Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Key Dates of European History: 286 AD

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Roman Empire did nothing but expand between 386 BC and 117 AD. The Romans incorporated vast territories by ruthless conquest, clever diplomacy, and sometimes, sheer intimidation. Scipio, Caesar and Augustus are the big names remembered even two thousand years later. After Augustus, Roman conquests lost quantity, but gained quality. Claudius, Domitian and Trajan conquered only few provinces, but they were vast and rich. As long as these conquests went on, Rome could breathe, because expansion was the very foundation of its society. If a region would get overpopulated, people could move away to Roman colonies founded in order to pacify and stabilise a new province. It was never an official policy to Romanise them, but it was a pleasant side-effect.

Much more important, each war Rome waged brought thousands of new slaves to the empire, a workforce that guaranteed the empire's economic prosperity. New provinces also needed to be equipped with various resources, so new trade routes were established throughout the empire, and everybody had a piece of the pie. Imperial growth was economic growth.

But then, Rome hit its limits. In the north, Celts and Germanic tribes halted Roman expansion. To the south lay the vast Sahara desert, and to the east, the Parthians were an opponent of almost equal military capability. Trajan was the last emperor to conquer new provinces, and his successor Hadrian even gave up three newly acquired ones. After that, the Romans were in constant defence, and had to ward off Germanic and Parthian attacks incessantly.

It went well for about seventy years. Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus and Caracalla led major campaigns that could not necessarily stabilise the borders, but at least continued the flow of prisoners of war and kept the empire going the way it had been. But the military pressure proved too big for the empire, and by the middle of the 3d century AD, Rome drowned in civil wars, led by people whom their own troops had declared Roman emperors. All political stability had been lost, and the empire was further strained by attacks from Germanic tribes and Persian armies. Only a miracle, it seemed, could save the empire from total collapse.

It was not exactly a miracle, but it was an extremely ruthless, but brilliant man who did. His name was Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus, or Diocletian. He actually managed to become sole emperor of the Roman Empire in 285, but unlike some others who managed to defeat all their enemies temporarily, he kept a cool head. He realised that if Rome wanted to survive, it had to split. For several decades, two parts of the Roman Empire actually became autonomous, and formed the Gaulic and Palmyran empires. They would have fared rather well with it, hadn't they been forced to concentrate their powers to both warding off outward enemies, and other Roman troops. Diocletian saw the potential that lay within this idea, and initiated a more sophisticated, and more importantly, legal split.

I won't go into detail about this - Starting in 286 AD, he basically split the empire in four, legally united but factually autonomous. The system, known as the Tetrarchy didn't last long. He resigned in 305 to ensure stability in transition, but the whole thing fell apart while Diocletian himself was even still alive. In 312, Constantine defeated all his opponents, and in 325, he took over control all by himself and the Roman Empire was once more one political body under one emperor. All back to normal?


Diocletian may have failed with the Tetrarchy, but he did create one thing that was to last. He turned Rome into an absolute, hereditary monarchy, a system that would legally and morally dominate Europe until 1789, until the French Revolution.

Wait a second. Am I seriously arguing that prior to Diocletian, Rome was not a monarchy? What about Augustus?

Of course, the Roman Empire was a monarchy, and in contrary to what some people will have you believe it was even a hereditary monarchy. But at least formally, most emperors followed Augustus' idea. They considered themselves a primus inter pares, a first among equals- the equals here being the Senate. The emperor only relieved the Senate of the dirty work, and the troops were still commanded by senators. In order to be morally acceptable, you had to pledge allegiance to the Republic. The Republican order remained the highest moralic authority.

Diocletian changed that. He simply took away all power from Republican institutions. No longer did senators command the troops, and no longer did they govern the provinces. The senate was reduced to what it had originally been, the city council of Rome. A new, imperial aristocracy emerged that now took over control. You no longer had to confess your loyalty to the Senate and people of Rome. You now did it to the emperor himself. He now possessed a divine component, much like the Great Kings of whatever political entity existed in Iran, and disobedience was blasphemy. Hence, Diocletian is also remembered for his unprecedentedly cruel pogroms against Christians.

Still, the Christians later adopted that idea. A monarch who was essentially chosen by God seemed like a good idea, and it did work for a long, long time. Without Diocletians creation, it may be argued whether the idea of divine right, which dominated politics and theology throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, would ever have become accepted in Europe. Unwittingly, Diocletian, perhaps the most bloodthirsty enemy the Christians ever faced, paved the way for Christian Europe. Only one year after his death, in Milan, this course was confirmed. But that is another story.

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