The decline and fall of Rome

The Roman empire, which had been oppressed and almost destroyed by the soldiers, the tyrants and the barbarians, was saved by a series of great princes, who derived their obscure origin from the martial provinces of Illyricum. Within a period of about thirty years, Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, Diocletian and his colleagues triumphed over the foreign and domestic enemies of the state, re-established, with a strongly, enforced military discipline, the strength of the frontier, and deserved the glorious title of Restorers of the Roman World.

Claudius gained a crushing victory over the Goths, whose discomfiture was completed by disease in the year 269. And his successor, Aurelian, in a reign of less than five years, put an end to the Gothic war, chastised the Germans who invaded Italy, recovered Gaul, Spain and Britain from the Roman usurpers, and destroyed the proud monarchy which Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, had erected in the East on the ruins of the afflicted empire.

The murder of Aurelian in the East (January 275) led to a curious revival of the authority of the senate. During an interregnum of eight months the ancient assembly at Rome governed, with the consent of the army, the destinies of the empire, and appeared to regain with the election of Tacitus, one of their members, all their ancient prerogatives. Their authority expired, however, with the death of his successor, Probus, who delivered the empire once more from the invasions of the barbarians and succumbed to the too common fate of assassination in August 282.

Caius's death, by delivering the sceptre into the hands of his sons Cairnus and Numerian (December 25, 283), once more placed the Roman world at the mercy of profligacy and licentiousness. A year later Diocletian was elected emperor. It was the artful policy of Diocletian to destroy the last vestiges of the ancient constitution. Dividing his unwieldy power among three other associates--Maximian, a rough, brutal soldier, who ranked as Augustus; and Galerius and Constantius, who bore the inferior titles of Caesar--the emperor removed the centre of government by gradual steps from Rome. Diocletian and Maximian held their courts in the provinces, and the authority of the senators was destroyed by spoliation and death.

As Augustus had aimed to disguise his power in a pretence of modesty and simplicity, so Diocletian sought to display his unbounded authority by his magnificence. Ostentation was the first, division was the second, principle of the new system. He multiplied the wheels of the machine of government in every department. In the exercise of supreme power the two Augusti were to associate with themselves two Caesars, who, rising in their turn to the first rank, should supply an uninterrupted succession of emperors. The great increase of civil officers of the state resulted in an increase of taxes and, to quote the words of a contemporary, 'when the proportion of those who received exceeded the proportion of those who contributed, the provinces were oppressed by the tribute.'


FOR twenty-one years Diocletian held sway, establishing, with the assistance of his associates, the might of the Roman arms in Britain, Africa, Egypt and Persia; and then, on May 1, 305, in a spacious plain in the neighbourhood of Nicomedia, divested himself of the purple and abdicated the throne. On the same day at Milan, Maximian reluctantly made his resignation of the imperial dignity.

According to the rules of the new constitution, Constantius and Galerius assumed the title of Augustus and nominated Maximin and Severus as Caesars. The elaborate machinery devised by Diocletian at once broke down. Galerius, who was supported by Severus, intrigued for the possession of the whole Roman world. Constantine, the son of Constantius, on account of his popularity with the army and the people, excited his suspicion, and only the flight of Constantine saved him from death. He made his way to Gaul and, after taking part in a campaign against the Caledonians, received the title of Augustus in the imperial palace at York on the death of Constantius.

Civil war once more raged. Maxentius, the son of Maximian, was declared Emperor of Rome, and, with the assistance of his father, who broke from his retirement, defended his title against Severus, who was taken prisoner at Ravenna and executed at Rome in February 307. Galerius, who had raised Licinius to fill the post vacated by the death of Severus, invaded Italy to re-establish his authority, but was compelled to retire.

There were now six emperors: Maximian and his son Maxentius and Constantine in the West; in the East, Galerius, Maximin and Licinius. The second resignation of Maximian, and his renewed attempt to seize the imperial power by seducing the soldiers of Constantine, and his subsequent execution at Marseilles in February 310, reduced the number to five. Galerius died of a lingering disorder in the following year, and the civil war that broke out between Maxentius and Constantine, culminating in a battle near Rome in 312, placed the sceptre of the West in the hands of the son of Constantius.

The empire was now divided between Constantine and Licinius, and the ambition of the two princes rendered peace impossible. In the years 315 and 323 civil conflict broke out, ending, after the battle of Adrianople and the siege of Byzantium, in a culminating victory for Constantine in the field of Chrysopolis, in September. Licinius, taken prisoner, laid himself and his purple at the feet of his lord and master, and was duly executed.

By successive steps from his first assuming the purple at York to the resignation of Licinius, Constantine had reached the undivided sovereignty of the Roman world. His success contributed to the decline of the empire by the expense of blood and treasure and by the perpetual increase as well of the taxes as of the military establishments. The foundation of Constantinople at Byzantium and the establishment of the Christian religion in the Empire were the immediate and memorable consequences of this revolution.


