who went on to become one of the most successful rebel Emperors of the time (more on him in the section ‘The rebellion in Britain: Carausius’, later in this chapter).

Four emperors are better than one: The Tetrarchy

Diocletian knew that the Empire was too big, too unstable, and too insecure for one emperor to run alone. Although the Roman Empire had had joint emperors before, Diocletian did something different: He split the Empire in half. Maximian would rule the Latin West, and Diocletian would rule the Greek East.

In 293, Diocletian came up with the idea of the Tetrarchy, in which four men would rule the Roman Empire. He appointed two junior emperors, known as Caesars: Constantius Chlorus in the West and Galerius in the East. Constantius would assist Maximian, and Galerius would assist Diocletian. Then, at an appropriate point in the future, Maximian and Diocletian would abdicate, and Constantius and Galerius would succeed them as the Augusti and appoint their own Caesars.

Tetrarchy comes from two Greek words: tetra-(‘four’) and archos (‘chief’ or ‘commander’). So Tetrarchy means ‘four chiefs’.

Each tetrarch had his headquarters. Diocletian ruled from Nicomedia in Asia Minor (Turkey), Galerius from Sirmium in modern Serbia, Maximian from Milan in Italy, and Constantius from Trier in Gaul. So much for Rome. Now the original city wasn’t even an emperor’s base. It was too far from the trouble areas.

The idea was to create a self-perpetuating system in which the succession was assured and the best men were selected for the job. On paper it looked like a brilliant system, and in the beginning, it went well. Constantius was able to deal with the rebellion of Carausius and Allectus in Britain (described in the section ‘The rebellion in Britain: Carausius’), Diocletian was able to successfully deal with rebellions in Egypt, and Galerius sorted out the troublesome Persians.

Repairing the broken Empire

During the 20 years of his reign Diocletian energetically restored cities, roads, and infrastructure. Maximian, for his part, ran a major building programme in Rome. (It’s a mark of just how much there was to do and the nature of the times that Diocletian didn’t even visit Rome for the first time until 303, by which time he’d reigned for nearly 20 years.) But the greatest impact came from a series of major reforms.

The army

Diocletian started the process of turning the enlarged army into two halves: the mainly cavalry mobile field force called the comitatenses and the frontier garrisons called the limitanei. This system which became fully established under Constantine I (307-337). You can read more about the organisation of the army in Chapter 5.


Provinces were divided up, roughly doubling the total, so that no individual governor would be powerful enough to start a rebellion. Britain, for example, had started life as one province, was divided into two by Septimius Severus (see Chapter 18), and was now made into four. Even Italy was broken up this way. Regional groups of provinces were arranged into dioceses (districts; singular diwcesis), 13 in total, each of which was overseen by a vicarius (vicar). The vicars were under the control of four Praetorian prefects, one for each of the four emperors. Provinces were no longer governed by a senatorial legatus (see Chapter 3); instead the position was variously called praeses (‘protector’) and rector (‘leader’).

The di&cesis, vicarius, and rector of Diocletian’s new system probably look familiar. That’s because the Christian church modelled some of its own government on Diocletian’s system. So today bishops run dioceses, and the Anglican church’s local priests are called vicars. A rector is a priest or layperson in charge of an institution like a college.

Tax reform, Roman style

The tax assessment system that Diocletian set up may seem complicated, but it isn't. This is how it worked:

1. Land was now counted across the Empire by a fixed unit called the iugerum (plural: iugera).

2. Each iugerum was measured for how much it could produce according to a fixed unit of production called the iugum (plural: iuga).

3. Iugera that produced more or higher-value crops had to pay more tax. So 5 iugera of vineyard was assessed at 1 iugum, but it took 40 iugera of poor mountain land to be assessed at 1 iugum. Likewise 40 iugera of vineyard would be assessed for 8 iuga.

Money matters

Running Diocletian’s new system cost a fortune. Taxes were levied not just in cash but also in kind, meaning people found themselves obliged to hand over money as well as produce and goods that the Empire needed. So if you made woollen goods, then you paid over some of your woollen goods to the government for tax. Paying in kind helped get round inflation. To halt the rollercoaster inflation of the third century, Diocletian fixed the prices in an Edict of Maximum Prices in 301. The same year he also fixed maximum salaries.

To make taxes less painful, in 296 Diocletian changed the system of assessment so that people only paid what was fair. The idea was to get rid of an almost infinite number of different local systems. Under Diocletian’s system, better land was liable for more tax, poor land for less. The number of people was counted as well, so that a poll tax could be levied. This way each farm or villa ended up with a taxable value that took into account the people who lived and worked there and how much the estate could produce. Every year, the government announced how much it needed and divided that up amongst all the iuga which had been counted. (If you’re interested in the details of this system, head to the sidebar ‘Tax reform, Roman style’.)

But Diocletian’s monetary and tax reforms didn’t work properly in practice:

● Diocletian didn’t have enough gold and silver to make coinage stable. Inflation continued upwards, and many goods just disappeared from the market. Eventually the Edict on Maximum Prices had to be withdrawn.

