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5.6: The Third-Century Crisis, and Late Antiquity

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    The third century was a time of crisis, defined by political instability and civil wars. Increasing pressures on the frontiers required emperors to spend much of their time on campaigns. The importance of the city of Rome declined. It was also a period in which culture, and especially Christian culture, flourished and replaced the traditional Roman pagan mode of thinking. Late Antiquity was looking forward to the world of the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, many influential leaders, such as Constantine, left their mark.

    5.6.1: The Third-Century Crisis and Diocletian

    During the third-century crisis (235 – 284 CE), unprecedented political, social, and economic upheaval arose across the Empire. In effect, the crisis was the year 69 CE repeated, armies could make emperors, and emperors could be made outside of Rome. Indeed, twenty-six emperors were officially recognized by the Roman Senate. Others were not, but given the title by their troops on campaign. As a result of the chaos, regions were temporarily broken away from the Roman Empire, especially to the East and Northwest.

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    Map \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of the Roman Empire during the Third-Century Crisis Author: User “Wanwa” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    In addition to political upheaval and near-constant civil wars, the Empire was dealing with increasing pressures on the frontiers, a plague that devastated the population and a famine. Starting with Nero, Roman emperors had been debasing the Roman coinage. As result, inflation hit in full force.

    A single emperor stationed in Rome was no longer equipped to deal with the challenges of ruling such a vast territory. Diocletian had been proclaimed emperor by his troops in 284 CE. Realizing that a single emperor in charge of the entire empire was a “sitting duck,” whose assassination would throw the entire empire into yet another civil war, Diocletian established a new system of rule: the Tetrarchy, or the rule of four. In other words, he divided the empire into four regions, each with its own capital.

    Rome was not the capital of its region! Diocletian selected capitals with strategic importance. Two of the regions of the Tetrarchy were ruled by senior emperors, named Augusti (“Augustus” in the singular), and two were ruled by junior emperors, named Caesares (“Caesar” in the singular). One of the Augusti was Diocletian himself, with Maximian as the second Augustus. The two men’s sons-in-law, Galerius and Constantus Chlorus, became the two Caesares.

    Diocletian attempted to address other major problems, such as inflation, by passing the Edict of Maximum Prices. This edict set a maximum price that could be charged on basic goods and services in the Empire. He also significantly increased the imperial bureaucracy. His political experiment successfully ended the third-century crisis. The four men were able to rule the empire and restore a degree of political stability.

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    Map \(\PageIndex{2}\): Map of the Roman Empire under the Tetrarchy Author: Coppermine Photo Gallery Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    In the statue column of the Tetrarchs below, the message is unity in rule: the four men are portrayed identically, so it is impossible to tell them apart. Showing their predominantly military roles, they are dressed in military garb, rather than the toga, the garb of politicians and citizens, and each holds one hand on the hilt of his sword and hugs one of the other Tetrarchs with the other.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): State Column of the Tetrarchs Author: Nino Barbieri Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

    One problem with the Tetrarchy: who would succeed to the emperorship when one died? Hoping to provide for a smooth transition of power, Diocletian abdicated in 305 CE and required Maximian to do the same. The two Caesares were promptly promoted to Augusti, and two new Caesares were appointed. Shortly thereafter, Constantius Chlorus, a newly minted Augustus, died. His death resulted in a series of wars for succession and the end of Tetrarchy. It would be Constantius’ son, Constantine, who would reunite the entire Roman Empire under his rule in 324 CE. In the process, Constantine also brought about a major religious shift in the Empire.

    5.6.2: From Constantine to the Last Pagans of Rome

    By the early fourth century CE, historians estimate that about ten percent of those living in the Roman Empire were Christians. That was about to change. Before a major battle in 312 CE, Constantine reportedly had a dream or a vision in which Christ himself told Constantine to place the Greek letters X and P (Chi, Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in the Greek alphabet) on his soldiers’ shields in order to assure victory. As a result of his military success, Christianity received his endorsement and grew exponentially.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Constantine’s Military Standard | Reconstruction of Constantine’s Military Standard, Incorporating the Chi Rho letters Author: Nordisk Familjebok Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    Constantine proceeded to play a major role in the government of the church over the course of his rule. For instance, he summoned the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. This group of major bishops from all over Europe settled the question of the relationship of God the Father and God the Son, declaring them to have been one being from the creation of the world, thus affirming the doctrine of the Trinity. Over time, seven major ecumenical councils would meet between 325 and 787 CE. The councils allowed the increasingly different churches of the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire to work together on key doctrines and beliefs of the church.

    Last but not least, Constantine’s rule marked the end of the city of Rome as the capital of the Roman Empire. Upon reuniting the Empire in 324 CE, Constantine established his capital at the old location of the Greek city of Byzantium, but renamed it Constantinople (the location of Byzantium appears on Map \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Why was this area a strategic advantage over Rome?

    • It had an excellent harbor.
    • It was close to the Persian frontier, as well as the Danube frontier, a trouble area that required attention from the emperor.
    • Building this “New Rome” allowed Constantine to send the message that his rule was a new beginning of sorts for the Roman Empire, which was now to be a Christian empire.

    Julian the Apostate tried hard to restore traditional Roman paganism during his brief rule (361 – 363 CE). Finally, Emperor Theodosius banned paganism altogether by 395 CE. Thus a mere eighty-three years after Constantine’s initial expression of support for Christianity, it became the official religion of Rome. Paganism continued to limp on for another century or so, but without state support, it slowly died out.

    5.6.3: The Decline of the Empire—Looking Forward while Looking Back with Augustine and the Last Pagans of Rome

    Christianity challenged the thousand-year old pact between the Romans and their gods. (See Chapter 5.4) According to the pagan Romans, the ultimate punishment would come from the gods. And come it did. In 410 CE, the unthinkable happened. The city of Rome, untouched by foreign foes since the early days of the Republic, was sacked by the Goths, a Germanic tribe led by the fearsome Alaric. How could something so terrible happen? And how could the Roman Empire recover from it?

    In response to these questions, a veteran theologian, philosopher, and bishop of Hippo in North Africa named Augustine wrote the final magnum opus of his career, the monumental twenty-two-book effort that he appropriately titled De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos, or On the City of God against the pagans.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Fresco Painting of Augustine, Sixth Century CE Author: User “Mladifilozof” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    Born in North Africa in 354 CE, Augustine was educated in Rome and Milan, and, after a wild youth—about which he tells us in his Confessions— he rose to the post of the Bishop of Hippo in 396 CE.

    In his book, Augustine effectively argued that there was nothing special about Rome, and that it only prospered because God allowed it to do so. Furthermore, obsession with Rome, as an earthly kingdom and way of life, was the wrong place for turning one’s attention. The City of God was the only place that mattered, and the City of God was most definitely not Rome. By turning away from this world and focusing on the next, one could find true happiness and identity as a citizen of God’s kingdom, which is the only city that is everlasting and free from the threat of invasion or destruction.

    Augustine’s message would have made the Republican hero Cincinnatus weep. For Cincinnatus, nothing was more valuable than Rome. For Augustine, however, nothing was less valuable than Rome.

    This page titled 5.6: The Third-Century Crisis, and Late Antiquity is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Nadejda Williams (University System of Georgia via GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .