Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter XXIX

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter XXXI

 p553  Chapter XXX

Autocracy, Diocletian, and Constantine

Diocletian (285‑304 A.D.) brings us to the extreme antipodes of everything that the early Republic had been. The state had been founded on farsighted liberalism, it ended in despotism, elaborately systematized espionage, and unabating suppression and persecution. The new emperor was born among Illyrians, like so many of those devastated by the Danube army, which consisted of course largely of Illyrian and Dalmatian mountaineers. He was, however, the son not of an Illyrian but of an ex‑slave, and since his cognomen was Diokles it is probable that his father was of Oriental stock. This may account for his choice of the Orient as his portion when he divided the realm, and for his selection of the Oriental type of despotism for his model of government. He has been praised by historians for his constructive ability and his capacity to break loose from tradition and devise new forms of government. But that a man of his origin and upbringing should sever himself from Rome's past is not strange. It was not his past; and he probably knew little about Roman traditions. And as for originality, he need only have applied to the situation he found some of the ideas that he could have gathered from the history of any Oriental despot in order to create the utterly un‑Roman government that he imposed upon a suffering world. Nevertheless we cannot deny him efficiency and the good intention of creating an enduring government. That much the training in Rome's army had given him.

He found on coming to power that all the frontiers were again being overrun and he accordingly chose his friend  p554 Maximianus as co‑ruler and fellow-Augustus and sent him to the Rhine-frontier. Maximian did his work well on the Rhine, while Diocletian cleared the Danube line and drove the Persians back of the Euphrates. After ruling for eight years he decided to secure the succession by the selection of two Caesars, an idea taken from the practices of the second century. He adopted Galerius as Caesar while his fellow-Augustus adopted Constantius, and though Diocletian through personal prestige remained the lord of the Empire, the administrative districts were evenly allotted among the four co‑rulers. Diocletian, residing at Nicomedia, took personal charge of Asia, Thrace and Egypt; Maximian, usually residing at Milan, took Italy, Africa and Spain; Galerius, the Danube line and the Balkans, and Constantius, Gaul and Britain. It was agreed that all four should sign all edicts and "laws," and that the Augusti should retire after twenty years, when the Caesars should become Augusti and adopt two Caesars in their place. Had such a scheme been established by Octavian before ugly traditions had permeated the army and the court it might possibly have worked. With the history of the last half century of army revolts before him, however, he could hardly have hoped that this system would long be respected. Diocletian's own preëminence was indicated by dress and ceremonies that would have pleased any sultan. He assumed the crown — three hundred years after Julius Caesar had been compelled to refuse it — purple silken robes, bejewelled and gilded, and as a god he compelled all men to prostrate themselves before him, as was the old custom in Persia. Not even the members of his Privy Council could sit in his presence: they must stand. Accordingly the body was henceforth called the Consistorium.

A very intricate administrative division of the Empire was adopted in which the civil functions were generally separated from the military. But much overlapping of duties was permitted, probably because Diocletian was suspicious  p555 by nature and encouraged officials to spy on each other and report delinquencies to him. In the first place each of the four emperors had a prefect in charge of civil affairs. The four prefectures were again divided into dioceses under the care of vicarii, whom there were twelve. These dioceses were again sub‑divided into over a hundred provinces — smaller now than the old provinces. For the position of provincial governors equites were generally employed and given the title of presidents (praesides), though a few provinces received proconsuls or correctores. All these officials had trains of subordinates and the imperial bureaus at the capital under the charge of an august magister officiorum kept minute account of all that the governing officials did. In fact the imperial secret service was one of the busiest departments. The chief assistant of every governor was a princeps sent from the home office, whose duty was to spy and report. Beside, there was an army of agentes in rebus who were supposed to look after public roads. In point of fact they were spies who reported on everything they observed in their journeys. Lactantius apparently did not greatly exaggerate when he said that half of the population of the empire was in the civil service.

Corresponding to this administrative machinery was an equally intricate military one. The Augusti and Caesars were of course at the head of their armies, but under them were duces in charge of corps, and comites (whence "duke" and "count"), etc. Diocletian finding that the army had grown immobile under the system that had permitted soldiers to marry and settle on land, now mobilized almost half of it, and kept it training in camps for immediate duty anywhere. But he increased the army heavily by doing so, bringing it up, as has been estimated, to about 400,000 men. The expense was more than the state could endure.

