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A New Empire: The World of Late Antiquity From Diocletian Onward

A. D. 284 - 600

During the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, the old Roman Empire started to undergo such vast, radical changes that one can almost say that the Roman Empire of A. D. 325 was not even close to the same Roman Empire of only forty years before. During the Third Century, the stability of the Empire depended a great deal on the strength, intelligence, ambition, and personality of one man, the current ruling emperor. A small group of soldiers or army officers could depose an emperor and raise another man to the throne in the same afternoon, sometimes throwing the whole empire into confusion and civil war. When the changes begun by Diocletian and completed by his successors were in place, the empire could (and often did) run splendidly for weeks, months, and sometimes years without the emperor himself doing any real governing. (See the articles on Theodosius II and Honorius). As far as the government was concerned, the emperor could sleep his life away and the strong ministers and officials could raise taxes, sign treaties, make trade policy, build cities, and go to war all without intervention from the emperor. Many of us got our first impressions of the ancients, especially the Romans, by watching movies made in Hollywood. By and large, the Hollywood producers, costume experts, make-up men, and others responsible for historical accuracy have done a pretty decent job of portraying the Roman Empire in the time of Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Nero. In fact, if you were to watch the 1960’s classic Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and then be transported back to the time of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra, you would recognize a lot of what you had seen in the movie. The Rome of the early empire is familiar to most of us.

The Late Roman Empire, however, is much different from the mental picture we have of the Roman Empire. In a lot of ways, the Late Roman world was like our own, with an ever expanding government bureaucracy, high taxes, and a veritable sea of regulations covering every aspect of our lives. In other ways, it was much different from our world. There were few human rights. If you were suspected of treason and a couple of witnesses could be found to testify against you, you could be executed or exiled and have your property confiscated. Secret government informers known as Agentes in Rebus spied on the civil population and reported to the emperor’s ministers any thing that you did or said that might be offensive to the emperor or powerful people in the government. One thing the modern person would find familiar, but with a weird twist, was the very strong loyalty shown by later Romans to sports teams. This was a much stronger phenomenon than a difference of opinion between friends on whether the Seattle Sea Hawks or the San Francisco Forty Niners play better football. The big spectator sports in Roman times were chariot racing and gladiatorial combat. By the time of Honorius, gladiator fights to the death had been outlawed, leaving chariot racing as the major attraction. People would riot in the streets in favor of their team or against the rival one. These chariot racing teams or sports clubs also wielded great political power, especially if the team was the favorite of the current emperor. They also headed vast criminal organizations that extorted money from citizens and controlled them through intimidation. According to the Sixth Century A. D. Byzantine author Procopius, rooting for the wrong team could lose you your job, get you exiled to a desert province, or get your throat cut. One more thing, the teams chose the manes of colors as their team names. For a while, the Reds and the Whites were popular, but during the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, it was definitely a contest between the Blues and the Greens. In fact, a huge riot that broke out in A. D. 532 between supporters of the Blues and Greens threatened to depose the emperor Justinian and destroy much of the city of Constantinople. (See the article about the Nika Revolt). This all goes to show that gang colors are not just a modern phenomenon.

Not only were civil rights almost non-existent and taxes oppressively high, there were laws in place that a son had to do the same kind of work his father had done, and no one could change jobs. A baker’s son had to make his living as a baker; the same was true of all skilled craftsmen. Most importantly, farmers were tied to the same land upon which they were born. Agricultural taxes were collected in kind, meaning the farmer paid taxes by bringing his agricultural products or crops to a government depot. These COLONI, or small farmers eked out a meager existence on land that was often poor and worn out. They still had to give most of their produce to the government, though. This is why the laws were passed binding them to the soil. The lot of a farmer in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries was so bad that they would escape to the cities if they could and try to find a better life. Many of them did so in spite of the laws. Many more coloni escaped and sought protection from the barbarian warlords.

The late Roman Empire saw the Christian Church become very powerful in worldly affairs. Bishops of large cities like Antioch and Alexandria had a great deal of power in the government. The Catholic Church became the official state religion, replacing the old pagan gods and goddesses. Many, but by no means all of the bishops were corrupt and sought only to increase their worldly wealth and power. In some cases, the powerful Church officials oppressed and extorted money from the people just like the Roman government did. Often, these two powers worked hand in hand in a corrupt partnership. Many rural areas actually welcomed the invading barbarians of the Fifth Century. The poor subjects of the emperor often believed they would be better off with a German overlord than a Roman master. In reality, the lot of the peasants never changed. They simply exchanged one group of oppressors for another.

All of the events of this later period were not dreary and depressing, though. Monasteries were beginning to be established in the mid Fifth Century, and the monks did much to copy and preserve earlier written history and keep detailed records of their own. One of the most important monastic orders was the Benedictine, founded by St. Benedict at Monte Cassino. Devoting themselves to the service of God and mankind, they renounced all worldly wealth. They spent much of their day in doing good deeds, tending the sick, prayer, and painstakingly copying and illustrating manuscripts by hand. Even the Germanic invaders revitalized to some extent the territory they overran or wrested from Roman control by treaties. They brought in new methods of agriculture and innovations in clothing, including the use of pants to replace the flowing robes and mantles worn by the Romans of that time. Much of the widespread devastation of Europe that was attributed to barbarian invasions actually occurred as the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople kept retaking and losing the Western lands in the two centuries of fighting between A. D. 400 and 600. Unable to re-establish a strong stable government in the West, the Eastern emperors and the Germanic invaders gave Europe nothing but warfare for two centuries until the Frankish kingdoms started to become well established.

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