Chapter 4


The Roman empire: zenith and decline (AD 96–330)

‘Their united reigns are possibly the only period in history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.’

(Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1.3)

After the extinction of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, a consistent policy of rule and dynastic succession were never again effectively combined. Able men could, however, make their way to the top and, if allowed to reign without internecine upheaval, could do so with as much insight and flair as any of the Caesars, and with more than most.

The 'five good emperors' (AD 96–180)

Nerva vowed publicly that he would never execute a member of the Senate, and stuck to his promise even when the senator Calpurnius Crassus was found guilty of conspiracy against him. (VRoma: Museo Massimo: Ann Raia)

When for the first time the Senate made its own choice of emperor and appointed Nerva, its members chose well; and equal perspicacity attended the appointment of his four successors. All four came from families which had long before settled out of Italy: those of Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius in Spain, and that of Antoninus in Gaul. Nerva assured himself of the support of the military by adopting as his son and joint ruler the commander in Upper Germany, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus (Trajan), and set a significant precedent by nominating him as his successor.

Trajan was born at Italica near Seville in AD 52, and became emperor in AD 98. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Trajan established at once that the Senate would be kept informed about what was going on, and that the sovereign right to rule was compatible with freedom for those who were ruled. He was a brilliant general, but also a good employer, of which there is evidence in the correspondence between him and Pliny the Younger, when the latter was governor of Bithynia.

Gold aureus of Trajan, depicting the triumphal arch which was the entrance to the Forum of Trajan. After the procession which celebrated his first victory over the Dacians in AD 103, there were 123 days of public games and gladiatorial contests. (© CNG Coins)

Trajan was determined to subdue the Parthians, who occupied great tracts of desert land south of the Caspian Sea. He scored some notable victories and occupied some of the Parthian lands, but fell ill and died on his way back to Rome in AD 117, having left his forty-one-year-old chief-of-staff, Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian), who was also his ward, in charge of the situation in the east.

Denarius of the time of Trajan, with the head of his wife, Plotina. It was said in some quarters that Plotina engineered Trajan's adoption of Hadrian as his son and kept her husband's death a secret until the official bulletin about the adoption had been issued. (© CNG Coins)

Hadrian claimed that Trajan had adopted him on his deathbed, but in any case he had already been acclaimed as emperor by the army in the east, and the Senate had little choice but to confirm him in the post or risk civil war. Hadrian settled down to restore general order throughout the empire and to consolidate the administration at home. The Roman empire was a collection of territories occupied by Roman troops and administered by Roman citizens according to Roman law. Central government from Rome was well-nigh impossible, and provincial governors were largely left to their own devices. Hadrian, however, travelled tirelessly not only to all the provinces in the empire but along most of their outer confines.

Antinous, almost certainly Hadrian's lover, drowned in the Nile in mysterious circumstances in AD 130. (Vatican Museums: René Seindal)

He was also a man of wide learning who, it was said, spoke Greek more fluently than Latin. He was a patron of art, literature and education, and a benefactor of the needy poor. His liberal-mindedness did not, however, extend to the Jews, whom he provoked into renewed revolt by forbidding Jewish practices, including circumcision, and by proposing a shrine to Jupiter on the site in Jerusalem where the ancient Jewish Temple had stood before it was destroyed by Titus.

Imperial couple as Mars and Venus, AD 120–140: Hadrian and his wife Sabina, whose head was replaced later with that of Lucilla, wife of Verus. (Louvre, Paris. © Alphanidon/Wikimedia Commons)

Hadrian died in AD 138. After his first choice as successor died, just before his own death Hadrian had adopted in his place the eminent senator Antoninus, then in his early fifties. At the same time he restricted the choice of the next emperor after Antoninus to either Lucius Verus (AD 130–169), son of his original nominee, or Antoninus’ own nephew, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Marcus Aurelius (shown here as a young man) was an active devotee of the Stoic school of philosophy, one of whose doctrines was the universal brotherhood and equality of man. When the time came, he insisted that equal imperial rights should be invested in Verus, and these were duly but largely nominally exercised by Verus until his death. (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. © getting directly down/Flickr)

The twenty-three-year reign of Antoninus, who was granted the surnamed ‘Pius’ by the Senate, was remarkable for its lack of incident, perhaps because with the reports available to him of Hadrian’s globe-trotting missions, he was able to spend most of his time at the centre of government in Rome. He made one or two adjustments to the frontiers of the empire, most notably in Britain, where a fortified sixty-kilometre turf wall was built right across the Clyde–Forth isthmus, some way north of Hadrian’s Wall. However, it seems to have been abandoned, perhaps dismantled, in about AD 165. Hadrian’s Wall then once again became the most northerly frontier of the empire until about AD 400, when the Romans withdrew from Britain.

Detail from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, showing him riding in a triumphal chariot in AD 176. This celebration of his victory over the Marcomanni was delayed while he put down an insurrection in the East. Winged Victory hovers over him. A trumpeter blows a tuba, the long horn used by the military to sound the advance and retreat. The head and shoulders in the centre of the design may be those of Faustina, his late wife. Though various amours and other disloyal acts have been attributed to her, she was deified on her death in AD 175. (Capitoline Museums, Rome)

At the end of his peaceful reign Antoninus died in his bed. By contrast, Marcus Aurelius, the ‘philosopher emperor’, had to spend most of his time in the field at the head of his armies, one of which brought back from an eastern campaign the most virulent plague of the Roman era, which spread throughout the empire. At his death in AD 180 the empire was once again undergoing a period of general unease.