Diocletian did something also to correct the confusion  p556 in the monetary system. But he tried so many experiments in different standards that it is now difficult to equate his coins. The basis of his fourth attempt at reform seems to be fairly sound. He let the old, almost worthless, denarius remain as it was, a silver-washed copper coin. It now passed as worth less than half a cent, and that in fact appears to have been approximately its intrinsic value. A real silver denarius, like that of the early Empire, was also issued, though not in great quantities. Perhaps silver was not plentiful enough for a heavy coinage of them. It was valued at fifty of the copper ones and was surely worth that. The gold aureus, a coin long issued, was enlarged to about 150 or 160 of a pound and was therefore worth over four dollars. That too was honest coinage. The ratios of the metals seem to have been about as in the Republic. Gold: silver — about 15:1, silver: copper — about 120:1. Because of the difficulty of procuring enough gold and silver for circulation he issued bags of copper Antoniniani, called folles. The bags held about 312 pounds of these petty coins, and the bags, weighed and sealed at the mint, passed for about one‑eighth of a pound of gold, or nearly forty dollars.

Though this system accepted once and for all the depreciated values of the past fifty years, and therefore destroyed the hope of restoring formerly established credits and trust funds, it seems to have been as respectable as could be expected. Government notes based on a gold reserve would hardly have been possible at that time, since the autocrats had been so treacherous for a long period that the government's promise to pay would not have been accepted. And one may also add that before paper was discovered and printing was invented it would have been difficult to manufacture absolutely uniform notes proof against counterfeiting. Unfortunately as soon as Diocletian's coinage secured respect, he himself tampered with it again, and lowered the weight of the copper as well as of the old coins. The  p557 temptation to profit from a control of the mint has always proved well-nigh irresistible to autocrats.

The quality of Diocletian's economic ideas is best revealed by his remarkable edict issued in 301, by which he attempted to fix the maximum price on all articles of trade throughout at least the eastern part of his realm. No complete copy of "Diocletian's Edict" has survived, but broken fragments have been found in several cities, and from these we learn the essentials of his methods. It was not unusual to regulate markets in that day. In fact, even during the Republic market prices were often fixed in time of wars and famines, just as they have recently been controlled in Europe and to some extent in America. The denarius had in Diocletian's lifetime fallen to one‑tenth of its value, which of course meant that the price index in terms of the denarius had risen correspondingly. There must have been great pressure on the government to bring down the high cost of living. One can therefore not criticize the desire to attempt a remedy. But what was extremely unwise was to assume that the very same prices could hold permanently in all cities alike throughout a vast portion of the empire, and that the retail price must be the same as the wholesale price. The attempt of course failed, although the emperor decreed that the penalty for disobedience should be death. A contemporary writer records that business men closed shop, that many articles of commerce disappeared and that food riots at once resulted. Naturally.

The scraps of this edict are, however, interesting in giving some insight into the economics of the time, though one cannot feel full confidence in Diocletian's ability to judge what was a normal price. The prices of a few standard articles follow: wheat was to be sold everywhere at 75 cents a bushel; rye at 45; dry beans, 45; ham, 12 cents a pound; beef, 5; lamb, 7; butter, 10; cheese, 7; eggs, 5 cents a dozen; workman's boots, 52 cents a pair; soldier's cloaks, $17.40 each; undergarments, $5.40. A  p558 pound of pure gold is valued at 50,000 denarii, one item which enables us to estimate prices under the edict, and to comprehend the items of his coinage systems. Diocletian, who apparently thought that laboring men were "profiteering" as much as the merchants and farmers, also set a maximum wage. These wages are here given in addition to "keep" for a day's work of probably twelve hours.

Unskilled workmen 10.8 cents per day
Bricklayers 21.6
Carpenters, masons, blacksmiths 21.6
Painters 32.4

These lists show that there had been some important changes in Rome's economic system during the century of anarchy. The metals are somewhat higher in value, that is to say, scarcer; and yet, somewhat to our surprise, gold, silver, and copper bear nearly the same ratio to each other as before. This means that there was still a goodly quantity of silver and gold in the realm. Wheat stands at about the same ratio to gold as before, while meats are cheaper, and clothes and other articles requiring labor are more expensive. Laborers' wages are also higher and are generally being paid on the plan of "custom-work." These things imply that slaves are fewer, that factories have largely gone out of business, and that much land is being used for grazing. Indeed the whole industrial system had largely broken down, partly because capitalistic investments had been wiped out by the rapid debasement of money, partly because the pirating and brigandage that had sprung up had cut off the trade routes. "International" trade ceased to a great extent, and men fell back upon "domestic" and "town" economy. And this circumscribed economy had been carried on by means of bartering, partly because the unstable currency could not be  p559 trusted, and partly because the poor, thrown out of money-making industries, had nothing but natural products and the labor of their hands with which to pay for necessities. In other words, the world had to a remarkable degree returned to a primitive industrial stage.

