The Chaos of the Third Century

Technically, the empire did not fall. It split, or dissolved into its constituent regions.

The Eastern Roman empire lasted another thousand years after the fall of the Western empire. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. Even in the West, it was less a fall of the empire than a transition from Roman to "barbarian" rule. The last Roman emperor reigned from 475-476 CE, Romulus Augustulus. He was immediately succeeded by Odoacer, a Herulian who reigned as King of Italy.

Problems and solutions

The transformation of the empire resulted from several causes:
1. The succession of Rome had been a problem since the earliest days, since Rome was not a monarchy. Contrast the second century, in which four emperors ruled from Trajan until death of Aurelius (98-180), more than 80 years. In the third century, there were more than 60 emperors in 100 years.

2. The Roman empire had also become too large to administer easily. It usually had wars against the barbarians on both its eastern and western borders (see map).

3. The army had become more expensive. Until the third century, the army paid for itself by attacking and conquering wealthy and civilized regions in the east, regions that sent good plunder back to Rome and had a strong agricultural basis to feed the army. In the third century, the regions conquered were uncivilized, and Rome had to pay. Marcus Aurelius went through the imperial treasury in seven years and then began to auction off palace furniture.

4. A plague during the reign of Marcus Aurelius had reduced the population, the source of the army and taxpayers. The tax base became weaker.

The third century was a time in which these critical problems were addressed. The solutions advanced did solve the immediate problems, but tended to cause problems even more serious.

1. Succession and administration of the empire: Diocletian (284-305 CE) responded to these two problems with a brilliant solution, the tetrarchy ("rule of four"). He divided the empire into four areas: Gaul, Italy, Illyricum (the Balkan and Danube regions), the Orient (see map). These would be ruled by four rulers: 2 "Augusti" (main emperors), and 2 "Caesars" (vice emperors). Gaul and Italy belonged to the West, and Illyricum and the Orient to the East. East and West were thus both ruled by an Augustus/Caesar team. When one of the emperors died, the vice-emperor in that region would assume the post, and a new vice-emperor would be elected. This form of government was made nearly permanent by the time of Valentinian (364-375) and his brother Valens.

But this had as a consequence the actual division of the empire. Rome became less important because there was a capital in the East as well. The empire was also dissolved into smaller units: provinces were dissolved under the tetrarchy from 24 provinces to 101 dioceses, each with its own governor.

2. The constant barbarian threats also led to a larger army during the third century: it increased from 35 to 60 legions, and from 300,000 to 500,000 troops. The military expansion also led to a raise in soldiers' pay to attract recruits for the larger army.

3. The problem of funding the army was addressed by debasing the coinage and raising new taxes, and eventually led to massive inflation and the abandonment of a cash economy. Nobles were forced to pay their tax "in kind," with agricultural products.

Trouble in the empire

There was a gradual loss of Roman identity over the third century. There was constant pressure on the borders by "barbarians": the Sassanids Persians in the east, the Goths on the Danube, and the Germanic tribes in the west and north. But the Roman empire recruited "barbarians" in army, as well, the various provincials who served there. Even the empire in the third century was ruled by men who came from the provinces, not from Rome or Italy: Spaniards, Arabians, Goths from the Danube. Thus the transition to rule of Italy by a Herulian was not as extreme as may seem.

The military buildup led to the impoverishment of the provincial elites. Constant taxation left them destitute, and led to the erosion of the cities that depended on their charitable donations for upkeep of temples, civic buildings, roads, and festivals. The underlying structure of change took money from the urban centers to pay for armies and left less money for all the items that made Rome what it was: roads and protection against robbers that fostered trade, civic buildings and festivals. Decreased loyalty to the central government led the provincial wealthy to hide from imperial authorities and tax collectors. The people most needed by Rome no longer wanted to belong to the Roman empire. This shows the great danger of military buildup on a weak economic basis: it changes institutions and people's loyalty to them.

The Christians in the Empire

The First and Second Centuries

The persecution of Christians began early and continued. Since Roman law was based on precedent, the fact that Christians had been persecuted meant that their religion was generally evaluated to be illegal.

Nero persecuted the Christians in 64 CE when parts of Rome burned in a great conflagration. Domitian supported a general persecution ca. 95 CE, as did Trajan (letter to Pliny 112 and the execution of Ignatius ca. 110?).

In the trials, the prosecutors usually asked Christians to burn incense (a sacrifice) for the emperor (for his well-being, not to the emperor as g-d), or to affirm belief in the traditional g-ds. It represented an attempt to break down resistance to the traditional g-ds. The underlying fear was that the Christians were atheists, because they denied the traditional g-ds and did not have a traditional g-d of their own, as did the Jews.

It was not an issue of belief, but of the system of religion. The Jews affirmed the same monotheist g-d claimed by the Christians, but they were tolerated, despite their rejection of the traditional g-ds, because they had a temple, they affirmed sacrifice. While the temple stood, they had sacrificed on behalf of the emperor. The one great difference on the part of Christians is that they did not even have basic religious observances in common with anyone in the empire.