(a) Annia Galeria Faustina, wife of Antoninus. (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples: René Seindal) (b) Her younger daughter, also called Faustina, wife of Marcus Aurelius. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Gradual disintegration (AD 180–284)

The previous eighty-four years had seen just five emperors. During the next 104, there were twenty-nine. Alone of the ‘five good emperors’, Marcus Aurelius was survived by a son, Lucius Aurelius Commodus, whom he nominated as his successor.

Commodus. (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. © Sergey Sosnovskiy/Flickr)

Commodus had had older brothers, all of whom had died young. He was only nineteen when he became emperor, and he proved a latter-day Nero. Like his predecessor, he initially showed some grasp of political affairs before falling into the hands of favourites and corruptible freedmen. His private life was a disgrace; his public extravagance was prodigious; he fancied himself in the circus; and he died ignominiously – an athlete was suborned to strangle him in his bath in AD 192.

The aftermath of Commodus’ death had echoes of the chaos that followed Nero’s demise, too. He was succeeded by Publius Helvius Pertinax, prefect of Rome and a former governor of Britain. He was murdered just three months later by the imperial guard, who offered the empire for sale to the highest bidder in terms of imperial handouts. The winner was Didius Salvius Julianus, an elderly senator, but there were three other serious contenders out in the field, each with several legions behind him.

Lucius Septimius Severus (AD 146–211), in Pannonia, was the nearest to Rome, which he entered and captured on 2 June AD 193. Didius was soon put to death on the orders of the Senate. Having disbanded the imperial guard and replaced it with his own men, Severus set about coming to terms with his two rivals, Pescennius Niger in Syria, and Clodius Albinus in Britain. He defeated them in turn, Niger at Issus in AD 194, and Albinus in Gaul in AD 197.

Severus. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Severus was born in Leptis Magna, Africa. A professional soldier, he campaigned energetically to maintain the empire’s frontiers in the East, and spent the last two and a half years of his life in Britain, fending off the northern tribes. He made a number of changes to the administration of justice both in Rome and Italy and in the provinces of the empire. Within the army, the top jobs went to those with the best qualifications, not necessarily those of the highest social rank. He improved the lot of legionaries by increasing the basic rate of pay to match inflation (it had been static for a hundred years), and by recognizing permanent liaisons as legal marriages (previously legionaries had not been permitted to marry). His philosophy of rule – which he impressed upon his two unruly sons, Caracalla and Geta, shortly before his death – was to pay the army well and to take no notice of the Senate.

(a) Caracalla (AD 188–217), nicknamed after a Gaullish greatcoat, in military uniform, c. 215. (VRoma: AICT) (b) Geta (AD 189–212). (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Severus had nominated his sons to rule jointly after him, and counselled them to get on with each other. Caracalla resolved this arrangement by murdering his brother, but observed his father’s professional advice by increasing the pay of the army by 50 per cent, thus initiating a financial crisis. Some sources suggest that it was to repair this situation that he granted full citizenship to all free men in the Roman empire. Whether or not that was so, he is credited with taking the final step in the process of universal enfranchisement (which had begun in the third century BC) in AD 212. He was assassinated in Mesopotamia while attempting to extend the eastern front.

Julia Domna. The Roman tradition that women took no part in public life was conclusively broken by the wife of Septimius Severus, Julia Domna. When Caracalla became emperor, she dealt with petitions and with her son's correspondence (in Latin and Greek), and held soirées and receptions for philosophers and scientists. Note the artistic development whereby a drill has been used on the eyes to indicate the ring of the iris and the pupil. (Antikensammlungen: Richard Stoneman)

Caracalla was succeeded by Macrinus, commander of the imperial guard, who never got to Rome, as he was defeated and killed in AD 218 by detachments of his own troops, who supported the depraved and arrogant Elagabalus (AD 204–22), a cousin of Caracalla. In turn, Elagabalus was lynched by his own guards, having nominated as his successor his young first cousin, Alexander Severus.

(a) Alexander Severus. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal) (b) His mother Julia Mammaea, cast in Pushkin Museum after original in British Museum. (© shako/Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander Severus was only sixteen when he took office. That he ruled moderately successfully for thirteen years was due partly to his sensible nature and willingness to take advice, and partly to his mother, Julia Mammaea, niece of Julia Domna, who recognized who would give him the soundest advice. In AD 234 Alexander took his mother on campaign with him to Germany, where they were both murdered by mutinous soldiers the following year.

The new emperor was Maximinus, a giant of a Thracian peasant who had risen through the ranks to be commander of the imperial guard. In AD 238 the Senate tired of him and put up their own candidate. In the ensuing confusion, five emperors died, including Maximinus, who had invaded Italy and was murdered by his own troops.

Maximinus. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

The survivor was Gordian III, aged only thirteen. With the help of a regent he enjoyed civil and military success until he too was murdered, in AD 244, while in Mesopotamia collecting animals to take part in the triumphal procession in Rome he had been awarded for his victories in Persia.

Bronze medallion of Gordian III, showing the Circus Maximus with the emperor as victor in a six-horse chariot race. Gladiators and wrestlers compete in the foreground. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

While the next fourteen emperors came and went (usually violently), the hostile peoples outside the frontiers gathered themselves for the kill. In Germany, the Goths, Franks and Alamanni established the permanent threat to the Roman empire which contributed to its ultimate annihilation.