● Corrupt tax assessors over-measured estates’ liabilities and pocketed the difference.

● Tax collectors could over-collect and pocket the difference (though if they under-collected, they had to pay the shortfall).

● The system of assessments effectively forced people to stay where they were permanently.

The Dominate: A new order

The result of Diocletian’s new world was the beginning of the totalitarian state: interfering in every aspect of people’s lives, and restricting freedom and movement. The new order is called the Dominate because the emperor was now called Dominus (‘lord’), styled Jovius (‘Jupiter’s Chosen One’), and was treated as if he was a god. Appropriately enough, he was shown in statues and on reliefs wearing a halo. It’s also very striking how emperors were no longer portrayed as individuals. Each of the Tetrarchs looks like all the others - a deliberate way of making rulers into a generic type.

But unlike the madmen who came before him, such as Commodus (discussed in Chapter 18) or Elagabalus (discussed in Chapter 19), Diocletian was just creating a new imperial image rather than actually deluding himself into believing he really was a god.

Persecuting Christians

In 303, Diocletian and Maximian began a major persecution of Christians. Maximian’s suppression of Christianity in North Africa was especially severe. Actually, it remains something of a mystery why this happened because the Christians had been left more or less alone ever since the last persecution under Valerian I, which came to an end in 260. Diocletian even had a Christian wife. But his sidekick Galerius was fanatically anti-Christian. Galerius must have convinced Diocletian that the Christians were subversive and dangerous, and that the new totalitarian state had no room for any religion that undermined total loyalty to the regime. The persecution involved destroying churches and confiscating any holy texts, but Diocletian ordered no bloodshed, perhaps out of deference to his wife and his personal tendency to toleration. Galerius had a deathbed change of heart in 311 (see the later section ‘Issuing the Edict of Milan’).

Diocletian’s spies

Diocletian did away with the frumentarii spies (see Chapter 17), who were extremely unpopular, and replaced them with agentes (agents). They did much the same job, but because their main role was carrying despatches, they were probably able to operate rather more undercover.

Diocletian's palace

Diocletian built himself a huge fortified palace at Split on the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic, now part of modern Croatia. Split was then called Spalato, which means 'little palace', though it was anything but small. After he abdicated in 305, Diocletian spent most of the rest of his life there. Modelled on a Roman fort, the palace had the imperial apartments in the southern half, while the north was given over to servants, slaves, and soldiers. Huge parts of the palace have survived.

The rebellion in Britain: Carausius

During Diocletian’s reign an extraordinary rebellion broke out in Britain. In many ways it was the most unusual rebellion of the whole of Roman history.

It was certainly the cheekiest. It was led by a man called Carausius whose breathtaking front, swaggering bravado, and creative political spin were without parallel.

The making of a pirate

Mausaeus Carausius grew up on the coast of where modern Belgium is now. He became a soldier in Maximian’s army and was so successful at defeating the Bagaudae in Gaul, that he was given the job of clearing Saxon raiders who were sailing down the North Sea and attacking towns and villas in Gaul and Britain.

Carausius used a Roman fleet to attack the raiders. He was so effective at this and became so popular that Maximian became annoyed. A story circulated that Carausius was waiting for the raiders to help themselves to loot, then he attacked them and took what they’d stolen. Maximian declared Carausius a criminal and offered a bounty for his capture.

Maximian might have put the story out himself, perhaps because he was jealous. We don’t know. But what is certain is that Carausius now had nothing to lose. In 286, he declared himself emperor in Britain and part of Gaul. He was clearly popular because there isn’t a hint of opposition to his rule.

Carausius's cheek

Carausius was a propaganda genius. Not only did he declare himself emperor, but he also

● Renamed himself Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius, echoing Septimius Severus 80 years before (Chapter 18) in creating a pseudoclaim to be descended from the ‘good emperors’ of the second century.

● Issued the first good silver coinage for generations (so perhaps he had indeed helped himself to loot!) to ensure his soldiers’ loyalty, which Diocletian hadn’t been able to produce.

● Posed on all his coins as a real toughie but associated himself with all sorts of proper Roman virtues like pax (‘peace’) and uberitas (‘fertility’) and claimed to be renewing the Roman Empire.

● Put slogans from the poetry of Augustus’s state poet Virgil, written 300 years before, on his coins (for Virgil, see Chapter 1). This was an absolutely unprecedented move because no-one, even Augustus himself, had ever done that before.

What Carausius was saying was that his regime was the new Roman Empire. He was ‘restoring’ all the qualities of Augustus’s world but in Britain, not in Rome.

● Declared he was a member of the Tetrarchy, too - adding insult to injury - and struck coins showing him with Diocletian and Maximian and the legend Carausius et Fratres Sui, ‘Carausius and His Brothers’.

As you can imagine, the Tetrarchs were spitting with anger and called Carausius ‘the pirate’ and other insulting names. They tried to send a fleet in 289 to destroy Carausius, but it was wrecked by a storm.

Done in by a coup: Allectus

Carausius lasted in power till 293, swaggering away in Britain to Diocletian and Maximian’s fury. But Carausius was murdered in a coup in 293 by his finance minister Allectus. Allectus made himself emperor, but it couldn’t last.

