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Comments by Bob Corbett
At the end of my notes and comments on this book (which are about 30 pages long) I have a list (in date order) of the 121 Emperors I was able to indentify.
Mommsen was the 1902 Nobel Prize winner. However, reading this work “of his” (so to speak) is a rather strange experience, and not exactly within the frame of my own project. A year or so ago I decided to see how many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature I could read, hoping to read something of almost all the 100+ authors who have been awarded this prize. In the many I have already read I have been interested both in the content of their writings and the writing itself. But this particular work of Mommsen isn’t really HIS writing at all. It is a reconstruction of his plan for volume IV of his massive History of Rome, which he never actually published. He did give lectures in 1882-83. One of his students, Paul Hansen, took copious and careful notes. Nearly a century later these notes were discovered in a used book store in Nuremberg. They were quite complete. Also, there were other notes which had been recovered from a fire in his home. These notes were seemingly written by Mommsen himself.
This volume, A History of Rome under the Emperors, which was the title selected for the never-published or written vol. IV of his five volumes History of Rome, was reconstructed from these documents.
So, I don’t have a book that is technically “by” Mommsen. Nonetheless, scholars seem quite satisfied that the views expressed in these documents do constitute a very faithful view of Mommsen’s position on the period of the Emperors. Thus, while I don’t have any experience of his writing style itself, I could at least interact with his prodigious understanding of Roman history of this period. It will have to do; it’s all I have been able to find from Mommsen.
Some notes on the -- Introduction by Alexander Demandt pp. 1 – 35
In 1854-56 Mommsen published the first three volumes of his intended five volumes HISTORY OF ROME.
Books 6-7 (imperial history up to the collapse of the Empire in the period of the great migrations was planned) were eventually published late in his life. However, Mommsen died 1903. Vol. 4 was still not written.
“I now know, alas, how little I know, and the divine arrogance has deserted me.”
But there were positives under the emperors too:
Other historians held: “no route leads from Caesar to Augustus.”
They also held that Mommsen’s “. . . liberal republican sentiment” was too opposed to the emperors and Christianity.
In 1980 in Nuremberg in a second hand bookstore Hensel found “. . . sole complete transcript . . . of Mommsen’s lectures.”
Some pages were recovered from a fire in his home. Much of it by Mommsen himself.
There was a significant debt to the work of Edward Gibbon. He said of Gibbon’s history
“. . . most significant work ever written on Roman history.”
Mommsen mainly concentrated on the wars and gives no account of the Pax Romana.
Despite the value of his work there are many straight out documentable errors in his work.
“Mommsen saw Judaism in terms of nationality and ritual and Christianity in terms of the idea and practice of humanity. The God of wrath had become a God of love.”
Christianity was: a state within a state; it was a hierarchy “. . . a principle that threatened the state, subversive to the utmost degree.”
He regarded the imperial age as a mere appendix to the republic.
“The age of the emperors represented the ‘total political, military, economic and moral bankruptcy of civilization at that time.”
Mommsen saw parallels between later Roman history and his own time.
“. . . the lecture notes cannot claim to represent volume IV of the HISTORY OF ROME although they may, if we wish, be regarded as substitutes for it.”
19th century Germany was struggling for unity and a sense of “nation.” It tended to focus on Greek rather than Roman models thus “Mommsen’s interest in Rome rather than Greece was therefore exceptional (if not unique) amongst nineteenth century German scholars of antiquity.”
He was a former Lutheran, but became quite sympathetic to atheism and republicanism. However his views did not contain the romantic or racialist nationalism of later German nationalism.
He was very much at home in Latin and a fluent reader of English. I have a hard time knowing how he had all that time to read since he also had 16 children!
The center of his living and work in his mature years was Berlin and an important part of his mature work was on Roman inscriptions.
Consolidation of the Monarch
Pomperian rebellion and Conspiracy of the Aristocracy.
Mommsen argues that the retreat from constitutional to regal power, beginning with Caesar, deeply weakened the basic structure of Roman leadership.