Gallienus. (Museo Archeologico Nazionale: René Seindal)

Gallienus (c. AD 218–268), joint emperor with his father Valerian from AD 253, carried on alone after Valerian was captured by the Persians in AD 259. Gallienus himself was murdered nine years later. Aurelian (AD 214–275), who became emperor in AD 270, temporarily averted the threats from outside the empire and dealt with two dangerous outbreaks of separatism. The breakaway dominion of Gaul, with its own senate, had survived for several years before its fifth ruler surrendered to Aurelian’s army in AD 271. The influential city of Palmyra, under its formidable regent Zenobia, threatened Roman rule throughout the East. The city was finally destroyed after Aurelian had negotiated 200 kilometres of desert at the head of his troops. Zenobia was brought back to Rome to walk in Aurelian’s triumph, after which she was granted a generous pension.

Aurelian built the great defensive wall round Rome itself. Finished after his death, it was about 20 km long, 4 m thick and 7.2 m high. (© William P. Thayer 2000)

Aurelian was murdered by his own staff, after which the dreadful game of musical thrones continued until AD 284, when yet another commander of the imperial guard, Diocletian (AD 245–313), a Dalmatian of obscure but certainly humble origin, emerged to be proclaimed by his troops.

Partial recovery: Diocletian and Constantine (AD 284–337)

Diocletian. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

One aspect of the problem was that the empire had always consisted of two parts. Much of the region comprising Macedonia and Cyrenaica and the lands to the east was Greek, or had been Hellenized before being occupied by Rome. The western part of the empire had received from Rome its first taste of a common culture and language, overlaid on a society which was largely Celtic in origin.

In AD 286 Diocletian split the empire into East and West, and appointed a Dalmatian colleague, Maximian (d. AD 310), to rule the West and Africa. A further division of responsibilities followed in AD 292. Diocletian and Maximian remained senior emperors, with the title of Augustus, while Galerius, Diocletian’s son-in-law, and Constantius (surnamed Chlorus, ‘the Pale’) were made deputy emperors with the title of Caesar. Galerius was given authority over the Danube provinces and Dalmatia, while Constantius took Britain, Gaul and Spain. Diocletian retained all of his eastern provinces and set up his regional headquarters at Nicomedia in Bithynia, where he held court like an eastern potentate.

The tetrarchs, (left) Diocletian and Maximian, (behind) Constantius and Galerius. Porphyry sculpture of AD 305, Piazza san Marco, Venice. (VRoma: AICT)

The establishment of an imperial executive team had less to do with delegation than with the need to exercise closer supervision over all parts of the empire, and thus to lessen the chances of rebellion. There had already been trouble in the north-west, where in AD 286 the commander of the naval forces at Boulogne, Aurelius Carausius, to avoid execution for embezzling stolen property, had proclaimed himself an emperor, set himself up as ruler of Britain, and even issued his own coins. This outbreak of lèse-majesté was not finally obliterated until AD 296.

Caracalla had introduced the antoninianus, a silver coin worth two denarii, which gradually became debased. By c. AD 293–296, the date of this particular coin, the metal was an alloy. It was minted in Britain by Allectus, who murdered Carausius in AD 293 and usurped his unconstitutional role. The figure, and the letters round the rim, stand for peace. The ten-year rebellion was put down by Constantius in AD 296. The letters ML stand for Moneta Londiniensis ('Mint of London'). Established by Carausius, it was retained as an official source of issue until about AD 326. (© Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

On 1 May AD 305 Diocletian took the unprecedented step of announcing from Nicomedia that he had abdicated; Maximian had no choice but to do the same. While Diocletian’s reign had been outwardly peaceful, the years of turmoil had left their mark on the administration of the empire and on its financial situation. He reorganized the provinces and Italy into 116 divisions, each governed by a rector or praeses, which were then grouped into twelve dioceses under a vicarius responsible to the appropriate emperor. He strengthened the army (at the same time purging it of Christians), and introduced new policies for the supply of arms and provisions. Diocletian’s monetary reforms were equally wide-ranging, but though the new tax system he introduced was workable, if not always equitable, his bill in AD 301 to curb inflation by establishing maximum prices, wages and freight charges fell into disuse, its effect having been that goods simply disappeared from the market.

Reconstruction of Diocletian's palace, Split, Croatia. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Byzantium, Brockhampton Press, 1977)

Confident of his own safety, Diocletian had built for his retirement a palace near Salona in his native Dalmatia. He lived there until his death in AD 313, passing the time gardening and studying philosophy, while refusing to take sides when the system of government he had devised almost immediately foundered.

Helena, a former barmaid, wife of Constantius Chlorus and mother of Constantine the Great. Constantius was subsequently forced to divorce her and marry Maximian's daughter. (Capitoline Museums)

On his retirement, Diocletian had promoted Galerius and Constantius to the two posts of Augustus, and appointed two new Caesars. Trouble broke out when Constantius died at York in AD 306, and his troops proclaimed his son Constantine as their leader. Encouraged by this development, Maxentius, son of Maximian, had himself set up as emperor and took control of Italy and Africa, whereupon his father came out of his involuntary retirement and insisted on resuming his imperial command. At one point in AD 308 there seem to have been six men styling themselves Augustus, whereas Diocletian’s system allowed for only two. Galerius died in AD 311, having on his deathbed revoked Diocletian’s anti-Christian edicts. Matters were not fully resolved until AD 324, when Constantine defeated and executed his last surviving rival. The empire once again had a single ruler.