This change in economic conditions seriously affected public finances and the collection of taxes, and Diocletian met these difficulties in the same short-sighted spirit that Aurelian and Severus had done before him. He knew only the method of autocratic compulsion. He introduced the direct land‑tax in Italy which had long been in vogue in the provinces, and discontinued the inheritance tax, because the former brought in a larger and steadier revenue. Then, finding that landowners had insufficient currency with which to pay, he made the tax payable in "kind." This necessitated having state granaries and national stock yards and a horde of officials to care for them. Italy was growing into a huge state enterprise like Egypt. The emperor of course owned as res privata vast tracts in Italy, and finding that his coloni were in many places giving up the struggle with a land constantly deteriorating under tenant-culture, he took the autocratic short‑cut of simply compelling the tenants to remain on their lands for life. When the same aversion to remaining under the stress of heavy taxes appeared among the coloni of private owners he used the same methods there in order to secure the tax. He not only applied to Italy Aurelian's rule that the municipal curia was responsible for the taxes of deserted lands in its district, and that landowners must take up and work waste tracts lying near theirs, but he also ordered the tenants on private lands to remain on their lots, an order which Constantine a few years later applied to the heirs of such tenants as well. In this way tenants on lands, both public and private, became bound to the soil, and it was not long before they lost many of their civil rights and became serfs. Many of the poorer landowners indeed accepted  p560 the same condition from choice, for when they fell heavily into debt they could escape complete disaster only by "commending" themselves to richer landlords who would pay their debts and in return take them over as coloni for life. We also hear of landlords who, through friendship with high officials or by bribery, were able to escape many of the state exactions, and by profiteering from the misfortune of others accumulated vast estates and many coloni. The reverse of the picture of the growth of serfdom accordingly shows the rise of powerful and influential landlords, who entered the train of imperial noblemen. Diocletian's era of autocratic financing was, therefore, a period when the institution of serfdom made marked progress throughout the empire.

With the same persistent application of paternalism Diocletian went far towards transforming craftsmen and tradesmen into a hereditary caste. For when the industrial system broke up because of faulty state finances and lack of protection, and members of the guilds seemed on the point of migrating to other occupations, Diocletian ordered them to remain in their trade so that the public might continue to have their needs supplied. It was his idea that production could be fostered by edict. The result of this policy was of course that the children of the guildmen had also to be ordered to remain in their parents' professions; in other words, crafts became hereditary as did tenant-farming. Communism could not have been more exacting in binding the individual to the state. Such were the economic and social ideas of this son of an Oriental slave who for twenty years sat as Sultan on Rome's throne.

One of the last acts of Diocletian before his retirement was to attempt to suppress Christianity completely (303). He undertook the persecution with his usual vigor. All Christians were at first removed from civil positions and deprived of citizenship, their property was confiscated, and acts of worship were forbidden. Those who infringed the  p561 order were put to death. Many influential men and women suffered martyrdom, for Galerius continued to enforce the edict for eight years after Diocletian's retirement. However, the new sect was now so numerous and the persecution awakened so much pity that in 311 Galerius was compelled to withdraw the order. It had overshot the mark and Christianity had won its last serious fight.

In 304 Diocletian celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his accession at Rome, the first time apparently that he entered the city after he became emperor. Then he retired from power as he had promised, and his colleague with him. The two Caesars rose to the position of Augusti and adopted two new Caesars. But the plan did not work for long. When Constantius died in 306 his army acclaimed his son, Constantine, and Maxentius the son of Maximian similarly secured the support of Italy. Diocletian could not bring about a compromise and retired to Salona (Spalato) in his beloved Dalmatia where he had built a magnificent palace, and there he lived for about ten more years.

Constantine (306‑337 A.D.) was recognized by his troops in 306 as co‑ruler in the west. His origins were not unlike those of Diocletian. His father seems to have been an Illyrian; his mother was a pretty freedwoman by the name of Helena — therefore doubtless Oriental — who had kept an inn at Nish; and the future emperor was born out of wedlock. His claims to the throne were not officially recognized by the Augusti for several years, but he was not disturbed. When Galerius died in 311 Constantine decided to force recognition, intending, it appears, ultimately to unite all four parts of the empire under himself. In 312 he led his army into Italy, defeated Maxentius' army at Turin, and marched upon Rome. Maxentius met him at the Mulvian bridge with a strong force. Constantine, who had for a long time been favorably inclined toward Christianity, having refused to carry out Galerius' orders  p562 of persecution in Gaul, adopted the sign of the cross for his standards. The battle was desperate but Constantine won, and Maxentius was drowned in the Tiber. The battle became of course one of the famous battles of history, and Raphael has adorned one wall of the great hall of the Vatican with an imaginary representation of it. It would hardly be correct to say that Constantine was as yet an avowed Christian — he was not baptized till on his death‑bed twenty-four years later — but there is no reason to doubt the report of the historians that he thought he saw a sign of the cross in the clouds before the battle and on it the words hoc vince. At any rate he soon issued orders that the Christian cult should have the same recognition in the state as any other cult. In 325 he called together and presided at the council of Nicaea, at which the bishops voted after protracted debate to accept the Athanasian rather than the Arian creed, and soon after this Constantine is said to have decreed the pagan cults illegal. After the defeat of Maxentius at least he was generally regarded as a Christian.