Government moved from concern for the empire to the protection of personal power.
A. The consolidation of the Monarch. Pp. 63-81<.blockquote>
This was a cheerless and somber age, with few sparks of genius. It all began with Caesar’s African war. Republicanism was dead and Brutus’ leading the attack on Caesar was futile.
After the murder of Caesar a triumvirate was formed of Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, Marc Antony and Lepidus. However, in the beginning Antony was mainly in charge.“Octavian did not want to disgrace the new monarchy with slaughter . . . He viewed the protection of persons and property as the cornerstone of monarchial power.”
The opposition resisted their power and went to war. Antony rescued Octavian and defeated Brutus and Cassius. The Caesarians (as the triumvirate is referred to) formed the 10,000 man Praetorian Guard.
However, Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra ended in disaster with both their deaths. Lepidus had long since been pushed into an irrelevant position and put in charge of the African front, out of the way of real power.
After Antony’s death the Romans gave Octavian the title of Augustus. He had been born in 63 BC, died in 14 AD at age 75. He held power for 56 years. “He effected the impossible, a compromise of the Caesarian monarchy and the old Republic.”
Impossible? Perhaps, but Mommsen points out it lasted for 300 years.B. The Princeps – Pp. 81-89
The new world order was: “. . . a Republic with a monarch at its head.”
The changes were gradual and there was no legal continuity for the Principate. There had previously been time limits for this office.
- The mode of handling criminal cases shifted.
- New legislation was curbed.
- Elections were limited but not completely revoked.
Of Augustus: “He seized power because he believed himself called to continue the work of Caesar, his right to do so resting on the fact that the soldiers recognized him as their imperator.”
Augustus increased his term of office from five years to ten, but not for lifetime. That did not happen until the time of Tiberius. However, Augustus took over all control of foreign policy.
In terms of everyday law: “The transfer of power to the emperor in the lex regia ends with the clause that he was empowered to do whatever he saw fit in the interests of the state.” He rarely used his powers in such an unlimited fashion. Nonetheless, this amounted to totalitarianism.
He seems to actually have come to believe he himself was a god.C. The institution of the Government. Pp. 89-104.
The Senate was never representational. It was administrative in both the Republic and with the princeps. Augustus followed Caesar’s model. The Senate, in effect, elected itself.
Under Caesar there had been nearly 1,000 Senators, only about 600 under Augustus, and more were eliminated under Claudius and Nero.
Italy was not taxed, only the provinces were, so in the main neither the emperor nor Senate was much involved in the local direction of government. The emperor, however, was the main power for the provinces.
Coinage was important from 27 BC on. The Emperor increasingly minted the coins, only a small portion was by the Senate. By 15 BC the Emperor minted gold and silver, the Senate only small copper coins. This “split” minting system protected the stability of the currency, which was not undermined until the third century – through bimetallism. Mommsen believes this was one of the great achievements of the reign of Augustus.
The Senators, about 500-600, were one privileged class. The equestrians, 5,000 to 6,000 of them, were a rivaling power source.
Roman citizenship was strictly required for service in the legions. The major change under Augustus was a full-time professional army.
The Praetorian Guard was primarily for the protection of the Emperor, and was stationed in and around Rome.
The two branches in the “Roman-only” legionnaires were:
1. The new fleet
2. German guards for the women of the court.
Augustus oversaw significant tasks in building highways and aqueducts.
Grain distribution, gifts to soldiers, and (early) “circuses” (before the gladiatorial contests) were all very costly, but expected by the people.
The greatest difficulty for Rome itself was the general idleness of the Roman people. Few worked and life of largess of the system supported them.D. The Provinces: Pp. 104-115“The Emperor’s centre of gravity was no longer in Rome, but in the provinces. Augustus understood, but was only enthusiastic about expansion into Germany."
Augustus pushed hard to move into Germany proper but resistance costs much and led to a sort of halt in progress.E. The Imperial Family and Domestic Politics. Pp. 115 – 127.
There was an immediate need for a rule of succession:“The princeps could be appointed neither by the Senate, nor by the people. An appointment by the Senate would have nullified the principate, which was based on a relationship of parity between the princeps on the one hand and the Senate on the other. A vote of the People was even less suitable as an empowering, rather than merely retificatory, instrument.”
Mommsen gives a lengthy and spirited defense of Livia, Augustus’ wife. He claims she was maligned unjustly by history, even accused of assainations including even of her 77 year old husband. He argues she was a very decent person.
Augustus favored his daughter Julia, a difficult girl. He first married her to Marcellus, son of Livia’s first marriage. Marcellus died and Agruppa and became a potential emperor, so Augustus married him to Julia, though Agruppa was Augustus’ age. Marcellus died early as well.
Next he married Julia to Tiberius, also a son of Livia’s first marriage. However, Augustus seemed to favor Gaius as his successor. Tiberius rebelled:
- A. He resented Gaius being favored.
- B. He and Julia hated each other.
Augustus finally had to exile Julia for her wild sexual conduct.
With his planned succession in disarray, Augustus adopted 3 as “sons.”
2. Agruppa’s son, Agreppa
In this period Rome was not itself a place of power. It was in decay, a sycophant on the empire. Other places were flourishing, Pompey especially.
Slavery was a tricky issue. Slave owners had responsibility for slaves. Many wanted to free them. This was not allowed for children, or those who had committed crimes. They would have become wards of the state.
Religions were accepted but all non-traditional religions were looked down upon.
“The Augusta age is regarded as the finest flower of literature and perhaps also of art.”
Livy was the most important historian but his reputation is now downgraded.
“We now know that Livy did not undertake a comprehensive study of sources and that the quality of his work falls far short of its quality.”
The degraded status of Rome contributes to fewer worthwhile writings in literature. Virgil, on Mommsen’s analysis is not really a great poet and Horace, Tibullus and Propertius are ranked by Mommsen as better poets.
Both Octavia and Augustus founded important libraries.
Mommsen’s is very suspicious of the major source most historians have for Tiberius. The source was “Annals” of Tacitus but he hated Tiberius and was not reliable.
Tiberius was strong, healthy, unhandsome, but an able military officer.
“His aim was not to win battles but to achieve the ultimate goal – pacification. In the wars he fought it was good policy to avoid battles.”
He was non-religious, but very superstitious, and loved astrology. He was well-educated and liked Alexandrian poetry. He was 56 years old when he became emperor.
“As a rule . . . he lacked self-confidence, stepping timidly in the tracks of Augustus in both domestic and foreign policy.”
. . . .
“Tiberius was someone who always wanted to rule in accordance with the constitution – the most constitutional monarch Rome ever had.”
. . . .
“The oath of allegiance by officials was accepted not for Tiberius himself, but for the acta .”
. . . .
“He called himself not ‘Imperator Tiberius Nero,’ but simply ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus.’”
In his first years Tiberius was quite decisive in dealing with his general Germanicus, who wanted to extend Rome’s power in Germany. It was a costly error and led to Germanicus’ removal.
This had an unseen positive outcome – discord among the Germans themselves, especially the Celts and Germans. By 19 AD Germany was in disarray caused by civil war.
Germanicus was a son of Tiberius and in 18 AD Tiberius sent him to the east to aid Rome’s allies there.
However, in general the reign of Tiberius was peaceful.
Germanicus died in 19 AD seemingly as a result of poison. Mommsen rigorously defends Tiberius from responsibility for Germanicus’ death.
“The rule of Tiberius ranks among the finest the Roman Empire ever had.”
He was harsh on the senate but otherwise quite successful. He insured a century of peace inside and outside Italy.
However, he did have bad judgment in relation to Sejanus, his closest advisor. Tiberius gave him too much power. Ultimately the emperor distrusted him and had deposed and put to death and his family as well.
Tiberius was a fairly solitary and unhappy man even if a generally successful emperor.
“The Emperor . . . was a boy not yet of age – pure, unaltered mediocrity, half-crazed and half-witted.”
He was 25 and Mommsen says that had good sense prevailed the Senate would have revived the Republic. But the family of Germanicus, Gaius’ father, was well-respected, thus he was raised to the office.
Within month his lax policies brought Rome into dire straits. He was cruel, jealous and suspicious. But it was mainly money, rather the lack of it that got him into desperate trouble.
In 39 he undertook an expedition to Gaul and planned to go on to Egypt.
He was not respected and widely hated. Two of his own guards killed him, seemingly not in cahoots with the Senate. He was 29.
With the Senate ready to restore the Republic, the Praetorian Guard, with the most to lose and much to gain, persuaded the less-than-eager Claudius to become Emperor.
“It was at all events clear that Claudius was chosen to rule, rather than chose to rule.”
A group of troops rebelled and wanted to return the Republic. The revolt quickly dissipated.
“This was the first instance of troops stationed outside Rome concerning themselves with the elections of an Emperor, which makes the episode noteworthy.”
Claudius used the name Caesar, which, like Augustus, eventually became a title.
“He was not deranged, but not quite all there, as his mother was wont to say.”
He was a scholar, but cowardly and not really ruling. “The hallmark of his reign was that he himself did not reign: others reigned under him.”
Claudius did support a stronger occupation of Britain for economic reasons.
“From the private law perspective the reign of Claudius was beneficial.”
The East and West became increasingly equal under Claudius.
“The most brilliant aspect of Claudius’ reign was his public works. From no other reign can so much that was illustrious be reported.”
Messalina was his empress. She was bawdy to the core
“. . . the reign did not proceed badly, aside from the moral aspect. It foundered on the wantonness of Messalina.”
Claudius had her put to death and married Julia Agrippina, his niece. She had her son, Nero, brought into the family and soon made co-regent when he was 14.
Of Seneca: “ . . . Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the so-called philosopher and among the most celebrated writers of his time. The graceful form of his works makes diverting reading even today, even though they are devoid of content.”
In 53 Nero was married to Octavia.
“. . . it is probable that Agrippina was behind the death of the Emperor in 54.”
There was a smooth transition to Nero: “However, the smoother an accession, the worse the reign turns out to be. This now proved to be the case.”
Once again Agrippina rules with Nero. He had no interest in politics.
Early wars in the east were of mixed results, but Roman authority was maintained. Also early in Nero’s reign Britain was first lost, and then gained back in less than noble fashion.
By 62 to value of silver and gold coins was devalued in a press for more money in circulation.
“Nero showed no trace of brilliance whatever. There was not even any evidence of energy in his external appearance. There was nothing original about him; he was all triviality. With dull blue eyes and blond hair, he was disfigured by corpulence. Anything to do with politics was of no interest to him.”
. . .
“He was arguably the most contemptible Emperor ever to sit on the throne of Rome, and that really is saying something.”
He even had his mother murdered in 59.
Mommsen believes there is little to no plausible evidence that Nero caused the great fire of Rome in 64. However, when rumors were rampant, Nero abetted the charge that Christians has caused the fire. However, that was not a RELIGIOUS persecution.
He was very worried about potential successors and had people put to death on those grounds. However, the end of Nero came not from Rome, but from an uprising in Gaul. The cowardly Nero tried to hide, but in June 68 he killed himself with the words:
“Oh, what an artist perishes with me.”
He was the last descendant of Augustus. The Julian – Claudian house went with him.
These chaotic years had:
Servius Sulpicius Galba (killed)
Aulus Vitellius (Emperor in April.) He was from the German army. He was defeated and resigned.
Marcus Salvius Othol (committed suicide in 69)
Vespasian was pronounced Emperor by his troops of the east. By December he was in control. Thus he was considered the 6th Emperor.
The apostle Paul opposed Jewish Christianity
“There could no longer be a chosen nation, at the most chosen individuals.”
. . .
“Judaism and Christianity were both equally opposed to the Roman state. Judaism, however, implied continual opposition. Christianity, too, implied a rejection of Rome, but of a kind that abandoned the temporal world.”
He modeled his rule on Augustus.
“His was a reforming reign, above all in military sphere.”
. . .
“Vespanians’s achievement lies less in his innovations than in his maintenance and execution of existing institutions.”
He returned Rome to solid financial standing and the Coliseum was built mainly by Vespasian. He had an orderly and successful rule.
This is not to be a chronological history of later Emperors but “. . . observations on the Roman Imperial States.”
“It has been asserted with certainty that the Roman world was bilingual and founded on the equal recognition of the two languages. This needs to be taken with a grain of salt: . . . The two languages were not equal.”
The West was main Latin, East Greek-speaking. From Caesar on Latin expanded and Greek did not.
Western culture and Latin dominated in both the military and all civil business. From Caesar on the aim was to Romanize the entire empire. However, Greek language and Hellenism were preserved by making them the prerogative of all seriously educated people.
Even in Italy and the western and northern parts of the Empire local vernaculars lasted for many years. Likewise in the non-Italian west many local languages held sway for many years.
Uniformity of coinage and weights and measures were vitally important to growth and order.
In general the uniformity, Roman dominance and stabilization of coinage worked much better in the western Latin part of the Empire than in the east with many long-existing coinages competing.
The Emperor controlled both gold and silver coinage. The Senate was allowed smaller valued copper coins. Some Italian cities had their own coinage, but this was not very useful since it was generally not accepted outside the city itself.
Early on in the period of Emperors they didn’t have the power of taxation. They managed to slip in taxes via claims on inheritances, land and court cases. Vespasian returned some financial stability by increasing provincial taxes.
Diocletian dramatically changed things by declaring direct taxation on Roman citizens.
The numerical strength of the army was highly stable. There were roughly 150,000 legionaries. However, lesser categories of soldiers, especially Germans, were likely to have brought the real total up to nearly 300,000. Another 50,000 to 60,000 were in the Empire’s fleet.
One of the greatest expenditures was road building, especially in Italy. Other important, though lesser, expenditures were on a postal system, building of aqueducts and public building, especially temples. Another important expenditure was alms (especially in the form of corn) and public games.
“The games were of no great moment for the state treasury, but were very important for maintaining a good atmosphere among the urban population. Rarely were games organized at state expense, they were more of a tax on the ambitions of the wealthy.”
There was significant money to support children.
The Roman Empire never really used state debt as a way of building important long-term projects. Mommsen vehemently condemns this policy, arguing that responsible use of state debt is a critical factor in the positive growth of nations.
Municipalities did not tax, but owed most of the city’s land and received income from it.
“Public primary education . . . was never provided under the principate, but always remained a private affair and did not fare too badly. Reading, writing and arithmetic were relatively wide spread skills.”
Many slave owners were desirous of educating their slaves since then they were able to earn more and bring more at the market place.
Gaul is not one “entity.” It is 3 or 4 different regions.
There is often among scholars and ordinarily people of thinking of Gaul as modern France. Mommsen says this notion just confuses one. The area is quite different.
In the central part of Gaul Druidism and Celtic culture was a definite obstacle to Roman control, especially with the resisting culture. There were few Celts in the Roman military. The Romans preferred Germanic peoples.
The Latin language did not fare well in the Principate within Gaul, nevertheless French, a Latin based language eventually developed. Mommsen argues that three major factors contributed to this situation.
The most important town and economic center of all Gaul was Lyon. “All in all, Lyon is a facsimile of Rome.”
Roman culture was two centuries older in Spain than in Gaul. It played little part in resistance to Rome. Further, Spain had no boundaries with barbarians.
Any unrest which did occur was most likely caused by Moorish invasions from Africa.