Bronze statue of Constantine, who was born in Naissus, Upper Moesia, c. AD 272. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)

Constantine’s appellation ‘the Great’ is justified on two counts. In AD 313, he initiated the Edict of Milan (that city was now the administrative centre of Italy), giving Christians (and others) freedom of worship and exemption from any religious ceremonial. In AD 325 he assembled at Nicaea in Bithynia 318 bishops, each elected by his community, to debate and affirm some principles of their faith, resulting in the Nicene Creed. Though he was not baptized until just before his death in AD 337, he regarded himself as a man of the god of the Christians, and was thus the first Christian ruler. He also, in AD 330, established the seat of government of the Roman empire at Byzantium (which he renamed Constantinople, ‘City of Constantine’), thus ensuring that a Roman (but Hellenized and predominantly Christian) empire would survive the inevitable loss of its western part.

Coin of Severus Alexander, depicting implements used in sacrifice. (© Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

To the Jews, Constantine was ambivalent: while the Edict of Milan is also known as the Edict of Toleration, Judaism was seen as a rival to Christianity, and among other measures he forbade the conversion of pagans to its practices. In time he became even more uncompromising towards the pagans themselves, enacting a law against divination and finally banning sacrifices. He also destroyed temples and confiscated temple lands and treasures, which gave him much-needed funds to fuel his personal extravagances.

Drawing of a triumphal procession going through the Arch of Constantine in Rome, built in AD 315. Behind the arch is part of the Colosseum. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, 1969)

The Arch of Constantine today, with the Colosseum behind it. This photograph was taken from much the same viewpoint as Figure 4.26. (VRoma: Paula Chabot)

A military commander of considerable dynamism, Constantine developed Diocletian’s reforms, and completed the division of the military into two arms: frontier forces; and permanent reserves, who could be sent anywhere at short notice. He disbanded the imperial guard, and established a chief-of-staff to assume control of all military operations and army discipline. Under him, the praetorian prefects, who had held military ranks while also being involved in civil affairs, became supreme appeal judges and chief ministers of finance.

Late fourth-century AD gold bar stamped four times with the name of the imperial accountant and also with that of the imperial assayer. Gold coins collected for taxes were immediately melted down, made into bars, and sent to the emperor's residence to prevent pilfering by officials. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

The fall of Rome

Constantine had intended that on his death the rule of the empire should devolve to a team of four: his three sons – Constantius, Constans and Constantine II – and his nephew Dalmatius. To form a tetrarchy on a dynastic principle was, however, more than the system could stand. Dalmatius was murdered, the brothers bickered, and the empire splintered again.

Part of a bust of Valentinian I (AD 321–375). (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: René Seindal)

The pieces were retrieved after Valentinian was nominated as emperor by the troops at Nicaea, on condition he appoint a joint ruler. He chose his brother Valens (c. AD 328–378); no one dared oppose the appointment. The brothers made an amicable East–West division between themselves. The empire was briefly united again in AD 394 under Theodosius (c. AD 346–395), who established Christianity as the official religion of the empire. It was also he who revenged the lynching of one of his army commanders by inviting the citizens of Thessalonica to a circus show and then massacring them in their seats, for which the Archbishop of Milan persuaded him to do public penance. Under his sons Arcadius (c. AD 378–408) and Honorius (AD 384–423), the eastern and western parts of the Roman empire finally went their separate ways.

Aelia Flavia Flaccilla (d. AD 386), the Spanish first wife of Theodosius and mother of Arcadius and Honorius, depicted here on a gold solidus struck AD 383–387. (© CNG Coins)

At some point in the fourth century AD the Huns had set out inexorably westwards from their homelands on the plains of central Asia. They displaced the Alani, who lived mainly between the rivers Dnieper and Dniester, who displaced the Vandals, who in turn swept right through Gaul and Spain, and even into North Africa. Also displaced were the Goths, who bordered the Roman empire on the far side of the Danube. Britain was now abandoned to determined waves of Picts, Scots and Saxons, and the legions were rushed to the final defence, no longer of the empire, but of Rome itself.

Europe in about AD 400. (From Antony Kamm, The Last Frontier: The Roman Invasions of Scotland, Tempus, 2004)

In AD 410 Rome was captured and sacked by Alaric the Goth (d. AD 411), after he had only the previous year accepted a bribe to leave it in peace. Though Pope Leo (d. AD 461) managed in AD 452 to negotiate terms with Attila the Hun (c. AD 406–453) to leave Italy after he had ravaged much of it, three years later it was the turn of the Vandals: Rome was sacked again, this time from the sea. Finally, in AD 476, Odoacer (d. AD 493), a German mercenary commander, deposed the fourteen-year-old emperor Romulus Augustulus and informed Zeno (d. AD 491), emperor of the East, that he would be happy to rule as king of Italy under Zeno's jurisdiction. Effectively, the Roman empire in the West was at an end. The Roman Catholic Church now assumed the role of unifying the lands and peoples which had formerly been Roman, organizing its sphere of influence along Roman lines.

Coin from Constantinople of Anastasius, who in AD 491 was chosen by Zeno's widow to succeed Zeno. A month later, Anastasius married her. He ruled until AD 518. (© Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

There is rarely a single cause of catastrophic disasters. Civilizations less stable and less well organized than Rome have survived economic failure, political and administrative incompetence, plague, class divisions, corruption in high places, decline of moral standards, and the necessity of changing the structure and status of the workforce. Ultimately, what hastened the end was the failure of the very instrument by which the empire had been founded, the Roman army. The policy of dividing it into frontier forces and mobile field forces which could be dispatched to trouble spots had a serious disadvantage: however effective communications might be, the infantry had to march to its destination.