The Empire strikes back

In 296, a huge fleet was gathered in Boulogne on the north coast of Gaul. The praetorian prefect Asclepiodotus invaded southern Britain, fought a battle with Allectus, and killed him. Meanwhile, Constantius Chlorus took another part of the fleet and seized London. A magnificent medal was issued to celebrate the event with the legend ‘restored to the eternal light’, which was how the Tetrarchy modestly liked to see itself.

The rebellion was over. It wasn’t the last, in Britain or anywhere else, by any means. But it was certainly the most remarkable.

Like all the best ideas: The Tetrarchy falls apart

The Tetrarchy was a good idea. Too good for the Roman Empire, as it turned out. What Diocletian hadn’t taken into account was other people’s ambitions.

Because Galerius and Constantius had married their respective seniors’ daughters, there was the making of a dynasty. There were also other interested parties, each of whom had an eye on getting a slice of the action.

Following Diocletian’s and Maximian’s retirements on 1 May 305, Galerius and Constantius succeeded them just as they were supposed to. Galerius appointed his ambitious nephew Maximinus II Daia as his Caesar, and Constantius recruited a man called Severus II. In theory, the Tetrarchy was now in its next phase. But then things started to go wrong

Too many cooks

When Diocletian and Maximian retired, and the new Augusti Galerius and Constantius had appointed their own Caesars (Maximinus II Daia and Severus II, respectively), a few people were a bit disgruntled by the way things had shaken out, particularly

● Maxentius: Maximian’s son

● Constantine: Constantius I’s son by an earlier marriage (a lot more on him in the section, ‘Constantine I, the Great’, later in this chapter)

● Licinius: Diocletian’s adopted son If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it was.

Succession woes

Maximian’s son Maxentius took grave exception to being cut out, and so did Constantius’s son Constantine.

In 306, Constantius died in York, Britain, while on campaign. His troops rejected the idea of Severus II succeeding him and promptly declared Constantius’s son Constantine emperor instead. It was an act that changed the history of the world.

Galerius was furious, but was very wary of letting a civil war break out. So he offered a compromise: Severus II would become Augustus in the West, as planned, and Constantine would become Severus’s Caesar and thus the heir. Unfortunately, things started to heat up. Maximian’s son Maxentius, still resentful at being cut out of the deal (any deal in fact), decided to throw his hat into the ring, and then things really got wild. Here, in the general order in which they happened, are the events that kept people guessing about who was really in charge between 305 and 308:

1. Maxentius led a coup in Rome and recalled his father Maximian who became emperor again.

2. Galerius sent Severus II against the usurpers, but his own soldiers abandoned him, and Severus was imprisoned and killed.

3. Maximian married his daughter Fausta to Constantine and made him Augustus in the West.

4. Galerius tried to seize Rome but was forced to retreat.

5. Maximian fell out with his son Maxentius and was made to give up and go and live with Constantine.

6. A conference followed in 308, in which both Diocletian and Maximian turned up. At this conference

• Maxentius was declared a public enemy, though he remained a serious problem.

• Constantine was demoted to Caesar, though he refused to accept it.

• Galerius’s comrade Licinius was made Augustus in the West.

• Maximian was told he had to stay abdicated.

So by 308, here’s where things stood:

● In the East, the Augustus was Galerius, with Maximinus II Daia as his Caesar.

● In the West, the Augustus was Licinius, with Constantine as his Caesar.

● Meanwhile, regardless of who was in charge in theory, Maxentius was in control of Italy and North Africa.

The final death throes of the Tetrarchy

As you may have figured out by now, in Roman history, even the things that are settled are never really settled. So you can expect that things didn’t go smoothly for the Tetrarchy once the dust had settled in 308.

In 310, Maximian fell out with Constantine and declared himself emperor again (for the third time). This time Maximian was forced to give up by his own men and was found dead soon afterwards, probably murdered by Constantine. The wars that followed over the next 15 years wiped out Diocletian’s Tetrarchy for good and left one man in sole charge of the Roman Empire: Constantine I, the Great. His reign would do more than any other to transform the Dominate and the Roman Empire and make changes that echo right down to the present.

Constantine I, the Great (AD 307-337)

In 311, Galerius died from an agonising illness. Maximinus II succeeded him as Augustus in the East.

Constantine made an alliance with Licinius, who was Augustus in the West, and then he marched into Italy to defeat and kill Maxentius at the Battle of

the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312. (Remember, Maxentius was neither Augustus nor Caesar for any of the regions, but he had control of Italy and North Africa.) The victory meant Constantine had total control of the western Roman Empire, which set him up directly against Maximinus II in the East. What’s more, the Senate declared Constantine was the senior Augustus, so it was a moment of enormous significance.

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, at Rome, was one of the most decisive moments in the history of Europe and all Western civilisation because Constantine was convinced his victory had been caused by the Christian God. According to legend, Constantine claimed to have had a vision of Christ before the battle. In this vision, he was told to place the Chi-Rho symbol on his soldiers’ shields, and he heard the words in hoc signo vinces, ‘in this sign you shall conquer’.