THE unfortunate Licinius was the last rival who opposed the greatness of Constantine. After a tranquil and prosperous reign, the conqueror bequeathed to his family the inheritance of the Roman Empire: a new capital, a new policy and a new religion; and the innovations which he established have been embraced and consecrated by succeeding generations.

Byzantium, which, under the more august name of Constantinople, was destined to preserve the shadow of the Roman power for nearly a thousand years after it had been extinguished by Rome herself, was the site selected for the new capital. Its boundary was traced by the emperor himself, and its circumference measured some sixteen miles. In a general decay of the arts no architect could be found worthy to decorate the new capital, and the cities of Greece and Asia were despoiled of their most valuable ornaments to supply this want of ability.

In the course of eight or ten years the city, with its beautiful forum, its circus, its imperial palace, its theatres, baths, churches and houses, was completed with more haste than care. The dedication of the new Rome was performed with all due pomp and ceremony, and a population was provided by the expedient of summoning some of the wealthiest families in the empire to reside within its walls.

The gradual decay of Rome had eliminated that simplicity of manners which was the just pride of the ancient republic. Under the autocratic system of Diocletian, a hierarchy of dependents had sprung up. The rank of each was marked with the most scrupulous exactness, and the purity of the Latin language was debased by the invention of the deceitful titles of your Sincerity, your Excellency, your Illustrious and Magnificent Highness.

The officials of the empire were divided into three classes of the Illustrious, Respectable, and Honourable. The consuls were still annually elected, but obtained the semblance of their ancient authority, not from the suffrages of the people, but from the whim of the emperor. On the morning of January 1 they assumed the ensigns of their dignity, and in the two capitals of the empire they celebrated their promotion to office by the annual games. As soon as they had discharged these customary duties, they retired into the shade of private life, to enjoy during the remainder of the year, the undisturbed contemplation of their own greatness. Their names served only as the legal date of the year in which they had filled the chair of Marius and of Cicero. Yet it was still felt and acknowledged in the last period of Roman servitude that this empty name might be compared with the possession of substantial power, and the emperors themselves, who disdained the faint shadow of the republic, were conscious that they acquired an additional splendour as often as they assumed the annual honours of the consular dignity.

Four prefects exercised jurisdiction over as many divisions of the empire, and two municipal prefects ruled Rome and Constantinople. The pro-consuls and vice-prefects belonged to the rank of Respectable, and the provincial magistrates to the lower class of Honourable.

In the military system, eight master-generals exercised their jurisdiction over the cavalry and the infantry, while thirty-five military commanders, with the titles of counts and dukes, under their orders, held sway in the provinces. The army itself was recruited with difficulty, for such was the horror of the profession of a soldier which afflicted the minds of the degenerate Romans that compulsory levies had to be made. The barbarian auxiliaries increased, and were included in the legions that surrounded the throne.

Seven ministers with the rank of Illustrious regulated the affairs of the palace, and a host of official spies and torturers swelled the number of the immediate followers of the sovereign.

The general tribute, or indiction; as it was called, was derived largely from the taxation of landed property. Every fifteen years an accurate census, or survey, was made of all lands, and the proprietor was compelled to state the true facts of his affairs under oath, and paid his contribution partly in gold and partly in kind. In addition to this land tax there was a capitation tax on every branch of commercial industry, and 'free gifts' were exacted from the cities and provinces on the occasion of any joyous event in the family of the emperor. The peculiar 'free gift' of the senate of Rome amounted to some pound 64,000 sterling.

Constantine celebrated the twentieth year of his reign at Rome in the year 326. The glory of his triumph was marred by the execution, or murder, of his son Crispus, whom he suspected of a conspiracy, and the reputation of the emperor who established the Christian religion in the Roman world was further stained by the death of his second wife, Fausta. With a successful war against the Goths in 331, and the expulsion of the Sarmatians in 334, his reign closed. He died at Nicomedia on May 22, 337.


THE unity of the empire was again destroyed by the three sons of Constantine. A massacre of their kinsman preceded the separation of the Roman world between Constantius, Constans and Constantine. To the first fell Thrace and the East; to the second, Italy, Africa and Western Illyricum; to the third, as the eldest son, the new capital itself. Within three years civil war had eliminated one of the Augusti, in the person of Constantine, who was killed in an action against Constans in March 340. Internal discord relaxed the sinews of the empire, and the conflict among the emperors resulted in a doubtful war with Persia and the almost complete extinction of the Christian monarchy which had been founded for fifty-six years in Armenia.

Constans fell a victim to the ambitions of Magnentius (February 350) and the western empire was for a time divided between this unscrupulous soldier and Vitranio. The deposition of Vitranio and the defeat and death of Magnentius in 353 left Constantius sole emperor. He associated with himself successively as Caesars the two nephews of the great Constantine, Gallus and Julian. The first, being suspected, was destroyed in 354; the second succeeded to the purple in 361.