In training, recruits were required to march 32 km in five hours, but that would be about the most that an army could travel on foot in a day. Scenes from Trajan's column. (VRoma: AICT)

The eastern Roman empire, largely by reason of its geographical situation, was bypassed by the hordes of invaders. Its capital, Byzantium, had first been reconstructed in the time of Septimius Severus not just as a Roman city, but modelled on Rome itself, on and around seven hills.

Reconstruction of the racecourse, Constantinople, with behind it the church of St Sophia. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Byzantium, Brockhampton Press 1977)

The building of a racecourse on the lines of the Circus Maximus where there was insufficient space for it was not beyond the skill and ingenuity of the architects. It was constructed on the flattened summit of a hill, with one end of the stadium suspended over the edge on massive vaulted supports. Eastern influence led to the development of a distinctive style of Byzantine architecture, with the dome a predominant feature, and interiors richly decorated.

Reconstruction of the interior of the church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy, built between AD 526 and 547 by a wealthy banker for the emperor Justinian. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Byzantium, Brockhampton Press 1977)

Justinian ruled from AD 527 to 565 and is said to have been eighty-three years old when he died. His aims included stamping out corruption in government, refining and upholding the law, uniting the churches in the East, and taking Christianity forcibly to the barbarians in the West. In pursuit of this last aim his generals tore into the barbarian kingdoms and temporarily restored to the empire its former African provinces and northern Italy, as well as the city of Rome itself.

Interior of the church of St Sophia, lithograph, 1849. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Book of the Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press, 1970)

In AD 532, during the reign of Justinian, much of Byzantium was destroyed during a rebellion that began as a riot between two sets of fans in the stadium. The damage enabled Justinian to exploit the situation at a time when the golden age of Byzantine architecture had just been reached. The sensational church of St Sophia still survives (albeit as a mosque since 1453).

Justinian's wife Theodora, an actress, proved until her death in AD 548 an admirable foil and support for her husband. She stood up for persecuted members of the heretical Monophysite sect, with whose views she sympathized, and comforted Justinian in times of stress.

(a) Justinian and (b) his wife Theodora, both from mosaics in San Vitale, Ravenna. (© Wikimedia Commons)

While the eastern empire was largely Greek in its mores, it still upheld Roman law. The Justinian Code (AD 529) brought together every valid imperial law. In addition, Justinian issued a revised and updated edition (AD 534) of the works of the classical jurists, and a textbook on Roman law (AD 533). After him, the eastern empire was Roman only in name. In AD 1053 the Church of the East split with the Church of Rome and in due course begat the Church of Russia. On 29 May AD 1453, Constantinople and its emperor Constantine XI fell to the Turks and the forces of Islam, who had already overrun what remained of the empire's narrow footholds along the coast of the Sea of Marmara.

Case Studies

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The ‘five good emperors’

96 - Accession of Nerva, who takes an oath that he will not execute any senator. 

97 - Nerva adopts Trajan as co-ruler and successor.

98 - Death of Nerva. He is succeeded by Trajan, who is campaigning on the Rhine.

99 - Trajan arrives in Rome, having made preparations along the Danube frontier for a forthcoming campaign.

100 - Hadrian, first-cousin once removed of Trajan, who is also Hadrian’s guardian, marries Vibia Sabina, Trajan’s great-niece.

101 - Trajan invades Dacia, which is finally annexed in 106.

102 - Decebalus, Dacian king, capitulates and becomes a client king of Rome.

104 - Death of the poet Martial. New war against Decebalus.

105 - Arabia annexed.

106 - Death of Decebalus and annexation of Dacia.

107 - Trajan’s 123-day triumph.

111 - Correspondence between Pliny, governor of Bithynia, and Trajan about the Christians.

112 - Dedication of Trajan’s Forum, incorporating Trajan’s Market.

113 - Dedication of Trajan’s Column. Trajan prepares for Parthian campaign.

114–116 - Trajan conquers Mesopotamia, capturing Babylon and Ctesiphon, capital of the Parthian empire.

116 - Jewish risings are brutally put down, with the virtual destruction of the Jewish communities in North Africa, Alexandria and Cyprus.

c. 117 - Death of the historian Tacitus.

117 - Trajan dies in Cilicia on his way home, having left Hadrian in charge of the armies in the East. Trajan’s widow, Pompeia Plotina, announces that he had adopted Hadrian, who is hailed emperor by the army in Syria. Roman empire at its greatest extent.

118 - Four former consuls and senior commanders, all Trajan’s men, are executed on the orders of the Senate. Hadrian reaches Rome.

121 - Hadrian in Gaul, Upper Germany, Raetia and Noricum.

122 - Hadrian in Lower Germany, Britain (where he begins construction of Hadrian’s Wall), Gaul and Spain. Suetonius is dismissed from his post as director of the imperial correspondence for some disrespectful behaviour relating to the empress Sabina.

123 - Hadrian in North Africa, Crete, Syria and Asia Minor.

124 - Hadrian in western Europe and Greece.

125 - Hadrian in Greece and Sicily, before returning to Rome.

c. 126 - Rebuilding of Pantheon in its present form.

128 - Hadrian in Africa, Athens and Sparta.