Taking control of the West

After his victory at Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s first job was to get shot of Maximinus II Daia, who was Augustus of the East. Constantine’s motivation was simple: He had no intention of sharing the Roman world with anyone, and he was also determined to defend the interests of Christians.

Maximinus had gone back to persecuting Christians and had even tried to create a rival pagan church organised like the Christian church. As the senior Augustus, Constantine ordered him to stop. Maximinus didn’t. Instead Maximinus set off to try and defeat Licinius who, in return for recognising Constantine in the West, had been awarded the right to rule in the East. Unfortunately for Maximinus, Licinius defeated him in Thrace. Maximinus disguised himself as a slave to escape; he also started trying to undo his Christian persecutions by issuing an edict of toleration. But it was too late. Before his change of heart had any impact, he died in the summer of 313.

Maximinus’s death left Constantine undisputed master of the West and Licinius undisputed master of the East.

The two met in Milan in 313. Licinius married Constantine’s half-sister Constantia to cement the alliance. To help their claim to rule, Constantine said he was descended from Claudius II, and Licinius said he was descended from Philip I (refer to Chapter 19 for information on both men). They also issued the Edict of Milan.

Issuing the Edict of Milan, 313

On his sick bed in 311, Galerius had orchestrated an edict with his fellow Tetrarchs that ended the persecution of Christians. All the persecutions had done was harden the Christians’ resolve and divide the Roman world. The edict asked that Christians pray to their God to help the Roman state.

It was one thing to announce that Christians were free to worship, as Galerius had done in 311. It was another thing altogether to start turning the Roman state into a Christian one. The toleration of Christians was renewed in the 313 Edict of Milan, but this was a far more significant moment.

What the Edict of Milan said was that all religions would be tolerated and that anything that had been confiscated by the state from the Christians would be returned unconditionally. What the Edict didn’t say was that Christianity was now the only legal religion. But it started the process that eventually led to the outlawing of paganism.

East vs. West: Fighting Licinius

A power struggle gradually ensued between Constantine and Licinius, despite their personal (and admittedly political) connections. In a way, it’s reminiscent of how the First and Second Triumvirates of the late Republic fell apart around 400 years before even though their members were tied together in political and personal alliances (refer to Chapters 14 and 15). It just seems that sharing the Roman world was something few rulers could bear the idea of.

This power struggle eventually broke out into open war. Constantine was convinced he had the Christian God on his side.

Trouble brewing

Religion has a bit of a track record of being used to divide people, and that’s what happened now. Constantine was also a smart operator. He used Christianity as a means of establishing a new power base. He could appoint new men to government and high rank in the army, men who owed their new status to Constantine, while old pagan families got pushed out. Constantine gave the church and its members all sorts of privileges, like exemptions from taxes, favouritism for jobs, and so on.

Licinius got suspicious when Constantine made his own brother-in-law, Bassianus, his Caesar in charge of Italy and the Danube provinces. Licinius encouraged Bassianus to revolt in 314, but the plot was uncovered and led to open war between Licinius and Constantine in 316 though the tensions between them had never gone away.

By 316, Constantine and Licinius had negotiated a truce. Part of the deal was sorting out the succession. In 317, Constantine’s two sons, Crispus and Constantine II, were named his Caesars, and Licinius’s son, also called Licinius, was named his. That held off the fighting for a while, but Licinius senior was still not satisfied. He believed that Constantine was using Christianity to undermine him by filling the East with Christians who were loyal to Constantine and not him. In retaliation, Licinius began to clamp down on the Church in the East, and he threw Christians out of the top jobs.

Licinius also thought Constantine was preferring his own sons for all the consulships. Although in the days of the Dominate, being consul amounted to nothing more than taking part in public ceremonials, it was a great way to promote someone. Licinius believed that Constantine was giving his own sons preferential treatment to make sure they would succeed as emperors, at the expense of Licinius’s son.

The end of Licinius

In 322, Constantine entered the East, supposedly to see off another Gothic invasion. Licinius took this as a direct infringement of his control of the East, and war broke out. But Licinius had a series of disasters: In July 324, he was defeated at the Battle of Hadrianopolis; shortly afterwards the 350 ships of his fleet were destroyed by 200 ships commanded by Constantine’s eldest son Crispus at the Battle of the Hellespont; and then in September Constantine totally defeated Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis. Licinius fled but was soon captured. He was later executed after being accused of plotting a comeback; his son’s execution followed.

The Empire goes Christian

With Licinius out of the way, Constantine was left in sole control of the Roman Empire. Convinced that Christianity was the best way to hold the Empire together, Constantine began in earnest to Christianise the Roman Empire, a process that had started with the edicts of 311 and 313 (see ‘Issuing the Edict of Milan, 313’).

