Tag Archives: r w burgess

Discover the Fourth Century: Politics

LII Constantius I Chlorus

Constantius I, father of Constantine; photo by GZakky on Flickr

Now, what to say about the politics from Constantine to Honorius and Arcadius? (Since we already discussed Diocletian with the third century.) For the first portion of Constantine’s reign, there were civil wars until 312 when he defeated his western rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (it was around this time that Constantine had his conversion to the god of the Christians), thus becoming sole emperor of the West. In 324, he defeated his eastern colleague Licinius (allegedly over persecution of Christians) and become sole emperor of the whole Roman world.

Let us remember that the whole Roman world, the empire, at this time stretched from Britain to Spain and North Africa, across to Mesopotamia and down the Nile. There were Black Sea provinces. There was influence in Armenia. Despite the images people like to paint of Roman hegemony after the 200s, the recovery of Diocletian and Constantine meant that Rome maintained and stabilised her territorial possessions.

Constantinian baths at Trier

Constantine had spent much of his earlier career based in Trier on the Moselle (a river which immortalised by Ausonius in this poem). In 330, he rededicated Byzantium on the Bosporus in the East as Constantinople — destined to be the New Rome and a Christian capital. Upon his death in 337, there was a bit of a bloodbath (see R W Burgess, ‘The Summer of Blood’). His son Constans ruled from the West until 350, and Constantius II ruled the East, then the whole thing, until 361. Constantius, as you learn in Ammianus, had a few bloodthirsty caesars co-rule with him. He was succeeded by the ‘pagan’ Julian the Apostate (would have called himself a Hellene), himself an orator, poet, and philosopher, who did to the Christians what Constantine and Constantius had done to the Graeco-Roman polytheists. He died on campaign against Persia in 363 (see my post on Julian in Ammianus).

Then came Jovian, hailed by the army in Persia. He lasted nary a year and was succeeded by Valentinian I (r. 364-375) who elevated his brother Valens as co-emperor (r. 364-378). Valentinian’s son Gratian (d. 383) was elevated in 367 and Valentinian II (d. 392) upon Valentinian I’s death in 375. 378-395 saw the reign of Theodosius I ‘the Great’.

Upon Theodosius’ death, the empire was finally and enduringly split between East and West, his son Honorius taking the West (r. 393-423) and his other son Arcadius the East (r. 395-408).

Those, in brief, are the emperors of the fourth century.

If this isn’t Valens, it’s Honorius.

Throughout these reigns there was ongoing warfare and military posting along the Rhine. As well, Goths were interested in crossing the Danube. They were settled on Roman territory in 376, but, rather than treat them well and integrate them into society, relations between the Romans and Goths deteriorated to the point where the Goths decided it was in their best interests first to plunder, and then to engage the Romans in battle. The most famous of these battles was near Adrianople in Thrace (Edirne, modern European Turkey, near Greece & Bulgaria) in 378, where the Emperor Valens was slain.

War with Persia was also intermittent. As I mentioned in the post about the third century, Persia had re-emerged as a major power in the East under the Sassanian dynasty, taking the Emperor Valerian captive in 260. Despite a treaty made in 363 after Julian’s disastrous campaign, the Persians found pretext to invade Rome, claiming the Romans had violated the treaty. Before I start sounding like a Roman talking of ‘typical’ Persian ‘duplicity’, I can well imagine the Romans having broken the treaty if it had been in their interest and they had had a pretext. Theodosius I and Shapur III signed a peace treaty in 384 that would last until 421.

Coin of Magnus Maximus

It wouldn’t be the Roman Empire without a few usurpers, either, though. The most famous of these is Magnus Maximus, a Spanish general posted in Britain who rebelled against the Emperor Gratian in 383. (Sorry that he’s not actually British.) In 384, Theodosius I agreed to give him command of Britain. However, in 387 he wanted more than he already had, so he invaded Italy. In 388, Theodosius¬† defeated him at the Battle of the Save. I would say that Maximus was more tolerated than fully integrated into the imperial system. Northern Gaul was often a troublesome place, and local aristocrats had previously, and would again in the future, taken the power of command into their own hands.

I feel that this has been far too cursory a treatment of fourth-century politics, but I also don’t want to go on too much. My apologies for this. I hope, however, when combined with the prior post on religion and literature and the upcoming post on art, it will help give you a feel for the fourth century and the people who inhabited it.

The Enormity That Was Rome (seen in the Consularia Constantinopolitana)

Roman Forum

Yesterday I read R W Burgess’ edition of the fifth-century Consularia Constantinopolitana (which he notes is a misnomer; it’s a Descriptio Consulum that is primarily — not entirely — western in origin). This is a document that is mostly a list of every consular pair from the first consuls of Rome in 509 BC up to the year AD 465 when the final redactor/editor of the document presumably ran out of source material.

Along the way and with increasing frequency after Constantine, other events are inserted — but not nearly so many as, say, in a Chronicle, and not with nearly so much detail. These are sort of the markers as we use them in real life. We may not necessarily remember what we did in 2003 or in the third year of Jean Chr√©tien’s time as Prime Minister, but we remember ‘The year Hale-Bop appeared,’ or, ‘The year my brother’s dog died.’ (Those events do not line up with the dates above.)

Anyway, it’s a fun document and pretty quick if all you’re doing is reading it (and seeing that Majorian’s consulship fell in AD 458).

What struck as I was looking at the first full, two-page spread of the consular list was how many consuls there were. Now, the enormity of Rome is exaggerated by the fact that consular terms are only a year in length, so every year theoretically gets an entry, and some years get more than just their consuls. But, still. It’s a lot of history.

974 years, in fact.

Add 11 more, and you go up to the deposition of the last western emperor in 476. 985 from the foundation of the Republic to the establishment of the first ‘barbarian’ kingdom in Italy.

That’s a long run.

Pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara, from 2600s BC, almost 2000 years before Rome was founded

I guess it’s not as long as the 2000 years of Egyptian history from the First Dynasty to the start of the Third Intermediate Period (3100-1100 BC; I stop us there since said Intermediate Period lasted a few hundred years and the next dynasty wasn’t Egyptian but Nubian — cool timeline here). But it’s a very long span of time.

Indeed, it’s almost as long as our next major human-constructed historical era, the Middle Ages. In that period, Rome goes from a major power in central Italy to the major power of Italy, the major power of the western Mediterranean, the only power in the Mediterranean, and then stretching beyond until oceans, Germany, Persia, and the Sahara get in the way (gross oversimplification) — and then back to one major (or should we say MAIOR?) city in central Italy.

The triumph of Roman Imperium is, in fact, how long she was stable. The Roman Empire is one of the few expansionist empires that made the ‘happy’ transition from expansion to stabilisation.

Anyway, in this 985-year period what do we get? We get (as things come to mind) the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, Virgil, Horace, Livy, Ammianus, Claudian, Sidonius, Leo, the mosaics in the side chapel at Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, Augustine, Hadrian’s Wall, Plautus, Terence, and more, more, more. Some of the greatest works of western literature, some of the West’s most brilliant minds, some of her greatest statesmen and generals, some of her greatest art come from the 985-year rule of Rome.

Rome was big and around for a long time. So when you look at your puny, young nation-state, do not expect life to always go on as normal.

Note: It seems the Roman Senate was still active in the city’s affairs at least until 603. This gives the Senate a lifespan of well over 1112 years.