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Order under Diocletian, to Constantine

In the early 280s, another battle for power between rival Roman armies brought to power Gaius Diocletian. He went to Egypt and quelled a rebellion there. He restored Roman control in Britannia. And invasions of Roman territory by Goths subsided, enabling him to devote attention to reconstruction. He saw uncontrolled activity as godlessness, and he moved to create order.

With a threat of more disturbances, Diocletian judged the empire too vast for any one emperor to rule effectively, so he divided the empire among four vice-emperors, who were also military men. He postured as the exalted supreme ruler of the empire and proclaimed himself the earthly representative of Rome's supreme god, Jupiter. He claimed that he was responsible only to Jupiter. He surrounded himself with bureaucrats and a small army of bodyguards. And his court grew in size and did its business with elaborate ceremonies and fanfare.

Emperor Diolcetian

Emperor Diocletian. He divided the empire into rule under vice-emperors.

Diocletian ran his government as a general runs an army, giving orders and expecting them to be carried out. Diocletian tried to restore order in the ruined economy by governmental directives. He created a national budget that aimed at balancing expenses and revenues. In 301 he responded to rising prices with an edict that fixed prices on thousands of commodities and services. In response to soaring interest rates, he fixed them to between six and twelve percent, depending upon the amount of risk involved in the loan.

Peace and a degree of order followed. Impressed, some people looked to him with hope. But Diocletian's economic policies failed. Despite the death penalty for violations of his laws on prices, violations became so widespread that his government stopped trying to enforce them. Diocletian's increased taxation resulted in the owners of estates producing less for the open market, and these estates continued to expand and absorb poor peasants as laborers.

For the sake of law and order and collecting taxes, Diocletian renewed an attempt made earlier in the century to prohibit people from moving off the lands they worked. Everyone was ordered to remain at his present occupation. Tenant farmers were to inherit the obligations of their fathers and were becoming serfs, to be sold as property when the landowner sold his land.

Diocletian tried to create order in the realm of ideas. He outlawed astrologers and the alchemists of Egypt and had their writings burned. He viewed Manichaeanism as a Persian religion and ordered Manichaean writings burned and death for those of the Manichaean faith.

Before the rule of Diocletian, disgust with Rome had led many citizens to embrace an alternative to its gods. Christians in the eastern half of the empire had increased to 20 or more percent of the population. North Africa had become largely Christian, the result of Christian evangelists having learned the Coptic and Berber languages. Across the empire as a whole, Christians were about ten percent of the population – their number having doubled in about fifty years.

Trouble arose involving Christians during a religious ritual performed in the presence of Diocletian. One or more of Diocletian's Christian courtiers made a sign of the cross to ward off the demonic influences of the ritual. Diocletian ordered everyone in the palace to worship Rome's gods or be beaten. More trouble with Christians resulted in Christians ordered to sacrifice to the gods of the state or face execution. Christian assemblies were forbidden. Bibles were confiscated and burned, and churches were destroyed. But by now, Christians had become too numerous to be wiped out.  Moreover, because Christians could read and write – in an effort to study scripture – they had become an indispensable part of government. The purges slowly and intermittently dragged on into the year 305, when Diocletian retired because of ill-health.

Emperor Constantine

Emperor Constantine, recognized by Christian bishops as a Church authority.

This was followed by more war for power. Maxentius, the son of a former vice-emperor under Diocletian, claimed himself emperor in the west. The son of another vice-emperor, to be known as Constantine the Great, challenged Maxentius and extended his rule to Gaul. Maxentius extended his rule to Hispania and to North Africa. Maxentius also warred against the emperor of the east, Galerius, while Constantine marked time. In 310, Galerius contacted a disease which he believed to be the retribution of the god of the Christians. As he lay dying he issued an edict ending his persecution of the Christians and asked Christians to pray for him so that he might live. He died anyway, in 311, and Constantine was impressed by what he believed was the victory of Christianity's god over Galerius.

In the spring of 312, Constantine moved against Maxentius, advancing from Gaul across the Alps and into Italy. The city of Milan surrendered to his forces, and Constantine won control over northern Italy. Maxentius and his army moved north to confront Constantine, and on October 28 the two forces met and fought at the Milvian Bridge along the Tiber River, a few miles north of the center of Rome. Constantine faced an army that greatly outnumbered his. But Constantine had trained his troops well, and his tactics were superior. His cavalry swept the left-wing of Maxentius' foot soldiers into the river. Maxentius lost many men and his own life when the pontoon bridge they were on collapsed. Constantine and his troops marched into Rome the next day, said to be welcomed by Rome's citizenry. Maxentius' decapitated head was paraded in triumphant display to show who was now boss. Constantine was now emperor of the Western half of the empire, and a new era had begun.


Nero, by Arthur Weiga, 1936

The Immense Majesty, by Thomas W Africa, 1974

Roman Realities, by Finley Hooper, 1979

The Grandeur that was Rome, by J C Stobard, 1920

Rome, by M Rostovzeff, 1927

From Alexander to Constantine, Sir Ernest Barker, 1956

A Concise History of the Catholic Church, by Thomas Bokenkotter, 1979

Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, by Stephen Benko, 1985

A History of the Romans, by Frank C Bourne, 1966

Eusebius as Church Historian, Grant, Robert M., 2006

Life in Ancient Rome, by FR Cowell, 1976

The Western Tradition: The Roman Empire, by Eugen Weber, video, 1989


Book and Video

I Claudius, by Robert Graves, also BBC and PBS television series available online.

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