Clamping down on paganism

Constantine I's mother was Helena, said to be from Britain. She might have been Constantius's first wife, or a mistress. She was later made into a saint because she travelled to Judaea in 326 to visit places associated with Christianity. She believed she had found the major locations in Christ's life, including where he was born and where he was crucified. A dig led to the discovery of what were thought to be the three crosses and helped create a trade in fragments of the 'true cross'. Some shrines were multifaith and were visited by pagans of all types as well as Christians. Constantine's mother-in-law, Eutropia, was horrified at one such shrine at Hebron and had Constantine destroy all the pagan monuments and install a church: Early Christianity often 'hijacked' pagan monuments and traditions and refranchised them as Christian.

The new imperial court

Constantine called himself ‘Equal of the Apostles’ and presented himself as the Christian God’s representative on Earth. He maintained Diocletian’s Dominate. The totalitarian state became more and more a fact of life. The Senate was a total irrelevance, and the old distinction between senators and equestrians was abandoned. Constantine had a council, the sacrum consistorium (‘sacred body of those standing together’), which stood in his presence. It was all about pomp and circumstances, honorific titles, with everything being labelled sacrum (‘sacred’). There was a vast imperial court, which was made up of Constantine’s

● household staff, including eunuchs.

● his bodyguard (scholae palatinae, literally ‘the corporation of the palace’). ushers (silentarii).

● secretaries (notarii, from nota for a ‘letter’ or ‘memo’).

● ministers for the following: dealing with imperial lands (comes rei pirivatae, ‘count of private affairs’), the palace (quaestor sacri palatii, ‘quaestor of the sacred palace’), jobs (magister officiorum, ‘master of jobs’; magister militum, ‘Master of the Soldiers’ - the latter becoming especially important in the late fourth and fifth centuries), and finance (comes sacrarum largitionum, ‘count of the sacred largesse’), and their respective staff.

Celebrating Christianity in architecture

New architectural forms were developed to celebrate Christianity, like Constantine’s Church of the Holy Apostles in his new capital of Constantinople, built in the form of a cross. The old pagan government basilica design, a hall with a nave and aisles, was adapted as a church design and formed the basis of all the great medieval cathedrals. The new designs appeared in Rome, too, like the first Basilica of St Peter (now beneath the modern St Peter’s).

Vast statues of the emperor were carved. Fragments of two in Rome survive (one bronze, one marble), as well as one in York in northern Britain, where Constantine had been declared emperor. Totally unlike the lifelike classical statues of old, the new imperial images show an impersonal face with eyes rolled heavenward.

Christians at each other’s throats

The Christians ought to have been delighted at their new-found freedom to worship. They probably were, but instead of automatically holding the Empire together, as Constantine had hoped, Christians proved as liable to squabble as - well, any other bunch of human beings. For a start, some of the Christians were as intolerant of pagans as some pagans had once been of them. This intolerance encouraged a long-term, ongoing process of bringing in anti-pagan laws banning pagan worship and temple building.

The Arian theology - it's all in a letter

The Arian schism in the end hinged on the letter 'i'. The orthodox (Catholic) Church defined their belief in the prayer called the Creed with the Greek word homoousios, which described how God the Father and God the Son were coeternal and coequal - in other words, exactly the same. The Arians added an 'i' and got homoiousios from homoios ('similar'), which meant God the Father and God the Son were similar but not identical. The Creed, which comes from the Latin credo, 'I believe', is a statement of what Christians believe about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Arian schism resulted in two rival versions: the Nicene (orthodox) Creed and the Arian Creed.

To many Romans, Christianity was just one more religion to add to the many available. Some dedicated Christians rejected all other religions. But many people were prepared to worship Christ alongside pagan gods. Even Constantine continued to issue coins with the Unconquered Sun-God and the Genius of the Roman People on them as well as other traditional Roman pagan symbols and personifications.

However you look at it, Christianity at this time was not one single, uniform religion. Christians fell out with one another in splits called schisms:

● Catholic (Orthodox): These Christians believed that Christ was God in his own right alongside God the Father and that while they were separate they were also one (the idea of Three Gods in One as the Trinity was still evolving). This was the teaching promoted by the leadership of the Christian church in Rome - so orthodox also means anything they said.

● The Arians: A North African priest called Arius declared in the early 300s that Christ was not God in his own right, but only as a creation of God the Father as an instrument to create the world. Arius soon had quite a following, including some bishops. As you can imagine, this outraged orthodox believers.

Constantine called a council at Nicaea in 325 to settle the matter. The Arians were banished, but before long, Constantine started to think the Arians might be right and started reinstating them. The furore carried on for decades after Constantine’s death in 337 while various councils tried to thrash out a form of words that would satisfy everyone and hold the Church together.

● The Donatists: Some members of the African church objected in 311 to the consecration of a bishop of Carthage called Caecilian by Felix of Aptunga, who had given up his holy scriptures during Diocletian’s persecution. As far as they were concerned, anyone who’d shown weakness during persecution should be cut no slack. So they appointed a rival, himself succeeded by a man called Donatus, who gave his name to the schism. Donatus had quite a reputation, having put up with a series of

torture bouts during the persecution. A commission of 313, a synod at Arles in 314, and Constantine in 316 found against the Donatists, whose supporters rioted at the bad news. Constantine tried to suppress them but gave up in 321. Amazingly, the Donatists were around for another 400-500 years before finally fizzling out altogether.