129 - Hadrian tours eastern provinces.

130 - Hadrian in Judaea, where he proposes the foundation of Aelia Capitolina on the site of the old Jerusalem and the building of a temple to Jupiter where the Temple had stood. Then in Egypt, where Antinous drowns in the Nile; Hadrian founds Antinoopolis in his memory.

132–135 - Second Jewish War, at the end of which Jerusalem is razed and Judaea is renamed Syria Palaestina, or ‘Palestine’.

126 - Death of Sabina. Hadrian adopts Ceionius Commodus as his successor.

138 - Death of Commodus. Hadrian adopts Antoninus, consul in 120 and more recently governor of Asia, whom he causes to adopt Lucius Verus, son of Commodus, and Marcus Aurelius, Antoninus’ nephew. Death of Hadrian (10 July). Accession of Antoninus.

139 - Antoninus persuades the Senate to confirm Hadrian’s deification, for which act he is granted the surname Pius.

c. 140 - Death of the poet Juvenal.

141 - Death of Antoninus’ wife, the empress Faustina. She is deified by the Senate; Antoninus establishes in her honour an alimentary programme for the care of orphaned girls (the Puellae Faustinianae).

142–143 - Building of the Antonine Wall in northern Britain between the Clyde and Forth estuaries.

145 - Marcus Aurelius marries Faustina, daughter of Antoninus.

147 - Marcus Aurelius receives imperial powers.

161 - Death and deification of Antoninus in his seventy-fifth year, having named as his successor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius accedes as emperor but insists that Verus rules with him.

161–166 - Parthian Wars, successfully conducted by Verus with the help of his generals.

164 - Verus marries Lucilla, fourteen-year-old daughter of Marcus Aurelius.

c. 165 - Antonine Wall is dismantled.

166 - Verus’ army brings back with it the most virulent plague (probably smallpox) experienced in the empire.

167 - Rising of Marcomanni. Barbarian invasions of Danube provinces. Famine and plague.

169 - Marcomanni and Quadi invade Italy and besiege Aquileia. The two emperors oppose them with an army into which slaves have been enlisted. Death and deification of Verus. Marcus Aurelius returns to Rome with the body, then goes back to the northern frontier, where he spends most of his remaining years.

c. 174–c. 180 - Marcus Aurelius composes his Meditations.

176 - From Syria, Marcus Aurelius travels to Alexandria and Athens, where he endows chairs of philosophy. Back in Rome, he celebrates a triumph and makes his fifteen-year-old son Commodus joint ruler.

177 - Pogrom of the Christian community in Lugdunum (Lyon).

178 - Further rising of Marcomanni and other tribes.

180 - Death of Marcus Aurelius at the age of fifty-nine. Accession of Commodus, who, having made peace with the northern tribes, enters Rome and holds a triumph.

The Severan and disintegration of dynastic rule

182 - Conspiracy in which the emperor’s sister Lucilla is involved; she is exiled and then executed. Tigidius Perennis becomes commander of the imperial guard, in which capacity he effectively runs the state.

184 - Commodus acclaimed as imperator and takes the title Britannicus for victories by Ulpius Marcellus in northern Britain.

190 - Death of Cleander, whom the people hold responsible for the famine. Commodus renames the months of the year to correspond with his own names and titles.

192 - Pertinax, consul for that year, is appointed prefect (chief administrator) of Rome. Commodus is murdered (31 December), bringing to an end the Antonine dynasty. Pertinax is acclaimed emperor by the Senate.

193 - Pertinax is assassinated by the imperial guard (28 March), who acclaim Didius Julianus as emperor. In April, Septimius Severus, governor of Pannonia Superior, is proclaimed emperor by his legions at Carnuntum. Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, is also proclaimed emperor by his troops. Severus marches on Rome, gaining the support of Clodius by appointing him Caesar (deputy emperor). As Severus approaches Rome (1 June), he is recognized as emperor by the Senate. Didius is murdered (2 June). Severus enters Rome (9 June) and disbands the imperial guard, which he replaces with three of his own legions. Pescennius is defeated and his base of Byzantium is besieged.

194 - Severus defeats Pescennius, campaigns in Mesopotamia, and launches attacks on eastern tribes.

195 - For his victories in Mesopotamia, Severus dubs himself Parthicus Arabicus and Parthicus Adiabenicus. He also proclaims himself the son of Marcus Aurelius and renames his elder son Marcus Aurelius Antonius (later nicknamed ‘Caracalla’) and makes him Caesar. His wife Julia Domna receives the title Mater Castrorum (‘Mother of the Camp’). Clodius, put in an impossible position, crosses into Gaul with his army, who proclaim him emperor.

197 - Severus defeats Clodius Albinus and departs for a second Parthian war.

198 - Severus captures Ctesiphon, Babylonia’s chief city. He names himself Parthicus Maximus, promotes Caracalla to Augustus and his younger brother Geta to Caesar. Mesopotamia, annexed by Trajan, abandoned by Hadrian, becomes a province again.

202 - Severus holds lavish celebratory games but refuses a triumph. Marriage of Caracalla to Fulvia Plautilla, daughter of G. Fulvius Plautianus, commander of the imperial guard, who had held the fort while Severus was away. Severus and his family leave for a triumphal tour of his native Africa.

203 - Erection of Arch of Severus in the Forum.

205 - Plautianus and others are executed for alleged conspiracy. Caracalla divorces Plautilla. The lawyer Papinian replaces Plautianus, heralding an Augustan age of Roman law.

