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WHEN the Emperor Diocletian, towards the end of the third century A.D., set himself to reorganize the government of the known world, his stout heart may well have quailed before the magnitude of the task before him. The preceding fourteen years had witnessed a succession of six Emperors, some of them men of exceptional courage and ability, of whom three had been assassinated by their troops, one had been killed by the hardships of campaigning, another by lightning on the borders of Persia, and the last still remained to be dealt with and removed. That task successfully accomplished, Diocletian turned his attention to the greater problem before him, and the conclusion at which he arrived was that in order to save the Empire its constitution must be fundamentally remodeled. His memorable division of the whole into four parts, together with his thorough reform of the administration, enabled the machine of government to run with comparatively little friction for another century and to resist the shattering blows of the barbarian wreckers for many years longer still...
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Copyright © 2016 by Janet Penrose Trevelyan
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ITALY IN THE CENTURY PRECEDING THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS [284-395]
THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS [395-476]
THE KINGDOM OF THEODORIC [476-553]
THE LOMBARDS, THE POPES, AND THE FRANKS [553-800]
THE BEGINNING OF THE MIDDLE AGES [800-1002]
DIOCLETIAN’S REORGANIZATION OF THE Empire — Reign of Constantine — Condition of Italy and Rome — Christianity — St. Ambrose — Advance of the Goths — Battle of Adrianople — Reign of Theodosius — His Conquest of Italy and Death.
WHEN the Emperor Diocletian, towards the end of the third century A.D., set himself to reorganize the government of the known world, his stout heart may well have quailed before the magnitude of the task before him. The preceding fourteen years had witnessed a succession of six Emperors, some of them men of exceptional courage and ability, of whom three had been assassinated by their troops, one had been killed by the hardships of campaigning, another by lightning on the borders of Persia, and the last still remained to be dealt with and removed. That task successfully accomplished, Diocletian turned his attention to the greater problem before him, and the conclusion at which he arrived was that in order to save the Empire its constitution must be fundamentally remodeled. His memorable division of the whole into four parts, together with his thorough reform of the administration, enabled the machine of government to run with comparatively little friction for another century and to resist the shattering blows of the barbarian wreckers for many years longer still.
The three associates to whom Diocletian deputed the sovereignty of Europe and Northern Africa were all men of considerable experience and capacity. The eldest of them, Maximian, an unlettered soldier better suited to carry out the suggestions of his patron than to initiate a policy of his own, received with the title of “Augustus” the “dioceses” of Italy, Spain, and Africa; Constantius Chlorus, the most popular of the younger generals, was made “Cæsar” of Gaul and Britain, while Galerius, a man of vigorous but cruel temper, was set to guard the Danube frontier with the title of “Cæsar” of Mœsia and Pannonia. Diocletian himself, an “Augustus” like Maximian, kept the whole of the East, with Egypt and Thrace, and was tacitly acknowledged by each of his three partners as the guiding spirit of the confederation. He was indeed one of the most accomplished bureaucrats that have ever left their mark on the world’s history. With the chaotic spectacle of the last hundred years before his eyes, he saw that the real danger lay in the abuse of power by independent generals, and he therefore initiated an elaborate system of divisions, in which the higher and lower officials should act as checks and counter-checks on one another, and thus prevent the abuse of authority. One of his first acts was to curtail the overgrown power of the Prætorian Prefect, an official who, originally the commander of the Prætorian Guards, had gradually become the general factotum and often the assassin of the Emperor, with practical control over military, judicial, and financial affairs. Diocletian divided this great office also into four, giving a Prætorian Prefect to each of his new quarters of the Empire, and at the same time considerably reducing the military power at his disposal.
The scheme of division was, however, carried much further than this. Thirteen great “dioceses,” each as large as a country of modern Europe, were carved out of the four Prefectures and placed each under its Vicarius or vice-prefect, while these were further subdivided into provinces, all of them far smaller than the ancient provinces, and administered by governors who were responsible to the Prætorian Prefect but were otherwise absolute within their respective districts. Thus Diocletian hoped by multiplying the holders to divide the substance of power, and, by this organized hierarchy of ranks, culminating in the Cæsars and the Augusti, to ensure a regular and peaceful development for the State. Nor was it an unreasonable hope in an age which had not yet learnt the rudiments of representative government, and amid the tumults of the years which succeeded the abdication of Diocletian the machine still ran, though with some groaning and stumbling. But it had one most serious defect — that it vastly increased the expenses of administration. Each of the provincial governors, as well as the Vicarii and the Prætorian Prefects, maintained an ostentatious court which had to be paid for out of the revenues of the province, and the multiplication of subordinate offices of all sorts was so enormous that the poet Claudian, at the end of the fourth century, complained that the receivers of public money almost outnumbered the payers of it.
To meet this immense burden of expense, every effort of the government was directed towards maintaining the system of taxation in all its terrible efficiency. The general principle of Imperial taxation in the fourth century was that the central government sent down an edict, or indiction (frequently followed by a superindiction), to the capital city of each diocese, stating the amount required from that area; that this total sum was then divided among the provinces and subdivided among the towns (the units of collection), while the unfortunate town-councilors, or decuriones, were made personally responsible for the sum required. This office, in common with many others, had already been made hereditary, simply because no sane man would voluntarily have undertaken the burdens it entailed, and the heaviest penalties were imposed upon the decurio who sought to evade his obligations. Thus the once coveted position of municipal senator had gradually become a mere object of terror, and the hapless decurio would frequently settle as a serf on the estate of some neighboring grandee, and implore his protection against the Imperial vengeance.