Moving house: The capital goes to a new location

The showcase of Constantine’s new order was to be his new capital. He chose Byzantium, an ancient Greek city which controlled the Bosphorus strait between Europe and Asia. He selected this site for his capital for the following reasons:

● It had a harbour.

● It could be defended by a land army and a navy.

● It was much closer to the wealthy and productive eastern provinces like Egypt and Asia.

● It was closer to the most important frontiers (the East and the Rhine-Danube).

Rome remained the Empire’s first city on paper, but Byzantium was the future. It was treated to all the necessary public buildings like a senate house, a horse-and chariot-racing stadium (known as the Hippodrome), forum, and libraries. Various ancient sites were plundered by Constantine so that his new capital could have instant pedigree (see the sidebar, ‘Instant heritage’).

In 330, the city had its official opening as Nova Roma, ‘New Rome’, but was soon renamed Constantinopolis (Constantinople; today it’s called Istanbul).

Instant heritage

Constantinople was kitted out with all the trappings of a great city by filching them from other places. Constantine's Hippodrome in Constantinople was decorated with four bronze horses, cast more than 700 years earlier in Greece. Around 900 years later in 1204, those same horses were taken from Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade and were installed on St Mark's church in Venice where, apart from being briefly stolen by Napoleon, they remained until the 1980s, when they were removed to a museum (replicas stand in their place). Other decorations included the fifth century BC bronze Tripod of Plataea, which had been made to commemorate the Greek victory over the Persians in 479 BC. It was brought to the Hippodrome from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. Unlike the four horses, the Tripod (or what's left of it) is still in the Hippodrome and is known as 'the Serpentine Column'.

Managing money

Unlike Diocletian, Constantine did manage some sort of stability of the coinage. He introduced a gold coin called the solidus which was smaller and lighter than the old aureus, but it was highly successful and became a staple coin for centuries to come.

To cope with the increased costs of a vastly enlarged army and his own colossal staff, Constantine added new taxes and confiscated temple treasures. Landowners, whose responsibilities for tax assessment and collection were vital, were prevented from getting into occupations that were exempt from such work, such as senators, civil servants, and the Christian clergy. That meant landowners were condemned to stay as they were, just like the millions of ordinary people in trades and professions. Bakers and butchers, for example, were obliged to stay in their jobs, and so were their sons. Tenant farmers were stuck, too, and could even be chained to the ground to stop them leaving. The idea was to keep the wheels of the economy turning and prevent bands of landless and jobless outlaws growing up, but it was done at a terrible price. It essentially was the end of personal freedom.

Paranoia and the succession

Constantine was determined to settle the future, but in 326, he got it into his head that his wife Fausta and his son Crispus (born to his first wife Minervina) had been plotting against him. He executed both and made his three other sons - Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans - and two of his nephews, Delmatius and Hannibalianus, into five potential successors. Constantine seems to have been under the illusion, or perhaps delusion’s a better word, that they would all rule happily together after his death. Some hope.

Constantine was finally baptised a Christian on his death bed, having fallen ill while planning a war against the Persians. (Death bed baptisms were quite common in those days because it meant you could die in the purest possible form. The idea was that there wouldn’t be time to sin again between baptism and death and compromise any chance of getting into Heaven.)

There’s no doubt that Constantine’s reign had been a truly remarkable one. He had turned Diocletian’s Dominate into a workable system. The frontiers were in better shape, and the Empire’s prestige as a whole was restored in the eyes of the rest of the world, even if most people in the Roman world were tied to their homes and their jobs and could only imagine how much freedom there had once been as a Roman citizen.

Constantine’s loving family - not!

Constantine planned that his three surviving sons, Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans, and his two nephews Delmatius and Hannibalianus, would succeed him. All were made Caesars except Hannibalianus, who was made King with power over the provinces of Armenia, Pontus, and Cappadocia. Considering what a taboo the idea of Roman king was, Hannibalianus’s position was remarkable. They did all succeed Constantine, but not in the way he’d hoped. Unfortunately, Constantine had ignored Diocletian’s plans to have successors chosen by merit and had gone for the right to inherit through birth instead.

Fighting over everything

In 337, Constantine II was about 21 years old and had already fought a successful war against the Goths. Constantius II was about 20, and Constans about 17. Not much is known about the nephews Delmatius and Hannibalianus, and it doesn’t matter much either because the first thing that happened is that they were both murdered, probably on the orders of Constantius II. He and his brothers became the three Augusti, and the Empire was divided up between them, recalling the Second Triumvirate (refer to Chapter 15):

● Constantine II got Gaul, Spain, and Britain.

● Constantius II got the Eastern provinces.

● Constans got Italy and Africa.

With the stakes so high, it’s not surprising that the arrangements didn’t last. Arguments soon broke out, and the ante was upped by religion. The Arian controversy (see ‘Christians at each other’s throats’, earlier in this chapter) was still simmering. The orthodox (Catholic) Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, had been sent into exile when Constantine I started favouring the Arians. Athanasius found refuge in Trier, which became Constantine II’s capital. Athanasius was given permission to go back to Alexandria in Constantius II’s territory. Constantius II was furious because he favoured the Arians and Athanasius was forced to flee to Rome in 339.