Spain was ethnically mainly Iberian with a relatively modest Celtic influence.
Much of the Roman beginnings in Africa date back to Caesar, nonetheless the influences are mainly of the Principate not the Republic.
Mommsen complains several times of the lack of reliable data to allow him to detail the African part of the Roman Empire. However, he does allow that evidence indicates:
“The most remarkable feature is the great number of flourishing small rural towns, village upon village, nowadays ruined site upon site, all pressed close to one another, and we can find astonishily luxurious buildings in the most obscure spots.”
Harking back to Greek times, there were important centers of learning and scholars in Rome’s African colonies and this especially showed itself in the development of Christian literature.
Africa was the dominant path of Christianity from East to West.
The Danube lands were also called “Illyricum.” This is the area of the beginning and end of the Roman Empire. The main reasons of this area’s importance were:
The Illyrians were neither Germanic nor Celtic, but indigenous people to the area.
“The history of this movement [on the Danube frontier] is enigmatic: the sources are too meager.”
This was an area east of Vienna toward the Black Sea. The wars began in 101 and did not go well. A second phase was renewed in 105. Trajan engineered a victory. Dacia was a rich possession, especially since it had significant gold deposits.
This war came about after 161 when Marcus Aurelius came to power.
“. . . this was a war waged by the Roman Empire along the entire line of the Danube from its source to its estuary against the barbarians living on the far side of it – a vast theatre of war.”
From this war on the Empire was in decline.
During the war a plague raged along the whole frontier for some 15-20 years and ravaged the army. Rome finally claimed victory in 176, but by 178 the war was resumed.
After 180 things went badly. Marcus Aurelius died at Vienna and his utterly incompetent son, Commodus, became emperor.
“Although some successes were achieved, one detrimental consequence of the Marcommanic Wars which outweighed any number of successes was the barbarization and provincialization of Roman troops.”
The supremacy of Rome on the middle Danube was held until 238. The Goths were mainly seafaring people and Rome had little in the way of a fleet.
By 250 the Goths were in the ascendency and in 252 plague broke out and lasted some 15 years.
After 295 the Romans began an extensive construction project of forts on the Danube to protect a shrunken empire.
Mommsen argues that the East is in no way as important to Rome as the West.
However, in the 4th century Persian attacks grew and the shift of the Roman capital from Rome to Constantinople made the Empire more vulnerable to Persian attacks.
Tensions between Rome and Parthians center around who controlled Armenia.
Trajan initiated a war of conquest against the Parthians in 115. It was ill conceived and failed.
The Parthians, sparked by the appearance of weakness began to move on Rome. However, in 162 Marcus Aurelius became Emperor and organized strong resistance.
When Severus became Emperor he reentered aggression war against the Parthians in 195. He scored successes and incorporated Mesopotamia into the Empire. However, by 198 the war broke out again and ultimately Rome was too far extended and lost territory.
“The true reason for Rome’s subsequent misfortunes are to be sought in the decline of military discipline. . . . conscription became an increasingly localized affair and the eastern conscription area contained predominantly non-warlike people. . .”
In 216 Caracalla sought a war of vengeance. He was brutal and was assassinated in 217.
The Parthians followed up their victories by demanding Rome withdraw from Mesopotamia. War followed and the Romans were defeated, but made a cash settlement and retained Mesopotamia.
The period from 251 was brutal to Rome.
[Corbett notes: Many later European monarch would have loved to have had that much actual power!]“It is unhelpful to see the Roman principate as a straightforward monarchy. On the contrary, it its best sense princeps is no more than an administrative official, albeit with a monopoly of power.”
The title tended to allow an “heir-apparent.”
Under Marcus Aurelius an innovation came about:
“. . . a plurality of princeps/ This was in part necessitated by the Empire’s being sectioned off in geographic areas.”
Under the Emperors rose a class of officials with limited specializations.
The Emperors had supreme power, but delegated specific tasks to subordinates. Many military officials were drawn from the Senate. However, the equestrian class was largely in the hands of the Emperor.