208 - The imperial family leaves for Britain.

209 - Geta is promoted to Augustus, but is left behind while Severus and Caracalla campaign in Scotland.

211 - Severus dies at York. His family returns to Rome, where Caracalla and Geta are to be joint emperors.

212 - Caracalla has Geta murdered in his mother’s arms, and instigates wholesale slaughter of sympathizers and innocent citizens. All free inhabitants of the empire are now entitled to be Roman citizens.

213 - Caracalla defeats the Alamanni, then campaigns on the Danube frontier and in Asia Minor.

215 - Caracalla visits Alexandria, where there are riots; the governor of Egypt is executed along with thousands of young men. He institutes the antoninianus (worth two denarii but weighing less), which contributes to inflation.

217 - Caracalla, campaigning in the East, is killed near Carrhae by members of his entourage on the instructions of Macrinus, commander of the imperial guard. Macrinus’ troops proclaim him emperor. Death of Julia Domna.

218 - Macrinus buys peace with Parthia. Julia Maesa, sister of Julia Domna, promulgates a story that her fifteen-year-old grandson Bassianus, priest of the cult of Elagabalus at Emesa, is Caracalla’s son. He is proclaimed emperor by the troops in Syria. Macrinus is defeated and subsequently executed.

218–228 - The historian Cassius Dio is successively administrator of Pergamum and then Smyrna, governor of Africa, and military commander of Dalmatia and then Upper Pannonia.

219 - Bassianus reaches Rome and takes office as Elagabalus.

221 - Elagabalus adopts his fifteen-year-old cousin Severus Alexander, son of Julia Maesa’s daughter, Julia Mammaea.

222 - Elagabalus is murdered by soldiers and succeeded by Severus Alexander, who rules with the help and under the influence of his mother.

226 - The Aqua Alexandrina, the last of Rome’s eleven significant aqueducts, is operative.

227 - The Sasanid dynasty, having succeeded the Parthians, threatens to overrun all the former Persian territories in the East.

229 - Cassius Dio is consul, with Severus Alexander, after which he retires to Bithynia, land of his birth.

231–233 - Severus Alexander’s eastern campaign restores the status quo in the region.

234 - Trouble on the Rhine. Severus Alexander and his mother go to Mainz to oversee a response to further threats from the Alamanni.

235 - Assassination of Severus Alexander and his mother. A senior officer, Maximinus Thrax, becomes emperor on the spot.

236 - Maximinus campaigns successfully across the Rhine and Danube.

Third-century crisis

238 - Year of six emperors. The Senate declares as emperor Gordian I, governor of Africa, who includes his son Gordian II in the invitation. Both die after their forces are attacked by the army commander of Numidia, who supports Maximinus. The Senate deifies them and selects two replacements, Pupienus and Balbinus. Maximinus invades Italy but is murdered by his troops. The imperial guard kills Pupienus and Balbinus and proclaims as emperor Gordian III, the thirteen-year-old nephew of Gordian II.

242–243 - Roman victories over Goths and Persians.

244 - Gordian is murdered in Mesopotamia. Philippus ‘the Arabian’, commander of the imperial guard, becomes emperor and makes peace with the Persians.

248 - Decius, commander in Moesia, proclaimed emperor by his troops. Celebrations for the thousandth anniversary of Rome’s foundation.

249 - Decius defeats and kills Philippus near Verona.

250 - Widespread persecution of Christians by Decius. Plague rages for fifteen years.

251 - Invasion of Goths. Decius is killed trying to prevent them returning home. Trebonianus Gallus, governor of Moesia, declared emperor by the troops.

253 - Aemilius Aemilianus, commander in Moesia, declared emperor by his troops, as is the elderly Licinius Valerianus (Valerian), who is in Moesia gathering troops to oppose him. Aemilianus defeats and kills Trebonianus, but is himself killed by his troops. Valerian reaches Rome and is recognized as emperor jointly with his son Gallienus.

255 - Further invasions of Goths, as well as Scythians and Alamanni. Persians reach Antioch.

257 - Edict of Valerian against the Christians. The Alamanni are checked by Gallienus, and the Goths by his army commander Aurelian. Valerian goes to the East.

258 - Postumus makes himself ruler of Gaul.

259–274 - Imperium Galliarum, breakaway state of Gaul, established by Postumus.

259 - Gallienus defeats the Alamanni at Milan and in Gaul. Valerian captured by the Persians.

260 - First Edict of Toleration for Christians.

260–261 - Some nine usurpers to the title of emperor come and go in various parts of the empire.

268 - Postumus and three successors murdered by local troops; the senate of Gaul appoints Tetricus ruler. Gallienus, having successfully campaigned against the Goths, is murdered by his own officers in northern Italy. Claudius emerges as emperor.

270 - Death of Claudius by plague. Aurelian, now commander-in-chief of all Roman cavalry, is proclaimed emperor by his troops in Sirmium while campaigning against the Goths, though Claudius’ brother Quintillus has been chosen in Rome for the office. Aurelian defeats Quintillus and is confirmed as emperor by the Senate after Quintillus dies in mysterious circumstances. Zenobia, regent of Palmyra for her young son, occupies Egypt and much of Asia Minor.

270–273 - Revolt of Zenobia.

271 - Aurelian defeats Vandals and Alamanni, then begins fortifications: Aurelian Wall in Rome; defences for other cities.