The deaths of Constantine II and Constans

Meanwhile, the imperial brothers held a meeting in 338 to sort out their differences. Constans was awarded more land: the Danube provinces, Thrace, Macedonia, Achaea (Greece), and Constantinople.

Constantine II felt hard done by, especially as he considered himself the senior emperor, and started quarrelling with Constans. In 340, he led an army over the Alps to invade Italy but was ambushed near Aquileia and killed. Constans helped himself to his brother’s territories. Within three years of his death, Constantine I’s five successors had been reduced to two.

The birthday party coup

The coup to topple Constans took place in January 350 when Marcellinus, chief finance minister of Constans, held a sham birthday party for his son at Augustodunum (Autun) in Gaul. Along with Magnentius and others, he had hatched the plan when Constans was out hunting. Magnentius attended along with a number of other important men and, at an appropriate moment, disappeared as if to relieve himself. He returned dressed up in purple and was promptly acclaimed as the emperor. The army instantly declared for Magnentius, and Constans had to make a hasty escape. Not hasty enough as it turned out. One of Magnentius's supporters caught him and killed him.

Constans was a committed orthodox Catholic and had even been baptised in 337. He actively supported the Church in the West and sided with Athanasius at the Council of Serdica in 342. The Empire was beginning to split down the middle between the orthodox West and the Arian East. War nearly broke out in 346, but Constans and Constantius II overcame their differences.

Constans lasted until 350. Although he was a popular emperor for his support of the Church, he had a terrible personal reputation for depravity and promoting men in return for bribes, which disastrously cost him the support of the army. In 350, he was killed in a coup led by a soldier called Magnentius.

Constantius II (AD 337-361)

After the death of his brother Constans, Constantius II might now have had the pleasure of running the whole Roman Empire, but he also had the humiliation of the rebel Magnentius running a breakaway empire in Spain, Gaul, Britain, and even Africa (refer to the preceding section). Magnentius had also killed a nephew of Constantine I’s called Nepotian who had tried to seize power in Rome when Constans was killed.

The Magnentian Revolt

Magnentius, a pagan, posed as an orthodox Christian on his coins and even had the Chi-Rho symbol prominently displayed on the reverse of one type. He was using the split in the Church to rustle up support in the Catholic West against the Arian East.


The historian Ammianus Marcellinus was in Rome in 357 when Constantius II visited. This is his eyewitness account of an emperor in the days of the Dominate:

'He did not stir while being hailed as Augustus by supportive acclamations while the hills resounded to the roar, and showed himself to be as calm and imperturbable as he had in the provinces. Although he was very short, he stooped to pass below high gates. He fixed the gaze of his eyes ahead and did not turn to left or right, as if his head was in a vice. He did not nod if a wheel jolted, and he wasn't once seen spitting, wiping or rubbing his face or nose, or moving his hands about - as if he was a dummy.'

War was inevitable. Constantius II made his cousin Gallus into his Caesar and put him in charge of the East so that he could go off and fight Magnentius. In 351, Magnentius and Constantius met at the bloody Battle of Mursa Major in Pannonia. It was an expensive stalemate. Constantius’s cavalry defeated the Magnentian legions, but it cost Constantius 30,000 men and Magnentius 24,000. A series of engagements followed that gradually pushed Magnentius back into Gaul. In 353, Magnentius was defeated again and committed suicide.

Constantius came down on Magnentius’s supporters with utter totalitarian ruthlessness. Anyone suspected of supporting the rebel was liable to be executed or at the very least be thrown into prison, his estates and wealth confiscated. The historian Ammianus Marcellinus thought Constantius was more paranoid about treachery than any other emperor of the past, even Domitian (Chapter 17) or Commodus (Chapter 18). Some of the plots were genuine ones, but where cases were doubtful, Constantius was quite happy to use torture to extract confessions.

The first Santa Sophia

In 360, Constantius Il's great church Santa Sophia ('Holy Wisdom') was dedicated in Constantinople. Two hundred years later, it was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (see Chapter 21). Although today it is a mosque, it stands as one of the most remarkable structures to have survived from the Roman world.

While at Mursa Major, Constantius had met the local Arian bishop, a man called Valens. Valens had a huge amount of influence on Constantius, who became even more dedicated to the Arian cause. Athanasius, the orthodox Catholic bishop of Alexandria, was forced into exile once again.

Gallus was summoned after reports that he was acting like a despot, but he was tried and executed before he even reached Constantius. He was soon replaced in 354 by his brother Julian who became Constantius’s designated successor.

Constantius II in power

As a ruler, Constantius was relatively competent. He fancied himself as an intellectual but really hadn’t any abilities, unlike in sport, military skills, and hunting, which he was extremely good at. He only promoted men in the army on merit, but avoided handing out the highest titles unless thoroughly deserved. Conversely, he was rather too quick to commemorate his own military exploits on triumphal arches, and because he was indecisive, he listened to his eunuchs, his wives, and other officials too readily. Taxes were already heavy, but he did nothing to stop tax collectors extorting people, which only made him unpopular.