In the collection of the taxes, extortion and violence were the order of the day, especially in the levying of contributions in kind for the maintenance of the army; and until stopped by an edict of Constantine, torture was freely employed in extorting the impositions on trade and industry which were exacted every fourth year. Perhaps the best evidence of the exhaustion which the methods of Imperial taxation produced is the fact that we frequently find remissions of taxation granted to certain districts — a phenomenon which attests the complete inability to pay on the part of the regions in question.
Italy fared no better than other parts of the Empire in the matter of taxation, for the much-dreaded landtax, long the bane of the provinces alone, was imposed on her by Diocletian. Nor did she gain any compensating advantages under the new system. Rome was no longer the seat of empire, for Maximian fixed his residence at Milan, within striking distance of the barbarians beyond the Alps, and the Roman Senate, which ten years before had actually elected an Emperor from its own number, sank into complete insignificance. Nor was Maximian an easy master, for in the first year of his reign he quelled the mutinous spirit of the Romans by a series of executions and confiscations which struck terror into the hearts of any would-be leaders of rebellion. Not until the abdication of Diocletian and his elder colleague in 305 did the rising discontent break out in a revolt — headed by Maximian’s son Maxentius — against the new Cæsar appointed by Galerius. The remnant of the Prætorian Guards supported Maxentius; Severus, the unpopular Cæsar, was captured and forced to commit suicide , and the Romans enjoyed for six years the presence of an Emperor of their own choosing, — whose cruelty and licentiousness, however, soon made them regret their choice. A party among the Senate began to look for help towards the young ruler of Gaul, Constantine, son of Constantius Chlorus; Maxentius himself provoked a conflict, and in 312 the Gallic Cæsar decided to stake his fortune on an invasion of Italy. He met and defeated two armies sent forward by Maxentius at Turin and Verona, advanced on Rome by the Flaminian Way, and at the great battle of the Milvian Bridge annihilated the last army which his adversary could muster. Maxentius was drowned in the Tiber, and Constantine found himself master of the West.
He remained for two or three months in Rome, settling the affairs of Italy, exterminating the brood of Maxentius, giving magnificent games in the Colosseum, laying the foundations of the Basilica of St. Peter, and erecting a triumphal arch to himself — which, however, in the absence of contemporary talent, had to be adorned by stripping the reliefs from the Arch of Trajan. He made Rome obedient for the future by distributing the few remaining Prætorian Guards among the frontier legions, and the efficacy of this measure was proved by the absolute quiescence of the ancient capital during the remainder of the century. While Constantine was spending the rest of his energetic life on the frontiers, in civil war against his rival Licinius, in founding his “New Rome” on the Bosphorus, and in effecting his memorable revolution in the religion of the Empire, Old Rome relapsed into a state of inglorious peace, living on the mere shadow and sound of her ancient greatness. Even the consuls were no longer elected by the Roman rabble, but appointed by the Emperor, wherever he happened to be, and their sole duty towards their nominal capital was that of providing games in honor of their election in the Flavian amphitheater, a diversion which cost them some £20,000 apiece. All real power was in the hands of the Prætorian Prefect, whose duties were to maintain order, to preside at all meetings of the Senate and in his own supreme court of justice, to see to the upkeep of the public works — an immense item in such a city as Rome — and to superintend the enormous distributions of free corn by which the poorer population was fed and propitiated.
The condition of that population in Rome, and indeed in all Italy, was, as far as we can now ascertain it, one of the utmost degradation. Agriculture had been declining ever since the days of the early Empire, owing partly to the crushing-out of the peasant owner through the increase of large estates worked by slave labor, partly to the regular importation of slave grown corn from Sicily and Africa. Towards the end of the fourth century a emission of taxation was granted, on the ground of barrenness and depopulation, to 330,000 acres in the province of Campania, once the most fertile region in Southern Italy. Meanwhile the imported corn was used to feed the idle populace of Rome, and naturally the poorer inhabitants of the country flocked into the town to share this bounty, thus further denuding the soil of its proper cultivators. A glimpse into the life of Rome in the latter half of this century is given us by Ammianus Marcellinus, an honest officer of household troops who accompanied the Emperor Julian on his Persian campaign [362-3], and who years afterwards employed his leisure in writing the history of his times. His picture of the life of the Roman nobles is both curious and repulsive:
Followed by a train of fifty servants [he writes] and tearing up the pavement, they drive along the streets with the same impetuous speed as if they travelled with post horses; and the example of the Senators is boldly imitated by the matrons and ladies, whose covered carriages are continually driving round the immense space of the city and suburbs. . . . In their journeys into the country, the whole body of the household marches with their master. The baggage and wardrobe move in the front, and are immediately followed by a multitude of cooks and inferior servants, employed in the service of the kitchens and of the table. The main body is composed of a promiscuous crowd of slaves, increased by the accidental concourse of idle or dependent plebeians. The rear is closed by the favorite band of eunuchs, distributed from age to youth, according to the order of seniority. . . . When the lord has called for warm water, if a slave is tardy in his obedience, he is instantly chastised with three hundred lashes; but should the same slave commit a willful murder, the master will mildly observe that he is a worthless fellow, but that if he repeats the offence he shall not go unpunished.
The same writer then describes how the idle populace spent their days lounging in the baths and open spaces, discussing nothing but the prospects of the coming races, swearing that the State would fall if this or that color were victorious. The games indeed were still the one absorbing passion of Roman society, and although Constantine made some attempts to discourage the slaughter of gladiators in the arena, the practice continued right down to the end of the fourth century, and some writers think even far into the fifth.
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