“In the division of power between the Senate and the princeps the lion’s share had fallen to the Emperors, especially anything to do with the army.”
However, with respect to civil and criminal law the Emperor and Senate had a dual authority. This had not been so with the Republic.
“The era of Diocletian bears the mark of decline, and does not attract our sympathy.”
There is a shift from Latin-Greek to Greek-Latin. The capital city is Constantinople, not Rome. “A new religion emerges which, although not exactly Christian, nevertheless still differs from that of the principate.”
Many more historical records survive from this period.
Government was mainly in the hands of the Emperor who also appointed his own successor. However they seldom appointed their own children.
In the third century election by the soldiers became dominant.
“There were no Italians among the soldier-Emperors: most of them were Illyrians.”
After the mid-fifth century utter confusion reigned. In later times it was common to effectively deify the Emperor. This was within the Greek tradition but remained unpopular in Rome.
As the Eastern and Western sections of the empire expanded the question of coherency arose:
“Unity continued to manifest itself in three areas: outwardly in matters of war and peace, and internally in legislations and the consulships. All acts of government were carried out in the name of both Emperors, in order of seniority.”
The formal division of the Empire was in 364. The dominant powers within government were from the military.
Within finances more attention in the later Empire was placed on separating the Emperor’s wealth from that of the Empire’s. The Emperors had vast land holdings.
The dominant tax was land tax and as the Empire grew and the numbers of soldiers grew, so did land taxes.
Rome remained a central and specially privileged city, but not the capital, even of the West. This moved first to Milan, then to Ravenna. The northern border became central.
With Constantinople (Nova Roma) rising more powerfully as the capital of the eastern Empire Rome’s position declined even farther.
Throughout the whole of the Empire sources are weak. The worst period was definitely 254 – 258 under Valerians and Gallienus, and this period was the beginning of the end. The Alamanni were invading the West. To add to the woes plague was rampant and the coinage system was breaking down creating economic chaos.
However, the Danube frontier held. The Empire was under threat, but holding.
Christianity was rising and there were seeds of regeneration.
Mommsen believes Diocletian to have been one of the most able of the Emperors.
“His nature was one of remarkable sobriety and realism about the nature of things, and no one like him has perhaps ever appeared again since.”
Diocletian and the east were more successful than the west, which was under Maximian. In 293 they were joined by two Caesars. Why? It was mainly because of trouble in Gaul.
“The Danube was quiet, and the unrest in Africa was too trifling to warrant such a measure, while profound peace still reigned on the Persian frontier. Here in Gaul, however, there lurked a great danger for the Empire.”
Since coinage had slipped in unitary weight of gold or silver it was devalued and uncertain. Diocletian returned coinage to strict weight of gold or silver and this improved the stability of coins.
In the reign of Diocletian there was a marked increase of conflict in religion. Mommsen doesn’t see it as a battle of Christianity vs. paganism:
“People frequently refer to the struggle between Christianity and paganism; expressed more correctly it is a struggle between the ancient educational culture and the new faith.”
As Mommsen sees it the Romans were extremely tolerant of foreign religions and accepted them alongside their gods not in opposition.
“But it was a difficult matter with the Jews and the Christians. They claimed their own territory for themselves, tolerated no god besides their own and were not amenable to bargains. . .”
However, Mommsen saw the key issue was the Christian institution of the episcopate, a governmental power which challenged Rome.
“The Christian (church) was a state within a state, albeit initially without a monarchial head. The association of bishops, the council, already existed however, and was completely independent of the state. This represents a far-reaching distinction between Christianity and Judaism.”
Eventually in 303 a ban on Christianity was declared. This was enforced in the East, Italy and Africa, but not all in Gaul.
Eventually, Diocletian visited Rome after some 20+ years away and it did not go well. This strife, plus the rise of the power of Galerius soon led to both Diocletian and Maximian to “retire.”