Trained in the school of the philosophers and proved as a commander in a series of successful campaigns against the German hordes, Julian brought to the throne a genius which, in other times, might have effected the reformation of the empire. The sufferings of his youth had associated in a mind susceptible of the most lively impressions the names of Christ and of Constantius, the ideas of slavery and religion. At the age of twenty he renounced the Christian faith and boldly asserted the doctrines of paganism.

His accession to the supreme power filled the minds of the Christians with horror and indignation. But instructed by history and reflection, Julian extended to all the inhabitants of the Roman world the benefits of a free and equal toleration, and the only hardship which he inflicted on the Christians was to deprive them of the power of tormenting their fellow subjects, whom they stigmatised with the odious titles of idolaters and heretics.

While re-establishing and reforming the old pagan system and attempting to subvert Christianity, he held out a hand of succour to the persecuted Jews, asked to be permitted to pay his grateful vows in the holy city of Jerusalem, and was only prevented from rebuilding the Temple by a supposed preternatural interference. He suppressed the authority of George, Archbishop of Alexandria, who had infamously persecuted and betrayed the people under his spiritual care, and that odious priest, who has been transformed by superstition into the renowned St. George of England, patron of chivalry, and of the Garter, fell a victim to the resentment of the Alexandrian multitude.

The Persian system of monarchy, introduced by Diocletian, was distasteful to the philosophic mind of Julian; he refused the title of lord and master, and attempted to restore in all its pristine simplicity the ancient government of the republic. In a campaign against the Persians he received a mortal wound; and, after delivering a philosophic discourse to his soldiers, and entering into a metaphysical argument on the nature of the soul, this extraordinary man passed away in the thirty-second year of his age, after an undisputed reign of scarcely two years, on June 26, 363.

THE election of Jovian, the first of the domestics, by the acclamation of the soldiers, resulted in a disgraceful peace with the Persians, which aroused the anger and indignation of the Roman world, and the new emperor hardly survived this act of weakness for nine months (February 17, 364). The throne of the Roman world remained ten days without a master. Then the civil and military powers of the empire solemnly elected Valentinian as emperor at Nicaea in Bithynia.

The new Augustus divided the vast empire with his brother Valens, and this division marked the final separation of the western and eastern empires. Valens ruled in the East from the lower Danube to the confines of Persia, while Valentinian reserved for himself the remaining portion of the empire, from the extremity of Greece to the Caledonian rampart, and from the rampart of Caledonia to the foot of Mount Atlas. This arrangement continued, despite the almost successful revolt of Procopius in the East, until the death of Valentinian in 375, when the western empire was divided between his sons, Gratian and Valentinian II.

His reign had been notable for the stemming of the invasion of the Alemanni of Gaul, the incursions of the Burgundians and the Saxons, the restoration of Britain from the attacks of the Picts and Scots, the recovery of Africa by the emperor's general, Theodosius, and the diplomatic settlement with the approaching hordes of the Goths, who already swarmed upon the frontiers of the empire.

UNDER the three emperors the Roman world began to feel more severely the gradual pressure exerted by the hordes of barbarians that moved westward. In 376 the Goths, pursued by the Huns, who had come from the steppes of China into Europe, sought the protection of Valens, who succoured them by transporting them over the Danube into Roman territory. They repaid this clemency by uniting their arms with those of the Huns, and defeating and killing him at the battle of Hadrianople in 378.

To save the provinces from the ravages of the barbarians, Gratian appointed Theodosius, son of his father's general, emperor of the East, and the wisdom of his choice was justified by the success of one who added a new lustre to the title of Augustus. By prudent strategy Theodosius divided and defeated the Goths and compelled them to submit. The revolt of Maximus in Britain, the unavailing attempt of Gratian to suppress this usurper, and the death of the joint emperor of the West in the pursuit of this enterprise, called Theodosius from his campaign against the barbarians to take a part in the strife.

Maximus, who had destroyed one emperor, soon sought to establish his authority by removal of his colleague, Valentinian II. The support of Theodosius prevented the attempt, and, after being defeated in battle, Maximus was executed near Aquileia in June 388. The death of Valentinian II at the hands of Arbogastes, a Frank (May 392), and the brief usurpation of Eugenius, completed the civil wars of the reign, and Theodosius expired (January 17, 395) after an enjoyment of power marked by fruitful reforms in every department of the empire.

His sons Arcadius and Honorius succeeded respectively to the government of the East and the West. The symptoms of decay, which not even the wise rule of Theodosius had been able to remove, had grown more alarming. The luxury of the Romans was more shameless and dissolute and, as the increasing depredations of the barbarians had checked industry and diminished wealth, this profuse luxury must have been the result of that indolent despair which enjoys the present hour and declines the thoughts of futurity.

The secret and destructive poison of the age had affected the camps of the legions. The infantry had laid aside their armour and, discarding their shields, advanced, trembling, to meet the cavalry of the Goths and the arrows of the barbarians, who easily overwhelmed the naked soldiers, no longer deserving the name of Romans. The enervated legionaries abandoned their own and the public defence, and their pusillanimity may be considered the immediate cause of the downfall of the empire.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I