The Romans desired the pax deorum, the "peace of the g-ds." They feared that if they did not show honor to the g-ds unanimously through sacrifice and give them their rightful due in society, the g-ds would become angry and punish the Roman empire.

Another issue was participation in ancient society in general. Since the Christians would not sacrifice to any divinity at all, they could not easily participate in civic government or the army, because if was impossible to avoid sacrifice to the g-ds during the routine rituals. Many Christians opted out of society, and also gave ten percent of their income to the church and its charitable programs. They had formed a shadow society in opposition to the Roman empire. They were thus characterized as "atheists" and "haters of humanity."

The Third Century

The Decian persecution. Trajan set the precedent that Christians were not to be sought out by Roman officials, but that third-party accusation was to be used: a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, unless a neighbor was willing to testify, upon pain of death, that someone was a practicing Christian. The bishops and other officials were at greater risk than lay Christians, since they were easily identified as Christians because of their activities in office.

This principle was true until Decius (249-251 CE). In the context of a war against the Goths, Decius demanded sacrifice to the traditional g-ds of Rome by all Roman citizens. This now included most Christians, because all free inhabitants of the empire received citizenship under Caracalla in 212 CE. Christians were sought out for mandatory sacrifice to the g-ds, beginning with their leadership. The persecution was renewed under Valerian (257 CE onward).

The Great Persecution was brought on by numerous individual incidents that played on Roman fears. In 295 CE, Christians in the army publicly refused to participate in sacrifice. In 302, a Christian interrupted a public sacrifice in progress at Antioch.

Diocletian (284-305) began the Great Persecution (303-311), which was aimed specifically at wiping out the Christians. They were first declared as outlaws of the empire and stripped of their citizenship. This meant that they could take no government positions, could not defend themselves in court, and could become their employers' slaves. Their books were burned. In the second stage, Christians were rounded up and imprisoned. Finally, they were executed if they refused to sacrifice, because the prisons had become overcrowded. During this last stage, particular local governors carried out horrible pogroms. Christians in Egypt were tortured to death, in Syria the men were sent to the salt mines and the women to brothels, and in Asia Minor, entire Christian villages were executed.

The persecution was finally halted by the emperor Galerius on his deathbed, as he lay dying of a horrible illness that he considered divine punishment: the Edict of Toleration (also known as the Edict of Gallienus), 311 CE, allowed Christianity for the first time to be a legal religious option in the empire.

The "Conversion" of Constantine

Constantine's background included Christianity and monotheism. His mother Helena was a Christian; his father Constantius Chlorus was a worshipper of the "invincible sun," Sol Invictus, a new cult from the time of Aurelian (270s). It was a monotheist cult in which the sun represented the highest divinity. Sol Invictus was also Constantine's g-d before he turned to Christianity.

Constantine's conversion came during in the process of a war. He was the vice-emperor of the West. Maximinius Daia, the emperor in East, began persecution of the Christians again shortly after the Edict of Toleration (Edict of Gallienus). Maxentius, who was emperor in the West, wished to do so in the West. Constantine invaded Italy, the territory of Maxentius, who then appealed to Maximinius Daia for help.

The battle was thus a major one, fought in 312 at the Milvian Bridge in Rome. The night before the battle, Constantine saw a vision with the sign of the cross, and a voice that said, "In hoc signo vinces," "In this sign you will have victory." Constantine ordered the army to paint the sign of the cross on their shields, and he won the battle against his two opponents. When he defeated Licinius, the Augustus of the East, in 324, he became emperor over the entire empire.

After the battle, Constantine issued a repetition of Edict of Toleration (Edict of Gallienus) in 313 (the Edict of Milan): it stopped the persecutions and allowed Christianity to be a legal religion in the empire. This meant that Christians, like all legal cults, received support for building their temples (churches), that their cult officials (clergy) would be freed from public service and taxation

Christianity only became the state religion somewhat later, in 395 CE, when Theodosius outlawed the public observance (usually sacrifice) of any other religion, including Judaism.

Reasons for the "rise" of Christianity

Some estimate that 30% of population were Christian at the outset of the Great Persecution. It was simply impossible to eradicate such a great portion of ancient society.

Constantine benefitted from the inclusion of the Christians in the empire. The church also had resources and organization. At Rome alone, there were 150 paid clergy at the end of third century. The Christians had also developed charitable organizations for the poor, widowed, and unmarriagable girls. The Christians had been diverting wealth into a shadow empire, but could now be co-opted for the service of the empire.

Many of the Christians were from the literate non-senatorial elite, and made useful and loyal imperial servants for Constantine in the face of the opposition of the Roman Senate, which did not want to abandon the traditional g-ds.

It was easy to implement because of the sympathy gained for the Christians during Great Persecution, during which some 3000 had been brutally executed, and many more imprisoned and executed. Trends in both philosophy and religion had also been developing conceptions of monotheism that made Christian doctrine seem more attractive and less an innovation.


return to syllabus