Resolving the Arian versus Catholic crisis

In 359, Constantius organised a two-part council to resolve the Arian versus orthodox tussle so that Christianity could work as the state religion of the Roman Empire. The Arian bishop Valens suggested a compromise wording that glossed over the key bone of contention (whether Christ was God or was like God, see the earlier section ‘Christians at each other’s throats’) and it looked for a bit if everyone would be happy. The orthodox diehards led by Athanasius and Basil, Bishop of Ancyra, rejected that totally. But before too long, the Arians were weakened by splitting into three groups, each of which with its own idea about the precise difference between Christ and God. Finally, a council at Constantinople in 381 ratified the decisions made at Nicaea in 325. Arianism became a legal offence and disappeared from the Empire, though it remained popular for another century amongst some German tribes.

Bringing Back Pagans: Julian II ‘the Apostate' (AD 360-363)

For most of the last part of his reign, Constantius II dealt constantly with trouble on the borders. He fought on the Danube and then had to head east once more to fend off the Persians. Constantius sent his cousin Julian to clear out Germans who had crossed the Rhine and sacked Cologne.

Riots in Alexandria

Julian's restoration of paganism sometimes had unfortunate consequences. In Alexandria, the people hated their bishop Georgius, believing that he had denounced all sorts of people to Constantius. The last straw was when Georgius threatened to pull down a pagan temple dedicated to the pagan Genius of the City (see Chapter 9 for information on the Geniuses). A riot broke out, and Georgius was lynched. Other officials were murdered, and even the Christians put up with it because they hated Georgius, too. Julian was appalled but cooled the situation by doing no more than threatening severe punishments if anything else happened.

Julian’s father was another Constantius, a half-brother of Constantine I, who was killed along with various other relatives as soon as Constantine died in 337. Julian was born in 332 and was educated by a eunuch called Mardonius, who taught Julian all about the old pagan gods and classical literature. It had a permanent effect on Julian. Julian had been made Caesar in 355 by his cousin Constantius II because he was one of the very few family members left.

Julian spent the next few years successfully campaigning on the Rhine frontier. He was popular with his troops and even lowered taxes in Gaul. Of course, this made Constantius II jealous. He ordered some of Julian’s troops to come back, but they refused and promptly declared Julian to be the Augustus. Negotiations followed, but got nowhere. Constantius set out to deal with Julian, but died from a fever in 361 along the way.

Turning back the clock

Julian now had the Roman world to himself, and he immediately turned back the clock. Some of Constantius’s men were executed, but the big change was that all anti-pagan laws were overthrown. He threw money at pagan cults and encouraged them to create the sort of organisation that had made the Christians so strong. He punished the Christians by taking away their privileges, especially the financial ones like tax breaks, and even stopped them from serving as teachers.

Julian wasn’t alone in his interest in paganism. Quite a few people regarded schisms like the Arian row, the Donatist heresy, and Christian intolerance of paganism as cast-iron evidence that the Christian church was an unstable and dangerous innovation. Julian saw how his Christian cousins in the family of Constantine had committed all sorts of crimes and found it absurd that, however much a Christian sinned, all he had to do was apologise and be forgiven. Like many other traditionalists, Julian grew up believing that the old tolerance, old gods, and the old beliefs were the way to keep the Roman Empire together. He grew a beard, became interested in the Greeks, mysticism, and magic. But he was so keen on sacrificing animals that if he had lived longer it was said there would have been a shortage of cattle!

Julian in charge

When he wasn’t knocking Christians, Julian was a decent emperor who tried to control inflation and reduce the vast heaving mass of imperial bureaucracy and hangers-on. He was particularly shocked when an extravagantly dressed court barber came to cut his hair. Julian discovered the barber received various food allowances and other perks of the job, and promptly threw all such attendants out of the palace. In the East, he paid for repairs to the city of Nicomedia, wrecked by an earthquake.

Julian’s final great ambition was to defeat the Persians. He arrived in Antioch in 362 to start getting ready. In March 363, he set out with 65,000 men and soon reached the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. He decided to pull back and join the reserves. The Persians used the opportunity to harass Julian’s army, and in one attack, he was wounded and died, probably from an infection.

As he died, Julian admitted Christianity had defeated him. Vicisti Galilaee, ‘You have conquered, Oh Galilean [Christ]’.

History remembers Julian as the man who turned his back on Christianity, and so he is usually known as ‘Julian the Apostate’ (apostasy means to abandon Christianity). Some see him as a man who committed a crime by going back to paganism while others see him as a man of intellect and reason.

Julian the writer

Julian wrote more than any other Roman emperor. Some of his work survives, showing he was an accomplished writer in Greek. He wrote letters and speeches, as well as critiques of Christianity like his Against the Galileans, and a hymn to the Sun-God. He also composed a series of satirical biographies of former emperors. He installed a vast library in Constantinople, housing 120,000 books.

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