272 - Aurelian abandons Dacia north of the Danube and creates a new province south of the river, with its capital at Serdica (Sophia). In the East he defeats Zenobia and captures Palmyra.

273 - In the West Aurelian defeats the Carpi, and in the East he puts down a revolt in Palmyra, which he destroys.

274 - Aurelian defeats Tetricus, bringing Britain and Gaul back into the empire. He celebrates his second triumph and makes Sol Invictus the supreme god of the Roman empire.

275 - Assassination of Aurelian while on his way to fight the Persians. The army asks the Senate to choose an emperor; after a delay, its members elect Tacitus, an elderly senator.

276 - Tacitus is killed by his own troops in Cappadocia. Florianus, commander of the imperial guard, is chosen emperor in Rome, while Probus is proclaimed in the East. They meet in battle at Tarsus, where Florianus is killed by his own men. Probus is now sole emperor.

277–280 - Probus campaigns successfully on the Rhine and the Danube and then moves to the East, where he restores order in Egypt and undertakes civil engineering work along the Nile.

280–281 - Revolts of Proculus and Bonosus in the West, and of Saturninus in the East.

281 - Probus celebrates a triumph and completes the Aurelian Wall.

282 - Probus leaves Rome to embark on an invasion of Persia. Carus, commander of the imperial guard, is proclaimed emperor. Troops sent by Probus defect to Carus, and Probus is killed by those who are still with him.

283 - Carus subdues the Quadi and Sarmatians but dies en route to fight the Persians.

Recovery: Diocletian and Constantine

284 - The empire is shared between Carus’ sons, Carinus and Numerianus. On the death of Numerianus in mysterious circumstances, Diocles, commander of the cavalry of the imperial guard and suffect consul in 283, is proclaimed emperor in his place, and changes his name to Diocletian.

285 - Carinus is killed in battle. Diocletian appoints his Dalmatian colleague Maximian Caesar, with responsibility for the western empire.

286 - Maximian is promoted to Augustus, with responsibility for the West. Carausius declares himself ruler of Britain and part of northern Gaul.

287–290 - Diocletian campaigns on the Danube and in the East.

293 - Galerius and Constantius appointed Caesars, to serve respectively in the eastern and western halves of the empire. Constantius takes Boulogne, the headquarters of Carausius, who is murdered and supplanted as ruler of Britain by his finance officer, Allectus.

296 - Constantius’ troops defeat and kill Allectus, and slaughter his Frankish mercenaries in London.

c. 297  - Diocletian begins dividing the provinces into smaller units.

298 - Great victories by Galerius over the Persians.

301 - Diocletian’s edict on prices.

303 - Edict against the Christians. Diocletian visits Rome for the only time.

305 - Diocletian abdicates, forcing Maximian to do the same, and retires to his palace at Split. Galerius and Constantius become Augusti; Maximinus, nephew and adopted son of Galerius, and Flavius Severus are the new Caesars.

306 - Constantius dies at York while mounting a campaign against the Picts. His son Constantine is proclaimed Augustus by the troops in Britain. Galerius, having given the title of Augustus to Severus, appoints Constantine Caesar. In Rome, Maxentius, son of Maximian, is proclaimed Augustus, but Maximian comes out of retirement and reclaims his title.

307 - Constantine, now in charge of his father’s former territories of Britain, Gaul and Spain, is visited by Maximian, who appoints him Augustus and gives him his daughter Fausta in marriage.

308 - At Carnuntum in Pannonia, Galerius gives the title of Augustus to Valerius Licinianus Licinius, upon which Maximinus has his troops in the East proclaim him Augustus.

309–310 - Galerius recognizes Constantine and Maximinus, who is Galerius’ nephew and adopted son, as Augusti.

310 - Death of Maximian.

311 - Galerius, Constantine and Licinius issue the Edict of Toleration, ending persecution of Christians. Death of Galerius. Maximinus drives Licinius out of Asia.

312 - Vision of Constantine, who attributes his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge to the ‘god of the Christians’. With the suicide of Maxentius, Constantine becomes sole ruler of the western empire.

313 - Constantine meets Licinius at Milan, and gives him his half-sister Constantia in marriage. They issue the Edict of Milan, ending persecution of Christians. In Nicomedia, Licinius issues an edict agreeing with Constantine on religious freedom. At Adrianople, Licinius defeats Maximinus, who commits suicide. Death of Diocletian.

315 - Erection of Arch of Constantine.

316 - War against Licinius, who cedes all his European territories except Thrace.

317 - Constantine appoints three new Caesars: his sons Crispus (twelve), with whose mother he had had a long-term affair, and Constantine (about seven months), and Licinius’ son Licinius (twenty months).

322–323 - Victories of Constantine over Sarmatians and Goths.

324 - Licinius is defeated and killed, making Constantine sole ruler of the empire. Constantine appoints as Caesar his son Constantius.

325 - Council of Nicaea, with Constantine in the chair. Formation of Nicene Creed.

326 - Executions of the empress Fausta, Crispus and Licinius Junior.

330 - Dedication of new capital city, Constantinople.

332 - Great victory over the Goths, 40,000 of whom enter Roman service as allies.

333 - Constantine appoints as Caesar his youngest son Constans.

334 - Victories over the Sarmatians, 300,000 of whom settle within the empire.

335 - Constantine appoints his nephew Flavius Dalmatius Caesar.

337 - Baptism of Constantine, who dies on 22 May. Purge of rivals, including Dalmatius. Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans recognized as Augusti (9 September).