His reign was not in every respect fortunate. There was a strain of cruelty and uncontrollable temper in him which led to vicious acts. He slew a son on suspicions that seem to have been unfounded, regretted the act, and, apparently blaming his wife as the cause of his mistake, had her put to death. He wasted much blood in beating down his co‑ruler Licinius who held the eastern provinces. The reasons for the attack are not clear, but his behavior seems on a par with that of so many other of the Illyrian emperors who preceded him. By the defeat of Licinius in 324 he became sole ruler of the whole empire.

Constantine's reign is famous not only for the legal recognition of Christianity as a permissible religion but also for the building of Constantinople and the transfer of the capital to that place. It is not clear what his motives for this act were. Doubtless he realized that the danger points  p563 for the present were the Danube and Euphrates lines. From a military point of view the move may be pronounced wise; but the results were unwholesome in that it gave the empire an Oriental rather than an Occidental tone. Had the capital remained at Rome it is likely that the later emperors would have exerted themselves to save the West rather than the East, and a Latin civilization based upon the sound stock of Gaul might have sprung up many centuries earlier than it did. As it was, Constantinople, permeated with Asiatic-Greek culture in the form of Byzantinism, survived with a language that failed to establish connections in the new world. But Constantine could hardly have seen how portentous his act would prove to be.

The immediate effect came in the form of increased taxes imposed on peoples already overburdened, for Constantine spent lavish sums on the buildings and decorations of his new capital. He was not the first indeed, to impose irregular contributions in money besides the regular tax in kind, but he was the first to regularize this indictio, as it was called, and to make the assessment a very heavy part of the whole tax. The time had come when Roman citizens began to consider the possibility of escaping beyond the borders into barbarous country in order to make life tolerable.

With the moving of the capital to the East, the imposition of absolutism, and the acceptance of Christianity, we have reached a period where little that is recognizably "Roman" meets our view. The Roman people had long since disappeared in the mixture of races. The languages spoken on the streets of Rome and of Constantinople had become legion. When Latin was heard it was a formless, styleless, and turgid jargon that resembled the speech of Cicero no more than the English of the Bowery resembles that of Addison. Little was being written except in defense of a new religion, and that chiefly in Asiatic Greek. Few read the old authors, the books in the libraries moldered  p564 away and were being dumped upon the scrap heap. Art disappeared. When Constantine raised an arch in the Forum at Rome to celebrate his victories he could find no artists to decorate it. His builders stole the panels from the arches that were erected two centuries before, and what they added of their own by way of ornamentation was unspeakably crude. The old spirit of independence has disappeared, the world is full of varlets who submit to despotic exactions or run away. Before their emperor they fall on their knees and scrape their noses on the ground. The frontiers are still practically intact but Rome is dead and the corpse is not worth burying.

The government still had a few missions to perform before it went under, and fortunately it survived long enough and only long enough after that. Rome had produced some things that deserved to survive, but in the latter day much that deserved to perish. The government needed to hold the barbarians back till they, or at least a few of them, could gain respect for that which deserved preservation. Rome possessed both Greek and Latin books that might prove of inestimable value if they could be saved until the barbarians were prepared to comprehend them. That some small part of them was saved we owe to the fact that the frontiers still held for a while. The barbarians also had time to learn to respect Roman law before it was too late, and Rome's law became a civilizing influence even before her literature. Finally Rome had now adopted and absorbed a religion that had sprung from the deepest roots of spiritual idealism. Rome held the barbarians back long enough to teach them the elements of this religion and give to them the book that could teach the rest when the elements had made the rest comprehensible. These are a few of the things that even the corrupt tyranny of Diocletian and his kind preserved for a newer and less corrupt race. And then the end came.

[image ALT: A political map of the Roman Empire showing its subdivision into prefectures.]

The Roman Empire
of the Fourth Century

[A larger version, fully readable, opens here (1.6 MB).]

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 10 Dec 20