Galerius was the major power. He wanted to keep Constantine away from the title of Emperor. But Galerius died in 311. Before dying he had ended his persecutions of the Christians.
In 312 Constantine marched on Rome, won an unexpected battle and ended Rome’s position of any significant power for many centuries to come.
Constantine emerged the strongest of the three Emperors, himself, Lininius and Maximus Daia.
The persecution of Christians was ended.
By 324 Constantine was the sole monarch.
“The great deeds of Constantine which impressed posterity were his development of Constantinople and the creation of a state religion.”
Mommsen believes the great Emperor of the era was Diocletian and that Constantine was a successful but mediocre ruler whose reputation was due to “ . . . the unbearable flattery of Christian eulogists, dripping with cant and falsity . . .”
He founded Constantinople in 326, completed it in 330 on the site of the old Byzantium.
“If a Graeco-Christian state was to emerge in place of the pagan Roman one, something like the foundation of Constantinople was essential.”
Mommsen is at pains to argue that Christians LATER made more of Constantine’s sympathy toward Christianity than Constantine himself. Yet he does allow that:
“It is beyond doubt that in his later years Constantine inclined more and more to Christianity.”
The rise of the power of bishops underscores the changing power relations. “At the ecumenical Council of Nicaea, the bishops of the whole Empire assembled. The episcopate then, was already a power in its own rights. (The year 325). On the other hand Constantine dominated as decision maker of religious disputes: In the issue of was Christ subordinate to the Father or not, as the Council decided.
“But Constantine simply rejected this. He went on to decide in favor of first one thing, then of another – apparently depending on the influence of whomever happened to be the leading court cleric at the time.”
Constantine’s realm had been one of the longest and most successful. He wanted his own children to continue the rule and divided the Empire into 4 separate sections, each one ruled by one of his sons.
In bitter and long wars for power Constantius emerged as the sole power. He was also the first Emperor who was born as a Christian. Yet he struggled with the battle of what is the state’s place and what is the church’s? Mommsen says this has been a central question from that time until the time that Mommsen himself is writing.
Julian was the de factor ruler in the West, but Constantius wanted to depose him. He might well have done so but just as the war was to begin Constantius died in 361. Julian succeeded him as Emperor.
“Few rulers can compare with Julian in terms of humanity, courage, education or spirit, and yet the overall impression of him, in spite of all these noble traits, is a disagreeable one, because of his gross lack of deportment, tact and self-control, but above all good looks and charm.”
He intensely disliked Christianity but realized it was a tide he could not stop.
“Not until he had marched into Constantinople as Emperor did he profess his adherence to paganism and proclaim complete toleration – nothing more.”
In June 363 Julian was killed in battle against the Persians. Jovian became Emperor and was forced into a peace in which the Empire lost both Persia and Armenia, a terrible blow.
“The only purpose of his existence had been to take on himself the shame of the Persian peace treaty; we know nothing else about him.”
Valentinian was elected Emperor but from 364 onward the empire was mainly divided into two parts – East and West, with the East dominating. The West was Latin, the East was Greek. Arianism was the dominant form of Christianity in the East.
In 378 the Romans suffered a crucial defeat against the Goth and Valens died.
Theodosius became Emperor after his father, Valens, died in 379.
Religion entered the picture again. The west was mainly Athansian (unity of the Trinity) and the East was Arian.
“It should not be forgotten that the Arians and Athanasians hated and persecuted one another as bitterly as Christians and pagans did.”
Theodosius recognized his western position and accepted it.
“Theodosius . . . [his] approach to the Persian, as with the Goths, was one of wise forbearance . . . The peace between Persia and eastern Rome largely survived the whole fifth century on the basis established by Theodosius.”
The leader of the Goths, Alaric slowly took a great deal of control in western Rome, leaving it more and more in Gothic hands.
Within the next century the Goths, much assimilated into the Roman world, controlled significant portions of the (former) Empire.
Bob Corbett email@example.com